The Ascent of Conflict

From pitched battles to magical weirding

This week’s post is very visual, with 2 pictures, so no podcast version. For the first picture, I have a 2-level 2x2 for you to puzzle over, positing the evolution of a new regime of conflict — magical weirding — beyond the most advanced kind of the last century, OODA-loop conflict. This is fairly early stage thinking, so I haven’t yet distilled it down to a very clear account, so bear with me while I work it all out :)

The outer 2x2 is rules of engagement (how you fight) versus values (why you fight), with both axes running from shared to not-shared.

The inner 2x2 is whether the unshared outer attribute is symmetrically or asymmetrically legible (ie whether or not both sides understand each other on the not-shared attribute(s) equally well/poorly).

The inner 2x2 is only full-rank in the upper right of the outer 2x2. In the other outer quadrants it is degenerate as one or both of the legibility symmetry axes become moot due to the corresponding trait being shared and therefore not subject to conflict per se (though this is something of an idealization): 2x1, 1x2, or 1x1. So you get 1+2+2+4=9 cases.

To read this recursive 2x2:

  • Start in the bottom left of the outer 2x2, which is the degenerate case of the simplest kind of conflict, a pitched conflict with shared values and shared rules of engagement, and no asymmetries.

  • Then check out the 2x1 and 1x2 cases in the off-diagonal quadrants (rivalry and open competition, each with 2 subtypes, corresponding to the non-degenerate legibility asymmetry).

  • Finally visit the top right (total war, 4 subtypes).

The most complex kind of conflict is where both values and rules of engagement are not shared, and within this dissonant condition, both are asymmetrically legible.

This is the regime I think of as magical weirding, where all sides feel like something magical is going on, whether they are winning or losing. Magical weirding is the conflict regime induced by everybody simultaneously trying to figure out the capabilities of a new generation of technology, equally unfamiliar to all at the start. The Great Weirding we’re in now is obviously due to the emergence of a software-eaten world.

The point of the nested 2x2 is to show the emergence of a new dimensionality to conflict via symmetry breaking and unflattening. We bootstrap from 2 dimensions to 4 by adding legibility asymmetry along 0, 1 or 2 axes.

Dimensional emergence is a kind of arrow of time (the future is higher dimensional, with hidden degenerate dimensions becoming visible and non-degenerate via symmetry breaks; somebody award me an honorary crackpot physics degree already).

If the nested 2x2s are confusing, here is the same set of ideas illustrated in a flattened, serialized, evolutionary view. Some information is lost in this view, but the “ascent of conflict” aspect via increasing conflict dimensionality is clearer. On the plus side, this view reveals the evolving temporal structure of the conflict patterns more clearly, which the nested 2x2 view does not.

Brief descriptions of all 9 regimes, in roughly increasing order of both conflict complexity and temporal complexity (hence “ascent of conflict”). This is also the rough historical order of evolution of conflict, but all 9 types can be found in at least nascent form throughout history.

  1. Pitched conflict/Sports: Shared Rules of Engagement (RoE), shared values, all around unbroken symmetry. Example: sports with low levels of cheating and no evolution in rules. This is an atemporal kind of conflict, ie with no difference between future and past. This is a kind of conflict AIs are eventually guaranteed to win.

  2. Rivalry/Honor conflict: Shared RoE, unshared values, symmetric values legibility. Example: tribal warfare of BigEndian vs. LittleEndian variety. Note that symmetric legibility does not mean high legibility. So both sides might equally misunderstand the other sides values, leading to more genuine anger in the conflict. This too is an atemporal kind of conflict. For any random battle in an honor conflict, the future and past both look like the same kind of pointless, infinitely iterated bloodshed, with forgotten origins and no end in sight (if you want to be fussy, you could call this very weakly temporal, since the past is distinguished by a mythological conflict-origin story, which however has no practical import).

