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How to Disagree

Klint.Svanen.croppedSo you want to learn to disagree... congratulations! There are very few of us interested in mastering this skill rather than, say, learning how to be right or how to be rich. Learning how to disagree is one of the most challenging undertakings any human faces - rocket science is easy by comparison (it's just medium difficulty algebra), and brain surgery is a doddle (you just learn to forget that what you're manipulating is a person). 

Now let me make it clear that phrases like "let's agree to disagree" are not any part of learning to disagree. That particular statement is more about avoiding disagreement, that is, not talking about disagreement. This is actually a great strategy because it's easier to avoid talking about contentious subjects than to learn to talk when you disagree, and a vast number of cities around the world have won centuries of peace from marking certain conversations as off limits. Our trouble is, we've rigged everyone up to a half-baked hive mind called variously 'the internet' or 'social media' (or some such) and consequently made 'not talking' practically impossible. When you can't avoid talking about things, you have to learn to disagree. But we haven't.

Why is disagreement so challenging? It's because everyone must proceed from the basis that they are correct about at least some proportion of what they think, or else be paralysed with uncertainty and anxiety. We learn to defer on some topics (e.g. few astrophysicists master plumbing) and to trust our own judgement on others. To put it another way, we develop a sense of where we can find truth and where we can trust someone else to do so. When we undermine our ability to deal with the truth, then, we also tend to get anxious - or else furious, since as mammals we can always fend off ours fears with anger. So the truth, no matter what it might be, is very important to our well-being.

You may have heard it said that we are now in a post-truth world. What rubbish! Truth is exactly as it always was: complex, unwavering, glimpsed only in shadows. What characterises our current situation is not an absence of truth, but an inability to disagree about it - and everyone is afflicted with this problem. That you can point to obvious examples of lies and deception is rather beside the point, as it only shows that (as always) ambiguities can be exploited by opportunists. If you're sick of the 'post-truth world', what's needed is a path through the cacophony of disagreement - not by dreaming that 'once everyone acknowledges the truth' (i.e. agrees with you) everything will be miraculously resolved, but by trying something rather more radical instead.

Three Principles of Dissensus

Back in December 2019, I posted a very short tweet that I always wanted to get back to. The tweet read:

Three Principles of Dissensus

1. You are allowed to disagree.
2. The truth you find in your position is not necessarily evidence of the falsehood of those you disagree with.
3. Truth emerges through resolving discrepancies, and never from insisting on a single interpretation.

A consensus is when there is widespread agreement, while a dissensus is when there is widespread disagreement. The French philosopher Jacques Rancière suggests dissensus is essential to anything we might call democracy, and I wholeheartedly concur. Indeed, I don't see any authentic way to claim democracy while also claiming that no disagreement is permitted. As a result, learning to disagree is not only essential for our understanding of truth, it is foundational to any conception of democracy, even the laughable kinds we're currently stuck with.

First Principle: "You are allowed to disagree"

This sounds so obvious you'd think it wasn't worth stating. But it's absolutely crucial, the cornerstone of disagreement, and it's very, very hard to accept this in practice. There will either be numerous topics upon which you cannot bear disagreement (abortion, war, taxes, gender/sex, declawing, meat etc.) or you will have already thrown in the towel on the truth and be unable to accept that any robust agreement is possible in any context - a problem Nietzsche warned us was coming, but that we didn't really understand, and still don't.

The biggest problem with learning to disagree is what psychologists call 'cognitive dissonance', the vehement rejection of something outside of our understanding, since our minds will work to reimagine those who disagree with us in ways that allows us to ignore their humanity (especially when we don't speak to these people face-to-face). Take any of the big political divides of our time (it won't matter which country you live in) and you'll find two main sides positioning themselves against each other, backed up with rhetoric that either claims their side of the non-debate is of especial importance, or denigrates the other side as somehow subhuman. 

Allowing people to disagree with you is difficult. I very much doubt that you are as good at it as you think you are - I've had to work for decades to get even half-way good at it, and I still feel like an amateur.

