Among all my blogs, this is the one least inappropriate for this particular rant. That is, you, dear reader, are probably not the audience that should read this, seeing as how it started as an Eve Online blog, and will probably resume as such when I’m less disgusted with humanity in general and less disinclined to play with other people, but at least you are among those who might gain something from reading it, as opposed to everyone else who listens to what I say at all. If you’re lucky, you might gain useful insight into your own personal circumstances, and not just to the world at large — though it is mostly about that.
With that said…
There’s a pervasive image of THEM in most cultures I ever encountered, most commonly associated with the work of bigger and more powerful governments, financial institutions and similar organizations, strong, unapproachable, and far exceeding the span of knowledge and power of an average single person. The word is that THEY are running things, typically for a nefarious purpose, out to get all that is good and holy in the world, etc, etc. This view is mistaken, but my statement is that there’s a bigger reason for it to be mistaken than the ones usually cited. It’s not even that the hypothetical "they" do not exist, though more likely than not, they don’t.
You see, there is a great temptation to believe, to the rejection of all evidence to the contrary, that the world as a whole actually makes sense.
That’s not to say that the world is actually senseless, that is, devoid of all shades of meaning,1 nor it is to say that this meaning is unknowable — either would be a step too close to postmodernism, which is a swamp I am not at all anxious to approach, and I still wouldn’t go there even if I were you. But while everything happens for a reason, very few things happen with a particular purpose in mind, and those that do, typically don’t have the effect expected, or if they do, that’s more often than not by accident. Of course, this is something I have already said but in a slightly different context.
The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth
There’s a character by the name of Prak in "Life, the Universe and Everything", who was, under the influence of an overdose of a truth drug, commanded to tell "the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth." After much horror inflicted on the listeners over quite some time and destroying his native culture, eventually he was done, commenting "There’s not nearly as much of it as people imagine." Though he particularly enjoyed the bits about frogs.
Well, the guy was correct. While the actual set of possible objective true statements is infinite, it’s obviously of a lower cardinality than the set of all possible statements, and the set of all possible objectively true statements that are in any way interesting, provable and otherwise recoverable is smaller yet. There’s comparatively little of that thing called Truth, it’s bloody expensive to get at, and we’re constantly under the influence of tunnel vision, because the world we actually live in is not really objective in any sense. People live in clustered groups, each of which is immersed in their own story and version of the world, and versions of reality coexist until they come into conflict and annihilate. Which one gets annihilated typically has no bearing on whether it is objectively true.
While there’s no end of individuals and groups who think they know what’s going on,2 and a sizeable proportion of them makes predictions that turn out to be correct, predictive power is not actually equivalent to proof and objective truth, though it’s usually taken as such. While there is mathematical proof of objectivity of certain kinds of inferences from data, even if the sample size is just a fraction of the complete corpus, with people, the data itself is always suspect — you can try to get away from that, but how sure you are of your data depends on your own level of arrogance more than it depends on how good it actually is. There is a lot more certainty of data when you’re talking about particles, but that is never the case with people. Even something as apparently simple as counting the dead bodies poses serious problems.
The bigger your system of collecting data about people gets, the more room for error and bias it introduces, because you need more and more people to collect data, to analyse the data, and to make any sense of it, and at every stage, someone introduces at least some bias.
That makes it obvious that if any "THEM" actually exist, whether they’re anything like they are imagined or not, they’re exactly as clueless as everyone else, if not more, if only because they, due to their elevated position at the "center" of things, have far more rope to hang themselves with.
But it’s much more likely that the hypothetical "THEM" don’t even think themselves quite so enlightened, and just move reflexively through their day like everyone else, pursuing individual goals that pull the whole thing in all directions at once like ants trying to carry a caterpillar.
