Does my algorithm have a mental-health problem?

https://aeon.co/ideas/made-in-our-own-image-why-algorithms-have-mental-health-problems

Thomas T Hills is professor of psychology at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK.

 

Is my car hallucinating? Is the algorithm that runs the police surveillance system in my city paranoid? Marvin the android in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxyhad a pain in all the diodes down his left-hand side. Is that how my toaster feels?

This all sounds ludicrous until we realise that our algorithms are increasingly being made in our own image. As we’ve learned more about our own brains, we’ve enlisted that knowledge to create algorithmic versions of ourselves. These algorithms control the speeds of driverless cars, identify targets for autonomous military drones, compute our susceptibility to commercial and political advertising, find our soulmates in online dating services, and evaluate our insurance and credit risks. Algorithms are becoming the near-sentient backdrop of our lives.

The most popular algorithms currently being put into the workforce are deep learning algorithms. These algorithms mirror the architecture of human brains by building complex representations of information. They learn to understand environments by experiencing them, identify what seems to matter, and figure out what predicts what. Being like our brains, these algorithms are increasingly at risk of mental-health problems.

Deep Blue, the algorithm that beat the world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, did so through brute force, examining millions of positions a second, up to 20 moves in the future. Anyone could understand how it worked even if they couldn’t do it themselves. AlphaGo, the deep learning algorithm that beat Lee Sedol at the game of Go in 2016, is fundamentally different. Using deep neural networks, it created its own understanding of the game, considered to be the most complex of board games. AlphaGo learned by watching others and by playing itself. Computer scientists and Go players alike are befuddled by AlphaGo’s unorthodox play. Its strategy seems at first to be awkward. Only in retrospect do we understand what AlphaGo was thinking, and even then it’s not all that clear.

To give you a better understanding of what I mean by thinking, consider this. Programs such as Deep Blue can have a bug in their programming. They can crash from memory overload. They can enter a state of paralysis due to a neverending loop or simply spit out the wrong answer on a lookup table. But all of these problems are solvable by a programmer with access to the source code, the code in which the algorithm was written.

Algorithms such as AlphaGo are entirely different. Their problems are not apparent by looking at their source code. They are embedded in the way that they represent information. That representation is an ever-changing high-dimensional space, much like walking around in a dream. Solving problems there requires nothing less than a psychotherapist for algorithms.

Take the case of driverless cars. A driverless car that sees its first stop sign in the real world will have already seen millions of stop signs during training, when it built up its mental representation of what a stop sign is. Under various light conditions, in good weather and bad, with and without bullet holes, the stop signs it was exposed to contain a bewildering variety of information. Under most normal conditions, the driverless car will recognise a stop sign for what it is. But not all conditions are normal. Some recent demonstrations have shown that a few black stickers on a stop sign can fool the algorithm into thinking that the stop sign is a 60 mph sign. Subjected to something frighteningly similar to the high-contrast shade of a tree, the algorithm hallucinates.

How many different ways can the algorithm hallucinate? To find out, we would have to provide the algorithm with all possible combinations of input stimuli. This means that there are potentially infinite ways in which it can go wrong. Crackerjack programmers already know this, and take advantage of it by creating what are called adversarial examples. The AI research group LabSix at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shown that, by presenting images to Google’s image-classifying algorithm and using the data it sends back, they can identify the algorithm’s weak spots. They can then do things similar to fooling Google’s image-recognition software into believing that an X-rated image is just a couple of puppies playing in the grass.

Algorithms also make mistakes because they pick up on features of the environment that are correlated with outcomes, even when there is no causal relationship between them. In the algorithmic world, this is called overfitting. When this happens in a brain, we call it superstition.

The biggest algorithmic failure due to superstition that we know of so far is called the parable of Google Flu. Google Flu used what people type into Google to predict the location and intensity of influenza outbreaks. Google Flu’s predictions worked fine at first, but they grew worse over time, until eventually it was predicting twice the number of cases as were submitted to the US Centers for Disease Control. Like an algorithmic witchdoctor, Google Flu was simply paying attention to the wrong things.

