The Optikratic Oath
In a world of cargo cultists, be a pilot.
I like stalking old internet forums. They’re little time capsules of dead eras scattered across forgotten domains - freeze frames of networks; a time-based c-scan of conversations anchored for eternity to the norms of their era. Some of these forums aren’t even on the internet proper and can only be accessed over old phone-line connections, dialed into manually. These aren’t the dial-up modems of the late 90s, these are older. You had to physically place your phone onto the modem and connect via audio tone on the phone speaker. Dial-up was the discovery you could just use the phone line itself. These ancient audio-accessible servers started popping up in the 1970s and got replaced by more familiar forms in the 1990s. It was a truly bizarre era, where you could hack into a server by whistling at it - if you knew the audio password and had perfect pitch. Such people were known as phonephreaks, and if you’re unfamiliar with the phenomena, start your googling with legendary phreaker John Draper, whose claim to fame in those years was whistling into the white house secure phone network, informing President Richard Nixon of an ongoing national emergency: he had run out of toilet paper.
Computers are rather bad at telling real and fake signals from each other. Whole industries are made trying to further and further encrypt the signal to make sure only an honest one gets through. But every time, the fakers catch up. They get more elaborate ways to disguise. Perfect Pitch phreaks move onto SQL vulnerabilities, then Java breaches, etc etc.
All these were long before my life, but some of those old servers are still operating on dial-up, still running in some long-forgotten closet or basement somewhere. Every year, some of them die and with them decades of thoughts frozen in place. Still, many of them are housed by university tech departments and are likely to go on living so long as the university does.
It’s otherworldly to dial them up, put the phone on an old telecom receiver, and let your computer digest the ancient data. You can sometimes find some of the first posts from the late 1970s on these relic techs, or even an unfinished D&D game from the mid 1980s.
Digital archeology is strange, as most people have a cultural memory of the internet starting only about 20 years ago. In reality, things like message boards first started popping up on the phone network in the 1970s. Called BBS, or Bulletin Board System, these boards aren’t just text - contrary to popular opinion. Many of them were ASCII image boards hosting some truly ancient memes that were enjoyed by small circles of friends. The internet was sparsely populated in those days, but it had artists then too. At least one BBS recorded a peak user hit of 200,000 at one point.
If we want to get more technical, we could even say the first forms of these simple internet boards can be dated to the late 19th century, but I will write more on that another time.
One of my specific interests here are posts from the mid to late 90s, where the “Fresh Prince” era good vibes produced a vast sea of hopes and dreams that have nearly all dried up. Amongst those hopes and dreams you can sometimes find cynics suspicious of their era, noticing dark trends and undercurrents brewing the political shitstorm we experience today. One such discussion can be found in a 1996 log at Ward Cunningham’s WikiWikiWeb board, which I’ll render some select parts here for you:
DaveSmith 10-Apr-96 or 4-Oct-96: I like much of this, except for the title. I think "CargoCult" is better used to describe situations where the current inhabitants of an organization are in awe of an artifact (piece of technology, body of code, policy, etc.) that's either been left by ancient, venerable, (and now gone from the scene) ancestors, or has been deposited from a great height by distant "experts." The artifact remains in use, but the awe precludes close inspection or (gasp!) attempts at modification. Would "Protective Cover" or "Hide In The Org Chart" be more descriptive?
LloydBlythen said on either 10-Feb-97 or 2-Oct-97: No mention of Marcus Aurelius - wasn't it he who spoke of reorganising to give the illusion of progress?
AdamHill said on 30-Aug-97: I also use the term CargoCult to refer to a piece of code or a process that no one dares change due to ignorance or laziness. This could be a case of DontFixItIfItAintBroken, but usually it's because the code is a HouseOfCards.
TomStambaugh said on 9-Jan-98: I share the feeling that "CargoCult" names a different Pattern than the one described here. To me, "CargoCult" suggests the idea of copying superficial aspects of something while completely misunderstanding or ignoring the underlying principle that makes the original-
RussBrown said on _: Perhaps we can find a new name for the pattern currently named CargoCult, and in the meantime, if anyone concurs with me, we can flesh out TemporaryCargoCult in PatternForm. Perhaps a good name for this last antipattern is BuzzwordMakeover, which happens when a crack team of IS types is commissioned to wrap up a TooScaryToReplace product to meet current VacuVocabulary.
PeterMerel said on _: It seems we have three AntiPatterns here. I've seen all of these firsthand, and none are pleasant beasts. I'd suggest the name CosmeticSurgery for the original, HolyGrail for the one about sacred legacy code, and leave CargoCult to describe TomStambaugh's one about people building non-OO things called by OO names (anyone seen the latest VB hype, hmm?)
