Scattered Thoughts: The Will to Battle

Not a review, this time.  Nothing especially coherent, nothing with any particular point.  But I talked extensively about the last two books in the Terra Ignota series, so…it seems meet to keep on talking.

As before, I am not taking any measures to avoid spoilers, so…read on only if you’ve read The Will to Battle already or if you don’t care.

Continue reading “Scattered Thoughts: The Will to Battle”

Scattered Thoughts: The Will to Battle

“Book Review”: Terra Ignota

This is a discussion of Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders, which are the first two novels in a sci-fi series called Terra Ignota.

I’ve put “book review” in quotation marks because I cannot pretend that my essay is meant to provide useful information to people who are considering reading these books.  It’s not even really meant to discuss the books’ artistic qualities at all, although in fact it does that thing, in the process of getting where it needs to go.  It is a philosophical complaint that happens to have their text as its substrate. 

I am writing this for an imagined audience that has already read Terra Ignota.  Not even because of spoilers — although there are some spoilers, at least in a plot-structural sense — but just because I’m trying to grapple with the implications of a complicated thing, too complicated for me to be able to reproduce it in summary at the level of fidelity that would be needed. 

If you’re interested in getting a more normal sort of book review from me, all I can provide is the following:

1. For various complicated reasons, there is no way in hell that I can be remotely objective about Terra Ignota as a piece of literature, and you should probably turn to someone else if you want sound analysis of its artistic merit. 

2. That being said: the critics all seem to be describing it as a beautiful jewel of a series, and as far as I’m concerned, in this case the critics are completely right.  The prose is clever, and intricate, and manages to remain fun despite its incredible density; the best of the characters are refreshingly individual, original, and bizarre; the author’s chops as an intellectual historian shine through, and she takes a contagious delight in treating serious ideas with the seriousness they deserve; and yet, in the end, all of these are garnishes beside the real feast.  Given the values her own writing espouses, I can pay Dr. Palmer no higher compliment than to say that she channels the sensawunda of Golden Age sci-fi, in a pure way that we haven’t much seen since the Golden Age.  She dreams up weirdness after weirdness that can be dropped upon the world, and asks “what if?,” and then takes the time to explore all the answers to that question.  I want to call it “great worldbuilding,” but in so doing I would mislead.  In this fallen age, “worldbuilding” is a term that has come to mean something less remarkable than the thing these novels are doing.   This is not RPG-sourcebook material — this is not “check out the clever rules of my magic system!,” or “look at all the heraldry and politics I made up for my feuding noble houses!,” or anything so common — this is imagining substantively different ways that reality could be.  It is good.  You should read it.

Continue reading ““Book Review”: Terra Ignota”

“Book Review”: Terra Ignota

LARP of the Covenant

I am, inter alia, a LARPer and an author of LARPs.

(This is not a metaphor.  I mean it literally.  I know that it’s become fashionable, in certain circles, to use “LARPing” as a slang term for “any intellectual or social activity involving an element of pretense” — e.g., neoreactionaries are urban liberals LARPing as traditionalist conservatives — but I am talking about real actual goddamn live-action roleplaying events, clearly acknowledged as such by all the participants.)

For those of you who aren’t familiar: LARPing is basically “make-believe games for adults, in which the action takes place in something-like-real-space and something-like-real-time, rather than being mediated solely through words or representational symbols.”  People in costumes pretending to be other people.

The particular tradition in which I work, for those who believe in such distinctions, is usually called “theater LARP.”  Theater LARPs are usually isolated one-off scenarios (suitable for being rerun many times with different groups of players), usually somewhere in the one-to-eight-hours range, and usually  focused on elaborately prewritten characters and situations.  The smallest theater LARPs may have as few as three or four roles, but twenty-player games are pretty standard, and some can get much larger.

Each player is assigned a character and provided with the associated “character sheet,” which may have stats or other game-mechanical information on it in the manner of a D&D character sheet, but which mostly contains narrative explaining the character’s background and psychology and goals; this story-text is supposed to help the player get into the character’s headspace and to guide roleplay choices.  Unsurprisingly, the characters are usually written so as to have interesting things to say and do to each other, which is the core of the game experience. The medium has been described as “like a play without a script or an audience,” and thinking in those terms will give you at least a reasonable picture of what’s going on.

The general rule is that individual players don’t play in any given game more than once, and LARP stories are often written with this in mind.  (The narrative may hinge on the revelation of secrets, etc.)

There may be game mechanics used to represent certain kinds of action — hand-to-hand combat, battlefield command, casting magic spells, conducting academic research, etc.  These mechanics tend to be very abstract and bare-bones.  Theater LARP rarely incorporates boffing (sport-fighting with fake weapons) or any other sort of athletic endeavor.


Here’s the thing about LARPs: they can hit really really really hard, and people tend to get really really really into them.

I don’t just mean this in the sense of “it’s a cool hobby and it draws people in, causing them to want to LARP more.”  Individual LARP experiences can have profound personal effects on the players, and this happens a lot more often than you’d think.  People obsess over roles that they once played, over little roleplay exchanges in which they once took part, years and years after the fact.  Sometimes they’ll start to see certain facets of the real world through social or metaphysical lenses derived from the narratives of particular games.  Sometimes a player will quietly shift his personality, or his outlook, to better match some particularly-resonant character.  Fanfic, and other now-standard manifestations of sustained interest, crop up constantly.  It’s not unknown for in-character romances or feuds to blossom into real-life romances or feuds, even when the dynamic is mostly or entirely rooted in the narrative of the game.  It’s very common for LARP memories to be especially-treasured, and for people to be super-possessive of the best stories that they’ve gotten to play out.

Of course, to some extent, this sort of thing plays out with every kind of narrative experience.  Anyone on the internet knows how much books and TV can grab people.  But the extent to which it happens with LARPs is…surprising.  In a number of ways.

Partly it’s just a matter of frequency and magnitude.  With “normal media,” a lot of people will consume it and enjoy it and basically forget it, a small slice of the audience will end up caring about it enough to engage in anything that could be called fandom, and a tiny handful of folks will care so much that they go a little nuts.  With LARP, those last two groups are much larger proportionally.  I have no data with which to demonstrate this statistically, but…if you go hang out with LARPers, it won’t take you long to see what I mean.

