Unifying the Simulacra Definitions

post by Zvi · 2020-08-03T12:10:01.076Z · LW · GW · 29 comments

Contents

  Different Definitions of Simulacra Levels
  Actions versus Systems
  Motivations versus Processes
  Simulacra Level of a System
  Level 0 Exists
  Level 3 and The War Against Knowledge
  Conclusion and the Unity of Level 4
None
29 comments

Epistemic Status: Confident this is the perspective I find most useful. This is intended to both be a stand-alone post and to be the second post in the Simulacra sequence, with the first being Simulacra Levels and their Interactions. It should be readable on its own, but easier having read the previous post.

Simulacra levels are difficult to understand.

This is not without cause. This is complex and bizarre stuff.

Simulacra levels are a map of the metaphors we use to create metaphoric maps of both territory and the map itself.

The text that coined the term Simulacra levels does not help matters. The term was first referenced locally by Ben Hoffman in this post, but this was not the original source.

The original source of the term is a super-dense work of French philosophy. It requires the reader to pause after every sentence. It’s not clear that a proper review would be shorter than the book itself. 

Thus, I’m still working through the book. The more I read Jean Baudrillard‘s further assertions, the less they seem deserving of engagement. He is opposed for nonsensical reasons not only to the concept of capitalism, but the concepts of money, value and trade, and even urbanization and mass production. He blames these for the rise of simulacra, whereas they are the primary forces opposed to simulacra. 

Upon parsing many of his super-dense sentences, I find many of them to be outright false. I find many others to be based on models and frameworks very different from my own, and that are assumed rather than specified in the text. The idea that capitalism isn’t the cause of all the world’s problems (never mind whether it’s the solution) does not seem to parse in his mind. I find many others to be downright absurd, or to be carrying water for the agendas of History’s Greatest Villains. 

This is a case where I strongly endorse taking the concepts that are useful and leaving the remaining giant mess behind. 

Baudrillard’s definition will be kept. Beyond that, I’m tossing essentially everything else away.

The goal of this post is to reconcile Baudillard’s definition with the Lion definition used in my previous posts, integrating the relation of a simulacra to reality with the motivational explanatory framework. This deals with the dueling definition problem so it doesn’t get in the way down the line, and I hope it helps explain why higher level activity systematically has such strange and hostile relationships to physical reality (and what Baudillard calls ‘profound’ reality.)

Different Definitions of Simulacra Levels

An additional confusion is that there are now multiple competing definitions, which seem superficially to point at different things, although I claim that both definitions are fully compatible once properly understood.

First, there are simulacra levels as defined in Baudrillard. The closest thing he gives to a compact full definition is this:

Profound reality is a weird term that is doing several distinct things. On a basic level, it means concrete physical reality unmediated by any symbols of any kind. It is what is, full stop. Lying masks and denatures that reality by representing it as something other than what it is, but this is less of an offense than there not being an underlying reality of importance in the third stage, or being cut free from that underlying reality entirely, as we are in the fourth stage.

On a continental philosophical level, there is this idea that anything mass produced, or anything that interacts with money, trade or other systematic motivations, rather than being fully intrinsic and local and spontaneous, or something like that, loses this something vital that Baudrillard calls ‘profound reality.’ 

I don’t think that this second angle is entirely nonsense. There is something important that can be distorted or lost when commodification sets in. Polanyi’s The Great Transformation is the best source I know about to make the general case for why this is inherently concerning. It also means that the person interacting with underlying/profound reality then exchanges the fruits of that interaction with someone else in exchange for something symbolic. Rather than gain the physical rewards, those are exchanged for rewards that are based on the symbolic associations of what has been created. This throws away any value for much of the underlying physical reality. The less connected production is with consumption, the bigger this concern. 

The difference I have with Baudrillard here is that I do not think this phenomenon is central to what is happening. And I am not eager to dismiss the many-leveled benefits of such systems. The discipline of the market, the need to match demand with satisfactory supply and the reward for doing so, not only are the main ways we have, in historical terms, an insanely great abundance of lots of nice things. They also keep us connected to the underlying reality, and keep our simulacrum (and maze) levels lower. 

It is precisely when this market discipline is lost or distorted that things get out of hand. Such systems force upon us symbols at all, bringing us firmly into the first level, as opposed to having no symbols and avoiding the scale entirely. And once on the scale, the slope upwards is slippery. But these forces also form one of our strongest defenses against rising to levels beyond that.

If I was going to write the symbolic description of Simulacra levels in my own words, I would say this:

Level 1: A symbol corresponds to the key elements of underlying physical reality.

Level 2: A symbol pretends to correspond to underlying physical reality, but instead distorts key elements.

Level 3: A symbol pretends to be a distorted version of underlying physical reality (that is in turn pretending to be the underlying physical reality), but instead only corresponds as necessary to maintain the plausibility claim that this is the case. 

Level 4: A symbol no longer pretends to be a version of anything other than other symbols. It has no relationship to the underlying physical reality.

