The number one issue that humanity faces today is technological growth. If you look under the surface of most political issues, what drives them is the way technology has given us abilities we did not previously have, or information we could not previously have accessed.
What makes this especially powerful is that technology evolves much faster than human beings do. Technology can go through many generations in the course of one human’s lifetime.
This is important, because in evolutionary biology, new traits usually emerge over the course of generations. (This is why biologists usually study traits in organisms with short generations. You can observe multiple generations of flies over the course of a year.)
But since technology moves faster than humans can evolve new traits, it means that we are always playing from behind. When I was born, cell phones were huge, unwieldy things used by rich people, sales reps, and techies. Now they’re everywhere, and are more powerful than the top-of-the-line supercomputers of three decades ago.
For the last 200 years, technological progress has been increasing at an incredible rate. And humans have often suffered by being slow to adapt. This is illustrated most dramatically by wars: in World War I, the officers had all been trained in tactics derived from the Napoleonic era. This resulted in huge massacres, as cavalry and infantry charges–which would have worked against men with inaccurate single-shot rifles–were torn to pieces by machine guns. Technology had made a huge leap in the century between the battle of Waterloo and the battle of Artois. And that was as nothing compared to the leap it would make in the next thirty years, with the advent of the Atomic Bomb.
The thing is, while it may seem to us like a long time since the days of cavalry charges and flintlock rifles, in terms of human history, that’s a drop in the bucket. Homo sapiens first emerged roughly 200,000 years ago. On that scale, Waterloo might as well be yesterday, and the Roman Empire was just last week.
For the vast majority of our existence, life was pretty much the same: people worked the land and hunted and raised families. Periodically, they organized into larger tribes to make war or trade. If you took a citizen of Athens from, say, 450 BCE and transported him to Renaissance Italy—nearly 2000 years later–he’d still have a pretty good handle on how things worked once he got past the language barrier. Whereas if you transported somebody from 1890s London to the present day—a mere 128 years!—he’d have no idea what was happening.
When you read history, it’s easy to be struck by how human nature seems unchanged over the centuries. We can recognize things in the texts of the earliest historians and philosophers that seem analogous to modern phenomena. While it may seem like this means human nature is eternal, what it really signifies is that it hasn’t been that long, in biological terms, since what we think of as “ancient times”.
It’s commonplace to observe the technology changes, but human nature remains the same. But observing it is one thing; grasping the full implications is another.
For instance, there is a major “culture war” debate in the U.S. over the issue of transgender rights. Those who favor transgender rights view their opponents as closed-minded bigots. Those opposed see the others as radicals bent on destroying the social order. What both sides ignore is the fact that until very recently, transgender people had no medical treatment available to them. For hundreds of thousands of years, transgender people had no option but to live in the body they were born with. And the rest of the population scarcely even knew they existed; and so built whole societies premised on two rigid gender roles. It wasn’t until very recent breakthroughs in medical technology that any other option became viable.
Once you view it in these terms, you realize it isn’t a liberal plot to destabilize society, but simply a group of people able to access treatment that previously did not exist. Likewise, you also realize the reason so many people are responding with fear and suspicion is that history and tradition provide no guidelines for how to deal with the issue. It simply wasn’t possible in the past.
A number of social conflicts, I suspect, are in fact the result of people being optimized for a very different world than the one we actually live in. Ancient prohibitions against homosexuality, sodomy, and other non-reproductive sexual behavior made some sense in the context of their time—in the past, when mortality rates were high, people needed everyone who was physically capable of reproducing to do so, personal feelings notwithstanding. It was about survival of the group, not any one individual.
Nowadays humanity is threatened more by overpopulation than by extinction—but we’re still adapted to the world of thousands of years ago. That’s just one example. I think people in the developed world still have a slightly-irrational fear of famine; simply because we evolved over millennia where food was, in fact, extremely scarce. (This is why philosophies like the so-called “abundance mentality” seem so counter-intuitive. In the past, it would’ve been suicide to assume there were enough resources for everybody.)
Instinct is a powerful thing, and incredibly dangerous when it gets outdated. To borrow an example from Paul Graham: because human beings haven’t had the power of flight until recently, it’s easy for our senses to be fooled in bad visibility.
