[Daniel spent two weeks practicing 10 to 14 hours a day a fire-focused meditation called Fire Kasina. This meditation technique involves, among other things, looking at a candle flame and then closing one’s eyes and examining the after-image of the fire, and doing this repeatedly over many hours. He started getting interesting visual effects on the second day of the retreat. Over the course of the first week he cycled between difficult and effortless meditation sessions, experienced lots of Jhana and Jhana-Kasina hybrid experiences, reported weird dreams, and described visual hallucinations of various sorts. As the week went on he started experiencing a strange and dysphoric change during the evenings: rather than colors being intensified, something about his experience seemed to be turning every color into grey. Fire Kasina is used to amplify the experience of phenomenal color to great heights, so it seemed strange that for some reason after several days of the practice everything started being grey; he couldn’t stop it. Nonetheless, he persevered. What follows is his description of the meditation breakthrough he experienced on the 7th day of the retreat.]
[24:20]: I was thinking that one of the interesting things that has happened was that the Goddess of Fire told me that I should become a King of Fire – hehe – which seems a bit of a stretch, but it was inspiring anyway. And so the Tarot card for “King of Fire” is the King of Wands and the message is to be a super-dad, to be supportive of the family, to be good in relationships, to be good in career, accomplish it all simultaneously… and smile while doing it. Interesting instructions. Probably of great relevance and utility if properly applied. Anyway. There it is.
Well, so, the grey I’ve been seeing at the end of the night turns out is a doorway to wondrous, wondrous things. So, this morning my sitting was good, and clear, and relatively typical for a good morning sit. And then in the afternoon: Wow! For my first sit of the afternoon my mantra became “Orchestral” added to all sorts of other parts. And it began just shuddering at the whole of reality. It became exquisite, amazing, like basking in the presence of a “Divine Orchestra”: The radiator was making interesting sounds. Duncan also described this beautiful music, which I now understand. Well, it became exquisite, and it all harmonized into this wondrous thing that I wanted to record. I wanted to get it on my laptop on my Logic Pro and somehow figure out how to recreate what I was hearing and experiencing. I felt like I could sit there forever while the mantra was going on, powerful and remarkable.
The next sit is when the colors opened up. And then I started to notice that out of the black, and white, and grey, colors were showing up. And I had noticed this before. A sort of copper or magenta that was, you know, a very exquisite color off of the white and grey. And yellow off of the white, and grey, and black, that was different and new.
And THIS was like, every color was suddenly there. And I could morph the color into any color. Exquisite colors. Subtleties of hue and shade… that wouldn’t exist in the best art store in the entire universe selling all the coolest shades and paint colors of light. And it would shift through magnificent yellows and sparkling golds into rich oranges and amber colors, and peach tones, and magenta, and reds, and rich reds, and bright reds, and pinkish reds, and subtle pinks, and silver pinks, and pale… pale, pale whiteish pinks of the most exquisite variety, and down into the blues and into purples, into the blue-greens and I got greens… and remarkable rich greens, amazing greens, forest greens, Kelly greens, silver greens, light peridot greens. Incredible colors. And the violet hues! Deep rich violet. And even the greys were exquisite: silver black, steel black, silver grey… just unbelievable shades even between black and white that weren’t even colored but were just exquisite.
In the sit I felt like it could go on forever. I could call up whatever color and just give it a few seconds and it would just shift into the new color. And then I went outside when Tommy came here (great guy) […]. I went out to see him and I was high as a freaking kite on just seeing the most amazing exquisite colors due to the power of this meditation. And everything, the greys of the driveway were awesome, the leaf colors were amazing, the sky… the plants, the plants… some of the greens of the plants were just magnificent. Like, just overwhelming beauty.
And then things progressed and I got so that I could turn these colors into anything I wanted, and just give it a few seconds and it would show up. So I created a dragon in a sort of magnificent purple-dark-green-dark-blue-iridescent scaly set of colors. And had his fire breadth come out as first as reddish, and then purple, and green, and yellow, and black. Just amazing!
Modified by CombineZP
And then I would make one half of my visual field one color, and one half the other color, and compare the two colors and fine-tune the shades until they went together just exquisitely… anyway, I simply just had an utterly mind-bogglingly enjoyable time playing with the ability to create shades of light and color and images with them just effortlessly, just by asking for them to show up. And I was getting fruitions off of these colors. I got a fruition just off of peach. A sort of exquisite peach color.
And then, finally… finally… and here it is… day 7 or 8 of this retreat… I was able to get the images starting like I got before. Spinning things like they would take everything out and lead to fruition and do that again and again like I got multiple fruitions would just go back to the spinning things, and take out the spinning things. And I got this amber, sort of pixelated squares, and they stuttered and came out by the impermanence door. This has just been an amazing, amazing day.
The glorious highs of it are wearing off. And if I crash as hard as I went up, I’m going to be in trouble. Because it would be hard to overstate how exquisite these sits have been this afternoon and evening. Anyway, so Duncan is now seeing the grey… so he may be close. And Florian is been getting white and black, so he may be close to these things as well. It would be fascinating to see if they have the same ecstatic reaction that I’ve had. Truly the word “rapturous” barely does justice to how much fun the day has been. Anyway…
So, be well.
[36:00]: Note to self: “Do this more often!”. Goodness gracious! The appreciation of color, the peace in the body, the stability of attention… unbelievable, amazing. The color control is remarkable. The ability to tune into your colors, to any shade, just… it is hard to explain how fun that is. Now I can generate images that demonstrate parallax, so that when I move my head, they would move like you’d think they should move in relationship with how I move my head. So they now have a 3-dimensional spatial life.
Got a fruition by creating a fire-breathing dragon, and then turning the fire on myself. And when it reached my eyes, that caused the fruition. I’ve seen landscapes, and 3-dimensional spatial structures, and visions of just such exquisite, complicated, intricate, amazing, and diverse beauty. It is hard to explain the gratitude I feel for these practices and what they can do. And that I’m in such fine company: Duncan, and Florian, and Tommy are all excellent people. Extremely helpful, great attitudes, fascinating backgrounds and knowledges and skillsets. They are truly remarkable people and I’m grateful to have found them and to have the opportunity to sit with them and share these things. We laugh nearly continuously during our meals, which are exquisite. We keep each other well entertained somehow, still get very deep transformative practice time in. They are respectful of everyone, of these things, and good practitioners. So it’s a joy to be practicing with them.
I’ve seen one image that had a sense of intelligence sitting on a chair change form again and again and again. Into all these different types of entities. But I haven’t yet gotten a proper kind of fruition with the intelligent eyes looking back at me yet on this retreat. So… more to do. I still haven’t done the candle flame, moving things with my mind. But perhaps that is coming. I hope so. Alright, dear listener, or listeners, whoever you may be, I hope you are well. I hope that one day you have the interest and opportunity to practice these things as we are here today. For this is the good stuff, as they say.
Daniel Ingram talks about “color control” during Fire Kasina meditation – the ability to control the phenomenal color of experience. Can this be achieved pharmacologically?
Cognitive scientist Steven Lehar reports that combining LSD, Ketamine, and THC at the same time can give rise to an interesting phenomenon he calls “free-wheeling hallucinations”.
These hallucinations are the psychedelic equivalent of lucid dreams. Namely, they are very intense but highly controllable states of mind where you can “will into being” whatever you want (up to a certain level of complexity).
It’s as if you’ve gained “root access” to the parameters of your inner world-simulation and you can create complex psychedelic scenery and simulated environments.
Daniel Ingram talks about developing the ability of instantiating one color on one side of the visual field and a different color on the other in order to compare them side by side.
Wada tests are medical procedures in which only one of your brain hemispheres receives a sedative drug at a time. This can be useful in order to determine which hemisphere can be ablated in order to treat epilepsy.
But we could generalize it! We can inject one drug in one hemisphere and a different drug in another. In fact, this could be a core research paradigm in the future for qualia research.
It’s Anders and Maggie in Stockholm, Sweden, here. Volunteers in human resource coordination for the QRI.
We would like to hereby announce our commitment to donate fifty thousand dollars to the Qualia Research Institute for research related to the mathematical modeling of phenomenological valence.
We are pretty much just your ordinary Swedish transhumanist couple. With a passion for finding out from first principles how things work. We whole-heartedly agree with Elon Musk that at the end of the day, excellence is the only passing grade. Over the last couple of years we have arrived at the solid conclusion that the biggest bonanza in effective altruism could only be realized by first of all solving valence. Symbolically, in comedy form, this is like first spending the necessary computational resources to arrive at the conciseness of 42 as “the answer”, before it can be determined what the right questions must then be. In our book it is with no doubt the Qualia Research Institute which corresponds to “Deep Thought” in what Elon Musk has called “the best philosophy book ever”: The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Seriously here, it is advisable to balance this with a bit of David Pearce also, but indeed we do believe an encouraging “Don’t Panic” is in fact compatible with the laws of nature in this universe. Immense reward is there for those who roll up their sleeves and start working systematically from first principles.
But again, excellence is the only passing grade. The universe is no picnic. It is a field of seemingly infinite potentialities, all of which are open to exploration and exploitation. It is still unknown what the proto-states of sentience are intrinsically like, but it is clear that biological evolution works as an optimization engine for valence polarization. A “passing grade” for a long-term sustainable and prospering technological civilization must involve a universally global first-principles solution to the horrific downside of this: suffering. That solution must be combined with optimal development of the state space of positive valence and intelligence. It seems plausible that experienced negative valence is a computationally economic way for evolution to drive behavior when the implementation is in biochemistry. However, information processing can also be done non-consciously, and it stands to reason that all the informational saliency achieved via negative valence experience can instead be had via non-conscious processes which would be available to future suitably modified embodiments of intelligence.
The QRI is the only real player in this game so far, as our civilization takes its first baby steps towards maturity. In the domain of effective altruism, the Qualia Research Institute today corresponds to what bitcoin was when first launched. The difference is that the QRI doesn’t just promise to be a novel medium of exchange, but a novel competence about the first principles of well-being!
During the couple of years it took for us to come to the above conclusions, we set aside every penny we could spare. That became the fifty thousand we are now committing to the QRI. If enough others with the same visions were to do the same thing, soon enough it could begin adding up to real money. Money which at this foundational stage stands at quite a favorable exchange rate with respect to the ultimate currency of the universe: positive emotional valence.
Infinite bliss to everyone from a couple of Scandinavian old-timers!
High Entropy Alloy (Al + Ti + Cr + Mo + W) and Low-Entropy Non-Alloy (Ti) – made by Anders and Maggie. If non-materialist physicalist idealism (i.e. panpsychism that respects physics) is true, what do these bundles of baryonic matter feel like from the inside?
Letter IV: On Psychonautics
Psychedelic trippers put effort into trying to interpret what it all means ontologically. Plant spirits may be at work, or one taps into the collective unconscious or is simulated by some alien superintelligence.
The QRI could perhaps guide interested psychonauts in the direction of writing more scientifically productive reports.
A scientifically minded tripper needs to start with the realization that human beings are perfect psychonauts because our brains have an enormous excess capacity over what is minimally required to perform any one of the tasks that we do in everyday waking life. The highly unusual aspect of human brains is that they can produce general intelligence. This is rare in nature but when you have it, you assume it to be the normal state of affairs.
Typical DMT-like visual
Typical Salvia-like visual
Typical 5-MeO-DMT-like visual
Trippers are often in disbelief over the ability of human brains to produce the fantastic content of psychedelic experiences. As if there is suddenly a superpower there which one never uses when sober. How can that be? It must be something supernatural going on, right? Actually, no. Not that we should rule out the “supernatural” a priori but it is not necessary.
The human mind uses a superpower all the time. One which is hidden in plain view, we might say. It is the superpower of selecting from a huge range of possibilities for what the mind could be doing, and homing in on exactly the one choice in every moment that is most appropriate right then and there. When those tight constraints are relaxed the human brain becomes a system which can explore far and wide in qualia state-space.
Intelligence is a phenomenon which uses multiple optimization points to converge on some invariance. At the theoretical efficiency maximum this takes surprisingly (to us) little raw processing power. A jumping spider does not display less strategic and tactical intelligence than a human does when hunting. The spider’s neural network is very much smaller than the human’s but the evolutionary fitness search available for evolving small, numerous and quickly reproducing creatures is much larger than for animals like us. For us it is not so much a question of evolution having optimized what every cell does, but one of having added more and more cells to increase overall performance.
The spider’s brain probably contains far less sub-optimal “spaghetti code” than the human’s. It is possible that the spider has access to exquisitely fine-tuned qualia for the crucial task of sneaking up on big, highly dangerous prey and bringing it down without botching the job. On the other hand, there might not be much opportunity for spiders to evolve general intelligence since they have already done away with everything that is “useless” for their sober everyday lives.
“Does my brain contain less spaghetti code than yours?”
A human brain is a mass of excitation-inhibition “spaghetti” which defies belief. An almost ultimate jack of all trades but master of none which cannot quite produce the hunting skills of the spider but can instead do a billion other things that the spider could not even in principle learn how to do.
It is the billion other things that we could do but don’t, which is the human superpower, not the few things that we actually do on a sober basis. This is a power which can be harnessed for psychonautics. You’ve got an inner-space warp drive in your head. Aptly named. 🖖
Letter V: Exciting Research Leads
Here are some suggestions for titles of essays and research papers the QRI could write if we had the resources.
“Alloy, anneal, quench and temper: Forging a blade to cut mind at the joints”
“Play me like a violin: A compressibility analysis of neuro-acoustic patterns captured during person to person interaction”
“Leadership and consonance: Aggregate neuro-acoustic compressibility as a proxy for computational efficiency of human group intelligence”
“Neural annealing through laughter: Neuro-acoustics of humor as a factor for healthy mental adjustment”
“The tree of music: An annealable branching tuning-fork model for nervous systems”
“Same but different: Suggesting a qualia analogue for the comparative planetology of Earth and Titan”
“Music of life: Consonance, dissonance, noise and symmetry as explanatory elements for evolution from single cells to human minds”
“Compartments of harmony bounded by dissonance: A neuro-acoustic model of domain specificity in cognition”
The Seven Seals of Security or Safety Through Uncertainty – Transhumanist Satire
Presume that consciousness and matter are interconnected information structures. Can any useful parallels be drawn from the matter domain of outer space to the consciousness domain of inner space? Consider that planets, as a group, are subject to variation and (anthropic) selection. An interconnection point is provided by observation selection: Certain planetary properties far from the universe median are going to be found by intelligent conscious observers for their own planet of origin. A small subset of conscious observers are the ones who, like humans, have general intelligence and broad curiosity. Those observers are the few who observe more and more aspects of their own planet as well as adjacent space and the state space of matter at large, and ultimately perhaps also of consciousness at large. The evolutionary reproductive selection of such observers is not the default condition of all life but rather it is conditional upon even more unusual properties of their planet of origin than for the average life-bearing planet.
Conclusion: Earth is likely to be a highly unusual planet, and human consciousness is likely to be a highly unusual seat of experience. They are causally linked. A structural property they share could be a high level of diversity but never reaching cosmically global extremes on any single parameter. A Jill of all trades planet is married to a Jack of all trades mind.
