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Small-Scale Question Sunday for January 7, 2024

Do you have a dumb question that you're kind of embarrassed to ask in the main thread? Is there something you're just not sure about?

This is your opportunity to ask questions. No question too simple or too silly.

Culture war topics are accepted, and proposals for a better intro post are appreciated.

Jump in the discussion.

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So, what are you reading?

I'm picking up McGilchrist's The Master and his Emissary. The documentary was interesting enough, but I'm still not sure what to expect. The open, scholarly tone is welcome, more nuanced than I would have expected from a book about left and right brain hemispheres.

Meanwhile, Dantes is escaping in Monte Cristo.

I've finished The Return of the King. Nice enough.

Then I burned through 1984 in a fever of horrified interest. The most disconcerting dystopian fantasy I've ever read of. Now I'm seeing Ingsoc everywhere.

Now I'm reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, but with my usual suspicion that whatever I read is just the author trying to be his own propagandist.

And I also got a facsimile of the Royal Armouries Ms. I.33 fencing manual for Christmas, and I'm enjoying it a lot. Too bad there's nobody here to fence with!

Now I'm seeing Ingsoc everywhere.

This is deliberate. Nineteen eighty-four (Orwell always spelt out the title) was intended to be a self-preventing prophecy about what was, in 1948 when he wrote the book, a plausible future. In particular, he deliberately set out to write about the nature of totalitarian socialism, rather the accidents of any particular form of it, in order to provide a fully general warning. The name Ingsoc suggests that it evolved from a form of "national socialism" but there are also a lot of hints in the book that Ingsoc actually evolved from some kind of communist-adjacent movement. But by 1984 it has lost almost all traces of the original cover story (economic egalitarianism for communism, racial-national renewal for national socialism) and has gone mask-off about the purpose of power being power, as O'Brien so memorably puts it.

As Eliezer Yudkowsky points out re. superintelligent AI, acquiring power is an intermediate goal of almost all optimisation processes. And totalitarian socialism is the best way for a movement that has or can reasonably hope to achieve control of a state to consolidate and extend its power in the medium term. So every political movement that doesn't have guardrails against it "wants" to become totalitarian. At the time Orwell wrote the book, the western democracies had weakened their guardrails deliberately in order to mobilise against the Axis, and a lot of people (cough, Joe McCarthy, cough) wanted to weaken them further, at least notionally in order to defeat the Soviet Union. A well-targetted memetic immune system in the minds of the elite (the "High" in Goldstein's theory of oligarchy) and potential counter-elites (the "Middle") is a powerful new guardrail. And it still works.

You should be seeing tendencies towards Ingsoc everywhere - Orwell wants you to be on your guard against totalitarian tendencies, regardless of whether they wrap themselves in the Bible, the Flag, the Constitution, the Universal Brotherhood of Man, or Martin Luther King's burial shroud. And he wants you to have the language to call them out. Above all, he wants you to focus on the correct target. Newspeak and doublethink should be scarier than swastikas or hammer-and-sickles.

You will notice that when we want to call out totalitarian tendencies, we still use language taken from Nineteen eighty-four. Orwell was very good at what he was doing.