June Speaking Gigs

If you happen to be in the UK, I have two speaking gigs in June, as follows:

  • The New Normal (Café Américain Launch Event)
    Friday 21st June 2024 at Verdurin, 2 Clunbury Street, London N1 6TT
    A panel discussion about censorship, in which I rather expect to be the most left-leaning of the panellists! Should be a good discussion.

  • “Adventures in Moral Horror”
    Philosophy in Pubs National Annual Conference
    Saturday 29th June 2024, 2-5 pm, Empire Room, Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool
    An afternoon of drinks and philosophy! I am thrilled to return to the Philosophy in Pubs annual conference, which is always a pleasure, and this year I’ve geared my topic expressly to foster interesting conversations at the tables.

I note that, despite now living in the United States, I have still not been invited to talk about philosophy here, except the aesthetics of videogames (I did a university tour, “The Meaning of Play”, back in 2017). If you would like to invite me to something, I’m always in favour of talking! I’ve given talks and keynotes on four continents, and would be especially thrilled to give a talk in Antarctica, if any penguins are listening...


Manifesto for Eternal Commons

EternityThe public domain, that collection of books and other media for which no claim of intellectual property is being asserted, might represent an early example of an Eternal Commons. We might add to this that wonderfully successful experiment known as open source software, and its fellow travellers with the apt epithet of 'creative commons'. However, a mythic image like 'Eternal Commons' evokes a project beyond being free to share, one that aims to secure as permanent everything within these intellectual commons and also to expand our thinking about what might become (or return) to being a commons.

Exploring this topic requires what Mary Midgley liked to call pulling up the conceptual floorboards to discover where that wretched stench is coming from. One such concerning whiff emanates from 'private' versus 'public'. Consider that 'private' describes my ownership of a teaspoon I inherited from my late father with which I proudly maintain the British tradition of brewing tea and also the holdings of land barons who claim ownership over vast tracts of our planet. Likewise, 'public' denotes those aforementioned intellectual commons and also state-ownership of everything from schools, to armies, to regulators-slash-enablers. Likewise, how does this public-private distinction apply to chatter on social media platforms owned by giant corporations and censored by supra-national entities like the European Union...? The public-private distinction is beyond strained at this point, it is inadequate.

Yet so much of our political discourse is caught up in this public-private mythos. In the United States, for instance, where I currently live, the blue team waves the 'public' flag while taking much of its funding from corporations. This camp tries to convince voters that an enlarged state will benefit everyone, and not just the shareholders for those companies investing in blue team politicians. Meanwhile, the equally corporate-funded red team waves the 'private' flag and is absolutely convinced of the hopelessness of relying upon governments to solve problems. While I'm certainly sympathetic to the idea of a smaller state bureaucracy, nobody seems to have an answer to my question about what can place limits on commercial power if it is not the state...

As the renegade Catholic priest Ivan Illich understood all too clearly, part of our problem is that these carefully curated political divisions merely offer different flavours of economics. In my modest career as an author I've been repeatedly struck by the ways the Marxists I've worked with mirror the capitalists they purportedly oppose. Witness the strange case of John Hunt Publishing: wealthy Marxists bought out a publisher they previously worked for, then ejected the also-Marxist editors who had been working in good faith on the brands this publisher established. Everything about this takeover scenario is indistinguishable from capitalism - and with good reason, because communism and capitalism are merely different forms of economics, with both embedding the same core assumptions. Marx's great achievement was bringing capitalism into clear focus so that economists could pick which kind of giant economic entity gets to gobble up everything of value - the corporations or the nation states.

Against this, one of our few lines of defence is maintaining commons. The term comes to us through English history, but I will refrain from a digression on this theme since I think it quite likely that anyone who has made it halfway through this essay has a fair idea what the commons were, and how wealthy landowners were able to destroy them through 'enclosure', which is a charming euphemism for 'theft'. Sadly, the tremendous merit of our shared spaces was rather obscured by Garrett Hardin's infamous essay "The Tragedy of the Commons", published in the journal Science in 1968, despite a notable lack of anything scientific within its rhetoric. Hardin's claim that the commons were doomed to mismanagement was mistaken, as he was eventually forced to concede, since historically most common lands were well-managed. But his mistake was one which everyone makes: interpreting everything within the rigid assumptions of economics. Once you've made this commitment, it scarcely matters which flavour of economics you prefer.

