Conspiracy Theory Theory

Our ancestors–probably long before they were even human–had to differentiate between living and non-living things. Living things can be eaten (and, importantly, can eat you back); non-living generally taste bad, can’t be eaten, and won’t try to eat you.

This is a task of such essential importance that I think it is basically an innate ability common to all thinking animals. Rabbits and fish need to distinguish between living things; both need to know whether the lump over there is a rock or a predator, after all. And we humans don’t have to explain to our children that cats and dogs are alive but tables aren’t. (Indeed, a defect in this ability that caused a person to regard tables as alive or other people as not is remarkable–and dangerous–when it happens.)

It is easy to divide most things into living and non-living. Living things move and grow; non-living things do not. Rabbits move. Rocks don’t. (Plants don’t move much, but they do grow. They’re also helpfully color-coded.)

But what about non-living things that nonetheless move and grow, like rivers or clouds? You can’t catch a cloud; you can’t eat it; but it still has a behavior that we can talk about, eg: “The clouds are building up on the horizon,” “The clouds moved in from the east,” “The clouds faded away.” Clouds and stars, sun and moon, rivers and tides all have their particular behaviors, unlike rocks, dirt, and fallen logs.

When it comes to mistakes along the living/non-living boundary, it is clearly better to mistakenly believe that something might be alive than to assume that it isn’t. If I mistake a rock for a lion, I will probably live until tomorrow, but if I mistake a lion for a rock, I very well may not. So we are probably inclined to treat anything that basically moves and behaves like a living thing as a living thing, at least until we have more information about it.

And thus our ancestors, who had no information about how or why the sun moved through the sky, were left to conclude that the sun was either a conscious being that moved because it wanted to, or was at least controlled by such a being. Same for the moon and the stars, the rivers and tides.

Moreover, these being were clearly more powerful than men, especially ancient men. We cannot catch the sun; we live at mercy of the wind and the rain. Rivers can sweep us away and sudden storms dash boats to pieces. We live or die according to their whims.

So ancient man believed these things were sentient, called them “gods” (or devils) and attempted to placate them through sacrifice and prayer.

Centuries of scientific research have gradually uncovered the secrets of the universe. We’ve figured out why the sun appears to move as it does, why clouds form, and that frogs aren’t actually generated by mud. We’ve also figured out that the “influence” (influenza, in Italian) of the stars doesn’t actually cause sickness, though the name persists.

We know better rationally, but the instinct to ascribe personhood to certain inanimate objects still persists: it’s why programs like Thomas the Tank Engine are so popular with children. Trains move, therefore trains are alive and must have feelings and personalities. It’s why I have to remind myself occasionally that Pluto is an icy space rock and doesn’t actually feel sad about being demoted from planet to planetoid.

If something acts like a conscious thing and talks like a conscious thing, we’re still liable to treat it like a conscious thing–even if we know it’s not.

Today, the vast implacable forces that rain down on people’s lives are less the weather and more often organizations like the IRS or the local grocery store. These organizations clearly “do” things on purpose, because they were set up with that intention. The grocery store sells groceries. The IRS audits your taxes. Wendy’s posts on Twitter. The US invades other countries.

If organizations act like conscious entities, then it is natural for people to think of them as conscious entities, even though we know they are actually made of hundreds or thousands of individual people (many of whom don’t even like their jobs) executing to various degrees of accuracy the instructions and procedures laid down for them by their bosses and predecessors for how to get things done. The bag boy at the grocery store does not think about lofty matters like “how to get food from the farm to the table,” he merely puts the groceries in the bags, with an eye toward not breaking the eggs and not using too many bags.

Human institutions often become so big that no one has effective control over them anymore. One side has no idea how the other side is operating. An organization may forget its original purpose entirely, eg, MTV’s transition away from music videos and The Learning’ Channel’s away from anything educational.

When this happens, their behavior begins to look erratic. Why would an organization do anything counter to its stated purpose? The answer that it’s because no one is actually running the show, the entire organization is just a lose network of people all following the instructions of their little part without any oversight or ability to affect the overall whole and the entire machinery has gone completely out of kilter is dissatisfying to people; since the organization looks like a conscious thing, then it must be a conscious thing, and they must therefore have reasons for their behavior.

Trying to explain organizations’ behaviors in terms of conscious intent gets us quickly into the realm of conspiracy theories. For example, I am sure you have all heard the claim that, “Cheap cancer cures exist, but doctors don’t want you to know about them because they want to keep you sick for longer so they can sell you more expensive medicines.” Well, this is kind of half-true. The true part is that the medical system is biased toward more expensive medications, but not because doctors make more from them. (If you could prove that you can cure cancer with, say, a mega-dose of Vitamin C, the vitamin companies would be absolutely thrilled to bring “Cancer Bustin’ Vit C” to market.) The not-true part is the idea that this is all being done intentionally.

Doctors can only prescribe medications that have official FDA approval. This keeps patients safe from quackery and keeps doctors safe(er) from the possibility of getting sued if their treatments don’t work or have unexpected side effects.

FDA approval is difficult to get. The process requires long and rigorous medical trials to ensure that medications are safe and effective. Long, rigorous medical trials are expensive.

As a result, pharmaceutical companies only want to spend millions of dollars on medical trials for drugs that they think they have the potential to make millions of dollars. Any drug company that tried spending millions of dollars on cheap treatments that they can’t sell for millions of dollars would quickly go out of business.

To sum:

  1. Doctors can only prescribe FDA-approved treatments
  2. The FDA requires long, rigorous trials to make sure treatments are safe
  3. Long trials are expensive
  4. Drug companies therefore prefer to do expensive trials only on expensive drugs they can actually make money on.

None designed this system with the intention of keeping cheap medical treatments off the market because no one designed the system in the first place. It was assembled bit by bit over the course of a hundred years by different people from different organizations with different interests. It is the sum total of thousands (maybe millions) of people’s decisions, most of which made sense at the time.

That said, the system actually does make it harder for patients to get cheap medical treatments. The fact that this consequence is unintended does not make it any less real (or important).

There are, unfortunately, plenty of people who only focus on each particular step in the process, decide that each step is justified, and conclude that the net results must therefore also be justified without ever looking at those results. This is kind of the opposite of over-ascribing intention to organizations, a failure to acknowledge that unintended, emergent behavior of organizations exist and have real consequences. These sorts of people will generally harp on the justification for particular rules and insist that these justifications are so important that they override any greater concern. For example, they will insist that it is vital that drug trials cost millions of dollars in order to protect patients from potential medical side effects, while ignoring patients who died because drug companies couldn’t afford to develop treatments for their disorder.

But back to conspiracy theories: when organizations act like conscious creatures, it is very natural to think that they actually are conscious or at least are controlled by by conscious, intentional beings. It’s much more satisfying, frankly, than just assuming that they are made up of random people who actually have no idea what they’re doing.

Now that I think about it, this is all very fundamental to the principle ideas underlying this blog: organizations act like conscious creatures and are subject to many of the same biological rules as conscious creatures, but do not possess true consciousness.

Businesses, for example, must make enough money to cover their operating expenses, just as animals must eat enough calories to power their bodies. If one restaurant produces tasty food more efficiently than its competitor, thus making more money, then it will tend to outcompete and replace that competitor. Restaurants that cannot make enough money go out of business quickly.

Similarly, countries must procure enough food/energy to feed their people, or mass starvation will occur. They must also be strong enough to defend themselves against other countries, just as animals have to make sure other animals don’t eat them.

Since these organizations act like conscious creatures, it is a convenient shorthand to talk about them as though they were conscious. We say things like, “The US invaded Vietnam,” even though the US as a whole never decided that it would be a good idea to invade Vietnam and then went and did so. (The president has a major role in US foreign policy, but he doesn’t act alone.)

Most systems/organizations don’t have anyone that’s truly in charge. We can talk about “the American medical system,” but there is no one who runs the American medical system. We can talk about “the media,” but there is no one in charge of the media; no one decided one day that we were switching from paper newspapers to online click-bait. We talk about “society,” but no one is in charge of society.

This is not to say that organizations never have anyone in charge: tons of them do. Small businesses and departments in particular tend to have someone running them and goals they are trying to accomplish. I’m also not saying that conspiracies never happen: of course they do. These are just general observations about the general behavior of organized human groups: they can act like living creatures and are subject to many of the same rules as living creatures, which makes us inclined to think of them as conscious even when they aren’t.

Industrial Society and its Future

There goes the Oxygen All right. It took a while, but I have finished reading Ted’s manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future. In case you are unfamiliar with the story, Ted Kaczynski was a precocious math prodigy who was born in 1942 and matriculated at Harvard in 1958, at the age of 16. He went on to earn his PhD in math at Michigan, and in 1967 became UC Berkeley’s youngest ever assistant math professor (up to that point). By 1969, Kaczynski had clearly had enough of the Berkeley hippies and retreated to a cabin in the woods, where, he claims, he intended to live the simple life in peace. Unfortunately, one day he found that someone had built a road through his favorite hiking spot, so he began a terrorist campaign of mailing letter bombs to semi-random people, most of them professors or involved in transportation/technology. (Three people died.)

This resulted in a very long and expensive FBI manhunt that ended when Ted agreed to cease his bombing campaign if the Washington Post printed his manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future. Kaczynski’s brother recognized his writing style in the essay and turned him over to the FBI; Ted is still alive, in prison.

It is unfortunate when the author of a work commits clearly reprehensible or evil acts (like killing people). For all that we attempt not to fall into ad hominens, “Do I trust the author or does he seem like a crazy guy?” remains a reasonable first-pass mechanism for sorting through the nigh-infinite quantity of potential reading material. In this case, we must simply admit up front that the author was terrorist and murderer, then proceed to analyze his ideas as though he didn’t exist. Death of the author, indeed.

