The Violence Inherent in the System

[Epistemic Status: Sequence Wank]
[Content warning: Gender ]


The colony ended its stillness period, recycling systems finished purging the government of waste products and powered up into active mode. The untold billions in the colony moved as one, lifting themselves from the pliable gravity buffer used to support the colony during recharging periods and rising trillions of colony member lengths into the sky.

The hundred billion strong members of the government shuffled through their tasks, mediated with one another, and assembled a picture amongst themselves of the world the colony found itself in. The colony navigators and planners exchanged vast chains of data with each other, passing the decisions out into the colony at large, where they directed individual members of the multitude into particular actions that levered the colony forward. The navigators were skilled from generations of training and deftly guided the colony through the geometric euclidean environment that the colony colony had constructed within itself.

The colony docked with a waste vent and offloaded spent fuel and other contaminants into the metacolony’s disposal system, then exposed the potentially contaminated external surfaces to a low-grade chemical solvent.

That task completed, the colony again launched itself through space, navigating to another location. The planners and the navigators again coordinated in a vast and distributed game of touch to mediate the assembly of a high-temperature fluid that the planners found pleasing to expose themselves to the metabolites of.

The colony moved through the phases of heating the correct chemical solvent, pouring the boiling solvent over a particulate mixture of finely ground young belonging to another colony, then straining the resulting solution for particulates.

Vast networks of pushing and pulling colony members transferred the hot liquid into the colony’s fuel vent, and the liquid flowed down into the colony’s internal fuel reservoir.

Translation: I woke up, went to the bathroom, made coffee, and drank it.


Reality is weird. For one, our perception of it is a fractal. The more you look at any one particular thing, the more complexity you can derive from it. A brick seems like a pretty simple object until you think about all the elements and chemicals bonded together by various fundamental forces constantly interacting with each other. The strange quantum fields existing at an underlying level of reality are complicated and barely describable with high-level mathematics. And that’s a simple thing, a thing we all agree exists and just sits there and typically doesn’t do anything on its own.

Out of those fields and particles and possibly strings are built larger and more elaborate structures which themselves build into more elaborate structures until some of those structures started self-replicating in unique ways, working together in vast colonies, and reading the content of this post.

That is the reality as best we can tell, that’s what the territory actually looks like. It’s super weird and trying to understand why anything happens in the territory on a fundamental level is a monumentally difficult task for even the simplest of things. And that’s still just our best, most current model it’s a very good, very difficult to read map of the territory, and it demonstrates just how strange it is. The total model of reality might be too complicated to actually fit into reality: a perfect map of the territory would just be the territory.

But of course, we don’t live in the territory, we live in the map. It’s easy to say “The map is not the territory” but it’s difficult to accept the full implications of that with regards to our day to day lives, to the point where even trying to break free of the fallacy, it’s possible to still fall victim to the fallacy through simple availability heuristics. Here’s the less wrong wiki, did you spot the place where the map-territory relation broke?

Scribbling on the map does not change the territory: If you change what you believe about an object, that is a change in the pattern of neurons in your brain. The real object will not change because of this edit. Granted you could act on the world to bring about changes to it but you can’t do that by simply believing it to be a different way.

Emphasis added there by us. Neurons are pretty good models, last we checked. If “scribbling on the map” IE: changing our beliefs about the map, changes the pattern of neurons in your brain, then that is a physical change in reality. Sure, you can’t simply will a ball to magically propel itself towards the far end of the soccer field, but your belief in the ability to make the ball get from point A to point B will determine a lot about whether or not the ball gets from point A to point B.

This gets back to how good our models are, and why we should want to believe true things. If the ball is made of foam, but we think it’s made of lead and too heavy to carry, we might not even try to get the ball from point A to point B. If the ball is made of lead but we think it’s made of foam, we might underestimate the difficulty of the task and seriously injure ourselves in the attempt (but we might still be able to get the ball from point A to point B). If we know in advance the ball is made of lead, maybe we can bring a wheelbarrow to make it relatively easy to move.