This is true despite the fact that, in terms of cultivating audience obsession, LARPs have a number of obvious distinct disadvantages.

There is no massive fan-community in which the energy of interest can be cycled endlessly.  There’s really not even the potential to build such a community, because there’s no easy or time-insensitive way for potential fans to consume a LARP.  If you’re looking for people who would be interested in talking about a given game, you’re limited to the tiny number of people who have actually had the chance to play in that game.  Organizing a LARP, like organizing any other sort of meatspace social event, takes time and effort and resources.

Also…to be totally honest…many theater LARPs kind of suck.  Most of them, even.  From an artistic perspective and from an experience-management game-design perspective.  It’s a very young medium, and not all the kinks have yet been worked out.  The LARPing world is a tiny world of fly-by-night amateurs; there simply aren’t many active authors, and there’s no real financial or editorial support available for anyone, and Sturgeon’s Law still applies.  For logistical reasons, it’s often difficult for information to travel between individual LARPing communities, so there’s not the same kind of cross-pollination and ferment that you might get with some more-portable art form.  Hell, only in the last decade or so have people started to believe that “making high-quality theater LARPs with serious literary merit” was even a plausible or worthwhile goal.

So yeah.  There’s a lot of terrible out there.  A lot of game experiences with half-baked mechanics and poorly-conceived structure.  A lot of stories that are totally hackneyed, or barely coherent, or just plain badly told.

And even if a given LARP is really good, there are important ways in which it’s very unlikely to be as immersive or as compelling as your average book/movie/TV show/video game.  Production values can be a killer — when you’re trying to play out your story in someone’s apartment or in a mostly-undecorated college classroom, surrounded by people wearing cheapjack not-very-convincing costumes, the experience can be a constant strain on your suspension-of-disbelief.  That goes double if some of your fellow roleplayers are not the most stellar actors, as is often the case.  The mechanics can often be an absolute mood-killer, if what you’re looking for is mood; watching a cool kung fu fight on film is awesome, even reading about it in text form can be pretty special if the writing is good, having it out in Tekken is fucking spectacular, but “doing kung fu” by playing rock-paper-scissors or comparing stat cards somehow lacks that same sense of elan.

And yet.  As I said, this stuff grips people.  More reliably than books, or movies, or TV, or video games.  Even though those things are supported by unfathomable talent pools and unbelievable budgets.

It’s something about the medium itself.


The most common explanation you hear — from dedicated LARPers themselves, as well as from those trying to psychoanalyze them — is that it’s basically about escapist fantasy.  “Everyone dreams of being a wizard, or an emperor, or a world-saving hero.  Watching a movie or reading a book, you can watch someone else be those things, and fantasize.  But by playing in a LARP, you can actually live the dream, and be one of those things yourself!”

This is true as far as it goes, but it definitely does not account for the entirety of the phenomenon.

For one thing, well, there are video games.  And they also let you live the dream yourself.  In some ways, as I said, they let you do so much more compellingly than LARPs do; the production values and the mechanics are generally a whole lot more compelling.  But video games don’t have the power that LARPs have to engender overwhelming psychological resonance  (At least, not relative to product quality, not relative to exposure time, and not on a per capita basis.)

More importantly…the parts of LARPing that stick with people, the really powerful parts, often aren’t the allegedly-escapist parts.

You don’t often hear someone, in the wake of a theater LARP, talking about how he totally crushed that other guy with a mighty blow in a swordfight — or about how he totally cast the awesome spell that did the really impressive thing — or about how everyone totally bowed to him and obeyed his orders because he was the emperor.  (Such things often don’t really feel like properly memorable moments in a theater LARP, what with the assigned roles and the abstract bare-bones mechanics and all, and they certainly don’t often feel convincingly like achievements even in a fakey sort of way.)  Sometimes you hear people talking about how they very cleverly wrangled all the recalcitrant people to accomplish the political thing, or about how they figured out how to assemble all the widgets and solve the plot, or some such.  This is pride in successful-systems-mastery, and should be familiar to any gamer.

But mostly you hear people talking about emotions and relationships.  About in-character friendships that were full of life, about in-character romantic triumphs and in-character romantic tragedies, about quiet moments of personal pathos.  About touching the (fake) hearts of others, and having their own (equally fake) hearts touched in turn.  About having the chance to display (fake) integrity, or to change your (fake) values and undergo (fake) personal growth.

…and, also, about slice-of-life plots and difficulties like “my character’s struggle to get (fake) tenure at her (imaginary) university job.”

Or, to put it another way: some of the stickiest parts of LARPing are the parts that are just slightly-awkward simulacra of regular life. 

Which is not so surprising, when you realize that some of the stickiest and most resonant theater games are just LARP-formatted stories about regular people living regular life, with no escapist elements whatsoever.

(In before: yes, I realize that I’ve set up a very easy joke to be made here.  “LARPers like games about having relationships and emotional growth, because that sure is escapist fantasy for them!”  Haw haw.  All I can say is no, this funny does not correspond to reality.  The LARPers having these obsessions are also usually undergoing plenty of personal engagement — and personal drama — in their real lives.)

This does rather poke some holes in the escapist-fun theory.  And it raises an obvious question: Why do you get so attached to fake versions of banal everyday stuff?  The real thing is right there.  Isn’t it richer, more substantive, more compelling?


If you’ve been reading my recent posts, you know what my answer is.

Real life may be full of feelings and complexity and wonder and excitement, but it’s not a story, not from the inside.  It’s just a mess of entities and events, and none of them are tagged as mattering.  We try to convince ourselves, and others, that they matter.  Sometimes we succeed, and then we feel like existence has some substance to it.  But it’s always a struggle, and the exercise always feels a little hollow.

