The Mute Button

This is Chapter 5 in a series. If you’re new to the series, visit the series home page for the full table of contents.

Chapter 5: The Mute Button

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So far, we’ve talked a lot about the Primitive Mind and the Higher Mind, and the strange tension they create in our heads. This chapter, we’re going to zoom out a bit and bring two new characters into the mix.

The first isn’t a new character exactly—it’s the combined workings of the Primitive Mind and Higher Mind: the Inner Self.

The Inner Self is the product of the struggle between the Primitive Mind and the Higher Mind. At any given moment, the way the Inner Self thinks and feels, what it believes, its values and motivations, are a reflection of the state of that struggle. For our purposes in this chapter, we’ll only worry about the Inner Self as a whole.

The second character is someone we haven’t talked about, but someone we all know well.

The Outer Self.

The Outer Self is the human body the Inner Self lives in. The state of the Inner Self determines how the Outer Self behaves—where it goes, how it acts, who it spends time with, what it says or doesn’t say. So the Outer Self isn’t really an independent entity—it’s more like a big robot being controlled by the Inner Self, who sits in a little cockpit in its head.

Let’s return once again to the concept of emergence and think about how it works with brains.

Your brain is a giant made up of a network of 100 billion neurons. A neuron on its own can’t do too much.

It’s the neurons’ ability to communicate with one another—to export information through their axons and import information through their dendrites—that allows them to move up Emergence Tower and combine together into a single thinking system that’s far more powerful than the sum of its parts:

The same phenomenon happens a few floors up, on the human level. A bunch of people together, but not communicating, is just a bunch of individual brains in the same place.

Language is so magical because it allows individual brains to connect, like neurons, to form a larger thinking system. If a human’s Inner Self is like a neuron, the Outer Self’s ability to express itself gives the neuron its axons, and its ability to see or listen to the expression of others gives it dendrites.

These channels let individual human brains combine together to form a larger communal brain.

Humans can form brains of all different sizes, depending on the number of people communicating with each other.

There’s no limit on how large a brain humans can meld into. In human societies, vast interconnected gossip networks, with the help of tools of mass broadcast,1 allow thousands of communal brains to quickly connect, turning huge portions of a society into giant thinking systems.

In theory, with enough communication, an entire country with millions of people could become a colossal national brain.2

Through the magic of communication, human thinking can glide up and down Emergence Tower.

How we think is a major topic in this series, and in the next few chapters I’ll be introducing a number of tools to help us think about thinking. Together, these tools will be a big part of the new language we’re working on developing.

The first tool is a simple idea spectrum.

The idea spectrum gives us a visual way to depict the whole range of thought on any given topic. Like a political issue:

Or an opinion range:

With binary questions, we can give the idea spectrum two colors and use it to examine the “degree of certainty” range:

Of course, the idea spectrum is a pretty rigid tool—it’s linear and one-dimensional—and most worlds of thought are more complex and involve multiple dimensions simultaneously. But most of these worlds can also be roughly explored on a simple idea spectrum, and for our purposes, oversimplifying areas of thought to single spectrums can help us see what’s going on. We’re going to use a lot of idea spectrums in this series, and as we do, remember to take them with a grain of salt as a simplified version of reality.

On any given idea spectrum, what a person thinks or believes or hypothesizes is where their Inner Self is “standing” on the spectrum.3

And let’s color the Inner Self’s brain-head the color of what it believes about the topic:

To visualize how we can use the idea spectrum, let’s visit a small, 1,000-person country called Hypothetica, where we find the citizens mulling over a topic—let’s call it Topic X. Looking at the color-coded Inner Selves of all Hypotheticans together can show us what everyone thinks about Topic X.

Cute. The only problem is, this image doesn’t really tell us that much. To understand what the Hypotheticans really think about Topic X, let’s turn these brains into little circles and organize them by stacking them on top of the Idea Spectrum.

Much more interesting. We can smooth this out into a single object whose height represents the commonness of each viewpoint along the idea spectrum. We can call it the Thought Pile.

