skip to main bit
a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



poles apart

Exasperated, I once said to a friend: “You can’t behave like you’re right all the time!”.

She looked confused. “How else am I supposed to act?” she said.

Strange attractors

It’s unlikely that I’m correct on everything: even more unlikely when I’m in a minority. I don’t like music, much. But so many other people love music! So I’m probably making some sort of error in that, even if it’s just an error of taste, or a personal incapacity. My theories on the Russian people are heavily outweighed by the estimations of, at the very least, the Russian people, and many more besides. I have some funny ideas on how Brexit happened. The accuracy of those theories are, to some extent in my mind, inversely correlated with how funny they are to other people. I’m not saying that I let the world democratically override my convictions: but the lonelier I am in my convictions, the more suspicious I become.

Despite being politically engaged, I don’t really identify with the right or the left. But so many other people do! And their views seem, often, to be more coherent, more well-thought out, backed up by dozens of books and essays that make the connections I fail to make.

It doesn’t stop me thinking what I think, nor feeling that sense of intuitive agreement whenever I do stumble on someone who, randomly, thinks the same as me on topic. My sister once told me that long before she understood the details of politics, she knew what she felt about the matters of the day. Does that make her right? No, it makes her who she is. Should we fail to add our opinions to the contemporary discussion, just because in a hundred years time, a chunk of them — maybe crucial, fundamental parts of them — will have failed to pan out?

The big bang theory of polarization

Everyone worries about polarization, and online radicalization. But we don’t often seem to worry about our own process of radicalization. Like many of my friends, I’d characterise my politics as having grown sharper over time, in contrast to the softening that I’d been told to expect comes with age. Despite my neither-left nor right-ness, if pushed, I will say I’m an anarchist, for goodness’ sake! A market anarchist! They don’t make those in moderate sizes!

But even among the anarchists, I feel like I need to watch my lip a bit. I find it really easy, in group chats or polite gatherings, very easy to stumble out of the consensus. I don’t know whether this is just me. When someone confesses to feeling like they can’t really say everything they want, that this is what I think they’re touching on. It’s not like I think I’m going to be cancelled: It’s just easy to touch on a topic where disagreement hides.

Of course, this may just be the fricking anarchists. It’s not like it’s a milieu famous for marching lockstep in calm display of unified visions and solidarity. But I also see this fractiousness elsewhere; I see it everywhere.

I sometimes think of online polarisation as being how the inflationary universe was described to me once (and oh boy, if I’m wrong about some things, I really bet I’m wrong about the structure of the early universe). The universe is expanding, I was told, but from any one spot, you won’t see it expanding. You just see everything moving, on average, further apart. Like ink marks on the surface of a balloon that’s being inflated, the universe is always unbounded, but somehow the distances grow in every direction.

That’s what the world’s opinions feel like to me. Some of it is that the Internet provided us with better space telescopes to see across this universe: Europeans knew something of America, but now they hear directly from Americans, and vice versa. Who knew what evil lurked in the hearts of men, until NextDoor came along?

But some of it is more active: as our universe expands, we get to (whether we like it or not) explore that idea space. We can zoom off in new directions, alone or with strange new attractors. We wander into the woods, and then look back, and everyone is further away, because they have so many more choices that they could make.

I find this, in my impossibly optimistic way, rather lovely. I don’t know whether I’m right, but I’m out here, noodling around the Noosphere, reporting back like Major Tom.

In our lanes, bowling alone

Another, different, good friend of mine, as close as one can be, is much as I remember him when I met him at college. We spent a lot of our life together, and I can instantly connect on the rare occasions we meet. We bond on so many features of the modern world, and politely disagree on a few, too.

He is totally convince 9/11 was an inside job, steel girders and planted explosives and everything. Unlike, say, our attitude to the West Country, he gets very annoyed when I express any scepticism about this. He is exasperated that no-one he knows can see the self-evident truth. I asked for evidence, and one Christmas, he sent me videos. For that single holiday weekend, I was convinced of it too: then I snapped out of it. We avoid the topic now.

Our universe of opinions and facts and statements and intuitions is multi-dimensional. Like GPT (everything will be analogised to GPT for the next few months, get used to it), there are millions of vectors in this state space, n-dimensional distances that connect each idea to one another. It’s really easy to just scoot down one or two of these numbers — start where you or I grew up, and then just spin a couple of numbers on the million-chambered one-armed bandit, until we’re the same, except you’re now millions of miles away in a single direction. I’m in London, and you’re in London too, but hundreds of miles upward. We both stayed on the Greenwich Meridian, but you stayed in your flat near Greenwich, and I pivoted off to Algeria. The universe of possible opinions balloons: even if we start close, we fly apart.

So how do we even talk to each other any more? How do we tolerate such distances? How do we stop us all just drifting further apart, from our family, from our friends, from a collective society, into some sort of heat death, or worse?

When the polarisation truly began to hit in the United States, back in 2015, I read a lot about the Reformation in Europe. It’s hard to extract much solace from the 100 years war, but I did. The West crafted a ceasefire from the religious wars that spilled out from those 95 new axes’ of freedom. The United States, in particular, was an unexpected commitment between religious maniacs, so intolerant that they were physically as well as conceptually displaced thousands of miles away, maniacs who thought that their neighbors — only a little more distant than those crammed into Southern England or Holland — were literally irredeemable. Somebody wants you dead in 2023? These people thought you deserved to die, then burn in hell for all eternity.

The truce failed when it came to many other inhabitants of that continent; but just the re-closing of that impossible distance fascinated me.

I am, of course, messing around with GPT, Llama, Galactica, Pygmalion and the rest. (Did you know there’s a GPT-4chan? You’d think they’d be writing about that, in the grown-up newsprobably going to hell, and risked taking their children with thempapers, wouldn’t you? Do they even know what’s happening now, what’s heading straight for us, rappelling down toward our tiny island of human consciousness, down every one of those billion parameters?).

Anyway, one of the things I’m messing around with is to use GPT as a bridge across that gulf. I get it to take some post that I don’t like, that I can’t read because it irritates me so much, the thing that shuts me off from new or distant ideas, and I automatically ask my pet GPT to rewrite it so I won’t bounce off it. Not buy into it: but not be alienated by its apparent proximity or distance from the worlds I do believe I understand. Texts in Chinese, in Hindu; local beliefs expressed in sneers and in dismissals. Love I don’t understand, fears I can’t sympathise with.

In Greg Egan’s Diaspora, humans have differentiated radically across the universe. Faced with a threat that could destroy them all, they create vast human chains of fractionally differentiated, intermediate consciousnesses, long chains of translators that are just close enough to their neighbour on each side of the chain, that they can, across the gradient of thousands of identities, convey an idea to and from an utterly alien descendant of mankind.

That’s my model of what we need to do, already, and will need to do more, not less. We are becoming alien to each other: but we can build tools that let us work together across long distances, as we did once before.

None of us are entirely right, but we need to talk to each other to triangulate, find out what’s wrong, and fix it, together.

(1400 words)

Comments are closed.


petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.