Book Club: The Code Economy pt 1

I don’t think the publishers got their money’s worth on cover design

Welcome to EvX’s Book Club. Today we begin our exciting tour of Philip E. Auerswald’s The Code Eoconomy: A Forty-Thousand-Year History. with the introduction, Technology = Recipes, and Chapter one, Jobs: Divide and Coordinate if we get that far.

I’m not sure exactly how to run a book club, so just grab some coffee and let’s dive right in.

First, let’s note that Auerswald doesn’t mean code in the narrow sense of “commands fed into a computer” but in a much broader sense of all encoded processes humans have come up with. His go-to example is the cooking recipe.

The Code Economy describes the evolution of human productive activity from simplicity to complexity over the span of more than 40,000 years. I call this evolutionary process the advance of code.

I find the cooking example a bit cutesy, but otherwise it gets the job done.

How… have we humans managed to get where we are today despite our abundant failings, including wars, famine, and a demonstrably meager capacity for society-wide planning and coordination? … by developing productive activities that evolve into regular routines and standardized platforms–which is to say that we have survived, and thrived, by creating and advancing code.

There’s so much in this book that almost every sentence bears discussion. First, as I’ve noted before, social organization appears to be a spontaneous emergent feature of every human group. Without even really meaning to, humans just naturally seem compelled organize themselves. One day you’re hanging out with your friends, riding motorcycles, living like an outlaw, and the next thing you know you’re using the formal legal system to sue a toy store for infringement of your intellectual property.

Alexander Wienberger, Holodomor

At the same time, our ability to organize society at the national level is completely lacking. As one of my professors once put it, “God must hate communists, because every time a country goes communist, an “act of god” occurs and everyone dies.”

It’s a mystery why God hates communists so much, but hate ’em He does. Massive-scale social engineering is a total fail and we’ll still be suffering the results for a long time.

This creates a kind of conflict, because people can look at the small-scale organizing they do, and they look at large-scale disorganization, and struggle to understand why the small stuff can’t simply be scaled up.

And yet… society still kind of works. I can go to the grocery store and be reasonably certain that by some magical process, fresh produce has made its way from fields in California to the shelf in front of me. By some magical process, I can wave a piece of plastic around and use it to exchange enough other, unseen goods to pay for my groceries. I can climb into a car I didn’t build and cruise down a network of streets and intersections, reasonably confident that everyone else driving their own two-ton behemoth at 60 miles an hour a few feet away from me has internalized the same rules necessary for not crashing into me. Most of the time. And I can go to the gas station and pour a miracle liquid into my car and the whole system works, whether or not I have any clue how all of the parts manage to come together and do so.

The result is a miracle. Modern society is a miracle. If you don’t believe me, try using an outhouse for a few months. Try carrying all of your drinking water by hand from the local stream and chopping down all of the wood you need to boil it to make it potable. Try fighting off parasites, smallpox, or malaria without medicine or vaccinations. For all my complaints (and I know I complain a lot,) I love civilization. I love not worrying about cholera, crop failure, or dying from cavities. I love air conditioning, refrigerators, and flush toilets. I love books and the internet and domesticated strawberries. All of these are things I didn’t create and can’t take credit for, but get to enjoy nonetheless. I have been blessed.

But at the same time, “civilization” isn’t equally distributed. Millions (billions?) of the world’s peoples don’t have toilets, electricity, refrigerators, or even a decent road from their village to the next.

GDP per capita by country

Auerswald is a passionate champion of code. His answer to unemployment problems is probably “learn to code,” but in such a broad, metaphorical way that encompasses so many human activities that we can probably forgive him for it. One thing he doesn’t examine is why code takes off in some places but not others. Why is civilization more complex in Hong Kong than in Somalia? Why does France boast more Fields Medalists than the DRC?

In our next book (Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration,) we’ll discuss whether specific structures like legal and tax codes can affect how well societies grow and thrive (spoiler alert: they do, just see communism,) and of course you are already familiar with the Jared Diamond environmentalist theory that folks in some parts of the world just had better natural resources to work than in other parts (also true, at least in some cases. I’m not expecting some great industry to get up and running on its own in the arctic.)