A LARP is a faked-up version of life that is a story.  Your character, whoever he is and whatever he does, is ontologically important — God, in his guise as the authors and the game-masters, says so.  (Were it not true, why would your character be present in the game at all?)  Your crushes and flirtations and confessions and consummations, however cliche or awkward they may be, are romances.  Your personal trials, and your attempts to achieve your goals, constitute a character arc.  Whatever you do, be it grand or ordinary or pathetic, matters.  The universe was created so that you might do it, so that others might see you do it, so that your tale could be told.

And, crucially, there is a social compact by which other actual human beings acknowledge this story that you are living.  The rest of the players believe in the same narrative universe that you do, for they are embedding themselves within it just as much as you are.  They will believe in your tale, they will care about it and honor it, if for no other reason than that they want you to believe in and care about and honor theirs.  When you talk about the game with a fellow player, afterwards, you are speaking of things whose worth and salience is beyond dispute (as with any fandom!), except that you are also speaking of yourself.  It gets even better than that, because the game provides you both with a mutual vocabulary with which to discuss this illusory story-of-self that you share — you’ve read the same documents, played by the same formal rules — so that the impossible isolation of personal experience becomes a bit easier to bridge in context.  Both of you underwent the same sequence of events-that-matter, from different vantage points, and God provided you with the same set of tools by which you can process the experience!

This is distilled psychological validation.  This is the thing that feeds narcissistic hunger, boiled down to a superstimulus.  This is the answer to suffering, the redemption of the human condition.  Of course people get really ridiculously into it.

(And, let me tell you, when by dint of bad design a LARP fails to provide that thing — when players are left feeling as though they didn’t really matter, as though their stories were not recognized and honored — there is often a sadness, and a fury, that is truly terrifying.  I’ve seen it, and I’ve felt it, and there is a profundity to it that is way beyond what you’d expect from the fallout of a disappointing hobby-game.  Weaponized narcissistic injury is nasty shit.)


Needless to say, there is a problem: it’s all totally fake.  Psychologically speaking, the rewards provided by a LARP are pure “empty calories.”  The personal identity that’s up there on the altar, being honored, isn’t your identity.  You can try to appreciate the feeling, in the aftermath, but that happens at a distance.  You can try to cling to the feeling, lose yourself in the story, but that’s delusion and it’s not sustainable.  Ultimately, the dissonance between your real self and your character will overcome everything else.

But there’s something very precious here, something worth saving.

Maybe we could turn reality into a LARP. 

…it’s hard for me to talk about this without getting kind of mystical.  It’s all so vague, as of yet.  There’s so much that needs to be figured out.

But maybe there’s some way to take this technology and apply it outside the context of an author-created universe with author-created characters.  Maybe we can create a social God who can grant the seal of ontological importance to our ordinary lives.  Maybe we can forge a covenant by which we can recognize, and honor, the hard-built identities of others.  Maybe we can cultivate the discipline that is seeing the stories of our lives the way we naturally see the stories we are told. 

That is my grandiose dream, my world-reshaping project, my Quixote quest.

Amen.  Selah.


Next time, on The Baliocene Doctrine —

— or maybe not next time, who the hell knows, but probably soon-ish —

  • A discussion of defunct collectible card game Legend of the Five Rings, and the secrets it holds for the psychological salvation of the world!
  • A discussion of the difficult balance between “acknowledging the reality of semi-unreal identities” and “staying grounded in a reality that is accessible to others!”
  • Balioc answers questions and rebukes from people who are losing patience with his pretentious messianic windbaggery!
LARP of the Covenant

Am I Truly Mardukth?

So here’s a question: why is the state of human welfare so bad, even for those operating at the top of the Maslow hierarchy?  There are lots of people in the world whose needs are being met.  They have solidly reliable access to food and shelter and clothing…and, hell, let’s throw in healthcare and education and entertainment…plus affection from loved ones and respect from society.  They can enjoy the many fruits of prosperity and spend their leisure pursuing whatever random things seem most interesting to them.  If they fail, by and large, there are no catastrophic consequences.  So why are they so very often unhappy?

If you ask them, of course, they’ll usually tell you that their needs aren’t really being met after all.  They don’t have quite enough money to be secure, or their social situation is precarious and anxiety-producing, or some such.  Sometimes they’re even right about that kind of thing.  But as a broader explanation this is implausible on its face, just because the complaints and the worries are so disconnected from any tangible truth.  Some of the richest and most materially-stable humans on earth are consumed by thoughts of financial insecurity.  Some of the most popular and well-beloved people are driven mad by amorphous, unfalsifiable worries about community status.  There is literally no amount of catering-to-basic-level-needs that will reliably satisfy, and so we must conclude that the real psychological problem — even if it can feel like a basic-needs problem — lies elsewhere.

There’s no shortage of answers and explanations.  Every two-bit psychologist, every literary novelist who wants to ramble about the Human Condition, has his own theory.  Some of them have come up with some pretty good stuff.

But before we get to any of that, here’s a better question: why would we ever expect the state of human welfare to be good?

At this point we pretty much understand the functional role of happiness in the human psyche.  And that role, sadly, is not “serve as the baseline for existence because that would be awesome.”  It is a much more limited, narrow-purpose thing.  It exists to reward us, in a small and temporary way, for doing things that are deemed useful by the Blind Idiot God of evolution.  It is a behavior-management tool, the carrot in a basic carrot-and-stick scheme.   It is the pellet handed out to a lab rat who has successfully completed a task.

You successfully found a sheltered place to build a fire, and got out of the cold for the night.  Ding!  Have some warm fuzzy contentment!

You successfully chased and killed that gazelle, and now you’re going to be well-nourished for a while.  Ding!  You get to feel proud and accomplished for a little bit!

You successfully took down your Hated Rival, and now that fertile-looking cutie is giving you a smoky gaze from across the feast-table.  Ding!  Enjoy an ego-boost and some dreamy infatuation!

The happiness switch is not supposed to be on all the time, or most of the time, or really anytime other than “right after you’ve just done something advantageous.”  What would be the point of that?  It wouldn’t be a very useful behavior-management tool at all!

