Life in the Machine

Everything is temporary, and it’s easy to forget that. There’s something in us that drives us to seek stability, try to find something permanent and reliable, that can be there for us forever, and during this pursuit it becomes to forget for a while that there’s no such thing. This desire for permanence obscures – a blindfold may not be pragmatic headwear but at least you know what you’re going to be faced with when you open your eyes.

A few problems emerge from this craving for unshakable stability. From the artistic perspective, we often find ourselves worshiping the idea of timeless stories, of classics – we want to create something immortal, that people from any time and place can love and cherish, and this isn’t necessarily an ideal that makes a lot of sense. If we understand art as communication, then we ought to understand as well that all communication is contextual, and any art we create or appreciate will shift in meaning tremendously over centuries and decades – or even weeks and days. None of this is meant to be a sick burn on Shakespeare or anything, only to suggest that what we hear from his stories is probably quite distant from what he was originally intending to convey – mostly dick jokes, from what I can tell – and that, far from standing the test of time, the modern appreciation of his work emerges largely because we exert great effort to establish a historical artistic context within which it can be enjoyed.

But every preserved piece of art history like that, every frozen piece of context, is something to be learned, an additional cognitive burden, and we can only accept so many of these. Sometimes it’s worth it! It probably is for Shakespeare, even if noise gets introduced over time, like a game of telephone played across centuries. However, the art we’re willing to do this for is suspiciously bound to particular places, cultures, ethnicities, and continues to be so even as more and more modern works get accepted to that canon of literature, leading to an increasingly narrow space for other works to flourish.

All because we want to believe in the concept of immortal art.

We also want to believe in permanent solutions to problems. A permanent form of government. A permanent hierarchy of power and permanent structure for addressing grievances. How are we meant to build a static system for people, when people themselves change so quickly? So, then, we go for a sort of second-order permanence, a system that can incorporate changes into itself in a regulated way – but the bigger this system gets the more we want to believe in it, and the more we want to believe in it the less attention we pay to its workings. It changes over time, and if there’s no one watching to oversee those changes then many of them will be for the worse. That isn’t to say any existing government system was necessarily particularly just or equitable at its inception – only to say that faith in it being thus has always undermined attempts to make it more so.

While we may eventually become accustomed to our own mortality and fragility, many of us never become really accustomed to the mortality and fragility of the world we live in and will someday leave behind.

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I think words are important. This is, perhaps, an unusual trait – even many of those who make their living with words seemingly have little respect or affection for them. Often we treat words with contempt, as imperfect vessels for conveying ideas to one another – but they do much more than that. That very imperfection allows for ambiguity, complexity, and nuance which can make ideas much more complex and interconnected than they might at first appear.

The way I express this belief in conversation, though, often comes across as a young man’s game of trying to establish conversational dominance. I am constantly trying to drill down into the specific meanings of words, what they are intended to express, what they come to mean to those who read or hear them, how they fall short of or supersede their intended purpose. I ask these questions all the time of myself, but when I apply this perspective in conversation people often find it annoying – because when you ask these questions it sounds like you’re trying to catch people out, to pick a semantic argument, to show what a big smarty-pants you are. This is particularly frustrating because I used to be that smarty-pants, and have tried very hard to abandon those pants. However, because these questions of semantics and what they express are still ones I believe to be important and interesting, I find myself perceived by others as that regrettable past self again and again.

Why are these semantics important to me? The words we use provide a glance at our mental model of the world around us. By paying close attention to the words people use and how they use them, we can derive information about how they view the world – but, perhaps more importantly, we can turn this lens on ourselves, note the words that come out of our own mouths, and glean information about what we think, how we see things, what we believe, and how we’re primed to express those beliefs. The relationship between words and beliefs isn’t just one way, though, not simply belief springing forth from the lips in the shape of words – we can also choose to think about the words we use, think about what they mean and why we use them, and by changing the way we speak we can affect change on those internal models.

In other words, if we change the way we talk and write, we also change the way we think. We’re all telling stories about our lives, so we have to take editorial control, to take care in how those stories are expressed. Or, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

This is formative of my sense of humor. I love double meanings, creative reinterpretations, extended byzantine analogies, and making up absurd descriptive neologisms. When you operate in the realm of ideas, these kinds of word play become very powerful, a way of fusing metaphors together into complex systems where everything is symbolically and meaningfully interconnected, where every observation can have many meanings and any one of them can be a powerful message. All of this may sound trivial or twee, but many of these tools of colloquial confluence and ambiguity can also be used in far less humorous ways: Dogwhistles, veiled threats, and plausibly deniable racism.

