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Personhood: A Game for Two or More Players (meltingasphalt.com)
147 points by benbreen on Sept 21, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments



The article uses the word "mask" (and "face") quite a bit without mentioning that it is the original meaning of "person".

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=person

Perhaps the omission is deliberate, because it does mention the origin of "family" from "servants".

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=family

(A delightfully unapropos Yeats quote is hidden in plain view at that last link. I wonder who stuck it in there.)


The author does mention the etymology of 'person' in an earlier article, so they appear to be aware of it.

"'Person,' by the way, has a neat etymology. It comes from the Latin persona, referring to a mask worn on stage. Per (through) + sona (sound) — the thing through which the sound (voice) traveled."

http://www.meltingasphalt.com/ux-and-the-civilizing-process/


Good catch! I had a hunch that the current post was inspired by that etymology, which seems a tasteful reason for it not to mention it.

The 'sound' bit is disputed, though, and probably too cute.


If personhood is an interface then it naturally lends itself to hacking. And of course there are methods (power plays, social tricks) that technically violate the rules (implied threats of violence, walking out of a meeting, whole pickup routines) but, when successful, don't result in user experiencing any loss of personhood, quite the opposite.

There are whole life strategies which are based around hacking the interface. Technically, we sometimes call people who choose them psychopaths and therefore less than persons, but realistically they often go undetected.


Well, if we establish personhood as a two-sided social contract then I would argue that psychopaths are those who view it as a one-sided social contract, seeking to maximise the rewards for themselves without maximising the rewards for the other side of the interface. Though, you could argue that this is really just another way of saying it's a hack, which is an intriguing way of looking at things.


Interesting implications (which I'm sure people who've been thinking about it for longer than me have already considered) for the development and evolution of Friendly Superintelligent AI.

The way this is presented, personhood (which involves behaviours that we'd like a friendly AI to display) is an adaptation based on mutual benefit. We're not nice to other people because kindness and empathy is an unavoidable consequence of intelligence - rather we're nice because we're better off in a society in which we're known to be nice. And that's because we've got fairly limited personal capabilities so are heavily dependent on efficient cooperation with other people.

An intelligent entity without this constraint (e.g. a superintelligence that had access to advanced nanotech and could do pretty much whatever it wanted) w.r.t interactions with humans might not (probably wouldn't?) have any evolutionary pressure towards achieving and maintaining personhood. Which would mean we shouldn't take the approach of "Let's just make an advanced intelligence, because its intelligence will surely mean it behaves with empathy towards us".


"a superintelligence that had access to advanced nanotech and could do pretty much whatever it wanted"

Without water I will die in about 3 days. I have no "want" for the nicely brewed tea currently steeping on my desk. The point I'm making is wants invariably gravitate to what you can't get, at least not easily.

Its quite possible a nanotech equipped superintelligence (human or artificial) might really desire fame, or founding a new religion or philosophical school, or military conquest, or scientific discovery, or the creation of some really great art (fine or pop). Or maybe just collecting a vast pile of money. Those all have at least some requirement for empathy, however little.

Previous human fiction and semi-fiction along the lines of vampires, mythology, religion, and even robinson crusoe epics always seems to really like the idea of human culture even if the protagonist spends most of its time separate. As far as I know no one has explored the theme of introducing an AI to something like Buddhist meditation and letting it burn some machine cycles meditating, at least not in a hard sci fi setting (I would not be interested in that in a fantasy or soft sci fi setting, so if it exists I wouldn't know)

Some of this is self selecting in that its not hard to find lifestyles that human higher end intelligences like, and they're all vaguely empathic, and variations have only been cultural. Thomas Jefferson might not have empathized with his slaves very much, but that lack was because none of his people did, not because he specifically was very smart. There is probably some self selection in that smart people who completely separate from civilization are going to be unknown to civilization, so whatever they do, we as a group donno, so if they exist, whatever they do, there's not much evidence, and its likely an AI would have similar results.


Evolutionary pressure isn't going to be relevant here.

But our sample size of what consequences intelligence has is effectively 1. Drawing any conclusions from that is dubious. We just don't know.

However, that also means that the worst case scenarios we come up with are as well shaped by our idea what a human with unlimited resources might do.

I think there's a very good chance that the real outcome will be so far outside our sphere of imagination that it simply won't affect us much.


