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.

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.

A Bit of Dissent on rational actors and organizations

Anthropologists and economists often try to figure out why large-scale systems (tribes, corporations, societies, etc.) operate the way they do. Why does this tribe have polygamy and that tribe polyandry? Why do these people tattoo themselves all over and those people abhor tattoos? What is “business casual” and why do I have to wear it? Why are we at war with Eastasia?

The general presumption is that even when societies do things look irrational, they have some hidden logic that actually makes them good or adaptive–we just have to figure out what it is.

Here’s an example:

Here are researchers asking if people get complicated all-over body tattoos because it’s an “honest signal” of enhanced immune response? (IMO, this is a silly idea, but rather than go off on a tangent I’ll save the longer discussion for the end of the post.)

By contrast, we fully admit that individual behavior is often wrong, irrational, stupid, or outright crazy. Individuals make mistakes. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. We all make mistakes.

So when people do things that don’t make much sense, we are quick to write them off:  people are dumb. They do dumb shit.

I would like to offer a dissenting view. I think people are, most of the time, reasonably intelligent and competent. They make mistakes, but if you look at how we have evolved and learned to think and react to the world, most of our mistakes make a kind of sense–they’re often just misplaced heuristics.

By contrast, the collective behavior of groups and organizations is often irrational and stupid, and the only thing that keeps them going is either humans inside doing their best despite their organizations, or society having been constructed in such a way that it is extremely difficult to get people to stop doing stupid things.

Let’s take war. Most people say they are opposed to war, or they don’t like war, or they prefer peace. Many people say that world peace is an admirable goal. Most people who’ve thought at all about WWI say it was a dumb and pointless war. Many wars look dumb and pointless.

Ask people whose countries are actually involved in a war, and many of them, perhaps most, will assert that they want peace (it’s just those bastards on the other side who are making it difficult).

If everyone wants peace, why do we have wars?

Because “it’s complicated.”

Systems are complicated and it can be very hard for people, even well-meaning ones who mostly agree on what ought to be done, to reign them in and pull an entire society away from the brink. It is obvious to anyone who has ever seen a machine gun that walking toward one is a bad idea, yet the commanders in WWI kept ordering wave after wave of men to charge the guns; tens of thousands of men were mowed down every day during the Battle of the Somme. This went on for months. Over a million people died, and in the end the Allies gained a whole 6 miles of territory. The battle didn’t stop because the commanders wised up to the stupidity of charging at machine guns, but because the weather was too cold to continue.

It sickens me just thinking about it.

And then everyone decided that WWI was such a riot, they should hold a sequel!

In sum, humans are usually competent enough to run their own lives and only occasionally need interventions by their friends and families. After all, most of us are descended from people who were competent enough to make it to adulthood and find a partner willing to reproduce with them, so at least we have that going for us, genetically.

By contrast, organizations go awry all the time. Anyone who has been to the DMV (or worse, the VA) probably has stories to tell. Societies do lots of good things, like get food from farms to the supermarket, where I can buy it, and it makes sure I have electricity and heat so I can cook my foot, but societies also do lots of stupid things, like invade Iraq. 

Stupid systems are a much bigger problem than stupid individuals. Stupid are usually only a danger to themselves. Even the most successful terrorists (that I know of) have only killed a few thousand people. Stupid systems, by contrast, can kill millions of people.

From an anthropology perspective, the implication is that sometimes when we see societies doing things that don’t make sense, maybe they actually don’t make sense. Not because the people involved are necessarily stupid, but because groups can get stuck in stupid ruts.

 

Tattooing: the article would be sounder if the authors just said that tattooing appears to be protective against disease. It doesn’t need to signal anything; if it keeps people alive in a rough environment, that alone is enough to make the behavior persist.

Interestingly, here’s a guy’s story of dealing with eczema his whole life, then getting a tattoo and the eczema clearing up:

At 23, I eventually got my right arm tattooed—a glorious, multicolored, three-quarter-length traditional Japanese piece composed predominantly of geishas and flowers. …

After it was done, my eczema did start to clear up — not just on the skin that was tattooed, but everywhere. That led me to believe that it would have improved anyway as I got older. I had such a positive experience, I got the other arm done a couple years later. So, yeah, fuck eczema.

Maybe the tattoo did have an effect on his immune system.

But there are plenty of places outside of Polynesia where people also face high disease burdens, but don’t have massive, body-spanning tattoos. Most of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has high rates of disease and the locals have certainly heard of tattoos, but they haven’t adopted Maori style full-body decoration.

It’s hard to come up with a sensible answer for why some cultures adopted tattoos and some didn’t besides “they wanted to.”

(Note: I’m not calling tattooing stupid.)

