Ideas

Predicting the (Virtual) Future

Writing at his Forbes blog Modeled Behavior, Adam Ozimek offers a few speculative thoughts on what the year 2045 might look like.  While his piece is brief and interesting throughout, and should therefore be read in full, his prediction concerning virtual reality caught my attention.

My second prediction is we will spend a disturbing (to us) amount of time in virtual reality. Right now humans spend a tremendous amount of time staring at screens that basically amount to a moving flat picture. Perhaps eventually brains will adapt and learn to not trust virtual reality, but the early reports are suggesting the coming VR is very good at tricking us into feeling strong emotional and even physical responses. What will happen to the demand for the virtual world when it goes from flat moving pictures to immersive experiences capable of inducing emotional responses that closely mimic real life? I believe it will explode, for good and for bad. Importantly, our sphere of empathy will expand as we have the opportunity to “walk in other people’s shoes” in a very realistic way.

This is dead-on in my view.  The answer to his question “what will happen to demand?” is that it will explode, of course. We can probably shave fifteen years off the predictive timeframe as well and find virtual reality use to be not only common in wealthier nations but quite consuming as well, especially among the younger demographics.

Widespread use of virtual reality matters…a lot…and for a variety of reasons.   The most important is that, a lot of sticky and tough questions notwithstanding, certain VR experiences could amount to a referendum on actual reality.  About a year ago, on this blog, I made the case that even early versions of VR technology were likely to meet the minimum hurdles to become just that.  Effectively, they’d be real-life incarnations of low-level experience machines, famed philosopher Robert Nozick’s term for his made-up contraptions that can trick you into believing you are actually experiencing any thing you can imagine happening in reality, all while your physical body floats, lifeless, in the machine.  His point was that most people would not choose to live in the machine the rest of their lives, but rather, people value something beyond just felt experiences alone; most people aren’t hedonists.  Here’s the gist of why VR might actually qualify as an experience machine sometime soon:

More interesting for the philosophical ramifications of early VR however, is that it does not have to match Nozick’s experience inventory to claim the title of “an” experience machine. Once the realism requirement is met in a single experience, any experience, then we have a limited version of the full-blown thing.

Unraveling Nozick’s selection criterion revealed that those who choose not to plug into a prototype machine could be doing so for multiple reasons, which spoils the thought experiment. The flip side is that, by logical extension, those who do in fact choose to plug into a crude, work-in-progress machine have answered Nozick’s fundamental question. If your benchmark for plugging in is already met with the options of experiences A, B, and C, then the additional options of experiences D or E won’t cause you to change your mind. This simple point allows for virtual reality to provide hard data on the thought experiment in the (very?) near future. If there is even one experience that today’s VR can clear the realism hurdle on, then I submit that we are already beyond the hypothetical.

As Adam correctly points out, virtual reality will deliver both benefits and costs to humankind.  Since his only example (increasing empathy) lands on the benefit side of the equation, allow me to offer an opposing one to balance the scales:  Widespread use of certain VR experiences in 2045 will represent hard evidence that, contra Nozick, many people are merely closet hedonists, and the fundamental value of acting in reality will be, directionally, devalued and marginalized relative to today.

Of course, this prediction doesn’t merely balance the scales, it sends one end crashing down under tremendous weight.  Any benefits introduced by VR in the “real” world will implicitly be marginalized as well since they occur in actual reality.  If, on average, members of global society determine reality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, whether they realize they are saying so or not, then those benefits are undermined to some extent.

In the end, the thorny philosophical issues that VR raises require more investigation, and soon, in my opinion.  In the meantime, if we are slouching towards hidden referendums on reality, then that should be discussed in detail as well.  And if others aren’t quite as concerned about the consequences, then shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.

(Image source)

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Front Porch Republic conference: October 3, feat. James Howard Kunstler and more

Front Porch Republic‘s annual conference is less than a month away, in Geneseo, New York. It’s shaping up to be a great program, and I hope to see some readers there. Please leave a comment if you plan to come. May have to start spamming some like-minded Northeastern bloggers to make sure they do too — Pittsford Perennialist, I’m looking at you!