What this log reveals is that even in the 1990s, some people were noticing a decline. They felt that they were a little less at the height of civilization, even though technology continued to progress and society advance. In contemporary writings by various dissidents and reactionaries, much of this sounds shockingly familiar to hear from an era we usually associate as the last great era of American living. You’ve likely heard the saying “They will wear your religion as a skin-suit” when critiquing progressive Christianity, for example. Yet much of this log sounds akin to that saying. Finding insights like these all the way back in the 90s is fun, as they remind us this generation was not the first to notice, and likely not the last.
I stumbled upon this particular log entry while perusing the musings of one SuspendedReason, whose various blogs and sites constitutes a corner of the internet few tread, but more should. SR was my introduction to CargoCulting as a verb, which remains a consistent theme in his writings. Along with SR, other contributors like Natural Hazard, Simpolism, Feast of Assumption, and many more over at Tis and LessWrong - and many more sites and blogs - are producing a formidable intellectual circle hitherto unknown to the reactionary and dissident writers I am closer to. I certainly do love a good stumbling here and there, especially when I fall into unseen corners of the internet, even more-so especially ones seemingly devoid of right-left political avionics. I couldn’t tell you if these folks are right, left, north, or south, and I don’t care either. Reading them is a pleasure because they put out raw thought without loyalty to the camp regulations over at fort Red or Blue.
If I had to title their growing little corner, I’d perhaps call it Refractionary, as opposed to the Reactionary. By that I mean, whatever you shine at them you are sure to get a full spectrum of thought and, unlike mere deconstruction, they will rebuild the thought back to a working framework for your daily thinking. Amidst the so-called death of the Dissident Right this year, this circle of writing friends constitutes a still-viable adventure that seems to carry many of the DR’s views but reframed for more common consumption.
Cargo Cult as a template seems a rather curious yet appropriate term to treat unexpectedly as a verb. It appears to accurately describes the managerial decline of Current-Thing™ political experiences in America - and by that I do literally mean the experience of politics, not the exertion of politics. SR specifically describes the phenomenon as follows:
Cargoculting is a kind of superficial mimicry whereby the “skin” or most sensorily salient features of a system are taken as load-bearing. Cargocults produce ineffectual replicas of their originals, which might look convincing to onlookers, but lack the functionality of the originals because their construction neglected all mechanical consideration.
That SR’s adoption of Cargo Cult from those 90s logs also aligns with current Reactionary thought of the “Skinwalker” motif ought not be surprising, considering both are responding to the experience of political pressures in their respective daily routines. Each will naturally find a descriptor appropriate. It is a general state of decline we all have to bare. But to understand ongoing late imperial mismanagement as a form of cargo cult seems rather novel to me. It frames Millennials and Zoomers and others as akin to the tribals drawing runways and holding sticks like rifles to attempt to call on heavenly forces to progress them further. The skinwalker, or cargo cult, can only mimic the appearance of empire it saw, which it clearly lacks in actual empire. Parallel to dejure and defacto authorities being held by people, one may understand this as dejure and defacto behaviors held by groups - and the thing about dejure groups is that the behavior inherently trends towards ritual and religion to make up for the technical specificity of of the now-deceased defacto.
In recent posts, SR has started calling the organization of groups that this form of managerial decline produces as the field of “opticratics”, writing:
…rather than being meritocratic, human society was “opticratic”—ruled by the second-order appearance of things, the world of symbols and proxy. (In the past week, I’ve learned that this view was probably best articulated by Erving Goffman in his midcentury theories of expression games, front stage vs. back stage, strategic interaction, and impression management.)
Or his formal definition:
ὀπτικρατία: Usually we have an idea that markets, democracies, and Western institutions are “meritocratic,” such that appropriately skilled individuals rise through the ranks. The selection games that gate entry to institutions, or alter stock prices, are not, however, tested against reality at any point, rather, they are tested against appearances. Individuals who appear smart, competent, and hard-working are hired, or rise through the ranks, or elected to office. And the more distance there is between evaluators and candidates, in these selection games, the more opticratic the game becomes—the less tethered appearances are to reality—as it is only through prolonged proximity, and close monitoring, that appearances are kept honest and accountable.
If this sounds like it’s approaching Italian Elite Theory, you’re probably onto something, and it’s a good secondary blind confirmation that a random academic without much exposure to it can independently discover the mechanisms described thereupon. However, I would say SR is pressing into what happens when the structures described by Elite Theory are hijacked by an incompetent and lazy managerial class. SR’s musings fit snugly with Elite Theory, but I am convinced these refractionary observations and the respective writers therein are producing what constitutes an independent thesis. Many bridges, but no land-bridge.
On July 10th, 2020, SR posted on his blog a rather elaborate series of musings on signals and costs. Here, I want to draw parallels to Cixin Liu’s Three Body trilogy, which posits the costliness of contact across stars makes shooting first (just to be safe) the cheapest and easiest act of first contact, and Cixin Liu uses this to explain why the universe is seemingly empty: Everyone is hiding, and those that don’t get shot. However, across distances of meters instead of lightyears, SR’s article on signal costs allows for a rather precise understanding of how opticratic organizations work. He specifically uses the example of the bat, and much like Cixin Liu’s analogy of ants, or Jordan Peterson’s rat and lobster analogies, there’s much wisdom in studying the patterns in the natural environment to help us understand the artificial patterns of society we like to imagine don’t follow natural rules, but are invariably bound by them.
