This post aims to unpack and explain simulacra levels of action using the threat of covid-19 as its central example. My intention is for future posts to then apply this model to many covid-related dynamics.
In Elizabeth’s Negative Feedback and Simulacra, she examined several example situations on which information was being processed on multiple simulacra levels at once. On Negative Feedback and Simulacra was my take on those examples.
To re-familiarize ourselves with the simulacra levels, here’s the introduction Elizabeth offered to them in her post:
My friend Ben Hoffman talks about simulacra a lot, with this rough definition:
First, words were used to maintain shared accounting. We described reality intersubjectively in order to build shared maps, the better to navigate our environment. I say that the food source is over there, so that our band can move towards or away from it when situationally appropriate, or so people can make other inferences based on this knowledge.
2. The breakdown of naive intersubjectivity – people start taking the shared map as an object to be manipulated, rather than part of their own subjectivity. For instance, I might say there’s a lion over somewhere where I know there’s food, in order to hoard access to that resource for idiosyncratic advantage. Thus, the map drifts from reality, and we start dissociating from the maps we make.
3. When maps drift far enough from reality, in some cases people aren’t even parsing it as though it had a literal specific objective meaning that grounds out in some verifiable external test outside of social reality. Instead, the map becomes a sort of command language for coordinating actions and feelings. “There’s food over there” is perhaps construed as a bid to move in that direction, and evaluated as though it were that call to action. Any argument for or against the implied call to action is conflated with an argument for or against the proposition literally asserted. This is how arguments become soldiers. Any attempt to simply investigate the literal truth of the proposition is considered at best naive and at worst politically irresponsible.
But since this usage is parasitic on the old map structure that was meant to describe something outside the system of describers, language is still structured in terms of reification and objectivity, so it substantively resembles something with descriptive power, or “aboutness.” For instance, while you cannot acquire a physician’s privileges and social role simply by providing clear evidence of your ability to heal others, those privileges are still justified in terms of pseudo-consequentialist arguments about expertise in healing.
4. Finally, the pseudostructure itself becomes perceptible as an object that can be manipulated, the pseudocorrespondence breaks down, and all assertions are nothing but moves in an ever-shifting game where you’re trying to think a bit ahead of the others (for positional advantage), but not too far ahead.
If that doesn’t make sense, try this anonymous comment on the post
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.
Almost everyone would rather not be eaten by a lion. I certainly would rather not be eaten by a lion.
Whether or not I am eaten by a lion still does not drive much of my decision making. It is highly implausible that I will be eaten by a lion.
I hope that if in the future it becomes plausible that I may get eaten by a lion, how to not get eaten by a lion would then drive much of my decision making.
If the presence of lions in various places would not put anyone in any danger, that makes it much less expensive for me to be wrong about where they are. The less people are concerned about the consequences of having or inflicting incorrect object-level models of the world, the less concerned they will be with Level 1 and with the Level 1 accuracy of their statements.
The prioritization of various simulacra levels becomes a habit. If you are used to interpreting “There’s a lion across the river” almost entirely as “I’m with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river,” because that’s what it almost always means in your village, it may be very difficult for someone to say “No, really, I’m not associating with the cool kids right now. There’s literally an actual lion across the actual river and if you cross the river you will die.”
There is no good way to sacrifice the cool points in order to communicate the presence of a lion. Even if it works at first, soon there will be a tendency for the new wording to become the canonical form of “I’m with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river.”
If everyone’s instinct is to interpret “There’s a lion across the river” as both “There is an actual lion across the actual river” and also “I’m with the kids who are too cool to cross the river” then there is a chance.
There is still a barrier. Whoever wants to share knowledge of the lion will become less cool by doing so. Ideally, for high enough stakes, this stops being a problem in multiple ways. If lives are at stake, especially one’s own or one’s loved ones, being cool looks less important than avoiding the lion. Ideally, being the person who saved us from the lion is also considered kind of cool, allowing one to both starve lions and look cool. That only works if everyone realizes the lion was there. But the payoff could be very large. So there’s a chance.
Whereas, if things are too forsaken, one loses the ability to communicate about the lion at all. There is no combination of sounds one can make that makes people think there is an actual lion across an actual river that will actually eat them if they cross the river.
I’m not trying to be subtle here. You can guess where this is going.
There’s a Virus Across The Ocean
“There’s a pandemic headed our way from China” means “there’s a pandemic headed our way from China.”
“There’s no pandemic headed our way from China” means “there’s no pandemic headed our way from China.”
“There’s a pandemic headed our way from China” means “I want you to act as if you think there might be a pandemic on our way from China” while hoping to still be interpreted by the listener as meaning “There’s a pandemic headed our way from China.”