From the press release:

Sustainable Localism: Sages, Prophets, and Jesters,” the fifth annual Front Porch Republic conference, will be held on Saturday, October 3 in the MacVittie College Union Ballroom at the State University College at Geneseo.

James Howard Kunstler, whose many books include The Geography of Nowhere, will deliver the keynote address: “Looking for Sustainability in All the Wrong Places.”

The conference will feature a special panel devoted to the life, thought, and legacy of Christopher Lasch, the late University of Rochester historian and social critic. Panelists will be Robb Westbrook, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, and Eric Miller.

Other conference speakers will include Catherine Tumber, Jeff Polet, Tim Tielman, Bill Kauffman, Abbot Gerard D’Souza-OCSO, Jason Peters, and Jeremy Beer.

The conference registration fee of $50 ($20 for students) includes lunch and light snacks. There will be plenty of opportunities for attendees to gather informally with one another and the speakers. The conference will run from 9 am-5 pm.

Sign up here, hope to see you!

See a flier here.

Here’s the plot behind ridding public life of offensive symbols

Alexander Hamilton may have been a big government imperialist but, as the first Secretary of the Treasury, he shouldn’t be taken off the $10 bill.

Wait…step back one second. Remember all the hubbub over the U.S. Treasury’s decision to replace Hamilton’s visage with that of a woman’s?

Perhaps you don’t. In our hysterical age, the media moves from one outrage to the next, rarely stopping long enough to allow real contemplation on the injustice du jour. The capriciousness is akin to a porn addiction that soothes the brain by beguiling it with feelings of moral superiority and pity.

Not long after cultural feminism scalped Hamilton off the 10 spot last spring, the next wave of intractable wrath came in the form of the Confederate Flag – the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia to be specific. Because some shit-for-brains in South Carolina shot up a prayer meeting and had posted pictures of himself online holding the flag, the symbol had to be removed from the state capitol. That act of courage (inanimate objects kill people after all) snowballed into the Confederate Flag being purged from all venues of respectable American life.

Now we’ve reached the next Houdini-like act of disappearance. President Obama, in a swipe at white colonialism, unilaterally changed the name of Mount McKinley back to its local designation: Denali. The act is meant to appease the native population, who never took to the moniker of the twenty-fifth president. The peak was unofficially named McKinley by a gold prospector in 1896 but Congress made it official in 1917 to honor the assassinated head of state.

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Magicians of the Outer Right, Part Zwei – Power Plays

TRIGGER WARNING: There’s that bit in the beginning of the Book of Genesis about The Tree of Knowledge. The material below is all very well known and available to anyone with a browser. However, the weak of mind are strongly advised to cease and desist.

Ah, I see you’re still here. Very well:

My previous post on Magicians of the Outer Right was, admittedly, occult.

From Outside in’s links digest: “Mirror of obscurity.” Nick B. Steves roundup: “a rather cryptic post.” Some further explication was implied.

Steves also linked this:

The fact is Western culture has its own conception of power, a very naive construct that prevents us from noticing how things actually work. We seem to think people have ideas, and act because they believe those ideas, and power just comes out of the strength of those ideas. Call it faith in Christ, or Protestantism, or liberalism. Our conception of history is the history of ideas.

In the last 20 years or so, with the rise of the Web, this conception has been hyper-reinforced. I post my “Neoreactionary” arguments and evidence about how fundamental “right-wing” changes to society would result in peace, prosperity, less crime, happier children, more intelligence, less obesity and, in the long run, the breeding of unicorns that defecate gumdrops. Some SJW grrrl just out of Wellsley (or more likely, struggling to complete her Womyn’s Studies B.A. at a state university) posts that I’m a POS racist sexist LGBTIQ-phobe whose ideas would lead to death camps for everyone except white cismales. She argues that fundamental “left-wing” changes to society would result in equality, peace, equality, less crime, equal children and animals, equality of intelligence, social justice, racial justice, economic justice, sexual justice and, in the long run, Gaia defecating non-GMO unsalted manna that would feed the world and allow her to pay off her student loans.