The reason that people can get away with these violent forms of ‘word-play’ is because we don’t take words seriously. To believe that words are important is to also believe that they can be dangerous. Incitements, slurs, dehumanizing language, these can hide anywhere – and, though many recent examples are anything but subtle, what has allowed the huge and obvious versions of these violent words to flourish today is the absence of scrutiny applied to the nicely-phrased and polite forms of bigotry which we customarily embrace.

Words have power, and can do great harm if we don’t respect them. If one dwells on this too much, it could lead one to never speak at all. This is something I struggle with. Starting this blog was a big step for me in becoming confident in my words and their meaning and relevance – but continuing it has been a weekly struggle in convincing myself that what I’m saying is non-obvious and also non-gibberish, that we wouldn’t all be better off if I just kept it to myself, and that whatever half-ignorant thing I say this time (because I believe even the best of us seldom manage better than half-ignorance) won’t do more harm than good.

It’s a leap of faith.

Every time I try to say something new, though, I feel like I must leap further, and it becomes harder to express the idea I’m holding in my mind. I already feel as though many of these posts must border on nonsense to many readers, that only a few people see the world similarly enough to the way I do that these descriptions and analogies make sense. I worry that I’m writing in another language that only I speak. Even voicing this concern sounds self-aggrandizing, as though I must believe I’m such a unique and extraordinary thinker that no one really ‘gets’ me – but I’m just worried I spend so much time in my own head that I may forget how to actually communicate with another human being.

I guess everyone writes in their own language, though, and everything we read is just a translation. Sometimes the idea carries across. Sometimes it does not. This is why I take care to pick the most precise and descriptive words that I can, to carve out as much precision as I can manage. Without that precision, whatever you read, it won’t be what I meant to write, only what you’re expecting to see.

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Big things are happening. The sheer cruelty of the systems that drive the world have been laid bare, and right now people are trying to see if they’re going to find a way to somehow sweep the blood under the rug again.

I’m thinking about cop games and other media, which tend to disturb me not so much for how they portray police – though these portrayals are often misleading – but for how they portray ‘criminals’, as a discrete class of human being who is inherently dangerous and who needs to be addressed by violent means that belong to police alone. This ‘criminal’, a person who is solely predator and never prey, solely acting and never acted upon, existing only to satiate unknowable personal greeds and lusts, for the most part simply doesn’t exist. However, most police media requires his presence, so despite Crime Man’s scarcity in the real world he is ubiquitous in media.

I suspect many of you do not believe me. We all hear about terrible crimes, and I need not go into the grisly and horrible particulars of these, and wonder “what sort of person would do these things” – and the specter of Crime Man pops into your mind. Though these crimes may seem inexplicable violations of social norms and common decency, most of them manifest within some degree of social sanction. We have cultural narratives for violence against women, against children, we have cultural narratives for the importance of money above all else, we have cultural narratives of hate and racial supremacy, and every day we’re actors looking for roles, and every day there’s a casting call.

This might sound like it seeks to justify the horrible actions that people take. There’s a difference between explaining and justifying. What I want to explain is that no action comes from nowhere. Every action emerges from the roles people expect themselves to play in society. So we end up with a few people who, due to whatever their circumstances are, take on the role of Crime Man, because Crime Man is such a potent cultural archetype. We view these criminal acts as transgressions against law and against society – but, most of the time, they are calculated choices for either personal or cultural survival, and are made within the context of societal narratives.

However, as long as we believe in Crime Man, we must also believe in Police Man as the solution to Crime Man.

This is the core problem with police media, even beyond the naively benign portrayal of the police themselves. The characters who the cops pursue and punish are criminals, with any other characteristics being secondary to that, and their very existence justifies the core concept of what the police are and do. As long as this is the extent of how we understand crime, the underlying structure cannot be fixed.

The past is a dead end.

In 1975 the movie Jaws was released. It is now considered one of the greatest films ever made. On the off chance you don’t know about it, the premise is that a great white shark begins attacking and killing people at a resort town, and the heroes team up to hunt it down and kill it. Jaws was a critical and financial blockbuster. After its release, thousands of sharks were killed in shark-fishing tournaments, and relatively few people now are interested in the preservation of a species they now view as a movie monster.