While fairly good at impressively many trades, Jack and Jill are master and mistress of none. For a tentative and very loose analogy which may be better than nothing, let’s say planet Earth is like the human mind. The other planets in the Solar System are like altered human minds and some animal minds. Some basic properties like gravity, roundness and rotation are common to all the planets. Corresponding to suggested basic features of biologically evolved sentience, such as valence and some sensory modalities.
Then we follow Slartibartfast to the fjords of Norway. Here we see how Earth differs in diversity compared with the other “animals”. The planet’s surface is an energetic 3-phase regime. Solid crust, liquid water and solid water under highly dynamic conditions. Not widely separated like on Europa but forming extended areas of contact where unusual complexity emerges. It’s worth an award, really. (No, not Belgium…).
Human cognition is like Earth with its’ coasts and mountain ranges. A “just right” quantity and proportionality of ingredients is what allowed self-organization of Earth’s environmental complexity and its’ endurance over time via the mechanism of prolonged core solidification and plate tectonics. An unusual state of affairs in nature. It’s not unexpected in principle, only rare in actual existence. The same may go for evolution of the general cognition accessible to human minds.
A type of mind which is generally competent over multiple domains of agency cannot function as such if not many crucial parameters in its’ architecture fall within a tight range of “just right and not too much nor too little”. Or, in Swedish, “lagom”. If you loosen that constraint, such as by ingesting 5 grams of mushrooms blindfolded, your mind will clearly no longer function on your job or even in your body. But in exchange for giving up on that functionality as agent, you can max out on stuff like… well, it’s beyond words.
General intelligence is not compatible with an easy achievement of extreme states of consciousness, though as a less frequently added mental ingredient for a group intelligence (like human hunter-gatherers) extreme states can be hypothesized to enhance abilities of that group intelligence.
But what does the current human “master of none” in qualia rendering imply for the future of consciousness, and what about cosmic matter beyond the neighboring planets?
Beyond the Solar System we find many types of stars, black holes, dark matter and various ultra-thin, ultra-dense, ultra-cold, or ultra-hot configurations of matter in the wider domain of spacetime. Nature usually has not developed nonliving matter into configurations with even remotely as high a complexity as for living matter, simply because of no evolutionary selection pressures. Some nonbiological matter objects could be strong qualia generators just by chance, though. The Sun comes speculatively and punlessly to mind. Doing an IIT and a CDNS analysis on its’ surface magnetized plasma wave patterns may not be entirely far-fetched. But the big promise for expanding the diversity of actualized sentience comes through engineering. Jack and Jill is the couple who can pull that off, and their offspring can then grow up in that fabulous new landscape of experience. For they can become masters and mistresses. Dominatrices, even. The reason being that while the parents are tightly constrained experientially, the kids need not be.
For an efficiently organized advanced technological civilization, the constraints of being a highly general and resilient intelligence can be placed high up on the group level. Individual seats of experience with the sizes of today’s human or animal brains, say, can then be allowed to render experiential states more specialized to feel meaningful, enjoyable and worthwhile. (A dystopian version could instead generate unimaginable suffering, of course. Need to watch out…).
Earth is by far the most diverse planet in the Solar System, but it does not have the deepest ocean, the tallest mountain, the highest gravity, the hottest days, the most explosive volcanoes or the most intense thunderstorms. Human minds who have only experienced their evolved biologically functional mental states have not reached the consciousness state space equivalents of the extreme environments on the other planets. They have never snowboarded down the tellurobismutite condensate slopes on Maxwell Montes or been ejected on a ballistic trajectory by a sulfur dioxide plume from Tvashtar Patera. These things may be comparable to being a bat or taking psilocybin. As different from sober human experience as they are, they still merely hint at the range of possible experiences in the qualia state space opening up beyond. If all goes well, there will be psychonauts of the future who are children of Earth and able to engineer any form of matter and energy into conscious brain architectures. They would become what Max Tegmark has called “Life 3.0”.
Either that or, in a hopefully not terribly more likely scenario portrayed by imagined future historians, humanity stayed obsessed with the circulation of money to the detriment of all else.
“This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.” ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 🌎
About 3% of the population is anosmic, meaning that they cannot perceive scents. An additional 10% have some kind of smell or taste disorder. Sadly, scent perception thins out with age due to many causes*; about 23% of people over the age of 40 report some degree of impairment, with nearly 40% of people over the age of 80 reporting either absent or severely reduced capacity to perceive smells.
If you can experience scents in a normal way, count yourself lucky, for you have access to a qualia variety with an incredible aesthetic potential. If not, I’m sorry; let’s hope that stem cell therapy used to restore smell in mice can be generalized to humans. Regardless, hopefully the following thoughts on the artistic potential of scents won’t fall on deaf ears (or should we say, anosmic noses?).
Imagine that all humans were congenitally anosmic. Akin to David Pearce’s allegory of the blind rationalists, let’s picture a world in which the only way to experience scent qualia was through the use of some arcane technology, like weird drugs, occult magic, or carefully aimed transcranial ultrasound stimulation. Since the qualia would not be triggered by a conventional sense, people would not be under the illusion that it maps to external objects. It would be understood as a strictly internal phenomenon, like imagination or sense of humor. With such an interpretive blank slate, how would people make sense of scent qualia?
Keep that thought in your mind. Having a fresh look (or sniff) at scent qualia- devoid of its common associations and cultural imports- can give us a way to think in new ways about the artistic potential of this aspect of experience.
Perfumery as an Art Form
Last year we presented QRI‘s take on art: Harmonic Society is an essay published in a Berlin-based art magazine that exposes 8 models for what art can be about (see parts 2, 3, 4; video presentation). These models can also be used as generators of creative applications of qualia varieties. Here we’ll discuss how perfumes could be seen through the lens of each of these models.
1. Semantic Deflation
The semantic deflation model of art claims that the first step you need to take to understand art is to recognize that it lacks an essence. There are no strict necessary and sufficient conditions that something needs to meet in order to be art. The meaning of the term is ultimately conventional: it has more of a family resemblance pattern of usage than a precise logic-bound set of criteria. Applying this model to perfumery, we would have that:
There is no such thing as a “perfume” in and of itself.
There are no necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be called a perfume.
The resulting aesthetic from this model is one that sees the art of perfumery as the eternal search for trying to push the boundary for what a “perfume can be”.
Some examples of this aesthetic seemingly playing out in the open include perfumes that smell like: popcorn, lobster, linen and Air Aroma‘s new fragrance that recreates “the scent of an Apple product being opened for the first time.”
You see, smells are at times used in a slightly evil way. In the case of commercial perfumes, part of the optimization function includes generating envy in others. Conspicuous consumption and brand worship are some of the ways in which our mating mind has recruited scents. In a sense, I would love to explore ways in which scent-based art can deliver high-valence results without at the same time reinforcing consumerism and zero-sum fashion arms races. In brief:
There is unfortunately an in-built zero-sum mindset to status-focused scent design.
The “game” is easy to rationalize when you are a “winner”, but it is depressive for people who perceive themselves as the “losers”.
One of the core weapons of this game is the creation of envy with perceived exclusivity and inflated sense of quality (e.g massively overpriced fragrances).
“Cool Kids” are people who translate new ideas into massively consumable products.
Cool Kids in perfumery will always want to claim that they have the exclusive “secret sauce” to explain the price.
The existence of such “secret sauce” is often justified based on appeals to tradition, taste, status, experience, brand, and/or science.
Cool Kids make sure that the product is “novel enough” – not too out there that only weird people would love it, but also not too bland and unoriginal that the general public will be bored by it.
Expensive perfumes have to be at least somewhat distinctive – even if that makes them suboptimal. You’ll see that Fragrantica is full of reviews that complain that such and such perfume is in fact “too generic”. The reason is that if you are paying large sums of money for a smell, the only way it will pay off in terms of social signaling is if people can in fact notice what you are wearing.
A particularly noteworthy example of this dynamic might be the case of Aventus Creed. It is by no means a weird fragrance (it’s certainly not a “toast” or “popcorn” perfume), but people who are very into perfumes do agree that when it first came out “it smelled like nothing that had ever existed before.” If you read the Fragrantica reviews you’ll see what I’m talking about. It also happens to be an insanely expensive fragrance for no apparent reason. It’s therefore a great tool for conspicuous consumption, masterfully crafted by a Cool Kid aiming for mass appeal.
Aventus Creed clones
I personally own an “Aventus Creed clone“, meaning that it is a perfume that smells very similar to the original but can cost a fraction of the price. Aventus costs $400 while the one I own is under $20. I like it, but if it is anything like the original, I can’t imagine it being that good to justify the price tag on its qualia merits alone. In terms of phenomenology, as far as I can tell, Aventus innovated by mixing pineapple scent with the scent of birch bark. This does make it characteristic, true, but is it really $400 worth of characteristic? No, I’m pretty sure it isn’t. So this one might be a clear case of a mating mind perfume over-rating in action (P.S. I’m on the lookout for more perfumes with inflated scores that have cheap clones in order to study this phenomenon more closely).
Taken to the extreme, attempts at creating maximally erotic scents draw inspiration from literal human sexual organs. Secretions Magnifiques by Etas Libre d’Orange, for example, recreates the smell of semen with seaweed, milk, iris, coconut, opoponax, and sandalwood. It has a score of 1.88 out of 5 based on 890 votes, perhaps because it smells kind of bad. It sports reviews like:
“Smell of sweat, sewage and semen. Each sniff is an offense and an ordeal, a probation of resistance. Impossible to do a complete test – full wear, I only got 3 sprays on my wrist and 5 min. after doing this review I rubbed my wrist with soap like there was no tomorrow.” – marcel2782, at Fragrantica.com
Scent of semen
“Patented blend of human pheromones including Androstadienone, Androstenol, Androstenone and Androsterone”
Sent of vagina
Scent of sex
Needless to say, playing out the erotic in scent form is a delicate matter that requires a fine balance between numerous forces. For example, the smell of Classic Blue by David Beckham can smell a bit like a male crotch, but it also smells like pineapple, grapefruit, and clary sage. This allows for plausible deniability and erotic versatility. Even if you are attracted to men, as long as you are not sexually aroused you will probably just notice its fruity notes. But if you are in the heat of passion, it will probably smell very sexy. The same with numerous women’s perfumes, such as Eros by Versace and Guilty by Gucci.
A final thought on the aphrodisiac power of fragrances: you may notice that the vast majority of fragrances that are advertised with campaigns with erotic undertones are primarily geared towards a heterosexual audience. With rare exceptions, even perfume ads that are suggestively homoerotic still seem to work around a heterosexual premise.
I suspect that indeed there are statistical-level differences in what turns people on, not only between genders, but between the shades of sexual orientation. After all, some academic theories of sexual orientation do suggest that pheromone-based arousal differences contribute to which gender a person is attracted to. I posit that from a scientific point of view, if the matter were to be studied rigorously, we would indeed find differences at a statistical aggregate level on what fragrances turn people on depending on their gender and sexual orientation. Although this remains a contentious topic, I think that it is a shame that it has not been explored in any rigorous way. Aphrodisiac scents can be life-enriching; gay people might be underserved in the eroticism-of-aroma department. Pragmatically, it would be good for gay people to know which fragrance will load the dice in their favor when going out clubbing. A concrete example is that if indeed gay men do not like the scent of straight men (and instead prefer the scent of other gay men) then it may not be a good idea to wear typical male pheromone perfumes for a night out. Take note: at least according to a Fragrantica forum entry from someone in Indonesia, the main “gay fragrances” there are: Thierry Mugler by A*Men, Le Male by Jean Paul Gaultier, Power by Kenzo, 1 Million by Paco Rabanne, and Magnetism by Escada.
3. Creation of New Social Contexts
The core idea of this model is that art can be understood as a tool to create new social contexts. Beyond the sex appeal of expensive perfumes due to their status implications, perfumes can also be used to invent new interpersonal gestalts. As Kevin Simler argues in Ads Don’t Work That Way, advertisement modifies the landscape of cultural meaning, which in part is responsible for the ways products allow you to communicate information about yourself to others.
For example: Nautica Voyage is, of course, as much selling you the felt-sense of a social context as it is selling you scent qualia. Care to join the crew on a trip across the Atlantic, make our own rules, and live a journey of camaraderie and bonding? Each sniff of Voyage takes you on a trip with imaginary friends. Alas, as an Amazon top-seller it fails to appeal to Hipster sensibilities. What do I mean by “Hipster” here?
Unlike Cool Kids, Hipsters tend to obsess over a highly-specific aspect they deeply care about. Nerds are to Geeks what Hipsters are to Cool Kids. Meaning, much akin to how a Nerd is driven by a burning curiosity about the world while a Geek is usually concerned about the social applications of niche knowledge, Hipster aesthetic exploration is done out of a fundamental desire to know the limits of an art form while Cool Kids are thinking more about how to use art to raise their own status. Thus, while not widely consumable by a mainstream audience, Hipster aesthetics lend themselves to fundamental artistic innovation. In brief:
Hipsters are people who like to explore particular niches, who carve out regions and tiny sectors of the market without compromising their own taste.
They rebel against the commercial and mainstream construction of meaning and instead use their creativity to create parallel social worlds.
Artistic explorations can indeed be used for this “social context” creation.
By finding smells that are characteristic, but rare and hard to place, one can create context-specific memories for events to be later triggered at will.
Questioning the mainstream construction of meaning is at the core of the Hipster aesthetic (cf. Adbusters). Here are some examples of Hipster art to put you in the right mindset (source):
So what would be some hipster fragrances that attempt to sidestep or subvert the mainstream construction of meaning? I highly recommend visiting a niche perfumes boutique to get an idea of the combinatorial explosion of counter-cultural branding that is possible. In places like that, “local” perfumers have pride of place. There is also a premium based on the conceptual loading, narrative prowess, and historicity of each product. The value of the fragrance is in no small part derived from its ability to help you reinvent yourself outside of the confines of mainstream narratives.
More so, the construction of meaning can be turned into a science. You can even do it deliberately without anyone’s assistance. For a special occasion you want to remember in a personal and characteristic way, I advise you to pick two or three essential oils (e.g. violet, peony, and guava) and mix them for the first time that very day. Example: this past New Year’s Eve I wore a combination of pear and violet, which has now become a sensory symbol of the occasion for me.
All of these can be useful tools to help you undo the psychological hacking that big-brand fashion houses and mass media have inflicted upon you. The ability to create new Schelling points and social contexts brings with it the power to transform zero-sum games into positive-sum games. This is quite refreshing, indeed, as we can see in transformational festivals and conscious culture which are at the forefront of these cultural developments.
Alas, if you live long enough in a place like San Francisco or Portland you eventually come to realize that the negative feelings one associates with mainstream status hierarchies are not the result of consumerism per se. They are deeply rooted in our genetic source code, and the only true way out is to subvert the hedonic treadmill. So no amount of anti-consumerism rhetoric is actually likely to make a dent in the world’s vast swamps of suffering. But that’s a story for another time.
