Ambiguity vs. contrarianism

I’m reading The Ethics of Ambiguity, which I probably should have done a while ago and which you should probably do at your earliest convenience. Despite the moderate philosophical jargon and the frequent references to Hegel, it’s really very practical. I don’t really see it cited much as a big important philosophy book, which I’m sure has nothing to do with the fact that it was written by a woman. Actually, the fact that philosophy has one of the biggest gender gaps out of anything really gives the lie to the whole story about men being good at numbers and women being good at words. The truth, obviously, is that men bully women out of any field they consider to be prestigious or important, or that is high-paying.

Anyway, I ran into some stuff that I thought was awfully relevant to certain modern-day issues. One of the things that’s become increasingly apparent via the internet is the fact that a lot of specialists are complete morons about anything outside of their specialty. As the saying goes, it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. Now that we’ve got Twitter giving people like Richard Dawkins the opportunity to mouth off about anything whenever they feel like it, doubt is increasingly being removed.

But the actual issue here isn’t new, as evidenced by the fact that de Beauvoir totally nails it:

“Almost all serious men cultivate an expedient levity; we are familiar with the genuine gaiety of the Catholics, the fascist ‘sense of humor.’ There are also some who do not even feel the need for such a weapon. They hide from themselves the incoherence of their choice by taking flight. As soon as the Idol is no longer concerned, the serious man slips into the attitude of the sub-man. He keeps himself from existing because he is not capable of existing without a guarantee. Proust observed with astonishment that a great doctor or a great professor often shows himself, outside of his specialty, to be lacking in sensitivity, intelligence, and humanity. The reason for this is that having abdicated his freedom, he has nothing else left but his techniques. In domains where his techniques are not applicable, he either adheres to the most ordinary of values or fulfills himself in a flight. The serious man stubbornly engulfs his transcendence in the object which bars the horizon and bolts the sky.  The rest of the world is a faceless desert.”

The fact that a specialist tends to rely on techniques which are not universally applicable is pretty straightforward. The insight here is how this error manifests itself. One option is as a “flight,” meaning a retreat from significance via dismissal. Anything to which the specialist’s techniques do not apply must by that very fact be meaningless. This is the most obvious problem with the New Atheists (or whatever we’re calling them now): anything which doesn’t fit into their schema is a “myth,” something that people should just get rid of. It’s even more obvious when it comes to science fetishists, who put the cart entirely before the horse: rather than defining science as the domain of the measurable, they wholly reject anything that isn’t measurable so as to be able to define science as everything.

This is also where the “fascist sense of humor” comes in: it makes it easier to dismiss things. Internet atheists have a constant boner for making fun of how dumb those silly fundamentalists are with their silly stories about angels and demons and their silly preoccupations with virginity and swear words, which conveniently keeps them from considering that maybe these things aren’t what religion is mostly about, that maybe in their blithe dismissal they’re actually missing something important. On the other hand, they’ll completely flip their shit on you if you point out that assuming your own position as the default and requiring people to argue you out of it is a fucking stupid way to communicate.

The second option is even more intriguing: outside of their specialty, specialists tend to revert to conventional values. Why should this be so? Any specialist is aware that the common understanding of their own discipline is usually oversimplified and often completely backwards. Dawkins, for example, could probably say quite a bit about the common understanding of evolution. Shouldn’t one be able to relate this same insight, that greater understanding often leads to a fundamental reassessment, to disciplines other than one’s own? Many find it odd when someone like Dawkins rejects the traditional superstitions of religion only to fall back on the traditional superstitions of white supremacy, or rejects the divine guidance of god only to fall back on the faux-divine guidance of Western imperialism.

But in fact, this is to be expected. Acknowledging the inapplicability of one’s expertise requires confronting the enormity of one’s limits as a finite human being. Someone who devotes their life to mastery of the scientific method must accept that, because of this devotion, there are things that they can never know. The temptation to overapply one’s techniques originates from the fear that the only alternative is nothing. But since these techniques aren’t actually applicable to everything, they don’t actually work. You actually can’t use science to learn about politics. The specialist is thus in a position where they must have an insightful perspective on some topic, but can’t actually develop one. Hence, conventional wisdom dressed up as contrarianism.

Speaking of contrarianism, de Beauvoir follows this attitude through to one of its natural developments:

“Nihilism is disappointed seriousness which has turned back upon itself. A choice of this kind is not encountered among those who, feeling the joy of existence, assume its gratuity. It appears either at the moment of adolescence, when the individual, seeing his child’s universe flow away, feels the lack which is in his heart, or, later on, when the attempts to fulfill himself as a being have failed; in any case, among men who wish to rid themselves of the anxiety of their freedom by rejecting the world and themselves.”

This not only explains the annoying phenomenon of teen contrarianism, but why this phenomenon is concentrated among the privileged. Naively, one might assume that the least oppressed people in a society, the people with the fewest obstacles and the greatest opportunities, would consequently be the least nihilistic. The problem is that a person who can choose to assume any burden tends thus to be “serious” in de Beauvoir’s sense of the term. A person – a white male – who can already do as he likes, who can freely choose to be a family man or a businessman or anarchist, evaluates each of these goals on their own merits, and finds them all wanting. Of course he does, because no real-world goal actually means anything by itself.

(Writing persona pro tip: de Beauvoir uses “man” and “he” as general referents for “person” because of language and the past and so forth. When I say “he,” it’s because I mean “he.”)