Or more compactly:

Level 1: Symbols describe reality.

Level 2: Symbols pretend to describe reality.

Level 3: Symbols pretend to pretend to describe reality.

Level 4: Symbols need not pretend to describe reality.

Or a variation/alternative:

Level 1: Symbols accurately describe reality.

Level 2: Symbols inaccurately describe reality.

Level 3: Symbols claim to describe reality.

Level 4: Symbols no longer claim to describe reality.

A concrete example suggested by Michael Vassar:

Level 1: A court reflects justice.

Level 2: A corrupt judge distorts justice.

Level 3: A Soviet show trial conceals the absence of real Soviet courts.

Level 4: A trial by ordeal or trial by combat lacks and denies the concept of justice entirely.

Contrast that with the newer definition that’s based on what it means to say “There’s a lion across the river”, as described in Simulacra Levels and their Interactions:

Level 1: There’s a lion across the river.

Level 2: I don’t want to go (or have other people go) across the river.

Level 3: I’m with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river.

Level 4: A firm stance against trans-river expansionism focus grouped well with undecided voters in my constituency.

Or alternatively, and isomorphic to the Lion definition, from my previous simulacra post:

“There’s a pandemic headed our way from China” means…

Level 1:  “There’s a pandemic headed our way from China.”

Level 2: “I want you to act as if you think there might be a pandemic on our way from China” while hoping to still be interpreted by the listener as meaning “There’s a pandemic headed our way from China.”

Level 3: “I wish to associate with the group that claims there is a pandemic headed our way from China.”

Level 4: “It is advantageous for me to say there is a pandemic headed our way from China.”

See the previous post for more details and variations of meaning via this definition.

Careful reading of Baudrillard confirms my suspicion that both definitions point at the same thing while highlighting different aspects. 

They grasp different parts of the elephant. 

From here on, we will call the levels from the Lion definition L-1, L-2, L-3 and L-4, merged with the Pandemic definition. I will call the levels from the original Baudrillard definition B-1, B-2, B-3 and B-4. The claim is that L-1 = B-1, L-2 = B-2, L-3 = B-3, L-4 = C-4. 

This is relatively easy to see, and relatively uncontroversial, for levels 1 and 2. It is less so for level 3 and even less so for level 4.

The key differences are that they deal with lower-level actions versus higher-level systems, and that they deal with cashed-out motivations versus processes.   

Actions versus Systems

The Lion and Pandemic definitions deal centrally with the motivations for, and the meanings of, individual statements, actions and systems.

The Baudrillard definition deals centrally with the default or central interpretation of statements, actions and systems. It is the expectation of general interpretation and thus of purpose. 

One can usefully think of the relative importance of each simulacra level at any scale – of an individual statement or action, of an interaction, of a person or group, of a system or concept, or of a civilization or the world.

Higher levels of grouping and abstraction exist at the simulacra level that is the default motivation and interpretation of their lower-abstraction more discrete actions, statements and systems.

Motivations versus Processes

The Lion definition:

Level 1: There’s a lion across the river.

Level 2: I don’t want to go (or have other people go) across the river.

Level 3: I’m with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river.

Level 4: A firm stance against trans-river expansionism focus grouped well with undecided voters in my constituency.

The Baudrillard definition:

Level 1: It is the reflection of a profound reality.

Level 2: It masks and denatures a profound reality.

Level 3: It masks the absence of a profound reality.

Level 4: It has no relation to any reality whatsoever: It is its own pure simulacrum

The Lion and Pandemic definitions deal with the motivation behind an action or communication. Was it about communicating true information, updating someone else’s a model, sending a symbolic signal or creating useful associations?

The Baudrillard definition deals with the process by which the statement relates to what he calls the ‘profound reality.’ Does it deal with it directly, distort it, hide its absence or ignore it entirely?

These two patterns go hand in hand. 

At level 1, one directly deals with reality in order to communicate true information. One does not have to pretend.

At level 2, one distorts reality – in Baudrillard’s words, masks and denatures it – in order to convince others that what one is representing as reality is actual reality. One pretends.

At level 3, one hides the absence of reality in order to invoke a symbolic meaning, usually for the purposes of signaling. There needs to be a sufficiently strong sense of association to the underlying reality that the signal is understood and holds meaning, but not so strong an association that the signal can be confused for an underlying map. Reality must be absent, but in a way that is deniable. One pretends to pretend.

At level 4, one engages in pure simulacra, with no relation to the underlying reality at all. There is no object-level cashing out at all. The underlying reality is something to be sculpted by changing associations and symbolic meanings. Consequences of a statement or action are in terms of the consequence to a simulacra, as measured on the third and fourth levels. At most, one pretends to be offering pure level-3 simulacra. One does not pretend to pretend to pretend to be on the object level, rather one stops pretending, period. 

More than that. One does not merely stop pretending. One forgets that there was an underlying reality to begin with, and loses the ability to think about the underlying reality and guide it to better outcomes, except by doing so through agents operating at the levels in between. 

