The People Vs Tech: How the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it) by Jamie Bartlett, Review

This book is a summary of the recent news, research, non-fiction bestsellers and popular science relating to tech, in a political context. The author tries hard to maintain objectivity, but he ends up sitting on the fence and stating the non-offensive obvious rather than creating new insights. Perhaps, there is a certain irony in that: serious journalism doesn’t hit as hard as divisive tripe we’ve gotten used to on Facebook. Overall, it’s an entry level book for people who want to learn about tech vs politics.

On a personal note, I recently attended a conference on digital health where an IBM Watson guy described how it could make decisions that are 93% congruent with health professionals (source). That’s impressive. But just because it can, doesn’t mean it will. Ireland has decent IT in healthcare compared to most countries. Yet I still fax things a lot (welcome to the 80s). As a doctor, I often serve as a photocopying machine. I’ve seen radiology software pick some cool stuff up using algorithms, but it will be a long time before AI is on the front line of medicine, in my view anyway.

My highlights below (this is not to say I highlight things I agree with!)

…The digital technologies associated with Silicon Valley –social media platforms, big data, mobile technology and artificial intelligence –that are increasingly dominating economic, political and social life. It’s clear that these technologies have, on balance, made us more informed, wealthier and, in some ways, happier. After all, technology tends to expand human capabilities, produce new opportunities, and increase productivity. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re good for democracy.

While there are certainly contradictions in minimising tax while claiming to empower people, doing so doesn’t necessarily betray insincerity.

The machinery of democracy was built during a time of nation-states, hierarchies, deference and industrialised economies. The fundamental features of digital tech are at odds with this model: non-geographical, decentralised, data-driven, subject to network effects and exponential growth.

We won’t witness a repeat of the 1930s, everyone’s favourite analogy. Rather, I believe that democracy will fail in new and unexpected ways. The looming dystopia to fear is a shell democracy run by smart machines and a new elite of ‘progressive’ but authoritarian technocrats.

Chapter 1: The New Panopticon

Social media platforms are the latest iteration of the behaviourist desire to manage society through scientific observation of the mind, via a complete information loop: testing products on people, getting feedback and redesigning the model.

The notion that with enough data the mysteries of the human mind can be understood and influenced is perhaps the dominant philosophy in Silicon Valley today.

Scientific theories were unnecessary, he [Chris Anderson, editor of Wired] said, now that we have big data.

Google engineers don’t speculate and theorise about why people visit one site over another –they just try things and see what works.

Our modern panopticon doesn’t have just one watchman: everyone is both watching and being watched. This kind of permanent visibility and monitoring is a way to enforce conformity and docility.

Being always under surveillance and knowing that the things you say are collected and shared creates a soft but constant self-censorship.

Diagnosis by AI will outperform professional doctors within a few years (it already does in many areas, but regulation is slower than tech).

Deny it if you want, but we already rely on the machine for moral choices.

I can imagine this kind of utilitarian thinking will take over the world, because it’s amenable to data and AI.

Chapter 2: The Global Village

We are living, as McLuhan predicted, through a great re-tribalisation of politics.

Humans were perfectly good at killing each other because of politics long before the iPhone turned up. But Silicon Valley, in its optimistic quest for a global village of total information and connectivity, has inadvertently let tribalism back out of the cage that modern representative democracy built for it.

At times ‘post-truth’ has become a convenient way to explain complicated events with a simple single phrase. In some circles it has become a slightly patronising new orthodoxy to say that stupid proles have been duped by misinformation on the internet into voting for things like Brexit or Trump.

Anyone who is upset can now automatically, sometimes algorithmically, find other people that are similarly upset. Sociologists call this ‘homophily’, political theorists call it ‘identity politics’ and common wisdom says ‘birds of a feather flock together’.

The point is that every individual now has a truckload of reasons to feel legitimately aggrieved, outraged, oppressed or threatened, even if their own life is going just fine.

Note how, for example, so many people who disagree with Brexit use the language of a small child that has yet to develop a theory of mind: why should I accept the result, I didn’t vote for it and I want my country back.

The liberals’ hopeful theory about the role of debate is that coming into contact with opposing views and opinions can help resolve difference.

Several inconvenient studies have found that if two groups of people debate with each other they often consequently hold more extreme views than when they started. 15

I see opposing views to mine online all the time; they rarely change my mind, and more often simply confirm my belief that I am the only sane person in a sea of internet idiots.

But being apparently neutral is itself a kind of editorial decision. Everything on social media is still curated, usually by some mysterious algorithm rather than a human editor.

But the problem is that no one is intentionally programming it to be sensationalistic –it’s just a mathematical response to our general preference for edgy and outrageous videos. This is both a mirror and a multiplier: a giant feedback loop powered by big data. You feed data in, and you get results that replicate themselves. Newspapers have always traded on outrage and sensationalism, because they’ve long known what algorithms have recently discovered about our predilections. However, the difference is that newspapers are legally responsible for what they print, and citizens generally understand the editorial positions of various outlets. Algorithms, however, give the impression of being neutral and can’t held to account –even though the YouTube algorithm alone shapes what 1.5 billion users are likely to see, which is more than every newspaper in the world combined.

In her masterpiece The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt warned that if citizens float around like corks in a stormy sea, unsure of what to believe or trust, they will be susceptible to the charms of demagogues.

If the medium is the message, is there a way to escape the drift toward ever more extreme ‘system one’ tribal politics? Of course. Laws, regulations or education can help.

The qualities we associate with human greatness –such as sensitivity, empathy, compassion, kindness, and honesty –are also keys to political success.

At a campaign rally in Iowa in January 2016, Trump told his supporters that he could ‘stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and … wouldn’t lose voters’. There is a distinct and terrifying possibility that, in an era in which emotion outranks truth, bias outranks objectivity and tribe outranks compromise, he was right.

