Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

Adele Webb has an engaging article on The Conversation about ambivalence towards democracy among electorates. It’s the start of something but by no means the end. Have a read and then consider my response here.

There’s a challenge with applying a psychological concept like “ambivalence” to groups. Electorates will have “mixed feelings” about issues almost as a matter of a definition. They are after all, made up of many different individuals with differing goals. It’s more unusual to find things about which an electorate is “unambivalent”. Commentators frequently opine that “the people have spoken” – suggesting a single, clear order when the experience is more like a cacophonous choir of voices producing an outcome that no one individual may have desired. It’s noisy.

So when we talk about ambivalence among voters – are we talking about an aggregate view or the attitudes of individuals? Webb elides the distinction between the two but I think she wants to talk mostly about individuals. She gives an example based on her field work – where middle-class Filipino voters want civil liberties but not too much freedom. She sees those as contradictory and I can see why but of course they may not be. Voters often want more freedom and resources for themselves but fewer for other people. This is only contradictory if you assume their desires are universalist rather than selfish. After all, it’s not people like us that are a threat to order. It’s them. Over there. Webb does allude to this later on when she talks about conflict over definitions of who “the people” actually are.

I’d like to add that there are different forms of ambivalence. There is the hot, intimate ambivalence of loving and hating someone intensely. Then there is the cool, distant of ambivalence towards the far away. The ambivalence that many citizens feel towards democracy feels more like the latter than the former. The disconnection makes it easy for emotions to change. Democracy becomes a screen on which we project our desires and fears rather than a space in which we interact with each other – “voters [are] transformed into… passive bystanders”. Indeed the promise of populist leaders is to rekindle the passion, to hold their followers closer, sweep them off their feet and carry them over the threshold into the centres of power. They don’t necessarily keep their promises. Treat ‘em mean ‘n’ keep ‘em keen.

I completely agree with Webb that this ambivalence should not be seen as irrational on the part of voters and it should be taken seriously. Rather it should be understood and worked with. Likewise, many will are disappointed with democracy. The compromises that make up a functioning democracy are inherently disappointing. Now disappointment is not necessarily an a negative emotion but it does provoke action. The real question is whether democracies can find productive ways of managing and channeling this disappointment.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Quartet (A Model of Decorum and Tranquility)

Opening Ceremony

One running theme throughout this blog will be that of the impact of automation on work, politics, and society. The machines are coming – and not just for the kind of working stiffs who can’t get an article published in  their church newsletter, let alone The Atlantic or Harvard Business Review. Real people with real bylines and real influence networks might be getting hurt here.

The last five years has seen a small industry emerge in books on this topic – many written by economists. The first such book we will look at is Average is Over by Tyler Cowen. I am acquainted with Cowen’s blog and podcasts so I knew the Prof Cowen was… unusual in his ways of thinking. This book is a testament to the benefits and limitations of his approach. It also highlights some common assumptions about Our Glorious Robot Tomorrow (OGRT) that may or may not be true.

I Know Him So Well

The book falls into three parts:

  1. The rise of intelligence machines and how they change the dynamics of the labour market. Basically, if the machines can do your job, you are in big trouble. If the you can work with these machines, $$$ for you.
  2. How individuals can work with these machines.
  3. The impact of this new order on immigration & trade, education, science and society at large.

The second section is both extensive and narrow. The author spends much time discussing the world of… chess. In particular, the differences between traditional chess (two people, a board, some pieces) and freestyle chess* (all of the above but also computer programs such as Rybka or Shredder). This partly because chess is one of the first intellectual activities to be fully revolutionised by chess – but mostly because its an area that he knows extensively. Indeed, the book comes most alive in domains where the author has actual lived experience (e.g. chess, teaching economics). While freestyle chess is worthy of examination, not all jobs of the future will be like this.

In other subject areas, such as living in favelas, he presents as less informed. It would be great if he could do some more primary research into the issues that he raises. Starting in economics, then dipping your toe into the real world, followed by a hurried return back to economics is unsatisfying. Machines have been automating roles in manufacturing for decades – What does that look like? How do people cope? What happens next? These questions can be addressed with a little investigation.


