(I'm working on writing shorter pieces, because I'm getting a bit frustrated with the time it takes to iterate through posts and experiment. This is about 1000 words shorter than previous stuff! Small steps.
Spiritually this post is a stepping stone in exploring the kind of hip-cynicism that’s about “being in the know about the way things really are”. We’ll see if the follow ups ever materialize)
New Type of Guy Just Got Offhandedly Dismissed
Constructing a new Type of guy happens in two phases. The first phase constructs the Type by pointing to a recognizable behavior or set of behaviors, reifying what had previously been unpatterned information into an Essence ("Type of guy who reads David Foster Wallace on the L train"). The second phase passes Judgment on the newly constructed Type, asserting a proper valence, a position in some local status hierarchy, or an appropriate level of disdain/condescension/pity to direct.
In this way, a Type is a label that embodies a decision rule. If [recognizable traits] then [treat this way]. Here's how to spot it, here's how to react. It seems like the most common way to react is some variation of dismissal. You recognize the Type, you roll your eyes, and you stop listening.
I've been dwelling on dismissal lately because it seems to be the central thing that the flavor of cynicism I'm susceptible to is designed to avoid. More on that in a followup post.
Types as Schelling Points for Coordination
If a new Type of guy drops in a forest, and no one's there, does he make a sound?
Types are more than patterns. Most patterns we observe never get reified with a phrase or a handle, and most patterns that we individually reify never get ratified by a social network. A Type is a pattern that a group can all recognize and sync up their behaviors on. It creates an object of discourse. It's an entity that people can have Takes on. It's A Thing.
The key component of Thingness is knowing that everyone knows that everyone knows it's a Thing (aka Common Knowledge). It's not just that each individual knows it's a Thing, but that you can count on the fact that others know it's a Thing. That's why I think twitter is a hotbed of Type creation. Twitter (and the internet in general) is a massive machine for ratifying discrete chunks of social reality and creating common knowledge. Digital word of mouth moves faster than irl word of mouth. I feel like we're in a moment of Type Accelerationsim, where the speed at which new Types can be minted and ratified is increasing, and the max-specificity/complexity of a viable Type is increasing. Some of these starter packs (Types by another name) have a wild amount of specificity that would have taken a lot more energy to point out and spread in the pre-digital era. The current digital world doesn't have the same quality of common knowledge as the monolithic 20th century broadcast media, but more people are more plugged in and able to churn through waves of social reality faster than ever.
Being a "Known" Quantity
Here's a 4m scene from Good Will Hunting:
What I love about this scene is how brutally it displays what happens if you can be fit to a Type at the right moment. Matt Damon's character never actually says ponytail guy is wrong about any of his arguments. He destroys the ponytail dude because he knows what Type of guy he is. "I read your sources. I know your Type. You are a Known Quantity."
Because you are Known, there is no more information that you can add to the equation. You can't contribute as an entity beyond being an instantiation of a more general Type. If they already know your Type, they already know you. You can be safely dismissed. At least, so says the logic of Types.
This is easy to see in certain groups that center around either argument or intellectual discussion. Are your Takes predictable? Can you add anything extra if I've already read the same books? Have I already heard this argument before? Who's Takes can encompass who else's Takes?
The Mortifying Ordeal of Being K̶n̶o̶w̶n̶ a Type
Totally ignoring someone because you've Typed them is full on "Types as decision rules" mode. If [recognizable features of Type] Then [ignore/dismiss]. Something I see with our current Type accelerationism is Types being created faster than judgement can be passed on them, leaving only the recognition part of the decision rule. Not even "here's how to spot it, here's how to treat it" but simply "here's how to spot [something]".
What I find wild about this example is how all the judgement exists implicitly in (potentially) shared context. All that's in the meme itself are the symbols you need to perform the recognition of the Type. It doesn't tell you what the author thinks of the Type. It's banking on you having encountered someone who said something like "yeah I only shoot film" and to have formed the same impression that the author did. Otherwise it's just a Type in a void with no judgement (for now).
And yet, despite the lack of explicit judgement, this meme still feels like it exerts some pressure. Let's say you were recently hunting for burgers in Melbourne, read Vice, and think that chokers are hot. You find this meme, what are you thinking/feeling? It's the same feeling as if you looked up from your laptop at a coffee shop and everyone was staring at you. You may have no idea why they're staring or what they think of you, but you know it's not good.
