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?

Navigation and the Wealth of Nations

Global Determinants of Navigational Ability, by Coutrot et al:

Using a mobile-based virtual reality navigation task, we measured spatial navigation ability in more than 2.5 million people globally. Using a clustering approach, we find that navigation ability is not smoothly distributed globally but clustered into five distinct yet geographically related groups of countries. Furthermore, the economic wealth of a nation (Gross Domestic Product per capita) was predictive of the average navigation ability of its inhabitants and gender inequality (Gender Gap Index) was predictive of the size of performance difference between males and females. Thus, cognitive abilities, at least for spatial navigation, are clustered according to economic wealth and gender inequalities globally.

This is an incredible study. They got 2.5 million people from all over the world to participate.

If you’ve been following any of the myriad debates about intelligence, IQ, and education, you’re probably familiar with the concept of “multiple intelligences” and the fact that there’s rather little evidence that people actually have “different intelligences” that operate separately from each other. In general, it looks like people who have brains that are good at working out how to do one kind of task tend to be good at working out other sorts of tasks.

I’ve long held navigational ability as a possible exception to this: perhaps people in, say, Polynesian societies depended historically far more on navigational abilities than the rest of us, even though math and literacy were nearly absent.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the authors got enough samples from Polynesia to include it in the study, but they did get data from Indonesia and the Philippines, which I’ll return to in a moment.

Frankly, I don’t see what the authors mean by “five distinct yet geographically related groups of countries.” South Korea is ranked between the UK and Belgium; Russia is next to Malaysia; Indonesia is next to Portugal and Hungary.

GDP per capita appears to be a stronger predictor than geography:

Some people will say these results merely reflect experience playing video games–people in wealthier countries have probably spent more time and money on computers and games. But assuming that the people who are participating in the study in the first place are people who have access to smartphones, computers, video games, etc., the results are not good for the multiple-intelligences hypothesis.

In the GDP per Capita vs. Conditional Modes (ie how well a nation scored overall, with low scores better than high scores) graph, countries above the trend line are under-performing relative to their GDPs, and countries below the line are over-performing relative to their GDPs.

South Africa, for example, significantly over-performs relative to its GDP, probably due to sampling bias: white South Africans with smartphones and computers were probably more likely to participate in the study than the nation’s 90% black population, but the GDP reflects the entire population. Finland and New Zealand are also under-performing economically, perhaps because Finland is really cold and NZ is isolated.

On the other side of the line, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Greece over-perform relative to GDP. Two of these are oil states that would be much poorer if not for geographic chance, and as far as I can tell, the whole Greek economy is being propped up by German loans. (There is also evidence that Greek IQ is falling, though this may be a near universal problem in developed nations.)

Three other nations stand out in the “scoring better than GDP predicts” category: Ukraine, (which suffered under Communism–Communism seems to do bad things to countries,) Indonesia and the Philippines. While we could be looking at selection bias similar to South Africa, these are island nations in which navigational ability surely had some historical effect on people’s ability to survive.

Indonesia and the Philippines still didn’t do as well as first-world nations like Norway and Canada, but they outperformed other nations with similar GDPs like Egypt, India, and Macedonia. This is the best evidence I know of for independent selection for navigational ability in some populations.

The study’s other interesting findings were that women performed consistently worse than men, both across countries and age groups (except for the post-90 cohort, but that might just be an error in the data.) Navigational ability declines steeply for everyone post-23 years old until about 75 years; the authors suggest the subsequent increase in abilities post-70s might be sampling error due to old people who are good at video games being disproportionately likely to seek out video game related challenges.