This was one movie.

This is one data point.

Now, consider alongside this one data point all the movies, games, TV shows you’ve probably seen where the only black people on screen are servants or criminals. Consider alongside this one data point all the movies, games, TV shows where all police are heroes by definition, and are shown to always do collective good in their community, to be ready and waiting to prevent crime. Consider how your worldview has been manufactured, whether intentionally or by happenstance, and who it serves, who it protects, to frame things this way.

It is seldom considered controversial to suggest that Jaws has impacted the way we view and react to sharks. Suggesting the same when it comes to the way we regard human beings, though, tends to produce a lot of people saying that obviously they know the difference between fantasy and reality. Knowing the difference between real events and what is a fictional ones, though, is very different from knowing the difference between the world as we believe it ought to function and the world as it does function – and, while we may know that the events portrayed in art didn’t literally happen, that doesn’t mean that we believe they are implausible. What art does is shape what we view as rare or common, aberration or expectation – even as stories are made to highlight the extraordinary, they can only manage this by giving them a context of the ordinary, and by so doing they form subtle arguments about what our world is and how it behaves.

We are particularly vulnerable to stories about our glorious past, whether these stories are nostalgic throwbacks or are classics of the era. We pretend that every ugly problem we face now is new, even as they lurked just out of frame in every shot of our glory days. Nostalgia is doing us dirty. Things seemed to be better in the past, but that was only because we have always prioritized short term gains over long-term consequence, and over time the cracks just get bigger. If you want a return to normalcy, remember that normalcy was the state that brought us here. If you want people to stop causing problems, remember that each problem is the consequence of a preceding state, that some problems only exist to prompt solutions.

The dysfunction is growing. The system works for the benefit of fewer and fewer people, and it feeds back in on itself, growing stronger and more monstrous over time. Minor reforms are like trying to push the river away with a paddle. Only fundamentally rebuilding these murderous structures can save us now.

The past is a dead end.

If you’re looking to make a positive difference, consider being active in anti-racist and anti-capitalist community organizing and/or donating to bail funds or one of many mutual aid funds.

I’ve spent the last month, plus a week or so more, working on this illustration. This was not the original plan. I had, at first, wanted to have this done in perhaps a few days. Then, when I realized the scope was a bit wider than I’d thought, maybe a week or two. In the end, it took a bit more than a month – or more than a bit more, close to a month and a half. In a certain sense, this is exactly the sort of thing I wanted to spend my time on – the sort of work that is part of the greater whole of the game, but is also a piece of art which I can be proud of in its own right. That’s the dream!

Well, yes and no. I am pleased with how this turned out, and I don’t really regret the time I spent on it – but I do think that focusing on just getting this one thing done turned into an unnecessary (and unnecessarily frustrating) bottleneck. This was a great opportunity to observe a dynamic which has prevented me from making nearly as much progress as I would like on my projects over the last few years: I pick out a task that needs to be done, and some aspect of that task is difficult to figure out how to approach. The first days are largely spent just thinking about it, and with all this thinking the scope of the task just starts seeming bigger and bigger until it’s even more overwhelming. Eventually I decide I have to start working on it, and I pick away around the edges – but it’s so much, so big and complicated with so many pieces I have to keep track of, that I tend to go very slowly, only working maybe an hour a day on it if I can even manage that, and the combination of the size of the task and the lack of focused effort makes progress seem even slower and more discouraging.

Even as I break the project down into smaller components to make it possible to approach without dying of anxiety, sometimes those components need to be broken down into components. With this particular illustration, there was far more necessary detail than I’m used to doing in my art: I don’t draw a lot of buildings, especially complex buildings, and genius that I am I decided that what this already very complex building needed was to have a wing full of broken birdcages, probably one of the most intricate details I could have chosen to add. Also, how do you even handle shading on cages in this art style? The lines are so thick relative to the detail that just modifying the color won’t make any visible change!

Well, as you can see by looking at the finished picture, I figured that out (note: I wrote these words before I figured that out, so hopefully the preceding sentence is correct). By themselves, decisions like these are no big deal – we make tiny creative and logistical choices all the time, and the burden isn’t usually too strenuous. Where it gets tough for me, though, is when I have a lot of interconnected choices to make, or problems to figure out, that all need to be addressed before I can meaningfully move on. That’s what made this illustration so difficult.

