Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Evils of Codification

Hearsay about Korea

A lot of people I went to grad school with have taught or are now teaching in Korea. A few of them never want to come back. Most hate Korea with all of hell's fury.

"I don't want to simplistically vilify an entire nation, but . . ."

Confucianism is hard for the non-native practitioner. Get-to-know-you questions like "How much money do you make? Are you married? Why not? Do you have children? How many are boys?" strike a lot of Americans as weird. Also weird for Americans is that this information is being ascertained so that Koreans will know how deeply to bow, who should enter rooms first, and what verb tenses to use.

Formalism gives me good feelings, personally. It reminds me of Jane Austin novels.

What sends my colleagues fleeing like pitiful hipster refugees, though, is not the formalism. It's that the formalism seems to psychologically absolve people of their social responsibilities. So long as you've kept to the code in terms of who sits down first and who you can smoke in front of, you're free to be barbarously terrible to people in all other matters.

I've never actually been to Korea. I have no idea if any of this is true. But something like this does, I think, happen with codification.

The invention of currency

The anarchist anthropologist David Graeber has a new book on debt. He says that (contrary to popular opinion) credit came first, to be followed by bartering, and then coinage. Because we moderns usually think about credit in terms of dollar-denominated ledgers, we get things confused, and assume that credit was the most recent invention.

Our confusion comes from our failure to imagine a world in which credit was not denominated. In primitive societies, you let someone stay over or let him eat one of your cows, and he tried to do something equivalent when you were needing and he was capable.

When this changed, it ushered in a wave of violence.

Why? Why does putting things in numbers make everyone evil? I think because of transferability. When debts could be precisely reckoned, recorded, and transferred, it allowed some pretty absurd levels of obligation to pile up. And when the moral terror involved in calling in these kinds of debts could be transferred to banks, governments, and other non-human entities, we could commit our atrocities by proxy, and never really think about what we were doing.


God damn it if anarchism doesn't get its claws in you. You start by reading Noam Chomsky and Ron Paul because you don't like wars and the federal reserve, and then pretty soon the bible is, like, all about love and coercion, man.

In the bible, God makes man and puts him in this garden with this evil no-good Tree of Codification. Something like that. (Did you read my story, "The Tree", yet?) Man eats from it and starts codifying. Laws, money, you name it. God smiles and gives them a code that's explicitly impossible to keep.

And as we all know, "when the great Tao is declined/The doctrines of humanity (jen) and righteousness (yi) arose/When knowledge and wisdom appeared/There emerged great hypocrisy."

So stuff got bad. Codification hit fever pitch, and then God came down in the flesh and hung out with prostitutes, worked on the sabbath, and told a lot of parables about calling in debts and forgiving them.

He dies (quite artistically) on a tree, the Tree of Anti-Codification, and says (and I quote): "Look guys, here's the deal. You all have an insurmountable debt to me. If you want codification, I'll classify you, and you won't like it. If you want to call in your debts, I'll call yours in, and you're fucked. But here's another game we can play: the one we were playing before you picked the no-no tree. We can abide by the spirit of the law (it's more like guidelines, really), and not the letter. We can just try to be excellent to each other."

The point

I have absolutely no point. Maybe it's that humans can't draw for the same reason that governments suck and life is desperate and terrible, and Levi should move to Fannin County.

Or maybe this is just what happens when the anarchy tumor spreads up the stem of your brain.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Port Pairing, Space Pirates, and the Meaning of Life

When I was a kid with a 300 bps modem, I would dial into the local BBS and play a game called TradeWars 2002. TradeWars was one of the early online multiplayer worlds, and it functioned in much the same way its modern daughter universes do: you log in, you pick a name, start making money, make alliances, and live out the story of your secondary life.

An awesome view of the galaxy.

People plug into their matrix-es (matrices?) of choice for complicated reasons. One TED Talk I watched proposed that these artificial worlds have more justice than ours, so that effort and reward are more humanely correlated. Speaking for myself, I have to disagree. There are plenty of monotonous tasks I could choose for myself where effort and a meaningless, symbolic reward walked in lock-step. I could dig a hole in my back yard, and get my sweat's worth or dirt for every plunge of the shovel. For me, TradeWars was about narrative. It was about living out the kind of story that I couldn't otherwise live with a 13-year-old's resources.

There was, though, a strange breed of players that played TradeWars like a backyard shovel. These were the port-pairers.

Without struggle, any universe will get boring. (Life ain't all roses 'cause roses ain't fun.) In the TradeWars universe, as in ours, economic scarcity made our decisions more difficult and our winnings more proudly hard-won. One does not simply speak his rebel star empire into existence. One must find adjacent trading ports, and buy organics and raw ore for one dollar to sell them for two.  One must do this until he can buy weapons, planets, and ships. Only then can go on killing sprees, birth colonies, capture Tholian Sentinals, join the underground, storm the Ferengi citadel, or whatever.

But every now and again, you'd find strange players who seemed to have forgotten about this second part. They logged in and simply paired ports. They traded. They made money. And when they had enough money, they bought bigger ships and more cargo holds, and continued the process on a larger scale. It baffled me. Such a strange misuse of a person's time, this seemed. I'd rather watch an infomercial. I'd rather sleep. At least in sleep there is dreaming. This was like picking up a novel so you could count the letters on each page. 

I hadn't thought about TradeWars all that much lately until I was on the phone the other day with my cousin Levi. He was talking about people at his actuarial firm. The people where he works either refuse to believe him or are deeply freaked out when they learn (for instance) that he lived in a mud hut in Namibia for two years, or wants to live in a self-sufficient anarchist-agrarian commune. They also, apparently, aren't impressed by his paperclip necklaces. Me and Lee talk to each other as people with twenty years' worth of girlfriends, books, and inside jokes in common do. Lots of shorthand and metaphors. Some of these involve TradeWars.

So Levi's venting about someone at the office, and says:
"Man, just go pair your ports."
It hit me. My God. That same feeling. I get it. This is why I'm freaked out by most professionals. This is why I'm uneasy. They're pairing ports. Getting a job so they can get more experience and get the next job. Buying a plane ticket so they can seal the deal so they can buy another plane ticket. Where's the narrative? When is someone going to strap on an eye patch, helm their Havoc GunStar, and try to blow up stardock? Something central to my psyche tells me that the reason that we go through the drudgery of everyday life is that we have to, to be able to purchase the stuff of real stories. Burning your career down makes sense to me. Moving to the Philippines to learn staff fighting also sounds like a great narrative twist. Instead, the world of my grown-up associates is eerie, and without story. It's surreal. Like a dead door game on some ancient BBS that hasn't been dialed into for years, populated with orphan bots, saving up credits till the sysop runs the EXE to rebang and the stars fall out of the sky.

Maybe this is what they call growing up.

I'd just as soon stop playing.

I've got enough credits for a few limpet mines and a Scout Marauder. Damn the credits. I want a story. Hail me if you want in.