The authors note that people who drive more (eg, the US and Canada) might do better on navigational tasks than people who use public transportation more (eg, Europeans) but also that Finno-Scandians are among the world’s best navigators despite heavy use of public transport in those countries. The authors write:

We speculate that this specificity may be linked to Nordic countries sharing a culture of participating in a sport related to navigation: orienteering. Invented as an official sport in the late 19th century in Sweden, the first orienteering competition open to the public was held in Norway in 1897. Since then, it has been more popular in Nordic countries than anywhere else in the world, and is taught in many schools [26]. We found that ‘orienteering world championship’ country results significantly correlated with countries’ CM (Pearson’s correlation ρ = .55, p = .01), even after correcting for GDP per capita (see Extended Data Fig. 15). Future targeted research will be required to evaluate the impact of cultural activities on navigation skill.

I suggest a different causal relationship: people make hobbies out of things they’re already good at and enjoy doing, rather than things they’re bad at.

 

 

Please note that the study doesn’t look at a big chunk of countries, like most of Africa. Being at the bottom in navigational abilities in this study by no means indicates that a country is at the bottom globally–given the trends already present in the data, it is likely that the poorer countries that weren’t included in the study would do even worse.

IQ vs. Per Capita GDP by State (US)

I made you some more graphs.

IQvsGDP

I was originally going to use La Griffe du Lion’s Smart Fraction Theory to calculate this, but then I discovered that it doesn’t make any practical difference, so went with the simpler metric of IQ.

We have a correlation, but it’s not huge. There are a few states that seem like obvious outliers–the two states with the highest GDP per cap were Alaska (oil) and Delaware (tax haven of some sort.) Among under-performers, I speculate that Maine is being held back by geography (it’s really cold.) California has a low average IQ, but an abnormally wide IQ range, due to the presence of Stanford and Silicon Valley and the like, while West Virginia may have the opposite problem of an unusually narrow IQ range (it also has the problem of being in the mountains.) In these two cases, if I could actually calculate the smart fraction instead of using Griffe’s assumption of Gaussian distribution around the average, I’d probably get a more accurate result.

I decided to try running the regression again without the states with obvious external factors–California, Hawaii, Nevada, Alaska, West Virginia, Delaware, Maine, and Vermont–like tourism, climate, gambling, or oil. I did not eliminate outliers that did not have (potentially) clear reasons for their under- or over- performance (for example, I have no idea why Idaho should do worse than Wyoming. I also left in Louisiana, whose over-performance may be due to having a significant port and/or tourism.)

IQvsGDPsansOutliers

Potential conclusions:

  1. Random chance matters. An oil boom in your area, nice beaches, or a long, harsh winter can push a state (or country) into wealth or poverty.
  2. I suspect that redistribution strategies (ie, welfare) prevent states from dropping below a certain level, hence the near-flat line around $32,000. (Outliers at Mississippi and W. Virginia.)
  3. All else held equal, IQ matters.

Sources: Wikipedia, List of US States by GDP Per Capita; List of Average IQ by State (I found these same numbers elsewhere, so I suspect they’re reliable.)

South Africa, Democracy, and the dangers of Demographics (pt. 2)

See part 1 here.

So how have the 20 yeas since apartheid ended benefited South Africa?

Certainly it has benefited some people. Many black, Indian, or mixed-race people who were shut out of the economic system, land holding, etc., have become wealthy or at least middle class:

1994 = end of apartheid
1994 = end of apartheid

On the other hand, rising GDP looks like it’s more of a global trend than a specifically SA one.

Tim Stanley, of The Telegraph, weighs in on the “Things have gotten better” side:

“South Africa has held four free national elections – a massive achievement in a country of 53 million people. There are now fair courts and civil rights. Yes, there is corruption and current President Jacob Zuma is often accused of it. But there is also a free press and oversight. As a result, South Africa has fallen from the 38th most corrupt country in 2001 to the 72nd today. And in the 2013 election, there were signs of the emergence of pluralism thanks to a cross-racial democratic alliance headed by Helen Zille, premier of the Western Cape. …

“the economy has doubled in real terms and South Africa is now the economic super power of the region. Not only is this proof that an African economy can be run efficiently as part of the global community but it’s also a model that many other countries are following – with enormous success. With booms in minerals and telecommunications, African capitalism is in the ascendant. …