Excellent article. This paragraph strikes me as a bit odd though:

> When you aren't your own master, the rest of the personhood contract breaks down. This is true, but to a lesser extent, among e.g. husbands who are "whipped" by their wives. A group of men who want to stay out late playing poker can't reason with their whipped buddy; all of their reasons fall on deaf ears. And thus he loses a bit of personhood within that community.

Wouldn't the more obvious example be wives who are "whipped" by their husbands? And wouldn't that example be better at explaining why in most societies, women feel like they're only half a person?


The author doesn't delve too deeply into gender specific consequences of personhood as it is described here, and I think the article is better for it. It's unfortunate that this paragraph was included as an exception, because I think it distracts from the author's point.

The point I got was that when people concede agency for their behavior to another (e.g. work, spouse, political/social organizations), they lose personhood. There were better examples for the author to use.


It’s frankly pretty offensive that the author considers men who keep their promises to their wives (e.g. who promise to be home by a certain time and then won’t break that promise for their poker buddies) to be only half persons. It seems to discount the personhood of the wives, or not recognize that the marriage relationship is one between two “persons” who negotiate with each-other.

Or perhaps the author doesn’t himself feel that way, but still finds it unremarkable that this community of poker buddies does (i.e. it’s not worth mentioning how dysfunctional this situation is). He’s so casual about totally dismissing the obligations of a husband to his wife, when any other arbitrary external obligation would have presumably had similar concrete effects. (For example, if the man had to leave to visit his sick parent, help a work colleague, see an old friend in town for the day, or even if he just needed some time alone, would he still be considered a half person?)


I think you might be projecting here, or something. He doesn't say that they're a "half person" - he says "he loses a bit of personhood within that community".

My interpretation is that the situation he's describing isn't one where there's a specific promise to the wife for a particular situation - more like, your buddy who's never allowed to stay out past 10 because his wife is needy, manipulative, insecure, or some other negative personality trait. The perception is that he's giving up his autonomy for "no good reason", unlike the alternative examples you listed.


Yes. My objection though was that in reality, in the overwhelming majority of cases, it's the wife, not the husband, who gives up her autonomy for "no good reason".


That's probably true.


> It’s frankly pretty offensive that the author considers men who keep their promises to their wives (e.g. who promise to be home by a certain time and then won’t break that promise for their poker buddies) to be only half persons. It seems to discount the personhood of the wives, or not recognize that the marriage relationship is one between two “persons” who negotiate with each-other.

It's not necessarily that. Have you ever met a person who uses "Oh, my [X] won't let me do that" to get out of social situations? I think that's a better interpretation of what the writer means; it's not where they're keeping a promise to their spouse, but one where they use their spouse to deflect decision making. They make the choice, but claim it's their spouse's decision, to prevent having to explain their decision.


"They make the choice, but claim it's their spouse's decision, to prevent having to explain their decision."

Children are another excellent example, I'd have to put up with an enormous level of extra B.S. in my life if I didn't have kids. "Oh you scheduled an all weekend teambuilding event on the other side of the state? soooo sorry I can't go, who would watch my kids all weekend?" "Whoops the company picnic is on Saturday, thats just too bad we have a soccer game" "I'd love to stay late to attend the diversity committee meeting but I have to pick up my kids at the library minecraft club meeting" "Oh the team is drinking until they vomit and then seeing who gets a drunk driving ticket? Wow that really sounds like fun, but the kids have a scouts meeting tonight and I'm the treasurer and in the leadership committee so I'll just see you guys tomorrow...". Back when I was single and childless I had to participate in all those idiotic primate dominance rituals, but having kids is a get out of jail free card preventing people from screwing around with my private life to prove they're superior enough to me to get away with it. Screw those bastards.

I suspect the business types know exactly whats going on and just don't want to make a scene.


> Children are another excellent example, I'd have to put up with an enormous level of extra B.S. in my life if I didn't have kids.

Heh, very true. And the great thing is, it isn't even a lie—parents really do have better things to do. Not just because the things you have to do as a parent are always that wonderful, but also because the things other people want you to do are often really terrible.


That’s different from keeping a promise to his wife, but it’s also different from being “whipped” (i.e. under the complete control of his wife). That’s just lying to his friends and blaming his wife for it. (Which is also pretty dysfunctional, but clearly not what the essay’s author was talking about.)