Meaning is found not in goals themselves, but in the transcending of limits. Black people tend to have stronger family ties than white people, not despite but because they live in a society that is actively trying to destroy them. Women pursue professional achievement because they live in a society that tells them the realm of business belongs to men. Gay people fight for marriage rights because they live in a society that devalues their relationships. This is why nihilism tends to manifest itself as a philosophical luxury. Not because it is luxurious, but because it and luxury share a natural habitat: the world without struggle.

But of course there is no such thing as “practical” nihilism, since you have to do something, so the teen contrarian makes the same move as the specialist: adopting conventional values, but dressing them up as iconoclasm. This is most obvious in the common case of Randianism (which, as Hamlet would say, really is common). It presents itself as a great individualist revelation, but in practice it pretty much just means letting capitalism do whatever it wants.

And it’s also the case for poor old Nietzsche, who, despite his best efforts, wound up as the preeminent representative of precisely this sort of banal contrarianism. When Nietzsche railed against “slave morality,” the morality of amelioration rather than achievement, he was talking about historical events that led to a particular mode of thought. He was not dumb enough to believe that the ruling class of his day was actually concerned with making everyone’s lives more comfortable.

But we can see why this misinterpretation is useful to the teen contrarian. If you believe that the problem is that society is “too accommodating,” it gives you something to oppose while doing exactly what the ruling class wants you to do: ignoring morality. It allows you to extract the sense of meaningfulness out of the concept of struggle without the inconvenience of actually challenging yourself. This is all especially sad when you consider that Nietzsche’s philosophy is basically an instruction manual on How to Be a Great Artist, but it winds up being used to support an utter dearth of creativity.

If you frequent some of the internet’s more desperate quarters, you may have encountered people claiming in all seriousness that nowadays white men are oppressed while everyone else has all the advantages. Same deal. Blaming women and minorities for stealing all your advantages seems iconoclastic now that society has accepted the validity of identity-based arguments. But the ancient pattern hasn’t changed: attacking the less advantaged instead of fighting to better yourself and your circumstances is still what society actually wants you to do, so you get to take a stroll down Easy Street while imagining that you’re running a gauntlet. As an added bonus, conceiving of yourself as oppressed in a philosophical sense without actually running into any practical obstacles allows you to maintain a permanent sense of self-serving victimization. If this isn’t the case, if you really are free, then all your failures are all your fault.

And that’s how 70-year-old philosophy explains the internet. The broader point is that theory matters. If you try to react to every dumb thing that happens individually, you’re going to be here all day. A good framework allows you to chart your own course.

Hot lotto picks


This is from Obama’s last State of the Union address (via):

“And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.

Too many Americans feel that way right now.”

As though they were wrong, as though feeling that way were the problem rather than, you know, the actual problem. This sort of feint is characteristic of Obama’s rhetoric. He identifies a real problem only to blame people who didn’t cause it for being “cynical” about it. The implication being that the whole thing is actually our fault for not hoping hard enough. This concept is the referent of the title of Obama’s campaign-hyping memoir The Audacity of Hope, and he occasionally likes to refer back to it by using the word “audacity” in this sense.

The problem is that this is the bad kind of audacity, and the bad kind of hope: not perseverance through adversity based on the belief that your efforts will eventually amount to something, but adherence to what you know to be a lost cause based on the fact that you have no other options. This is the kind of hope that precisely prevents problems from getting solved.

It’s the same hope that, among other things, motivates people to play the lottery. The lottery is not, as is often claimed, “a tax on people who are bad at math.” This implies that people who play the lottery are actually doing an expected value calculation, getting it wrong, and choosing to play on the basis of the results, which is clearly ridiculous; it also ignores the obvious non-linear utility of money. The people who come up with wacky stats about things that are more likely than winning the lottery are merely engaging in the standard college-educated-liberal tradition of pretending to be wise and thoughtful while actually just sneering at poor people (poor people foolishly gamble, rich people prudently invest). The truth, in fact, is worse: the lottery is a tax on hope.

Desperation is one thing, but much of the lottery hysteria comes from middle-class people who are actually fine but are still looking for their “big payday.” This is why attacking the lottery from a rational economic perspective misses the point: people like the lottery. I recently overheard someone saying that winning money is “the best feeling in the world.” One assumes/hopes this was ironic hyperbole, but this was a person who actually was playing the lottery; the sentiment was genuine. The fantasy, of course, is not really about money, but about being saved, about something else swooping down from the sky and solving all of your problems forever. This is why the “winning” aspect is important: what’s enjoyable is precisely the fact that you didn’t earn it.

Hence, the “American Dream” ultimately amounts to the desire to be able to fuck off and do nothing for the rest of your life. This is what people are actually dreaming about when they dream about winning the lottery. And if the only thing you really want out of life is to have “no problems,” to be “free” in the most trivial sense of the term, you’re a nihilist. Most Americans really can’t imagine anything more worthwhile than free money.

(Speaking of which, Patti Smith had her finger on this pulse 40 years ago. “Free Money” addresses precisely this fact: that money is only desirable to the extent that it actually lets you do things. The song’s fantastical positiveness negatively highlights the fact that money is not freedom, but rather lack of money is coercion.)

There is/was a lottery commercial where the powerballs or whatever they are are raining down from the sky, and somebody catches the winning one while faux-gospel music plays in the background. This literally portrays winning the lottery as salvation, which would seem to be as absurd an inversion as there ever was. But as with all commercials, what’s sickening about it is that it’s true: this is what Americans actually believe.