Let me say that I agree with Prof Cowen that the structure of our labour markets are likely to be transformed. And as he is quite explicit in saying, these changes do not bode well for many in the developed world. Our economies have offered reasonably well-paid jobs for people without advanced education. In the future, these may not exist.

Cowen’s world is basically consists of a small number of intelligent machines wrangers and a large number of people providing services to them. I’d call the latter wage slaves except that they probably won’t be on wages – microsegmented piece rates with surge drops in value will be more likely. Jobs in the middle of the market – the “good jobs” that certain senior world leaders have promised to their populaces – may well evaporate.

Some parts of this book have aged very badly in the last four years – the line “hardly anyone hates free trade these days” on p. 176 being a standout. Some of the discussion of MOOCs now feels superceded by the reality of these platforms – although his general discussions around the role of the lecturer shifting from expert to coach very much resonated with me.

One Night In Bangkok

I found myself emphatically agreeing and vehemently disagreeing with Cowen – often in the same sentence. This sense of cognitive whiplash became most acute in the final chapter. As a solution to growing differences in income and wealth, the author proposes that the US create low-cost housing favelas in the sunbelt states around Texas. People will cope with reduced healthcare by eating less junk food and exercising more – woe betide them if they get a medical condition despite living lives of modern virtue. He also predicts that an ageing population will mean less violence. But that, of course, misses the high rates of gun ownership among the elderly in his nation.

What I find disappointing in this final section of the book is an unwillingness to explore different options. A placid, unequal world is assumed rather than different scenarios being actively considered. New coalitions and new forms of politics are ignored. Everything will stubble on as the cognitive elite mind-meld with machines whole everyone else watches TV.

Truly, the future is a second rate cyberpunk novel from 1987.

All this may sound unduly negative. There are ideas in this book worth savouring – with a pinch of salt.

*For which wikipedia offers the more enticing of option of “centaur chess”.

(Googling “centaur” yield far more porn than I had, with obvious naivety, expected. Thank you, internet)

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Fear of Politics (2) – We Had To Destroy The Polity To Save It

Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is not a virtue

I am not really equipped to write about conservative dogma. I consume a great deal of it passively like the cigarette smoke in the pubs of my teens but its not my nature milieu. However it is an important spot to visit on our tour. We may return to rubberneck at some point in the future.

Can I mention Donald Trump? I don’t think I have a choice. If any event ever suggested to me that the Western world had gone over the catastrophic fold then it was November 2016 and the resistable rise of the Man in Orange.

There were few intellectual defences of The Donald in 2016. It’s not like he had coherent policies to promote – he simply said whatever came into his head in front of a crowd. If they cheered, he’d say more of it. He’s not so much a man as a brute force reinforcement learning algorithm, presidential campaign as A/B test – the logical conclusion of years of focus group-driven policy development.

Are You Ready? OK. Let’s Roll.

There was one piece – The Flight 93 Election – published on the Claremont Institute web site. The piece was pseudonymously ascribed to Publius Decius Mus. It begins by painting the gloomiest picture of America, some of blend of Bosch and Munch with all the potential fun of that pairing removed:

Illegitimacy. Crime. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. Politically correct McCarthyism. Ever-higher taxes and ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. A disastrously awful educational system that churns out kids who don’t know anything…

If that sounds like someone’s inaugural address then: SPOILERS.

What is the cause of this woe? Well, “virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on” is out and “paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions” is in. And the author is particularly excoriating about conservatives. They are, at best, impotent idealists being crushed beneath the jackboots of a all-conquering Left. At worst, they are Quisling collaborators with Hillary Clinton.