Simulacra Level of a System

All of these are phrased above in terms of an individual, but apply equally to a group, system or civilization.

Even more than people, groups, systems and civilizations have a mix of all levels. Moving up the level chain has instrumental rewards, and happens continuously unless there is sufficient push back. This is similar to the rise of maze levels. Existing systems must maintain some amount of low-level grounding, as well. Without sufficient grounding, doom quickly follows. Things collapse well before the amount of level 1 activity can reach zero.

A person can exist mostly or solely on one level. A larger group almost never does. When I speak below about being at a level, that means the most dominant one. It does not mean that the others are not present.

When a group, system or civilization is still sufficient in level 1, or has regained that footing, its symbols map directly to reality. Words have meaning.

When a group, system or civilization proceeds sufficiently into level 2, that means it is standard and/or wise to assume that level 2 motives and actions are dominant. Claims cease to be taken at face value by default. Trust is destroyed. The assumption is that someone is likely to be out to sell you a bill of goods.

It would not parse that someone would say something because it is true. It would only make sense to say something because it would be beneficial for others to believe it is true. And thus, even straightforward claims are interpreted this way. Still, because all claims must pretend, a relatively strong link to the underlying reality is maintained. 

When a group, system or civilization proceeds sufficiently into level 3, that means it is standard slash wise to assume that level 3 motives and actions are dominant. Claims cease to be taken not only at face value, but also cease to be taken as being claims about the world at all. It is assumed that claims are made because it is beneficial to be seen making a claim, or for one’s side to be seen making such a claim, due to its symbolic benefits.

But this is not a complete transformation. Not yet. Those symbolic benefits still have to be seen as tracing back to underlying ‘profound’ reality. 

Everybody knows, when things reach level three, that statements are made based primarily on their utility in the game. It’s no longer a big deal to say that which is not. That’s fine. The cool kids don’t want to cross the river and this is their slogan, so you repeat the slogan. 

The link to the underlying reality is tenuous, but still exists – if one can expose others as not being able to pretend, thus showing they have failed to pretend to pretend, they lose face. The symbols mask the lack of an underlying reality, but need plausible deniability while doing so. You need not believe, when claiming there is a lion across the river, that there is a lion across the river. But it would be bad to be seen knowing that there wasn’t a lion across the river, or being known to have no reason to think there was a lion across the river, and saying it anyway.

This maintains a weak link to underlying reality, so Level 3 never fully succeeds at existing purely on its own terms. Doing so transforms it into Level 4.

When a group, system or civilization proceeds sufficiently into level 4, that means it is standard slash wise to assume that level 4 motives and actions are dominant. Claims cease to be taken as anything other than symbolic moves. Any impact on the underlying physical reality via their accuracy or lack thereof is purely coincidental. 

The institutional memory of the object level is lost in all practical senses. The Level 4 parts of the system can’t see the Level 1 parts of the system. A sufficiently strongly Level 4 person, for whom level 4 has become truly part of them, almost always has the same issue. Level 4 doesn’t use logic or physical causation, so they’ve discarded those parts of their system of thought and no longer believe in them.

As I noted in the previous post, Level 4 is especially difficult for myself and many like myself to grok. It seems profoundly alien, perhaps evil. 

Level 0 Exists

It is worth noting here that B-0 and L-0 also exist, are important, and are congruent.

That’s where you don’t say there is a lion across the river in Lion-0, you simply don’t cross the river because you don’t want to get eaten by a lion. You are also in Symbolic-0, because you don’t have a symbol at all. Others can see that, and consider that maybe crossing the river is not a great idea, even if they can’t figure out why.

The key is that, on Level 0, that has nothing to do with your decision to not cross. The moment you don’t cross because of how others might interpret that decision, you’re a symbol, and thus in Symbolic-1, and communicating a map of the world, and thus in Lion-1. L-0 is what you are in the dark. We can call this The Hermit.

It is in this sense that Baudrillard is right to put the ‘blame’ for simulacra on capitalism or urbanization or mass production. These are the methods by which we have nice things and get to interact with fellow human beings. If one is alone in the forest, there is no need for symbols at all and the equilibrium is stable. The only way to entirely avoid manipulation of symbols is to not have any symbols. The price seems rather high. 

Level 3 and The War Against Knowledge

It is important to note that Level 3 is at war with knowledge. 

This is more than the “Level 3 sees knowledge as composed of things it can use for something else.” Level 3 is actively destructive of knowledge. 

At level 3, the following two things are blameworthy, creating two ways in which knowledge is a liability.

(These two are not everything that is blameworthy, of course. One can be blamed for other things as well – one can be part of the outgroup, be the designated scapegoat, etc etc.)

One blameworthy thing is not invoking the right symbols.

This is the “composed of things that can be used for something else” aspect. Caring about what is true creates an alternative incentive that prevents one from invoking the proper symbols, and casts doubt on whether those symbols mean what they seem to mean. 

