We should not raise awareness

by lsusr3 min read1st Mar 202121 comments

31

Simulacrum LevelsWorld ModelingRationality
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The phrase "we should raise awareness about " creeps me out. I had trouble identifying exactly why until I read this summary of simulacra levels.

Level 1: “There’s a lion across the river.” = There’s a lion across the river.

Level 2: “There’s a lion across the river.” = I don’t want to go (or have other people go) across the river.

Level 3: “There’s a lion across the river.” = I’m with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river.

Level 4: “There’s a lion across the river.” = A firm stance against trans-river expansionism focus grouped well with undecided voters in my constituency.

Level 1 states truth about reality. Level 2 manipulates reality. Level 3 states truth about social reality. Level 4 manipulates social reality.

The transition from Level 1 to Level 2 is trading truth for deception. The transcendence from Level 2 to Level 3 trades physical reality for social reality—an abstraction. The transcendence from Level 3 to Level 4 is trades social truth for social deception.

"We should raise awareness about " jumps all the way up to level 10.

Everything below this line is my own invention and does not correspond to standard usage of simulacra levels.

Level 5 and Level 6 (Media Creation)

If you want to manipulate people on a grand scale then you must transcend to an even higher abstraction: the media. "The media" is just what we call the target of the masses' attention. Media must be interesting if it is to catch the masses' attention efficiently. Level 5 is about genuine interestingness. Level 6 is about creating the appearance of interestingness.

  • Level 5 (news): "There's a lion across the river." = Lions and rivers are interesting.
  • Level 6 (clickbait): "There's a lion across the river." = Clickbait with the word "lion" in the title maximizes ad revenue for my news outlet.

Levels 5 and 6 are no longer even about getting people on your side (social reality). They are about generating attention for your information delivery system. (The attention can later be commoditized.) Levels 5 and 6 are the realm of reality TV stardom. These levels are about creating channels and brands. The next level is about manipulating channels and brands.

Level 7 and Level 8 (Media Manipulation)

In English, we often use different words for traditional advertising, native advertising, press releases and propaganda. These distinctions matter if you are an ethical reporter. The distinctions are irrelevant to someone who needs to disseminate a message. Since I am an entrepreneur, not a reporter, I use the word "advertising" to mean "calling public attention to one's product, service, need, etc." instead of "paid announcements"[1].

Many people have the idea that news companies send reporters to carefully verify facts. Actually, news outlets usually just republish press releases with a few edits[2]. Even live interviews usually ask predictable softball questions. Interest groups write news and news outlets publish it. Any news outlet which doesn't let advertisers subsidize its stories has trouble competing with competitors who do.

  • Level 7 (press releases): "There's a lion across the river." = This press release was written by a company selling boats and big game rifles.
  • Level 8 (propaganda): "There's a lion across the river." = The Zebra Party owns your communication infrastructure.

Level 9 and Level 10 (Pure Memetics)

Memes are often created by people, usually people with specific interests. Once released, memes self-replicating. They mutate and are selected. They evolve.

We started with facts. Then moved up to alliances. Then media. Then propaganda. As memes evolve, they separate from human interests. No longer does the meme manifest a human being's intention. The meme is trying (in the Darwinian sense of the word "trying") to survive and replicate.

  • Level 9: "There's a lion across the river." = The sentence "There's a lion across the river." has high memetic fitness.
  • Level 10: "We should raise awareness of lions on the other side of the river." = The "There's a lion across the river." meme is trying to mind control you so it can replicate.

  1. Both of these definitions come from Dictionary.com. ↩︎

  2. My understanding of media manipulation comes from historical precedent combined with my firsthand experience. For example, I started a company with a press release so good the editor of TechCrunch used it as a case study in how to write press releases. ↩︎

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My understanding of the intent behind the phrase is "the first step of fixing a problem is realizing that it exists, so we should make people aware of the problem so that they can do something to fix it". I don't think in simulacrum levels much so maybe I'm misapplying them, but I would think of this as being on level 1 - an object-level problem with a concrete approach towards solving it?

Of course, like any other phrase, it can also be co-opted by the higher levels, and it definitely also does get used in the sense of all the higher ones.

I'm not convinced that your new "levels" are actual levels.