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Don’t forget Nietzsche’s right-wing readers

nietzscheans

Left to right: Friedrich Nietzsche, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Learned Hand, Richard Posner.

One useful ideological function the Internet has performed has been to explode the idea that the American right is intellectually monolithic. Libertarians, paleoconservatives, traditionalist Catholics, foreign-policy realists, neoreactionaries, secessionists, and more have carved out online niches, either reinvigorating existing intellectual traditions or synthesizing new ones. As an editor and blogger, The Mitrailleuse’s own J. Arthur Bloom has done a great service in publicizing these often obscure corners of online political discourse; see his alt-right reading list here. I don’t consider myself a conservative, but my understanding of conservatism has been greatly enriched by many of these writers.

But an important American intellectual strand of the right seems to me to have been left out of this online profusion of non-mainstream views. Since I know of no better name for it, and because of the admiration for the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche common to its members, I’ll refer to this tradition as right-wing Nietzscheanism. It includes figures like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Learned Hand, and Richard Posner. (H.L. Mencken might also be a member, but he’s a somewhat more complicated case.) I’ll sum up the main right-wing Nietzschean theses to show what unifies these figures as an American tradition, then say why I think they are still worth considering.

Right-wing Nietzschean theses:

1. There are no eternal standards of justice, rationality, or truth. In an early and unpublished fragment, Nietzsche famously called truth an “army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms” rather than anything fixed or absolute; he would later claim, in the Will to Power notebooks, that there are no facts, only interpretations. And in the Genealogy of Morals, he articulated the radical idea that moral values are historically situated and fluid. Holmes, referred to by Posner as the “American Nietzsche,” thought of truth as just whatever “I cannot help believing.” Like Hand, Posner is a skeptic who has bluntly argued “there is no truth ‘out there.’” Right-wing Nietzscheans believe value and truth are projected by us highly-evolved animals onto a bleak, valueless, materialistic universe. There is no God or even any eternal standards to guide us. We are alone in the universe, accountable only to ourselves. As Holmes wrote, it cannot be the case that “the ultimates of a little creature on this little earth are the last word of the unimaginable whole.”

2. Democracy is the only measure against which we can judge our values. Holmes admitted he came “devilish near to believing that might makes right,” but what keeps right-wing Nietzscheans from going all the way down that path is their shared belief in democracy. Since we live in a democratic society, brute force alone cannot determine truth. Instead, we should judge truth in what Holmes called the marketplace of ideas: “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” This faith that the best idea will win out in a fair competition separates these thinkers from the anti-market left. Leftist Nietzscheans like Michel Foucault are skeptical of the possibility that the best ideas ever fairly win out; such competitions are inexorably distorted by power and can thus never be neutral or fair, Foucault argued. Like Nietzsche himself, Foucault is dubious about democracy. But right-wing Nietzscheanism is an American ideology and consequently, like its cousin American pragmatism, deeply appreciative of what Posner has referred to as the “hurly-burly” of “robust and freewheeling inquiry with no intellectual quarter asked or given.” Right-wing Nietzscheans reject Nietzsche’s Übermensch elitism in favor of the democratic process.

3. Institutions and policies instantiate human desires and needs, and should be evaluated on the basis of their consequences. What should guide the democratic institutions we place our faith in if there are no absolute standards we can use? For right-wing Nietzscheans, all we have to judge our democracy is the real-world consequences of our institutions and policies. As Posner puts it, we should be:

…looking at problems concretely, experimentally, without illusions, with full awareness of the limitations of human reason, with a sense of the “localness” of human knowledge, the difficulty of translations between cultures, the unattainability of “truth,” the consequent importance of keeping diverse paths of inquiry open, the dependence of inquiry on culture and social institutions, and above all the insistence that social thought and action be evaluated as instruments to valued human goals rather than as ends in themselves.