Algorithmic pathologies might be fixable. But in practice, algorithms are often proprietary black boxes whose updating is commercially protected. Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction (2016) describes a veritable freakshow of commercial algorithms whose insidious pathologies play out collectively to ruin peoples’ lives. The algorithmic faultline that separates the wealthy from the poor is particularly compelling. Poorer people are more likely to have bad credit, to live in high-crime areas, and to be surrounded by other poor people with similar problems. Because of this, algorithms target these individuals for misleading ads that prey on their desperation, offer them subprime loans, and send more police to their neighbourhoods, increasing the likelihood that they will be stopped by police for crimes committed at similar rates in wealthier neighbourhoods. Algorithms used by the judicial system give these individuals longer prison sentences, reduce their chances for parole, block them from jobs, increase their mortgage rates, demand higher premiums for insurance, and so on.

This algorithmic death spiral is hidden in nesting dolls of black boxes: black-box algorithms that hide their processing in high-dimensional thoughts that we can’t access are further hidden in black boxes of proprietary ownership. This has prompted some places, such as New York City, to propose laws enforcing the monitoring of fairness in algorithms used by municipal services. But if we can’t detect bias in ourselves, why would we expect to detect it in our algorithms?

By training algorithms on human data, they learn our biases. One recent study led by Aylin Caliskan at Princeton University found that algorithms trained on the news learned racial and gender biases essentially overnight. As Caliskan noted: ‘Many people think machines are not biased. But machines are trained on human data. And humans are biased.’

Social media is a writhing nest of human bias and hatred. Algorithms that spend time on social media sites rapidly become bigots. These algorithms are biased against male nurses and female engineers. They will view issues such as immigration and minority rights in ways that don’t stand up to investigation. Given half a chance, we should expect algorithms to treat people as unfairly as people treat each other. But algorithms are by construction overconfident, with no sense of their own infallibility. Unless they are trained to do so, they have no reason to question their incompetence (much like people).

For the algorithms I’ve described above, their mental-health problems come from the quality of the data they are trained on. But algorithms can also have mental-health problems based on the way they are built. They can forget older things when they learn new information. Imagine learning a new co-worker’s name and suddenly forgetting where you live. In the extreme, algorithms can suffer from what is called catastrophic forgetting, where the entire algorithm can no longer learn or remember anything. A theory of human age-related cognitive decline is based on a similar idea: when memory becomes overpopulated, brains and desktop computers alike require more time to find what they know.

When things become pathological is often a matter of opinion. As a result, mental anomalies in humans routinely go undetected. Synaesthetes such as my daughter, who perceives written letters as colours, often don’t realise that they have a perceptual gift until they’re in their teens. Evidence based on Ronald Reagan’s speech patterns now suggeststhat he probably had dementia while in office as US president. And The Guardian reportsthat the mass shootings that have occurred every nine out of 10 days for roughly the past five years in the US are often perpetrated by so-called ‘normal’ people who happen to break under feelings of persecution and depression.

In many cases, it takes repeated malfunctioning to detect a problem. Diagnosis of schizophrenia requires at least one month of fairly debilitating symptoms. Antisocial personality disorder, the modern term for psychopathy and sociopathy, cannot be diagnosed in individuals until they are 18, and then only if there is a history of conduct disorders before the age of 15.

There are no biomarkers for most mental-health disorders, just like there are no bugs in the code for AlphaGo. The problem is not visible in our hardware. It’s in our software. The many ways our minds go wrong make each mental-health problem unique unto itself. We sort them into broad categories such as schizophrenia and Asperger’s syndrome, but most are spectrum disorders that cover symptoms we all share to different degrees. In 2006, the psychologists Matthew Keller and Geoffrey Miller argued that this is an inevitable property of the way that brains are built.

There is a lot that can go wrong in minds such as ours. Carl Jung once suggested that in every sane man hides a lunatic. As our algorithms become more like ourselves, it is getting easier to hide.

Thomas T Hills

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Advertisements

CHANNELING OUR WORLD

READ FIRST: https://heliosliterature.com/2015/02/26/does-the-universe-have-a-brain/

broadcast-communications-tower_318-38446.png

Have I confused you with information that you have a hard time processing? Bear with me while further explain.

