A Tale of Two Moralities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Everybody knows the first part, but nobody finishes the paragraph.[1] We are living in another such period of extremes, and importantly, perceived extremes (if, in fact, there was ever a time in which we did not live within and amongst the extremities of experience), one of profound promise for the future and of deep pessimism as our knowledge and social systems develop at a breakneck pace with changes in technology. This is overwhelming and forces us to decode and integrate all this new information into our value systems. Some things have not changed in 300,000 years, like the survival of our species always prodded into our conscious and unconscious minds by the promises and fears of pleasure and pain. Much of our group and individual behaviors derive from those two places, urging us to productive, procreative behavior. They are universals, and mutual experiences of pain and joy tie us together in communities, friendships, and families. The Covid-19 pandemic, while causing massive amounts of suffering throughout the world, has promoted political and social disunity in the United States – I offer no metrics, but I don’t believe this is a controversial statement. I don’t think people shared the same experiences regarding lockdowns, wealth accumulation, raising children, or personal grief. How could we when the nature of the shock, placing a tax on physical contact, necessarily impacted people of different economic statuses differently? During this most recent period of disruption and dislocation, technological innovations and the primacy of “social distancing” highlighted and enhanced our involvement and dependency on the internet. Communities of increasing sophistication developed by computer science experts and populated with regular citizens are prominent and a gateway to disintermediation and civic and economic democratization and decentralization. While over the last few decades, the physical state of the people of the world has improved in material ways – as it has almost continuously since the Renaissance – an ugly inequality the pandemic highlighted was the depressing increase in so-called “deaths of despair,” deaths caused by suicide, alcoholism, or drug use and addiction. One of the reasons why there was an increase in these deaths is that changing social circumstances and technological advances leave us unhappy in many ways, and I think this is almost always the paradox of progress.

Contradiction walks with humanity through any development, in any era. Our present age of contradictions is both personal and social. As technology becomes more specialized, intricate, and complex, the more the majority of people must rely on automated processes or expertise to harness the technologies. At the same time this is happening, trust in those processes and expertise is waning. We are: more free and more controlled, more educated and more ignorant, more contented and more unhappy. What is more, as these gulfs open up between us, and often within us, our sense of morality changes as well. Communities attached to moral changes fade and bloom, sometimes with stunning speed. With unlimited information decreasing centralized control and certainty about the future, these groups sometimes grow more certain in their beliefs. As former moral imperatives are rendered obsolete, the moral conviction of the new groups may grow. As apathy and ignorance grows, political and social conviction grows as well. As individual expression is unshackled, people seek familiar spaces in which to fit their views.

Online communication is intensely public, always curated, and responses can be thought about before they’re distributed. Social pressure is never far away from us, since we are in the digital panopticon when participating in the new public square. At the same time as our division seems to grow more heated even as the underlying principles lack depth, the punishment for deviation from the new principles is more severe, since deviations can rarely escape notice and social censure.

As new issues which are unaddressed by old moral commitments increase in salience, new patterns emerge. A rise in the spread of “misinformation” raises questions of the costs which the collective must pay to allow such openness. Increased understanding of the complexity of dynamic systems and psychology reveals formerly hidden inequalities tied to race, and other ethnic or social features which provoke bias. Globalization promotes prosperity in the world, but what of its economic harm at home? Many of these questions lead to fundamental political policy disagreements, but so much of our conflict skirts the edges of these issues. Both the word “moral” and “ethic” derive from concepts related to appropriate conduct in public society (a favorite pastime is looking up the etymology of words, it can be wonderfully revealing about the connotations of words, and how we think). This etymology provides us with an intuition that morals change when the mass of people shift their beliefs. Community morals are habitual, they are a learned behavior, not an innate one.

Over time we have come to expect an unrestrained freedom of speech, for example. This has caused a conflict involving the spread of so-called misinformation as I mentioned above. The term “free speech” is a kind of anachronism. We are using a term from the 1700’s to mean something entirely different than what “freedom of speech” meant to those who framed the idea in our Constitution. We are accustomed to a wild license the Founding Fathers never would have recognized. Freedom of speech, in the way we mean it now, means: being able to express almost any idea that is not specifically criminal without being subjected to public censure and “deplatforming,” much less legal sanction!

An ironic process occurred whereby the ability to debate the scope of regulation of speech for the good of the community was curtailed by formal legal sanction which made static our modern sense of free speech. Judges stifled debate, disallowing fundamental discussions about the nature of free speech. That is not to say our current definition of free speech is bad, just that even such deeply held values as this are changeable over time, and even those values are subject to larger frameworks of universal understanding.

All of these frameworks and their structures of value come from the organization of our communities. Our old tribal identities are failing, so we create new ones, especially ones that are mutually intelligible over the internet, where ethnicity, race, religion, and nationality are less important markers and where people can maintain multiple identities at once. Ambiguity, decentralization, and information-overload feeds common linkages by allowing people to pluck a sense of certainty out of “too much information” by finding evidence that conforms to almost any group view.

As all these traditional links of community are shorn away, people revert to more primitive expressions of group solidarity, namely: collective suffering. Much of this suffering forms from oppression, or a sense of victimhood, which can have social benefits.

I think we are going through a period of moral illegibility and changed communication patterns which compel the creation of new communities.

A visual display of a Twitter network, showing people crossing between different clusters – different communities

Our associations grow smaller and more local by the day, but the broader social groups that remain are the fumes evaporated from more substantial ideas. The Church’s creed of “Love Thy Neighbor and Thy Enemy” replaced by the creed of prosperity gospel and anti-abortion politics, the capitalist injunction to serve the greater good through individual prosperity and industry replaced by “number go up,” the principles of a restrained government which protects citizens from subjective reasons for imprisonment, dispossession of property, and execution reduced to the freedom to not wear a mask.

Emancipation from the ages-old oppressions of arbitrary government – government which obtains its authority on the principles of birth, force, or the supernatural – and poverty, vacates the vitality of our broad communal associations, and masses of information inhibit the growth of new, broader ideals. This social anarchy is anathema to our biology and to governments. As the chaos from the base of the social pyramid grows, the more force will be applied from the apex. I don’t think it is random that we’re seeing a rise in autocracy around the globe. This dual movement, one of simultaneous freeing and constricting social influences, accompanies improvements in communications technology.

The invention of moveable type in Europe helped enable the Reformation, as Luther’s ideas spread throughout Europe – provoking rebellion, and in turn, enormous forces of repression. French Revolutionary ideals were distributed through innumerable pamphlets, newspapers, and even in letters from an increasingly literate populace to one another, while that same literary explosion contributed to the social uniformity and contagious fear that permitted the atrocious War in the Vendée and the Reign of Terror. Radio helped to create a society with flourishing national entertainments and an outlet for bold and imaginative artistry and dissemination of knowledge of current events, while allowing the development of monoculture and proving an invaluable aid to government propaganda. Social media helps oppressed citizens organize an Arab Spring, and enforces rigid social controls. With each successive, more immediate, more immersive, more personal advance in communications technology comes a stronger direct linkage to broad social and public affairs for each individual. Crime in San Francisco makes an emotional impact on a person in rural Vermont, or a law in Texas is reviled by a person in Los Angeles. Or the experience of a person in Australia is widely shared in the United States as evidence of dangerous COVID policy, and a racist incident in Wales gets a magazine story in the US. It makes sense that such a broadening of perspective would generalize emotional reactions.

