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Posted on October 30, 2018 by Scott Alexander

[Epistemic status: fiction]

Thanks for letting me put my story on your blog. Mainstream media
is crap and no one would have believed me anyway.

This starts in September 2017. I was working for a small online ad
startup. You know the ads on Facebook and Twitter? We tell
companies how to get them the most clicks. This startup -- I won't
tell you the name -- was going to add deep learning, because
investors will throw money at anything that uses the words "deep
learning". We train a network to predict how many upvotes
something will get on Reddit. Then we ask it how many likes
different ads would get. Then we use whatever ad would get the
most likes. This guy (who is not me) explains it better. Why
Reddit? Because the upvotes and downvotes are simpler than all the
different Facebook reacts, plus the subreddits allow demographic
targeting, plus there's an archive of 1.7 billion Reddit comments
you can download for training data. We trained a network to
predict upvotes of Reddit posts based on their titles.

Any predictive network doubles as a generative network. If you
teach a neural net to recognize dogs, you can run it in reverse to
get dog pictures. If you train a network to predict Reddit
upvotes, you can run it in reverse to generate titles it predicts
will be highly upvoted. We tried this and it was pretty funny. I
don't remember the exact wording, but for /r/politics it was
something like "Donald Trump is no longer the president. All
transgender people are the president." For r/technology it was
about Elon Musk saving Net Neutrality. You can also generate
titles that will get maximum downvotes, but this is boring: it
will just say things that sound like spam about penis pills.

Reddit has a feature where you can sort posts by controversial.
You can see the algorithm here, but tl;dr it multiplies magnitude
of total votes (upvotes + downvotes) by balance (upvote:downvote
ratio or vice versa, whichever is smaller) to highlight posts that
provoke disagreement. Controversy sells, so we trained our network
to predict this too. The project went to this new-ish Indian woman
with a long name who went by Shiri, and she couldn't get it to
work, so our boss Brad sent me to help. Shiri had tested the
network on the big 1.7 billion comment archive, and it had
produced controversial-sounding hypothethical scenarios about US
politics. So far so good.

The Japanese tested their bioweapons on Chinese prisoners. The
Tuskegee Institute tested syphilis on African-Americans. We were
either nicer or dumber than they were, because we tested Shiri's
Scissor on ourselves. We had a private internal subreddit where we
discussed company business, because Brad wanted all of us to get
familiar with the platform. Shiri's problem was that she'd been
testing the controversy-network on our subreddit, and it would
just spit out vacuously true or vacuously false statements. No
controversy, no room for disagreement. The statement we were
looking at that day was about a design choice in our code. I won't
tell you the specifics, but imagine you took every bad and wrong
decision decision in the world, hard-coded them in the ugliest
possible way, and then handed it to the end user with a big middle
finger. Shiri's Scissor spit out, as maximally controversial, the
statement that we should design our product that way. We'd spent
ten minutes arguing about exactly where the bug was, when Shiri
said something about how she didn't understand why the program was
generating obviously true statements.

Shiri's English wasn't great, so I thought this was a
communication problem. I corrected her. The program was spitting
out obviously false statements. She stuck to her guns. I still
thought she was confused. I walked her through the meanings of the
English words "true" and "false". She looked offended. I tried to
confirm. She thought this abysmal programming decision, this plan
of combining every bad design technique together and making it
impossible to ever fix, was the right way to build our codebase?
She said it was. Worse, she was confused I didn't think so. She
thought this was more or less what we were already doing; it
wasn't. She thought that moving away from this would take a total
rewrite and make the code much worse.

At this point I was doubting my sanity, so we went next door to
Blake and David, who were senior coders in our company and usually
voices of reason. They were talking about their own problem, but I
interrupted them and gave them the Scissor statement. Blake gave
the reasonable response -- why are you bothering me with this
stupid wrong garbage? But David had the same confusion Shiri did
and started arguing that the idea made total sense. The four of us
started fighting. I still was sure Shiri and David just
misunderstood the question, even though David was a native
English-speaker and the question was crystal-clear. Meanwhile
David was feeling more and more condescended to, kept protesting
he wasn't misunderstanding anything, that Blake and I were just
crappy programmers who couldn't make the most basic architecture
decisions. He kept insisting the same thing Shiri had, that the
Scissor statement had already been the plan and any attempt to go
in a different direction would screw everything up. It got so bad
that we decided to go to Brad for clarification.

