12 Comments

This reminds me of nextleveling people in MTG, which I think is not an accident. The difference between doing something intrinsically powerful, exploiting the meta and exploiting exploitative strategies. This is relevant if your goal is to win.

Then it reminds of Wittgenstein's language games. You have to figure out which game your interlocutor is playing to figure out what they actually mean. This is relevant if your goal is to understand.

Finally, it reminds me of a cycle (or, more accurately, a spiral) in literature production (and art production in general). Writers progress through the cycle when they get tired of whatever came before: Naturalistic anecdote, myth-making, critical-realist literature and postmodern (recursive) literature. This is relevant if your goal is to create.

As always, weird things happen when you skip levels.

Expand full comment
Jan 31, 2023·edited Jan 31, 2023

> As always, weird things happen when you skip levels.

GRRM is a master at giving you first some level 2, then some level 4, followed by some level 3, just using different environments and PoVs. Level 1 then can be anything (e.g., what is the real meaning of "all men must die")

Expand full comment

Within this context, since everyone talking at every level all agree that they are trying to be persuasive ("I wish the listener would agree with my statements") I think a good aim is to convince everyone to push (or tack on) the criteria of level 1 (relevance to/dependence on objective fact) upwards through the levels, even if they're not consciously aware of what they're doing.

Because if there really is a lion (or a pandemic) then that fact has importance to the listener, even we are all cool post-truth talkers. There IS still an objective criteria to be assessed in "level 2-4" stuff of "pandemic claims", which is "it's actually good that I'm trying to persuade people of this, because if I get power, I will do effective thing X to counter the objective problem from level 1." The challenge is to demand that criteria (and its dependence on objective fact) be there no matter what kind of claim is being made (since ambiguity about levels is part of the appeal), as a condition of "I agree with what you're saying" so that speakers feel it necessary to provide it.

Expand full comment

> What makes level 2 distinct from level 1 is not whether the statement is true, but whether or not you care whether it is true.

Also known as "bullshit", from "On Bullshit". This is precisely Frankfurt's definition of bullshit.

Expand full comment

Level 2 is definitely Frankfurt's conception of bullshit. Level 3 aligns with Norman Dixon's idea of bullshit (security theater, hygiene theater, military drill, etc.) where the signifier appears to be a Level 1 proposition but the siginified is actually in-group allegience or obedience.

Expand full comment

So I prefer the simpler taxonomy of:

Level 1: Tells the truth about physical reality.

Level 2: Lies about physical reality.

Level 3: Tells the truth about social reality.

Level 4: Lies about social reality.

A brief note about what it means to "tell the truth about social reality".

My fake idea of hunter-gatherer life is that it's long periods of stasis, punctuated by brief periods of extreme violence. It's during these brief periods of extreme violence where it's important to know who your real friends are: who is willing to kill for you, if necessary.

"Telling the truth about social reality" is truthfully signalling beforehand who you will side with when the chips are down. It's letting people create a more accurate model about your allegiances. This is useful because it lets your allies know not to stab you in the back, and it disincentivizes violence more broadly as minority coalitions know that they are outnumbered (which helps everybody).

How do we reconcile my definition of Level 4 (lying about social reality) with your more meta definition?

I think the key is that Level 4 is the only level that encodes *recursion*. You are trying to manipulate other people's model of you. But their model contains the possibility that you are trying to manipulate them!

Using a concrete example: let's say you are playing rock-paper-scissors when your opponent says "I am about to throw Rock." What you should do depends on what "level" you think your opponent is at (which is a function of what level your opponent thinks you are on).

First-order: I should throw paper as they are about to throw rock.

Second-order: They are trying to trick me into throwing paper so I should throw rock instead to catch their scissors.

Third-order: They think that I'm going to throw rock in order to catch their obvious lie, so I should throw scissors to catch their paper.

And you can keep doing this forever. And importantly, there is no "correct" answer, no distinguished level that you should stop reasoning at. This means you can pick any option at all and it will make sense from a certain perspective.

This is the situation people on Level 4 finds themselves. They are playing this convoluted game of rock-paper-scissors where they are trying to manipulate other people's model of their manipulation of.... is it any wonder that their actions are seemingly random?

Expand full comment

If it's so hard to understand, why do we think those 4 levels are a coherent concept?

Expand full comment

"Over time and in the absence of existential physical danger, overall conditions tend to pass through the four generations. Each level tends to ‘wins in a fight’ against the previous one. Thus the overall ‘simulacra level’ will trend higher over time. We go from truth, to distortion and manipulation, to symbolism and association and social games, to non-logical word associations, going with vibes and implicitly conspiring against other strategies."

This is a nice explanation of the abstract concept of decadence. And in a world where nukes have obviated the threat of other people and the Industrial/Agricultural Revolutions the threat of starvation, has unfortunate implications.

Expand full comment

I wrote a post about this phenomenon in the military. "Playing the game" well leads to social rewards but it gets people killed. You can bullshit your boss, but you can't bullshit physics. More if you're curious: https://thepowderhorn.substack.com/p/bullets-beans-and-bullshit?sd=pf

Expand full comment

Attempted translation to financial instruments:

Level one: betting markets.

Level two: stock in real public companies

Level three: crypto tokens associated to a project

Level four: shitcoins without a specific cultural association?

Expand full comment

This post has redeemed Baudrillard somewhat in my eyes. I still think much of Simulacra and Simulacrum was bullshit in the finest tradition of French postmodernism, but the levels of simulacra has explanatory power. Thanks for this, I really enjoyed reading it.

Expand full comment

Reminds me of symbolic AI, propositional logic, belief calculus. The 4 levels kinda map to reasoning about the following propositions:

* P(f): fact f is true

* P_B(a, f): actor a believes fact f

* P_A(a, g, f): actor a aligns with a group g, because they publicly talk about f

* P_C(a, g, m): actor a aligns with group g because they communicate message m that follows discussion practices that are the norm in g

Each communication modifies all 4 propositions in the belief set of both sender and receiver of a message. Depending on which Level is emphasized (because the sender/receiver sends/interprets it accordingly), senders/receivers come to different beliefs, and send different messages for the same facts.

Expand full comment