"But what about such-and-such" you say. Yes, you can still disagree about this. The Dalek wants to exterminate you and all non-Daleks, and while you certainly won't let that happen without a fight you can allow them to hold their wildly xenophobic views while still insisting, quite rightly, that they are not entitled to kill you or others, not to mention preventing them from doing so (although ideally not by exterminating them...). Even a Dalek could be part of a democracy, provided it could lay down its weapons. And that's what most of us are lacking: that willingness to disarm, to let other people disagree.

Second Principle: "The truth you find in your position is not necessarily evidence of the falsehood of those you disagree with."

Provided you can accept that other people are holding (at least some) valid-but-different views to you, the next problem is recognising that you both could be right but in different ways. We all find truth in a unique and unrepeatable fashion, but we don't necessarily need to doubt that we are all finding (some) truth. The trouble is, we consistently act as if a great deal of disagreements have a single answer... working from that premise, wherever you strongly feel the truth of your own position, anyone who doesn't hold that view must be wrong.

But that's not necessarily the case. Even someone who denies that 2+2=4 might be correct - for instance, while thinking about numbers in base 3, where 2+2=11.

Beware of assumptions founded on mathematics and logic, though - in what's called Boolean logic something must be either true or false, but that's solely because that's how those terms are defined in that particular mathematical system. But the situations facing us are never that simple, and even when we can model part of the world through numbers, getting to the truth of what those numbers mean is more complex than merely stating the mathematics. Even the algebra of physics involves interpretation, as the great twentieth century researchers discovered, and conversely even statistics, the most interpretative domain in mathematics, can successfully reveal aspects of the truth when it is deployed with care.

You almost certainly have part of the truth. What you logically cannot have is those other parts of the truth you haven't yet considered - and these are denied to you until you can allow for the possibility of discovering fragments of truth in viewpoints that appear wildly misguided to you. 

Third Principle: "Truth emerges through resolving discrepancies, and never from insisting on a single interpretation."

Both the Sufi and the Hindus tell a story of blind people describing an elephant differently based on the part of the animal they're touching - there is more wisdom in that story than we like to admit, but there's also a risk of us taking this tale too literally. We assume, for instance, that since we can find no way of reconciling rival claims to whatever we hold to be true, there is no conceivable elephant to be found. But imagine that what was being described is not an elephant but, say, a rainbow at a waterfall. This will provoke just as varied responses from those using touch and sound to encounter it - "a rainbow is wet", "a rainbow roars", "a rainbow is slippery". From the point of view of someone who sees the rainbow, it's impossible to understand why anyone would make such ludicrous claims, yet the people speaking are only mistaken about the name they are using for the thing they're describing.

Whenever we insist upon only one valid interpretation of a situation, we are shutting down the possibility of finding the truth. Instead, we are gambling that the interpretation we have already chosen cannot be improved... even though we have no way of knowing how much of the puzzle we have managed to assemble. By learning to find the truth held in other people's perspectives, we can resolve discrepancies that at first we will not even notice...

First, we have to be able to disagree, then we have to allow for the possibility of truth coming down apparently incompatible paths. Only then can we start to put it all together... and at no point can we be certain that there is not something else - something not yet revealed to us - that we will still need to take into consideration.

Learning to Disagree

Now if you've taken any of this advice seriously, you might be worried about the awesome challenge of being able to disagree with everyone. Fortunately, you don't need to disagree with everyone directly (in fact, you cannot, simply because there's so many of us). Besides, learning to disagree is a community endeavour, since everyone you can successfully disagree with becomes a part of your own community, now matter how distant their connection to you.

The challenge as I see it is to find those arguments where people cannot manage to disagree, and try to find new ways of approaching the conflict. Those arguing probably won't want to stop and listen to what others have to say - they'll likely be too busy trying to exterminate their own Daleks, or at the very least discredit them, and that will keep them very busy. Also, you probably won't know how you can help (and if you know with certainty how to help, you definitely need to reconsider the second principle, above).

So... just listen. And keep practising how to disagree until we all finally master it.

The opening image is a detail from Hilma af Klint's Svanen (The Swan).


