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

A Red Harvest without Context

A week ago my library card expired, so I went down to my local library to get it renewed. On my way out I noticed that they were selling old, unpopular books for a dollar. Going through the shelves, I noticed a collection of the novels of Dashiell Hammett. Hammett is the author of “The Maltese Falcon,” made into an eponymous, early, and iconic film noir starring Humphrey Bogart as tough private eye Sam Spade. I bought the collection of novels and started reading it as soon as I got home. I was about halfway through the first novel, “Red Harvest” when I was shocked by a line of dialogue by the nameless protagonist, known as the “Continental Op”:

“If I don’t get away soon I’ll go blood-simple like the natives.”[1]

The line refers to the protagonist’s growing enjoyment of murder and mayhem. The reason this struck me is because the first movie made by the filmmaking team of Ethan and Joel Coen (known colloquially as the Coen Brothers) is named “Blood Simple.” I thought nothing of the title of the movie at the time I originally saw it because the main antagonist of the film utters the phrase. It was not just this movie that I was excited by in connection with “Red Harvest” though. It was another Coen Brother’s film, “Miller’s Crossing,” that sparked a revelation. I realized that the plot of “Miller’s Crossing” is very similar to “Red Harvest.” The Coen Brothers’ cinematic art is in dialogue, not just with other films, but with these novels. I never would have known this if I hadn’t picked up this book in the library on a whim, because I had to go there to renew my library card.

This story brings to my mind the value of context in constructing a foundation of useful meaning on which action can then be built, and the ability of that meaning to shelter us from the confusion of randomness. Random chance is a force which dominates so much of our lives, so much of our universe, and all human endeavor is opposed to the entropy of reality – all meaning is predicated on rejecting randomness.

When I see a Coen Brothers’ movie now, I can place it into the context of hard-boiled detective pulp fiction, allowing me to appreciate the tone and mood of the film in a different aspect than I had previously, maybe even to understand its themes and ideas better. Without this context I am reliant on sources of perceived authority to make interpretations of information or data for me, or I am prone to make an error of interpretation if I persist in examining information myself.

I’ve written about loss of context in history and now I want to talk about loss of context in our culture. Without knowing the origins and history of an idea, the idea itself loses meaning. This happens with words, phrases, and symbols as well, some words are used almost exclusively as a metaphor, and over time, we lose the metaphor and just have the word itself. A prominent example is the “save” icon on computers, it is still a floppy disk, younger users of computers may not even know what that is. When this happens, it is easy to abuse words, to lack rigor and meaning when making claims, to provide false or biased interpretations of events. In this manner, having a glut of information and data is the same as having none at all, because analysis is reduced to mere interpretation. Without the ability or knowledge to interpret mass data ourselves, it can be easy to accept the analysis of others – whatever their agenda may be. Consequences of losing connection with the past in our cultural and social context are that it aids the conflation of entertainment with knowledge and conflation of randomness with patterns. Loss of context also makes meta-references easier, driving out discussion and evolution of ideas and replacing them with tribalist anger. Stereotypes and scapegoats are creatures born from intellectual haze and are killed by nuance, but there is a lot of money and power to be made from stereotypes and scapegoats.

Our new data regime has led to an evolution in public cultural and political commentators giving rise to a newer species fitted to the environment: the independent culture warrior. This is not the old peddler of conservative or liberal values, but a person filling in the cracks. These independent culture warriors can attach their personal brand to some specific aspect of the cultural zeitgeist, and therefore tap into the audiences of online cults and tribes. One political example is the new populist politician, ostensibly a Republican or Democrat, but equally opposed to the GOP and DNC. Trump is the obvious example here, someone who was able to claim, and dominate, the brand of the GOP while rejecting broad swathes of the party platform. “Make America Great Again” is a nostalgic, context-less example of disconnection from any historical meaning. When was America Great, and what were the attributes of a Great America? These questions are too vague to answer.

There is the press critic – explicitly and almost exclusively attacking the homogeneity and bias of the large, national mainstream media. Joe Rogan and Glenn Greenwald are both flavors of this species, often invoking claims of bias in the media to connect themselves with populist movements. They have developed a niche that is beyond the stale forms of “left” and “right” politics and connect with feelings of paranoia and alienation toward powerful, established institutions. Complexity in the arena of media and government allow critiques to thrive which characterize a varied industry as uniform and allow the listener or reader to conflate a specific act with a general disposition. Without context, a criticism of a specific piece of writing by a specific journalist can come to represent an entire and monolithic entity.

