Some of us were born too early

Over the past century or so, we've been separating many of the artifacts of our history that were affronts to personal liberty and autonomy: we've separated sex and reproduction (birth control); reproduction and marriage (wide acceptance of unmarried reproduction); marriage and religion (civil unions and their equivalent); sex and marriage (sexual revolution, pro-sexual freedom laws and mores); and family and personal safety and security (welfare states.) Though we do have these things, it's still very rare to find people who embrace the 'core four' types of separation in their personal lives, rather than simply being accepting of the idea that others do these things. Tolerance, not embrace.  For myself, I long ago rejected reproduction (which I consider immoral due to violation of consent theory; a logistical, financial, and time drain; stressful; and ultimately, boring); marriage (completely outmoded); family (that is, treating people specially because of their genetic distance, rather than shared beliefs, pursuits, etc. ) and religion (unnecessary at best, dangerous at worst.) 

Recently, I attempted to think of the number of people who I've known in my life who share these ideas. Who not only accept them, but live them - and are ironclad in their rejection of these things. The number is very small. Single digits. While that's my personal sample, it probably wouldn't be too large a leap to assume that the number of people out there with the same outlook is small. So why is this? Two major things come to mind, one economic, and the other social.

Reason 1: fear of the loss of non-government safety nets. Is the marginal person who would reject these things afraid of being ostracized by those that provide tacit financial and logistical support if they were to openly reject them? How many people are out there having children, getting married, pretending to like their relatives, and faking devotion to maintain a financial lifeline from their parents, siblings, or 'friends'? If society gave people real autonomy - via a guaranteed income, a real universal health care system, cheap higher education, low housing costs - how many people would choose to reject these things and pursue their own desires, devoid of any of the 'traditional' constraints? Just as the birth control pill helped launch the behaviors and culture associated with modern sexual freedom and liberalized divorce laws gave women the ability to escape suffocating marriages and pursue their own desires more easily, so too might pro-autonomy economic policies allow others held back by the need to please the holders of their implicit personal safety net to truly go out own their own.

Reason 2: fear of social ostracism. A society of autonomous, self-actualized, knowledge and pleasure pursuing individualists that are freed from the economic constraints associated with day-to-day survival sounds like a wonderful thing to me. Even after the first constraint is fixed, we'd still have another problem - the lag time between it being possible, and wide-enough acceptance that people would actually do it. Why? The marginal person might also be afraid of social rejection and loneliness - especially in places that hold very tightly to these outmoded ideas. It would likely take decades for this one to sort itself out - but just as ideas and behaviors birthed by the sexual revolution took until the 1990s / 2000s to truly become a widespread (rather than countercultural) reality, it likely would too.

Eventually, I do think we'll get there, and we'll continue to develop technologies to unshackle ourselves from other constraints (anti-aging and mind uploading would completely remove the perceived need for reproduction, for instance), but until then, we have societies still look terribly primitive in some of our eyes. Some of us were born too early.

State of things to come, medium-term-ish edition mini-roundup

Two must reads:

"Trotskyite singularitarians for Monarchism! A political speculation" by Charlie Stross

"Automation, inequality and geopolitics" by Tyler Cowen


The world is polarized, drone edition

November 18, 2013 · Posted in Government, Politics, Science and technology · Comment 

 Now that we have insect-sized assassination drones and assassination marketplaces may exist for real, we're entering a world of incredible polarization (interesting that we're seeing the same thing happen with wealth.) We're hitting double edged swords on everything in the area of drones/weapons/security. Make snooping easy, you get surveillance states / make snooping hard, dangerous groups are able to coordinate easily. Give resistance movements access to social networks, easy to coordinate resistance to despots / give despots access to social networks, easy to get propaganda out and use surveillance to monitor movements. Individuals can now have outsize power if they have the right tools (Anonymous, network security savvy individuals, attacking infrastructure, small terrorist groups) while governments have massive datasets, great surveillance tools, many people focused on this area, and lots of guns. Everyone in the middle is potentially caught in this.

We're approaching a world where a lone individual can build a drone to kill a world leader, and a world leader can kill a lone individual with a drone. Just like it's hard to put checks and balances on a nuclear state, so too is it hard to put checks and balances on a determined person with poison needle drone fleet.

