Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ideas having sex? I wouldn’t count on it, either

A much commented meme that has been making the rounds in the Internet of late is that, you are not going to believe this, we live in an age of miracle and wonder, an age of unparalleled technological advance (I know, I know) thanks in part to the cross-pollination, and the cross-fertilization of disparate ideas from different fields, whose mixture has been enabled by the wonderful information technologies that put all that knowledge and all that thought “out there”. We owe the original concept to Matt Ridley, who presented it in his book The Rational Optimist (2010), and developed it in a TED Talk of that same year (Ridley's TED talkie), but it has recently gained new currency by being mentioned in a much commented essay in the WSJ by Deirdre McCloskey (neoliberalism will make you rich (and I have a bridge in Brooklyn!)) who uses Ridley’s original insight to explain how the Industrial Revolution took place, and how since then it has kept making us richer and richer, to the extent that if we don’t mess it up (and leave everybody free to pursue their best interest, hmmm, may be there is some unsavory ideology creeping on the back of such lofty proclamations) it will end poverty and ameliorate inequality… just by applying what she calls “classical liberalism”, as supposedly done by the USA, China and India (but not by Brazil, South Africa and the European Union, which according to Mrs. McCloskey “have stagnated” because of their statism and misguided attempts at forced redistribution, never mind that in the latter productivity per hour has grown more than in the USA –something that the Americans have compensated by working many more hours, something that from a utilitarian perspective may be not that desirable- or that according to Nick Kristof 3 million kids in the USA live on 2 $ a day or less Kristof was wrong (no kidding!)).

Nothing that should really surprise you in the unofficial organ of the global plutocracy, but thinking through such malarkey I came to the conclusion that the hope in the ability of ideas to reproduce may explain instead some of the reasons of the decrease in the pace of innovation, and that it would be worthy to explore them more in depth to see how such decrease could be countered. But first, I have to debunk a little of Mrs. McCloskey article, as to better focus on the sexual lives of ideas we should better get rid of the ugly and unsubstantiated ideology with which they try to sell us the concept. An economic historian as her should know that the Industrial Revolution started when and where it started (in England around the middle of the XVIII century) not because for the first time the state decided to respect the freedom of the individuals to pursue their own interest, rather the opposite: the state actively intervened in the protection of the domestic market through high tariffs on imports and incentives to export, and regulated significant portions of economic life (from what boats could be used to move commodities into British ports to how paupers should be treated). As Branko MIlankovic reminded us recently, commenting on a book by Peer Vries (Origins of Great Divergence) the reason the “Great Divergence” happened in England and not in China is NOT because England was more liberal and less interventionist in the economic life of their subjects than China, but precisely the other way round: the intellectual landscape of England’s economic policy was dominated by James Steuart’s Inquiry into Principles of Political Oeconomy (which, although being the most pure exposition of the mercantilist doctrine, bore the significant subtitle of being an Essay in the Science of Domestic Policy in Free Nations), not by Adam Smith The Wealth of Nations, which was not published until 1776, with the IR already well under way. England devoted a higher percentage of its GNP to public expenditure, collected more taxes and in general intervened more actively in how her subjects produced and traded than France (as Wallerstein and other world-system theorists have amply attested), although it is the latter which is usually held up as an exemplar of the ills of sclerotic statism, complicit in the widespread meddling with the market  of its elites being the main culprit for its (comparative, and maybe entirely inexistent) lack of development on those crucial years.

Readers of my blog know I subscribe to a completely different explanation of why England. It was them who for the first time in Europe articulated collectively an image of what was a life well lived that focused on the satisfaction of wants in this world, and left aside as of secondary importance the preparation for a next life (something that David Hume was as instrumental as anybody in formulating and popularizing between the opinion makers of mid-century, and that Adam Smith received ready made from him). The geographical context is of paramount importance, as such dominant reason in other place and time could have gone unnoticed and eventually died out, but the Europe of the time was formed by a number of opposing polities locked in continuous military struggle, which placed an enormous reward on those able to outcompete their neighbors. As the British embraced more ardently the new dominant reason with such image of the life well lived at its apex (btw, the Dutch had started toying with it almost a century earlier, and became the world’s dominant commercial power thanks to it, with Spinoza here being the pathbreaker, albeit much less influential between his contemporaries than what Hume would be, and Bernard de Mandeville the most vocal popularizer… unsurprisingly the latter would write in English and develop his influence mostly between the British public), they could extract from their population a higher surplus, and thanks to the production of more material goods that such higher surplus was devoted to they could overcome their main foe (the French) in the long contest for world supremacy that took place between 1714 (end of the war of the Spanish Succession) and 1815 (battle of Waterloo and end of the Napoleonic wars with the complete victory of British arms that would lead to a century of undisputed domination). Along that period relatively minor tweaks were made to such dominant reason to narrow the scope of socially legitimate desires and to clarify the rules for assigning social precedence (the justification of the social hierarchy), crystalizing in the kind of dominant reason (desiderative reason) that a different society had developed to a greater extent, and was embodying more faithfully. Not surprising then that such society (the USA) finally displaced the Britons from the top of the international system. Sorry for repeating myself so much, as this story I’ve already told (DR History I and DR History II).

