Self-Keeping Secrets

post by lsusr · 2019-11-10T07:59:15.119Z · score: 43 (21 votes) · LW · GW · 4 comments

A magician never reveals his secrets.

The secret behind nearly every magic trick ever performed is available at your local library. Magicial secrets stay secret because they're inconsequential. Unless you are a magician or aspire to become one, you have better things to learn than magic tricks. If magic tricks did anything that mattered then they wouldn't be magic tricks. They'd be technology.

Magicians don't need a conspiracy to keep our tricks secret. It takes work to learn how to do magic. Friction and inertia are sufficient to keep out the riffraff.

This is true of more important subjects too, like computer security. Though zero-day exploits themselves are precious secrets, "how to find" zero-days is public knowledge. And since zero-day exploits have a limited shelf-life it's "how to find" zero-days that matters.

Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

―Benjamin Franklin

Organizations leak like a sponge. Organizations can keep passwords secret most of the time only because a good authentication system is easy to reset. If you're even the slightest bit concerned that your passwords have been stolen then you can re-randomize them. Similarly, an intelligence agency maintains its stockpile of zero-day exploits by constantly replenishing them. To an organization, "preserving secrecy" really means "restoring secrecy". Techniques can't be kept secret because they change too infrequently to restore secrecy after they get stolen.

In practice, organizations face the opposite problem: not enough knowledge is widely-known. Training people is so hard that the limiting factor of an organization's size is how many skilled employees it can hire. The bigger your organization gets the more it'll suffer a regression to the mean. Scaling a company is an exercise in dumbing down your employees' jobs to counteract the regression to the mean.

Large organizations can neither keep knowledge secret nor spread it around. In other words, a dependence on smart people of any kind inhibits the growth of an organization. An organization can scale to the extent it makes its employees'—and especially its customers'—intelligence unnecessary.

SCP-055 is a "self-keeping secret" or "anti-meme".

internal document, SCP Foundation

The largest organizations are precisely those that make knowledge the most obsolete. The public school system is, by headcount, among the largest organizations in modern civilization. It must therefore, by necessity, minimize the need for students to learn anything hard[1].

Most adults are employed by large companies. Most adults buy most of our products from large companies. Small businesses are dying out[2]. Modern civilization is increasingly dominated by large organizations. These organizations don't just shape our society. They are our society. We are our jobs. We are the products we use. We are the media we consume. We are our communities.

Our most popular activities are those that scale the best. Those that scale the best are those that require the least thinking, the least skill, the least specialized knowledge, the least individuality. If you want to measure your individuality, ask yourself this: of all the things you do, how much of it is so hard your friends and coworkers literally can't do it.


  1. By "hard" I mean "conceptual". Schools can effectively force students to learn by rote [LW · GW]. However, as a coercive institution, any school with mandatory attendance is definitionally incapable of forcing students to productively misbehave or otherwise exercise critical thinking. (Except to oppose the institution itself.) ↩︎

  2. Small operations that concentrate a lot of talent in a tiny number of employees are doing well. These companies will continue to constitute an insignificant fraction of total employment. ↩︎

4 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Alexei · 2019-11-10T16:14:40.040Z · score: 11 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You kind of lost me at the end. Isn’t part of the appeal of magic tricks that even though they are easy to learn, they still take work to master, and even if you could do it, you don’t, but you DO enjoy watching someone else perform them?

I think a related, but somewhat opposite observation is: we have more and more niches for everyone. For example, I often run into people who watch TV shows, even TV shows that are similar to what I watch (scifi, fantasy), but we still have zero overlap. That just couldn’t happen even 10 years ago. It’s not that they can’t watch my shows, or I theirs. It’s just we don’t.

Also this: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/XvN2QQpKTuEzgkZHY/being-the-pareto-best-in-the-world [LW · GW]

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-11-10T16:39:51.931Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's a piece of knowledge available in certain altered states (meditative and entheogen, possibly some manic states) that behaves a bit like scp-055. Right down to the fact that people find it easier to describe in terms of negatives. Repeated exposure allows you to bring a bit more back with you but it seems to make people susceptible to bad epistemics (i.e. most such people wind up woo). I think this negative payload isn't directly bad epistemics but something that collides with people's badly grounded ontology/metaphysics.

It's not quite moral realism, but it does relate to things actually being important/precious in a way that, while in the state, we are concerned that our normal self doesn't seem to understand.

One phenomenological signature of the thing is that it feels 'too big' for normal cognition. Like you need a higher than normal branch factor on your thought process to be able to hold its disparate parts at once.

It *isn't* unity consciousness, though that's nearby in mind-space or has some overlap.

It *isn't* 'no-self' (itself a bad translation of not-self and endlessly confusing for spiritual seekers.)

It *does* seem related to our problems, both object and meta, with moloch and azathoth. At least by my read.

related

https://qualiacomputing.com/2017/12/20/the-universal-plot-part-i-consciousness-vs-pure-replicators/

comment by Yitz (yitz) · 2020-06-07T23:53:13.325Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I find a similar phenomenon occurs with extreme depression. When I’m in that state, I literally cannot remember what it feels like to be happy, though I remember acting in ways consistent with happiness. Likewise, every single time I go into an extremely depressed state, it feels like the worst experience I’ve ever had, even if I know intellectually that it’s been worse before (ie not feeling suicidal, not screaming uncontrollably, etc., when I have before), which leads me to believe that my brain is somehow blocking the extent of the pain I’ve experienced from my memory. Once the experience is over, there is something about it that is inaccessible from my current perspective.

comment by lsusr · 2020-03-10T19:27:08.037Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a great idea. I should add an article on the subject to this series.