IntermissionWe've reached the final ten cyborgs in A Hundred Cyborgs, but before I tackle the culmination of this unexpectedly epic campaign I want to take a short break from the 500 word format to go back to the classic Only a Game style of 1,500 to 2,500 word pieces exploring philosophy from an accessible point of view, or dipping into media in various ways.

Partly, this is because I haven't picked the final ten yet, partly its because I'm oddly not ready to end the project despite having spent two years (!) on it at this point. My notes include dozens of cyborgs I've not pursued and presumably never will... choosing just ten to finish is proving an interesting challenge.

So for the next month, sit back and enjoy a return to Only a Game as it used to be - once a week, longer essays, and - as always! - discussion always wished for and seldom granted.

Stay tuned for the first 'classic style' piece, How To Disagree, tomorrow!

100Cyborgs: 61-70

The Virtuous Cyborg - Cut-outWhat are the behavioural effects of technological networks? What happens if we stop thinking about technology as shiny machines and start looking at other, subtler tools? Can we design technology to have better effects upon humans? These and other questions are what this blog project, A Hundred Cyborgs, are all about. Here are the ten posts from 61 to 70:

    61. Surrogate Knowledge
    62. Phone Upgrades
    63. Phone Mazes
    64. Anti-paywalls
    65. Quality Forms 
    66. Media Libraries
    67. Abbatoirs
    68. Water
    69. Corporations
    70. Pause

There was a three month gap between the last block (#51-60) and these, but it was an even bigger gap for me as I wrote the Arcade Cyborgs during my 2019 trip to GDC, and had not written any for some time afterwards (because I was busy completing my tribute to Mike Singleton, Silk). That's why the first piece, #61 Surrogate Knowledge, is a kind of 'revision' of the themes of the serial as a whole. I was trying to put it back into its context.

I think the first one that I wrote in this block was actually #65 Quality Forms, which expresses my ongoing dissatisfaction with the way that mid-sized bureaucracies substitute paperwork that records minutiae for any attempt at good practices. I encounter this mostly in the university, which this piece has in its cross-hairs, but the problem is far wider. This set me off on a bureaucracy riff that led to the related pieces on #63 Phone Mazes and #64 Anti-paywalls, different ways for organisations to avoid dealing with people.

#67 Abbatoirs is my rebuttal to vegan advertising, which I feel is letting vegans down, and risks reducing a valid ethical choice to yet another BS marketing bullet point. As for #68 Water, I actually planned to write an entire block of ten pieces on water cyborgs - which would have been easy to do - but in the end didn't feel like it would add more than a single piece would. #69 Corporations is another of those pieces that reminds us that our desire to offload blame onto anything but ourselves is a key part of the mess we have created, while #70 Pause brought this block to a thematic end.

I am always interested in discussion, so feel free to raise comments either here (ideal for longer debates) or on Twitter (perfect for quick questions). And if you’ve enjoyed any of these pieces, please buy a copy of The Virtuous Cyborg and support my research into cybervirtue!

The final Cyborgs are coming this Summer!


Road NetworkThe car-human cyborg remains the deadliest creature on the planet except for the alliance between malaria and mosquitoes. It’s also the cause of death we simply can’t be bothered to care about. I first made this point in Chaos Ethics, and have reiterated them ever since - including back in cyborg #5. As tragic as the quarter of a million deaths attributed to Coronavirus might be, road accidents cause over a million undiscussed deaths every year - yet it is unthinkable that we would trigger a lockdown to stop this steel-framed pandemic, even though it is quite possible when the lockdown ends we will have saved more lives by taking our cars off the road than by blunting the impact of the virus.

After the deaths, the roads are the other casualty of vehicle use we just don’t like to think about. For motor vehicles wreak tremendous violence upon our road surfaces - just as motorists cause the traffic they complain about, motorised vehicles are the cause of the potholes that drivers detest. A network of cycle routes would last many years without needing more than basic maintenance... motorised transport not only burns up resources making the vehicles and fuelling them, it uses even more resources building and repairing the infrastructure that makes the car inevitable, and thus scares people away from cycling. People are afraid to cycle because they are afraid the cars will kill them - and they’re right to be afraid, it’s just they are not safer in a car. The car itself is the very problem, and we are oh so experienced at ignoring it, especially when we get behind the wheel.

