I'm writing this in the wake of the blowup between SlateStarCodex and NYT that is rocking the internet; and I'm doing it to remind myself that even if SSC has dubious politics and his arguments can be bad in sneaky ways, he's an excellent writer who has a way of bringing the most abstruse of concepts to life; and so I'm going to engage with him on that level if possible. And it turns out that this essay revolves around questions of agency.
Agency simply means “the quality of being capable of taking action”. You and the people around you seem to have agency; while rocks generally do not. Inanimate objects are sometimes granted agency in a kind of humorous quote marks (eg “the washer decided to break today”); later we will try to take such constructions seriously. Agents (entities that have agency) have the additional implied quality of having goals, and that the actions they take are generally in pursuit of these goals. Agency thus carries a presumption of at least some rudimentary rationality, and a degree of autonomy.
A serious disease of agency, where the usual functions of the brain that stich together a coherent feeling of a unified self break down. This is experienced as terrifying hallucinations, such as voices criticizing and commanding.
And play is extremely relevant to any theory of agency. The standard model of agency is essentially rational – that there are goals and actions are undertaken in pursuit of these goals. Play is by definition not goal oriented, or at least, play-goals are quite different from rationality-goals.
I glommed onto the topic of agency in graduate school, and wrote a dissertation that explored its relationship to computation. That work, while it garnered some praise, I have thought of mostly as a failure. It opened up some interesting questions, but didn't really provide much in the way of answers. It tried to do too many different things (which might indicate problems with my own agency).
Something I wrote about in my dissertation, as something of a preliminary to animacy and agency. I was heavily influenced by Lakoff and Johnson's well-known metaphor theory, which blew my mind in such a way that I can't quite remember what it was like to not have a constant reminder in my head that our most abstract concepts are built out of useful culturally evolved mappings to and from the physical embodied world.
I've been circling around the topic of agency for a few decades now. I wrote a dissertation on how metaphors of agency are baked into computers, programming languages, and the technical language engineers use to talk about them. (See Agency at the Media Lab).
In other words, it's an agency hack -- it's imagining how the interests of the future could have agency in the present. And not just metaphorically – it's accomplished by means of a literal government agency.
For me, it's an interesting edge-case for agency. Feminism and other liberation movements can be conceptualized as efforts to build both group and individual agency among populations that are thought to lack it.
1977 book by James Ogilvy, heavily blurbed by Stewart Brand. Full title: Many Dimensional Man: Decentralizing Self, Society, and the Sacred. Very much about agency; and obviously taking off from Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man.
It comes down to basic questions about agency and free will. Materialist determinists (a category that includes Rationalists) don't really believe in the usual notions of moral agency. We are basically robots (for better or worse), subject to the causality of physics and our programming. Freedom is illusory; people respond to their environment according to their natures, and so are not ultimately responsible for their actions.
The Rationalism community has packaged up some of the best of LessWrong into book form, and when I saw that one of the five focus topics was agency I could not resist asking for a review copy, that being something of a pet subject of mine. Now I have to follow through with a review, and I'm taking the opportunity to also completely rebuild my writing and publishing stack.
Stance, like agency, is One of Those Big Topics that I find myself attracted to it because it is capable of encompassing so much, but it's difficult to write about something so general. The only hope is to collect various aspects and illustrations and facets, and try to organize them somewhat, and hope that the act of doing so will be useful at least to myself. That's my meta-stance!
27 Feb 2021 08:13 - 15 Sep 2022 08:42
The quality of being able to take purposeful action. See Agency Made Me Do It for a longer discussion; this page is just a set of pointers to discussion elsewhere.