Never have so many people been so free to invent and live in their own moral codes, or to live by the fruits of their own intellectual labor, but few people are able to stand entirely in their own view of the world. People will seek out community, even if it is not an apparent motivation to themselves at all. Our social interactions are always ambiguous and layered. The confident newcomer enters a group and boldly greets others, making conversation and telling people about themself. Everyone knows that this is both a genuine attempt to learn about and introduce oneself to others while simultaneously being an act, a method of securing social support from others. People exist on different levels: the person we see, the person we believe we are based on our own internal psychology, and the person we don’t know. We contain multitudes, the endless pathways of our mind unfurling into dark territory – virgin terrain even to ourselves.

And even as the world becomes connected in more complex ways, with identities not limited to one group or another, a paradox exists wherein our perception of there being fewer dominant ideologies increases.

Americans are now convinced that we are polarized (and of course, politically, we are), but this perception is more important than an actual fact, if it is indeed true. People may not even know themselves, let alone others, and most of us are far too complicated to be crammed into one of two social-political groupings, and far too uncaring or ignorant to have coherent political ideologies. Popular pundits and politicians reinforce this view by taking individual actions or beliefs of individual people and forcing them to be representative of a supposedly coherent whole – part of the cherry-picking process enabled by endless flows of information. Social media and the internet exacerbates some of these dynamics whereby hidden communities, with loosely held beliefs which are broadly applicable and do not preclude participation in other communities, are created and strengthened.

Seeking out “independent” centers of thought to combat mainstream orthodoxy hides the development of new communities with their own orthodoxy. For instance, in combating the groupthink of the “liberal mainstream media,” there is a covert community of “conservative” morality and analysis of climate change. There is a robust and widespread “contrarian consensus” about the harm caused by restricting the use of fossil fuels. Take the rising popularity of the “Doomberg” account on Twitter and Substack, who explains in clear, imaginative terms this contrarian consensus view of climate-change influenced fossil fuel policies.[2] The same can be said of the intelligence and law-enforcement apparatuses of the United States’ government. When Glenn Greenwald or Matt Taibbi focus their efforts on elevating conservative-grievance-politics talking-points (e.g. that the riot at the Capitol was not a big deal), they are feeding a view of the world which girds a community that often transcends our two political parties. Many of the arguments are true, or at least true in parts, but leave out reasonable counters. Commentators often grow upset about big tech censorship of conservatives, but almost every single day the top pages shared on Facebook are dominated by conservative pundits. This may not prove anything at all, but it is just as fit a data point as any made by an “independent.” These “independent” positions are nothing of the sort. They are not iconoclastic, they are, in fact, the stable views of a large community often based around grievances toward “elites” and crimping of personal freedoms.

New moral groupings can be found in almost any community touched by or reliant on the internet. Take a financial market-focused community on Reddit, whose popularity has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic, r/wallstreetbets. I would argue that it is bound together as much by posting screenshots of losses (they even have a term: “loss porn”) than by the huge gains. A perusal through other new financial subreddits (ones focused on meme-stocks AMC or GME for instance) reveals a lot about the not-immediately-apparent glue of these communities. Noticeable there, again, is the focus on group suffering and persecution. Reading or listening to more traditional financial groups, like value investors, also yields the same focus on suffering and group-wide value judgments.

People talk a lot about fear and greed, and behavioral errors, and the madness of crowds, but I see a lot of moral judgments in markets.

It is immoral for Tesla to get bid up (go to zero).

It is immoral for people to short (ape in to) AMC and GME.

It is immoral for people to claim that BTC is going to zero ($100K).

It is immoral for commodity prices to increase (decline) exponentially.

In the broad culture and political strife which we perceive manifesting in political polarization, morality and suffering are prominent. Though I submit that this strife is still not apparent as being more about community rather than policy issues.

What we are witnessing in the fear of critical race theory, or the conviction of white Americans that they’re being discriminated against, or anti-vaccine hyperbolics claiming there is a coming genocide is not idiocy or irrational fear, it is a set of intertwined signals of common persecution and suffering based on a specific moral code (one based around ideals of autonomy) which enhances group cohesion. On the “liberal” side we see a similar set of signals of group suffering, based around moral ideals of equality, wherein you see the conviction that racism is at all-time highs, that minorities and low-income workers are being especially economically oppressed, and that global warming is going to drive of us to the edge of extinction because of capitalist greed.

Again, these ideas of moral purity attained through suffering and bonding through persecution are not new, they are ancient, as old as human beings. The development of new moralities is a perilous endeavor, however. There is great danger in periods of such social anarchy. George Orwell reviewed Hitler’s tome, Mein Kampf, in 1940, offering a valuable and prescient insight (highlights mine):

Also [Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation “Greatest happiness of the greatest number” is a good slogan, but at this moment “Better an end with horror than a horror without end” is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.

There is so much moral virtue and camaraderie in suffering, it is so powerful that it can be irresistible. The abstractions of the internet have created a possibly new way for suffering and persecution to be manufactured.  We don’t have to look far to see the emotional and moral appeal of the new American conservatism of Donald Trump[3], from his inaugural address (highlights mine):

For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs, and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes, starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment — it belongs to you…

…The forgotten men and women of our country, will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before. At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public, but for too many of our citizens a different reality exists. Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories, scattered like tombstones across the across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge, and the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

We are one nation and their pain is our pain

A Trump Rally in Mesa Arizona, notice the sign: Jobs vs. Mobs

Of course, there is truth here just like there is truth in the critiques of the independent journalists and the financial communities. There are people who are struggling, who are deprived, who are robbed of their potential. But the basis of the group identity he is claiming as the base of his sovereignty is shared suffering on a massive scale, the group he’s speaking to, the MAGA crowd, is being singled out as being burdened especially by the persecution of “elites.” Despite Trump’s brutal ignorance and depraved vulgarity, he repeated this effective message over and over in his campaign rallies, the mere content of which was too often ignored in favor of his buffoonish and risible statements regarding his many personal enemies. The value of this in the era of information overload is that anyone can claim they are part of the oppressed grouping, MAGA could be accepted by anyone, anyone can be a victim in one of these areas if they choose to identify themselves as such. And then it can be backed with barrages of statistics, or infinite cherry-picked examples. It is impossible to pin down the suffering of the group exactly, it is a feeling, a perception. It is amorphous and non-dependent on any outward marker of group-affiliation, like age or race.

As for the group based around the morality of equality, here is a quote from antiracism activist Ibram X. Kendi, in response to the question (paraphrased), what does a version of America look like where a person’s character matters more than their race? (again, highlights mine):

Well, what it looks like for me as a black American is that people do not view me as dangerous and thereby make my existence dangerous. It allows me to walk around this country and to not believe that people are going to fear me because of the color my skin. It allows me to believe, you know what, I didn’t get that job because I could have done better on my interview, not because of the color of my skin. It allows me to — a country where there’s racial equity, a country where there’s racial justice, you know, a country where there’s shared opportunity, a country where African American culture and Native American culture and the cultures of Mexican Americans and Korean Americans are all valued equally, that no one is being asked to assimilate into white American culture. There’s no such thing as standard professional wear. There’s no such thing as, well, you need to learn how to speak English in order to be an American. And we would truly not only have equity and justice for all but we would somehow have found a way to appreciate difference, to appreciate all of the human ethnic and cultural difference that exists in the United States. This is what could make this country great, in which we literally become a country where you could literally travel around this country and learn about cultures from all over the world and appreciate those cultures, and understand even your own culture from what other people are doing. There’s so much beauty here amid all this pain and I just want to peel away and remove away all of those scabs of racist policies so that people can heal and so that we can see true beauty.

