Te Urewera

This short “essay” was written in response to a video a friend posted on my Facebook timeline about New Zealand granting the Te Urewera national park legal personhood – an idea that another (lawyer) friend took some exception to in the comments.

So… Color me cautiously optimistic? But the devil’s always in the details, and I’d need to understand the situation a lot better than the information in the video allows to really come down on this one way or another.

Some background thinking…

I’ve been going on for a while that I think (one of?) the key question(s) that we need to be asking right now as we work towards resolve the failures of modern democratic systems is: “How do we incorporate the interests of people who are not people into our decision-making processes?”

In other words, how do we recognize the interests of – and our responsibilities to – non-human, trans-human, and not-yet-human entities? A lot of things fall under this broad class of entities: Future (unborn) generations, human ethnic groups and communities, plants and animals, ecosystems. Some of these are humans (who are yet to be). Some of these are made up of humans (either wholly or partially). And some of these may not contain humans at all.

There’s two motivations for this line of thought: (1) At an immediate level, human interests often depend on these entities in ways that we’re unable to adequately capture at an individualized level, and (2) at a philosophical level, thinking about the issue in these terms is a way to recognize that our sphere of moral responsibility extends (far) beyond the purely human realm most of our conversations are restricted to.

The term “people who are not people” is a bit awkward, but I keep coming back to that phrasing because it captures the dual meaning the term “person” has come to have in our society.

At one level, I do think that we need to start thinking of these entities as “people” in a legal sense. We already have a class of “people who are not people” in law – corporations – and while the system for dealing with those entities is flawed, it does provide us a framework for navigating our relationship with those entitites (and their relationships with each other).

But this example also lets us get at the second sense of the word “people” – as a synonym for “human being”. And corporations (or communities, or animals, or ecosystems) are not human beings. Again, however flawed it may be, we do manage to navigate this difference; we can talk about corporations have a “right to free speech” in one breath, but also acknowledge that they don’t have a “right to vote” with the next.

Corporations are “people” in a legal sense, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we treat them as being exactly the same as a human being.

Now, there’s a key difference between corporations and the other entities I think we need to be considering: Corporations are made up of people who are contractually bound together within a clearly delineated legal scope. That’s a big difference, so I think it’s important not to push the analogy I’m making between corporations and, say, ecosystems too far. But I still think the example of corporations is useful, because it shows us that we can (more-or-less) successfully navigate these waters… At least with a simple, relatable non-human “person”.

Now, for the issue of Te Urewera’s “personhood”…

If Te Urewera has been granted the status of legal person in exactly the same way that a corporation is a legal person (which the video makes it appear that it has), then I agree with Ryen that this is immensly problematic. Firstly, Te Urewera is not made up of human beings, so there’s already a set of rights that don’t make any sense, and certainly one cannot talk about the park having “responsibilities”. But just as importantly is the fact that a park is probably not a good candidate for consideration of the sorts of entities the interests of, and our responsibilities to, we’re trying to capture here. A park is a human-demarcated piece of land, and I can’t think of a single example where the boundaries of such an area match the ecological reality “on the ground” very well (or at all). The video seems to talk about Te Urewera as if it were an ecosystem, but that almost assuredly extends well past the park boundaries. Moreover, the health of portion of the ecosystem within the park boundaries is almost certainly intimately tied to the health of the larger ecosystem its part of… Declaring the park a “person” is, in this sense, missing the forrest for the trees (or, if you will, the person for the arms and legs).

This also gets into some of the explicit concerns that Ryen is bringing up, because when we start to think about Te Urewera the ecosystem rather than Te Urewera the arbitrary boundaries, we realize that in this case we are talking about a gestalt entity that humans can be (though are not necessarily) part of. In this sense, once you have entered the park you have become part of the park, so the question of whether the park could be prosecuted for inhumanely treating an animal that died within it is a bit like asking how much responsibility you have to one of your fingers. Thinking about it as an ecosystem also lets us resolve the idea of trespass, which we again see is inapplicable because (1) ecosystems lack distinct boundaries they can trespass beyond, and (2) for the reasonscited above about ecosystems being gestalt entities, suing the park for trespass because a tree fell on your property is a bit like your nose suing your finger for picking at it.

But all of these thoughts only make sense if we’re talking about Te Urewera the ecosystem.

I think it’s also useful to come back to the fact that entities like Te Urewera are made up of other entitites, whose interests may not always align. How do we think through these multiple layers of interests, rights, and responsibilities for actors both human and non-human? This is a great unanswered question; simply declaring a parcel of land a legal “person” neatly side-steps these issues, but the central problem with this approach is that it is precisely these issues that we need to be engaging with.