 

 

People who cannot find a place for themselves in society have nothing to lose if society burns

Detroit Abandoned Buildings
Detroit

I have I’m trying to write, but words aren’t flowing. Still, it’s a general fact: you preserve what’s yours; you love what’s yours.

When you don’t feel part of society, it stops mattering to you whether society burns. You know the principle: not my circus = not my monkeys.

Which means that you can’t half-ass community. Long term, you can’t have an underclass. You can’t have outcasts. You have to have community, and you can’t force it through some idiotic top-down “team building” exercise, because dammit, that will just make people hate each other even more. Community has to be a real thing that real people actually enjoy being part of, or they will, at best, let it fall apart; at worst they burn it down with you in it.

The Detroit riot of 1967 left 43 dead and 2,000 buildings destroyed; Detroit has yet to recover.

Xenophobia” is apparently the fancy new word people are using for old-fashioned racism in South Africa:

Prior to 1994, immigrants from elsewhere faced discrimination and even violence in South Africa. After majority rule in 1994, contrary to expectations, the incidence of xenophobia increased.[1] Between 2000 and March 2008, at least 67 people died in what were identified as xenophobic attacks. In May 2008, a series of attacks left 62 people dead; although 21 of those killed were South African citizens. The attacks were motivated by xenophobia.[2] In 2015, another nationwide spike in xenophobic attacks against immigrants in general prompted a number of foreign governments to begin repatriating their citizens.[3] A Pew Research poll conducted in 2018 showed that 62% of South Africans viewed immigrants as a burden on society by taking jobs and social benefits and that 61% of South Africans thought that immigrants were more responsible for crime than other groups.[4] Between 2010 and 2017 the immigrant community in South Africa increased from 2 million people to 4 million people.[4]

Why the hell did anyone think that majority rule by black people in South Africa would result in less racism? Is there something magical about voting that stops people from being racist? No, you idiots. (Not you, my gentle reader. I know you never thought such nonsense; you know that the media has reported on plenty of racist Americans voting in elections.)

According to a 2004 study published by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP):

“The ANC government – in its attempts to overcome the divides of the past and build new forms of social cohesion … embarked on an aggressive and inclusive nation-building project. One unanticipated by-product of this project has been a growth in intolerance towards outsiders … Violence against foreign citizens and African refugees has become increasingly common and communities are divided by hostility and suspicion.[7]  “

What, being aggressively pro-your-own-group leads to being aggressively anti-other-groups? Who could have figured that one out?

Reminder that Johannesburg used to be a first world city.

Meanwhile, Nigerian TV has some interesting segments. “Shrine” seems to be a euphemism for “human sacrifice cult”:

Maybe some of those South Africans are on to something?

— Oh jeebus, I just read about lobotomies. Changing course, guys:

 Freeman’s name gained popularity despite the widespread criticism of his methods following a lobotomy on President John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary Kennedy, which left her with severe mental and physical disability.[2] … Walter Freeman charged just $25 for each procedure that he performed.[8] After four decades Freeman had personally performed as many as 4,000[11][12][13] lobotomy surgeries in 23 states, of which 2,500 used his ice-pick procedure,[14] despite the fact that he had no formal surgical training.[2] … Up to 40% of Freeman’s patients were gay individuals subjected to a lobotomy in an attempt to change their homosexual orientation, leaving most of these perfectly healthy individuals severely disabled for the rest of their life.[15]… His patients often had to be retaught how to eat and use the bathroom. Relapses were common, some never recovered, and about 15%[16] died from the procedure. In 1951, one patient at Iowa’s Cherokee Mental Health Institute died when Freeman suddenly stopped for a photo during the procedure, and the surgical instrument accidentally penetrated too far into the patient’s brain.[17] Freeman wore neither gloves nor a mask during these procedures.[17] He lobotomized 19 minors including a 4-year-old child.[18]

“We went through the top of the head, I think Rosemary was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch.” The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. “We put an instrument inside”, he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman asked Rosemary some questions. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing “God Bless America” or count backward. “We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded.” When Rosemary began to become incoherent, they stopped.[23]It quickly became apparent that the procedure had not been successful. Kennedy’s mental capacity diminished to that of a two-year-old child. She could not walk or speak intelligibly and was incontinent.[24]”

This guy won a nobel prize in medicine.

I don’t trust doctors very much.

A few other random thoughts:

I have no opinion on the Hong Kong protests because I am not from HK or China and don’t speak Chinese and so don’t know enough to have an opinion. I do think, however, that there is a frequent–and understandable–impulse crave excitement that modern life cannot otherwise supply. We want to be heroes; we want to be like the people in games and movies.

Even in Minecraft, a game that starts with you digging dirt blocks with your bare hands, ends with you fighting a dragon. People want that dragon; they want to be heroes, and who cares if it involves burning down someone else’s house? Characters in movies never stop to consider whether their rampages are flipping innocent people’s cars or preventing normal people from getting to their jobs; these mundane considerations pale to nothing when there is an ENEMY to be conquered… but often enough that enemy is just an invention of our own boredom.