This is a radical redefinition of what it means to be American (or perhaps, what it meant in the past), far away from dictates of the Constitution, or the primacy of democracy and capitalism. These new tribes, based primarily around suffering, are not anything like our old tribes, despite using such an ancient point of communalism. What is interesting about Kendi’s take here on his ideal community is that, even though it is centered around both the equality and autonomy of different racial groupings, it is an attitude that literally anyone can adopt: one of antiracism. So like MAGA’s tribe of persecution, antiracism’s tribe of equality is available to anyone who wishes to adopt it. Also, due to the appeals to structural and systemic racism, almost any policy or circumstance can be claimed to be racist, even if there is scant evidence. It is a completely inclusive group of choice, united solely by its conviction that the current government and policies of the country, and the beliefs of citizens, are inflicting pain and suffering on minority groups and the non-wealthy.

These new moralities competing with one another are both so broad and distant from more rigorous versions of their pure ideological ancestors and actual considerations of specific allocations of scarce resources that they promise complete inclusiveness. How easy is it to say online (or in a text, for that matter) “We have to stand up to the elites to prevent people from suffering?” That sentence could be used by both the autonomy and equality groupings to signal support of moral virtue, a commonality of suffering, and inclusion in an ideological tribe. What’s more, the generalities and distance of these communities from the actual, specific policy decisions that their moralities imply allows people to exist in other more focused or local groups, since there is no necessary exclusivity.

BLM protest in Stockholm, Sweden, highlighting the multiethnic nature of the movement

As seems to happen so often with large disruptive events, the unexpected tragedy of the pandemic hit our collective society at its most vulnerable points. It strained trust in governing institutions, projected wealth inequality in harsh relief, and disrupted the flow of goods and services in the global economy. There is no guarantee of quick relief from the pandemic, and there is no “normal” to which we can go back. And change is not going to decelerate. Every time communications technology improves, it becomes more intimate, it enables more individuality, setting us at opposition with our own selves and our innate, incontrovertible, inextinguishable yearning for a place in a community. There is opportunity here, as in so many other technological disruptions, for the creation of new morals and new morality which are precipitated by new social or political challenges. Reimagining our communities in new constructs of morality allowed for the destruction of slavery, the condemnation and curtailment of genocide, the alleviation of poverty, the right to education and so many wonderful innovations that were not innate in novel technology itself. New moralities also aided Totalitarianism, Imperialism, global conflict, and other evils of societies and government over the centuries.

I think, when political ideology and policy preference are understood, most often, as moral signaling centered around group suffering, our bitter cultural disputes become more rational. Instead of imputing irrationality to people, or stupidity, or malevolence, we can understand how our conflicts are often driven by the simple, persistent need to alleviate the anxiety and loneliness of social and moral homelessness in a time when mass amounts of communication is conducted in a virtual setting.

It is astonishing and poignant that, through all our advances, our unavoidable frailty and pain and willingness to sacrifice and suffer for one another remains such a powerful binding agent, giving purpose and meaning to our lives. As the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities are famous, so are the closing ones, relating a character’s thoughts about his own impending sacrifice of his life for the betterment of others:

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

[1] Not a bad metaphor for our contextless information society, eh?

[2] An excellent read by the way, I recommend it heartily: @doombergT on Twitter, https://doomberg.substack.com/

[3] My juxtaposition here is not meant to compare Donald Trump with Hitler, just to show the appeal and bond which suffering creates

Grey Days

Rapper Jay-Z released his final album, The Black Album, in 2003. Or it was supposed to be his final album, he has since released five more solo studio albums. As part of his grand exit from the music industry, amongst other types of extravagant promotions, he released an a capella version of his album to encourage people to remix the music. Artists and DJs complied, producing a profusion of mash-up albums, using music from numerous artists and genres to create new backing tracks to Jay-Z’s vocals.[1]

The most popular of these mash-ups, by far, was Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, which took music from The Beatle’s White Album to back the vocals. The music label which owned The Beatle’s recordings took exception to the use and widespread sharing of the music, and EMI Group moved to protect their copyrighted material, though they were ultimately unsuccessful in suppressing the album after a campaign to download and share the music in defiance of the law.

The Grey Album’s release and popularity was a victory for freedom of artistry over restrictive corporate copyright laws, it caused a boom in mash-ups, and it was another tremor in the earthquake of technological changes to culture and commerce. Mash-ups became a fad, as many people thought it was at the time, though they have maintained some persistence, but rarely as pop-music again. Music labels were not going to give up their control over their music, however.

In a war, any front made too formidable with fortifications and forces will be bypassed in favor of a weaker point of attack, the fortification of irrepressible artist independence was too popular for it to be attacked and repressed head-on, so it was bypassed. The battle over The Grey Album is a look into the past and reveals how early responses to the revolutions of the internet economy preceded more sophisticated tactics by corporations to maintain their profits – it reveals the incredible success of their shifts in tactics as well. Rap music, because of how the tracks are produced, is a prescient example of the struggle between entrenched corporate interests and innovators.

Hip-hop music was born from the process of sampling – of taking portions of other songs to create new music – and grew from a small niche to a mainstay of pop music. Though there are still artists innovating in that medium, rap music was abducted into corporate processes for income and content-generation long ago. This happens in almost every modern entertainment and content-based subculture now. As explained in this article: innovators are followed by fans, who are followed by “sociopaths” who exploit the creations of innovators for monetary or other types of gain. A corporation is a good example of these sociopaths (a comparison others have made before) and the “geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths” pattern holds true for any potentially lucrative activity.

So when a corporation, like EMI Group, wants to protect their business model against future innovation, what do they do? They use the laws and regulations designed to protect property ownership. EMI’s particular legal tool against The Grey Album was copyright law, which is (philosophically) designed to encourage innovation by allowing creators to make money from their original productions, though the laws are sometimes used to create moats protecting corporations’ profitable domains.

Of course, copyright laws are hard to enforce if you’re confronting large portions of the population breaking the law as happened in the aftermath of the release of The Grey Album. The great victory for the common people was won in an act of civil disobedience dubbed “Grey Tuesday,” after the dissemination of the cease-and-desist letters by EMI. Here, there was a clear hero (the artists, the people!) and a clear villain.

Corporations are the enemy, the villain, for almost every public grouping in some way. In vulgar political terms, the left hates corporations because of their exploitation of labor and the environment while the right hates corporations for their faux-woke sensibilities and support for liberals. In the more fluid political terms of the moment, populists hate corporations because they own all the political power, while libertarians hate corporations because they are rentiers swelling their margins from government largesse. Corporations and our reactions toward them are close to the core of our political divisiveness.

I used to worry about the politicization of everything, but now I think the transformation has happened to society, not politics. Everything is gamified and sorted by algorithms. It is this dominance, over our dopamine and over our attention, that are driving social changes. We look at – no, we consume – content which produces strong emotions and induces chemical rewards to flood our neurons. The corporations which we hate when viewed through the lenses of our political polarization are, at the least, enabling those very processes of polarization and atomization by driving our engagement and influencing our behavior. This convoluted, self-consuming process is important for more than one reason, and the difference between corporate responses to threatening innovation in 2004 and 2021 display these reasons quite clearly.