When all your needs are reliably and easily met, it’s like being a lab rat who gets moved into a cage where he can receive a pellet whenever he pushes the lever.  The reward-system becomes disconnected from emotional reality and quickly loses its meaning, producing aimlessness and anomie.  Getting your pellet no longer carries that special frisson of Suddenly-The-World-Is-Great.  But, and this is important, the old system was way worse.  Now that you have your pellet-lever, you spend most of your time being bored.  Under the old system, in exchange for a few moments of psychic reward, you spent the rest of your time being bored AND anxious AND desperate — and you didn’t even get enough pellets!

(Also, to be sure, the conquest of obstacles can provide satisfying meaning only if the obstacles are real.  If you deny people the fulfillment of their needs on the theory that they will benefit psychologically from the chase, they will quickly and rightly conclude that the only genuine obstacle they face is you.  So long as we have ready-made solutions to material and social difficulties, there is really nothing to be gained by failing to employ them.)

If we’re going to build a golden age of human welfare, the first step is to abandon any notion that there has ever been a golden age of human welfare that we can use as a model.  When you’re thinking about the woes of modern life, the antediluvian temptation is a constant danger, and as far as I can tell it’s ensnared most of the people who take these issues seriously.  “Things are so screwed up now.  Let’s try to roll things back, at least in some ways, to a time when they were less screwed-up…”  No.  Stop.  Things are bad, but even on a purely-psychological front they’re better than they’ve ever been.  In most places and times, if you weren’t actually worrying about starvation or plague, you were worrying about the life-or-death personal politics of the community in which you were inescapably embedded.  Anomie has replaced (a) the terror of deprivation and (b) the soul-crushing tyranny of tightly-knit all-powerful social structures; if that’s the choice, I’ll take the anomie.  Every known human society has been obsessed by its own problems.  No sizeable group of people has ever believed itself to inhabit Paradise.  The past holds many lessons but no solutions.  The only way forward is forward.


All right.  If we’re willing to oversimplify grossly, we can use this lab-rat-and-pellet metaphor as a model for the psychological/spiritual difficulty that manifest as people approach the top of the Maslow hierarchy.

Under “traditional” circumstances, humans experience life as a continual quest for small psychic rewards, which are attained by performing useful tasks that fulfill basic social and material needs.  Fortunate circumstances allow certain humans to attain those rewards in such abundance, and with such reliability, that they cease to have any psychological weight.  This produces an aimlessness, a lack-of-life-structure, to which those humans often respond by flailing around in various dysfunctional ways.  

It’s not a new phenomenon, of course — it’s afflicted various elites as long as there have been elites — but modernity means that there are a lot more people who are affected by it, and that dealing with it intelligently has become a major cultural imperative for our civilization.

In broad terms, there are three basic solutions to this problem.


For starters, there’s enlightenment, in the Buddhist sense.  You can make a project of restructuring your mind and modifying your utility function, eliminating certain native psychological needs and vulnerabilities, such that you no longer hunger after the sensation of successful reward-hunting.

(Any actual Buddhist would raise holy hell at this description of enlightenment, of course, and my impression is that the process does indeed look very different from the inside.  But from a cultural engineer’s perspective, from the perspective of someone trying to explain how this kind of spiritual praxis can address widespread psychological problems, it has enough explanatory power to be useful.)

…and if you can swing this one, go to, by all means.  It may be 2500 years old, but when it comes to the problem of human suffering, Buddhism (or one of its various derivatives) is still the best answer we’ve come up with.  Becoming an arhat will solve all your problems, or at least render them totally irrelevant.

The downside, of course, is that this solution does not scale.  Like, at all.  Really, I mention it only for the sake of being comprehensive.  Enlightenment is pretty much most the difficult, counterintuitive, counter-evolutionary thing you can ask a human mind to do to itself; it is entirely out of reach for 99.99+% of the population.  Buddhism is the most popular religion in the most populous part of the world, and has been for a very long time, and the number of enlightened sages is nonetheless so small as to be negligible.   Maybe it’s possible to help people on a mass scale by teaching them to transcend desire, but if so, someone smarter than me is going to have to figure out how.


In a more normal vein, if all your basic needs are being trivially fulfilled, you can address the ensuing anomie by creating artificial needs whose fulfillment is associated with artificial rewards.  We usually call this “setting life goals.”

I’m going to write a great novel and get it published.  I’m going to get promoted to Senior Vice President.  I’m going to be elected to Congress.  I’m going to buy a vacation house in the Hamptons.  I’m going to save kids from dying of malaria.  I’m going to discover a cure for cancer.  And when I do, I will deem myself to have Succeeded, and there’s going to be that same little Ding! that my tribal ancestor must have felt when he speared a gazelle, and it’s going to be so great

Let me be absolutely clear: I am not knocking this strategy.  I am in favor of setting life goals.  I believe that everyone who can afford them, meaning “everyone with the resources and leisure to worry about self-actualization,” should have them.  It’s probably necessary for any kind of happy, healthy lifestyle.  It’s definitely necessary if we want people to continue striving virtuously, breaking new barriers and reaching for the stars and so forth, even when their basic needs are being met.  Figuring out how people can set the best goals for themselves, and then figuring out how to disseminate that knowledge, is going to be a key task for any would-be post-scarcity utopia.

All that said, I am going to raise a note of caution here.  I think that many utopian optimists are inclined to see this kind of thing as the One Great Fundamental Solution to all the psychological problems of modernity.  Climb ever higher!  Reach ever farther!  Life won’t seem drab or dull or empty when you’re kicking so much ass!  And, in its more extreme forms, this is dangerously misguided.  Life goals are important, but by themselves they won’t be and can’t be enough, and leaning on them too hard carries serious costs.

For one thing, artificial self-imposed “needs” are much weaker than basic needs when it comes to providing a structure for a human life.  If you’re questing after food, or even if you’re questing after affection, you’re going to remain in the grip of that quest until it’s completed; you’re not going to sigh in despair when the going gets tough or when someone sneers at your project, wondering whether maybe you’re just wasting your time on something stupid, because you have actual fundamental human needs that aren’t being met.  Self-actualization goals, which are being pursued (from the individual agent’s perspective) as much for private psychic benefit as for any intrinsic purpose, are a lot more vulnerable to being randomly undermined.  Which is very bad, if people are relying entirely on those goals to provide meaning in their lives.

