Thoughts on How to Travel with a Salmon and Five Moral Pieces

I recently read two short books of talks, columns, and essays by Umberto Eco, and their differences could not be greater. One is largely satirical or personal, and the other full of critical analysis of society. They do have in common Eco’s extraordinary erudition and wisdom and a consistent theme of advocating logic. Explosive flashes of epigrammatic brilliance smolder from the lines as they blister the pretensions and vacuities of modern life. Many of these columns were written from the 70’s up through the early 90’s, and likewise, the moral pieces were composed mostly before new millennium – though most of the insights and commentary remain timeless. For decades, Eco wrote columns for newspapers and the news magazine L’Espresso, and the first book is a collection of selected columns.

While his novels are often witty and satirical, like Foucault’s Pendulum, they are not often funny in the manner of provoking laughter. But reading excerpted columns from How to Travel with a Salmon[1] I laughed out loud, by myself, several times. I was, in fact, shocked at how funny some of them were. These columns are mostly on the topic of, or somehow related to, travel – and most of them are making vicious fun of bureaucracies. He also tackles common, even stereotypical, topics of travel gripes, like airplane food. Though this particular comedy cliché may remind the reader of the Seinfeldian-style of observational comedy (often stylized as “What’s the deal with airplane peanuts?”), his take is original and humorous. Many of these stories are autobiographical fictionalizations of Eco’s own extensive travel for his academic work, though some are pure fiction without the pretense of reality.

A Cellini salt cellar, I had to look it up, beautiful- uploaded to Wikipedia by user Jononmac46

Here is one that is so good, entitled “How to Go Through Customs,” I want to include the entire opening paragraph:

The other night, after an amorous tryst with one of my numerous mistresses, I did away with my partner, bludgeoning her to death with a rare Cellini saltcellar. I was inspired not only by the strict moral code instilled in me since childhood, according to which a woman who indulges in the pleasures of the senses is unworthy of mercy, but also by an esthetic motive: namely, to experience the thrill of the perfect crime. I waited, listening to a CD of English baroque water music, until the corpse was cold and the blood had congealed; then, with an electric saw, I began dismembering the body, trying at the same time to adhere to certain fundamental anatomical principles, thus paying a tribute to our culture, without which refinement and the social contract would not exist. Finally, I packed the pieces in two suitcases of oryx hide, put on a gray suit, and caught the wagon-lit for Paris. Once I had handed over my passport and a scrupulous customs declaration to the conductor, listing the few hundred francs I was carrying on my person, I slept like a log, for nothing encourages repose more than the sense of having performed one’s duty. Nor did customs venture to disturb a traveler who, merely by purchasing a private berth in first class, asserted ipso facto his membership in the hegemonic class and thus his status as a person above suspicion. (pg. 23)

There is even a column that is in the form of an epistolary sci-fi story which satirizes our foolish tribalism and nationalism, and of course, government bureaucracy. Through these columns you really get a sense of his exasperation toward the everyday foibles of Italy, while also receiving his wariness of Italian political extremism (and the vacuity of Italian politics). Eco’s character pokes through the writing: at base he was an incessant intellectual laborer. Yet for all his relentless learning, Eco remains grounded in the mundane sorrows and strivings and joys of his life and retains self-awareness. Eco pokes fun at himself and his own voluminous learning in columns like “How to Take Intelligent Vacations” where he produces a “summer vacation reading list” that includes obscure medieval treatises on subjects like optics, and makes fun of his own status as literary celebrity and public intellectual in pieces like “Editorial Revision”:

On the other hand, after I ended a novel of mine with the verse of Bernard de Morlay beginning, “Stat rosa pristina nomine,” I was informed by some philologists that certain other extant manuscripts read, on the contrary, “Stat Roma,” which, for that matter, would make more sense because the preceding verses refer to the disappearance of Babylon. What would have happened if I had in consequence entitled my novel The Name of Rome? I would have had a preface by John Paul II, who no doubt would have made me a Papal Count. Or someone would have made a movie with Sean Connery in a toga. (pg. 178)

It is interesting to see what has changed and what hasn’t. Travel has changed in significant cultural manners, if not in substance, and the most notable change is probably in the culture of train travel. In America at least, train travel is almost exclusively used in commuting now, not a method of popular travel outside of inner-city movement. This is the context in which reading Eco now resembles looking into the past. Though more significant cultural changes can be detected in how he speaks about the people of the “Third World” and the “lower classes.” Eco does not self-censor, saying what he means to say, even if it would often be considered indelicate now. He seems to disdain political correctness for having the form, but lacking the substance, of acceptance and non-discrimination.

Eco was also a keen observer of the impacts of media and technology on society, particularly in the impact of television and the press on how we view the world, often noting how these mediums have disconnected us from reality. Eco is forever concerned that we stay within the confines of the real and corporeal – the human body is ever-present in his writing and is the touchstone of his ethics and fears.

