Monthly Archives: June 2020

From Improv Comedy To Mass Extinction

Part I. Improv Dramedy

A few years ago I was on an improv comedy troupe in California.  I had done about five shows with them, with our sixth coming up.  The group dynamic was a bit strange, but I had started to feel a bit more comfortable with most of them; I was loosening up, making jokes and shooting the shit, especially in the green room before shows (I think I enjoyed this more than the being on stage part).

There were about 7 of us on the troupe, about an even split between men and women, a few extremely talented comedians and a few less so.  I thought of myself about middle of the road; I looked up to two of them in particular, and thought of the rest of us as about “even” in skill, each with our own particular styles, strengths, and weaknesses.

One of the “rest” was a woman who, to protect her identity out of my kindness, I will call Devil Woman.  I didn’t particularly admire her skill, but she wasn’t bad: she made good opening offers; she could catch on to a game; she made strong-enough character choices.  But it was clear from the way she conducted herself, especially if you caught her bantering after a show, that she considered herself in the Top Tier, one of the “real” performers, not one of the ragtag impostors like me and the others.  I had always just found it kind of amusing; everybody’s got their little thing (and especially improv folks can be pretty, uh, different).

With the sixth show coming up, I was feeling more comfortable, and when the time came to choose a host, I thought I’d try my hand at it and volunteered for the role.  Immediately after I volunteered Devil Woman stepped in and offered to co-host with me. Well, okay. I was kind of looking forward to the experience of carrying the energy by myself at the top of the show, but I’m gonna be a good improviser and say Yes.

The night of the show, there’s a decent crowd, maybe 30 people.  The energy felt good that night, I was ready to do some shit.  The house music comes on to cue our entry and DW and I come on stage carrying our biggest personalities.  I welcome everybody to the show, and thank them for coming out tonight.  “We’ve got a great show coming up for you.  Devil Woman, why don’t you tell them about it?”

DW gives me this look like, you don’t even know what we’re doing?  I did know. I was co-hosting with her and thought I would share the space with her.  A friend afterward informed me that, from the audience perspective, my intention was plenty clear.  Anyway DW reacts to what she perceived as a mistake on my part and proceeds to take over the rest of the hosting duties for the rest of the intro, never passing the ball back to me, and clearly with the attitude of “saving me”.

The show went pretty well nonetheless.  Sometimes it can be helpful to have some real emotion to work with––just let those honest feelings sculpt themselves into a character, and it will carry a captivating authenticity.

The next week at practice, we were in the middle of running an open montage form (basically, do a bunch of scenes however you want).  A scene is swiped and I decide to go on, choosing a low-status, timid character, inching cautiously onto the stage. (Some context: this is not the only character choice I ever make.) As my character tries to squeeze out his first line despite his misgivings, I hear Devil Woman behind me, in an encouraging yet oddly stressed tone, saying “Go! Go!” and waving her arms at me.  She was interpreting my character’s timidity as Luke’s own, authentic timidity.

Now, having had over ten three-hour practices together, I think it’s only reasonable to expect her to have observed that, although maybe I am a bit quiet with this new social group, I am not afraid of being on stage or starting a scene.  It irks me again and throws me off, but I try to roll with it and carry the scene through.

These two occurrences in a row have left a bad taste in my mouth.  I do see that it is probably based in her self-image of superiority, and despite that I still see her as an artistic equal and try to think of a way to diffuse that energy gracefully.  I make a decision, I’m going to approach her after practice and say “Devil Woman, can I make a request?  I’d like to ask you to trust me a little more.”  I spend a few minutes to make some mental preparations to give more context to my request compassionately if required.

I approach her after practice with soft eyes.  My voice probably wavered a little as I said “Can I make a request?”  I had just barely finished the word “request” when she responded angrily and defensively with “I will not hear it”, some other dismissal, and finally ending with “no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no” for probably a whole minute, as I, in my most tempered tone, continue to ask that she hear me out.  She ended by ranting at me, explaining “what it’s like to be a woman in comedy” or something to that effect.  I never did get to say the part about wanting her to trust me.