Also, of course, artificial needs have the same basic problem as non-artificial needs: sometimes they don’t get met, because sometimes you fail at your various tasks.  Saying tsuyoku naritai! is all well and good, but humans are not possessed of infinite drive or infinite emotional resilience.  If people have nothing to fall back on psychologically when they don’t succeed in their various quests, if success is the only fountainhead of that-which-is-desirable-in-life, the results will be grotesque.

…and it is also true that any project, once it has become someone’s psychological crutch, is liable to become bigger and more aggressive than it really should be.  Sometimes people decide to invest themselves in things that are bad.  Sometimes people decide to invest themselves in things that are good, but nonetheless drain more than their share of resources from the world.  In general, it is useful to be able to point this out and act on it without having to declare total war on those who have invested in those things.  I do not want the future to be an apocalyptic war between the random hobbyhorses of people whose entire egos are at stake.  Which means, once again, that those people will need some foundation for their psychological well-being beyond their success at the tasks that they’ve set for themselves.

We need something more.

Fortunately, nature has supplied…


The third strategy is the thing that psychological theorists call narcissism.

God!  I hate the use of that word, in this context.  Even the relatively nuance-minded thinkers cannot help framing narcissism as a disease of the psyche, to be overcome as expeditiously as possible; in the popular consciousness, of course, narcissism translates to something like “irredeemable evil.”  As someone positing that it is both unavoidable and mostly-a-good-thing, I would much prefer to use some kind of less-loaded terminology.  I’ve considered using a phrase like symbolic orientation or narrative orientation, and perhaps at some point I’ll try to make one of those phrases stick.  But…however strongly our interpretations and conclusions differ…it’s uncomfortably clear that the theorists and I are talking about the same fundamental thing, and I’m not going to try to paper over that fact.

In simplest terms, this phenomenon can be described as follows: you tell yourself a story about who you are and why your life is worthwhile.

(…sounds pretty damn innocuous when you put it in those terms, no?)

Everyone does this to some extent, of course, but it becomes more and more important as you move farther and farther away from being in the thick of the getting-your-needs-met rat race.  It’s the world’s very simplest and oldest mindhack, so convenient that most people do it unconsciously as soon as life affords them the opportunity.  It lets you restructure your own psychological welfare, shifting the focus away from getting a stream of treats from the world — since the treats, which were few and far between in any event, no longer satisfy — and towards something that’s theoretically longer-lasting, more secure, and easier to control.

The mechanic is extremely straightforward.  You create a narrative that explains (a) what your identity is, and (b) why it is super great and totally fulfilling for you to have that identity.  This narrative, if well-crafted, will eventually become a superreal totem within your own mind — it’s not hard to make it so, narrative is an excellent tool for hacking the human psyche, basic tricks like “symbolism” and “POV focus” can make a story way more compelling than reality if you’re willing to invest in it.  (If you doubt me…just think about how easy it is for a story to make you identify with anyone just by making him the protagonist for a while.)  Then, whenever you start feeling hurt or worthless, you just check the circumstances of your life against the contours of the narrative.  So long as they basically line up, it serves as confirmation from the universe that you still are who you think you are…which is super great, remember?…so everything is OK.  No matter what events have actually just taken place in the world, everything is OK.

I am a brilliant physicist.  We know this, because I got a PhD in physics from Princeton, and because I wrote that one paper that everyone thought was so amazing.  And when I haven’t come up with anything great in a month, and I feel like I’m thinking through sludge, and I’m wondering whether there’s any point to my continued existence…well, it’s still true that I got my PhD and that I wrote that paper, so it must still be true that I’m a brilliant physicist, so I still have merit.  And everything is OK. 

I am so incredibly glad that our minds are capable of this One Weird Trick.  It’s a semi-stable source of human welfare.  Unlike “normal” non-narcissistic forms of well-being, it works even if the world hasn’t just handed you a shiny; you can push the button all on your own, whenever you need it.  It does the thing that wireheading does, a little bit, except that it keeps people engaged with the world (through the vector of their all-important identities) instead of turning them into zombies.

In fact, it can even do a pretty OK job of helping people keep up with virtuous behavior, by making the rewards of virtue stable and reliable (in the form of continued identity confirmation) rather than stochastic and random and likely-unsatisfying-most-of-the-time.

(And, in all honesty, I should add: beyond any operational considerations, having people maintain consistent and compelling narrative identities is a strong terminal value of mine.  For aesthetic/artistic reasons, basically.)

These benefits appear even when you’re operating near the top of the Maslow hierarchy.  They appear even when your self-imposed tasks don’t get successfully completed.  For a low low cost, they can be sustained for a long time.

Narcissism is very likely to be the thing that saves the world.


…assuming that it can be harnessed properly.  Which is actually pretty difficult.  It has a number of dramatic failure modes, and they’re easy to fall into.

Most obviously, you can build your identity around a bad story, a story that requires you to engage in constant destructive action if you’re going to keep it up.  Y’know, something like “I am an alpha-male demigod who dominates everyone he meets,” or “no one can resist my sexual charms,” or “I am always the smartest person in the room,” or “I am a Holy Warrior who will never question the Cause.”  People who are constructing narratives for themselves, unguided, do that kind of thing an awful lot.  If you were wondering how narcissism got such a bad reputation, well…

For that matter, you can allow your identity-bolstering narrative to drift further and further away from reality, so long as you still have some vaguely-plausible means of confirming that it’s “true.”  The exemplar here is the washed-up professor who hasn’t said or done anything worthwhile in years, but who doesn’t worry about it, because he knows that he’s a genius, because he totally has a degree from Princeton and he wrote that one paper in nineteen-dickety-two.  That is a thing that can happen, if you’re using stories to hold your ego up.

And then there’s the big problem, which is the exact opposite of that: narcissistic injury.