Brad was our founder. Don't trust the newspapers -- not every tech
entrepreneur is a greedy antisocial philistine. But everyone in
advertising is. Brad definitely was. He was an abrasive amoral son
of a bitch. But he was good at charming investors, and he could
code, which is more than some bosses. He looked pissed to have the
whole coding team come into his office unannounced, but he heard
us out.

David tried to explain the issue, but he misrepresented almost
every part of it. I couldn't believe he was lying just to look
better to Brad. I cut him off. He told me not to interrupt him.
Blake said if he wasn't lying we wouldn't have to interrupt to
correct him, it degenerated from there. Somehow in the middle of
all of this, Brad figured out what we were talking about and he
cut us all off. "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard." He
confirmed it wasn't the original plan, it was contrary to the
original plan, and it was contrary to every rule of good
programming and good business. David and Shiri, who were bad
losers, accused Blake and me of "poisoning" Brad. David said that
of course Brad would side with us. Brad had liked us better from
the beginning. We'd racked up cushy project after cushy project
while he and Shiri had gotten the dregs. Brad told him he was a
moron and should get back to work. He didn't.

This part of the story ends at 8 PM with Brad firing David and
Shiri for a combination of gross incompetence, gross
insubordination, and being terrible human beings. With him giving
a long speech on how he'd taken a chance on hiring David and
Shiri, even though he knew from the beginning that they were
unqualified charity cases, and at every turn they'd repaid his
kindness with laziness and sabotage. With him calling them a drain
on the company and implied they might be working for our
competitors. With them calling him an abusive boss, saying the
whole company was a scam to trick vulnerable employees into
working themselves ragged for Brad's personal enrichment, and with
them accusing us two -- me and Blake -- of being in on it with

That was 8 PM. We'd been standing in Brad's office fighting for
five hours. At 8:01, after David and Shiri had stormed out, we all
looked at each other and thought -- holy shit, the controversial
filter works.

I want to repeat that. At no time in our five hours of arguing did
this occur to us. We were too focused on the issue at hand, the
Scissor statement itself. We didn't have the perspective to step
back and think about how all this controversy came from a
statement designed to be maximally controversial. But at 8:01,
when the argument was over and we had won, we stepped back and
thought -- holy shit.

We were too tired to think much about it that evening, but the
next day we -- Brad and the two remaining members of the coding
team -- had a meeting. We talked about what we had. Blake gave it
its name: Shiri's Scissor. In some dead language, scissor shares a
root with schism. A scissor is a schism-er, a schism-creator. And
that was what we had. We were going to pivot from online
advertising to superweapons. We would call the Pentagon. Tell them
we had a program that could make people hate each other. Was this
ethical? We were in online ads; we would sell our grandmothers to
Somali slavers if we thought it would get us clicks. That horse
had left the barn a long time ago.

It's hard to just call up the Pentagon and tell them you have a
superweapon. Even in Silicon Valley, they don't believe you right
away. But Brad called in favors from his friends, and about a week
after David and Shiri got fired, we had a colonel from DARPA
standing in the meeting room, asking what the hell we thought was
so important.

Now we had a problem. We couldn't show the Colonel the Scissor
statement that had gotten Dave and Shiri fired. He wasn't in our
company; he wasn't even in ad tech; it would seem boring to him.
We didn't want to generate a new Scissor statement for the
Pentagon. Even Brad could figure out that having the US military
descend into civil war would be bad for clicks. Finally we settled
on a plan. We explained the concept of Reddit to the Colonel. And
then we asked him which community he wanted us to tear apart as a

He thought for a second, then said "Mozambique".

We had underestimated the culture gap here. When we asked the
Colonel to choose a community to be a Scissor victim, we were
expecting "tabletop wargamers" or "My Little Pony fans". But this
was not how colonels at DARPA thought about the world. He said
"Mozambique". I started explaining to him that this wasn't really
how Reddit worked, it needed to be a group with its own subreddit.
Brad interrupted me, said that Mozambique had a subreddit.