However, the blockage isn’t just about the difficulty of the task, but my tendency to fixate on just one tricky task and then get frustrated when it doesn’t go well. There’s no way to completely get around this simply being a complex and challenging piece of art to create – but that doesn’t innately mean that it had to grind production to a halt. There’s still some programming tasks I could do, lots of animation, some game design and music writing – lots of other important jobs I could have tackled to work off steam while I continued to work on this. I think the main reason why that doesn’t happen, though, is because in some ways I fundamentally distrust myself. I worry that if I stop working on this problem for a bit I’ll stop working on it indefinitely, and I worry that I’ll forget what I wanted and why I wanted it, that I’ll have permanently lost something, permanently made my project worse, by stepping away for a moment.

I don’t know whether I’m wrong to feel this way.

Anyway. This illustration is done now (or it better be, by the time this goes up). There are a few more to be done, but they’re all either based on this one and can be quickly made using it as basis or are relatively simple and already sketched out – these, I hope, will be a bit more amenable to scheduling. Other than that, the tasks to be done are the same as they were when I posted last month’s devblog. Hopefully next time I will have more (and more interesting) progress to report.

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Cynicism is like cholesterol; there’s a good kind and a bad kind. I used to dislike cynicism categorically, but over time I’ve come to recognize that we call at least two diametrically opposed concepts by the same name. This sort of rhetorical sleight of hand is very useful for discrediting arguments and attitudes which otherwise might be inconvenient, so it is unsurprising to see it popularized. I try to untangle these semantic knots when I find them.

The cynical approach which I still dislike is that which automatically leaps to suspect the motives of any kind or altruistic action, which suspects every person and action of an ulterior motive. This, I would still contend, is no more innately enlightened than the sweet naiveté of never suspecting ulterior motives, and is far more socially harmful. This was usually the sort of behavior I was thinking of when I’ve decried the cynical approach in the past.

However, there’s another perspective, which is often called cynicism as well, which distrusts institutions and their end results – and consequently also distrusts members of those institutions. Even that’s not quite accurate though, because I actually have great faith in institutions – faith that they will continue as they began, will carry forward those principles which established them, will maintain themselves and will reinforce themselves, and that whichever individuals act within those systems usually end up having a very limited capability to change them in any meaningful way once they are established.

This is not so much a lack of trust as it is a surfeit – I trust things to continue to be what they are. This is not to be confused with what they say they are, which is often something else entirely. I suppose this also touches on the semantic knot of the many things we mean when we speak of ‘trust’ – whether we trust in motive or trust in capability implies vastly different things about the entity we are trusting.

Neither of these perspectives – distrusting humanity or distrusting authority and institutions – bear much resemblance to the original philosophy of cynicism. It is worth mentioning, though, that since the tenets of this philosophy included a rejection of societal value systems in favor of living a life closer to the necessities of human nature, the latter is certainly the more similar to the origins of the term.

Nevertheless, not only are these perspectives, both called cynical, intrinsically different from one another, they are even intrinsically opposed. Maintaining a belief in well-meaning and functional institutions requires suspicion and contempt for the motives of people to explain away the failures of those institutions – layabouts, fraudsters, welfare queens and so forth. Meanwhile, maintaining faith in human nature requires a belief that they are often pushed to behave against their own best interests and those of the society they live in for structural reasons. A relentless faith on the goodness of country tends to produce a contempt for the humans that fail to abide by their strictures – a relentless faith in humanity tends to produce a contempt of the institutions that fail them. Obviously neither of these perspectives are completely accurate in and of themselves, they both produce a myopic lens – for, of course, humanity influences and is influenced by institution, and either may be swayed by the other.

The actual motives that humans hold are seldom either entirely altruistic or entirely selfish, and while they are largely shaped by the institutions they grew up in they are also influenced by the behaviors of other people and circumstances surrounding them. These motives usually derive from some principle of behavior, often a very simple one, that has been instilled in them. For instance, Donald Trump has learned that taking makes you strong, and the strongest is the one who takes the most, and that if you let anyone else take more than you then that makes you look bad. This is the result of a rather dimwitted but accurate reading of the mores of capitalism, and while it is clearly idiotic it is still internally consistent and functional, and you can generally expect him to abide by these principles. Others abide with other principles – generosity, patriotism, hard work, and when in doubt will usually abide by whatever these are without hesitation – though, just as with the aims of institutions, it’s worth noting that our principles are, when put into action, often not what we believe them to be. Usually unless we put serious effort into examining these principles, their implications, and what they mean we seldom even understand them, much less have the opportunity to change them.