Telling a story about yourself provides some protection from the ego-shredding vicissitudes of the world, but often it’s not enough.  The narrative will always necessarily be at least somewhat in conflict with reality — at the very least, it will contain useful literary-device-type features like “you are the main character” and “things symbolize other things,” which do not correspond to real phenomena.  Sometimes,  the facts of the world will directly conflict with the narrative (e.g., you find yourself unable to complete a task that is central to your constructed identity).  Sometimes, the facts of the world will conflict indirectly with the narrative, making it difficult to confirm that the story still applies (e.g., you go a long time without getting a chance to perform that task, and its salience to your life experience starts to feel doubtful).  Very often, your interactions with other humans will result in attacks on the narrative, as they fail to respond to you in an “appropriate” way or to acknowledge your identity-critical traits.

All of these things are very psychologically damaging.  At best, they render all your narcissistic defenses useless.  Often it’s a lot worse than that; when you bind up your identity in a story, the story becomes a vulnerable point in your psyche, and a successful attack on it can hurt enormously and leave you not really knowing who you are.  This is “narcissistic injury,” and people tend to deal with it very badly.

…there are those who believe that most of the problems of the developed world right now can be summed up as “otherwise-well-off adults flailing around in the throes of narcissistic injury,” and I’m not prepared to say that they’re totally wrong.  Narcissistic narratives are fragile, and when you’re talking about people who have most of their basic social and material needs being met without much effort, there’s a lot of ego wrapped up in those narratives.

The conventional answer is “people need to learn to be less narcissistic.”  You will be unsurprised to hear that I’m not on board with that.  The old ways were not and are not better.  Narcissism, properly constructed, is the main thing that allows us to exist at repose in the universe.  It allows us to have some sense of who we are; it allows us to take a sustained comfort in that knowledge even as events jostle us around, even as worldlier pleasures pall.  It gives us the wherewithal to see and appreciate ourselves, which is the necessary first step towards constructing ourselves beautifully.  It’s the bedrock of any stable, happy existence where personal identity continues to be a meaningful thing.

Which means that shoring up all those weaknesses I just listed becomes a critical component of any utopian culture-engineering plan.


This is basically a three-pronged project.

People have to be taught how to build their identities around worthy stories, beautiful and virtuous stories, so that they don’t end up building themselves around crappy stories that are incompatible with utopian existence.

People have to be taught how to keep one eye on reality, so that their identity narratives don’t spiral into utter fantasy.

And — most importantly —

Human relationships and social institutions need to be constructed so as to reinforce identity narratives, rather than tearing them down, so that needless narcissistic injury may be avoided.

This is the main thing at the heart of all my utopian dreams.

We are free from our lower needs now, mostly, at least the luckiest ones amongst us.  We are trying to self-actualize.  We construct wonderful dream-selves, and then we try as hard as we can to live up to them.  But it is hard, and often we fail, and the heartless universe gives no honor to the struggle.  We ask anyone who will listen: Who am I?  Am I truly the person I believe myself to be?  And because we are lowly mortals, we so rarely receive an answer, and we thirst for recognition like it is water in the desert.

We can do better for each other.


As it happens, I have some more-concrete thoughts about that.  I know that it is possible to help people construct narrative identities, and to shield those identities from injury, using techniques that are rarely considered by normal humans.  Early in my adulthood, I was lucky enough to stumble into a hobby whose fundamental technology is a superpowered form of identity-recognition…

Am I Truly Mardukth?

Theoretical Priorities

The moral, psychological, and cultural problems that most interest me are the problems that come into play near the top of the Maslow hierarchy.  The problems that persist, or develop, once material needs and even basic social needs have been well-addressed.  Or, in other words, “the problems of the people who have the least-pressing problems.”

You know what kind of thing I mean.  The amorphous aimlessness of modernity.  Existential confusion and existential despair.  Ennui.  Anomie.  The quiet longing for a secure identity.  The desperate scramble to fill time with distraction and amusement.  First World Problems, which arise from difficulties inherent in the attempt to self-actualize.

I spend a lot more time thinking about that stuff than I do about injustice, or material deprivation, or illness, or community-management issues.  I don’t insist that it be anyone else’s priority — and I’m certainly glad that there are lots of people trying to solve the devastating problems that exist because of failures further down the Maslow hierarchy — but it is my priority.



Well, let’s be honest, it’s partly because First World Problems are my problems and the problems of many of the people I most care about.  I have been very fortunate; I am much more concerned about self-actualization than I am about meeting my material or social needs.  I am self-interested, to some extent, and with self-interest comes a certain myopia.  I find myself with lots of thoughts about the issues present in my own life, and I feel inclined to nurture them, rather than abandoning them so that I can hare off after different issues that are less-present in my personal field of vision.

Beyond that, though…

I have a strong sense that the Rawlsian and social-justice-y drive to focus intently on the Worst-Off Among Us, which has become something of an intellectual reflex these days (for understandable reasons), is liable to backfire.  Even very-well-off people have problems, and being human, they will spend most of their energy addressing those problems.  To some extent they can be guilted and bullied into doing otherwise through the power of moral suasion, but this goes only so far before it fails.  And, unless they’re guided along a better path to their own spiritual welfare, the well-off will try to deal with their problems in the same intuitively-appealing way they always have: amassing astounding hoards of wealth and power, and then blowing it all on massively-inefficient psychic-welfare gains with returns that quickly diminish to near-nothing.   This is not good news for anyone who would like to see those resources put to any kind of better use.  So long as you focus exclusively on lower-in-the-Maslow-hierarchy issues — so long as your answer to those seeking self-actualization is “you have no real problems, so man up” — you’re going to be battling the rich and powerful for control of their stuff.  The rich and powerful will win that fight, because they are rich and powerful.  Addressing their concerns efficaciously is likely to be very helpful even if your ultimate goals are strictly Rawlsian or social-justice-y.

Mostly, though, it’s just a matter of trying to take the long view.  I’m enough of a techno-optimist to think that, despite our species-wide continual careening towards catastrophe, we might actually manage to solve our material problems through the sheer awesomeness of our applied science.  When we do that, when we are all kings, the self-actualization problems are going to be what remains.  Our understanding of those problems, our ability to conquer ennui and anomie and all the rest, will be the difference between a paradise of human flourishing and a gilded cage of despair.  That’s worth some sustained theoretical attention.