I walked out to my car to go home.  Just the car door closed me into safety, I burst out in tears.  I had thought a lot about this interaction, and done my absolute best to make a compassionate request as equals, and I am met with… whatever that was.  I remember feeling confused, and dejected.  I ran the interaction over and over in my mind trying to figure out what I had done to upset her, coming up empty each time.

Another woman in the troupe saw me crying in the car and knocked on my window.  She came to my defense, saying Devil Woman had a “major chip on her shoulder about being a woman in comedy”, and concluding the interaction with “Fuck that. Fuck. That.”  It helped me feel better.

Part II. Mass Extinction

An improv troupe, left to their own devices, is not a politically correct space.  Especially when we’re just hanging out with each other, our main form of play is experimenting with humor.  We tell jokes, riff on each other’s jokes, make fun of each other’s stupid faces, and go into “unacceptable” territory because it’s funny when you do that (or, often, it isn’t, but then the next beat is about how unfunny that was).  It’s all part of the game––we’re bonding over humor, and especially in improv, the spontaneous unfiltered mind is our favorite kind of humor.  I love the hell out of it.

But there’s a certain context-sensitivity to the whole thing.  If you’re going to riff on sexism (which is in good fun, our female members happily join in, and usually the sexism itself becomes the butt of the joke), the first thing you do is make sure Devil Woman isn’t there, because she gets upset if you, a man, say words to her.  And if she is there, you still play, you just know not to go in that direction.

But more and more we are hanging out “in public” on social media.  Especially during the pandemic, our social time is spent at home, on the computer, professing to the world or @ing with friends for the whole world to see. And Devil Woman is always there, somewhere. Every chip on every shoulder can potentially see you.  There is no “it’s funny how unfunny that was” moment––if you experiment, you better get ready for a real fight where people’s real feelings are on the line.  And this isn’t just about humor, this is any type of experimental thought; anything you haven’t thought through all the way, anything that might make you snicker at yourself in quiet embarrassment later, anything you haven’t run by your inner burn victim in a wheelchair model.

We all know this story.  The needle of progress moves “forward” (whatever that means at the given moment), norms evolve so fast that holding mainstream attitudes from 5 years ago makes you a bigot, and if you don’t want to fight, you better keep up or shut up.

Ok, I could carry on and condemn twitter culture or whatever, but what’s really standing out to me is the absurdity, and the loneliness, of carrying out all your interactions in full public view.  High-school popularity influences seduce us into thinking that hanging out with a thousand friends is a great experience, but in reality, it evokes a sense of paranoid claustrophobia. Everyone can see you, but you never feel seen, because the you you show is so different than the one you are. It must be awful to be famous. Humans act different in different social contexts, and that’s fine––but with a thousand people in the audience, there’s no way to properly account for them all. (This thought just caused my respect for good stand-up comedians to increase by an order of magnitude)

The more of our social time is spent in public, the more the shut up option feels like isolation. So you better keep up. You learn to play the game, stay on top of the mores, paint inside the constantly shifting lines.  Meanwhile, taking thought risks is severely punished; if you are any kind of public figure, it could mean your career.  I suspect many brave and profound ideas are preceded by less mature “practice thoughts”, but the more discourse happens in public view, the more those less refined practice thoughts are weeded out before they can take root and mature.

Like improv, nobody is really leading.  We’re all just chasing each other’s tails through the memetic contours of social convention.  We are being guided at once by popular social movements and by neoliberal media pressure, but we will soon enough whiz right past all of that into who-knows-where, getting our theory and norms from our current trajectory in this chaotic Lorenz attractor.

Because of over-connection, our ostensibly diversity-loving liberalism transforms into a gradient-descent monoculture; our biodiversity has been extinguished by isolation through popularity. Perhaps we will look back at this age as a progressive one––popular awareness of human rights is improving, I think––or perhaps we will see this as a memetic mass extinction event, drastically reducing our species’ adaptability at a time when our environment is changing faster and faster.

I need to call my real-life friends.  Even if they sometimes hang out with Devil Woman, at least there’s only one of her.


If your main source of news is your Facebook feed, you might be better off exclusively watching FOX News (which, to be clear, I do not recommend either).