Finally, Schneier's latest Crypto-gram is a must-read:

We're all going to need personal protection bubbles.

What would you pay for?

October 23, 2013 · Posted in Economics, Government, Science and technology · Comment 

 Though I write quite a lot about how jobs are disappearing, that doesn't mean there's nothing left to do. In fact, there are a large number of things that "need" doing, but where we have barely scratched the collective surface:

  • Youth preservation
  • Life extension
  • Safe, rejection-drug free artificial organs
  • "Perfect" prosthetics / regeneration technology
  • Fast/instant growing food
  • Delicious, calorie and nutrient-free food
  • Faster intra and inter-continental transport
  • Underwater breathing gel that works without side effects

What do these things have in common besides formerly being only in the realm of science fiction? They require large investments of time and cash, with little hope of immediate return. If they existed, however, plenty of people would pay for them. We've eaten the low-hanging fruit already, but as societies, still aren't prepared for the work to get the higher hanging stuff.

The failure of political gridlock

September 18, 2013 · Posted in Government, Policy, Politics · Comment 

 Our system of divided government in the US is designed as a double-edged sword: things that are useful happen slowly, but things that are dangerous are slowed (or stopped.) That's the price we're supposed to pay. When dangerous things like the PATRIOT act can pass, but useful policies like working out the debt ceiling, or updating redistribution policies to reflect modern realities have no chance, it becomes clear that our system has failed. The doubled-sword is now a "Bident", with both prongs facing us.

Guaranteed basic income and automation super link roundup

July 11, 2013 · Posted in Economics, Government, Politics · Comment 

It's finally entered the mainstream. The guaranteed basic income will have to be our transitional policy until we reach post-scarcity (and that's a long way off), and there's just no way around it anymore:

Share Or Die as a survival horror manual

Perhaps it should be titled “how to survive in an early post-apocalyptic zombie-infested wasteland”, with chapters like “collaborative consumption” guiding the way to how to divvy up scarce provisions and “unprepared” showing the disconnectedness and naivete of a formerly sheltered set of people (and how quickly the naivete dissipates when said people are thrust headlong intro reality.) In many ways, the rise of disaster fiction dovetails nicely with the follies and problems of our age. Originally created as a critique of mindless consumer capitalism, zombie survival-horror as a genre perhaps is now more apt as both a warning for those who have yet to experience this new world first-hand, and set of training videos for surviving it. Both the resurgence of these genres and the creation of this book, in retrospect, now seem to have been inevitable.

The book deals with a many issues related to our “New New Economy” (and I recommend that everyone read the original “The New Job Security” book, which I read back in the early 2000s. It turned out to be prescient quite quickly.) “Share or Die” deserves a lot of credit for putting personal stories and names to things that have been studied and detailed in the broad strokes, via discussions of policies like deregulation, downsizing, offshoring, outsourcing, widespread automation, and upper-income-bracket tax cuts; ballooning student debt, and the associated peonage of its debtors, as well as the fact that degrees have gone from proof of competence to the most basic of HR filters; short-lived traditions like “jobs for life” gone, and at-will employment treated the way you’d expect based on the label; the shrinking or disappearance of health benefits, our lack of universal health care, or paid leave; the dog-eat-dog economy where the dogs are getting hungrier as the opportunities shrink with each passing day; and a landscape which differs from the rosy  ”you can do anything if you only try” meritocratic fairytales pushed by our institutions, policymakers, teachers, and many others who grew up in an era (post WWII to Reagan) where standards of living seemed like they’d rise forever and opportunity for everyone seemed ever-present, and never-ending.

The book offers many ideas for coping – a few of which are worth entertaining – but are mostly just the ideas of people grasping for something, anything that will deliver us from this predicament. Unfortunately, the vast majority of ideas will not serve most people very well, or for very long. In this way, the ineffectiveness, indifference, or complete absence of societal institutions present in virtually every piece of zombie (and related disaster genres) fiction look like extremely fitting metaphors for our government, corporations, and charities. From the false promises of the “governments” of “Survivors” and “Threads” to their complete absence in “The Walking Dead” or “28 days later“, these pieces of fiction illustrate quite well the plight of those under 40, and increasingly, those over it, today. Those genres also shows what happens as the supplies run out, the crazy ideas which seemed to have a hope of working (the book) stop doing so, and the nerves are well past the frayed stage.