I could see the wheels turning in Brad's eyes. One wheel was
saying "this guy is already skeptical, if we look weak in front of
him he'll just write us off completely". The other wheel was
calculating how many clicks Mozambique produced. Mene mene tekel
upharsin. "Yeah," he said. "Their subreddit is fine. We can do

The Colonel gave us his business card and left. Blake and I were
stuck running Shiri's Scissor on the Mozambique subreddit. I know,
ethics, but like I said, online ads business, horse, barn door.
The only decency we allowed ourselves was to choose the network's
tenth pick -- we didn't need to destroy everything, just give a
demonstration. We got a statement accusing the Prime Minister of
disrespecting Islam in a certain way -- again, I won't be
specific. In the absence of any better method, we PMed the admins
of the Mozambique subreddit asking them what they thought. I don't
remember what we said, something about being an American political
science student learning about Mozambique culture, and could they
ask some friends what would happen if the Prime Minister did that
specific thing, and then report back to us?

We spent most of a week working on our project to undermine
Mozambique. Then we got the news. David and Shiri were suing the
company for unfair dismissal and racial discrimination. Brad and
Blake and I were white. Shiri was an Indian woman, and David was
Jewish. The case should have been laughed out of court -- who ever
heard of an anti-Semitic Silicon Valley startup? -- except that
all the documentation showed there was no reason to fire David and
Shiri. Their work looked good on paper. They'd always gotten good
performance reviews. The company was doing fine -- it had even
placed ads for more programmers a few weeks before.

David and Shiri knew why they'd been fired. But it didn't matter
to them. They were so blinded with hatred for our company, so
caught in the grip of the Scissor statement, that they would tell
any lie necessary to destroy it. We were caught in a bind. We
couldn't admit the existence of Shiri's Scissor, because we were
trying to sell it to the Pentagon as a secret weapon, and also,
publicly admitting to trying to destroy Mozambique would have been
bad PR. But the court was demanding records about what our company
had been doing just before and just after the dismissal. A real
defense contractor could probably have gotten the Pentagon to
write a letter saying our research was classified. But the
Pentagon still didn't believe us. The Colonel was humoring us,
nothing more. We were stuck.

I don't know how we would have dealt with the legal problems,
because what actually happened was Brad went to David's house and
tried to beat him up. You're going to think this was crazy, but
you have to understand that David had always been annoying to work
with, and that during the argument in Brad's office he had crossed
so many lines that, if ever there was a person who deserved
physical violence, it was him. Suing the company was just the last
straw. I'm not going to judge Brad's actions after he'd spent
months cleaning up after David's messes, paying him good money,
and then David betrayed him at the end. But anyhow, that was it
for our company. Brad got arrested. There was nobody else to pay
the bills and keep the lights on. Blake and I were coders and had
no idea how to run the business side of things. We handed in our
resignations -- not literally, Brad was in jail -- and that was
the end of Name Withheld Online Ad Company, Inc.

We got off easy. That's the takeaway I want to give here. We were
unreasonably overwhelmingly lucky. If Shiri and I had started out
by arguing about one of the US statements, we could have destroyed
the country. If a giant like Google had developed Shiri's Scissor,
it would have destroyed Google. If the Scissor statement we
generated hadn't just been about a very specific piece of
advertising software -- if it had been about the tech industry in
general, or business in general -- we could have destroyed the

As it was, we just destroyed our company and maybe a few of our
closest competitors. If you look up internal publications from the
online advertising industry around fall 2017, you will find some
really weird stuff. That story about the online ads CEO getting
arrested for murder, child abuse, attacking a cop, and three or
four other things, and then later it was all found to be false
accusations related to some ill-explained mental disorder --
that's the tip of the iceberg. I don't have a good explanation for
exactly how the Scissor statement spread or why it didn't spread
further, but I bet if I looked into it too much, black helicopters
would start hovering over my house. And that's all I'm going to
say about that.

As for me, I quit the whole industry. I picked up a job in a more
established company using ML for voice recognition, and tried not
to think about it too much. I still got angry whenever I thought
about the software design issue the Scissor had brought up. Once I
saw someone who looked like Shiri at a cafe and I went over
intending to give her a piece of my mind. It wasn't her, so I
didn't end up in jail with Brad. I checked the news from
Mozambique every so often, and it was quiet for a few months, and
then it wasn't. I still don't know if we had anything to do with
that. Africa just has a lot of conflicts, and if you wait long
enough, maybe something will happen. The colonel never tried to
get in touch with me. I don't think he ever took us seriously.
Maybe he didn't even check the news from Mozambique. Maybe he saw
it and figured it was a coincidence. Maybe he tried calling our
company, got a message saying the phone was out of service, and
didn't think it was worth pursuing. But as time went on and the
conflict there didn't get any worse, I hoped the Shiri's Scissor
part of my life was drawing to a close.