I think it’s pretty weird that the only real discussions of gender relations in this essay are (a) husband and wife can be naked with each other, when they wouldn’t go naked in public, and (b) this cheap throwaway stereotype about the controlling wife not letting the hapless guy have fun with his buddies.

The essay would be stronger with the section about the “whipped” guy removed altogether.


It’s not weird to not discuss gender issues in an article not about gender issues.

> The essay would be stronger with the section about the “whipped” guy removed altogether.

I agree — these kinds of examples very much serve as triggers for people with gender-related issues or other axes to grind, and are therefore not very effective as examples.


> That’s different from keeping a promise to his wife, but it’s also different from being “whipped” (i.e. under the complete control of his wife). That’s just lying to his friends and blaming his wife for it.

You may be right. I know more of the "deflecting my decisions" people than the "whipped" people, so I had assumed the author meant the former. But you're probably right that he didn't.

> The essay would be stronger with the section about the “whipped” guy removed altogether.

Agreed. It was out of place, and at best a sitcom stereotype, rather than how real people interact.


In the concept in being a “whipped husband”, there is not necessarily any component of that husband having made any promise to his wife. Being “whipped” is simply that a person has abandoned all the right to make decisions for themselves, and has deferred all decision-making power to the other party. All this talk about making and breaking promises is all you talking.

I suspect that you are projecting.


Perhaps the author was writing that taking into mind the audience and what they might more easily relate to.


I appreciate that you're confused by examples that depart from the feminist narrative, but tendentious narratives are not all there is to the world.


The core idea is "The way it works is that the more you behave like a person, the more you'll be treated like one."

Is the author even living in the same world as the rest of us?

In almost every society, there are large (sometimes extremely large) groups people who are more or less completely denied the right to "earn" personhood like that, because no matter what they do they will be considered inferior and less trustworthy.


There's nothing wrong with covering a general rule and leaving the exceptions to another article.


Really interesting connection to Aspies at the end. Also a good basis to delve further into relationships with non-persons of the state or corporations. Overall insightful piece in simple terms.


> Also a good basis to delve further into relationships with non-persons of the state or corporations.

At some level, personhood becomes interchangable with the concept of "brand", with the latter being an invention to piggyback on the interface of the former. President Obama is a person, Kellogg's is a corporation, and the USDA is a government institution, yet each is also a brand, carefully managed by a public relations team to mimic certain characteristics of personhood.


Given that the article is largely about (1) fitting in and (2) maturity, the term "person" could likely be improved upon, and certain controversies could be avoided. Both "citizen" and "adult" capture key pieces of this essay; note that "non-participant in society" and "child" are two of the significant methods for someone to fail to be a 100% "person" in this article.

Thinking a little outside the box: perhaps some sort of portmanteau like "persozen" (a person who is a participant in society).


I think there are interesting aspects of this that apply to interactions between different social groups and different ethnic groups. Even if there are broad similarities in the attractor points that different groups converge to, they're not identical. Acting as a person according to one set of conventions may constitute insult according to another, and a downward spiral of decreased expectations--similar to that described of people with mental health diagnoses--can result.


If you liked this article, you might also like the EigenMorality essay - http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=1820&re=1


Here's some few complications I would add to Kevin Simler concept of face and politeness.

The author talks a little bit about Aspies, and he also talks about a metaphor of squares and triangle faces. He implies the possibility of clans, but doesn't go further. I think Kevin thinks that Aspies are an edge case because he relegates this part to the end of his article with relatively less content than the surrounding sections.

I would think that while people diagnosed with autism may be proportionally rarer, the clanish strategy, which they represent, is very common. I would add that I think religious and political folk are a part of this clan strategy, and that callous (not prepared with expected mitigating introductions or hedge words) contradiction of their political or religious viewpoints could be thought of as a threat to their personhood. The interesting part here is that they are not as interested in the opinions of those outside to their clan. Also, they maintain at least two personhoods, one being the interface for their clan, which they value the most, the other being the interface for either a generalized or specific external group. A person can carry many faces depending on the degree of logistical separation between the groups they belong to.

Since face is related to clan or group, some drugs elevate standing based on group culture, and the unwillingness to intake some drugs like alcohol could be interpreted as a failure to conform to group expectations.


This is excellent. I really like reading articles like this, things that get you thinking. Could use more illustrations though.