And the answer: By “it” I mean Trumpism, broadly defined as secure borders, economic nationalism, and America-first foreign policy. Because:

2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Lets consider this analogy for a moment. Flight 93 is a reference to the Sept 11 2001 attacks. The most wrenching event in recent American history. Flight 93 did not reach its intended target because the passengers stormed the cockpit, losing their lives in the process. What does this mean? Well, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party are terrorists. The threat that they pose to America is so great that they must be stopped by any means necessary.

There is a difference between Flight 93 and the 2016 election. 44 people were killed on that flight on Sept 11. Simply looking at the GOP plans for healthcare, tens of thousands may die as a result of the 2016 election. The GOP seem unable to pass a repeal bill despite controlling all the arms of government but for how long can the US rely on the incompetence of its legislators? It is not clear how many deaths Donald Trump would ignore in order to remain president but I would not put my life in his hands.

And what of the American people? They are not to be trusted. The author notes that: If you haven’t noticed, our side has been losing consistently since 1988. Which is true and not true – the GOP has only won one plurality (2004) in a presidential election since 1988. However, following the 2016 elections, they control the presidency, both Houses of Congress, 33 State governorships and 32 State legislatures. Hell of a way to lose.

However if the GOP is losing, the author doesn’t question whether this indicates that the electorate doesn’t want what’s being offered – it’s simply a sign that conservatives aren’t pushing hard enough. Just one last rush towards the cockpit and either everything will be fine or everyone will be dead. Definitely no need to review the policies and the messages. Listening is for wusses.

Bracing For Impact

Michael Anton doesn’t matter much. Being the house intellectual in a milieu (or melee) that despises intellect, structured thought, and even basic reading is presumably as welcome as being a vegan at a slaughterhouse. But the Flight 93 essay matters because it demonstrates the visceral desperation and fear of democracy that many conservatives have.

It is a weird form of cognitive dissonance. The world is about to end. The foreign, gay, socialistic hordes threaten us from all sides. The true keepers of Western, Christian tradition are our last, best hope. And yet. Conservative parties rule in the US, the UK and Australia. Business interests face little in the way of regulatory control. Explicitly racist and white supremacist groups act in an ever-bolder manner. Mainstream conservatives may find them deplorable* but they are reluctant to call them out for fear of losing their votes.

Now to an extent, this is simply the discomfort faced by someone losing a privileged position. But it also allows you to position yourself as a victim. And it justifies an anti-democratic standpoint. With the nation so imperiled, whatever we do to save it must be right.

In America, this takes the form of widespread voter suppression activities by the GOP. There is little or no evidence that voter fraud occurs in the US. And yet a political party is using fear of voter fraud to deliberately disenfranchise social groups who it believes would vote against it. It does not seek to engage with them or change its policy framework. It seeks simply to ensure their voice is neither heard nor counted.

We can see an echo of this here in Australia, in the struggle over same sex marriage. Australians have gone from being moderately against the idea to moderately for it. We used to think it was a bit weird but then Steve and Troy invited us over for a barbie and, though Troy’s a Bombers fan, they seem like good blokes and why shouldn’t they be married, eh? Some conservatives have decided that this is all a bit much. They don’t want to thrash it out in parliament and so now we are stuck with some non-binding postal vote. The whole situation feels like a chase scene in an action movie where the fleeing villain throws ever more ridiculous items (chairs, tables, little old ladies) in the path of his pursuer. What next, a same sex marriage non-binding karaoke sing-off?

Losing Altitude – Random Notes

1. The author of the article is actually Michael Anton, a GOP speechwriter and finance communications guy. Likes: suits and ethnic homogeneity. Dislikes: San Francisco and non-conservatives. Now a major communications guy at the National Security Council. Anton’s apocalyptic style is fine with me but he should really grow a pair of balls and write “balls”, not “thymos”. I keep my lemongrass and ginger tea in something that sounds like that, not my martial spirit. One gets the sense that were he teleported back to Flight 93 on 11 Sept 2001, he would not storm the Al Qaeda-held cockpit for fear of ripping his hand-tailored jacket. “We may be freedom fighters, but we are not animals”.