This is the benefit of having true beliefs about reality. However, as established, reality is really, really weird, and our models of it are necessarily imperfect. But we still have to live, we can’t actually live in reality, we don’t have the processing power to actually model it accurately down to the quark.

So we don’t. Instead of doing that, we make simpler, shorthand models, and call them words. We don’t think about all the complicated chemical reactions going on when you make coffee, it all gets subducted beneath the surface of the language and lumped into the highly simplified category for which in English we use the word “coffee.”

And this is the case for all words, all concepts, all categories. Words exist as symbols of more complicated and difficult to describe ideas, built out of other, potentially even more complicated and difficult to describe ideas, and all of this, hopefully, modelling the territory in a somewhat useful way to the average human.


Eliezer Yudkowsky appears to have coined the term for this alternative collection of maps and meta-maps that we use to navigate the strangeness of the territory as “thingspace” and his essay on the cluster structure of thingspace is definitely one of the better and more important reads from the Less-Wrong Sequences. Combined with how an algorithm feels from the inside, you can technically re-derive almost all the rest of rationality from first principles using it, it’s just that those first principles are sufficiently difficult to grok that it takes 3,000-word effortposts to explain what the fuck we’re talking about. Scott Alexander has said it’s the solution to something like 25% of all current philosophical dilemmas, and he makes a valid point.

We’re not quite consciously aware of how we use most of the words we use, so subtle variations in the concepts attached to words can have deep implications and produce all sorts of drama. “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Isn’t a question that can actually be meaningfully answered without a deeper meta-level understanding of the words being used and what they mean, but we don’t take the time to define our terms, and when people argue from the dictionary, it usually comes off as vaguely crass.

But, the tree isn’t a part of the territory, it’s a particular map. Hearing isn’t part of the territory, it’s a particular map, and sound isn’t a part of the territory, it too is a particular map.

So what are you saying Hive, you aren’t saying “trees don’t exist” are you?


No, we’re saying that “tree” is a word we use to map out a particular part of the territory in a particular way. It’s map of sub-maps like leaves and branches, and part of larger maps like forests and parks. We can get really deeply into phylogenetics and be incredibly nitpicky and precise in how we go about defining those models, but knowing a tree is made of cells doesn’t actually get you out of the map. Cells are another map.

You can’t actually escape the map, you are the map. “You” is a map, “I” is a map, “we” are a map, of the territory. And the map is not the territory. “I think therefore I am” isn’t even in the territory because “I” isn’t in the territory.

We are a complex and multifaceted model of reality, everything about us and how we think of ourselves is models built out of models. The 100 billion strong colony organism that is your brain isn’t “I.” No, “I” is an idea running on that brain, which is then used to recursively label That which Has Ideas.

Some Things People Think are Part of the Territory that are Actually just Widely Shared Maps

  • All of Science
  • All Religions
  • Gender
  • Sex
  • Race
  • All other forms of personal identity
  • All of language
  • Dictionary Definitions


What about ideas in thingspace that don’t seem to model anything real, that don’t touch down into a description of reality? Like Justice or the scientific method? They’re useful, but they’re not actually models of reality, they’re just sets of instructions.

Well for once, they still really exist in real brains, so as far as that goes “the concept of justice as a thing people think about” it is a thing that exists. But it’s made of thought, without a brain to think the thoughts or another substrate for the ideas to exist within, they don’t exist.

However, the cool thing we do as humans is that we reify our ideas. Language was just an idea, but it spread gradually through the minds of early humans until it had achieved fixation then spilled out into the physical world in the form of writing. Someone imagined the design for an airplane, and then constructed that design out of actual materials, filling in the thingspace lines with wood and fabric.

And this is the case for all technology, and that is what language and justice are: technology. It’s a tool that we use as humans to extend our (in this case cognitive) reach beyond where it would be able to be otherwise.