I read an article recently about how the NSA spying strips people of their privacy, which in turn strips them of their humanity. I think that fits really well into what the OP is saying here. Without the ability to selectively disclose information about yourself (ie develop a person mask), we lose the ability to be a 'person.'


Did I miss the attribution to Alan Watts for the prickles and goo metaphor? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXi_ldNRNtM http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Watts


I (kind of) missed it. He mentions Alan elsewhere on his site. http://www.meltingasphalt.com/prickles-and-goo/


The author at one point mentions how uniforms break down personhood by forcing them to present themselves as something that they aren't.

How does this fit in with a High School mandating uniforms? Surely this encourages personhood in some way. In my experience, uniforms were very helpful in getting along with other people at my school.


Personhood, as the author describes it, is just the barebone game society plays, and all other networks (school, work, friendship, relationship, etc) supersede it. So, uniforms in school can certainly provide the benefits of personhood.


Not that it forces them to present themselves as something they aren't, but that it is "a signal that the wearer is enacting a role in which his agency is outsourced and his individuality is suppressed". That is, when a soldier wears a uniform, they are signalling that they are not the ones making decisions about their own actions, but rather the organization they represent is making those decisions.

School uniforms don't indicate nearly the same level of subordination to a command structure.


Continuing this thought, the uniform is a marker distinguishing those in uniform from those not in uniform. People working in uniform for [insert generic company here] retain their personhood with respect to each other, but not to the public at large. (See http://www.viruscomix.com/page471.html)

School uniforms don't really deal with this dynamic because they're only relevant for interactions internal to the school rather than interactions between the school and the outside world.


They cross the interface between school and the outside world by causing a certain set of behaviours and/or expectations when in transition between states. A schoolchild walking home in uniform may be better behaved than otherwise, because he or she is representing the school, whether that's intentionally known and communicated or not.

My school had explicit rules about how we should behave when in uniform outside of school, and we lost some agency because of that. Although I have to say it also felt empowering, to some extent, that we were kind of ambassadors for the school. We would definitely show off sometimes.

Similarly, sweet shops near another school I attended had signs saying 'no more than 3 children at once' or something similar. The uniform part was implied but I think a parent taking in four kids on a weekend day would have a different reaction from the shopkeeper than four uniformed children at 3:30pm.

Similarly, a group of teenagers in uniform may be less threatening on the street than one out of uniform, especially as fashions change. A certain school's uniform communicates a level of wealth or manners (or lack thereof) and therefore sets expectations for behaviour. A child alone in the library working in uniform may be far less likely to be approached by concerned staff than one in mufti - at least this was the case when I frequently stayed at the library outside of school hours.


> School uniforms don't really deal with this dynamic because they're only relevant for interactions internal to the school rather than interactions between the school and the outside world.

Well they also have an effect on the interaction with the outside world: remember that Trainspotting scene when Renton wakes up to find out that the girl he picked up is a schoolgirl?


I love articles like this for neatly summarizing the way I've always viewed the world.


I have mixed feelings. I don't know who the author is but this way of looking this is very formal - almost software-like.

Every era adopts the metaphor of the day. In the early industrial age it was mechanism. Later, it was electricity. Today, we see the world through the veil of formalisms.


Pretty coherent, cool idea you wrote here.

I'd like to see you explore the implications of the idea that personhood is socialized into we 'blank slate' human animals with regards to people with Aspergers. Bet you get into trouble :)


There is a standard gripe that the things labeled as rights are not rights but rather privileges, by virtue of the fact that they must be earned and can be revoked based on behavior


Did anyone else get thinking about the implications of this theorizing on artificial intelligence and integrating the simple robots that are going to start entering society? :)


I knew just from the title that I was going to suck at this game.


Can we make web social platform/game out of this idea?


Author starts by saying that this is not about labeling the unborn (or Jews, kulaks, or whoever we are exterminating at any particular time) as less than persons. Then immediately proceeds to declare that the unborn (or Jews, kulaks, or whoever) are indeed less than persons.


As the author explicitly states up top, "this is emphatically not the notion of personhood I want to discuss". He's not stating that the unborn, toddlers, childen are not human, just that they have not been socialized into personhood yet.


"Less than persons" has a different in meaning in the post. Generally when someone says that it implies person is less humane or has less of "good human virtues". The author describes it in terms of social interactions. Both have different contexts.




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