Chapter 3: Software Wars

Every election now is a mini arms race.

Just like Brad [Trump’s digital campaign guy], Cummings set up Vote Leave like a Silicon Valley start-up, with physicists, data, innovation and constant testing of ads or messages. One especially smart move involved inviting people to guess the results of all 51 matches in the Euro 2016 football tournament with the chance of winning £ 50 million, in exchange for their phone number, email, home address and a score of 1–5 in respect of how likely they were to vote for staying in the EU.

I was surprised when Theresa [Trump’s digital campaign figure] told me that social media employees –and ones who shared the campaign’s political views –were working directly with the Trump team, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

We used to call this sort of thing propaganda. Now we call it ‘a behavioral approach to persuasive communication with quantifiable results’, and give awards to the people who are best at it.

It is important that everyone receives the same message –or at least knows what others are receiving. That’s how we are able to thrash out the issues of the day. If everyone receives personalised messages, there is no common public debate –just millions of private ones.

When I was at Alamo, Theresa told me that she wrote many of Donald Trump’s Facebook posts. That was odd. I’d always assumed Trump wrote his own posts. I’d read many of them, and they certainly sounded like him. Nope, it was Theresa, sitting in her San Antonio office. ‘I channelled Mr Trump,’ she told me, smiling. ‘How do you channel someone like Donald Trump?’ I asked. ‘A lot of believe mes, a lot of alsos, a lot of verys … he was really wonderful to write for. It was so refreshing. It was so authentic.’ She seemed unaware of the irony.

Mark Zuckerberg seems to have had a Damascene moment towards the end of 2017, when he acknowledged that the company needed to behave more like a responsible publisher that takes editorial decisions, rather than as a neutral platform that treats all information equally. This will certainly help.

Far too many otherwise-intelligent people, unable to comprehend Trump’s popularity, believe that voters were duped by Brad or Theresa, or even by Vladimir Putin, into ticking the box for Trump. Those involved are happy to propagate this myth, because it’s good for business.

I don’t recall similar levels of outrage when it was revealed in 2012 that President Obama’s team had placed voters into 30 buckets and ranked them according to persuadability, and that Google’s Eric Schmidt advised the campaign. Liberals were apparently extremely comfortable with the idea when it was their guy doing it. That was a mistake.

Chapter 4: Driverless Democracy

When AI techniques transform medical diagnosis –within the next few years –it won’t mean fewer doctors, but better patient care because our busy doctors won’t need to spend hours staring at scans.

A specialist in machine learning at Starsky Robotics or Google performs a non-routine job, since it involves a lot of intuition, creativity and independent thinking in unpredictable situations. So does a gardener, carer or Deliveroo cyclist. It’s the jobs in the middle –what you might call ‘routine cognitive’ jobs –that will be most at risk. If you are a train operator, a mortgage adviser, a stock analyst, a paralegal, a credit analyst, a loan officer, a bookkeeper, a tax accountant or a radiologist, you might consider retraining.

High levels of inequality also wear away the fabric of society. The more unequal life gets, the less we spend time with people not like ourselves, and the less we trust each other.

‘There are40 million people in the US that live in poverty,’ he [Sam Altman, Y Combinator] said. ‘If technology can eliminate human suffering, we should do that; if technology can generate more wealth and we can figure out how to distribute it better, we should do that.’ There was no hint that tech has played some role in creating the problem that tech is now supposed to fix.

Chapter 5: The Everything Monopoly

Back in the 1990s many predicted that the internet would slay monopolies, not create them. The popular thinking of the time –repeated over and over by the era’s digital gurus and futurists –was that the net was decentralised and connected, and so would automatically lead to a competitive and distributed marketplace.

Market leaders in AI like Google, with the data, the geniuses, the experience and the computing power, won’t be limited to just search and information retrieval. They will also be able to leap ahead in almost anything where AI is important: logistics, driverless cars, medical research, television, factory production, city planning, agriculture, energy use, storage, clerical work, education and who knows what else.

At some terrible point, these tech giants could become so important to the health and well-being of the nation that they are, like large banks, too big to fail. Armed with the best tech and the most skilled engineers, maybe Google or Facebook could be the only ones who could solve sophisticated cybercrime (perhaps committed by a powerful AI from a hostile country?), fix computer bugs, predict and pre-empt economic shocks, run the National Grid or protect the cyber defences of the big banks –cyber security in the public sector is predictably understaffed and under-skilled.

Every politician, with only a few exceptions, values the support of business. But politicians need tech platforms to reach voters in a manner that they don’t need other businesses, and these companies own and run the platforms on which so much of our political debate occurs.

Chapter 6: Crypto-Anarchy

(Public key) encryption is the crypto-anarchist’s barbed wire. It allows people to communicate, browse and transact beyond the reach of government, making it significantly harder for the state to control information, and subsequently, its citizens. This is because of a simple-but-magic rule: due to some arcane properties of prime numbers, it takes far more computing power to decrypt something than to encrypt it. 3 It’s like an egg: a lot easier to crack than to put back in its shell. Julian Assange, who was an active contributor to Timothy May’s email list, puts it this way: ‘the universe believes in encryption’.

In the well-intentioned pursuit of privacy and freedom, we might risk undermining the entire edifice on which these rights are based. Most liberals have been very short-sighted about this, because they want total freedom and equality, without realising that the two are sometimes in tension. This is why the issue of encryption and privacy throws up peculiar political alliances. (The most notable of recent years is surely the idiotic social democratic love affair with crypto-anarchist Julian Assange.)

