Agree, Retort, or Ignore? A Post From the Future

My friend Sasha, the soft­ware ar­chae­ol­ogy ma­jor, in­formed me the other day that there was once a widely used op­er­at­ing sys­tem, which, when it en­coun­tered an er­ror, would of­ten get stuck in a loop and re­peat­edly pre­sent to its user the op­tions Abort, Retry, and Ig­nore. I thought this was prob­a­bly an­other one of her of­ten in­com­pre­hen­si­ble jokes, and gave a ner­vous laugh. After all, what in­ter­face de­signer would pre­sent “Ig­nore” as a pos­si­ble user re­sponse to a po­ten­tially catas­trophic sys­tem er­ror with­out any fur­ther ex­pla­na­tion?

Sasha quickly as­sured me that she wasn’t jok­ing. She told me that early 21st cen­tury hu­mans were quite differ­ent from us. Not only did they rou­tinely cre­ate soft­ware like that, they could even ig­nore ar­gu­ments that con­tra­dicted their po­si­tions or pointed out flaws in their ideas, and did so pub­li­cly with­out risk­ing any nega­tive so­cial con­se­quences. Dis­cus­sions even among self-pro­claimed truth-seek­ers would of­ten con­clude, not by reach­ing a ra­tio­nal con­sen­sus or an agree­ment to mu­tu­ally re­assess po­si­tions and ap­proaches, or even by an unilat­eral claim that fur­ther de­bate would be un­pro­duc­tive, but when one party sim­ply fails to re­spond to the ar­gu­ments or ques­tions of an­other with­out giv­ing any in­di­ca­tion of the sta­tus of their dis­agree­ment.

At this point I was cer­tain that she was just yank­ing my chain. Why didn’t the in­jured party in­voke ra­tio­nal­ity ar­bi­tra­tion and get a judg­ment on the offen­der for failing to re­spond to a dis­agree­ment in a timely fash­ion, I asked? Or pub­li­cize the af­fair and cause the ig­norer to be­come a so­cial out­cast? Or, if nei­ther of these mechanisms ex­isted or pro­vided suffi­cient repa­ra­tion, challenge the ig­norer to a duel to the death? For that mat­ter, how could those hu­mans, only a few gen­er­a­tions re­moved from us, not feel an in­tense moral re­vul­sion at the very idea of ig­nor­ing an ar­gu­ment?

At that, she launched into a long and con­voluted ex­pla­na­tion. I rec­og­nized some of the phrases she used, like “sta­tus sig­nal­ing”, “mul­ti­ple equil­ibria”, and “ra­tio­nal­ity-en­hanc­ing norms and in­sti­tu­tions”, from the The­ory of Ra­tion­al­ity class that I took a cou­ple of quar­ters ago, but couldn’t fol­low most of it. (I have to ad­mit I didn’t pay much at­ten­tion in that class. I mean, we’ve had the “how” of ra­tio­nal­ity drummed into us since kinder­garten, so what’s the point of spend­ing so much time on the “what” and “why” of it now?) I told her to stop show­ing off, and just give me some ev­i­dence that this ac­tu­ally hap­pened, be­cause my read­ers and I will want to see it for our­selves.

She said that there are plenty of ex­am­ples in the back archives of Google Scholar, but most of them are prob­a­bly still quaran­tined for me. As it hap­pens, one of her class pro­jects is to re­verse en­g­ineer a re­cently dis­cov­ered “blog­ging” site called “Less Wrong”, and to build a proper search in­dex for it. She promised that once she is done with that she will run some queries against the in­dex and show me the un­cen­sored his­tor­i­cal data.

I still think this is just an elab­o­rate joke, but I’m not so sure now. We’re all fa­mil­iar with the vast­ness of mindspace and have been warned against an­thro­po­mor­phism and the mind pro­jec­tion fal­lacy, so I have no doubt that minds this alien could ex­ist, in the­ory. But our own an­ces­tors, as re­cently as the 21st cen­tury? My dear read­ers, what do you think? She’s just kid­ding… right?

[Edi­tor’s note: I found this “blog” post sit­ting in my drafts folder to­day, per­haps the re­sult of a tem­po­ral dis­tor­tion caused by one of Sasha’s re­verse en­g­ineer­ing tools. I have only re­placed some of the hy­per­text links, which failed to re­solve, for ob­vi­ous rea­sons.]