There was a time when I was lucky enough to take a ride in a hot air balloon. Standing above the world, you see things in a different light. Things that seemed random, chaotic, and mysterious display an ordering not obvious from the ground. Unique landmarks become ordinary and predictable. The rivers that seem unique become predictable contour lines across a very visible geography. The rational planning behind cities shows its hand. Everything takes on a deeper meaning.
For me, the most interesting thing, by far, is traffic. Traffic is a strange thing. We all have daily experience with it, and yet none of us understand it. We think we do, but university departments dedicated to its study beg to differ. When we’re down there, in the thick of it, traffic seems to be infinitely detailed. We drive our cars with a sense of agency. Hell, for a long time, the car was the symbol of individual freedom for Americans.
The sky shows a different view. From above, the traffic looks almost routine, predictable. The inexplicable mile-long jam over nothing reveals itself as a wave being propagated through a flesh and metal medium. You think your road trip up the Sea to Sky was a unique and special experience? So do the ten thousand others doing the same that day.
I could go on and on about the infinite lessons in the snarl of cars. Hell, when I’m done reading it, you can look forward to my take on this. But that day, up in the sky, one thing stood out. As I watched the cars driving along their routes, there seemed to be two classes of driver. One type drove their cars as any human would. A natural, organic movement. Each individual their own unique story. They started and stopped. They missed turns, traversing the cross-hatched judgment of a soft divider to get back on track. Sometimes they stopped, presumably to check a map, or maybe text. They took long, winding routes. No doubt some of them were on a scenic journey, but most just not knowing where they were going. We would all recognize ourselves in their shoes.
But the other group. They were… Unsettling. There was something alien about them. They drove with ruthless efficiency. Never a wrong lane, never a missed turnoff. No scenic route for them; they took the shortest path, no matter how desolate, opting for the industrial park, not the riverside parkway. As if they had telepathy, or divine foresight from God, no hidden speed trap could catch them; they would, without fail, slow before getting caught.
The worst part was how they moved. How they all moved. Like a giant steel snake, a steampunk Shai-Hulud, each following the tire tracks of the one ahead. They convoyed as one. This is insanity, I thought, high above. This is not an eldritch horror. These are people. I can see their faces. I have been their faces. Why would twenty cars convoy a road trip anyway? And yet, before my eyes, these beastly things were everywhere.
What is this? What ghastly spirit has possessed my countrymen? What makes it go?
Like the rest of the world, back in 2008 I was quite excited for Spore. And, like the rest of the world, I was even more disappointed when I got it. So, instead of playing an underwhelming, overpriced game, I imagined my own.
Fade from black. First person view. I am a cell wandering around an infinite 2-d space. I see delicious proteins, carbs, and minerals. Occasionally another cell floats my way. We fight, and, because it’s my game, I win.
But then the abominations show up.
Cells in thrall. Zombies. They come in packs, a mob so tight you could barely tell where one ends, the other begins. Stuck so close, their mobility is hampered. I could easily evade them, but they strike fear into my little mitochondrial heart. Are they even player characters?
Their movements are bizarre. Mechanical. Alien. They somehow know where all the food was, and even though I get there first, they always make a beeline through the mazes I struggle to navigate. I try to get through to them, but to no avail. Maybe a bot, maybe a troll clan? I’m faced with silence. Not knowing what to do, I run. They could easily overpower me. But will they? Or will they turn me into one of them? These horrors, these…. multicellular things, shake me to my cytoskeleton
Thanks to the magic of our modern Wikipedia state, I can drop the coy pretense. I’d imagined multicellular life. The guys from part two of Spore. Algae and slime molds. There’s nothing magical about it, it’s simple biology. What animated it? Complex signalling pathways. Each individual cell played no differently than I did. Find food, avoid predators. The only difference was their environment. These complex chemicals manipulated and falsified their perception to get the weird behaviour. Where did the chemicals come from? Other cells. It was a mutually reinforcing delusion. Why? Evolution. Some players did this. They got a higher score. So they kept doing it. It doesn’t have to make sense. It just is.
Thing is, we know this. We know how it works. We can control it, tease it all apart in a lab. The cells of our bodies are a dazzling array of mysterious signals, but they behave in a completely sensible fashion. They seek food, avoid predators, grow, reproduce, and die. The fact that they do it in an environment crafted specifically to support them changes little.
But put yourself in the shoes of my faux-Spore protagonist. Imagine an E. coli bacterium slipping in among your cells. Minding its own business, just eating the nearby fats and sugars. When suddenly, white blood cells. Everywhere. Seeking you out. How do they know? Why do they chase you, and not each other? Not these strange red cells floating about? As they shred your membrane, your last thoughts are of confusion: why me?
It must be even worse for parasites. A simple nematode takes up residence in your intestine. Suddenly, it’s as if the entire universe is out to destroy it. The temperature mysteriously rises. The land it’s built its house on swells and heaves. These white things, spirits of retribution, throw themselves at it mercilessly. The food, as if sentient, becomes poisonous.
There’s nothing magical in the cells of our bodies. Each does its job, responding to the signals in its environment. The magic is in the signals. The magic is in the infinite complexity of its environment. As if out of nowhere, the final chemical gear clicks into place. Suddenly, the whole structure, the trillions and trillions of cells that make up your body, animates. The spirit of life has appeared.