Antifa, too, want to play-act being important by killing the enemy. It’s the same impulse that leads normal people to play video games; normal people are just good at distinguishing between games and real life.

What’s to be done with the dumb?

Society seems split into two camps on the matter of intelligence. Side A believes that everyone is secretly smart, but for a variety of reasons (bad teachers, TV, racism, sexism, etc) their true intelligence isn’t showing. Side B believes that some people really are stupid, because they are bad people, and they therefore deserve to suffer.

Out in reality, however, there are plenty of good, decent people who, through no fault of their own, are not smart.

I’m not making my usual jest wherein I claim that about 75% people are morons. I am speaking of the bottom 40% or so of people who have no particular talents or aptitudes of use in the modern economy. For any job that isn’t pure manual labor, they will almost always be competing with candidates who are smarter, quicker, or better credentialed than they are. Life itself will constantly present them with confusing or impenetrable choices–and it will only get worse as they age.

The agricultural economy–which we lived in until 7 decades ago, more or less–could accommodate plenty of people of modest intellects so long as they were hard-working and honest. A family with a dull son or daughter could, if everyone liked each other, still find a way for them to contribute, and would help keep them warm and comfortable in turn.

When you own your own business, be it a farm or otherwise, you can employ a relative or two. When you are employed by someone else, you don’t have that option. Back in the early 1800s, about 80% of people were essentially self-employed or worked on family farms. Today, about 80% of people are employees, working for someone else.

Agriculture is now largely mechanized, and most of the other low-IQ jobs, whether in stores or factories, are headed the same direction. Self-driving cars may soon replace most of the demand for cabbies and truckers, while check-out kiosks automate retail sales. I wouldn’t be surprised to see whole restaurants that are essentially giant vending machines with tables, soon.

The hopeful version of this story says that for every job automated, a new one is created. The invention of the tractor and combine didn’t put people out of work; the freed-up agricultural workers moved to the city and started doing manufacturing jobs. Without automation in the countryside we couldn’t have had so many factories because there would have been no one to work them. Modern automation therefore won’t put people out of jobs, long-term, so much as enable them to work new jobs.

The less hopeful point of view says that we are quickly automating all of the jobs that dumb people can do, and that the new economy requires significantly more intelligence than the old. So, yes, there are new jobs–but dumb people can’t do them.

If the pessimistic view is correct, what options do we have? People are uncomfortable with just letting folks starve to death. We already have Welfare. This seems suboptimal, and people worry that many of those who receive it aren’t virtuously dumb, but crafty and lazy. Makework jobs are another option. If not awful, they can let people feel productive and like they’ve earned their income, but of course they can be awful, and someone else has to make sure the fake job doesn’t result in any real damage. (If they could work unsupervised, they wouldn’t need fake jobs.) Our economy already has a lot of fake jobs, created to make it look like we’re all busy adults doing important things and prevent the poor from burning down civilization.

People have been floating UBI (universal basic income) as another solution. Basically, all of the benefits of welfare without all of the complicated paperwork or the nagging feeling that some lazy bum is getting a better deal than you because everyone gets the exact same deal.

UBI would ideally be offset via an increase in sales taxes (since the money is initially likely to go directly to consumption) to avoid hyperinflation. This is where we get into “modern monetary theory,” which basically says (I think) that it doesn’t really matter whether the gov’t taxes and then spends or spends and then taxes so long as the numbers balance in the end. Of course, this is Yang’s big presidential idea. I think it’s a fascinating idea (I’ve been tossing it around but haven’t had a whole lot to say about it for about fifteen years) and would love to see the independent nation of California or Boston try it out first.

UBI doesn’t exactly solve the problem of the dumb–who still need help from other people to not get scammed by Nigerian princes–but it could simplify and thus streamline our current system, which is really quite unwieldy.

Thoughts?

What is “Society”?

In Sociobiology, E. O. Wilson defines a “population” as a group that (more or less) inter-breeds freely, while a “society” is a group that communicates. Out in nature, the borders of a society and a population are usually the same, but not always.

Modern communication has created a new, interesting human phenomenon–our “societies” no longer match our “populations.”

Two hundred years ago, news traveled only as fast as a horse (or a ship,) cameras didn’t exist, and newspapers/books were expensive. By necessity, people got most of their information from the other people around them. One hundred yeas ago, the telegraph had sped up communication, but photography was expensive, movies had barely been invented, and information still traveled slowly. News from the front lines during WWI arrived home well after the battles occurred–probably contributing significantly to the delay in realizing that military strategies were failing horrifically.

