Tuesday, January 31, 2017

How important are ideas, at the end of the day?

I linked recently a post in Marginal Revolution showing how to keep some well-known measures of technological progress in different fields evolving at roughly the same pace as in past decades (or decreasing slowly, instead of catastrophically collapsing and bringing civilization as we know it to a technical standstill) it seemed like it was necessary to double the amount of people working in R+D in those fields. The very same MR pointed a couple days ago to another study, by the redoubtable Dietrich Vollrath Diminishing returns in idea generation, but not to worry! that came to the soothing conclusion that we shouldn’t (literally) panic yet, even if indeed the meta-productivity of ideas (i.e. the productivity of those authoring the bits of information that, when applied to manufacturing and distribution processes in turn increase the productivity of every other sector of the economy) is undeniably diminishing and at historically low levels(but hey, remember Brynjolfsson and Friedman and Bill Gates! These are times of unparalleled creativity! Of never-before-witnessed ingenuity and invention! My question for all the techno-optimists still stands, if the ever accelerating technology is ushering an age of exponential improvements in everybody’s lives, how come more and more people are realizing they live today, and will most likely live ‘til their last days, worse than their parents? Latest evidence this article from the normally upbeat Spanish newspaper “el pais”: Young 'uns living worse than their parents at their age of various youngsters reflecting on reaching the age of their parents when they were born, and realizing they have much, much less wealth, security, and hope than they had…)

However, when you look into Vollrath’s argument, I don’t find that many actual reasons to bridle my later instincts towards despondency and despair. Yup, even if it takes more and more people to come up with productivity-enhancing ideas, thanks to demographic grow and increased economic throughput that in turn allow populous societies (China, India, Vietnam, Bangladesh) to send a higher percentage of their youngsters to university-level education, those more and more people are indeed forthcoming. Or are they? Not so much in the case of China, if we are to believe this paper from Wu and Zheng for the China Policy Institute: China higher education expansion challenges. Not surprisingly, enrollment in China’s universities is decelerating:
Why, when the country is crowing richer and its culture has always valued education as a means of social advancement? Well, basically there are less and less kids to draw from:

So even if a higher percentage of them could still make it to college (and, according to Wu and Zheng that means shouldering a higher percentage of the education’s cost, as the state can not afford to foot the entirety of the bill, even when the youth still enrolling in the increasing number of  universities comes from the much poorer rural interior, and the institutions they join offer on average a lower quality education), that may not be enough to maintain (let alone increase) the total graduation rate, as the pool from which that percentage draws is consistently diminishing.

I couldn’t find similar figures for India, but I would be surprised if it presented a significantly different picture. Yep, India’s population growth is not yet as low as China’s (thanks to almost three decades of single child policy), but it is also clearly trending downwards, and already very close to diving below replacement level. Also, they start from a baseline position where educational attainment is massively less valued for a significant majority of the population, so they may never catch up to Chinese levels. Bottom line: do not count on millions upon millions of educated Chinese and Indian whiz kids replenishing the dwindling number of Western engineers and researchers and thus keeping our innovation engines firing on all cylinders. In a couple generations the total number of professionals able to keep pushing the discovery of new drugs, the squeezing of more transistors in the same number of square millimeters, or the further increase of yields in our food crops will not just stop growing, but may actually start decreasing.

And then I guess that, according to Vollrath, will be the time to actually start panicking…

But I was not originally concerned by that particular kind of ideas when I started writing my post. How many transistors you can pack in a printed circuit, or how many molecules you can change in a chemical compound so it has exactly the same effect in the human organism but allows its marketer to extend the patent and keep on profiting handsomely from it won’t really make any noticeable difference in how people work and live. They are so inconsequential as to barely need to concern us here. I’m thinking in bigger game, the great ideas that configure how people think in their day to day lives. What they dream of. What they legitimately expect and hope for. Do you want an example of BIG idea that can have momentous consequences, dwarfing those of keeping Moore’s law apparently going on for six additional months? Take a look at this recent article by Evan Osnos in the “New Yorker”: Doomsday prep for the super rich. Not that I’m surprised, in this same blog I’ve stated that total civilizational collapse is a scenario with non-negligible probabilities, and I’ve recommended my readers to prepare for it (learn martial arts and how to shoot, keep a working gun and enough ammo close by, It didn’t occur to me that a bike would come in handy to escape through clogged roads, but I happen to own three, so I have that well covered).

What caught my eye was the figure Osnos quotes about how many of the richest between the rich (the hedge fund managers, “Silicon Valley billionaires”, pop stars…) have already  invested heavily in a safe getaway and emergency means of scape (not just a private plane and a runway, but space also for the pilot’s family): more than 50%!!!! And those are the super-rational, super-intelligent guys (well, may be with the exception of the pop stars) that command the heights of our society and that our dominant mode of reasoning tell us we should respect and yield to. What, in Toynbeean terms would be the ruling (dominating) elite of our crumbling system. That seem to lean mostly towards the opinion that  things are likely enough to go South without much warning as to spend a non-negligible amount of their fortunes in repurposed cold-war missile silos refurbished for the occasion or vast properties in New Zealand.

