Here’s an old one for the occasion.
Story: in elementary school I had a hippie teacher who played an acoustic version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” with the lyrics replaced by the text of “Jabberwocky.” That’s all.
Here’s an old one for the occasion.
Story: in elementary school I had a hippie teacher who played an acoustic version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” with the lyrics replaced by the text of “Jabberwocky.” That’s all.
Ponies are apparently the major political issue of the current era. Some people think everyone should get a pony, others think that all ponies should be distributed exclusively to factory owners for the purpose of making glue, and still others think that ponies are nice in theory, but nobody should actually get to have a pony, because that would just be irresponsible. It’s all very contentious.
The first thing that’s strange here is that the meat of the pony is actually just the standard liberal-democratic agenda: healthcare, education, stimulus spending, and the rest of the welfare state. This is the normal stuff that liberals are supposed to be in favor of, so portraying it as magic beans is somewhat suspicious. The “free college” thing is an especially odd sticking point. We are constantly being told by mainstream politicians that education is the only viable path to the future and that anyone who doesn’t retrain themselves to meet the demands of an increasingly automated economy is going to get flattened by the steamroller of progress. But when people respond by making the completely obvious follow-up demand that education and retraining actually be accessible, they’re suddenly accused of pie-in-the-sky unicornism. The demand here isn’t for “ponies” at all; the demand is simply for oatmeal. And, at the risk of beating a dead horse, this demand is being made in a world where some people own multiple mansions with private jets to fly between them at will, while others are being evicted from roach motels and literally starving to death. If this is what we’re talking about when we talk about ponies, it’s long past time for rich fucks to pony up.
But we shouldn’t get complacent just because some people are being completely disingenuous. This is one gift horse that we really do need to look in the mouth. The facts of the matter are that America is a very rich country, and that it contains about 5% of the world’s population. It’s straightforwardly incoherent to rail against the 1% in the name of a guaranteed middle-class existence for all Americans, because middle-class America is the 1% of the global economy. I’m not saying that you’re only allowed to care about the worst things. Anything that’s bad merits opposition and anything that’s wrong merits righting. Given that we can’t transform the economy overnight, there’s nothing particularly immoral about enjoying a reasonable standard of living in America.
And it’s really bizarre and honestly very upsetting that we can’t actually talk about this. Everything is still being framed in terms of what’s good for “the economy” rather than what actually makes people’s lives better. The recent increased focus on inequality has caused a lot of people to start making the argument that inequality is bad for the economy, that it’s inefficient and decreases overall productivity. I’m sure this is true, but opposing inequality on this basis is an extremely terrible argument. When you do this, you’re completely conceding the only part of the argument that matters: the assumption that overall economic growth is the only acceptable value, and that every policy has to be justified on this basis. The omnipresence of this argument is not mysterious: it’s like that because it’s what rich fucks want. Given that rich fucks are already on top of the economy, the only thing that can further benefit them is accelerated growth. There’s only so much money you can steal from poor people, and most of it is already being stolen. So as long as the discourse remains constrained by this framework, not only ponies and oatmeal but even hay and salt licks are going to remain entirely out of our reach. The best we’re going to get is gristle.
Once we decide to take this seriously, though, it becomes incumbent upon us to ensure that we’re betting on the right horse. The thing is, America’s world-historical prosperity is not a coincidence. There is a specific material reason that America possesses enough wealth to provide everything for all of its citizens, and that reason is called imperialism. The whole “two cars in every garage” thing is an ideal of very recent vintage: it’s a direct consequence of America’s global dominance following the devastation of the second World War. America has more resources than everyone else because America takes them from the rest of the world, by force.1 So while it might seem justified to simply make the internal claim that America’s resources should be distributed more evenly, that claim rests upon the availability of those resources in the first place. In order to support such an arrangement, you’re implicitly required to support the conditions that make it possible. This is why liberals are imperialists.
(Also, this is not a theoretical point. Bernie Sanders got some positive press recently for articulating a slightly less psychotic approach to foreign policy, but that approach is still fundamentally imperialist. For people who think that Sanders represents the “extreme left,” anti-imperialism is literally an unthinkable position.)