The Thought Pile is a visual representation of how the country feels about Topic X. On its own, the Thought Pile is not a higher-emergence giant. Remember, the phenomenon of emergence is many small parts combining together into a larger entity that is more than the sum of its parts. The Thought Pile represents a large group of individual viewpoints, all isolated from one another like a pile of disconnected neurons, equaling the exact sum of its parts. That’s why a Thought Pile alone is still on the “individual animal” level of Emergence Tower—it’s just a large group of items at that level.

To actually move up Emergence Tower and become a larger communal brain, neurons have to communicate with each other. This is where the Outer Self comes in.

The Outer Self has a location on the idea spectrum too—a location that represents what a person outwardly says they think about the topic.

We can color their heads too. The color of the Outer Self’s head represents the viewpoint a person expresses on Topic X.

We can make a symbol that depicts the location of both the Inner Self and Outer Self:

Both elements of this symbol can be color-coded. The color of the brain shows what the person is thinking on the inside—the color of the circle is what they’re saying on the outside.

When a person is being authentic and saying what they really think, the Inner Self and Outer Self are standing in the same spot on the idea spectrum.

So here, both elements of our symbol are the same color, allowing the thoughts of the Inner Self to pass unimpeded through the Outer Self and out into the world.

When a group of people are all saying what they’re thinking, their brains connect together like communicating neurons.

Likewise, when the citizens of Hypothetica are actively expressing their minds about Topic X, their Inner Selves wire together into a giant thinking network.

But is the network really a giant brain?

Mostly, the Hypotheticans are communicating in little groups of two or five or ten. Which means it’s more like a bunch of these groups coexisting than a single thinking system:

Sure, people socialize in multiple circles, so ideas born in small group discussions can travel into other small group discussions—but to think as one big brain, the Hypotheticans need to be able to have more system-wide, coordinated thought.

This is where mass broadcast comes in.

In Hypothetica, there’s the big national newspaper, Hypothetica Today, which almost every Hypothetican reads. And there’s the storied Hypothetica Colosseum, where masses of Hypotheticans gather to hear sermons from the country’s major thought leaders or watch shows where comedians interview Hypothetica’s celebrities. Each of Hypothetica’s districts also has its own local newspaper and its own smaller town hall for local shows.

These forums allow certain individuals to express their thoughts to hundreds of people all at once. Under normal circumstances, the ideas circulating most frequently around the small conversations in Hypothetica end up finding their way onto these larger stages.

We can represent these platforms with a megaphone. The color of the megaphone represents the viewpoint being expressed through it. And the bigger the megaphone, the bigger the listening audience.

Hypothetica, as a small country, has two primary megaphone tiers—national and local. Below these tiers are the lower tiers made up of the hundreds of group conversations, and the ground-floor tier made up of a thousand individual thinking minds.

These tiers all feed off each other. New ideas are born in individual minds and in group conversations, and the hottest ideas rise up into the larger forums, where they’re discussed and debated in front of hundreds of people. What’s said on the larger stages stokes new conversations on the lower tiers and new thoughts in the minds of individual audience members.

Each of the tiers plays its own important role—but it’s the megaphone’s ability to connect to masses of brains simultaneously that welds the whole thing together. Mass broadcast channels wire their way through the smaller pockets of the Hypothetica brain, bringing a unity to the nation’s discussions that turns a thousand people into a single thinking system.

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Now of all the ideas out there, which ones end up with megaphone distribution? Let’s look at how it might work with Topic X by turning our tiers into a vertical expression axis that complements the horizontal idea spectrum.

In theory, each idea along an idea spectrum could be outwardly expressed at each tier of the expression axis.

But for expression to become communication, it requires participation from both expresser and listener—it requires attention. And attention is a limited resource. The megaphone platforms are businesses, and to stay afloat they need the ideas on their platforms to garner a sufficient level of interest. Some people like to listen to a wide variety of viewpoints, but on aggregate, people tend to be interested in hearing from like-minded people. So the Thought Pile can serve as a pretty good proxy for the amount of attention available to each viewpoint across Topic X.

