In an ominous twist to the notion of brain software upgrade (a metaphor that RAW used quite a lot – eg see Prometheus Rising), we’ve seen the rise of social media algorithms engineered with the effect of altering our ‘brain chemistry’ in a downgrading sort of way – or, as a former Facebook exec put it, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.”
Jaron Lanier put it even more bluntly: “Social media is turning you into an asshole”. (Remember the famous line attributed by Wilson to Timothy Leary: “the only intelligent way to discuss politics is on all fours, since it all comes down to territorial brawling in the end”?)
Algorithm politics – raw & cooked
If “it” seems to be getting worse, that might be because, statistically, social media algorithms boost negative aspects of human neurology, since evidently that’s what optimises engagement with the platform (thus profiting social media companies and their clients). The algorithms don’t care how they increase user engagement; it just happens that tribalism, paranoia and nasty adversarial conflicts tend to engage people more efficiently than reasonable discourse does:
‘Social media is biased, not to the Left or the Right, but downward. The relative ease of using negative emotions for the purposes of addiction and manipulation makes it relatively easier to achieve undignified results. An unfortunate combination of biology and math favors degradation of the human world. Information warfare units sway elections, hate groups recruit, and nihilists get amazing bang for the buck when they try to bring society down.’
– Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts
- Raw algorithms: the higher potency of negative emotions in behavior modification – optimised by social media as a byproduct of increasing engagement.
- Cooked algorithms: Targeting of those negative emotions by bad actors (clients of platforms) – eg weird posts that are tested to bring out the inner cynic in a given demographic, reducing the chances that they’ll vote.
Remaining “above it all” doesn’t seem a good option, either. Or, as somebody aptly put it on their Twitter profile, “If you’re not interested in social justice, consider the alternative”.
‘Existentialism did not convert me back to Marxism (as it did to Sartre); it merely magnified my Nietzschean distrust of capitalized nouns and other abstractions…’
– Robert Anton Wilson, Left and Right: a Non-Euclidean Perspective
I regard RAW’s semantics as having soteriological momentum (ie liberating & alleviating suffering); semantic counter-measures against algorithmically “rewarded” stupidisation could certainly be considered part of that, even though RAW wrote decades before ubiquitous smart phones loaded with B.U.M.M.E.R. (Lanier’s acronym for social media: ‘Behaviors of Users Modified and Made into Empires for Rent’).
Think about it: the algorithms amplify those very signals whose cognitive effects RAW sought to minimise through the various semantic strategies he wrote at length about. The B.U.M.M.E.R. algorithms reinforce (statistically, over hundreds of millions of communications) those linguistic forms which inflame 2nd circuit neuropolitical controversies. Two quotes immediately come to mind:
“Controversy equalizes fools and wise men…and the fools know it.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes
“…the peculiar nature of the game…makes it impossible for [participants] to stop the game once it is under way. Such situations we label games without end.”
– Watzlawick, Beavin, Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication
The “games without end” quote, incidentally, is provided by RAW at the beginning of his chapter on “The SNAFU principle” in Prometheus Rising. (The original passage from which RAW quoted is available here, and makes interesting reading in the current context of social media trolling, “gaslighting”, etc).
Politics – spooks, static, noise, etc
What kind of semantic signals or linguistic forms are we talking about?
RAW details several types throughout his books, but the best known are probably: implied “ALL” claims (eg regarding classes of people); “is of identity” assertions; inappropriate two-valued logic. (Hence: sombunall, E-Prime, Maybe logic).
There are quite a few others – some deriving from General Semantics; others reflect RAW’s wide interests, including anti-metaphysical and existentialist philosophers, scientific operationalism, transactional psychology, ethnomedodology, radical Buddhism, Stirnerism, modern poetry, game studies, NLP, etc. (One of my background projects is to catalogue and correlate the various types of semantic ‘distortion’/’noise’/’nonsense’ observed in these various fields, as cited by RAW).
For now, let’s stick with one of the main ones: implicit (sometimes explicit) “ALL” claims – since Wilson returns to it repeatedly, and since it appears as one of the main algorithm-boosted problems online.
Because it seems so obvious, it also seems easy to take for granted. “Sombunall” – a simple enough idea, but not widely adopted. I recently read an online comment claiming “sombunall” as redundant, since the qualifier “some” seemed perfectly sufficient by itself (as “some” already implies “not all”). Perhaps “sombunall” could be considered redundant if the vast majority of people routinely used qualifiers such as “some” or “most” in their generalisations. But Bob created “sombunall” precisely because those qualifiers tend to be omitted by lazy habit (or by self-righteous or malign intent).
To demonstrate this, I recommend conducting a Twitter search for “liberals are”. You can substitute other political labels in the search – eg “libertarian”, “progressive”, “conservative” – but I found that “liberals” seems by far the most frequently hypergeneralised label. Here are a few examples I found (on Twitter) at the time of writing:
“Liberals are brainwashed”
“Conservatives are morons”
“Libertarians are sociopaths with no conscience, empathy, or vision.”
“Liberals are categorically insane & making you live like slaves.”
“Conservatives are absolutely terrified of women having sex and enjoying it.”
Our brains, as RAW notes, will tend to process these as “ALL” statements (eg “All liberals are…”), even though we might tell ourselves that the absence of qualifiers doesn’t necessarily imply “all”. In other words, we no longer ascribe predicates to certain individual members of a group – we ascribe predicates to a group, an abstraction. Wilson makes the problem clear by paraphrasing Korzybski:
“Once one leaves pure mathematics, the ascription of predicates to groups always introduces fallacy.” – RAW, Coincidance, p67
He adds that stupid prejudices in general (racism, sexism, etc) consist, “in logical terms, of ascribing predicates to groups”. And if the point doesn’t seem clear or emphatic enough, he also supplies a quote from Nietzsche:
“To ascribe predicates to a people is always dangerous” – Nietzsche, unpublished note, 1873 (quoted by RAW, Coincidance, p66)
Group generalisations can appear logically valid in pure mathematics because the validity exists by definition. (“All k are x, in a mathematical context, because k and x are defined that way, and because they do not exist outside of pure thought.” – RAW, Coincidance, p67). And, in a more logically informal sense, political group generalisations may seem relatively valid to the extent they limit themselves to political predicates generally associated by definition with the group label.