Besides that collective vote for disengagement from what, resorting again to Toynbee’s terminology, can only be called the proletariat (those to be left behind killing each other for the final scraps of the collapsed system) it seems very futile and very inconsequential, indeed, to worry about the latest features of the iPhone 7, or the fact that Uber is allowed to operate in Paris. The achievements of scientists and engineers, of physicians and physicists are spare change compared with the kind of seismic changes in the direction of society that can be enacted by someone like Napoleon, Hitler or Stalin. And I will argue that for a Napoleon, a Hitler or a Stalin to be able to grasp the collective imagination and craft a discourse that resonates with the masses and energizes them and moves them into action (frenzied as it may seem at times, such actions, judged irrational from the vantage point of our current rationality, were the pinnacle of reasonableness from the perspective of theirs) there needs to be an intellectual first that creates the intellectual groundwork for the messianic (sometimes demonic) figure to work upon. Before Napoleon, Hitler or Stalin (or FDR or Mao or Pol Pot or Adenauer or Churchill or Saddam) there was a Hume, a Smith, a Freud, a Marx, a Hassan al-Banna that both captured and shaped the “spirit of the times”, that read something in the collective mood that his contemporaries didn’t perceive and gave it a recognizable shape, altering forever what their fellow men deemed not just possible, but desirable and rational to do.

When I was defending my dissertation, weaved precisely around the way in which the dominant reason prevalent in the West explained how a bunch of somewhat dysfunctional social groups that in the XVIII century seemed to be only good at massacring themselves ended up dominating the world, and imposing their belief system on the whole face of the planet (the very same dominant reason that evolved and refined itself for maximum productivity of material goods, thus ability to field large and technologically superior armies, the happiness of their citizens be damned), one of the most poignant questions afterwards came from the most distinguished philosopher of the tribunal: Miguel García Baró). He protested the way I was laying the blame for most of society’s ills (the deadening materialism, the imposed competitiveness that forces us to see other people as means, and never as needs in themselves, the rampant egoism and selfishness we seem to instill in every new generation, even the environmental degradation, a product of our instrumental approach to nature) on thinkers and philosophers, while according to him most of those figures had opposed such transformations, and tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent them, warning their countrymen of the dire consequences if they didn’t oppose what they perceived as the wrong turn History (with capital H) had taken or may take (and did indeed take, but not, according to MGB, because people heeded the sages’ advice, but because they foolishly ignored it).

I humbly confess I’m not sure I mustered all the necessary rhetorical devices to answer the wise professor, so his very valid protestation went mostly unanswered. But to atone for such weakness in my defense I’ve been thinking intensely about the relative role of the intellectuals (and not in the abstract, but each and any of the main figures of the European and the Anglo-Saxon tradition, between 1650 to our days) in the shaping and amelioration (or, rather, as we will see, the worsening) of their societies, and I have to report back that I ended very much reaffirmed in my initial argument: they are the main culprits, and the most marked contributors to why things are nowadays as they are. I already had distinguished two kinds of thinkers: the “justificators” (Newton, Leibniz, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Smith, Hegel, Weber, Comte, Heidegger, Wittgenstein) and the “Critics” (Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche, Marx). Both are equally responsible of the current state, more than the scientists (and we have had, in the natural sciences, peerless thinkers that have revolutionized our understanding of the world almost as much as Newton… almost) like Clerk Maxwell, Bohr, Schrödinger and Einstein. More than the artists that have shaken to the core our understanding of what means to be human, and the potential limits of the human experience (which, again, have taken millennia of artistic expression and put ‘em on their feet, opening landscapes of possibility in the realm of emotion, sensation and feeling that were entirely unknown for our forebears). And, of course, more than the politicians that have started wars and revolutions only when the peoples under their sway had already been primed to follow their lead by a widely shared conception of how a human life was supposed to be lived.

So I think we can agree ideas have consequences, and there are some big ideas that can have vast, telluric, stratospheric, tsunami-like consequences. The question, then, for every enterprising, able-bodied (or rather, able-minded) adult is how to contribute positively to the formation of the “right” ideas, those that may enable and facilitate our exhausted civilization to evolve in the direction of better opportunities for everybody, better chances for human flourishing for the majority of human beings, and not only for the tiny minority holed up in a missile silo watching a dystopian apocalypse unfold.

But of course, and I’m sure you already saw this one coming, that would be the subject for another post! 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The effects of the lies we live by (hint: they’re not good!)

