The Internet is a Red Pill Dispensary

I very clearly broke my promise to “see you next week”. I deserve to be shamed.

Below, I take what I think might be a pretty mixed metaphor, and stretch it pretty badly. As I’ve done before, I figured I’d publish it as a snapshot of an idea-in-progress to reference and clean up later.

I would promise to get more anchored and concise with future posts, but you know by now that you just can’t trust me.

I.  The Hairpin Bend

Xianhang Zhang is constantly inventing terms that I wish I knew about ages ago. On Quora ~5 years ago, he casually dropped this answer that has stayed on my clipboard for (literally) years. Disclaimers later.

Libertarians, in my perception, are stuck in what I term a “hairpin bend”. That is, the people who are less wise than them are frequently indistinguishable from the people who are more wise than them.

There’s a large class of people who disagree with libertarianism because they’re clueless about economics, misunderstand the basic tenets and make stupid arguments. There’s another, smaller group of people who understand perfectly well how libertarianism works and choose to reject it for intelligent, well thought out reasons. From the outside, both will have roughly the same range of political beliefs.

So what happens is some people from the first group will have an epiphany, they will finally get libertarianism and they will become a loyal convert. For some fraction of the group who become libertarians, they will have a second epiphany, realize the various fundamental flaws that make it a fundamentally unworkable system and leave libertarianism for a more mainstream political philosophy.

As you get a boiling off of the most enlightened members, the hairpin bend becomes a concentration of a certain type of person. This, in a large part, IMHO, explains the uniformity of personality of libertarians compared to many other social groups.

Every time you have a hairpin bend, you tend to see this similar phenomena and it can often be used as a diagnosis for where hairpin bends exist.

Note: There may well exist further hairpin bends further up the wisdom chain and it does seem some people have an epiphany back into libertarianism. This is mainly a critique of the “naive libertarianism” viewpoint.

Two immediate responses:

  • The observation is applicable to most social groups, especially religious or political in nature. You can abstract out the content about “Libertarianism” if it’s upsetting you. It speaks to me as a one-time ‘naive right-libertarian’ (yup). I’ve encountered more thoughtful strains of the stuff in more recent years.
  • We should try to beware narrativizing our own path to the point that we view those who hold a position that resembles one we once held as being “less mature”. This will be difficult to do, since obviously you’d have a thousand post hoc reasons (and, I’m sure, a couple of legitimate reasons) for the positions that you hold today. You have already considered the Other Ideas and found them wanting, which is why you don’t hold them. And yet there are other people that hold them. Perhaps they know something you don’t, or they value something differently than you do… or maybe you know something they don’t. And even if it might be true, let’s not rely to heavily on that last one.

“Enlightenment” is a tricky part the hairpin bend idea, since I don’t think it’s just “knowledge” that separates the different positions around a hairpin bend.

II. Red and Grey Pills

Venkatesh Rao has applied a more divergentist lens to this hairpin bend concept in a recent “Breaking Smart” article. I’ll summarize it briefly:

  • In life there are no real “Blue Pills” (this is the Matrix metaphor- the blue pill is a return to innocence and ignorance).
  • There can be said to be “Red Pills”: insights that appear to reveal something about the world that you didn’t see before but now see everywhere. Red Pills tend to also attract fellow Knowers into a tribe.
  • A Red Pill can also stick you in a rut, though:

    12/ The problem with red pills is that you can get stuck in a false consciousness created through affiliation with fellow possessors of “secret” (but really just closed off from critical questioning) knowledge.

    13/ This is in some ways worse than being unawakened. You convince yourself that you know “the truth” rather than merely being awakened to a few confining lies.

  • I’d argue that the most common way out of a Red Pill dependency is simply by replacing it with a different Red Pill. 
  • According to Venkat, the way out of the rut is by embracing the “Grey Pill”: lifting yourself out of the frame of the “revealed truth” through information bombardment. 

    14/ There is, however, a way forward: immersing yourself in a vast sea of information. This chips away at your treasured certainties, one small belief at a time.

    15/ This is grey pilling: relearning the value of questioning and doubt once you’ve been seduced by answers and certainties; leaving comforting “secret” societies for continued growth.