Democracy is about individual liberty of course, but that’s only half the picture. It is also a system of coercion because your liberty must sometimes be taken away too. The state must be able to force you to pay tax, remove your passport, restrict your right to assemble and back it up with the use of force if it needs to by arresting you and throwing you in prison.

A blockchain social media platform would be untouchable – no government would be able to edit or remove hate-speech, illegal images or terror propaganda, unless the whole network was somehow vaporised. Blockchain advocates hate ‘middle men’.

For reasons still not entirely clear to me, humanity is currently embarked on a quixotic quest to connect everything to everything else.

A recent survey in the Journal of Democracy found that only 30 per cent of US millennials (the demographic made up of those born since 1980) agree that ‘it’s essential to live in a democracy’, compared to 75 per cent of those born in the 1930s, and results in most other democracies demonstrate a similar pattern.

Conclusion: Say Hello to the Future

In the hands of a techno-authoritarian, all the digital tools of liberation could easily become powerful tools of subtle coercion that might make society run more smoothly but wouldn’t make us more free or hold the powerful to account.

Digital technology is behind the slow unravelling of power and control in democracies. The obvious monster is Scylla – turbo-charged inequality and social breakdown. But in trying to avoid it, democracies could end up in the thrall of Charybdis, a digitally powered techno-authoritarian, and wind up with China and Russia undermining democracy in the name of order and harmony.

A little bit of Irish politics

What is the purpose of having four political parties if for the last couple of constitutional referendums they all virtually agreed with each other on how people should vote?

I don’t necessarily disagree with them, but there seems to be a resounding group-thinking lack of pluralism.

P.S. Are you painting yourself green for Paddy’s Day?

Our Culture, What’s Left of It by Theodore Dalrymple: my highlights

A fascinating book from a retired psychiatrist/prison doctor who has seen the sort of things most of us never encounter. Mostly skeptical and confrontational, occasionally dark and a little prudish – with ephemeral sightings of the most honest optimism. Verbose. I usually despise verbosity, but his is the sort that I like to read out loud.

There is something to be said here about the word ‘depression,’ which has almost entirely eliminated the word and even the concept of unhappiness from modern life. This semantic shift is deeply significant, for it implies that dissatisfaction with life is itself pathological, a medical condition, which it is the responsibility of the doctor to alleviate by medical means. Everyone has a right to health; depression is unhealthy; therefore everyone has a right to be happy (the opposite of being depressed).

 

When young people want to praise themselves, they describe themselves as ‘nonjudgmental.’ For them, the highest form of morality is amorality. There has been an unholy alliance between those on the Left, who believe that man is endowed with rights but no duties, and libertarians on the Right, who believe that consumer choice is the answer to all social questions, an idea eagerly adopted by the Left in precisely those areas where it does not apply.

 

It is only the sentimentalist who imagines that the profundity of a person’s response to tragedy is proportional to the length, volume, or shrillness of his lamentation.

 

Danger simplifies existence and therefore—again when chosen, not imposed—comes as a relief from many anxieties. [About a photographer in Vietnam]: He loved the country, but his commitment to it was only war-deep: if peace, alas, were to break out, he would have to find another conflict to photograph.

 

Untold numbers of my patients, with every opportunity to lead quiet, useful, and tolerably prosperous lives, choose instead the path of complication and, if not of violence and physical danger exactly, at least of drama and excitement, leading to sleepless nights and financial loss… As many have told me, they prefer disaster to boredom.

 

…social theorists often suppose that human beings have a clear idea what it is they want from life, and behave moreover as if they were rational calculating machines designed to procure it.

 

I learned early in my life that, if people are offered the opportunity of tranquillity, they often reject it and choose torment instead.

 

For a long time I pitied myself: had any child ever been as miserable as I? I felt the deepest, most sincere compassion for myself. Then gradually it began to dawn on me that the education I had received had liberated me from any need or excuse to repeat the sordid triviality of my parents’ personal lives. One’s past is not one’s destiny, and it is self-serving to pretend that it is.

 

…a rejection of everything associated with one’s childhood is not so much an escape from that childhood as an imprisonment by it.

 

I had assumed, along with most of my generation unacquainted with real hardship, that a scruffy appearance was a sign of spiritual election, representing a rejection of the superficiality and materialism of bourgeois life.

 

[About Soviet border officials]: He surmised that these border officials had been deprived of all true discretion and were deeply fearful themselves of the power to which they were subordinate… ‘automata inconvenienced with a soul’:

 

[About St Petersburg]: The very selection of the terrain—a freezing swamp—for the construction of a city by the fiat of the czar was an expression of contempt for humanity, for in such a place construction necessarily entailed the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men. Only where human labour—and life itself—ostentatiously counted for nothing could such a system of building maintenance have been envisaged, let alone tolerated.

 

An uncorrupt leviathan state is, in fact, more to be feared than a corrupt one.

 

The British, by contrast [to the Italians], are still attached to their state as calves to the udder. They have just voted massively for a party and a man who claim to be responsible for everything—whose government has recently issued, for example, an official booklet to every engaged couple outlining the advantages and disadvantages of marriage, as if the population were incapable of thinking for itself even about those things that most intimately concern it (which, under a regime like this, is increasingly the case).

 

British liberals, who habitually measure their own moral standing and worth by their degree of theoretical hatred for and opposition to whatever exists.

 

[About Princess Diana]: In an age when strength of character consists of being able to flaunt one’s weaknesses to the prurient gaze of millions of idle onlookers, nothing could establish her bona fides better than her confession that she induced herself to vomit after eating too much: just like a thousand or a million salesclerks anxious about their weight… That her tastes were, despite her privileged upbringing, utterly banal and plebeian appeared very clearly at the funeral, where Elton John sang his bathetic dirge immediately after the prime minister read Saint Paul’s magnificent words in Corinthians.

