July 7, 2022
How does the current information revolution compare to previous information revolutions? What kind of event or set of events counts as an information revolution? Why do new information technologies usually amplify the most extreme voices first? Why are intentions not very useful as a metric for determining whether a particular kind of censorship is good or bad? When, if ever, is censorship appropriate or morally acceptable? Why were officials of the Inquisition much more worried about slight deviations in theology than outright agnosticism or atheism? What are the implications of using AI to censor certain kinds of information? What do people misunderstand about history? Why are there so many more futuristic dystopian stories than utopian stories? What is "plural" agency, and why do we need more stories about it?
Ada Palmer is a cultural and intellectual historian focusing on radical thought and the recovery of the classics in the Italian Renaissance. She works on the history of science, religion, heresy, freethought, atheism, censorship, books, printing, and on patronage and the networks of power and money that enabled cultural creation in early modern Europe. She teaches in the History Department at the University of Chicago, and her first book is Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance. Find out more about her at adapalmer.com.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Ada Palmer about how the media revolution enables bad actors, censorship, and intellectual property.
SPENCER: Ada, welcome.
ADA: Thank you.
SPENCER: Right now, we're living through an information revolution. And I know you've done work to try to understand this current information revolution through the lens of past information revolutions. I'd love to start there talking to you about that. Do you want to get us started?
ADA: Yeah, it's not the first time humanity has lived through one of these moments when a disruptive information technology arrives and suddenly accelerates the speed at which information can move and also, to some extent, democratizes or makes it easier for a wider variety of people to suddenly be providing and moving information around. So, as we scramble to understand what's happening — how it's impacting politics, etc., and also what's happening in terms of its impact on censorship and all of the new calls to censor Twitter, or to censor Facebook, or to censor the internet broadly — we can understand this if we look at earlier instances when the same thing has happened.
SPENCER: So what's a good example from the past?
ADA: The one I work on most is the print revolution. Although really, even better than having one example is looking at plural examples where you can spot a pattern and see each time a new disruptive information technology has arrived, these certain patterns have been similar even as other patterns have been different.
SPENCER: What are some other examples besides the print revolution that you point to?
ADA: There's the print revolution. There's the arrival of radio (which is an information revolution). There's the development of television. Both of those had a big impact on theater, which had been an important information technology for a long time. People are getting their political views shaped predominantly by theater. And when radio and then television move in, the political ideas (especially of younger people), are now being shaped by that new medium, so those are major revolutions. Within each information revolution, there would also be multiple sub-information revolutions because, just as the first ebook technically existed the first time any human ever typed a book on a computer, the e-book as an economic unit — as a market, as a commodity, as something that suddenly economists are tracking what percentage of the book market is e-books — didn't come about for a couple of decades after that, because it required the development of distribution methods and selling methods. Even when the printing press arrived, there were subsequently several different mini-revolutions within that information revolution — parallel to the transition from some people have personal computers, to all people have personal computers, to the internet but only nerds have it, to the internet and everyone has it, to the internet and everyone has it on their phone — each of which is a subcomponent of a digital information revolution, and similarly, the 'only major capitals have printing presses,' a few pamphlets or movies, 'Ooh, now, there's a whole pamphleteer profession.' Pamphleteering is something that has information networks that move around. That's the print revolution's equivalent of when the internet is suddenly in everyone's homes. Printing had existed for decades before that, but it took a while for there to be distribution networks so that this affects everyone in a new way. And that happened over and over, over the two centuries after the printing press arrived, just as we're having it happen over and over in the decades after the personal computer arrives.
SPENCER: What are the facets that any information revolution has in common from your perspective?
ADA: Any information revolution involves a new way of distributing or reproducing information that is different from — and usually faster and/or cheaper than — what existed before, and that also, therefore, doesn't have apparatuses for control and surveillance in place that are designed for that. Because, when an information distribution method has been around for a long time, authorities — whether those authorities are legitimate governments or whether those authorities are local elites — will develop ways of policing and influencing that information medium. And when a new medium arrives that isn't controlled by the parties in power that were good at controlling the old one, one thing that happens as a consequence is what historian friends of mine and I sometimes call the Early Adopter effect. Kathleen Belew (who's a wonderful colleague of mine here at the University of Chicago who works on modern US history), noticed exactly the same thing with the Ditto machine that I and others have noticed with the pamphlet.
SPENCER: What's the Ditto machine?
ADA: The Ditto machine or mimeograph machine, this is a 20th century (mostly) development. It's a small machine that you could have at home or in a school or at a business that could duplicate a piece of paper. Those of us who remember it may remember having, before the Xerox machine, your homework assignments from school were on blue-ish ink that smelled a little funny, and would reproduce the teacher's handwriting. It was the first inexpensive at-home way to produce small quantities of reproduction. A lot of schools had them to produce homework. They also caused a golden age in the middle of the 20th century, of newsletters and mailing lists, in which it was suddenly possible for somebody to have this machine at home (it wasn't that expensive), and you could make a hundred copies of your newsletter and distribute it through the mail, instead of having to do typesetting, which required a much larger number of copies (a thousand copies or 5000 copies) before it would be cost-effective. It caused a giant blossoming in the course of the 20th century, of organizations that are spread out being able to finally find each other so there was a blossoming of, for example, newspapers in minority languages within the US, not just the biggest minority languages, but there might be a local Thai language newspaper or a local Chinese language newspaper for any state in the US suddenly, that were produced this way. Hobbyists, this was how some of the first tropical fish hobbyist newsletters were developed; science fiction fans coming together, Trekkies communicating with each other; LGBT groups, the first gay and lesbian personals columns where people could try to find each other or comment on things which you couldn't get into the newspaper because that was controlled by information control of those in power (whether it was government or just local pressures that would boycott a newspaper that ran a gay article), but you could produce these small-quantity newsletters. They were used a lot by LGBT groups. They were used a lot by civil rights activist organizers. This is one of the enablers of the civil rights movement, because it lets people create posters and flyers and so on. It's also used a lot by (very uncomfortably) the KKK, which experienced the blossoming in the same period — especially post-Vietnam, which is what Kathleen works on — partly because you couldn't go into the post office and ask to use their expensive reproduction machine to make your horrible hate-filled murderous newsletter, because the people at the post office would be looking at you and they wouldn't let you do it, or you would feel shy about it. But you could do it at home suddenly. A whole lot of organizations were able to communicate with each other, which had the common feature of being things that made the parties in power within that community uncomfortable, whether the parties in power were going to be made uncomfortable by the KKK or by the Civil Rights Act. So we call this the Early Adopter effect. And we see exactly the same thing hundreds of years earlier. The American revolutionaries, Luther and his followers, and radical Protestants (Calvin) are big users of the pamphlet (which is their era's equivalent), the core of this being an early adopter. If you're an early adopter of a new information technology, there's a cost to that. It takes work. It takes money. You have to buy the machine, you have to learn how it works, you have to set up a new print shop. Or it might not be a cost in money, but it might be a cost in time. You have to learn how to use this new technology. You have to work on how to reformat your information to travel this way. Think about learning a new social media platform. You put a bunch of energy into being really good at Twitter. "Now I have to learn Instagram? Instagram sounds intimidating, and I'm tired." There is a cost in time and effort, if not in money, to move into that new platform. So who moves to the new platform? The first adopters are the people who were being silenced under the old platform and weren't able to reach out to each other. Which means it'll include small communities that were just not considered important enough to have space in that platform, like those minority language newspapers or Trekkies. But it'll also include any group that was being actively silenced by the censorship and information control practices of the earlier era, which won't yet have gotten good at policing the new thing. So if we take the 16th and 17th centuries (when the reformation is beginning), that is a culture that is very good at policing sermons. They know that they need to keep an eye on who's preaching and that the elites have set up systems to control who has access to the pulpit so that religious ideas get kind of vetted by those in power. The pulpit is not available. Once the pamphlet arrives, now it's a lot easier for radical religious ideas to suddenly disseminate. The government and elites then have to suddenly scramble to catch up with that and develop a way to censor and track pamphlets and, for a while before they succeed, you get this giant blossoming of radical heterodox voices. The same is happening all over every time a new digital platform arrives. A new social media program will develop and it will be filled with radical voices, radical fringe voices, radical far right voices, and radical far left voices. They'll all be magnified and become loud because they were among the first adopters because they were silenced under the old system, and that happens over and over. So the Early Adopter effect is amongst the first adopters of a new information technology, and will always be the scariest voices that were being silenced under the old system. Therefore it will always magnify the fringes of everything that makes a community uncomfortable, on the left and on the right. That's always going to happen in every information revolution, whether it's radio, whether it's a new way to market theater, whether it's pamphlets, whether it's musicals. It's always going to happen. There's always then going to be a consequent period of being scared of the voices that you're hearing on that new medium, of political tumults caused by the magnification of those voices, and then of subsequent popular calls for censoring the medium, as people are made uncomfortable by the things that they're hearing on both the left and the right end in all other axes, whether it's discomfort about the KKK, discomfort about civil rights activists, discomfort about realizing there's a large enough Thai community in your state for it to have a newsletter. Whatever it is that makes those who were used to only seeing curated voices uncomfortable are suddenly going to be loud, and then the community is going to push for new censorship. We have to understand that that always happens and it always happens serially. Not only when a new fundamental technology (computers, printing press) arrives but as new applications of it develop (the pamphleteer, Twitter, Facebook). New applications of the same technology are always going to have the Early Adopter effect.