  • The phrase “grey pill” seems like it was born out of a bit of a mixed metaphor: it’s loosely pulled from references to the values of the Grey Tribe, the same folks I broke into a loosely defined Jedi/Sith distinction last post, the internet-native clusters of rationalists/postrationalists. I would distinguish the Grey Pill from the Grey Tribe, especially given that there is not a strong relationship between the Red/Blue Pill (Matrix references) and the Red/Blue Tribes (USA political culture reference).

We can see the “hairpin bend” as a red-pilled tribe of people whose values have strongly attracted them to a particular Big Idea and its related shibboleths. Both the GreyPilled and uninitiated (including other adjacent RedPilled tribes) look nearly the same to inhabitants of the bend- although I’d guess that the the GreyPilled are even more irritating debate partners. Apostates and spoilsports are the worst kind of Other.

The RedPilling frame is different in its approach from the hairpin bend frame, though. The hairpin bend suggests two epiphanies: one entering the community and another one exiting. To me, this sounds like one RedPill replacing another- which I think might be the most common way to leave a given community. As I had said before, I fear that some of the time this is just narrativizing our own development instead of actually stepping forward to Greater Enlightenment or something.

The sensation of taking a GreyPill isn’t an epiphany, it’s the gradual decay of a belief until you test your foundations and find it isn’t as firm as you remember. A churchgoer might RedPill out of his existing RedPilled community and adopt atheism (or some other brand of theism) as part of their identity. There’s a story there, a struggle between conflicting ideas, and a community at the end. A theist who GreyPilled out, by contrast, might wander as a zombie for some time, unaware that his beliefs are dead or dying and not necessarily with any well-defined replacement. There’s not necessarily much heat (except maybe by his old community shunning him), and not much of a satisfying story or even necessarily a new community.

I suspect that RedPill and GreyPill are best used as verbs (instead of nouns, as though the ideas themselves carry the Red or Grey essence). They might map somehow to hedgehog/fox but I think I like the idea of pill-verbs because it seems less fatalistic and more flexible. You RedPill into and either RedPill or GreyPill out of different tribes of Knowers. It’s all malleable.

The GreyPilled idea map is decentralized, tangled, redundant, and possibly contradictory; a RedPilled idea map is a hub-and-spoke, self-reinforced, clean and beautiful and persuasive- and fragile. Lose the hub and everything collapses.


III. The Internet is primarily a Red Pill Dispensary

Venkat suggests that due to information abundance, the Internet allows for more effective GreyPilling than ever before. I suspect, though, that the Internet is even more powerful as an effect multiplier for RedPilling than for GreyPilling, for reasons that go back to basic human behavior. The Internet is just a tool, and the behaviors of the user determine the tool’s use. Red Pills just taste better.

The internet is a collection of countless bends and warrens where people and ideas can collect and commune and evolve/fester. Red Pills displace each other and become more potent. Grey Pill ideas are eventually reconfigured into powerful Reds that some people may have predispositions for, leading to adoption. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a thing.

Still, it’s easy to read as a negative. Picked up on Reddit: “What’s the biggest lie the Internet has created?”

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 4.21.33 PM

We are built to digest Red Pills in social communion. Brains are not truth machines, and for most of the time “flip flopping” and otherwise insufficiently adhering to the shibboleth is a recipe for social (and often also biological) ruin.

24/ Not all possess the capacity for being grey-pilled, and fewer still desire it. There is no satisfying Aha! moment of arrival to a new consciousness and a dramatically changed life.

From a 40k foot view GreyPilling might be useful as a diversification strategy, to get at least some of us out of maladaptive tribal failures some of the time (perhaps at the expense of being occasionally shunned/attacked etc by loyal Reds or hurt by unforgiving environs when the Reds are less wrong).

We all consume our Red Pills. Most of us will take some potent Greys in our life as well. Some internet communities thrive on the thrill of seeking microdoses of Grey. Still, and even with the rhetoric that GreyPilling is a virtue, I’m not sure that we act as though that’s actually true.

The Grey Tribe‘s values and proclivities can scale but I’m not sure whether conscious GreyPilling can- and I’d suggest that the two are only related because the Grey Tribe is newer and more vivacious. As the Grey Tribe scales, it will be as a network of stable, easily communicable RedPills. The GreyPilled will stay in the fringes.

In all, a not-fully-baked idea but I think there are pieces in here I can salvage.



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