Personification of the virtue of Prudence – the ability to govern oneself by use of reason (according to Merriam-Webster) – etching from the Met by Abraham Bosse, 1636

In contrast to these columns are his serious reflections on serious topics in Five Moral Pieces[2], revealing a profound sense of fairness and an ethics grounded in those same deep-seated values of realism and inquiry.

The five moral pieces are: “Reflections on War” – written during the Gulf War, “When the Other Appears on the Scene” – Eco’s side of an epistolary debate where he defends a secular morality against a Cardinal, “On the Press” – a speech on the nature and characteristics of the modern press and its relationship with politics and television, the famous “Ur-Fascism” – a (now-famous) examination of the fundamental characteristics of Fascism, and “Migration, Tolerance, and the Intolerable” – an agglomeration of meditations about discrimination and fundamentalism. Eco sparkles when discussing the impacts of communications technology on the world, and on how we view the world. Fascism and war in Eco’s youth were not abstractions, but formative experiences, revealing the depth of illogic and inhumanity of which we are capable. Ethics, therefore, is no abstraction, but a tangible necessity of Eco’s conception of the life of the intellectual. And it is the life of the intellectual which is the core of all of Eco’s commitments. The embrace of rationality leads to wherever it may lead for Eco, but he is dedicated to this as the first principle of humanitarianism.

Eco’s commentary on the Gulf War acknowledges the changing nature of war in an era of global communications, and the changes in the perception and commentary on war those changes have themselves engendered. He maintains a steadfast opposition to war, no matter its perceived righteousness, as an intellectual imperative of humanity. War is now, by definition, all-encompassing in nature because of modern communications and transportation technology – it negatively impacts everyone across the entire earth, involved or not, opposed or allied to one side or the other, says Eco.

The complexity and interconnection of both modern war and the modern world ensures that clear goals can never be attained, and that, instead of war being a continuation of politics, politics is now a continuation of war. It is interesting that he should see this shift from Clausewitz’s “war as a continuation of politics” to “politics as a continuation of war” as a positive development, insisting that the morality of the Cold War, though full of its violence and injustices, was much preferable to the horrors of a hot war. This argument underscores his dedication to following the logic of his positions, and for maintaining a consistency in his anti-war view, despite the circumstances and nature of any particular war.

I cannot say that all of the essay holds up well, it is a certain reflection of the place and time of its writing and he grapples with the new realities of war appearing for the first time at scale in the Gulf War. Eco would probably be dismayed (maybe he was) by the de facto censorship in American media of the grim images of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A large part of his description of modern war here involves the media being everywhere and not capable of being censored. In America the last 20 years, censorship (if not official) did exist, but perhaps more importantly, as a whole, the American people didn’t care about the wars, and they did not impact the “peaceful” economy. Burnout, which he says is the inevitable outcome of using new technology in his essay on the press later in this volume, impacted Americans in a way he did not anticipate. On the uncertainties of war, he is definitely correct, as recent events in Ukraine can attest.

The second essay, a letter to a Cardinal on the subject of the possibility of morality in a state of atheism, Eco explicitly draws a universal ethics out of universal principles that do not involve the supernatural. All global ethics can be derived, Eco argues, from merely understanding what causes pain for ourselves and our own bodies, and in the case of remorse, in our own minds. Freedom for ourselves, literal physical freedom from confinement, freedom to evacuate our waste and other basic, fundamental imperatives of being a living organism can inform how humans should act toward one another. This offers an almost mathematical axiom on the order of Euclid for human morality that perhaps a Christian would recognize: “what causes pain or discomfort to me must also cause pain and discomfort to other creatures like me.” A topic evolved in the humanism of the Renaissance, the focus on the human body, even with its unpleasant grotesqueries, is placed at the forefront of our lives and minds. This a stance almost like Rabelais, with the heightened focus on corporeality serving as a counterweight to the abstraction of the complex symbolism of modern societies. As a matter of fact, this argument could possibly be made in much the same way in a Rabelaisian voice of the early 16th century as it is here with the Cardinal. I’m not sure a civil debate involving the advocation of atheism would’ve been a cause for celebration to Martin Luther or Pope Paul III, but the form of the argument could be translated without difference. Eco’s argument is completely from logical precepts extending into a moral function, it does not require any knowledge of modernity or modern science. This has the value of displaying to us the power and force of logic, which does not need any props from scientific advances.

In Eco’s commentary on the press he delineates the impact that television has had on the newspapers, and, in turn, the impact the change in the focus of politicians to the medium of television has had on society. Television’s fight for the attention of the citizen and its tendency to be self-referential leads to more and more extreme divisions and a devaluation of intellectual discourse. The press is used as a tool of politicians instead of a tool of the citizens holding politicians to account. Any claim made by a politician gets repeated ad infinitum, until the actual substance and context is lost and the full control of content and opinion is in their hands. The delirious hunt for content and its incessant elevation of trivialities into scandals creates distrust in the reader and systematically destroys the authority of the press.