Invoking symbols that are technically false rather than those that are technically true is, if anything, a stronger move in the game. This is why. It signals more strongly one’s costly sending of the appropriate signals, without room for misinterpretation as a lower level action. By repeating the lie, we show ourselves loyal. By getting others to repeat it, we drive them towards being and identifying as loyal, and get them to show others they are loyal, and demonstrate our power over both people and symbols.

The other blameworthy thing is knowing that what you say is false. What is blameworthy is knowledge itself.

(Or, perhaps more precisely, other people knowing that you know what you say is false, and thus anyone else’s knowledge of our having knowledge, as opposed to knowledge itself, but that’s also true of any other blame system.)

What did the President know, and when did he know it?

Thus, the shift in communication from explicit to implicit. The focus on having only deniable, tacit knowledge.

The follower who needs explicit instruction is a poor follower indeed. Specifying everything to be done is impractical, and makes it clear you have not only knowledge but responsibility. Much better to work towards the goals of the group, to pile on symbols that help win the game.

Thus does this structure drive everyone away from knowledge. The easiest way, by far, to pretend not to know things is to not know them.

Thus, Level 3 is not merely unconcerned with the profound reality. Level 3 actively symbolizes the absence of a profound reality. They are not merely orthogonal to an accurate map. They oppose it.

This situation is not stable. It relies on a lack of common knowledge. It also relies on a lack of individual knowledge. It also doesn’t present stable incentives and thus is not an equilibrium.

To be sustained, it requires sufficiently powerful residues stuck in the first two levels, who misunderstand what is going on. This is the force that requires people to pretend to pretend, when their actions are exposed to the public.

When there are insufficient naive forces to appeal to or worry about, the mask of pretending is dropped. People stop pretending to pretend.

“Facts don’t matter” is true at both levels three and four. But acknowledging that “facts don’t matter” and creating common knowledge of this will make short work of level three. It moves all actors up to levels three and four. This shatters the link between symbol and reality entirely. This moves us collectively to Level 4.

Level 4 is then not at war with knowledge the way level 3 is at war with knowledge. Level 4 doesn’t acknowledge that knowledge is a thing. Thus, there is no need to symbolize its absence. 

Conclusion and the Unity of Level 4

This hopefully provided additional perspective on simulacra levels. Ideally it provided at least some justification for the additional associations and implications I’ve placed upon levels three and four, and made clear how I think the Lion definition integrates with the original definition. 

I hope the whole system is also looking less like an elegant 2×2 with extra weird stuff piled on top of it that seems like it has an axe to grind, and more like a coherent system. In particular, I hope that it is now clearer why level 3 actively opposes knowledge, and level 4 loses access to logic and the ability to observe and analyze and optimize the physical world.

I hope that this will all become clearer as these posts continue. I’m especially excited by the next one, but felt I needed to get this one out of the way first, as the confusions it tries to clear up would otherwise have gotten in the way. It was necessary to tackle it first.

 

29 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by wearsshoes · 2020-08-03T15:31:33.503Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Zvi, thank you for writing this. I’ve been working through Baudrillard too and coming to the same conclusion - he is far more insight porn than philosophy, compared to famous scholars with similar metaphysics such as Foucault and Zizek. I’ve got a long post in the pipeline on this as well. 
 

It’s really frustrating that this community has been spinning up an elaborate schema which is a misinterpretation of a sophist, where the original conversants both admitted they had by that point only read the Wikipedia summary of the book. This feels like the opposite of quality scholarship, not that this is entirely Benquo and jessicataylor’s fault, rather how the discussion ended up picking this up and running with it. 

The rationalist community’s reading of Baudrillard tries to put some sense back into what is fairly sophisticated. But the main problem both groups make is assuming that Level 1 is some fallen ideal, rather than something progressively achieved. Baudrillard is baking a hotter take - which most rationalist discussion completely misses - that Level 1 is completely vanished and Level 2 is on its way out too. He thinks we live in a postmodern world (surprisingly to rationalists who haven’t read the postmodernists: like most postmodernist scholars he does not actually think this is very good) where meaning is composed wholly of simulacra, which does not actually reference the real world which our bodies live in, although he says the real world sure references it.

This misinterpretation of him is easy to make - partly because it sounds like he developed a philosophy out of being totally dissociated. He hated the Matrix, which the Wachowskis referenced him in, for this reason: in the Matrix the virtual reality can be escaped.

My alternative proposal is to re-ground the discussion in a better take about power relations and social games, noticing which groups throughout history play these games and which don’t. The basic conclusion is people generally converse as if they were in the 2nd order (level), jump up in simulation order whenever their access to resources they don’t produce are at stake, and jump down when they have a hand in producing resources. Global meaning has no particular order, unlike Baudrillard’s claim that it is of the 4th order.

