March 17th, 2020

Everything is theft

The other day, I saw a sticker which said: "Property is theft".

And then everything proceeded from there. If Winston Smith wrote that "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows", then the idea that "Property is theft", in our present zeitgeist, exposes the full extent of the senselessness of, well, everything.

The thought process which this idea led me down was not a new one for me; the thoughts which you'll read in this post (assuming you read it) are ones I've expressed before. Indeed, when I got home and looked it up, it turns out that the phrase "Property is theft" is not a recent one; it dates back to 1840, when it was popularized by French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

In our current point in history, however, the idea gains a new importance when juxtaposed against the more American idea "Taxation is theft". I'm actually a little surprised that I've never heard anyone express the idea that "Property is theft" before; the idea is clearly an old one, and it forms a perfect counterpart to the Randian "Taxation is theft" idea which I've seen expressed many times (sometimes not entirely seriously) on the Internet. It just goes to show how much people are incapable of learning and remembering everything that happened in history; there is simply too much history behind humanity for us to know all of it.

What I find particularly fascinating about these two ideas is how absolutely correct both of them are, and yet how completely opposite they are. This is a nearly perfect illustration of the idea that outside of mathematics and science, which are usually governed by absolutes (until you start getting into the relatively advanced stuff, like quantum physics, where it becomes clear that even math and science are more about being probably correct rather than absolutely correct), the opposite of any true statement is true. If X is true, then the opposite of X is also true.

Let's first consider the more current idea of "Taxation is theft": If you earned something, why should anyone have the right to take it away from you? What belongs to you is yours, and for anyone to take something that belongs to you without your permission is theft, plain and simple. We can clearly perceive the injustice of theft: For anyone to take something that's yours without your allowance is wrong. This idea is obviously true and correct. This being the case, then, what authorization does the government have to take some percentage of your income without your permission? What gives them the right to arbitrarily set some numerical percentage that will be taken from your wages every time you get paid? The idea is so absurd that it seems ancient and obsolete, hearkening back to tyrannical kingdoms and empires where kings and emperors saw themselves as authorized to use their populace like farm animals and demand whatever they wanted from that populace, because who could oppose them? It is an abuse of power, it is an unjust exploitation of other people's work, and it is theft. This idea is true and correct.

On the other hand, who or what authorizes human beings to claim that anything belongs to them? A long time ago, humanity was born naked, with no concept of money or manufacturing. The only thing we had was whatever the Earth supplied to us: Food, shelter, and whatever other resources people might have had were out there in the wilderness, a place without fences or borders. What right did anyone have to say "This area of land is mine and mine alone; no one else may come onto this area without my permission"? Even if the first instances of land ownership were mutually agreed upon--"Let's draw a line here, and we'll say that that side is yours, and this side is mine"--the notion of ownership is artificial and arbitrary. No one has the natural right to claim possession of anything, whether it is land, animals, food, or anything else. For anyone to claim that something is their own personal property, then, is an instance of theft from the world, because all the world was given to all of us, and any notion that anything "belongs" uniquely and specifically to anyone is an arbitrary concept that someone just made up. We go along with this idea because we're used to it, but no one actually has the right to claim that anything is theirs. Possession is theft. To claim that you own anything is to steal from the world and from everyone else.

Again, notice how completely opposite these ideas are: One idea claims that whatever you own is yours and yours alone, and that no one has the right to take it or otherwise use it unless you allow it. The other idea claims the exact opposite, that ownership does not exist, and that no one has the right to own anything whatsoever. Such absolutely opposite ideas. And yet both of them are absolutely correct.

But if we are to build a practical, functioning society, we cannot embrace both of these ideas at once. We need to pick one or the other. In this particular case, because resources like land, food, money, and so on can be divided, humans have developed a mixed system whereby part of what you earn belongs to you, and part of what you earn goes to the public community--hence, taxes. This is a compromise which most people are satisfied with, but not every issue where two opposites are correct can be satisfied with such compromises; imagine a scenario in which the government said "We have a solution to your dispute: We will allow some gay marriages, but not others, so that both sides can be happy". It calls to mind the saying: "A compromise is a resolution in which neither group is satisfied".