So, in the final analysis, it is indeed the case that ponies are the ill-considered playthings of spoiled rich kids. In order to create a world that genuinely works for everybody, we have to focus on the basics. It is properly within the realm of human rights to insist that everyone should have a comfortable place to live and access to food and healthcare and maybe even internet-capable computers, but 70” TVs and new smartphones every year and overnight-shipped meal kits are things that we can only afford by offloading their real costs onto someone else. Like, the whole thing about the “information economy” or the “service economy” or whatever we’re calling it now is that it assumes that the resource extraction and manufacturing are being done elsewhere. Someone has to actually build the automated service kiosks, you know. So if we have that type of economy, what we have is precisely a global 1%: we have shit countries doing the shit work and doughy Americans yelling at their robot butlers.
At the same time, though, people also shouldn’t be obligated to constantly hustle in order to scrape together enough paychecks to survive, or spend eight years bullshitting for the sake of an official certification entitling them to an entry-level office job, or maintain an impeccably professional social media profile to prove right-thinking. Most of the “privileges” of our first-world society are actually shit deals. This is the truly pathetic thing about liberals: the unrealistic utopia they’re trying to sell us isn’t even any good. It’s a lame horse. So we can not only fulfill our moral obligations by evening things out on a global scale, but also provide a preferable alternative to the sad future of austerity and apps by making an actual good deal: dignified living in exchange for civil responsibility. This is the real positive argument that we have at our disposal, and making it effectively requires us to dispense with fantasy and describe the world as it really can exist, and how we really can get there though a long, determined march over the dead bodies of billionaires. Rather than a pony, then, what we need is something more like a pack-bearing mule. It won’t be any of the obvious choices on display; it’ll be a hybrid creature, something that we wouldn’t have expected to exist at all. I’ll be slow, and it won’t be pretty, but that’s okay, because it won’t be for show. For the first time in human history, it will be something that works.
As always, this brings us to the real problem, which is, as always, global warming. American-style outsized resource utilization is not just unfair, it’s literally destroying the world. This is also not a coincidence. The thing about fossil fuels is that they provide an immense amount of energy in a very small and effective package. Their existence is a great boon for humanity: everything about our modern lifestyles relies on the unprecedented amount of energy generation that they afford us. The problem is that, due to the aforementioned social arrangements, this boon has been largely squandered. We’ve used it to drive an unhealthy amount of growth solely for the sake of rich fucks’ desires for ego gratification and escapism. A responsible long-term plan would have used this energy to develop a global infrastructure for keeping everyone fed and healthy and then worked on converting that infrastructure into a more2 sustainable form. This is the kind of bootstrapping that actually works. If we had ever tried to do that, we’d already be done. Again, that’s what’s so frustrating and sad and insane about this whole arrangement. There never should have been a problem in the first place, but we went to the maximum amount of effort in order to create one, and we did it for no reason. We weren’t outmatched or conned; we didn’t make mistakes or fail to figure anything out. The reason the planet is burning is simply that we’ve shoved it into an oven.
As mentioned, the focus right now is on finding “solutions” to “problems” within the existing liberal-capitalist framework, and global warming is the strongest and most important example of why this won’t work. I’ll do you a favor and spare you the full rehashing, but the basic problem is that, while increasing the use of renewables is nice, what we’re ultimately going to have to do is stop using fossil fuels entirely, which is incompatible with a growth-based capitalist framework at all, let alone with the maintenance (and, indeed, promotion) of billionaire lifestyles. Global warming is just plain not a solvable problem within our current societal configuration. The society in which it is solvable has not yet been instantiated, and doing so will require destruction as much as creation. We are facing an Old Testament-level threat, and we require an Old Testament-style solution. We don’t need a pony here so much as we need four horsemen.3
This is extraordinarily important to keep in mind in the current context of “the resistance.” The particular grotesquenesses of the immediate present are strongly motivating a desire to get things “back to normal,” and even those attempting to look forward – the people who are increasingly being called “the left” – are mostly doing so within the parameters of the not-quite-discredited liberal-capitalist consensus (the fact that “socialism” now means “going halfway back to the New Deal era” tells you everything you need to know here). Certainly, some of the “norms” being “eroded” are in fact real accomplishments that we need to preserve, but a norm isn’t a good thing just because its a norm. The more important concern here is that our world was birthed wrong in the first place, resulting in many more and more important norms that are not mere politenesses but are in fact the carrots and sticks spurring us on down our current path to destruction. Most of these are still being upheld, and any real future requires their eradication. If humanity is to have any hope of tightening the widening gyre, the center must not hold.
