What is Hell?

This is totally my favorite comic for explaining what utopia looks like to me:

Most humans can (and have) lived with pain, illness, and facing death with some level of acceptance. What causes us real misery tends to be unfairness, and negative opinions from other people. It’s possible I am drastically mis-weighting human priorities here, but these are at least my intuitions, and I can’t get more fundamental than that.

I don’t just mean this appeals to me (though it does). I mean if we picture a rich man who has all the luxuries of high capitalism but suspect most people hate him, and we compare that to someone who has very little, and is even ill, but believes in the love and respect of the people who matter to him… which one do we think is happier?

On the flip-side, when I think of “Hell”, I don’t think of how you can pile the most physical pain onto a person, or other forms of singular anguish (like the obscene agonies listed in Unsong http://unsongbook.com/interlude-%D7%99-the-broadcast/ ). I think of being misunderstood and judged poorly, on a massive scale.

In fact, instead of weird paradoxes with “your body is burned every minute but also regenerates so you can keep being burned and also your nerves never develop any tolerance to the sensation” in such a Hell your safety and physical homeostasis would be guaranteed, so you can go on experiencing the psychological turmoil without distraction for as long as possible.

There would also be a lot of communication.

I mean, a lot.

How much communication can there be, you may think. After all, talking with people 24 hours a day is only a very finite amount of communication. But a long conversation is really only one datapoint of “what someone thinks of me.” It packs a stronger and more complicated punch than a one-liner, but it’s still only one punch.

As our communities have surpassed our Dunbar number  our brains have failed to adapt to the idea that “what one person thinks of us is no longer representative of what 1/150 of all people we will ever interact with thinks of us”. A random stranger still packs more psychological punch than they really should on our mental equilibrium.

So it’s not “having a conversation all day” but rather “reading what people who aren’t close to you have written about you” all day. You can read (and scan) a lot faster than you can converse, so this is more efficient.

You can see how larger villages, written letters, the printing press, newspapers and letters to the editor, internet forums all over time increased the number of people we heard opinions from. In many ways this made life richer and more interesting, with greater opportunity for human connection and emotional validation.

But the opportunities to be told that you are a failure, a pig, wrong about something, or a supporter of something immoral, also grew. Even though these insults were *usually* irrelevant in terms of anyone’s ability to affect us directly, our brains still interpret them as valid social threats, and so our sources of anxiety increased.

(The fact that a random insult *might* cost you job prospects or lead to physical harassment helps keep the edge on such insults of course. 99% of the time it won’t matter, but you’re free to obsess about the 1% of the time it will.)

Then social media hit.


We used to think the future of communication was richer communication. We’d use videophones for every call, and eventually there’d be hologram-phones and who knows what else and people would download entire libraries into their brain. Better invest in high bandwidth infrastructure.

But it turns out the direction of communication is _cheaper_. The real success came in Facebook where a one-line status update can take only seconds of effort but be broadcast to hundreds of people you care about. Twitter did this even better by *enforcing* a maximum level of effort at 140 characters.

We all know that such very small chunks of information can not convey the complexity of our emotions, or all the details of our opinions. But getting out that one witty bit of information is better than nothing, right? And the returns to scale were just so amazing.

“Bit” of information became literal as our way of communicating with someone was just whether to like/upvote/favorite someone’s post. It’s the cheapest method of all, and incredibly addicting to both send and receive.

(Make an account on reddit and next to your name is your goddamn score, of just how many people have ever liked your posts. It’s like these people read textbooks on how to make humans anxious. It can make the most hardened social isolationist ponder how to make that number higher.)

And because all this communication is easy, it can be read out of context. Was that line you said about wanting to do violence to a political figure sarcastic, very serious, or ironicly imitating how others talk? In a re-tweet those distinctions are impossible.

Imagine what it was like to be Justine Sacco http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html who maintains she was making a sarcastic joke about the nature of white privilege.

With omnipresent social media, everyone will be Justine Sacco for 15 minutes 


15 minutes? I’m kidding. People will probably only think about why they are angry that you upvoted that ironic comment about controversy-of-the-day for 15 seconds, at most.

They’ll do it because the communication is cheap. There were a lot of things you said, and taking one out of context was an easy way to embarrass you. They’ll do it because expressing violent disagreement with you takes 140 characters or one click.

But it will be billions of people downvoting you, sending you inflammatory tweets, and offering glib takes on your faux-paus that you have no power to respond to. While the world has moved, perhaps even expressing sympathy for you about the public’s “overreaction”, you’ll still be reliving memories of the time “everyone” (read: one-out-of-ten online viewers) judged and harassed you.

I’m not exaggerating. This is why outbreaks like GamerGate or Sacco are so devastating. It really might only be a minority that is upset at you, but our brains simply are not set up to understand “a million people saying mean things about me is not representative of the population at large or people close to me”. And once everyone splits up into different ideological camps, that means everyone might say something at least some group hates.

Once you think about that, the heaven in the comic sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?


“Okay, okay,” you think. “I’m just not going to get into social media then. Or if I do, I’m not going to tweet anything controversial. This dynamic sounds really sad for those people who feel a need to post on social media, but the obviously wise position is not to.”

Maybe. I worry that won’t be an option.