Still cleaning up some bits and pieces left over from last year, in my latest post I explained why I think the overwhelmingly repeated mantra of ever accelerating technological progress that brings us a new wonder every day and thus all but guarantees a brighter future for all of us is a naked, unabashed, shameless, bald-faced lie. I recognize there is a certain exaggeration in the way I presented it: some inventions are still being made, some activities within factories that up until now required human intervention are being automated, sooner or later (more the latter than the former) we will have autonomous cars in most cities… only much less and much later than what most journalists and pundits and commentators are trying to make you believe, so the real measure of how technology affects our lives (Total Factor Productivity, or how much labor, capital and raw materials must we consume to get any additional unit of output we exchange in the market) is still slowly crawling upwards. Do not expect then major “disruptions” to produce any dramatic change, especially for the better. Yep, there is one area where technological advance is more apparent: communications and information technologies.  But don’t forget the one thing I’ve learned in more than 15 years designing and implementing “cutting edge” information systems in multinational enterprises: their impact is almost always negligible, and their meager gains mostly limited to the salaries of the consultants called in for the implementation, so I recommend you too take the claims of the whole IT industry with a grain of salt.

Many of my readers, when confronted with such arguments, so opposed to the continuous, relentless and overwhelming onslaught of media stories about new wonders and promises, tend to think I may be a bit nutty or, more charitably put, just misinformed and out of touch (and plain ‘ol grumpy). Not that I care, or that I may indeed be all of those things just for funsies. I’ll only mention I’m not the only one noticing how the so vaunted ever-accelerating impact on our lives and on the economy of such progress is somwhat disappointing these last years: this is from “The Economist”, shocked (shocked, I tell you!) by the discovery that TFP is not growing much anywhere in the world: Light bulb moment for Buttonwood. Not exactly breaking news to any regular reader of this blog. And here is Alex Tabarrok on how to sustain the growth of ideas we have to double the number of researches (and he is not considering that the impact of those ideas grows weaker by the year): Depressing? may be for those not paying attention. Now that population growth has stopped except in a few African hellholes and educational attainment has also stagnated, I wonder where we will find the next crop of researchers and engineers, that would need to be as big as the current one just to keep the technology improving at the same anemic pace. But not everything is doom and gloom, also in Marginal Revolution we can find Tabarrok’s twin, Tyler Cowen illuminating us about the unsung (until now!) area outside of Sw development where we may actually be seeing some technological improvement No Great Stagnation in the drug market.

Be it as it may, and doesn’t matter how many knowledgeable pundits come to realize the overhyped revolution upon us is not much beyond the hype, I still have to argue ad infinitum  with any misinformed internet warrior about how the acceleration of technological progress is NOT going to simultaneously leave us all jobless AND bring untold wonders and comfort to all without having to bother with changing the social system a tiny bit (yup, both statements are incompatible, but if you compare it with the inability to see what is staring you right in the face logical inconsistency doesn’t seem so much of a problem)…

So it’s not that wrong that the future imagined in the Star Wars universe is grim, dirty, not-networked and more similar to WWII than to a giant Apple store, as noted in this recent review in “The Atlantic” No Google in "Rogue One"? what a letdown!  Yuck, the future (although the saga has always stated it happens “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” we still identify it as belonging to the Science-Fiction canon, and thus committed to depicting a possible future, when men travel between the stars along member of other alien species) may not look like it was designed by Jon Ive, the horror, the horror! Only if you believe that history is a linear process, where discoveries can’t be forgotten and technologies, once deployed, can’t be “unlearned”, it may surprise you that some elements of our daily lives may be absent from alternate universes (imaginary as they may be) which have acquired capabilities we lack. But if you accept, as I do, that history is a messy, highly contingent, multi-faceted process you wouldn’t find shocking at all a technologically advanced galaxy where interstellar travel coexists with very retrograde social forms (compatible, for example, with the institution of slavery) is lacking many features we take for granted in our more humdrum reality, like newspapers, television, the internet, etc. (all things that haven’t been around for the vast majority of our existence as a species, so why should we be surprised by its absence?).

As an interesting aside, and just to come back to the original intention of this post, the result of people being simply pissed off and angry may have been already described by none other than Hunter S. Thompson in his Hell’s Angels, as pointed in “the Nation” The angry and disenchanted Hell's Angels. A more nuanced analysis of the divorce between the people and their supposed elites was recently penned by Ivan Krastev in the NYT, circumscribed to Europe (but very much applicable to the rest of the world, it is not Europeans who elected Trump after all): Rise and fall of European meritocracy. I found especially intriguing the comment about Rawls being wrong: indeed, it does seem as if the lower rungs are not happier under a meritocracy than under an authoritarian regime, as the meritocracy keeps on telling them it is their fault to be under the foot of the elite, whilst the aristocratic regime, more so if it is of a populist bent, always finds a convenient scapegoat to fault, which human nature being what it is sounds to the majority of the oppressed infinitely more plausible.

What all this data points collectively indicate is that we are witnessing a stupendous, if historically infrequent, spectacle: the loss of legitimacy and disintegration of that irreplaceable construct I’ve called dominant reason. Remember, to function socially, to have different groups with different interests working together we needed more or less everybody to accept three "big" ideas (or guiding principles if you prefer):

·         What’s the ultimate end of life (what constitutes a life well lived)

·         What desires are socially sanctioned (are understood as being conductive to that ultimate end)

·         What are the criteria for ordering the social hierarchy (who can give orders and who shall obey)

In a well organized society (one that, among other features like low violence and high levels of self-reported life satisfaction, reproduces itself spontaneously) there is agreement about the three ideas, and thanks to that people widely believe they more or less “get” what they were implicitly promised, their expectations are fulfilled, and the unavoidable ruling minority (those who occupy the top of the hierarchy legitimized by the dominant reason in question) can rest contented and enjoy with tranquility the advantages of their superior status.