 

Those who think that an understanding of the double helix is the same as an understanding of ourselves are not only prey to an illusion but are stunting themselves as human beings, condemning themselves not to an advance in self-understanding but to a positive retrogression.

 

Many a man is the Macbeth of his own little world, and the measurement of evil is not the same as a body count.

 

Macbeth is motivated in equal measure by ambition and by the fear of appearing weak and small in the eyes of his wife… Shakespeare gives us to understand that their self-pity—and by extension all self-pity, including our own—is dangerous, permitting evil in the name of restitution… And in showing us that the line is always there, easily and disastrously crossed, Shakespeare destroys the utopian illusion that social arrangements can be made so perfect that men will no longer have to strive to be good. The prevention of evil will always require more than desirable social arrangements: it will forever require personal self-control and the conscious limitation of appetites.

 

…a Marxist wondering whether or not the historical inevitability of the triumph of the revolution requires his participation… As Russian Marxists needed their Lenin, so Macbeth needs his Lady Macbeth… She humiliates him into doing what he knows to be wrong, just as many of my patients who take heroin started to take it because they were afraid to seem weak in the eyes of their associates… The lesson is that any powerful emotion or desire, however virtuous in many circumstances, can be turned to evil purposes if it escapes ethical control.

 

Macbeth is aware throughout the play that what he does is morally wrong: he never claims (as do so many modern relativists) that fair is foul and foul is fair. He thus single-handedly refutes the Platonic theory of evil as ignorance of the good. Unlike his wife, he never deceives himself that a little water can clear them of their deeds.

 

Only if we obey rules—the rules that count—can we be free.

 

Penguin Books’ proposed publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover clearly suggests that the company knew the book could not be defended against the charge of obscenity; publication had to wait until Penguin could rely for the book’s defence upon the evidence of ‘expert,’ that is to say elite, opinion.

 

The idea that social perfection is to be achieved through wonderfully sensual sexual relations between men and women is a fantasy unworthy of prolonged intellectual consideration. To call it adolescent tripe is to be unfair to many intelligent adolescents.

 

[About Virginia Woolf]: One way to surpass her father and her uncle in achievement was, of course, to disparage and destroy all they had erected.

 

An incident when I practiced medicine many years later on an island in the Pacific Ocean reinforced this lesson. Next to the small psychiatric hospital, with its yard enclosed by a high wire fence, was the leper colony. Every afternoon, the lepers would gather at the fence to mock the lunatics as they were let out for their exercise, performing their strange dances and shouting at unseen persecutors.

 

There is a permanent temptation, particularly for intellectuals, to suppose that one’s virtue is proportional to one’s hatred of vice, and that one’s hatred of vice is in turn to be measured by one’s vehemence of denunciation.

 

‘Artists must continue the conquest of new territory and new taboos,’ Rosenthal continues, in prescriptivist mood. He admits no other purpose of art: to break taboos is thus not a possible function of art but its only function. Small wonder, then, that if all art is the breaking of taboos, all breaking of taboos soon comes to be regarded as art.

 

That civilised life cannot be lived without taboos—that some of them may indeed be justified, and that therefore taboo is not in itself an evil to be vanquished—is a thought too subtle for the aesthetes of nihilism.

 

This way of thinking about culture and civilisation—possible only for people who believe that the comforts and benefits they enjoy are immortal and indestructible—has become almost standard among the intelligentsia of Western societies.

 

At the same time, achievements are taken for granted, as always having been there, as if man’s natural state were knowledge rather than ignorance, wealth rather than poverty, tranquillity rather than anarchy. It follows that nothing is worthy of, or requires, protection and preservation, because all that is good comes about as a free gift of Nature.

 

[About the freedom to use drugs]: In practice, of course, it is exceedingly difficult to make people take all the consequences of their own actions—as they must, if Mill’s great principle is to serve as a philosophical guide to policy. Addiction to, or regular use of, most currently prohibited drugs cannot affect only the person who takes them—and not his spouse, children, neighbours, or employers.

 

No one seems to have noticed, however, that a loss of a sense of shame means a loss of privacy; a loss of privacy means a loss of intimacy; and a loss of intimacy means a loss of depth. There is, in fact, no better way to produce shallow and superficial people than to let them live their lives entirely in the open, without concealment of anything.

 

When sex is deprived of the meaning with which only the social conventions, religious taboos, and personal restraints so despised by sexual revolutionaries such as Ellis and Comfort can infuse it, all that is left is the ceaseless—and ultimately boring and meaningless—search for the transcendent orgasm.

 

The law of unintended consequences is stronger than the most absolute power.

Skin in the Game: main ideas and review

Silver rule over the golden rule

Taleb established that the silver rule is more ethical than the golden rule, i.e.

“do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you” rather than

“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

I think it is rather obvious that avoiding injustice is more robust than trying to pursue justice because not even the most well-intentioned and intelligent know what harm they could do as an n-th order consequence of their pursuits.

In opinion, it’s for the same reason why doctors try to do no harm rather than to make people healthy.

“Pseudoleftist caviar eaters”

Taleb has been on Twitter a lot, and by god, he didn’t just take the red pill, he took the whole box. He used the terms “social justice warrior”, “white knight”, etc to talk about people who signal their generosity of spirit without being exposed to the consequences of that which they advocate. Next, he will be on Alex Jones. 

He implied that the very prominence of Bernie Sanders is a testament to how unequal the Unites States became under the preceding presidency. He also brought up some jaw-dropping statistics about the dynamics of (in)equality: a large portion of the US population will be among the richest at some point in their lives, unlike in Europe where, if you are rich, you’ve been rich since the middle ages.