Quick overview:

Industrial Society and its Future is 35,000 words long, or the length of a novella. It is long enough to feel long when reading it, but too short to include the kind of explanatory examples and details that it could really use. (My summary will therefore draw, when necessary, from other things I have read.)

You have likely already encountered most of the concepts in Ted’s essay, either independently or because you’ve talked to people who’ve read it; the concepts are very commonly discussed on the alt-right.

Ted asserts that modern technology is making people miserable because:

1. It provides for our basic needs (ie food and shelter) with relative ease, leaving us unable to fulfill our instinctual drive to provide for our basic needs, which leaves us unhappy.

2. It makes us follow lots of rules (like “only sell pasteurized milk” or “get a driver’s license”). These rules are necessary for running advanced technology in densely populated areas, but frustrating because they significantly curtail our freedom.

For example:

A walking man formerly could go where he pleased, go at his own pace without observing any traffic regulations, and was independent of technological support-systems. When motor vehicles were introduced they appeared to increase man’s freedom. They took no freedom away from the walking man, no one had to have an automobile if he didn’t want one … But the introduction of motorized transport soon changed society in such a way as to restrict greatly man’s freedom of locomotion. When automobiles became numerous, it became necessary to regulate their use extensively. In a car, especially in densely populated areas, one cannot just go where one likes at one’s own pace one’s movement is governed by the flow of traffic and by various traffic laws. One is tied down by various obligations: license requirements, driver test, renewing registration, insurance, maintenance required for safety, monthly payments on purchase price. Moreover, the use of motorized transport is no longer optional. Since the introduction of motorized transport the arrangement of our cities has changed in such a way that the majority of people no longer live within walking distance of their place of employment, shopping areas and recreational opportunities, so that they HAVE TO depend on the automobile for transportation. Or else they must use public transportation, in which case they have even less control over their own movement than when driving a car. Even the walker’s freedom is now greatly restricted. In the city he continually has to stop to wait for traffic lights that are designed mainly to serve auto traffic. …

To be fair, when talking about the miseries created by technology, I think we can also include things like “people incinerated by bombs during WWII” and “People whose lives were made miserable by totalitarian Soviet states,” not just people struggling to cross the street because there are too many cars.

Ted believes that this misery is bad enough that we would be happier and better off without modern technology (aside from, obviously, everyone who would die without it,) and therefore we should get rid of it.

This is, unfortunately, the essay’s weak point. Most people who read it probably say, “Yes, modern civilization has its issues, yes, cars pollute and traffic is annoying and I hate paperwork, but it sure beats getting mauled to death by lions.”

To be fair, there’s not a whole lot of research out there about what makes people happy. (I did find some; the researchers concluded that people are happy when they have friends.) Personally, I’ve only ever lived in today’s society, so I struggle to compare it to society of 200 years ago.

But let’s suppose we accept Kaczynski’s thesis and decided that modern life is making people really miserable. We can’t just say, “Okay, we’re Luddites, now. Lets put some clogs in this machine.” The system won’t let you. The system is a lot bigger and stronger than you.

Ted advocates rebellion in the essay, but later he noted that realistically, there won’t be a mass movement of people willing to give up their TVs, so if you want to do something about industrial system, you have to go the opposite direction: make the system worse until everyone is so stressed and miserable that they all snap and the system breaks.

Much like Marx, this is where the essay falters, because the technological system shows no sign of completely breaking down. Even if the US collapses, China will just happily scoop up the pieces and chug right along.

(I find it somewhat amusingly that Ted is essentially using a Marxist approach in his claim that the needs of the society’s economic system dictate the shape and culture of that society.)

A few things are incorrect, (Ted is weak on what life is actually like in primitive societies–clearly he has never lived in one–for example, his claim that crime was lower in their societies than ours. It wasn’t,) but the general thrust is accurate or at least an interesting position that a reasonable person could argue in good faith. The essay is quite interesting in its description of the “power process”:

Human beings have a need (probably based in biology) for something that we will call the “power process.” This is closely related to the need for power (which is widely recognized) but is not quite the same thing. The power process has four elements. The three most clear-cut of these we call goal, effort and attainment of goal. (Everyone needs to have goals whose attainment requires effort, and needs to succeed in attaining at least some of his goals.) The fourth element is more difficult to define and may not be necessary for everyone. We call it autonomy and will discuss it later (paragraphs 42-44).

34. Consider the hypothetical case of a man who can have anything he wants just by wishing for it. Such a man has power, but he will develop serious psychological problems. At first he will have a lot of fun, but by and by he will become acutely bored and demoralized. Eventually he may become clinically depressed. …

35. Everyone has goals; if nothing else, to obtain the physical necessities of life: food, water and whatever clothing and shelter are made necessary by the climate. …

36. Nonattainment of important goals results in death if the goals are physical necessities, and in frustration if nonattainment of the goals is compatible with survival. Consistent failure to attain goals throughout life results in defeatism, low self-esteem or depression.

37, Thus, in order to avoid serious psychological problems, a human being needs goals whose attainment requires effort, and he must have a reasonable rate of success in attaining his goals.

This is all well and good until society gets so good at making food that, poof, the majority of people can no longer actually struggle and attain meaningful goals.

People who do not have real goals to give themselves a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction try to fill the void in their lives with “surrogate activities,” which are basically everything else people do.

I think it is fair to say that modern people do have a lot of surrogate activities, and some of them are pretty embarrassing. Women sometimes become obsessed with dolls and start treating them like real children (eg, “momalorians;”) men become obsessed with movies/ video games in which they pretend to be heroes; and pretty much everyone on the internet thinks that they have something very important to say about politics.

It’s hard to escape the sense that many people obsess about such things because otherwise they would have nothing to say to each other; they don’t derive meaning from their jobs or daily lives, or if they do, nothing that happens to them would make sense to the other people they talk to. At least if I reference Harry Potter, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

That all said, Ted misses one significant way people can still struggle and achieve meaningful goals: by having children. Obviously Ted never had kids of his own, nor did most of the people he knew at university, which is probably why he doesn’t address this in his essay. Nevertheless, having and raising kids is right up there with acquiring food and shelter in the list of basic human drives; evolution guarantees it. And kids, unlike food, are not being mass produced by machines. Raising children is still difficult and, yes, ultimately satisfying.

If raising one child is too simple and doesn’t provide enough difficulty to struggle and overcome, have some more. By kid three or four, you’ll be feeling that sweet, life-enhancing exhilaration of fleeing from an angry tiger. Or you’ll be really tired. No guarantees.

Ted’s next interesting concept is “oversocialization”:

24. Psychologists use the term “socialization” to designate the process by which children are trained to think and act as society demands. A person is said to be well socialized if he believes in and obeys the moral code of his society and fits in well as a functioning part of that society. It may seem senseless to say that many leftists are oversocialized, since the leftist is perceived as a rebel. Nevertheless, the position can be defended. Many leftists are not such rebels as they seem.

25. The moral code of our society is so demanding that no one can think, feel and act in a completely moral way. For example, we are not supposed to hate anyone, yet almost everyone hates somebody at some time or other, whether he admits it to himself or not. Some people are so highly socialized that the attempt to think, feel and act morally imposes a severe burden on them. In order to avoid feelings of guilt, they continually have to deceive themselves about their own motives and find moral explanations for feelings and actions that in reality have a non-moral origin. We use the term “oversocialized” to describe such people. [2]

26. Oversocialization can lead to low self-esteem, a sense of powerlessness, defeatism, guilt, etc. One of the most important means by which our society socializes children is by making them feel ashamed of behavior or speech that is contrary to society’s expectations. If this is overdone, or if a particular child is especially susceptible to such feelings, he ends by feeling ashamed of HIMSELF. Moreover the thought and the behavior of the oversocialized person are more restricted by society’s expectations than are those of the lightly socialized person. The majority of people engage in a significant amount of naughty behavior. They lie, they commit petty thefts, they break traffic laws, they goof off at work, they hate someone, they say spiteful things or they use some underhanded trick to get ahead of the other guy. The oversocialized person cannot do these things, or if he does do them he generates in himself a sense of shame and self-hatred. The oversocialized person cannot even experience, without guilt, thoughts or feelings that are contrary to the accepted morality; he cannot think “unclean” thoughts. And socialization is not just a matter of morality; we are socialized to conform to many norms of behavior that do not fall under the heading of morality. Thus the oversocialized person is kept on a psychological leash and spends his life running on rails that society has laid down for him. In many oversocialized people this results in a sense of constraint and powerlessness that can be a severe hardship. We suggest that oversocialization is among the more serious cruelties that human beings inflict on one another.

I had heard of Ted’s concept of “oversocialization” before reading the essay, but I thought it referred to people who had too many friends, socialized too much, and consequently became too obsessed with what other people think/obsessed with their reputation in other people’s minds.

On the contrary, Ted is taking a rather blank-slate approach to human nature and claiming that the “oversocialized” are people who have been molded by society to be overly restricted in their moral and personal behavior (because it is useful for the system if they act this way). This is “socialized” in the same vein as “sex is a social construct;” like the claim that primitive peoples had lower crime rates than ourselves, Ted at times espouses leftist ideological bits without necessarily realizing it.

Of course people do live in societies and are shaped and molded by them in various ways, but I know many “oversocialized” people, and at least some of them were born that way. Perhaps in a different society that basic tendency of theirs to believe that they are sinners would have been discouraged, but there is still that basic tendency in them; had they been the sorts of people who by nature rebel against authority, our society would give them a great deal to rebel against.

Our society does set the bounds and limits for most people’s morals, however. Our current notion that racism is a great evil, for example, was not shared by our ancestors of two centuries ago.