The structure of levels 1-4 is: 1 is base reality, 2 is when you see how people react to 1 and try to manipulate it, 3 is when everyone sees people doing 2 and adjusts, 4 is when you see how people react to 3 and try to manipulate it. (Kinda; level 4 is a bit nebulous.)

But your level 5 (news / saying "X" means "X is interesting") doesn't seem like it's built on top of 4 in the same way as 2,3,4 are built on 1,2,3. Exactly what it's built on will vary from story to story, which suggests to me that news/media isn't a separate "level" at all, it's just one more way in which people say things which can operate at whatever level they operate at.

For instance, suppose a newspaper headline says "Covid-19 infections in New York are way up". That could be level 1 (people are interested because they want to know whether they can safely go to New York, or because they're in New York and want to know whether they're going to die soon, etc.). It could be level 2, though in this case I think it probably isn't. (More likely level 2 in the news: a partisan newspaper publishing "Politician X does Awful Thing Y" is maybe level 2: the editors or owners of the paper want people to vote against X, which would (maybe) be a rational response if X actually did Y, so they say he did to make people vote against him.) Anyway, the Covid-19 headline could be level 2 if e.g. the owners of the paper want people to think Covid-19 is a big deal and act accordingly. Then it could be level 3 if what the owners of the paper want is to show that they are Serious People who are trying to warn everyone about the dangers of the plague. Level 4 might be where political posturing has made Team Blue want to look like Serious People and Team Red want to look as if they're too strong to care what the Serious People think, and the paper is trying to be popular with members of Team Blue.

Those can all be categorized as "Covid-19 is interesting". At level 1 it's interesting because we want not to get it. We buy the paper to learn how to keep safe. At level 2 it's interesting because we want other people to try not to get it (perhaps because then we're less likely to get it). We buy the paper so we can wave the article at people we think are being too careless. At level 3 it's interesting because we want to show that we too are Serious People. We buy the paper so that we can be seen reading something that says Covid-19 is a big deal. At level 4 it's interesting because we want to show our political allegiances; we're still buying the paper so we can be seen reading it, but now the conclusions we want others to draw are "that guy is on my team" rather than "that guy is taking the plague seriously".

I don't see how "Covid-19 is interesting" is helpfully considered as a level above these.

That doesn't mean there are no higher levels of abstraction or insincerity. (Maybe a newspaper article about how different political parties are responding to Covid-19 is one level above my example of level 4, though I think the original intention is that all these higher levels get lumped together in level 4 because they're all treating people's allegiances and strategems and whatnot as objects of attention, in preference to anything on the ground.) But "news" isn't, so far as I can see, a level of its own.

I agree, but my reasoning for it is different.
Given that the simulacra levels framework is fake, I care mostly about the way it pumps my intuition. For me it has more impact with less levels. Grouping everything in levels 4+ as a single thing does speed processing up, and doesn't seem to meaningfully change my conclusions.
There likely exists some context where those extra levels are useful and offer new insights, but I've not seen it yet.

I share your unease with the "raising awareness" mode of activism. I'm not really sold on these extra simulacra levels as an explanation of that unease. Especially levels 9 and 10, an evolutionary explanation just isn't interchangeable with an explanation of a biological mechanism. Similarly, a memetic explanation just isn't interchangeable with a simulacra explanation, a memetic explanation just isn't an explanation of what psychological process causes a person to utter a sentence, it is an explanation of why certain sentences are uttered given a psychological environment.

For me at least, I think the uneasiness with "raising awareness" is more that it is transparently ineffective altruism. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people "raising awareness" of x type of cancer or of sexual assault or whatever, as though there was anyone on the planet who didn't know that these things exist. And it seems wildly implausible to me that wearing a ribbon or whatever is actually going to cause anybody to think of a new solution or implement an existing solution more effectively. "Raising awareness" comes off as very transparent pure signaling, simulacra level 3 or 4, and often rather expensive signaling, and I don't like that.

I think the issue is that 'raising awareness' is used to mean three separate things. (I agree that the extra simulacra levels aren't a helpful explanation.) Using awareness of breast cancer as a reasonably non-controversial example.