So what happened to EMI’s strategy in 2004? They pursued no legal action after the cease-and-desist letters and after they lost the Battle of Grey Tuesday. The likely explanations are that they did not want to suffer any public backlash, or they realized that the exposure was good for them. Since the currency of consumer products is attention, it makes sense that more of it, even if in violation of copyright laws, is a good thing – now even more true because of the network effects of social media.

Control of digital assets is best pursued by other means, by shifting strategy to more favorable ground. Convenience and ease are more effective at controlling the behavior of the masses than lawsuits. Making it difficult to rip tracks from an album, or download them off the internet, compiling a giant database of music and making it searchable, making individuals safe from potential legal action and downloading viruses – all are more impactful than suing people to make them stop sharing something on the internet. Spotify has done more to protect copyright for music labels than the destruction of Napster (while gathering-up income as a mediator between customers and their music libraries).

And what happened to innovation in music will happen to innovation in other areas. Legal crudeness, the use of a blunt weapon to bludgeon opponents, is ineffective against mass disobedience, but providing a service to people can pay dividends. Besides new(ish) formats for dissemination of music, territory unoptimized for corporate profit includes cryptocurrencies and NFT’s. Innovation is alive and well, side by side with risk and complexity.

Music can now go viral on TikTok, or still through Youtube or SoundCloud – with a song or artist’s popularity generated through social media engagement. Artists were able to promote themselves with the advent of social media in a way that was unfiltered and genuine, and many still are. One method from music labels to control this cyberspace is to snatch and sign artists as they’re becoming popular, gaining part of their future cash flows by providing them with the operations and convenience of huge capital-backing. Another way corporations co-opt this process of social media virality is through astroturfing (a play on the idea of “grassroots” engagement – it is buzz made to look like genuine popular engagement, but that is seeded by corporations). Astroturfing is being laundered through social media influencers for a variety of reasons now, to protect corporations or to protect corrupt governments. When someone expresses wonderment that conspiracy theories spread so easily online, someone should remind them that the viral posts from their favorite influencer, or the trending hashtags and topics, may be indistinguishable from organic narratives. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

DeFi (decentralized finance), operated through blockchains and cryptocurrencies like Ethereum, offer a bevy of financial products that were, just recently, only available through large (and hated) financial institutions. Products like loans with no credit checks, high-yield instruments, and financial rewards for supporting exchanges and programs are all at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection. Cryptocurrencies and the (apparently) wild speculation associated with them will eventually get regulated and co-opted. Here again, regulation is a powerful tool, but even more powerful is the centralized convenience provided by the simplification and aggregation offered by exchanges and other centralized middlemen. DeFi profits and control of investor behavior will belong to a Spotify of cryptocurrencies.

A boon to photographers, painters, and musicians is the invention and blooming popularity of NFT’s (derivatives of blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and DeFi) – another method whereby artists and creators and innovators can get paid directly for their work, bypassing centralized organizations and other corporate middlemen. NFT’s will be fully incorporated into any corporate content-producer’s digital strategies, truly independent artists will only exist on the margins while benefits from this medium will accrue to mostly large corporations. Even now, music labels all have NFT-teams to try and capitalize off of the nascent movement.

One thing to notice here: the cycle is speeding-up – the turnaround from independent art-forms and innovation to commoditization and monetization is rapid. Of course, this is offset by the pace of innovation enabled by interconnectivity. But in the war of the people vs. the corporations, the people are fighting on both sides.

The only way the corporations win is from the common assent of the masses. Maybe corporations are the villains, but they are aided and abetted by citizens in their villainy. Every examination of mass, internet-enabled phenomena must account for the fact that people are more easily herded than they are extorted – especially by entities unable to use the direct force of violence, only its subsidiaries. The State has a monopoly on violence, and the mechanism governing that use of violence is the law. Corporations can only borrow the tools of government, not wield the powers themselves, therefore corporate persuasion is much more effective than trying to use government tools without government force.

Whether it is rap music, the stock market, or novel types of computer coding, there are always innovators who create and teach but are then pushed out by entrepreneurs and those seeking profit. Corporations exist to make money. Their goal is not the betterment of society, it’s to act in their own interests, and if that happens in service to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, then great. If not? Too bad. There is a tension between art and problem-solving and profit which plagues our vision more than ever, giving society the veneer of falsity. Why do people flock to meme stocks, or Dogecoin, or Youtube mumble-rappers? Because they are pure expressions of something untouched by the sterile, robotic hands of big business. Novelty and authenticity are rightly prized, but too often we get the form and not the substance. There is a crisis of credibility for corporations – but they will continue to pursue profit through controlling their landscape. So next time you read about a short squeeze in the market and someone says, “it’s the 99% against the 1%,” remember that it’s true, just not in the way people think it is.

Control through co-option. Control through convenience. Bundling as a strategy of centralization. These are the weapons of corporate control. Everyone as the vindicator of their own rights is a burdensome philosophy and independence is hard. Fixing the problems of legal and technical difficulties and the diffusion and irregularity of sources in music, is a recurring-revenue business model that is popular with consumers. Fixing these difficulties is the future for much of our entertainment options, and no civil disobedience will stop it, because people will protest in one tab and stream their content from a tech giant in another.[2]

[1] My personal favorite, The Argyle Album, can be downloaded here: http://www.100dbs.com/production/argyle/

[2] This post (and most of my posts, honestly) was heavily influenced by the writing at Epsilon Theory, particularly this post: https://www.epsilontheory.com/in-praise-of-bitcoin/

PIE and a Polish King in France

What a beautiful view of a time and place that exists now only in its outward forms, bereft of the culture and society from which it was birthed. It has not vanished with time, however, and serves still as a pleasing monument and testament to human ingenuity and artistic sense.

These photos are of Place Stanislas in the city of Nancy, France. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is considered an outstanding example of 18th Century architecture which combined practical and aesthetic concerns.

How did a small city in France come to be an outstanding example of 18th Century architecture? With the help of a Polish King of course.

A Polish King (anglicized as Stanislaus I), a man crowned twice as King; actually, a man elected leader and called King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – who was elected through bribery and intimidation at the behest of a foreign power, and deposed twice, and, per agreement, who spent the last several decades of his life as the Duke of Lorraine, a province in Eastern France, the provincial capital of which was Nancy, who had a very interesting life (Oh, and his daughter married Louis XV). He commissioned this great architectural work after he settled down, far away from the politics of Poland.

We make the mistake of viewing the past in the same way we view the laws of physics, as if it were immutable and stable across all time-periods. Observations of history that incline toward conceiving of the past as a more primitive version of our current reality (as having stable nation-states, far-reaching bureaucracies, and social safety nets) dislocate the events of the past from their causes. This is a fairly well-known idea that I’ve heard called “alienation from the past.”[1] Life has changed so much we cannot conceive of the motivations of people before the Industrial Revolution. The vagaries of European institutions in the age of intertwined royalism make the structures of diplomatic and international life dissimilar to our own; a naïve look into history will not suffice for explanation, but we have another way available to us to examine the past and the present: through statistical analysis.

Unfortunately there are other errors that bedevil this type of analysis (which avoids the first error of not realizing our own alienation from the past) including believing that all things are quantifiable and the manifold confusions often arising from the use of statistics. For instance, you may be able to say: “humanity spent 40% of its existence at war in the pre-modern period, and only 20% since the Enlightenment” (numbers completely made-up by me). This is a snapshot, not a trend. There is no reason to believe that these statistical facts would actually mean anything or tell us a story – but such stats may often be thought of as confirming a trend. Statistics and mathematical immutability deceive us because we will often make up a story if we are only provided with scattered facts, or we will look at the numbers and forget to connect them to the real world. All bonds of cause and effect are severed when we aggregate and taxonomize mass data. But before we look more deeply into this problem, lets briefly look at why it is the case that those bonds are severed by going back, by going way back.