Without the help of any external standards, our institutions can serve only our ends, and should be judged on the modest scale of their ability to tackle concrete problems producing optimum results for human purposes, needs, and desires. Unlike elements of both left and right, right-wing Nietzscheans don’t want institutions to serve abstract ideals like Principles of Justice, the Will of God, or Inalienable Human Rights. Human institutions are just there to get things done that humans want. All we can use to evaluate whether our institutions are working is to ask, as Holmes said, whether “such and such a condition or result is desirable and that such and such means are appropriate to bring it about”; the best we can say about the policies and institutions constituting our democracy is, in Posner’s words, that they are “the product of shifting human desires rather than the reflection of a reality external to those desires.”

4. Humans are just monkeys with large brains – nothing more, nothing less. Many conservatives see human beings as made in the image of God and therefore possessing inherent dignity, while others see humans as bearers of innate human rights. Right-wing Nietzscheans regard such ideas as illusions. “All my life I have sneered at the natural rights of man,” Holmes scoffed in 1916. “People are monkeys with large brains,” Posner quipped in 2009. While perhaps initially frightening, for right-wing Nietzscheans this fact about ourselves is liberating. “It is enough for us that the universe has produced us and has within it…all that we believe and love,” as Holmes wrote in one of his most existentialist passages. Their insouciance about innate rights or dignity separates these thinkers from many left-wing materialists. Rights are conferred by institutions, not by human nature, and so we should create the best institutions we can to make sure rights are spread as widely as possible, a process that can be messy and even violent. “No doubt,” Holmes argued, “behind these legal rights is the fighting will of the subject to maintain them…A dog will fight for his bone.” And in this complicated process of improving our democracy, we must be allowed to make the mistakes we will inevitably make: “we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death,” as Holmes famously put it in his dissent in Abrams v. United States. For example, neither Holmes nor Posner puts much faith in the regulation of the market, as the left does; they regard regulation as inefficient and ineffective. But if it is the will of the people to do so, in the interest of improving our finite human lives, a society should be allowed to engage in such no doubt fruitless efforts.

*****

Some might wonder what separates what I call right-wing Nietzscheanism from American pragmatism. Posner calls himself a pragmatist; Holmes was a member of the Metaphysical Club along with classical pragmatists Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, as discussed by the scholar Louis Menand; and Hand was James’s student at Harvard. But I distinguish pragmatists from right-wing Nietzscheans because the pragmatists were typically much more optimistic about the possibility of achieving genuine progress via social and political institutions. Right-wing Nietzscheans, following the German sage, take a darker view of progress and human nature, and so tend to be suspicious of left-wing social engineering. But if you like, right-wing Nietzscheanism can be seen as a subgenre of pragmatism.

These considerations might begin to answer my puzzlement about why this tradition has not been rediscovered with as much gusto and vigor as other conservative schools of thought in recent years. The profound, intellectualized cynicism of right-wing Nietzscheanism can be quite alienating; it is obvious why it has not formed the basis of a lasting political movement. This pessimism led to Holmes’s endorsement of eugenics, as evidenced in the infamous and repugnant 1927 Supreme Court opinion he wrote in Buck v. Bell, and to the perhaps misguided interpretation that Nietzsche himself held views similar to a vulgar Social Darwinism. These facts understandably make contemporaries wary.

Hand called himself “a conservative among liberals, and a liberal among conservatives”; such fence-sitting never makes one popular. Many conservatives distrust right-wing Nietzscheans because of the latitude they have afforded to political liberalism in the humanistic spirit of experimentation and democracy. The echoes of Holmes and Hand can be heard in Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinions that have held up Obamacare: as he wrote in 2012, “It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.” The infamous neoreactionary writer Mencius Moldbug quipped that “Cthulhu may swim slowly. But he only swims left. Isn’t that interesting?” Right-wing Nietzscheanism offers one way to understand why “progress” marches on, without having to agree fundamentally with every aspect of that progress. Holmes, Hand, and Posner show why we should allow our fellow citizens to experiment with our shared democracy, even when we ourselves think such experiments useless.