More to come.

comment by Zvi · 2020-08-03T22:43:12.482Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm looking forward to it.

comment by Dagon · 2020-08-04T18:49:37.616Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
re-ground the discussion in a better take about power relations and social games

Thank you! this is the lens I was missing, and explains my deep confusion about why people are taking this weird categorization so seriously. Once I frame it as "all of these levels are simultaneously true (for different propositions, with focus on different types of decision/behavior), and different groups (or individuals) benefit from shifting the public discourse toward their wheelhouse", it makes sense.

Still not sure it's USEFUL, as opposed to a more direct analysis of power and relationship to overton window and acceptable analytical frameworks, but I think I get it more.

comment by Raemon · 2020-08-04T19:50:22.121Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Huh. I'm sort of surprised this hadn't come through before this comment. (In particular I thought Zvi's previous post on "There's a Virus Over The Ocean" laid it out fairly explicitly). I'm curious if you can articulate what made this comment click?

comment by Dagon · 2020-08-04T22:06:38.134Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Probably idiosyncratic to me - I bounced off the discussion a few times early on, and have since been skimming and sampling posts and comments trying to figure out why all y'all seem so invested in the model. Power and public/private belief dichotomy are certainly not central to most of the posts - it may have been mentioned a few times and I missed it because it seemed non-central.

I don't see "There's a Virus Over The Ocean" in Zvi's recent post list, and LW search only finds your comment with that phrase. Got a direct link?

comment by Raemon · 2020-08-04T22:34:23.977Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here you go (sorry, I actually forgot the title)

https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/qDmnyEMtJkE9Wrpau/simulacra-levels-and-their-interactions [LW · GW]

comment by Dagon · 2020-08-05T00:06:49.287Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah, I had seen that. And bounced off yet again, because it started out with repetition that the levels are progressive and exclusive, and it seemed to continue the implication that each level is the primary belief of the proponents/victims of that level.

It also uses an example where higher levels are strictly worse in the author's opinion, and I've seen so few examples of the other direction (where higher levels allow one to predict the future better, and we're better off ignoring Level 1 and 2 to get level 3 and 4 working well (perhaps in the context of societal equilibria), that I honestly don't know whether the theory is positive or normative.

Note: I should probably acknowledge that I may be The Nihilist in this system. Communication is an act, which sometimes conveys trivial factual information, and almost always conveys illegible status and connotative information.

comment by Raemon · 2020-08-05T00:24:17.198Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do personally disagree with Zvi about the right framing of the levels (with Mr Hire's comments on this post being an example of a disagreement in frame that I share)

comment by PatrickDFarley · 2020-09-16T04:37:56.981Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can you speak more to how higher levels would allow predicting the future better?

I might be mistaken - my understanding of this is that the act of knowing and understanding that other people are on levels 3 and 4 is itself still a level-1 act: it's an object-level belief about the states of human minds in the universe. And therefore you can be aware of the level-3 and level-4 effects of your own actions (and choose them accordingly), without being on 3 or 4 yourself. To be on level-3 or level-4 involves actually missing information (or at least risking missing it). As I've understood it.

And that's why Zvi put the "Pragmatist" at only level 2, even though he "balances impact at all levels they are aware of slash care about." He can lie, or he can tell the truth, and he does whatever will bring his net preferred effect across all levels. I think rationalists are the Pragmatist.

comment by SDM · 2020-08-05T10:07:03.137Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If your aim is to unify different ways of understanding dishonesty, social manipulation and 'simulacra', then Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit needs to be considered.

What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerningthat state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue ofbeing false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to

I think its worth trying to incorporate Frankfurt's definition as well, as it is quite widely known, see e.g. this video - If you were to do so, I think you would say that on Frankfurt's definition, Level 1 tells the truth, Level 2 lies, Level 3 bullshits about physical facts but will lie or tell the truth about things in the social realm (e.g. others motives, your own affiliation), and Level 4 always bullshits.

It does seem that bullshitting involves a kind of bluff. It is closer to bluffing, surely than to telling a lie. But what is implied concerning its nature by the fact that it is more like the former than it is like the latter? Just what is the relevant difference here between a bluff and a lie? Lying and bluffing are both modes of misrepresentation or deception. Now the concept most central to the distinctive nature of a lie is that of falsity: the liar is essentially someone who deliberately promulgates a falsehood. Bluffing too is typically devoted to conveying something false. Unlike plain lying, however, it is more especially a matter not of falsity but of fakery. This is what accounts for its nearness to bullshit. For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or a phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false.

Taken this way, Frankfurt's model is a higher-level model that distinguishes the ones who care about reality from the ones that don't - roughly speaking, bullshit characterises levels 3 and 4 as the ones unconcerned with reality.

comment by mr-hire · 2020-08-03T16:08:47.873Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

. The underlying reality is something to be sculpted by changing associations and symbolic meanings. Consequences of a statement or action are in terms of the consequence to a simulacra, as measured on the third and fourth levels. At most, one pretends to be offering pure level-3 simulacra. One does not pretend to pretend to pretend to be on the object level, rather one stops pretending, period. 

