It’s a slightly cloudy Tuesday, June 14, 2022 in Portland, Oregon. Over the weekend we went Rain Camping, which is like regular camping, but it rains a lot of the time and you pick a place where the nearby creek (“crick”, for some of you, I guess) is like some sort of gravid water tentacle.
The kids had fun, though.
I’ve never really been camping in England1, but Rain Camping feels like it’s just called “camping” where I grew up.
I started writing this episode yesterday and it didn’t work. Lately, it’s been harder to write. Not sure what that’s about.
Reading: Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler, 1993.
I came across an interesting post, Game Design Mimetics2 by Kyle Kukshtel the other day, and it caught my attention for a bunch of reasons. I’ll make bullet points of the main ones here, they work a bit like wayfinding in my head, if I were to make a map of what the points were in this piece and what makes it interesting, what would the landmarks be?
It was such a high-density piece of writing that tries (and succeeds, I think) in making sense of what-now-is-like for videogames.
I take all of these things together and then smush it with stuff like The New Yorker’s The Numbing Rise of I.P. TV4, broadly about the prevalence of scripted adaptations/dramatizations that satisfy the need to reduce risk of investment – it’s a story that’s already shown itself to be popular and attract attention, right – as well as (I think?) reduce the cost of production.
There was a post I saw recently, someone describing how they were getting into this new tv show and a few episodes in they finally understood it. (It was Star Trek). But the way they described it, that it’s got a good rep because there’s a lot of Content there (31 content days, vs 16 content days) was just another mark in the column of undifferentiated stuff now physical form has been divorced from media. I am, again, off on my “look what we lost when it all became zeros and ones” bullshit.
Another part of the Game Design Mimetics essay that I picked up on was this idea that you might want to play a videogame for the feeling of playing a videogame, the whole “I want a sense of playing games”. Like, now game-ness is toiling-away at punching trees to collect wood to take them to someone to give them to someone else in some sort of quest tree. The sense of playing games in some sense is mindless task completion? That’s not playing, but it might be gaming.
Now is, I suspect, as good a time as any to break out A Theory of Fun and its friends.
Okay, so I did the thing last night where the most exciting event was reading an 8-year-old philosophy paper. It caught my attention, so I am going to share it with you now: If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious5
I’ll just say that if you’re the kind of person who nods along to phrases like but what is it like to be a bat, exactly, or liked reading books like Peter Watts’ Blindsight or if in general you just like thinking a bit about the nature of consciousness and sentience then you might like this?
The bits that I like about this paper are:
how it tries very hard to disabuse you of your neurochauvinism, which is if you’re super convinced that only things that have neurons can be conscious
introduces the prejudice of contiguism, which is the horror you might have at the possibility of non-contiguous entities possessing consciousness, which I will quote like this:
You might think, for example, that spatial contiguity is a necessary condition of objecthood or entityhood, so that it makes no more sense to speak of a spatially discontinuous entity than it makes sense – unless you adopt some liberal views about ontology – to speak of an entity composed of your left shoe, the Eiffel Tower, and the rings of Saturn. If you’ll excuse me for saying so, that attitude is foolish provincialism.
I mean, I just like the writing. But the hook was “go on, come up with a system in which a rabbit is conscious, but the United States is not”, and let’s just take it as read that other countries can totally be conscious as well, this isn’t some sort of extension of American exceptionalism. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland may also be conscious, and what a wonderful, sprained consciousness that might be right now.