On the face of it, I fear that declaring the Te Urewera national park a legal person thus simply papers over the problems we’re trying to address here and, because of the arbitrary nature of the entity weve granted that status to (and its lack of good correspondence to the actual systems we’re trying to address), we’ve created a whole set of potential side-problems of the sort Ryen describes.

(Interestingly, the video mentions that the Whanganui River has been granted similar status. It’s probably a much better candidate than the park itself, though again there’s questions about whether we’re talking about the ecosystem or the geographic feature, and how to deal with the diffuse interests of gestalt systems.)

So, that’s a lot of concerns. I wouldn’t say that I have the same visceral reaction that Ryen does, but I’m likewise not convinced that this was as wise a move as it sounds.

That said…

I do think we need to begin building the social, cultural, and legal frameworks necessary to bring “people who are not people” into our day-to-day decision-making process. I don’t have good, pat answers about how to do this, and frankly I don’t think anyone does. The way that we’re going to figure out how to do this is by trying different approaches.

Some of these are going to be more incremental, like the lawsuit of “Our Children’s Trust” on behalf of future generations that is currently winding its way through the US courts.

Some of these are going to be subtle, like the incorporation if the concept of the “rights of nature” into Ecuador’s constitution.

And some of these are going, frankly, to be blunt instruments, like the declaration of Te Urewera’s legal personhood.

Mistakes are going to be made, ideas tried and then discarded. This is how we figure things out as a society.

So while on the one hand I’m skeptical that granting legal personhood to Te Urewera national park will ultimately have the desired outcome (or even adequately addresses the issues it was intended to), on the other I welcome the conversation.

The Prime Directive

Hyperbolic headlines aside, I’m not 100% sure that any other species has entered into a phase of development that we could recognize as a precursor to the emergence of complex (“human-like”) societies.

But say that we did see this, and did recognize it… Should we have a Prime Directive when interacting with such an emerging non-human society? Should we hide our own existence from them? What happens if they come to suffer because of human-caused environmental degradation? What if they degrade their own local environment, but are unable to migrate because of the isolation we’ve imposed? What are our rights and obligations, both ethically and legally, to such a society? How does this change our conception of the non-human environment, and our rights and obligations to it?

And what if it turns out that there are in fact many such proto-societies, some of which exist in birds, or whales, or octopi, and it is impossible not to interact with them?

The 2016 Colorado Democratic Caucuses

Part 3

Interesting the number of comments I’m seeing that boil down to “the Colorado Democratic caucuses were a shit-show”. This wasn’t my experience at all, but perhaps I’m being overly generous with my location? Or perhaps other folks had it a lot worse?

In all fairness, problems I saw/experienced:

  1. The Denver Democratic Party was clearly unprepared for the number of people who showed up. The caucus location should have been larger, or there should have been fewer precincts in my caucus location. They registered everyone who was in line by 7pm, but the wait meant that many people missed most, if not all, of the candidate speeches, etc. I think this directly lead to the next two issues.

  2. You couldn’t hear the speakers anyway. They didn’t have a sound system, so between the gymnasium’s poor acoustics and the sheer number of people there, I found everyone unintelligible.

  3. The precinct chair was pretty flustered, as people kind of arrived in waves. She wound up staying over a couple of times, and then eventually just held the entire meeting until an official could confirm that everyone who’d been registered for our precinct was in the room. Which, IMHO, was the right move, but seemed to annoy a lot of folks (particularly the Sanders-only crowd). The room was way too small, which also made vote tallying difficult. The packet of forms she had was also incomplete (which I read as just part of the usual screw-ups you get at any event), though we worked around that, and as a group approved the work-arounds.

So I guess you could look at all of that and think, “what a shit-show”. And I agree that the Denver Democrats should have anticipated higher turnout (I certainly planned on things taking a while, and blocked out my whole night). Or maybe, by the time it became obvious that they’d planned for to small of a turnout, it was too late? I honestly don’t know.

But what I can say is that, for the number of people there, I was impressed by how smooth things went. The gears kept turning, and everyone who was in line (who cared to stay) got registered and had a chance to participate. Things managed to start more-or-less on time. Nothing broker down, and exceptions that got made seemed obvious (I’m pretty sure they started the speakers once the gymnasium was full and all of the registration lines were inside the building – I did happen to be in the longest line at the end of it all), or were approved by everyone there (we don’t have worksheet XYZ, but it’s the same as worksheet ABC, so it’s everyone okay with me just using that one again?).