In a different realm exists the new business mogul – people who were once motivational speakers are now FIRE bloggers, career-growth hackers, and anodyne futurists. Finance and economics are a ripe area for such spread in that they involve large amounts of measurable data that can be interpreted different ways with and without context and it’s an area which is salient to almost everyone. People can spend a lot of time traversing ground that was already mapped by someone else. After the GME short squeeze at the beginning of the year, a r/WSB-adjacent subreddit called r/GME dedicated to pumping GME stock specifically became popular — the subreddit reminded me of something: the posts on it are a direct parallel to the conspiratorial ravings of the defunct QAnon subreddits and white-male-grievance subreddits. Financial plumbing is esoteric and complex, about which narratives without knowledge can be easily consumed. None of these examples of people or ideas which thrive on loss of context should be read as implying that these interpretations are always “wrong,” just that they are not providing the whole story.

A little learning is a dang’rous thing
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.[2]

The best antidotes to being victimized from lack of context is skepticism and to try and do the hard of work of actually learning things. Skepticism is useful in that we should try and be careful not to believe something just because someone said it, try to spot “arguments from authority.” Just because someone is presented as an expert, it does not mean they’re right. Learning things, well, that should be obvious why it should help, but is not easy. After all, at the beginning of this post I related how I lacked the context that would help me understand some films more accurately, and I did not know what I did not know. Learning some background on a subject, especially one that is divisive, can go a long way toward seeing through attempts to steer you toward ignorance. These antidotes may seem trite, and an example of something that is “easy to say and hard to do,” but that doesn’t mean that they’re out of reach for most people with effort. Without these bulwarks against manipulation and confusion, the urge for simplicity and authority can lead people down potentially destructive paths.

Ceaseless cultural and political division of the populace into discrete units will lead people deeper into digital dungeons. The diffusion of society into cults spreads to any area where there is complexity and large amounts of data. The spread of contextless information and how it changes the worldview of people who have more contact with society in the digital world than the real world draws some people into a delusional fantasy. Delusion is a key facet of the psychology of addiction, and the symptoms of submitting to context-less belief-systems can cause harm to society. Social media is itself addicting, as many forms of overwhelming abundance are, and context-less belief will come to be seen as a form of that addiction eventually – a “Media Consumption Disorder.” Right now there is political capital (and often financial capital) generated by protecting the notions of the deluded in both of the political power centers and in the crevices inhabited by the politically independent. And who watches the watchmen? Who decides what is a delusion and what is appropriate? I do not have an easy answer, but, like other medical conditions, I think it will be largely defined by magnitude of deviation from the status quo and harm to self and others.

Currently, the reaction of authority which does not benefit from online cultism and virality is the equivalent of the “War on Drugs.” They are seeking remedies in prohibition and punitive restrictions through means of censorship and breaking up the digital cartels of big tech and social media corporations. This will probably be ineffective and damaging to those subjected to those measures. Harm-reduction will probably become a more effective method of controlling digital outbursts.

There will be action and reaction regarding the rise of context-less information and social media addiction and ecosystems and ideologies will develop according to their own flow and logic, hurried along by unpredictable events. The future is dominated by the seeming randomness that only context can dispel, but as we sink deeper into media bubbles and infinite tides of data, we may all have to stop our savaging of meaning or go “blood-simple” in the process.

[1] Hammett, Dashiell. “Red Harvest.” Five Complete Novels, by Dashiell Hammett, Avenel, 1980. (pg. 102).

[2] Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism. The “Pierian Spring” is a reference to a spring supposedly at the base of Mt. Olympus where the Muses sometimes loitered. Here it functions as a metaphor for a source of inspiration or knowledge.

We Are All NFTs Now

A digital image, inscribed in specific code on a blockchain, sold for over $69 million. There was a great deal of outrage, shock, mocking, amusement, and consternation over this price for something that appeared to be the equivalent of any shareable image on the internet. This was the first widely-known public eruption of part of a spending spree and gold rush in cryptographic assets, including cryptocurrencies and the images that I described (known as NFT’s – Non-Fungible Tokens). A NFT is a digital marker referencing an object placed on a blockchain which acts as a signature identifying the object as unique. NFTs of NBA highlights are trading in the thousands of dollars every day. While those may seem extravagant examples of conspicuous consumption, the hysteria and moralism surrounding the sale and purchase of NFTs (along with other examples of so-called “tokenization” – the creation of a digital asset representing a real or intellectual property) conceal some revolutionary changes occurring in the world of finance and our broad understanding of capitalism[1], along with how we organize and structure society itself.