I think this is making the exact mistake in understanding level 4 simulacra that I was worried about here. [LW(p) · GW(p)]

There are level 4 players in moral mazes that essentially don't have a source of meaning beyond power (which itself isn't real meaning to them, but merely the closest substitute).  They are subject to the level such that this all they know.

There are also level 4 players that see level 4 as object, that can clearly think at that level and act through it, but also see and act through the other levels as well. And these people are not just NOT the cause of moral mazes, they are in fact the very leaders that are needed to create valuable organizations that change the world.

from that post:
 

Great leaders can switch between these 3 modes at will.  

If you look at Steve Jobs' reality distortion field, it's him being able to switch between the 3 modes at will, only using evaluative reality when choosing a direction - other times he's operating on Generative and Effectuative Rationality principles. This allows him to eventually shape reality to the vision he generated using his effectuative principles.  By using the proper types of rationality at the right time, he's actually able to shape reality instead of merely predicting it.

If you look at Walt Disney, he used to frequently say a phrase that indicates he knew how to switch between these 3 modes: He used to talk about he was "actually 3 different Walts: The Dreamer, The Realist, and the Spoiler".    Access to these 3 modes allowed Walt to do things that other's would have looked at with their Evaluative Rationality and viewed as impossible."

You can see with Elon Musk too.  Look at that the difference between how he acts with budgeting and how he acts with deadlines.  When he's budgeting, he uses his evaluative rationality - when he's making deadlines, he's using his effectuative rationality - he knows large visions and hard to reach goals actually help people take better action.  You shouldn't view his deadlines as predictions, but as motivation tools.

Are great leaders then liars?  No, great leaders are Kegan 5 players who don't just say things, but are actually operating through these 3 frameworks (to a first approximation) at any given time.  When a great leader is generating, their not worried about evaluating their ideas.  When they're evaluating, theyre not worried about effectuating those ideas. When they're effectuating, they're not generating. 

If your goal is to get the meme of "level 4 are lizard people and death to everything" or even "level 3 are opposed against truth and death to everything" you are spreading memes that will actively harm the rationality community's ability to shape the world in positive ways, by throwing out the baby (powerful leaders who can shape meaning) with the bathwater (lizard-like sociopaths that have no sense of meaning).

I suppose one critique could be something like: We want people and systems who are at Simulacram level 1, and are so good at level 1 that they can see the reality of people who are operating and 2,3, and 4, and actively oppose and reject them.  But my intuitions are that that will only work for being a good defense of simulacram level 2.  Level's 3 and 4 can destroy that system from the outside without breaking a sweat before it gets powerful enough to oppose them, and if you try to fight back using their own tools, THEY WILL WIN BECAUSE IT IS THEIR NATIVE LANGUAGE.

That's why you need a Simulacra level 4 that's "on your side."

comment by Zvi · 2020-08-03T22:42:14.570Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are three mistakes. One is the one you worry about, that levels 3 and 4 will be seen as evil and dark arts and avoided, preventing effectiveness. You can't just hit ignore.

The second is to fail to understand level 4 and even level 3 and treat them as much less alien than they are with respect to levels 1 and 2.

The third is to gaze into the abyss and let it gaze too far into you, and lose your grip on reality. Elon and Steve and Walt are pretty special. It's something to aspire to.

Balancing all the messages is hard. And right now, I am worried mostly about the first one.

comment by mr-hire · 2020-08-04T21:00:57.738Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that makes a lot of sense and is fair if that's the thing you're most worried about.  I hope you see how me adding comments to help people avoid the first mistake is important if that's the thing I'm worried about.

comment by knite · 2020-08-04T19:22:41.974Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you, Zvi, I've really enjoyed your simulacra posts and found them to be very insightful. As I read this post, I came up with my own formulation of the levels that feels useful:

L1: I point at something.

L2: I point at you.

L3: I point at myself.

L4: I point wherever I want.

comment by Yoav Ravid · 2020-08-05T06:40:14.276Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps L4 in this formulation would be "I need not point"

comment by knite · 2020-08-05T18:48:22.899Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think pointing at anything you want better conveys the nature of L4. You could describe L0 as "I don't point".

comment by Yoav Ravid · 2020-08-05T18:53:10.328Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Right, i agree. so L4 would be pointing wherever, whether there's something there or not (no need to pretend there is, it's only about the act of pointing)

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2020-08-22T06:24:25.115Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know where to put this, but I saw a tweet with 12k likes that was a (rough) attempt to summarise the siulacra levels in meme form.

comment by Chris_Leong · 2020-08-13T02:17:35.787Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm... I spent a while thinking about "pretending to pretend". I'm not sure if that's quite accurate. If I'm pretending to be just, I want you believe that I am just, so if I was pretending to pretend, I'd want you believe that I'm pretending.

It seems that you are using pretending to mean "trying to convince you to believe X" and pretending to pretend as "trying to convince you that I believe X in good faith". Maybe there's a frame I'm missing, but it doesn't seem like the best label (nor the worst either).