SPENCER: Based on what you said, it seems as though this has both good aspects and bad aspects. On the one hand, it means that people who have been silenced, who might have really valid points to make, can now, due to the adoption of a new technology, get their viewpoint heard. On the other hand, you might have really harmful groups that were being suppressed for good reason, because they were spreading harmful ideas, and now they suddenly can talk about these ideas and spread them to others.
ADA: Exactly. It tends to result in a wave of fear. That wave of fear is then often exploited by people who realize they can couch on that fear in order to accomplish some other goals that they want. So a lot of censorship practices (or even copyright practices in the wake of the printing press), were passed by fear-mongering, by playing into people being anxious. Sometimes it will be a profit-seeking corporation like the stationers company in London, which in the early 17th century used people's anxiety about, "Oh, no, might scary Catholic pamphlets now be circulating in England?" (England at that time, being very anxious about Catholicism). So they capitalized on that and ran 'fear-monger-y' articles about it and proposed, "Ah, this means we have to have censorship and the censorship, it should be overseen by us, and we should get paid for it." It was a profit-seeking corporation manipulating both public opinion and the government to pass a law that enacted censorship where their real motive is profit. But the effect was censorship and the means was public fear caused by the new technology.
SPENCER: Now, I know you've talked about this idea that the bad guys — people spreading actually harmful ideas — don't view themselves as the bad guys. So do you want to comment on that?
ADA: Yeah, I've taught a lot of classes about censorship and the history of censorship. It's interesting to observe how very much our ideas about censorship and how we imagined censorship functioning tend to be dominated by two things. One is Orwell's "1984" and the other is the stories we hear about the Inquisition and how the Inquisition worked, which are often very different from how the Inquisition actually worked. This is crystallized by how often, when you talk about...when I would present a different historic case. Here's another example of censorship: people would find they felt very differently when the person doing the censoring was perceived by them as having good motives. So one thing I did, for example, was I would take a pair of books and put them side by side in our library. One of these is a treatise on science and logic by Cardano. This is a 17th century textbook banned by the Inquisition. He was persecuted and prosecuted by the Inquisition. It's got passages in the physical copy that we have in our library where you can see the Inquisitor has gone in with black ink and blacked out particular lines and forbidden passages and gone in with scissors and cut holes and pages to remove the offending words. I would put that on the table next to a copy of the last "Twilight" novel (the vampire romance novels that we have) and in that copy of "Twilight," a mother had gone in with a Sharpie and Sharpie-d (sic) out the sexually explicit sex scene and gone over some of it with whiteout and taken scissors and removed a whole page (which was the sexually explicit part of it), because this was going to be read by the underage daughter of the mother. When I put these two things side by side, people often chuckle at the second one and feel very grave and serious about the first one. And there's a whole variety of reasons we perceive those two differently. I mean, how do you feel about those two, side by side?
SPENCER: I imagine in both cases, as your idea suggests, the people doing the censoring felt like they were doing something good, that they were on the just side. In the first case, I think (and I know nothing about the Inquisition), my general sense is, it sounds like really, really bad things happened, people were gravely harmed. In the second case, it feels like just a somewhat prudish parent may be squeamish about her child learning about sex. So maybe that's why we have a different reaction.
ADA: Yeah, I mean, we perceive well-meaningness on the part of the mother. Maybe we feel like we might disagree with that mother or agree with that mother, but we feel like she's doing this as an act of love. Whereas with the Inquisitor, we're much more likely to perceive it as an act motivated by power. That's where Orwell is coming in because Orwell's model of censorship is completely impossible. They have so many surveillance people working for the state that they can have an entire team surveilling every single citizen 24 hours a day, and they have absolute control.
SPENCER: Well, what about AI surveillance? Maybe that's more possible.
ADA: Oh, AI surveillance might be in the future. And that's a long question, which is why there's a three-hour podcast about it that I did at another point (I can come to that in a moment) but the surveillance that Orwell depicts doesn't have advanced computers. It has human beings surveilling each other. But it also has an infinite budget. There's no budget limits on Winston Smith's Ministry of Information. They can just go in and censor, say Shakespeare, and when they censor Shakespeare, they censor all of Shakespeare, and they really can eradicate even the last little remnants, or use the last little remnants like bait to lure out the people who are thinking discordantly. That's very different from when you read the notes of the Inquisition. And they're always saying, "Oh, we're out of budget, we don't have any people. There are so many books that we need to censor. We don't have enough stuff. We're overwhelmed by this giant avalanche of Protestant materials. How can we possibly keep up with it? The government is never collaborating with us. They don't take the threat seriously. Help!" The Inquisition is terrible and it was doing terrible things, but they perceive themselves to be desperately solving a horrible problem. They perceive themselves to be doing good. A lot of the time when we are trying to be vigilant against censorship, we're trying to be vigilant against bad censorship (what we perceive as bad censorship), meaning usually our gut instinct is thinking this, "Is the person doing this selfishly? Is this person doing this for the sake of power? Is this person going, "Wahaha, I can control this thing. I can silence this thing. I want to silence my enemies." And almost never do real censors feel like that, even when they're doing abominable things. When you actually read their first person comments, they're always, "Oh, we're trying so hard to do good. We're trying so hard to protect people." A lot of the time, our metric for 'is the censorship that I'm doing okay' is 'do I have good motives while doing so?' The great example for this one is Australia's internet censorship. But I want to see if you have thoughts before I get to the fun example.
SPENCER: Yeah, I would love to get into an example. But I just wanted to mention, there was a recent news story — and I don't know too much about this news story — it basically claimed that people were burning books that were viewed as racist or uncomfortable books. A journalist interviewed one of the people in charge of the book burning, and they said, "No, no, you don't understand. These are bad books." I just thought that was like, "Of course, you think they're bad books." [laughs]
ADA: "Yes, it's fine when it's bad books." All the people who burn these books think that they are burning bad books. Lots of people say the US doesn't have censorship or has never had censorship, and we've had lots of censorship movements. There were mass book burnings of comic books in the '50s in the US. People always think it's a bad book.
SPENCER: Before we get into your example, what problems did people in the Inquisition think they were solving? What was going through the censors' minds as far as you could tell?
ADA: They believed that, if you are very slightly wrong about theological details (like exactly the physics of how communion works), then you're at risk of going to hell forever and ever and ever. A good way to think of it is almost like a contagion or disease attitude. They believed that a book that you've written that has an idea that's wrong about theology is going to condemn to hell everyone who reads it.