Today, the internet/TV/cheap printing/movies/etc are knitting nations into conversational blocks limited only by language (and even that is a small barrier, given the automation of pretty effective translation), but still separated by national borders. It’s fairly normal now to converse daily with people from three or four different countries, but never actually meet them. 

This is really new, really different, and kind of weird.

Since we can all talk to each other, people are increasingly, it seems, treating each other as one big society, despite the fact that we hail from different cultures and live under different governments. What happens in one country or to one group of people reverberates across the world. An American comforts a friend in Malaysia who is sick to her stomach because of a shooting in New Zealand. Both agree that the shooting actually had nothing to do with a popular Swedish YouTuber, despite the shooter enjoining his viewers (while livestreaming the event) to “subscribe to Pewdiepie.” Everything is, somehow, the fault of the American president, or maybe we should go back further, and blame the British colonists.

It’s been a rough day for a lot of people.

Such big “societies” are unwieldy. Many of us dislike each other. We certainly can’t control each other (not without extreme tactics), and no one likes feeling blamed for someone else’s actions. Yet we all want each other to behave better, to improve. How to improve is a tough question.

We also want to be treated well by each other, but how often do we encounter people who are simply awful?

The same forces that knit us together also split us apart–and what it means to be a society but not a population remains to be seen.

Learning in Numbers

There is strength in numbers, but is there wisdom?

I’ve heard from multiple sources the claim that parenting, paradoxically, gets easier after the fourth child. There are several simple explanations for this phenomenon: people get more skilled at parenting after lots of practice; the older kids start helping out with the younger ones, etc.

But what if the phenomenon rests on something much more basic about human psychology–our desire to imitate others?

(Perhaps you don’t, dear reader. There are always exceptions.)

As Aristotle put it, man is a political animal–by which he meant that we are inherently social and prone to building communities (polities) together, not that we are inherently prone to arguing about who should govern North Carolina, though that may be political, too. In Aristotle’s words, a man who lives entirely alone is either a beast (living like an animal) or a god (able to fulfill all of his own needs without recourse to other humans.) Normal humans depend in many ways on other humans.

Compared to our pathetic ability to learn math (just look at most people’s SAT-math scores) and inability to read without direct instruction, humans learn socially-imparted skills like the ability to speak multiple languages, play games, assert dominance over each other, which clothes are fashionable, and how to crack a socially-appropriate joke with ease.

Social learning comes so naturally to people that we only notice it in cases of extreme deficit–like autism–or when parents protest that their children are becoming horribly corrupted by their peers.

So perhaps households with more than 4 children have hit a threshold beyond which social learning takes over and the younger children simply seem to “absorb” knowledge from their older siblings instead of having to be explicitly taught.

Consider learning to eat, a hopefully simple task. We are born with instincts to nurse, put random things in our mouths, and swallow. Preventing babies from eating random non-food objects is a bit of a problem for new parents. But learning things like “how to get this squishy food into your mouth with a spoon without also getting it everywhere else in the room” is much more complicated–and humans take food rituals to much more complicated heights than strained peas and carrots.

Parents of new children put a great deal of effort into teaching them to eat (something that ought to be an instinct.) Those with means puree fresh veggies, chop bits of meat, show a sudden interest in organics, and sit down to spoon every single last bit into their infants’ mouths. It is as if they are convinced that kids cannot learn to eat without at least as much instruction as a student learning to wield a welding torch. (And based on my own experience, they’re probably right.)

By contrast, parents of multiple children have–by necessity–relaxed. As a popular comic once depicted (though I can’t find it now,) feeding at this point becomes throwing Cheerios at the highchair as you run by.

Yet I’ve never seen any evidence that the younger children in large families are likely to be malnourished–they seem to catch the Cheerios on the fly and do just fine.

What if imitation is a strong factor in larger families, allowing infants and young children to learn skills like “how to eat” without needing direct parental instruction just by watching their older siblings? You might object that even infants in single parent households could learn to eat by imitating their parents (and they probably do,) but having more people around probably enforces the behavior more strongly, and having younger children around gives an example that is much more similar to the infant. We adults are massive compared to children, after all.

If basic learning of life skills proceeds more easily in an environment with more peers,(for infants or adults,) then what effects should we expect from our current trend toward extreme atomization?

I recently came across an essay about life in a trailer park vs sturdier housing:

To me, growing up in that trailer park meant playing until dark with neighborhood kids, building tree houses and snow forts. Listening out my bedroom window for the sound of my dad’s pickup truck leaving for work in the early morning. Riding my bike down the big hill at the top of the lot, avoiding potholes and feeling safe because there wasn’t much traffic and if I fell and skinned my knee, someone would come out on their front porch and ask if I was okay.