Even now, when outrage cycles explode, their participants often demand people in their circle speak up and can’t be silent. See the Toxoplasma of Rage  (the relevant section is Part V, though it’s all pretty good.)

friends if you are reblogging things that are not about ferguson right now please queue them instead. please pay attention to things that are more important. it’s not the time to talk about fandoms or jokes it’s time to talk about injustices.

This is a limited dynamic… but it’s not hard to see a world where social-media silence is just as critiqueable as a misstep (in fact how often do we mock politicians for not addressing controversial issues enough?) Maybe your silence on an “important matter of the day” will become a source of harassment, be it from friends or people who don’t know you and how you express yourself.

Plus, this world is still capitalism. We still need jobs. Now, the vast majority of jobs don’t require a social media presence… but some do and that sector is growing. You gotta get your brand out there, and by being popular online you can direct people to your work. Already most jobs demand you “sell” yourself one way or another (to potential customers, or donors if you work at a non-profit, or just to the professional community you are in so your employer has “buzz”). The more ubiquitous social media is, the higher the expectation will be that you actively participate in it.

I hate the current cycle we put new journalists in. In order to “explode” onto the scene, they basically have to participate online and drive people to their articles. Inflammatory language that goes with the crowd is the best way to do that. And then one day the journalist crosses a line, and everyone demands they be fired.  No one ever questions how many hits your employer got for your “combative” online style before the explosion. It’s the online equivalent of a Wall Street boiler room that demands you make your sales quotas, looks the other way for how you do so, and then is “outraged” when they find you were misleading investors.

So yeah, I see that system infecting almost any job. You probably won’t need a social media presence to get the most basic job… but if you want a good job, if you want to be very “successful” at it (and viewed as successful), you’ll need to be out there generating buzz for yourself. So you can amend my terrible prediction to “this will only happen to people who care about professional or social success.”

Still pretty bad I think.

(Plus, what you thought was private communication might turn out not to be.  )


Let’s talk about the Singularity. It’s the technological utopia where we are all hooked up to the computer grid, with no bodily needs. Everyone is immortal, no knowledge is lost, and communication is universal and free.

It’s dismissed as a geeky pipe-dream, by the likes of Peter Thiel and other technology obsessed quasi-libertarians. I think it is extremely realistic and likely, if current trends in our world continue (and we don’t get hit by a meteor as President Trump launches missiles at China in order to distract from global warming).

Communication with everyone? Haven’t we just learned how dangerous that is. You’ll think “that’s a pretty supernova” and it will upload to your twitterfeed without hesitation. A billion people will immediately downvote you for being distracted and thinking about something besides the controversy of the minute or for idealizing superficial appearance. A billion people will harass *them* for not letting the poor girl enjoy a simple pleasure for just a little bit. Both of these will happen almost involuntarily by all the participants, but as natural as breath.

(Oh, you don’t want to hook your thoughts up to a live twitterfeed? Well we respect your privacy, but really, what do you have to hide? We’re very accepting of all people here, just so long as you don’t have any toxic beliefs. Look I don’t know if we can hire someone to the position of Artist in Residence if we aren’t sure you aren’t a cyber-classist. In this depressed economy, there are plenty of other desperate graduates we can hire instead, who make clear where they stand on the principles we find important.)

Now, such utopians think that without the threat of material deprivation, our anxieties about judgment will go away, and we will all stop being assholes to each other. Everyone is immortal in the computer grid anyway, so there’s no more competing over food or healthcare or possible imprisonment, so we can just stop being afraid about what others think about us.

I don’t think that’s how the human brain works. We can investigate the failure modes of this Singularity just by looking at the results of the intermediate steps.

  1. The internet and social media already have much less impact on our physical well being than in person interaction. And yet we still twitch extremely hard in reaction to judgments there. Our reactions are not based on practical analysis of the consequences, but how our brain directly interprets social signals.

  2. There will always be material inequalities. Maybe in the cybertopia it’s about how good your processor is, or how much of some fuel you get, or maybe it will be based solely on labor you get from other humans. But even when we as a society *can* provide everyone with the basic necessities of living, we don’t for a variety of convoluted explanations. The Singularity could easily be like America – with most people having a basic material standard of existence, but much deeper insecurity about how it might get disrupted if any catastrophe happened to them (such as a storm over your tweet’s ironic lack of enthusiasm in the war against cyberAsia).

So I don’t think the Singularity is a fantasy of fools. I think it is Hell (still, of fools). It’s our current capitalist anxieties driven to the most extreme – where we are constantly performing context-free actions hoping to get validation (and reddit points) from others, afraid of what happens if instead are publicly convicted of moral crimes we didn’t intend. And there will always be a publicly viewable number ranking how popular your speech is.

And you can come up with all sorts of legal rights to prevent this. But what does legal privacy mean if millions of people can demand you open up, or else you won’t be as competitive in your professional field as those who do? Where do your minority opinions go when masses are chanting “freedom of speech is not freedom from consequence”?

If you want to see cosmopolitan Hell, just take any trend from the past 10 years and draw a straight line.


This is all to say a couple things.

One, is that I am _really, really_ skeptical of material progress in human conditions without adjustment of the social and economic systems we take for granted. America by most any standards is living in a material abundance, and we Americans are very unhappy. It’s more than easy to see how that continues, no matter how good technology gets.

Two, social media and how we use it comes up a lot. I think specific systems of it are pretty bad for us. I don’t think “willpower to not use them” is a good fix for the system exploitation inherent in it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s