The Internet, the greatest social innovation of the 30-year boom of technological innovation, has continued to shift the world in a way that is both subtle and extreme. Personal and public matters are irrevocably altered. We set our alarm clocks by talking to an electronic device, our friendships exist in multiple planes of communication, our employment is more impersonal. You pick-up a to-go order in a restaurant, ordered and paid-for online, not a word spoken to a waiter or host. A discreet, digital-only connection between a dictator’s secret police and a criminal organization leads to a targeted hack of a rival nation’s nationalized oil company. Big and small – everything is changing, though often hidden from our sight. Our present doesn’t look like the imagined future because we were thinking of physical changes: 5000-story skyscrapers, ubiquitous humanoid robots, flying cars and other visual immensities and oddities. Instead, the revolution animates an alternate world confined to invisible space and we are now a society looking down and inward (and constantly toward one another) instead of up and outward toward those still-fictitious colossal skyscrapers. Communications flow ceaselessly through wires and wi-fi disconnecting us from long generations of undisturbed face-to-face human contact while strengthening the bonds we share that are purely emotional and intellectual. Meanwhile, many of our most extraordinary technological innovations have discovered things that are so physically small, they are invisible to all except the most sensitive methods of detection. An example of this being the revelations presented from the particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider, experiments from which confirmed the existence of a previously unknown particle, long after mathematical models hinted at its existence. In the mundane and tangible world, the force drawing our gaze inward is most often a smartphone. That communications-device may be the superlative tool representing the irony of humanity’s advancement: we are freeing ourselves from the natural restrictions of nature while binding ourselves closer to each other and our own impulses. As a particle accelerator reveals the hidden structure of physics when it collides particles, rapid, decentralized mass-communications reveal the most basic human psychological machinery.

Our interconnectivity, on an individual level between people, has fragmented the world and revolutionized capitalism in a way that may be intertwined with financial bubbles, but shouldn’t be confused solely for the bubbles themselves. Laws of governments, the constraints of supply and demand, and the conception of social equity have not necessarily changed all that much, just our relationships to those institutions and concepts. The changing relationships between person and power has devalued traditional authority, accelerating the rise in a peer-to-peer economy of individuals – a model now coming under threat from the traditional and centralizing forces of civil society, commerce, and government. There is a struggle between platforms and people, with immense rewards available to those who are able to extract more value from the centralized platforms than the platforms can extract from them. OnlyFans, NFTs, a politician’s social media presence, blogging, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, the effusion of podcasts, the cloistered chambers of Telegram groups and Discords – all are part of the same phenomenon of commoditizing the individual in digital space. We are all NFTs now – if we so choose.

Photo by Ru016bdolfs Klintsons on Pexels.com – Things like Dogecoin show the power of media and technology while concealing more basic changes.

Our public discourse and policy thinking is stuck in the past along with our major government institutions and the frameworks of civil society. Born of the 20th century when technological advances allowed singular forces to monopolize modes of communication, our perceptions of the threat of centralized power are skewed by the extremities of that calamitous 100 years. The internet, for the most part, is resistant to the broad forces of centralization that allowed Totalitarianism to flourish in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR. It is more difficult for a nation to completely control all media and all communication in the Information Age (China is doing its best, though). Destruction of traditional media gatekeepers launches us to the past even as it compels us into unknown territories. Modern independent journalists and media analysts are reminiscent of the effervescent pamphleteering and journalism of the 18th and 19th centuries. These tabloids and polemics were resistant, but not immune, to government and corporate centralization by the mere fact of the difficulty of communication. These realities often made persuasion and propaganda more valuable to those who wished to control a citizenry than suppression. Internet-based dissemination of information may be resistant to centralization simply because of their profusion. Floods of data are the greatest natural constraint now for human endeavors, mirroring the troublesome deluge of abundance in other arenas. People themselves, our base needs and desires unchanged by plenty, are not immune from methods of control and influence.