The speaker hopes to be interpreted as still meaning “There’s a pandemic headed our way from China.”
This may involve any of the following:
“I want you to click on this headline about a pandemic headed our way from China and/or subscribe to and share my newsletter, website or channel.”
“I want you to have more negative affect towards China and/or other foreigners.”
“I want you to be afraid.”
“I want to shut down economic activity.”
“I want to sell you toilet paper, masks and hand sanitizer at premium prices.”
“I want you to thank me later for any or all of the above.”
“There is no pandemic headed our way from China” means “I want you to act as if you think there is not a pandemic headed our way from China.”
The speaker hopes to be interpreted as still meaning “There is not a pandemic headed our way from China.”
This may include any of the following:
“I want you to click on this headline about there not being a pandemic headed our way from China and/or subscribe to and share my newsletter, website or channel.”
“I want you to have more positive affect towards China and/or other foreigners.”
“I do not want you to be afraid.”
“I want to stop you from hoarding toilet paper, masks and hand sanitizer.”
“I want to avoid shutting down economic activity.”
“I want you to thank me later for any or all of the above.”
Level 1 vs. Level 2
The key difference is in the intended effect of the statement made, and to what extent the statement is correlated with the true state of the physical world.
Level 2 statements do not have to be untrue. Nor need it be something you do not believe. It is often said that “the truth is the best lie.”
Nor need the statement be selfish. Many Level 2 statements really are intended for the subject’s ‘own good.’
What makes a statement Level 2 rather than Level 1 is that you don’t care whether or not it is true. Instead, you care about what actions it causes people to take, and whether or not you like those actions.
If there is a tiger across the river, but the group is insufficiently afraid of tigers, you might claim there is a lion across the river instead.
If there is a tiger across the river, but you have a shotgun and are itching to get a tiger’s head as a trophy, you might claim there is not a lion across the river, so that we will cross the river. Whether or not you are aware of a lion across the river doesn’t matter. A lion would prevent you from hunting tigers. You want to hunt a tiger.
The Four Direct Communicators
Sticking to the first two levels for now, we can divide into quadrants and see five types of communication strategies.
Let V = “There is a virus across the ocean that is likely to cause a pandemic here.”
Let ~V = “There is not a virus across the ocean that is likely to cause a pandemic here.”
Let C = The consequences of being told V.
Let ~C = The consequences of being told ~V.
Let N = The consequences of being told nothing. For simplicity assume everyone either believes that C>N, or that ~C>N.
The Oracle only looks at Level 1. The Oracle says V if and only if The Oracle believes V with sufficient confidence, says ~V if they believe ~V with sufficient confidence, and says nothing or “I don’t know” otherwise. They care not whether C>~C or ~C>C.
The Trickster only looks at Level 2. The Trickster says V if they think C>~C. They say ~V if they think ~C>C. Otherwise they say nothing. They care not whether V is true.
The Nihilist cares about neither Level 1 nor Level 2. They say whatever they feel like saying, then eat at Arby’s.
The Sage looks at both Level 1 and Level 2 and avoids actions that violate either principle. They say V if both they believe V and they believe C>~C. They say ~V if both they believe ~V and they believe ~C>C. If they believe that V but ~C>C, or they believe that ~V but C>~C, they say nothing.
The Pragmatist looks at both Level 1 and Level 2 and assigns some value to each, then takes action that balances both concerns. They recognize that there is a cost to saying that which is not, but that cost is not infinite. Thus, if The Sage would talk, they talk. If The Sage would not talk, they may talk anyway. Up to a point, they’ll speak the truth and take the direct consequences even if those consequences are bad. Past a certain point, they’ll be willing to lie.
There’s obviously a continuum all around, especially between Sage and Pragmatists. Almost everyone has some breaking point where they would lie for a sufficiently powerful cause. Most people place value on telling the truth beyond known specific and direct consequences, and thus it takes some threshold of bad other consequences to get them to be quiet.
Once you know which of these types a person is, you can trust them in some sense.
It’s easy to interpret an Oracle or a Sage. When a Sage is silent, you can trust that either they don’t know the answer, or they believe telling you the answer would be bad. Often, absent strong glomarization, this lets you figure out the answer.
But it’s also easy, once you know they’re a trickster, to trust a Trickster in their own way. You simply interpret their statements as manipulations rather than observations.
“There’s a pandemic headed our way from China” means “I wish to associate with the group that claims there is a pandemic headed our way from China.”
This may include any of the following:
“I want to affirm my membership in my in-group, and that I dislike the out-group.”