Atheism

Taleb exposed a very interesting feature of atheism while calling it a “monotheistic religion”. I think what he was getting at is that pagan religions are inherently pluralist. There is a kind of competition between the gods, whereas monotheistic religions involve an absolute as, one could argue, does atheism (but not agnosticism).

Nationalism

Taleb spoke about not being comfortable to get naturalised in France, as he was entitled, as he wasn’t part of the culture (but would have been on with a Greek or Cypriot passport). He admitted to wanting to accept the honorary degree from a Lebanese university as an exception.

He backed the United States’ policy of making its citizens pay tax on all their income obtained elsewhere, to the United States. He endorsed a certain amount of protectionism.

This is a stark change from his stance in the now 11 year old The Black Swan.

Liberty

He spoke once again about the benefits of decentralisation, the damage caused by regulation, etc. He mentioned the paradox of tolerating intolerance under a democratic system, but, in my view, didn’t address it properly.

He compared entrepreneurs to wolves and employees to dogs and argued that freedom always involves risk.

In a strange, conflicted way, he portrayed autocrats as entrepreneurs: it is easier to deal with a business owner (autocrat) than an employee (elected representative held accountable by committees and the media) when trying to make a deal.

Genetics vs language

Taleb argues that when it comes to language, the one that suits the most intransigent group and doesn’t inconvenience the majority becomes the lingua franca. Another example of this process is that a lot of schools don’t allow peanuts, or why commonly available juice is being labeled as kosher. He calls this the minority rule.

His argument about genetics is the opposite, the majority rule, as in the genetics of certain populations remain the same despite invasions.

I am not so sure he is right because what you find studying non-autosomal genetics (Y chromosomes and mitochondria) is that a version of the minority rule applies. It’s the same mechanism as why surnames die out and in theory, as time goes to infinity, we will all end up with the same surname.

Does Taleb have skin in the game?

Taleb denounces as charlatans the people who give advice without being held accountable for it. He feels that a life coach can only teach you to be a life coach and a professor can only teach you to be a professor. Does it follow that Taleb can only impart the knowledge on how to be a contrarian writer?

What skin does he have in the game? Reputation? Family? So do politicians, who he argues aren’t exposed to the consequences of their actions. He has long left his area of risk management and moved on to cultural, political and economic issues. I guess he is a successful practitioner of risk, a man who lived an interesting life and an erudite. He doesn’t impose his policies and regulations onto people. He does seem to have soul in the game as there appears to be consistency and integrity in his writing. It seems that he is doing it for posterity. Through his f*** you money, as he calls it, I think he has to an extent isolated his skin from the game. He seems to think this is freedom.

Should you read it?

If you are going to read just one book by Taleb, I recommend Fooled by Randomness. Otherwise, yes. You can get it on Amazon.

Paglia on postmodernism

I became curious about this social critic, Camille Paglia, as she spoke about characteristics of dwindling civilisations at some point.

Here is her interview with the celebrity-academic-provocateur Jordan Peterson. She speaks about her subject with impressive passion. Some of what she says seems arrogant and self-congratulatory but some parts of it are refreshing.

I have it set to the point where she talked about the 1960s and went straight into the no true Scotsman fallacy – which very nearly put me off watching the rest of it along with her body language that doesn’t quite match her words (psychedelics that she identifies with “totally” while also pushing them away with both hands).

But if you soldier on, she says some interesting stuff from 8:00.

 

Are we living at the end of an empire?

A thought experiment.

There is a nuclear war in morning. The capitals and major cities are all gone. You happened to have been visiting your aunt in Castle’elsewhere, a cute provincial town, and remained alive and well.

In the wake of the war, you realise that life will never be the same. There is an army barracks that remained unharmed down the road from your aunt’s house. The commanding officer is used to taking orders and is awaiting them. They aren’t coming. Your cousin just returned from the neighbouring Castle’nowhere and said that people have started looting the local shopping centre. Someone has to take charge and you’re not in the habit of relying on others. You win the trust of the commanding officer and now have an army at your disposal – although not much else.

What is the first thing that you do?

thought experiment philosophy

I would find food for the army. My particular Castle’elswhere happens to be in Ireland. We have milk and beef galore, and even some barley and rapeseed oil. Some artisanal cheese. Guinness and Jameson. But the ports are all in tatters and it will be a while until we will manage to import food. Scurvy is a real threat: there is no vitamin C on this island.

I am now Commanderina-in-Chief Martina and I have an army of malnourished men whose teeth will soon start falling out and their clothes are wearing thin. A man who used to grow a few carrots for himself arrives at my doorstep and explains that he can provide a steady supply of carrots, rich in Vitamin C. Let’s call him Captain Orange. Captain Orange is the only man in the country who had the foresight/luck/interest in growing carrots – and the ports are still closed, so he has no competitors. Captain Orange soon becomes a very rich and powerful man as he has something I need to retain my power. I make a deal with him that we should only supply a certain amount of carrots, enough to keep the army healthy and as for the general population we need to supply just over the scurvy-threshold because if we supply more that, it will weaken our power and if we supply less, there will be riots. Power, eh.

how does power work thought experiment

Back to the real world.

This got me thinking of the Googles and Facebooks – the multinationals in Ireland. The lads here aren’t the programmers/engineers that would be able to solve ubercomplex problems (I imagine they are mostly in California). They are human resources, corporate social responsibility, account managers, etc. In the event of such a near apocalyptic event, of what use are the official skills of the majority of these people?

During my short stint in a multinational, I used to always wonder how come there are so many people literally busy doing nothing, or something I simply didn’t understand. Making slides about making slides and trackers about other trackers.