The loss of “authority” has initiated some of the most noticeable and drastic phenomenon of the internet age. If we don’t trust the news, and we don’t trust the government, and we don’t trust Church or school, where are we to find the organizing principles of mass society? Some would argue that we don’t need organizing principles, or that they can be localized, I would point to the forms of spontaneous organization swirling around us and disagree. We have to live in the context of our era, and the institution of the nation-state will not just dissolve, it will change, but it won’t disappear tomorrow. As long as we have any point of singular control (or overwhelming influence) for law, policy, wealth distribution, and the military as we do with our national governments, we will fight over the organization of society and form larger groups to achieve larger aims. Media in all its forms continues to influence social organization.

It is notable that the ever-increasing volume of printed media and television programming started to undermine authority before the internet was ubiquitous, according to Eco. As part of a natural process involving the specific types of competition that newspaper and television engaged in, the natural consequences led to devaluation of intellectual discourse and increased self-reference. At the end of this piece, after noting all these phenomena, which I think have generally held-up well, he does consider the future impact of the internet. Perhaps in this the complexity of the current situation was far too great to make predictions, but I think he makes a generally good point when mentioning the fact of information overload and how that could lead to a kind of renewal of gatekeeping by “educated elites” through the mechanism he calls the “censorship of excess.” This may be correct, except it doesn’t appear to be the “educated elites” who are curating the news so much as the complexity has created multiple, uneven centers of new authority.

Fasces, symbol of strength in unity, justice, and authority in Ancient Rome – created by user Viseslav on Wikipedia

“Ur-Fascism” is probably Eco’s most internationally famous work of non-fiction. In this piece he lays out what he considers to be the defining features of Fascism, the general rules of the functioning of the Fascistic society. He begins by recounting his childhood in Fascist Italy and defining Mussolini’s version of Fascism. Right in the second paragraph Eco states that “…freedom of speech means freedom from rhetoric” (pg 66). Later on in the essay, it becomes clear that what he means is that the fundamental lack of meaning contained in the constant rhetoric of Fascism, with Mussolini’s version as an exemplar, is restrictive of the free and open discourse which characterizes a democratic society. If words don’t represent ideas or reality, they confuse and stultify their hearers. This foreshadows his groupings of the features of the Platonic form of Fascism, which all involve the suppression of reason. Eco says that any single item on his list can be used as a basis to form a Fascist political group, but that the presence of any of these features does not mean a political movement is Fascist. I will list them briefly here, because who doesn’t love a good list?[3]

  1. The Cult of Tradition
  2. Rejection of Modernism
  3. The Cult of Action for Action’s Sake
  4. Disdain of Critical Analysis
  5. Exploitation of the Natural Fear of Difference
  6. Direct Emotional Appeals to a Frustrated Middle Class
  7. Obsession with a Plot/Group of Plotters
  8. Viewing the Plotters as Simultaneously Powerful and Weak
  9. Pacificism as Weakness/Life as Eternal Warfare
  10. Contempt of the Weak Combined with Popular Elitism (the common adherent is viewed as a member of the elite of society, regardless of their commonality)
  11. The Cult of the Hero/Cult of Death for a Heroic Cause
  12. Selective Populism (holding a minority of adherents to be the Vox Populi and acting as if they were the majority)
  13. Reliance on Newspeak (without a complex vocabulary, people cannot discuss complex ideas) (pgs. 78-86)

As the list lengthens, the natures of the features grow more interconnected despite Eco’s caveat that any of the ideas can be a source of Fascism. Starting with the cult of tradition, the heart of these ideas is that knowledge and rationality should be rejected in favor of the basic impulses of humanity. The idea of the cult of tradition that there is a profound and hidden ancient wisdom that exists and therefore there can be no new knowledge, flows logically to the next ideas of syncretic culture (since no new wisdom can be imagined), rejection of modernism (because the Enlightenment produced moral failure), the cult of action (because thinking is a product of rational enlightenment), and disdain of critical analysis (because that threatens the cult of tradition, since it is an illogical belief). The first four items, then, are all derived from the rejection of coherent ideology. Traditionalism is used to mask the fact that there is no intellectual content in the belief system, papered over instead by an uncritical syncretism which combines various aspects of previous ideologies despite any contradictions.