“I want to be part of the group of people with power, and/or who are winning.”
“I want to be seen serving those with power and spreading their messages.”
“I want to be seen as smart, on the ball, ahead of the curve, scientific and other neat stuff like that.”
“I want to be part of the group that cares about people.”
“I want to be part of the group that believes/defies experts.”
“I want to be part of the group of so-called ‘responsible experts’ on this.”
“I want to be part of the group that isn’t afraid to tell you hard truths.”
“I want to be part of the group that doesn’t have bad traits like racism.”
“The high status move is to endorse this position at this time.”
“The publication I write for wants to hear this.”
And so on.
“There’s no pandemic headed our way from China” means “I wish to associate with the group that claims there is not a pandemic headed our way from China.”
It may include any or all of exactly the same things, depending on your local situation, and where you are in the timeline.
The polarity of many of these motivations has changed. In some cases, it has changed multiple times.
“There’s a pandemic headed our way from China” means “It is advantageous for me to say there is a pandemic headed our way from China.”
“This set of verbal incantations focuses attention on things where focused attention helps me, and away from places where focused attention hurts me.”
“This set of verbal incantations will make people think I am associated and allied with those who it is advantageous for them to think I am associated and allied with.”
“This set of verbal incantations associates me with good words and emotions, or my enemies with bad words and emotions.”
“It would be advantageous for me if the group I am associated with is viewed as advocating the claim that there is a pandemic headed our way from China.”
“This claim fits the heuristics of claims that will make me look responsible.”
“This claim fits the heuristics of claims that will make me look strong and/or powerful and/or in the know and/or a winner.”
“This claim fits the heuristics of claims that give one leverage and/or power.”
“This claim fits the heuristics of claims that will make me someone others think that others will view as a valuable ally, especially others also operating at Level 4.”
“This claim fits the heuristics of claims that will stop me from being scapegoated.”
“This claim fits the heuristics of creating optionality, and/or putting rivals and opponents into situations where they will look bad.”
“There’s no pandemic headed our way from China” means the same thing, except in this situation the additional incantation ‘no’ seems appropriate.
Note that the Level 4 actor has in an important sense lost the ability to think or plan.
It might or might not impact this calculation whether or not your statement is true (Level 1), or whether it will be believed (Level 2), or what coalitions this statement signals your membership in or support of (Level 3). The primary way in which Level 1+2 considerations impact this decision is indirectly, through their impact on Level 3.
That’s all part of a calculation, and matters only to the extent that it effects the consequences of saying the thing.
I find Level 4 is the hardest to grok, by far. It does not come naturally to me.
A potentially easier way to understand Level 4 is to think about how it fits into the contrasts between the first three levels, as will now be discussed.
Level 1 vs. Level 2 vs. Level 3
Consider the first three levels of action and consequence. Level 1 cares about the object level. Level 2 cares about the consequences of changing perception of the object level. Level 3 cares about which coalition your statement associates you with, and which coalitions would approve or disapprove of your statement.
We can think of each of the possible three contrasts. Is Oceania at war with East Asia, Eurasia or both?
We can then add Level 4 into the mix, wherever it belongs based on that division.
Level 1 vs. Levels 2+3+4: Truth versus Untruth
This division feels the most natural to me and people similar to me. Here, Level 4 actions definitely fall into the 2+3 camp, with this full division being level 1 vs. levels 2+3+4.
Level 1 statements correspond to object-level truth. If everyone makes level 1 statements, everyone’s map improves. Decisions get better. Action that has good object-level consequences can be taken. People can be trusted in a pure sense.
Higher level statements corrupt all that. Trust is destroyed. People’s beliefs no longer converge towards the truth. Actions taken are what those with power, those who manipulate and form alliances more effectively, think they want to happen. Since they don’t have the true picture of the situation either, they often don’t like those consequences, and regret their choices to the extent that they care about those consequences.
What difference, this perspective asks, does it make whether you said “Don’t prepare, there’s nothing to worry about” because you wanted to save masks for health care workers, or be able to buy up all the hand sanitizer for resale, or because you were worried about prejudice against Asians, or you wanted to keep the economy open, or you wanted to look responsible and calming rather than irresponsible and alarmist, or that’s what all the authoritative media and government sources were saying and you wanted to be seen as someone who holds the party line?
(Or, at Level 4, if you believe that it will increase the power of your group to be seen as advocating for this position, because it will improve your image or it is popular?)
From this perspective, the only important thing is, you didn’t care if what you said was true. You said it because it was useful to you to say it. That’s what matters.
Thus, we can repeat the 2×2 from above. The only difference is now ‘the consequences’ include coalition politics and other more abstract things.