“But crime was always high under Apartheid – it’s just that a media blackout meant that it went unreported. Drugs, drink and gangs were common in the shanties, the product of decades of brutal marginalisation. This historic legacy combined with failed expectations after the end of Apartheid to produce an explosion of violence that exposed the white community, for the first time, to serious crime.” (emphasis added)

According to NPR, Desmond Tutu is more ambivalent:

“‘I didn’t think there would be a disillusionment so soon. I’m glad that (Nelson Mandela) is dead. I’m glad that most of these people are no longer alive to see this,’ a reference to a host of chronic problems such as corruption and poverty.”

WND (World Net Daily?) an organization whose credibility I don’t know, claims that South Africa is in free fall. By contrast, the BBC claims that South Africa has been almost incomparably successful since the end of apartheid. The Economist, though, is less cheerful, “Sad South Africa: South Africa is sliding downhill while much of the rest of the continent is clawing its way up,” arguing that South Africa has seen less economic growth than the rest of the African continent since the end of apartheid, and so is effectively under-performing. And in Business Tech, University of Witwatersrand Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib says that, “South Africa is unraveling– and no one seems to care.” (Since he is actually from SA, I trust his opinion a little more than the others.)

SA’s overall Human Development Index score has fallen since apartheid ended in 1994:

Source

mayjun04-fig

And here’s life expectancy:

1994 = end of apartheid
1994 = end of apartheid

Many people attribute the collapse in life expectancy in SA to AIDS, but statistically, the only way that many people are catching AIDS is if the vast majority of people in SA are having unprotected sex with hundreds of other people, which is both incredibly stupid and incredibly easy not to do, so yes, I lay full blame for declining life expectancies on the people engaged in life-shortening behaviors and the government that has failed to stop the epidemic ravaging its own people.

Obviously the crime rate is through the roof.

Picture 11

Graph is labeled incorrectly since apartheid ended in 1994, but you can still see the general trend. Violent-crimes2

Violent-crimes Robbery-with-aggravating-circumstances1

source: Africa Check
source: Africa Check

SA has one of the world’s highest murder rates (at least outside of Latin America,) one of if not the highest rape rate, and I hear it has the world’s highest rate of infant rape.

I have heard that there is a myth in South Africa that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS, so often when a man discovers that he has AIDS, he goes and pays a local family for the right to have sex with one of their daughters. If the AIDS doesn’t clear up, then obviously the daughter wasn’t a virgin, and the family is compelled to offer up someone younger, more likely to be a virgin. If the youngest daughter happens to be a baby, then the youngest daughter happens to be a baby. This process continues until the AIDS goes away or you run out of daughters.

Source: Human Science Research Council
Source: Human Science Research Council

In my research, I have talked to people who live in South Africa and love it there, and people who live in South Africa and are terrified. I have read posts claiming that South Africa is thriving and on the upswing, and posts claiming that the whole place is a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

And I’ve seen a lot of pictures of burned out, broken, boarded-up buildings and trash:

cnr_rockey_bezuidenhout southstreet bezuidenhout_lookingtorockey yeoville_house streetscene_yeoville

These are photos taken and uploaded by “The Real Realist” during a drive through Yeoburg, formerly one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Johannesburg. Now it is decayed, broken, boarded up, and overflowing with trash.

In other words, it looks like Detroit.

But maybe it always looked like that. Here are pictures Real Realist took of the Johannesburg Jewish Museum:

Jewish Museum of Johannasburg

Jewish Museum of Johannasburg
I bet it didn’t look like that back when it was a museum.

There are hundreds more such photos and stories. Go and look for yourself.