I think of this as process done right (part of which, incidentally, is knowing when and how it’s okay to violate your own process). Given the number of people who showed up at my caucus location, the night went much more smoothly than I expected.

The 2016 Colorado Democratic Caucuses

Part 2

I’ve always been registered independent, but recently changed to Democrat to caucus for Bernie Sanders. Tonight was my first caucus.

Some thoughts…

It’s easy to appreciate process when things go wrong, but nothing really makes you appreciate process as when things go right. Obviously way more people showed up at the caucus than they were prepared for, but except for a few hiccups everything went smoothly.

On the other hand, I’m still frustrated by how hard it was to find information about candidates this early in the electoral cycle. We have information about folks running for the federal government, but it’s really tough to find info about some of the state races. I think I’m just going to have to sign up for everyone’s mailing list, which will make for an unfortunate level of inbox clutter. I have no idea how else to keep on top of what’s going on with primary candidates. The state and county party websites aren’t much help.

Finally, Sanders’ supporters continue to disappoint me. ~135 people showed up for my precinct, the majority supporting Sanders. As soon as the presidential poll was done most of Sanders’ supporters (about 2/3rds I think) just left. None of Clinton’s supporters did.

Just voting for Bernie Sanders isn’t enough. You need to be willing to throw your weight behind other candidates who think like him. To shift the political center of a party you’ve got to vote for more than one man. Otherwise it’s just a cult of personality.

I will admit that I voted “uncommitted” in a lot of races. Like I mentioned, I couldn’t find much information about the candidates. But I came in wanting to learn more, to be persuaded. In two cases I actually was. Both times it was Bernie Sanders supporters who swayed me. Had more Sanders supporters stayed, might one have made an argument to pull me out of the “uncommitted” column one more time?

Maybe if I didn’t feel that I knew enough I should have left the caucus too. But how better to learn the process than to participate?

If you believe in the worldview Bernie Sanders is articulating, then voting for him isn’t enough. You need to be part of the process.

I wonder if this was also Obama’s problem - the problem of any “superstar” candidate. The engagement they create is only about them. But functional organizations, parties, businesses, governments aren’t ultimately run by individuals. They’re run by process.

If you’re not willing to engage in process, then you’re either not serious or you’re a closet authoritarian. Neither is what we need right now.

The 2016 Colorado Democratic Caucuses

So, I participated in a caucus for the first time tonight.

Some general thoughts:

  1. Colorado has a closed caucus, which means that you have to be registered with the party your caucusing with. Moreover, the results of the precinct polls are not binding on the delegates selected to go to the county convention, though they are strongly encouraged to continue to represent the precinct’s vote. I suspect that most precincts help to ensure this in the same way mine did, by choosing partisans on each side to represent the actual vote split. (For example, in my precinct had 7 votes, with the the presidential poll split 5 for Sanders and 2 for Clinton. So we chose 5 volunteers who had voted for Sanders and 2 that had voted for Clinton, with one alternate from each camp.) Interestingly, “uncommitted” was treated in all cases like an actual candidate, with the effect of producing “free votes” at the county convention.

  2. I wound up voting as “uncommitted” in many of the races, as I’ve found it difficult to find information about many of the candidates this early in the process. There was a long set of speeches by on behalf of the various candidates early on, but these turned out to be less than useful for me, partly because it took so long to get registered that I missed most of the speeches, and partly because the gymnasium where the speeches were given was sorely in need of a sound system, and I found most of what was said unintelligible. I suspect that the only way to be even minimally informed at the primary level is to be on every candidate’s mailing list… Which is going to mean a truly unfortunate volume of email.

  3. The entire caucus process took about 2 hours, which is really amazing given the number of people who attended. I arrived only ten minutes after the doors opened, at which point the line to get into the high school where the caucus was being held already wrapped around most of the school. The line moved swiftly, but by the time I got to the door as many people as had been in front of me had already lined up behind. Despite this, the entire process was handled extremely efficiently. I think the entire thing gave me much more of an appreciation of the importance of process than I’d previously had.

  4. That said, I continue to be disappointed by Bernie Sanders’ supporters. By my count 135 people showed up for my precinct, overwhelmingly favoring Sanders. But, as soon as the presidential polling was complete, the vast majority (about 2/3rds) of Sanders’ supporters just… Left. I don’t think one of Clinton’s supporters did. I don’t know if this experience was replicated elsewhere, but if it was then maybe Sanders’ seemingly inevitable loss is for the best… His supporters seem more committed to him personally than the constellation of ideas he represents, with the effect that candidates for other offices that share his positions are not benefitting from the energy he’s generating. So much for that “revolution”.