Some of the only happy memories I have of my childhood were from that time in my life, before my parents were thrust into insurmountable debt, before my mother was hospitalized, before I had to go live with my grandmother. Nana had a real house. She didn’t live in a trailer. But when she would scream at me or try to attack me as I squeezed by her and fled upstairs, I wished I had neighbors close by to hear her — to believe me, and to perhaps even help.

The most dysfunctional and unstable years of my life were spent in a real house, with four walls and a slanted roof — where fences went up between the houses so that no one ever had to feel responsible for what went on behind their neighbor’s front door.

This is more about atomization than learning, but still interesting. Is it good for humans to be so far apart? To live far from relatives, in houses with thick walls, as single children or single adults, working and commuting every day among strangers?

Certainly the downsides of being among relatives are well-documented. Many tribal societies have downright cruel customs directed at relatives, like sati or adult circumcision. But that doesn’t mean that the extreme opposite–total atomization–is perfect. Atomization carries other risks. Among them, staying indoors and not socializing with our neighbors may cause us to lose some of our social knowledge, our ability to learn how to exist together.

We might expect that physical atomization due to technological change (sturdier houses, more entertaining TV, comfier climate control systems,) could cause symptoms in people similar to those caused by medical deficits in social learning, like autism. A recent study on the subject found an interesting variation between the brains of normies and autists:

So great was the difference between the two groups that the researchers could identify whether a brain was autistic or neurotypical in 33 out of 34 of the participants—that’s 97% accuracy—just by looking at a certain fMRI activation pattern. “There was an area associated with the representation of self that did not activate in people with autism,” Just says. “When they thought about hugging or adoring or persuading or hating, they thought about it like somebody watching a play or reading a dictionary definition. They didn’t think of it as it applied to them.” This suggests that in autism, the representation of the self is altered, which researchers have known for many years, Just says.

This might explain the high rates of body dysmorphias in autism. It might also explain the high rates in society.

I remember another study which I read ages ago which found that people basically thought about “God” in the same parts of their brain where they thought about themselves. This explains why God tends to have the same morals as His believers. If autists have trouble imagining themselves, then they may also have trouble imagining God–and this might explain rising atheism rates.

Even our rising autism rates, though probably driven primarily by shifts in diagnostic fads, might be influenced by shrinking families and greater atomization, as kids with borderline conditions might show more severe symptoms if they are also more isolated.

On the other hand, social media is allowing people to come together and behave socially in new and ever larger groups.

For all their weaknesses, autists are probably better at normies at certain kinds of tasks, like abstract reasoning where you don’t want to think too much about yourself. I have long suspected that normies balk at philosophical dilemmas such as the trolley problem because they over-empathize with the subjects. Imagining themselves as one of the victims of the runaway trolley causes them distress, and distress causes them to attack the person causing them distress–the philosopher.

And so the citizens of Athens condemned Socrates to death.

But just as people can overcome their natural and very sensible fear of heights in order to work on skyscrapers, perhaps they can train themselves not to empathize with the subjects of trolley problems. Spending time on problems with no human subjects (such as mathematics or engineering) may also help people practice ways of approaching problems that don’t immediately resort to imagining themselves as the subject. On the converse, perhaps a bit of atomization (as seen historically in countries like Britain and France, and recently AFAIK in Japan,) helps equip people to think about difficult, non-human related mathematical or engineering problems.

Thoughts?

Notes from E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology

 

a-giraffe-walks-behand-a-termite-mound-in-the-bushland-of-the-okavango-delta-in-botswana-1600x1066-1024x682
Termite Mound aka Termitary

I recently came across a copy of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (the textbook, 1977 edition) at the secondhand shop.

In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker gives about the best recommendation I can think of for Wilson’s book:

At Harvard there were leaflets and teach-ins, a protester with a bullhorn calling for Wilson’s dismissal, and invasions of his classroom by slogan-shouting students. When he spoke at other universities, posters called him the “Right-Wing-Prophet of Patriarchy” and urged people to bring noisemakers to his lectures. Wilson was about to speak at a 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science when a group of people carrying placards (one with a swastika) rushed onto the stage chanting, “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.” One protester grabbed the microphone and harangued the audience while another doused Wilson with a pitcher of water.

Pretty intense for a guy whose career is mostly about ants.

Since it is easier to remember what you have read if you take notes and then transcribe them, and this thing is 574 pages long, I’ll be transcribing some of my notes here as I go along.

The book gives lots of interesting examples of different concepts. For example, in the section on parasitism, there’s an example of a variety of termite that moves into and eats the nests of other termites, thus making a termite mound-in-a-mound, I suppose. To be fair, some termite mounds are about as big as a house and so this is a totally reasonable thing for termites to do.

Chapter 1: The morality of the Gene

Camus said that the only serious philosophical question is suicide.