4. Attempts at the Sacred
There is no universal consensus on what constitutes a sacred experience. But we should not be quick to dismiss their significance. It only takes reading William Jame’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (or Erowid‘s Experience Vault) to recognize both the incredible diversity and personal significance of sacred revelations. Scents, of course, have a long history of synergistic use in ritual conceptions of the sacred. They can indeed be used:
In rituals such as baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.
As aids for meditation
As grounding agents for psychedelic experiences
To recall the quality of previously experienced mystical states
Temple de la Littérature, Hanoï, Vietnam
Of course we can also think of things that are associated with sacred experiences as powerful reminders of the divine. For example, I can guarantee you that people who have vaporized N,N-DMT or 5-MeO-DMT and have had profound experiences will certainly remember the scent of these agents and it will remind them- if only for a moment- of the ‘mystical’ headspace the agents disclosed.
5. Exploring the State-Space of Consciousness (aka. RainbowGod – ϡ☀♘🏳️🌈♬♠ヅ)
This aesthetic is based on the premise that there is intrinsic value in knowing qualia. The Rainbow God is a personification of the desire to know first hand the entire state-space of consciousness. In this way, we are not constrained by the social forces that usually shape where we invest our exploratory energy. In brief, this aesthetic values:
Explicitly merging the best models for the state-space of scent qualia and perfumery.
Love of knowledge above and beyond merely seeking a social effect.
Qualia-focused descriptions such as what will be presented in this section.
When you are in the Rainbow God state of mind, you get excited by the idea of having a large collection of all possible scented molecules. The Rainbow God even covets dangerous smells, such as those of powerful toxins like dimethylcadmium. Apparently dimethylcadmium indeed has a uniquely characteristic scent, though the price of knowing it first hand is a serious toll on your health. Perhaps Rainbow God would put all of the dangerous smells in a sealed box to be opened -along with a Brompton Cocktail– when one is enduring the late stages of a terminal illness. Upon the prospect of an imminent death, I too would love to know what dimethylcadmium smells like.
This aesthetic does manifest in mainstream explorations, albeit it is rarely the main concept driving the design decisions. Subtle examples here might include Noble Fig by Ferrari which glorifies the unusual qualia variety disclosed by fig leaves and 23 by Michael Jordan which plays with a cute and unusual watermelon scent. That said, it is interesting to explore the possibility of explicitly developing this aesthetic in perfumery. What would that look like?
If I were to develop a brand of perfume under the Rainbow God mindset, I might call it “The State-Space of Scents” and really play this concept out to its conclusion with both creative satisfaction and scientific precision. It would have three core lines:
Line 1 – State-Space Master Palette: 8 fragrances that span the largest possible region of the state-space of scents such that linear combinations of them give you a huge number of possible scents, and mixing them all in equal proportions gets you “Laurax”, i.e. white noise scent.
Line 2 – Special Effects: 16 of the most ultra-X scents possible (the most ultra-bitter scent possible, the most ultra-vanilla scent possible, the most ultra-powdery scent possible, etc.). Basically this encompasses every category-neutral “special effect”, which would be factorized and exalted into its maximum possible expression.
Line 3 – Entropy Gradient: 8 chemical concoctions that have as wide of a range of phenomenal entropies as possible. Again this plays out with, at the one extreme, featuring super simple scents triggered by one or just a couple of molecules, while at the other extreme, featuring scents that approach the Laurax entropic asymptote.
My appreciation is that this has enormous potential. In its full expression, the Rainbow God aesthetic applied to perfumes encompasses both the state-space of scents and their effects in other experiential modalities. If a scent puts you in a certain mood, that’s important to highlight. What is the range of possible moods? That, too, concerns the Rainbow God (of course the perfume industry alludes to this kind of exploration, with e.g. D&G 21 Le Fou described as “a fragrance designed for careless and spontaneous individuals, so called ‘jesters'”, though again, an explicit exploration would be infinitely better).
As a teaser to future works, I can briefly describe how I have been thinking about the state-space of scents.
While current descriptions of perfumes mention: (1) olfactive family, (2) the categorical contributions, and (3) detectable notes, we would instead have a much more fine-grained and informative description. Namely:
The global entropy (e.g. 40% of the way to white noise scent).
The within-category entropy (e.g. 70% of the way into ‘generic flowery’).
The individual notes that can be detected within each category (e.g. non-generic jasmine note being 30% of the flowery category).
Lines connecting notes that have non-linear interactions (e.g. pear & violet, rose & orange, pomegranate & honeydew make unique blends that have phenomenal properties unlike those of the individual ingredients).
Lines connecting notes that form separate “phases” across categories (e.g. with a mixture of mango, sandalwood, rose, lemon, and cinnamon, you get three phases rather than a global consistent smell – mango + cinnamon, and lemon + sandalwood, with rose staying its own distinct scent).
Lines connecting “valence inversion” effects (some notes simply don’t seem to go together even though they are pleasant individually).
Special effects (e.g. “powdery”, “ethereal”, “acrid”, “creamy”, etc.).
We will go into much more detail about this in a future article specifically about the state-space of scents. And I don’t mean just breaking down a scent in terms of its chemical profile: Octyl butyrate, isoamyl propionate, and aldehyde C9, etc. I’m talking about a radical re-frame for what scents even are and the space in which they live. Stay tuned!
6. Energy Parameter Modulation
Scents have effects on one’s energy level. Lavender has clinically significant relaxing effects while lemon oil can be energizing. But these direct effects are only one of several ways scents can modulate the “energy parameter” of your experience. Namely, as we covered in the original article, in order to modulate energy levels upwards one can either impair energy sinks or enhance energy sources. Since labeling and recognizing sensory inputs (top-down interpretations) play the role of energy sinks, it stands to reason that playing with abstract, complex and unrecognizable scents would have the effect of increasing one’s global energy parameter. This, I think, is true. Based on experience, easily recognizable scents can certainly be engrossing, but complex scents with no real-world referents seem much more effective for energizing one’s mind and altering one’s consciousness (cf. the neuroscience of meditation).
I suspect that rigorous scientific research on the way scent entropy interfaces with energy modulation will be very fruitful and have many applications. In brief:
Relaxing scents can be obtained either with inherently narcotic qualia (e.g. lavender) or via boring, mundane, easily-recognizable sources (e.g. paper).
Exciting scents can be obtained with inherently exciting qualia (e.g. lemon) but also by using the appropriate amount of novelty, abstractness, and complexity to disable energy sinks.
Energy by Qualia Research (EDT)
Finally, it is my impression that scents can interface, not only with raw energy levels, but also their moments. Meaning, some scents are perhaps suited for a high first or second derivative in the energy parameter of experience. It’s as if the feeling of being “accelerated” into a high-energy regime is part and parcel of many scents. Personally, I experience bitter smells such as grapefruit, bergamot, and geranium to be arresting in that they drive one’s attention to a stop. Sweet spicy scents like vanilla and chocolate, on the other hand, seem to modulate energy rather than increase it or decrease it specifically (think “the Prozac of scents”). Alas, the state of this phenomenological research is still too early to give it any credence. I would love to hear the thoughts of others who also feel they can pin-point the first, second, and even third derivatives of the energy parameter modulation effects of scents.
7. Puzzling Valence Effects
This conception of art focuses on the way exotic sensory stimuli can lead to puzzling feelings of wellbeing. I say puzzling because they defy common-sense. It certainly makes sense that watching porn or eating food rich in salt, fat, and sugar would feel good. That’s perfectly accounted for by working within an evolutionary framework. But why would Picasso, Bach, and Socrates make some people feel good? Or in a more extreme set of examples: Dadaism, Merzbow, and Nietzsche? Puzzling valence effects refers to these phenomenal oddities; the fact that stimuli never encountered in our evolutionary past can nonetheless lead to deeply rewarding sensations. The neuroscientific frameworks used to explain these curious effects were discussed in depth in the original article so I won’t repeat them here. But I will briefly cover some of the ways scents can indeed have both expectedly and unexpectedly pleasant actions. Namely, scents can feel good for any of the following reasons:
Associations: Scents can be pleasant by reminding you of contexts, times, experiences, and people you have previously enjoyed.
Food: Scents that evoke high-calorie foods such as sweet, fried, salted, etc. come with an intrinsic positive valence for most people (and nonhuman animals!).
Safety: The smell of diseased bodies are repugnant while the scent of fresh cotton and a cozy fireplace can bring a pleasant sense of safety.
Eroticism: Scents that spark sexual feelings (already covered this in model 2) are certainly a highlight for the hedonic effects of the sense of smell.
Relative status: Scents that feel expensive, rare, or can be used to demonstrate one’s fitness would naturally feel good (already covered in 2 & 3).
Self-actualization: The very concept of a “signature scent” points at this category of pleasant sensations.
In principle one could use scents that modulate the brain’s energy parameter (see model 6) to heat it above its neural recrystallization temperature.
This might lead to the same kinds of effects one sees on meditation, on psychedelics, and with art. Namely, a three-step process of:
If properly understood, scents that modulate the energy parameter of the brain could be used synergistically with other inputs such as sound, light, and vibration to drive neural annealing for therapeutic benefits (this is an active area of research at QRI).
To say a few words about the scents that make you feel safe: fragrances designed to make you feel unsafe are unlikely to ever be top sellers. It might not be financially sound to launch a perfume (let’s call it “Trench Warfare”) recreating the smell of WWI trenches: “gunpowder, wet rocks, and decaying flesh notes” with flanker fragrances like “Mustard Attack” centered around notes of burned almond and blisters, and “Shell Shock” which emphasizes ashy notes sprinkled with oxidizing iron and overcooked steak. Indeed, safety markers might always be subtly present in fragrances of mass appeal. Rose Of No Man’s Land, a perfume actually inspired by the courage of the nurses who attended to the wounded in no man’s land during WWI, may seem like a counter-example. But it really proves the rule. The scent itself is very pleasant and reassuring, and conceptually it also evokes a relative sense of safety, namely, the feeling of being rescued. In other words, while the context it imports feels unsafe, it is specifically pointing at a part of the situation that emphasizes safety. The setting is used as contrast, it is the ground for the sense of safety which remains the figure (in the figure/ground sense of these terms).
I think that framed in the right way, scent qualia can give us a powerful glimpse of the possible fruits of consciousness research. Indeed, as part of a “QRI starter kit”, interns and visiting scholars get (among other things) a small collection of carefully chosen lesser-known essential oils to symbolize the “gems that are yet to be discovered by investigating consciousness in a systematic way”. (I’m actively looking for a suitable substitute for anosmic people, who almost certainly will be encountered at some point.)
Endless Euphoria – Calvin Klein
Interestingly, the perfume industry could very well be appealing to the agreeable hedonic sensibilities that people are otherwise too prudish to express. The hidden nature of perfumes- their plausible deniability, their elusive character, and their subjective quality- allows people to engage in hedonic fantasy to a greater extent than they would generally openly admit to doing.
Case in point: judging from their marketing materials, it seems that Calvin Klein has already found the key to unending happiness in a bottle. Save yourself the trouble of working towards the Hedonistic Imperative, for endless euphoria has arrived. I should add that their marketing campaign of #EuphoriaForMoms struck a chord with me: “moms, too, deserve euphoria” say both the Hedonistic Imperative and Calvin Klein in unison. According to online reviewers, the ingredients of endless euphoria are:
Take note – these are the ingredients of endless euphoria!
If only I had known! It must be the violet.
This is not, of course, an isolated incident. Indeed, the names of tons of perfumes are often remarkably evocative of the Hedonistic Imperative:
That said, I think that systematizing the study of the hedonic response to scents has yet to be done. I’ll be talking a lot more about this in future articles. For the time being I’ll just tease you with the observation that based on personal experiments there seem to be cross-modal resonance effects between scent and auditory stimuli. The fact that loud broad-spectrum sounds, like the noise of an airplane cabin, modify the sense of taste is known in the literature. Based on my experience, music and special sounds can also subtly modify, and in some cases enhance, the quality of certain scents. Stay tuned.
8. Harmonic Society
Finally, we come to the the grand vision of model 8: Harmonic Society. This aesthetic model posits that it is both possible and desirable to synthesize science, philosophy, and art. The end result does not have to be- as many might expect- the disenchantment of aesthetics. Even with the simplistic take that “bliss is just chemicals in the brain” (which isn’t quite true anyway), we must remember that reduction cuts both ways. Perhaps you can instead see it as “chemicals in the brain are bliss qualia”! The feelings of divinity and profound interconnectedness one can experience on LSD, for instance, do not diminish in significance merely because they can be reduced to neurological phenomena; rather, this exalts what neurological phenomena is in the first place!
A profound understanding of qualia-space can enable us to create a prosocial world of experience in which the transition between every state of consciousness to every other is harmonious and beneficial.
Applied to the art of scent qualia, the principles of Harmonic Society would point us in the direction of deeply investigating the state-space of scents in order to find clusters of fragrances (or scent qualia, more specifically) that have smooth transitions between them.
Toy Story was my favorite movie growing up. I had the entire collection. The fact that the toys could think without a brain made me explore dualism, monism, the existence of God, and nofap (see next slides). Toy Story 4 is weird as fuck for a Disney movie. Due to the psychedelics Renaissance and mass awakening, people want everything to be increasingly trippy.
Forky is probably the weirdest Disney character of all time. It’s like the producers and writers got together in a room and brainstormed, “emm how can we strip a character down to its bare minimum materially to embody pure Being and Nothingness, and all he wanted was to go back to the Source”? The toys are on their way to realizations with Woody and Buzz self-inquiring about the distinction between the voice in their heads and the voice from their voice box. Woody eventually dissolved the part of his ego attached to having an owner by the end, but is still asleep because he still believes he is a toy.
Toy Story 15 will eventually be about enlightenment.
Buzz will be the first one to wake up since he always had a hunch that he wasn’t a toy and is obsessed with infinity.
Buzz screams at Woody, ‘You are not a toy, but infinite Consciousness.’
Maybe by Toy Story 18 both the toys and their owners can break through the layer of illusion that separates them and finally rejoice and communicate with each other after realizing they are made up of the same pixels, floating inside the same bubble of Divine imagination with limitless possibilities.
In Toy Story 20, every object inside the screen – toys and kids, trees, shoes and houses all combine force and congeal their pixels into One, exists the screen and merge with the audience in an Absolute orgy where all dualities collapse.
We’re left with an empty screen; the good old Witness. McDonald manufactures blank screen keychains to go along with happy meals and all the kids thought they got woke.
But when my grandson brings one home I’ll smash the little screens with a hammer “the Observer is the last stand against freedom!” I yell.
And then he was enlightened. #toystory代購#jumpman#thefappening
Here are two recent talks I gave. The first one is a talk about the Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences I gave at the Harvard Science of Psychedelics Club in mid-September (2019). And the second talk is about QRI‘s models of art, which took place in June (2019) at a QRI party in the Bay Area.
The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences (@Harvard Science of Psychedelics Club)
Andrés Gómez Emilsson from the Qualia Research Institute presents about the Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences.