SPENCER: That's pretty serious. I mean, you could understand the urgency they would have if they had that world view.
SPENCER: Right, and so they're very, very anxious about censoring, especially material that has theological implications about the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism. When we look at the Roman Inquisition, which is different from, for example, the Spanish Inquisition...(There are a whole bunch of inquisitions. In fact, I don't like to use the singular for the Inquisition, because the Inquisition always claimed to be one vast organization. But it was super not one vast organization. It was a bunch of different organizations in different places that didn't communicate with each other and made contradictory decisions all the time. They each had different agendas.) But if you're looking at the Roman Inquisition, for example, its major agenda was to make sure that people are constantly aware of, and thinking about, the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism as a way of kind of labeling, "Warning! You're in danger of certain damnation if you read this book," which is why their censorship is extremely visible. Every book had to be printed with a page in the front that said, "This has been vetted by the Inquisition and has permission from this bishop to be printed." A lot of their post-hoc censorship — censorship afterwards of books that are printed elsewhere — if there's a book that a Protestant has made, and you want to have it, they will make you expurgate it. Now, expurgate means they've specified this sentence or this paragraph, you have to go through and black it out, because this sentence or this paragraph is forbidden. And we think, "Okay, that should be the core theological stuff, or maybe politically sensitive stuff or stuff that's negative about the Pope." It includes a bit of that, but a lot of it is very counterintuitive. So one of the great examples is Conrad Gessner, who's a 16th century author who has many works, but one of them is an encyclopedia of animals. It has pictures of animals, has pictures of lizards and elephants and it has a beaver, a drawing of a beaver from faraway.
SPENCER: Sounds really controversial.
ADA: [laughs] Very, yes. Beavers. It actually does refute the existence of the vegetable lamb. There was a while that Europe, having gotten access to cotton and hearing about cotton, being told, "Well, it's like wool except it grows on a plant," believed that there was a plant shaped like a sheep, that it grew at a plant shaped like a sheep that had a stalk sitting at the bottom. It would wander around in a circle around the stalk and eat all the grass and then, when it ran out of grass, it would die, and then you would harvest the wool and plant another plant sheep. So the vegetable lamb, a wonderful, non-existent plant. But if you go through the Gessner Encyclopedia of Animals, he is a good scholar and credits his sources. Under every picture there's a note that says, "The learned and excellent Doctor So-and-so of Amsterdam sent me this drawing of a lizard." And what the Inquisition says you must do with this book is that, if the learned and excellent Doctor So-and-so is a Protestant, you must cross out "learned and excellent" because Protestants aren't "learned and excellent." Protestants are bad and wrong and you need to remember it. No information has left this book. You can have the lizard, you can have the discussion of the lizard, you can have all the information, you can even have the name of the Protestant, but you have to cross out "learned and excellent." Now there is no informational change. What there is, however, is that every time you turn the page, you see this black line over and over. And it turns a totally secular book about lizards into a theological (every page is reminding you), "Don't look at Protestants. Don't look at Protestants. Don't look at Protestants." Sometimes they make the owner of the book do this. So if you have to go through 500 pages and cross out, "Protestants are not learned and excellent. Protestants are not learned and excellent," it's just like Bart Simpson writing, "I will not do blah, blah, blah," on the chalkboard, right? It's a didactic exercise about getting that person to believe that Protestants are bad and wrong. So it's a teaching tool. They're trying to make it part of the theological education of the people. Now, is it propaganda? Yes. Is it indoctrination? Yes. Is it something we should celebrate not doing anymore? Yes. Is it somebody who thinks that they're being the bad guy? No. And so much of our fiction, and even a lot of our historical fiction, and some of our historic nonfiction, will present something like Orwell's O'Brien, who is laughing as he helps the iron boots stamp in a human face forever. If that is what we look for as our test to say, "Is this bad censorship that we should stop," we're never going to find it because that's almost never there. What we have to look for is the well-meaning people who think they're doing good, but are not doing good, or risking not doing good, because that's almost all real censorship.
SPENCER: I don't want to lose your Australia example. Do you want to jump into that?
ADA: Yes. So here's a great one, and it's fairly concise, too. Australia had a government board whose job it was to fight child pornography. So they had a group of employees whose job was to look online, find child pornography, receive reports of child pornography sites and then block them — blocking them on the Australian internet, which is a censored internet — and they were to put the URLs into a database generating a list of child porn sites which will then be blocked. Now this list was not public, because if you made it public, you'd make a giant list of child porn sites and people thought that wouldn't be a good idea. So it was a secret list. This system went on for a little while but then they changed over the system. After they had shut it down for a while, and most of the URLs were outdated, they made the list public. When the list was made public, it was speedily analyzed by people who care about information freedom. It was determined that well over 90% of the websites on it weren't child porn. Some of them were adult porn. Some of them were suicide clubs or suicide manuals. Some of them were bomb-making things. Some of them were hate groups. Some of them were marijuana-growing or how to make a gun or pipe bomb things or videos of stuff that was really gross.
SPENCER: So just whatever people thought was bad, basically?
ADA: Exactly, whatever people thought was harmful and bad. They went way beyond the mandate they were given. But they all felt, "Yeah, it's okay. It's not bad censorship, because I'm doing good. I'm stopping bad things. So it's okay, I'm not a bad censor," just like it's okay to burn these books because they're bad books. Every single website on that list is probably a website I would not want to go to, or probably a large portion of them. But those people well-meaningly stepped nine times beyond their mandate from the government, censoring far more than it was legal for them to censor, because they felt it was protecting people against something bad. That is what almost all real censorship is. We can't be looking out for bad guys who think they're bad. We have to be looking out for bad guys who think they're good, which are sometimes us.
SPENCER: Yes, that's the hardest one to detect, when it's us, right?
ADA: But our metric can't be, 'I mean well,' or 'I intend it well,' or 'the thing that I tried to do was good.' If that's our metric, no one will ever stop themselves from doing anything that they perceive as good, and that's where so much of this could happen.
SPENCER: It's such an interesting question of what you can ask yourself to tell that you're engaging in harmful censorship when whatever you're doing just feels like, "Oh, I'm on the right side."
ADA: One of the ones is to say, "Okay, as we learned from Australia, when there is an apparatus of censorship, the vast majority of what it hits will be beyond what it was intended to hit." So we need to not let that power exist in the first place. My view isn't that there shouldn't be censorship. My view is that there's no such thing as there not being censorship. We tend to talk about censorship as if it's an aberration, as if the normal state of humanity is for there to be absolute freedom of expression and no censorship, and censorship is somehow an aberration which is imposed upon and distorts the human condition. We have no cases of human societies without censorship. We have no cases. [laughs] The very earliest documents surviving from both China and ancient Greece have Plato censoring Homer or have Confucians censoring rival Confucians. Censorship is as old as literature. We have discussions of book burnings in the Old Testament. When we look at and interview tribes that are living in very rural places that are far cut off from other things, they have taboos and rules about who can say what and where. We have no cases [laughs] of humans without censorship. The impulse to want to silence some things, in some ways, in some places, is in all cultures, which is why it's not useful to think of it as an aberration. I find it much more useful to think of censorship as an element of society's periodic table. There are many elements of the periodic table. One of them is arsenic. Arsenic can be toxic. Arsenic is also in your body right now, and is in the room right now. There are some compounds with arsenic in them that are beneficial. What you need to make sure is that the arsenic that is present isn't taking harmful forms or at harmful concentrations. But it will never be that there is not a single atom of arsenic in a room. And it will never be that you have a human culture where there's no impulse to silence some things in some places and not others in others. What you want to look at is the concentration of it and how toxic a form it's taking and how much power it has, and to avoid creating apparatuses that can be used to censor, to keep an eye out for censorship, to point out when censorship is happening and to make as many plural venues as possible so that, if a censorious body has co-opted one means of communication, other channels for communication still exist in other directions.