The higher the tier, the more the distributors need to appeal to a large audience, so the more they’ll seek out ideas with widespread interest:

In the case of Topic X, only the most commonly held viewpoints in the blue-to-purple range are able to get much airtime in the national newspaper and the national colosseum. Less common ideas in the green or red areas don’t draw national attention, but they have a sizable enough audience to get some play in the local newspapers and town halls. The even more out-there ideas are discussed within smaller communities, and the most fringe yellow and orange ideas will rarely get attention outside of the dinner tables of those who believe them.

This phenomenon means that all ideas along the spectrum have an expression ceiling—the largest stage that can support it, given the interest it generates. The expression ceilings for the ideas within Topic X are highlighted below.

Connecting the dots with these ceilings gives us a line that matches up pretty well with the top of the Thought Pile.

This an important line that we’ll call the Speech Curve. We’re going to be looking at a lot of Speech Curves in this series, so let’s make it pretty.

The Speech Curve is called the Speech Curve because it shows us the upper limit on how “loudly” each viewpoint is being expressed along a given idea spectrum—with loudness in this case referring to the size of the biggest stage on which the idea is being consistently expressed. While the Thought Pile lets us visualize what a population’s collective Inner Selves are thinking about a topic, the Speech Curve shows us what their Outer Selves are saying about the topic.

(Quick confusion-avoiding note: The y-dimension of the Thought Pile and Speech Curve are similar, but not exactly the same. The Thought Pile’s y-axis metric is the number of people thinking each viewpoint, while the Speech Curve’s y-axis is the size of the stage on which each viewpoint is being expressed—how publicly each viewpoint is being expressed—which will often but not always correlate with the number of people expressing that viewpoint. An exception would be a viewpoint that everyone is talking about in private but, because it’s a sensitive topic, keeping quiet about in big public forums. A situation like that would yield a low Speech Curve value even though the number of people talking about the idea is high.)

With a topic on which everyone is freely saying what they think, the shape of the Speech Curve for that topic sits neatly on top of the Thought Pile. The things people are thinking the most will also end up being said on the biggest platforms, and the fringe viewpoints will be relegated to fringe platforms.

On its own, the Thought Pile is just the potential for a giant brain. Only when it rests underneath the Speech Curve does a Thought Pile light up with color, activating into higher-emergence thought.

Remember the big orange giant from Part 1? The one controlled by strings? Well when the individual brains in a human giant can freely communicate with one another, the giant itself wakes up, developing the ability to think for itself.

While the Thought Pile shows us what the individuals are thinking, the Speech Curve shows us what the giant is thinking. And when the two are aligned, the giant is thinking perfectly clearly.

Which is great. Unless you’re a dictator.

When the Enlightenment got rolling, the standard country looked like this:

In order to pull off the dictator gig, you had to control the story your giant believed. Which means you really didn’t want your giant thinking for itself. Because a giant that can think for itself might pretty quickly do this:

This is why a dictator’s favorite word is:

Looking at it from the perspective of an individual, censorship is control over what people can say. And as individuals ourselves, this is what we usually think censorship is. But from a perspective higher up on Emergence Tower, censorship is control over what a giant can think. To a giant, censorship is mind control.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is that Hypothetica is a totalitarian dictatorship, led by the highly tyrannical King Mustache.

It’s not that King Mustache wants to exert universal mind control over his Hypothetica giant. In most cases, King Mustache could care less what people are talking about. But with sensitive topics—like, say, the rights of the lower caste, or the depiction of a rival country, or the perception of historical events—it’s a different story. It’s not that dictators want to prevent the giant from thinking about those topics, it’s that they want to control exactly what the giant is thinking.

And in this case, it turns out that Topic X is actually “Opinions of King Mustache”—which is about as sensitive a topic as King Mustache can imagine.

When King Mustache looks at that spectrum, he sees a number of highly inconvenient viewpoints. There’s not much he can do about the Thought Pile, since he can’t control what people think—but he can do something about the Speech Curve.

So he does exactly what the Johnsons did when they wanted to control Moochie—he puts up an electric fence. He makes an ironclad set of laws to ensure that certain viewpoints, if expressed publicly enough, will result in immediate imprisonment or execution.