Then came the Kavanaugh hearings. Something about them gave me a
sense of deja vu. The week of his testimony, I figured it out.

Shiri had told me that when she ran the Scissor on the site in
general, she'd just gotten some appropriate controversial US
politics scenarios. She had shown me two or three of them as
examples. One of them had been very specifically about this
situation. A Republican Supreme Court nominee accused of
committing sexual assault as a teenager.

This made me freak out. Had somebody gotten hold of the Scissor
and started using it on the US? Had that Pentagon colonel been
paying more attention than he let on? But why would the Pentagon
be trying to divide America? Had some enemy stolen it? I get the
New York Times, obviously Putin was my first thought here. But how
would Putin get Shiri's Scissor? Was I remembering wrong? I
couldn't get it out of my head. I hadn't kept the list Shiri had
given me, but I had enough of the Scissor codebase to rebuild the
program over a few sleepless nights. Then I bought a big blob of
compute from Amazon Web Services and threw it at the Reddit
comment archive. It took three days and a five-digit sum of money,
but I rebuilt the list Shiri must have had. Kavanaugh was in
there, just as I remembered.

But so was Colin Kaepernick.

You've heard of him. He was the football player who refused to
stand for the national anthem. If I already knew the Scissor
predicted one controversy, why was I so shocked to learn it
predicted another? Because Kaepernick started kneeling in 2016. We
didn't build the Scissor until 2017. Putin hadn't gotten it from
us. Someone had beaten us to it.

Of the Scissor's predicted top hundred most controversial
statements, Kavanaugh was #58 and Kaepernick was #42. #86 was the
Ground Zero Mosque. #89 was that baker who wouldn't make a cake
for a gay wedding. The match isn't perfect, but #99 vaguely looked
like the Elian Gonzalez case from 2000. That's five out of a
hundred. Is that what would happen by chance? It's a big country,
and lots of things happen here, and if a Scissor statement came up
in the normal course of events it would get magnified to the
national stage. But some of these were too specific. If it was
coincidence, I would expect many more near matches than perfect
matches. I found only two. The pattern of Scissor statements
looked more like someone had arranged them to be perfect fits.

The earliest perfect fit was the Ground Zero Mosque in 2009. Could
Putin have had a Scissor-like program in 2009? I say no way. This
will sound weird to you if you're not in the industry. Why
couldn't a national government have been eight years ahead of an
online advertising company? All I can say is: machine learning
moves faster than that. Russia couldn't hide a machine learning
program that put it eight years ahead of the US. Even the Pentagon
couldn't hide a program that put it eight years ahead of industry.
The NSA is thirty years ahead of industry in cryptography and
everyone knows it.

But then who was generating Scissor statements in 2009? I have no
idea. And you know what? I can't bring myself to care.

If you just read a Scissor statement off a list, it's harmless. It
just seems like a trivially true or trivially false thing. It
doesn't activate until you start discussing it with somebody. At
first you just think they're an imbecile. Then they call you an
imbecile, and you want to defend yourself. Crescit eundo. You
notice all the little ways they're lying to you and themselves and
their audience every time they open their mouth to defend their
imbecilic opinion. Then you notice how all the lies are connected,
that in order to keep getting the little things like the Scissor
statement wrong, they have to drag in everything else. Eventually
even that doesn't work, they've just got to make everybody hate
you so that nobody will even listen to your argument no matter how
obviously true it is. Finally, they don't care about the Scissor
statement anymore. They've just dug themselves so deep basing
their whole existence around hating you and wanting you to fail
that they can't walk it back. You've got to prove them wrong, not
because you care about the Scissor statement either, but because
otherwise they'll do anything to poison people against you, make
it impossible for them to even understand the argument for why you
deserve to exist. You know this is true. Your mind becomes a
constant loop of arguments you can use to defend yourself, and
rehearsals of arguments for why their attacks are cruel and
unfair, and the one burning question: how can you thwart them? How
can you can convince people not to listen to them, before they
find those people and exploit their biases and turn them against
you? How can you combat the superficial arguments they're
deploying, before otherwise good people get convinced, so
convinced their mind will be made up and they can never be
unconvinced again? How can you keep yourself safe?