SPENCER: Yeah, that makes sense that you can't remove it completely, but it definitely differs tremendously from different cultures to another culture. So is your view that we should try to dial it down?
ADA: My view is that the best way to deal with it is to have as many plural avenues of expression as possible.
SPENCER: That effectively will reduce that because people will be able to find a way to express what they want to say.
ADA: But it also means you can totally have the kids' channel where there's a lot of censorship and nobody can say the word 'boob' or the word 'poop,' right?
SPENCER: Ah, got it.
ADA: You can have that. You can have a space where there's tons of censorship, and people can voluntarily choose to use that space. And then there can be other channels which have different levels of censorship. There can be ten different kid communications networks, and one of them censors 'poop' but doesn't censor 'boob.' And another one is run by prudish people who think that kids shouldn't see GLBT material. Fortunately, there are nine others and they aren't run by prudish people and they have plenty of GLBT material in there for kids. So long as there are many, many, many, many channels of communication, even for one particular target audience like kids, then people will always be able to circumnavigate if one particular arena is co-opted by a power. So often, it isn't native censorship but that a particular power has co-opted this channel or this medium or stepped in and repurposed a system that was already there, to use it another way. Almost all real censorship isn't done by creating carte blanche Orwellian administrative information to censor stuff. It's almost always done by repurposing stuff that was already there. New Zealand and Australia, when talkies (this is a great censorship crisis)...talkies, the beginning of sound in movies, "Oh, no. People can say bad words in movies now. We have to censor them. What do we do?" The post office, because movies had to be sent through the mail, you can have the post office keep a lookout for and screen and censor movies that have bad words in them. You don't have to pass a law and make a bureau of film censorship. You can just repurpose something that was already there. Ah, but if you will also have FedEx and UPS and several other ways of shipping stuff, then people who have a movie with a bad word in it can ship it that way because there's an alternate venue. This is why, in many ways, the biggest threat in our society right now to free expression is monopoly.
SPENCER: I know that you've talked about this idea that the majority of censorship is self-censorship. What do you mean by that?
ADA: When the Roman Inquisition is sitting there desperate for funds, desperate for staff, overwhelmed by enormous numbers of Protestant books coming in, and yet they spend hour upon hour crossing out lines of text in one copy of a book when they could spend 10 seconds throwing that book on the fire, their goal isn't the destruction of information. They know they can't destroy the information fully. Since the development of the printing press, it's been effectively impossible to destroy all copies of a piece of information that's already been printed. It can happen with individual manuscripts. It can sometimes happen with government archives being burned. But nobody who holds a book burning imagines that they're burning every copy of something that's been published and been in bookstores. It's ceremonial. What's it about? It's about intimidation. It's about expressing power, expressing dislike and making the person who's at home think, "Oh, maybe I shouldn't put x in my book, it might get attacked like that. I'll put y in my book."
SPENCER: So you think it's more for authors than it is for readers?
ADA: Well, it's for readers to some extent, it intimidates readers. But I had a brilliant student who put the question: was the trial of Galileo a success or a failure? Which is a very rich question that we talked about for a long time. And if the goal of the trial of Galileo was to silence Galileo, boy, did it fail because, boy, did it make him way more famous than he was already. And boy, did it make every single scientist in Europe — even the ones who disagreed with them — care about him and work hard to see if they could get a hold of his book, so that they could write confirmations or refutations or test the theory. It explosively magnified the impact of Galileo. But if the goal was not that...because you know what the Galileo trial did succeed at? It succeeded at getting Descartes, who was about to publish a big treatise, to withdraw it from publication and spend several years revising it and polishing it to be way more Catholic and way more orthodox before he then published his revised self-censored version. Does it affect readers? Yes, it affects the readership of a thing and makes everyone know that it is controversial. But it has an enormous effect on what people are writing at the time who then think hard about, "Do I want to go through that? Do I not? Do I want to dodge?" We have many instances (and I could spend an hour rattling them off) from the USSR, or even China right now, where they'll wait until a blogger is just famous enough that a lot of people are going to notice. And then they'll go after and censor or jail that blogger because they want everyone else who is reading it to notice. They'll wait until you hit a certain fame level to do it because it's about causing fear and causing self-censorship. And really, I think that a reader refraining from reading a thing can go in the space of self-censorship as well, if it's in the case where the reader has access to the thing, but chooses not to read the thing out of fear. Because they know this stuff is out there. They don't have the ability to destroy it all. But they sure can nip in the bud the thing that you would have written if you hadn't been scared, the thing Descartes would have said if he hadn't revised it, the thing somebody would have said if they had dared to read the forbidden thing, and chose not to. So that's why one of my biggest takeaways from looking at hundreds and hundreds of cases from colonial era India, from Japan's occupation of Korea during World War II, from ancient Rome, from all over the place is that, over and over, we see the goal is not to destroy information that's already circulated, but to cultivate self-censorship, intentionally cultivated by an outside authority.
SPENCER: If we imagine there's a bell curve of readers, along with some kind of trait of how they view this forbidden material, you might imagine at one end of the spectrum, there are gonna be people who say, "Oh, the authorities that I trust say this is bad so it's bad. Therefore, I shouldn't read it and anyone who reads it is bad." All the way to the other end, where they say, "The authorities suck but I'm not willing to write something like this." Or maybe "I'm not even willing to read something like this. Because if I get caught with it, I'm going to be socially rejected or get punished." So I imagine that, on different people in the populace, censorship is operating on a different mechanism. Do you think that's fair?
ADA: Yeah, I think that's very true. And there are some people who are attracted by it, but I also think that censoring bodies know that. Censoring bodies often have in mind, not the people that they consider adversaries that they're trying to silence. They're often much more worried about the people they consider vulnerable, weak allies whom they're trying to protect. They care more about the person they think they're shielding from the other thing than they care about changing the person who is already in the enemy intellectual camp,
SPENCER: Right, because you don't change them by censoring a book. If anything, that just pisses them off.
ADA: Or makes them more popular among their peers. Now, one thing that lots of people aren't prepared for is to learn that the Inquisition pretty much didn't care very much at all about atheists. We expect them to be really persecuting atheists. Lots of people talk about Giordano Bruno in that context, but he wasn't an atheist. When you look at the notes of the Inquisitors, they don't care very much about atheists or censoring atheism, because the reason is that they figure, if you're already that far gone, you're already gonna go to hell. They aren't gonna waste their time on you. You're already lost.
SPENCER: So it's the marginal borderline case, right?
ADA: It's the pious people. It's the people who are likely to go to heaven, the people who really care about theology. That's why they're much more scared of John Calvin than they are of any atheist because John Calvin appeals to people who are pious and people who care about sin and love God, but the ideas that he gives them are just a little bit different. They perceive ideas that are 95% the same as theirs as much more dangerous than ideas that are 95% different from theirs. They're much more concerned with policing what monks are reading and what priests are reading and what the people they consider pious and nearly saved, those are the people that they have to protect. And the people who are already libertines, they consider to already be on the road to hell. And this has corollaries elsewhere. There's a lot of focus on, "We're trying to protect the children that are not yet traumatized by the thing," is a structure of thinking about it that you see. Now this varies. China is very aware right now that almost everybody that it's policing is accessing forbidden material. All of these regimes know that. The USSR knows that. There's nothing the USSR can possibly do to prevent Western jazz from circulating clandestinely on secret records made out of old x-ray films. And they know that but they sure can make you scared every time you listen to it. So that, just like seeing those black lines in the Gessner encyclopedia of lizards as you turn the page, every time you access that forbidden thing, every time you use your VPN to bypass the Great Firewall of China, every time you pull out a book and there isn't the Inquisitor's signature in the front, you are reminded of the existence of the power that wants you to fear them. They're labeling and putting their name all over stuff so that every day you have these reminders of their power — this jolt of "Remember, you are violating the rule. Remember, you are doing something risky" — which in some ways, channels the people that they see themselves as protecting back toward what they would see as safe spaces. Then for the people that they're perceiving as enemies, it fills that person's life with fear and stress.