IQ by country

But laying these concerns aside, there are obviously other broad factors at work. A map of GDP per capita looks an awful lot like a map of average IQs, with obvious caveats about the accidentally oil-rich Saudis and economically depressed ex-communists.

Auerswald believes that the past 40,000 years of code have not been disasters for the human race, but rather a cascade of successes, as each new invention and expansion to our repertoir of “recipes” or “codes” has enabled a whole host of new developments. For example, the development of copper tools didn’t just put flint knappers out of business, it also opened up whole new industries because you can make more varieties of tools out of copper than flint. Now we had copper miners, copper smelters (a  new profession), copper workers. Copper tools could be sharpened and, unlike stone, resharpened, making copper tools more durable. Artists made jewelry; spools of copper wires became trade goods, traveling long distances and stimulating the prehistoric “economy.” New code bequeaths complexity and even more code, not mass flint-knapper unemployment.

Likewise, the increase in reliable food supply created by farming didn’t create mass hunter-gatherer unemployment, but stimulated the growth of cities and differentiation of humans into even more professions, like weavers, cobblers, haberdashers, writers, wheelwrights, and mathematicians.

It’s a hopeful view, and I appreciate it in these anxious times.

But it’s very easy to say that the advent of copper or bronze or agriculture was a success because we are descended from the people who succeeded. We’re not descended from the hunter-gatherers who got displaced or wiped out by agriculturalists. In recent cases where hunter-gatherer or herding societies were brought into the agriculturalist fold, the process has been rather painful.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Harmless People, about the Bushmen of the Kalahari, might overplay the romance and downplay the violence, but the epilogue’s description of how the arrival of “civilization” resulted in the deaths and degradation of the Bushmen brought tears to my eyes. First they died of dehydration because new fences erected to protect “private property” cut them off from the only water. No longer free to pursue the lives they had lived for centuries, they were moved onto what are essentially reservations and taught to farm and herd. Alcoholism and violence became rampant.

Among the book’s many characters was a man who had lost most of his leg to snakebite. He suffered terribly as his leg rotted away, cared for by his wife and family who brought him food. Eventually, with help, he healed and obtained a pair of crutches, learned to walk again, and resumed hunting: providing for his family.

And then in “civilization” he was murdered by one of his fellow Bushmen.

It’s a sad story and there are no easy answers. Bushman life is hard. Most people, when given the choice, seem to pick civilization. But usually we aren’t given a choice. The Bushmen weren’t. Neither were factory workers who saw their jobs automated and outsourced. Some Bushmen will adapt and thrive. Nelson Mandela was part Bushman, and he did quite well for himself. But many will suffer.

What to do about the suffering of those left behind–those who cannot cope with change, who do not have the mental or physical capacity to “learn to code” or otherwise adapt remains an unanswered question. Humanity might move on without them, ignoring their suffering because we find them undeserving of compassion–or we might get bogged down trying to save them all. Perhaps we can find a third route: sympathy for the unfortunate without encouraging obsolete behavior?

In The Great Degeneration, Ferguson wonders why the systems (“code”) that supports our society appears to be degenerating. I have a crude but answer: people are getting stupider. It takes a certain amount of intelligence to run a piece of code. Even a simple task like transcribing numbers is better performed by a smarter person than a dumber person, who is more likely to accidentally write down the wrong number. Human systems are built and executed by humans, and if the humans in them are less intelligent than the ones who made them, then they will do a bad job of running the systems.

Unfortunately for those of us over in civilization, dysgenics is a real thing:

Source: Audacious Epigone

Whether you blame IQ itself or the number of years smart people spend in school, dumb people have more kids (especially the parents of the Baby Boomers.) Epigone here only looks at white data (I believe Jayman has the black data and it’s just as bad, if not worse.)

Of course we can debate about the Flynn effect and all that, but I suspect there two competing things going on: First, a rising 50’s economic tide lifted all boats, making everyone healthier and thus smarter and better at taking IQ tests and making babies, and second, declining infant mortality since the late 1800s and possibly the Welfare state made it easier for the children of the poorest and least capable parents to survive.