I am using Facebook as a concrete example, but the reasoning here applies to any personalized news feed, including Twitter, Google News, the Reddit main feed, YouTube recommendations. This is important to think about even if you don’t get your news from Facebook, and applies to news in the internet age in general. If you haven’t thought about this before, it might evoke a sense of anger or debilitating hopelessness (like so much news does these days–which, as we’ll see, may be no coincidence). But I do have some strategies to combat it which I will get to at the end. The first step is awareness.

Here I will outline the power Facebook has to essentially play our beliefs, emotions, and consumer and political actions like a fiddle. I don’t have any smoking-gun evidence that they are doing this, but considering the immense power of this technology and what it would be worth to wealthy people and corporations with a stake in the course of the world, my argument is essentially “it is possible, therefore it is happening”.

We saw the technology I’m talking about surface during the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, which used research by Michal Kosinski in building very reliable psychological profiles of people by just looking at their Facebook likes. Analytica then went on to create personally targeted political ads which appealed to the voter profiles, working “side-by-side” with representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter on Donald Trump’s digital campaign activities and on the Brexit campaign. I don’t have specific examples of the kinds of ads they made, but one can imagine knowing that someone is prone to inaction by depression, and therefore showing them ads that paint a particularly grim and beyond-hope state of the world to get them to stay home instead of voting.  Or showing liberals that that Clinton will win in a landslide while showing conservatives that Trump is just barely hanging on.  

CA has shut down, though its sister organizations continue to operate, and Facebook has made some empty promises about restricting the data it shares with apps, but that’s a distraction. The point is that it is possible to use the immense amount of data Facebook has on people to profile them and predict their responses. Indeed, Facebook has much more data than was available to CA.

  • Your reactions: like, sad, angry, no-response to everything you see.
  • How long you look at each item in your news feed, whether you commented, and the tone of your response.
  • Which articles and ads you click through to, and all necessary information to deduce what caused you to click or not (e.g. the wording of the headline, which friend shared it, which comments were shown at the time, which site it links to, etc.)
  • What you have been watching and reading about, and where you spend time on the rest of the internet (if you don’t believe this, consider how quickly after viewing or purchasing a product on Amazon you see related ads on Facebook).

It is incredibly uncomfortable to think about the amount of information big data companies have on each of us. My last example of noticing Facebook ads change when you purchase something on Amazon indicates that there is a “data trade” economy, that all the big data companies are trading our information between each other (for a price, surely). Almost every website nowadays contains ads, and almost all ads contain trackers, which are used to connect this ad impression with all the other information known about you. It is not unreasonable to assume that for sale in this economy is the information about everything you have ever done on the internet.

Before we get to how this information can be used to control you, let’s take a brief tour of modern data science technology. We are currently in a renaissance of data science and machine learning. If you are in the mood for an amazement-incredulity-fear cocktail, check out the YouTube channel Two Minute Papers, which gives interesting, accessible summaries of the latest advances in machine learning. It’s incredible what computers can do with modern data science. Just a teaser, in case you haven’t heard:

  • DeepFakes, in which we can essentially make a video of anybody saying anything — you just need to make a video of yourself saying it, and it will transform your voice and your face to look like theirs.  It is already quite convincing and is improving all too fast.
  • Detecting breast cancer from medical X-Ray images.
  • Given a prompt, we can predictively generate prose that would follow. Here is a site where you can play with it, it’s quite fun.
  • We can simulate a (racist) teenager who convincingly responds conversationally if you tweet at her.

These all work the same way: prediction. Given enough training data, the algorithm “learns” how likely each possible response is for a given input. The algorithms that generate content do so by continually following the most likely response, and feeding it in as the next input. Good-looking content indicates that the algorithm is predicting well.  With these results, it’s clear that we are getting extremely good at algorithmic prediction.

The same techniques that can predict the next word in a sentence are surely being used to build little models of each of us in order to predict our actions and responses. Even in the least dystopian way, imagine what companies would pay in order to get data about how effective a given ad will be on a particular target demographic. This is the way the technology is being sold to us overtly. But I suspect it goes much deeper than this “innocent” use of our data.