Exploitation of the natural fear of difference allows for the theme which connects the next few points. Amongst humans’ most primitive instincts is distrust of those not connected to their immediate social group. Education and complex ideas and institutions are necessary to allay this fear and allow broad cooperation, but it is always lurking deep in all of our minds. This primordial instinct can be used by those seeking power by appealing to a specific audience, enunciated in point 6, where Eco writes: “Ur-Fascism springs from individual or social frustration…” (pg. 81). It is a fearful middle class that is under economic distress or perceived disenfranchisement that wants to protect itself from those above and below in the social hierarchy. This is the nexus where conspiratorial thinking becomes the connecting principle between several of these points. The plotters and amorphous groups which are a threat to the adherents of the Fascistic political movement are forever hidden and resilient, unable to be clearly defined or destroyed, they serve as a perpetual tool to describe and animate the political movement and its supporters. Conspiracy theories are not falsifiable by nature (evidence against the conspiracy existing is taken as proof of a coverup or some other aspect of the conspiracy) and innuendo and association serve the purposes of evidence, and therefore can be used to justify anything, including the delusion of a minority being the majority, or that a person can be heroic fighting against a non-existent enemy.

Instead of a guide to the explicit nature of Fascism which it is often presented as, it can be read as a type of warning of the kind of features which an intellectually-degraded society exhibits. A Fascistic society is one in which logic has failed and the moral weight of the society has sunk to the level of the meanest individuals. Force and emotion have overcome reason. As in all things with Eco, one cannot escape the topic of semiotics, and this is perhaps one of his best examples in non-fiction where he incorporates this framework. Eco believes that cultural phenomenon are also signs, and therefore social and political movements can be understood through the functions of signs and the encoding of symbols. In the Fascistic society the symbols of politics and social organization are altered from a well-functioning, tolerant society by various types of cognitive distortions, by ruptures in logic. So rather than say, “these are fundamental aspects of Fascism,” I would say that a feature of anti-democratic and intolerant political movements is that their intellectual underpinnings are hollow. When you dig there is nothing there besides rhetoric.

There is something like the tendency of medical students to diagnose themselves with illnesses in the nature of the description of Fascism here. It is easy to point to almost any political movement and observe at least some of these principles, or even many of them. I think it is almost trivial at this point to equate Trump’s MAGA movement with these principles, since it conforms to almost every entry. This essay was popularly used to point this out at the time Trump entered the public consciousness as a serious political entity (look up Ur-Fascism on Google and at least half of the early results are articles using it to diagnose Trump/MAGA as Fascistic). I will not bother with that now but would point out that the list of ideological or rhetorical features are common around the world, in dictatorships and free societies. This is not to be dismissive, because in fact, it is fearsome. The endless appeal of conspiratorial thinking is its ability to form order from chaos and to relieve the believer of responsibility for their lives. As a political tool the appeal to irrational beliefs finds success in Brazil just as it does in Thailand, and has worked when it flowed from the pen of Marat in the late 18th century as it works in the production of video segments by Alex Jones in the early 21st.

Ur-Fascism packs a lot of explanations of organized human behavior in a small space. While it is sometimes abused to point beyond its intentions (and misquoted), it is right that it is so celebrated and reproduced. It also serves as yet another defense of intellectualism and science extending to morality, this time in the political realm.

In keeping with the theme of the dangers associated with politics in the previous two pieces, he focuses on the vicious impacts of intolerance on society, and the ultimate moral duty of the intellectual to frame our decisions using logic, instead of in animalistic tribalism and violence. First, he distinguishes between immigration and migration, with immigration being a controlled process that involves assimilation and migration being an uncontrolled process where entire groupings of humans move and bring their culture with them. Intolerance is easy in a society that controls immigration, as immigrants can be confined to ghettos, but intolerance becomes an ineffective stance when dealing with the overwhelming nature of migration. And, he warns with prescience, that migration is coming to Europe whether people like it or not, and that it will probably lead to violence. After the dislocations of the Arab Spring and Syrian Civil War, when migration from Africa and the Middle East caused severe social and political disruptions in the nations of Europe (and the tragedies of exploitation, internment, and the numerous instances of mass drownings visited on the migrants themselves), it is easy to place this essay in context of actual, historical events. It is no abstraction or idle musing of moral philosophy: intolerance is pervasive and harmful. Eco writes that intolerance itself can take numerous forms, and it is dangerous when it becomes a doctrine, a form of fundamentalism that will not allow dissent, and disables a logical appraisal of situations and circumstances. Combatting this intolerance with education is his solution, and also with laws where appropriate, but he warns that the expansion of intolerance into doctrine can become a political problem. No doubt the reference made here to a regime of fundamentalism in intolerance, where he says the wealthy theorize and the poor put into practice, is again referring to the danger of Fascism. Intellectuals must combat intolerance before the praxis of fundamentalism takes hold, because then it is too late.