My last post requires an addendum. I mentioned that expecting social media companies to filter out bad political content is a fool’s errand, because all you’d be doing is shackling yourself to someone else’s biases. So there’s that, but there’s also a deeper, category-level confusion which has been occurring with increased prevalence and which pretty much nobody is picking up on.
Some time ago, Google changed its search interface to add little boxes and things for “recommended” results. This is supposed to make it easier to find answers to direct questions without having to go through a whole page of links. But people have been noticing that this approach leads to a lot of untoward results; for example, queries regarding the Holocaust used to produce Holocaust denial pages in the boxy results. It’s easy to understand why this happens: most people accept the occurrence of the Holocaust as a historical fact, so the only people who actually input queries along the lines of “did the Holocaust really happen?” are denialists (or at least budding denialists), who then click through to denialist sites. So the Google algorithm is just performing its usual function of showing people the most popular results correlated with their input.
There isn’t actually a way around this. As long as there are Holocaust denial sites on the internet, there will exist some query that directs you to them. I mean, if there wasn’t, Google wouldn’t be much of a search engine, right? But that doesn’t mean that there’s no problem here. Rather, the problem is specifically with the boxes that pick out some of the results and stamp them with the imprimatur of officiality. As long as that’s happening, Google actually is recommending those results. So the only sensible option here is to get rid of the boxy results. Google’s job is to show you what’s on the internet and nothing else.
Importantly, there is a technical reason why this is the correct solution. It is impossible for Google’s boxy results feature to work “correctly,” because it is internally contradictory. It is intended to be both a dynamically-generated response based on the most relevant data currently present on the internet and an Official Correct Answer. You can’t do both of those things at once. You have to pick one. Furthermore, picking the second one is also impossible, because the number of potential questions is literally infinite. What the boxy results actually are is an illusion. They look like a recommendation when they are actually no different than anything else that happens to come up in the list of results. The reason that boxy results specifically reflect badly on Google is because they are lies. It is correct to say in this case that Google is lying to you, even though the results are completely unintentional, because Google has constructed its interface to look like something that it is not, and is thereby conveying false information.1 So the only logically viable option is for Google to quit fucking around and just be a search engine, which, you might recall, was the whole thing it was good at in the first place.2
People seem to be having a certain amount of difficulty understanding this. Naturally, there’s always a performative moral crisis when something like this happens, but in this case the complaints are almost universally targeted at the same, specific, exactly wrong place. Consider this article, which correctly points out that the problem is specifically with the boxy results:
For most of its history, Google did not answer questions. Users typed in what they were looking for and got a list of web pages that might contain the desired information. Google has long recognized that many people don’t want a research tool, however; they want a quick answer. Over the past five years, the company has been moving toward providing direct answers to questions along with its traditional list of relevant web pages.
Type in the name of a person and you’ll get a box with a photo and biographical data. Type in a word and you’ll get a box with a definition. Type in “When is Mother’s Day” and you’ll get a date. Type in “How to bake a cake?” and you’ll get a basic cake recipe. These are Google’s attempts to provide what Danny Sullivan, a journalist and founder of the blog SearchEngineLand, calls “the one true answer.” These answers are visually set apart, encased in a virtual box with a slight drop shadow. According to MozCast, a tool that tracks the Google algorithm, almost 20 percent of queries — based on MozCast’s sample size of 10,000 — will attempt to return one true answer.
Unfortunately, not all of these answers are actually true.
and then immediately descends into psychotic gibberish:
Google needs to invest in human experts who can judge what type of queries should produce a direct answer like this, Shulman said. “Or, at least in this case, not send an algorithm in search of an answer that isn’t simply ‘There is no evidence any American president has been a member of the Klan.’ It’d be great if instead of highlighting a bogus answer, it provided links to accessible, peer-reviewed scholarship.”
. . .