The effects of these two trends probably cancel out at first, but after a while you run out of Flynn effect (maybe) and then the other starts to show up. Eventually you get Greece: once the shining light of Civilization, now defaulting on its loans.

Well, we have made it a page in!

Termite City

What do you think of the book? Have you finished it yet? What do you think of the way Auersbach conceptualizes of “code” and its basis as the building block of pretty much all human activity? Do you think Auersbach is essentially correct to be hopeful about our increasingly code-driven future, or should we beware of the tradeoffs to individual autonomy and freedom inherent in becoming a glorified colony of ants?

Advertisements

Cathedral Round-Up: Give Zuck a Chance?

Yale’s commencement speech was delivered this year by Epstein, a major-league baseball guy with a story about teamwork and winning the World Series.

MIT’s commencement speech was delivered by Matt Damon, no wait that was last year, this year they’re going to have Tim Cook, CEO of Apple.

Wellesley, of course, had Hillary Clinton. (Warning: link goes to Cosmopolitan.)

And Harvard’s commencement speech was delivered by Mark Zuckerberg, who discussed his presidential bid:

You’re graduating at a time when this is especially important. When our parents graduated, purpose reliably came from your job, your church, your community. But today, technology and automation are eliminating many jobs. Membership in communities is declining. Many people feel disconnected and depressed, and are trying to fill a void.

As I’ve traveled around, I’ve sat with children in juvenile detention and opioid addicts, who told me their lives could have turned out differently if they just had something to do, an after school program or somewhere to go.

Just a second. Do you know what I did after school to keep myself busy and out of juvie?

Homework.

Today I want to talk about three ways to create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose: by taking on big meaningful projects together, by redefining equality so everyone has the freedom to pursue purpose, and by building community across the world.

First, let’s take on big meaningful projects.

Our generation will have to deal with tens of millions of jobs replaced by automation like self-driving cars and trucks. But we have the potential to do so much more together.

Every generation has its defining works. More than 300,000 people worked to put a man on the moon – including that janitor. Millions of volunteers immunized children around the world against polio. Millions of more people built the Hoover dam and other great projects.

These projects didn’t just provide purpose for the people doing those jobs, they gave our whole country a sense of pride that we could do great things. …

So what are we waiting for? It’s time for our generation-defining public works. How about stopping climate change before we destroy the planet and getting millions of people involved manufacturing and installing solar panels? How about curing all diseases and asking volunteers to track their health data and share their genomes? Today we spend 50x more treating people who are sick than we spend finding cures so people don’t get sick in the first place. That makes no sense. We can fix this. How about modernizing democracy so everyone can vote online, and personalizing education so everyone can learn?

Oh, Zuck. You poor, naive man.

I’m not going to run through the pros and cons of solar panels because I don’t know the subject well enough. Maybe that’s a good idea.

I’d love to cure all diseases. Sure, nature would invent new ones, but it’d still be great. But what’s actually driving medical costs? Diseases we have no cures for, like ALS, Alzheimer’s, or the common cold? Or preventable things like overeating=>obesity=>heart disease? Or is it just a nasty mishmash of regulation, insurance, and greedy pharmaceutical companies?

According to What is Driving US Healthcare Costs:

Half of all adults in the U.S. have at least one chronic disease, such as heart disease, cancer, and [type 2] diabetes. Twenty-five percent of adults in the U.S. have two or more chronic diseases. An aging population, lifestyle choices (like exercise and nutrition), and genetics contribute to the growing prevalence of chronic illnesses.

Chronic diseases contribute to rising healthcare costs because they are expensive to treat. Eighty-six percent of all healthcare spending is for patients with a chronic disease. Patients with three or more chronic diseases are likely to fall into the most expensive one percent of patients, accounting for 20 percent of healthcare expenditures. Many of these patients require high spending in every cost category – physician visits, hospital stays, prescription drugs, medical equipment use, and health insurance.

These are the diseases of Western Civilization, and they’re caused by sitting on your butt eating blog posts and eating Doritos all day instead of chasing down your dinner and killing it with your bare hands like a mighty caveman. Rar.

