February 6. Can social technologists solve the atomization problem? The author does a great job framing the problem. Condensed:
The structure of the problem is not man vs machine. It is actually a market-driven process that concentrates society's top cognitive talent on the engineering problem of how to best undermine an individual's agency. It's not a fair fight. We've all been taught that we're sovereign individuals gifted with full agency and capable of choosing what's best for ourselves at any given moment. But this doesn't describe the world as it actually exists.
I think his solutions and predictions are off base. They're all about communities finding ways to limit the use of technology. But it's not clear that technology is making us unhappy. I mean, that's what's happening, but it's hard to prove it, and it doesn't feel that way. We love our devices, and hate the world.
Here's how I see it playing out. First, suicide acceptance. I was watching that Cheer documentary, and there's a bit where someone says, "If you don't like it, there's the door." It occurred to me, nobody says that about life. There's a door, but we don't talk about it, and trying to go through it is illegal. So I expect the dominant culture to have stronger anti-suicide messages, while underground movements become bolder in supporting suicide for even healthy young people.
By the way, my argument against suicide is that the people who want to kill themselves are the same people who intuitively sense how much better life could be, and they're the ones we need the most.
Second, the continuing growth of tribalism, which I define as identification with a group, where the group identity is based on conflict with some other group. It's like a correction against systems that do a bad job of providing meaning, because ingroup-outgroup violence is a source of meaning that's strong and simple and always waiting under the surface.
Third, even deeper immersion in technology, and I'm not necessarily against it. I frame it like this: Nature, good; human-made physical world, bad; human-made imaginary worlds, good. The problem is, who's going to do the grunt work if we're all gaming? In the best-case scenario, we learn things from imaginary worlds that show us how to make the physical world better.
What's probably really going to happen, is that today's radical threat becomes tomorrow's new normal. We'll just get used to the burden that pocket computers put on mental health, and in another 20 years, we'll all be talking about the threat of biotech.
February 10. Important NY Times piece, The Age of Decadence. In popular use, the word "decadence" mostly means chocolate, so we need a good definition, and the author has one, based on the writings of Jacques Barzun:
Decadence refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.
Yep, that sounds like us. The interesting thing is, he's not arguing that decadence will lead to collapse, but that it might go on for a very long time: "The Chinese and Ottoman empires persisted for centuries under decadent conditions, and it was more than 400 years from Caligula to the actual fall of Rome."
I'm thinking of this subject in terms of video games. In almost every game where you're exploring a world and getting stronger, from Civilization to Fallout, the early game is more fun than the late game. In the early game, you're living on the edge, everything is new, every upgrade is vital. By the end, you're just managing a bunch of shit.
How do we make a society where the late game is as good as the early game, when we struggle to even make a game where the late game is as good as the early game? I think the best strategy is to keep knocking ourselves back to the early game, and we can learn a lot from nomadic cultures.
It's funny because, at the moment, it's the right wing that's more likely to say that life is too soft and easy. But the reforms that enable being knocked back to the early game, are left wing reforms, that make it easy for the rich to lose their money, and make it fun to be destitute.
February 12. That decadence article is condensed from a new book, The Decadent Society by Ross Douthat, and Peter Thiel has a review. It includes the disappointing news of Douthat's conclusions. Of course it's easier to point out what's wrong with the world than to know what to do about it, but he recommends religion and space travel.
As much as I love fiction and games and music and art about space travel, it's just not realistic that we'll develop a bunch of really difficult technologies so we can spend hundreds of years traveling to planets that are nowhere near as good as the one we're already on.
If humans don't go extinct from boredom, but do something crazy and new, I have two reasonable predictions, and a wild speculation.
First, an unconditional basic income. It would be better to just make necessities free, but that's politically impossible, while the UBI is politically likely, because it would allow the state to prop up late-stage capitalism. It's not a long-term solution, because ordinary people need external structure in their lives -- but I don't, and people like me, who thrive in unstructured time, will plant the seeds of the world to come.
Second, normalization of psychedelics. The next frontier is not space but mind, and this is why we're not going back to old-time religion, because it's based on authority figures telling stories about the liminal experiences of legendary people. When we're all having our own liminal experiences, there will be teachers and communities to help us make sense of them, but it will be so different from religion as we know it, that we'll need a different word.
My wild speculation is based on the fact that photosynthesis is only 0.1-2% efficient. Here's a page about upgrading photosynthesis. It's a hard challenge, but still easier than interstellar travel, to engineer plants that are much better at turning sunlight into food, and that can spread unfarmed.
No empire ever rose in a place where you could live off the land. A bad society won't last long if people can just leave. So this is my utopian vision: after population decline, the world will be covered with cool ruins, with modquats climbing walls and groundapples cracking pavement, and caravans will travel the weedy highways through an endless variety of scrap cities and rustic villages.