People who argue against the idea of America being a “Christian nation” are missing the forest for the trees. It doesn’t matter what percentage of people follow which religion, or what religion the “founders” were, what matters is that our national mythology is Christian mythology, adapted to the world of politics. “Manifest Destiny” is the same thing as the “Kingdom of Heaven.” Obama’s ascension was portrayed by liberals in explicitly messianic terms (and by conservatives in explicitly apocalyptic terms, which amounts to the same thing). He was the person who was going to “transcend” politics, to save America from itself. Recall, if you can stomach it, this asshole:

“Obama’s finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don’t even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair. The other great leaders I’ve heard guide us towards a better politics, but Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our highest selves, to the place where America exists as a glittering ideal, and where we, its honored inhabitants, seem capable of achieving it, and thus of sharing in its meaning and transcendence.”

The truth is that liberals actually did win the lottery when Obama was elected. They got their messiah. The reason Obama didn’t save the world is not because he wasn’t “tough” enough or because he “compromised” too much, but because there was no salvation to be had.

In Christian mythology, the second coming of Jesus, the culmination of history for which the world endlessly waits, does not herald an improvement or a revelation or even a purification. It heralds the end of the world. The great dream of Christianity is that someday, at long last, the world will stop existing, and the faithful will never have to worry about anything ever again. American politics subsists on this same hope: that one day a great leader will “fix” the government, such that everyone will agree on everything, and we’ll never have to engage in politics ever again.

Of course, this is impossible. Conservatives actually have a leg up on liberals here, because they recognize that conflicting politics cannot be reconciled. Liberals persist in the delusion that conservatives are “misguided,” that they’re being “mislead” by “demagogues,” that they’re “voting against their own interests.” The truth is that conservatives know exactly what they want. They don’t want economic security or health care or global stability. The reason they pursue symbolic victories is that they want a symbolic victory.

This is why the outcome to be hoped for from the primary elections is Sanders vs. Cruz. This would be a real battle, a genuine conflict of values. America would finally be forced to stop hiding behind civility and show its true colors. Yes, an extreme reactionary candidate would present a huge danger to the country. That’s the point. One who values truth courts danger, confident that the truth is strong enough to win through. Anyone who supports a candidate based on “electability” is a coward.

Playing the lottery is essentially the same form of cowardice. The winner gains the ability to circumvent their problems and not address them (obvious disclaimer: none of this applies to people who actually don’t have enough money to survive on. Meaning is a luxury; survival is the law). If you actually won the lottery, you’d tell your boss to fuck off, bask in a haze of giddiness for a few weeks, and then settle into a routine of obsessive money management on top of the usual life-wasting activities that you already engage in with your current amount of free time. You will not be saved.

A hole in the head

Obama did a thing about guns. It was very serious and emotional, because Obama is very serious about this issue and he’s seriously going to take serious actions about it, while also having emotions about it.

(Quick hit about the crying thing: Gawker’s headline for this was “Barack Obama Just Cried on National Television“, which falls squarely into the category of Not Helping. Gawkeristas are presumably the type of people who believe that crying is normal human behavior and that we should allow public figures to be honest with their emotions, but by making this the lede, let alone hamming it up for the headline, they’re implicitly portraying it as aberrant behavior. The way you help normalize something is, by definition, by not making a big deal about it.)

Obama is better than most politicians at saying the right thing, and the right thing he’s said about gun violence is that this is a problem that exists in America and in no other comparable nation.

Here’s Obama in the New York Times saying this, and another right thing:

“Every year, more than 30,000 Americans have their lives cut short by guns. Suicides. Domestic violence. Gang shootouts. Accidents.”

These things are how gun deaths actually happen in the numbers that they do. Roughly 60% of gun deaths are suicides. This makes suicide alone the primary issue with gun violence – more important than all types of homicides and accidents combined. Mass shootings specifically are not actually a big deal, policy-wise. As with terrorism in general, the threat from mass shootings is subjectively dramatic but statistically negligible.

And this is why all of Obama’s proposals are useless at addressing this issue on the level of the epidemic that it actually is. Specifically, the four proposed actions are: the usual shibboleths of “background checks” and “mental health,” “making our communites safer,” which apparently consists of, um, a phone call from the Attorney General, and “safety technology,” which is a particularly bizarre thing to focus on, for reasons we’ll get to later.

The great volume of talk about “background checks” and “reasonable restrictions” to keep guns out of “the wrong hands” is all a massive dodge. Let’s be serious. When politicians yammer on about “mental health,” they aren’t talking about depression. They’re scapegoating people with mental health issues as crazy killers, as though the only possible explanation for arbitrary murder is “craziness,” as though a proper patriotic American could never dream of doing something as unseemly as taking a life. They don’t want to admit that killers are in fact acting in accordance with American values.

It bears repeating that people with mental health issues are not more likely to commit violence; there’s no entry in the DSM for “psycho killer.” Mental health as politicians talk about it has fuckall to do with gun violence. As for depression and suicide, they’re never seen as real issues, since the only harm they do is to remove unpleasant people who we’d rather ignore anyway.

Now, regarding this, one of the actions is:

The Administration is proposing a new $500 million investment to increase access to mental health care.