Novelty and innovation vastly outran regulation and control in the last 30 years, leaving governments lagging in reasserting authority over people inhabiting virgin digital terrain. Innovation also outstripped our ability to consider the consequences resulting from our world-building. I imagine that in the future it will be clear that this was an era of peak freedom and anarchy in the Digital World, maybe only comparable to other periods of leap-frogging technological advancement. Pre-modern society was characterized by repressive hierarchical social, governmental, and economic systems, where the oppressed would revolt with sudden violence from time-to-time. The methods and severity of control have changed and moderated, but they still exist. No people, in any society, have ever had complete freedom and autonomy, of course. An individual’s freedom is always constrained by the forces of social pressure[2], and by inherently human biological and communal vulnerabilities. Now, these vulnerabilities are ruthlessly exploited by corporations, governments, and, most-of-all, social media platforms.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com – The Matrix was pretty prescient…

There are three important features of social media: the first is addictiveness, the second is enabling virality, and the third is, of course, facilitating networks for people. Addictiveness keeps people coming back, allowing algorithms to refine the most engaging content for them to interact with, and to project more and more advertisements to meet their eyes. Virality is a natural consequence of the ability to rapidly share popular, digestible content. A feature of virality is that something small: a brand, a movement, a political ideology, can become something very large. Virality is further enabled by the creation of social networks. Tribalism is the salient quality of human social networks: a consequence of allowing people to self-sort, especially in blank spaces where people will create social structures out of chaos. Tribalism is important in our world because it perpetuates rivalries and cultism. To these three volatile ingredients there is one more additive which makes an explosive solution – we had, have, and always will have, the only thing for which there is endless demand and never enough supply: the desire to be entertained.

Back when Trump was first running for President and rabid fan-groups appeared online on places like the social media site Reddit (the now-banned message board community r/The_Donald being the obvious example) I referred to them as a “grassroots cult of personality.” I think I had that partly right. I was using the outdated model referring to the aberrational centralization of the 20th century and I discounted the forces of entertainment in Trump’s digital popularity. This phenomenon became clear as being merely one example of an eruption of digital tribes. These digital tribes can become dangerous mobs which threaten to hijack public discourse and policy every time a critical mass is reached and a catalyst triggers a riot. Trump’s rise is an excellent example of those four ingredients I mentioned and the incredible force they can create, but not of the commoditization of the individual – another politician is an even better example of that phenomenon.

Every day, or almost every day, for a period of months toward the end of 2020, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was seen on the “front-page” of Reddit. Almost always as a screenshot of a Tweet moralistically ripping on GOP or neoliberal policies. In a way, AOC is now a commoditized symbol, instead of just an elected official. Her tweets and viral moments speaking in the House are her intellectual property – generating value for her brand. I haven’t done any formal study, but it appears that attention afforded to her has fallen sharply after Trump was booted from Twitter and left office. I believe this gives some indication that her popularity is tied to a broadcasted battle played out through traditional and social media.

Addiction. Virality. Tribalism. Entertainment. Those four ingredients combined with the revolution in the production of digital assets create feedback loops and form resilient social groupings which can have real power in the real world. Any individual who has the ability and desire can use these new social groupings to attain money, influence, and power – and now and in the future – especially money because of tokenization.

NFTs selling for seemingly outrageous sums of money and AOC’s domination of Reddit’s front page in her digital war with the GOP are two sides of the same coin. Everything is being commoditized, including our digital personas. Monetization of intellectual labor is going to be a key fact of the world from now on. This is not just a world of direct-to-consumer products and psychologically-savvy corporations, it’s a world of each individual and their intellectual output as a potential brand and business to a degree that was impossible even a few years ago.

Changes in technology and social structure are a Pandora’s Box. This is a good development for society in that it can advance individual freedom, broaden prosperity and the reach of justice, and accelerate innovations. This is a bad development for society in that it can precipitate physical and digital riots, allow small groups of bad actors, or even single individuals, to cause grave harm to large numbers of people, and foster new and harmful addictions in millions of people. I think addiction deserves special attention, and is most likely to present the greatest sustained cost to society-at-large as a side-effect of our advancement.

One of the most painful problems with addiction is that it often takes an extreme adverse event or events to pull people out of their delusion that they can continue to feed their compulsion without consequences. As people are addicted to social media, and that addiction is reinforced in a multitude of ways, these new communities act as enablers, shielding addicts from reality and the harm they may be causing themselves or others. Addiction is a massively harmful, intractable problem, and I’m afraid it is increasing everywhere.

Wild freedom and the darkest oppressions are both freely available to people now: every person a potential brand and every person part of a potential mob.

[1] I don’t like using the word capitalism as it has been both politicized, decontextualized, and made overbroad and non-specific – here, I use it to refer to the general system of property rights and the relatively free flow of goods and services between different entities – perhaps close to its basic definition.

[2] You think “cancel culture” and “social justice” are out of control now? Imagine being an atheist in 1100 AD in Europe, or questioning why Serfdom was hereditary.