Through Eco’s compendium of knowledge, we can almost see the ascent of humanity from ignorance and poverty to knowledge and wealth – and the errors that attended that transformation. We are still venal, and tribal, and vicious. In that aspect of humanity Eco, though an academic, is not naïve. He manages to say profound and piercing statements in every other sentence when taking up the mantle of a moralist as part of his duty as a public intellectual. In the form of the observational comedian he produces a mirror to reflect to us the absurdities and arbitrary roles and rules we’ve inflicted upon ourselves. What these pieces reveal about Eco himself is the strength of his powers of observation. His ability to distill the aspects of a thorny problem, or a feature of modern life, or a change in political communication to its most basic nature is extraordinary. Not quantitative, but based in empiricism nonetheless, these columns and essays attempt to define the boundaries of the definitions of cruel, ignorant, and foolish behaviors and actions and to place the living and breathing human in the abstract debate over the nature ethics and forms of government. While attempting these definitions there is also an exhortation to accept the incompleteness of any definition, to accept the irreducibility of the complexities of reality. There is an implicit proclamation to stop trying to systematize and categorize unnatural concepts and forcefully impose a meaning on the events and attitudes of the world. For this simple yet difficult-to-accept injunction alone it is worth reading these works.

[1] Eco, Umberto, and William Weaver. How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays. Trans. William Weaver. First edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1994. Print.

[2] Eco, Umberto. Five Moral Pieces. 1st U.S. ed. New York: Harcourt, 2001. Print.

[3] Eco was obsessed by lists and their power to be greater than the sum of their parts (that would be a different post altogether) and organized this just as I have here, though with explanations of each item. I have changed some of the wording to make it simpler and clearer.

O, While you Live, Tell Truth and Shame the Devil!

Note: I am going to talk about inflation, and markets, and the Federal Reserve in the first part of this post – I am not making a “market call,” I am not going to talk about the rectitude or efficacy of the position of the Federal Reserve, I am not going to perform a statistical or economic analysis, I am going to talk about communications-style. If you take anything I say as some sort of financial advice (which I don’t know how you even could), well, you deserve what you get.
Dall-E 2 image…

The cover-up is not just worse than the crime, it is now virtually impossible.

What do the Federal Reserve, Boris Johnson, Major League Baseball, and the former President of Liberty University all have in common? They’re all liars.

And more than that, they’re all representatives of important institutions: government bureaucracy, representative and executive government, entertainment, and religion and academia.

With the amount of analysis and commentary available and the amount of information that always leaks, or otherwise finds its way into the public sphere, all across the world, institutions still play a game where nobody actually quite comes out and tells the truth. The central bank of the United States (the Federal Reserve), an organization of decisive importance, has their pronouncements and policies analyzed with the depth normally reserved for the forensic investigations of plane crashes by the NTSB, and unlike those scrupulous investigators, the analysis is often conveyed to the broader public by hacks trying to frighten, enthrall, or generate ratings.

Public speeches and announcements by the Federal Reserve are therefore worded with precision, and, even if they don’t know what the Federal Reserve is or what it does (and even more likely, do not know that it exists at all), citizens are pushed and pulled by the weight of those announcements

Regarding the current inflation gripping the financial markets and the economy, here is Jerome Powell in his Jackson Hole speech on August 22nd, dashing the hopes of those investors who were hoping for an easing of monetary policy (highlights mine – anytime you see a bolded line in any quote, that was me):

Restoring price stability will take some time and requires using our tools forcefully to bring demand and supply into better balance. Reducing inflation is likely to require a sustained period of below-trend growth. Moreover, there will very likely be some softening of labor market conditions. While higher interest rates, slower growth, and softer labor market conditions will bring down inflation, they will also bring some pain to households and businesses. These are the unfortunate costs of reducing inflation. But a failure to restore price stability would mean far greater pain.

Imagine if, instead of using the euphemisms “below-trend growth,” and “softer labor market conditions” the Chairman had said, explicitly

“We are going to try to cause a recession by hiking interest rates.”

Image of Jerome Powell testifying before Congress

It is fair to speculate if public opinion would “allow” the Fed to raise interest rates if he had spoken with such plainness. That openness would bring the policies outside of commentary and spin and analysis, the decisions that impact the entire global economy would be out in the open even if it constrained the Fed’s ability to act. A full public debate could be had about the whether this is an appropriate course of action, with a full understanding on either side of the issue of what the presumed consequences of those actions would be.

Speaking in euphemisms doesn’t work anymore with the information we all have available to us. Every time the head of an important institution or organization seeks to obscure, or speak in euphemisms, cover-up, or lie, they are no longer “getting away with it,” or “doing what needs to be done,” they are, in fact, eroding their position of authority. Good or bad, right or wrong, wise or foolish, short-sighted or over-broad – institutions must adapt to the new environment or continuously risk their power and prestige. Whether or not you think the public should be involved in the Fed’s decision, technocrats can no longer make policy out of the eye of public opinion without devastating the public’s trust in their decisions, which is intolerable to the continued functioning of those institutions over time.

There are, at least, two specific evils caused by not being explicit and open and honest.