It is easy to see why primarily Level 1 activities are helpful in dealing with Covid-19. It is also easy to see why one might view all primarily Level 2, 3 and 4 activities as assumed to be unhelpful.
Level 1+3 vs. Levels 2+4: Authentic vs. Inauthentic
This division can definitely be weird when first pointed out or considered, but it makes a decent amount of sense.
If I say that V because I want to show that I am a member of the group that believes V, then that is a signal of group membership rather than evidence for V. But one can see this as an authentic signal of group membership. I really do wish to associate with the V-advocates and not with the anti-Vs.
The risk when sending this signal honestly is that one can confuse my statement of group membership with a claim of V.
I can be making an ‘honest’ statement about which coalition I am supporting, and you can get the wrong impression that V is true.
Or, I could be making an honest statement that V, and you could get the impression that I wish to belong to the V-advocating coalition. This also distorts my map of reality in a potentially dangerous way.
If you can tell when someone is engaging in Level 3 actions versus Level 1 actions, then one can preserve the sanctity and trustworthiness of the Level 1 actions.
The Oracle who only cares about Level 1 is easy to interpret.
So is The Drone, who only cares about Level 3 and will be discussed below. The drone's claim tells you their belief of what their side is currently advocating. No more, no less.
Alternatively, one can be an advocate for a side that presents the case in the best possible light, while only making true statements. This is a variation on the 1+2 strategy of The Sage. One can call this communication strategy The Lawyer. The Lawyer will say only things that have positive impact on level 1 and positive impact on level 3. Alternatively, they might say only things that have positive impact on level 1 and positive combined impact on levels 2 and 3. Or they might need to fulfill all three requirements.
By contrast, statements on Level 2 or Level 4 can be entirely false.
Level 2 does this to manipulate your Level 1 map, and therefore your actions.
Level 4 does this as part of a system that manipulates your Level 3 map, and therefore your actions, believing that this is what drives human action.
If such considerations can dominate, or frequently do, then everything becomes a game.
In this perspective, primarily Level 3 actions are a positive driving force. Such considerations can motivate humans to align with accurate maps and helpful behaviors, under at least some conditions where pure object-level considerations would not work. This is one way we coordinate around washing our hands, locking down or wearing a mask.
Whereas Level 2 and Level 4 actions distort that, and are what lead to inaccurate maps and unhelpful actions.
Levels 1+2 vs. Levels 3+4: Facts vs. Politics
This is natural in the sense that it’s higher levels versus lower levels. One can view the first two levels as caring about the object level at all.
You might lie. But you’re lying because truth matters, beliefs determine physical actions and actions have consequences. Your desire for actions that follow from bad maps of the underlying territory is unfortunate. But at least there are maps of the territory involved, however flawed, and people are trying to cause actions that have consequences they themselves want to occur, even if those consequences are not good for others.
One can view Level 2 statements and actions as a sort of corruption of Level 1, but one still grounded in reality. They’re fighting dirty, but they’re still fighting. One can still speak one’s mind, there is still a marketplace of ideas and over time truth retains a competitive advantage.
Whereas Level 3 is an entirely different thing that has nothing but contempt for the idea that facts matter, or actions have consequences distinct from how they are viewed by others.
Hence the claim that “Facts Don’t Matter.”
Facts Don’t Matter signifies that it does not matter if it is common knowledge that someone is lying.
Thus, Facts Don’t Matter is the dominance of level 3+4 considerations over level 1+2 considerations. Why should I care if the words I say correspond accurately to the physical world’s past, present or future? What matters is their impact on my membership in my coalition, and the success of myself and that coalition in playing political games.
An embodiment of this distinction is the resonance of the statement “I Demand A Plausible Lie.” This is a request to cease purely Level 3+4 behavior and at least adapt some Level 2 considerations. It insists that one be allowed to maintain a map of reality at all outside of politics, and that political considerations be bound at least a little by reality.
To the purely political actor, the implausible lie is better. If the lie is implausible, then those repeating it have sent a costly signal of loyalty, and cut ties with lower levels. You don’t have to worry they repeated the statement because it happens to match the physical world, or that they will refuse to repeat the next one if it fails to match.
Note also that if you only are playing politics, you might be able to act directly in a way that has a direct effect. What you cannot do is make or carry out physical plans involving multiple steps. In the best of times actually planning is very hard. This makes it impossible.
Levels 1+2+4 vs. Level 3: The Drone vs. the Agent
When grouping levels 1+2 against level 3, it feels natural to me to put level 4 with level 3. When talking about this with Ben Hoffman, it became clear there was also a view, where it is level 3 rather than level 4 that feels alien and hard to grok, that naturally groups level four instead with the first two levels.