Luckily for us, unlike ALS, we know what causes them and how to prevent them. Unluckily for us, Doritos are really tasty.

But this also means that until we find some way to outlaw Doritos (or society collapses,) we’re going to keep spending more money treating Type-2 Diabetes and heart disease than on “curing” them.

I don’t see how “modernizing democracy” is going to put millions of people whose jobs have been automated back to work, though it might employ a few people to make websites.

As for education, you’d think Zuckerberg would have learned after throwing 100 MILLION DOLLARS at the Newark public schools and getting ZILCH–ZERO–NADA student improvement in return, but I guess not.

There’s this myth that students have “individual learning styles” and that if you could just figure out each student’s own special style and tailor the curriculum directly to them, they’d suddenly start learning.

In reality, this notion is idiotic. Learning is fundamental to our species; our brains do it automatically, all the time. Imagine a caveman who could only learn the location of a dangerous lion via pictograms sketched by other cavemen, rather than from someone shouting “Lion! Run!” Our brains are flexible and in the vast majority of cases will take in new information by whatever means they can.

But getting back to Zuck:

These achievements are within our reach. Let’s do them all in a way that gives everyone in our society a role. Let’s do big things, not only to create progress, but to create purpose.

So taking on big meaningful projects is the first thing we can do to create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.

Overall, I think Zuckerberg has identified an important problem: the robot economy is replacing human workers, leaving people without a sense of purpose in their lives (or jobs.) Some of his proposed solutions, like “employ people in solar panel industry,” might work, but others, like “vote online,” miss the mark completely.

Unfortunately, this is a really hard problem to solve. (Potential solutions: Universal Basic Income so we don’t all starve to death when the robots automate everything, or just let 90% of the population starve to death because they’ve become economically irrelevant. Chose your future wisely.)

Back to Zuck:

The second is redefining equality to give everyone the freedom they need to pursue purpose.

Many of our parents had stable jobs throughout their careers. Now we’re all entrepreneurial, whether we’re starting projects or finding or role. And that’s great. Our culture of entrepreneurship is how we create so much progress.

Now, an entrepreneurial culture thrives when it’s easy to try lots of new ideas. Facebook wasn’t the first thing I built. I also built games, chat systems, study tools and music players. I’m not alone. JK Rowling got rejected 12 times before publishing Harry Potter. Even Beyonce had to make hundreds of songs to get Halo. The greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail.

12? Is that it? I’ve got about a hundred rejections.

Actually, those 12 were from publishers after J.K. Rowling landed an agent, so that doesn’t tell you the full number of rejections she received trying to get that agent. 12 rejections from publishers sounds pretty par for the course–if not better than average. Publishing is an incredibly difficult world for new authors to break into.

But today, we have a level of wealth inequality that hurts everyone. When you don’t have the freedom to take your idea and turn it into a historic enterprise, we all lose. Right now our society is way over-indexed on rewarding success and we don’t do nearly enough to make it easy for everyone to take lots of shots.

Let’s face it. There is something wrong with our system when I can leave here and make billions of dollars in 10 years while millions of students can’t afford to pay off their loans, let alone start a business.

Look, I know a lot of entrepreneurs, and I don’t know a single person who gave up on starting a business because they might not make enough money. But I know lots of people who haven’t pursued dreams because they didn’t have a cushion to fall back on if they failed.

We all know we don’t succeed just by having a good idea or working hard. We succeed by being lucky too. If I had to support my family growing up instead of having time to code, if I didn’t know I’d be fine if Facebook didn’t work out, I wouldn’t be standing here today. If we’re honest, we all know how much luck we’ve had.

Every generation expands its definition of equality. Previous generations fought for the vote and civil rights. They had the New Deal and Great Society. Now it’s our time to define a new social contract for our generation.

We should have a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like GDP, but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful. We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things.

Called it. Is Zuck going to run on the full communism ticket?

We’re going to change jobs many times, so we need affordable childcare to get to work and healthcare that aren’t tied to one company. We’re all going to make mistakes, so we need a society that focuses less on locking us up or stigmatizing us. And as technology keeps changing, we need to focus more on continuous education throughout our lives.