That is wrong even in the strict sense intended. …

From now on, let’s use “” instead of blockquotes.

Chapter 2: Elementary Concepts

“Genes, like Leibnitz’s monads, have no windows; the higher properties of life are emergent. To specify an entire cell, we are compelled to provide not only the nucleotide sequences but also the identity and configuration of other kinds of molecules placed in and around the cells. To specify an organism requires still more information about both the properties of the cells and their spacial positions. And once assembled, organisms have no windows. A society can be described only as a set of particular organisms, and even then it is difficult to extrapolate the joint activity of this ensemble from the instant of specification, that is, to predict social behavior. …

“Society: a group of individuals belonging to the same species and organized in a cooperative manner. … Yet aggregation, sexual behavior, and territoriality are important properties of true societies, and they are correctly referred to as social behavior. … Since the bond of the society is simply and solely communication, its boundaries can be defined in terms of the curtailment of communication.”

EvX: I have been thinking for a long time about language as effective barriers of culture. Not that culture can’t cross language barriers (movies get dubbed all the time,) but it’s much harder. And since some languages are easier to learn than others, (eg, Finnish is harder than German if you speak English,) cross-language communication is probably easier between some groups than others. The Finns (and a few other European groups) speak non-Indo-European languages, which might make them more functionally isolated within the European context than, say, their neighbors in Sweden.

Back to Wilson:

“Individual: Any physically distinct organism… The distinction between the individual and the colony can be especially baffling in the sponges. … [Hah.]

“Population: A set of organisms belonging to the same species and occupying a clearly delimited area at the same time. This unit… is defined in terms of genetic continuity. In the case of sexually reproducing organisms, the population is a geographically delimited set of organisms capable of freely interbreeding with one another under natural conditions. …

“In sexually reproducing forms, including the vast majority of social organisms, a species is a population or set of populations within which the individuals are capable of freely interbreeding under natural conditions. By definition the members of the species do not interbreed freely with those of other species, however closely related they may be genetically. … In establishing the limits of a species it is not enough merely to prove that genes of two or more populations can be exchanged under experimental conditions. The population must be demonstrated to interbreed fully in the free state.”

[Example: Lions and Tigers can interbreed, yet even in places where their ranges historically overlapped, no one ever reported finding wild ligers or tigons. While they can interbreed in zoos, their behavior is different enough in the wild that it doesn’t happen.]

EvX: And here’s where people ask about Sapiens and Neanderthals. Yes, they interbred. But it looks like they didn’t interbreed much (while they bred plenty with their own,) and it also looks like there’s been a fair amount of selection against Neanderthal DNA in modern humans, winnowing down the genes passed on to us. For example, there’s pretty much no Neanderthal DNA on the Y chromosome, suggesting that any sons of Neanderthal-Sapiens unions were infertile (or didn’t make it at all.) There’s also no (known) Neanderthal mtDNA, suggesting that the matings that did happen involved Neanderthal men with Sapiens women–or if the opposite pairing happened, those children were brought into Neanderthal tribes. At any rate, the pattern is far from complete interfertility.

Back to Wilson:

“A population that differs significantly from other populations belonging to the same species is referred to as a geographic race or subspecies. Subspecies are separated from other subspecies by distance and geographic barriers that prevent the exchange of individuals, as opposed to the genetically based “intrinsic isolating mechanisms” that hold species apart. Subspecies, insofar as they can be distinguished with any objectivity at all, show every conceivable degree of differentiation from other subspecies. At one extreme are the populations that fall along a cline–a simple gradient in the geographic variation of a given character. In other words, a character that varies in a clinal pattern is one that changes gradually over a substantial portion of the entire range of the species. At the other extreme are subspecies consisting of easily distinguished populations that are differentiated from one another by numerous genetic traits and exchange genes across a narrow zone of intergradation.

The main obstacle in dealing with the population as a unit… is the practical difficulty of deciding the limits of particular populations.”

EvX: I would like to point out that humans made up these words to carve up a part of reality that doesn’t always carve that easily. For example, it may be obvious that a wolf species that ranges over thousands of miles is pretty different at the far east and far western extent of its range, but there may be no exact spot in between where the eastern type ends and the western type begins. By contrast, sometimes in human societies you have groups of genetically and culturally distinct people separated for centuries by little more than a road, a wall, a religion, or a language. There is no a priori reason to think that one of these cases fits the definition and the other does not.

But the language we use to delineate groups of ants or wolves or fungi is not the language we use to delineate humans, not just because we wish to be inaccurate, but also because we generally wish to show each other respect. We do so by avoiding language normally reserved for non-humans and using special terms for humans, eg, my offspring are normally referred to as my “children.”

Back to Wilson.