In this view, the Drone, who cares only about level 3 considerations, is the odd one out.
Anyone acting on any other level is an agent. They are acting on systems. Level 1 acts upon the physical world. Level 2 acts upon other people’s models of the physical world. Level 4 acts upon people’s models of other people and their dynamics.
Whereas the Drone lacks agency and free will entirely. The Drone does what they see others in their group are doing, says what others in their group are saying. More than anyone else, the Drone is a dead player.
Levels 1+2+3 vs. Level 4: The People vs. The Lizards
One could also group the first three levels together and contrast them with the fourth. This thinking is that there is ordinary decent interaction, humans being human, as represented by the first three levels. Then there are the schemers who prey upon us, twist everything in their sick games and play us against each other. We vote for the lizards, as Douglas Adams reminds us, because if we don’t, the wrong lizard might win.
The lizards do not care about Covid-19. It would be a category error to say that the lizards care about things at all. That implies they believe in the existence of things, or prefer one state of those things to another state, and act upon that in some way. That’s not their jam.
Instead of having goals and trying to achieve them, the lizards have systems of power accumulation. They follow habits of behavior that move away from potentially blameworthy actions towards ones that will be seen as good, to sculpt perception of them as powerful and their opponents as weak, and so on. On multiple levels they have a complete inability to plan, even more so than in the last section. They are the politician who prepares two speeches, one pro and one anti, and gives whichever sounds better.
This perspective says the problem is mainly the lizards – or, alternatively, that you want to make sure you are one of the lizards. Get rid of the lizards, and you won’t get a paradise, but you’ll get systems that move towards truth and justice, and that can plan and do useful things.
A Gentle Glossary of Strategies
From here, L-1 is level 1, L-2 is level 2, L-3 is level 3, L-4 is level 4.
Let’s summarize the players. This is what they would say. What they would do is similar.
These players are roles that individuals take in situations. Few people will embody one of them at all times in all circumstances. Sometimes you see a lion across the river.
Nothing: The Nihilist says some things, then eats at Arby’s.
L-1: The Oracle speaks the truth, even if their voice trembles.
L-2: The Trickster says that which causes beliefs that cause the actions they want.
L-1 and L-2: The Sage says only true things that don’t have bad consequences.
L-3: The Drone sings songs and carries signs, mostly saying hurray for our side.
L-1 and L-3: The Lawyer says the true things that comprise the best argument for their position.
L-3 and L-4: The Politician ignores the object level and only considers politics.
L-4: The Lizard trusts their instincts and does that which creates or captures power.
L-All: The Pragmatist balances impact at all levels they are aware of slash care about when deciding what to say.
Several of these roles have important divisions into two or more related but distinct approaches. A key question is whether considerations act as veto points, or if they are weighed against each other. Further discussion is beyond scope here but I hope it happens in the future.
(Think this is missing 1-3 additional roles. Discussion question, what is The Idealist?)
All actions and statements operate on all four levels at once, to the extent that they have implications on those levels.
The intent of a statement is often entirely on one level. That’s not how humans or Bayesians interpret an action. If you want to improve the physical world without having any higher-level side effects, that’s going to require extra effort. Avoiding meaningful implications on levels 2, 3 and 4 is hard work. The same bleeding effect occurs when aiming for higher levels, as well. For concrete discussion of this, see my previous post on simulacra levels.
As I say in the previous section, many of these roles have multiple variations, and have a lot of complexity inside them. Posts that explore them in detail would be worthwhile.
There is also the issue of the overall simulacra level of a group, organization or civilization. What is the default interpretation of information or action? What is the assumed motivation? What does that say about the group’s dynamics and its ability to do things? I’m still trying to work through these things. There’s clearly a somewhat distinct way of thinking about 3rd and 4th level simulacra that is built around these questions rather than thinking about individual actions. I suspect that the two are fully compatible and describe aspects of the same thing, but I’m still working that out and will talk about it more when I better understand it.
It’s also possible there are two or more different models that are using the same four-level language structure, that share their concepts of levels one and two but disagree about how level four works, and to some extent about level three. The more we talk about it, and the more concrete we can make our examples, the better we can sort all this out. The important thing is to get models that are useful.
The original intent of this post was to go on to analysis of other issues surrounding Covid-19. I was hoping to make clear what I meant by the more disputed statements in my Covid-19 model summary from two weeks ago, and also how and why I believe those dynamics occurred, and what dynamics one can expect going forward. But this post is long enough, so I’ve pushed that into future posts.