Of course, this is something where we use technology to make up for our own shortcomings. A human being would have no idea how to fly a plane if not for instruments that correctly show the position of the aircraft. And this leads to another obvious point about technological evolution—it is, in many ways, nothing short of miraculous for humans. It allows us to accomplish things our ancestors could never have imagined. Whatever bad side effects it has, no one could ever rationally argue that we’d be better off getting rid of all of it and returning to primitive life.
The saving grace is that technology has been designed by humans and for humans, and so generally is compatible with the needs of humans. The things that conflict with human needs aren’t usually a direct result of this, but rather side-effects the designers never thought of.
But side-effects, almost by definition, are insidious. Any obvious, seriously harmful side-effect gets fixed early on. The ones that don’t usually fall into one or more of the following categories:
- Not obvious
- Don’t seem harmful at first
- Can’t be fixed without destroying the benefit
The designers of automobiles probably never thought the exhaust would cause pollution; even if they had, they probably wouldn’t have realized that cars would be widely used enough for it to matter. Marie and Pierre Curie had no idea the new element they had discovered was dangerous. It seemed like just a useful illuminative substance. And pretty much every communications technology in history, from the printing press on, has the potential to spread pernicious lies and propaganda just as much as news and useful information. But no one can figure out a way to remove the bad information without also getting rid of the good—the only option is censorship, which can pose a danger in its own right.
I’ll say it again for emphasis: technology is evolving faster than humans. As a result, our instincts will often lie to us when it comes to dealing with technology. It’s the same way modern junk food is engineered to please our taste buds while poisoning our bodies—it’s designed to set off all the right sensors that tell us “get more of this”.
The rise of nationalism throughout the world in the last decade has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of social media. It’s not a coincidence. Social media plays to an old instinct that takes human society back to its most basic state: the tribe, and the desire to win approval from that tribe. But in the past, when we were in tribes, we didn’t know what the rival tribes or nation-states were doing—they were in far-off lands and rarely encountered each other. But now, we always know what they are doing—they are just a click away. And because they are a different tribe, our instincts tell us to fear them, as our ancestors feared invaders from distant places.
What can we do about this? We can’t get rid of technology; nor would we want to. And I don’t think it’s a good idea to make it into a political question. Politicians want easy, non-nuanced issues, where they can cast themselves as leaders of a huge, virtuous majority against a tiny, vaguely-defined band of evildoers. That would be a terrible thing to happen on this issue. As we’ve already seen in the social issues I’ve mentioned earlier, politicians tend to cast these things as moral questions rather than technological change ones.
We’re going to have to deal with this one on our own. But how? After all, technology brings huge benefits. How can we keep getting those while minimizing the side effects? We don’t want to completely ignore our instincts—not all of them are outdated, after all—but we can’t always trust them, either.
The best advice I can give is to always be on the lookout for what side-effects technology produces in your own life. Always ask yourself what it’s causing you to do differently, and why. Then you’ll start to look for the same in the wider world. We know human nature doesn’t change that much; so when you see or read about a large number of people behaving in an unusual way, or a new cultural phenomenon, there’s a decent chance that it’s in response to some new technology.
It’s easy to look at the dangers of technology and decide you want to opt out, throw it all away, and return to the simple life. This is probably healthy in small doses but it’s impractical on a large scale or for an entire lifetime. What I’m advising is cultivating an attitude of extreme adaptability, where you are so flexible that you can both use new technology and see the potential problems with it coming before they hit you. Listen to your instincts, but know when you need to disregard them. Remember, your instincts are optimized to give you the best chance at survival in a world of agrarian societies and/or tribes of hunter-gatherers. And they are damn good at it; but their mileage may vary in a world of computers, nanomachines, and space travel.
Leave your comments below!
(I forgot to mention this in the clip above, but here is the tweet that originally set me thinking about this.)
I think the trend towards fatalism in American art is problematic. Our stories about politics and entertainment are very dark.
— GothamGirlBlue (@GothamGirlBlue) July 2, 2017
There is no lack of explanations for what happened in 2016. All the major groups have their version of it. The centrist-Democrat political establishment one goes something like this:
“The Democrats failed to understand the economic anxiety voters in the Midwestern states felt as a result of globalization. Donald Trump tapped in to these fears and won by turning out the midwestern white vote.”
That seems pretty reasonable. But the more liberal, socialist-leaning elements of the Democratic party have a slightly different explanation:
“The people in the midwest were turned off by the flawed ‘establishment’ candidate Hillary Clinton, who they viewed as untrustworthy and unlikely to bring economic reforms that they wanted. This depressed voter turnout, allowing Trump to capitalize on latent racism.”