The fastest way for Google to improve its featured snippets is to release them into the real world and have users interact with them. Every featured snippet comes with two links in the footnote: “About this result,” and “Feedback.” The former explains what featured snippets are, with guidelines for webmasters on how to opt out of them or optimize for them. The latter simply asks, “What do you think?” with the option to respond with “This is helpful,” “Something is missing,” “Something is wrong,” or “This isn’t useful,” and a section for comments.
This is all nonsense. The problem is that Google gives some of its results a false sense of authority, so the solution is for it to give a different set of its results even more of a false sense of authority, while also soliciting comments from everyone and putting in 3,000 different links allowing people to leave 30,000 different layers of feedback, because then the results won’t be confusing anymore.
Again, there are a literally infinite number of possible queries and results, which is the whole reason you write a search engine in the first place. Putting in custom results for specific queries both breaks the functionality of what Google is supposed to be doing, and is a futile game of whack-a-mole, a drop of water in a sea of bullshit. Furthermore, when you go down this road you’re trusting Google to provide the “right” results, which is a task at which it has absolutely no institutional competence. Is there seriously anyone who still hasn’t noticed that nerds are generally extremely bad at anything outside of their direct area of expertise? (That’s kind of the definition of “nerd,” actually.) To precisely the extent that you have a curated system, you do not have a search engine. You have some nerd’s journal.
Again, again, Google can either be a search engine or a source of direct information. It can’t be both things, and the practical effect of “solutions” like this is to transform Google into an extremely shitty direct information source. Think about this for literally five seconds: if the problem is that the web has a bunch of shitty content on it, then how is soliciting more information from the same place going to change anything? Are we seriously assuming that Holocaust deniers are going to be above gaming these sorts of things? The idea that individual people can change Google results by yelling at the company loudly enough is not any kind of solution; it’s properly horrifying. It means that search results are constantly subject to the random whims and biases of the people who are the best at yelling about things on the internet. This isn’t order; it’s chaos.
You may recall that the internet already has a source for crowdsourced direct information. It’s called Wikipedia. And, indeed, the problem that a lot of people are having here is that they are expecting Google to be the same thing as Wikipedia. In other words, they are incapable of understanding that a search engine and a source of information are different types of things, and thus, when one of them doesn’t behave like the other, they see it as a “problem” that needs to be “fixed”:
This is a really remarkable comment, especially coming from a guy with a fucking book emoji in his name. There’s not even an argument here, there’s just a completely unexamined assumption that Google and Wikipedia are directly comparable on some kind of “information quality” level or something and that one of them is “better” than the other. This is as far from intellectualism as it’s possible to get. (Don’t even get me started on the pathetic haughtiness of “do better,” as though it were any kind of meaningful statement (as though it imparted any semantic content at all), let alone a solution.)
Since I know I have to say this explicitly, I am absolutely not arguing that there is any such thing as a “neutral” platform or algorithm or that Google is not completely fucked up and deserving of excoriation. This isn’t about “neutrality” and “bias,” this is about what type of thing a thing is. What I am arguing is that things need to be criticized for what they are actually doing. It is correct for people to give Wikipedia shit about, for example, how it addresses trans people, because what’s on Wikipedia was put there by a specific person and approved by other specific people. Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view” thing is largely bullshit, because you can’t actually do that, but it is correct for it to attempt to stick to the facts and avoid editorializing. There’s no point in complaining that Wikipedia doesn’t promote your own personal political philosophy hard enough. But when it comes to something like which gender you use to refer to a trans person, there isn’t a “neutral option,” and the issue can’t be avoided. You have to make a choice, and that choice merits criticism.
So, as mentioned, the part of the Google results that is actually wrong is the boxy results, and they’re wrong in general, not just when they display “wrong” answers. Aspiring detectives may have noticed that I lied earlier. The Holocaust denial thing didn’t actually come up in one of the boxy results, it was just at the top of the normal list. So the people complaining there actually were full of shit. More specifically, they were full of shit insofar as they were directing their complaints at Google. The existence of the site is the problem, not the fact that Google’s algorithm noticed that it was on the internet and displayed it to the people to whom it calculated it was probably relevant.