I only recently became aware of how much I track this dynamic. Spring 2020 I found an online community called The Stoa that held various talks on various topics that suspiciously lined up with my interests, to the point of, "Holy fuck, is this dude just going through my reading list and inviting the authors?" I then promptly proceeded to... almost never participate. They have one or more events a day, and I went to maybe 5-9 over the course of a year and a half. I enjoyed all of them, and yet I kept not looping them into my life more. A bit of introspection later I found the following logic:
If someone else can independently create a community that overlaps this much with my interests, this means there's a pattern that's obvious enough to become a Type. This Type exists out in the wild on the open internet and on twitter. I can control people's impressions of me*, but I can't control other's impressions of a Type. Time to scram.
(*I can't actually control other people's impressions, but it's one of the stronger delusions I have.)
I've seen others tap into this unease as well. Here, and here I've seen people pronounce low key embarrassment/discomfort at seeing so many of their favorite books on a "post-rationalist reading list". Venkatesh Rao takes this and runs with it, proclaiming that this is just how it be, and you should be illegible if you don't want to get sucked into the Type vortex.
Type Distortion Dynamics
The more I learn about how different symbols/behaviors/phrases are Typed, the harder it becomes for me to think clearly about them. I only became aware of this in the past few years, because it's only in the past few years that I've ended up in groups that had Takes and Types concerning the topics I cared about. For most of my life I haven't had peers that were into the same things as me. Both a blessing and a curse. The curse is not having people to have fun with, the blessing is no one had Takes on anything I cared about, and I could think around and about more or less unfettered.
When I first starting reading my way around the rationalist blogosphere (lesswrong, slatestarcodex, mindingourway, meltingasphalt, and others), this was a world of ideas totally outside the scope of anything anyone I hung out with (irl or digital) talked about. I was in Takeless territory as far as my friends were concerned. I read The Sequences in a contextless void, which created enormous spaciousness. I mulled things over and remixed freely.
In stark contrast stands the experience I've had this past year spending time on "post-rationalist" twitter. These people had opinions about rationalists. That had takes about Eliezer Yudkowsky, the person who wrote the sequences. I jumped from being safely outside other's Take landscape to being inside, and often not in a favorable way. I felt the pressure in a myriad of small ways.
Example: once I was compiling a twitter thread of quotes that resonated with me when suddenly I felt a squirming, turning away from the thread, a sudden loss of interest, and feeling of "whatever, this wasn't even that fun" and I dropped it. It was only later that day after some journalling that I noticed my mysterious loss of interest was powered by a desire to avoid being Typed by the post-rats. After all, Endor's Game (which I had a quote from) is a known rationalist favorite! Toooootally Typed!
Overall, not a huge deal, but what struck me was how subtle the forces were. All the quotes in that thread do really connect to an important aspect of my personality and world view, and I was so readily nudged into almost dropping sharing them because of a concern about Types, a concern that itself was disguised behind other faux reasons for my lack of interest. I pay attention to these moments when I happen to notice, because they teach me a lot about the mechanisms of my Type avoidance behavior.
No no, it is I who is fooling you!
From a different blog post where I noted my surprise at finding out how much attention I paid to what other people thought:
It was beginning to dawn on me that, while I had no problem ignoring or disbelieving authorities who supposedly "knew best" when it came to everyday facts about life and the world, I absorbed everything that anyone said about who they saw as contemptible or praiseworthy. It's the signal that's always present no matter how much the channel might seem like meaningless noise. If your friend tells you Ashley's a bitch because she was sleeping with Rachel's boyfriend, you may or may not have learned something about Ashley, but you definitely learned something about what sort of behavior is gossip-worthy and what can get you bad-mouthed.