I’d like to pause and quote Zero HP Lovecraft:

Quoting Zero HP Lovecraft:

Foucault taught that power does not inhere in individuals, but in networks of people, that it is manifest between everyone and everyone else at all times, that it cannot be possessed, only enacted, and that it coerces by manufacturing “truth”

“Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced by constraint. Each society has its regime of truth: the types of discourse it accepts; the mechanisms which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned”

Power is induced by “truth”, which is contingent and socially constructed. This makes conservatives bristle, because they rightly know that there is an immutable reality, but they refuse to understand how much flexion their own minds have with regard to the absolute

The dissident right breaks from the “mainstream” right precisely when realizes, along with Foucault, that “truth is not the privilege of those who have liberated themselves.” Moldbug’s famous dictum is “The sovereign determines the null hypothesis” …

Power is decentralized. If a single node in the knowledge/power nexus flips, the cathedral treats it as damage and routes around it. If a Harvard dean or NYT editor goes rogue, they get ignored or ejected.

Everyone knows more or less what power expressed through truth demands. We can sense it; we know the magic words we can say to give orders to others. “That makes me uncomfortable.” “That’s hateful.” “That could offend some people”. The words sound innocent but they aren’t

If you challenge a person who is enacting power, they can escalate. Your nearest authority knows the “truth”, and will side with power. If he doesn’t, his superior will, or his, and so on. In rare cases, these things go to court, where truth is constituted as law and precedent …

Power is the source of social discipline and conformity. To challenge power is not a matter of seeking some ‘absolute truth’, but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of social, economic, and cultural hegemony within which it operates

In some ways, Foucault’s ideas are quite reactionary, and he drew criticism from his leftist colleagues, because his ideas, taken to their logical conclusion, undermine the idea that any kind of “emancipation” is even possible. This is undeniably true.

(There is no such thing as emancipation. Living in society is submitting to social control. Living away from society is submitting to nature’s control. Nature is a harsher master than society.)

Similarly, while living in a technological society necessitates giving up a certain amount of freedom, it also gives a certain amount of freedom. Certainly there are far more career options. Your ancestors were dirt farmers and if they didn’t want to be dirt farmers, well, they could sign up to be sailors and die of scurvy. Slavery, serfdom, and indentured servitude were widespread, child brides were common in many parts of the world, and many people effectively had no one to protect them from abuse. Today has problems, but so did the past.

In many cases, people did not willingly join the industrialized world, but instead had to be dragged kicking and screaming into it–for example, the Inclosure Acts in England and Wales forced over 200,000 farmers off their land and into the cities in the late 1700s and early 1800s, where they became the early proletarian working class of the Industrial Revolution. For many of these people the process was an absolute disaster as rates of death and disease soared. To quote Spartacus Educational:

In 1750 around a fifth of the population [of Britain] lived in towns of more than 5,000 inhabitants; by 1850 around three-fifths did. This caused serious health problems for working-class people. In 1840, 57% of the working-class children of Manchester died before their fifth birthday, compared with 32% in rural districts. (17) Whereas a farm labourer in Rutland had a life-expectancy of 38, a factory worker in Liverpool had an average age of death of 15. (18)

I have seen similar numbers elsewhere. It was really bad, mostly because most houses in Britain did not have running water or sewers at the time. Poop was either thrown into the rivers (which were most people’s only water sources) or simply piled up until someone came and carted it away. And this was the era of horse-drawn carriages, which meant cities were also full of horse poop. For example, in 1880, there were at least 150,000 horses in New York City:

At a rate of 22 pounds per horse per day, equine manure added up to millions of pounds each day and over a 100,000 tons per year (not to mention around 10 million gallons of urine).

It smelled bad, to say the least. The introduction of the automobile was actually heralded for “polluting” less than horses.

But on the other hand, many people were quite happy to go to the cities. The US had both a wide open frontier for aspiring farmers and nothing like Britain’s Inclosure acts, yet still industrialized nonetheless. Presumably most of the people who moved to American cities in search of factory jobs did so voluntarily, like the Lowell Mill Girls:

The Lowell mill girls were young female workers who came to work in industrial corporations in Lowell, Massachusetts, during the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The workers initially recruited by the corporations were daughters of propertied New England farmers, typically between the ages of 15 and 35.[1] By 1840, the height of the Industrial Revolution, the Lowell textile mills had recruited over 8,000 workers, mostly women, who came to make up nearly three-quarters of the mill workforce…

During the early period, women came to the mills of their own accord, for various reasons: to help a brother pay for college, for the educational opportunities offered in Lowell, or to earn supplementary income. Francis Cabot Lowell specifically emphasized the importance of providing housing and a form of education to mirror the boarding schools that were emerging in the 19th century. He also wanted to provide an environment that sharply contrasted the poor conditions of the British Mills. While their wages were only half of what men were paid, many women able to attain economic independence for the first time…

Similarly, we can cite the Great Migration of African Americans from the agricultural US South to Northern manufacturing cities, and millions of people in third world countries who have left their farms behind in favor of factory work. If the switch left them significantly unhappier, we’d expect to see many of them move back (though it is true that many a labor union strike has expressed deep dissatisfaction with factory systems).

At this point, it seems that problems like “no sanitation” have been solved and mos people in the world are enjoying significantly higher standards of living than ever before.

But let’s get back to Ted, because I’ve gotten very far from the oversocialized:

27. We argue that a very important and influential segment of the modern left is oversocialized and that their oversocialization is of great importance in determining the direction of modern leftism. Leftists of the oversocialized type tend to be intellectuals or members of the upper-middle class. Notice that university intellectuals [3] constitute the most highly socialized segment of our society and also the most left-wing segment.

28. The leftist of the oversocialized type tries to get off his psychological leash and assert his autonomy by rebelling. But usually he is not strong enough to rebel against the most basic values of society. Generally speaking, the goals of today’s leftists are NOT in conflict with the accepted morality. On the contrary, the left takes an accepted moral principle, adopts it as its own, and then accuses mainstream society of violating that principle.

This is, of course, exactly what we see right now, with middle and upper-class white liberals demanding that the government do more to enforce the views of middle and upper class white liberals by rioting in the streets and tearing down statues.

Let’s look a bit at the restriction of freedom:

114. As explained in paragraphs 65-67, 70-73, modern man is strapped down by a network of rules and regulations, and his fate depends on the actions of persons remote from him whose decisions he cannot influence. This is not accidental or a result of the arbitrariness of arrogant bureaucrats. It is necessary and inevitable in any technologically advanced society. The system HAS TO regulate human behavior closely in order to function. At work people have to do what they are told to do, otherwise production would be thrown into chaos. Bureaucracies HAVE TO be run according to rigid rules. To allow any substantial personal discretion to lower-level bureaucrats would disrupt the system and lead to charges of unfairness due to differences in the way individual bureaucrats exercised their discretion. It is true that some restrictions on our freedom could be eliminated, but GENERALLY SPEAKING the regulation of our lives by large organizations is necessary for the functioning of industrial-technological society. The result is a sense of powerlessness on the part of the average person. It may be, however, that formal regulations will tend increasingly to be replaced by psychological tools that make us want to do what the system requires of us. (Propaganda [14], educational techniques, “mental health” programs, etc.)

115. The system HAS TO force people to behave in ways that are increasingly remote from the natural pattern of human behavior. For example, the system needs scientists, mathematicians and engineers. It can’t function without them. So heavy pressure is put on children to excel in these fields. It isn’t natural for an adolescent human being to spend the bulk of his time sitting at a desk absorbed in study. A normal adolescent wants to spend his time in active contact with the real world. Among primitive peoples the things that children are trained to do tend to be in reasonable harmony with natural human impulses. Among the American Indians, for example, boys were trained in active outdoor pursuits—

just the sort of thing that boys like. But in our society children are pushed into studying technical subjects, which most do grudgingly. …

117. In any technologically advanced society the individual’s fate MUST depend on decisions that he personally cannot influence to any great extent. A technological society cannot be broken down into small, autonomous communities, because production depends on the cooperation of very large numbers of people and machines. Such a society MUST be highly organized and decisions HAVE TO be made that affect very large numbers of people. When a decision affects, say, a million people, then each of the affected individuals has, on the average, only a one-millionth share in making the decision. What usually happens in practice is that decisions are made by public officials or corporation executives, or by technical specialists, but even when the public votes on a decision the number of voters ordinarily is too large for the vote of any one individual to be significant. [17] Thus most individuals are unable to influence measurably the major decisions that affect their lives. There is no conceivable way to remedy this in a technologically advanced society. The system tries to “solve” this problem by using propaganda to make people WANT the decisions that have been made for them, but even if this “solution” were completely successful in making people feel better, it would be demeaning. …

119. The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behavior that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system. This has nothing to do with the political or social ideology that may pretend to guide the technological system. It is the fault of technology, because the system is guided not by ideology but by technical necessity. [18] … But the system, for good, solid, practical reasons, must exert constant pressure on people to mold their behavior to the needs of the system. … Need more technical personnel? A chorus of voices exhorts kids to study science. No one stops to ask whether it is inhumane to force adolescents to spend the bulk of their time studying subjects most of them hate. When skilled workers are put out of a job by technical advances and have to undergo “retraining,” no one asks whether it is humiliating for them to be pushed around in this way. It is simply taken for granted that everyone must bow to technical necessity. and for good reason: If human needs were put before technical necessity there would be economic problems, unemployment, shortages or worse. The concept of “mental health” in our society is defined largely by the extent to which an individual behaves in accord with the needs of the system and does so without showing signs of stress.

I would like to note a quick objection, that while this is true to some extent, it is also true that mental illness is a real thing that makes people suffer.

Ted is concerned, of course, that all of this making people conform to the needs of the technological system is inhuman and cruel and transforms people into ants.

Finally, we have the question of what happens to ordinary people when technology advances to the point that the jobs they used to do become obsolete.