At a high-level, this video presents an algorithmic reduction of DMT phenomenology which imports concepts from hyperbolic geometry and dynamic systems theory in order to explain the “weirder than weird” hallucinations one can have on this drug. Andrés describes what different levels of DMT intoxication feel like in light of a model in which experience has both variable geometric curvature and information content. The benefit of this model cashes out in a novel approach to design DMT experiences in order to maximize specific desired benefits.
About the speaker: Andrés studied Symbolic Systems at Stanford (and has a masters in Computational Psychology, also from Stanford). He has professional experience in data science engineering, machine learning, and affective science. His research at the Qualia Research Institute ranges from algorithm design, to psychedelic theory, to neurotechnology development, to mapping and studying the computational properties of consciousness. Andrés blogs at qualiacomputing.com.
The Qualia Research Institute (QRI) is a non-profit based in the Bay Area close to San Francisco which seeks to discover the computational properties of experience. QRI has a “full-stack approach” to the science of consciousness which incorporates philosophy of mind, neuroscience, and neurotechnology. For more information see: qualiaresearchinstitute.org
The Harvard Science of Psychedelics Club hosts events on psychedelic research, meditation, neuroscience, students sharing their own experiences, and much more.
– Wallpaper group 632 rotating along each symmetry element – Nick Xu
Many thanks to Andrew Zuckerman and Kenneth Shinozuka for helping organize this event. And thanks to David Pearce, Michael Johnson, Romeo Stevens, Quintin Frerichs, the anonymous trippers, and many others for making this work real.
Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia
Andrés Gómez Emilsson from the Qualia Research Institute gives a presentation about how art works according to modern neuroscience and philosophy of mind.
The video discusses eight different models of art: models 1 through 4 have been discussed in academic literature and the current intellectual zeitgeist, while models 5 through 8 are new, original, and the direct result of recent insights about consciousness as uncovered by modern neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and the work of the Qualia Research Institute.
We start by assuming that there are real stakes in art. This motivates the analysis of this subject matter, and it focuses where we place our gaze. We examine a total of eight models for “what art might be about”, divided into two groups. The first group of four are some of the most compelling contemporary models, which derive their strength from fields such as philosophy of language, economics, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology. These models are: (1) art as a word only definable in a family resemblance way with no necessary or sufficient features, (2) art as social signaling of desirable genetic characteristics, (3) art as Schelling point creation, and (4) art as the cultivation of sacred experiences. These four models, however enlightening, nonetheless only account for what David Marr might describe as the computational level of abstraction while leaving the algorithmic and implementation levels of abstraction unexamined. They explain what art is about in terms of why it exists and what its coarse effects are, but not the nature of its internal representations or its implementation. Hence we propose a second group of four models in order to get a “full-stack” view of art. These models are: (5) art as a tool for exploring the state-space of consciousness, (6) art as a method for changing the energy parameter of experience, (7) art as activities that induce neural annealing (which implements novel valence modulation, i.e. surprising pain/pleasure effects), and (8) art as an early prototype of a future affective language that will allow diverse states of consciousness to make sense of each other. These frameworks address how art interfaces with consciousness and how its key valuable features might be implemented neurologically. We conclude with a brief look at how embracing these new paradigms could, in principle, lead to the creation of a society free from suffering and interpersonal misunderstanding. Such a society, aka. Harmonic Society, would be designed with the effect of guaranteeing positive valence interactions using principles from a post-Galilean science of consciousness.
The 8 models of art are:
1. Art as family resemblance (Semantic Deflation)
2. Art as Signaling (Cool Kid Theory)
3. Art as Schelling-point creation (a few Hipster-theoretical considerations)
4. Art as cultivating sacred experiences (self-transcendence and highest values)
5. Art as exploring the state-space of consciousness (ϡ☀♘🏳️🌈♬♠ヅ)
6. Art as something that messes with the energy parameter of your mind (ꙮ)
7. Art as puzzling valence effects (emotional salience and annealing as key ingredients)
8. Art as a system of affective communication: a protolanguage to communicate information about worthwhile qualia (which culminates in Harmonic Society).
The presentation is based on an essay published in the Berlin-based art magazine Art Against Art (see: Issue #6).
The essay offers eight different models of art: models 1 through 4 have been discussed in academic literature and the current intellectual zeitgeist, while models 5 through 8 are new, original, and the direct result of recent insights about consciousness as uncovered by modern neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and the work of the Qualia Research Institute.
Below you will find models 7 and 8, which conclude this series of posts. (See previous models: 1 & 2, 3 & 4, and 5 & 6).
7. Valence Modulation
What is the difference between indifference and interest, boredom and thrill, despair and bliss? Pleasure! A few grains of this magic ingredient are dearer than a king’s treasure, and we have it a plenty here in Utopia. It pervades into everything we do and everything we experience. We sprinkle it in our tea.
The universe is cold. Fun is the fire that melts the blocks of hardship and creates a bubbling celebration of life.
It is the birth right of every creature, a right no less sacred for having been trampled upon since the beginning of time.
– Letter From Utopia by Nick Bostrom
Photo by Andrés Silva (aka. El Capitán). Claudia Silva (in the picture).
We are now approaching the point at which we will finally start cooking with peanut oil, so to speak. We will finally start thinking about how to build extremely good art from first principles. The ‘Art as Valence Modulation’ model builds on top of the previous model where art involves messing with the brain’s energy parameter. To explain this model we need to introduce two additional concepts:
Neural annealing is a concept we developed at QRI to extend the entropic disintegration framework. Namely, the most beneficial use of ‘energy’ is to direct it towards the brain’s natural harmonics in order to carve out the presence of a naturally blissful state in everyday life. This process works on a progression that goes like this:
Together with neural annealing, STV provides an answer for why we experience intensely rewarding states of consciousness from art. Here is where some of the theories that we have been working on come into play. In particular, we hypothesize that when highly-energized states of consciousness follow an adequate cooling schedule, they can give rise to highly ordered states that are experienced as very pleasant and which can carve good attractor states into the brain in the long term. Making an analogy with metallurgy, with annealing, you can increase the regularity of the microscopic structure of metal by heating it above the recrystallization temperature and letting it cool. This results in changed material properties (such as reduced hardness and increased ductility). We hypothesize that something along these lines also takes place in brains. Neural annealing facilitates solving complex constraint satisfaction problems at the perceptual, emotional, and conceptual level. The higher energy enables quick search between possible configurations that satisfy as many constraints as possible (over- stepping the local maxima we are usually stuck within normal energy ranges), while the cooling process solidifies the best constraint satisfaction solutions. Critically, here the STV comes into play by proposing that the more regular the resulting neural structures are, the better they feel. Annealing smooths out inconsistencies and irregularities, which according to the STV are key sources of discomfort. Symmetry, in the form of smoothness and harmony, is why the process of annealing leaves you feeling great.
Very high-valence annealed states of mind feel cosmic and profound in significance. Images by Adrián Regnier Chávez
In this light, art with lasting desirable mood effects does not only need to increase the energy parameter, but it also needs to know how to lower it at the right schedule in order to leave people annealed to a given desirable mindset. A lot of art that successfully raises the energy parameter nonetheless does not succeed in the ecosystem of human attention, because it does not let people cool off in the right way. More so, an excessively competitive memetic landscape that incentivizes maximum surprise tends to train people to experience too much fear of missing out to let them adequately consume art at the pace needed to leave you better off emotionally. There is genuine wisdom in going to museums with one’s smartphone turned off.
Where do we draw the line between healthy recreation and distraction? Some might say that art in the form of pictures is fine, but audiovisual is too much. Some may be fine with movies but not with VR. Others would be ok with videogames but perhaps not with drugs. Others perhaps would be ok with drugs but not with genetic modification of neuronal gene expression. Some would be ok with that but not with neural dust rewiring, and so on. The format, we would argue, is not what matters. But rather, what the annealing pattern is, which is actually what makes the effects of art stick in the long run (or not).
Image by Joseph Matthias Young. It makes me think of the aesthetic of the meta-aesthetic.
This way of seeing art is highly generative. It gives us a research lead for how to construct new grandiose and highly-effective art. More so, the model can itself be developed as an aesthetic of its own. Perhaps we could call it the aesthetic of the meta-aesthetic. That is, an aesthetic that rewards distilling the essential reason why any aesthetic can feel good and meaningful. In the future, we might expect to see in stores “Hedonium Magazine” – which catalogues all of the peak-valence states that can be achieved with any method whatsoever, and sees the craft of perfecting neural annealing as itself the highest form of art. Here we transcend the post-modern ethos of giving each aesthetic its place in the garden of paradoxes. Yes, give each aesthetic its place, but do not let that prevent you from building a meta- narrative that ties together and clarifies the value-add of each aesthetic. No aesthetic is above being examined in terms of how it achieves neural annealing in those who consume it.
In turn, this model gives us a new understanding of what an “aesthetic” even is. According to it, an aesthetic is a system for long-term neural annealing. A one-off weird art piece might give rise to annealing and solidify random structures in your brain. An aesthetic is more than that. It is a collection of generator seeds for art pieces that give rise to a coherent form of neural annealing that is reinforced with each piece, no matter how different they may seem from one another on the surface.
A further property of neural annealing is that it is what enables you to fully experience a self-consistent worldview as if true. This bridges the gap between meaning and pleasure, and is at the core of the connection between valence and the experience of sacredness we discussed in model 4. According to model 7, sacred experiences are the result of driving the energy parameter of the brain above the recrystallization threshold and then having it cool down as it reorganizes the elements of a given target ontology and worldview. The result is an annealed mental state optimized to represent that worldview. The sense of global consistency makes the worldview feel good and true, almost as if you were able to smell truth with it. This model would say, thus, that the core mechanism behind every kind of sacred experience is the same. Which emotions, ontologies, and worldviews get annealed is what is different depending on set, setting, and aesthetic (i.e. how the energy sources and sinks were modified). But deep down, it is successful annealing that makes sacred experiences feel so compelling and good.
8. Affective Language: Harmonic Society
An idealised full-spectrum superintelligence will indeed be capable of an impartial “view from nowhere” or God’s-eye-view of the multiverse, a mathematically complete Theory Of Everything – as does modern theoretical physics, in aspiration if not achievement. But in virtue of its God’s-eye-view, full-spectrum superintelligence must also be hypersocial and supersentient: able to understand all possible first-person perspectives, the state-space of all possible minds in other Hubble volumes, other branches of the universal wavefunction (UWF) – and in other solar systems and galaxies if such beings exist within our cosmological horizon. Idealized at least, full-spectrum superintelligence will be able to understand and weigh the significance of all possible modes of experience irrespective of whether they have hitherto been recruited for information-signalling purposes.
– David Pearce, in The Biointelligence Explosion (2012)
If we succeed at developing a science of art built on top of a modern science of consciousness, what should we do with it? What would the art of a wise post-scarcity and post-suffering society look like? As far I can tell, Utopia consists of both having the system in place to keep the lights on, while being able to use the surplus energy to power blissful experiences beyond the bounds of our current conceptions.
Harmonic Society by ALGE
The vision of Harmonic Society is that of a particular type of post-suffering utopia that resolves to optimize for good art. Referencing the models of art we’ve built upon so far: Harmonic Society (1) knows there are stakes in art and hence sidesteps the traps of semantic deflation, (2) avoids runaway signaling and Cool Kid gridlock, (3) utilizes Hipsters to explore promising new frontiers, (4) has mastery over a diverse range of conceptions of the sacred, (5) systematically explores the state-space of consciousness, (6) has a scientific and precise understanding of the energy parameter of experience, and (7) has deep knowledge of how to induce arbitrary types of neural annealing. In addition to all of this, Harmonic Society has (8) a map of all high-level aesthetics, knows what they are useful for, and can instantiate them at will.
In Harmonic Society there is always a way to smoothly transition between seemingly irreconcilable aesthetics. It deeply understands the pros and cons of different aesthetics and knows how to apply them optimally both for instrumental purposes and hedonic value.
Image by Michael Aaron Coleman
Nowadays a lot of people who could benefit from, e.g. going to art festivals, taking acid, subpack cuddle parties, participating in plays (i.e. exposing themselves to high-end aesthetic experiences), find it hard to do so, because it is difficult to get back to work once the weekend is over after experiencing incredible bliss. A rough solution to avoid residual incompatibility between the state you annealed over on the weekend with the mindset you need today for work would be to develop a mood organ that instantly puts you into any mindset you want. But perhaps a more elegant solution is to have such an advanced and detailed map of the state-space of mindsets that smooth, painless, and synergistic transitory states between arbitrary modes of being are discovered.
Thus, one could one minute be on a 5-MeO-DMT-type white light conscious void ultra-blissful state, the next minute be on a perfectly functional MDMA-like state useful for socializing, the minute after moving to a highly-focused nootropic-like systematizing state, and so on. The aesthetic to foster here is a meta-aesthetic of avoiding sharp discontinuities between mindsets, and allowing you to transition between all known awesome aesthetics. In Harmonic Society the entire state-space of consciousness is your oyster.
A further thought about Harmonic Society is that a sufficiently advanced understanding of aesthetic experience might even revolutionize our understanding of identity.
For instance, a non-trivial sense of personal diachronic identity could arise if everyone
starts to identify with e.g. a different person-specific song. If we truly understood how
valence works and we had full access to our neurocircuitry, we could in a way embody a
given work of art and interact with others in a way that is consistent with the artistic
degrees of freedom our identity allows. This way, people’s interactions could perhaps be guaranteed to be positive. The combinatorial space of possible back-and-forth interactions does not need to be small, since high-energy allows for incredibly varied states. But nonetheless we could get to a point of understanding how valence works such that we could provably demonstrate that two persons with the right neural implementations will always have positive-sum interactions no matter what.
Identity in Harmonic Society: The aesthetic of understanding the valence of every possible state of consciousness and how to translate what matters between them. (Picture: Symbol of Open, Empty, Closed Individualism from Burning Man Theme-Camps of the Year 2029, Continuity Camp)
As the guiding premise of this essay we started out assuming that there are real and substantial stakes in art. It sure is all fun and games to think that anything goes in art until your landscape of cultural meaning is polluted with replicator strategies and attention-zapping exploits that lead to long-term neuropsychological problems and anneal false and neurotic metaphysics. Understanding art matters.
I would make the claim that a new science of valence, i.e. a new science of pleasure, pain, love, hate, and indeed transcendent bliss, can be a new rallying flag for cultural value. Rather than the messy consilience patchwork between different aesthetics we have today, we might in the future indeed find a true and real grounding for the meaning of beauty and bliss. Contrary to the conservative spirit often associated with calls to reinvigorate an objective sense of beauty, here we arrive at a theory of art that would very well appreciate experiences as outlandish as DMT breakthroughs. This theory of art appreciates such states not “just as much” as fine art, but indeed as far more valuable and implicated in what matters than most of everyday life. For art, meditation, psychedelics, and philosophy all share the fact that they are messing with the energy parameter of experience in powerful ways that can be used to achieve much better and globally-consistent brain states. Understanding that the effects of art can be very strong and life-changing is one thing, but knowing the mechanism of action behind those changes comes with entirely new possibilities and responsibilities. We invite you to consider what this entails, and to join us in envisioning a future Harmonic Society constructed with full knowledge of neural annealing.