Or… maybe we could work on making employment more stable and using UBI to let parents take care of their own children instead of treating them like consumer goods to be produced by the cheapest possible workers?

I’m kind of biased here because I went to daycare as a kid and hated it.

He’s correct on healthcare, though. It definitely shouldn’t be tied to employers.

Now, while I do think that we should actually take a good, hard look at our criminal justice system to make sure we aren’t locking up innocent people or giving completely unjust sentences, society doesn’t normally lock people up for “mistakes.” It locks them up for things like murder. Like the Newark schools, I fear this is an area where Zuckerberg really doesn’t understand what the actual problem is.

And yes, giving everyone the freedom to pursue purpose isn’t free. People like me should pay for it. Many of you will do well and you should too.

That’s why Priscilla and I started the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and committed our wealth to promoting equal opportunity. These are the values of our generation. It was never a question of if we were going to do this. The only question was when.

According to Wikipedia:

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is a limited liability company founded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan with an investment of “up to $1 billion in [Facebook] shares in each of the next three years”.[2][3][4] Its creation was announced on December 1, 2015, for the birth of their daughter, Maxima Chan Zuckerberg.[2]

The aim of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is to “advance human potential and promote equality in areas such as health, education, scientific research and energy”.[2]

Priscilla Chan’s Wikipedia page states, “On December 1, 2015, Chan and Zuckerberg posted an open Facebook letter to their newborn daughter. They pledged to donate 99% of their Facebook shares, then valued at $45 billion, to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which is their new charitable foundation that focuses on health and education.[3][12]

If I were there kid, I might be kind of pissed about my parents celebrating my birthday by giving away my inheritance.

Note, however, that:

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is not a charitable trust or a private foundation but a limited liability company which can be for-profit,[15][16] spend money on lobbying,[15][17] make political donations,[15][17][18] will not have to disclose its pay to its top five executives[17] and have fewer other transparency requirements, compared to a charitable trust.[15][16][17][18] Under this legal structure, as Forbes wrote it, “Zuckerberg will still control the Facebook shares owned by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative”.[17][18]

So maybe this whole “charity” thing is just window-dressing. BTW, one of CZI’s projects is Andela:

Andela is a global engineering organization that extends engineering teams with world-class software developers. The company recruits the most talented developers on the African continent, shapes them into technical leaders, and places them as full-time distributed team members with companies that range from Microsoft and IBM to dozens of high-growth startups. Backed by Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, GV (Google Ventures) and Spark Capital, Andela is building the next generation of global technology leaders. Andela has offices in Lagos, Nairobi, Kampala and New York.

So Zuck’s going to solve the problem of people dying of hopelessness after losing their jobs to automation by training and importing third worlders to replace more jobs. (Meanwhile, they’re skimming the most talented people out of the third world, leaving countries there with even less human capital.)

But back to the speech:

Millennials are already one of the most charitable generations in history. In one year, three of four US millennials made a donation and seven out of ten raised money for charity.

I’m going to call bullshit on this, mostly because charitable giving correlates with age, not moving around too much, and most importantly, religiosity. The nation’s most charitable state is Utah, followed closely by the Southern states. The least charitable states are in New England, which is highly atheist, and whose lower classes are notably clannish:

“It Was Like a War Zone”: Busing in Boston:

Southie was ground zero for anti-busing rage. Hundreds of white demonstrators — children and their parents — pelted a caravan of 20 school buses carrying students from nearly all-black Roxbury to all-white South Boston. The police wore riot gear.

“I remember riding the buses to protect the kids going up to South Boston High School,” Jean McGuire, who was a bus safety monitor, recalled recently. “And the bricks through the window. …

From the start of busing, police at South Boston High outnumbered students. Yet the violence continued. Then-Mayor Kevin White, making a rare TV appeal, declared a curfew and banned crowds near the school, but said there was only so much he could do to protect students and enforce the federal mandate. …

Law enforcement tactics toughened, and what had started out as an anti-busing problem soon included anti-police sentiment. Many of the police officers were Irish from Southie.

“I had never seen that kind of anger in my life. It was so ugly,” said patrolman Francis Mickey Roache (South Boston High Class of 1954), who was on duty at the school that first day of desegregation, when protesters turned on him.