We concluded the chapter about a universal brain with these words: “Experience is born in a timeless dimension and brought into the world by interconnected series of events that continued to experience being long before and long after our temporal existences became evident and actual. Ultimately, we are the experience and the experience is eternal. 

“Memory is a tool of awareness, a process that continually blinks in and out of existence with observation and relationship to other temporal events. Our world and universe is the physical counterpart of an infinite experience that never began and will never end.”

We can think of it this way: all time exists in the NOW. The fact that we view time as a continuous progression does not make it so. What we see is from our viewpoints in the dimensions we perceive, which is only one of many ways to scan existence.

For example: think of the universe and all the time and events contained therein as a television broadcast network that contains many trillions upon trillions of individual channels and stations. All the information that is broadcast already exists, but the tuner isolates one particular program, one particular set of frequencies, and we see a continuous program. That is what the world and our lives are in a simple analogy.

Consciousness is the tuner and the broadcast comes from zero dimension. Unlike television, there is no script nor writers and no schedule of events. Events and actions exist in potentiality until they are realized and made actual. The essence of the information is composed of vibrational waves like digitized pictures in computer code. Our personal tuners filter out anything other than what pertains to us. Our electrical fields and currents have interference patterns when they encounter one another.

The only reason that we are not someone else is because our personal ‘tuners’ or ‘self’ filters out the rest of the events and our unconscious deals only with that which it has experienced and felt in our dimensional actuality.

The NOW is always current in several senses of the word. It exists in the present and is only palpable when the current is flowing. When the current is not flowing we have a blank screen with no visible information. Like a television channel, we are limited to what is filtered for us and by us. A memory exists only as a thought and a remembrance. We cannot physically revisit the exact time and space of the recalled event because we have no access to the currents actualized in that time and space.

This does not mean the events are forever lost and stilled. They have made physical changes in our material world. What we are, in essence, is not the event, but the current itself that in the infinite zero dimension contains all that ever was and all that ever can be. All events and all time is in the NOW. They become actualized through the collapse of the infinite fields of probability into one course of action, a material decision that sends the flowing currents that define us into a particular arrangement and negates the other probabilities.

These other probabilities are not forever destroyed in this negation. They continue to be probabilities, as nothing is gained or lost in the zero dimension. The universe is eternal and recurring, so in the vast expanse of infinite time, other probabilities likely become actuated. Instead of a multiverse, we find multiple dimensions and multiple viewpoints existing within our own universe. We need only one world with infinite probability and multiple dimensions to create all that is and is yet to be and bring it into eventual actualization.

Our nightly dreams are considered unreal because they have not effected a major change in our material universe. Who we are in our dreams is formed of the same current that we are when we are awake, but in different patterns and dimensional viewpoints. We are the wispy ghosts of experiential beings, the products of the informational data that created us and brought us into an actual world.


FOR FURTHER READING:

https://heliosliterature.com/2014/12/10/whoarewe/

https://heliosliterature.com/2015/02/26/does-the-universe-have-a-brain/

https://heliosliterature.com/2015/11/13/channeling-our-world/

https://heliosliterature.com/2014/12/21/much-ado-about-nothing/

https://heliosliterature.com/2014/12/26/the-perpetua-lsearcyh-for-truth/

https://heliosliterature.com/2015/01/03/of-god-man-nature-and-zero-dimension/

https://heliosliterature.com/2015/01/05/metaphysics/

https://heliosliterature.com/2014/12/21/much-ado-about-nothing/

https://heliosliterature.com/2015/02/12/thought/

https://heliosliterature.com/2015/03/20/god-infinity-and-the-mobius-universe/

 NOTHING

A Conversation with Thomas Ligott

http://mumpsimus.blogspot.co.uk/2007/10/conversation-with-thomas-ligotti.html 

07 October 2007

A Conversation with Thomas Ligott (by Geoffrey H. Goodwin)


[Geoffrey Goodwin is going to be popping in here at The Mumpsimus now and then with interviews with a variety of writers. I’m thrilled that the first he has provided for us is an interview with a writer as unique and fascinating as Thomas Ligotti.]


imagesEdgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Thomas Ligotti are a reasonable list of the three best writers of horror short stories. In the tradition of gnarled minds that scare more with their thinking than with simple shocks, they’re almost certainly the ones who matter most.