Nothing really to do with citizens being more or less free to pursue their (egoistic or altruistic) own interest, or with “the state” meddling more or less with the unalloyed magic of the market, and everything to do with how successfully social cues are given to those same citizens since they are born as to what is admissible to want, what a good life consists in and who they should yield to (or try to emulate). And the current mix of those three categories just has happened to produce the most successful social system as measured by the number for material goods it can produce, but such success tells us nothing whatsoever about how “free” each individual within such society is or how morally worthy such an arrangement is. The reason this particular dominant reason has become so widespread is because the amount of material goods a certain group can produce is very highly correlated with the power of the armed forces it can deploy so, simply put, the most successful material goods’ producers (the richest societies) have militarily crushed any challengers, either in open war (the axis powers in WWII) or through a slow, grinding campaign of attrition consisting on proxy conflicts in the outer limits of their sphere of influence (the Cold War).

Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve always been quite critical of a line of thought, exemplified by the Frankfurt school, that equated the level of coercion imposed by the state on its citizenry in the communist and the capitalist system, stating that the people under both systems was equally unfree, and thus that both systems were morally equivalent. That’s idiotic, and there is no discussion that the dominant reason of our times (desiderative reason) admits of very different degrees of formal freedom, and that it is morally preferable to be manipulated into taking for granted certain while at the same time having almost unlimited access to learn and discuss opposing ideas while living under the rule of law and reasonable guarantees that you will not be harassed, beaten or jailed because of your stated opinions (the current situation in the “liberal”, “capitalist” West) than to be similarly manipulated but have such access curtailed, being unable to discuss a subset of ideas determined by somebody else and living under the risk of physical violence because of your beliefs (the situation in China, Russia and most developing countries).
Call me a moral absolutist (which I am), but I do believe there are some values that are non negotiable, and that no amount of social manipulation can neither turn palatable nor debase by being surreptitiously imposed. Freedom is good, desirable, and merits being fought for, even if it is used to justify unacceptable levels of inequality. Having a certain level of bodily comfort that can only be achieved by the possession of material goods (a good mattress, a well-insulated shelter, nutritious food and tasty beer, some books, etc.) are similarly good, desirable and merit being fought for (within more stringent limits than the kind of fight that the pursuit of freedom justifies, of course, as many times increasing the goods I can enjoy means a corresponding decrease for somebody else, which doesn’t necessarily happen when fighting for freedom), even if the enjoyment of such goods is used to justify an unacceptable renunciation to our basic freedom and dignity. There are biological and psychological limits to what kind of life we may want to pursue, what we can desire and what features we use to define the social hierarchy that no dominant reason can manipulate, and beyond which no amount of conditioning would take us, but that leaves enough latitude for wildly differing systems, as history has repeatedly taught us.

So back to our initial contention, it is not the lack of involvement of the state in the economy (or in the private life of its citizens) which explain the “great divergence”, or the “great enrichment”, as the case of China since the 70s attests. What the PCCh did back then was forswear the previous dominant reason (bureaucratic reason) and embrace the latest one (dominant reason). Since then, it has not been the party who decided the social position of each citizen, but the amount of money they could earn. Which does not mean the party has dissolved, or disappeared, as it continues actively participating in the decision of what to produce and how (they are just more cavalier about how the results of such production are distributed, leaving that to “the market” or to loosely defined “price mechanisms” in which they still intervene actively). But make no mistake about the ultimate source of social prestige: being a party cadre is good, but being a newly minted millionaire is much better (and indeed the highest party officials seem to be hell bent on using the former inasmuch as it enables them to become the latter). During all these decades, it is not as if the average citizen has been made the subject of Western-style rights and freed of any unreasonable tutelage by the Party (although, compared with how things stood during the Cultural Revolution you could say they are all free as a bird)… or that they have been producing wildly innovative ideas, either.

Similar thing in the more economically developed countries: we are collectively more or less as free today as we were in the 60’s and 70’s (well, some of us are distinctively more so, let’s remember both Spaniards and Portuguese were under a dictatorial regime back then, as were many of our Latin American brethren) but we seem to be distinctively less able to have innovative ideas. So may be the equation of ideas-producing capabilities and political freedom is just bunk… However, it would not be entirely true to say that we have completely run out of innovative ideas since the 70’s of last century. I have always readily conceded that there is one area where there has been significant innovation, and a significant growth: information and communication technologies have doubtlessly progressed phenomenally, which has blinded many observers to the fact that everything else has basically been left out in the cold to dry.
And that’s precisely the root cause of the uneasiness with which I’ve been thinking of late about the overgrown recognition given to the advances in ICT’s: may be both trends are not just simultaneous, but causally connected. Maybe the reason we have collectively stopped having innovative ideas (or being able to innovate beyond “fake”, “simulated”, “virtual” reality) is because we collectively devote too much attention to the easily available information that the new technologies put so effortlessly in front of us. I’m an avid fan of Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau, and I remember being especially impacted by the stripe published on June 26 of 2011, not because of its brilliance, but rather because of its boneheadedness. I’ll let you judge:

I’ll pass on the first two questions, and focus on the third one. Just to ask what are the three branches of moral philosophy requires you to have such a massive background (which probably includes already knowing the answer) as to make Google’s contribution almost meaningless (let’s leave aside for the moment the point that such classification is pretty contested, and most moral philosophers would challenge the way it is posited). Getting to know what we understand as moral philosophy, and what it means that it may have different (or differentiated) fields of inquiry with (slightly) different methodologies and references requires a kind of deep learning that can only be done through serious engagement with long, convoluted texts, not definitely by browsing a few web pages and jumping from a snippet of information to the next. I dare to say that for some pursuits the kind of technological advancements brought by the ICT revolution (internet, mobile telephony and the like) are not only not of much help, but may be positively detrimental.

Philosophy is one of those pursuits, and surely you may argue that Philosophy is no good at all, so loosing or degrading it is no real loss. But it seems to me that the way most social sciences are practiced today has been affected for the worse by the easy availability of not-necessarily-very-relevant information enabled by Internet. Any student of sociology can google the main terms of the issue he wants to develop and have immediately at his fingertips a gazillion hyper-obscure references by people all over the world that have most tangentially touched on such issue. Does that enable better scholarship, more informed commentary, a richer understanding through heightened discussions? Nope, not at all, what it enables is an unreadable style that has become prevalent in the peer reviewed publications that constitute much of what today passes for economics, psychology, anthropology, sociology and political science in which for every page of argument you have two or three pages of “critical apparatus” (notes and bibliography) that add little to the understanding but at least helps to mask the lack of substance of what is being (barely) said.

When in seconds you can arm yourself with the opinion of twenty thousand “experts” you don’t really need to devote as much time to mull over the core of the contentions and implications of each turn of their arguments, and see how they help you sharpen your own ones. When all you had where the main books in your local library, and could mail order the ones that you deemed interesting enough, and may be some magazine articles, you had to do crazy things like actually reading them (and not just hastily peruse them in search for some quotable paragraph after which you could forget the whole jumbled thing).

“Yeah, well, so the internet has killed the social sciences, you were the first to say they serve no purpose, and so again, what’s the loss?” there is a difference between serving no purpose and being of no use, and an even greater difference between both and being of no value. The social sciences, oxymoronic as they may be today, have provided an enormous service to humanity by helping precisely to explain what it means to be human, and how such humanity is advanced or hindered by the way we organize ourselves in groups. Understanding that (which is an inseparable part of understanding us) is a main thrust we have experienced since we have symbolic language (already when we shared the Earth with the Neanderthals, for those unknowing of the remote past of our species), and I just decry we have come to a position where little further development is to be expected.

But, furthermore, I am more and more of the impression that such ailment is not exclusive of the “humanities”, or the “social sciences” (moronic as I find the label) or the geisteswissenschaften. The more I think about it I think that it is a rot (the easy availability of trivial or barely related information that becomes more and more difficult to filter) that has extended and colonized also the fields of natural sciences, medicine and engineering (my regular readers should know I consider the last two epistemically equivalent). I mentioned in a recent post (Why tech stopped evolving, especially points 1 –the dead weight of tradition- and 2 –the effect of too much regulation) how some underlying reasons for the lack of technological progress were to be found in a society too rich in information and experience, and that tried to orient itself in that vast wealth by imposing a framework made of regulatory standards that made things worse, and robbed potential innovations of much of their dynamism.

And the problem does not end there. It is bad enough that we have gone methodologically astray in most disciplines by making so much irrelevant information not just available, but considered an essential part of the way we present any sound argument (at the expense of the soundness itself), but it gets worse when you realize that the consolidation of such methodological tomfoolery is accompanied by a mindset that almost imposes distraction and impedes the kind of concentration required to make progress in any organized field of knowledge. I’m thinking here about a phenomenon that ranges from the relatively mild (the Otaku) to the more extreme (Hikikomori), and which as I see as more and more prevalent (and the more extended the more technologically advanced and materially rich the society is), which draws a significant number of youths that count themselves between the most gifted of their generation (and that should thus be main contributors to collective innovation in their primer years) to a pursuit of what, for lack of a better term, I will call “immaterial” development (under which I group manga fandom, playing videogames, compulsively participate in forums, or simply watch inordinate amounts of cat videos in YouTube) that renders them more and more unable to contribute to the development of the “real”, “material” social group to which they should belong. But with this I feel I’ve touched a far greater subject (that touches with my concern about the global decline and accelerating disintegration of our whole civilizational model) that will require an additional post to be sorted out.

No comments:

Post a Comment