(My hat goes off to the rationalist community’s Fun Theorists, who are already doing such work.  I’m not much interested in their preferred avenues of exploration — their vision of the likely future is, uh, a lot more singularitarian than mine — but they’re willing to look into improvements without getting sidetracked by lower-on-the-Maslow-hierarchy supremacy claims, which is rare, and I applaud it.)


I say all this, basically, as a statement of intent and as a disclaimer.

My next couple of essays are going to talk about self-actualization problems: what they actually are, as I perceive them, and a couple of preliminary strategies for addressing them at different scales.

If you’re interested in telling me that my priorities are decadent and bad and wrong, that I’m not focusing on real problems…well, we can have that fight here instead, where it won’t derail the conversation.

And if you’re taking my theoretical focus as a signal that I don’t care about lower-on-the-Maslow-hierarchy problems, or that you shouldn’t care about such problems, be aware that you’re wrong.  They matter a lot, even if I personally would rather talk about something else.  We need to fix them to save the world.  Give to EA charities, kids.

Theoretical Priorities

Principles of Culture Engineering, Part 2

This is a continuation of the previous post.  Go read that first, if you haven’t already.


The Third Principle of Culture Engineering:

Humans have flexible values, which are chiefly defined by their engagement with other humans.

How do we know what to want?  How do we know what counts as “desirable?”  Most of it’s not baked in.  We look at the people around us, and feel pressure towards caring about the things that they care about…or towards not caring about the things that they care about, for those of us who have picked up contrarian streaks…or towards any of a hundred other little preference-adjustments.  We consume texts and other pieces of media, and absorb concepts that resonate with us.

A lot of our value-formation, as far as I can tell, is pure halo effect in action.  (Or, even more bluntly, straight-up Pavlovian conditioning.)  We look at a Good Thing that we already like or want, and all its traits become associated with that feeling of liking and wanting.  Even traits that were previously value-neutral.  And, soon enough, we have new suites of preferences built around those traits.  Mustaches become sexy because that sexy singer grew a mustache.  We develop strong anti-Fleem opinions because our despicable political opponents seem so enthusiastic about Fleem.

This is not to endorse pure blank-slate-ism.  My limited exposure to modern developmental psychology suggests that, in fact, a number of important preferences — especially common root-level preferences that can manifest in a lot of different ways, like “it’s good to be high-status” — pretty much are baked in a lot of the time.  But that goes only so far, and it’s not very far.  Humans, in different times and places, have idolized a boggling array of outcomes.  Members of the same species have invested their ego in becoming stylites, Imperial concubines, titans of industry, samurai retainers, and discursive rationalists.  And they’ve all been happy to go far down their chosen paths, and none of them would want to trade with any of the others.  (At least, you can easily find examples who wouldn’t want to trade.)  Something is convincing all those people to want very different things.

To my mind, this Third Principle is the doom of preference utilitarianism as a practical way of approaching anything.  It doesn’t make sense to treat people’s preferences as a given, because they’re not, they’re super-malleable.  And if you hope to change the nature of human civilization, a large part of that is going to have to be teaching people to want the thing that you’re trying to build.


The Fourth Principle of Cultural Engineering:

There is no simple way to change people’s values. 

This one is the most contingent of the Principles, by far — I’m not at all sure that I believe it in any kind of deep conceptual way.  The universe is full of technologies and methodologies of which we as yet know nothing.  Maybe, somewhere out there, there is a simple way to change people’s values!  Who knows?

But, given what we’re capable of right now, the Fourth Principle is an important safeguard against overzealous application of the Third Principle.  The fact that desires are malleable makes it tempting to think that they’re easily manipulable.  But, well…just ask any parent who’s tried to make his kids want good and healthy things.  Or any religious leader who’s tried to shepherd his flock towards righteousness.  Or, um, any DARE instructor.  The direct approach often doesn’t work.  Figuring out which influences will influence is actually super hard.


So where does this leave us?

With a set of very general broad-brush guidelines for where to go:

  • It’s important to help people do better than they would on their own…
  • …which can theoretically be accomplished by inducing them to change their values into better ones…
  • …but it’s also important to remember that this is not a trivial task.
  • And also that, whatever you say or do, different people will react to it differently.

Following those guidelines leads us to culture engineering.

Principles of Culture Engineering, Part 2

Principles of Culture Engineering, Part 1

This short series of posts will consist entirely of me saying really obvious things.

Not clever-obvious things; not things that will make you say “I can’t believe I never thought of that!” or “you’ve articulated something I’ve been groping towards for years!”  Obvious-obvious things.  The only reaction I expect is an eyeroll and a “No shit, Sherlock.”

So why bother?  Because when I process my own thoughts on utopia-building — or even, really, when I engage with any sort of broader discourse about culture and society — I’ve found it really helpful to have these obvious-obvious truths cached, labeled, and ready for instant application.  They’re easy things to forget, when it comes to tackling object-level issues, even if you understand them perfectly well as a general matter.  And they serve as safeguards against common conceptual failure modes.

At this point, whenever I’m seriously pondering anything pertaining to culture engineering, I try to run my thoughts past these principles and see whether it reveals any gross stupidities.  Often it does.  This list is meant to be like a hand-washing station at a medical clinic — reliably washing your hands won’t make you a brilliant doctor or even an effective one, and it’s a simplistic and tedious thing, but ignoring it is nonetheless probably a bad plan.


The First Principle of Culture Engineering:

People are different from each other.

(See what I mean about “obvious-obvious?”)

There is a staggering amount of diversity within our species: psychological diversity, moral diversity, intellectual diversity, physical diversity.  If you subject a whole bunch of people to the same stimulus, odds are good that they won’t all respond in exactly the same way.  If you change the world on a large scale, such that it affects many humans, the changes will be better for some of those humans than for others.

This is not to say that there are no human universals.  But it’s a lot harder to find something that’s true of all people — or even “virtually all people” — than to find something that’s true of a great many people.