This is pretty much the same thing, only it puts a little more blame on the Democrats and offers an implied prescription for the direction of the Party.
The Republicans, of course, have their own view as well. It can be summarized as follows:
“The working men and women rose up to vote out the politically correct big government agenda of the Democrats, and supported a successful businessman who will put their interests first and bring back jobs and opportunity, and who is not afraid to say what he thinks.”
All of these explanations are fairly similar. In an increasingly rare event in politics, all sides are in agreement on the basic facts; that Trump won, that Clinton lost, and that the Midwestern states were the reason why. They are all describing the same event, and so arrive at a set of explanations that satisfactorily summarize the same results in a way that suits their respective worldviews.
Each explanation seems plausible. Which one to use depends on the target audience, but any one of them could work in a typical piece of political analysis.
But chances are, you don’t want typical political analysis. If you did, you would be reading CNN or Fox News or Huffington Post or Breitbart or some other site. You’re here because you want more than a summary. You want to understand 2016 in a larger historical context, and to know about the economic, cultural and philosophical forces underpinning the shocking electoral result.
In other words, you want to know what really happened.
Hypothesis: The majority of the problems in the world are caused by two types of people: Bureaucrats and Total Crazed Fanatics.
By Bureaucrats, I mean go-along-to-get-along careerist types, who will follow their bosses’ orders no matter how stupid or evil they are, and who will go “by the book” no matter what. These are the types of people who operate on mantras like “no one ever got fired for buying IBM“. They are prone to groupthink and “not my department”-style passing the buck.
Adolf Eichmann is an example of this type carried to the very extremest evil.
Total Crazed Fanatics, on the other hand, feel accountable to no one except themselves. They will stop at nothing to get what they want, even if it is considered immoral or evil. TCFs are relentless and will use any means necessary. They are also usually prone to wanton cruelty and violence.
Most of the infamous dictators in history fall into this category, including Hitler, Stalin, Caligula, and so on. But you can see this personality type on smaller scale in anyone who uses bully-style tactics.
Moreover, there is an ecosystem of sorts that evolves between these two types that guarantees the continued production of both bureaucrats and TCFs, in the sense that strong bureaucratic systems with lots of rules are usually created to constrain TCFs. But because bureaucrats are cowards, they will yield to someone who applies enough pressure–that is, someone crazed and fanatical enough. So bureaucracies exist to stop TCFs, but ultimately cause more extreme TCFs to emerge in response and topple them.
What do you think? Is this hypothesis correct? Does it explain most (or any) conflicts you see in the world, or not?
(Note: This occurred to me while thinking about Max Weber’s classification of authority. I recommend reading about that, whether you agree with my hypothesis or not.)
Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.
Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?
–John 18:37-38, King James Version
After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady.
“Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.
“And what is that, madam?” Inquired James politely.
“That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle,”
Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.
“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”
“You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question,” replied the little old lady, “but I have an answer to it. And it is this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.”
“But what does this second turtle stand on?” persisted James patiently.
To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly. “It’s no use, Mr. James – it’s turtles all the way down.”
–J.R. Ross, Constraints on Variables in Syntax. 1967, via Wikipeida
Everything sticks until it goes away / And the truth is we don’t know anything.
–They Might Be Giants, Ana Ng.
I got into a debate the other day with a Trump supporter. Our disagreement was originally whether or not Russia had attempted to influence the U.S. Election by hacking into Democratic Party files and releasing them via Wikileaks.
My position was that the Russians did it. As evidence, I cited the fact that they had motive, opportunity, ability, and that the U.S. Intelligence agencies have now said that the Russians did exactly this.
My opponent conceded that the Russians did have motive and opportunity, but argued that many other nations did as well. Moreover, he argued, there was no evidence the Russians had done it, and no one at the CIA had said the Russians did it. That was propaganda from the liberals to delegitimize Trump.
“What about the Director of the CIA saying as much?” I asked.
“Made-up story,” he countered. “Fake news.”
According to my opponent, this is a typical strategy used by Democrats to undercut Republicans who win Presidential elections. He claims that they have done similar things in the past–for example, they told everyone that Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000.
“Al Gore did win the popular vote in 2000″, I responded.