  1. Give people some useful knowledge or skill to help reduce the problem. Eg teach women how to examine themselves for lumps and when to seek medical advice.
  2. Raise the profile of the issue (or in some cases inform people that the issue exists) such that more resources will be devoted to solving it. Eg publishing opinion pieces informing the public how many people are affected by cancer and calling for more facilities for treatment, or encouraging people to donate money to charities researching cures.
  3. Signal that you are a virtuous person who is concerned about socially-approved causes. Eg wear a pink ribbon, or like Facebook pages from breast cancer charities.

I agree that there are a lot of people practicing virtue-signalling, while kidding themselves that they are doing level 2 profile-raising, and I also agree that a lot of the profile-raising is transparently ineffective. But I think that there are useful level-1 activities which also come under the banner of 'raising awareness' and I wouldn't want to stigmatise those. 

There are also some situations in which the level-2 activities are useful. I suspect you would disagree, but I think sexual assault is a fairly good example: a lot of people have gone to great efforts to explain to the general public that there is a widespread problem that needs action. The result has been an in-progress and partial change in social norms which may well succeed in reducing the levels of sexual assault. 

I think the breakdown is good. I find it more natural to call your level 1 "education" than "raising awareness", but I guess both terms are used. 

I think the changes on sexual assault have been a mixed bag and that in at least some circles the pendulum has already swung too far. Reconceptualizing sex between spouses without consent as rape was a good move, reconceptualizing stupid drunk sex where both parties consented at the time as rape was a bad move, and both have definitely happened as a result of this raising awareness.

Give people some useful knowledge or skill to help reduce the problem. Eg teach women how to examine themselves for lumps and when to seek medical advice.

It's worth noting it that while this intuitive sounds very good it's not that clear it actually was good. Doing more testing for breast cancer increased breast cancer diagnoses and breast amputations but it's not clear that it actually reduced breast cancer deaths. 

In the late 19th century and early 20th century public health officials archieved a lot of increase in lifespan by raising awareness about the usefulness of hygine that they understood because of the germ theory of disease.

Hospitals are very expensive. To the extend that you can change behaviors of your population so that they engage in cheap preventive interventions like hand washing there a very high return on investment. 

After declaring war on cancer, it made a lot of sense to tell the population about the symptoms that mean that they have cancer so that they can go to the doctor and get treated for cancer. 

On the sexual assault front "see something say something" likely does increase the amount of people who step in when they witness sexual assault and make victims classify experience as sexual assault (it wasn't that long ago that people believed that there's no such thing as sexual assault in marriage). Laws about what counts as sexual assault get changed as a result of such activism. 

One of the problems is that awareness raising leads to measures against sexual assault being adopted that signal taking action about the problem without being based on good research about what interventions are effective. The resulting discussion also usually ignores the tradeoffs that are involved with adopting interventions. 

That unfortunately means that you get worse interventions then you would get if you would go for a lower simulacrum level and focus on the empriric evidence that certain interventions will help with the problem. Mid-20th century you had people spending way to much effort on hygine and cleanliness (housewifes spend much more time cleaning then with childcare). 

Most of these extra simulacra levels are redundant or orthogonal to the originals. I don't think they carve reality well.

  • L5 overlaps heavily with L1. Interestingness is a quality of most L1 statements that are worth communicating!
  • L7 is L2. "There's a lion across the river" = I want you to buy X. It's direct manipulation of reality.
  • L8 is L3 or L4 (in your example), although propaganda can also be at L2.
  • L10 overlaps heavily with L3. "We should raise awareness of X" = I'm part of the group that believes "X".

The only one that is salvageable is L6 (which is similar to L9), which I might call a True Level 5:

"There's a lion across the river." = Listen to me! I say things worth hearing! (from the speaker's perspective)

There's actually a lot of communication that falls within this bucket, characterized by the content of the statement having no instrumental value for the speaker. The speaker just wants your attention.

The meme is trying to mind control you so it can replicate.

Ever since reading the book "Virus of the Mind" (Brodie, 1996), I've been wary of holding any opinion I don't fully endorse or otherwise remember why I started believing in the first place. (This hasn't been true of my opinion about politics in general until I typed that sentence, full disclosure.) I've been especially wary of using someone else's phrasing to spread really sticky ideas. I guess I've got a good memetic immune system?