Eternal Commons could be texts, images, music, sculpture, video, games, shared land, nature reserves, funds of money, technological processes, or anything else beside. They consist of the two elements their name implies: a commons, being something that nobody owns but that everyone might benefit from, and a state of being eternal, such that their exclusion from owned property cannot be terminated. If the public domain currently seems to be an Eternal Commons, I would caution that the growing lust for censorship must eventually threaten even this. The necessity of defending against that flexible bugbear 'misinformation' may yet require cordoning off sections from this library of the past 'for our own protection'...

It is the librarian and not the economist whose practices carry with them the hope for a future worth imagining. The public domain, open source software, and the creative commons already provide us with Eternal Commons to defend, and from this bastion of intellectual thought and digital pragmatism we might sally forth and ponder what else might be transformed into an Eternal Commons, what other kinds of collective agreements we might forge in this image.

It is noteworthy that in 1620, when Sir Francis Bacon set out his battle plan for the future of the sciences, he was convinced that inventions necessarily benefit all mankind, and not just some privileged subset thereof. In retrospect, it seems clear this was a manifesto less for scientific practice than for technological research - the bastard child of economics and the sciences. From our vantage point it should be becoming abundantly clear that, in the context of pharmaceuticals at the very least, patent law does not so much encourage innovation as invite fraud and bankroll corruption. A great deal of harm could be prevented by placing all methods of pharmaceutical manufacture into an Eternal Commons, from which it will become far, far easier to establish what is an effective medicine and what is toxic snake oil dressed up in scientistic branding.

The practically minded will no doubt at this point be bursting with objections, including the pragmatic concern that such a wistful ideal as Eternal Commons is inconceivable given the ambitions of the disproportionately influential. But here the economists might have a helpful lesson for us! For did not the more scurrilous lovers of money realise that smaller nations, lacking the resources to sell out to the plutocrats, were in a wonderful position to invent laws making them home to 'offshore banks' that could ride roughshod over attempts by the larger nations to derive taxation from the wealthiest individuals...? Likewise, those countries outside the reach of economic empire might well be places where the seeds of new Eternal Commons might be grown.

In this regard, Bruce Sterling's 1988 novel Islands in the Net - whose narrative commences last year in 2023 - is prescient in imagining 'data havens' in Singapore, Luxembourg, and Grenada that refuse to comply with global attempts at online censorship. Might the illegal filesharing network I call the 'black library' (since it is certainly not a black market) have potential to become a worthwhile Eternal Commons...? Perhaps. For now, however, I'll restrict my remarks on online piracy to the more modest idea that the outrageous punishments corporate intellectual property owners inflict for violations of copyright are entirely unreasonable consequences for the crime of operating an unlicensed library.

In time, we might even find ways to put land ownership within reach of an Eternal Commons... This is absurdly ambitious, and far beyond the scope of what we can hope to achieve now. Yet we are already appreciating the dangers entailed in the ludicrous concentration of wealth that gave us 'effective altruism', which might be better called 'imperial philanthropy'. This dreadful project of the ultrarich to remake the planet in their own delusional image comes from a hopeless vision of charity that obscures the profiteering entailed in the majority of 'humanitarian' projects. Perhaps the only legitimate ideal for high-society charity we ought to endorse is the transfer of wealth into the Eternal Commons - any kind of commons would suffice. If we can ever achieve the normative conditions for this, we really would be getting somewhere!

It is not enough to oppose the New Normal, we must have ideals that can circumvent it. This cannot come from fully-fledged utopian templates, which fortunately we seem to have lost faith in. What we require are flexible templates that are resistant to economics, and the only concept I've encountered with anything like the necessary collective power is that of the commons. Nobody owns the commons, and everybody must co-operate in maintaining these libraries and shared spaces. In an age of censorship and fragmentation, it feels inconceivable that a manifesto such as this could take root and from it flourish a forest of Eternal Commons. Yet when thought itself is threatened, perhaps it is only the unthinkable that can rescue humanity from itself.