A delightfully corpulent-seeming Stanislaus.

Time was born only at the Big Bang, before that, there was no time, or in any case, it was a thing unknowable. If the Universe ends in heat death, everything ceasing to move, then time becomes meaningless as it stretches into a uniform infinity. Space and time are linked and therefore time and motion are inseparable.

“Alright Einstein, thanks for the physics lesson, so what?”

So, what happens when you create an infinite and indelible universe inside of the one which we physically inhabit? How many people foresaw that we were going to build an entire parallel universe inside computer networks? Every technological revolution is tied to time, most of them have been involved in shortening latency and friction in some way, reducing the amount of time to spread complex information via the printing press, for example. The digital world disrupts our relationship with time in a novel way, and this starts to disrupt perceptions of cause and effect. Time can now be measured in zeptoseconds, an incomprehensibly small unit of division, and in our digitized existence in its immediacy (or near immediacy) there is no practical distinction between the immediate and the near future.

There is research that suggests being online distorts our personal relationship to time. But if we look deeper than this, we can see that this time disruption, though not formal (we are still capable of discerning cause and effect) can lead to gross misperceptions of the world. In the name of objectivity, we abandon common sense. There is no statistical way to explain, for example, a Polish King becoming the premier architectural patron of France. If that sounds too silly, or too obvious, or abstract, it is easy to find a case closer to home.

The NYTimes recently ran an article about a poll[2] which they say showed that 15% of Americans believe in QAnon. Setting aside any personal opinions about the The New York Times or QAnon, or any other political or pseudo-political affiliations, polling in this manner and extrapolating from it are terrible ways to interrogate the world. People are not discrete mathematical concepts, and neither are beliefs. What defines someone as “believing” in QAnon? Can they believe part of the theory, or perhaps agree with its general aims while not believing literally? Can we trust self-report as an accurate measure of belief which will lead to action? Most importantly, this tells us nothing about how the movement develops, how the beliefs manifest, or how it spreads from one person to another. Using statistics to create a taxonomy crams the world into simplified structures created by the statistical analysis itself. This is a fundamental problem of our world-building in cyberspace as well. The internet being full of generated simulacra creates a version of reality that our minds can enter and our bodies cannot, forcing us into the close-ended worlds of videogames and the formats of social media platforms. It is easy to click a link (as easy as it is to answer a poll question), and the ease distorts perceptions of preferences.

Another example of this phenomenon of statistical taxonomy being misleading is back-testing strategies in financial markets. Computational power and data allow for hypothetical implementation of trading strategies in previous time periods. These will always produce naïve results, as the assumptions that the data are the same – that the data is representing the same things over time – is incorrect. There was no VIX in 1929, we can only try to imagine or construct one, and therefore a volatility-strategy could not exist then as it exists now. Imagining and constructing the VIX for Great Depression may be possible and useful in some manner, but not in using it to calculate a profit and loss of a strategy.

Also, symptomatic of our strange new lives: there is the perfection available in the online world. Everything is measurable and we can smooth the rough edges, just as we can enter a video game world with mind but not body. You can gauge your popularity with your follower count, your avatar doesn’t have the slight hunch in your neck or your asymmetrical eyes, your conversation can be thought out beforehand making your wit evident and concealing your nervousness. And yet here we remain stuck in our imperfect bodies, unsure of our place in the world, unable to indulge the human obsession with taxonomy and platonic forms. There is no more mystery to be found on earth in the average life. Everything is instant, and everything is indelible. Our thoughts, experiences, and knowledge were once almost entirely our own. Our internal lives and external events were accessible to us through memory, or through an eyewitness account, or etched in writing, or attested to by a stray photograph or other recording in more recent years – and the first three of these accounts are of dubious veracity (see Catiline and Cicero). Now, vast troves of our thinking and doing are no longer subject to the entombment of “calumniating time.” Go talk to someone who was “canceled” for a foolish remark from their teenage years to see how this can have negative social impacts that were not considered before. Ask a question on Google, and someone has asked it before us (we have everyone’s experiences to learn from, and yet so often, none that relate to the question we asked). A perfect record of past events lends itself to misleading taxonomies and analyses, another example of mass data being similar to a paucity of data.

There is a non-mathematical way to engage in taxonomy which helps to allay these numerous false perceptions arising from distortions of time in cyberspace, and thereby to reconstruct the past and build the present. This can be learned from how linguists build proto-languages. They do this through what is called the “Comparative Method,” developed and used specifically for discovering pre-historical parent languages, it involves careful analysis of similar words and grammar from different languages and the known evolution of sound changes to build common ancestor-words. It is a method of careful observation and comparison, leading to such breakthroughs as the fable of The Sheep and the Horses:

“A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: ‘My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses.’ The horses said: ‘Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool.’ Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.”

Breakthrough? This little story may not mean much since it is here typed in English, but the fable originally was written in Proto-Indo-European (PIE) by a German linguist named August Schleicher in the 19th Century (click the link above on “fable” and they have the two stories spoken in PIE). PIE is the first language constructed from the comparative method and is the presumed progenitor of the Romance languages, Germanic languages, Indian languages, Slavic languages and more. Using the comparative method does not set out a series of facts, but rather provides evidence of relationships which must be analyzed in a human way, taking into account information that is not strictly numerical. Such analysis requires a deep interpretation that takes into account factors outside of the quantifiable realm.

If you want to understand QAnon (for instance), where it comes from and how it spreads, one can deconstruct the individual beliefs and try to explain the commonalities between its various interlocking theories and who is promoting those theories. It is a case where logic works better than statistical taxonomy, which tells someone little about the nature of reality and much about the abstracted, simplified forms we derive from it. Despite my depressing condemnations of the impacts of the internet and computation and social media, there is reason for optimism regarding how we examine the past. Computational methods open vistas of undiscovered knowledge and unbiased, creative interpretations. If we use our computational abilities and data in a constructive way, as a tool, as something that can help us rather than control us, we can be aided immeasurably.

The great contradiction at the heart of our information systems[3] is that they are part of us, our species, while also being utterly separate from our biological functions. Our systems of language, of code, our description of the laws and powers of the universe with mathematics, our art – all are real transmissions of information through time. And they are no less real than DNA we carry and pass on in our bodies:

“Our dataome looks like a distinct, although entirely symbiotic (even endosymbiotic), phenomenon. Homo sapiens arguably only exists as a truly unique species because of our coevolution with a wealth of externalized information; starting from languages held only in neuronal structures through many generations, to our tools and abstractions on pottery and cave walls, all the way to today’s online world.”

In order to understand things: their origins, and where they might go and why they exist, there is no substitute for chronicling the progressive evolution of causation that travels out of the past, through the present, and into the future. Cyberspace generally, and statistical analysis specifically, sever these normal progressions of ideas and beliefs from their environments and their antecedents. If we want to understand a Polish King who reigns as a Duke in France, or why a social movement roars through a community like an uncontrolled fire, we might do well to think again of Schleicher’s Fable, which serves as both a narrative (a form much more likely to explain human behaviors than a statistical analysis) and an examination of a hypothetical language. The method of construction for the language is logical, but not mathematical. It is a simulacrum of the real thing but is not a perfectible abstraction. Perhaps sometimes, if we wish to make sense of reality, it is beneficial to bring the past to the present, instead of projecting ourselves backwards into the past.