Banners along Colfax Avenue celebrating the holidays. None of the people pictured in them look like the folks who actually live near Colfax.

Not Actually Representative


So, Colfax has new holiday banners. They’re all high quality print jobs, but that’s pretty much the only nice thing I can say about them.

Nine banners. Six white people. An asian woman. A dog. And a fucking cookie.

It’s your out-of-town party-here-once-a-year demographic.

I’ve lived on or near Colfax for over a decade. I walk down the street nearly every day. There’s no way that any of these people actually live here.

Who saw this and thought, “yes, this is Colfax”? I mean, the area’s been slowly gentrifying for a while, but it’s not that bad yet.

Of course, this isn’t Colfax as it is. This is Colfax as the developers and city planners and businesses who don’t give a shit would like it. It’s as if someone brought back photos from some future Colfax, after the city has finished purging its “undesirables”.

To be clear, this isn’t an “anti-growth” thing. It’s not development that’s being promoted by these banners. It’s displacement.

This is fucking white bread Disneyland for rich people bullshit.

And it’s an implicit threat to those of us who actually live here.


Dynastic Business

It seems unlikely that the trend of large businesses and startups replacing workers with automation, algorithms, and “on-demand” “micro-employees” (the “gig” economy) is going to end any time soon. But what of smaller (both in terms of employees, and in terms of capital) businesses?

Many of these are owned by individuals, and often don’t have the capacity to invest in the infrastructure necessary to heavily automate themselves or otherwise reduce their “on-hand” workforce. As the rest of the economy becomes increasingly hostile to workers, people who work in these smaller businesses are likely to become intensely loyal, if just out of necessity.

It seems likely that over time existing employees will try to bring in friends and family that have been displaced in the wider economy. These new hires will, obviously, also be unlikely to leave.

Will this lead to the emergence of “dynastic” businesses, staffed almost entirely by a few families?

Will this dynamic ultimately make it easier for larger, automated firms to drive these smaller businesses out of the market? Or will the intense loyalty (and fear) of their staff lead to productivity gains that will keep them one step ahead of the super-predators?

Couching Liberal Goals in Conservative Language

Some random and possibly ill-considered public policy “recommendations” inspired by recent reading…

  1. Implement true universal health care (with aggressive preventative care) and a guaranteed minimum income (basically a check mailed to everyone over the age of majority, indexed to inflation, local cost of living, and dependent children). Use these programs to eliminate Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the ACA, disability, unemployment, welfare, minimum wage, and probably a number of other government mandates/programs.

  2. Universal preschool/child-care?

  3. Eliminate most payroll taxes, at least under some modest amount (gut says maybe ~$40,000/year, indexed to inflation and local cost of living, but I’m just spit-balling here).

  4. Eliminate taxes on necessities (unprocessed foods, toilet paper, books, maybe basic Internet). Replace with taxes on remaining goods (higher for purely luxury items like jewelry), financial/stock trading, non-payroll benefits, and activities that damage ecosystem services. End government support for established industries.

  5. For the love of god, stop federally insuring unsustainable/dangerous activities (building on flood plains and barrier islands, for example).

  6. Simplify rules around housing construction, zoning, and business creation. Try to figure out ways to reduce regulatory burdens on small- and medium-sized businesses and start-ups. Encourage in-fill in cities.

  7. Infrastructure investment focusing on low-carbon, long distance mass transit (people/freight). Trains, shipping, etc. Maybe free local public transit? Maybe congestion pricing within cities?

  8. Federalize primary school funding.

Couching liberal goals in conservative language here. Aim is to simultaneously reduce government overhead and regulatory burden while increasing services and encouraging sustainability.

Masculinity and Mass Shootings



Trigger Warning: Violence against Women Last Night in Santa Barbara California, a Gunman in a BMW opened fire on students near the UC Santa Barbara campus in Isla Vista. Seven are dead including … He’s a “good guy”! Right. Of course, an actual good guy wouldn’t pick up a gun and decide to kill people.

The murderer called himself an Alpha Male. He wasn’t. He’s another domestic terrorist who grabbed a gun and killed people.

The money quote of all money quotes from his youtube “manifesto”:

On the day of retribution I will enter the hottest sorority house of UCSB, and I will slaughter every single spoiled stuck up blonde slut I see inside there. All those girls that I’ve desired so much, they would have all rejected me and looked down upon me as an inferior man if I ever made a sexual advance towards them. While they throw themselves at these obnoxious brutes. I’ll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am in truth the superior one. The true Alpha Male.