2. Publius Decius Mus as pseudonym choice. PDM was, like the Flight 93 passengers, another martyr. This time a Roman general who rode his steed directly into the enemy Latins**, sacrificing himself for the cause of victory. It would be fair to say that Anton has an obsession with violent sacrifice in his writings – although whether he will continue to use the PDM analogy after a Neo-Nazi fatally drove his horse, er, car into a crowd of peaceful protesters remains to be seen.

3. The Claremont Institute itself is… interesting. There is an East Coast – West Coast feud in America that I was unaware of until last year. Not the one between Biggie and Tupac. No – while the participants of that battle had an equal predilection for expensive gentlemen’s clothing – this new one featured spats between white men. The disciples of Leo Strauss to be exact. Strauss was a Central European emigre philosopher to the US who influenced many individuals who became key figures in American conservatism. The disciples split into East Coast and West Coast grouping. Notable East Coast Straussians included Allan Bloom and Paul Wolfowitz. This group eventually became synonymous with the NeoConservative movement that reached its apogee during the reign of George W Bush – and the mess that was the invasion of Iraq.

Meanwhile, a West Coast group formed under Harry Jaffa, an academic ultimately based in California. Jaffa was linked to conservatives such as Barry Goldwater. Four students of Jaffa created the Claremont Institute. Apparently the Institute has been an abysmal failure as, according to its own website, “For over 100 years, conservatives have been losing the battle of ideas, and with it, our most precious freedoms“. And precious bodily fluids. Please give generously.

4. Apropos of nothing, last month there was some online argy-bargy about Chris Ulhmann. He slammed the Man in Orange (so, yay) but he  had previously voiced his dislike of the Frankfurt School who “transmitted the intellectual virus to the US and set about systematically destroying the culture of the society that gave them sanctuary” (boo, apparently). Theodore Adorno (who perished shortly after an unsolicited Breast Action) was not the only German philosopher World War II refugee to the US. The legacy of Leo Strauss might equally merit Ulhmann’s words – esp. given that his followers promoted both a ruinous war in Iraq and also a president hell-bent on making George W Bush look good.

*Yes, I would like a basket of deplorables. Perhaps with a Christmas ham, a jar of chutney and some assorted nuts. And no brown bread or halal-certified tahini, thank you.

**Who were not, as I first assumed, the same as the Romans – ah, the narcissism of small differences. How reassuring to know that people remain petty throughout history.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Class Dismissed

Given this inherent structural problem, progressives must surely seek to persuade lower class people to entertain their ideas—patiently, inventively and persistently—instead of imposing them. – From Shannon Burns – In Defence of the Bad, White Working Class

OK. Drop the mike. Go home. We’re done here. Progressives need to shut the hell up. And then maybe ask a few questions. Listen to the answers. Without interrupting. Or correcting. Telling people how wrong they are.

Just listen.

For a moment.

I’m not being sarcastic – I am not writing this on Twitter.

First, a detour.

(Failed) Experiment In Autobiography 

I am not working class. I qualify for the rank of lower middle class*. In England, the categories are clear. I went to a state comprehensive. My parents did not go to university but had jobs like “primary school teacher” and “probation officer”. I did go to university, where I had no idea what was going on – apart from the fact that I didn’t really belong there.

But I grew up in relative comfort. There was never any worries about where the next meal would come from – just that it would be terrible. Which is a massively unfair statement written just to get a cheap laugh. My mum did her best with her culinary knowledge, the produce from the local supermarkets and the time a working mum had. So I take that back. But I do get frustrated when my own son, who lives in one of the world’s great cities with access to many and varied high quality cuisines and wants to eat none of it. See how he trolls me with demands for cucumber and rice crackers. I find the words “You don’t know you’re born” start to coalesce on my tongue. Bequeathed.

I’m not working class but my dad is. He was born in a slum in Birmingham during World War II. He failed the 11 Plus. When he took it, he was as adrift as I was at uni – “What’s that bit o’ paper, our Stephen?” said his mum when he brought details of the test home. He went into the Navy (as a stoker). After watching one sailor knife another, he left. He passed some A-levels before getting a social work qualification. He shed most of his Brum accent. Although not his awkwardness in social settings with those who have more education than him, who know the right way of doing things.

