Social Membranes, Genre Encryption, and Super-Secret Tech

There’s a common problem of good ideas being fragmented across genre. Recently, I’ve begun to consider it THE (non-obvious) problem in knowledge advancement.

Let’s take a computer science approach to make it more clear why it’s THE problem. The search for the truth is indeed a kind of search, so it makes sense that you’d want to use a search tree. The nice thing about search trees is that they can be traversed in parellel. If we view humanity as the program, humans are the  threads. How do we keep threads separate?

In a Von Neumann computer, keeping threads separate is trivial, but for humans, you’d have to prevent all communication. Now, it gets a bit complicated, because each human (thread) is also concurrent – a human can work on many different things at once. Now we can’t simply cut off all communication, because you might need to communicate with different groups for different tasks, so we have to be selective about which content can be communicated with whom. How does that work?

I’ll propose that one mechanism is via hijacking genre. Genre are a convenient heuristic for grouping information (sciencey sounding things tend to contain information about the natural world, religiousy sounding stuff tends to contain metaphysical poison etc.), but it’s nowhere near perfect. Viewed in this way, genre can be used as a sort of encryption by phrasing it in genre-specific lingo. The only way to decrypt it is to both understand the lingo, and buy into the genre. This last bit is important, it’s not enough to just understand what they’re saying, because even the absolute truth spoken in a monologue about Lord Xenu is likely to be dismissed anyway. I should point out that the encryption is not explicit, there is no original plaintext understandable by everyone. It is more so that the ideas exist in a different “basis”, and it works because computing idea equality is hard, so most people filter it out via the genre heuristic. Another way to think of it is as tuning into a radio frequency, or accessing an unlisted IP address; I use the encryption metaphor to highlight the fact that “tuning in” actually requires a deeper knowledge about how to interpret foreign lingo (often using the same words with different technical meanings) into your own.

The “team identity” effect causes these fuzzy differences in genre to self organize into sharper “social membranes”, which roughly approximate different search threads.

I approach all of this as a scientist, and so like to think of the science genre as the “main branch” because it contains sufficient epistemology to ~learn everything~. The end result from this perspective is that some useful gems for science get hidden in other genres. This post was motivated by two particular examples, which I’ll get into next time. But there’s so many that I’m beginning to collect some of the more exotic ones.


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