“for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust”

A comment from 3 years ago on reddit about Ashley Madison:

Not really question, but I want to make sure that everyone else knows what Mr Biderman knows.
There are few or no women on Ashley Madison. Ads and messages “from” women are in fact from employees of Ashley Madison.
The business model is fairly simple. The would-be adulterer buys the privilege of sending X messages, say 50 for $100. He uses them to respond to ads supposedly from women (unbeknownst to him, of course, they are just plants).
When he starts to run low, one of his messages will be answered. A woman who is, miraculously, exactly what he was looking for and lives nearby, will start up a conversation with him. Things will be looking really good just when he runs out of messages. He’ll have to buy a whole new package of 50 or 100 but someone that women will never as responsive — until he starts running low again.
Personally, I think it’s a pretty sleazy business, but what the hell.
(No, I’m not a victim. I used to run an honest dating site.)

If you want to understand the motivations of the AM hackers, you need to understand how very intensely anons hate this kind of thing. It’s not wannabe-adulterers they have a hate-boner for – they’re quite sanguine about treating AM’s userbase as collateral damage, but if they rationalise this as “punishment” it’s for stupidity not immorality. But that’s by the by. What they hate, with the fire of a thousand suns, is systematic deception and unfairness – because what they adhere to, as a value above all values, is the idea of a level playing field with transparent rules. They know very well that the world isn’t like that, but they believe that it should be and can be made to be by exposing and punishing offenders against fairness – the corrupt, the duplicitous, the biased and self-serving. This is the underlying principle behind both the old anon campaigns against the Church of Scientology, and all the bits of ‪#‎gamergate‬ that are in any sense actually about ethics in games journalism. If AM had actually done what it purported to do, fairly and consistently and without false advertising or making a sucker out of the punters, then I can guarantee that absolutely no fucks would have been given by anyone in that community.

As usual, it all gets a bit skewed in the presence (or, rather, absence) of sex, because anons tend to see male sexual desire as an uncontrollable need exploited by a) individual unscrupulous women (hence the monstering of Zoe Quinn), b) society at large, via advertising and the apparatus of celebrity (hence the rationalisability of the Fappening as a kind of pirate raid on the hoarded sex-value of female celebs, a return to the commons of a resource made artificially scarce), and c) scammers like AM who promise to service that need but never delivar (cf the tremendous anger of disappointed PUAs, who’ve been promised a reversal of fortunes that never materialises in practice). To be male, and to have unmet and probably unmeetable sexual needs, is in their eyes to be permanently and damagingly vulnerable – it’s an unbearable and deeply-resented state of dependency on others. The AM hack is unusual in that in this case that resentment has been focussed on something other than women – but it’s nevertheless based on the same truly horrible and destructive understanding of what it is to be a sexual being.

p.s.: my initial take on the AM hack –

Laura Kipnis says something somewhere in Against Love to the effect that adultery is almost like an American religion – it fulfils a need for having secrets, for private meaning, for a kind of self-ownership based on reclaiming the prerogative of defaulting on one’s public oaths and pledges of allegiance: “my tongue swore to, but my heart (or mind, or other backstage artiste) did not”. Don Draper is explicitly positioned as a figure of envy, even if he simultaneously seems – as he is – sad, empty, driven by futile compulsions. His capacity for duplicity is the most authentic thing about him. The point here isn’t that monogamy is “too hard”, that it’s unnatural and too much for ordinary, unsaintly people to bear; it’s that the couple form is invested with such tremendous significance that it generates a perverse incentive to break out, a counter-investment of equal and opposite potency. AM’s sales pitch – have an affair, take possession of a part of your life that you had surrendered control over, evade detection, act as if invisible and untouchable by consequence – proposes adultery as a ring-of-Gyges scenario, almost like the exercise of a superpower: be Walter White in your own life! And now it’s Naked Lunch time – “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”…

The Adventure Of French Philosophy

BADIOU: hey Gilles
how’s that body coming
you know
the one without organs

DELEUZE: oh hi Alain
how’s it going with that political organisation
what was it called again
oh yes
“the political organisation”

BADIOU: it’s going great
been hanging out with the migrant workers
doing stuff
political stuff
not that you’d know anything about that

DELEUZE: the migrant workers told me
you and Sylvain just talked
for three hours
about the real


BADIOU: Gilles did I ever tell you
they got rid of infinitesimals
a hundred years ago

we’ve been over this
not everything is a set
just because you say so
for example

BADIOU: are totally sets

DELEUZE: sets aren’t even real

BADIOU: what do you think
a riemannian manifold is
no really
I want you to tell me

DELEUZE: it’s a metaphor Alain


DELEUZE: lol nerd

BADIOU: u mad

DELEUZE: microfascist

BADIOU: spudfucker

Res Publica

PLATO: kings are stupid
why do we have to have kings
anyone who wants to be king
is stupid
but you know who isn’t stupid

XENOPHON: go on then who

PLATO: philosophers
philosophers aren’t stupid
because they know about Ideas
unlike stupid people

XENOPHON: you mean the people
in the cave

PLATO: that’s right
people like uncle Critias
i hate him

XENOPHON: careful Plato
that kind of talk
could totally get you hemlocked
for real

PLATO: I don’t even care
any more
stupid kings
you know what there should be

XENOPHON: what should there be

PLATO: philosopher

XENOPHON: but I thought
people who wanted to be kings
were stupid

PLATO: no idiot
philosophers aren’t stupid
haven’t you been listening
to a word I’ve said

with apologies to Mallory Ortberg, who invented this form and excels at it.