The multinational is Captain Orange. They come to the government and tell them that they have what the government so needs to keep the population just over the (first world) poverty line: jobs. Not just in Ireland, but in lots of places. By moving to Ireland and paying let’s say 10,000 people wages to do nothing  corporate back/middle office jobs, they still save money on tax. By coming to other countries they will gain something else: the points isn’t that Ireland is a tax haven. The point is about solving problems. As Arthur Schopenhauer used to say, talent hits a target no one else can hit and genius hits a target no one else can see. Yes, we all know their product is phenomenal. But the real problem they solve, and the reason they have so much clout, isn’t what it seems. Genius, not just talented. The more enduring the problem and the more efficacious the solution, the more leverage you get.

The next thing I wondered about were our first world problems. Are we living in an age that’s analogous to the end of the Roman empire?

  • Tremendous centralisation and its cousin globalisation.
  • Society is tearing itself apart: different camps of Westerners seem to have more in common with other “tribes” than with each other (just think Clinton supporters vs Trump supporters). Diversity of thought is good, but this is diversity of non-thought. Most of these people aren’t pro x, y, z, they are anti a, b, c.
  • Research is mass produced for the sake of being published and isn’t really coming up with anything hugely new or even worthwhile.
  • The buildings of today look worse than the buildings of 100 years ago, even accounting for survivorship bias. Same with music. Same with art.
  • Lack of innovation. True monopolies: the two main credit card companies, call them V and M, are basically the same entity in their business practices, they interchange staff and outsource to each other in different countries. And they are also indispensable as far as the state is concerned. They aren’t the only example, of course. We neither incentivise innovation, nor do we have as burning a need for it. And then we wonder where the inequality comes from.
  • Changes in sexual behaviour: described pretty well by Gary Wilson

I am by no means saying that things are worse today than they were 100 years ago. But it is a different environment: where do we go from here?

UPD:

On a recent walk, I took these two pictures from the same place:

decline of the western civilisation

The above pier was built in 1821. Look dreamy.

western civilisation coming to an end

The structure closest to us was built in the 1980s. Looks dystopian.

When they dig up our stuff in 5,000 years, what will they say?

“There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think”

Shortly after I finished my medical degree, I pursued a master’s degree in finance. The 2008 market crash was pretty terrible for Ireland – and I was curious to find out get out of the medical bubble and learn about the world. After 5 years of medicine, everyone who wasn’t a doctor seemed well-rounded, but one of the most well-rounded wonderful friends I made during that masters suggested that I read Principles by Ray Dalio back in the day.

Dalio is the founder of (probably) the most successful hedge fund. Unlike all those 10-steps-to-success type books by various billionaires, Principles lacks the motivational element and has lots of cold rational logic. I found it to be a fascinating read.

You will find lots of free pdf copies of Principles online. The paid (expanded) version is a recent development. The book was in open access for years. The fact that it’s free is one of the things that made it different to books written by the likes of Richard Branson. I wonder what Dalio is up to with the paid version. The capitalist in him must be rebelling against giving out free stuff, I guess…

More recently, Dalio mentioned that reading Ayn Rand would be key to understanding the mindset of Trump era economics and politics. I poked around a few articles about Rand and was surprised to find that her philosophy was rejected by critics and academics. I’d never heard of these words in the same sentence. What does it mean to reject a philosophy? Turning to a family member beside me with this naive question, I received a less than naive answer: it is a situation where a philosophy isn’t politically expedient. Oh dear.

Nevertheless, her thoughts reminded me of Nietzsche. I don’t think he spoke about economics very much, but if he had, I am sure he would have said exactly what Rand had to say.

So I started with Atlas Shrugged.

Ayn Rand philosophy reviewed Atlas Shrugged

Is Atlas Shrugged a pleasant read?

Just like Brave New World, Atlas Shrugged a philosophical book dressed up as a novel. For the more analytical among us, it’s definitely a stimulating read. The characters are a little flat and improbable, but that’s just the nature of these type of works. A few cringy sex scenes. A touch of naive feminism.

Rand writes in impossibly long sentences and can seem excessively intellectual-for-the-sake-of-being-intellectual. Over 1,000 pages of that can get tiring.

Is Atlas Shrugged a worthwhile read?

The book addresses some issues we face today in the West in a way that nobody would ever dare in this day and age. We can barely take a breath without getting a licence, insurance and paying tax on it. We’re not actually free to speak our mind out here, even though we pride ourselves on it. There has been a lot of violence in US universities against right wing groups citing social justice as a legitimate justification.

In such a world, Rand’s writing is a breath of fresh air – but not for long. The discerning reader soon realises that Rand painted an impossible utopia, just like the communists she so hates, and that she is simply wrong in many of her sweeping statements.

What’s Atlas Shrugged about?

It’s about a (slightly) dystopian United States with a touch of sci fi. Prepare for a lot of talk about railways, oil, steel and trains. A government nationalises the major corporations in a fever of extorting socialism. You can hazard a guess where she got her inspiration.

Who is Ayn Rand?

She was an atheist woman of Russian Jewish bourgeoisie origins. As a 20 year old, she left the USSR and settled in the US. Interestingly, she became an atheist before it was cool strongly recommended by the Soviets. Her father was a businessman. He was stripped of his fortune during the Revolution of 1917. Legend has it that the first book she purchased in the US was Thus spoke Zarathustra. 

Incidentally, it is thought that she is an INTJ, so our ENTP crowd are likely to like her style.

Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand objectivism philosophy explained

What did Ayn Rand believe?

1. Rand believed that religion and socialism are evil

Rand isn’t just against religion, she believes that socialists are basically Religion 2.0.

Both [religion and socialism] demand the surrender of your mind, one to their revelations, the other to their reflexes. No matter how loudly they posture in the roles of irreconcilable antagonists, their moral codes are alike, and so are their aims: in matter—the enslavement of man’s body, in spirit—the destruction of his mind.