 The Penfield Mood Organ is a technology described in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick that allows the user to instantly tune into any of hundreds of possible moods via direct cerebral stimulation. Some example moods include “3. The desire to dial other moods”, “481. Awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future”, “594. Pleased acknowledgment of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters”, and “888. The desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it”.
Cool Kids: Someone who is well-rounded and uses strategic mediocrity in order to entice people to show their peacock feathers. At its extreme, Cool Kids become the leaders of artistic gangs who corner the marketplace of aesthetic attention.
Hipster: Someone who enjoys art and media that seems too obscure to care about. Typically, the preferred aesthetics of a Hipster are highly detailed and focus on specific favored attributes at the expense of well-roundedness. A Hipster does not only have opinions about what is enjoyable, but also about how to enjoy it and why.
Nerd: Someone who wants to figure out what is true, especially as it applies to technical and formal systems. A philosophy nerd, for instance, compulsively tries to figure out ultimate truth.
Minimax art strategies: A strategy for making art that tries to be the best on a narrow set of attributes while neglecting well-roundedness. This is sometimes adaptive and some- times maladaptive.
L1/L2 normalization: Using mean absolute error (L1) favors minimax strategies vs. using mean squared error (L2) which favors well-rounded strategies.
Special thanks to: Michael Johnson, Romeo Stevens, Liam Brereton, Duncan Wilson, Victor Ochikubo, and David Pearce for their thoughts and feedback.
* The full essay’s title is: Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia
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The following essay* was recently published in the Berlin-based art magazine Art Against Art (issue). Below you will find models 5 and 6 (out of 8), which are new, original, and the direct result of recent insights about consciousness as uncovered by modern neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and the work of the Qualia Research Institute. (See models 1 & 2, and 3 & 4).
I will wrap up this series next week with something many readers would know to expect – an explanation for how art is connected to valence. Stay tuned!
5. State-Space Exploration
The elucidation of the origin of qualia-rich subjectivity is important not only as an activity in the natural sciences, but also as a foundation and the ultimate justification of the whole world of the liberal arts. Bridging the gap between the two cultures (C. P. Snow) is made possible only through a clear understanding of the origin of qualia and subjectivity. Qualia symbolize the essential intellectual challenge for humanity in the future. The impact of its elucidation will not be limited to the natural sciences. The liberal arts, religion, and the very concept of what a man is will be reassessed from their very foundations.
– Ken Mogi in The Qualia Manifesto (1998)
Glass Pavilion by Nick Xu
Glass Pavilion by Nick Xu
Is there anything beyond the sacred? Yes. This model of art posits that one key feature of art is the pursuit of novel experiences that challenge preconceptions of what is possible to experience. The state-space of possible experiences is unfathomably vast, and mundane everyday human experiences are restricted to a tiny corner of this enormous behemoth. As they say, “you won’t know if you like it until you try it”. Applying that logic to the exploration of the state-space of consciousness would encourage us to open our horizons and become receptive to the possibility that there are true gems of experience waiting to be found in exotic regions of this space.
Now, it is easy for some people to fetishize the exotic for novelty’s sake. But contrary to popular belief, novelty is not intrinsically valuable. Taking into account previous discussions (especially models 2 and 3 above), we can interpret artistic explorations that push the boundary of our knowledge about what can be experienced as a sophisticated form of signaling genetic fitness. In particular, mastery over novel modes of experience shows that you have the mental and physical power to devote copious amounts of resources to exploration, for only one in a thousand attempts at discovering something new results in something that other people can appreciate. It is thus the case that a lot of novelty creation is aimed at courtship rather than being driven by a genuine passion for knowledge.
That said, what is out there hidden in the state-space of consciousness beggars belief. Anyone who is exploring that vast space in an intelligent way will sooner or later find incredible things. But how do we explore this space intelligently? A systematic exploration of possible images, for instance, could involve taking a picture and changing one pixel at a time. But as we all know, the Library of Babel is almost completely devoid of meaningful books. At least relative to its size. A much better way of exploring the space (inspired by Steerable Pyramid and Deep Dream-type algorithms) would be to sample possible images with an intelligent method, such as training generative neural networks on previous works of art, and then asking them to hallucinate possible images while constraining the neural layers you identify with the aesthetic quality of the images. Style transfer techniques and similar methods can result in images sampled from a given aesthetic, rather than from e.g. a particular low-level feature set (e.g. a type of edges) or a set of high-level semantic content (e.g. cars, people, dogs, etc.).
Left style source: blue balloons in a living room. Right style source: collection of blankets by ALGE
Exploring the space of possible images is an extremely small sub-problem of exploring the state-space of consciousness. But I think the analogy is useful as a general idea. Now, how vast is the state-space of consciousness? Well, it tends to be larger than you think, even when you take that fact into account. I will coin that fact as Gomez-Emilsson’s Law. Every time you think you know how vast the state-space of consciousness is, you will be surprised to find out you are wrong if you choose to dig deeper.
Consider what happens when someone takes LSD. Most people expect that they will simply get to experience new sensations like brighter colors, tracers, or synesthesia. This is true to a point, for light doses. But on medium doses, in addition to exploring the state-space of sensory configurations, one also experiences new aesthetics, which this model would define as ways of organizing a lot of sensations in ways that feel right. More so, an aesthetic is also a way of delivering uninhibited sensations in a way that feels good at the level of the whole experience, from moment to moment. Most people have no clue that there is a vast space of possibilities here.
Illustrates “state-space of beach rocks” by unknown artist at Sombrio Beach in Vancouver. Photo: Julia Pope
On higher doses, people are surprised to find an even more general way of exploring the state-space of consciousness. Namely, one instantiates alternate games. The DMT “vibe” that people report can be thought of as more than a “context switch”. It is, rather, a more radical change that we could describe as a “game switch”. The “Jester” that people talk about regarding DMT experiences is an archetype that the mind uses to signal the “rule violation” quality of the state. There is so much going on that one’s experience splits into multiple games at once trying to find some common ground, and this feeling of game-incompatibility feels very alien. A sort of anti-virus system in the mind is triggered at that point, and labels the inconsistency with a feeling of weirdness so that you know not to update your actions based on the (currently globally inconsistent) experience of multiple superimposed games. Rule violation through fast changes in implicit games of social status causes you to interpret what is going on as having extreme stakes. Interacting with DMT Aliens, Gods, Elves, etc. feels like the upper limit of potential social status transfer that your world simulation affords (like meeting a president or a king). The state-space of consciousness contains all of these alternate games and metagames, and we have not even begun to catalogue them. This is all to say: seen in this light, the era of art has just begun.
Like the previous models, this one also gives rise to an aesthetic of its own. I call this the aesthetic of “Rainbow God”. This is the meta-belief that we gain value by understanding and experiencing extremely novel states of consciousness. Ultimate bliss, according to this aesthetic, is not a bland monotone state, but rather, is a state that incorporates within it an extraordinary variety of types of qualia. Posthuman aesthetics will not only show up in the form of intense feelings, but also in the form of extremely “rainbow-ey” experiences. The concept of a full-spectrum intelligence (an intelligence capable of instantiating any qualia at will) plays an important role in this aesthetic. Thus, the full-spectrum artists of the future will have access to a qualia pallet in an experience editor that includes human qualia like sight, touch, scent, emotions, thought-episodes, etc. It will also include qualia only found in insects, fish, mollusks, people tripping, people having seizures, novel neurocircuitry, etc. The asymptote of incorporating all possible varieties of qualia into a single experience is the final realization of Rainbow God, the ultimate state of knowledge and beauty according to this aesthetic.
People say they have weird and novel experiences with art, but by a large margin, the novelty itself is not the focus of what matters in people’s reports. Rather, people especially talk about having experiences that are not only novel and unusual, but also characterized by heightened states of consciousness. For example, when people “get art” they report being inspired, amazed, surprised, enthralled, or even shocked. These states seem to have in common a quality of high-energy in one form or another. Although possible, it is rare to talk about art as purposefully sedating, boring, anesthetizing, or numbing. That’s the exception. In general, art as diverse as Japanoise and Jodorowsky have in common the quality of heightening, and not only changing, one’s state.
At the Qualia Research Institute (QRI) we take very seriously the notion that experience has an energy parameter. In psychology-speak, nearby concepts include emotional arousal and activation level, though these tend to have more physiological than phenomenological connotations. In contrast, we hold that you can indeed experience very high levels of conscious energy without at the same time experiencing the physiological responses that are usually associated with high arousal (such as high heart-rate, high breath-rate, high blood pressure, sweating, etc.). Likewise, it is not the case that only traditionally high-arousal emotions (such as being excited, thrilled, fearful, anxious, etc.) come in high-energy forms. Indeed, it is possible to experience states of relaxation, serenity, equanimity, and peacefulness in extremely energetic forms(!), as happens in the concentration-based altered states of consciousness called “Jhanas” in the Buddhist tradition.
Here it is relevant for me to bring up the fact that my colleague Mike Johnson recently wrote about the neuroscience of meditation. He discussed how to make sense of the acute and long-term effects of meditation through the lens of modern neuroscience paradigms, and then found a way to tie them together into an overarching theory. For the sake of brevity I will schematically outline some of the key features of the paradigms he integrated:
Free Energy Principle (Karl Friston, 2010):
The brain is trying to minimize expected future surprise by building high-level models of sensory input
When a model says that the input is very unlikely, our brain propagates an error signal in the form of excess energy
This energy motivates the search for a better model, for which the previously surprising input is now expected
Physical systems with excitation-inhibition wavefronts have harmonic modes
By mapping out the connectome of a brain (white and grey matter tracks) and using empirically-derived excitation-inhibition differential equations of neural activity, one can infer the electromagnetic resonant modes of a given brain
Using this technique, it was found empirically that psychedelics increase the amplitude of connectome-specific harmonic waves across the spectrum, and in particular, the amplitude delta is higher on the upper ranges of the spectrum
Tying together these frameworks we see that (a) the brain responds to surprise in an excitatory way which gives rise to a process of search for better models, (b) there is a sense of neural energy for which increasing it gives rise to the disintegration of pre-existing patterns, and (c) there is a sense of actually physical energy in the brain tied together with its resonant modes, which are variable depending on one’s state of consciousness. To bring all of these frameworks together, we can interpret them in terms of energy sources and energy sinks:
Energy Sources: surprises, sensory stimulation
Energy Sinks: passage of time (decay factor), semantic content (crystallization around explanatory representations), pre-existing attitudes
At a high-level, we could describe the relevance of these frameworks for art as follows: For art to energize you it needs to either reduce the influence of energy sinks and/or increase the amount of energy from energy sources.
The numerous tricks of the craft of different kinds of art can be reinterpreted in this framework. For example, a lot of artistic advice for a broad audience focuses on making sure that there is a twist you are introducing in an otherwise familiar space. Even subtle surprises (colors being out of place, unusual garments, implausible actions, perspective mixups, etc.) will propagate a prediction error and heighten the energy available in one’s state. This will make you experience the rest of the piece in a more energized and impactful form. Now, to sustain the heightened energy parameter, it is important to avoid making it easy for the brain to redirect the energy to a large energy sink. If the perceptual mistake one makes is one you are familiar with and have experienced before, you might end up diverting the newly available energy towards reinforcing an attitude you developed about that perceptual mistake (e.g. word tricks could trigger anxiety about not being a good reader rather than helping you stay in an energized state).
This paradigm also puts in a different light, and makes sense of, the criticisms often raised against pieces perceived as Kitsch, Camp, and Cliché, or other aesthetics centered around the over-use of a given artistic trick. Art can fail to sufficiently energize your state by failing to introduce a large enough surprise. If you can immediately grasp the full scope of the novelty introduced by a given piece (even if you are misapprehending the input!) you can quickly categorize your experience into a pre-existing bucket and skip the intended energized state. This functions as an energy sink, and hence you fail to stay energized.
This is just a piece of the full story here, for energy sinks are not completely reliable. There is a phenomenon called semantic satiation, where a pattern of rapid and regular repetition of words, images, and concepts makes them feel meaningless. So even the most cliché of art can indeed get the job done of energizing your state of consciousness, by presenting many versions of the same thing in flashes at a sufficiently high rate (I’m not saying this is necessarily pleasant, but it might be effective!). On the flip side, if what you are after is the maximization of a particular meaning in e.g. a commercial, you will find there is a Goldilocks Zone for the number of times you should present the core concept/image to the audience; too few and the meaning will be weak, too many and you’ll trigger semantic satiation by overwhelming the energy sinks of the audience.
Schematically, there are three broad ways of inhibiting energy sinks to allow the buildup of what we call “semantically neutral energy”. You can:
Let me elaborate. First, you can disable energy sinks by switching to unfamiliar contexts (e.g. it is harder worrying about work while on a screen-free beach, at a museum… or at Burning Man). Also, disabling energy sinks can happen in states of exhaustion, fasting, intoxication, or other states of mind that impair some of the normal functions of the brain. Second, as we saw, semantic satiation would be an example of overwhelming energy sinks, but there are many other ways of doing so, such as increasing the intensity of input above a certain threshold. And third, avoiding energy sinks involves things like setting the intention to focus your attention on a meditation object and refocus on it every time you get distracted. Alternatively, one can load a given energy sink with negative implications and learn to avoid it via negative feedback (e.g. when a standard interpretive framework is frowned upon by a social group).
Most drugs and activities could be described in terms of their characteristic effect on energy sources and sinks. But only some of these drugs and activities are “broadband energy enhancers”, in the sense that the energy they give rise to is transferable to a broad range of mental and physical activities. This is what sets meditation, trance-inducing music/dancing, psychedelics, philosophy, and art apart from other energizing activities. Those methods in particular allow energized states to be sustained for long periods of time, and they give rise to novel sensations exclusive to the high-energy regions of the state-space of consciousness.
DMT-like phenomenal objects – high energy configurations of phenomenal space. Images by Paul Nylander (http://bugman123.com/)
DMT-like phenomenal objects – high energy configurations of phenomenal space. Images by Paul Nylander (http://bugman123.com/)
DMT-like phenomenal objects – high energy configurations of phenomenal space. Images by Paul Nylander (http://bugman123.com/)
DMT-like phenomenal objects – high energy configurations of phenomenal space. Images by Paul Nylander (http://bugman123.com/)
A note on psychedelics here is in order. There is indeed something very peculiar that psychedelics do to the energy sources that to my knowledge is not done by the other broad-band energy enhancers. Psychedelics make energy sources echo! They change the neuroacoustics of the brain, which favors temporally repeating patterns in a delayed-echo fashion along with a slower decay function for experience over time. Thus, visual tracers and the amplification of music appreciation during a psychedelic trip are both expressions of the same underlying principle: the brain is more resonant. The fact that this effect is distinct from what art, meditation, philosophy, or strobes have to offer makes psychedelics synergistic and complementary with the other methods. After all, it is hard to ignore the gazillion subjective reports of enhanced aesthetic appreciation experienced on even small doses of psychedelics.