Tunnel Of Love

Not so to exit, so perform exilic
leaderboard, how putatively reft
the early gates unswung, the left undone
or lately stifled. Murder by remote
new-normal novel, fuzzing out on impact:
be that our pitch, our key to elevation
stray pupillage, slipping through jagged straits
unverified of iris, crudely hitched
to heavy providence. Critic of all,
dress down each apparition, pluck from lambent
ectoplasm the least fungible
imaginary kernel; make for home
a final coronet, a bounding circuit
outsizing the imperishable parish.


Written at speed, and without one might think sufficient care given the subject matter. The immediate occasion is a more than usually revolting cartoon by “Mac” in the Daily Mail, which nevertheless in depicting refugees attempting to storm the walls of heaven touches on some questions about the economy of salvation worth considering more seriously.

He Knew He Was Right

The crucial point in my conception of non-empirical theory confirmation is that all three arguments of non-empirical theory confirmation that I’ve described before rely on assessments of limitations to underdetermination. In effect, scientists infer the strength of limitations to underdetermination from observing a lack of known alternatives, the surprising explanatory extra value of their theory or a tendency of predictive success in the research field. Eventually, these observations amount to theory confirmation because strong limitations to underdetermination increase the probability that the known theory is viable. The connection between the number of possible alternatives and the chances of predictive success is intuitively most plausible when looking at the extreme cases: if there are infinitely many alternatives to choose from and just one of them is empirically viable, the chances to pick the correct one are zero. If there is just one possible consistent theory – and if I assume that there is a viable scientific theory at all -, the chance that the consistent theory I found will be predictively successful is 100 percent.

Richard Dawid, on String Theory and Post-Empiricism

This type of reasoning – from bounded probability, given an infinite search space – throws up all kinds of surprises. But there’s another theme here, slightly submerged: it turns out that theory choice, or axiom selection, isn’t really arbitrary (even if it is necessarily “ungrounded”). There are background reasons why a particular theory proposes itself, or a particular collection of axioms seems initially plausible.

The argument I’m familiar with is that such a choice “proves” itself through its own performativity: it’s retroactively validated (in the weak sense of “shown to be useful”, rather than a strong sense of “proven to be true”) by the results it makes available. But this may be a kind of rationalisation – see, we were right to start here after all! – of a choice that was already guided by criteria that aren’t formally specifiable (i.e. you couldn’t generate the “good” starting-points by following a computational procedure). We start out with a sense of the affordances and constructive capacities of particular forms and combinatorial operations, and pick out likely candidates based on practical intuitions.

This is certainly how it goes in programming – to the extent that I’m a “good” programmer, it’s because experience enables me to be consistently “lucky” in picking out a pragmatically viable approach to a problem. There’s usually an “experimental” stage where one sets up a toy version of a problem just to see how different approaches play out – but what one is experimenting with there is theoretical viability, not empirical confirmation.

Often the initial intuition is something like “this is likely either to turn out to be right, or to fall down quickly so we can discard it early and move on to something else”: what we dread, and become practised in avoiding, is floundering about with something which is wrong in subtle ways that only reveal themselves much later on.

heart disease and bootleg clothing

“Speech” is both directly a form of social action, and an activity in which forms of social action can be modelled without being immediately enacted. What we want from “free speech” is freedom to model action in different ways – to anticipate, consider, scope out, render imaginatively tractable the widest possible variety of situations and events. The usual argument is that any restraint on this capacity is a restraint on our ability to navigate the world, to deal with the unknown, to adjust and optimise and reconsider in the light of new information. But it might also be: restraint on our ability to generate dehumanising representations of others which prepare the ground for dehumanising treatment of them, or serve to justify that treatment after the fact.

Even as we understand that the social value of “speech” comes precisely from the absence of a direct causal link between representation and action, we also have a variety of ways of noticing when speech isn’t causally innocuous. Free speech fundamentalism often requires us to not notice these occasions, or to position them as always remediable through further discussion (as Judith Butler, with impeccable liberal logic, ends up doing in Excitable Speech). But the exercise of what Lyotard called “terror” – the forcible silencing and removal of disputants – passes through representations, even if it isn’t confined to them.

The defense of “free speech” often ends up turning into a defence of “free social action” (provided it can be categorised as “speech”) rather than of “free consideration of social action”. This is morally incoherent, but naturally appeals to dickheads, of whom there are remarkably many on the internet. Posting revenge porn on reddit isn’t “modelling” anything: it’s doing something, to someone.

I want at some point to go back and look carefully at MacKinnon’s use of Lyotard in Only Words, because while I think it’s a bit of a missed connection I also think that something interesting nearly happened there. Or that the reasons why it didn’t quite happen may be interesting in themselves.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

The (possibly alarmist) claim recently surfaced on social media that it was only a matter of time before some enterprising hacker managed to connect the records held by porn sites of their users’ browsing histories to the individual identities of those users, creating considerable opportunities for individual blackmail or general mischief. My personal reaction to this scenario –oh god please no – was balanced by a tranquil sense that a great many people would be in the same boat, and that the likely social impact of mass disclosure was difficult to anticipate. It might be horrific and hilarious in about equal measure. However, sites such as Pornhub already occasionally release their own statistical analyses, showing which US states evince the greatest interest in teenagers, spanking, interracial couples and so on. Public access to their – suitably anonymised – access logs might yield much of sociological interest.

My review of Tim Jordan’s Information Politics: Liberation and Exploitation in the Digital Society is now up at Review 31.

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