Roads as we currently operate them do offer a few opportunities for cybervirtue, such as building the excellences of navigation. So of course, we add robot navigators to destroy that possibility as well. And really, we are reaching absurdly as we try to find the positives in our nomadic “normal” life of endless motorised travel, as if it wasn’t the number one threat to life outside of the tropics, the biggest environmental health risk we face, and a major contributor to the collapse of land use diversity that is steadily driving our fellow species to extinction.

Yet we will not question the roads. We must not, for we have engaged in an endless double-or-nothing bet on this way of organising human life, and just as the gambler pursuing the Martingale strategy in a casino must eventually hit the house limit and go bankrupt, so will we. I encourage you to use the lockdown to reflect upon the way we take roads and travel for granted and imagine a future of lighter, slower, safer, friendlier vehicles that could make their roads last longer, and kill fewer people. We have a golden opportunity for making changes right now - let’s not waste this chance to imagine what a good transport network might be.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #90

The final ten cyborgs begin soon.


SupermarketsWe are supermarket cyborgs - if it were not for the cybernetic network of fields, harvesters, farms, mines, foundries, factories, ships, docks, cranes, trucks, and finally, supermarkets  you would die. You and I are as dependent upon supermarkets and wholesalers (“supermarkets for shops”) as we are on air and water. Buy from a smaller shop? They go to a wholesaler. Only eat out at restaurants? Where do you think they get their food...?

There’s something especially eerie about queuing to enter the supermarket under the lockdown restrictions that makes me feel our dependence all the more acutely. Empty shelves stick in the mind more than business as usual. But the supermarket is merely the end point in the food distribution network we are inescapably caught within. There are still a few million people within the shorter, older network of farms and markets, and even a few thousand fed in even older ways - hunting, gathering, and farming for yourself. For the most part, however, food is now a cybernetic service ensuring our utter dependence upon a network we barely comprehend. I touched upon this before in the context of palm oil, and that was a mere fraction of a percent of the vast complexities we supermarket cyborgs are embroiled within.

To ask about the moral and behavioural effects of supermarkets is to face the general condition of the contemporary cyborg - a kind of accidental ignorance I call in The Virtuous Cyborg ‘shallow-sightedness’. We are unable (and unwilling) to attempt a full picture of the inconceivable vastness of our cybernetic networks. We fill a trolley unaware that we are sustaining the poverty of sugar farmers, funding sweat shops, or keeping animals in dire conditions. Perhaps we suspect our impact, but ease our consciences by not thinking about it, or try to navigate the minefield via notions of ‘fair trade’ or ‘ethical shopping’ that flatten the wide view of the network into something that feels more manageable. Mostly, out of sight is out of mind.

Humanity is blessed with the intelligence to solve great technical problems and implement systems on a scale of complexity that rivals the intricacies of the natural world. Yet we cyborgs are cursed with a lack of wisdom that springs at its heart from our elevation of the individual in a way that allows us to equate liberty with the freedom to choose from the shelves of the supermarket, emancipated to enrich the wealthy and exploit the planet. When the philosophers of the Enlightenment argued for our self-determination and liberty, I feel quite sure this servitude to the checkout was not quite what they had in mind.

Wisdom was always a collective knowledge, a skill exercised by communities. When the scale of the systems required to feed us exceeds our mental grasp, the possibility of making wise decisions is shorn from possibility. Is there a wisdom of supermarkets beyond the shallow bribery of discounting and spurious offers? What could it possibly be?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #89

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Empty ClassroomIt is a curious time to be reflecting upon the cybernetic networks of our schools, given that they are effectively closed at the moment. But the absence of something can help bring it into sharper focus - and in the case of schools, their vanishing leaves me with three small children to teach myself. This immediately gave me a sense of awed respect for the teachers who somehow manage to keep everyone’s attention for six hours, for at home even one hour is a struggle, especially when dealing with kids of wildly different ages and attention spans.

