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


Is everyone naked in a Dyson sphere?

November 15, 2013 · Posted in Culture, Science and technology, Sociology · Comment 

There was a time, not long ago, when certain subcultures (most salient being the Cybergoth/Industrial subculture) reflected a look, or at least wish, about the future. When it began in earnest in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it still felt like we were all living on the edge of an interconnected "sci-fi" like world - and I think that feeling was correct. No one had a smartphone yet, the popular "second generation" web was just starting to hit its stride, and sci-fi yet to truly cement itself in every day popular culture (though it was getting there.) In the world of the time, we were still cargo-culting techno-fashion, as imagined by Geiger, "Tron", Anime/Manga artists, and The Wachowskis. Now that the actual technology that was being aped is here, things look quite different.

Today, when we look around at the subcultural landscape, what we see looks a lot like visions of the past, rather than any imagined future. The same way that sci-fi authors are now unable to keep up with the pace of change (as reality rapidly passes their ability to imagine, at least in any work we would deem a recognizable future), so too have our fashions stopped imagining. We're in an interesting place where the "future" that was imagined for so long is all around us, next to us, on us, with us, every second of the day. This, coupled with so many dashed dreams about what a glorious future would look like (we got the gadgets and connectivity, but haven't come close to solving the hard problems) have caused subcultures, and to a large degree, the mainstream culture (now) to use a backward-looking lens through which to view and imagine ourselves. Perhaps as a reaction to the ever-present technology, and lack of what "feels" like more than the mundane, many people have reacted by that oft-quoted search for "authenticity", where authenticity looks like "things that are old, made by hand or at least pretend to be, things that are associated with 'simpler' eras, or things that feel 'closer to the earth'" at least as they are imagined by many movie-makers and authors in  the developed world.

Of course, these things go in cycles, as it did with hippies, grunge, and now all things "twee, earthy, and old" but I do wonder if this time it's less simply cyclical, and more a reaction (due to fatigue and disappointment with how things have turned so far) or perhaps a kind of "hybridization by equilibrium." That is, as the environment gets more sophisticated, people compensate by looking or acting "more authentic and/or earthy" (the reaction to the way  Google Glass looks could be telling.) 

Writing this post, I was reminded of this quote by Fran Leibowitz, which echoes some of the thoughts here:

"I have a number of theories but one theory is that we live in the era of such innovation in technology,” Lewbowitz said. “It’s almost like we can’t do two things at once. If science or technology is going to be racing ahead, then the society is stuck. Also, I think it’s a way for people of my age to stay in the center of things."

So what happened to the future? We're living in it.

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.

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.


The three defining ideas about economics in America

October 18, 2011 · Posted in Economics, Sociology, Theory, Uncategorized · Comment 

Articles on these three ideas have been floating around for the past few months, and I've been thinking about ways to synthesize them. Perhaps at a later date. For now, I thought I'd simply list and summarize them, to serve as a reminder. Understanding these things are extremely important for understanding many of the other problems in the US today:

1) The Lottery Effect

"...the other main reason Americans seem so unperturbed by the widening chasm between the rich and everyone else is what I like to call the lottery effect. Buying lottery tickets is clearly an irrational act -- the odds are hugely stacked against us. But many millions of us do, because we see the powerful evidence that an ordinary person, someone just like us whose only qualifying act was to buy a ticket, wins our favorite lottery every week.

For many Americans, the nation’s rowdy form of capitalism is a lottery that has similarly bestowed fabulous rewards on the Everyman."

2) Last Place Aversion

"that poor Americans’ antipathy toward redistribution might be due not to their desire to one day be at the top of the income distribution, but to their fear of falling to the bottom. We show that humans have a deep psychological aversion to being in “last place” -- recall the shame of being picked last in gym class -- such that individuals near the bottom of the income distribution may be wary of redistribution because it could help those just below them leapfrog above them."

3) The Just World Fallacy

"The just-world hypothesis (also called the just-world theory, just-world fallacy, just-world effect, or just-world phenomenon) refers to the tendency for people to want to believe that the world is fundamentally just. As a result, when they witness an otherwise inexplicable injustice they rationalize it by searching for things that the victim might have done to deserve it. This deflects their anxiety, and lets them continue to believe the world is a just place, but often at the expense of blaming victims for things that were not, objectively, their fault."

The future of work, part 2

October 5, 2011 · Posted in Business, Culture, Government, Politics, Sociology · Comment 

Very interesting and important video. It starts getting especially interesting around 1:00:00 when Cowen and Ford start talking. A few things:

- The idea of "personal shoppers" being a growth area seems dubious. With recommendation and predictive desire systems getting better all the time, I think this is probably a no-go.

- Nannies might be a growth area for a few decades, but decent AI will likely obviate the need for these as well. I'd give this one 50-50 odds over the next 4-6 decades.

- Basically everyone on that panel endorsed the guaranteed income. The fact that people from so many different perspectives had their policy prescription converge to that is really striking.

- This also brings us back to the "how do we occupy the unemployed masses?" question yet again. Arts and leisure activities will likely not need much support from society, as they will just happen. Sports might (stadiums, etc.) Other things we'll probably be looking at will be extremely powerful, long-lasting, side-effect-free (or tolerable side effect having) drugs. That road of course leads to wireheading, but I think that denying that as a possibility now is extremely naive.

A cultural shift will be required, as several people in the video make clear. Having one's self worth (and respect of one's peers/society) be defined by a traditional support-one's-livelihood "job" is going to have to disappear. Demonization of those "lazy, ne'er do wells" is just not going to work in a future where much human labor is not needed.

Another thing this brings to mind is the effect on the labor market that does continue to function: a great deal less unemployment, at least for a long while. For those skills that are essentially not able to be automated any time soon (let's stay over, the next 50-100 years) those that stay in the labor market will not be doing much competing for open positions. It may in fact be an employee's market in those cases where someone is not simply their own business.

Desperately Seeking Serendipity

May 16, 2011 · Posted in Sociology · Comment 

Desperately Seeking Serendipity is an must-read article on cities, serendipity, urban planning and design, and the process of discovery in general. Aside from some minor quibbles with his grouping terms and terminology, the article is excellent. 

This part really stood out as a feature that pretty much every mapping and discovery service needs to implement:

"The map I want is the one that lets me shuffle not just through my friends’ preferences but through annotations from different groups: first time visitors to the city; long-time Vancouverites; foodies; visitors from Japan, Korea or China."