That is not the society we live in any more. The curtain that hid the Wizard of Oz has fallen, and we see the dominant reason as a construct, not as the unavoidable corollary of human nature, or the bending of the arc of history towards justice or the progress of the world-spirit towards greater self-knowledge. I recently re-read one of the manifestos of the 70’s that had impacted the most me when I was young, the “Weak thought” compiled by the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, and, besides founding it much more muddled and confused than I remembered (so I reconfirmed my impression that the impact books have on us is as much due to our own peculiar and unplanned circumstances as to the content of the books themselves), I found this pearl by Franco Crespi:

I’ll translate the key parts for my Italian-challenged readers:

Culture being the result of the reflexivity of consciousness, its function appears directly linked to the problem of securing a measure of certainty regarding the sense of life and the rules on how to act […]

At a collective level it wouldn’t work to have a weak cultural order, as such weakness would directly compromise the possibility of constituting those dimensions of identity and of belonging on which the foundations of any social order are built.

The essential condition of actions’ predictability for constituting the social can’t be secured, at least regarding the basic demand for self-preservation and pacific coexistence […]
Hence the constant tendency of culture to treat itself as sacred, presenting itself as nature or as founded on immutable basis derived from Theology, from Reason or from Scientific Laws, in the search for an absolute legitimacy that allows it to remove (to hide) its character of historic, conventional product

I think we can identify in those lines a valid description (and explanation) of a good deal of the discourse of a significant portion of economists, New (and not so new) Atheists, progressives (and conservatives!), cultural “critics” (that criticize some isolated aspect in order to better defend the whole), political analysts and the like: all of them agree that our system is based in human nature (as revealed to us by applying the scientific method, which in matters of the soul never errs). It is the crystallization of centuries of progress, and thus it must be unquestionably good… To oppose it, even to question its greatness and wisdom and optimality, can only be explained by a sickly bigoted, fanatical, Neanderthal mind.

Lies, lies, lies, slathered in more lies, covered in additional lies, truffled with scrumptious lies as a side dish. And the people is realizing it. Slowly at the beginning, but expect it to accelerate, once the curtain falls and you see the wizard is a little man pulling clunky levers and pushing rusty buttons you can not “unsee” it and go on living as if everything still made sense, and the dominant reason was again a sensible way to organize our collective whereabouts. Now the big question is, what are they (the majority, the ones that typically make no decisions, that nominally hold no power at all, until they discover that without their consent the ruling minority is as powerless as themselves) going to do about it?

To advance an answer, I suggest we unpack separately the consequences of abandoning each tenet of our dominant reason, as I’ve expounded them so many times:

Tenet #1: social hierarchy based on the possession of money

Criteria for defining who is higher than who, who can command and who should obey, are the most volatile elements of a dominant reason (the one that has changed more frequently in the last three hundred years, varying roughly in cycles 50-70 years). So it’s not surprising that accepting the opinion of millionaires as the word of God (as they have more money than you, they are surely more right than you, aren’t they?) is the element more advanced in crumbling and falling within our desiderative compact.

Funny I should note it the day before Trump is sworn in as 45th president of the United States, given that his only claim to authority is the (supposedly) great fortune he has amassed, the one argument he uses once and again to settle any discussion seemingly being that he has earned so much above the average guy that he must be a business genius, and thus always on the right.
I’m the first to recognize that business knowledge, measured as the ability to earn vast sums of money, has until now been widely admitted as the ultimate criteria of social dominance, deserving of that final form of recognition that is fame and universal admiration. People like Steve Jobs come to mind: in most respects a despicable human being, detested by most of his former underlings that are not Tim Cook, but extravagantly eulogized after his death as the best thing ever to happen to humanity after the invention of sliced bread.

May be, but that opinion has to be moderated by two facts: first, Trump has been elected with less votes than those received by Barack Obama, but also by Mitt Romney or George Bush (or Al Gore or John Kerry). His victory is a testament to the even greater weakness (and lack of recognition) of another, different criterion for establishing the position in the social hierarchy: that of knowledge (aka wonkiness) and credentials (a criterion that was enshrined by bureaucratic reason, as long as it was sanctioned by the State, and thus superseded by the currently dominant one), not to the strength of the recognition given to money.

You can see the delegitimization of money as sole indicator of social position in the continuous humdrum of alternative lifestyles, and the disengagement of growing numbers of young people from the job market. What we do not have yet is a clear alternative, a different marker of status that is not amenable to being monetized that is starting to gain widespread acceptance, and we will probably not notice such alternative until much further in the XXIst century.