The union of ideological opposites also reminds me of another slogan popular among anarchists: "If nothing is permitted, then everything is permitted". When you start dealing with opposites, nothing really seems to matter anymore; if you spin the perspective a certain way, then you can claim that anything people do is theft. Everything is theft. And if that's the case, then it doesn't really matter what you do; everything you do--everything you can do--is wrong, which means that everything you do or can do is okay. You have no choice; you have to do something, and if any possible action is a theft of some kind, then the whole idea of ethics just seems to disappear. Nothing can be right, so nothing can be wrong, either. Meaning is only found in shades of gray, in muddy approximations and uncertainties which are logically unsatisfactory because they do not fit any rules of formal logic, and which people only engage or indulge in because those vague concepts satisfy some meaningless whim or impulse which people had.

So what do you do if you're not satisfied with that? Because I am not satisfied with that, and I know that many other people aren't, either. By my inner nature, I am not satisfied with "just because" answers: I am not satisfied with answers like "That's just the way it is"; there must be a reason why things are the way they are. And my nature cannot be satisfied until I understand the reasons for why things are the way they are. It becomes clear, however, when you study the world, that people like me can never be happy, can never be satisfied with life, because there are many things for which the reasons will never be known, and there are also many things for which there can be no reason, because they were done arbitrarily. And really, in the end, everything in our universe is arbitrary in some way or another.

If you're a regular reader of my writings, you are probably one of those people: You probably also place value on understanding the reasons for things, and are endlessly frustrated by the senseless randomness that guides our lives. We can never be happy. We can never be satisfied with anything, because we see all too clearly just how senseless, meaningless, and arbitrary everything in the universe is. There is nothing for us here and there can be nothing for us here, and by "here" I mean the entire universe. Even if we could somehow fly to the most distant planets, perhaps ones inhabited by intelligent life with civilizations and culture, we could never be satisfied there, because there would be just as little reason for any of these things as there is here on Earth.

It's tempting, then, to give up and say "Since everything is theft, we might as well just steal what we can while we're here", but that would be an arbitrary and meaningless decision as well. Go do something pleasant which you enjoy and which doesn't bother other people, and let your thoughts and your feelings be free. Our death will come soon.

Are "people" electric?

Austin Jantzi wrote a thought-provoking article about Stardew Valley which I'd recommend to anyone who's played the game. I call this an "article" rather than a "review" because it really isn't a review of the game itself, but more like a set of reflections which arose in Jantzi's mind as a result of playing the game. The article may also be of interest to people who haven't played the game, but as much of the content directly references aspects of the game, the text likely won't resonate as much with people who haven't played it. I consider Stardew Valley to be not necessarily one of the "best" computer games ever, but rather one of the most lovingly crafted computer games ever; it's more a work of art than it is a game (although it can be played and enjoyed as a game as well), so it's nice to see that other people are inspired toward philosophical thoughts by it as well.

Jantzi's article starts off like a fairly straightforward review, but about half-way through, the article drifts into the speculative when it notes that Stardew Valley makes such efforts to feature fully-realized characters that "The fake people of the town feel more real than most of the actual people I walk past or see online". This got me thinking about similar thoughts which I've had about the humanity of real human beings in the past: I grew up playing a lot of computer games, and as much as some of my favorite characters from various game stories ended up being a part of my childhood, I was aware of the fact that real people have a lot more depth to them than characters in a story: Characters in a story can only say what they are scripted to say, whatever their writers ended up writing for them, whereas real human beings have entire life stories which you can discover if you get to know them...

...Or do they? The more time I spend in "the real world", the more I interact with actual human beings, the more I get the sense that they are robots, programmed to say and do the same things. Most people do similar things in their lives: They sit around and talk to each other, they sit around and listen to music, or they sit around and watch television. Few people do anything appreciably different in their everyday lives. Simulated cities of video games have characters who wander aimlessly around, occasionally mumbling incoherently to themselves, and the logic which programs these characters is fairly simple, but the thing is, they're actually a remarkably accurate approximation of people's real-life behavior in nearly any city: In nearly any city in the world, the streets are full of people who aren't really going anywhere in particular, but who are just shuffling around, looking through store windows without any apparent purpose. When people are together, they likewise engage in behavior which can be easily approximated with simple programming algorithms: They sit around and chatter, emitting thoughtless, pointless sentences which mean nothing and which no one pays attention to. If you actually try and talk to a person, you'll usually get a fairly generic set of responses; most people say similar things and act in similar ways. After a while spent among real people in real life, it really does start to feel like you're in a virtual world where most of the characters are just dumb NPCs which someone didn't bother to program in much detail. Sure, now and then you'll encounter someone who is more fully-realized, a "main character" of the story, but most people are generic, unremarkable, and interchangeable. Even the few people who feel the need to be different and try to do something unusual with their lives usually end up doing the same things, essentially becoming just another character class rather than something distinct and unique.