The first is the fact that lack of candor is everywhere, almost immediately, exposed as hypocrisy and untruth.

The second is, as mentioned above, the institution loses control of their own message and gives it up to tabloid writers, doom-spammers, political hacks, and vain television hosts. Whatever is said or released is then filtered through a million viewpoints and there is enough ambiguity for actors with their own purposes to impose a meaning on these communications. Whether it is good or bad, the headline: Fed Determined to Cause a Recession to Stop Inflation, leaves no room for interpretation.

This specific speech lacks candor in a more subtle way as well. Jerome Powell endorses a specific view of the “Great Inflation” (the period of high inflation lasting from the mid-1960’s to the early 1980’s) that is not a fact, but rather an opinion (as far as I can tell, there is not much consensus at all as to the causes of the Great Inflation except that oil prices were high), through a rhetorical sleight-of-hand. More from his speech:

The first lesson is that central banks can and should take responsibility for delivering low and stable inflation. It may seem strange now that central bankers and others once needed convincing on these two fronts, but as former Chairman Ben Bernanke has shown, both propositions were widely questioned during the Great Inflation period.1 Today, we regard these questions as settled. Our responsibility to deliver price stability is unconditional. It is true that the current high inflation is a global phenomenon, and that many economies around the world face inflation as high or higher than seen here in the United States. It is also true, in my view, that the current high inflation in the United States is the product of strong demand and constrained supply, and that the Fed’s tools work principally on aggregate demand. None of this diminishes the Federal Reserve’s responsibility to carry out our assigned task of achieving price stability. There is clearly a job to do in moderating demand to better align with supply. We are committed to doing that job.

The second lesson is that the public’s expectations about future inflation can play an important role in setting the path of inflation over time. Today, by many measures, longer-term inflation expectations appear to remain well anchored. That is broadly true of surveys of households, businesses, and forecasters, and of market-based measures as well. But that is not grounds for complacency, with inflation having run well above our goal for some time.

That footnote which is sneaked into the first paragraph links to a speech by former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke in 2004 titled The Great Moderation. Here are some relevant quotations from Bernanke’s speech:

Three types of explanations have been suggested for this dramatic change [in reduced macroeconomic volatility – including inflation]; for brevity, I will refer to these classes of explanations as structural change, improved macroeconomic policies, and good luck…

…My view is that improvements in monetary policy, though certainly not the only factor, have probably been an important source of the Great Moderation. In particular, I am not convinced that the decline in macroeconomic volatility of the past two decades was primarily the result of good luck, as some have argued, though I am sure good luck had its part to play as well…

…Monetary policymakers bemoaned the high rate of inflation in the 1970s but did not fully appreciate their own role in its creation. Ironically, their errors in estimating the natural rate [of unemployment] and in ascribing inflation to nonmonetary forces were mutually reinforcing…

I want to be careful in what I’m asserting, because I do not have the expertise to be critical of the policies indicated by Bernanke’s or Powell’s analysis. I do feel comfortable in criticizing their characterizations of policy, consensus, and history though. When citing Bernanke, Powell is again speaking in code, what I think he is really saying is that the Federal Reserve of the 1960’s and 1970’s thought that inflation was beyond their control and the Chairmen of the time were later despised and condemned for taking this view, and, critically, that this is not a mistake he intends to repeat.

I could wonder if he fears to repeat that “mistake” because of his determination to have correct monetary policy, or because his own pride and vanity are pushing him to be a “hero” like Paul Volcker (the Federal Reserve Chairman often credited with stopping the “Great Inflation” by forcing through rate hikes that may have helped cause a terrible recession). I don’t mean to pose a genuine question about Powell’s motivation here, I happen to think he is trying to do what he believes is the right thing in the right way, but there is room for interpretation. Without this citation, he is perhaps more trustworthy, rather than less, at least to an outside observer. “Fed watchers” are not the ones who may be confused about Powell’s meaning.

In the staid, stilted, and academic language of the Federal bureaucracy he is almost shouting: “the public be damned!” without telling the public why he is cursing them. It is the not telling the public “why” he does not care about their input which is problematic. An institution cannot (or, better to say: should not) always be constrained by public opinion, but, again, it can no longer seek to hide things from the public.

As to the substance of Bernanke’s speech, what I am comfortable saying is that, through the Global Financial Crisis and the COVID Crisis, it is not clear to me at all that “improved monetary policy” was, in fact, the primary contributor to the period of economic expansion with low inflation called “The Great Moderation.”

Powell, when citing Bernanke’s speech and endorsing the “expectation” view of inflation, is not providing actual evidence that hiking interest rates is a good policy, but is rather providing a justification with an appeal to history, one that is made to sound like it is backed by empirical research. Again, all of this justification and citation is just another way to avoid saying:

“We believe the only way we can stop inflation is by causing a recession.”