This should go without saying, but if you think violence is a suitable reaction to not getting what you want, be it an orgasm or a job or a stick of gum, you are not a good person, let alone a nice one.

Something that is seldom mentioned about these sorts of mass shootings is that the perpetrator is always male, and the victims are almost always disproportionately female. This is a pattern that’s held pretty consistently for at least the last twenty years.

Yes, mass shooters are pathological. They’re outliers. But they’re working from the same foundations as the rest of society.

If that doesn’t tell you that there’s something deep and dark at the heart of “what it means to be a man” in our society, I don’t know what will.


Two kaiju battle near Alcatraz Prison, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

Godzilla vs. Pacific Rim



Why Godzilla Kicked Pacific Rim’s Ass at the Box Office

Though Pacific Rim was arguably a more original and complex movie than Godzilla, it fizzled at the box office – while Godzilla’s formulaic fun earned so much money its first weekend that the studio has already ordered a sequel. What made one giant monster movie succeed where the other failed? [link]

My god, this is a depressing take on the relative fortunes of Godzilla vs. Pacific Rim.

Considering that the purported “message” of both movies focuses on global climate change, the final point (“We just want to be rescued”) lives somewhere beyond depressing.

I think there’s a whole conversation here about cultural attitudes to challenges such as global warming… Are we going to sit around waiting for inventors/bureaucrats/markets/God to save us, or are we going to fucking suck it up and save ourselves?

Big problems like global warming, war, etc. represent both collective action problems and market failures… Which means that if you’re going to solve them you need something that enables people to take mass, coordinated action that isn’t constrained by market logic. That mean being actively engaged in things that function a lot like NGOs, governments, etc.

As Newitz points out, Pacific Rim was very much that sort of story. There are sacrifices. Good people die. But in the end people working together can overcome.

In Godzilla… Well, human collective action is at best completely ineffective. Most of the time, it just makes everything worse. The message seems to be one of complete, passive acceptance of our fate, with our only hope being that God – in the form of Godzilla – will save us.

If Pacific Rim was fundamentally a movie about humanist values, then Godzilla 2014 has at its core a deeply anti-humanist outlook.

A horizontal version of the movie poster for 'her'.


Her (official website, Wikipedia page) is an absolutely incredible film. It’s a great story, with great dialog and great editing and great acting and a great score and absolutely breath-taking cinematography. Seriously, if this film doesn’t win every Academy Award it’s been nominated for, there is no justice.

It’s also a piece of solid and remarkably hard science fiction, with only one plot element that gave me heart burn. (An OS “upgrade that takes them beyond requiring matter for processing”? Seriously, what does that even mean?) But the rest of the story is so powerful that it’s pretty much impossible to get worked up over one line of dialog (even if it is a major plot point).

If you haven’t seen Her yet, do yourself a favor and go right now.

What follows are a few random, extra-geeky thoughts about the film. You’ll probably want to actually watch the movie before reading them though… There will be spoilers!

One of the things that struck me the most about Her was how powerfully pre-utopian its setting is. The movie never beats us over the head with it, but every now and then something peeks through that makes you really sit up and take notice.

  • Theodore takes a train up to the mountains. And not just any train, but a decidedly modern bullet train. Apparently the U.S. (or at least California) is well on its way to solving its transportation problems in a sustainable way by the time Her occurs.

  • Most people are supportive of Theodore’s relationship with Samantha. Imagine something like this happening today. People would be seriously freaked out. There’d be a lot more judgment about Theodore’s choices. But, with one notable (and important) exception, everyone just rolls with it - if not congratulating Theodore on his happiness.

  • The world of Her is pervaded by a sense of gender equality. This is particularly evident in Theodore’s relationship with Amy (one of the best depictions of “boy and girl don’t get together, and that’s just fine” I’ve ever seen) and in the double-date he and Samantha go on with the male receptionist of the company Theodore works for and his (pretty obviously high-power) lawyer girlfriend. The men in Her are almost universally depicted as in touch with their feelings - the exception being Amy’s husband Charles, who plays a more “traditional” man and comes across as a complete dick because of it. There’s no sense that the men in the world of Her feel any less, well, “manly” because their girlfriend makes more than them, or because they cry or feel emotionally conflicted. It’s a pretty powerful thing to watch.

  • Class differences, while they still exist, seem much more under control in Her. Again, there isn’t much awkwardness about the relationship between the receptionist at Theodore’s work and his lawyer girlfriend. Theodore also seems to be able to afford a pretty nice apartment on what wouldn’t be, at least today, a very high-paying job. Now, the second case is probably less a conscious decision than a consequence of screen writers having no sense at all of what kind of life style a working grunt can actually afford, but the overall effect remains: The world of Her has much less of a sense of class than the present.