“These are women, and people who were probably my mother’s age, and they were just screaming, ‘Mickey, you gotta quit, you gotta quit!’ They picked me out because they knew me. I was a South Boston boy, I grew up in Southie,” he remembered. …

A group of whites in South Boston brutally beat a Haitian resident of Roxbury who had driven into their neighborhood. A month later some black students stabbed a white student at South Boston High. The school was shut down for a month.

Then-Gov. Francis Sargent put the National Guard on alert. State police were called in and would remain on duty on the streets of South Boston for the next three years.

Maybe they should have sent the black kids to Zuckerberg’s school instead of the Irish schools.

Millenials do give to charity on the internet, however, as entrepreneur.com notes:

Millennials frequently get berated for supposedly being selfish and not generous. Despite being the largest U.S. demographic by age, the generation of 18-to-34 year-olds donates less and volunteers less for charitable causes than any other age group.

But maybe it depends where you’re looking.

Millennials are the driving force behind a movement that is rapidly disrupting the $241 billion market in the U.S. alone for charitable giving. Crowdfunding is no longer just for indie film projects and iPhone accessories. The segment for personal appeals such as medical expenses, memorials, adoptions and disaster relief is soaring–an estimated $3 billion in 2014, according to research firm Massolution.

Just for the record, I detest the term “Millenials.” But let’s get back to Zuck:

Purpose doesn’t only come from work. The third way we can create a sense of purpose for everyone is by building community. And when our generation says “everyone”, we mean everyone in the world.

OKAY FULL COMMUNISM.

Quick show of hands: how many of you are from another country? Now, how many of you are friends with one of these folks? Now we’re talking. We have grown up connected.

In a survey asking millennials around the world what defines our identity, the most popular answer wasn’t nationality, religion or ethnicity, it was “citizen of the world”. That’s a big deal.

Here’s a little challenge. Why don’t you go live in China, and when they ask to see your passport, just loudly proclaim that you’re a “citizen of the world” and therefore don’t need a visa to be there? (No, not as Zuckerberg, the man with 63 billion dollars, but as a just a common millenial.)

Then move to Afghanistan and let the local warlords know that you’re a “citizen of the world” and going to live in their village, now, and would they please respect your religious and gender identities?

Try moving to Japan, North Korea, Bhutan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Mexico, or any other nation, buying land, voting in local elections (if they have them,) and hanging out with your new neighbors.

Let me know how that works out.

Every generation expands the circle of people we consider “one of us”. For us, it now encompasses the entire world.

Zuck, have you even asked the people of Nigeria if they consider you “one of them”? You don’t speak their language. You don’t share their values (otherwise you’d have a lot more children.) You probably haven’t even spent a day of your life hanging out with your Nigerian friend in a poor neighborhood in Lagos.

I understand the naivety of a well-meaning young person who just wants to be friends with everyone, but adults understand that not everyone wants to be friends with them. Just because you like the pleasant idea of having a few friends from other countries does not mean that you are actually part of those cultures, nor that the people from those places actually want to you there.

We understand the great arc of human history bends towards people coming together in ever greater numbers — from tribes to cities to nations — to achieve things we couldn’t on our own.

How did that work out when the German city states united into one country?

We get that our greatest opportunities are now global — we can be the generation that ends poverty, that ends disease. We get that our greatest challenges need global responses too — no country can fight climate change alone or prevent pandemics. Progress now requires coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.

But we live in an unstable time. There are people left behind by globalization across the world. It’s hard to care about people in other places if we don’t feel good about our lives here at home. There’s pressure to turn inwards.

Related:

This is the struggle of our time. The forces of freedom, openness and global community against the forces of authoritarianism, isolationism and nationalism. Forces for the flow of knowledge, trade and immigration against those who would slow them down.

Because we all know that Japan, one of the few nations that is actually dealing reasonably well with robotification by not adding more laborers to a shrinking market, is horribly un-free.

Trump supporter beaten bloody by “ideas”

This is not a battle of nations, it’s a battle of ideas. There are people in every country for global connection and good people against it.