[1] I wish I had a citation for this phrase as I’m using it here, but I can’t find anything on the internet.

[2] An oft-used catalyst for stories for newspapers, “creating” news where there is none, but that’s a different post – also, the NYTimes article I’m citing here has some woeful editorial problems that are nakedly biased, but that’s also a different post.

[3] The author of the article I linked (and the quote) calls it the “dataome” – like a biome. There are a lot of interesting implications here for what we consider to be life.

Note: the first two images in the slideshow were taken by Nicolas Cornet, the final one of the square in daylight by Berthold Werner.

Hope and Revelation

And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season. And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.

Revelation 20:2-4

The word millenarianism, the belief in a Utopia brought about through revolutionary action, comes from the above religious prophecy promising a thousand-year reign of God on Earth in the Book of Revelation. Appearing to be prominent in times of technological and intellectual advancement coinciding with economic or political hardship, millenarian movements often manifest as fanatical and cult-like groups. And there are two which have developed distinction in recent years. The first is the global movement to prevent climate change, and the other is the global movement to replace fiat currencies with Bitcoin.

Society is groping in the dark toward new animating principles, in the United States especially, trying to conjure a structure which will fit the individual into the collective. Beyond the principles of democracy, human rights, race, and materialist ideology which so moved and integrated people in the past, there is nothing which appears on the horizon, over the next hill, in the future to bind us together. Instead of bliss and harmony and hope, all we seem to be able to elicit are dystopias, visions of the horrors of dull, governmental complexity and corruption and the destruction of the most basic facets of nature. It may be that Bitcoin and climate change tell us more about ourselves and how we feel about our societies than they do about the course of events in the future.

These two new millenarian movements of climate change-activism and Bitcoin-advocacy are concerned with forestalling doom and ushering in a rejuvenated Utopia, and both are moving into direct conflict with one another. This conflict was painted vividly recently in the nearest thing we have to the symbolic temple of our society: the financial markets.

The sudden drop in price of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies last week (5/19) was attended by a series of negative-seeming news events. Here, I should interrupt myself to say: it is a prudent practice to refrain from stating what directly caused such a sell-off, and who can say how it will be remembered, as people will write a history with knowledge of subsequent events.[1] Regardless, there was a sell-off with several negative news stories that coincided or immediately preceded the sell-off, including a Bitcoin ban in China and the previous month’s explosion in the price of other cryptocurrencies – thereby potentially threatening the perceived ability of Bitcoin to continue to lead the cryptocurrency market. More noteworthy than these other news stories was an Elon Musk (CEO of the electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla) tweet stating that Tesla was no longer accepting Bitcoin to purchase their vehicles because of the negative impact Bitcoin has on climate change. I think what happened is that Tesla and Musk realized that “climate change” was a more powerful narrative than “Bitcoin.”

Tesla is an interesting case of the intersection between the two narrative groupings. Musk insinuated himself into cryptocurrency debates by commenting on them, by having his company purchase Bitcoin, and by announcing he would allow cars to be purchased with Bitcoin. By doing this Musk partially ties his company to cryptocurrency and Bitcoin in public consciousness. To a large extent, Tesla also relies on the goodwill of people who support his electric vehicle company because of its positive impact on climate change for its continuing success in its actual stated enterprise. Tesla, therefore, becomes a perfect natural experiment to observe a contest between these two movements as they diverge.

The latest round of the “Bitcoin vs. Climate Change” argument was initiated from an important and respected source: a University of Cambridge study showing how much energy BTC mining was consuming compared to entire countries – publicized on Feb. 10th, 2021. The Bitcoin-advocacy community has responded with a host of statements and writings seeking to debunk this idea (a veritable flood, perhaps a recognition of the potency of the climate change challenge).

The “BTC is driving climate change” argument (whether legitimate or not) is much more potent than some people realized. Younger people, especially, are concerned about the future of the planet – it’s a huge narrative vulnerability for almost any institution anywhere in the so-called developed world that refuses to acknowledge the problem of climate change. Just today, May 26th, the board of oil company ExxonMobil was shaken-up by activist investors who want the company to take bolder action against climate change – a stunning development.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

I used to dismiss the power of the climate change argument simply because I could not see the point in worrying about it. Maybe it’s too late to stop? Maybe we’re wrong? And what can I do anyway?

What an enormous mistake for understanding the times!

Eco-anxiety,” the fear that the future of life on earth is imperiled, is the opposite side of the coin of Utopianism – a fear of impending doom. And it is apparently a common enough problem to be addressed by the American Psychological Association. Uncertainty about the future seems to be the main fear (and again, uncertainty about the financial future drives Bitcoin-advocacy as well) animating people to take strong actions, and it also motivates unshakeable beliefs. Fear is also exploitable.

All this uncertainty manifests itself differently in different places, depending on local concerns, but one commonality is that nothing much seems to ever get done for either movement, despite promises and pronouncements by governments and institutions. This suggests to me that the passions surrounding the two movements are more important than the stated goals, that they are more useful as hammers for those who can try to wield them than as actual policy objectives. But there are practical considerations for this immobility as well.

An aspect of climate change that causes difficulty for its advocates in changing the apparent course of action is its geographical asymmetry. Populations in Europe and America are worried about global warming, not so in the countries still struggling with substantial poverty or who feel themselves in unequal competition with those wealthier nations. This also offers an interesting parallel with Bitcoin. While there may not be much use in America now for Bitcoin, there is certainly use for it in places with despotic regimes and collapsing economies.

Along with nothing much being done about climate change or in changing the global financial system, vagueness is a feature of claims about climate change and Bitcoin, making them useful as rhetoric. Climate change, because it’s so amorphous and so abstract and so unknown while also being potentially world-ending, is an excellent vector of attack against almost anything, on almost any timeline. There is certainty, a solidity, in saying that world can reduce carbon emissions to zero at some point in the future, if only we take common sense actions now! Bitcoin is inherently vague as all claims about it lie in the future and with few practical uses now. Cryptocurrencies are themselves abstractions, suitable for pure speculation. They are gold-like in that there is not much real, tangible value – and yet, what both gold and cryptocurrencies have in common is the illusion of safety and permanence in an unsafe and impermanent world. The price of Bitcoin has appreciated substantially over time, but it is no closer to being used as an alternative to fiat currencies than it was 10 years ago. The similarities don’t stop there either.

Both movements call for the erasure of the self while seeming to offer independence. Bitcoin promises a good life for all through collective action and mass adoption while touting the individual liberty of anonymity and permissionless structures. Climate change activists call for global reduction and eventual elimination of fossil fuel use but emphasize the importance of individual decision-making in creating this new energy regime – through vegetarianism or riding a bike to work instead of driving a car, for example. Independence of thought can be impaired by fear and hope. Those wonderful inborn, and ductile, traits, which are so stretchable and manipulatable, present themselves most powerfully in periods of upheaval and corruption – and now the cultish aspects of millenarianism show themselves. Self-denial and self-punishment are themes that reach deep into the past of our societies, they have just taken a different form.

Flagellants, who mortified their flesh by whipping their backs as a sign of penance, came to prominence during a crisis of faith in Medieval Europe. This crisis was of the corruption of the clergy of the Catholic Church, and to a lesser extent, secular authorities. Among the innumerable revolts and wars that bloodied the fields and dirt roads of Europe were a substantial number of uprisings of impoverished and oppressed peasants, encouraged by recalcitrant, mystic, and often excommunicated clergy rebelling against the decayed, hollow forms of institutions like the Church.