Ligotti is a genius at exploring emptiness and nothingness. He has committed his life to rejecting life. It’s harder than it sounds. His stories take place in a “world forever reverberant with the horror of all who ever have lived and suffered” (a phrase taken from “We Can Hide from Horror Only in the Heart of Horro: Notes and Aphorisms”, excerpts from his notebooks from circa 1976-1982). His many books, including recent works like  The Shadow at The Bottom of The WorldTeatro Grottesco, and Death Poems, are often released as limited editions that become totemic objects for his readers.

Ligotti’s is an important and vital voice, though one that speaks most loudly to a certain and rarified sense of darkness. He has been included in numerous anthologies and been a nominee for and winner of multiple awards, but his focus on the horror of pain, suffering, and death have kept him from coming anywhere close to the mainstream. His long essay The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (still awaiting publication) will shatter those who embrace it fully.

What led to your writing The Conspiracy Against the Human Race?

I could recite a litany of reasons for my writing The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, but the most immediate cause was my reading an essay written in 1933 called “The Last Messiah” by the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe. Down the ages, pessimistic writers and thinkers have wailed that our lives are predominantly characterized by meaningless suffering and therefore everyone would be better off not to have been born. This is sometimes referred to as a hedonist view of existence, and for one reason or another practically no one is persuaded that there’s anything to it. Even if someone grants that life is mostly, or even entirely, a trail of tears with nothing but death at the end, they still don’t feel that being alive is not worth it. They’ll carry on till the end and pass on this legacy to another generation, perhaps thinking that somehow things will get better.

My own long-held view was that even if suffering as we ordinarily conceive it could be wholly eliminated, there would still be a differential among the pleasures in our lives. The consequence of this would be that some pleasures would be greater than others, and the lesser pleasures would then come to be felt as suffering. You could also turn this around and say that in a world of all-pervasive but variegated suffering, some ways of suffering would be felt to be worse than others, making the lesser sufferings perceptible as pleasures. One solution to this state of affairs seemed to be the achievement of a steady state of non-suffering. Of course, the problem is that to attain a tolerable middle ground between pleasure and suffering isn’t possible without the experience of pleasure on the one side and suffering on the other. This is assuming that we could live under laboratory conditions in which pleasure and suffering, or degrees of pleasure and suffering, could be controlled by some means presently unknown, unworkable, or underdeveloped. That would be a fantastical scenario, of course.

Other solutions that occurred to me were also more or less fantastic or futuristic. Among them was a psychophysical apparatus that could be implanted in us so that we could live much as we do now, except that whenever a certain level of suffering was reached, a combination of mood elevators and, if necessary, painkilling drugs would be released into our system in proportion to our suffering. These agents could also be regulated to work disproportionately as we approached death, thus assuring us that we would leave this world in a state of ecstasy. No one would ever have to witness the agony of a loved one dying from natural causes or imagine the horror of someone close to them who has died from gruesome accidental causes, since they would comforted by the knowledge of an anti-suffering apparatus functioning in the moribund or traumatized individual as well as having their anxiety assuaged by their own anti-suffering mechanisms. Now, the methods outlined here are just extensions of present-day strategies for bettering our lives, and those of future generations, and operate on the premise that suffering has negligible value or none at all. They’re also based on the same hedonist philosophy that, taken to sufficient lengths, is the basis for pessimism.