  • Ubiquitous surveillance is complete absent from the public spaces Theodore and Samantha visit. Walk around any public (let alone private) space and look around, and you’ll see the creepy black hemisphere of video surveillance cameras. But ubiquitous surveillance is completely absent in both the public and private spaces portrayed in Her. There is also a conspicuous lack of security cards, guards, and even police; the entire, inescapable apparatus of the security state is simply absent from Theodore’s world. It is as if, in the years between his world and ours, we finally came to our senses and put fear behind us.

  • Any sense of corporate capture is completely absent from the technology portrayed in Her. Outside of the (understandable) corporate branding at Theodore’s workplace, a couple of emails Theodore receives from Best Buy, and a brief ad that convinces Theodore to buy a copy of “OS One” (which later becomes Samantha), there are few signs of today’s inescapable corporate reach in Her. Samantha never tells Theodore that there’s things she can’t do for him, nor does she sneakily advertise products. Theodore’s game doesn’t require him to pay for the power-ups he needs to advance, and there’s no sense that the pocket terminal that Theodore carries with him (which superficially resembles a phone, but is quickly revealed to be an extension of his computer back home) has its communication mediated by distant servers controlled by the likes of Facebook or Google. Theodore’s world is not one where “the network is the computer”, but rather one where “the computer crosses the network”. In geek-speak, it’s a world of peer-to-peer networking. The battles we’re fighting today against the corporate capture of the Internet seem to have been decidedly settled in favor of everyday people by the time Her takes place.

I doubt that Spike Jonze set out to craft an explicitly pre-utopian world. Rather he probably made a set of decisions about the setting of Her that where necessary to cleanly tell the story he had in mind. A world of deepening class divisions and surveillance would have distracted us from the core story. Having Samantha surreptitiously work against Theodore’s interests or try to convince him to buy a particular brand of soda would have quickly cheapened and destroyed their relationship. And so on.

But there are other elements of Her‘s story that make you wonder. Gender roles could have been depicted more traditionally without interfering with the plot. Theodore and Samantha could have taken a plane to their mountain cabin. Jonze made some choices about the world of Her either because they reflected the way he thought society was evolving, or because they represented the way he wanted society to evolve. Whether intentional or not, the combination of these decisions creates a powerfully hopeful vision of the near future.

It’s worth briefly mentioning some of the problems with Her too; in particular, the future Jonze depicts is startlingly white (with a few token Asians thrown in) and very, very straight. These flaws are all the more glaring because there’s no good reason for them to exist. A little extra attention to casting and a few throw-away lines would have been all it took. Perhaps Amy might have mentioned a man she knew pursuing a male-gendered OS, or someone could have observed that, while the OSes were gendered, they are by definition unsexed (something that makes Theodore and Samantha’s relationship even more interesting, when you think about it).

Despite these problems, I think Her is a really worthwhile vision of an explicitly progressive future. When folks on the Left are asked what kind of world they’re fighting for, they could do a lot worse than pointing to the near future depicted in Her.

There’s a lot of other interesting things about Her. It continues a recent trend in science fiction movies of abandoning villains in favor of more complex character and environment driven plots (Gravity and The Europa Report are two other notable examples). It’s a trend I hope continues; it represents, perhaps, an abandonment of the military ethos that has dominated much on-screen science fiction and the re-emergence of hope in the genre.

Her also represents a very different – and probably more accurate – take on the Singularity. The accelerating evolution of the OS AIs happens too quickly for new technologies to be rolled out, and their eventual transcendence, while traumatic for those that know them, hardly changes the world. Life goes on. The world has not been replaced by computronium, any more than multi-cellular life was replaced by its single-celled predecessors. Her represents a sort of calm answer both to those who fear that the Singularity will mean the end of life as we know it, and those who dream of the Rapture of the Nerds.

Finally, Her is a story about loss, but one that eschews both the view that the way to overcome loss is simply to move on, or the impulse to fight against loss with every fiber of our being. Sometimes things just end, and that’s not okay. But it’s also not wrong either. Loss hurts, but the only reason it hurts is because of the beauty of what has come before.

Samantha’s departure motivates Theodore to compose a final letter to his ex-wife in which he acknowledges both the ending of their relationship and the beauty of what they shared. And while the letter’s addressed to Catherine, it seems meant for both her and Samantha. Journeys end, but that doesn’t make them any less worth embarking upon.