Most of us don’t put any real thought into what we believe past a certain point in our lives, for the simple reason that we seldom have time and energy to do so.

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There’s no such thing as a line.

Lines are wholly conceptual. They are a thing that we perceive rather than a thing that exists. The lines that we see emerge wherever we perceive a division between one thing and another thing. When we see a yellow banana resting on a red tablecloth, we don’t see lines visually separating the two, but we conceptually understand they must be there. And, when we see a long thin black rectangle, we consider it to signify such a boundary – not so much to be a line itself as to be a marker which shows us where the line must lie.

And yet we can perceive a collection of lines as depicting something real, and this is fascinating to me. Lines become another language, where we encode what we have seen into a linear depiction of its bounds and the observer interprets back from that outline into a visual image – or, more likely they interpret it directly into a symbolic model without wholly parsing it as a true image. This is seemingly a language that does not have to be taught – or perhaps it is taught stealthily in the background, unrecognized as universal language, through the process of learning other forms of expression.

On at least a cursory search, I cannot find any information about when a human comes to be capable of interpreting a set of lines signifying the boundaries of an object as a representation of that object. I also cannot find whether any other animals are capable of doing so. Maybe I just don’t know where to look, but this seems like an oddly fundamental question to have seemingly no available answers to or information on. Everyone seems to assume that lines just make sense, and that everyone can understand what object those lines are meant to represent – even as certain optical illusions, such as the Impossible Trident, reveal that interpreting lines as visual representations can often be deceitful or nonsensical.

The steps of encoding and decoding images to and from lines is one that is seldom actually regarded as a discrete act of interpretation. Though, when we study drawing, we often discuss learning to see things as they are and not how we imagine them to be, it is quite rare to acknowledge that lines themselves are clearly incapable of directly reproducing that visual information, and that it’s only through an act of learned interpretation that we’re capable of making them do so. This cognitive leap may seem so obvious to many students of art that they never have to explicitly learn it (or explicitly notice that they’ve learned it, anyway): However, I personally am bad at lines, and have had to learn to improve at that skill specifically, and that has forced me to observe the process of interpreting line into shape into line, line into shape, very explicitly.

Broadly speaking there are two approaches to creating art: Blobs of color and value which reproduce the asymbolic image the eye perceives, and lines which reproduce the image through a symbolic representation of the represented objects’ boundaries. I tend to be better at the former approach, creating blobs and shaping and shading them until they approximate something I’d actually see, than in placing lines to create the bounds of what I want to portray. These aptitudes may have something to do with my nearsightedness. They may also have something to do with my tendency to see things as fundamentally unified and undifferentiated, as all part of the same greater structure. They may also have something to do with my fascination with continuity and continuum, and questioning of where the bounds actually lie between a thing we can generally agree is good and a thing we can generally agree is bad, where and how it flips over.

Sometimes our outlook is motivated by our abilities. Sometimes metaphor doesn’t have to reach very far. It turns out that some people are just better at seeing lines.

Some people, as well, are better at drawing them. Because the process of interpreting line as image is invisible to us, we will interpret any lines that are drawn without questioning whether there might, perhaps, be an alternate interpretation, an alternate set of lines, that would make just as much sense or more. If lines can contextualize a sea of difficult-to-interpret blobs of color and value into a picture that makes sense, we tend to believe that picture – even if one or two lines are out of place, that’s fine, we can still see it. Perhaps that’s what the role of the artist is: To take a sea of undifferentiated data, a mess of events and places and people and things, and to draw lines deciding where the boundaries lie and what they mean.

What a terrifying responsibility to bear.

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There’s always a gap between the world we perceive and the world as it is, and we’ll never be able to measure how wide it is. There’s a distance between the person we know and our knowledge of the person, and we’ll never be able to measure how far it is. The things that we love are loved in effigy. Memory is not lossless. We encode our past and present into mental symbols, both to store them as approximations and to extrapolate possible futures – similar to the process of breaking a physics problem down into mathematical symbols, for convenient representation and extrapolation of outcome.