TWO OPINIONS ON ARTBut hedonism as a life-philosophy isn’t limited to pessimists. All spiritual beliefs and practices originate in hedonist values and they’re not condemned as pessimistic. What could be more hedonistic than to be addicted to the idea of heaven or Nirvana? Belief in an afterlife is a great Plan B if things don’t work out so well for you in this one. And why even believe in a blissful afterlife, or in the salvation of total oblivion if you happen to be a Buddhist, unless you’re already committed to the view that this life is pretty lousy? Nevertheless, this isn’t how religionists consciously look upon human existence, at least most of the time. As far as atheists are concerned, they just have to hope for the best for themselves and for those who mean anything to them. This is the substance of what I would call “functional optimism” — the idea that on the whole things aren’t so bad and won’t ever become so bad that everyone would be better off not having been born. And it’s impossible to effectively oppose that way of thinking. It really doesn’t work to tell someone who’s already alive that it’s better not to have been born. They’ve already been born. It’s too late for them. So they make the best of things. They try to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Even pessimists for the most part follow this course. It would be suicide not to, and committing suicide is really hard to pull off in cold blood. Almost no one kills themselves because they think nonexistence is preferable to existence, or because they want to avoid any extraordinary psychological or physical suffering that may be awaiting them. Suicides wait until things are so awful that they can’t stand being alive anymore. Sometimes they’ll kill themselves when it looks like things are going to become really awful in the near future, but there are a lot of pressures against being a proactive suicide. And when it comes around to facing the facts, almost everyone is afraid of death, so they do what they can to hang on as long as they can. They choose the path that they perceive to lead to the lesser of two horrors and keep following it until they keel over dead. And no hedonistic philosophy is going to convince them or anyone else that this isn’t the way to go.

Zapffe was the first pessimistic philosopher to my knowledge who actually came up with a non-hedonist reason for why it would be better not to have been born and not to give birth to others. His observation was that human consciousness, an evolved trait of our species, turned our existence into an untenable paradox. According to Zapffe, it’s one thing to experience suffering and then die. But it’s quite another thing to be acutely conscious that this is our life — to be aware that we suffer for no good reason and have only a decline into death, or death by trauma, to look forward to. In order to cope with our consciousness of these realities, then, we must smother our consciousness as best we can by using various tactics. The result is a whole species of beings that have to lie unceasingly to themselves, not always successfully, about what they are and what their lives are really like. If we didn’t so this, the rug would be pulled out from under us and we’d have to face up to the fact that we’re a race that can’t come to terms with its existence. Thus we devise ways to mute, distract, and otherwise obfuscate our consciousness so that it doesn’t overwhelm us with what we’re up against in being alive. This line of thought goes beyond hedonism by exposing us as creatures who bullshit themselves a mile a minute in order to keep going. This bullshit takes various forms. Primary among them are simply ignoring that there is anything problematic about our existence, indulging in pleasurable distractions, creating bogus structures of meaning such as a pleasant afterlife in which the books will be balanced for the suffering we endure in this life, and transmuting our suffering into works of art and philosophy wherein we distance ourselves from what real suffering is and in the process reform it into a source of amusement. Even pessimists who believe they have gone the distance of realizing that we lead lives of meaningless suffering are caught up in this game and must brutalize their consciousness into submission or feel the full force of the reality that all our so-called pleasures are based on lies. The only solution to this conundrum, as Zapffe saw it, would be to bring an end to this festival of falsehoods by ceasing to reproduce.

pessimism_by_tamzidNow, every reading of human life is subject to alternate or contrary readings, and so is Zapffe’s. But his reading captivated me, because I was already predisposed to believe that life was at best worthless and at worst an intolerable nightmare. In essence, Zapffe’s philosophy became another source of bullshit that kept me going so that I could articulate the many aspects of my own grievances against being alive and, I hope, extend or give a greater rhetorical force to what Zapffe had written in “The Last Messiah.” I might add that the title character of this essay appears at the end, tells everyone to stop being fruitful and multiplying, and then is murdered for his trouble. Given Zapffe’s reading of the way we are, no other conclusion except utter hopelessness that we will ever change our ways is possible. We’re positively doomed to live and wallow in our own bullshit until we become extinct as a species by one of the many means that have led to the extinction of almost every other species on this planet.
http://mumpsimus.blogspot.co.uk/2007/10/conversation-with-thomas-ligotti.html
When did you first read Peter Wessel Zappfe’s essay, “The Last Messiah?”