He’s not part of the macho, punch-you-in-face-for-looking-at-me-funny world of the male working class. I suspect he may always have been a delicate bloom – with his love of the solitary pursuits of bicycling and beer making. If you grow up surround by people wall-to-wall then any personal space is precious. Time to yourself. Not the boss. Not your folks. Not your peers. Yours. Time to think and to dream. He’s also a storyteller. Not a garrulous, snug bar fixture guffawing with his mates but a weaver of absurdist, tall tales – especially for children. The one about the boiled beef and carrots that made a break from the kitchen to wider world still sticks in my mind although I have forgotten nearly all of it. We recorded some on a massive 70s reel-to-reel tape recorder. The tapes are probably unplayable now. He still tells stories.

Time to think and dream.

The house I grew up had had no books. There were my dad’s A-level history text books. The occasional rogue Len Deighton. And a large number of Bibles (New International Version). But not much else. However my father’s distaste for being a sports spectator (probably too… collective) meant I had to do something with my time. I bought books in ever greater quantities – I recall my mother once plaintively asking: “Matthew, don’t you think you have enough books now?”. Haha – NO. My addiction was unquenchable. MOAR BOOKS!!! Science fiction and literature and philosophy and history. I recall a pretentious urge to read Oedipus Rex and not really following the plot. Today, as a staff member at a university, I can get any book I want. Apart from the original Dead Sea Scrolls. The Inter Library Loan team could not swing that request for me. Damn them to hell.

Screw your Lexus, I can read any book I want. Who is the real winner here? Yeah? Whatever.

My childhood was not filled with fear of violence (apart from the regular nerd beatings that my mix of academic achievement and social inadequacy seemed to demand). Instead, the perennial terror was dropping from our precarious perch into the precipice below. Keeping up appearances with the constant threat of appearances falling apart. And the failure of knowing how to do so. You are only here under sufferance. We can send you back down any time we like.

My own parents could not have ideologically sounds debates about gender or race with me. My mother had insisted that they leave the Plymouth Brethren because she was not allowed to talk. My father told stories about the contempt that black prisoners had for the legal system – but it wasn’t like he hung out with the (non-Plymouth) Brothers in downtown Littlehampton. His frame of reference was as bare as the beach of pebbles of my home town. We know what’s around us. It doesn’t pay to know much more.

Working Not Working

I only know a little of working class culture before the 80s. Black and white photos. Accounts told by biased witnesses. There is a sense of something tied to place – where you lived, where you worked, where you drank, where you ate, where you prayed. A world of things. But not just of things. A world of stories. Life was not secure or safe. A public world dominated by men. A world without much in the way of privacy. A world with many threats outside.

Those places are slipping. Factories get moved overseas or staffed with robots. Building sites still require men. Get yourself a trade. Get up at 5 am and have a laugh with the boys. But there are ever more call centres and old people’s homes and child care spots. These don’t require brawny arms but nimble fingers and sharp ears. These are the world of women not men. The union hall is empty. You’ll take that temping contract and like it.

The message from conservatives is that there are two kinds of working class people. The “good” type – hard-working, moral, maybe a bit of a larrikin but fundamentally right-thinking. Not interested in any hi-faultin’ ideas but a good, salt of the earth sort.  That’s you right? Of course it is. We’ll take care of you. Promise.

Then there are the “bad” ones – lazy good-for-nothings who sit on sofa taking drugs, playing Xbox and hitting their spouses and their kids while claiming the dole. Terrible people. That’s those people over there. We’ll sort them out. Promise.

There is obviously zero overlap between these two groups. And there is no way that some one could slide from group to the other. Impossible. And if they did, it would always be their fault. Always.

Talk Radio is always full of people talking. So many, many words expelled with such force. It’s not called Listening Radio for a reason.