Which is great. Money well spent (and it should of course be done regardless of gun violence). Except for the word “proposing,” and the fact that $500 mil on the federal level is chump change (it’s about 0.013% of the total budget, and 0.05% of expenditures on health care. Can you name 2,000 issues that are more important than mental health care? Probably not, seeing as suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America). The issue isn’t that any of these proposals are bad things. Assuming they actually result in some sort of action, they will save a nonzero number of lives. But Obama is pushing these tepid policies while simultaneously playing up the dramatic horror of the issue. You don’t treat an epidemic with aspirin.

There are two real things that could be done. One is to treat guns like cars, dangerous objects that we allow people to own under the condition that they are licensed, trained, and insured. This is a perfectly reasonable course of action that is well within the confines of neoliberal political discourse. The fact that it is 100% impossible for this to happen in America illustrates the way in which American society is actually deranged.

But this still wouldn’t solve the problem. It would reduce gun deaths somewhat, just by making it slightly more onerous to actually get a gun. Actually, the most effective thing would probably be the insurance part, since it would actually create a corporate disincentive to spread guns around, and corporate incentivization is the only thing that actually makes things happen in America. But all you need to kill yourself is whatever the weakest type of handgun is and one bullet for it (and this applies at basically the same strength to killing other people; the “assault weapons” angle ignores how fantastic even basic handguns are at killing people), so any proposal that still allows people to get any kind of gun under basically any reasonable conditions will not solve the main issue.

This is why the second thing that could theoretically be done is the only way to actually improve the general situation. That thing is to ban guns.

The most charitable version of the argument against this is: you can’t uninvent guns, and a person without a gun is helpless against a person with a gun, so allowing gun ownership is the only thing that provides the possibility of self-defense. This isn’t wrong, argumentatively speaking, but it’s practically irrelevant. It’s not just that perfect safety is a fantasy, it’s that you really can’t protect yourself at all from the overwhelming majority of lethal threats that you face every day. You’re in far more danger driving a car onto the freeway than you ever will be from gun violence.

Also, there’s no need to argue hypothetically; we already know that this isn’t a real problem. As Obama didn’t quite get all the way to pointing out, other countries have banned guns and they’re doing just fine. We know for a fact that it is not the case that British cities are controlled by roving gangs of gunhavers while ordinary law-abiding citizens desperately try to defend themselves with kitchen knives.

The other accidental point that gun advocates make is that gun violence is the cost of a free society. This is true, assuming you count “freedom to own guns” as part of what “free society” means. You don’t have to do that, though. There’s no comprehensive definition of “freedom” such that a society that meets it is “maximally free.” Every freedom entails a corresponding restriction. Free speech entails people being harmful assholes. Free trade entails economic exploitation. And free ownership of lethal weapons entails death.

There’s a popular liberal saying, “my rights end where yours begin,” but this doesn’t actually mean anything, because defining where that line is is the entire question. A society where face-punching is illegal is a society where you are free to walk down the street without the threat of being punched in the face, but you are not free to punch somebody in the face if they’re annoying you. A society where face-punching is legal is a society where you are free to punch people in the face for arbitrary reasons, but you are not free to avoid the possibility of being punched in the face yourself. The question of which of these freedoms we value more is a real question that we really have to answer. In this case it’s not particularly controversial, but the issue with guns has exactly the same dynamic.

This is the real point that is missing from the mainstream debate about guns: we are choosing what kind of society we want to have. Everyone pretends like the issue has a “solution,” like if we find just the right combination of regulations we can have a society where everyone owns a gun but there’s no gun violence, or at least not so much that we have to read about it in the paper sometimes and get sad. But the truth is that it is a choice; the truth is that we’ve already made this choice, and we’ve chosen guns.

But it’s not just guns, this same point is missing from literally every mainstream debate about everything. The idea of choosing values does not enter into the neoliberal conception of politics as a process of optimization. This is why neoliberalism is the invisible ideology: it only talks about means, pretending that it doesn’t have ends.

This is where the technology bit comes in. The proposal here is that we can develop “smart guns” that have fingerprint locks or whatever, and this will prevent thefts and accidents and soforth. Let’s assume that this is true, that we can develop guns that are 100%, uh, “safe” (see, just talking about this is bizarre). The actual effect of this will be basically dick. First, there are already an unbelievable shitton of non-magic-robot guns floating around, and they aren’t going anywhere unless we, you know, ban them. Furthermore, there will obviously continue to be a demand for non-magic-robot guns, since being dangerous is the point of guns and because guns are overwhelmingly bought as fetish objects (since they do so little for actual security); buying a safe gun is almost exactly like buying censored porn.

This is why technology cannot solve political problems. Political problems are problems of competing interests. All technology can do is give people more capacity to fulfill their desires (the fact of your desires becoming fulfillable can also change them, which is an actual problem with technology, but let’s keep this simple); it does not resolve conflicts, because nothing can fulfill competing desires simultaneously. It is to obscure this point that neoliberalism so zealously imports the language of technology into political discourse. As another example, some politicians have called for the development of new encryption technology that is more secure but also allows the government’s intelligence agencies to do whatever they want with it. This is not possible; encryption is either secure or it isn’t. The point of such a proposal, of pretending that there’s a technological “solution” that addresses all concerns, is precisely to elide the fact that the government wants to be able to spy on people, because politicians would rather not have to actually make that argument.