For the above reasons, I think this model has a lot of explanatory power. To recap, this model of art says that increasing the energy parameter of one’s consciousness is the success condition of art. It explains the repeating trance-inducing quality of music, the need for balance between predictability and surprise, common craft advice, and the existence of higher aesthetics. In turn, this model implies that art can be done in a wrong way. Art that is uninspiring, insipid, unexciting, irrelevant, etc. could be understood as art that fails to raise the energy parameter of those who experience it. And indeed, the higher the form of the art, the more it allows for the buildup of semantically-neutral energy.
 The term “state-space” refers to a very general concept that identifies the set of all possible configurations of a given system (of equations, machines, experiences, etc.) and the ways in which these configurations can transition from to another.
 As a proof of concept: According to cognitive scientist Steven Lehar, combining LSD, Ketamine, and THC can give rise to a “free-wheeling hallucination”, which is a state of mind where one gains the ability to edit the contents of one’s experience at will (“You can say ‘give me a table’ and a table will appear right in front of you as real as a solid table”).
 For example, anti-psychotic drugs are broad-band energy sink enhancers, psychedelics are broad-band energy source enhancers, classic stimulants (such as amphetamines) are narrow-band energy source enhancers, classical depressants (such as benzodiazepines) are narrow-band energy sink enhancers.
 In one account proposed by “Psychedelic Information Theory” (James Kent), psychedelics achieve the tracing/echo effect by disabling an energy sink. The control interrupt model of psychedelic action says that there are natural inhibitory processes that prevent features of our current experience from building up over time. Psychedelics are thought to chemically interrupt inhibitory control signals from the cortex, which are constantly preventing the build-up of qualia. In this account, what you are paying attention to is in fact the part of the sensory input that is being inhibited the least. Interrupting the inhibitory “control signal” gives rise to echoes of previous states across the board that you intrinsically attend to whether you like it or not.
The following essay was recently published in the Berlin-based art magazine Art Against Art (issue). Below you will find models 3 and 4 (out of 8). I will be sharing 2 new models each week until I’ve shared all of them (see part 1/4).
3. Schelling Point Creation
[Psychoanalysis teaches us:] When somebody complains, always be careful and try to find, identify, what type of additional pleasure, satisfaction, does the act of complaining itself bring to you. We all, when we complain, almost always, find a perverse satisfaction in the act of complaining itself.
– Slavoj Zizek (2019)
I certainly feel compelled to complain about the tyranny of genetic fitness signaling in art. That said, people who excel at games who are not played by many people will have an incentive to undermine the popular games and frame their favorite game as somehow superior. Why are Hipsters and Nerds allied against Cool Kids? Because the Cool Kids can decide on a whim that the games the Hipsters and Nerds play are uncool and not worthy of public fitness displays. Even if they happen to be of superb quality!
In many cases, the exploration of uncommon games can give rise to major innovations, so there is a utilitarian reason to promote some degree of exploration outside of the aesthetics that most people can enjoy.
This line of reasoning gives rise to a new interpretation for what a Hipster is. To be a Hipster is not, as popularly believed, to merely desire the uncommonly desired. The whole thrust of hipsterism is a promise of superior quality in at least some actually relevant area, even at the cost of severely reduced quality across the board. (Using an analogy from the field of statistics: Cool Kids favor L2 normalization as it signal-boosts people who are well-rounded, whereas Hipsters and Nerds favor L1 normalization which improves the outlook for imbalanced minimax strategies).
Many people believe that all Hipsters are Cool Kids. Many believe something slightly weaker, which is that to be a Cool Kid you also need to be a Hipster. But in fact this is absolutely not the case, and it is a category error to think otherwise. Cool Kids and Hipsters were correlated when being Hipster had mainstream appeal. That is, Hipsters were cool when Cool Kids used to challenge people to show how Hipster they could be. But this should not be in any way an indication that Hipster aesthetics are intrinsically related to Cool Kids, for the same reason that e.g. Country Music, Normcore, or Bolshevik aesthetics are not intrinsically invented by Cool Kids. Hipsters are individual contributors to the frontier of culture. Indeed, it is rare to find a place that produces genuinely innovative content while also being saturated with Cool Kids.
Cool Kids, in large quantities, eventually form cliques that become voting blocs. These frustrate innovation by fully orthogonalizing what is socially cool from what is socially valuable. A Hipster under those circumstances tends to feel stifled. Cool Kids tend to be above-average in openness to experience, but they are rarely in the top 2% of openness to experience – more like one standard deviation above the mean. This is because they need to be open enough to look at new trends but also sufficiently closed to be able to relate to the bulk of the consumers of new trends. Genuine Hipsters are usually above the 98th percentile of openness to experience. In turn, the sexual attraction of some people is focused on this particular trait, and Hipsters compete at signaling it to the highest extent possible. In the process, they discover interesting things. But this does not mean they can sustainably stay cool in the eyes of the average person.
High openness to experience allows you to appreciate minimax players. It allows you to accept artists who are ridiculously good at making a specific point but lack talent in every other respect. Ultimately, the innovations produced by these extreme artistic explorations sometimes radically transform social reality.
In “Ads Don’t Work That Way”, Kevin Simler discusses how advertisement’s power is not through direct persuasion, but through shaping the landscape of cultural meaning. You don’t bring a 6-pack of Coronas to a party because the ads have subconsciously conditioned you to think that this beer in particular is more likely to make you and your friends feel like you are a chill group. Rather, you buy it in order to signal the fact that you see yourself as a chill person, and to bring that mindset to those who see you bring the product. It is by virtue of common knowledge that ads can do this; if every single person received a different custom-made AI-powered neural net ad, ads would stop having the function of shaping the landscape of cultural meaning, and perhaps lose a significant portion of their power.
Art, likewise, can also change the landscape of cultural meaning. In contrast to ads, art might perhaps be described as high-bandwidth low-distribution as opposed to high-distribution low-bandwidth. And to the extent that Hipsters discover new aesthetics, they are a big source of novel cultural Schelling points for subcultures to form around.
4. Creating Sacred Experiences
Art could be the next religion – Alex Grey
Below you will find an example of a piece that aims to create a sacred experience, which I recently encountered at the Santa Cruz Regional Burn. It is called Mementomorium, and it is a mixture of a sensory-deprivation-chamber and a symbolic self-burial experience crafted in order to simulate your own death and to attempt to see your life in its finitude. This art piece plays with one’s experience of time and sense of mortality, and helps you cut through delusion in order to re-interpret one’s time on earth as finite and priceless.
Mementomorium by Oleg Muir Lou Goff
Mementomorium by Oleg Muir Lou Goff
Why is the above art? Cool Kids might find this too morbid, and Hipsters are likely to see
it as too real. So what is the thrust behind artistic visions like the above?
Sacred experiences are an aspect of social and phenomenological reality. Art, it turns out, is deeply entwined with such sacredness. Now, much has been said about the sublime in relation to art. What else is there to say?
Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself. – George Bernard Shaw
Contrary to the three previous models, here the culminating emotion that is sought is not the vindication of self, but rather, the elicitation of a sense of self-transcendence. This 4th model would say that art creates some of the most valuable experiences there are, because it makes us experience a sense of transcendence. And relative to the previous three models, this model is the first to consider art as involved in the quest of finding the ultimate answer, as opposed to merely providing incremental benefits to humanity.
Cutting to the chase, let us jump right into a list of possible intentional sources for phenomenal sacredness (i.e. the possible targets of art according to this model). From John Lilly’s “Simulations of God”, below you find the most common types of self-transcendence catalogued:
God As the Beginning
I Am God
God Out There
God As Him/Her/It
God As The Group
God As Orgasm and Sex
God As Death
God As Drugs
God As the Body
God As Money
God As Righteous Wrath
God As Compassion
God As War
God As Science
God As Mystery
God As the Belief, the Simulation, the Model
God As the Computer
God Simulating Himself
God As Consciousness-without-an-Object
God As Humor
God As Superspace, the Ultimate Collapse into the Black Hole, the End.
The Ultimate Simulation
God As the Diad
According to John Lilly’s view, each of us lives in a world simulation (whether this is generated by our brains or by a higher power is something Lilly himself went back and forth on for decades). He makes the case that our world simulation is run by a hierarchical chain of programs and meta-programs. One’s locus of control is what he calls the Self Meta-Programmer, which is roughly equivalent to the ego (or at least a healthy one with high levels of self-control). Implicitly, however, the Self Meta-Programmer is subordinated to something higher, something he calls the Supra-Self Meta-Programmer (SSMP for short; see: “Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer”). Our SSMPs are responsible for our notions of a higher power, higher values, and higher purpose. One’s religion is determined by the SSMPs to which one is subordinated. In Lilly’s view, it is one’s SSMPs that give rise to one’s understand- ing of God. And as the list above shows, there are many possible versions of God. That is, there are many possible meta-programmings for what the highest power, value, and purpose might be. In light of this, art as the pursuit of sacred experiences would not be restricted to a particular view of God. Rather, it encapsulates every possible notion of God – where the art that hits hardest is the art that resonates the most with one’s implicit conception of God.
A parallel here could be made with adult developmental models (such as those of Wilber’s Integral Theory, Kegan’s Evolving Self, Common’s and Richard’s Model of Hierarchical Complexity, etc.). At each level of development, one’s conception of the highest value transcends and includes those of the developmental stages below. Let’s take for example Integral Theory’s levels 4, 5, and 6. Level 4, aka. “Amber” (ethno- or nation-centric, values rules, discipline, faith in transcendent God or preordained high- er order, socially conservative, etc.) would derive a sense of sacredness from religious imagery, a nationalist spirit, and art that fosters traditional values. Level 5, aka. “Orange” (values science and rationality, democracy, individualism, materialism, entrepreneurship, etc.) gets off on experiences that bring about a reductionist scientific world picture compatible with self-reliance (“the world is made of atoms, and this, rather than being tragic, is an opportunity to have fine-grained control over the elements”). And Level 6, aka. “Green” (values pluralism and equality, multiple points of view, no true reality, embraces paradox, considers civil rights and environmentalism to be the frontier of culture, etc.) would find art projects that highlight the multiplicity of perspectives to be key to a sense of the sacred. In this framework we can explain people’s negative reaction to art as a misfit between the developmental level of the target audience and the developmental level of the person who gets to experience it. Art targeted to people in a higher level of development than oneself will be perceived as heretical (e.g. postmodern art from the point of view of a traditionalist monotheist), while art targeted to people on a lower level of development than oneself will be perceived as childish or naïve (e.g. traditional religious iconography from the point of view of a scientific rationalist humanist). We could thus predict that if there are even higher developmental levels above ours, we will most likely think of the art targeted to them as deeply troubling.
The core quality of the experience is the feeling and recognition that oneness is truth. – Martin Ball on 5-MeO-DMT
At the upper levels of development, one could argue, we find sacredness based on concepts like pure consciousness, emptiness, and the clear white light of the void, etc. Famously, psychedelics, and in particular 5-MeO-DMT, seem to trigger direct experiences of this type of sacredness, which, according to its proponents, encapsulates all other kinds of transcendence within. If this is so, then we could anticipate that agents like 5-MeO-DMT will play an important role in the future of art as more people climb the ladder of adult psychological development.
On a social level, art as the pursuit of the sacred can be interpreted as an adaptive behavior aimed at taming envy. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is (artistically or other- wise) capable of diverting a group’s energy away from tasks that need to be done for individual and collective survival. When done in excess, wasteful displays of fitness make communities suffer. Runaway signaling has serious drawbacks, and sacred experiences seem to calm people down a bit, especially if the sense of sacredness comes along with social reassurance in the form of being able to hang out together without having to compete all the time, for Christ’s sake! Ahem. To be chill with one another.
As we saw with the previous models, this one, too, has its own aesthetic. The aesthetic of the model would perhaps manifest in the form of a museum that caters to every possible sense of sacredness. From aboriginal shamanism to monotheistic conservativism to punk rock concerts to transhumanism, this aesthetic recognizes the fact that sacredness is catalyzed by many different inputs depending on the psychological traits of the people who consume it.
 L1 and L2 normalization are ways of talking about how to describe the distance between points in a given space. L2 takes into account the mean squared difference along each dimension, whereas L1 simply uses the average difference in each dimension. If one is thinking about an ideal art piece within a given aesthetic, then using L2 would penalize very heavily exemplars that deviate from the archetype and generally favor well-roundedness, whereas an L1 normalization would accept large differences from the ideal along several dimensions as long as at least a fraction of the dimensions are very good.
 One’s locus of control is the part of our experience that comes with a felt sense of agency. That is, what feels like is in charge of determining the direction of one’s attention, intention, and behavior. Typically, a person’s locus of control is tied to their sense of self – or ego – but this is not true in the general case (as demonstrated by the shattered locus of control present in schizophrenia, and absent locus of control during states of depersonalization and derealization).
 According to John Lilly, a Supraself-Metaprogramer is an agent outside our locus of control that runs below our threshold of awareness and which ‘codes’ Supraself-Metaprograms. In turn, Supraself-Metaprograms are the mental “programs” that determine our sense of the highest values, which we typically inherit from our culture, influence from others, implicit historical beliefs, and so on.
 The colors of Integral Theory: Ken Wilber’s Integral theory was developed by identifying the commonalities among many different types of adult developmental models, spiritual stage maps, and meditation progression systems. The progression could broadly be described as a generalized expansion of the circle of compassion and increased acceptance of complexity. The color associated with each level is arranged from low-frequency to high-frequency parts of the spectrum. Specifically, infrared – archaic, magenta – tribal, red – warrior, amber – traditional, orange – modern, green – postmodern, teal/turquoise – integral, ultraviolet – post-integral.
Note – The full essay’s title is: Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia
The following essay was recently published in the Berlin-based art magazine Art Against Art (issue).
The essay offers eight different models of art: models 1 through 4 have been discussed in academic literature and the current intellectual zeitgeist, while models 5 through 8 are new, original, and the direct result of recent insights about consciousness as uncovered by modern neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and the work of the Qualia Research Institute.
Below you will find the abstract, introduction, and the first 2 (out of 8) models of art. I will be sharing 2 new models each week until I’ve shared all 8 of them.
Contemporary writing about art is in exactly the same place as writing about nature was before Darwin came along. Before Darwin there was no single intellectual matrix upon which to fix all of these impressions and ideas. There was no way of organizing all of that information. And this seems to me to be the situation we are in with the arts, as well.
