A Tale of Two Moralities

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

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are one nation and their pain is our pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grey Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PIE and a Polish King in France

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

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

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

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

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

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

A delightfully corpulent-seeming Stanislaus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are All NFTs Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mobs and Riots


Ulysses Grant, Union General and President of the United States, is more popular now than at any time since the 1880’s. After his death, he was long regarded as an inferior general, a poor President, and an unremarkable and flawed man. With a host of biographies and changing views on racism, his formerly withered reputation is blooming.

Grant’s military career and Presidency are an excellent example of the sandy foundations of the stories we tell ourselves about the past. The moral clarity of his Presidency will henceforth protect him, inasmuch as there is a public memory of him at all in our relentlessly forward-looking society. But in the focus on the shifting opinions of Grant’s career, the context of his moral-firmness is a revelation of vicious inhumanity and tribalism.

Reconstruction is (probably, though I’m sure there are other contenders) the most shameful period of American history.

After the Civil War ended and slavery abolished it became clear that the true driving force of Southern society’s defense of slavery was not its economics, or based in regional conservatism (in the sense of unchanging institutions), or competing views of Federal power – it was based on social tribalism.

Subjugation, the institutionalized inferiority of black people for no other benefit than maintaining a particular division of social standing, became the primary goal of radical Southern political movements.

And the history of that tribalism and those political movements is shockingly depraved and revolutionary.

There were:

  • Massacres of black people, in some cases hundreds at a time
  • Literal coups, where state government’s were overthrown by armed force
  • Widespread Terrorism across the former Confederate states
  • Massive Federal military intervention, including the suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus

By the end of Grant’s second term in office, Reconstruction was abandoned. And why did Reconstruction end without enforcing the rights of full citizenship of freed slaves? It was subsumed by national politics.

In the last three weeks, there were two nationally-known incidents (several others but these received the most attention) which intimately concerned race and policing.

The Destruction of Amy Cooper

A white woman used the police as an implicit threat on the physical health and safety of a black man. The reaction to the video of the incident being made public was animated by a modern mob, a digital one. Without passing judgment on her digital destruction, it is an example of the power of social media to amplify tribal signaling. Much of the backlash became about showing everyone else that “they were on the right side,” dare I call it virtue signaling?

The Murder of a Black Man

The murder of George Floyd was a clear example of the aggression and callousness of modern policing. But these protests, riots, and the reaction to them, have gone far beyond this initial outrage. Looting, arson, and people dissatisfied about other aspects of the social order have joined in, and muddied the focused protests over policing.

A Riot is a Signal

Mob violence is an expression of rage and tribalism. A mob, a riot, is a thing-in-itself, not connected to any particular ideology – in the post-Civil War south, riots were anti-black affairs. They were both political tools and a signal of dissatisfaction with the current social regime. We now judge this harshly, but it was, at its base, a signal to the occupying Federal forces, and enough northerners grew tired of constant intervention that they became effective political tools.  And public perceptions of those riots became the currency of national politics, deeply influencing the course of political events.

One thing that people tend to forget when they’re caught-up in idealism or discussions on policy: organized violence is effective. It goes both ways, the violence of the mob can produce real change, the suppression of the mob through violence can stifle it.

These incidents now are also in the process of being subsumed by national politics. The construction of narratives in relation to these protests both destroys nuance and is necessary to try to resolve the deep unease generated by chaos.

If I were to exhort people toward one action it would be to resist, and resist deeply, the temptation to blame all of  this on one of our two political tribes. These tribes will use this chaos to advance their fight over the throne, and not for reform.