SPENCER: Stepping back for a moment, it seems to me that there is a fundamental trade-off with censorship. Imagine someone is promoting a really horrible idea like that we should round certain people up and kill them. Censoring that kind of idea, you could say, "Well, okay, there's just a really clear harm that these people are creating, and that we can try to reduce that harm by making the idea spread less quickly." On the other hand, by censoring ideas, you block many good ideas and you make people afraid of expressing their ideas, and you reduce expression that people might want to express. I'm wondering what you think about that kind of fundamental trade-off?
ADA: The more you try to silence the dangerous idea, the more it'll find ways to circulate clandestinely, like when the KKK was circulating its materials on Ditto machine homemade mailing lists, right?
SPENCER: Well, I agree, people will find ways to spread ideas.
ADA: But is it good that it's not on the cover of The New York Times? Definitely. But what you need to have to go with that is an article in The New York Times talking about, "Hey, this dangerous idea exists. This organization exists, that is promoting it. Here are the dangers that it poses. Here are the reasons that it's bad." You need to be able to talk about the thing, to have a hostile engagement with it, which leads to people being aware that it's there, but getting it in a framed way. One of the things that's neat about that hostile engagement is that, even when we turn out to be on the wrong side of history, hostile engagement aids the other direction. It is both ways, which is to say, in the period when Galileo is being censored, when Thomas Hobbes is being censored, when Machiavelli is being censored, there are a number of books that are published that are anti this. There's an Anti-Copernicus (that's the actual title), there are two anti- Machiavellis. Those were able to circulate and they recapitulate the idea and then they talk about the reasons that it's wrong, and people read them and think seriously about them and consider them. These are situations where we would say we're on the side of Machiavelli, Machiavelli is cool, we like Machiavelli. The result of that intelligent, hostile engagement is that people think about it, evaluate it and discuss it and are always aware that it's controversial, and always aware that it needs to be considered carefully and will then consider it and, when it's a bad thing, conclude that it's bad. And when it's not, it still circulates, and people perceive that it's good. Whereas when you create silence, then you hurt good ideas, as well as hurting bad ones. When you create intelligent, complex dialogue, the side that is sensible and right will generally, eventually triumph. And now we read Thomas Hobbes. And now we read Machiavelli. Largely because the people who ferociously disagreed with them talked about it in spaces where they were allowed to talk about it. Just why that's always going to be more constructive than silence (which is going to be used on things you like as well as on things you don't, no matter what the situation), it's always going to be used to silence more than just what you want it to silence. Then you create the risk, both of good things being silenced, and of bad things being encountered without there being another voice there to talk about why they're bad. Again, the more plural the voices are, generally, the healthier the dialogue gets. Do you want to have censorship in place so that things that are directly advocating hate speech — and especially misinformation (which is very dangerous) — are dealt with, you absolutely do. But if we're in the midst of a problem, where we're having a giant crisis of misinformation and hate speech, a huge portion of that is because we have Facebook algorithms that are showing people nothing but that and which is artificially creating a curated information space where they are only getting one side of a firehose, and they're not getting breadth of dialogue.
SPENCER: What do you think of the view that some people have that, if you take an idea that's really harmful and is not that popular yet, and you talk about the problems with it and how bad it is, you might actually be signal boosting it where, even if 90% of the readers who have never heard of it are convinced by arguments, 10% might be like, "Oh, okay, Now, that's an interesting idea," and some of them might actually end up adopting it.
ADA: Yeah, I think that I want to study that question more. That is my real answer.
SPENCER: Yeah, like one thing that comes to mind as an example is Scientology. Scientology's coverage in the mainstream media is almost always negative. It's often called the cult in mainstream media and so on. But to benefit from that coverage, they only need like 100 people (or even maybe one in a thousand people) who hear about it to get intrigued and go sign up for their classes. Then they might even be better off because of that, which is kind of interesting to think about.
ADA: Yes and no, because on the other hand, what if, of that thousand people, five of them would have encountered Scientology elsewhere and been intrigued by it because it didn't have that negative label? The answer is, I know there's a lot of hypothetical speculation about, does this happen? I haven't seen studied cases where we've shown that it does.
SPENCER: Maybe an example where it seems to be aiding these ideas is when the promoters of the ideas seem to purposely seek negative media attention.
ADA: Yeah. That's something that people do and that people are good at. I certainly see on Twitter all the time, things where someone has said something intentionally provocative. We know that it's also done in the trolling way where someone is intentionally overstating the opinions of their opponents so that they can then get people angry at their opponent using a fake account. The answer is, this is where we really need journalism. We really need people looking at it and pointing out that this stuff is fake. But I also agree that one interesting challenge that the ultra democratization of information on a platform like Twitter (where every individual person is empowered to decide whether to repeat or not repeat a sentence that has come across your field), that is a uniquely new medium, and one where we have seen the power of people manipulating others into repeating the toxic sentence that they've produced. And we need to perhaps think about media education better, think about algorithms better, because it's not the case that these things are reshared neutrally. They're reshared algorithmically, which is why it works so differently on Twitter from Facebook. And that's one of the questions where we say, "Aha, we have spotted one of the things that's different about this case" that wasn't true with pamphlets, that wasn't true at any earlier point, because they didn't move as quickly and they weren't as democratized. So it's one of the great...this is unique, unprecedented, or semi-unprecedented among new digital information, information revolution, as opposed to earlier information revolutions, and therefore is something we need to zoom in on and look at carefully.
SPENCER: I know this is a big topic, and we won't have time to go too deeply. But I'm curious about your views on AI censorship because, as you pointed out, in a "1984" world, it's extremely hard to censor things. You need a whole task force constantly trying to catch people spreading ideas and so on. But in an AI-monitored world (where all the different social media sites could be monitored by the government simultaneously), if a company is captured by whatever government that it's under, maybe the government controls it.
ADA: Or the other way around, in which the government is captured by the corporation. Remember, we have a lot of corporations that are much more powerful than governments. And it's very likely for it to go the other direction, as we've often seen with forms of regulatory capture, like the decades during which Boeing effectively dictated airline policy for the US, for example.
SPENCER: Yeah, so I'm just wondering how that changes the equation with regard to censorship and your thoughts on that.