I’ve been worrying about the “Robot Economy,” as I dubbed it, for about a decade and a half (not as long as Ted, but I’m not as old as he is.) What happens when machines get so good at doing your job that it’s not longer useful to employ you? I treated this subject at length a year or two ago in my review of Auerswald’s The Code Economy, but here is the short version:

So far, the results have been mixed. Losing your job is painful. Entire industries ceasing to employ people is even more painful, as people also lose all of the time and expense they spent to learn how to do those jobs. Retraining massive numbers of people is not easy and sometimes simply not doable. In the short term, at least, economic disruption is pretty bad.

On the long term, though, humans have so far coped with the disappearance of many professions by simply inventing new ones. Back in the 1800s, about 90% of people were farmers. The invention of the tractor rendered most farmers obsolete; one man could now do the work of many. Today, less than 2% of Americans are farmers.

But this massive shift in employment did not result in 88% of Americans being permanently out of work. 88% of us did not have to go on welfare, nor did we starve. People just do new jobs that we didn’t have back in the 1800s.

If technology keeps advancing (as I think it will) and keeps displacing people from their current jobs, we will not necessarily end up with an enormous lumpenproletariat underclass that is doomed to destitution. Certainly there will be painful periods, but in the end, people will probably just get new jobs (and the more we replace repetitive, physically demanding work with robots, the more pleasant I think those new jobs will be).

So this is a bit of a white pill to Kaczynski’s black: while I don’t think things are going to be smooth, and I certainly don’t have any reason to think that America will continue to economically and technologically dominate the world, and I do agree that modern society has a lot of problems, (many of which Kaczynski accurately describes,) I don’t think the world in general is doomed.

That said, you can’t destroy the system. It’s not going to collapse any time soon, though dysgenics could eventually do it in. In the meanwhile, you can join the Amish, if you want. You can move to New York, if that’s your thing. (I can’t imagine wanting to live in NYC given current circumstances, but clearly some people like it there.) Most people will make a few compromises, deal with the inconveniences, and find something worth living for–usually their children.

Further thoughts on spiteful mutants

I’ve had two requests recently, one for opinions about the spiteful mutant hypothesis, the other about Kaczynski’s work. These are related concepts, of course, in that they both deal with the structure of society.

It took me a little while to realize that the “spiteful mutant” hypothesis has to do with bioleninism, not just studies about mice (clearly I haven’t been reading the right things). Bioleninism is the idea that elites may prefer to hire/promote unqualified people because these people will then be more loyal to the regime because they know they couldn’t get as good a job elsewhere.

The problem with this theory is that the “unqualified” people being hired by the elites are not grateful or loyal at all. If anything, they are resentful, malicious, petty, and greedy, ready to tear down everyone who “gave them a chance,” especially if they think they can promote themselves at the same time.

The difficulty with the mouse models is that they deal with autistic-model mice and their effects on the social structure of a normal mouse colony, but in real life, the people throwing wrenches into society are not autistic–if anything, they are hyper-social. (Or as Ted would say, they are oversocialized.)

Humans, obviously, are not mice. Humans build things. (Mice build things, too, but much less than humans.) We build lots of things, especially those of us in the modern, industrialized world.

I’m sure I’ve harped this over and over, but I still find the modern, industrial world amazing (and slightly disconcerting). I am amazed that our homeless are fat, that ordinary people have toilets, that infant mortality is below 1%. On the scale of human history, we as a species have changed almost everything about our lives in the blink of an eye, and we have yet to see how all of this works out for us. Certainly we are not adapted to it, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad.

Building our modern world has required the development of new mental skills that our ancestors didn’t possess, like reading, writing, and arithmetic. 10,000 years ago, before the invention of the alphabet, these skills didn’t exist; today almost everyone has mastered them.

Language, both oral and written, requires the ability to generalize. Take something as simple as the letter “A”. It comes in three standard forms, A, a, and the little a used in handwriting. It also comes in many different fonts, in sloppy and neat handwriting, in cursive and smudged ink. You can read the letter “a” even when part of the letter is missing.

Even worse than the variability in the mere shape of the letter, “A” does not consistently refer to a particular sound. It sounds like it is supposed to in “apple,” but sounds like a U in “was.”

Now multiply by the whole alphabet and all of the different voices and accents, noisy rooms and distorted audio, and it’s a wonder that we can understand each other at all, much less read sentences like, “Rpie rsapebrreis are delciiuous in the smmuertmie,” and “Gosts luv cookies b_t candy iz b_ttr.”

Our understanding of language relies on a lot of processing to fill in the gaps between what we hear/see and what was meant. A similar effect is at play with optical illusions.

Both of these faces, for example, are red. Your brain takes the raw data from your eyes, does some processing and color-correction to account for the other colors in the image, and ends up concluding that one screamer is actually orange.

Our brains do this because real life has shifting patterns of color and shade, and our brains are trying to figure out the “real” color if you remove those effects.

One of the interesting things about autistic people is that they are less likely to “see” optical illusions. This might turn out to be one of those amusing psychological findings that doesn’t replicate, but assuming it’s sound, it seems to be because their brains do less processing of the raw data the receive. This means they see the world more as it actually is and less as they think it should be.

The advantage to seeing the world as it actually is and not as you want it to be obviously lies in professions that autists or semi-aspie people excel in, like math and engineering. Unlike reading, you can’t just go filling in missing data in mathematical equations. Lewis Carol could write poems by stringing together things that sound like words, but you can’t build a circuit by wiring together a bunch of capacitors into something that looks generally like the idea of a circuit. An equation that is missing a digit isn’t solvable, a measurement with a misplaced decimal is useless (and potentially deadly), and a misplaced image tag in a post’s code once completely messed up my blog’s layout.

If reading and talking require being good at adding information until you get the general gist of what is meant, math and engineering require carefully not adding information. Humans aren’t very good at this, because it’s a very new skill.

Modern industrial civilization is only possible because of precision engineering. You cannot fit a billion transistors on a microchip without precision. You cannot send communication and navigation satellites into space without building complicated rockets that have to not explode on the launchpad (a surprisingly difficult task) and then precisely calculating their trajectories (otherwise they will veer off disastrously. These computations are complex enough that they tax the limits of human abilities–as Drozdov et al wrote in Fundamentals of Computer Technology in 1964:

Assume that we are to determine the trajectory of a guided space rocket. For this purpose we must calculate the points of the trajectory lying far ahead in the direction of motion of the rocket; only in that case can we estimate the deviation of the rocket from the prescribed direction and apply the necessary midcourse corrections. Such a calculation can be made only by an electronic computer, since workers would require tens of days or several months to calculate a single trajectory, while a rocket takes only three days to reach the moon. The computer will calculate the trajectory in minutes or tens of minutes.

Computers allow us to be more precise, much faster.)

Back in the 1700s, sailors faced a daunting problem: they had no reliable way to measure longitude while at sea. In 1707, inability to determine their position led to four British warships crashing and sinking, causing the deaths of over a thousand sailors. The British Parliament subsequently offered a reward of 20,000 pounds (that would be about 3 million pounds today,) to anyone who could solve the problem.

Early attempts focused on old fashioned methods of finding one’s way and telling time: the heavens. The board awarded 3,000 pounds, for example, to the widow of Tobias Mayer for his lunar tables. Just as the shadows cast by the sun or the height of the north star could be used to determine one’s latitude, so, they hoped, could the moon assist with longitude. Unfortuantely, this method is clunky, difficult, and relies too much on being able to see the moon.

The clockwork in Harrison’s H4 watch

John Harrison came up with a radically new solution: a watch. So long as your watch shows Greenwich time, you can compare it to the local time (observable via the sun or stars,) and the difference shows your longitude. Unfortunately, clocks that kept time precisely enough to accurately determine one’s latitude far from land didn’t exist in Harrison’s day: he had to build them himself. The resulting clocks are masterpieces, incredibly accurate for their day:

Harrison began working on his second ‘sea watch’ (H5) while testing was conducted on the first, which Harrison felt was being held hostage by the Board. After three years he had had enough; Harrison felt “extremely ill used by the gentlemen who I might have expected better treatment from” and decided to enlist the aid of King George III. He obtained an audience with the King, who was extremely annoyed with the Board. King George tested the watch No.2 (H5) himself at the palace and after ten weeks of daily observations between May and July in 1772, found it to be accurate to within one third of one second per day. King George then advised Harrison to petition Parliament for the full prize after threatening to appear in person to dress them down. Finally in 1773, when he was 80 years old, Harrison received a monetary award in the amount of £8,750 from Parliament for his achievements, but he never received the official award (which was never awarded to anyone). He was to survive for just three more years. …

Captain James Cook used K1, a copy of H4, on his second and third voyages, having used the lunar distance method on his first voyage.[22] K1 was made by Larcum Kendall, who had been apprenticed to John Jefferys. Cook’s log is full of praise for the watch and the charts of the southern Pacific Ocean he made with its use were remarkably accurate.

Okay, so that was a bit of an aside, but it’s a great story.

Societies with primitive technology have much less need for precision. It is difficult to imagine what a John Harrison would have dedicated his life to in a tribe of nomadic goat herders: they would have no need for second-level time-keeping precision. Primitive people didn’t even need fancy numbers like “12;” our lovely base-10 number system is a recent invention. Primitive people generally got by with tally marks; many had number systems that essentially stopped at 3: 1, 2, 3, lots.

We discussed this back in my review of Numbers and the Making of Us; the author spent much of his childhood among the Piraha of the Amazon, who have almost no words for numbers and no sense of number bigger than three (the first three are instinctual; many animals can count to three).

The author’s parents (missionaries) have actually tried to teach the Piraha to count, but after many years of training they still struggled to grasp concepts like “7” and 1-to-1 correspondence (that is, if I set up a line of 7 cans, can you set up a matching line that also contains 7 cans?)

In short, the advance of technology over the past 200 years has required the development of much higher levels of mental precision than our ancestors used.