Share Or Die is an excellent, ground-level snapshot of our new age. An age without useful answers (only the same answers that have failed us for a long time), and without the promise of prosperity returning anytime soon.  An age which, to someone transported here from only two or three decades ago, would seem like a radically futuristic place (and it many ways it is.) The powerful devices in our hands, the always-connectedness, the truly instant communications, self-driving cars, the nascent “cyborging” of humanity, the medical advances, and a great many other wonderful things. It also looks like those other futures – the ones with the walled fortresses, and black seas; poverty; despair; wealth concentration; a growing underclass; social unrest and outright rebellions; rising political divisions; and a widespread lack of trust of just about everything

Lastly, there appears to be another parallel in the book to those movies and shows. At some point a few of the characters come to a terrible realization: that no help is coming.

Fixing higher education

March 17, 2012 · Posted in Economics, Government, Policy · Comment 

This article gives a brief summary of the goals of Peter Diamandis, who has gone from creating the X prize to trying to fix the educational system. Certainly any good ideas in this area are welcome, but I think we need to understand just what the problems with “education”, particularly “higher education” are. Most of this will probably be old news to those who study the issue formally, but this will hopefully be helpful as a general framework for everyone else.

  1. The actual “learning” problem. Getting useful facts into the minds of people. The challenges around this one are fairly well-understood. People with differing levels of ability made need different amounts of background information. Different learning styles (visual, tactile, auditory, etc.) need to be accommodated. Things of that nature. The ultimate fix is obviously something like Matrix-style insta-learning, but until then smaller innovations are surely possible.
  2. The “credentialing” problem. How do we prove that an individual knows what they say they do (or think they do)? Plenty of schemes have been devised by organizations to gauge ability, with varying levels of success depending on the individual, organizations, methods, etc. Thankfully, the costs to being wrong are not nearly as bad as they are made out to be; picking the “wrong” candidate is not likely to be the downfall of any particular organization. The real issue is simply the value of the credential. As has become obvious, it’s used as a filtering mechanism since there are so many more people who need jobs than open positions. The “fix” here is to adjust society and culture to the idea that fewer people will work in the future, and that’s OK. A guaranteed income and universal health care will mean we can finally separate jobs from livelihoods. This has the added bonus of likely reducing competition for jobs, which will mean less wheat/chaff sorting will be necessary.
  3. The “funding” problem. Higher education is expensive. Debt is burdensome. All well known, and well understood issues. Thankfully, this one seems like the easiest to fix. Remote, online learning systems has made enormous progress (Khan Academy being the most prominent recent example.) We could have a central repository of lessons taught in different styles, and in different languages so that it’s highly accessible to different types of learners. What goes away in this equation is the need for huge numbers of teachers teaching the same subject over and over for years on end when a single repository of “best-in-class” lessons will do (not to mention physical campuses, classrooms, etc.) The lessons could of course be updated from time to time if new facts become available or the like, but by and large, everyone would draw from the same pool of instructional materials. This will help bring the cost of education way, way down. Free (for the student – public funding makes a great deal of sense here) higher education with this model becomes an extremely compelling prospect.
  4. The “networking” problem. The case has often been made that the real value of higher education is the ability to mix with others (in person) who will later become bosses, co-workers, company co-founders, vendors, customers, etc. along with easy idea exchange/serendipity enabling. Those who make this case rightly argue that “learning” is secondary (and could probably be handled with the methods outlined above)  and that the real value with the current boots-on-campus system is that relationships and chance meetings. While I agree with the principle, this seems like something that is fairly easily replaced with trade shows, workshops, conventions, co-working spaces, networking events, and such. Boots-on-campus can be turned into boots-in-wherever-other-interested people are. There’s probably good business innovation opportunities for providing lists, search capabilities, targeted event hosting, the works.
  5. The “time” problem. Due to the way we learn currently (we really do need that insta-learning system), one thing is hard to reduce: time. It still takes a minimum amount of time to really learn the subjects that may be important to one’s career. While doing all this learning, you tend to not be making much (or any) money. Dedicated autodidacts who work (whom I count myself among) are likely the exceptions to this know this one well. It’s useful, important, even fun – but there’s no question about the time commitment on a daily basis. Those without a lot of discipline and a willingness to give up a lot of other things may find doing things this way impossible, even if someone else is footing the bill. If someone else isn’t footing the bill? Then you often have real problems. Work while in school? It’s the perfect recipe for burnout, and forgetting most of the things you learn. Live off your savings? A very bitter pill, often impossible. As we can see, this issue is tougher, but there are possibilities here. The very first one is full-funding for living costs (with all the expected means-testing and restrictions – things like no dependents, limits on how long you can attend, etc. to keep the system honest.) Combined with the far cheaper cost of education due to number four above, and this one could be workable. 