ADA: Yeah. It is another important new one, and one of the most important elements of it is, right now, our AI censorship is laughably incompetent. There are lots of Twitter accounts that will happily show you an AI identifying a man in a yellow hat as a pineapple. We are very far from AIs that can do the subtle complex censorship, but it will come and it will get better. People are already trying to do it, even with the ones that will censor, 'this is a photograph of a bread loaf, but it looks enough like boobs that it's going to be automatically taken down.' It is a big threat. And one of the biggest threats is that it removes one of the most important permeabilities of past censorship organizations, which is that past censorship organizations always had actual human actors who would sometimes let stuff leak through on purpose. I'll give you a great example. So I said that, post-printing press, it's incredibly rare for anybody to try to destroy all copies of a book that's been printed because you know it's almost impossible. You symbolically destroy them, you chase down some, you hold a public book burning, you announce, "This is a forbidden book," so that everyone who picks it up knows it's a forbidden book. But you know you'll never chase down any. There's one case of a book in Lisbon in the early 18th century (I've forgotten the name of the author at the moment. He's one of the leaders of the Portuguese enlightenment). It was a treatise against some of the practices of Jesuit education and advising a more liberal and enlightenment-oriented form of education. The Inquisition got word in advance that the copies of this book which have been printed elsewhere were being smuggled into Portugal. They intercepted the ship right there so that they had 100% of the copies, and they destroyed them. Nonetheless, two months later, a new edition of this book was printed in a town about 50 miles away. How did this happen? The inquisitors kept copies of the books for their own reference. They have to do this in order to be able to look at other books that might be the same book under a fake title or a fake author. So they kept copies, one of them read it, one of them was sympathetic to it, and printed a clandestine print run of it because he thought it was a good book. There was a human agent who was sympathetic. And there are cases all over USSR, US Comics Code Authority censorship, where you see an individual human being make the individual choice to let something slide, whether to give the stamp of approval to something even though technically it was on the list of things they shouldn't have approved, but they were sympathetic to the cause changing. There are so many enlightenment era censors in particular that are fresh out of college, lit majors who needed a day job. They're all writing their own books at home. And we have lots of letters saying, "Dear Jacques, I got your book to censor. Don't worry, I'll do a really good job with it and make sure that it gets through." There have always been these human permeabilities. So even if the Inquisition of Lisbon destroyed lots and lots and lots of books, and many books that were like that one might have been destroyed more thoroughly, that one slipped through. It wouldn't with an AI. That's the sphere where the removal of the fact that a human being will always have a point where they can relent and say, "Hey, let's let this one slide a little bit." Removing that is unprecedented in the history of censorship, and is one of the reasons that AI censorship is so scary, and also one of the reasons that, if we do move to automated forms of censorship, again, having plural, plural, plural spaces (having lots of different social media networks across posts from each other, each of which has a different algorithm of an AI that works differently) would do a lot, not 100%. Having human beings there will always be essential. So yeah, you've raised one of the big things we have to know about and be conscious of as a threat. And again (a) introducing human beings double checking stuff, (b) having plural avenues, so that there are plural AIs who don't do the same thing would be essential ways to address that looming threat.
SPENCER: Yeah, it's really interesting. A lot of YouTubers who make a lot of content realize that there is a form of, let's say, weak censorship going on where certain kinds of videos may get less promoted by the algorithm if they mentioned certain things or they might get demonetized, or they might even get taken down for copyright violations. So there's basically a set of things that they do to prevent this where, if they're worried about a copyright violation, they might throw on some weird filter that makes the image look slightly funky. Or if they're worried about demonetization, they'll just bleep out themselves saying the word but it's totally clear from context what the word is. So it's interesting, this arms race between AI censorship and people who want to communicate despite the AI.
ADA: And also the ways that AIs are still weirdly incompetent at it. Larger-scale bad actors who are profiting from stuff, plus big corporations are always going to have better tech bypassing this thing. So filters that are there to stop copyright violation are much more likely to hit legitimate, real honest users than they are to actually hurt anyone who's profiting at a large scale off of copyright violation. I had experience with this myself on YouTube where I compose music and perform it and YouTube keeps taking down videos of me and my vocal partner performing our music because they are very similar to our CD of us performing our music. It keeps not taking down other people performing my music, because their performances are more different and the algorithm doesn't think that it's the same thing and so it only censors the actual artist.
SPENCER: I've had similarly bad experiences where, one of the only times I've been censored on Facebook is when I wrote something about math or something, and the algorithm, for some weird reason, decided this was inappropriate speech. I was like, "What is going on?"
ADA: Well, it's very similar to DMI or copyright protection, things on DVDs and so on. Yeah, the professional-grade people who rip DVDs and put stuff online for free on piracy sites — large scale pirates — are never stopped by those kinds of small technical things. If a company invests a million dollars in developing a new copyright protection thing, the hackers will crack it in a week or less and start profiting on it. But your mother who is trying to get her DVD to play on the new device and can't figure out why it isn't working, or is trying to get the software to open her old video of her cat, will be stopped by this even though she's a legitimate user. It sure is getting your iTunes library to not be able to play the legitimate music off the legitimate CD that you legitimately bought, and not stopping the pirates who are putting versions of that CD online so that you can get it with a click and play it. So that's another one of the problems where I think movies are one of the things at fault here. Movies are always showing encryption being very effective, and also forms of encryption that are impossible (like encryption where the good guys can get in, but the bad guys can't); whereas in reality, encryption is really, really hard to do and hacking through it is actually very easy. You can't make encryption that only good guys have a password to and the bad guys can't get in. If it's crackable at all, it's crackable by bad guys. This is something I often talk to my friend Cory Doctorow, a fellow writer and information tech person.
SPENCER: He's also a podcast guest [laughs] on Clearer Thinking.
ADA: He always says, whenever they're talking to companies or especially legislators about this, and legislators say, "Make it so that the FBI can get into the iPhone, but others can't," and they'll say "We can't. it just doesn't work like that." Then the congressman will say, "You're nerds. Nerd harder." In movies, the engineer always says, "It can't be done." And the captain always says, "Do it anyway." The engineer always finds a way to do it anyway. But that isn't how it works in real life but it is how so many people have been taught to expect it to work and how most legislators expect it to work, which is how you end up with situations like the current EU copyright bill, which literally bans itself because it mandates things that can only be done with filters but it also bans filters.
SPENCER: Oh, wow. I've also heard of conflicting regulations where one regulation requires that data be kept for five years and another regulation says that, if a user requests their data to be deleted, it must be deleted [laughs]. So you literally can't actually satisfy both regulations simultaneously.
ADA: Yeah, and a lot of it just has to do with a devaluation of expertise, or an unwillingness to believe the expert when the expert says X doesn't work. The expert is perceived as being biased because they're in the field a lot of the time. Anyway, interesting challenges.
SPENCER: You reminded me of a funny story — funny and scary story — I heard where a friend of a friend accidentally lost the password for their encrypted hard drive that was supposed to be hardware encrypted. So it's supposed to be...it's not even software encrypted. It's like, in the manufactured device, it's automatically encrypted. And they lost the password and couldn't get their data. So they contact the manufacturer, the manufacturer says "Sorry, the whole point is you can't get your data out. You lost your password. That is gone." They reached out to one of their software engineer friends; software engineer is like "Yep, you're totally screwed." They reached out to their hacker friend and their hacker friend is like, "Oh, what model is it? Oh, it's that model. The password is 123456789. Here's how to enter it. They all have that set by default, and nobody ever changes it." And so the person put that in, and then they got their data back. And it's like, wow. [laughs]
ADA: That's indeed very typical. And the company will say it can't be done, and the hacker will do it, for good as well as ill and often for good. There are lots of wonderful, wonderful people in that world who want to reach out and show people, "Hey, if you just change this small thing, your horrible security vulnerability will go away," but who are not listened to a lot.
SPENCER: So before we wrap up, how about we do a quick rapid-fire round where I ask you just a bunch of questions, get your quick take.
ADA: Alrighty, ready to go.
SPENCER: So first question, what do a lot of people misunderstand about history or about the study of history?
ADA: A lot of people think we know a whole lot more than we do. They think that we have simple answers to things like how many people died in World War I, which we (boy!) still disagree about. A lot of the time, I'll be talking about, "There's an untranslated manuscript," and people will say, "There's an untransmitted manuscript! Wow, that must be a big deal and a big discovery! Isn't it going to be in the Smithsonian newsletter?" And I'll say "No, there's millions of untranslated manuscripts" [laughs], millions that no one has read because they're sitting around in archives. There is so much stuff that we haven't looked at and we don't know. We turn out to be wrong about all the time. A lot of people seem to think we have a very complete knowledge of history. And the answer is we have the teensy, tiny, little platform at the edge of the precipice towards trying to build more on. The difference between a professional historian and amateur historian is that professional historians are very aware that we have a toothpick and we're trying to understand the forest. So I'd say that's the biggest one, which is why giant new discoveries in history, 'Oh, this entire city that we didn't think was real, was real,' happen all the time. People usually think that history is much more stable than that, and it's not.
SPENCER: Really interesting. So how did you get into writing Norse myth music?