In the same way, this is the actual function of the Constitution in American political discourse. It provides us with a readymade set of values, such that we never have to think about issues on that level. You see this all the time in gun control debates: the Second Amendment is always the stopping point, and we poke and prod at the exact meaning of its comma placement as though that matters, as though the question were not precisely whether we agree that gun ownership ought to be constitutionally protected. There is only one serious gun control position: repeal the Second Amendment.

Of course, this applies just as well to the entire Constitution (notwithstanding the fact that the Ninth Amendment exists; you’ll never hear that one brought up in a political debate). By setting unassailable limits on political discourse, the Constitution acts as a bulwark against radicalism. It allows us to pretend that we’ve got it all figured out already, that a bunch of rich slave-owning rapists solved the problem of values for us, that all we have to do is flesh out the implementation details. This is why Constitution fetishism is another of neoliberalism’s weapons of choice.

And this is why Obama, who is in many ways the apotheosis of American politics, raises big issues but only ever talks about them in terms of reform. It allows him to avoid the responsibility of actually advocating for a system of values – which would, of course, entail attacking those with opposing values instead of fantasizing that every issue can be solved through compromise. I recently read Jimmy Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech for the first time, and I realized why everyone got so pissed about it: he actually had the audacity to suggest that Americans examine their values and modify their behavior accordingly. (Of course, he got the direction wrong: he thought the problem was that Americans needed to commit more strongly to their traditional values.)

As convenient as it is to pretend otherwise, there’s actually no such thing as not having ends. If you’re not consciously aiming your actions at chosen ends, your ends will by default become whatever the actual results of your actions are. So if neoliberalism actually succeeds and we end up locked into an optimization process without an awareness of what it is we’re optimizing, the end result really will be a perfect society – one that is perfectly in accord with a value system that no human would ever have chosen.

If you’re anything

I had previously been aware that Nirvana covered the Devo song “Turnaround,” but I finally got around to actually listening to it. Turns out it’s amazing.

(This also applies to Nirvana in general. On account of when I grew up they were just kind of this indistinct looming presence; I had no motivation to actually listen to them until I saw a live video of them doing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song that had been floating vaguely in the background for most of my life, and actually heard it for the first time. I had the sudden realization that the reason all that shit happened was because there really was something there. It’s good to remember that there are secret circuits everywhere, even hidden in plain sight. Nirvana going down in history as nothing more than another Big Famous Band would be the only thing more tragic than what actually happened.)

Devo is what you might call a “philosophical” band, in a very broad sense of the term. They’re about ideas, and they convey those ideas from a particular sort of detached perspective. The human element is still there (especially when it comes to sex), but it’s presented as a sort of comic curiosity. Which is part of the point.

The Nirvana version of “Turnaround” is actually a standard-issue cover: it’s faithful to the songwriting of the original while implementing it in a new style. But in this case, this approach brings out the alternate dimension hidden in the song. The original takes petty human anxiety and transmutes it into cosmic horror through mocking understatement. The cover version, rougher and more visceral, brings it back to the personal, revealing that this view of the universe is ultimately based on projection: it’s our own hatred and emptiness that make the world the way it is. Kurt Cobain’s characteristic aggressive/self-loathing delivery makes the lyrics feel genuinely insulting; it turns banality into viciousness. Without, of course, obscuring the fact that those insults apply just as well to the person leveling them as they do to the target. It’s pretty scary.

Gamed to death

My post about level ups needs an addendum, as there’s a related issue that’s somewhat more practical. That is, it’s an actual threat.

The concept of power growth can be generalized to the concept of accumulation, the difference being that accumulation doesn’t have to refer to anything. When you’re leveling up in a game, it’s generally for a reason, e.g. you need more HP in order to survive an enemy’s attack or something. Even in traditional games, though, this is not always the case. There are many RPGs where you have like twelve different stats and it’s not clear what half of them even do, yet it’s still satisfying to watch them all go up when you level. This leads many players to pursue “stat maxing” even when there’s no practical application for those stats. Thus, we see that the progression aspect of leveling is actually not needed to engage players. It is enough to provide the opportunity for mere accumulation, a.k.a. watching numbers go up. This might sound very close to literally watching paint dry, but the terrible secret of video games is that people actually enjoy it.

The extreme expression of this problem would be a game that consists only of leveling up, that has no actual gameplay but merely provides the player with the opportunity to watch numbers go up and rewards their “effort” with additional opportunities to watch numbers go up. This game, of course, exists; it’s called FarmVille, it’s been immensely popular and influential and has spawned a wide variety of imitators. The terror is real.

Of course, as its very popularity indicates, FarmVille itself is not the problem. In fact, while FarmVille is often taken to be the dark harbinger of the era of smartphone games, its design can be traced directly back to the traditional games that it supposedly supplanted (the worst trait of “hardcore” gamebros is that they refuse to ever look in the damn mirror). Even in action-focused games such as Diablo II or Resident Evil 4, much of the playtime involves running around and clicking on everything in order to accumulate small amounts of currency and items. While this has a purpose, allowing you to purchase new weapons and other items that help you out during the action segments, it doesn’t have to be implemented this way. You could just get the money automatically whenever you defeat an enemy, as you do in most RPGs. But even in RPGs where this happens, there are still treasures and other collectibles littering the environment. This is a ubiquitous design pattern, and it exists for a reason: because running around and picking up vaguely useful junk is fun.