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-08-04T04:21:52.705Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Forgive me for asking a really basic question. But do you find it reasonable that we're living in a world where ground truth is on its way out? And how can Baudrillard?

If we "live in a postmodern world... where meaning is composed wholly of simulacra, which does not actually reference the real world which our bodies live in..." what does this mean in practice? Right now I'm starving and I'm about to go pick up a burrito from the restaurant down the road. My back hurts from a long session in the lab. This situation seems pretty real to me, even though I can find elements in my world that are more disembodied. But honestly, most of the stuff I have around me has a physical, practical, tangible purpose.

It seems like simulacra aren't so much about our direct, moment-to-moment experience of life, but how we think about and talk about the systems we inhabit, especially on a broad scale. But that seems to me more a consequence of how difficult they are to put into words. It's easy to find examples of deceptive or misleading behavior and speech. But it seems like part of the argument here is not just that there are 4 diagnostic categories of simulacra, but that we're in the midst of a crisis, or even already inescapably lost, in a totally consuming fantasy world. And I just don't see that. It doesn't seem even remotely true - regardless of whether or not that would be good.

Can somebody enlighten me as to how the "we live in the Matrix, and it's inescapable" perspective might be reasonable, just on an everyday lived-experience level?

comment by Vaniver · 2020-08-04T18:35:51.901Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Can somebody enlighten me as to how the "we live in the Matrix, and it's inescapable" perspective might be reasonable, just on an everyday lived-experience level?

A lot of this depends on "what matters" to you; how much is lunch about the food, versus who you're eating it with, versus what you're talking about? It seems quite easy for someone to be in a realm where everything that matters to them relates to social reality instead of physical reality. (This is mostly because the aspects of physical reality that do matter to them have had their variance reduced significantly, or have been declared not to matter.)

Much of the pandemic response, for example, makes sense when you think of people acting in social reality, and little sense when you think of people as acting in physical reality.

And, particularly if you're ambitious, you might care a lot about what your era rewards. Military success? New discoveries? Building new systems? Careful and patient accumulation of capital? Timely decisions? Influence accumulation and deployment? Clever argumentation?

On that front, I feel confused about whether our era is good or bad. It still seems like we're still in one of the better eras for ambition being achieved through new discoveries / building new systems, but also complaints seem valid that startups are too much about marketing and getting money from investors instead of building a great product, and more broadly that we only have progress in bits instead of atoms.

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-08-04T21:52:38.871Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The economist Mike Munger identifies 3 types of transaction costs: trust, transfer, and triangulation. Triangulation is making a connection between buyer and seller; transfer is the difficulty in allowing the good to change hands, and trust is the ability of buyer and seller to trust each other to uphold their promises to each other.

Every meaningful choice starts with a transaction. I can't pound a nail unless I buy a hammer. I can't go to college unless I pay my tuition. And so these transaction costs, which are social in nature, will be a part of every choice we make.

As the world gets more materially abundant, we make more choices over the course of a lifetime. So it makes sense that social signalling occupies an increasing fraction of our lives.

Because of that, it doesn't seem to me that "social reality" is something separate from physical reality, nor that it's wasteful or perverted. I feel very comfortable saying that we have serious trust, transfer, and triangulation problems in our society.

If I had to give an account of the weird pandemic response in terms of transaction costs, it might go something like this:

Some people have high trust in science, and enough knowledge and engagement with the news media that it's easy to transfer information about COVID-19 to them. Other people have low trust in science, media, and government, and their lack of scientific knowledge means that the cost of transferring scientific information about COVID-19 to them is high.

Compounding this problem, they don't trust most other people to know better than they do, or to explain things to them in a way that's accessible and respectful. There are probably people out there who could explain things to them in a way they'd be receptive to. But triangulating that interaction would be very difficult.

Given those difficulties, they "don't buy" that COVID-19 is a serious issue, and turn to their favorite politician or pundit, who reinforces their distrust and misguided notions of how the world works, because their constituents have an interest in feeling wise and respected by powerful people, and it's cheap to triangulate and transfer that feeling in exchange for a vote. By contrast, building trust in a smart pandemic response, transferring information about it, and triangulating that information with the voters is much more difficult.

I think that's a fair account of COVID-19 weirdness, and I think it gets a little closer to the causal dynamics of this particular situation. "Social reality vs physical reality" and "simulacra" just feel a little bit hand-wavey for my taste.

comment by mr-hire · 2020-08-04T22:09:42.048Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some people have high trust in science, and enough knowledge and engagement with the news media that it's easy to transfer information about COVID-19 to them. Other people have low trust in science, media, and government, and their lack of scientific knowledge means that the cost of transferring scientific information about COVID-19 to them is high.

Compounding this problem, they don't trust most other people to know better than they do, or to explain things to them in a way that's accessible and respectful. There are probably people out there who could explain things to them in a way they'd be receptive to. But triangulating that interaction would be very difficult.