The opening image is Eternity by Michael Lang, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


Café Américain: The Kings Are Dead

Very proud to have an essay in the launch edition of Café Américain, the new free speech and free thought publication that positions itself against the attempt to close down open political discourse. The essay is sardonically entitled “The Kings Are Dead, Long Live Google Rex!”. Here’s an extract:

If nobody is touting the Divine Right of Tech Companies, neither is anybody in a position to propose cutting off Google’s head in order to set matters right. It is hard to avoid accepting that whatever limited power royalty might still possess today is dwarfed in both scope and scale by the informational kingdom of Google Rex.

You can read the whole thing over at Café Américain.

Apologies for anyone who got this from Stranger Worlds as well as from Only a Game.


Termites vs Meerkats in the Knowledge Wars

12 minute read

Termites vs Meerkats v2Among the more surprising things I've been told by an intellectual acquaintance this year is that there was no point debating the evidence on a certain contentious issue because we could each cite our own supporting research. Yet this amounts to saying we've given up on empirical science - and honestly I rather fear this might be the case. But if this were so, how can it then be insisted by those who purport to possess authority that we must 'follow the science'...? There are questions here that matter and that can hardly be ignored without undermining any plausible concept of democracy.

When we encounter strangeness, the easiest psychological defences will always tend towards either denial or demonisation - hell, the whole of the political landscape in almost every democratic nation is almost entirely explicable through cognitive dissonance. The path less taken (especially by contemporary philosophers) is thinking. To borrow my mentor Mary Midgley's metaphor of philosophy as conceptual plumbing, this means tearing up the floorboards underneath our house of concepts in order to discover where the nasty smells are coming from.

In this instance, and indeed many like it, the problem originates in the loss of something we didn't even know we had: our shared framework of collective knowledge, that is, an epistemic commons. 'Epistemic' is the adjective for knowledge, and a 'commons' is something everyone makes free use of, while communally agreeing on the practices relating to it (for instance, a field that anyone can bring their sheep to for grazing, and the community itself decides how to organise this). A civic society requires an epistemic commons, not least of all to ensure we are talking about the same things. That major political arguments can now occur over such traditionally uncontroversial concepts as 'woman', 'man', 'climate' and 'weather' - not to mention 'safety' and 'efficacy' - are clear warning signs that something has gone horribly wrong with our epistemic commons.

This problem is rooted in radical and unprecedented changes to our academic circumstances. Up until the twentieth century, it could be claimed that the primary civic role of universities was to cultivate a community of virtuous scholarship that maintained the epistemic commons. Since then, alas, research investment has usurped and supplanted this purpose and arguably led to the end the university as such (see After Universities). The impression that this is 'how it is supposed to be' is merely back projection to justify the enslavement of scholarship to technology (that is, 'science plus money'). We have forgotten what a university was and now resolutely believe this to denote a research institution, a concept that arrives only after 90% of the history of universities to date has passed.

We cannot afford to leave this matter unattended, much less permit the cognitive dissonance it engenders to heighten our denial or our demonisation. Without either a newly negotiated epistemic commons (see No Reality without Representation) or an entirely unconceived alternative, we are slouching towards civil war on a global scale, the outcome of which could be far more catastrophic for human life than current anxieties about our every-growing environment impact. This question is thus a most urgent locus for thinking, perhaps the most urgent our species has yet faced, and it is no solution whatsoever to refuse to talk about it.

In order to trace possible solutions, I want to present two different metaphorical images for epistemic commons, one that I believe lies behind my academic acquaintance's ongoing allegiance to the ruling power structures, and another that I suspect underpins my own rejection of this new whirled order. Neither is 'right', both have strengths, weaknesses, and risks - both could be corrupted... indeed, my sense of the crisis we have sleepwalked into (see Awakening the Sleepwalkers) is precisely that both have been corrupted in radically different ways.

Termite Knowledge Networks

Of all the incredible aspects of the natural history of Africa I witnessed during my brief time in what is now Burkina Faso, little was more impressive than termite mounds. Towering above the ground - often at twice my height - these insect-built skyscrapers are constructed above underground nests that are home to thousands of termites, each specialised to different roles within the colony. Workers, soldiers, reproductives... specialisation is key to the extraordinary achievements of these relatives of the earliest winged insects, who in parts of Africa have transformed the entire local ecology in ways that have benefitted all the local wildlife.