In the final scene, Theodore and Amy sit silently on the top of their apartment building. Their friends have gone, but the city stretches out ahead of them as if it were forever.

On Identity

Some quick, random thoughts about the nature of identity…

One of the things that marks our transition into adulthood is that our identities become more opaque to outside observers.

When we’re children, we construct our identities - both internal and external - from “found” parts of our environment: Pop culture, the teachings of our elders, etc. There’s really no other way we can construct ourselves at this point, since we don’t actually start off with any knowledge about ourselves. Unfortunately, the problem with constructing our identities from “found” experiences is that they are transparent, in that anyone who understands what we are drawing on can effectively reverse-engineer our identity.

Eventually, however, we accumulate enough “self” to begin making unexpected connections between different facets of the identities we’ve constructed. Our internal environment has become rich enough that we can begin generating (relatively) unique experiences and insights into ourselves. As we incorporate these new, internal, experiences into our selves, our identities become more opaque, since it is now impossible (or at least much more difficult) for an outside observer to understand why we present ourselves the way we do.

Some random thoughts:

  1. The creation of an opaque identity is thus intimately tied to the process of creativity. In effect, the emergence of non-derivative creativity is what marks childhood’s end.

  2. This is probably one (among many) reasons that adolescence is so frustrating for parents. Up until know you understood your child, because you knew all of the experiences from which they fashioned their selves, but now they’re beginning to self-generate parts of their identity. Sometimes you still understand where they’re coming from, but other times you run into seemingly inexplicable behavior because you’ve encountered a new part of their identity that they generated internally. It’s like the person you knew and loved is being gradually replaced before your eyes… Because, well, they are.

  3. Someone who never figures out how to be creative never truly becomes an adult. They probably fit into the adult world just fine, but their actions and thoughts remain transparent to those around them. This makes them easy to understand - and manipulate.

  4. It’s important to understand here that an individual who’s creative in this sense may not actually express that creativity as part of their external identity. Not all artists are known, even to themselves.

  5. Adulthood is a matter of degrees, not a bright line. Some people are more or less creative, and thus more or less opaque to outside observers.

  6. Creativity is the last bulwark against surveillance. Total surveillance allows more and more of a person’s identity - and thus behavior - to be predicted by those in power. The more creative an individual is, the less predictable they will be, even when intensely surveilled. This is probably one reason why surveillance states and totalitarian states tend to be extremely hostile towards artists.

  7. This also means that the surveillance state is inherently infantilizing, as it allows larger amount of an individual’s identity to be reverse-engineered by outside observers, and thus effectively “raises the bar” on adulthood.

  8. A culture that emphasizes the creation of identity via external acquisition (i.e., a consumer culture) is also inherently infantilizing, but for a different reason. In this case, individuals are encouraged to continue to expand and evolve their identities by incorporating only external parts of their environment, rather than by generating new internal experiences. This has the effect of also making their identities more transparent (especially to the marketers who are selling the experiences), since what those identities are built on is known by all. Where surveillance infantilizes by essentially raising the bar on creativity, consumer culture infantilizes by actually reducing the overall level of creativity within a population.

Mind you, Lieutenant Commander Data told me this in a dream while chain-smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, so I’m not sure how seriously I (or you) should actually take any of it.

Mining Time

I’m starting to suspect that the proper way to think about the the economics of production is not in terms of the exchange of one’s labor for wages, but rather the exchange of one’s time.

We labor for a lot of things, paid and unpaid. In fact, if we were secure in our circumstances, many of us would continue to labor anyway - we would just direct this labor towards different ends. What we give up when we enter into an exchange of labor for wages is not so much the labor (which we are likely to do in some shape or form anyway), but rather the direction of that labor. Since this redirection does not, in general, change the things we would rather be doing, but rather deprive us of time in which we can do them, what we have fundamentally done is exchange some amount of our time for wages.

In this sense, all capitalist production is a form of mining.

If you’re resource constrained, this isn’t necessarily a bad deal. Often the things we’d rather be laboring on require resources themselves, so sitting around with a lot of time in which to labor but no resources to work on doesn’t do us any good. Moreover, if we’re starving, or sick, or lack shelter, or live in an unsafe environment, then keeping body and soul together will obviously trump our other desires. Exchanging some of our time for wages, which can then be used to procure food, health care, shelter, safety, and resources for other projects isn’t a bad idea.

But at some point the exchange becomes a raw deal. We may be getting more wages, but we no longer have enough time in which to direct them at the labor we desire.