Facebook and Twitter have both forcibly opted us in to a personalized feed curated by a proprietary algorithm. Some friends of mine have disabled Twitter timeline personalization only to be non-consentually opted in again a few days later, over and over again (I would link the twitter thread but he has since locked his account). Facebook’s non-personalized “latest” mode is buried in the left sidebar among a sea of 20 little-used features like Job Listings and Notes and cannot be set as default. It is clear that these companies very much want to personalize our feeds and do not care whether we want them to. (I don’t think I’ve heard a single person express desire or appreciation for this feature)

Facebook has given itself the power to decide what it shows us and hides from us: which stories from which friends, which comments and reacts to draw attention to or away from, when and in which order stories appear. I, like many of my peers, joined Facebook in 2006. They have, for many of us, 15 years of data about how we respond to the things we are shown. Using the incredible new prediction technology, they only need to consider the options about how and what to show us from our feed in order to sway us to respond in whatever way they want 

In principle (and this is probably an oversimplification, but it’s also not inconceivable that it happens in exactly this way) any person or company with enough money could approach Zuckerberg and say:

  • I want people to be afraid that the protesters are violent and will hurt them.
  • I do not want any discussion of the climate crisis.
  • I want to maximize outrage about X, drawing attention away from my organization’s recent crimes.
  • I want liberals and conservatives to be as emotionally divided as possible, to incapacitate any shared class goals.

Et cetera et cetera. If this sounds like a conspiracy theory, maybe you’re right;  I have no hard evidence that any of this is actually happening. But it is possible and even quite straightforward to execute when you have access to as much data as they do, using publicly available, state-of-the-art techniques. And what forces would prevent it? Zuckerberg’s sense of ethics? Accountable oversight of The Algorithm? (There is none). Whereas think about the forces that encourage it: How much is it worth to the oil industry to silence climate change activism?  How much would the world’s richest families pay to be sure that only politicians they have in their pockets even reach the ballot? How much would Russia pay to divide and politically destabilize the western world? I don’t have an MBA, but it sure seems like it would be at least as profitable a business as knowing when a customer is horny to sell them sexy clothes or bodybuilding shakes.

I hope I have been convincing.

Let’s talk counter-strategy. Being an effective agent of positive change still demands being informed. Removing yourself from the news cycle altogether because Facebook is tainted is a bad move; you will just absorb the same attitudes your friends are absorbing and continue the echo chamber seeded by the whims of the wealthy.

It’s not just Facebook. Because of the data trade, this business model is available to any personalized news curator: Twitter, Google News, YouTube, the main Reddit feed, any large news organization (even if it doesn’t require a login, your identity can still be determined through tracking and fingerprinting). 

The less content there is to curate, the less this business model works.  Smaller news organizations and individual journalists, smaller subreddit communities, specific blogs (hello) and YouTube channels.  Using a “diversified portfolio” of such sources will increase your immunity to these effects.  Also, dare I say, reading books, which may be less helpful for the most recent events but, importantly, helps hone your ability to see more acutely and think critically about what you are seeing.

The next time you see a story on Facebook (et al), I want you to think about who would be willing to pay for you to be shown this content in this way. It’s not simply coming from your friend––it had to survive a trial by fire against The Algorithm to reach your eyes. What reaction is it evoking in you, and what are the consequences of you and people like you reacting in this way?  You can raise your awareness of how the people of our time are being manipulated.  And hopefully thinking enough about it will grow your distrust for algorithmically curated news and make you long for trustworthy, less manipulative sources.

Performative Antiracism – A Journal Entry

Recently, after noticing myself responding in some troublesome ways to a BLM meme, I decided to read White Fragility. This led me to tweet some reflections about racist attitudes I recognize myself holding. I have never seen anybody do this before, and yet it seems that these types of reflections are a basic 101-level necessity for any white person serious about antiracism. I’m not saying that because I haven’t seen people tweeting their answers that they haven’t done the reflection (but it does make me suspect as much). Given the number of white people, especially white women, who tell me to do my homework, you would think that I would have seen their own homework at least once. This frustrating paradox is indeed one of the reasons I chose to publish my homework. But this post is not about that.