The names of 'queen' and 'king' termites are misleading - they do not rule as such, but merely provide the eggs for the huge number of nymphs that then differentiate into specialist roles. Rather, each termite colony is a collective (a so-called 'superorganism'), where the contributions of each insect is vital to the prospering of all. This kind of eusocial arrangement has developed among many other largely unrelated insect species such as ants and bees, and the key in every case is specialisation and not - as the regal euphemisms imply - hierarchy. This is not hierarchical monarchic rule but a network of mutually defined purposes.

By analogy, then, we can speak of a termite knowledge network, where specialisation of roles is the underlying principle. Indeed, intuitively this what we imagine underpins our industrial knowledge economy. Specialist researchers and non-researcher experts (whom today we often forget exist) maintain knowledge in compartmentalised domains. Journalists with their own specialisations (sometimes asininely conceived, as with the absurdly broad term 'science reporter') then propagate changes with respect to this knowledge as 'news', while book publishers try to capture lightning in reference books.

I feel confident that faith in the efficacy and reliability of these networks are the reason so many, including my aforementioned academic acquaintance, place their trust in government and industry sponsored narratives, despite a lack of trust in both government officials and corporate CEOs. Indeed, this is the only way to explain the widespread acceptance of such diverse and otherwise arcane popular beliefs such as 'climate change is so vital we must not research it', 'vaccine candidates without pharmacovigilance are safer than with rigorous oversight', or 'pornography in school libraries saves lives'. Yet the strangeness of these claims is not prima facie evidence that our termite knowledge network has been corrupted. Remember the oddness uncovered in quantum mechanics, after all...

However, the termite knowledge network absolutely requires that those who have been specialised to a role are able to fulfil it. The sign of the corruption of our knowledge network - and the consequent collapse of the epistemic commons - is that those who are best positioned to advise are prevented from doing so if they do not align with pre-prescribed positions. The strongest evidence of this can be found in the lawsuit Missouri vs Biden administration (now, Murthy vs Missouri), legal discovery for which showed how epidemiologists and health economists were censored on social media at the command of the US government (shredding the First Amendment), solely because they brought attention to the lack of reliable knowledge behind what were very odd courses of action to undertake. Likewise, despite their evident qualification to speak on the topic, detransitioners are routinely excluded from the conversation about how to approach the fraught political quagmire that is gender metaphysics (see Were You Born This Way?).

As always, denial and demonisation remain the most common result of confronting any aspect of this corruption of our termite knowledge network. Ever wondered how a diverse range of people are suddenly 'far right' - even committed lefties like Russell Brand! - and thus necessarily deplorable...? The tremendous desire to believe that there's no reason to be concerned and that the problem is entirely up to those terrible Others is in itself a sign of the problem. But to truly get to grips with the situation requires us to wrestle with the other go-to cognitive dissonance avoidance phrase: conspiracy theory. And this brings us to the meerkats.

Meerkat Knowledge Communities

Unusually for social mammals, meerkats do not have a strict hierarchy. It is not that no meerkat is dominant - there is always a pair 'in charge' - but unlike wolves (or indeed chickens) there isn't a strict 'pecking order'. Up to thirty meerkat cooperate in each mob, pursuing a variety of communal activities including keeping watch for predators. There are even birds, drongo, that will stand guard in return for some of the food the meerkats gather - a situation that sometimes becomes a real life Prisoner's Dilemma when the bird proves less than trustworthy.

Again, by analogy we can speak of a meerkat knowledge community, where trust and cooperative practice underpins the activities, the groupings are smaller, and roles are mutable and overlapping. Historically speaking, many academic fields went through a stage like this: when Isaac Newton wrote about the mathematics of planetary motion, the number of 'natural philosophers' with skin in the game was few enough that everyone had read everyone else with anything to say on the matter. Anyone with an interest in Newton's physics simply read Newton's own book. (Of course, a printer also produced the book itself - but they changed nothing in what Newton wrote, which is never true of publishers today.)

The impression that this form of knowledge curation is no longer around is caused by our false association between knowledge and research. But maintaining knowledge is a much older and indeed far more crucial practice than research, which has only risen in importance owing to the commercialisation of the sciences through technology. We can find meerkat knowledge communities at every church, temple, mosque, and synagogue; in every scout and guide troop; at every gun range and bowling alley - even pubs and bars can be meerkat knowledge communities. Wherever knowledge is conserved and propagated, there will be a knowledge community... and the communities entailed are typically small and localised.