Sometimes we drive out to my wife’s great aunt not far from Bass Hill. Her immaculately-kept three bedroom house sits with other immaculately kept houses. Her Italian neighbours keep an eye on her. We share Portuguese chicken and chips with a cold ginger beer. We talk about those living and those dead. We talk about our hopes and fears. Not all of these conversations are ideologically sound.

Just listen for a moment. There are many stories. Many hopes and dreams. Noble. Perverse. Profane. Wrong. All worth a listen.

Time to think and dream.

*Altho according to this totally scientific & atomically precise online test, I am “Traditional Working Class”: Bollocks.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Family Feudal Firm

The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account

Why don’t I watch Game of Thrones? Well…

Nothing annoys me more than when I have an idea and promptly discover that someone has already done it better than me. In this case, Elizabeth Anderson’s two Tanner lectures from 2015 and this more recent article for Vox. A brief summary of the lectures:

  • Lecture 1 discusses the association of the free market with left-wing radicals until the advent of the industrial revolution. Masterless artisans were very keen on the free market and private property because it safeguarded their autonomy from feudal, landed lords and avaricious kings. The industrial revolution changed that dynamic. Production that had previously been the preserve of small proprietors became the domain of huge corporations that could operate at scale. Private property ceased to be a place of financial refuge for individuals and was instead the branding mark of the capitalist.
  • Lecture 2 extends this notion into the present day. Business seek to control not only the behaviour of their staff in the workplace but also their actions off the clock and the ideas that occupy their minds. Anderson – in a deliciously provocative move – equates their actions with those of Communist dictatorships. Corporations act as “private governments” – states within states with their own laws, norms and mechanisms of enforcement.

The lectures are well worth reading so I am not going to rehearse their arguments here. Rather I want to riff off the analogy in the second lecture based on my 20-odd years working in the private and public sectors:

  • Virtually no workplaces follow democratic principles. Perhaps the closest I have encountered to a democratic workplace was PwC – where the CEO was voted in. The catch being that the CEO is voted in by the partners (individuals with an equity stake in the firm) and key decisions (major merger and acquisitions) were put to partnership votes. Partners make up around 10% of the firm (in Australia, about 450 of 5,000). This is reminiscent of ancient Athens where adult male citizens who had completed their military training could vote and they made up only 10% of the population (women, children, foreigners and slaves being in eligible). The division between partners and non-partners was rigidly enforced (communciations had to start with “Dear Partners and Staff”).
  • Some organisations are built around families. These tend to resemble monarchies – with a court forming around the king, sorry, managing director and rival factions led by different family members. The challenge for any monarchy is the death of the king and the smooth transition of power. Needless to say, this transition is seldom smooth.
  • Perhaps the dominant political form for many organisations is feudal. In the feudal system, resources are owned by lords. Lords may all submit to the authority of a king and pay regular tribute but they have power within their own domain. Lords will compete with each other for resources and power. They may come together to fight external threats. Individual lords may also leave the state at any time and ally themselves with enemies and take their retinues with them. Now depending on the organisation, resources may be “bodies” (staff reporting to you), customer relationships, profit & loss responsibility, revenue streams, control of physical or intangible assets, etc. Lords offer protection to those under their rule but demand loyalty and tribute in return.
  • Very few organisations are genuine bureaucracies where processes rule. Many organisations camouflage themselves as such to outsiders but do not assume that this is how insiders see them.
  • Most organisations are some mix of all of the above.

While we talk about our societies being modern and democratic, much time (perhaps the majority of lived experience) is spent in enviroments our medieval ancestors would recognise. Our lives are largely non-democratic.

Incidentally, this is why Jeffrey Pfeffer‘s work still resonates. Pferrer’s work on power has been described as “machiavellian” and this is truer than most of his commentators know. Machiavelli was a humanist operating in a time where feudal power struggles were just starting to be eclipsed by the globalised mercantilism that we know today. Northern Italy has the centre of this transformation – just as the Northern California in which Pfeffer is located is centre of our current transformation of capital. Like Machiavelli, Pfeffer is ultimately a humanist counselling future princes (of both genders) in the dark arts of statecraft. The reason that his work resonates while drawing upon pre-modern sources is that our world is fundamentally pre-modern.