There are two possibilities for love. That which you love is real, and is thus flawed in comparison to your symbolic conception of it, or that which you love is not real and you will always be left longing for tangibility. Self-love is difficult under these circumstances. You will never quite be the personality you imagine yourself to possess. You will always be, in your own eyes, a little out of focus, a double vision, a vision of who you think you are superimposed on the moment to moment image of what you are doing, and they just never quite line up, no matter how you try. Sometimes we try to demean and degrade this self-image in an attempt make it an easier role to play, but that doesn’t actually work – because that’s still just a persona, not a person, and you will never quite be able to match its step.

The mind is a terrible place to live, messy and disordered, with secret passages leading arbitrarily from one room to the next. Everything is confused, our files are mixed up, and sometimes when we try to pull the file on a year we find instead the smell of a flower that was in bloom, or we try to remember a name and get a joke instead. This is very frustrating. It can be tragic. It can be lethal. But this disorganization, this sloppy symbolic representation and filing system, is also a superpower.

We think in metaphor. Mostly we just use this to make dick jokes, but once in a while we use it to understand things, to convey things, we have dreams of spiral staircases and wake up with theories of double helix DNA, or tell stories of men who turn into bugs to convey the crushing indignities of modern life.

That’s why we love art. For a moment, we can pretend that a world can be perfectly represented, that what we see is what is actually there. It is a dangerous delusion to indulge in, but there are days in which and ways in which only the artifice can reveal the structure of the real.

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Game design is the art of building systems to generate an expressive and aesthetically interesting output. Challenge is often implied, but isn’t a necessary trait of these systems – usually challenge is the product of stated or implied rules of engagement with the systems, with the punishments it imposes policing the boundaries of proper play. However, when you build any complex system with a human participant, the outcomes aren’t necessarily predictable – rules and punishments, boundaries and rewards which seemed on paper to produce the desired result could end up producing different results altogether. Sometimes these results are fun, are interesting and resonant with the designers intent – and sometimes they aren’t.

Thus, as a game designer, we have to approach problems with an eye towards how they will interact with natural human impulses and what outcomes may emerge from the incentive structures we place. It may seem that the last few essays I’ve posted here, structure and systemic criticisms of the world we live in, are rather far afield from the normal stated goal of Problem Machine: That of understanding art (especially the art of game design), its processes, and how the process and impact of art crosses over into our lives and shapes them. I don’t see these critiques as separable from my normal writing: If you bring analytical tools to bear on your art, it’s hard not to use them elsewhere in the world. I see systems at play, I see their degenerate outcomes, how those outcomes emerge naturally from the ink of the rules and the meat and bone of the adherents to those rules – and sometimes it’s easy to forget that not everyone else sees these things, or at least sees them the way I do, and that others may find utility in this perspective. I find it useful to write out these thoughts both to formalize them for myself and to share this conceptualization of the otherwise extremely abstract problems we face.

The first thing that must be understood to understand the systems we live in is the idea of feedback. In game design we usually avoid positive feedback loops. The people who participate in our legal and economic systems are those who were born into them and raised with their value set, and as they gain influence the same factors that emerged from the system to shape those people flow back into the system to shape how it functions. If we’re raised to believe that wealth is merit and admirable in its own right, those raised that way will work to knock down any barriers to the acquisition of wealth that exist in the system, treating those barriers as a fundamental evil, a violation of the tenets they were raised on. Over time, we optimize – which is a wonderful tendency when what we are optimizing is made to meet the needs of our fellows and help them through life, but monstrous when it is made to crush them and extract capital from their bodies. So over time we cut into the world the same way that rivers cut into mountains, bit by bit, trying to find the shortest paths dictated by our personal gravity.

The second thing that must be understood is that this may or may not have anything to do with the original intent of the designers of the system. Sometimes the results that emerge once the feedback loop is firmly in place has no resemblance to what was once intended, and thus saying that a system has become degenerate is not necessarily a slight upon its originators – though it may be.

