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. 

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