For example: “(All) Liberals subscribe to views generally classified as liberal” – okay, by definition, but also basically useless tautology.
On the other hand, “Libertarians are just republicans who have discovered marijuana” (an actual Twitter example), although couched in terms related to political definition (which may fit some individuals), we recognise as fallacious group generalisation.
Then we encounter the particularly insidious form of generalisation that ascribes non-political predicates to political groups:
“Liberals are cowards”
“Conservatives are scum”
“Liberals are a disease”
“Conservatives are evil people”
(Actual examples on Twitter)
Wilson on generalisations
If I tried to summarise, in my own words, what I think RAW conveys about group generalisations across his various writings (from earliest to latest) it would look something like the following:
- Distinguish between generalisation by definition (relatively valid) and generalisation by assertion (usually dangerous).
- At the very least, qualify with a simple word: “some”, “most”, “many” (the lesson of ‘sombunall’).
- Preferably do more than just qualify with a single word. Provide quantification (eg cited percentages), specifics, names, dates, referencing, indexingKorzyb-style, etc. Or don’t assert a group generalisation at all.
Some group generalisations appear more nuanced at first glance and require deconstruction. I noticed the following one recently, as it was retweeted by Glenn Greenwald (who added that the commentary of its author, Krystal Ball, is “brilliant, incisive and very important”):
‘Reaction to the innuendo against Alex Morse perfectly demonstrates how some progressives and all liberals have come to put feelings, symbols and personal self-actualization over any project of real political change.’
– Krystal Ball, retweeted by Glenn Greenwald
On second glance it doesn’t look so nuanced. Krystal Ball doesn’t merely imply “all liberals” – but seems quite explicit in conveying that ALL the millions of people whose political views could be classed “liberal” feel and behave in the way she claims – that’s liberals from ALL walks of life; even poor, homeless lifelong-activists who can’t afford to treat their painful life-threatening illnesses, but who just happen to have fairly liberal views (since ALL includes ALL). Her tweet earned thousands of “likes” – as did Glenn’s retweet (with his comment) to his 1.5M followers.
Skinner Box & Zucker App
‘Where Mechanism is and Mind is not, war happens.’
– Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger II (p226 in 1991 edition)
RAW wrote before the era of social media algorithms, but he did write about “mind vs mechanism” in the sense of aware “mindful” apprehending versus reflexive, robotic responses arising from conditioning/imprinting. Meditation (in a broad attentive sense) versus behaviourism, social “hypnosis” and populist narcosis.
I find it interesting that in his ‘How to read / how to think’ (included in Coincidance, 1988) – a lucid piece on prejudice and group abstractions – RAW invokes the “awake”/”asleep” metaphor favoured by mystics, alongside the mind vs mechanism duality. He asks whether the “sleep”/”dream”/”illusion” terms that some mystics use when referring to “ordinary consciousness” relate to something “very esoteric that only other mystics can understand”, but then adds:
‘Or are they talking about the extent to which normal consciousness (“mechanical consciousness” in my sense) relates to fictitious predicates attached to groups and ignores (does not perceive) person1 person2, etc.? Is there some connection between “waking up” in the mystic sense, and learning to read (or to see paintings, say) in an alert, non-mechanical way?’
– Robert Anton Wilson, Coincidance, p67 (brackets in original)
“To fundamentally change society, you have to break it” – Steve Bannon’s take on his work with Cambridge Analytica, as reported by CA whistleblower, Christopher Wylie.
“Breaking” something in order to rebuild it seems a very mechanical metaphor for a virtually ineffable process like “society”. One wonders what somebody like Buckminster Fuller would think about that. (I also wonder why some people refer to Bannon as a “genius”).
As reported in books* and newspaper reports, Steve Bannon and others wanted to recreate society in silico, taking the guesswork out of social engineering at scale. Given the information technology involved, “mechanical” might seem the wrong term, although we can view it as mass-automated behaviourism targeting millions via micro-mechanisms (every click, scroll and pause registered and recorded), micro-engineering of our responses and dynamically optimised feedback loops – all of which can be modelled and scaled up or down, nudging society, fairly “mechanically”, in whatever direction that Bannon, Robert Mercer, or some state agency or anonymous oligarch with sufficient funds, wants to take it.
Afterwords about an Afterwords
The Wilson piece about group generalisations, from Coincidance (that I’ve quoted above) has an interesting ‘Afterwords’ (p73 in my 1988 edition). And the following paragraph, in particular, seems, to me, worth quoting and pondering:
‘One of the irritations that provoked this piece in the first place was certain neo-pagans in California who regularly speak about Christians in the way that Hitler used to speak about Jews. When I tried to explain to some of them that hating Christians as an undifferentiated mass was as illogical as hating Jews as an undifferentiated mass, they couldn’t understand me. They knew that anti-semitism was unfashionable, but anti-Christianity is not unfashionable yet (being comparatively rare) and that is about as deep as their understanding goes. They never harbor unfashionable prejudices, but they also never suspect that prejudices per se might be rather stupid.’ – RAW, Coincidance
* For example, Mindf*ck by Christopher Wylie. I also recommend Joshua Green’s earlier book about Bannon, Devil’s Bargain.