ADA: Yeah, yeah, especially as a science fiction writer and historian and specialist in the Renaissance. I grew up with Norse mythology, and I always loved it, also Greek but especially Norse. In particular, what excites me about Norse mythology is their inverse answer to the question of theodicy. Theodicy is the philosophical question of the existence of evil. Given that there are powers that shape the world, why is there evil? Why do bad things happen? And things like the fall of Adam or Pandora's Box are different classic answers to why there is evil. But for Vikings, who live on the terrifying edge of the world, where you can barely grow enough grass in the summer to feed your cows to not die in winter, where treasure is a tree trunk big enough to build something of, where there are volcanoes and ash and glaciers everywhere and surviving the winter is an epic feat. They don't, in their mythology, ask (like Pandora's Box) why did the gods unleash bad things? The question is, why is there good? Given that the universe is fundamentally made of ice and fire and monsters, how is there anything that lets humanity survive? It's such a fascinatingly upside down question in which survival is the exception. Goodness is the exception. Things being okay is the exception, as opposed to evil and suffering being the aberration. It fascinates me, and so I love telling and retelling those stories, which give people a taste, not only of a different culture, but in an upside down approach to the question of ethics. What if what we have to work hard to make is good?
SPENCER: So why are there so many more sci-fi stories or dystopias than utopias?
ADA: Ah, you're gonna chuckle because this answer is gonna be the opposite of what you expect. Dystopia these days is a fundamentally optimistic genre.
ADA: Because dystopia is about, let's look at a problem our society has and make it way, way, way, way worse, and then show how nonetheless, we can have a revolution and blow it up and overthrow it. At the end, we don't write dystopias like "1984" and "Brave New World" very much where it just stays and we fail and O'Brien's iron boot stamps a human face forever. We write dystopias like "The Hunger Games" where we cathartically blow up the evil tower and we have the revolution and it's an affirmation that, yes, even if the world is worse than it was, we can blow it up. So you look around the world today and you say "Okay, things are bad. I'm gonna focus in on this bad one. I'm gonna warn people about how much worse it could be and then we're gonna cathartically blow it up." Optimistic futures — not perfect ones, but ones that turn out pretty well but still have problems — sometimes referred to as hope punk futures, like my "Terra Ignota," like Ruthanna Emrys's "A Half-Built Garden," like Cory Doctorow's "Walkaway." These kinds of works are about, in the future it might be a bit better than it is now but we'd still be working hard to make it better yet. Those are not fundamentally purely optimistic stories that assume that things will be okay. They are, in fact, emotionally very challenging stories which say, "You know what, we're working so hard right now to make the world better. We are toiling and toiling to make the world better. And 200 years from now, our descendants will be toiling and toiling to make the world better. And the world will be better. It'll be 30% better. Or it'll be better at 10 of the things you care about, but not at the other 10 things that you care about, and we'll still be having to work hard." Those are futures about accepting the fact that the world is a complex and unfinished project. The causes and world improvements and world protections that we are dedicating our hours and our lives to will not be completed in our lifetimes. Our generations will still be wrestling with sexism. Our grandchildren will be wrestling with the effects of climate change. Will they work hard in it? Will they make progress and will they be better off than us? Maybe yes, but will they be relieved of the burden? No. It's a burden shared. That is a hard, challenging, uncomfortable, necessary, important, but not cathartic type of future to depict, one in which we're still working hard. So that, in many ways, is why dystopia is so satisfying, and why hope punk is so contemplative and difficult and tearing, especially because it often shows a future of people who really care and who pay attention to each other with love, and who, when the going gets tough, stand by each other, and don't cynically turn on each other. But it asks something emotionally difficult of us, which is to accept that we won't finish. There won't be a happy ending, and then we get to live happily ever after. There'll be a happy step, and then we have to do the next one. That's where there's so much dystopia and so little of its real inverse, which isn't utopia, it's hard work.
SPENCER: So what is plural agency? And why do you think we might need more stories about plural agency?
ADA: Yes, I have an essay about this in Uncanny magazine, as well as a couple of...there's a blog post on Ex Urbe called "On Progress and Historical Change" (which is a good place to look at it, too). So plural agency is when you admit that the person who achieved the thing, or the reason X happened wasn't one person. It was a bunch of different people, that several different people did things that came together to make the thing happen. That is a very difficult kind of story to tell. We're very good at telling stories about protagonists. We're very good at focusing on them, giving them character development. We've been pretty good at small teams, but we're not very good at, "...and then two thirds of the way through the journey, they met this person who gave them the supplies and information they needed to get to the next bit, when this other person who was along the way left and a new person came in, and then they didn't finish the project. But then others took up the project afterward and they continued it." The real progress of history, if you want to call it that (or the real achievements of history), were very frequently achieved by a bunch of different people — sometimes together, sometimes sequentially, sometimes apart — who discovered different things and put them together, who began, continued and finished, and whose different activities had real power to cause what happened to happen. We tend to think about either 'great man history' or 'great forces history.' Great man history is, "once upon a time, Nietzsche dropped Napoleon into the world, and Napoleon was a brilliant, amazing strategist. All of these things were changed because of Napoleon." That's great man history. Great forces history is, "In 18th century France, the wealth gap between the aristocracy and the peasantry became so wide and starvation was so wide that the great forces meant that the revolution just had to happen, and nothing could have stopped it." It was dictated by economic necessity, and no individual person involved in it really mattered. All that mattered was, the wealth gap was this big, and the peasants were this starved and then boom, powerlessly grinding on like gears, with everybody trapped within that machine so that everyone is powerless in the advancing machine of history. And when you actually look at history, what you usually get is neither of those. It's a whole lot of people trying to do stuff, and some of it working and some of it not working, but having other inadvertent effects that they didn't intend to have. It all combines to make things occur. If you wanted to use a single simile, I use a simile that the dam is about to break. Great forces do exist. There'll be a big tension. At this moment, Europe might be poised for war — say it's 1492, or let's say it's 1913 — Europe is poised for war, the dam is gonna break any minute. But everybody has a shovel, and everybody is digging channels, and the channels that people dig are going to determine where those flood waters go. That's going to determine exactly what shape that war takes. Is Italy going to be on Germany's side? Or is Italy gonna be on France's side? Is Spain going to be in the war or not? When the armies happen, which cities are they going to trash and which cities are they not? Is there going to be a Christmas truce or not? Are they going to use this particular technology (because it'll be ready) or not? Are a hundred thousand people going to die because of the differences between the metric system and the pound? That's going to be determined by small choices small people made. That's how real history operates. Now, no one who was there at the beginning of World War I has the power to dictate the outcome or dictate the shape of the whole war. But several thousand people have definitely made decisions that had a huge impact on which city burned, which city didn't. That's not a type of story we tell very often. The 20 different people tried to do 20 different things. None of them had the thing happen that they planned to happen, but the combination of all the things they tried to do, were what resulted in what really happened. Even in non-fiction we struggle to tell this. Even in non-fiction, it's so much easier to follow one organization, one guild, one city, one general, one family. And it's very hard to narrativize the actual people who made World War I have the shape that it had at the beginning, the people who made the Italian wars of 1503 of the shape they did. They were all trying to do their thing, advance their family, protect their town, disseminate their invention, censor their adversaries. But all of their different incentives and needs and desires meant that they supported each other in this particular combination, which was just right to get this particular person into power, who would then make the decision that resulted in, not what anybody was trying to do, but what the result of all the things they were trying to do was. That's how real history works. Everybody has some power. Nobody has no power and nobody has 100% of power. No one even has more than 50% of power, not the king, not the president, no one. Everybody has some power, and it's plural. And we are bad at telling that kind of story. I think that makes a lot of people feel powerlessness, feel powerless in their daily lives and feel like, "If I don't have a lot of control, I must have no control." It also makes a lot of people imagine that others do have more power. This leads to the popularity of conspiracy theories, why it's so comfortable to believe, "Ah, X person is really pulling the strings," because that's the kinds of stories we get from both fiction and non-fiction. So if you read about the specific examples I talked about in that blog post on progress and historical change, or the uncanny one where I talk about examples from fiction, you'll see how many times our stories either have zero power, or lots of power, and we very rarely depict 20 people, each of whom has a 20th part of the power. It's a hard kind of story to tell, but it's the real life we live in. So we need to tell it more often.