  3. Rivalry/Beef: Shared RoE, unshared values, asymmetric values legibility. One side, the initiator of the beef, feels like they understand the other sides values, but are themselves beyond the understanding of the rival, due to having achieved a moral evolution the other cannot comprehend. The other side is therefore seen as being left behind in a state of irredeemable sin and darkness. It took me a while to see this, but a beef in the modern sense (as it emerged in music in particular) is actually an asymmetric honor conflict that must be deliberately provoked by one side on the basis of a claimed moral (or what is almost the same thing, aesthetic) evolution. It can’t just be an atemporal tribal blood-feud. Unlike an honor conflict, in a beef, one side expects to win absolutely because they are on the more evolved “right” side of a predestined history. A beef is the simplest kind of asymmetric conflict, and the first one with a temporality to it, ie with an arrow of time to it (one side feels believes it knows the direction towards the “right” side of history).

  4. Open Competition/Systematic Conflict: Shared values, unshared RoE, symmetric legibility RoE. This is a typical business competition where both sides value the same things for the same reasons (like market share), but bring different rules of engagement that the other side understands but rejects as inferior. This is often the friendliest kind of conflict, conducted in a spirit of “may the best side win” that is almost scientific, like experimental A/B testing. This is a temporal conflict, with 2 arrows of time (ie a possible-worlds fork in history), but the superior temporality is discovered as an outcome of the conflict rather than assumed at the outset as in a beef. This is a judgment-of-history type temporal conflict (honor conflicts and beefs, by contrast, are judgment-of-heaven). Before the conflict, we don’t know if VHS or Betamax is the right side of history. After the conflict, we do. Note that this is not the same as a values judgment; the losers of a systematic conflict may still think they are superior on values and the outcome as evidence of historical decline). Systematic conflict therefore decouples presumptions about moral good from historical evolution, creating broader consensus notions of inevitable progress and decline among winners and losers.

  5. Open Competition/Disruption Conflict: Shared values, unshared RoE, asymmetric legibility RoE. This is typical business disruption where one side understands the other better, and disrupts it. The other side does not understand what is going on until too late. This is the beginning of true time-based competition, with a live race between competing temporalities rather than a 1-point fork in history. One common line about disruption suggests how/why: can the disruptor figure out distribution before the incumbent figures out innovation? Crucially, both sides agree that the disruptor is “ahead” temporally (and temporarily) in at least a narrow sense. The question is whether the incumbent can accelerate and overtake from behind. There is an element of a race between historical times, S-curve vs. S-curve. This is a new phenomenon in our evolutionary ascent model, the idea that “overtaking” is possible because historical time order is not fixed, and to be “discovered” as a sense of progress/decline, but something to be won. The winner gets to invent not just the future, but the definition of “progress” itself, in the short term.

  6. Total War/Crusades: Unshared values and RoE, symmetric legibility on both values and RoE. The early Crusades are a great example. The combatants were two different religions (and associated historicist eschatologies), with different military heritages, but understood the differences. Each side viewed the other side’s playbook as somewhat dishonorable, its values as evil/against nature, and its historicism as false. Crusades are the simplest kind of total war, and all kinds of total war are true time-based conflicts. Races among competing temporalities, with history itself being the prize. In crusades, either or both sides may believe they are “ahead” or “behind” in historical time, depending on whether they see the overall arc of history as progress or decline (obviously, you want to be behind if history is in a decline condition, and ahead if it is in a progress condition, with the goals being to decelerate and reverse or accelerate historical time as it heads towards an imagined dystopia or utopia). Crusades are often about literal disagreements about whether or not a new event in time is one already prophesied, or noise; for example, “is this person the second coming of that person?" (in Asimov’s psychohistory, this is taken very literally, with the Mule representing an actual derailing of history)

