About this Blog
This blog started out as a self-help book, called “People: An API.” I wanted to share ideas I used to make sense of my interactions with other people. In short, I think of people as being computers.
This probably sounds strange to you. You might imagine that thinking this way would cause me to reject other people’s behavior that I consider “illogical,” or to ignore emotions and feelings. We don’t generally associate “computer skills” with “people skills”.
Yet thinking this way has had the opposite effect on me. Before I had this understanding, I was very bad at thinking from other people’s points of view. I was often oblivious to how people interpreted my behavior, and I had a lot of trouble understanding why people got upset at me. Before I realized people were computers, I was acting like one: insensitive to context and consequences, just following my programming.
Better Communication with Other People
Thinking of people as being computers has helped me dramatically improve my communication skills. I am now much better at interacting with people – both myself, and other persons. I started to imagine how people might respond to things I would say, just as I can imagine how a server I’m familiar with will handle a specific request. If my commands to a database don’t get me the results I want, I’d never blame the database, or give up and tell myself I’m “not a database person.” I’d accept that I was interacting with a complex system incorrectly, and learn how to phrase my request properly. The big epiphany was gradually realizing I could do the same thing with people.
I just needed a conceptual framework to work with. Once I could think rationally about my experiences with people, I could learn and develop these skills instead of just seeing myself as “bad at people.” Around the time I started trying to work on these skills, I was doing a lot of work writing code that operated over networks.
Most of the day at work, I was imagining several machines, all exchanging messages with each other. Then, after work, I’d hang out with my friends, and we’d talk. I started seeing similarities between difficulties in computer-computer interactions, and interactions between people. Messages get lost. Context gets garbled. False assumptions are made and acted upon, and sometimes never get surfaced. Just like with the computers I worked with, I could debug my interactions with other people until they got better. Now that I had a better framework for understanding these interactions, I began communicating with other people in a more contextually appropriate, empathic manner.
At first these ideas were just a series of disconnected metaphors. I took them seriously, but not literally. As they became more useful, they became more integrated with my views of the world. Eventually, I started to seriously explore the idea that maybe they weren’t just metaphors.
Better Communication with Myself
I started looking at myself as being a computer, running many different programs that I could debug, rewrite, and modify. I found it easier to debug a poor choice than to scold myself for failing, and far more helpful than excusing my behavior or telling myself that “free will doesn’t exist”, or “that’s just how I am.”
Ideas from different religious philosophies started to make more sense, too. The Buddhist claim that the “the self is a vacuous concept” felt more relatable when I looked for the real “me” inside the biological machine of my body. I found only a bunch of programs, all carrying out various objectives, with even the thought process doing all this introspection just being another program. Some of the programs would periodically say, “This is me! I’m doing this,” but “me” started to feel more like a syscall than a distinct process.
A Different Understanding of Society
It wasn’t just my interactions with myself and others that changed due to this new perspective . I started viewing society as a network of computers, exchanging information with each other. This perspective dramatically reworked how I understood politics, government, pop culture, and finance.
The best metaphor I have for this transformation is the fact that people are primates. Understanding this fact can help explain a lot. It doesn’t explain everything about people, but it’s a big piece of the puzzle. You’re missing a lot until you understand what primates have in common, and see that, despite our clothes and ideas and complex, worldwide trade network, humans are still primates. The idea that humans are primates was hard for people to swallow at first. Now it seems correct to most people, although maybe they haven’t fully thought through what it means.
I’m glad that books, blogs and other recent media have spread the true story of our primate nature. More people are seeing that the stories humans tell ourselves about being special and different from other animals aren’t entirely true. People are discussing the “people are primates” idea. They’re trying it on, to see how it fits with their own lived experiences. They’re seeing if this idea works for them, overall. If this idea does work for someone, they spread the idea and pass it on.
The “people are primates” narrative is spreading through human culture, replicating as it grows in strength. Does it make sense to call this idea a virus that helps its victims, or meme that’s indifferent? I think it makes the most sense think about the spreading of that idea – and the spreading of all ideas – through the lens of distributed systems.
We live in, and make up, a distributed, real-time system that makes observations, models the world in a variety of different ways, and attempts to navigate itself, and the world, towards desired outcomes. The models and the desires are stored in the hearts of minds of human beings the world over, but not just there.
That distributed system of which we are all a part today consists of many nodes – some are human, some are machines, some are corporations, some are governments, some are religions, and some are youtube channels with videos about Cowboy DJs. All of these nodes are exchanging information with each other and with their environment. All of these nodes are ingesting, processing, storing, recalling, and emitting information. All of these nodes can posses some aspects of the truth, and all of these nodes can contain false information.
I know of only one conceptual tool that has the power necessary to reason about systems like this: complex, interconnected systems where data flows between representations of representations, messages get dropped, history is lost, state is contested, and occasionally, consensus is reached.
That tool is computer science.
What I’ll Write About
To start with, I’ll post the chapters of that draft-form self-help book, in modified form. These chapters form a coherent framework for thinking about people as computers, with specific examples and suggested techniques. In addition to these chapters, I’ll write about self improvement, about religion, about theories of mind. I’ll write about society, about narratives and governments and politics. I’ll write about history, and finance, and markets. I’ll write about my own personal experiences overcoming mental illness and drug addiction.
I hope you enjoy.