When you try to describe these outcomes and the intent behind them, though, it often sounds paranoid. When you speak of ‘intent’ others tend to hear conspiracy – however, the situation is not so much that a few people have captured and control the system through underhanded means but that the system itself is set up to produce people who have broadly shared intent and priorities, and that their aggregate behavior tends to push the system further in those directions. This same struggle emerges whether you’re talking about the hostile forces of wealth or of patriarchy or of racism (inasmuch as those are separable) – People hear these descriptive terms and assume they must be describing some sort of shadowy cabal rather than an outlook, a belief, a set of behaviors, all which work together and reinforce themselves to create a hostile society. The only way to change the long term outcome of systems like these without destroying them outright (a rather traumatic process) is to divert the flow, to redefine the collective outlook, to, as they say, change the conversation – but this is difficult when everyone already bought into the system is motivated to maintain the status quo they were brought up in.

Just because the system is intentional, predictable, and produces output, though, doesn’t mean that it makes sense. We have favored systems which provide short-term profit at long-term costs to ourselves and the environment we live in (thus also to ourselves). Everybody accepts that that’s true to some extent – rather than even arguing against the external havoc wreaked by unrestrained industrialization and exploitation, it’s more frequently argued that taking care of our environment (which we, again, rely on for living) is unnecessary, or that the environment is somehow so resilient we couldn’t possibly change it in any way. Yet, even in light of this evidence, we still try to convince ourselves that this system is not dysfunctional, merely being lead astray by bad actors, and that if we remove them we can just go back to normal.

There is no normal to go back to. Normal was built on an ice cube that has melted. We’re running out of time to build something that lasts – we’re losing leverage to maintain a livable world. The status quo has enough adherents that it’s an uphill struggle. It’s a matter of survival to dismantle and reroute the current structure of power – the only question that ought to remain is how.

A lot of people perceive these problems on some level, but if one doesn’t have a systemic perspective the conclusions one often jumps to tend to be… problematic. When the world is supposed to work a certain way, and it clearly isn’t functioning, it’s natural to try to look for obvious culprits – and, if you’re not seeing the problem as systemic, that culprit is probably going to be an individual or narrow group that is largely unrelated to the problem itself. Thus we see, in times of trouble, a proliferation of usually racist conspiracy theories, a vapid desire to blame everything on the Jews or the Chinese or the Russians or whoever, when the problem is so much more insidious and so wide-spread and obvious it becomes invisible to us like the air we breathe.

This is also why I’ve been writing a lot about the role of games themselves in perpetuating this system and its ideals. Everything is, in fact, connected – not in some grandiose mystical way, but in the merest terms of the stories we tell ourselves every day to make sense of the world.

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This is the story of power.

In the beginning, there is the community. At first there’s no real differentiation between members, each doing whatever work seems to need to be done as it occurs to them to do it. One of the simplest and most universal joys of being a person is in being helpful, being useful to fellow people, to the community. As time passes people gravitate towards the kind of work they like the most and have the most personal aptitude for – in most cases, these two things, aptitude and enthusiasm, are the same. Eventually, someone needs to take on the job of figuring out what job everyone ought to be doing, of allocating labor effectively, and the community has its first leader.

The first leader has, like everyone else, taken on the job due to aptitude and interest in the work. However, being a leader offers a kind of de facto power, since everyone is doing what you tell them to do. Now, they’re doing that because that’s in their best interest, because it’s your job to make it in their interest, but it’s still power. Inevitably, there will be people that envy that power over others – so, over time, the position of leadership will attract those who are interested in the position rather than the work.

Power is appealing to us not in spite of our love of the community, but because of it. We all have this desire to be useful to the community, and when this desire is unchecked, it grows into something else: The need to be useful becomes the need to be indispensable, then the need to be central, integral, synecdochal, the point at the center that becomes representative of and that is inseparable from the whole. Power acts like a cancer in the community, the cells performing their functions too well and in a misguided way, and leading the whole towards destruction.

Nevertheless the second leader, even if they’re motivated by lust for power, will probably still largely model themselves after the first leader – while they want the power, they recognize it comes with a job and will perform the job. With each successor to leadership, though, the understanding of the job drifts further and further away from actual interest in the work of leading, and closer to sole interest in having the power of leadership.

This is the fundamental flaw of community, and has plagued us for the lifespan of our species. Those who seek power tend to find it, even when the desire for power for its own ends ought to be disqualifying in its own right. This isn’t necessarily a human flaw, one mired in our limitations as a species, but a flaw emerging from the organizational systems of having a society. Animals, aliens, artificial intelligences, any group of individuals who build towards community would eventually have to contend with this problem.