This does not mean the algorithm is “neutral.”3 There’s no such thing. There are a lot of different methods you can use to find and display search results. They can be based on the site’s overall popularity, or on how many people clicked through from a given source, or on how well the content appears to match the search parameters regardless of traffic patterns. You can even switch this around; you could, for example, specifically promote less popular sites when they match certain search criteria. This would distribute traffic more equally and advance less popular opinions, though it might also increase the bullshit ratio. Hell, you could even take all the valid results and just display them randomly – this would actually have the positive effect of promoting previously unknown sources (hi), even though it would certainly increase the bullshit ratio, perhaps by quite a lot (depending on the extent to which “authoritative” sources are actually bullshit in the first place).
These are the real choices Google has to make even if it stops lying, and any choice made here is going to have political results. Pushing all the results towards the New York Times center is just as much of a political action as promoting fringe sites. So criticism of the behavior of Google’s algorithm is in fact within bounds here, as long as that’s actually what you’re criticizing. Pointing out that one bad result appears in one place is not a real argument, because nobody actually put it there. In order to make that argument, you have to argue against the general behavior that results in that particular output, and when you do that, you are implicitly arguing against all of the behavior that results from the parameters you’re selecting for criticism. You can coherently make the argument that Google should be promoting more “authoritative” results, but only if you’re willing to accept that non-authoritative results that you happen to agree with will also get downgraded. And the reason I’m claiming that people are full of shit here is that I don’t think anyone actually believes this. What people actually want is for the bad results to just not be there, because their existence is actively immoral. Which is an entirely praiseworthy opinion, but you can’t just wish them away. You have to think about how you actually want these things to be determined, because the consequences are going to be far greater than the one or two bad results you happen to encounter. I mean, if you really do want only “officially approved” sources displayed when you perform a general internet search, I’m within my rights to conclude that you’re an authoritarian.
There’s a reason this is happening, though. Google is not trying to act as a search engine and failing; it is choosing to promote itself as an source of information and is doing so dishonestly. The reason it is making this choice is that it is what people want. People don’t actually want to know what’s out there on the internet. They want a magic box to give them the right answer. That’s the only possible explanation for the proliferation of those stupid talking internet cylinders. My ability to comment intelligently on this aspect of the problem is somewhat limited, as I cannot for the life of me imagine why anyone would a) pay to b) put a robot in the middle of their house that c) talks at them and d) constantly monitors them in order to e) sell them shit, all for the sake of f) an inferior version of the functionality that you already have on your desktop and know how to use, because you ordered the thing off of Amazon in the first place. That is literally my idea of hell. Anyway, the reason people buy these things, one supposes, is that they want to be able to yell indistinctly at a robot and have the robot give them the magical Correct Answer. In other words, they want to be lied to. In order to respond to this desire, Google has to be dishonest, because it’s not possible to honestly create an incoherent system.
Pressuring Google to censor “bad” search results one at a time doesn’t solve a real problem.4 I don’t actually object to Holocaust denial sites being delisted (good riddance, obviously), but I do object to intentional delusion. I object to people who think that removing unpleasant things from their field of vision is the same as improving material conditions for living humans. Indeed, what we’re really talking about here is removing unpleasant truths, because it is a real fact that these sites really exist, and that their existence accurately reflects the fact that large numbers of people sincerely believe these things. This is real news. All obscuring it does is make liberals feel better because now they don’t have to see the bad things. You may recall that this dynamic has resulted in some problems recently.
The true fact of the matter is that the world is a disgusting place. This should neither be accepted nor ignored. But not ignoring it also means not fooling yourself about where things are coming from. It means choosing high-value targets and not easy ones. It means understanding how the things you are yelling at work so that you can yell at them accurately. It means taking actions that actually move the world in a better direction instead of the ones that merely move you into a more comfortable chair. Above all, it means keeping your eyes open to the things that are the most disgusting to look at. The only option for interacting with reality is to learn how to navigate the sea of bullshit.
It is for this reason that category errors matter. If you can’t tell the difference between a racist website written by a person and the racist output of an algorithm, you are not actually perceiving reality. Even though those things are both wrong – even though algorithms can be just as blameworthy as individual people – they’re wrong for different reasons, and they require different responses. There’s a reason we have different names for different things. Different things are different. A search engine is not the same thing as a news site. Treating different things as though they were the same thing is called stupidity. It makes you wrong about things.
We also have a name for the desire to retreat from a complicated world into a simplistic shell of officially-verified Correct Answers. It’s called cowardice.