Agency Made Me Do It
25 Dec 2020 11:31 - 27 Jun 2021 11:17
- This is the front page for Agency Made Me Do It, an evolving hypertext document which is trying to be some combination of personal wiki and replacement for my old blog. See About for more explanation.
- 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).
- That was in 1996, almost 25 years ago. In 2012 I wrote a series of posts at Ribbonfarm that took up the subject again, from a few different perspectives. These hold up somewhat better, if only because a blog post is a more forgiving form than a PhD thesis.
- Here's how I defined it then (more or less):
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 goals or purposes, and the actions they take are seen as being in pursuit of these goals. Agency thus implies some rudimentary rationality, and a degree of autonomy.
- Agency has a kind of fictional quality to it. It's not so much a property of the physical world, which only has forces and forward causality. Agency is more like a story we tell about certain systems that seem to be goal-oriented, even though they are made of the same causal stuff as the dead rocks. Whether or not agents are real in some metaphysical sense, they are obviously real in a practical sense – we perceive ourselves and others as agents, and we live in a complex social world composed of agents and their products. If agency is a fiction, it's a necessary and fundamental fiction.
- Agency is thus sometimes hard to see, because it's such an intimate aspect of who we are. There don't seem to be much consensus on how to think about it. Yet it's clearly important. So many questions revolve around agency, although agency as such is rarely talked about as such.
- For instance: the assignment of moral and criminal guilt, the formation and maintenance of political coalitions, and dangers of autonomous artificial intelligences – all of these thorny issues seem to be clarified when cast in terms of agency, even though we don't yet have a clear theory of what agency is. The hope of course is that these separate realms can illuminate each other; maybe their mysteries are related.
- I'm using "agency" as kind of a magic word to open up the contested terrain where physical causality and the mental intersect. This is not new, this is pretty much the same function that "cybernetics" and "artificial intelligence" serve – but despite the hopes of their founders, they haven't really unified these domains. I don't really have the ambition of solving a problem that has bedeviled western thought for millennia, but I kind of want to take my own personal stab at it.
More better agency
- My goal is not to write a self-help book or a manual on how to acquire more agency. I guess this is something people might be looking for, given how it is basically the promise of a whole subindustry of productivity and self-help gurus, and a concern of Rationalism (see Being a Robust Agent).
- I have basically nothing to offer in this regard. I'm not even sure more agency is always a good thing (see anti-purpose). No, the goal here is just to try to build for myself a more accurate picture of the concept of agency, because it seems to tie together a lot of separate concerns. What good that does anybody, I can't yet say. At one point I had hoped it might provide new models for building software engineering, but that hasn't really happened.
- That being said – if you suffer from agency-related problems such as akrasia, frustration, powerlessness, or depression, you might be able to use the ideas explored here to get a handle on them and perhaps even find your way out of them. We are all forced to practice agency, forced to construct ourselves as agents, and we might as well get better at it. Like the Whole Earth Catalog, I'm just trying to make the tools more accessible.
from The Rocket Alignment Problem
- I could be wrong of course, and far be it from me to tell people they shouldn't do mathematics. My own approach to the problem is to try to think hard about the relationship between agency and computation; which is the subject of the rest of the text aka Agency Made Me Do It.
- The short name for Agency Made Me Do It. Roam doesn't have very good support for aliases, so this is a separate page for now.