The process of power supplanting leadership takes a long while in terms of a human life-time, but relative to the span of history is almost instantaneous – that is to say, while this is a form of corruption and will eventually lead to the downfall of whatever community or society it happens in, it’s really just a precursor for the actual problems. After those who seek power find it, they seek to monopolize it – power is only powerful, after all, to the extent which it is uncontested. Those who are most motivated by power seek to undermine all competitors, but particularly will set out to destroy those who are motivated by communal good – because being motivated by things besides pure power is very confusing and threatening to them.

They say that power corrupts: Myself, I am of the opinion that corruption seeks power. Or perhaps it’s that power corrupts, not in the sense of an individual being corrupted by the power they have acquired, but that society is corrupted by the existence of a power structure.

Once power is consolidated under those who seek it, they then seek to exercise it. What’s the point of having power if you can’t demonstrate it? How would you even know you had it? This is why ostentatious displays of wealth that serve no practical purpose, why needlessly tormenting your subordinates, why working to deprive society of generalized good are all historically popular pursuits of the powerful – because you can only see that you’re a have if you have a crowd of have-nots to contrast yourself against. If you want to accumulate power, everything is relative: Sometimes it’s easier to dig away the ground than to build a taller tower, sometimes it’s easier to hurt everyone else than to heal yourself.

When you have this much power it’s easy to define the lens through which people understand the world. Moral good is defined by those traits which the elite readily possess: Royal heritage becomes “divinely ordained”, massive wealth and income become the “merit” in meritocracy, exclusive social networks become “highly educated” – The King, The Church, The Party, The Rich, these all become entrenched with different forms of moral justification for their vaunted place in society. The powerful are not just in the position to control your life through greed and happenstance, but, seen through this lens, their position atop the heap of screaming bodies is the ultimate expression of morality. Might makes right – not just in terms of what can be materially enforced, but in terms of what is seen as justice.

After a little while of this, people will start to figure it out, start to question this frame work, and start to get angry at the empowered elite who have mistreated them. This is the point where anyone in power will gently explain that it’s not the elite that’s responsible for this terrible mistreatment, it’s someone else – a neighboring country, some immigrant or ethnic group, agitators against the current exploitative power structure, or if all else fails perhaps evil spirits or aliens.

Eventually, either the power structure will get toppled by direct action from beneath or it will merely rot out its supporting infrastructure, and the entire society will collapse underneath it. Heads will roll, a power vacuum will form, and someone will step into it – maybe a leader, or maybe just another boss. Either way, the process is set to repeat, again and again, until eventually, as perhaps it has now, the power structure becomes so massive and so corrupt that it takes the entire species down with it the next time it falls.

Democracy was invented as a method to curtail or even prevent this process. In order to divest power from the exclusive control of those who seek it, we set laws in place stating that all people have equal share of the power, and leadership decisions are only made with broad agreement in place between these people. This has at least slowed the consolidation of power – but is at best an incomplete solution. There are two flaws in this design: First, if power is equally divided among the people, it then becomes in the best interest of power to redefine who counts as a person. Those who do not have access to power are routinely excluded: Slaves and women originally, now convicts and immigrants and other political exiles. It might not be enough to maintain power in itself, but this litigation of personhood is a thumb on the scales. The other flaw of democracy is that it requires all voters to be informed, and whoever has the most power they wish to protect then has a stake in preventing information and propagating misinformation. Information is prevented by hamstringing the budgets of educational institutions and discrediting experts, as well as demanding so much time and effort for survival rations that workers have little time to collect and process information on their own. Misinformation is propagated by control of the most popular outlets for news and entertainment – sometimes directly, but most often just by making sure they know what side their bread is buttered on. As long as method and incentive exists to control these flows of information, democracy will be compromised.

I would prefer to believe there’s a way out of this feedback loop. I would like to say that there’s a way to solve the fundamental problem of power. I used to dismiss anarchy entirely as a solution – because, after all, if you dismantle power structures that then just leaves a vacuum in place for new power structures to form, leaving you to dismantle them again. Perhaps that’s what’s needed, though: An eternal struggle to dismantle power whenever it seeks to emerge. That will just lead people to seek power in the ranks of those who dismantle power, though.

Whatever the solution is, we’d better figure it out fast. The tower has grown too tall, and the next time it collapses I fear we may all lie under its ruins.

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