Neither religion nor socialism welcome questioning:

The purpose of man’s life, say both, is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know, for reasons he is not to question… Both kinds demand that you invalidate your own consciousness and surrender yourself into their power.

2. Rand rejected true world theories

Although Rand herself said “The only philosophical debt I can acknowledge is to Aristotle”, this is more or less straight out of Nietzsche:

[Religion and socialism] claim that they perceive a mode of being superior to your existence on this earth. The mystics of spirit call it ‘another dimension,’ which consists of denying dimensions. The mystics of muscle call it ‘the future,’ which consists of denying the present.


3. Rand thought that reality and perception are completely separate

Shakespeare said that nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Rand begs to differ:

They want to cheat the axiom of existence and consciousness, they want their consciousness to be an instrument not of perceiving but of creating existence, and existence to be not the object but the subject of their consciousness—they want to be that God they created in their image and likeness, who creates a universe out of a void by means of an arbitrary whim. But reality is not to be cheated.

A savage is a being who has not grasped that A is A and that reality is real. 

The fact that we can perceive things that aren’t what they initially seem doesn’t take away from the separation of reality and perception:

The day when he grasps that the reflection he sees in a mirror is not a delusion, that it is real, but it is not himself, that the mirage he sees in a desert is not a delusion, that the air and the light rays that cause it are real, but it is not a city, it is a city’s reflection—the day when he grasps that he is not a passive recipient of the sensations of any given moment, that his senses do not provide him with automatic knowledge in separate snatches independent of context, but only with the material of knowledge, which his mind must learn to integrate—the day when he grasps that his senses cannot deceive him, that physical objects cannot act without causes, that his organs of perception are physical and have no volition, no power to invent or to distort, that the evidence they give him is an absolute, but his mind must learn to understand it, his mind must discover the nature, the causes, the full context of his sensory material, his mind must identify things that he perceives—that is the day of his birth as a thinker and scientist. (Note that this is all one sentence!)

4. Rand postulated that a contradiction is the marker of a mistake

A touch of Aristotle:

Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.

Emotion that isn’t congruent with thought indicated an unresolved conflict:

An emotion that clashes with your reason, an emotion that you cannot explain or control, is only the carcass of that stale thinking which you forbade your mind to revise.

5. Rand believed that refusing to think is a crime

Much as I disagree with Rand on many points, I do agree with this:

There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think. 

To varying extents, we are all guilty of this – and our parents are, of making us trust authority over our own judgement:

A mystic is a man who surrendered his mind at its first encounter with the minds of others. Somewhere in the distant reaches of his childhood, when his own understanding of reality clashed with the assertions of others, with their arbitrary orders and contradictory demands, he gave in to so craven a fear of dependence that he renounced his rational faculty.

If you’ve given up on thinking, emotion is all that’s left:

From then on, afraid to think, he is left at the mercy of unidentified feelings. His feelings become his only guide, his only remnant of personal identity, he clings to them with ferocious possessiveness—and whatever thinking he does is devoted to the struggle of hiding from himself that the nature of his feelings is terror.

It’s not possible to be rational while only being rational about certain things:

Whenever you committed the evil of refusing to think and to see, of exempting from the absolute of reality some one small wish of yours, whenever you chose to say: Let me withdraw from the judgment of reason the cookies I stole, or the existence of God, let me have my one irrational whim and I will be a man of reason about all else—that was the act of subverting your consciousness, the act of corrupting your mind.

Resorting to mysticism means an inability to convince:

Every dictator is a mystic, and every mystic is a potential dictator… A mystic craves obedience from men, not their agreement.

If anyone wonders what it would be like to be Antichrist, just post the below on Instagram:

To a savage, the world is a place of unintelligible miracles where anything is possible to inanimate matter and nothing is possible to him.

6. Religion is a racket according to Rand

I went to an uber-Catholic school at one point. I recall my teacher telling me with great conviction that Jesus died for us. This thing we hear all the time is actually quite a confusing statement, so I asked why he had to die for us. The teacher proceeded to explain the concept of the original sin – and all I was thinking of, sure what have I to do with that? If forgiveness is more or less the ultimate virtue in Christianity, how come God is still holding Adam and Eve’s mischief against us? Rand seems to be of the same opinion:

The name of this monstrous absurdity is Original Sin. A sin without volition is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it; if he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil; a robot is amoral.

Here is her summary of how religion rose to power:

For centuries, the mystics of spirit had existed by running a protection racket—by making life on earth unbearable, then charging you for consolation and relief, by forbidding all the virtues that make existence possible, then riding on the shoulders of your guilt, by declaring production and joy to be sins, then collecting blackmail from the sinners.

7. Universal basic income has no place in a Randian world

Rand is pointing out the Ponzi scheme in UBI:

They proclaim that every man born is entitled to exist without labor and, the laws of reality to the contrary notwithstanding, is entitled to receive his ‘minimum sustenance’—his food, his clothes, his shelter—with no effort on his part, as his due and his birthright. To receive it—from whom? Blank-out.

8. Decisions: make them or die, says Rand

Rand advocates extreme responsibility. It one of the main virtues to her. A person who doesn’t take responsibility doesn’t deserve to live:

Calmly and impersonally, she [the main character], who would have hesitated to fire at an animal, pulled the trigger and fired straight at the heart of a man who had wanted to exist without the responsibility of consciousness.