One interesting observation of mine — not seriously based in any kind of actual fact, but a nice theory nonetheless, at least it explains things — is that there is no such thing as intelligence level per se. That is, everyone who is capable of speech at all, and possibly some who aren’t, are equally endowed in this department. The variations in application are mostly about the pool of information the user has access to and the speed of such access.3 But the biggest difference is in how often people actually use it — or rather, how long, on average, do they keep it turned on. It behaves very much like a pulse-width-modulated square wave, which turns into a particular average level over time because pulses come more or less often, and have varying lengths.
In daily life, all of your interactions are arranged in patterns that require no thinking to follow. You say hello, because that’s what people do, and say goodbye, because that’s what people do. A deviation from the pattern is bound to throw you off for at least a moment, until you find a new one to follow, and only actively employing your intelligence permits you to improvise — but even then, you’re just limited to a higher order pattern now. One of the major theses of social anthropology as I learned it is exactly that this is everyday life, the Lebenswelt, and one of the important functions of culture — insulating people in a world they build. It’s as if the best people can do for each other is to save each other from thinking, and continue in this dreamlike illusion, where things happen to you, rather than the other way around.
That makes buddhism acquire a whole new meaning to me and at the same time, makes the search for objective truth that much harder.
The Conspiracy as it is
I remember a curious incident that occurred during my thesis defense. Once I have established a solid criticism of my own research methods,4 I presented what felt like a new one — a system of blanket textual analysis of all communication within a simulated world.5 Not particularly ethical, certainly neither ethical nor legal when applied to the Internet at large,6 but it’s obviously possible under the arbitrary shrinkwrap license terms of your typical internet service. It would have relatively narrow applications, but possibly very interesting conclusions when applied to it’s fullest extent, even in a small and insular environment of an online game. My own implementation only concerned itself with frequency and intensity of communication and presented some interesting conclusions based on that alone. The obvious next step would be actual syntactic parsing, but I’m nowhere a good enough linguist of programmer to pull something of the sort on my own, so that was it. For my thesis, that was good enough.
In the course of thesis defense in Russia,7 you’re supposed to have two "official opponents" who will criticise your work — not sure how that works in your neck of woods, but around here this is the core of peer review. Traditionally, you’re meant to write what you expect to hear from them in advance, but I was not aware of that,8 and purely through my mistake, both of them actually had to read the thesis and write their own responses, so I heard some interesting things along the way. One of the criticisms received from one of the two opponents was that my work does not cite some prior Russian works in the field, on the particular subject of social graph analysis.9
When asked which works those are, the opponent had to admit I couldn’t have read them, because they are classified. That was all I heard on the subject from then on, so take it with a grain of salt the size of an asteroid.
It’s all water under the bridge now, but this small incident makes me seriously suspect that someone, somewhere, right now, is desperately trying to make sense of what’s going on, build an objectively true picture of people, and all the increase in automated surveillance seen over the past ten years is really about getting at that truth-about-people, by hook or by crook. They obviously aren’t doing this to locate terrorists, because they know that terrorists don’t use Skype and they can’t quite be stupid enough not to understand where this road leads to in the long run.
Which makes it the search for truth by crook, I suppose, but if I had the opportunity myself, I would not pass it up.
And call me whatever you like.
You structure your life in such a manner that much of your immediate environment makes sense, that’s what it’s about.↩
Including yours truly.↩
I’m pretty sure that in many cases I appear more intelligent just because I google faster.↩
That being mostly that once I account for all of the selection bias I’m aware of, my conclusions say nothing of great import.↩
It might not get you "Nothing but the Truth", but "The whole Truth" is very likely concealed within.↩
I try to avoid claims of being ethical in general though. Ever met a mad social scientist? They laughed at me, but I’ll show them, I’ll show them all! Ahem.↩
Which, once the actual discussion is done, results in a pile of paperwork about half as thick as the thesis itself.↩
Just like me to commit that sort of social faux pas and expect people to actually do what they’re meant to do.↩
Today, there’d be thousands of works in either Russian or English to cite and build upon, but that was almost ten years ago, and I dug up what I could.↩