He shakes his head. “No–liberal propaganda.”
“You can look up the vote count online,” I persisted.
He was dismissive. “The government is run by liberals–they lie about the votes.”
It quickly became clear that there was no way we could ever conclude this argument. Both of us had to invoke authorities the other considered unreliable. If I referred him to the National Archives count of the votes, he deemed it liberal propaganda. Similarly, if he referred me to Breitbart or Rush Limbaugh supposedly refuting the published vote tallies, I would deem that conservative propaganda.
The only way it could possibly be resolved would be if the two of us were able to personally count all the ballots ourselves. And even then it wouldn’t work–if it came out against him, my opponent would no doubt insist that liberals had secretly removed some ballots before the counting.
And when you get right down to it, I can’t absolutely prove that’s false. I can make all sorts of educated guesses, assert things with 99.99% confidence, but I technically can’t prove it beyond all doubt.
If you push it far enough, no one truly knows much of anything with “absolute metaphysical certitude”, as John McLaughlin would say. People are just proceeding based on logical assumptions. We don’t know for absolute certain that aliens didn’t secretly replace all our family and friends with evil body doubles overnight–but it’s fair to feel confident they probably didn’t.
There’s a term for this need for absolute certainty: it’s a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. People with this disorder experience crippling anxiety and disturbing thoughts because they have uncertainty about something.
You have to either accept some level of uncertainty, or live a miserable life.
At the moment, the entire country suffers from this crippling anxiety because they have lost faith in all the old institutions–the Press, the Government, and even Religious organizations. (Except on the issue of abortion, where Priests and Preachers still have some influence.)
The real problem is that people have not only lost their faith in old institutions, but put their faith in new, highly dubious ones, that promise to assuage their anxieties. It reminds me of a quote often attributed to G.K. Chesterton:
When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.
This may not always be true of single individuals, but I think it is true of populations. Once a whole culture has lost faith in the institutions they used to believe in, they are vulnerable to being taken in by any charismatic con man with a compelling tale.
Scientific reasoning is about analyzing data gathered via scientific methods. It does not allow for appeals to authority. However, the average person does not have time to rigorously test every single issue that might affect his or her life. This means that it is sometimes necessary to either believe authority or, if the authority is thought to be untrustworthy, find a new one. As my vote-count problem above illustrates, there are some matters that cannot be personally verified by every single person.
But, in a quest for reassurance from authority, people will not seek the authorities who give them the most truthful answer, but rather the most comforting. A man with the supreme confidence to assert “I alone can fix it”, whether he can or not, will inevitably be more popular with people adrift in a world of doubt and uncertainty than one who seems unsure.
There’s a final irony to this: Trump himself talks about the importance of making decisions while uncertain. In The Art of the Deal, he discusses how many of his deals involve some element of risk-taking. He says he simply makes decisions by gathering information from as many people with knowledge of the issue as he can, and then going with whatever his gut instincts tell him.
Most executives, military commanders, and other leaders throughout history learned to cope with the idea of uncertainty or risk. They simply made the best decision they could with the information available. They did not constantly question all information or demand it be replaced with new information that was favorable to them.
(Interestingly, people like Stalin and Hitler would require that their intelligence be favorable to them, and filled most of their officer corps with politicians and “yes-men” who wouldn’t give them the full story.)
The argument strategy like the one I described above is to first devalue all information by emphasizing the tiny element of uncertainty that exists in everything not witnessed first-hand, and then appeal to charismatic and reassuring authorities who promise to fix all problems.
The best way to counter it is as follows: argue based simply on facts everyone–or at least, the person with whom you are arguing–agrees on, and extrapolate logically from there. As I said, even my bull-headed opponent had to admit the Russians had motive and opportunity for hacking the election.
Above all, when arguing with someone like that, don’t make any appeal to authority, or cite any source, because they will immediately dismiss it.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is based off an old essay I wrote years ago, and didn’t publish. I revised and updated it for the present.]
I think I have a better understanding of the so-called “alt-right”–which I refer to as “nationalists”–than most people do. I blame H.P. Lovecraft.
I had just read his horror novella At the Mountains of Madness, and learned that certain ideas in it had been suggested to him by Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. I decided I wanted to find out more about Spengler, so I read it.
I should note that at this point in my life I was your typical college “liberaltarian”. I thought that all those people on the right on who hated gays and feminists and liberals in general were just ignorant, uneducated hillbillies; probably waving Confederate flags.