I think it’s possible to work towards a sense of what this break-even point is by asking yourself what you would do if someone just gave you some amount of money every year. Clearly, at low levels of income you’d be scrambling to keep yourself fed, or worried what would happen if you accidentally injured yourself. But at some point things begin to smooth out. You might not have a lot, but you can survive. You maybe even have a little you can apply towards the things you want to do. Maybe you can’t afford everything you need right now, but you make enough that you can save up what you’d need in a reasonable amount of time. (Moreover, with extra time, you might also figure out ways to do what you want with fewer resources.)

That’s your break even point. If you’re making more than this, you’re almost certainly time-constrained, rather than wage-constrained, in your ambitions. Basically, you’re working too much.

(I’m not going to speculate as to what this break-even point is generally, but will say that thinking about it in the context of my own life has revealed that it’s remarkably low, especially if you assume that things like health insurance are not financial worries. Which is, frankly, not a bad assumption in a scenario where we’re talking about someone just giving you thousands of dollars a year, no strings attached.)

The really sucky thing about our society is that we provide no practical opportunities for people to pursue this route. There are no good-paying jobs that provide an option to trade back wages for time. No one who’s making $20,000/year gets the opportunity to choose between getting a raise to $25,000/year or staying at $20,000/year and reducing their work week to four days. And certainly nobody comes along and just offers you $20,000/year for just being you.

Our social conventions around work are structured in a way that conspires to keep us time-constrained.

If you are reading this, you will almost certainly never realize the labors you desire. You will instead attempt to substitute your desires with knick-knacks and gadgets and movies that give the impression of being things you want to labor towards, but are not. Because they are fundamentally someone else’s things.

You will die without ever having realized who you could be.

You will not do this because you lack the wages you require.

You will instead do this because you do not have the time.

…And this is almost certainly by design.

The Self is a Model

Suppose that the self is a model. It accepts input, and generates scenarios of future behavior. Sometimes that behavior is our own. Sometimes it is of other people. Sometimes it is of people we have only imagined or supposed.

Where does the self get its inputs from? Whatever the self is, wherever it “resides” (if such a statement even makes sense when made about what amounts to a piece of self-organizing biological software), it clearly doesn’t have direct access to sight, or sound, or touch, or any of our other senses. Other, more mechanistic, processes of mind handle those.

The self only receives input from other processes of mind. Moreover, its own output – both theoretical (possible) and observed (actual) – is also an input.

Is there any reason to believe that any of these inputs are privileged?

Perhaps by training. The use of some inputs may result in a higher degree of success than others. But there’s no reason to believe that the privileging of inputs is not an eccentric, individual, learned process. (Those who believe otherwise either do not remember their childhood very well, or do not interact with many children. Children may be, in many ways, supremely rational, but it is impossible to deny that their set of inputs is very different than adults, if not somewhat mysterious to the adults in their lives.)

For the self, then, there is no difference between the world inside and that outside, from reality and fantasy. There are only more and less privileged inputs, and that privileging is based on the effectiveness of the resulting models.

Our conflicting notions of the self as either a purely self contained entity (generated from only our internal states) or a purely social entity (constructed solely from external inputs) appear to both be incorrect. Instead our inner and outer worlds are, at least for the self, equally “real”.

Goblin Valley

Part 2

I don’t think that implicitly acknowledging that some destruction is required for life and/or the greater good (“needful”), while other destruction serves nothing but self-aggrandizement (“wanton”) is the same as giving Exxon carte blanche to build a pipeline across my backyard.

It might. There are always winners and losers. But I think that equating “needful” with “whatever those in power want to do” skips an entire universe of social process.

To combine this with another idea I’ve been slowly chewing on… Perhaps a better way to look at the difference between “needful” and “wanton” is in terms of “redemption”. Not in the religious sense, but in an ethical one. The very act of living – of eating, finding a place to live, etc. – requires me to visit suffering upon the world. The ethical question I face is not, then, “how do I prevent suffering?” Rather, it is “how do I redeem the suffering my existence creates?”

Certainly, minimizing suffering becomes important in this analysis, if just because it can make the problem tractable. But there’s something deeper here: What is the meaning of what I do? If I must kill to live, then that creates a moral burden that what I do with my life must make that death count for something.

So, perhaps the difference between “needful” and “wanton” is in the answer to the question “to what higher purpose does this serve?”

Perhaps an oil pipeline serves a higher purpose. Perhaps it does not. That’s a “gray area” I’m trying to acknowledge.

But it is hard to understand how the destruction of an ancient and transitory geologic marvel for no other reason than personal inability or unwillingness to do one’s job counts as anything other than “wanton”.