N.B. These non-democratic institutions are not especially free market either. French historian Fernand Braudel theorised that capitalism is actually an anti-market – suppressing and supplanting market exchanges. Coase’s theory of the firm states that firms exist because market pricing includes expensive transaction costs that firms can avoid through control of their value chains. Only suckers buy on the market.

Libertarians spend a lot of time decrying the repressive possibilities of democratically-elected governments. And they are not wholly wrong to do so. But they have no concept of the threat posed by private governments and anti-markets. And those threats are real.

So why don’t I watch Game of Thrones? Well, after 20 years in the service of lords and ladies, citizens and monarchs, it hold no escapism for me. Even the dragons seem tame compared to the world that surrounds me. Their breath can only scold the skin, not the heart that lies within.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Fear Of Politics – Techno Techno Techno

A spectre is haunting us — the spectre of politics. All the powers of world have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre…

Many people seem to be afraid of politics – especially its democratic variants. It’s not just a mild skittishness, it’s full on revulsion.

Now let’s be honest. Politics is not elegant. It is a bruising, compromised business conducted by comprised people (i.e. everyone but especially politicians) who bruise readily. Democractic politics are especially messy. No one ever gets exactly what they want all the time. That is the pact you make.

“I’d have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for you meddling voters”.

Now these politiphobes can take many forms but there is one variant that we will discuss here.


Software engineers like certain kinds of solutions. They prefer things to be both rational and elegant. Messy v1.0 code is refactored into something tidier. And when you are coding this stuff matters. Irrational code may be difficult for others to maintain and improve. Inelegant code may impact system performance. Or, worse, other developers may make snide comments about your pull request on Github.

However politics is not rational – in a number of senses.

  • At the individual level, human beings are both rational and irrational – driven by naked calculation and furious, unconscious drives. We vote for candidates who will immiserate us financially but confirm our superiority to those with a slightly different skin tone. Our drives conflict and clash. If we get what we want then we don’t get what we want (which is why democracy is such a good fit for us).
  • At the collective level, individuals find themselves in strange coalitions. Religious moralists must do deals with those they see as sexual deviants if both face a common enemy. And of course politics is a social activity, a tribal activity – a matter of belonging as well as believing and behaving (or misbehaving).
  • At the institutional level, bodies such as parliaments, senates , government departments and courts develop over time – created to solve one problem, they morph into something else. They exapt. Sometimes into the solution to further problems, sometimes into the cause of them. However once they are established, they are often hard to dismantle because they form part of our infrastructure.

This lack of elegance and rationality disgusts engineers. Hence their constant desire to replace it with an engineered solution.

Someone must be able to create an app to fix this.

Now as we will see in a later post, there is an app that can fix this but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

So what do our new techno overlords think? Greg Ferenstein has spent time surveying them and has found the following:

  • The tend to believe all change over the long run ends up being good.
  • They tend to believe that education can solve all or most problems in society.
  • They reject the notion that there are inherent conflicts of interests between citizens, the government, corporations or other nations.

The popularity of these ideas among the tech elite is based on their own biased experiences:

  • Change has been good for them. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so rich and powerful now.
  • Education has been good for them. Even if they dropped out of college, they were generally raised in environments that not only prized education but viewed it as accessible and made it accessible to them.
  • Silicon Valley is basically an incestuous ecosystem / echo chamber (eco-chamber?) where universities, corporations, start-ups and incubators play a game of musical chairs with money (until the music stops – and the music has been going since 2001).