9. Trade is the ultimate human relationship

There is a lot of worshipping of the dollar in the book. Rand says that trade is great because it is consensual and it creates value for both parties:

Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and his effort. Money allows no power to prescribe the value of your effort except the voluntary choice of the man who is willing to trade you his effort in return. Money permits you to obtain for your goods and your labor that which they are worth to the men who buy them, but no more. Money permits no deals except those to mutual benefit by the unforced judgment of the traders. Money demands of you the recognition that men must work for their own benefit, not for their own injury, for their gain, not their loss—the recognition that they are not beasts of burden, born to carry the weight of your misery—that you must offer them values, not wounds—that the common bond among men is not the exchange of suffering, but the exchange of goods.

Money demands that you sell, not your weakness to men’s stupidity, but your talent to their reason; it demands that you buy, not the shoddiest they offer, but the best that your money can find. And when men live by trade—with reason, not force, as their final arbiter—it is the best product that wins, the best performance, the man of best judgment and highest ability—and the degree of a man’s productiveness is the degree of his reward. 

But what about love, I hear you ask? Her views on love are all about self-interest. Ultimately, love is a deal people make.

The Randian Ubermensch:

  • unconditionally loves life
  • has infinite belief in himself
  • is driven by intellect and self-interest
  • doesn’t wallow in weakness
  • takes responsibility for absolutely everything that happens to him
  • does not sacrifice and takes the oath: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man nor ask another man to live for mine.”

ayn rand objectivism is wrong

Holes in Rand’s philosophy

1. Rand doesn’t address the issue of chance

Rand says:

As there can be no causeless wealth, so there can be no causeless love or any sort of causeless emotion. 

There are all of these things in real life. Not for good reason, but they do exists. This is the main reason her philosophy isn’t useful: Rand doesn’t address the issue of chance.

Very often people who succeed overdefine their successes (and failures). It’s almost like survivor’s guilt: “I made it because I tried. If you haven’t made it, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough.” We all know that that’s not how things are in reality. In the long term, yes, Fortune favours the bold – or so I tell myself.

Most of the main characters appear to have inherited their fortune. John Galt, the real hero of the story, the inventor of the marvellous engine, didn’t. He wouldn’t have risen to the top by inventing an engine in real life. His invention would have been coopted by the owner of the huge corporation he worked for. He would probably get a gift voucher at the Christmas party. Where is the guy who invented the internet now? “It wasn’t one person.” True. But it wasn’t one person who made computers, smartphones, Facebook or whatever – yet we can put a name to these things because someone managed to make it into their own business.

Ayn Rand opposes that horrible Soviet-like “Equalisation of Opportunity” act in her novel, but this is why her philosophy has done little to address the downsides of socialism: she doesn’t address their main concern – that chance plays a large part in one’s life.

2. Rand looks for patterns where there aren’t any

A closely related point is that Rand believes that everything can be made into science.

The links you strive to drown are causal connections. The enemy you seek to defeat is the law of causality: it permits you no miracles.

Causality is a very ambitious concept to manoeuvre with. During my study of statistics I understood that causality is all smoke and mirrors. All we have are some intuitive concepts of what causes what. There is no real way to prove causality.

Looking for patterns in randomness has always been a hobby of the human race. Rain is caused by the generous sacrifices to the goddess of agriculture in the previous years. Investment returns are caused by prior results. A successful career follows from great interview performance. No. They aren’t. Some things are just random. Rand didn’t understand that.

3. Rand rejects the idea that there are things outside of our control

…it cannot be done to you without your consent. If you permit it to be done, you deserve it.

Here is more of Rand’s blame-the-victim philosophy. In certain contexts, the above is true, but it’s not quite as black and white as Rand makes out. What if your parents are addicted to drugs and you are addicted now too. Did you deserve it? Were you wrong to trust the people who gave you life and basically were your life for a long time?

This is how people get to be neurotic in the modern world: beating themselves up for not being able to control things… that they cannot possibly control. Rand rejects the idea that there are things outside of our control.

4. Rand confuses useful assumptions and absolutes

‘We know that we know nothing,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are claiming knowledge—’There are no absolutes,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are uttering an absolute—’You cannot prove that you exist or that you’re conscious,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that proof presupposes existence, consciousness and a complex chain of knowledge: the existence of something to know, of a consciousness able to know it, and of a knowledge that has learned to distinguish between such concepts as the proved and the unproved.

Socrates got a beating there. To my mind, Rand is overambitious. A reasonable human being will operate on her assumptions, but they will not take them to be the only possibility.

5. Rand forgets the darker side of trade

To trade by means of money is the code of the men of good will.

What about selling heroin, Ayn?

And, Ayn, if you don’t hire me to be your security guard, I will break your windows.

It’s not just the Church that blackmails people.

6. Rand believes we live in a meritocracy of irreplaceable minds

In Atlas Shrugged, the brightest, most industrious people escape into a hidden world one by one as their creations get nationalised. This leads to a failed state; everything comes to a stand-still. Would this happen in reality?

This assumes that we live in a meritocracy. I believe in the power of genetics more than most people, but not everyone who inherits their parent’s empire is going to be as good as them. Rand acknowledges this fact in her character Jim Taggart, but seems to imply that the best will still rise to the top.

I don’t think that the world would be quite so helpless without its aristocracy. Every significant change of power in history has led to the destruction of the previous regime’s nobility. They just kept going anyway though: new nobility found its feet pretty quickly. When Atlas gets tired, he just adjusts his grip.

7. Rand states that happiness is the purpose of life

What a nice and simple formula. Only it is as foggy as dividing by zero. What does it mean to be happy, Ayn?

ayn rand nietzsche philosophy

What is my verdict on Rand’s philosophy?

I do agree that reality exists without our consciousness (this is the central idea of objectivism).

I admire her love of life, reality, intellect and industrious creation of value.

I think she simplified the complex and destroyed her credibility.

Her work is more of an ideology with defined values than a philosophy that helps to understand the word.