I think we should raise awareness of the concept of a memetic immune system.

Upvoted for levels 5, 6, and 7, which I didn't expect to buy, but totally buy.

"We should raise awareness of lions on the other side of the river." = I prefer a world where I'm regarded as someone who prefers to make other people spread the meme "There's a lion across the river.".

I'm not sure I buy this.  In many uses, "raise awareness about X" is just a shorthand (or euphemism, since talking about status is low-status) for "increase the status of addressing X".  

You can certainly argue that addressing X directly is more effective than indirectly in this way.  Or that X is appropriately-statused already and you shouldn't try to change it.  But I don't think it's a separate class of epistemic or equilibrium mistake.

Yes, it's a shorthand. That however doesn't mean that the argument doesn't still stand "increase the status of addressing X" is a higher simulacra level then "addressing X". It also tends to lead to people addressing X in ways that are less effective for actually solving X then when the discussion is more directed at "addressing X".

I think this generalization is too high a simulacrum level.  Some examples of things where "raising awareness" crowds out actually addressing a thing would go a long way toward helping me believe the argument.  

The top three specific autocompletions for "raising awareness of "  are Mental Health, Human Trafficking, and Homelessness.  For all three, I support increasing the status of addressing the problem, in addition to direct action.  But for most people, direct action isn't really possible, beyond being more aware of it, supporting it financially, and reacting more compassionately when observed (aka "raised awareness").

[ edit to clarify: I'm not a fan of the simulacra level model - it's somewhat useful and maps to some common group interactions, but it implies a sequencing and exclusivity that I don't think is very common.  "higher" levels are more abstract, but really are abstractions on specific dimensions.  And it's very easy to see multiple levels at once, all of which have valuable actions available. It's a fine model, but requires spot-checking with concrete examples before it can be used to make any recommendations. ]

Some examples of things where "raising awareness" crowds out actually addressing a thing would go a long way toward helping me believe the argument.  

In the area of sexual assault the "raising awareness" crowd focuses on narratives like rape culture and makes it very hard for any researcher who wants to study which interventions actually work because when they publish that one intervention that people believe in doesn't work, they might get attacked for being unwoke. 

Nobody, invested into raising awareness of mercury poisoning but they invested into raising the awareness of problems with CO2. The Obama EPA managed to do great work on reducing mercury poisoning but little progress on CO2. 

But for most people, direct action isn't really possible, beyond being more aware of it, supporting it financially, and reacting more compassionately when observed (aka "raised awareness").

That's not true. Taking direct action against homelessness is inconvenient but giving a homeless person a couch to sleep on is an action that's available for many people. I have one friend who actually did that. The amount of impact a person has with taking direct action is a lot higher then that which most people who raise awareness of homelessness have. 

More generally it's however not competition for the same cause. When we focus on those things we can directly affect we do often focus on different causes then if we cause of what we can't directly affect but for which we can only raise awareness. There are benefits to be gained by people putting their efforts into what they can directly affect. 

I'll fully agree that "raising awareness BADLY or raising incorrect awareness is a mistake".  Direct bad action is also a mistake, and neither has anything to do with levels of abstraction or simulacra.   

Note that I also agree that there are PLENTY of cases where direct action on a topic is necessary and beneficial, and where "raising awareness" is unnecessary because those who can impact it are already aware, or because the awareness would be misleading.  

I don't think that generalizes at all to "we should not raise awareness" on any (or even most) topics that affect a large swath of humanity.  But I'm less sure of that than I was yesterday, so thank you for the discussion.

Level 10's more ground-level explanation should be something like "If I say "There's not a lion across the river." I'm getting downvoted and if I say "There's a lion across the river" I'm getting upvoted?"

I'm trying to not use the expression "trying to mind control you". But stated this way it's not that different from lvl 3. Maybe lvl 10 is lvl 3 + an explicit selection mechanism such as upvotes or downvotes. But one could argue that such incentives exist regardless of how explicit they are.

In level 3 you are signaling that you belong to a certain group. In raising awareness you are trying to get other people to do things. 

I thought lvl 10 wasn't about that anymore, but you may be right

Level 10 is just a mix of 2 and 3.