The fact that a white man like myself appears to be doing authentic antiracism work is cause for suspicion. True to form, I don’t have any particularly strong ties to individual people of color, so it’s not for their sake. If I have gained enough awareness to realize that I am a benefactor of racism, I should also realize that attempting to dismantle it is against my self-interest. Given my race’s history, it is naive to simply assume good faith, and wise to suspect ulterior motives, and that’s what I want to explore in this post.

1. It’s trendy. Especially with the wide popularity of the BLM movement, being seen as antiracist will grant me social status, especially with women. The modern theory is that white people are socialized to be racist and racism needs to be actively dismantled from within. I am performing my understanding and acceptance of this theory. Publishing this blog post also serves a lot of the same functions.

2. It signals honesty. I perceive myself as having an unusually high tolerance for calling myself out on my own bullshit (perhaps it’s a coping mechanism for my unusually high amount of bullshit). Being willing to call myself racist in public signals this aspect of my personality and will grant me favor among others who value it. Especially women (lol).

These are cute. However I suspect I should look for ways that my performance in fact serves to perpetuate racism.

3. In the future, it could afford me evidence to strongly hold the belief that I have done my homework and am quite informed in fact about racism, perhaps granting me the internal moral permission to silence POC voices. If I continue educating myself on this topic, I may be able to wield the theoretical language effectively enough to convince other white people that they should listen to me instead of POC on POC issues.

This sounds grim, but I do suspect it is a real motivation. Not specifically in order to silence POC, but indeed to draw attention to myself and affirm my centrality. I do tend to be motivated by a desire to appear intelligent, and I do not miss opportunities to demonstrate my knowledge in areas where I feel knowledgable. I was pretty embarrassed by the interaction that set off this project, so it would stand to reason that I am educating myself in order to maintain better standing in the future.

4. To prove that I and therefore some members of my race and gender are good people. I do feel a sense of solidarity with other white people and especially with other white men. I remember reacting very emotionally when an ex of mine said “I hate men”. I still wish she wouldn’t say that, but as person who generously employs hyperbole for effect, my reaction was disproportionate. I was responding to the loss of the implicit benefit of the doubt that my race and gender enjoys, and I felt a strong desire to defend it. So while the liberal world rejects “not all men” literally, I can perform “I am one of the good ones” as another attempt to reinstate it. This anecdote has been more about sexism than racism, but the same logic applies.

My ulterior motives are not all evil, though. Racial advantage is but one of the many comforts of the world, and there are also more dignified potential gains from the practice of public antiracist reflection.

5. To understand. I feel deeply confused trying to navigate the politics and ethics of the modern world. Despite the advantages I’ve tried to identify here, it does take some courage to publish things like this, not knowing how people will respond. I am afraid people will see through what I currently view as a noble effort into the ultimately ignorant or arrogant viewpoint it betrays. Receiving people’s responses, positive or negative, provides me with valuable information that will help me navigate these issues in the future. White Fragility is all about why it is so uncomfortable for white people to talk about race, so I am taking the uncomfortable step of talking about it in my own way, in hopes that it will become less of a minefield for me in the future, and increase my enjoyment of life. I predict that race issues will only grow in importance over the next few decades, so it is also an act of preparation against cultural obsolescence.

6. To encourage others to honestly reflect. If it were as trendy to reflect on white privilege and prejudice as it is to change your profile picture to #BlackLivesMatter, I might have started this work a long time ago. I have only been doing these racism reflections for a few days and already I feel a greater sense of ease and even excitement about engaging with racial issues, and if I can help set the tone for others to do the same it would make me feel very warm and fuzzy about myself and my role in the world.

I do have a cynical fear of success, that the verbal pattern of honest reflection would become assimilated into the sanctimonious “liberal talking points” style, transforming the practice of (appearing to) speak simple honest truths about our racial experience into a signal of political alignment. In fact my main misgiving is that I am already doing this in this very post; that by reflecting in public I am robbing myself of the ability to be truly honest. But comfort with public honesty is an aspiration of mine, so it’s worth trying.

In conclusion, look at how antiracist I am for being willing to share how racist I am! Have sex with me!