Month: February 2019

Twisted Incentives

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


Last Tuesday, just after leaving for school, my son called me. Once you have kids driving, getting a call from them while they have one of your cars always creates a significant sense of dread, because there’s a good chance that something bad happened. Particularly these days when if it wasn’t something bad or urgent they would just text. On Tuesday this dread ended up being completely justified, my son had been t-boned on his way to school. Fortunately he was okay. He did say his side was sore from the airbag, and the back of his hand ended up with some abrasions, but luckily the other car hit right behind where he was sitting. If the impact had happened a half a second earlier it would have been much worse. So he was okay. Our 2006 Honda Odyssey, on the other hand, was definitely not. It was clearly totaled.

The accident took place within walking distance of my house, so after I got the call that’s what I did. Though actually, I ran most of the way. And of course, once I got there, the very next question, after determining that he was okay, is determining what happened. He said he was sure the light was green. When I later pressed him on how sure, as a percent, he said 80%. Okay, not 100%, but surely there are witnesses. There was one gentleman who had kindly stopped to check on my son and stuck around while we waited for the cops, but unfortunately he hadn’t seen the accident he had only heard it, and he couldn’t remember what configuration the lights were in. This is not really surprising, it’s interesting how bad memory truly is and particularly how bad we are at any kind of rational thought after something dramatic happens.

In any case, even though it had taken a few minutes for me to get over there, I still felt like we waited at least another five minutes for the cops to show up while we waited in the cold (it was in the low 20’s). When the cop did show up, everyone gathered. There was my son, the two people in the other car and two witnesses. And, unfortunately, the other four all said my son ran the red light. Case closed, right? Well, as far as the cop was concerned, that’s exactly what it was. My son was found to be at fault and given a ticket, and the whole thing goes on my insurance. But there a several things that don’t entirely make sense about the story the other people told.

When asked to describe the state of the lights the passenger in the other car said that it had been green for my son, but it had turned yellow and had been red for a bit when he went through the intersection. That would certainly make sense. It had been green, but my son got distracted and missed the fact that the light had changed. She also said she could see him coming from a long way away and he was going really fast. Okay, now things start to make less sense. If she could see him from a long way away it seems a little bit suspicious that they weren’t able to avoid him, though this was the passenger speaking, maybe the driver didn’t see him. But then, also, if they could see him from a long way away, then that implies that they were stopped at the light. So if that’s the case how did they get going fast enough from the edge to the middle of the intersection to hit my van hard enough to total it? (And knock it quite a distance as well…) Presumably they could have been approaching the intersection when the light turned green and had plenty of speed, but then how would they have seen him from a long way away? The buildings on the corner make it so you can’t see very far down the cross-street until you’re at the intersection.

You’re probably thinking that all of this is interesting but beside the point because there were witnesses, and they said my son ran a red light. Well first it’s important to remember that eyewitnesses are a lot less reliable than people assume. Second both of the witnesses were in the same car, so their opinion is not as independent as you might have first assumed. Finally, and most alarming, the two witnesses invited to the two people in the other car to sit in their car while waiting for the police. Meaning they had quite a bit of time to discuss things. Now, to be clear, I’m not claiming that they colluded (though they could have) it’s far more likely that they were all attempting to reconstruct what happened and that as they did that they were more likely to arrive at a narrative favorable to the other car. This may in fact have been the correct narrative, but the final result is that it’s not the four against one it initially appeared to be.

And this takes us back to the beginning, despite the inconsistencies in their stories there was no way that a cop was going to take the word of a teenage male driver over the word of four adults, so my son got the ticket. Also it’s not like I could cross-examine the other people either. Though maybe I should have tried. My son is still convinced he had the green light and when he discovered that there was a traffic camera at that intersection he figured it would vindicate him. Unfortunately the point of the camera is not to exonerate individuals wronged by the cops, it’s so you can get on the UDOT website and see what the traffic is like. Meaning it’s live feed only, it’s not saved anywhere.

There’s also a bank on that corner and I checked with them to see if they might have any cameras pointed in that direction. They do, but the framing is such that the light isn’t captured. Also they said I had basically zero chance of getting access to the recording. All of this is unfortunate because I really would like to know for sure one way or the other. Worst case scenario it leaves us with the situation that already exists. At best it could mean lots of money saved on my insurance, and a considerable boost in confidence for my son. So it’s annoying that I’ll never know. Though, I should mention the key point of the whole accident, because it ends up being the most annoying thing of all about it, far more annoying than never knowing. I had just replaced the engine on that van last month.

As I have mentioned before in this space it’s difficult to know what to do in a situation where the facts aren’t clear. And when that’s the case, far too often people default to making a decision based on their biases, treating ambiguous evidence as ironclad evidence, or frequently ignoring all the evidence which contradicts their decision. In the situation with my son, I still know there’s a good chance he ran the red light, despite the inconsistencies in the other stories. And in talking to him I think he’s aware there’s a good chance of that as well. My guess is that because of his biases he places that chance lower than he should. (I’d say it’s better than even that he ran the light, but I’m guessing he’d stick with his initial 80% chance that he didn’t.) But as I said this is a fairly common response.

As we finally move away from my son’s accident, I’d like to talk more about that last tendency I mentioned, ignoring contradictory evidence. This tendency is so strong that it often extends to discounting even a preponderance of evidence if it points in a direction which contradicts your biases. We’re seeing that play out as I write this in the case of Jussie Smollett. Though by the time this is actually published my prediction is that it will be clear to all but the most obdurate  that he staged the attack and the threatening letter.

