Picture the Earth from space. You’ve seen it in movies and pictures. The Blue Dot, the Universal logo, the Google Map. You can hold it in your mind, rotate it, observe the poles and the seas and the familiar shapes of the continents. Can you see the clouds? The fingerprint whorls of tropical storms, the long Pollack streaks of the jet stream?

Now predict the weather for the next three days. Look at your mental map of the planet and tell me the forecast. You can’t, right? Your mental simulation doesn’t have up-to-date weather data!

Of course it doesn’t. The biggest computers can only keep track of so many data points, and each of those is updated at a different rate. Even the proverbial government spy satellite, the one that can see every hair on your ass while you shit in your neighbor’s yard at night, is sending a series of pictures. If those pictures are coming at a rate of 12 per second or more, a human looking at them will see motion. But that’s a simulation too.

Each mind is a world-simulator. Nobody has the full picture. You are a brain in a jar, viewing the world through the peripherals of your senses and your cell phone and your social milieu: satellite feeds that can never capture the most cutting-edge data. Every one of us is ultimately alone. We’re together in that.

Maybe this seems basic to you. Cogito, ergo sum , right? A demon could be controlling what you see and hear, but who cares? If it’s a perfect simulation, then it doesn’t make a difference. If it’s not, and you can figure out what’s true and what’s illusion, then do that. That’s what science is for.

Science is great, don’t get me wrong. There is a material reality, which we can all measure and agree on. It is self-consistent, even if we don’t understand all its rules yet. From the atomic level to the galactic, you can test your theory and adjust your expectations. As above, so below.

This was the triumph of the hermeticists, the wizards and alchemists that fomented the Enlightenment. The world is a predictable place, and you can manipulate it to your will, if you know its ways.

But like all great power, this came with a curse. As above and below, so in the middle. Macrocosm, microcosm, mesocosm. Humans ourselves are part of the universe, subject to its laws. We can’t defy gravity; we can only trick the air into lifting our wings. In the same way, we can’t become perfect rational actors simply by thinking “therefore, I am”.

Our brains evolved to hunt ruminants in the prairie. They weren’t programmed in one all-nighter by some cosmic whiz kid. They accrued, over millions of years, in a series of hacks and kludges. There are multiple layers of software and operating system and interface. Crucially, there are hacks.

Psychology wasn’t even a thing until the 19th century, you know that? We had philosophy, mesmerism, phrenology and psychoanalysis; all variety of metaphysics and religion. But experimental psychology –the application of the scientific method to the original instrument of science, the brain itself – started in the 1800s and didn’t really take off til the 20th century.

Of course wasn’t long before we found exploits in the evolved mechanisms of the brain. People aren’t perfect; they can be tricked. The low magics have always been about this. But combined with the iterative power of experiment, psychologists began to hone in on specific knobs and levers of the mental apparatus.

If you can scientifically control someone’s brain, why, you could make them do anything! Propaganda was born.

In 2020 we each drift lonely in a sea of propaganda. Neural nets can hallucinate fake news and fake images at a rate unimaginable to the spin doctors of yore. Algorithms sort endless amounts of content and drivel into piles and shove them into your feed in mysterious proportions. You never know who else has seen the same memes you have, the same trends, the same news stories. All conversations are prefaced with an epistemic dance, where each party gauges the other’s reality bubble through opaque references and nonverbal cues. Can’t be caught talking to the out-group; they are infected with brainworms, and should you gaze into the abyss behind their eyes you may never escape.

At least, that’s what they want us to think. The most powerful nation-states in the world are all operating campaigns of division and deceit. Narrative warfare, they call it. Control the enemy’s story and you control his mind; control his mind and you win the war.

The narrative that everyone on the Other Team is evil and mindless and depraved is an easy one to spread, especially as our other social institutions wither due to quarantine. Nobody’s going outside. We see each other only online. We’re all afraid of getting killed (by disease, by lack of money or food or medicine, by cop or militia or mercenary) and we’re afraid none of our leaders are actually in control of anything (they aren’t).

How nice it would be to blame all of this on those dirty Outgroupers, whose minds are filled with lies and who would happily watch you die if it furthers their goals. So good to know that your reality is the true one and theirs irrational, false. A very convenient truth.

What do you think the weather will be like this week?

Thanks for reading,

—Max


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