This isn’t going to be decided at the UN either. It’s going to happen at the local level, when enough of us feel a sense of purpose and stability in our own lives that we can open up and start caring about everyone. The best way to do that is to start building local communities right now.

We all get meaning from our communities. Whether our communities are houses or sports teams, churches or music groups, they give us that sense we are part of something bigger, that we are not alone; they give us the strength to expand our horizons.

That’s why it’s so striking that for decades, membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one-quarter. That’s a lot of people who now need to find purpose somewhere else.

But I know we can rebuild our communities and start new ones because many of you already are.

Interestingly, Zuckerberg is citing data from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. From the Amazon blurb:

Drawing on vast new data that reveal Americans’ changing behavior, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from one another and how social structures—whether they be PTA, church, or political parties—have disintegrated. Until the publication of this groundbreaking work, no one had so deftly diagnosed the harm that these broken bonds have wreaked on our physical and civic health, nor had anyone exalted their fundamental power in creating a society that is happy, healthy, and safe.

Bowling Alone attributes these changes to a variety of causes, including TV and declining religiosity, but Putnam’s Wikipedia page notes:

In recent years, Putnam has been engaged in a comprehensive study of the relationship between trust within communities and their ethnic diversity. His conclusion based on over 40 cases and 30,000 people within the United States is that, other things being equal, more diversity in a community is associated with less trust both between and within ethnic groups. Although limited to American data, it puts into question both the contact hypothesis and conflict theory in inter-ethnic relations. According to conflict theory, distrust between the ethnic groups will rise with diversity, but not within a group. In contrast, contact theory proposes that distrust will decline as members of different ethnic groups get to know and interact with each other. Putnam describes people of all races, sex, socioeconomic statuses, and ages as “hunkering down,” avoiding engagement with their local community—both among different ethnic groups and within their own ethnic group. Even when controlling for income inequality and crime rates, two factors which conflict theory states should be the prime causal factors in declining inter-ethnic group trust, more diversity is still associated with less communal trust.

Lowered trust in areas with high diversity is also associated with:

  • Lower confidence in local government, local leaders and the local news media.
  • Lower political efficacy – that is, confidence in one’s own influence.
  • Lower frequency of registering to vote, but more interest and knowledge about politics and more participation in protest marches and social reform groups.
  • Higher political advocacy, but lower expectations that it will bring about a desirable result.
  • Less expectation that others will cooperate to solve dilemmas of collective action (e.g., voluntary conservation to ease a water or energy shortage).
  • Less likelihood of working on a community project.
  • Less likelihood of giving to charity or volunteering.
  • Fewer close friends and confidants.
  • Less happiness and lower perceived quality of life.
  • More time spent watching television and more agreement that “television is my most important form of entertainment”.
Alexander Wienberger, Holodomor

Perhaps it is a sign of how far our communities have degenerated that today’s young adults imagine themselves to be as connected to people in China and Nigeria as with their own neighbors.

Zuckerberg’s not dumb, but I suspect he has spent his entire life ensconced in a very expensive cocoon filled with people who are basically like him, from his highschool, Phillips Exeter, to Harvard and Silicon Valley. Strip him of his 63 billion dollars and send him to a normal school, and Zuck’s just another unattractive dweeb whom women wouldn’t date and jocks would shove into lockers.

Communism starts with well-meaning idiots who want to help everyone and ends with gulags and mass graves.

 

That said, I think it’d be interesting to give Zuckerberg a chance to put his ideas into practice. Why not take his 63 billion and buy his own island, sign a semi-autonomy deal with whatever country’s jurisdiction it’s under, (probably in exchange for taxes,) and set up Zucktopia? He can let in whomever he wants–Africa’s top coders, Syrian refugees, Chinese gameshow hosts–start his own scientific and medical research institutions, and try to build a functional society from the ground up. If any of his ideas are terrible, he’ll probably figure that out quite quickly. If they’re good, he can turn his island into a purpose-driven economic powerhouse.

I don’t think Zuck has a good shot at the presidency just because he’s dorky and Americans hate dorks, but I didn’t predict Trump’s victory, either.