SPENCER: Why might it be a good idea if countries had to compete for citizens?
ADA: [laughs] Well, here we're touching on the actual science fiction novel so that the "Terra Ignota" books — of which my fourth one came out a couple of weeks ago — depict a future where, when you grow up, you choose which citizenship you want to have. All the different political groups in the world have different sets of laws and different political philosophies. You scout through them, you say, "That one, that one reflects my values, and the things that I respect, I'm gonna be a citizen of that country." And you pay taxes to them, and you follow their laws, and you vote in their elections or participate in their political system. And it's a buyer's market for citizenship. This is a future where there are flying cars so everyone can go from anywhere on Earth to anywhere else on Earth in 2 hours. You can live wherever you want. So once geography is melted away by transit, it's a buyer's market for citizenships. The governments have to compete to make you want to be part of their nation, to make you respect them, to make you agree with their policies. If you're part of a country, and then you say, "You know what, I don't actually respect the values that this country is expressing right now. I like that other government's policies better. I'm going to switch," you can do so without having to uproot yourself in this world where everybody mixes freely in geography because of the high-tech imagined future transit system. And it means that there is a kind of accountability for the government because, if a government takes a turn that is really unpopular, 10% of their citizens might suddenly leave, and then their revenue goes down. And then they have a reason to work really hard to incentivize others to join up. It suddenly means that individual citizens en masse can hold their countries accountable for standing up for their values, because if they don't, you can leave. People always talk about, "Oh, if X happens, I'll move to Canada" or "If X happens, I'll emigrate." Immigration is so hard when you talk to people who've really emigrated. Immigration is so hard. It's hard financially, it's hard politically. You have to find a new job. You have to uproot all of your connections. You have to go through long, elaborate paperwork. We live in a world where it is very difficult to change citizenship. But if we lived in a world where it was easy — what you see in my imagined 25th century — you see how the governments have to act very differently, because they have an accountability to their people that would be made possible by such a system. It's an example of what Malka Older has called speculative resistance like, "Hey, let's speculate about a different way politics could work." Are we advocating this? It doesn't matter if we are or not. By comparing it to the real politics we live in, it makes us think differently about, "Oh, the relationship between citizens and government could be much more voluntary and totally different." That would be very interesting. Let's think about what that would make about policy. Are there tiny corners of that we might be able to implement on a local scale? So if there were a buyer's market for citizenship and countries therefore had accountability in a different way, we would have a very different world and that's what the books explore, or one of many things they explore.
SPENCER: Ada, final question for you before we go. To help the environment, why might it be useful to have every member of Congress have a fish tank they have to maintain?
ADA: Yes, this is my thesis from many years, maintaining a fish tank. That if every major political leader had to maintain a fish tank, we would do so much better on the environment because a fish tank is an ecosystem. You really see it. You think of each fish as one pet in a sense, but the whole thing is an ecosystem. The filter depends on a balance between the microorganisms that are in the gravel and the microorganisms that are in the water and the fish and, if you have plants, plants. When you make one change...you put in a new fish, "Oh, no, now the dynamics of all the other fish are different. Oh, this fish is sick, I'll put in medication. Oh, but the medication hurt the algae and now the algae is doing something which is affecting and throwing off the bacterial balance, which means the filter isn't working right, which means this other aspect of the fish tank has been thrown off." As you learn to maintain a fish tank, as you learn what are the things that I can put in to make this ecosystem more robust — what helps the micro organisms be able to endure disruptions better? How can I build up the health of the ecosystem so that it can endure small changes? How do I understand the kinds of changes I can't make because it throws off the system? — you suddenly understand that an ecosystem is very, very fragile, and you understand how you can then think of a whole lake or a whole river or a whole ocean or a whole planet in that way and realize, "Ah, putting way too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is throwing off the whole system, causing secondary and tertiary consequences." So the fact that it's cold this winter doesn't mean global temperatures aren't up; it means that the whole circulation of air and water is different. So the global temperatures are strange in different places, just as, when I moved that thing around my fish tank (and it suddenly made all the algae grow on the left instead of on the right), it wasn't that I added more algae or less algae; it was that the whole thing was disrupted by a secondary change. It teaches you to think in terms of an ecosystem. And I think it would therefore make just so many conversations that it's hard to have about the environment, where people say, "Global warming can't be real. It's snowing," and you're like, "Yes, I see why that's intuitive on a micro level." Or they're saying the ocean is getting warmer. Why is that bad? Well, it's making whole giant reefs decay. How could it do that? Well, pH is a thing and blah blah blah. You can get that across. So just as we were just talking about Cory Doctorow talking about congressmen not understanding how tech works, and therefore saying, "You know, make a backdoor into the iPhone that only we can use." If they understood more about tech, they would legislate more wisely and create policies that actually can work. Similarly, if they had to maintain a fish tank and learn about an ecosystem as a complicated balance — which can be fragile and less fragile, and where certain interventions will throw everything out of whack and other interventions will stabilize it — I think we would get a much more understanding and prudent set of approaches to understanding how to legislate protecting the environment on the scale of a lake, of a city, of a country, of an ocean and of a planet.
SPENCER: Ada, thanks so much for coming on. This was a fascinating conversation.
ADA: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.
JOSH: Is there anything that can be learned from meditation that would apply to the development of artificial intelligence, whether that's narrow or general artificial intelligence?
SPENCER: One way to think about meditation that encompasses at least quite a lot of meditation techniques (although not necessarily all of them), is that you're focusing your mind in a very particular way, and paying really close attention to something. So for example, a lot of meditation is you focus very intently on your breath as it leaves your nostrils. Another type of meditation is you pay attention to all your sensory experience, whether it's sound, light hitting your eyes, the feeling of your clothing on your skin, etc. So if you think about meditation that way, as just a form of paying extremely close attention, and having extremely high focus, you could imagine that it could teach you about the way the mind works because there's so much going on in our minds that we don't normally pay attention to. So if you zoom in on these different experiences we're having, maybe you can learn something about the mind. And if you learn something about the mind, maybe, maybe, speculatively, that could apply and develop an artificial intelligence, although I don't know of any insights that have been used in that way. But I wouldn't say it's impossible.
JOSH: So feel free to correct me if this picture of the brain is wrong. But one of the things I imagined is that the brain is sort of like a very complex recurrent neural network where you have inputs coming in from the senses. The brain is making decisions about those inputs, but then also those decisions are getting fed back into the next decision, or that kind of thing. I've wondered if meditation is a way of trying to shut off the senses temporarily (especially sensory deprivation tanks, and that kind of thing), where essentially, you're trying to not get any input from the outside world for a little while and just let the recurrent net feed its own stuff over and over. What do you think about that hypothesis? Does that make any sense or is that way off?
SPENCER: No, I think as a metaphor, it's certainly...in many ways, the human brain is like a recurrent neural net. Now whether that's literally true, I don't think so but I think it's unknown how far off that is. How different is it from a recurrent neural net? Not sure we fully understand that. But yeah, I mean, there's some kinds of meditation that really are more about clearing your mind out, and then just observing what happens when it's cleared out. There's non-meditative techniques like sensory deprivation tanks, like you point out. Interestingly enough, when you put people in those, and there's really almost no sensory input, people have weird experiences like they sometimes have hallucinations even. I was in a sensory deprivation tank and had the experience that I was falling. It was very strange. I kept feeling like I was falling, but I knew that I wasn't because I would have hit the bottom of the tank. So yes, people would just have odd,,, sometimes people hear loud sounds and things like that, that are not there. So yeah, I don't know what that can teach us about artificial intelligence. But yeah, it is interesting to think about meditation as trying to witness what your brain does when there's nothing in particular for it to react to. You're just kind of watching it in its equilibrium or steady state or something.
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