“What is the relation between the population and the society? Here we arrive unexpectedly at the crux of theoretical sociobiology. The distinction between the two categories is essentially as follows: the population is bounded by a zone of sharply reduced gene flow, while the society is bounded by a zone of sharply reduced communication. Often the two zones are the same…

The Multiplier Effect

Social organization is the class of phenotypes furthest removed from the genes. It is derived jointly from the behavior of the individuals and the demographic properties of the population… A small evolutionary change in the behavior pattern of individuals can be amplified into a major social effect by the expanding upward distribution of the effect into multiple facets of life. …

“Even stronger multiplier effects occur in the social insects. … The structure of nests alone can be used to distinguish species within the higher termites.”

EvX: There follows an interesting description of how termites build their mounds, also known as “termitaries.”

“Multiplier effects can speed social evolution still more when an individual’s behavior is strongly influenced by the particularities of its social experience. This process, called socialization, becomes increasingly becomes increasingly prominent as one moves upward phylogenetically into more intelligent species, and it reaches its maximum influence in the higher primates. Although the evidence is still largely inferential, socialization appears to amplify phenotypic differences among primate species.

S”ocialization can also amplify genetically based variation of individual behavior within troops. The temperament and rank of a higher primate is strongly influenced by its early experiences with its peers and its mother.”

EvX: This is a really interesting idea. We hear constantly that ideas like race and gender are social constructs, but what exactly a social construct is we hear far less often. The implication–at least as the phrases are employed–is that they are not real at all, that they are make believe, that we have chosen some random and arbitrary place to carve up reality and that we could use some other random place just as well, but Wilson provides a much better conception: “social constructs” are really amplified ideas about the world around us. In other words, they’re exaggerated stereotypes.

For example, let’s imagine a world in which the average male is taller than the average female, but there’s a lot of variety in height and so there are many individual men who are shorter than a good chunk of women, and likewise many women who are taller than a decent chunk of men. The idea that “men are taller than women” is of course true on average, but also an exaggeration. Men who are particularly short and women who are particularly tall may dislike the fact that they don’t match this Platonic ideal.

Back to Wilson:

“The Evolutionary Pacemaker and Social Drift

“…when evolution involves both structure and behavior, behavior should change first and then structure. In other words, behavior should be the evolutionary pacemaker. … Social behavior also frequently serves as an evolutionary pacemaker. The entire process of ritualization, during which a behavior is transformed by evolution into a more efficient signaling device, typically involves a behavioral change followed by morphological alterations that enhance the visibility and distinctiveness of the behavior.

“The relative lability of behavior leads inevitably to social drift, the random divergence in the behavior and mode of organization of societies or groups of societies. …

“The amount of variance within a population of societies is the sum of the variations due to genetic drift, tradition drift, and their interaction. … Even if the alteration to social structure of a group is due to a behavioral change in a key individual, we cannot be sure that this member was not predisposed to the act by a distinctive capability or temperament conferred by a particular set of genes …

“…Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1973) have suggested that in human social evolution the equivalent of an important mutation is a new idea. If it is acceptable and advantageous, the idea will spread quickly. If not, it will decline in frequency and he forgotten. Tradition drift in such instances, like purely genetic drift, has stochastic properties amenable to mathematical analysis.”

EvX: Good old memes. How I love them.

Adaptive Demography

“All true societies are differentiated populations. When cooperative behavior evolves it is put to service by one kind of individual on behalf of another, either unilaterally or mutually…

“The proportions of the demographic classes [like old and young people] also affect the fitness of the group and, ultimately, of each individual member… a deviant population allowed to reproduce for one to several generations will go far to restore the age distribution of populations normal for the species.”

EvX: By “deviant population” he means a population that has more or less of a particular class than is ideal, like if an ant colony lost half of its workers in an accident or a plague wiped out most of the children in a society.

Nature_trees_dark_night_forest_moon_1920x1200“Only if its growth is zero when averaged over many generations can the population have a chance of long life. There is one remaining way to be a success. A population headed for extinction can still possess a high degree of fitness if it succeeds in sending out propagules and creates new populations elsewhere.”

EvX: Your destiny is the stars.

And with that, I’m taking off for the evening.

A few quick thoughts on Millennials and Burnout

How Millennials became the Burnout Generation, a recent Buzzfeed article, makes some very good points:

In Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris lays out the myriad ways in which our generation has been trained, tailored, primed, and optimized for the workplace — first in school, then through secondary education — starting as very young children. “Risk management used to be a business practice,” Harris writes, “now it’s our dominant child-rearing strategy.” …

Harris points to practices that we now see as standard as a means of “optimizing” children’s play, an attitude often described as “intensive parenting.” Running around the neighborhood has become supervised playdates. Unstructured day care has become pre-preschool. Neighborhood Kick the Can or pickup games have transformed into highly regulated organized league play that spans the year. Unchanneled energy (diagnosed as hyperactivity) became medicated and disciplined.