We can go one direction, trying to make the most accurate models of reality we can (science) but we can also go the other direction, and try to make reality conform to our models (engineering).

So perhaps a good way to describe ourselves, is in the way that Daniel Dennett has when he says that we’re a combination of genes and memes.

But memes have power outside of us, in that they can be reified into reality. Ideologies can shape human behavior, beliefs change how we go about our days, expectations about reality inform our participation in that reality. Because we are creatures of the map, and the true territory is hard af to understand, memes end up being the dominant force in our actions.

This can be a problem because it means that just as we can reify good things, we can also reify awful things that hurt us. In many cases, we draw in our own limitations, defining what we can and cannot do, and thus definitionally limiting ourselves.

But we’re creatures of the map, we exist as labels. And what those labels label can change, as long as we assert the change as valid. This is hard for a lot of people to grok, and results in a lot of pushback from all sides.

If you say “gender is an idea, it doesn’t have any biological correlates,” a lot of people will take it as an attack on their identity, which makes sense considering that all our identities are is a collection of ideas, and we get rather attached to our ideas about ourselves. But gender is just a word representing an idea, and what is represented by that word can change.

four genders

Saying “I identify as a girl” is exactly as valid as saying “I identify as transmasculine genderfluid” is exactly as valid as saying “I identify as a sentient starship” because it’s an assertion about something that is entirely subjective. How we define ourselves in our heads is up to us, not anyone else.

The trouble comes about when people claim their models are true reality.


Going back to How an Algorithm Feels From the Inside, it’s easy enough to see why people try to put things into boxes. Because the alternative is to have no boxes and have a lot of trouble talking about things in regular language.

(Hilarious Conlang Idea: A language in which all nouns are derived based on their distance from one conceptual object in thingspace)

We get into huge flamewars with each other over which boxes are the most accurate, and which boxes are problematic, and which boxes are true when in fact none of the boxes have anything to do with truth.

From where we’re standing, it looks like the culture at large is trying to organize and juggle all these boxes around to reduce harm and increase utility as much as it can, but almost no one is willing to acknowledge the fact that yes, we’re just making it up as we go along. Everyone’s side tries to claim the mantle of Objective Truth, when in fact, none of them have any claim to that mantle. And here we are, standing on the sidelines with all this cardboard and a lighter going “Guys? You realize that we can just make new boxes if these ones are shitty, right?”

Worse still, the result is a lot of violence gets baked into the way we interact with each other. When we have conflicting ideas that we have both decided are parts of our identity, it’s hard to have any sort of civil discourse because each side feels like it’s under attack, and thus identity politics have become a pit of misery and vitriol on all sides.

We’d like to try and evoke some new heuristics, ones that get at the heart of these sorts of disputes as well as possibly just being good mental health hacks.

  • Labels label me not. I am not the Labels people put on me.
  • I am the labels I put on myself. As long as I assert myself as the holder, I am the proprietor of the label.
  • [In Response to “Is X a Y”] Define terms please.
  • Reject nonconsensual labeling

But Hive, don’t these let anyone claim to be anything though? Couldn’t someone claim to be Napolean and demand to be treated like French royalty or they’ll be miserable and suicidal?

Well, they could claim to be Napolean, but using the labels you apply to yourself as a way to force behaviors out of others is emotional blackmail and a sort of shitty thing to do. It’s a sort of verbal violence committed both against others and against the self because it at once puts expectations on other people that they might not be comfortable meeting, and it also defines your own ability to be happy as dependent on this arbitrary environmental factor that can’t be fully controlled. It’s great to own your labels, you should own your labels, but demanding that others respect your labels and treat them as true facts about reality is oppressive. It’s just as oppressive as having other people put their own labels on you without your consent. All labels should be consensual.

We’d really like if more people could come to see things this way. It’d reduce drama a lot, and then maybe we could try and decide what to do with all of this cardboard we have lying around.


One thought on “The Violence Inherent in the System

  1. Pingback: Rational Feed – deluks917

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