An authentic meerkat knowledge community maintains the practices of a form of knowledge, and these are legion. Such communities can also adapt to almost any change in the circumstances surrounding their practices - consider the enormous transformations entailed by raised row gardening as a brilliant example of how even successful knowledge practices can undergo radical and unexpected transformations, even within comparatively short intervals.

Furthermore, because such communities are usually comparatively small (many have no more than a hundred or so people) they can also maintain practices which may or may not constitute knowledge as such. Some may be metaphysical, such as theology or faith in the sciences; some may be speculative in other ways - and this is where we find conspiracy theories being shared. Despite the archetype of the lone kook, communities of one kind or another connect almost all conspiracy theorists (by which I mean people speculating about actual conspiracies, not people being censored for holding inconvenient views).

Now it is an interesting feature of our times that 'conspiracy theory' has been massaged into the implication of being false. Because this could only be a plausible assumption if nobody was ever involved in conspiring - which would be a ludicrous assumption. Indeed, the people who benefit from a blanket dismissal of conspiratorial thinking are precisely those most likely to conspire. Still, most conspiracy theories are not knowledge as such but rather speculative scenarios that seek to provide explanations of events in terms of the causal actions of people who would plausibly deny wrongdoing (i.e. everyone). Authentic conspiracy theories inevitable lack decisive evidence (although evidently some of the reports that are now dismissed under this term are well-evidenced e.g. that the Biden administration has censored inconvenient discourse, which disclosure in Missouri versus Biden confirmed as factual).

The meerkat knowledge communities of conspiracy theories are thus engaged in discussing speculative models of events that run ahead of the evidence to some degree. As such, they perhaps ought to be called speculative hypotheses, and we might therefore talk of meerkat speculation communities as a specialist kind of knowledge network. It is my conclusion after observing the discussions of this kind of community online that they occur in a pattern of layers, from the surface layer of a meerkat knowledge community that constrains its speculations to the available evidence, to the most fanciful deep layers that explain half a century or more of events as the result of interlocking conspiracies. I cannot prove these hypotheses false, and if they become extremely fanciful in the depths they are not more fanciful than the hypothesis that everything done by government politicians and corporate executives is strictly for the good of humanity.

Thus much as strange conclusions from our termite knowledge networks are not evidence of their corruption, neither are conspiracy theories evidence of the corruption of meerkat knowledge communities: nobody is in a position to discredit or debunk speculation that further evidence might yet reveal to be true, and by definition conspiracies are underdetermined until such time as substantial evidence is unearthed (especially but not exclusively through legal disclosure). It is worth remembering, after all, how preposterous heliocentric cosmology, continental drift, and even hand washing to prevent infection were in their times. It is certain that some subset of conspiracy theories will be validated - and nobody can reliably predict which will come to be accepted. (Look at the utter reversal of beliefs about Emily Dickenson, for instance).

Rather, the corruption of meerkat knowledge communities is evidenced by the collapse of the community itself. The minimum knowledge any community possesses is an understanding of how to remain a community - a far more significant achievement these days than we give credit! No matter the weird and wacky beliefs of any group that associates, the fact of their continued association is a kind of knowledge (often of a habitual rather than a propositional kind), and it is the corruption of this knowledge that will destroy the association.

This provides a clue as to the other reason why the epistemic commons has collapsed. In addition to the corruption of our termite knowledge network through censorship, we have also thinned down our knowledge of how to maintain meerkat knowledge communities by supplanting them with an automated alternative: social media. Yet the knowledge entailed in participation with these digital tools is not knowledge of how to associate, but merely interface competence. Worse, the associations we make in such spaces (follows) and their opposite (blocks) serve not to foster community but rather to purify ideology - they group people into an illusion of community without providing any knowledge of how to associate. Indeed, the habit inculcated through participation in these non-communities is how to push a button in order to self-alienate from anyone remotely different from us - it is a sick joke to then make claims that our motivations are 'diversity and inclusion'!