Now sure, this also looks like bullshitting and trolling, but it’s the kind of bullshitting and trolling that I appreciate? Here:
The United States is a goal-directed entity, flexibly self-protecting and self-preserving. The United States responds, intelligently or semi-intelligently, to opportunities and threats – not less intelligently, I think, than a small mammal. The United States expanded west as its population grew, developing mines and farmland in traditionally Native American territory. When Al Qaeda struck New York, the United States responded in a variety of ways, formally and informally, in many branches and levels of government and in the populace as a whole. Saddam Hussein shook his sword and the United States invaded Iraq. The U.S. acts in part through its army, and the army’s movements involve perceptual or quasi-perceptual responses to inputs: The army moves around the mountain, doesn’t crash into it. Similarly, the spy networks of the CIA detected the location of Osama bin Laden, whom the U.S. then killed. The United States monitors space for asteroids that might threaten Earth. Is there less information, less coordination, less intelligence than in a hamster? The Pentagon monitors the actions of the Army, and its own actions. The Census Bureau counts us. The State Department announces the U.S. position on foreign affairs. The Congress passes a resolution declaring that we hate tyranny and love apple pie. This is self-representation. Isn’t it? The United States is also a social entity, communicating with other entities of its type. It wars against Germany then reconciles then wars again. It threatens and monitors Iran. It cooperates with other nations in threatening and monitoring Iran. As in other linguistic entities, some of its internal states are well known and straightforwardly reportable to others (who just won the Presidential election, the approximate unemployment rate) while others are not (how many foreign spies have infiltrated the CIA, the reason Elvis Presley sells more albums than Ella Fitzgerald).
I get that thinking at this at this time might strike some as frivolous given all the shit that is going on inside the United States to people who are conscious (and, I suppose, even worse, to people who aren’t conscious, as well) but honestly, it’s just so sideways somewhat-batshit and somewhat-awesome?
There’s another part, where Schwitzgebel corresponds with Daniel Dennett about, I suppose, what sort of qualia a nation state might experience:
We can refrain from assuming, for example, that when the U.S. is angry its anger is felt, phenomenologically, as anything like the anger of individual human beings; we can even insist that “anger” is not a great word and simply the best we can do with existing language. The U.S. can’t feel blood rush to its head; it can’t feel tension building in its arms; it can’t “see red”. It can muster its armies, denounce the offender via spokespeople in Security Council meetings, and enforce an embargo. What it feels like, if anything, to enforce an embargo, defenders of U.S. consciousness can wisely refrain from claiming to know.
I mentioned what it is like to be a bat6, but come on! What is it like to enforce an embargo! What is that like?! Not from the perspective of one of the 3x10e8 conscious people that make up the human people of the United States, nor any of the people who make up the executive branch, nor any of the people who might practically enforce such an embargo (“What is it like to be an aircraft carrier?”), but… what is it like to be a country?
(The paper was also an opportunity for me to learn about some theories about consciousness I hadn’t been exposed to before, like a sort of “a conscious thing cannot be made of smaller conscious things”, which in Schwitzgebel’s argument means that if you were to replace all of your neurons with not just silicon ones, but just one of them was a conscious silicon ones then… you’d suddenly not be conscious anymore?)
In what might be dangerously close to losing subscribers, one realization I had on reading this paper was this: Searle’s whole deal with his roomful of Chinese people was that if you instructed these Chinese sufficiently well and had them execute whatever instructions such that when an order for six million rubber o-rings came in then six million rubber o-rings came out with the appropriate manual, then there’d be a sort of “consciousness” floating over the room in which you had all those Chinese people. Which, clearly, is silly. No, what is much less silly is that there is no consciousness hovering over the room/factory, but that the room itself is conscious, which is to say China is conscious, but in a sort of un-knowable way.
Stuff you should probably read if you’re interested in this includes:
I suppose all of this is a bit of a side-issue: so what if the United States is conscious, does knowledge of its consciousness change what we would do? We suspect many other things of being conscious (do not taunt me with that large language model bullshit), and there are many things that we know are conscious that we decide to treat badly anyway. Would it be weird if in some way we were offended by genocide, but not nation-er-staticide, the killing of a conscious nation state? I mean Dan, really, are you even reading what you’re typing here?
Okay, that’s it. That was tortuous. Truly, I am sorry.
How are you? I hope you’re doing better than I am.
By which I mean: I have never been camping in England. ↩
Game Design Mimetics (Or, What Happened To Game Design?), Kyle Kukshtel, June 9, 2022 ↩
Kukshtel paraphrases Citrella in TANK magazine in 2019: World of Warcarft reflects the pseudo-heroic traditonalism of contemporary reactionary movements ↩
If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious, Eric Schwitzgebel Philosophical Studies (2015) 172, 1697-1721 ↩