This pattern goes all the way back to the beginning. Super Mario Bros., for example, had coins; they’re one of the defining aspects of what is basically the ur-text of video games. Again, these coins actually did something (they gave you extra lives, eventually. Getting up to 100 coins in the original Super Mario Bros. is actually surprisingly hard), but again again, this isn’t the actual reason they were there. They were added for a specific design reason: to provide players with guidance. Super Mario Bros. was a brand-new type of game when it came out; the designers knew that they had to make things clear in order to prevent players from getting lost. So one of the things they did was add coins at strategic locations to encourage the player to take certain actions and try to get to certain places. And the reason this works is because collecting coins is fun on its own, even before the player figures out that they’re going to need as many extra lives as they can get.

The coins here are positioned to indicate to the player that they're supposed to jump onto the moving platform to proceed.

And there’s something even more fundamental than collectibles, something that was once synonymous with the concept of video games: score. Back in the days of arcade games, getting a high score was presented as the goal of most games. When you were finished playing, the game would ask you to enter your initials, and then show you your place on the scoreboard, hammering in the idea that this was the point of playing. Naturally, since arcade games were designed to not be “completable,” this was a way of adding motivation to the gameplay. But there’s more to it than that. By assigning different point values to different actions, the designers are implicitly telling the player what they’re supposed to be doing. Scoring is inherently an act of valuation.

In Pac-Man, for example, there are two ways you can use the power pellets: you can get the ghosts off your ass for a minute while you try to clear the maze, or you can hunt the ghosts down while they’re vulnerable. Since the latter is worth more points than anything else, the game is telling you that this is the way you’re supposed to be playing. The reason for this, in this case, is that it’s more fun: chasing the ghosts creates an interesting back-and-forth dynamic, while simply traversing the maze is relatively boring. Inversely, old light-gun games like Area 51 or Time Crisis often had hostages that you were penalized for shooting. In a case like this, the game is telling you what not to do; rather than shooting everything indiscriminately, you were meant to be careful and distinguish between potential targets.

So, in summary, the point of “points” or any other “numbers that go up” is to provide an in-game value system. What, then, does this mean for a game like FarmVille, which consists only of points? It means that such a game has no values. It’s nihilistic. It’s essentially the unironic version of Duchamp’s Fountain. The point of Fountain was that the work itself had no traditional artistic merit; it “counted” as art only because it was presented that way. Similarly, FarmVille is not what you’d normally call a “game,” but it’s presented as one, so it is one. The difference, of course, is that Duchamp was making a rather direct negative point. People weren’t supposed to admire Fountain, they were supposed to go fuck themselves. FarmVille, on the other hand, expects people to genuinely enjoy it. Which they do.

And again, the point is that FarmVille is not an aberration; its nihilism is only the most naked expression of the nihilism inherent in the way modern video games are understood. One game that made this point was Progress Quest, a ruthless satire of the type of gameplay epitomized by FarmVille. In Progress Quest, there is literally no gameplay: you run the application and it just automatically starts making numbers go up. It’s a watching paint dry simulator. The catch is that Progress Quest predates FarmVille by several years (art imitates life, first as satire, then as farce); it was not parodying “degraded” smartphone games, but the popular and successful games of its own time, such as EverQuest, which would become a major influence on almost everything within the mainstream gaming sphere. The call is coming from inside the house.

Because the fact that accumulation is “for” something in a game like Diablo II ultimately amounts to no more than it does for FarmVille. You kill monsters so that you can get slightly better equipment and stats, which you then use to kill slightly stronger monsters and get slightly better equipment again, ad nauseum. It’s the same loop, only more spread out and convoluted; it fakes meaning by disguising itself. In this sense, FarmVille, like Fountain, is to be praised for revealing a simple truth that had become clouded by incestuous self-regard.

There is, of course, a real alternative, which is for games to actually have some kind of aesthetic value, and for that to be the motivation for gameplay. This isn’t hard to understand. Nobody reads a book because they get points for each page they turn; indeed, the person who reads a famous book simply “to have read it” is a figure of mockery. We read books because they offer us experiences that matter. There is nothing stopping video games from providing the same thing.

The catch is that doing this requires a realization that the primary audience for games is currently unwilling to make: that completing a goal in a video game is not a real accomplishment. As games have invested heavily in the establishment of arbitrary goals, they have taken their audience down the rabbit hole with them. Today, we are in position where certain people actually think that being good at video games matters, that the conceptualization of games as skill-based challenges is metaphysically significant (just trust me on this one, there’s evidence for it but you really don’t want to see it). As a result, games have done an end-run around the concept of meaning. Rather than condemning Sisyphus to forever pushing his rock based on the idea the meaningless labor is the worst possible fate, we have instead convinced Sisyphus that pushing the rock is meaningful in the traditional sense; he now toils of his own volition, blissfully (I wish I could take credit for this metaphor, but this guy beat me to it).

This is an understandable mistake. As humans, limited beings seeking meaning in the raw physicality of the universe, we’ve become accustomed to looking for signs that distinguish meaningful labor from mere toil. It is far from an unusual mistake to confuse the sign for the destination. But the truth is that any possible goal (money, popularity, plaudits, power) is also something that we’ve made up. The universe itself provides us with nothing. But this realization does not have to stop us: we can insist on meaning without signs, abandon the word without losing the sense. This is the radical statement that Camus was making when he wrote that “we must imagine Sisyphus happy.” He was advising us to reject this fundamental aspect of our orientation towards reality.

