The function of ambiguity in powertalk

Thanks to the power of autism, we have a very precise idea of what ambiguity in natural language is: the number of comprehensible interpretations.

[Natural languages] are fraught with a lot of things unacceptable for providing instructions to a computer. Most important of these unacceptable attributes is ambiguity. Natural language is filled with ambiguity. To infer the meaning of a sentence, a listener is often helped by the tone of voice of the speaker, or at the very least, the context of the sentence.

Off-topic note: when people are waxing legalistic they often affect a monotone and use words that sound like they have a more precise definition (you especially see this whenever clerks and bureaucrats get defensive).

An example of ambiguity in English is the sentence, “Time flies like an arrow.” At least three interpretations are possible, depending on whether (1) one is noticing how fast time passes, (2) one is at a track meet for insects, or (3) one is writing a letter to the Dear Abby of Insectville. In the first case, a simile, one is comparing the speed of time passing to the speed of an arrow that has been released. In the second case, one is telling the timekeeper to do his/her job much like an arrow would. In the third case, one is relating that a particular group of flies (time flies, as opposed to fruit flies) are all in love with the same arrow.

Yale N. Patt and Sanjay J. Patel
Introduction to Computing Systems

Powertalk is the use of ambiguous natural language to extract information about a person based on which meaning they respond to (i.e. which interpretation they choose). Powertalk is a linguistic Rorschach test. Please recall Rao’s Ur-example:

Fluent Powertalk

At a Dunder-Mifflin management party, shortly after Michael and Jan disclose their affair to David Wallace, per HR requirements, Wallace casually invites Jim to blow off the party for a while and shoot hoops in the backyard. Once outside, Wallace nonchalantly asks, “So what’s up with Jan and Michael?” He is clearly fishing for information, having observed the bizarre couple dynamics at the party.

Jim replies, “I wouldn’t know…(pregnant pause)…where to begin.” (slight laugh)

David Wallace laughs in return. This is as eloquent as such a short fragment of Powertalk can get. Here are just some of the messages being communicated by the six words and the meaningful pause and laugh.

Message 1: It is a complex situation (literal).
Message 2: I understand you think something bizarre is going on. I am confirming your suspicion. It is a bizarre mess, and you should be concerned.
Message 3: This is the first significant conversation between us, and I am signaling to you that I am fluent in Powertalk.
Message 4: I know how to communicate useful information while maintaining plausible deniability.
Message 5: I am not so gratified at this sign of attention from you that I am going to say foolish things that could backfire on me.
Message 6: I am aware of my situational leverage and the fact that you need me. I am not so overawed that I am giving it all up for free.
Message 7: I am being non-committal enough that you can pull back or steer this conversation to safer matters if you like. I know how to give others wiggle room, safe outs and exits.
Message 8: You still have to earn my trust. But let’s keep talking. What do you have that I could use?

The key here is that only Message 1 is comprehensible to the truly Clueless; this is what makes for plausible deniability. You cannot prove that the other messages were exchanged. Losers can partially understand, but not speak Powertalk. To them, Powertalk is a spectator sport.

Venkatesh Rao
The Gervais Principle II: Posturetalk, Powertalk, Babytalk and Gametalk

Functionally, this is the opposite of Framing. When a melonhead launches a salvo of possible meanings, the point is to see which one the other party targets and shoots down (i.e. which they think is “obviously” the correct interpretation), because this reveals their defensive location (i.e. key emotional and personality traits). For example, I could say “You’re a funny guy, huh?” to provoke a reaction from you. If you take this as provocation to escalate into an argument then I’ve just learned that you’re an insecure Alpha. If you agree and amplify (“Also beautiful”) then I know you have some Game and social grace. And so on.

(I wish I could remember who figured this next bit out so I could give them credit. I remember it was on a Skype call.)

The starchild superpower that I previously compared to collapsing the wave function is a combination of rapid disambiguation (via the ventral stream’s associative horizon) and a pointedly ironic response. If I’d used the “You’re a funny guy, huh?” bit with my starchild back at the strip club, I imagine he would have said something like “And you’re the big guy!” What he’s really saying here is “I see what you did there. You’re using ambiguity to AMOG me and it’s cute that you think that would work. Now I’m David and you’re Goliath lozzlzolzlolzzlz.”

This insight may seem a bit frivolous but in truth the navigation of ambiguity is the essence of 4th-generation culture war, which is decided by which side is better at rhetoric, propaganda, and control of complex information flows. We need to learn to apply this stuff in order to win the shooting war before it starts.

About Aeoli Pera

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42 Responses to The function of ambiguity in powertalk

  1. Edenist Whackjob says:

    Meditation helps a lot.

    • Aeoli Pera says:

      With what in particular?