I have not changed my views on the issues that much since then, but I have changed my perception of my opponents. And reading Spengler was the cause.
Spengler was an immensely intelligent man, and his education was tremendous. I constantly had to look things up to be able to attempt to understand him–not just words, you see, but concepts, incidents in history, philosophies, even civilizations. Spengler was many things, but “ignorant” was not one of them.
And yet… throughout his work ran a strangely familiar undertone. The hostility to the cosmopolitan liberal, and the admiration of the people bound to the blood and soil. The intellectual and cultural gap between Oswald Spengler and the average Trump supporter is inconceivably vast; yet the sentiments that motivate them are shockingly similar.
This, I don’t mind saying, was troubling. For if an intelligent person, steeped in knowledge of not only his own culture and civilization, but of others, could hold these same views, it meant that one of my core assumptions was wrong. It was not ignorance which made the conservatives think as they do, but something else–something much deeper.
Spengler had done the work of a philosopher, which was to follow and articulate coherently those impulses and thoughts which motivated him. He explained, logically and thoroughly, a worldview which I could never share, but which I could now, at least, understand.
After that, I began to see many so-called “conservatives” in a different light. I sought to understand as much of their underlying motivation as I could–the unseen, visceral instinct that made some people, regardless of education or background, into what we today call the alt-right, but which might be better described as “nationalists”.
It is not easy thing to describe, and indeed I read many upsetting ideas, which I considered immoral and wrong. But ultimately, I became convinced of one thing: that this is something felt very deeply in people’s hearts, not in their minds.
This was an oddly–dare I say it–liberating moment for me. I realized that I was a liberal, and they were conservatives, and that was that.
A good deal of what is called the “alt-right” movement is nothing more than some very old philosophies, recycled for our times. The spirit of nationalism which Spengler described is not as dead as liberals believed.
I started this post with Lovecraft; so I wil give him the last word. From his most famous story, The Call of Cthulhu:
“Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men.”
“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”–Donald Trump, in his acceptance speech. July 21, 2016
The Democrats, including President Obama himself, went after Trump for this quote at their convention. In her acceptance speech, Clinton retorted that Americans fix things by working together.
It made me think of the philosopher Thomas Carlyle and the “Great Man Theory of History“. Carlyle stated that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”.
This theory was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After that, it fell out of favor, with most philosophers and historians preferring theories that emphasized societies and cultures as a whole. What Carlyle would call “Great Men” were products of their times and places. Often, they just happen to be overseeing the culmination of events that were many years in the making.
“If Napoleon did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him,” in other words.
But though it has long been out of favor with most historians, the Great Man theory has never totally disappeared among nationalistic elements of society. I’m not sure why, but believers in what is usually called “Right-Wing Authoritarianism” seem predisposed to favor this theory. Maybe because it complements the strong patriarchal nature of such movements.
Whatever the reason, Trump’s claim and Clinton’s reply underscore a profound philosophical difference between the two parties. (Not that Trump is aware of it–it came across as more of his usual bragging–but it spoke to something deeper in the political divide.)
I was thinking today about some of the great thinkers in history, and how the vast majority of the great minds had so little access to information compared to the average person in the present day.
It’s sort of sad when you think about it. Take any great thinker from history, and then think about the logistics required for him or her to get the level of education they received. They had to go to school, study, get books from libraries–if they were available at all. If you were reading and you found a word you didn’t know, you had to go find a dictionary and hope you could find it in there. Not to mention that the mundane day-to-day tasks also took longer and were more difficult. And yet, there were people thinking deep philosophical thoughts, inventing new technologies, writing great books, founding nations, etc. etc.
Compare them to me: I have almost instantaneous access to all the recorded knowledge in human history via the internet, I can have it translated instantly if need be, and I can do it while sitting at my desk. On paper, I should probably be more well-educated and accomplished than the entire population of the world in the 1600s. But I’m not. If somebody from past times came to the present, they’d be appalled by how little I’d done with the wealth of resources I have.
Suppose John Locke had been able to access the internet. He probably would have invented the perfect system of government in 10 minutes, if he kept up his past rate of productivity. How many times over could the great economic minds have solved the U.S. economic crisis in the time I spent watching cat videos?
I feel like an under-achiever, I guess is what I’m saying.