Under the king’s policy, anyone who utters a frowned-upon viewpoint on a public stage—a celebrity, a journalist, a politician—is promptly zapped out of existence by the censorship fence. For the extra inconvenient viewpoints on the far left side of the spectrum, the electric fence threatens even those who express them in more private settings, as the government hires secret moles within communities to snitch on blasphemers. A few good public zappings of speech transgressors is usually all it takes to generate a wide-ranging silence, as the censorship fence quickly becomes the new Speech Curve for that topic. Silenced areas of the Thought Pile fall dormant, unraveling down Emergence Tower where they’re no longer able to function as a higher-emergence entity.

With the megaphones not allowed to reflect the true ideas of the Thought Pile back at the masses, Hypothetica loses its ability to function as a giant brain—at least on this topic. The censored ideas, though still widespread, can’t develop or evolve or gain any traction. Which is exactly what King Mustache wants.

Meanwhile, beyond prohibiting that which cannot be said, the electric fence also emphasizes what should be said. Especially on the large platforms, the king’s preferred viewpoints are now repeated ad nauseam—receiving a far brighter spotlight than the Thought Pile would normally warrant.

Censorship takes a single region formed by an aligned Thought Pile and Speech Curve and turns it into three regions by generating two “censorship gaps.”

Censorship policies need to be put in by force at first, but once they’re in place, they tend to stay in place. Because when a population of people can’t communicate with each other, they become less communally lucid. When people aren’t saying what they’re thinking, the real shape of the Thought Pile becomes guesswork. False assumptions about citizen sentiment have no way of being corrected, and everyone starts to go a little crazy.

Let’s take a closer look at why. When, for one reason or another, what someone is saying is different than what they really think, their Inner Self and Outer Self are in separate places on the idea spectrum.

With their Outer Self broadcasting different beliefs than the Inner Self holds, the ideas of the Inner Self become hidden in a person’s head, isolated from the outside world.

From the communal brain perspective, where each individual human mind is a single neuron, it’s as if the axons of the neurons have been hijacked, which ceases any real neural communication.

The macro effect of this is incredibly powerful. Under King Mustache’s iron fist, almost no one dares to say the wrong thing—it’s just not worth it. Looking at our network diagram, we can see all Outer Self circles now turned the king’s preferred color, quarantining other colors safely within the skulls of each human neuron and preventing them from entering the wider network.

And the thing is, no Hypotheticans can actually see what we’re seeing here. We’re looking at a cross-section of everyone’s head that shows us both what they’re thinking and what they’re saying. But in the real world, what people are thinking is hidden from sight—the only information we have about other people’s viewpoints is what they say out loud or do outwardly. So to any given Hypothetican, their society seems like this:

So if you’re this person—

—despite actually being surrounded by tremendous thought diversity, you might very well assume that you’re the only person thinking what you’re thinking, and that the nation’s brains look like this:

In the absence of anonymous surveys (which King Mustache banned a long time ago), the Thought Pile is invisible to citizens. All a citizen can see is the shape of the Speech Curve—which they often mistakenly assume to be the shape of the Thought Pile.

Of course, even the scariest censorship policies will fail to be airtight.

But a censorship policy doesn’t have to be airtight to accomplish its goal. If you can block ideas from reaching the higher-tier expression platforms, you quarantine the ideas within small, isolated pockets. Because if people will be honest with each other in private but still abide by the censorship rules in public, they appear to everyone else to hold the king’s preferred views.

Containing the expression of banned viewpoints to small groups prevents the viewpoints from traveling anywhere and gaining any momentum in the national giant’s big brain.

Over the long run, censorship policies generate the kind of self-perpetuating loop we talked about in Part 1. The absence of banned ideas in outward conversation makes it easy to indoctrinate children and impressionable adults into actually believing the dictator’s preferred viewpoints.

In her TED Talk, Yeonmi Park, who grew up in North Korea and escaped, explained: “Growing up in North Korea, we truly believed that our Dear Leader is an almighty god who can even read my thoughts. I was even afraid to think in North Korea.”4

When the Speech Curve is forced into place for long enough, the Thought Pile itself begins to morph closer to its shape.

For all these reasons, of all a dictator’s possessions, the most precious one is his mute button.

