Title Surrogation
Author Suspended Reason
Tags metrics, legibility, goodhart, economics
Release Fall '23

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Surrogation is a patterning in how we, as adaptive, learning agents monitor, assess, and interpret one another—of our reliance on symbols, metrics, and metonyms asked to stand for more than themselves. It is the (necessary, inevitable) replacement and conflation of reality with lossy indicators, or of indicators with indicators many-times stacked. It is both the distance, and our collective amnesia to the distance, between some “thing itself ” which causally matters, and the various stand-ins we construct or rely on to track it. Each successive layer of removal and synoptic abstraction is an opportunity which another agent may adversarially exploit, by expressing the symbol while lacking the substance. And even aligned agents will find themselves pressed to perform, especially for perverse or obsolete reading schemas—to “check the boxes,” save the spirit, and represent truth by presenting literal falsehoods. This process of performance and information emission—whether intentional or side-effect—will be called "writing."

We live in an adolescent statistical culture, in which metrics have a hypnotic, “Circe-like” enchanting power, transforming men into pigs and Scylla from nymph into sea monster. Much of the existing research in this area has focused on statistics, data collection, and institutional metrics. The pattern, however, lies at a deeper level of inference, information, and interaction. There is no living outside surrogates, or without surrogates, but the extent of surrogation—the extent of our removal and our amnesia regarding that removal—matters and varies. Modernity demands increased information processing from the position of greater distance. It also accelerates change, destroying the environmental regularities on which all surrogative strategies depend. Surrogation problems will continue to grow more expensive as the scale of our coordination grow.