These ideas still have currency. In an age of skepticism about value and about what government is good for, right-wing Nietzscheanism is worth taking seriously for its radical commitment to democracy without metaphysical or moral foundations.

What’s so hard to understand about social construction? A lot, actually

My take on the Rachel Dolezal scandal might differ from that of many of my fellow contributors to The Mitrailleuse, but I’d like (for some foolish reason) to wade in anyway.

The shocking revelation — salaciously captured in a video interview — that a self-identified African-American NAACP leader and Africana Studies professor from Spokane, Washington, has been “passing” as black when she was in fact born white has caused widespread confusion about the politics of social construction and identity.

This confusion is understandable, and should be engaged with rather than mocked.

After the former Bruce Jenner recently made her prominent debut as Caitlyn Jenner, many embraced her decision on the grounds that, yes, gender is socially constructed and something fluid and not essential. So if, as Jenner had repeatedly claimed, she felt she was in fact living a lie as a man and was instead really a woman, then we should accept her self-identification as a woman. “Call me Caitlyn,” she told us, and we have done so.

Now we have a case of a woman born white and claiming to be black, but who, rather than praised, is reviled as a phony and a fraud.

Social conservatives see a contradiction here. Two people self-identify with groups into which they were not born — one born a man, self-identifying as a woman; the other born white, self-identifying as black — but we are expected to praise one and condemn the other.

As Sean Davis at The Federalist asks, “If Rachel Dolezal isn’t black, how is Caitlyn Jenner a woman?

Some on the left have treated this question as cut and dried. “Race isn’t gender,” scoffed @BlackGirlDanger. “Just like apples aren’t tomatoes. Just like the moon isn’t lollipops. Just like you aren’t informed.”

Most social conservatives reject the social construction thesis, and thus are gleefully observing the knots progressives seem to be tying themselves into rather than genuinely asking questions about this issue.  So I agree The Federalist and many social conservatives are concern trolling when they ask about the difference between the social construction of race versus that of gender. But that doesn’t make it a bad question. It is in fact an exceedingly good question.

If I don’t immediately understand why I’m expected to praise Caitlyn Jenner and condemn Rachel Dolezal, that does not make me merely misinformed. It makes me someone engaged with a deep philosophical problem that has occupied major recent theoretical heavyweights, including Sally Haslanger, John Searle, Ian Hacking, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler, to name just a few.

In other words, social construction is an irreducibly complex topic. It is hard to digest and requires a lot of background to understand. I’m not suggesting you need to have read any particular thinker, including the ones I listed above, or possess any level of formal education to engage this question. But the fact remains that you do need to have a certain degree of knowledge — of theory, anthropology, sociology, and/or recent trends in activism — to understand the subtle differences in these two cases.

What makes the construction of gender different from that of race is not a question to be lightly dismissed. But according to @BlackGirlDanger, if you don’t understand that difference, you should just “Get your head out of your ass.”

Sorry, but I’m not buying that. What I’d rather see than such dismissiveness is a deep conversation about how social construction works. If you want to advance a politics that embraces the contingency of identity, you need to accept how novel this concept is to almost everyone who hasn’t taken seminars in gender theory or sociology or who doesn’t regularly read The Awl.

You build a community of like-minded citizens not by bullying them or deriding them for failing to immediately grasp these subtle differences, but by engaging in dialogue, in exchanging ideas, and in mutual education. The fact is these ideas take most people a lot of time and effort to comprehend.

If the social construction of gender is different from that of race — and to be clear, I for one do believe the two cases are different — then show how. Explain it. Convince people.

I imagine there are many people reading about Dolezal today who agree she should be condemned as a fraud, and who agree Jenner was brave to come out as trans, but who are nonetheless not clear about why their intuitions differ in these two cases. Many likely don’t see why everyone is acting like the distinction between the two is obvious. And if they go out and seek edification on this topic, and instead see what many are saying about people like them — that they are simply ignorant, and should get their heads out of their asses — I imagine their reaction will likely be to walk away and move on with their lives.

They will think, This is not a movement where I belong. And as things stand, unfortunately they are correct.