My ‘home schooling’ turned a corner when I abandoned any pretence of following the official curriculum and simply taught what I knew well enough to teach confidently and what my kids showed aptitude or interest in learning. This has led to a dramatic improvement: I’ve largely eliminated the cryptic deciphering of exercises that come from a nebulous source and instead made teaching and learning an agreement between two individuals, in the manner advocated by Jacques Rancière in The Ignorant Schoolmaster. And isn’t this, in fact, what all education amounts to, if we take it as a purposeful activity and not a striving to check boxes?

Comparing my situation to the curriculum makes me question the entire guiding principle of school curriculum, at least as they are usually understood: as the proscribed template for subdividing learning. The necessity of the curriculum is to ensure that everyone advances slowly enough that everyone learns. This, it seems to me, still doesn’t work. Going slowly doesn’t magically get everyone’s attention, doesn’t guarantee an environment where students will commit to the active process of learning. Teaching is not like spraying crops, you can just lay it down thinly and hope it’s enough. Teaching is irrelevant until the student chooses to learn. The curriculum does nothing to address this problem - it merely provides a cybernetic brake on the rate of possible learning.

I don’t know what primary school teachers make of the curriculum - maybe they’re glad of a framework that regulates what they are doing. But it seems to me that the curriculum is a tool intended to absorb many students, and not a tool for facilitating teaching and learning. Maybe that is indeed what’s needed to deal with the conditions in the schools as they currently operate. But for the time being, I am content to pass what skills I have to my kids, and I hope that other parents are doing the same. I’m using pen and paper game designs to teach maths and English because I’m a game designer. I would be delighted to know other parents had taught plumbing, or sewing, or word processors, or carpentry, or indeed any skill at all, regardless of what the curriculum says. Learning is something that happens when people want to learn. Why do we attempt to force this opportunity to take a specific shape...?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #88

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Black DeathPeople walking around with masks over their faces, many unable to leave their homes. Millions dying. Between 1348 and 1351, a third of the population of Europe died as a result of the Black Death. Not only was there no vaccine against it, there was not even the concept of a vaccine. Yet there was one other vital difference between those alive in the Middle Ages and those of us alive today: they were prepared to die. They were just as afraid of dying as we are, but as Ivan Illich has stressed, prior to industrialisation everyone accepted the inevitability of death as the unavoidable fate awaiting everyone ‘when their time came’.

Vaccines were only a part of the transformation of our approach to life and health in the nineteenth century, but they marked a seismic shift in our response to infectious diseases. Suddenly, miraculously, it was possible to prevent illness by beating it to the punch, becoming mildly sick in order to develop an immunity that would prevent the worst ravages of a micro-organism. Disease, it suddenly seemed, could be defeated. And along with vaccines, there came surgeries, antibiotics, myriad drugs - so many amazing medical techniques... so many, in fact, that rather than everyone accepting that they must eventually face their own time to die, now people are willing to sue doctors for not putting their 90 year-old relative on a ventilator. We now behave, insanely, as if we could live forever if we just get the right treatments, as if we are merely machines in need of intermittent repair.

Until recently, vaccines were a focus of attention because of opposition to vaccination. Much of this resistance springs from misunderstandings: yes, the vaccine will make you sick. But that’s precisely the point: build immunity to a mild infection to protect against a worse one. But we don’t like to admit that, despite the obvious blunders, anti-vaxxers might not be mistaken when it comes to distrusting medical corporations to have our best interests at heart. The market for vaccines is worth $35 billion - and that’s less than 5% of what pharmaceutical companies make overall. With this much money up for grabs, what kind of corporation is going to pause and impartially consider where the limits of medicine ought to lie...?

Vaccines can ‘defeat’ a disease - yet disease and death remain the inescapable cost of living. Being a vaccine cyborg is sold to us in the terms of warfare - “the fight against coronavirus”, “eradicating the disease”, “help us defeat the virus”. I can imagine the landowners of the Middle Ages making similar claims about the protection they were affording in return for taxes, albeit in literal terms of invasion and rapine. Yet of course, that ‘protection money’ was used to instigate literal war - in the centuries preceding the Black Death, the Crusades were funded, ultimately, by taxation. Sooner or later, you have to look a little deeper into the arguments and actions of those we are paying for protection.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #87

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