Millenarianism used to concern religious matters, with economic considerations being secondary to the zeal for penance and the ecstasy of revelation. Now we have two prominent millenarian movements whose primary concerns are the ecology of the planet and the monetary base of governments; is there any clearer indication that we’ve traded God for mammon?

Hope humbly then; with trembling pinions soar;

Wait the great teacher Death; and God adore!

What future bliss, he gives not thee to know,

But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast:

Man never is, but always to be blest:

The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home,

Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

Essay on Man, Epistle I, by Alexander Pope

We must make our own justice on Earth, no power is going to do it for us. This desire for justice, something forever lacking to some extent, is a powerful mover and motivator of social movements. This search for justice and an associated organizing principle for society has inspired these two excited millenarian movements (or cults, as I’ve called them elsewhere): one for justice in environmental matters – the climate change movement, and the other for justice in economic and governmental matters – the Bitcoin-advocacy movement.

Climate change is winning the battle for minds versus Bitcoin, and while there may be mundane reasons for this, that it is was taught as a problem to children in schools for instance, there may be more powerful forces at work. I am not suggesting that climate change activists are wrong, or that Bitcoin advocates are right, or any conceivable combination of such claims. What I am suggesting is that the climate change narrative currently threatening Bitcoin’s prominence contains similar beliefs and springs from similar concerns as the cryptocurrency movement, and that the fears generated from climate change reach deeper into our minds than the fears of economic dislocation.

In our faithless society people hunger for mystical and spiritual nourishment. A void of meaning must be filled to dull ravening nihilism, and desire for the lost simplicity, abundance, and beauty of nature can be fulfilling.

Hope is only sustainable if the object of that hope never comes to fruition. The greater the struggle for the mass-adoption of Bitcoin and the greater the struggle to implement climate change-preventing technologies and policies, the greater the appeal of both of these millenarian movements and the greater the danger that they will be manipulated to ends not intended by their advocates. It is incumbent on us to be skeptical: Utopia is always over the next hill, but never appears after the climb.

[1] A fun fact, on Oct. 24th, 1929  – “Black Thursday,” remembered as the beginning of the 1929 stock market crash, the market only ended down about 2% from its open.

Brief Candle

There is reality which we cannot see, smell, taste, hear, or touch, and while we know this intimately, we don’t often think about it. Social connections, emotions, and behaviors all influence people in profound ways, yet we only perceive them through their effects. To discuss and influence these intangible structures and networks we use metaphors, and metaphors make the intangible tangible. Through the transformative process of mental association of two disparate things that is metaphor, people can begin to build reality. Without such processes and abilities, life is merely a “…tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

The sun doesn’t rise in the morning[1], a hawk is killed by a small owl, horses eat one another.[2] These are the unnatural portents arising from the murder of Scotland’s King by Macbeth in Shakespeare’s great tragedy. Macbeth is a Scottish lord who is visited by the ethereal, witch-like “Weird Sisters” and told he will become the King, along with several other prophecies and opaque statements. He becomes obsessed with the idea, kills the King of Scotland, Duncan, to usurp the throne, and starts murdering any potential opposition as he becomes a tyrant. Eventually he is killed, fooled by the equivocation of the witches who were speaking figurative half-truths which Macbeth interpreted literally.

The play is full of metaphors made literal, and those manifestations of guilty conscience, the dead rising from their graves and appearing as ghosts for example, are inversions of the natural order (too numerous to list here, the play is full, end-to-end, of inversions of language and unnatural events and behavior) which occur until Macbeth is killed. One facet of the play is an interrogation of Macbeth’s psychological state. He is a brave man, depicted as a loyal war hero, devoted to his wife and his friends. So how did he fall into tragedy?

One of the intriguing mysteries of Macbeth’s behavior is in noting how he precipitated the very things he feared, actions known as a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Was Macbeth always going to kill Duncan, was he always a murderer and a tyrant, or did the suggestion from the Weird Sisters lead him to those acts?

As Macbeth’s beliefs lead him to action, so do all our beliefs lead us to action. How we think about the world influences what the world becomes, and great revolutions in thought precipitate great revolutions in action. How we think of ourselves and our society can constrain us in ways we never intended, sometimes leading us to the very outcomes we sought to avoid, or guiding us to a false interpretation of the unseen powers we navigate.

Pity” By William Blake – Tate Britain [1], Public Domain – This is a literal interpretation of a striking metaphor used in Macbeth, Act I, Scene VII “And pity, like a naked new-born babe, striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin, horsed upon the sightless couriers of the air, shall blow the horrid deed in every eye that tears shall drown the wind.”

Once we had only the dictates of nature to tell us when to wake and when to sleep, when to store food, and when to plant crops. These still exist, we can’t escape our biology, but layered on top of these fundamental structures of life are the technologies which have come to define whole epochs in history and much of our lives.

Think about the number of mundanities that give us structure and define our thinking. These inventions that were once miracles are now just paving stones which we walk on, heedless. The tyranny of the ticking clock, the glare of artificial light, the comforts of on-demand heat and air-conditioning – our circumstances change our perception of the world, even if we are inured to the presence of these technologies.

Something as complex as society and culture could never be described directly – if we want to try and analyze it has to be done with a simplified framework and metaphors. Brilliant thinkers and artists used metaphors to describe the invisible structures of society and they filtered down to the mass of people and influenced how they thought about the world. The metaphors used to describe our societies have shaped our societies.

Plato described the city-state as a ship – the metaphor becoming generalized as the “ship of state.” In this extended, didactic metaphor Plato describes the populace as incompetent and volatile sailors who cannot steer the ship because of their own ignorance. This is a description he uses to bolster his argument that the rulers of a city-state should be wise “Philosopher-Kings.” This is an unmistakably anti-democratic sentiment, anathema to our current sensibilities, though perfectly in keeping with centuries of thought. It is, perhaps, a case of self-fulfilling prophecy: the learned Philosopher-King which Plato believes should be the ruler of a city-state is justified in his dictatorial control by the foolishness and ignorance of the populace, but this conception of government was a convenient excuse for despotism. Despotism being the de facto state of government for generations, it is instructive to observe the influence of Plato on political thought for over a thousand years. This demonstrates how powerful one idea, one metaphor, one person can be on our history. But thought did not remain completely stagnant. As Antiquity rotted and gave way to the Middle Ages, a scholarship of strict logic and theology dominated matters of intellectual discourse.

Fortune’s Wheel” provided by the British Library from its digital collections. Catalogue entry: Royal MS 18 D II- Illustrated catalogue

Medieval political and social thought was often concerned with divine order and the interplay between fate and random chance. All people were subject to the inevitability and inscrutability of Fortune’s Wheel. Fortune’s Wheel was an ancient trope, the idea being a man (or mankind) was strapped to a wheel which brought people to high stations or low stations randomly (or to a position fixed by fate).[3] Befitting the static society of Western Europe, the image is one of a world beyond control, where bad things and good things happen at chance. How much did this conception of the world, taught in religious and secular instruction, impact the thoughts of people then living? The institutions of Medieval Europe were rigid and punitively hierarchical and it is conceivable that these systems were partly sustained by the general Medieval belief in a society and life as fated and out of any individual’s control. Advances in technology and ideas were both necessary before society was unstuck.

Frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan,” by Abraham Bosse

Sharing a sorrowful kinship with Plato’s “Republic” as a book which people only read excerpts from in college, is Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan.” But we don’t even have to go as far as reading an excerpt, this book we can judge from its cover (the sword-wielding giant in the image above). This metaphor of society and government as a single body, a single person composed of many people, perhaps mirrors the advances in medical science and new knowledge of human anatomy in the 17th Century. It also introduces a greater idea of reciprocity – a body cannot function without a head (executive authority), but it also can’t function without arms and legs (the citizenry). This idea of the social compact would help lead to an explosive reimagining of society in the Enlightenment that would end up severing quite a few heads. Other Revolutions were seeded during the Enlightenment as well though, ones that were technological in nature.

Influential metaphors are also used to describe other complicated, invisible networks, like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” in his description of the economy. This metaphor is inescapable when reading or learning about financial markets and economics, or some flavors of politics – its imagery woven into our collective metaphorical vocabulary. Defenses of capitalism lean heavily on this unseen force, conjuring an image of each person, working selfishly, benefitting the whole of society.[4] Smith used the phrase in relating that counterintuitive insight that is foundational to the modes of modern prosperity:

“By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”[5]

This metaphor has helped bolster arguments of Laissez-Faire economics and his work was a weapon used to help free Europe from the oppressive Medieval tenets of Feudalism. Once written, such brilliant formulations won’t adhere to the original intent of their creator, and Smith’s metaphor is often used as a rhetorical hammer to justify behavior that is destructive to society. This metaphor has become overused and polemicized, and lost its initial boldness. Somewhat later than its publication in the late 18th Century, Smith’s incredible achievement in describing a superior method of economics and entrepreneurship was sometimes wielded to fetter the workers which he sought to free.

As the Industrial Revolution steamed forward, there were deep inequalities, social upheavals, and conflicts between different sectors of society and between man and machine. Intellectual forces were mustered against inequities of the invisible hands of Capitalism and found an insurgent champion to lead their rebellion in Karl Marx. In his monumentally lengthy writing in his major work, “Capital,” Marx discussed the power of the machine in the relationship of capital to labor, using a metaphor to codify that relation:

“The automaton, as capital, and because it is capital, is endowed, in the person of the capitalist, with intelligence and will; it is therefore animated by the longing to reduce to a minimum the resistance offered by that repellent yet elastic natural barrier, man.”

The machines themselves are mustered against the poor worker. And later in the same chapter, he writes about the laborer becoming an automaton under the influence of modern machinery:

“In handicrafts and manufacture, the workman makes use of a tool, in the factory, the machine makes use of him. There the movements of the instrument of labour proceed from him, here it is the movements of the machine that he must follow. In manufacture the workmen are parts of a living mechanism. In the factory we have a lifeless mechanism independent of the workman, who becomes its mere living appendage.”

Man as a machine is powerful imagery – one that reinforces the idea of the inhumanity and cruelty of industrialized Capitalism. Well, what has happened here? The forward thrust of technology placed efficiency as the peak aim of industrialized Capitalism, bringing about the further devaluation of common labor just as Marx feared. It is reasonable to suggest that the more a worker thinks of themselves as a worker, or as the slave of a machine, the more likely they are to place themselves into the Marxist mindset. Here we have again an articulation and framing of thought leading to action.

In recent years, our metaphors have changed more rapidly as technology has changed, and fragmented as our social lives have fragmented. The same powers of self-persuasion in the self-fulfilling prophecy does not though.

Writing about these metaphors as self-fulfilling prophecies and misleading representations of reality is not an idle, academic exercise. They can have concrete, real consequences that impact us now. Take the concept of inflation, something much on the mind of economists, investors, and politicians these last few months (or few centuries depending on how closely you follow debates about monetary policy). The most recent period of sustained inflation in America is called the “Great Inflation” by economists, and it lasted from the mid 1960’s to the early 1980’s. Economic investigations focus on the causes of its rise and fall while looking for explanations and possible policy errors. One hypothesis is that tolerance of inflation led to inflation occurring. Perceiving an abstract phenomenon incorrectly by conceiving a complex process as a mechanical process can cause people to misjudge the world. In a piece of analysis from the NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research):

“The willingness of policymakers to accept high inflation is also a feature of the monetary neglect hypothesis advanced in Hetzel (1998, 2008), Nelson and Nikolov (2004), and Nelson (2005a). In this story, monetary policymakers appear unwilling to push for a disinflation once inflation starts because they doubt the effectiveness of monetary policy to tackle inflation relative to alternative policies. The story emphasizes the role of nonmonetary explanations of inflation, such as the belief that inflation can be a purely cost-push phenomenon. The prevalence of such beliefs is thus identified as culprit for the neglect toward achieving price stability. Disinflation started once the dominance of such beliefs receded. Tolerance for inflation and an aversion to the monetary policy actions needed to end it is also at the heart of political explanations of the Great Inflation.”

That is not to say that this is the definitive or holistic interpretation of the Great Inflation, it is one of many potential explanations, but the idea is that reducing a complex process to a few set, mechanical inputs – the result of a misinterpretation born from a metaphor – will always guide us away from a clear picture of reality. Increasing complexity and recognition of complexity along with the age of computational power have moved people into realms of new metaphors.

Software and hardware metaphors are prevalent – especially popular is the idea that if we tweak regulations and incentives then we can define the contours, the operating systems, of society.[6] This is an apt metaphor because it acknowledges the complexity of the world of ideas, but it falls short in that it is still mechanical and linear.

In addition to these common “computer/software” metaphors, there is another metaphor coming into prevalence that is closer to an actual, direct scientific analysis. This is the idea of “emergence,” which is a property of complex systems. In scientific disciplines, emergence is the concept that collective behavior from a combination or group is different from the behavior of the constituent parts – the group can have different properties from the individual, even if all the individuals are the roughly the same. This metaphor and idea takes us back to nature, and, as if we were strapped onto Fortune’s Wheel, we have come full circle.

I think these metaphors and their impacts on our lives are the water in which we swim, we don’t notice them much, and we use them as a matter of ease and habit. If you start at the beginning and count, I believe every single paragraph in this post contains a metaphor, including the previous sentence. And if you pay attention, you’ll probably find that every conversation you have and every written communication you produce contains numerous metaphors. Metaphors are essential to describe and navigate the world, but they also can have their pitfalls. We should be careful not to let them constrict us or shape our actions to the ends we wished to avoid. We could end up like Macbeth, cursing:

“I pull in resolution and begin

To doubt th’ equivocation of the fiend

That lies like truth.”[7]

[1] There is an interesting idea of metaphor as used in philosopher David Hume’s “problem of induction.” Basically, we take as proof of causation the mere association of two things, even though this doesn’t actually prove causality. One of the examples he uses is the insistence that we know the sun will rise tomorrow just because of the repeated observation that it will rise.

[2] Macbeth, Act II, Scene IV

[3] https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/about-money/fortunes-wheel – a fantastic article about the shifting meanings of Fortune over time.

[4] The opposite would be something that comes up every time there is a disaster: “the tragedy of the commons.” When people rush to buy gasoline or toilet paper, it is beneficial for each person to be early and to hoard, but it hurts society as this creates shortages.

[5] The Wealth of Nations, Book IV, Chapter II, paragraph IX 

[6] I would cite something specific here, but type in the phrase “society as an operating system” into Google and look at the number of articles.

[7] Macbeth, Act V, Scene V