Most people, of course, want to be precise sometimes and generalize at other times, and our brains naturally switch between the two modes depending on what we’re doing, but there is obviously a trade-off between being exceptionally good at either variety. (Smart people may have enough brains to do both well, but the rest of us have to pick one side or the other.)

In the “spiteful mutants” experiment, mouse society is inherently social, and the mutants who disrupt it are “autistic” (or what passes for autism in mice). In real life, much of our modern world was built by thing-obsessed people like John Harrison or Bill Gates. Our society isn’t “autistic” by any means, but there is a place for them that wouldn’t exist in other societies. By contrast, the “spiteful mutants” in our society are oversocialized folks like this guy:

No one who was busy trying to get the tolerances on their widget-producing machines down to less than a tenth of a millimetre ever had time to worry about the “liminal space” in which anyone’s identity is made.

In short, these people are trying to make us more social, more hierarchical, more like the original mouse community with all of the mice focused on reading social cues from each other and less like the “mutant” community with its focus on social cues and things.

As for where Ted fits into all of this, well, I suppose blowing people up is pretty spiteful, but he might not have in the first place if people had just left his woods alone.

Industrial Society Now

1. The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.

They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world.

Every day, people in Western countries in Australia, Europe and North America diligently separate their household plastic waste to be collected and sent for recycling. But much of it isn’t recycled. Instead it is exported – sometimes illegally – to Indonesia and neighbouring countries, polluting the air and affecting the health of local people. …
Plastic is burned on a large scale to ease Indonesia’s overflowing rubbish dumps…”

The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in “advanced” countries.

Newark, Ohio, September 6th, 2018: Flashing lights from emergency vehicles light up a residence on Elmwood Avenue in downtown Newark. Emergency responders administered naloxone to a 62-year-old man and hooked him up to an automated CPR machine before loading him into the ambulance and rushing to the emergency room.
(Photo: Will Widmer) From A Year in the Heart of the Addiction Crisis in Rust Belt America

2. The industrial-technological system may survive or it may break down. If it survives, it MAY eventually achieve a low level of physical and psychological suffering, but only after passing through a long and very painful period of adjustment and only at the cost of permanently reducing human beings and many other living organisms to engineered products and mere cogs in the social machine.

I don’t have any pithy videos/pictures for this one, but it’s a critique at least as old as Marx; Charlie Chaplin encapsulated the idea of man as nothing more than a cog in the industrial machine back in 1936.

That humans must be physical cogs in an industrial system is obvious enough–an assembly line moves forward at a certain rate and the humans working on it must match the rhythm of their movements to the line’s. Technically they can perform their individual, repetitive tasks faster than the line and then wait a few seconds until the next unit arrives, (if they are physically capable,) but they can go no slower. They certainly cannot work at a varied pace, sometimes faster and sometimes slower, even if their average speed is plenty fast: coordinating hundreds (or thousands) of people onto an assembly line requires that everyone works at the same pace.

The social implications are less obvious. Ted’s critique here is not that the industrial system reduces humans to cogs in the industrial machine, but that it reduces people to cogs in the social machine. Ted, after all, was not a manual laborer but a a university academic, a mathematician. He is, you might say, a spiteful mutant who does not want to play the social game, certainly not at Harvard, Michigan, or Berkeley.

What does it mean to be a social cog? A social cog has to “fit” with others; it has to play its social role (and no more).

Bees come in both social and antisocial varieties. The social varieties, like honeybees, build hives, have an elaborate genetic caste system, and sting (sacrificing themselves to defend the collective). The antisocial bees, like mason bees, live alone, do not build hives, can all reproduce, and do not sting (they have no hive to protect). You can speak of mason bees as individuals, but not honeybees. Honeybees, like the cells in your body, have no individual existence (well, unless you develop cancer. Then your cells can become immortal–but this has the nasty side effect of potentially killing you).

For all our talk of “individualism,” members of a modern society are no more “individuals” than members of a beehive; we do not really mean that they are “individuals” so much as that they are “interchangeable” and that their debts are owed to large corporations owned by strangers rather than family members.

On the other hand, I doubt Ted would have felt any happier in a small, tribal society; if anything, he would have had more people in his business trying to make him socialize in a particular way (theirs). Small tribal societies are not exactly well known for tolerating atheists and other dissidents, after all.

Certainly people who work industrial jobs (what few of them remain in the US) do not seem to be under the most pressure to conform mentally to the opinions of their class (or the ruling class). There does seem to be a conformist social pressure among the white-collar classes: perhaps it is as simple as people who work with ideas caring more about ideas, but there seems to be something deeper in the way certain people relate to each other and try to enforce their way of interacting on others.

U of Maryland

To quote the University of Maryland’s policy on “Binary Assumptive Language”:

These are examples of expressions that assume there are only two genders (a binary system of gender), expressions we recommend to avoid as a universal to refer to people generally — but they might be appropriate if referring to a specific person and you know how that person wants to be referred to.

. Ladies and gentlemen
. Boys and girls
. Men and women of the faculty
. Brothers and sisters
. He or she
. S/he
. Sir/madam

Say what you will about rural, tribal people: at least they won’t get you fired for beginning your speech with “Ladies and gentlemen.”

Ted concludes his second paragraph pessimistically:

Furthermore, if the system survives, the consequences will be inevitable: There is no way of reforming or modifying the system so as to prevent it from depriving people of dignity and autonomy.

I actually do think there is hope of learning to live in peace and harmony with the robots, but I doubt we’ll be doing so here in America. My full thoughts on this were explored back in my review of Auerswald’s The Code Economy, but the short version is that the internet has the potential to allow people to connect directly with consumers, so you are less dependent on a boss or a big corporation for employment and closer to self-employed.

One interesting example of the internet’s potential lies in Ted’s manifesto itself, Industrial Society and its Future. Today, anyone can go to a public library and use their computers to make a blog and post (almost) whatever they want on it. In 1995, getting a message in front of a large audience required convincing some publisher to print and distribute your work. Since Ted’s work was considered the rantings of a crazy terrorist, not many publishers were interested in it.

(I still think he would have been better off if he’d just gone to Kinkos, made 500 copies of the manifesto, and distributed them around local and university libraries, but we can’t escape the possibility that Ted sent a bunch of bombs to people and killed them because he wanted to, not because it was an efficient way to promote his writing.)

Nevertheless, it is certainly possible that had Ted been writing in 2005, he would have been content to express himself via a cranky blog rather than bombs. This would have required a certain ironic concession to the industrial system–no more ironic, though, than using someone else’s industrial printing press to distribute the manifesto. Want to spread your ideas to non-relatives? Welcome to the modern communication system: make your peace with that or don’t talk.

3. If the system breaks down the consequences will still be very painful. But the bigger the system grows the more disastrous the results of its breakdown will be, so if it is to break down it had best break down sooner rather than later.

Ted was an accelerationist. According to Wikipedia:

“In that 1999 interview, he described his loss of faith in the potential for reform. He decided that the “human tendency … to take the path of least resistance” meant that violent collapse was the only way to bring down the industrial-technological system:[46]

They’ll take the easy way out, and giving up your car, your television set, your electricity, is not the path of least resistance for most people. As I see it, I don’t think there is any controlled or planned way in which we can dismantle the industrial system. I think that the only way we will get rid of it is if it breaks down and collapses … The big problem is that people don’t believe a revolution is possible, and it is not possible precisely because they do not believe it is possible. To a large extent I think the eco-anarchist movement is accomplishing a great deal, but I think they could do it better … The real revolutionaries should separate themselves from the reformers … And I think that it would be good if a conscious effort was being made to get as many people as possible introduced to the wilderness. In a general way, I think what has to be done is not to try and convince or persuade the majority of people that we are right, as much as try to increase tensions in society to the point where things start to break down. To create a situation where people get uncomfortable enough that they’re going to rebel. So the question is how do you increase those tensions?

Ted’s primary motivation in beginning his terrorist campaign was the encroachment of modern society (roads, cars, parking lots, etc) onto his favorite hiking spots. If you live near a city, this is probably inevitable: cities have expanded tremendously over the past hundred years because the jobs are in the cities; economic production is now dependent on human proximity. (This is why the Land Value Tax is good: it prevents people from accumulating outsized wealth simply because they own land proximate to city centers.) As central hub cities have expanded, though, many small towns and communities have collapsed. So whether the local countryside is growing or shrinking probably has a lot to do with where you live (but if you live there, the local countryside is probably shrinking).

As for the broader ecological problems like global warming, clearly there really is nothing individuals can do about it. Perhaps the mass global quarantine due to Covid-19 caused a dent in emissions, eg:

Global Emissions Have dropped 17% During Coronavirus Pandemic:

With strict stay-at-home orders in place over the last couple months … there has been a momentous decline in global greenhouse gas emissions scientists reported on Tuesday amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The lack of human activity resulted in a decline of more than one billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. According to the study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, peak drop in emissions happen in early April, reaching 17 percent.

The study projects that total emissions for 2020 will likely fall four to seven percent compared to last year, an unprecedented drop. Last fall, a United Nations report estimated that global greenhouse gas emissions would need to fall 7.6 percent each year beginning in 2020 to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

So, uh, if we have a global pandemic every year, we can just barely meet our climate goals, (assuming developing countries like India and Nigeria decide that their poor don’t need to ever aspire to middle-class luxuries like electricity).

I have been informed that the solution is nuclear power, but that does not seem to be on the table in most countries.

To be continued…

Conspiracies

 

Conspiracies generally fall into two camps: the secret sort, (which require that people be competent at organizing and not blabbing about what they’re doing) and the right out in the open sort (which only require that you not think of them as conspiracies). 

The secret sort are favored by garden-variety conspiracy theorists, and more easily dismissed because they require actually competent behavior from people with no one defecting and spilling the beans. In real life, large-scale conspiracies are rarely kept secret for long because people either mess up, or because they get in a power struggle and go tell others in order screw over their opponents. People are messy. 