We have not followed his advice. On the contrary, games have embraced their own meaninglessness. The most obvious symptom of this is achievements, which have become ubiquitous in all types of games (the fact that they’re actually built-in to Steam is evidence enough). Achievements are anti-goals, empty tokens that encourage players to perform tasks for no reason other than to have performed them. Many are quite explicit about this; they’re things like “ 1000 more times than you would have to do it to complete the game.” Some achievements are better than this, some even point towards interesting things that add to the gameplay experience, but the point is the principle: that players are expected to perform fully arbitrary tasks and to expect nothing else from games. In light of this, it does not matter whether a game is fun or creative or original or visually appealing. No amount of window dressing can counteract the fact that games are fundamentally meaningless.

If you want a picture of the future of games, imagine a human finger clicking a button and a human eye watching a number go up. Forever.

While renouncing games is a justifiable tactical response to the current situation, it’s not a solution. Games are just a symptom. Game designers aren’t villains, they’re just hacks. They’re doing this stuff because it works; the problem is in people.

Accumulation essentially exploits a glitch in human psychology, similar to gambling (many of these games have an explicit gambling component). It compels people to act against their reason. It’s not at all uncommon these days to hear people talk about how they kept playing a game “past the point where it stopped being fun.” I’m not exactly sure what the source of the problem is. Evolution seems unlikely, as pre-civilized humans wouldn’t have had much opportunity for hoarding-type behavior. Also, the use of numbers themselves seems to be significant, which suggests a post-literate affliction. I suppose the best guess for the culprit would probably be capitalism. Certainly, the concept of currency motivates many people to accumulate it for no practical reason.

Anyway, I promised you a threat, so here it is:

“They are told to forget the ‘poor habits’ they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they ‘hit the wall’ from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: ‘Climb the wall,’ others reported. To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, ‘I’m Peculiar’ — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.”

(Okay real talk I actually didn’t remember the bit about the “virtual award.” I started rereading the article for evidence and it was right there in the second paragraph. I’m starting to get suspicious about how easy these assholes are making this for me.)

What’s notable about this is not that Amazon turned out to be the bad guy. We already knew that, both because of the much worse situation of their warehouse workers and because, you know, it’s a corporation in a capitalist society. What’s important is this:

“[Jeff Bezos] created a technological and retail giant by relying on some of the same impulses: eagerness to tell others how to behave; an instinct for bluntness bordering on confrontation; and an overarching confidence in the power of metrics . . .

Amazon is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.”

What’s happening in avant-garde workplaces like Amazon is the same thing that’s happened in games. The problem with games was that they weren’t providing any real value, and the problem with work in a capitalist society is that most of it is similarly pointless. The solution in games was to fake meaning, and the solution in work is going to be the same thing.

And, just as it did in games, this tactic is going to succeed:

“[M]ore than a few who fled said they later realized they had become addicted to Amazon’s way of working.

‘A lot of people who work there feel this tension: It’s the greatest place I hate to work,’ said John Rossman, a former executive there who published a book, ‘The Amazon Way.’

. . .

Amazon has rules that are part of its daily language and rituals, used in hiring, cited at meetings and quoted in food-truck lines at lunchtime. Some Amazonians say they teach them to their children.

. . .

‘If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,’ said one employee, using a term that means you have become at one with the system.

. . .

[I]n its offices, Amazon uses a self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more.

. . .

‘I was so addicted to wanting to be successful there. For those of us who went to work there, it was like a drug that we could get self-worth from.’”

It’s only once these people burn out and leave that they’re able to look back and realize they were working for nothing. This is exactly the same phenomenon as staying up all night playing some hack RPG because you got sucked in to the leveling mechanism. It’s mechanical addiction to a fake goal.

The fundamental problem here, of course, is that Amazon isn’t actually trying to make anything other than money. A common apologist argument for capitalism is that economic coercion is required to motivate people to produce things, but this is pretty obviously untrue. First, people have been building shit since long before currency came into the picture; more importantly, it’s obvious just from simple everyday observation that people are motivated to try to do a good job when they feel like they’re working on something that matters, and people slack off and cut corners when they know that what they’re doing is actually bullshit. The problem with work in a capitalist society is that people aren’t fools; the reason employees have to be actively “motivated” is because they know that what they’re doing doesn’t merit motivation.

The focus with Amazon has mostly been on that fact that they’re “mean”; the Times contrasts them with companies like Google that entice employees with lavish benefits rather than psychological bullying. But this difference is largely aesthetic; the reason Google offers benefits such as meals and daycare is because it expects its employees to live at their jobs, just as Amazon does.

As always, it’s important to view the system’s cruelest symptoms not as abnormal but as extra-normative behavior. The reason Amazon does what it does is because it can: it has the kind of monitoring technology required to pull this off and its clout commands the kind of devotion from its employees required to get away with it. Amazon is currently on the cutting edge; as information technology becomes more and more anodyne, this will become less and less the case. Consider that Google’s double-edged beneficence is only possible because Google is richer than fuck, consider the kind of cost-cutting horseshit your company pulls, and then consider the kind of cost-cutting horseshit your company would pull if it had Amazon-like levels of resourcefulness and devotion.