  7. Total War/Order vs. Chaos: Unshared values and RoE, symmetric legibility on RoE, asymmetric legibility on values. In this type of conflict, which dominated the second half of the 20th century, the basic dynamic is order versus chaos, often reducible to conservatism vs. progressivism, where one side’s values are illegible to the other side, and are therefore viewed as cosmically nihilist profanity and degeneration rather than just different or morally inferior. To the side that views itself as representing Order, the conflict seems like an existential decline-and-fall-of-civilization conflict, presenting a save-the-world imperative. The temporality race here is between temporalities of different orders. It’s not a question of whether Christian or Islamic eschatology is more correct. It is a question of abstract order racing against the forces of chaos. The side viewed as chaos believes it has discovered a nascent new order waiting to be born; a belief in having uncovered epistemic rather than moral progress. So what the conservative side views as chaos, the progressive side views as discovered new knowledge waiting to be decrypted to reveal its meaning. This is a level of conflict where the idea of novelty and progress are fundamentally comprehended and accommodated (“compression progress” in the sense of Schmidhuber or what I called the Freytag staircase in Tempo). In Asimovian psychohistory terms, this would be a case of the Mule being viewed as a turn of history to be understood and accommodated through steering in a new direction, rather than a disturbance to be rejected to preserve a “Seldon Plan”.

  8. Total War/Inside the OODA loop: Unshared values and RoE, symmetric legibility on values, asymmetric legibility on RoE. This was the state of the art 20 years ago, before the internet. Each side understood what the other side was fighting for, but one side’s style of play was inscrutable to the other, and this translated into one side’s asymmetric ability to get inside the OODA loop of the other, create FUD, and collapse it from within, directly destroying the other side’s temporality and reducing it to an atemporality (there is evidence that this is an actually measurable psychological effect, not just a metaphysical idea). One side experiences serendipity, the other zemblanity. This describes a lot of both military conflict and globalized business competition (between US and Japanese businesses for example) after WW2. Unlike Crusades or Order vs. Chaos conflicts, an OODA conflict does not require assumption of an absolute historicist temporality of progress or decline, only a thermodynamic, entropic one. OODA conflict is not just time-based competition, but relativistic time-based competition, with no need to assume that one or the other side is more “advanced” or “degenerate” historically, in either a values-based or rules-of-engagement sense. The winner is not so much on the right side of history, as it is the side that “wins” the right to history in a non-deterministic way. The understanding of historical order here is emergent and constructivist, not a natural or divine predestination to be uncovered. The temporal structure of conflict is also fine-grained, direct and tactical, rather than coarsely historicist. It is a battle over the now of conflict itself (the initiative/freedom to set the tempo) rather than past and future, before/after the conflict. The other side’s experience of time itself is collapsed through conflict. Temporal relativism does not mean moral relativism though. OODA conflict can still be based on absolute values, so long as they are consistent with a thermodynamic arrow of time. So the idea that liberal democracy represents the end of history for instance, is an OODA-style values doctrine. It is just an emergent, constructivist historicism rather than a received one. Another example is in the later books of Asimov’s Foundation saga, where the mysterious Gaians get “inside the OODA loop” of the Second Foundation, keeping the Seldon Plan unreasonably on track, as ongoing invention rather than prophesy unfolding on schedule. You could say that following Alan Kay’s dictum, the Gaians were inventing the future because it was easier than predicting it.

  9. Total War/Magical Weirding: The most extreme and evolved form of conflict, which in some sense is as close to a Darwinian evolutionary competition for a niche as you can get, while still being consciously engaged in conflict at the human intentionality level rather than genetic level. Here, the structure and evolution of the conflict is at some level highly surprising to all, whether they are winning or losing, because the conflict itself is generating intelligence and discovery new to all, and potential for win-win resolutions through the conflict. The outcome feels beyond serendipitous even to the winner, and creates an imperative to try and understand what happened to consolidate gains and prevent backsliding. I call this magical weirding for two reasons. It is magical in the sense of Arthur C. Clarke: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, even to the inventors themselves. You could say the winning side figured out how to use a magical new weapon available to all, by trial and error, but still does not understand the laws of the new magic. The weirding part refers to the subjective experience. It is neither the FUD of losing or the sense of confident, serendipitous mastery of winning. It is a sense of more going on than you can understand or control, even if you are willing. In terms of temporality, magical weirding moves beyond even relativistic temporality to full-blown multitemporality. The conflict is creating more time than it is destroying, so winning does not guarantee mastery of time.

So that’s my work-in-progress theory of the ascent of conflict, understood as an increasing dimensionality, complexifying-temporality evolutionary path (this is actually a rough-cut outtake from work I’m doing on my multitemporality project).