I read it not long after it was published in the March/April 2004 issue of the British journal Philosophy Now. Later that year I began work on The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

Does this mean that Zappfe’s work was a confirmation of things that you already knew or were aware of?

I hadn’t conceived of the paradox that Zapffe explained had been incited by the development of consciousness in the human species. Nevertheless, I did feel that being conscious was not a good thing. In my story “Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech,” there’s a dummy who suffers for having been awakened into awareness. I just thought of consciousness as a source of suffering rather than as a faculty that made all human existence into a tissue of lies, which was Zapffe’s idea. While it’s not invulnerable to argument — as is no concept in philosophy — this idea provided me with a basis for my generic pessimism, which, as I’ve already said, is not conceptually defensible. I could rant on a daily basis that, as Lovecraft wrote in one of his stories, “life is a hideous thing.” But anyone could come along and say, “What are you talking about? Everything is beautiful. I’m having the time of my life being alive.” There’s no reply to that. You can just say, “Well, if everything is beautiful, even on every other day, then you’re just not paying attention.” But Zapffe’s reply was that not only is everything not beautiful, no one actually believes it’s beautiful even if they say they do. All of our actions bear witness to this observation. In a single essay, which was later expanded as a treatise titled On the Tragic, Zapffe beat the stuffing out of the theory on which Arthur Schopenhauer expatiated for thousands of pages — that everything in the universe is activated by a “Will-to-live,” a transcendental force that works the world like a cosmic puppet show. Schopenhauer’s Will does have its appeal, because if you accept it, then everything that once seemed mysterious makes perfect sense. If you ever wondered why things are the way they are or why people do the things the things they do, it all goes back to the Will, which is pulling all the strings. Intellectually and emotionally, it’s very satisfying. The problem is that Schopenhauer’s system only works on paper and can’t be detected as being part of existence any more than a creator-God.

Zapffe’s thought is very down to earth. You can experience how being conscious ruins human life by taking it out of nature, where the imperative of every living thing is simply to survive and reproduce. Human beings, on the other hand, can ask themselves what they are, why they’re alive, what happens after death, and so on. Since there aren’t any credible answers to these questions, we make up answers for the purpose of shutting down our consciousness as much as possible. At the same time, we busy ourselves with all sorts of projects and playthings just to wile away our time, also for the purpose of repressing our consciousness as creatures who know they’re alive and know they’re going to die. At any rate, the whole endeavor of being human is reduced to trying not to be human, which is very messed up. This allows Zapffe to go all the way and make the pessimist’s signature pronouncement — that instead of continuing to carry on, we should be getting down to giving up on life. Naturally, this line of thought will not sway anyone who thinks that everything is beautiful, or that anything is beautiful, but it does takes pessimism another step forward, which is admittedly something that concerns only other pessimists.

Before reading Zapffe, I too was aware of my life as a series of distractions and denials that staved off thoughts of the terrible things that could happen to me and of my impending death. I was also sensitive, probably overly so, that these terrible things could happen and in fact were happening everywhere in the world. They had always been happening and, barring some radical change in material existence, would continue to happen until doomsday. I knew that I needed something to take my mind off these things and discover some immediate pretext for being alive. I also knew that I was just biding my time until something terrible came along and I snuffed it, something that would probably happen only after I had to watch those to whom I had become attached in one way or another had snuffed it. One of those terrible things, among others, that actually did come along in my life was major depression. This is sometimes called the common cold of mental diseases, but that’s not how it feels to those who suffer from it. Aside from its other effects, depression has a philosophical effect to it that other kinds of pain do not, and its implications very much changed my sense of what it was like to be alive in the world. In depression, everything is just what it seems to be: a tree is just a tree and not something that arouses symbolic meanings or affective associations. Life itself becomes very transparent in all its aspects to a depressive. There aren’t any mysteries left, since all mysteries come from within us. We’re mystery-making machines, and we project a sense of mystery onto a world that has no such thing behind or within it. Certain questions remain that may one day be answered or may not be answered. Either way it doesn’t matter to a depressive.