The second sort of “conspiracy” isn’t really a conspiracy at all: it’s just people being people, acting in organized ways to accomplish their goals. They work completely out in the open and are totally honest about what they are doing because they do not think of themselves as part of a conspiracy. (Of course, many organizations–like corporations–take some pains to keep some of their activities private, but we don’t consider this a conspiracy because the organization’s overall goals are publicly stated.) 

Man is a political animal–that is, a social one. Social organization is an instinctual and spontaneous feature of human communities, from remote hunter gatherers to quilting bees. 

But since people generally have trouble keeping up with everything everyone else is doing (most people are busy just trying to keep up with their own affairs) the behavior of other organized groups of people can look to outsiders a lot like a conspiracy. 

Additionally, if you try to explain the organized behavior of other groups of people, it can sound like you are claiming there is a conspiracy simply because the person you are talking to is unaware that there is any organized group behavior going on at all. “Yes,” you try to explain, “They really are doing this–no, it’s not a conspiracy, it’s all out in the open, look I can get you a book about this–wait come back …” 

I’ve seen a lot of people debating whether or not the riots/protests are “organic” or “organized,” but the two categories are not necessarily opposed. Various antifa-type organizations have been around for decades (at least) and most of the people in them joined because they agree with antifa’s aims and want to be there–they aren’t being paid. Antifa makes no secret of its aims: anything you want to know about their objectives is easily found on the internet (if anything, they’re actively trying to convince people that their ideas and goals are good so people will join them). 

That doesn’t mean antifa does everything out in the open. If some antifa cell decides they’re going to lob molotovs into a building, they certainly might not post that publicly.  (By the same token, Apple keeps its plans for the next smartphone under lock and key.) But their goals are public. 

Should a big protest break out, like the one currently rocking the nation, antifa is already organized and ready to go. Whether one calls this a “conspiracy” or not depends, I suppose, on what one considers a conspiracy. 

Of course, antifa are only one sort of organization. Humans organize through churches and schools, social media and gossip chains. They organize when they need to get something done, like clean up a park or sell drugs, and disband when the need no longer exists. 

I heard this morning that certain Mexican gangs have taken to patrolling their neighborhoods in California, protecting local businesses from looters. This is not because gangs are good, but because it is in the nature of people. This is the critical flaw in anarchist, abolish-the-police thought: abolish the police, and you will just end up with something else that does the same thing as the police–but I guarantee you that gangs will not be nearly as polite about it as the police. If one form of order breaks down, another will take its place. Even Somalia, a nation that has endured a long period of almost no national governance, still has local systems of law enforced by feud, complicated feud insurance systems, and judges. You cannot escape the polis.

Of course, all of this does not preclude the possibility of actual conspiracies. 

 

Stay safe out there.

The Age of Greece

I have been reading recently about “Hellenistic Civilization”–that is, the greater Greek cultural zone that began in Greece proper around 700 BC, then radiated to the rest of the Mediterranean and of course, due to Alexander the Great, all the way to India. Aside from the short-lived empire, Greek civilization was rarely unified under a single military or political entity, making it somewhat difficult to talk about. If I refer to the “Roman Empire” you won’t be terribly surprised to find out that I am talking about somewhere in Gaul rather than Rome proper, but if I refer to Archimedes as Greek, you may be surprised to learn that he lived in Sicily. Herodotus lived in what was then the Persian Empire, but is now Turkey. Euclid lived in Egypt, in Alexander’s famous city of Alexandria.

Here is a map that shows some of the important players in the Greek cultural world. Rome is in light blue and Carthage, which was Phoenician, is lavender. (Thewestern Med and Indo-Greek kingdom are not on this map.)

The Greeks first show up in the history books back in the Bronze Age/Homeric era as the marauding “sea peoples” who attacked Egypt/Israel/Troy/etc. They made a splash even then, but might have also helped trigger a dark age, so -1 for bronze age Greek culture.

Greece returned a few hundred years later with the founding of the Greek city states that we all know and love, like Athens and Sparta. The famous Pythagoras was born in 570 BC; by this point, Greek colonies spanned the Mediterranean, from Egypt to Spain. Plato was born a bit later, around 425 BC; his student Aristotle taught Alexander, and Alexander conquered much of the known world.

I think we hear more about Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle because Aristotle was Alexander’s teacher, and Alexander went around founding libraries (among other things). If Eratosthenes had been Alexander’s teacher, those libraries would have held more of Eratosthenes’s books and fewer of Aristotle’s.

I have yet to see any good explanation for why Greece basically exploded around 700-600 BC, burned like a beacon for hundreds of years, and then faded away around the year 600 AD. The soils in Greece proper are not, as far as I know, the greatest: not soils you’d expect to generate a sudden population explosion, though perhaps gradual degradation of the soils lead people to try their luck elsewhere. Nor do I believe anything so simple as “the sunlight is better in Greece.” The decline of the Greek cultural zone can’t be attributed to the Romans, really, since it survived their arrival by a few hundred years.

Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria lived from 30-70 AD and invented a whole host of marvels, including:

  • The first vending machine … when a coin was introduced via a slot on the top of the machine, a set amount of holy water was dispensed. This was included in his list of inventions in his book Mechanics and Optics. When the coin was deposited, it fell upon a pan attached to a lever. The lever opened up a valve which let some water flow out. The pan continued to tilt with the weight of the coin until it fell off, at which point a counter-weight would snap the lever back up and turn off the valve.[15]
  • A wind-wheel operating an organ, marking the first instance in history of wind powering a machine.[4][5]
  • Hero also invented many mechanisms for the Greek theater, including an entirely mechanical play almost ten minutes in length, powered by a binary-like system of ropes, knots, and simple machines operated by a rotating cylindrical cogwheel. The sound of thunder was produced by the mechanically-timed dropping of metal balls onto a hidden drum.
  • The force pump was widely used in the Roman world, and one application was in a fire-engine.
  • syringe-like device was described by Hero to control the delivery of air or liquids.[16]
  • In optics, Hero formulated the principle of the shortest path of light: If a ray of light propagates from point A to point B within the same medium, the path-length followed is the shortest possible. It was nearly 1000 years later that Alhacen expanded the principle to both reflection and refraction, and the principle was later stated in this form by Pierre de Fermat in 1662; the most modern form is that the optical path is stationary.
  • A standalone fountain that operates under self-contained hydro-static energy; now called Heron’s fountain.
  • A programmable cart that was powered by a falling weight. The “program” consisted of strings wrapped around the drive axle.[17]

You are of course familiar with Greek art (particularly sculpture), mathematics, architecture, and philosophy.

The life of Hypatia shows, perhaps, some of the downfall of Greek culture. Hypatia was born around 360 and died in 415 AD. She was a mathematician and professor at the University of Alexandria. One day, she was set upon by an angry mob of Christians (she was a pagan), dragged from her carraige, stripped naked, and brutally murdered. It was a dark day for academic freedom.

On the other hand, Pythagoras and Archimedes were also murdered, and yet civilization continued unabated in those years.

At any rate, it remains a mystery. It’s late, so just go read about Hero of Alexandria. He’s an interesting guy.

The history of civilization is the history of plague

 

coronaweather
Map of coronavirus outbreaks vs temperature, from Razib’s article, “CoViD-19 and its Weather Dependency”

079a7915244f5454e7a288b9ca373880

SARS-CoronaVirus-2, aka SARS-CoV-2, aka Coronavirus, aka Corona Virus Disease, AKA CoViD-19, is only the latest in a long list of pandemics to travel the Silk Road from Asia to Europe (and back again).

The biggest plague in recorded history, often referred to simply as “The Plague,” was the  Black Death or Bubonic Plauge, caused by the yersinia pestis bacterium. Pestis killed over 200 million people, most of those during its famous European Tour between 1347-1353, but was actually still killing millions of people even in the early 20th century. The Third Pandemic, as the most recent outbreak is known, began in Yunnan, China in 1855, killed 10s of millions in China and India, spread to California (yersinia is now actually endemic to the fleas that infest prairie dogs in the American West,) and Africa, and was only declared over in 1960, when casualties dropped below 200 per year.

The bubonic plague ended because we can kill it with penicillin. The plague began in stone-age farming communities near the Black Sea, known as the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture, around 5500-2750BC. This was a lovely region with some of the world’s largest concentrations of humans and animals:

The majority of Cucuteni–Trypillia settlements consisted of high-density, small settlements (spaced 3 to 4 kilometres apart), concentrated mainly in the SiretPrut and Dniester river valleys.[3] During the Middle Trypillia phase (c. 4000 to 3500 BC), populations belonging to the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture built the largest settlements in Neolithic Europe, some of which contained as many as 3,000 structures and were possibly inhabited by 20,000 to 46,000 people.[4][5][6]

The culture thus extended northeast from the Danube river basin around the Iron Gates to the Black Sea and the Dnieper. It encompassed the central Carpathian Mountains as well as the plains, steppe and forest steppe on either side of the range. Its historical core lay around the middle to upper Dniester (the Podolian Upland).[2] During the Atlantic and Subboreal climatic periods in which the culture flourished, Europe was at its warmest and moistest since the end of the last Ice Age, creating favorable conditions for agriculture in this region.

As of 2003, about 3,000 cultural sites have been identified,[7] ranging from small villages to “vast settlements consisting of hundreds of dwellings surrounded by multiple ditches”.[16]

The inhabitants were involved with animal husbandryagriculturefishing and gatheringWheatrye and peas were grown. …

Their domesticated livestock consisted primarily of cattle, but included smaller numbers of pigs, sheep and goats. There is evidence, based on some of the surviving artistic depictions of animals from Cucuteni–Trypillia sites, that the ox was employed as a draft animal.[31]

In short, the Cucuteni-Trypillia are the most important culture you’ve never heard of:

Although this culture’s settlements sometimes grew to become some of the largest on earth at the time (up to 15,000 people), there is no evidence yet discovered of large-scale labor specialization. Their settlements were designed with the houses connecting with one another in long rows that circled around the center of the community. …

Although trade was not likely necessary, archaeological evidence supports the theory that long-distance trade in fact did occur. One of the clearest signs of long-distance trade is the presence of imported flint tools found at Cucuteni-Trypillia settlements.