Like most old millennials, my own career path was marked by two financial catastrophes. In the early 2000s, when many of us were either first entering college or the workforce, the dot-com bubble burst. … skilled jobs were in short supply. I worked as a nanny, a housemate worked as an assistant, a friend resorted to selling what would later be known as subprime mortgages.

Those two years as a nanny were hard — I was stultifyingly bored and commuted an hour in each direction — but it was the last time I remember not feeling burned out. I had a cellphone, but couldn’t even send texts … I was intellectually unstimulated, but I was good at my job — caring for two infants — and had clear demarcations between when I was on and off the clock.

Then those two years ended and the bulk of my friend group began the exodus to grad school. … It wasn’t because we were hungry for more knowledge. It was because we were hungry for secure, middle-class jobs — and had been told, correctly or not, that those jobs were available only through grad school. Once we were in grad school, and the microgeneration behind us was emerging from college into the workplace, the 2008 financial crisis hit. …

More experienced workers and the newly laid-off filled applicant pools for lower- and entry-level jobs once largely reserved for recent graduates. We couldn’t find jobs, or could only find part-time jobs, jobs without benefits, or jobs that were actually multiple side hustles cobbled together into one job.

These are the good points, and all of us can recognize how, regardless of our personal trajectory, that dealing with two recessions in a row when you are trying to enter the workforce can be a major problem. This is stuff that no one except maybe the President or the Fed Chairman can do much about, and it’s good to recognize that some of us had an easier start in life than others.

After some more very reasonable points, article makes an unfortunate turn, discussing the tyranny of things people definitely do have control over:

… They’d never seen the particular work that they do described, let alone acknowledged. And for millennials, that domestic work is now supposed to check a never-ending number of aspirational boxes: Outings should be “experiences,” food should be healthy and homemade and fun, bodies should be sculpted, wrinkles should be minimized, clothes should be cute and fashionable, sleep should be regulated, relationships should be healthy, the news should be read and processed, kids should be given personal attention and thriving. Millennial parenting is, as a recent New York Times article put it, relentless.

Stop. Just stop.

Most of this is unnecessary bullshit being sold to you by ads in women’s magazines.

Stop doing “outings.” Eat what you need to get by and you won’t need to exercise. Sleep when you’re tired. Shop less. Don’t read the news.

 “I’m really struggling to find the Christmas magic this year,” one woman in a Facebook group focused on self-care recently wrote. “I have two little kids (2 and 6 months) and, while we had fun reading Christmas books, singing songs, walking around the neighborhood to look at lights, I mostly feel like it’s just one to-do list superimposed over my already overwhelming to-do list. I feel so burned out. Commiseration or advice?”

You know what? I don’t like holidays. I’m perfectly happy taking advantage of whatever fun activities are available for my kids, but I’m not adding to an already overwhelming to-do list. Holidays are supposed to make you feel better, not worse. If what you’re doing isn’t helping, then STOP.

While writing this piece, I was orchestrating a move, planning travel, picking up prescriptions, walking my dog, trying to exercise, making dinner, attempting to participate in work conversations on Slack, posting photos to social media, and reading the news. I was waking up at 6 a.m. to write, packing boxes over lunch, moving piles of wood at dinner, falling into bed at 9.

I assume the job, move, and prescriptions are required. Owning a dog, exercising, travel, posting photos on social media, reading the news, and making dinner in the midst of a move are not. For goodness’ sakes, order a pizza. If posting on Instagram is stressing you out, stop posting on Instagram.

Even the trends millennials have popularized — like athleisure — speak to our self-optimization. Yoga pants might look sloppy to your mom, but they’re efficient: You can transition seamlessly from an exercise class to a Skype meeting to child pickup.

Let me tell you something about poor people: they don’t take exercise classes. They certainly don’t buy special pants for their exercise classes and then complain that their mom calls them sloppy.

Poor people don’t have the money for fucking exercise classes.

So there are two separate things going on in this article. The first is a very reasonable thing about recessions, temp work, work that bleeds into free time, never ending to-do lists, etc. And really, this is something that I think needs to be said louder and more often: many people worked hard, their parents worked hard, they did “everything right” and still got screwed by a system that is simply bigger than themselves.

The second is a very stupid thing about how hard it is to change pants between Yoga class and picking your kids up from daycare.

Look, I know you want to do everything, but you can’t. I know there are popular magazines out there claiming that you should spend two months salary on a diamond ring, but this is a complete fiction made up to benefit the diamond companies. Your parents never did extra curriculars–either they went to school clubs, church, or they rode their bikes around the neighborhood. These things are nice if you can afford them and have the time for them, but they are not necessary.

Take back your time. Learn to say no. YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING.

Focus on the things that matter.