Now that we have a framework for understanding the issues with higher education today, we can hopefully dig harder for solutions. It’s a multi-faceted problem, with each facet having a different level of difficulty, but none insurmountable. As for Mr. Diamandis and his quest, I’m looking forward to what he comes up with. It’s certainly a worthy goal.

An aside: Autodidacticism in today’s world. For many careers, this has become a necessity. You’re required to keep up with all the latest research, trends, tools, and a variety of other things that make you current. Sure, having a solid foundation helps, but is no longer enough (I’d argue it hasn’t been enough for a long time.) You’re required to learn every day to keep up. Some may find this distasteful, even abhorrent, but I believe it’s the reality today, and as the speed of progress increases, will only become more pronounced. Again, a guaranteed basic income would mean that the pressure to do this for those who aren’t equipped for it (or just hate it) would go away. Self-starters would be rewarded without others winding up homeless. This solution seems more obvious every single day. It also means that for those left competing, things would get far more meritocratic. It’s a win all around.

The Caging of America (from the New Yorker)

March 11, 2012 · Posted in Government, Policy · Comment 

A very interesting overview of the current state of imprisonment in America, along with recent data on crime prevention. Though I don't agree with all of it, it does have some excellent insights like "Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry." Well worth a read:

The state and future of the nation-state

February 14, 2012 · Posted in Government, Politics, Sociology · Comment 

A response to: The Nation-State Reborn

Eventually we will probably have a global government. One language, one currency, immigration/emigration policies at parity, universal respect of human rights/civil liberties, "near-instant" transport, one system of labor and environmental laws, the works. That day, however, is a ways off. The Internet may be breaking down barriers, but not quickly enough or broadly enough to make this a reality in the next few decades. It will take time to have a global culture and consciousness, a belief in a shared set of values that people /actually/ agree on, rather than just pay lip service to. The "loyalty to real estate" that the ethicists referred to in the post decry perhaps should be considered an unfortunate relic of our tribalist past (It's an argument I'm highly sympathetic to.) An unfortunate, artificial barrier separating human beings from each other. That doesn't mean, however, that we can simply skip it or pretend it's going to disappear tomorrow. In a way, we really *need* their disdain of it; it serves to push the intellectual margin, even if we don't move towards the "ideal end game" anytime soon. We still need people thinking about it and preparing for it.

Those that are part of the "globetrotters" club get to experience this reality to a degree now. When they travel to another country, they meet others like themselves. Many may have similar interests, values, shared experiences and backgrounds (even if they come from different countries - they get to absorb the "culture" of the institutions they have been a part of - whether that be Harvard, Yale, or the IMF.) On top of that, they get to live life in whatever country that happen to be residing in or visiting in a very similar way. Just look at the "special zones" in various theocratic Middle Eastern countries that the diplomats, international business people, etc. stay in. You get to dress in a way you're accustomed to, drink, and socialize without interference from the national government. Tiny states-within-states.

All this perhaps gives us a preview of what a nation state-less future will be like. Combine this with superabundance and ultra-fast travel and we'll be on to the next stage of human society. A global one. A fair one. A barrier-less one. One where stereotypes about and hate towards humans goes away. Where we do not divide ourselves up based on how we look, where we were born, our what haplogroups we belong to.

Until that day comes, however, the nation state is the best we've got. We should figure out how to reboot it, reconfigure it, remake it, or whatever is necessary to make it work until we are actually able to reach that next stage of human society. I personally look forward to that day.


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