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📰 The Government Within

Author: Mike Travers

Full Title: The Government Within

URL: https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2013/10/18/the-government-within/

Highlights from March 5th, 2021.

There is no central control of the mind, it’s just a loose collection of Desires, agents, plans, and assorted bric-a-brac. How then does a coherent self get pulled together from this mess? One of Ainslie’s key points is that the main or only reason we have a self at all is to construct and enforce long-term bargains between independent behaviors and interests, and the self is better understood as a temporary alliance than an organ or a structure.
A practical person might ask, why you would want to see yourself this way? Isn’t it a somewhat destructive intellectual goal? Even if the self is fictional, it is surely a necessary fiction, and undermining it might be a bad idea. Integrity is a virtue, why the emphasis on its opposite?
An integrated self, if it is anything, is a construction, an achievement, an emergent fact out of a pre-existing disorder, and one needs to understand this process in order to avoid or correct the pathologies that the process is prone to.
Picking a strategy in an prisoner’s dilemma game involves predicting the actions of the other player, and hence modeling them. What Ainslie seems to be saying is that this recursive process precedes, generates, and underlies the self. In some sense we bootstrap our selves into being through this process of trying to wrangle our infantile drives into coherent longer-term actions.
A Person, like a society, is composed of parts with their own private agendas, all taking part in a continuously renegotiated dance of conflict, cooperation, and compromise. Our disparate motivations are like politicians trying to advance a faction, and the self, such as it is, is something like a prime minister – not powerful in its own right, but because it has managed to become the public face for the most powerful faction. Our inner life is a noisy parliament.
Given the dysfunctional reputation of external legislatures, this might be cause for despair. But consider two points: First, what are the alternatives? The older model of the self is equally a reflection of the monarchic system of government, or a military hierarchy, the king-general-self seated at a pinnacle of command and handing down orders to the lower parts who execute them. That model doesn’t comport well with either the reality of human action or a modern esthetic of systems. Second, given the inescapable fact of conflict in both society and the individual, we have no choice but to struggle towards systems of governance that work, where “work” means to successfully arrive at suitable compromise solutions that are stable and satisfy a reasonably large subset of constituent interests.
The distributed agency theories of Freud and his descendents open up the tantalizing possibility of a unified theory of power and action over distributed systems, one that can show how assemblages of agents form, compete, cooperate, and dissolve, that cuts across psychology and political science. Perhaps these two most intractable problems – the organization of society and the organization of the self – can some day illuminate each other.
So you and every Person you interact with are each a whole society of separate agents, with an internal economy, government, and politics. Some people may be organized like monarchies with a strong central self, others may be more anarchic bundles of disparate impulses, others may be flexibly improvising democracies of interest. A kind of mental anarchy is probably the infantile ground state, with structures of governance emerging over time. We all probably are familiar with people who have either too much or too little governance over their impulses. Personal interactions are like diplomatic missions between countries, and our social selves the ambassadors, forced to represent a complex system in a simple, polished, and understandable form.
Most of us in the technology world I think find politics (the external kind) distasteful – because of its dysfunctionality, inelegance, and because when it does work at all it requires dealing with humans on a retail, personal level, rather than as abstractions. But if individuals are themselves loose collections of divergent agencies, with only cobbled-together alliances maintaining a semblance of unity and coherence, then politics in a sense can’t be avoided at all – it’s what we are made of.
The dominant political philosophy of technologists appears to be libertarianism, an ideology that may be pretty accurately defined as the belief that politics can and should be replaced by something else (the market). Fighting this tendency has been an obsession of mine for decades, and while I am not going to fight that battle here I cannot resist the fresh insight gained from an immersion in Ainslie: that the flight from politics is in some sense a flight from authenticity, a denial of our true nature, and a proposal to replace it with something shiny and superficially attractive but utterly foreign to who we really are.

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