A Year of War / Unfreedom of Chatbots

A Year of War / Unfreedom of Chatbots


Here’s my latest conversation with John Horgan.

For the first 50 minutes, we talk about our felt lack of agency when it comes to the world’s biggest injustices. Here’s how I set this up:

I'm going to start on a depressing note today. My plan is: let's dig a little emotional hole in the beginning and see whether we can get out of it by the end of the conversation.

It's been a year since the war started. We talked about it at the time, when I was still in Russia.

Looking back at this year, it hasn't been a good one. The war is still going on. It's not clear who is winning.

The good thing is Ukraine stands.

The bad thing is it's been a year of cities being destroyed, people being killed, people being tortured — that's military personnel and civilians both — people being kidnapped… There are children who lost their parents in the war, were brought to Russia, and are now being used for propaganda purposes...

So, an incredible suffering on the part of Ukrainians. It's not clear how long it's going to continue, and how much worse it is going to get.

And then on Russia's part, there’s a complete degradation, as far as I can see, of the state and of the country.

The latest little story I saw was — I was just reading this today — there’s a single father whose daughter drew an anti-war picture at school, and FSB showed up, and the father is under the house arrest now, and the girl is in a government facility, in an orphanage. I think they were supposed to let her out but didn't. I dont’t know if they're going to.

It's just one small story out of many, many stories of that sort. There are people who are serving jail sentences — long jail sentences — for making anti-war statements…

So, it's not good.

And then, on a more personal note, it's been almost a year since I left Russia.

One of the things that I remember saying — we were at this bar in Yerevan, and there was this obnoxious drunk Russian (luckily, the only person of that sort that we've seen here so far) — this annoying guy who wanted to challenge us on our views and decisions and "Well, why did you leave?"

One thing I told him was, I think my country is committing atrocities; and I think my country is going to a very, very dark place itself. I can't imagine staying in Russia, putting the blinders on, pretending nothing is happening, and simply living my own life. Instead, I would like to do something about this. And I can't see what a person can do from inside of Russia, because, if you try something, you’d simply be jailed. So I said: I hope that I could be of more use on the outside. I believed that. I still do.


It's been almost a year.

I can't say that I've been very useful.

I then generalized this problem: it’s not just me, and it’s not just this war. I don’t know anybody who is making a real, concentrated effort — as in, rent an office space, buy a whiteboard, get some smart people together, brainstorm, put in the hours, day after day, week after week, try many ideas, reject those that don’t work, improve on those that seem promising, and, over time, start showing real, measurable progress — to solve whatever problem they think is the most important or urgent one to address.

And frankly, it’s worse than that:

I haven't met a person who I'm in awe of in regards to their ability to navigate the world; certainly nobody who's making a real dent in solving these is big planet-wide issues. But the bar's not even there.

The bar is like, “Spend you time on this planet effectively.”

I don't know anybody who's really good at that. I know people who inspire me by not getting totally bugged down...

But we all seem stuck to me. I feel we're unhealthy. Our energy levels, our ability to concentrate, to think straight, to navigate a conversation — it's like we're all stunted in different ways.

That is the hole I dug at the beginning of our conversation.

By the end of it though, we were some place else: talking about Plato’s Cave, happy prisoners, chatbots, meaning of life, cults, unfreedom of thought, brain implants, and in general, being bozos on this bus.

John ended the chat on this note:

You know, it’s funny. I was just working on the end of my book about quantum mechanics, talking about being a part of the mystery, and what do you do about it… And as long as you have friends, also in the hole, or the cave, or whatever you want to call it — the aquarium — and you’re looking at them now and then, and you go,

“Are you seeing this?”

And they go,

“Fuck yeah, man.”

Or maybe they say,

“No, I don’t see it. Tell me about it.”

That makes it tolerable. Friendship.

I agreed with this.

So, thanks for being with me in this aquarium, and for saying things like “Are you seeing this shit?” and “Fuck yeah, man” to me every now and again. You can always reach me at


Psychedelic meta-realism from Russia.
Listen on
Substack App
RSS Feed
Appears in episode
Nikita Petrov
John Horgan