These core beliefs lead to some… problems:

  • A view of change that neglects negative outcomes means that you don’t bother doing anything about them because, well, hey, everything will work out fine in the end. However in any change there are inevitably winners and losers and big changes tend to mean large numbers of one or both. Those losers are going to be really pissed off.
  • A view of ameliorating change that focuses primarily on education means that even if you do tackle negative outcomes, you will be ineffective. Don’t get me wrong, I love education. I have 2 degrees and I teach at a university for larfs. But getting trained to do a new job only works if the new jobs are there in the first place. Otherwise you’ll end up a piece of paper (or these days probably just a PDF) that not even your mum wants and a massive pile of debt to One-Eyed Vinny The Student Loan Agency.
  • This rejection of conflict prevents a productive engagement with politics. Chuck Tingle might believe that Love Is Real (as do I) but so is Conflict. People disagree – and not just because they have access to different information sources. They also have different fundamental interests. Politics is the negotiation of those interests and the first step to that negotiation is to admit they exist.

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. The tech elite appear to be still in denial. With these thoughts in mind, I would suggest the following:

  • Admit that change creates winners and losers. Argue that your proposals will create more winners than losers. And give the losers something.
  • Stop banging on about education – be it college or code camps or being Peter Thiel’s cabana boy. By all means do those things, they are still worthwhile. But accept that education is not all of the solution. What else are you going to do? What structural changes are going to make beyond expecting the losers to skill up? What are you personally going to sacrifice?
  • Accept that political differences cannot be solved solely through increased information dissemination. If I haven’t had a pay raise in a decade then don’t tell me that the iPhone 6 has 8 times as much RAM as the 2007 original and therefore I must be 8 times as wealthy. “Let them eat hedonic pricing” is not a winning strategy.

Most of all, recognize that building a platform is not primarily a technological challenge. A platform is an institution made of human beings, of people. These people may be linked to each other by technology but they remain people with their interests. What can you give them that will work for you and for them? Three obvious things are voice, money, and respect.

I’m not going to ask the tech elite to be unafraid, that’s too much to ask. Instead I am going to ask them to feel the fear and do it anyway.

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Falling Into Chaos

Lets get complex. Not complicated. Not chaotic (not yet). Definitely not simple. Complex.

To get a little deeper into why everything is broken, we’re going to need to some kind of framework – here’s one that someone else made earlier. Imagine the world consists of – and also can be thought of as – five different kinds of systems:

  • Simple systems where effect follows very reliably and obviously from cause.
  • Complicated systems also have cause and effect but things are – well – complicated. You need to analyse and investigate – but that analysis and investigation should not effect the system itself.
  • Complex systems consist of lots of interacting actors. Causes and effects are related but not consistent. You need to try something and see if it works. If it does then you need do more of it. If it doesn’t then you need to try something else.
  • Chaos is, well, chaotic. There is no cause and effect. You just have to do something. Tyrants and dictators love chaos because “they alone can fix it”.
  • Disorder? Well, in disorder, you don’t know where you are. So you go with what you know.

Here is a short video by David Snowden (one of the creators of this framework) that explains this better. Pay particular attention to the discussion that occurs at 6:42. And here’s a picture.

The boundary between simple and chaotic is catastrophic. Things are going well, the sun is shining, everything is right with the world. Simple. We stop paying attention to what’s going on (“Oh, look, a puppy, a shiny thing, a nasty tweet”). We neglect to attend. Meanwhile the world is changing. The ground is moving beneath our feet. We look up at the sky unaware of the precipice towards which we inch. And then we fall into chaos.

Another metaphor contains stabilizers and dampeners. The whole point of our social institutions are that they contain, dampen and direct our animal instincts. We are perverted into normality. As these institutions decay, their powers wane and the system starts to tear itself apart. Or to put it another way.

My fear is that we may have already crossed his boundary about 18 months ago. But we may still be on its edge.

What next? Cynefin implies that there are two pathways open to us.

  1. We fall into chaos. True tyrants take control. Large numbers of people start dying. This is not good.
  2. We go complex. We grow new structures or regrow existing ones to enable us to restabilize our societies. Most of these efforts will fail but some will succeed. And we won’t know which ones until we try.

We don’t have much time.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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