The Shibboleth and the Miasma

Your word of the day explains all you need to know about the inanity of our modern politics and culture. The word is shibboleth.

A shibboleth is any custom or tradition, usually a choice of phrasing or even a single word, that distinguishes one group of people from another.[3][4][5] Shibboleths have been used throughout history in many societies as passwords, simple ways of self-identification, signaling loyalty and affinity, maintaining traditional segregation, or protecting from real or perceived threats.

It’s a fun word to say also: shib – o – leth. Sounds like the name of a forgetful Irish boxer.

The thing is, in the Bible there is a story about how the difficult pronunciation of this word was used to separate out a tribe that was then slaughtered.

And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;
Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

It’s all fun and games till lisping causes genocide. And BTW, if you actually let your kids read the Bible you’re likely in danger of having child services called on you, so make sure to have them play some violent video games afterwards to calm down their Bronze-Age PTSD a little.

A shibboleth is, culturally, what gerrymandering is politically. It’s a way to divide with the intention of destruction of a group. Our shibboleths are the dog whistles of race, gender, assault weapons, abortion, etc.

The thing is, in the 20th c there used to be things you just didn’t say, because everyone realized that talking about differences in a pluralistic society was, well, dangerous.

What changed? Well, I hate to say it, but the Internet happened. Or as Neil Stephenson calls it in his recent book Fall, the Miasma.

Let’s consider the name of the Internet as a shibboleth for a second. What if we started calling the Internet “The Miasma”? We could at least separate out the folks who blindly believe everything they read from those who view the whole thing as a pernicious distraction from the real issues facing us. That would make for a better world, right?

But that’s the trap, thinking that just changing the words leads us to a greater understanding of the truth. The truth is, language itself is the trap, and until we build new and better forms of communication for brains to interface, the trap will just draw us in deeper the more we struggle with it.

Not a fan of Musk personally, but at least his Neuralink company is building in the right direction.

The work is the product of Neuralink, a company Musk founded in 2016 to develop a high-bandwidth, implantable brain-computer interface (BCI). He says the initial goal is to enable people with quadriplegia to control a computer or smartphone using just their thoughts. But Musk’s vision is much more ambitious than that: he seeks to enable humans to “merge” with AI, giving people superhuman intelligence—an objective that is much more hype than an actual plan for new technology development.

Neuralink prototype device. Credit: Neuralink

On a more practical note, “the goal is to record from and stimulate [signals called] spikes in neurons” with an order of magnitude more bandwidth than what has been done to date.

Once you start seeing language itself as just bad technology, you start to imagine better ones, where our interface plane is managed by AIs devoted to facilitating better communication and interaction. This is HAiL, and I am convinced more and more every day it’s the right river for our species to float down. Dangerous waters for sure, but the camp we have made out of words is hopelessly befouled.

Image from The Brick Testament, a Lego version of the Bible. Sigh.

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