I want to put forth a simple idea. It may seem radical. It may seem insane. But if you’re with me so far, I’ve already snuck it by you. You’ve already accepted it. Simply:
There are higher life forms than humans.
I cheated a little bit. I’m using a strange and mysterious definition of life. An expanded definition. A handwavy definition, maybe one born of one too many drug trips. But it makes sense. In Simon-Spore, all of the cells are the same cells. The cells are, by definition, alive. They all run the same cellular program. You wouldn’t deny the vitality of the multicellular organism just because it didn’t take the form of your player character. You wouldn’t deny that its constituent cells live, just because their life is so alien.
Just the same, I assert the cars in the car serpent are to the cars as the zombies are to my cell. All of the cars are executing the same script. They are at A, they want to be at B. They navigate to B as best they can. They maintain following distance with those in front, and move out of the way of those behind them. They take in the state of their surroundings and modify behaviour accordingly.
So what makes it go? The individual cars respond only to their observations. The serpents have more complex internal signalling pathways. Or, in this case, external pathways. In my stylized hypothetical, the serpents have Waze running on their phones. They follow the exact same behavioural script, but they have the added complex signals of the Waze app. Step by step instructions, delivered in realtime, capable of responding to shifting environmental conditions and seeing patterns no individual driver can. Early warning detection of hazards and police. When I watched, I saw the Waze cars slow for police. In reality, everyone tried to slow for police; the Waze cars were just better at it.
For those of you less prone to waving hands, you might call my “life” an illusion. After all, there is no real power or authority, no central consciousness orchestrating the movements of these cars. Sure, they move together, but you would do the same in their situation. The complex signals generated by the app are followed by lots of people, all who recognize the obvious benefit, and the synchronicity of their behaviour is just a ghost in the machine.
I say that ghosts are real. And ghosts live. After all, we are ghosts.
Once you think in this manner, you can analyze any collection of living things in this way. Hofstadter did it with ant colonies, and his wonderful careenium metaphor. Institutions and corporations are often said to “take on a life of their own,” doing strange and confusing things that, at every step of the way, are the result of rational actors responding to environmental incentives. We sometimes teleologize these things, talking about what “the company” wants. Maybe we’re on to something. Maybe there is a god, and he is naught but the collective motivations and institutional momentum of those in the pews.
In the case of the cars, this is just interesting navel-gazing, a discussion topic for your next toke. But remember the spore. The player character could not see the overarching logic of the multicellular organism. It did not have my 5000-foot view. All it saw was individual cells, acting strangely. Zombies, slaves to a larger process it couldn’t see, or understand. And it’s horrifying. Take it from me. I’ve been face to face with it for the past several months.
Last month was strange and horrifying. A guy with an interesting and novel project wanted to talk about it at a conference. A conference run by a solid, upstanding tech leader. And then everyone lost their shit. Suddenly, out of nowhere, everything was crazy. All I wanted to do was protect a conference I’ve enjoyed in the past, to do a nice thing for a guy who made a mistake in the eyes of the public. The next thing I know, I’m surrounded by zombies. News reporters made up lies about us. Communists on the internet joked (haha-no-but-really) about sending us to gulags. Coworkers of mine, not knowing who I am, told me to my face about this “crazy blog defending a horrible bigot,” and how they’re glad there aren’t any terrible people like that in our office. I’ll be laughing for a long time about how I’m officially certified “not supremacist” by the SPLC.
This is insanity. Why did these people do these strange things? Why did people I knew and trusted, interacted with daily, turn into horrible people yelling for my head? The most confusing part was their general ignorance of the details of the situation. Very few of them knew why they should be upset. None of them had ever read the speaker’s offending blog, and few of them had so much as seen the offending quotation. All they knew was that we’re the bad guys, and need to be punished.
Our critics are a part of something bigger than themselves. They’re keyed in to the Waze app, being the human serpents, while my Motorola flip-phone struggles to run the snake game. And why wouldn’t they? At every step along the way, it makes sense. Who cares why the narrative seems a little too perfect, they’re happy. It works for them. Their needs are met. By playing their part, responding to the signals in the memetwork, they enjoy health and happiness, wealth and social status. It would be stupid not to go along.
We here at Status451 have never really fit in. The signals are mangled by the mountains here in Zomia. We’re the single cells. The behaviours of everyone else made no sense to us, and the results were frightening. We can’t see the complex internal signals.
When the mass of cells is bearing down on you, just like in Simon-spore, you do have an option. You have mobility. Freedom. Our critics, keyed into the signal of their culture war narrative, gain a lot of benefits. They get their social needs provided for, in exchange for being the lifeblood of their egregore. But that is the cost: they must be the egregore. They lose the freedom to go their own way. We here have chosen the other path. Maybe “chosen” isn’t quite the right word; I’ve tried my whole life to fit in, be normal, and it just doesn’t work. But our other path, chosen or not, gives us the freedom to see things differently. We can be the masters of our own fate, hold a deeper, fuller agency over our lives. As long as we don’t wake the deep faceless things.