What we can already see is the effect of the vacuum left by the until now universally accepted measurement of social standing: growing tribalism, and a return of the values that are probably hardwired in our ancestral nature. What are those values, you may ask? Not very enlightened or progressive, I have to tell you: strength (for men) and looks (for women). Indeed, the election of Trump can be better understood in the light of such disintegration of old criteria, and tentative emergence of this new one: he brags incessantly about his strength (“man in best physical shape ever to get to be president”… hilarious I know, if it were not rather pathetic), and boasts of a wife whose only merit seems to be her gorgeousness and stunningly good looks.

Think about it: when the measuring rod you were taught to use shows to be of no value, how can you decide if a person you are dealing with is your superior or not (and thus you can effectively coordinate social actions with him without having to fight for every inch of terrain)? First, you limit your dealings with those you can more easily identify with and trust: those racially and culturally and even economically more like you. Second, if you are a man, you try to impose yourself physically unless you clearly see you would be defeated (in which case you yield to superior strength), If you are a woman, you try to assert your charm and wilily manipulate those around you, unless you recognize your opposite as being more charming, in which case you yield and try to be admitted in her circle in a secondary position.

Note that both for men and women, strength and looks may be proxys for a more diffuse feature we may well call charisma, and that it is also highly defining of our age: the rise of the charismatic leader (which, in the environment of multinational companies is leading us into a new form of feudalism) as opposed to the bureaucratic one, rule-bound and rational and predictable, is but another aspect of this same phenomenon.

Tenet #2: one single socially sanctioned desire, to  climb in the social hierarchy

Societies have always imposed a certain set of desires on their members. Indeed, our modern infatuation with desire-satisfaction can only be understood as a mechanism of social coordination. Since our good friend David Hume we only conceive as a “true” explanation of behavior the appellation to the agent desires: why did she act in a certain way? Because that action was conductive to (or consisted in) the satisfaction of a desire. Does it sound a bit circular, a bit question-begging? Well, of course it is! Unless you stop thinking of desires as “those impulses towards greater pleasure (or less pain) that ideally translate themselves in certain intelligible actions” and start seeing them as “ready-made explanations of behaviors that society wants to promote”. In the first sense, doesn’t matter what Liz Anscombe says, there is no way to explain why desiring a saucer full of mud doesn’t make any sense (why wouldn’t I find pleasure in having such saucer, and thus why wouldn’t an appellation to such desire be a valid explanation of my behavior?) or why, as Gabriel Albiac (a Spanish journalist and aspiring philosopher, don’t ask) says “that which nobody desires doesn’t need to be forbidden” (which forces us to accept that society is chock full of people desiring to kill, to steal, to rape and to lie, hence the need to forbid all those behaviors).

Just rehashing my old arguments of what a dominant reason here, nothing more. Now, back to my contention, people seem to be getting fed up with the idea that every one and single desire has to be a version of “I want to have more money than thou”, and at least since the 70’s some artists and thinkers have been exploring, and publicizing, the revolutionary potential of alternative desires that don’t lend themselves to being reduced to improving one’s position in a one-dimensional hierarchy. Probably (but this would need more research from me) the pure and primal drive for sex for sex’s sake has been leading the way, and a positive aspect of the sexual revolution (that was indeed soon monetized, and through commercial pornography and rank exploitation had all its original revolutionary potential entirely blunted) is the recovery of means of satisfaction partially free from market constraints. I say partially free because even in the most extreme manifestations of apparent liberation (like in the USA’s universities “hookup culture”) a preliminary condition for enjoying unlimited access to sexual gratification with no complications is to have lots of money (only the rich and beautiful can fuck as much as they want, as any poor non lily white student soon finds). Be it as it may, I sense a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the cult of money that burgeoned in the 80’s in the West (and is still burgeoning in the fastest developing economies, like India and China) that, as was the case with Tenet #1, still has not coalesced in any widely accepted alternative, but will sooner or later do so.

Of course, I don’t know what alternative set of desires the well-ordered, self-sustained society that is born from the ashes of our will sanction, but I can predict what the effect of abandoning the “single-party dictatorship of the pursue of material success to the exclusion of everything else” will be. And, as in the case of the abandonment of the first tenet, it won’t be nice. As in there, when a dominant reason falls apart without a widely alternative having been fully formed, without a widely shared opinion of what constitutes a better option, people resort to instinct and atavism. And atavistic instincts in the realm of desires are not very conductive to a well-ordered life, one in which the “better angels of our nature” take hold and guide our behavior. Rather, they devolve into a facile hedonism that ends up being self-destructive. And I think it should be non-controversial that in the most advanced society (or at least, the one that has gone further down the road of dissolution of the dominant reason) there is a lot of hedonism and self-destruction, to the point that it has managed to actually shorten the life expectancy of its members, for the first time (in the absence of major wars or famines) since we keep records, in what constitutes a big “showing the middle finger” to the idea that progress is linear and technological advance would necessarily lead us to a paradise of extended lifespans amidst more and more material comforts. The white working class in the USA (and in Russia, in a fine irony of history) believes so little in such comforting palaver that they’d rather drink and dope themselves into oblivion, thank you very much.