SR notes that Bats are a communal species whose females share food between children, but they also have something of an honesty check in their societies. When one bat mother was injected to appear fat by researchers, the other mothers stopped feeding her children. Bats have cognizant systems in their brain to regulate against selfishness and liars. Social parasites - those who take but won’t give - are starved by the community. It’s hard to test if Bats are conscious creatures, considering normal tests like the mirror and DAP test aren’t very applicable to a near-blind creature that experiences reality through sound more-so than sight, but these matters do suggest some elevated sense of individual and group identity unexpected in such tiny critters.
SR extracts from these phenomena two key aspects: Signal, and Cost, concluding:
This is the tragedy of appearances. The cheater is punished if he is caught cheating; a society which punishes cheaters (or “parasites”) outperforms that which does not; and thus his optimal behavior will always be to cheat and pretend otherwise, to evade enforcers. He can do this by means of appearance, and the more that appearance is selected for, the more easily he can simply pretend, while embodying none of the internal, proxied-for qualities. freerider situations don’t work when the supporting actor can recognize freeriding, thus the trick, if one wishes to continue freeriding, is to prevent such a recognition.
The tragedy of appearances, and our incessant optimization thereof, is a problem society does not yet seem to have stable solutions to. Taleb might admonish us, in Skin In The Game, to never trust a surgeon who looks the part, to never employee a straight-A student—but while wise as manipulations of the current fashion field, these are inherently unstable and contingent solutions. As soon as we would follow his advice we would see surgeons trending toward slovenliness, students strategically achieving B-grades in Bio for the sake of seeming interesting. Those familiar with Goodhard-Campbell know the pattern well, and the only answers are the same: diminish the gap between incentivized appearance and desired behavior. Easier said than done.
Or we might move away from proxy, heuristic, appearance; we might ditch the resume and credential. But would we move ahead or backwards? Would we become more or less encumbered, more or less handicapped? Currency can be more easily counterfeited, a silver finish over a nickel core, a nice embossing. “If it looks the part…” But look at currency’s advantages.
If you follow this blog, you may be familiar with my on-going thinking on Cixin Liu’s Three Body trilogy. What SR describes here sounds very much like Dark Forest Theory, only hammered out to a deeper level of complexity. When talking about signals and costs, the vast distances of space - and expenses to traverse them - means that first contact is a tremendously expensive signal. It will always be cheaper and easier to avoid first contact. And if first contact does occur, it starts a chain of suspicion whereby it is always cheaper to eliminate the other player than to bother waiting to see if they are friend or enemy, or risk being out-competed. It is a forest where the only species able to survive are predators who shoot first, as anyone who hesitates gets blown up before they become future competition. The forest is Dark because no one wants to be seen by predators. He who sees first, shoots first.
What SR shows in his more in-depth evaluation is that there is an even cheaper signal to use: free-riding by pretending. AKA, Optikratic hacking of the system. He who claims to be able to shoot first, can extort first - so long the claim seems believable. This has practical applications to our day-to-day lives. Indeed, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) works off the fact that both sides promise the total annihilation of the other. No one can tell if this is a legitimate threat, so it raises the signal cost for war far above tolerable expenditure, and - at least so far - has forced all parties to the diplomatic table. But, in truth, everyone could just be pretending. Human nature hasn’t been tested to see if we would actually press the red button. Indeed, in the handful of false-positives on early detection systems, human nature has consistently shown an unwillingness to press it. We all could actually be practicing a form of Optikratics, free-riding off MAD by pretending to be mad. The only weakness here is if anyone actually does fire.
As such, one may be prone to understand that any system that becomes Optikratic is likely approaching a test of the system itself. For example:
The United States has been under an Optikratic regime for some years now, likely since the end of the Cold War. Initially, this was very useful to maintain the Global American Empire in the absence of an existential threat like the USSR. But, just as those log entries in the 1990s show, some noticed it was not real. It was a cargoculting of Cold War fear to try desperately at maintaining the GDP growth of that era. Slowly but surely, more noticed. Surely but slowly, people calmed down and became comfortable. Algorithms which once were designed to track ICBM flight curves, were re-engineered to track stock curves. Networks which once were for maintaining US infrastructure in the event of a nuclear war, were adopted to e-commerce and social media networks. Society at large, became soft. And now, after 30 years of it, an old man in his 70s with low poll numbers, a looming housing crises, a 40 year low of reserve oil, record low recruitment in the military, and massive inflation, is trying to keep his Optikratic Oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
I just don’t buy it, and every year fewer and fewer Americans do too.