We have thus corrupted both aspects of the epistemic commons, and the illusion that our collective knowledge is still functioning normally is scaffolded by the manipulation of the very tools that facilitated this wretched calamity. I am largely agnostic to the question of whether this dreadful state of affairs was intentionally manipulated or the consequence of a cascade of incompetence, although it is my default policy - we might call it hokum's razor - to avoid invoking conspiracy where ineptitude suffices as an explanation. Frankly, how this happened is far less important than what we do about it... and in this regard, it matters greatly that an enormous number of otherwise sapient people, like the associate I mentioned at the beginning, continue to have faith that our epistemological situation remains fundamentally trustworthy.

Conclusion

It will come as little surprise if I say that I place greater trust in meerkat knowledge communities than I currently can in our termite knowledge network. Yet I would be the first to admit that we do not currently have a means of maintaining a global epistemic commons without the help of the termites. It is a luxury I possess as a voracious reader that I am willing to negotiate the conflicted accounts of the meerkats with some confidence, sorting wild speculation from grounded interpretation with the care that flows from perpetual agnosticism. It is evident that this is not a general solution to the problem, but rather a situation evoking endless ambiguity, and whatever my competence I am limited by all the weaknesses inherent to any lone investigator.

Of course when the termites are causing more harm than good they become a pest - I find it easy to abandon premature certainty under such wretched circumstances, yet acknowledge the psychological costs involved will not appeal to most academics, who derive a great deal of their self-worth from the legitimacy claims of the network they participate in. This is also true of those downstream of academics, most obviously science reporters, who are apparently woefully incapable of the thinking required to operate without termites, or else perhaps have 'purified' their associations of anyone who might be so endowed with prudence.

The crisis here is exacerbated by the fact that all the oddest positions taken up by the termites are politically aligned with the blue team in the United States - this, indeed, is the most plausible explanation for why the termites have fallen into corruption: politicisation. This is why this nightmare could result in civil war if it is not resolved, since a nation of gun owners founded upon 'the shot heard around the world' requires an epistemic commons to bolster any stable national identity. Furthermore, the collapse of the US would trigger a global destabilisation (if indeed one is not already underway). The epistemic commons has been helping to stabilise international relations far longer than banking and commerce, which have failed to achieve the international peace Kant and others hoped for (see The Great Graveyard of Humanity).

If we want to escape the worst consequences of this ever-growing catastrophe, we must begin by admitting we have a problem. Termites see the problem in those who don't acknowledge their network's authority, but a great many meerkats don't seriously recognise any authority but their own liberty. Small wonder this dispute frequently manifests polemically as authoritarians versus libertarians. Yet we agree on one thing: we have a problem with our knowledge, and anyone who thinks the solution is going to come from a policy of 'shut up and accept what we say' is more naïve than the most credulous of conspiratorial speculators.

The only viable solutions begin by admitting failure and renegotiating the terms of our collective knowledge. There is more than enough political, historical, scientific, religious, and ethical knowledge held in our extraordinarily diverse meerkat knowledge communities to rebuild a termite knowledge network capable of acting as a viable epistemic commons. But to get there, we first have to recognise that a metaphorical wasteland we cannot bear to acknowledge has been encroaching upon our termite mound for decades. Now and forever, we need the wisdom of Socrates who warned "all I know is that I know nothing".

Comments always welcome, although my replies here may not appear swiftly.


The Minds of Squirrels

The Minds of Squirrels.coverMy last long-form essay for Only a Game this year has been drafted for quite a while, but I haven't had time to paste it up and run it owing to requests at other publications for submissions. The first of these, The Minds of Squirrels, picks up two themes of mine with quite a history at this blog: evolutionary mythology and, of course, squirrels. Here's an extract:

Indeed, if we take a long hard look at the role of genetics in animal behaviour, we may find that we are so closely related to everything from worms, to lobsters, to fish, to birds, and of course to squirrels in terms of the key genetic contributors to behaviour. It then becomes laughable to suggest, as so many do these days, that the behaviour in, say, the corridors of contemporary desk slavery can be explained in terms of what human ancestors were or were not doing on the African savannah. We would be on surer footing explaining anything we observe in terms of what early mammals did in the Cretaceous period, or fish in the Devonian—but in all these cases the genetic explanation provides only one thing: the Lego blocks behind emotions.

You can read the entirety of The Minds of Squirrels over at Analogy magazine.

PS: While I'm cross-posting, I should mention the final part of Origins of Ghost Master, over at ihobo.com, which I ran for Halloween this year.