Tenet #3: because at the end of the day, a life well lived is a life of fulfilled desires

That’s the really tough nut to crack, isn’t it? As far as I know, in the last 2,400 years (in the West at least, I don’t know enough of the East to judge) we have only been collectively able to change that just twice. First, around 400 CE, when the collapse of the Classical world buried its old agonistic, self-perfectionist autarchic ideal and replaced it with following the dictate of a particular reveled religion, interpreted in a  very particular and somewhat weird (for the age) way as promising an eternal afterlife that crucially depended on our behavior in this one. Second, as I have abundantly documented, around 1750 when a bunch of guys oddly detached from the world and its worries (so-called free-thinkers and philosophers) convinced the rest of us that such idea was baloney, and the life really well lived consisted simply in satisfying desires and doing as close as possible to what we pretty much pleased (pleasure and desire being more or less interchangeable).

But I have a strong hunch that even that mainstay of our intellectual landscape is today up for grabs, and that unless we can successfully find a substitute for it, we will keep on stumbling, unable to form a new social compact that can successfully attract the future citizens to stop self-destructing, or joining in more and more tribal and homogeneous groups (deadening, stifling, uncreative in their idolization of an entirely imagined and sterile past) and trundling on joined only by their fear of a demonized external “other” that keeps them together always out of fear, never of hope.

Because without a shared idea of what the good life consists in, of what a life well lived is, we will not be able to forge the new bonds between peoples, and between individuals, to jointly overcome the stale definitions of what we can desire and how we should bestow respect that we have inherited, and that weigh so heavily on us. And indeed defining that idea is the highest purpose, the most noble task of nay thinker, as it is the thinkers who have to raise first and foremost to the responsibility of such definition (that would be another fruity subject: how dominant reasons are defined by a few, and then communicated and finally accepted by the many). A task, honestly, I don’t see anybody remotely able to attempt…

So this is what the future has in store for this and the next generation: we will see the occasional bump in our declining fortunes, we will have anemic recoveries, followed by steeper recessions (and outright depressions). We will have minuscule advances being hailed as “the revolutionary advance that changes everything” (we have had so many of those in the last decade alone!). But we won’t see major demographic recoveries (as the exhausted desiderative reason won’t be able to give people motive enough to consider their lives worth living, and thus they will keep on voting with their gonads not to reproduce a social model that has failed them). We won’t see dramatic increases in the species lifespan (sorry, Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey: you will both die, die, die, and so will I… such is life!). We won’t do collectively anything that merits being remembered through the ages (as I prognosticated here: already past peak civilization remember, I gave a zero probability to any of the eleven markers of civilizational greatness I defined being met in the next decade, or ever for what is worth).

But, if we are lucky, we may at least bequeath our descendants a set of functioning institutions (even if a majority of the people badmouths them, they will still abide by their rules), running water, a modicum of freedom and the (almost) certainty of something to eat the next day. Given our historical record, that’s not too shabby either. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

We are being lied to II (technology will deliver us? Ha!)

In my latest post I devoted some time to debunk one of the most pervasive lies we are being told, the fact that the economy is growing at an unprecedented pace (which it is not) and how that justifies any effort and any sacrifice from all the social body (as for some parts of the social body, that happen to be the vast majority of it, both income and wealth have not grown in the last half century, and in some not-as-well-measured aspect like population’s ability to reproduce itself they have indeed contracted). I briefly mentioned two other lies that act as additional alibis for keeping the current social compact going (that may weight against “rocking the boat” and attempting to change some fundamental rules) that are almost as widely held as sacrosanct truths but, not having much time I didn’t develop them as much as what I think they merit, so in today’s post I’m going to present in more length y arguments against them:

 Lie # 2: thanks to the spread of innovations, technology will solve all of our problems

In a number of fields, from growing inequality to the accelerating degradation of our shared environment (by biodiversity loss, depletion of non-renewable resources and global warming) the case is made from a number of opinion makers (which, on not-too-close examination many times happen to be funded by companies that benefit greatly from the maintenance of current arrangements) that no change is really required on how we organize society and conduct businesses, as new technologies, today unforeseen, will come to our rescue and solve today’s ills without pain and without anybody having to renounce to their current level of consumption. Ah, the paretian magic economists have been raised to believe in!

Of course, the luster of technological advance wears off quite fast when you dispel the previous lie and consider that most of the advantages new technology may bring will be enjoyed only by a tiny minority, and that the price to be paid for such minor improvements will be borne by the vast majority, who will live in a grossly despoiled and impoverished planet (but you don’t have to take my word for it, the pope of the Catholic Church, an institution not typically noted for its progressivism or distaste for earthly injustice, has devoted his latest encyclical just to such perils: on "Laudato si") without reaping any of the supposed benefits that the development of the latest generation of costly baubles has delivered.