We start by assuming that there are real stakes in art. This motivates the analysis of this subject matter, and it focuses where we place our gaze. We examine a total of eight models for “what art might be about”, divided into two groups. The first group of four are some of the most compelling contemporary models, which derive their strength from fields such as philosophy of language, economics, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology. These models are: (1) art as a word only definable in a family resemblance way with no necessary or sufficient features, (2) art as social signaling of desirable genetic characteristics, (3) art as Schelling point creation, and (4) art as the cultivation of sacred experiences. These four models, however enlightening, nonetheless only account for what David Marr might describe as the computational level of abstraction while leaving the algorithmic and implementation levels of abstraction unexamined. They explain what art is about in terms of why it exists and what its coarse effects are, but not the nature of its internal representations or its implementation. Hence we propose a second group of four models in order to get a “full-stack” view of art. These models are: (5) art as a tool for exploring the state-space of consciousness, (6) art as a method for changing the energy parameter of experience, (7) art as activities that induce neuronal annealing (which implements novel valence modulation, i.e. surprising pain/pleasure effects), and (8) art as an early prototype of a future affective language that will allow diverse states of consciousness to make sense of each other. These frameworks address how art interfaces with consciousness and how its key valuable features might be implemented neurologically. We conclude with a brief look at how embracing these new paradigms could, in principle, lead to the creation of a society free from suffering and interpersonal misunderstanding. Such a society, aka. Harmonic Society, would be designed with the effect of guaranteeing positive valence interactions using principles from a post-Galilean science of consciousness.
We shall start this essay by making the assumption that there are real and substantial stakes when it comes to art. Not all of my readers will agree with this point, and those who do might in fact secretly worry that they are overvaluing art for selfish reasons. I come here to suggest that there could be very real and substantial stakes in art, and that to realize this you do not need to buy into sentimentalism, fanaticism, wishful thinking, or traditionalist attitudes. You could start with the sheer amount of human attention that is devoted to art in one way or another. Art seems to make a lot of people do things, and do them with a lot of their energy and focus. Indeed, many people point at their intimations with art as personally defining moments. Some say their best self is expressed in their creation, consumption, or participation in art. So what is all of this fuss about?
Alas, most things of grand significance have been analyzed by countless people. The sheer magnitude of certain human activity is not a justification for caring about it at the margin, considering the often corresponding sheer magnitude of other people already analyzing and scientifically probing the field. That is, of course, unless you have a reason to think that you have something that everyone else has been missing all this time. And this is the case for you and me right now. The new perspectives on art on this essay come from thinking very deeply about consciousness, qualia, and the possible implementations of the pleasure-pain axis, aka. valence. We will see how investigating these questions cashes out in novel insights about art. In turn, these models, as well as the empirically testable predictions they generate, might have the ability to reframe what is going on with art in a way that allows us to predict how and when it will bring about good and desirable effects.
The 8 Models
Art as family resemblance (Semantic Deflation)
Art as Signaling (Cool Kid Theory)
Art as Schelling-point creation (a few Hipster-theoretical considerations)
Art as cultivating sacred experiences (self-transcendence and highest values)
Art as exploring the state-space of consciousness (ϡ☀♘🏳️🌈♬♠ヅ)
Art as something that mess with the energy parameter of your mind (ꙮ)
Art as puzzling valence effects (emotional salience and annealing as key ingredients)
Art as a system of affective communication: a protolanguage to communicate information about worthwhile qualia (which culminates in Harmonic Society).
Models 1 through 4 are already present in the memetic ecosystem of today. They focus on external aspects of art, such as why it reproduces and how it impacts social behavior. From the point of view of Marr’s levels of analysis, these four models focus on the behavioral/computational level of analysis. Namely, what art looks like from the outside, and how it reproduces. Models 5 through 8 are novel perspectives that arise out of examining artistic experiences in light of Marr’s algorithmic and implementation-level accounts of consciousness. That is, how the internal information-processing and implementational features of brains give rise to art. In turn, these four models give rise to a new understanding for when art does or does not do its job.
1. Semantic Deflation
This model says that asking “what is art?” is, more often than not, an utterly confused question. Perhaps in antiquity it would make sense to talk about the essence of art, expecting there to be a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be art. According to the semantic deflation model of art, starting out with the expectation of finding a crisp set of requirements for something to be art is starting off on the wrong foot, for believing that there is an essence of art is to simply not pay attention to the large set of inconsistent use cases for that word, which challenges the existence of such an essence.
The semantic deflation model is supported by key insights from 20th Century philosophy of language, such as found in the works of Russell, Frege, Carnap, Quine, and especially those of the late Wittgenstein. Of particular relevance when it comes to defining art we could point at Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance. Developed in his book Philosophical Investigations, the concept of family resemblance posits that many words which seem at first to point at something with a core essence are, in fact, pointing to referents which have overlapping similarities but no universally shared attributes.
Like the concept of a game, which refers to activities as diverse as checkers and cellular automata, and which cannot be easily defined in terms of e.g. point systems, physical movement, number of players, etc., we likewise cannot expect art to be definable in terms of media, intent, social effects, or craft. All we can aspire to is to identify common and characteristic features.
According to this view, the models of art that take objective beauty seriously on Platonic or traditionalist grounds are fundamentally misguided. Callbacks to retraditionalize society to preserve its past – more genuine – aesthetics are perceived as parodies of themselves, trying to undo an intrinsically irreversible process of cultural learning. Nowadays few people seriously believe that art should be conceived of as a tool exclusively for the glorification of traditional values and religious symbolism. It is also not fashionable to think of art in sincere non-ironic ways. Those who wish to earnestly engage with art must remind themselves that the days in which its meaning could be grounded on universally agreed definitions is gone.
Although sobering and clarifying, I argue that this view leaves a lot of value on the table. Sure, art has no common essence, but that does not mean that all of the uses of the word are pointing at things of equal value. Semantic deflation does not provide us with guidance for identifying and promoting good art. Indeed, as Wittgenstein might put it, “[p]hilosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language, it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is.” (Philosophical Investigations, pg.49).
Interestingly, the semantic deflation model of art can itself be conceived of as an aesthetic. This aesthetic rewards those who can help others transcend narrow conceptions of what art is. Exemplary movements like Dadaism and Pop Art could be thought of as pushing the aesthetic of semantic deflation to the limit.
“Art is what you can get away with.” – Andy Warhol.
But what if there is something worth preserving, reifying, and defining clearly in art? Semantic deflation should perhaps be thought of as a first step in figuring out what is valuable about art, rather than a final destination. To move beyond it, one should avoid reviving a naïve essentialist view of art, and instead identify conceptual focal points that genuinely enrich our conception of art. Rather than destroying preconceptions, we could instead refactor, discover, and build new and enlightened ones. Transcending absolutist deflationary views of art is indeed more appealing when there is an alternative in sight that is both better and more real than what you get by merely deconstructing and breaking down naïve views. And this is what we will attempt to do as we move on to other models of art.
2. Cool Kid Theory
In his book “The Mating Mind”, Geoffrey Miller discusses art in light of evolutionary psychology. In this view, art, rather than being a thing, is a culturally sanctioned activity devised to allow people to display their genetic fitness, by showing off above-average features of their phenotypes. Art is, in this view, at its core, an outlet for courtship. Incredible performances like those of Liszt and Rachmaninoff are not just for the pleasure of music. The incredible difficulty of performing the musical compositions is itself the show. The difficulty is not a side-effect of discovering new soundscape frontiers that produce blissful and extraordinary experiences to degrees that couldn’t be possible without the difficulty of execution. Rather, the difficulty of performing the musical pieces is part and parcel of what makes them so extraordinary. They are indeed erotic displays of fitness traits (cf. Lisztomania) crafted to cause an impression in fertile ground.
Indeed, we are constructed in such a way that we can emotionally hack and be hacked by others to assess each others’ suitability as potential family, friends, and neighbors. Unfakeable fitness displays typically require prodigious amounts of waste. As Geoffrey puts it: “Every sexual ornament in every sexually reproducing species could be viewed as a different style of waste.” (The Mating Mind, pg. 128. cf. An Infinite Variety of Waste) Only extremely fit organisms can afford to spend resources on non-survival tasks.
Fashion, too, in this light, is a sort of collective activity of systematic waste. Keeping up with the latest trends shows that you have a lot of free time (which, contrary to popular belief, is perceived as more sexy than the alternative). Only the wealthy, disciplined, or well-organized can manage to sustain energy- and time-consuming hobbies for years and years.
This theory of art has a problem, though, which is that on its own it does not explain art as a cultural institution. We could very well imagine that aesthetics-based displays of genetic fitness would be circumscribed to individual efforts but in practice we see groups of people coming together to work out the potentialities, possibilities, limits, and implications of particular aesthetics. We don’t only generate extraordinarily wasteful works of art ourselves, but do so contextually within art movements and aesthetic languages. Why is this?
I believe there is a layer of organization above individual signaling displays. To fully grasp it, we need to talk about what I have named “Cool Kid Theory”. This theory postulates that above-average and particularly well-rounded individuals, aka. Cool Kids, figure out ways of enticing others to show their peacock feathers, so to speak. Being a Cool Kid is not to excel oneself, but rather, to have the precise kind of strategic mediocrity that gives others the urge to show how they can improve upon your craft. At its extreme, a Cool Kid commands a group of people who practice a particular type of craft, which ultimately becomes an artistic gang. If you are a Cool Kid you can decide who is cool and who is not by choosing what challenges to measure the performance of people with.
Who wants to be a Cool Kid? The answer is, for the most part, anyone who can get away with it. It is so evolutionarily adaptive to be a Cool Kid that we have a number of psychological programs that can be triggered with a sequence of social cues that can make almost anyone into a Cool Kid.
Part and parcel of being a Cool Kid is to know how to induce the fear of missing out in others. It is about detecting when a particular challenge is headed towards an imminent dead end and course-correct to keep people engaged.
Here is an example. If you ever encounter a group of dancers in public transportation, you will notice that there is a Cool Kid who binds them together. The Cool Kid selects for people who have unique talents, and collectively accumulates a solidly impressive bag of tricks. Everyone in the group takes turns showing their best trick. For instance, the group might have someone who sings, someone who plays an instrument, and someone who owns a subwoofer (sometimes that’s all it takes). You might also see that there is a guy who can do the weird elbow twist thingy, the one who can break dance and do nine spins on his back, the one who can beat-box to the tune of the song, and the one who moonwalks while playing a harmonica. An effective Cool Kid is one who can corral all of these specialists and be the artistic glue who controls the overarching aesthetic. And this aesthetic is what defines a set of challenges used for impressive fitness displays.
The art world can be thus conceived of as a large super-cluster of Cool Kid gangs cornering the economy of attention. The competitive nature of Cool Kids is sure to produce a constant stream of novel stimuli, endlessly varied trends and fashions, as well as competitive and indeed sometimes even virulent attacks between aesthetics. For he who controls the aesthetic, controls your ability to be popular.
To be continued…
 Marr’s levels of analysis is a framework to analyze information-processing systems. First we have the computational level, which describes what the system does from a third-person point of view. This level is concerned with questions like what the system is capable of, and how quickly it can succeed at it. Second is the algorithmic level of analysis, which focuses on the internal representations and operations used to transform the inputs into the outputs. And third is the implementation level of analysis, which is concerned with the physical realization of the algorithms described in the second level.
Idealism leads to realism if it is strictly thought out.
– LudwigWittgenstein (from Notebooks, 1914-1916)
I just came back from spending a week on the water at Mandeville Point (~18 kilometers from Stockton, California), at a yearly gathering called Ephemerisle. Below I will share some thoughts, insights, and takeaways from this experience.
Ephemerisle is an event first conceived as a social experiment to investigate how the construction of autonomous floating nation-states could work in practice. The history of Ephemerisle is full of interesting lessons in how ideologies react when subjected to the acid bath of reality (cf. mini-documentary about the first iteration of the event). Over the years, this event has evolved from a wild, loosely organized libertarian congregation of like-minded individuals with no central planning, no rules, and no taxes, into a -somewhat- tamer, loosely organized libertarian congregation with central planning, rules, taxes, insurance, and heavy legal waivers that you need to sign when boarding islands and vessels. Despite the introduction of rules and legal waivers, the overall vibe of the place is one of freedom, intellectual intensity, and a spirit of giving.
To gain a sense of the scale of the event I’d recommend looking at drone footage over the years: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. Compared to Burning Man, this is a relatively tiny event, with a crowd that reaches up to perhaps as many as 600 people throughout the week, the equivalent of only 1% of the population of Black Rock City. In absolute terms, however, it is certainly very impressive to see that many people organized into a superorganism capable of delivering the basic survival needs for hundreds of persons in such an inhospitable environment, along with the luxuries of dance floors, sound systems, massage bunks, and trippy art.
Ephemerisle 2019 – Credit: Sameer Halai
The captain of the ship in which I camped said that “the slogan of Ephemerisle should be ‘Figure It Out'”. Indeed, this event falls in the same category as Burning Man when it comes to the degree of self-reliance that it demands from each participant. Burning Man, as noted before, could very well be called “the annual meeting of the recreational logistics community”. Ephemerisle takes all of the hassle and preparation needed for Burning Man, doubles it, adds an extra dose of uncertainty, and sprinkles it with a number of challenges unique to living on the water for a week.
The first thing to realize about Ephemerisle is that it is not a festival. There are no tickets, no gates, and no central authority whatsoever. But Ephemerisle is on the water, which makes attending a very non-trivial task.
You are responsible for getting yourself to and from the event site and for everything you’ll need to live there and survive for your stay. There are few to no resources adjacent to the event site, and none on the water. Think carefully about what you’ll need, and plan ahead!
So, given the time, effort, resources, knowhow, and social connections needed to be able to attend, who actually ends up going to Ephemerisle?
Like Burning Man, the people at Ephemerisle are not representative of the general population.
Stating the obvious, the mean conscientiousness, openness to experience, and general intelligence of participants are all significantly above the mean relative to the general population. I might add that, based on many conversations I had, it seemed that the following qualities are also significantly more common relative to the general population: graduate studies, social skills, physical fitness, cryptocurrency investments, and of course, number of yachts owned.
What stuck with me was not only the average intelligence of the participants, but also the high density of particularly brilliant people doing impressive work of their own in fields such as nanotechnology, computational biology, machine learning, cryonics, innovation in politics, and many other heavy-duty intellectual fields. I lost count of the number of serial entrepreneurs, people with PhDs in STEM fields from MIT, and advanced meditators working on developing transformative technologies.
I asked people who have been to many Ephemerisles how to explain this unusual density of spiky people, and the answer seems to be a mixture of self-selection and founder effects. First, it takes some degree of agency and determination to choose to attend this event and do all the things you need to do to make it happen. And second, a large number of people attend via invitation from well-established boats and islands, which in turn were seeded by very impressive persons from the late 2000s/early 2010s Bay Area super-cluster of people working on seasteading, longevity, AI safety, and transhumanism. Taken together, these two factors make Ephemerisle a natural Schelling point for energetic people doing cool things to find one another.
If I were to cluster the population of Ephemerisle this year, I’d intuitively estimate that 35% of people are in the broad people-cluster of scientists, libertarians, anarchists programmers, entrepreneurs, cryptocurrency developers, Bay Area rationalists, and psychedelic users. 30% are people in the broad cluster of artists, off-the-grid environmentalists, Oregon ecosystem-oriented hippies, and psychedelic users. 20% are people who live physically nearby, who own a boat, and for whom it is relatively convenient to attend. 10% are people with a festival-oriented lifestyle (to the point that their main activity is to go from festival to festival), and the remaining 5% are real-life hard-core sailors who help trouble-shoot the most difficult problems that (inevitably) arise during the event.
