On Knives and Files, Freedom and Fascism.

I made a video! It’s called On Knives and Files, though it’s also about other human tools. And what follows is an account of how I came up with it, and some thoughts on a certain sort of response I’ve gotten to it.


Part of my job is to research and understand the tools humans use. Sometimes this means tools invented relatively recently in human history, like mathematics. Or tools that have barely been invented, like computers and virtual reality.

To better understand these modern tools, I’ve been trying to think more about older tools, like knives, and language, and rules. So with all that on my mind, I’ve been starting to see more connections between the tools I use in my daily life, or see other people use. Who I then subject to my musings.

I clearly remember being perched on the stone wall at my grandmother’s farm, drinking in sunlight and learning the rules of pocket knife use. The inspiration for this topic struck while perched on the kitchen counter drinking a glass of mead and watching someone pare the skin off a ginger root, which suddenly connected with a conversation we’d had a few days earlier about proper file use, which connected with the many conversations on human tools I’ve had recently with Alan Kay.

A kitchen-counter ramble to my captive cooking audience turned into a long email drafted to Alan, which I put so much work into that I decided I might as well polish it up and film it. And the more I wrote the more my brain connected it to other things that are often on my mind, so that’s how that happened.

Interestingly, despite how explicitly I stated the opinion that it’s important that we should be allowed to cut towards ourselves when we think it’s worth it (though hopefully after understanding the risk, and learning from our mistakes), more than a few commenters decided to interpret this video as an anti-free-speech fascist nanny state thing.

How does even?

Part of the point of the video is how easily we push our values to extremes, and I can’t say I’m very surprised to see such commenters asserting their values, but what’s interesting is that the extreme they’ve decided to sort me into is the one opposite themselves. They could have decided to interpret my video as backing up their beliefs through agreement, but chose conflict.

I wonder what made those commenters think we have opposite views; surely it couldn’t just be that I suggest people consider the consequences of their words and actions. My working theory is that other markers have placed me on the opposite side of a cultural divide that they feel exists, and they are in the habit of demonizing the people they’ve put on this side of their imaginary divide with whatever moral outrage sounds irreproachable to them. It’s a rather common tool in the rhetorical toolset, because it’s easy to make the perceived good outweigh the perceived harm if you add fear to the equation.

Many groups have grown their numbers through this feedback loop: have a charismatic leader convince people there’s a big risk that group x will do y, therefore it seems worth the cost of being divisive with those who think that risk is not worth acting on, and that divisiveness cuts out those who think that risk is lower, which then increases the perceived risk, which lowers the cost of being increasingly divisive, and so on.

The above feedback loop works great when the divide cuts off a trust of the institutions of science, or glorifies a distrust of data. It breaks the feedback loop if you act on science’s best knowledge of the risk, which trends towards staying constant, rather than perceived risk, which can easily grow exponentially, especially when someone is stoking your fear and distrust.

If a group believes that there’s too much risk in trusting outsiders about where the real risk and harm are, then, well, of course I’ll get distrustful people afraid that my mathematical views on risk/benefit are in danger of creating a fascist state. The risk/benefit calculation demands it be so.