Indeed, the Cucuteni-Trypillia saltworks located at the brackish spring at LuncaNeamţ County, Romania, may very well be the oldest in the world.[5] There is evidence to indicate that the production of this valuable commodity directly contributed to the rapid growth of the society.[6] This saltworks was so productive that it supplied the needs of the entire region. For this to happen, the salt had to be transported, which may have marked the beginning of a trade network that developed into a more complex system over time.[7]

The Cucuteni-Trypillia people were exporting Miorcani type flint to the west even from their first appearance. The import of flint from Dobruja indicates an interaction with the Gumelniţa-Karanovo culture and Aldeni-Stoicani cultures to the south. Toward the end of the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture’s existence (from roughly 3000 B.C. to 2750 B.C.), copper traded from other societies (mostly from the Gumelniţa-Karanovo culture copper mines of the northeastern Balkan) began to appear throughout the region, and members of the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture began to acquire skills necessary to use it to create various items. Along with the raw copper ore, finished copper tools, hunting weapons and other artifacts were also brought in from other cultures.[2] In exchange for the imported copper, the Cucuteni-Trypillia traders would export their finely crafted pottery and the high-quality flint that was to be found in their territory, which have been found in archaeological sites in distant lands.

The Cucuteni-Trypillia farmers lived on the edge of the Eurasian Steppe and interacted with the Yamnaya, nomadic herdsmen otherwise known as the Proto-Indo-Europeans. No one knows exactly why the PIEs decided to go on a rampage (perhaps a drought), but eventually they did, conquering (and probably absorbing) not only the Cucuteni-Trypillia, but also almost all of Europe, Iran, and India.

The important thing about the Cucuteni-Trypillia people is that there were a lot of them, living in close proximity to each other, with their animals.

Humans can live with animals, as the low-population density Mongols have traditionally done, without too much difficulty. Humans can live in enormous cities, like the 200,000 citizens of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, without too many problems (well, other than the cannibalism and human sacrifice). But cram humans and animals together, and you get diseases. Add in trade routes, and you get pandemics.

Rome
Source

In the year 1 (there was no year zero, despite what the graph says,) Rome was the capital of an empire with a population of almost 1.5 million people.

Between 169 and 180 AD, the Antonine Plague ravaged Rome, killing 2,000 people a day at its height. The Antonine Plague may have begun a few years earlier in China, but it was definitely brought back from the near east by soldiers returning from campaign. It spread across the Empire, killing approximately 5 million people. We think it was smallpox, but it might have been measles. Epidemiology wasn’t great in those days.

The Plague of Cyprian struck the Roman Empire between 249 and 262 AD; at its height, reports say that it killed 5,000 people a day in Rome. The effects of the plague can be seen clearly in the graph.

In 324, Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople (now Istanbul), ending Rome’s status as a major city for the next fifteen hundred years.

In 541, Yersinia Pestis made its first major debut with the Plague of Justinian, killing 25-50 million people in the Byzintine and Sasanian Empires. It most likely began in western China, was transported by nomads or merchants across central Eurasia, and then blasted through the civilized world.

Unfortunately, human complexity creates the conditions in which diseases breed.

Even without pandemics, the disease burden of early modern Europe was extremely high: most cities had grown much faster than their ability to dispose of waste and keep their inhabitants clean. The same trade networks that allow for the dispersal of new ideas and technologies (and what are technologies but ideas in action?) allow for the dispersal of pathogens. Indeed, their dispersal patterns are so similar that it is sensible to model ideas and diseases as the same thing, hence our much beloved “memes.”

Unfortunately, the spread of memes is now so rapid that humanity needs to stop and increase its technological ability to cope with the increased spread of disease.

Stay safe, stay clean, and stay healthy.

Hyperstimulus

A hyperstimulus is a regular stimulus that has been cranked up to 11.

Fruits and vegetables naturally contain sugar, which we use to power our brains. Since fruits and veggies are part of the normal human diet, we crave sugar and find its taste pleasant.

Through selective breeding and technological refinement, we’ve produced artificially concentrated sugars that can be used to produce everything from candy to ice cream.

Fruit is a normal stimulus; ice cream is a hyperstimulus.

Running downhill is a normal stimulus; a roller coaster is a hyperstimulus.

Singing and dancing with your friends is a normal stimulus; a rave is a hyperstimulus.

Tea is a fairly normal stimulus; cocaine is a hyperstimulus.

TV and movies are both, obviously, hyperstimuli. Mediums like Twitter, with their endless supply of short bursts of opinion, are like the potato chips of the information world.

Even things that are not obviously hyperstimulating may be, because we humans are really good at producing more of what we like and more of what people buy. All domesticated foods have been selected for the traits we humans like in our food, not just sugarcane:

(Just look at that wild banana!)

Do people click more often on headlines that say “Doctors recommend avoiding this one food to lose weight?” or “Local Grandma invents miraculous weight loss cure!”? Whichever one they click, proliferates.

What are the most popular novels? Thrillers and romance. (If you want to break into publishing, write a romance–they’re shorter than thrillers and Harlequin needs a constant stream of them.) These genres are fundamentally about producing strong emotions (and as far as I know, barely existed before WWII). 

What’s wrong with hyperstimuli?

They aren’t inherently bad. One piece of candy will not kill you. Neither will one ride on a roller coaster. But a diet that consists entirely of candy will kill you. Even a diet that is merely 20% candy will probably kill you.

It is very difficult to avoid hyperstimuli because they excite stimulus pathways that we evolved to tell us when we have encountered something good, like fruit. It is very difficult to become addicted to something you are not already biologically predisposed to like: if some mad scientist invented jelly beans that taste like raw sewage, most people would have no problem avoiding them. By contrast, it is very easy to become addicted to something that excites all of the “this is good!” signals in your brain, even if that thing is actually nothing more than the specific chemical that signals “this is good.”

Normal stimuli, like fruit sugars, exist in a “whole package” of other things that are also good for you, like the rest of the fruit. Your desire for fruit sugars would normally lead you to eat the rest of the fruit, since most of us don’t have the required equipment for sugar extraction in our kitchens. Sugar, packaged and eaten with the rest of the fruit, is good for you. Your brain runs on the sugar, the fiber cleans your guts, the proteins build muscles, the fats can be burned for energy now or later, etc.

Refined sugar products contain much more sugar, per ounce, than your body is really designed to handle. You did not evolve to eat Froot Loops, no matter what your kids or the toucan on the box may tell you. And if you eat Froot Loops, you effectively crowd out other, more nutritious foods–or you have to eat twice as much to get the same nutrients.

Humans have gotten really good at eating twice as much, but not everything can be so easily doubled. If you watch TV instead of socializing, that time is lost. If you rack up wins in your favorite video game instead of challenging yourself to develop a skill in real life, that time is lost. If you do drugs, well, we all know how that ends.

And I think there is, similar to the tolerance people eventually build up to psychiatric medicines and alcohol, a kind of adjustment that we eventually make to stimuli. We get used to it. The noise we used to find chaotic and distracting, we just tune out. The music that used to excite us grows dull. Spicy salsa becomes bland as we seek the newer, hotter peppers.

I’m not sure the solution is to “cut the hyperstimulus out of your life.” We are basically stimulus-response machines that produce new stimulus-response machines; long-term stimulus deprivation drives us insane. But neither can we thrive, it seems, in high-stimulus environments (I define “thrive” here as an ecologist would, based on how many healthy offspring a community raises to adulthood. First world nations are basically dying by this standard.)

Striking the right balance is tricky. Some things, like heroin, clearly should not be in your life. Others, like candy, are harmless in small quantities–maybe even good. TV/internet/video games are mixed–they’re probably okay in small quantities but unlike candy, it’s difficult to obtain them in limited quantities. At the very least, you probably shouldn’t get cable and should set hard limits to the time you and your kids spend staring at screens every day.

So stop reading this post and go outside.

Fighting the Bureaucracy

Modern civilization is plagued by many evils, but the most common, in everyday life, is paperwork. By “paperwork” I mean basically all bureaucratic overhead, all of the accounting, regulation and compliance enacted in the past century.

Paperwork is the devil.

David Graeber gets it: 

… as early as the 1970s, formerly leftist parties from the US to Japan made a strategic decision to effectively abandon what remained of their older, working-class base and rebrand themselves primarily as parties representing the interests and sensibilities of the professional-managerial classes. This was the real social base of Clintonism in the US, Blairism in the UK, and now Macronism in France. All became the parties of administrators. …

Whereas the core value of the caring classes is, precisely, care, the core value of the professional-managerials might best be described as proceduralism. The rules and regulations, flow charts, quality reviews, audits and PowerPoints that form the main substance of their working life inevitably color their view of politics or even morality. These are people who tend to genuinely believe in the rules. They may well be the only significant stratum of the population who do so. If it is possible to generalize about class sensibilities, one might say that members of this class see society less as a web of human relationships, of love, hate, or enthusiasm, than, precisely, as a set of rules and institutional procedures, just as they see democracy, and rule of law, as effectively the same thing. …

For most care-givers, however, these people are the enemy. If you are a nurse, for example, you are keenly aware that it’s the administrators upstairs who are your real, immediate class antagonist. The professional-managerials are the ones who are not only soaking up all the money for their inflated salaries, but hire useless flunkies who then justify their existence by creating endless reams of administrative paperwork whose primary effect is to make it more difficult to actually provide care.