However, that is not the worst part of it, and that is why the second lie has also to be put to rest independently of the first one. To that end, let’s get bac to basic, and try to disentangle what humans need to lead a rewarding life from what humans want to lead a satisfying life (a distinction that both economists and politicians tend to forget, and that their disciplines studiously erase). The first is dictated by our nature (oooops, such a slippery, contentious issue! Do human beings have a nature at all? Aren´t we all just 100% a product of malleable culture, free to invent ourselves in any way or shape we fashion? Well, of course not you silly, human nature is as stubborn and solid a reality as you can dream of, although being free, and thus having a certain leeway to overcome its dictates is part and parcel of it) whilst the second is imposed from outside, and coordinated so it is reasonably coherent within any self-perpetuating group by that wonderful collective arrangement called dominant reason (more about that towards the end of the post). And what our nature dictates we need is pretty simple, and can be summarized in the famous 4F+B formula: we need food, fiber (clothing), fuel (energy) and procreation, plus (outside the milder climates) building materials to erect shelters to protect us from the weather.

So let’s review how technology has improved our capability to produce any of those basic needs, and how it seems poised to push it further:

·         Food: tremendous advances in the last two centuries, since we got better at understanding what nutrients the different crops require from the soil, thus improving crop rotation and reducing the use of fallow lands, using manure (and later on, artificially produced fertilizers, thanks to the Haber-Bosch process) and finally reducing the loss to insects that competed with us for the food through pesticides. However, those impressive advances (that have allowed us to go from producing barely enough food for one billion human beings, requiring the toil of 95% of the population to producing in excess for 9 billion, requiring the work of less than 10% of the population) achieved their peak in the 70’s of last centuries (the “green revolution”, for which Borlaug received the Nobel prize in 1970) and although still producing great results today just by being applied in less developed countries (Bill Gates is a big proponent, and has donated 1.4 billion dollars to further it in places like India and Bangladesh… the result? Crop yields roughly doubled in the last decade) it is, thankfully, of less and less relevance because, hope you are seated before hearing such groundbreaking news, producing enough food is not a problem for the human species (we already do it at a clip of roughly between 1.2 and 1.4 times what we actually need or can conserve, having to basically dump 30% of what we cultivate). You may hear about the use of satellites to more finely monitor the situation of crops, and allowing to raise them with less water consumption and less pesticides, and of course, the omnipresent promise of genetic engineering to create magical varieties that will yield even more edible matter with less water and inbuilt resistance to pests. Guess what? We have been genetically engineering these things (technically called “plants”) for millennia, and the room for improvement over what is actually achievable is now exceedingly small. But hey, I’m not against ultra-rich philanthropists throwing money at a non-existing problem, far from it. Only I’m not very optimistic it’s going to have much impact.

·         Fiber: If having enough to eat stopped being a collective problem half a century ago, having enough to cover ourselves and protect our fragile bodies from the merciless elements is something we solved about twice that time ago. Sure, we have been very good at creating silly fashion waves to force consumers to keep on buying pieces of clothing at ever shorter intervals so we can keep lots of people in Bangladesh and Vietnam sewing in unsanitary conditions for a few pennies a day (and a few people in our own countries cashing nice, fat profits from distributing and advertising the garments, you wouldn’t believe for a moment that we kept on throwing “fashion weeks” at our main capitals for the Vietnamese and the Bangladeshis, would you?) Again, you may expect some improvements in how patterning, cutting and sewing are done in more automated factories, further reducing the amount of people that can earn a semi-decent living from the trade, and further increasing the speed of rotation due to obsolescence in the first world, but don’t expect any major breakthrough in that area either. It is an already solved problem, and society tends not to spend much effort to solve again what has already been solved.

·         Fuel: now, come on! At least here there must have been some advance! Germany is in the midst of the Energiewende! And they will cut greenhouse emissions by 90% by 2050! And they will produce 50 to 60% of their energy from renewables by that same date! And fusion energy is around the corner! And the price of solar has been cut in an order of magnitude! And solar is already economical without subsidies! And wind… well wind is probably slightly cheaper than it was a couple decades ago! Sigh… If “ifs” and “ands” were pots and pans, there’d be no work for tinker’s hands. The only real effect of Germany’s valiant policy so far is to raise the price of electricity between a 30 and a 40% and to increase its production of greenhouse gasses. The intermediate targets for 2020 are almost certainly not going to be met, and only God knows what may happen after that (not that I’m against their push, only that before holding it as an example of what less wealthy countries should so it would be nice to have all the data). Fusion is just a super costly experiment in Cadarache which nobody knows what it is good for, and that is going (slowly and expensively) nowhere. Solar is in its very early stages of technological development (look at the “state of the art” plants for concentrated thermosolar, which would solve the problem of storage, both in Tonopah, USA, and in Ouarzazate in Morocco, and tell me how economical and competitive it already is; everything else are projects or demonstrators, I know, drawing plot plans is cheap and low risk) and it will take decades (not years) to have it working anywhere near competitiveness. Photovoltaic requires batteries being priced in the whole model so comparisons can be properly drawn, and is not competitive even in the Sahara desert, let alone Denmark, and on and on we could go. But we have a bright spot: fracking is a technological breakthrough that has allowed us, as a species, to pump cheaper hydrocarbons from the crust of the planet, so we can burn more of them. Whopeee! Some progress! In summary: no significant progress in the energy generation department