Recent movements such as transhumanism and abolitionism project a future in which suffering will be transcended with drugs and technology. There’s a guy named David Pearce who runs a Web site called The Hedonistic Imperative, and he very articulately insists that the only worthy goal in human life is that of feeling good all the time. Of course, this is the goal that everyone is concerned with in their lives, but Pearce argues that this could be more effectively and speedily attained by entirely artificial means. The fact that these people are obsessed with making a serious attempt to abolish human suffering, and to establish this aim as the central project of their lives, is nice to see. Thus far in human history, people have put their effort into curing diseases that make us dysfunctional and unproductive or that are obstacles to increasing our longevity. There hasn’t been much interest in confronting human suffering as such. Paradoxically, should the efforts of those who want to annihilate suffering succeed, it could be the end of us as a species. We would be returned to paradise. And reproduction would be irrelevant in a paradisal landscape where all dreams have been satisfied and all fears quashed.

You’re best known for writing horror stories and poems. Did The Conspiracy Against the Human Race feel like a different endeavor, even though it was an obvious continuation of certain themes in your work?

Writing Conspiracy was different from writing horror stories in the following way. For me, a story usually has its inception in something irrational — a dream, an image, a phrase that doesn’t make any sense. This irrational germ for a story will be something that I feel is dense with meaning and possibilities, even if I know it’s going to end up as a horror story. Then some element of the story pokes its head out — a character, a setting, a particular scene in the narrative — and everything comes together very quickly. I’m definitely a didactic writer in that my stories can be reduced to some point that I’m trying to get across, something that emerges in the course of elaborating its narrative elements. I may start a story in the irrational, but unlike a lot of writers I’m not content to let a story be its own meaning. I have to move from the irrational to the rational. With Conspiracy, I started in the rational and stayed there. It was kind of like working in two dimensions instead of three. All the force of Conspiracy had to come from concepts and rhetoric, both of which are prominent in my stories. But the imaginative landscape was missing. There wasn’t a sense of being in a world inside of my head as I wrote. It was more like writing a poem, which for me is an elaboration of an idea. I may start a poem with a single line that fits somewhere into the poem, but that line will make sense conceptually. So writing Conspiracywas like writing a very long poem.

What do you think readers will make of it?

I can only say with any degree of confidence what one faction of readers will make of it. Those are people who have read my horror stories and enjoyed them not in spite of their bleak quality but because of it. An analogy could be drawn with fans of Lovecraft’s stories, who read them for their charming regionalism, their mythology of monsters, or for their unusually literate nature — something prized by readers who are generally well read yet still have a weakness for the horror genre — or some combination of these and other characteristics of his work. But they don’t read them as expressions of Lovecraft’s vision of human beings as bits of inconsequential organic material quivering in a black infinity that occasionally throws some phenomenon our way that is completely alien to the settled structures of our existence, as if to say: “You can just forget everything you thought you knew about yourselves and everything else in the universe. You know nothing. You are nothing. And the choices you have for dealing with this reality are to go insane or kill yourselves. How about them apples?” This can be a rather consoling vision to those readers who already think as much and are grateful that someone else out there felt the same and had the nerve to make it the basis of his art. I was one of those readers. It was a great relief to discover the writings of someone who didn’t go for the same consolations as most of the rest of the world, even if the consolations they did go for were no less questionable. I think that some of my readers look at my stories similarly. And those are the ones who will appreciate Conspiracy. As for anyone else, I couldn’t say. The book could very well be judged as badly done on its own terms. It would also be easy for anyone to dismiss it by saying that its author is just a nutjob and has always been a nutjob who should be pitied or justly derogated or simply ignored. I would be in no position to argue with such an assessment, since the general estimation of the reading public about themselves and their existence is so different from mine. I myself don’t believe that my experience itself is so different from that of most people, but the conclusions I’ve drawn from my experience are indeed quite different. Furthermore, the whole point of Conspiracy is that pessimism as a resolute life-stance is not welcome to the minds very many people, even when it’s laid out as entertainingly as possible, which I’ve tried to do. But pessimistic works have never been well received as a rule. And I’m not naïve enough to think that it could ever be any other way.