But how many people are going to go ahead and read the speech Powell is citing? And how many have a basic knowledge of the history of monetary policy? The problem is, of course, that we can read the speech Powell is citing (it’s not long, by the way, and you don’t need to understand too much about monetary policy to get it) – and what this does, for me at least, is expose the obfuscatory quality of Powell’s remarks. A critical government bureaucracy that is not accountable to the will of the public (as much as anything is immune from the will of the public anymore), must be open and transparent. Borders are dissolved, there is no longer a separation between the technocratic government bureaucracy and the lowliest of cashiers or medical payment processors or construction workers. But at least, in this instance, Powell is not modeling personal and public moral behavior for the entire country as a symbolic leader, like our elected government officials.

Boris Johnson

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Relevant text of the law passed at Johnson’s urging on “Tier 3 Lockdowns”
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Image of Johnson drinking with others in the Gray Report on his illicit partying

If you have read about Premiership of Boris Johnson, I feel like I barely need to say anything here. Our politics are full of hypocrisy, astounding hypocrisy, and again, there is nothing new here besides the exposure afforded by modern technologies. And the titanic volume of blatant, flagrant violations of laws by politicians during the Pandemic, policies which were enacted by the politicians themselves, is enough to make a Borgia Pope blush, and that is not particular to Johnson.

I could also talk about Trump here, but I don’t really want to talk about him anymore than we all already have, plus, I’m not sure it was hypocrisy that caused Trump to lose his election, so much as his egregious incompetence and the loathing he inspired. Boris Johnson, on the other hand, was deposed by his own consistent dissembling.

Boris Johnson, the Tory MP and former Prime Minister of the UK, was forced to resign as his ministry sank after being swamped by a number of scandals, occurring almost simultaneously, and all involving public dishonesty about personal immorality. He flouted his own lockdown rules, and, even dumber, he did not disclose their full extent, and instead let the incidents trickle into the public discussion one by one. Through this lack of candor, he ensured the continuous broadcast of scandal, which blended with the other scandals routinely appearing in the news media about his administration of the commonwealth. Amongst numerous other scandals which I won’t bother to mention, Johnson was accused of skirting conflict of interest rules when having a wealthy donor pay for a refurbishment of his residences, of attempting to keep a dubious political ally in office, of cronyism in public contracts for the Pandemic, and finally, of elevating a political ally whom he was warned (and then lied about being warned) had sexually assaulted men.

Being able to see, in pictures, the Prime Minister contradicting his own laws when so many in the United Kingdom were suffering under strict controls, as well as allowing his political opponents to control the image (correct, as it seems) of him as corrupt beyond redemption by the relentless leaks alleging wrongdoing, dismantled the barrier between the excusable hyperbolic rhetoric of a politician and the dishonesty of the private man. It is difficult now to be an “elite” and to remain exempted from the laws which constrain the humble and meek when every person can simply look at their phone and be filled with indignant rage at the injustice and hypocrisy manifest in such behavior.

I do not know if being honest about his own disregard for the law or basic tenets of public morals would have saved Johnson, but I’m sure his lying damned him. But behind the mismanagement of the crises and dissolution of the boundaries between private and public affairs by the unceasing flow of information lies another failure of public institutions in managing their communications environment. Instead of acting as soon as it became clear that Johnson’s personal failings would destroy their political standing (or, in an imagined Utopia, acting on principle as soon as they discovered the Prime Minister’s personal failings), Johnson’s Conservative Party, which enabled his maintenance in that powerful position, only reacted after public opinion had turned and Johnson’s unpopularity would cost them elections. If a public-facing institution is constantly reacting , it cannot lead, but only try and fix problems which have already arisen. This is the curse of a constant connection with the public, and the constant use of opinion polling. Parties proceed to follow the polls instead of trying to enact policies which will move the polls. In order to maintain this constant reactionary stance, rhetoric, even more than it always has, replaces policy.


aerial view of sports stadium during daytime
Photo by Tim Gouw on – literally just a picture of a baseball stadium, full of fans by the way, which is never assured

Next up to the plate, another institution that is losing the trust (what little it retained) of its fanbase, Major League Baseball.

The last two or three years, baseball complacently allowed pitchers to cheat en masse by looking the other way while they applied so-called “sticky stuff” to their hands to give them a better grip on the ball. This superior grip allows pitchers to generate more spin (a higher spin rate as its known) on the ball as it leaves their hands, generating more movement, and making those pitches harder for hitters to hit. This cheating was noticed and rampant.

Applying a “foreign substance” to the ball is illegal according to the official MLB rules, but that did not trouble MLB until it was exposed by fans posting videos on Youtube, players complaining in the press, and most of all, by lower batting averages – and nothing frightens the MLB more than games with fewer hits and home runs. There was a “crackdown,” which apparently did not stick. Noting statistical oddities, Major League Baseball realized that the spin rates on pitches were still high, so in the middle of the 2021 season, they sent a memo out to the teams announcing the rigorous implementation of all sorts of checks to make sure pitchers could not cheat anymore.