I call these people “lizards” because they do not seem to have human souls.

Some amount of paperwork, of course, is necessary to keep track of things in a modern, industrial economy in which food for 320 million people has to get from farms to tables every single day. The expansion of paperwork beyond its necessary domain is essentially the auto-cannibalization of society, a metastatic cancer of bureaucrats and paper-pushers.

If we want to fight bureaucracy, we have to know what feeds bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy grows because people don’t trust each other to do the right thing. It grows because people over-graze the commons, because they dump toxic waste into rivers, because they build cheap apartments that turn into flaming death traps, because they take bribes and cover up incompetence, because they discriminate against minorities or hand out sinecures to their friends.

The demands for paperwork are generally demands that you prove that you have or can do the right thing–that you will not pollute, that you have car insurance, that your products are not dangerous or defective, that your medicines aren’t poisons and your experiments don’t involve giving people syphilis.

The more people do not trust each other to do the right thing, the more layers of bureaucracy they institute. If I am afraid that police officers are taking bribes, then I propose more oversight and agencies to ensure that they do not take bribes. If I am concerned that mining companies are paying off the EPA to let them dump toxic metals in the groundwater, then my response is to demand another agency come and clean out the EPA and enforce tougher restrictions on dumping. If I don’t trust you, then I hire someone to watch you.

The problem with this approach is that adding more untrustworthy people to a system doesn’t start making them trustworthy. If I can bribe one person, then I can bribe the person who is supposed to make sure that no one gets bribed. In the end, we just end up with more people to bribe.

And that’s if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, people are “ethical” and the whole thing grinds to a halt. To get your new building built you first need authorization from the wetlands licensing committee, and the lady from the licensing committee wants thirteen forms in triplicate proving that your building won’t impact the mating habits of a rare toad that you are pretty sure doesn’t even live in your state. To get your study on the efficacy of a survey your clinic already hands out to patients approved by the ethics board of your local institution you first have to prove that you will not be collecting personal data from at-risk patients, but you can’t know if they are “at risk” until after you collect their data. Or maybe the guy who is supposed to send you the form you have to fill out simply isn’t returning your phone calls and you can’t figure out from the website where his office is located.

The more you try to fight bureaucracy with more bureaucracy, the more bureaucracy wins, and the bureaucracy does not care if you starve to death, you Kulak.

To the bureaucracy, you are always a Kulak.

There are two ways to break a bureaucracy. One, total system collapse. This happened to the Soviet Union. It takes a long time, it’s not fun, and you can starve to death in the meanwhile. The replacement system may not be much better.

The other is to increase trust so that people don’t advocate for more bureaucracy in the first place. True, this doesn’t get rid of what you’ve got, but at least it contains the spread.

Trust is hard to get, though. You could do a thousand year breeding experiment. You could try to brainwash children. Or you could look at how the incentives are set up in your society and try to align them with the outcomes you want to achieve. (We can try, at least.)

Aligning incentives requires doing something hard: admitting that humans are human. Communism keeps failing because of “wreckers,” aka ordinary humans. Humans will lie, cheat, and steal if it benefits themselves; this is why we have police. Humans will also fall in love, have sex, and make children. We will then cheat and steal to feed our children, if need be, because we love them.

Accept human nature and align incentives accordingly. (Easier said than done, of course.)

Here is an entertaining example:

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll quote the rest:

The mafia backed company actually had good, fresh food! Most of the mobsters’ kids went to those schools (several I went to school with saw their dads go down). The sandwiches were real hoagies on good bread, there was fresh fruit, juice, etc. All local.

Then, overnight, all their food was gone, and their vending machines too. And they were replaced by the corporate equivalent. And we were excited too! National brands, etc! Now the good stuff! Nope.

The corporate food was shite. No more local, fresh ingredients. The portions were smaller. All the food was overly processed and overpriced. It was just nasty. I remember my dad and others laughing bitterly about it.

At the time, I was struck by how these unintended consequences were the most visceral ones. Later in life, I came to realize that this was the norm: that the unintended consequences of any major political change are often the ones with the greatest impact.

But it was also my first inkling that the real world differences between the literal mafia, and the even greater power of modern corporations, were not as black and white, or clear cut, as those who benefitted from the latter would have any of us believe. Fin/

I knew and dreaded Aramark as a kid. When people, whether kids or prisoners, don’t have a choice about the food they eat, the quality tends to suffer. By contrast, when you are feeding your own children (or the children of mobsters), cooking quality tends to be decent.

The same dynamic as at work in children’s electronics. Electronics that are marketed solely to kids, like the LeapFrog system, tend to be bad (often very bad) because the buyer (parents) tends not to be the users (kids), and kids often don’t have enough experience with electronics to realize they’re being ripped off. (Every augmented reality devices I have bought has been similarly bad to awful.) The only good kids’ electronics systems I have encountered also have significant adult fanbases, like Nintendo.

Capitalism, of course, is the classic case of aligned incentives. Invisible hand and all that. It’s not perfect (corporations will eat you for breakfast if they can get away with it,) but it’s pretty good. People are more likely to protect the commons when they have an expectation of future gain from the commons.

Reputation also helps align incentives. People care about what others think of them. The internet has both expanded our ability to interact with total strangers who have no reputations and to create reputations, with interesting effects. Sites like Amazon and Yelp allow small, previously unknown sellers to build up their reputations, making people more confident about what they’re buying.

By contrast, the recent kerflufle over Youtube, trying to make it more kid-friendly via increased regulation, has done nothing of the sort. None of the things parents want to protect kids from have actually been addressed because bureaucracy just doesn’t work that way, but if you don’t like Youtube, you already have the very easy option of using literally any other content service.

Incentives matter.

The Fullness of America

This turned out to be a popular thread, so I thought I’d  share it over here.

This is a good example of a common misconception: that physical space per person matters.

Things that actually matter:
1. Water per person
2. Farmland per person
3. Cost of housing near city centers
4. Commuting time to city centers

Thing is, while we still eat food, our economy has been, since the late 1800s, something we describe as “industrial” (and now “post-industrial”). This means that the vast majority of people have to live in cities instead of farms, because industries are in cities.

Don’t get your political information from anyone who doesn’t know we live in an industrial (post-industrial) economy, folks.

One of the side effects of living in an industrial/post-industrial economy is that, by necessity, you end up with uneven population densities. We don’t plop cities down on farmland (not if you want to eat) and you don’t try to grow potatoes in city medians.

So a pure measure of “density” is meaningless.

In an agrarian economy, land is the most important resource. In an industrial/post-industrial economy, proximity to industry is itself a kind of resource. People have to actually be able to get to their jobs. This is why in places like Silicon Valley, where housing is artificially restricted, the price of housing skyrockets. You can probably find some super cheap (relatively speaking) land a mere hundred miles away from SF, but people can’t commute that far, so they bid up the prices on what housing there is.

Of course it would be great if people could just build more housing in CA, but that’s a separate issue–regardless, if people could just move to one of those less populated areas, they would.

(By the way, South Africa is also a modern, industrial economy, which is why the idea of taking people’s farms and redistributing them to the masses is absurd from an economic point of view. South Africa is not an agrarian society, and very few people there actually want to be farmers. The goal is not economic growth, but simply to hurt the farmers.)

Many of our other resources are similarly “invisible”–that is, difficult to quantify easily on a map. Where does your water come from? Rain? Rivers? Aquifer?

How much water can your community use before you run out?

Water feels infinite because it just pours out of the faucet, but it isn’t. Each area has so much water it can obtain easily, a little more that can be obtained with effort, and after that, you’re looking at very large energy expenditures for more.

wss-gw-depletion-us-map-trend
Source: Groundwater Decline and Depletion from US Gov

Groundwater Depletion in the United States (1900–2008). A natural consequence of groundwater withdrawals is the removal of water from subsurface storage, but the overall rates and magnitude of groundwater depletion in the United States are not well characterized. This study evaluates long-term cumulative depletion volumes in 40 separate aquifers or areas and one land use category in the United States, bringing together information from the literature and from new analyses. Depletion is directly calculated using calibrated groundwater models, analytical approaches, or volumetric budget analyses for multiple aquifer systems. Estimated groundwater depletion in the United States during 1900–2008 totals approximately 1,000 cubic kilometers (km3). Furthermore, the rate of groundwater depletion has increased markedly since about 1950, with maximum rates occurring during the most recent period (2000–2008) when the depletion rate averaged almost 25 km3 per year (compared to 9.2 km3 per year averaged over the 1900–2008 timeframe).

We’re not just “full”; we’re eating our seed corn. When the aquifers run out, well, the farms are just fucked.

There are some ways to prevent total aquifer collapse, like planting crops that require less water. We’re not totally doomed. But the idea that we can keep our present lifestyles/consumption levels while continuously expanding the population is nonsense.

unnamed
The most effective way to stop global warming is to HAVE FEWER PEOPLE living 1st world lifestyles (source)

Eventually something has to give. Someone has to scale back their consumption. Maybe it’s no more almonds. Maybe it’s less meat. Maybe it’s longer commutes or smaller houses.

No matter how you slice it, resources aren’t infinite and you can’t feed cities on deserts.

One more thought:

This is all technical, addressing the question of “How do we measure whether we are really full or not?”

No one has addressed the question of whether being “full” or not is even important.

You could look at my house and say, “Hey, your house isn’t full! There’s plenty of room for two more people in your living room,” and I can say “Excuse me? Who are you and why are you looking in my windows?”

This is my house, and it’s not my responsibility to justify to some stranger why I want X number of people living here and not Y number of people.

If I want to live alone, that’s my business. I am not obligated to take a roommate. If I want my sister and her husband and five kids to move in here with my husband and kids and their dogs, too, that’s also my business (well, and theirs.)

It is not a stranger’s.

Just because we can cram a lot of people into Nevada does not mean anyone is obligated to do so.