What's also interesting about groups of people socializing is how little attention they actually pay to each other despite the efforts they go to to be together. If you look at groups of people talking together, it becomes apparent that they usually consist of people who aren't paying much attention to what the other people are saying. Each person says something which they personally think is the most interesting or amusing thing they could possibly say at that moment for the sake of impressing their friends, but then the next person to speak does exactly the same thing, having not listened much to what the other person said but still eager to make their own "contribution" to the "discussion". In effect, groups of people socializing consist of people who are all engaged in the act of talking to themselves but politely taking turns doing so, so that everyone present can imagine that they are sharing good moments among friends when in reality, these people have nothing in common other than a shared worthlessness, a total inability to do anything meaningful with their lives, and have thus resigned themselves to finding value in the idea that they must be interesting if they can convince a group of friends to hang out with them and politely wait for them to finish speaking while the others ignore them. This behavior, too, is characteristic of programmed characters: Having tried, in the past, to get two chat bots to talk to each other, I can attest that as difficult as it is to make a virtual person with whom you can meaningfully converse, it's even more difficult to get two virtual people to meaningfully converse with each other in a way that doesn't cause the conversation to rapidly derail.

I find myself wondering: Have people always been this way? I became an adult at a time when the Internet was already fairly ubiquitous, and since I've worked in the IT field for most of my adult life, I've generally been among colleagues who spend a lot of time on the Internet, so I don't really have a clear perspective for what people were like in pre-Internet times. Were they more distinct from each other, more individual, possessing a humanity which has been drained out of them by the global pervasiveness of mobile communications and information technology? Or are people just boring and stupid by nature?

I suspect that the latter is the case, because as I've observed before on this blog, people don't really use the Internet very much these days. For all that people talk about the Internet, the reality is that most people mainly just use the Internet to listen to music and watch videos, which are technologies which were available to people decades before the Internet became a household word. When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, the Internet was considered so obviously a fixture of the future that this idea was not even questioned; it was regarded as a foregone conclusion that the Internet would be one of the most important things in the world, more important to people than the telephone and the television. Today, the generation of people who are now becoming adults have never known a world without the Internet, and to them, the Internet doesn't seem cool and futuristic like it did in the 1990s; it seems mundane and unremarkable, good for typing "lol" and "where r u?" to friends and watching music videos, but not much beyond that. The Internet is okay, but it's not as important to people as the telephone or the television, because people don't want information, they just want to be entertained, and there's nothing as entertaining as saying the stupidest thing imaginable to someone you know and convincing yourself that they find your expression clever, or watching videos of people doing nothing, because people on a video screen are more interesting than people in real life. The Internet is no longer the hot new thing; the Internet has become yesterday's news. Maybe future generations will consider the Internet to be an archaic relic of the past, just as this generation has come to think of the automobile and the airplane as not "green" enough for everyday use, items which belong in museums rather than in active operation.

A few years ago, the TV series Halt and Catch Fire ran to critical acclaim. The series is about a fictional set of computer programmers and software companies set in the time of the microcomputer boom. I myself did not watch it because I have no way of watching television, but that's what Wikipedia is for. Although the series was very well received by critics, with the fourth and final season receiving particularly strong praise, the show never had strong viewership numbers. The time when people were fascinated by computers and the Internet has passed, and today these ideas appeal mainly as nostalgia to people who lived through those times and remember how exciting they were. Emily VanDerWerff of Vox Media described the show as having "the power to transport viewers back to a world where computers could unite people rather than divide them, where the Internet held promise and not destruction". The very people who most strongly championed the Internet as the wave of the future in the 1990s have become the people who are most bitterly disappointed with it. Their mistake was that they assumed that most people were like them: Growing up playing computer games, they thought that most people are bright, curious, and thoughtful. What they didn't realize is that most of humanity is a bunch of throwaway NPCs, and letting these masses onto the Internet could only destroy it, not improve the world. Today, the world doesn't have much to look forward to; all we have now is a bunch of memories of better times, and as the populace ages and the people who lived through those times begin to die off, even those memories will be lost.