The failure mode I was practiced in avoiding was conformity. All around me I saw ways in which I was being told to do this and do that to fit in, and I generally wasn't impressed with how everyone wanted me to act. It involved being a lot less chaotic and energetic than I was. However, over the course of middle school as I read books like:
What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Speed-Reading People
Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential
Subliminal: How your unconscious mind rules your behavior
I was exposed to a new angle. Instead of presenting fitting into the social world as "doing what people want so they like you" (i.e. conforming), these books presented the task as "playing human nature with finesse, resulting in everyone thinking you're the best". Suddenly it was I who was getting one up on them! I wasn't bending to the whim of others, I was gaming the timeless truths of social reality! That small shift in frame completely reversed how everything felt.
Scott Alexander gives an exquisite description of this sort of twisting around the contours of social reality while maintaining a narrative of "playing the game with savvy":
Sometimes I can almost feel this happening. First I believe something is true, and say so. Then I realize it’s considered low-status and cringeworthy. Then I make a principled decision to avoid saying it – or say it only in a very careful way – in order to protect my reputation and ability to participate in society. Then when other people say it, I start looking down on them for being bad at public relations. Then I start looking down on them just for being low-status or cringeworthy. Finally the idea of “low-status” and “bad and wrong” have merged so fully in my mind that the idea seems terrible and ridiculous to me, and I only remember it’s true if I force myself to explicitly consider the question. And even then, it’s in a condescending way, where I feel like the people who say it’s true deserve low status for not being smart enough to remember not to say it. This is endemic, and I try to quash it when I notice it, but I don’t know how many times it’s slipped my notice all the way to the point where I can no longer remember the truth of the original statement.
This form of being influenced by social reality looks and feels very different from the conformist model. Instead of demanding you fit into some shape, being sensitive to a landscape of Types constrains you by making you avoid a whole variety of behavior. You broadly have more flexibility than one who's in the throes of conformity, and at the same time you can still be quite constrained and twist yourself into knots in your efforts to avoid being Typed.
It's a very conditional and contextual constraint. It becomes a game of linguistics agility, wit, and affect. Remember, avoiding Types isn't just about avoiding someone thinking bad of you. It's about avoiding having enough of a salient pattern that a whole group of people can sync up about thinking bad about you. As you twist and swerve to avoid being Typed, you aim to make it so that anyone who wants to beef with you can't rely on an existing dismissal maneuver that automatically wins the group over (say by pinning you to a Type that the group has common knowledge of), and instead they are forced to step out on a limb and make it about you versus them. This means the exact contours of your constraints will be determined by whatever your particular verbal flexibility happens to be.
How Other People Live With Types
Some of this post has been my theories on the structure of Types. Some of it has been describing how I personally feel affected by Type landscapes. Not everyone relates to Types like I do. My partner watches lots of tiktoks that "peer into her soul" and "call her out" and that's a fun experience for her, as opposed to fueling a determined silent rage to craft her outgoing signals to not match a Type.
My sense is that being Typed feels like a lot less of a problem if you feel like you have a connection with the people who would be Typed similarly. If you feel like they'd have your back and you'd have theirs. If you're being derided for being a member of some group, the natural move is to take solace in the group. "Fuck em, we've got us".
This sense of comradery is described well by Sam Fussel in his memoir about diving deep into bodybuilding:
I wasn't the only one afflicted. Silently, steadily, the disease had reached epidemic proportions. Not just in health clubs, but out on the street, on the ferry, in cafes, bars, pubic parks, even libraries. Wherever there were people, there were builders. Of course, "the Walk" was a dead giveaway. But there were other signs, more subtle but equally telling. The shaved and tanned forearms of a subway strap-holder. The shock of swollen gastrocnemius muscles below a father's shorts in the grocery line. The bunched bulging traps of a bike messenger. All it took between us was a quick look, then a nod and a smile. We were not alone. Race, religion, nationality, they were inconsequential. First and foremost, we were bodybuilders—and we breathed easier because of it.
This is a relationship I haven't had with any groups or Types I've been close to. Without that trust and connection, being close to a Type feels like it only has downsides. Forging this connection is an ongoing frontier for me. My current practice involves noticing the moments when I squirm away from a Type. Then I flush out the logic of who I think is going to perceive me in what way, and answer the non-rhetorical questions of "how much does that matter? Who would actually be on my side? Is this worth squirming over?" Perhaps in another few months/in a year I can report back with some results.
type of guy who thinks this was a great post
This very much reminds me of the Superweapons and Bingo post from ages back (apparently 2013)