Waiting until everyone knew about it, and until they were afraid it would hurt the league’s bottom line, MLB announced publicly that it would do what it should have done immediately. The delay is as bad as a cover-up. Instead of acting in a decisive manner, they opened themselves to criticism from fans, and from a 24/7 sports-commentary media ecosystem salivating at the prospect of chewing into a meaty scandal. Ubiquitous video and sophisticated statistical analysis makes cheating, in a public sport, difficult to hide.

Even worse, what Major League Baseball’s fecklessness has the potential to bring about the outcome they fear most, having fans stay away. Faith in the integrity of an institution is important, even when that institution is as (perhaps to some) trivial as professional sports. According to US Diplomatic Cables (leaked of course, like everything else now), when Bulgarians lost faith in the integrity of their soccer league because the teams were taken over my organized crime figures, they stopped going to matches. The owners of Major League Baseball teams are not quite mafiosi (well, not to most observers at least), but loss of integrity is loss of integrity, whether the cause is crime, incompetence, or deception.

Liberty University

Jerry Falwell, Jr. – by Gage Skidmore

Shameless hypocrisy is perhaps no more reviled than in matters of religion, where morality is often foundational to the creed. Evangelical Baptists are among the most declamatory spiritual moralists in United States, and such fervent faith is much abused by unscrupulous preachers to line their own pockets, as with so many televangelists, faith-healers, and other predators.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. is the son of noted conservative politician, umm, excuse me…noted pastor and televangelist Jerry Falwell, and was the President of Liberty University, a faith-based academic institution in Virginia, whose mission statement includes the following line:

Persons are spiritual, rational, moral, social, and physical, created in the image of God. They are, therefore, able to know and to value themselves and other persons, the universe, and God.

Falwell’s scandal involved both a breach of fiduciary duty and the perversion of good, Christian sexual morals. He was accused of recording and watching his wife have sex with a pool boy (yes, if you don’t remember, this is actually what happened) over the course of many years, several days after he posted a photo of himself on Instagram in a somewhat lascivious photo with a woman who was not his wife, in which he appeared to be drinking alcohol.

Repeatedly backtracking and switching his position, he failed to put out any coherent statement or argument about his scandals. He had the gall to say that he was being unfairly judged by “self-righteous people.” When forced to resign, he even sued the school for defamation.

Falwell should have known his exposure was inevitable. He should have resigned admitting that he failed to live up his agreement with the Lord, and that the Devil tempted him with liquor and lust. He could have saved a modicum of his reputation, and, perhaps, not have made Liberty University into a joke. By getting out in front of the situation, he also could have better controlled the conversation, instead he was prey to political enemies and religious ones.

As it happens, who can take such a moralizing institution so corrupted by its nominal leader seriously now? Again the academic and religious institution itself, the University, is partially to blame. Negative stories began leaking in 2019, and instead of acting, they let it fester until it rotted.

Shame the Devil

The hypocrisy and wrong-doing and stupidity and foolishness and dishonesty was always there, but now all of society has the ability to see the beliefs and actions professed and the actual actions taken in a type of informational split-screen. The current, and apparent, crisis of our institutions, characterized by loss of faith in them, is a byproduct of being able to see the difference between words and actions in real time, all of the time.

What our institutions now do, too often, is the equivalent of a husband texting his wife “I love you, see you after this baseball game I’m attending with my friends!” while simultaneously livestreaming his lap dance from the strip club on Instagram. It may have worked in the past, but no longer.

The implication of this is not for increased secrecy on the part of institutions or slicker talking points, because this is futile anyway, but rather for increased honesty and transparency. I think some of these people who run these organizations would be shocked at the power and trust they could wield by telling the whole truth, instead of having their messages clouded and hijacked by a ravenous commentariat and disregarded and distrusted by a cynical, overwhelmed, and fearful populace.

There are so many good and necessary things our institutions do, so many good things they represent, that we should not be quick to discard them. By their own failure to recognize that the future will not be like the past, they are condemning themselves to obsolescence even faster than they were heading to the Wikipedia pages of history anyway. The ideals of rule by laws and their equal and objective enforcement, of good sportsmanship and honest competition, of community and morality are by far preferable to rule by force, of cheating to win, and of atomization and selfishness – but that’s where we are headed if our institutions continue to fail to adapt to the demands of the new information environment.

Note on the title: The title is from a line in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part I, where the hotheaded antagonist, Hotspur, makes fun of an ally for claiming he can conjure demons, and even the Devil himself. Hotspur is rather skeptical. Act III, Scene I, Lines 60-65

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,

[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:

[2] This post (and most of my posts, honestly) was heavily influenced by the writing at Epsilon Theory, particularly this post:

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.