Given those difficulties, they "don't buy" that COVID-19 is a serious issue, and turn to their favorite politician or pundit, who reinforces their distrust and misguided notions of how the world works, because their constituents have an interest in feeling wise and respected by powerful people, and it's cheap to triangulate and transfer that feeling in exchange for a vote. By contrast, building trust in a smart pandemic response, transferring information about it, and triangulating that information with the voters is much more difficult.

FWIW I think this misses a lot of trouble that people on LW seem to have with the pandemic response, which is that the news media and scientific organizations like the CDC had significant issues responding in a rational way.

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-08-04T22:49:26.834Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh I completely agree. My aim here wasn't to give a complete account of pandemic weirdness, just to show how alternative language can help us dissect the situation in a more detailed way than seems possible with "social reality vs. physical reality."

comment by mr-hire · 2020-08-04T23:19:05.598Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My aim here wasn't to give a complete account of pandemic weirdness, just to show how alternative language can help us dissect the situation in a more detailed way than seems possible with "social reality vs. physical reality."

But it's very different when "there are some people that don't trust the true information we're getting" and "none of the institutions that were supposed to be giving accurate information were." 

One of these points at an idiosyncratic problem with a specific group getting a bit confused, and one points at a systemic problem with our institutions' relationship with truth.  Which thing you focus on has direct implications for how useful this post is.

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-08-05T04:23:56.804Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Treat my post as utterly worthless for the purposes of actually dissecting the COVID response, and useful for the purpose of a quick sketch illustrating how a different choice of language could help us dissect the COVID response. I find it hard to express their behavior using the "social vs. physical reality frame." It's more natural to me to say something like:

"The CDC didn't trust the American public to conserve the limited early supply of masks for healthcare workers if they knew that masks were helpful. So they transferred the false information that masks were unhelpful, because it was easier to triangulate a single message that produced the desired behavior to the entire American public than it was to triangulate two separate messages - one for the untrustworthy public who'd buy up all the masks if they knew it would help; and one for the trustworthy public who would refrain from buying up the masks even knowing that the masks would be helpful to them. This decision reduced the transaction cost of buying compliance from the public in the short run by eliminating the triangulation problem, but also undermined trust in the CDC to an unknown extent. This may increase the transaction cost of buying compliance from the American public in the future due to the increased price of purchasing their future trust."

Shoehorning this analysis into the trust/transfer/triangulation framework for transaction costs is both easy for me to do, and feels like it makes my thoughts clearer. I know precisely what I mean by those words. By contrast, I don't think that "social reality" or "physical" reality carve nature at the joints, and I don't think I'll ever have a definition of them that I trust will be interpreted correctly by my audience. That's why I choose not to use them.

Obviously it's very clunky compared to just saying it in natural speech. But sometimes a linguistic straightjacket is helpful.

comment by mr-hire · 2020-08-05T17:27:50.878Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Shoehorning this analysis into the trust/transfer/triangulation framework for transaction costs is both easy for me to do, and feels like it makes my thoughts clearer. I know precisely what I mean by those words. By contrast, I don't think that "social reality" or "physical" reality carve nature at the joints, and I don't think I'll ever have a definition of them that I trust will be interpreted correctly by my audience. That's why I choose not to use them.

I like the trust/transfer/triangulation framework.  If I can, I'd like to add 3 words that I think would make the trust/transfer/triangulation framework as expressive as the simulacra level models: trick/truth/tribe.  By adding these 3 words, you can then begin to easily see which Simulacra level each player is playing on. 

In your example above, You would be able to see that the CDC is trying to transfer tricks to triangulate trust, which puts them at simulacra level 2 at least. 

Meanwhile, in the example above that,  you'd be able to see that a good portion of the public avoiding masks was trying to transfer truth about their tribe  through the use of masks, which puts them at least at level 3.

You could even use this framework to trace these organizations and individuals backwards, seeing when they learned to use tricks about truth and when they learned to use tricks about tribes.

But you'd still be stuck analyzing each individual agent and situation.

Meanwhile, the Simulacra levels are operating on a higher level of abstraction.  Can we quickly see which agents will use tricks and truth to triangulate either trust or tribes?  Is there a pattern to it? Is there a pattern to how agents learn to use these different tools?  That's what this framework is attempting to answer.

comment by mr-hire · 2020-08-04T17:14:59.487Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One place this feels really true for me is my emotions in relation to others, and even more so in the internalized emotions I've gotten from society (like the things I feel shame about).

When I look at my emotions in relation to others, the places I belong, the things I care about, the things I feel shame or guilt or belong or acceptance about, and really stare at them... they begin to dissolve, like a mirage.  It seems like a lot of the things I've been told "matter", I've been told to care about, aren't really based on this ground truth level. There's no there there.

comment by Yoav Ravid · 2020-08-03T18:45:49.456Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Typo: "The claim is that L-1 = B-1, L-2 = B-2, L-3 = B-3, L-4 = C-4"