So, while publications like the New York Times are useful for getting the sort of “average” ruling-class perspective on the issues of the day, you have to keep the ideological assumptions of this perspective in mind, which in this case is super easy: the Times assumes that Amazon’s goal of maximizing its “productivity” is a valid and even virtuous one (also, did you notice how they claimed that this is happening because “technology wants” it to happen? Classic pure ideology). All of the article’s hand-wringing is merely about whether Amazon’s particular methods are “too harsh” or “unsustainable.” The truth, obviously, is that corporate growth itself is a bad thing because corporate growth means profit growth and profits are by definition the part of the economy getting sucked out by rich fucks instead of actually being used to produce things for people. This goes double for Amazon specifically, which doesn’t contribute any original functionality of its own, but merely supersedes functionalities already being provided by existing companies in a more profitable fashion.

And this is where things get scary. With video games, the only real threat is that, by locking themselves into their Sisyphean feedback loop, games will become hyper-effective at wasting the time of the kind of people who have that kind of time to waste. Tragic, in a sense, but in another sense we’re talking about people who are making a choice and who are consequently reaping what they’ve sown. But the problem with the economy is that when rich fucks play games, the outcome affects everybody. And when those games are designed against meaning, and all of us are obligated to play in order to survive, what we’re growing is a value system, and what we’re harvesting is nihilism. Bad design is a fate worse than death.

In this vein, I strongly recommend that you get a load of this asshole:

“’In the office of the future,’ said Kris Duggan, chief executive of BetterWorks, a Silicon Valley start-up founded in 2013, ‘you will always know what you are doing and how fast you are doing it. I couldn’t imagine living in a world where I’m supposed to guess what’s important, a world filled with meetings, messages, conference rooms, and at the end of the day I don’t know if I delivered anything meaningful.’”

Can you imagine living in a world where values are determined by humans? It’s getting kind of difficult!

When the situation is this fucked, even the New York Times has its moments:

“Mr. Bohra declined to let any of his employees be interviewed. But he said the work was more focused now, which meant smaller teams taking on bigger workloads.”

You know you’re an asshole when the shit you’re pulling is so blatantly horrific that even the “paper of record” is scoring sick burns on you from behind its veil of ersatz objectivity.

The thing is, when it comes to values, “money” in society has the same function as “score” in video games: it’s a heuristic that maps only loosely onto the thing that it’s actually supposed to represent. Ideally, economic growth would represent the actual human-life-improving aspects of a society, and to an extent, it does. Despite everything, most people really are trying to make the world a decent place to live. But a capitalist society is one where “growth” is pursued for its own sake, where spending a million dollars to feed starving children is just as good as spending that money on car decals, or on incrementally faster smartphones, or on weapons.

This is why you need to watch the fuck out any time someone starts talking about “meritocracy.” The problem with “meritocracy” is the same as the problem with “utilitarianism”: you have to actually define “merit” or “utility,” and that’s the entire question in the first place. With utilitarianism this is less of a problem, since it’s more of a philosophical question and this understanding is usually part of the discussion (also, when utilitarianism was first introduced it was a revolutionary new idea in moral philosophy, it’s just that today it tends to be invoked by people who want to pretend like they’ve solved morality when they actually haven’t even started thinking about it). But the meritocracy people are actually trying to get their system implemented; indeed, they often claim that their “meritocracy” already exists.

To be explicit, the word “meritocracy” is internally inconsistent. Claiming that a society should be a “democracy,” for example, establishes a goal: a society’s rulership should be as representative of the popular will as possible (that is, assuming the word “democracy” is being used in good faith, which is rarely the case). But the concept of “merit” requires a goal in order to be meaningful. It’s trivial to say that society should favor the “best,” because the question is precisely: the best at what? The most creative, or the most efficient? The most compassionate, or the most ruthless? Certainly, our current society, including our corporations, is controlled by people who are the best at something, it’s just that that “something” isn’t what most of us want to promote.

The problem isn’t that these people are hiding their motives; they talk big but they aren’t actually that sophisticated, especially when it comes to philosophy. It’s worse: the problem is that they have no goals in the first place. For all their talk of “disruption,” they are in truth blindly following the value system implicitly established by the set of historical conditions they happen to be operating in (see also: Rand, Ayn). This is necessarily the case for anyone who focuses their life on making money, since money doesn’t actually do anything by itself; it means whatever society says it means. This is why rich fucks tend to turn towards philanthropy, or at least politics: as an attempt to salvage meaning from what they’ve done with their lives. But even then, the only thing they know how to do is to focus on reproducing the conditions of their own success. When gazing into the abyss, all they can see is themselves.

Thus far, the great hope of humanity has lain in the fact that our rulers are perpetually incapable of getting their shit together. The problem is that they no longer have to. If nuclear weapons gave them the ability to destroy the world on accident, information technology has given them the ability to destroy values just as accidentally. A blind, retarded beast is still capable of crushing through sheer weight. The reason achievements in games took off isn’t because anyone designed things that way, it’s because fake-goal-focused games appeal to people, they sell. The reason Amazon seems to be trying to design a dystopian workplace isn’t because of evil mastermindery, it’s simply because they have the resources to pursue their antigoal of corporate growth with full abandon. Indeed, what we mean by “dystopia” is not an ineffective society, it’s a society that is maximally effective towards bad ends. And if capitalists are allowed to define our values by omission, if the empty ideal of “meritocracy” is taken as common sense rather than an abdication of responsibility, if arbitrary achievement has replaced actual experience, then the rough beast’s hour has come round at last; it is slouching toward Silicon Valley to be born.