      • Koanic says:


      • Edenist Whackjob says:

        Tuning into intuition / flow. Same with playing instruments. But, yeah, for Powertalk, nothing beats practice.

        • Edenist Whackjob says:

          Medition and piano might build up the CC link but still need practice to build model.

        • Edenist Whackjob says:

          Powertalk relief heavily on parallel processing. Those 8 meanings are more felt as one than reasoned separately.

          • *relies

            There is a General Winning Maxim buried here somewhere.

            For mechanical / aspie type people in general, increasing one’s “fluidity” (for lack of a better term) is a great way to unlock gains.

            One can do general fluidity training:

            – meditation
            – piano (has especially large benefits on corpus callosum throughput, I’ve read)
            – any improvising in music
            – stand-up comedy
            – improv theatre, etc

            Stacking these together is of course even better. Will improve phrasing, flow, general ability to come up with stuff on the-fly.

            Combine it with domain-specific fluidity training (ie networking, sales calls, even writing innovative code) and you’re a winner.

            One thing I feel fluidity unlocks is also ability to learn socially. The principle “you’re equal to your 5 closest peers” is extra powerful, then. You can auto-level just by hanging around people. Instant Xp transmission via telepathy, kinda.

            • 2×2 because aspie crowd:

              Low-fluid, low self-aware: Clueless
              Low-fluid, high self-aware: Loser
              High-fluid, high self-aware: Sociopath
              High-fluid, low self-aware: Schizophrenic / Lumpenloser

            • Aeoli Pera says:

              We might say “creative loser” for the latter.

            • One can display Gervais Sociopath Cognitive Style in aspie tasks. Ruby on Rails meets staid PHP world at the time (2004) is Sociopathy because takes moral high ground and re-defines box we’re living in, for Clueless mechatrons to then take up (base)camp in, until next Sociopath (Resig?) comes along and breaks spell of defined frame.

            • Aeoli Pera says:

              Okay, thank you for taking the time to explain. It’s very clear now.

              I’ve noticed that consistent fluidity training *can* significantly raise general fluidity, and this is the most important gainz in general, but in particular tasks is less important than subject mastery.

            • Note: don’t confuse my “fluidity” with “fluid intelligence”. I am talking about the thing that makes people good at guitar solos, improvising a sales call, making puns on-the-fly, that sort of thing. More flow and feel for phrasing than strict domain-independent puzzle-solving ability (although they probably overlap at some level).

            • Aeoli Pera says:

              Right, fluency of association.

            • Aeoli Pera says:

              >There is a General Winning Maxim buried here somewhere.

              If your weaknesses impede your strengths, bring up your weaknesses. Big lesson for this sphere.

          • Aeoli Pera says:

            >Powertalk relief heavily on parallel processing. Those 8 meanings are more felt as one than reasoned separately.

            Yes, I expect you’re correct. I think this has something to do with the right-hemisphere activation superhighway Dario Nardi mentioned for ENFJs/ENTJs.

          • Aeoli Pera says:

            >Powertalk relief heavily on parallel processing. Those 8 meanings are more felt as one than reasoned separately.


    • Akuma says:

      So does the Hama model.

    • Feresco2.4 says:

      is meditation something a lot of people here would say works?

      how do you know how to do it? do you just sit there?

      • I follow two methods:

        1) Buddhist concentration meditation, per instructions given by Illuminatus on his blog. The goal is to focus on the tip of your nose, and bring back that focus every time thoughts arise. I also personally visualize a kind of mental “screen” (like a TV), which traps the thoughts and turns them into light before they can go verbal. The goal is to become completely quiet in your mind, without any effort required to stay there, and then something called jhana will arise. It’s hard work, though.

        2) Saying the Lord’s prayer, utilizing similar focus as in #1. This one is really effective for me and I easily get “piti” (waves of energy through the body). The states are shorter than in #1, however.

  2. Akuma says:

    Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

  3. Z says:

    A lot of times the comments on this blog just fly over my head I realize now they were just using Powertalk oh noes.

  4. kensuimo says:

    At least from my own impression I think you have it backwards, at least focusing on the phrase rapid disambiguation. It’s like, this insolent rat insists on running with only one intepretation (because make no mistake, melon definition of ambiguity pales in comparison to the variability of starchild chaos. You pointed this out in Part 1. It’s just the sickeningly dull social hierarchy game)? I’ll throw an orthogonal one at him to loosen him up. So any wave function collapse is actually a minor deliberate snag to reopen *his* wave function. Maybe I’m just bad at starchilding, but my sense is there’s a fundamental lack of intuitive understanding that melons can’t (we need a verb here to indicate simultaneous coopucation of every/many possibilities. I suppose I’ll go with) superpose. So the impression, really, is that a brother has chosen his conduct poorly and you’re just helping him realign his priorities. Because, of course, you know best.

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