·         Procreation: it is the prerogative of every human generation to believe they have discovered sex (and of their parents to believe in turn they have discovered being scandalized by their progeny’s salaciousness) since we invented language. I already devoted some satirical space to the prospect of applying AI to sex toys (the final impulse for AI?) and won’t expand on that particular trope, but will at least say this: past certain point people need to fornicate not because some primeval urge forces them no matter what (although I reckon males between 18 and 45 years may find that point particularly hard to reach) but because they are bored. Human beings, once they have satisfied the need for the three previous F’s need something to turn their minds to and avoid facing the grim prospect of being left alone with themselves and having to, um, actually think something (just being unnecessarily obnoxious here, I now). Looking who to bang (and even better, who to prevent from banging others) has been historically one of the great sources of amusement of the species, and such need is not to be lightly set aside. Only it has traditionally happened mostly outside of the commercial sphere (yup, prostitution has been called “the oldest profession” for a reason, but optimistic me prefers to think that the hiring of someone for sex is but a very insubstantial part of the satisfaction of our desire for entertainment), and only in the last two centuries has it become an ever increasing part of GDP. We’ll have more to say about the growing weight of the “boredom-avoidance industry” (aka “culture”), suffice it to say at this point that although the way it is distributed is still undergoing massive changes, the way it is produced (and even what such production consists in) is not amenable to much change, and we shouldn’t expect dramatic changes in the coming decades (I’m fully aware this goes against the grain of much of mass media analysis, from MacLuhan on, for which new media is coextensive with radically new and altered messages… count me a contrarian also on this).

·         Building: just take a walk around any city, be it in the West, in the fast developing Asian economies or in the undeveloped world and tell me with a straight face we are witnessing a time of innovation in how human dwellings are conceived, built or sold… City halls still keep a wholly artificial scarcity of land (that super old fashion factor of production, that has stayed not just relevant into our days, but predominantly so) that has managed to smother any attempt at creativity from architects and engineers. I know, some visionary “star architect” (I’m thinking in Santiago Calatrava, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry…) may have devised some highly original constructions here and there (but few for actually living in them) employing some new technique and innovative materials, but I think I’m not off the mark if I say their work has not been that much influential and that most architecture we see actually being built today is overwhelmingly “traditional” (even the megaprojects undertaken for prestige reason seem like version of what “futuristic” skyscrapers looked like in the 70’s with a few additional stories added on top).

So in any of the areas of providing for “basic” human needs, there is not much innovation going on. However, we are bombarded with the message that these are distinctly innovative times, that the very fabric of our society is being redesigned and reweaved from the ground up, that every institution and belief is up for grabs, questioned and streamlined by the ever accelerating impulse of wondrous and earth-shattering technologies that allow us to define how we want to live from the ground up, soon to be freed from the last remnants of necessity and scarcity in a world of plenty. Hence the disconnect?

The deep reasons behind the monstrous lies we are being ceaselessly told would require a post of their own, I’ll just point here that there are some groups that benefit enormously from the current status quo (the 1% that has been hoarding all the increased wealth that is being produced, and that indeed is benefitting from the minuscule amount of innovation -heavily concentrated on luxury goods- that has happened through a sclerotic system that is well past its prime of civilizational vigor).

Also, there is this one area where there have been innovations aplenty: that of entertainment and simulation, where software and computing squarely seats. A lot of enthusiastic journalists, knowing very little about how the world actually works (but, in a nice application of the Dunning-Kruger effect, believing that by having talked with some CEOs with a strong vested interest in convincing said journalists that them and the likes of them are going to fundamentally change the world, see latest and most refined example: Tom Friedman more and more away from reality) keep on parroting such lies, and a substantial part of the population seems to have taken their words, as they say, line, hook and sinker. I already devote some lines to try to debunk the impact of increasingly meaningless software (Guys, forget about Sw, it's gettin' you nowhere) and how its impact in how the world works, how society works, how human lives develop and flourish (or not) would be minimal, so I will not repeat them here. I’ll finish today by sharing a well-known fact, taken verbatim from the excellent The Rise and Fall of American Growth, by Robert Gordon (o work I’ve quoted frequently of late). A puzzle of the last decade is why, if we are in the midst of such revolutionary times, total factor productivity has not only failed to grow, but is trending distinctly below the peak it reached around the middle of last century (after a brief reprieve in the 90’s):

So, frankly, next time somebody tries to sell me the wondrous effects of technology either show me something that affects the 4F+B, or something that explains why we seem to only improve minimally what it takes to produce the goods and services we actually are able to measure. And I know the tired argument of “people had a sad collection of a few dozen vinyl LPs and now they have all the music ever recorded at their fingertips (or the whole content of the Encyclopedia Britannica, or any movie ever filmed)”… which they then use to hear the same song by Justin Bieber again and again.

‘nuff said for today, we’ll deal with the 3rd lie another day