Some more perspectives:

(Pay attention especially around 42 minutes in)

I find this interesting because I first heard about something like this in a Reddit thread I ran across while looking for photos of South Africa. I can’t even find the thread, now, but someone in it described a phenomenon whereby a occupied business building (occupied by people doing business, I mean) would suddenly be invaded by hundreds of people (and their chickens) who had suddenly decided to live there. This of course made it difficult to do business anymore, so all of the business people had to relocate elsewhere. Meanwhile, the squatters, not knowing exactly how the buildings worked, would throw their trash and excrement into the elevator shafts. When the shafts filled up, the people moved on.

The only way to get rid of these squatters was by hiring small armies of men (the police will not do it,) to physically remove them in the middle of the night (being asleep makes it difficult to fight back,) and then the building gets surrounded by barbed wire and crews have to come in to thoroughly clean it before it can become an office building or anything else again.

I wrote this off as “unverifiable rumor” until I found this Christian Science Monitor Slideshow (see #15) with a photo of one of the men tasked with cleaning out these hijacked buildings:

Picture 1

Let’s talk demographics:

Population density map of South Africa (from Wikipedia)
Population density map of South Africa (from Wikipedia)

According to Wikipedia, when the Brits arrived in SA, the Cape colony had roughly 25,000 slaves, 20,000 white colonists, 15,000 Khoisan, and 1,000 freed black slaves. However, that data is marked, “citation needed.” If we trust it, though, whites were, at the time, roughly 1/3 (33%) of the population.

Source: The Economist
Source: The Economist

If we squint, it looks like whites were just over 1/6th of the population in 1910–probably around 20%. By 1990, they had fallen to about 11%. Today, they’re at 9%.

What happens when you become a tiny minority in the country your ancestors built?

You lose it.

There is no practical way for 9% of the population in a “democratic” country to control the other 91%.

Love it or hate it, a country belongs to the people in it.

Yes, the whites saw this coming. They knew the demographics. They were even trying to encourage family planning, which was moderately successful:

Source: South African Regional Policy Network
Source: South African Regional Policy Network

Sorry, Boers. (And Brits.) You ran into a 3,000 year old unstoppable Bantu migration wave and lost. Your buildings will be burned and looted, the wealth your ancestors created, murdered for and died for will be taken by people who have no idea how to maintain it, and your entire country will crumble away. A few of you remain, in walled-off communities supplied by private roads, electricity, water, and police. If you don’t get killed, well, you might have a pretty good life.

One of the things I’ve found interesting about the Boers, during all this research, is how much they remind me of a lot of the NRx/alt-right/Moldbuggian types. The Cape Colony began, after all, as a corporation, founded by the Dutch East India Company. When the British took over the Cape, many of the Dutch, rather than deal with someone telling them what to do, decided to take the exit option and go found a new state. This was no trivial undertaking, and required (among other things,) militarily defeating the Zulus, starting a new country from scratch in the middle of nowhere, and fighting off the British.

They eventually failed because they were numerically overwhelmed by the British, both migrants they had allowed into their country and troops sent from abroad. Exit is useless if you do not or cannot secure your own territory.

There’s a fail state to democracy, which Malema so succinctly identified: long term, you don’t need to wage a war to take over a democratic country. You just have to out-breed your opposition.

Given a finite planet, (which we have,) breeding wars can only end in catastrophe. But the other option–not playing–means losing your country.

Could you get around this by simply not being a democracy? Saudi Arabia doesn’t let women vote, but I don’t see anyone putting pressure on them to change their ways. Singapore also manages to be a pretty decent place, (though it is tiny,) due to what looks like good management. Bring back the old Dutch East India Company. Let those who buy stock be shareholders; let the company buy what it can and manage it for the sake of its owners.

Conclusion: only let people into your country whom you like and would hypothetically be willing to marry and have kids with. Keeping a large population of subjugated people is impractical and cruel. If you don’t want them to be equals, give them their own country to do with as they please.

With a leadership that looks toward Zimbabwe as a model, I expect South Africa to look ever more like Zimbabwe.

images

But hey, the Afrikaners were racists.