By silencing certain ideas, the mute button prevents the giant from having the wrong thoughts. And when you can control a giant’s thoughts, you can control the giant’s actions.

In the Power Games, someone is usually holding a mute button over your head, lining your discourse with electric fences. And in most cases, the only way for a population to reclaim the power of collective free thought is to try to out-cudgel the dictator. Those are the two options of the Power Games: silence or violence.

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The Enlightenment was aggressively anti-mute-button. And the newly liberated Americans were intent on making their young country a mute-button-free zone, something expressly stated in the Bill of Rights’ 45-word First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Pulled out from the larger group of First Amendment liberties, we see that the American notion of free speech comes down to ten words:

Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech

Congress shall erect no electric fences. Congress shall exercise no mind control over the giant. Congress shall make no mute button.

These critical ten words mean that speech of any kind is always legal and protected. Well, not speech of any kind—remember the Harm Principle:

Everyone can do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else.

Freedom of speech is part of our green circle of rights—the “everyone can do whatever they want” part of the statement. But once speech harms someone else—once you’ve crossed over into someone’s red circle and violated their inalienable rights—it becomes restricted speech and is no longer legal.

So when it comes to our freedom to “swing our arms” in what we say, what exactly constitutes hitting someone else’s nose? The government uses specific terms to define what constitutes harmful and therefore restricted speech. Like:1

  • Incitement — e.g. yelling “fire” in a crowded theater to trigger a stampede
  • Fighting words — not violence itself, but speech that is aimed at inciting violence in others
  • Defamation — publicly saying intentionally false things about someone which may damage the person’s reputation in a harmful way—called “libel” when in writing and “slander” when it’s spoken
  • Perjury — knowingly lying under oath
  • Extortion — using blackmail of some kind to force someone to comply with your wishes
  • False advertising — e.g. lying about the specs of a computer you’re selling
  • Plagiarism of copyrighted material — publishing someone else’s words or art as your own
  • Obscenity — e.g. public masturbation
  • Child pornography — k we got it

Further, as a green circle right, free speech on private property is still subject to the property owner’s rules. The liberty to make one’s own rules on one’s own property supersedes freedom of speech, so you may be silenced or even kicked out of a private space if your ideas aren’t popular. In public spaces, on the other hand, your freedom of speech trumps someone else’s freedom to wish you would shut the fuck up.

But aside from these specific cases, speech is almost never illegal. It’s pretty hard in the U.S. to get yourself sent to prison for something you say.

When the First Amendment was ratified in 1791, such a broad right to freedom of speech was highly unusual around the world. Even in relatively liberal places at the time, speech was far more restricted—it was illegal in England at the time, for example, to publicly criticize the government.

The First Amendment was a revolution for the Outer Self. Whether in speech or any other form of legal expression, you could no longer be punished by the government for being on the outside who you were on the inside. With the country’s human neurons able to freely connect, the U.S. organism would be a lot more like a giant human being with a mind of its own than a big dumb orange monster giant that’s controlled by strings.

But how do millions of citizens, holding a wide range of views, often in furious conflict with each other, actually function as a single brain in practice? How does the brain form opinions? How does it learn new things? How does it make concrete decisions, and how does it change its mind?

We’ll explore all that in the final chapter of Part 2.

Chapter 6: The American Brain

 

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Follow me into darkness:

 

What Makes You You – an existential crisis field trip  

The Fermi Paradox – another existential crisis field trip

Why Bugs Ruin Everything – my personal existential crisis field trip


  1. The internet would one day become the ultimate giant brain builder—but we’ll get there later in the series.

  2. Because I’m a psycho, the below image is actually made up of a million tiny brains. Click on it to see the higher-res version.

  3. Another oversimplification, as a person’s belief often spans a range along the spectrum, not a single point. There’s also a whole other dimension that deals with quality of belief that isn’t visualized here. We’ll get to more of that nuance later in the series.

  4. This blew my mind. I can’t imagine what it must do to people’s psyche to not even feel safe inside their own heads.


  1. Here’s a pretty thorough PDF on restricted speech. Wikipedia also has a good sum-up, with the major relevant court cases linked as sources.

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