…in fact, due to the sheer size of the numbers involved, it’s almost trivially easy to demonstrate that something is true of a great many people.  Pretty much whatever that “something” is, so long as it’s within the range of remotely-plausible human outcomes.  In a world of seven billion people, if you’re looking at a trait so rare that it’s literally one-in-a-million, you can find seven thousand examples.  If you’re instead looking at, say, a one-in-a-thousand trait — something that’s still rare enough to be present in only a tenth of a percent of humanity, something that could be justly written off as a rounding error in terms of arranging a utopia for all mankind — you can find seven million examples.  That is a lot of individuals!  And since people with similar traits tend to cluster together in all sorts of ways, you can end up with large thriving communities whose members are all very unusual, often so much so that they find it hard to believe and harder to remember.

Ignoring this leads to the thing that Alyssa Vance and Scott Alexander call the “Chinese Robber Fallacy.”  If you’re trying to talk about humanity in a broad or collective way, and you want to be guiding yourself towards the truth, you have to use a wide-eye lens and think in terms of proportions.  You can list examples of a phenomenon from sunup straight until sundown, and it won’t mean a thing, because even a rounding-error-sized tenth-of-a-percent kind of phenomenon will generate seven million people’s worth of examples for you to choose from.


This principle kicks in all the time, in all sorts of situations, but (at least for me) it’s primarily useful if you want to avoid unwarranted generalizing-from-self and generalizing-from-local-knowledge.  Something can be true of you and still be mostly false.  Something can be true of you, and everyone you know, and everyone they know, and still be mostly false.  Reasoning inductively, from experience, is the natural human way of thinking about the world of people…but it is a shit-tastic methodology for understanding a large diverse population.  And that goes double if you live in a heavily-self-selected little bubble, which you almost certainly do, dear reader.

“People naturally seek out…”  “Women always have to deal with…”  “Math nerds tend to be very good at…”  “Every father worries about…”  No.  Stop.  Anything of that form is an extraordinary claim, requiring extraordinary proof.  You don’t know people, or women, or math nerds, or fathers.  You know a tiny and unrepresentative sample of those groups, plus an almost-as-tiny and probably-even-less-representative sample of internet folk claiming to represent those groups.

If you want to talk about changing the world, you have to contemplate how those changes will affect all people, not just the sort of people who spring most readily to mind.  Which is super hard, no matter who you are.  It often involves thinking with statistics; it often involves resigning yourself to working in ignorance, since not-cripplingly-flawed statistical knowledge is often unavailable; it almost always involves putting in the effort to understand the frighteningly alien communities that make up most of civilization, and to take them on their own terms, at least for the purpose of evaluating how they would deal with whatever-it-is that you have in mind.


The Second Principle of Culture Engineering:

People are bad at creating desirable outcomes for themselves.

This is especially true if you have any kind of idiosyncratic definition of “desirable outcome,” since you’re then looking a human population that isn’t particularly trying to move in the right direction.  (Humans don’t generally put much effort into living a life that I, Balioc, would find beautiful and worthy!  News at eleven!)  But even if we put on our preference-utilitarian hats, and look only at people’s own self-supplied concepts of “desirability,” it becomes painfully clear that they just do a really terrible job of optimizing their outcomes and fulfilling their values.

The rationalists are probably the people who understand this most fully, because they use a vocabulary that’s really well-suited to processing this particular idea.  “Rationality is systematized winning,” as the sages say, and most people are not especially rational.  Humans are loaded up with cognitive biases and mental errors that drag them astray from the Way of rational thought.  So how could we be surprised that, most of the time, they don’t win?  That the great collective social engine of human utility-seeking generates an awful lot of heat waste?

And if you’re not comfortable thinking in those terms…then just spend a moment in meditation on all the sorrow and suffering in the world.  Not the distant millions-of-people-starving-in-the-Third-World kind of sorrow and suffering, but the kind that you see around you every day, the kind you really understand in your bones.  All the people desperately wishing for fulfillment that they don’t know how to find.  All the people hungrily dreaming of different lives, losing themselves in happy fantasies.  All the people trapped in bad jobs or bad relationships or bad families.  All the people locked into perpetual, petty, grueling wars of the spirit.  And ask yourself: given they tools they have, are all those people really working to solve their problems in the very most effective possible way?  Are they all thriving as fully as they possibly could? 

Of course they’re not.  We fuck up our lives all the time, and get trapped in ruts of self-destruction or stagnation; it’s what we do best.  Again, this is obvious-obvious, I know.

The Second Principle serves as a reminder of why we need culture engineering at all, why utopia-building is so damn hard and also so damn important.  It’s safeguard against the kind of magical thinking that just says “just give people the resources they need, and they’ll take care of themselves!”  They won’t.  They will wreck themselves, often badly, without the world-at-large providing an awful lot of guidance on how to live the good life.

(I want to be absolutely clear: this is not an indictment of some particular culture, or group, or sub-slice of the population.  This is an indictment of everyone.  Rich folk and poor folk, menfolk and womenfolk, smart folk and stupid folk, black folk and white folk and yellow folk and red folk, folk from every flavor of subculture that I’ve yet encountered — I have yet to see a single group whose members don’t reliably screw themselves out of better outcomes than they could get.)

This is the nutshell-sized version of the conclusion to my Un-Topia series.  (An actual proper conclusion is still forthcoming, I promise.)  Straight-up classical liberalism is not a sufficient solution to the world’s problems, because that would require that we actually use our liberty to make things better for ourselves, which much of the time we clearly don’t.

From a social-policy perspective, this is the counterweight to the First Principle.  Trying to push people in specific directions, for their own good, will probably involve treating them like a homogeneous mass — which they’re not — and hurting them.  Not trying to push people in specific directions, for their own good, will definitely involve leaving them to the mercy of their own outcome-optimizing capabilities — which are awful — and hurting them.  Navigating between that Scylla-and-Charybdis pair is one of the Hard Problems of utopia.


Next post: the remaining Principles.

Principles of Culture Engineering, Part 1