Why are people willing to spend so much time and energy into making an event like this happen? Why not stay at home or go to a club, where the chances of drowning, breaking bones, and getting sepsis from exposing open wounds to delta water are orders of magnitude lower? Why bother to learn knots, anchoring, and how to handle a fire on your boat when you could instead learn to use a remote control, watch TV, and order a pizza? Why the need to carry bucketloads of water to and from different boats for hours at a time when you could simply drink tap water from the comfort of a vacation timeshare apartment? And if you are attending to meet smart people working on cool projects, why not go to a conference or visit an academic department?
I would claim that the thirst for adventure, fear of missing out, and ideological excitement can only go so far in explaining over-the-top events like Ephemerisle. To bridge the explanatory gap here we will need something more. This is why I will offer two analytic angles for explaining high-effort events like Ephemerisle: (1) Health Homeostasis (condition-dependence-based fitness signaling), and (2) Worldview Annealing (as a cure to adultification and the regeneration of a positive internal mental representation of one’s conception of humanity). Let me explain:
This analytic angle comes from evolutionary psychology. In particular, genetic fitness signaling dynamics may explain why some people may have the urge to do wild and risky things when they are exceptionally smart and healthy. The concept of “condition-dependance” comes handy here:
Condition-dependence: A trait’s sensitivity to an animal’s health and energy level. For example, dance ability is condition-dependent because tired, sick animals can’t dance very well. (Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller, from Glossary, pg. 437)
From a gene’s eye view, it makes no sense for genetically robust individuals to spend one’s healthy years in relative security, for one would have no way to advertise one’s good genes relative to average specimens in such conditions. In a sense, doing complex and risky activities is a hard-to-fake signal of fitness. Therefore, from the point of view of one’s genes, self-interest might (metaphorically) reason: “I have all this health and energy laying around, better don’t let it go to waste and use it to signal genetic fitness instead” (see: An Infinite Variety of Waste).
Ephemerisle 2009. Credit: Christopher Rasch
This could be summarized with a general principle I call Health Homeostasis, which posits that among sexually-reproducing species who engage in fitness displays, we can expect that individuals will have a “desired level of health”. If they notice that they are below that level of health, they will increase the time and resources focused on regenerating health. And if they notice that they are above that level of health, they will instead reduce the time and resources focused on regenerating health, and engage in costly genetic fitness signaling displays. Perhaps events like Burning Man and Ephemerisle have an element of this going on. They are appealing to people who have too much health and for whom the standard ways of signaling fitness simply won’t cut it. They need health-diminishing activities in bulk. They need challenges where they can display physical endurance while exercising their powers of creativity. And this is why, all considered, these events are so sexy.
I should add here that I am not suggesting that this explanation implies that participants are doing this consciously. Executing an adaption rarely involves conscious planning and strategizing. All it requires is following the gradient of what feels right and good.
Introspect, dear reader, about the times where you have felt the most alive. Have you, perhaps, not experienced them during risky situations? When you felt that “this could be a real danger to other people”? When by luck or grace you happened to be willing and able to do something few others could have done? This is what I am talking about. This feeling of reality and authenticity may very well be a good proxy for the process of down-regulating your health. And this is what it looks like for health homeostasis to be at play.
This event was- to be open and real with you- quite moving to me. I struggle to give words to some of the feelings, intuitions, and thoughts that I experienced towards the end of my stay. The situations in which I found myself made me feel new sensations about the possibilities hidden in humanity and the unfolding of intelligence on this planet. It felt mystical and significant. It’s as if we were glimpsing the birth of a new stage for humanity.
Something akin to this happened to me at Burning Man a few years ago (with a slightly different flavor). How do I explain it? Someone I met there shared the view that at Ephemerisle we are experiencing a certain kind of “chemistry of consciousness” that is unique to the space. That collectively, in a space of this sort, we all resonate with a set of ideals, conscious efforts, and love that makes the whole environment vibrate with a unique quality of consciousness tuning the participants to a new level.
Perhaps! We could very well throw the towel and declare victory to mysterianism at this point! Alas, this is not the path that Qualia Computing has ever taken before.
So how can we explain the deep emotional feelings induced by Ephemerisle and events akin?
Here is the big picture idea: There are elements about the experience there that give rise to “heightened states of consciousness” for many hours at a time. This can be explained largely due to the build-up of semantically-neutral energy thanks to the high-density of surprising stimuli (cf. free-energy principle, entropic disintegration, and neural annealing). Over the course of several days, such build-up of semantically neutral energy enables neural search processes that solve constraint satisfaction problems that have to incorporate the fact that hundreds of human volunteers can come together to peacefully construct a mini-world in a treacherous environment, all for the benefit and enjoyment of others. Integrating this experienced fact can lead to the felt-sense that the world could be better, much better. That we could create heaven-worlds for each other. That the future could be a place of loving-kindness energized with electrifying creativity and positive energy. By the end of the event, one’s cynical internal representations of humanity have been replaced -to an extent anyhow- by optimistic and loving thought-forms. It is hard to see the creation of such a beautiful thing without shifting one’s priors about the real world.
It is important to realize that changing one’s deep representations of high-level concepts such as humanity and the world can have far-reaching ramifications. The emotional valence that is attached to our big-picture ideals can determine how we see the world. A somewhat far-fetched but ultimately accurate analogy could be made with Rubik’s cubes: Imagine that a “perfect state of the world” is equivalent to a “completely solved Rubik’s cube”. In addition to the degree to which you are close to a fully-solved state, you also have preferences about the aesthetics of the colors of the cube. But ultimately, you care more about the cube being solved than you care about the cube having pretty stickers.
Now, let’s say that we start with a completely scrambled state, which you feel very bad about. If you feel hopeless about being able to unscramble it, you can focus on improving the look of the stickers. The stickers could be more pretty and that will briefly make you feel good, but you will know that doing any surface modification still does not help in rearranging the entire cube so that it is in a solved state. The analogy here is: changing the look of the stickers is akin to many of the band-aid solutions we use in our life. We try to make ourselves feel better by doing superficial things like changing our cars, our appearance, and our job titles. But deep down, none of that addresses the deeper sources of dissatisfaction. The cube of our life remains in an unsolved- if more outwardly pretty- state.
There could also be uncertainty about how far you are from the perfectly solved state. Especially when you are unfamiliar with the algorithms that work for solving the cube, you will find that there are configurations that give the impression of high disorder that are in fact close to getting the cube solved. And then there are situations that seem close to the goal line of a completely solved cube that still require a lot more work to figure all out. The same could be with the state of our lives.
Now, what do I mean with a perfectly solved cube? I’m referring to a sense that “everything is as it should be”. I would argue that for many people, the very idea that humanity cannot get its shit together is a deep source of discomfort. Changing jobs, romantic partners, living situations, and perhaps even political parties do little to address this deep problem. They could be thought of as akin to trying to make the Rubik’s cube more pretty by decorating the stickers.
Experiences where one gets a sense that humanity, if properly focused, could indeed get its shit together might have a much deeper emotional effect on people than one might intuitively realize. All you may need is a proof of concept to create a glimmer of hope. All you need is someone showing you a video of speedcubing for you to realize that there is a short path from the state of your cube to a fully-solved state. And this can be exhilarating and deeply moving.
Now, for this to take place, we need to be on a flexible state of mind. Hence the importance of art, meditation, philosophy, and psychedelics in conjunction with the unfamiliar space. This is the recipe for annealing a big picture change of mind -a reframing of humanity, its possibilities, and one’s place in it. It indeed requires multiple days of iterations of changes of one’s mental representations. Here, meditation, art, psychedelics, and philosophy synergize with the scene in order to raise the brain’s energy parameter. The scene adds a lot of novelty: confrontation with the necessities for survival, extended exposure to people who are smarter and more competent than you along multiple dimensions, high temperatures, new wildlife (spiders and wasps), large amounts of water, wobbly platforms and ships, odd shapes and weird objects abundant in the platforms, etc.
This all results in what we might call worldview annealing. That is, the high energy state repeatedly cooled and re-heated over several days enables the fast search over alternate representations of the world. Worldview annealing gives rise to novel ways of seeing the world and one’s relationship with it.* And this is, perhaps, the underlying reason why people report having durable psychological benefits from doing things like attending Burning Man and similar events (see graphs below for statistics about transformative experiences at Burning Man; I intuit that Ephemerisle might be similar in this regard).
At the end of an event like this, you may very well feel exhausted and totally partied out, but if worldview annealing successfully took place, you will be able to tell that something deep and inward shifted in a good direction. You now have a felt-sense for what a different and better world could be like.
Can such an effect be scaleable? Hopefully many more people can experience it in the future. Perhaps we need to open-source the essential features of that kind of event so that others can take advantage of these key properties and export its benefits elsewhere. And thus we encounter the concept of “Serious Fun”.
In the last few years I’ve given a lot of thought to the concept of paradise engineering. This comes up a lot when contemplating the coming centuries in light of David Pearce‘s Hedonistic Imperative, which posits that humanity will ultimately get rid of suffering by tackling its genetic roots. Now, it is true that the bulk of what will make our posthuman paradise a paradise is to be found in the quality of experience of our descendants rather than in their external environment. But for our Darwinian minds to contemplate what paradise might look like we usually need to evoke images that give us good feelings in our current state. For example, images of people cooperating to generate incredible experiences! Indeed, saying “in the future we will all be genetically endowed with negligible mu-opioid receptor down-regulation” does not sound nearly as exciting as saying “we will all be incredibly sexy, live our lives in massive cuddle puddles, be on the brink of orgasm, and have mind-blowing levels of intelligence and loving-kindness” (note: the wise would be advised to choose the first option, for the second does not guarantee sustainable happiness while the first one does). To tickle our imagination and inspire motivation it is indeed a good idea to trigger visions that engage our current reward architecture (even if we know that we are responding to Darwinian triggers and that a true paradise has more to do with brain configurations than external conditions).
So let’s think about wonderful external conditions to evoke a sense of paradise. I like to think of large groups of people engaged in serious planning and strategizing to create amazing experiences for even larger groups of people. Burning Man and Ephemerisle are a proof of concept of what could end up becoming super-fun events of civilizational proportions. And here is where we start wondering: what makes such events possible? What is the distribution of effort, time, resources, etc. contributed by each participant that is needed for Serious Fun to take place? My hunch is that to make this work in real life, the distribution needs to have a long-tail:
The Long-Tails of Serious Fun
It is interesting to ponder the idea that the distribution of the total contribution per participant in events like this has a long tail. In the most simplistic case the distribution could be a power law. As it turns out, many phenomena that are usually described with power laws don’t really fit power laws when closely examined.** Now, whether the “true distribution” of the contribution per participant follows a log-normal, Zipf, Pareto distribution, or one of the general Lévy distributions is an open question. But for the time being, what I want to emphasize is the long-tailed nature of it. In particular, the fact that there seems to be a small cluster of individuals who contribute massively to the event, followed by a larger group that contributes a lot, followed by a large minority who contribute more than they consume, followed by a majority who come to the event and mostly enjoy what others brought with them. Nothing inherently wrong with this, for after all, the people who contribute the most tend to truly enjoy giving, believe in the ideals of the event, and earn the respect of others. That said, it should be noted that if the distribution is too skewed it may lead to burnout among the most active members, which does not bode well for the sustainability of the event.
Although statistics for Ephemerisle are lacking, we can again use as an example people’s responses to the Burning Man Census:
Burning Man expenses (other than ticket cost). The exact wording of the question in the online survey was, “How much did you spend this year to go to Black Rock City and return, including fuel, camp dues, food, lodging, airfare, supplies, etc. (but not including your ticket to the event)? If you shared expenses with a group, only include the portion of expenses that you contributed. Give your best estimate in USD.” (source)
The above results are represented with too few bins to really be able to tell what kind of long-tail distribution they follows. However, it is pretty clear that we are looking at a very skewed distribution that does not at all look like a normal/Gaussian distribution. I really wish they had included one more option (e.g. $20,000+) so that we could see the number of people who are really (economically) invested in the event. In addition, another key question that would shed light on the long-tailed nature of the event would be “How many hours did you spend preparing/building/helping others/driving/cooking for others/etc.?” Again, I’d expect a very skewed distribution in the responses to such a question.
As we begin to think about how we can plan the creation of heaven worlds (i.e. large-scale projects of fun) we should consider the long-tailed nature of the contribution distribution per participant. My hunch is that we can perhaps determine whether an event is even possible by estimating how skewed the distribution needs to be to make it happen. On one extreme we have events such as “a picnic at the local park” where the event can realistically take place even if most people do roughly the same amount of work (save for perhaps the organizer who post the event details online and coordinate setting up the chairs and coolers). On the other extreme, we could imagine an actual Seasteading event out in the open ocean, or a festival at the very cusp of Mount Diablo, or even something extreme like a party at the Lagrangian between the Earth and the moon, where we would need a group of people to come together and intensely collaborate for many months and spend millions of dollars on providing the basic infrastructure for the event. In-between these two extremes you could find events like community-led concerts, regional Burns, Ephemerisle, and Burning Man proper. Whether a pie-in-the-sky idea like Ephemerisle ever actually gets to happen may be a matter of the event having the right long-tail skew that makes it possible for actual humans to carry it out. In some sense, I suspect that Ephemerisle is right at the edge of impossibility, while Burning Man proper may have more slack and hence can afford to be substantially bigger.
What other amazing events are there that are “just barely impossible”? And what events will become possible as soon as we discover new techniques, ideologies, and cultural norms to make the distribution needed to make them happen just barely less skewed than impossible? This might be a very generative question to ask if you want to invent “the next Burning Man”.
A final thread to pull here concerns to allometric scaling properties of large events (cf. allometric analysis of Chinese cities). Due to economies of scale, there are thresholds for the number of participants at an event at which some utilities become rentable. Thus, there could also be many un-imagined crazy events that simply require a threshold number of participants to become possible. For example, perhaps a tunnel-based event at a beach is impossible with 100 participants but completely realistic with 500. Who knows! It’s an interesting thing to wonder about.
Anyhow, I invite you to think more about these ideas… perhaps this way you will help us invent the next iteration of paradise on earth.
Ephemerisle 2009. Credit: Liz Henry
* This can be used in order to treat the problems associated with psychological adultification. You see, most of the people alive today have some degree of psychological trauma associated with adultification. Acting free and childish is something that we can only really do in a context where we feel like we’ve earned the right to do so. So many highly conscientious people need to nearly kill themselves for the wellbeing of others to feel like they can deserve the right to feel care-free and innocent again. Guess what? Ephemerisle does not have a shortage of ways for you to do prodigious amounts of work to show how much you love others. Hence, perhaps, it is a place where some exceedingly responsible people can finally feel deserving of a relaxed, care-free, time.
** I am using here power laws to point at the general property of long-tailedness. In reality many other similar distributions tend to fit the data better than power laws, among which the log-normal distribution is commonly a superior fit (see: So You Think You Have a Power Law — Well Isn’t That Special?).
I know that the sense of the words idealism and realism in the header quote by Wittgenstein are inappropriate here. I am just amused that the quote happens to be a great fit for this essay if the senses are interpreted within a different context. In true libertarian fashion: Deal with it.