We Are What We Read / Bitcoin and Lovecraft

Somebody, somewhere, has mashed up an internet thinkpiece on bitcoin with weird near-future sci-fi and mind-bending Lovecraftian horror. It is the internet after all.

However many examples of the above already existed (it is the internet after all!), there is one in particular that I read recently, over the course of a roughly two-hour train ride.

Read with caution: https://zerohplovecraft.wordpress.com/2018/05/11/the-gig-economy-2/

I don’t know exactly where it came from or who wrote it; the blog that posted it has no other information and only one other (protected) post, apparently a draft of the public version. This anonymity is suitably in-character and probably deliberate. I found out about the story through this Slate Star Codex post; I would not be at all surprised if Scott Alexander is behind the whole thing and just didn’t want it directly associated with that online identity for some reason.

I won’t go into the story itself really at all, there’s not a lot of it I could do justice to and while “read with caution” is entirely accurate, it is absolutely worth reading. Instead I want to talk about what reading does to us.

For some time after I’ve read something truly absorbing, the imprint of that work stays with me, echoing through not only my thoughts but also my speech patterns, word choice, and something which I struggle to describe other than as “the shape of my consciousness”. For example, I’m a big fan of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind and its sequels (collectively The Kingkiller Chronicle). Rothfuss has a very distinctive, very fluid style of prose, often characterized by lists without the typical join words like “as” or “his”. From the first page of the first chapter of The Name of the Wind:

They had taken his sword and stripped him of his tools: key, coin, and candle were all gone.

Note the lack of repeated “his” before the descriptive list, and also the alliteration. From a few pages later:

It was a spider as large as a wagon wheel, black as slate.

Note the lack of “and as” before the word “black”. I’m not even sure if this sentence as written is technically correct, but it’s clear enough and the overall effect of an entire book constructed this way is beautiful. Language is descriptive not prescriptive anyway.

It’s easy to understand how reading some 1200 pages of this prose might impact one’s own speech patterns. I’ve gone through the available books a couple of times over the years, and every time I’ll spend a week or more afterwards speaking just like Rothfuss writes: terse, eloquent, fluid.

[J]ust like Rothfuss writes: terse, eloquent, fluid.

See? I’m doing it here after just talking about it.

But as I mentioned, it goes beyond just word choice and sentence structure. I already mentioned “the shape of my consciousness” and I stand by that vague gesture towards something I can’t otherwise pin down. Although I do have a small poetic and flowery streak, I am not normally given to purple prose, but for some time after I’ve read Rothfuss I won’t just speak it; I’ll think it. Something about the shape of the sentences, the word choices, demands that adjectives and nouns come in sets, which means I use more of them than I otherwise would. This gives everything more shape than it would otherwise have, and paints a richer picture of the world.

I make different decisions as a result. I am a different person.

This is, I suppose, just a really complicated way of saying “this book changed my life”! That’s not an incorrect interpretation. But really, I’m arguing anecdotally for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

I’m doing that, just to be able to say: that “The Gig Economy” story did some weird things to my brain. I’m glad I didn’t have to interact with other humans for a while afterwards.

Right Love

When I think of love, I think of a deep, romantic, starry-eyed limerence combined with a strong underlying bond of commitment. This shouldn’t be too surprising, given that I grew up on a steady diet of Christian family values and golden-age Hollywood movie-musicals. While I’ve consciously rejected some parts of that childhood, it has nonetheless had a lasting and obvious effect on my subconscious and what I want out of life.

Of course, this is hardly the only kind of love that exists in the world. I have written before about this and generally keep coming back to Patrick Rothfuss’s two blog posts on the topic. Go read them if you haven’t already, they are important context to what follows.

At a very simple, practical level, the many different kinds of love that we talk about are merely a linguistic problem. The fact that they all share one word is annoying, and makes communication more difficult sometimes, but doesn’t fundamentally alter reality. The asterisk on this is of course that the way we define emotional words at all is weird and complicated. Still, this does not seem an insurmountable problem.

Since this problem seems initially surmountable, let’s try to surmount it. Specifically, let’s try to pin down what the right kind of love is upon which to build a marriage or other relationship. It may be tempting to object that there is no “right” kind of love, all love is unique, every relationship is different, etc. but love is such a broad term that this is clearly false. I love chocolate, but it would be a categorical mistake to marry someone about whom I feel the way I feel about chocolate. Or consider the Greek word philia which is sometimes translated as “brotherly love” or similar, but is again not something a romantic relationship should be built on.

We’ve just seen a couple of easy examples of what “marriage love” (for lack of a better term) shouldn’t be, but pinning down what it actually should be is rather more complicated:

  • The traditionalist, “family values” line is that it should be storge, which is another Greek word usually translated as love but with more of a lean towards family and commitment. Among other things, storge is what parents normally feel for their children.
  • The Hollywood line is that it should be limerence, which is not Greek at all but was coined by a psychologist in the 1970s and is roughly equivalent to so-called “romantic love” or emotional infatuation.
  • The modern, sexually liberated generation of today might imply that pragmatically the most important form of love is eros (Greek again, with “erotic” an obvious descendant in modern English), with the others relevant but generally secondary. Certainly, there have been studies supporting this point.
  • Rothfuss, in his second post above, argues for a conception of love he calls eleutheria and which he defines approximately as “love without expectation”.
  • The final meaning of love I’ve heard talked about in this context is something I don’t have a good word handy for, and I’m not even sure I can describe it properly. It is an intentional, intellectual form of love, almost more a compatibility of spirit and mindset than an emotion? Maybe this is what philia means? Or philia combined with storge? I’m not sure. For the purposes of this post I’ll just keep calling it philia, and apologies to any Greek speakers who disagree.

So which one is it? In an ideal relationship, obviously, we would want all of these to be present. If you feel storge, limerence, eros, eleutheria, and philia for one person all at once, then that’s pretty definitely somebody you should be talking to. But what if you only feel some of those? Limerence and/or eros are clearly enough for a lot of people to act on, but don’t tend to produce a lasting relationship by themselves. Storge and philia, as far as I can tell, are potentially necessary for a healthy long-term relationship, but are also emotions that we feel for others (siblings, children, etc) and are therefore clearly not sufficient. Eleutheria sounds pretty but I still find it a little hard to grasp; I don’t have a good referent for when I’m feeling it.

Discarding eleutheria because I don’t properly understand it, and taking storge and philia as necessary but not sufficient, then either limerence or eros (or both) must be a necessary component. Of the two, limerence seems more plausible; eros is obviously very common, but it seems possible to be “in love” to the point of marriage without having an erotic component. Initial conclusion: storge, philia, and limerence.

This is all very theoretically well and good, but has a more practical problem: limerence seems rare. At the least, it certainly seems far rarer than the number of actual existing relationships (57.7% of the adult population as of the last census). Does this mean that limerence isn’t actually necessary? Or is it more that people are so afraid of being alone they will enter into a relationship without all the necessary conditions? I don’t know.