Shiri read two or three sample Scissor statements to me. She
didn't say if she agreed with them or not. I didn't tell her if I
agreed with them or not. They were harmless.

I don't hear voices in a crazy way. But sometimes I talk to
myself. Sometimes I do both halves of the conversation. Sometimes
I imagine one of them is a different person. I had a tough breakup
a year ago. Sometimes the other voice in my head is my
ex-girlfriend's voice. I know how she thinks and I always know
what she would say about everything. So sometimes I hold
conversations with her, even though she isn't there, and we've
barely talked since the breakup. I don't know if this is weird. If
it is, I'm weird.

And that was enough. For some reason, it was the
third-highest-ranked Scissor statement that did it. None of the
others, just that one. The totally hypothetical conversation with
the version of my ex-girlfriend in my head about the third Scissor
statement got me. Shiri's Scissor was never really about other
people anyway. Other people are just the trigger -- and I use that
word deliberately, in the trigger warning sense. Once you're
triggered, you never need to talk to anyone else again. Just the
knowledge that those people are out there is enough.

I thought I'd be done with this story in a night. Instead it's
taken me two weeks, all the way up until Halloween -- perfect
night for a ghost story, right? I've been alternately drinking and
smoking weed, trying to calm myself down enough to think about
anything other than the third Scissor statement. No, that's not
right, definitely trying not to think about either of the first
two Scissor statements, because if I think about them, I might
start thinking about how some people disagree with them, and then
I'm gone. Three times I've started to call my ex-girlfriend to ask
her where she is, and if I ever go through with it and she answers
me, I don't know what I will do to her. But it isn't just her.
Fifty percent of the population disagrees with me on the
third-highest-ranked Scissor statement. I don't know who they are.
I haven't really appreciated that fact. Not really. I can't
imagine it being anyone I know. They're too decent. But I can't be
sure it isn't. So I drink.

I know I should be talking about how we all need to unite against
whatever shadowy manipulators keep throwing Scissor statements at
us. I want to talk about how we need to cultivate radical
compassion and charity as the only defense against such
abominations. I want to give an Obamaesque speech about how the
ties that bring us together are stronger than the forces tearing
us apart. But I can't.

Remember what we did to Mozambique? How out of some vestigial
sense of ethics, we released a low-potency Scissor statement?
Arranged to give them a bad time without destroying the whole
country all at once? That's what our shadowy manipulators are
doing to us. Low-potency statements. Enough to get us enraged. Not
enough to start Armageddon.

But I read the whole list. And then, like an idiot, I thought
about it. I thought about the third-highest-ranked Scissor
statement in enough detail to let it trigger. To even begin to
question whether it might be true is so sick, so perverse, so
hateful and disgusting, that Idi Amin would flush with shame to
even contemplate it. And if the Scissor's right then half of you
would be gung ho in support.

You guys, who haven't heard a really bad Scissor statement yet and
don't know what it's like -- it's easy for you to say "don't let
it manipulate you" or "we need a hard and fast policy of not
letting ourselves fight over Scissor statements". But how do you
know you're not in the wrong? How do you know there's not an issue
out there where, if you knew it, you would agree it would be
better to just nuke the world and let us start over again from the
sewer mutants, rather than let the sort of people who would
support it continue to pollute the world with their presence? How
do you know that you're not like the schoolkid who superciliously
says "Nothing is bad enough to deserve a swear word" when the
worst that's ever happened to her is dropping her lollipop in the
dirt. If that schoolkid gets kidnapped and tortured, does she
change her mind? If she can't describe the torture to her
schoolmates, but just says "a really bad thing happened to me",
and they still insist nothing could be bad enough to justify using
swear words, who do you side with? Then why are you still thinking
I'm "damaged" when I tell you I've seen the Scissor statement, and
charity and compassion and unity can fuck off and die? Some last
remnant of outside-view morality keeps me from writing the whole
list here and letting you all exterminate yourselves. Some remnant
of how I would have thought about these things a month ago holds
me back. So listen:

Delete Facebook. Delete Twitter. Throw away your cell phone.
Unsubscribe from the newspaper. Tell your friends and relatives
not to discuss politics or society. If they slip up, break off all

Then, buy canned food. Stockpile water. Learn to shoot a gun. If
you can afford a bunker, get a bunker.

Because one day, whoever keeps feeding us Scissor statements is
going to release one of the bad ones.

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