For those that have somehow missed the story. On January 22nd Smollett received a threatening letter with some white powder inside. (The powder was later discovered to be aspirin.) Then early on the morning of January 29th he claimed he was attacked by two white men in ski masks who shouted racist and homophobic slurs and put a noose around his neck. The assault got a huge amount of attention (on the other hand, as of this writing the letter isn’t even mentioned in Smollett’s Wikipedia article) with numerous Democratic presidential nominees tweeting their support, along with lots of celebrities. But there were doubts as well. For one thing it happened at 2 am on one of the coldest nights of the year. For another, it seemed almost cartoonishly over the top. The attackers apparently shouted “This is MAGA Country!”, and they just happened to know that not only was he black, but that he was gay? And they also just happened to have a rope handy?

But of course this was not a story that could be viewed dispassionately, this is a story where you are almost required to believe one thing if you’re on the left, and quite another when you’re on the right. And now, even as it’s becoming nearly impossible to view it as anything other than elaborate hoax people are still registering their support of Smollett. This is unlike the story of my son’s accident, where you views on whether he was at fault probably have very little to do with your political leanings.

None of this is new or particularly original, even if you restrict yourself to just what I’ve written, to say nothing of the gallons of virtual ink that has been spilled elsewhere. And I actually do have a different point I’m working towards, but before I move on I would like to make one final observation about the mess we’re in. There are people who don’t immediately judge events by their political leanings. I hope I’m one of them, though I suspect I’m not as good about it as I could be. People who actually are trying to get at the truth, regardless of whether it fits their biases. But this turns out to be extraordinarily difficult. Look at how long there was uncertainty about the Smollett case and how long it took for the police to admit that the “trajectory of the case” had “shifted”. And the Smollett case is about as easy as it gets. There’s a single incident, involving at most three people, limited in time and space, with lots of video. Now take something like determining what did or didn’t happen as far as Trump and Russia, where there are dozens of players and potentially thousands of incidents. All of which is to say that being objective is a nice ideal, but very hard in practice.

As I said none of this is particularly original and if I were just one more person piling on Smollett I don’t think there would be much point in this post, but I’m interested in a related and slightly deeper issue. Assuming that he did lie about it, which seems pretty safe at this point, why did he lie about it? Why did he hire the two Nigerian brothers? The current theory is that he staged the attack because the hate mail didn’t get enough attention. But why did he want attention? Well there’s a theory that he was about to be written off of Empire, but it’s clear that lots of people want attention for its own sake, so this isn’t very mysterious. But why were other people willing to give incident so much attention? One answer is that this is the way politics works at the moment, but I want to look at it from a different angle. Why was this even an option for him? Why was there an incentive for staging an assault in the first place?

Over the last couple of posts I talked about how when systems have been going long enough eventually people start to figure out how to take advantage of them. That eventually no matter how sensible or ancient the rules are, if the incentive is great enough eventually those rules will be broken. In one post it was people taking advantage of weak spots in the constitution in the following post I talked about corporations taking advantage of modern technology and antitrust statutes, well I think the Smollett case is an example of people taking advantage of the framework of social justice.

And this is one of the reasons why many of the opponents of social justice have a problem with it. They certainly don’t have a problem with the idea of justice, and they’re even on board with “social justice” but they worry that these good ideas, when taken too far, can create a significant incentive for abuse. And when the abuse does happen they worry it will be ignored by social justice advocates, because the advocates don’t want anything to detract from the underlying good idea.

The general point I’m making is that it’s important to recognize what incentives people might have. Obviously I wouldn’t be nearly as suspicious of the story the people in the other car told about my son’s accident if they had no incentive to lie. And the same applies to Smollett, if there was no incentive to fake an attack, then the chances of it being fake go down. But clearly based on all of the attention it’s received there was a huge incentive. And to a certain extent the environment which generates all that attention is to blame. I get the impression that there are some people who think that Smollett got so much attention because his fake assault resembled actual assaults which did happen. If so, I’d be curious which assaults they’re referring to.

I understand that most people do not lie about being insulted, or assaulted, or raped. But if the incentive gets to be large enough some people definitely will. Another obvious example of this is the Rolling Stone article A Rape on Campus, the discredited story of a gang rape on the UVA campus. Yes, most people do not lie about being raped, but Jackie Coakley apparently did, presumably because there was some incentive to do so. There are also the more ambiguous cases. Was Christine Blasey Ford lying or was Brett Kavanaugh? I don’t know, I do know that both of them had a very large incentive to do so.

Now I realize that a big part of this whole discussion is that some people really want to believe that Trump supporters are capable of an attempted lynching in downtown Chicago or that some fraternity brothers are capable of committing a gang rape, or that the Clintons have had a bunch of people murdered, or that everything bad that happens to Trump is because of the “Deep State”. Which is symptomatic of a whole other problem, but for now I don’t want to dissect the incentives I just want people to realize that the incentives are there, and that certain people will act on them, regardless of whether it’s what we expect or whether it’s wrong.

It should go without saying that fewer people will act on incentives if there’s some punishment attached for doing so. This is why stealing is illegal. There are also punishments attached to giving false police reports. Though, apparently, that didn’t dissuade Smollett, and also he may be in the most trouble for the original letter, since that’s a federal crime. And, while it’s well known that stealing is a crime, my guess is that the penalty for lying to the police is less well known. But one assumes and hopes that whatever legal consequences Smollett ends up suffering that it will discourage people from attempting anything similar.

But what happens when there’s nothing illegal about following an incentive, just the disapproval of others? I think such disapproval used to be pretty powerful, particularly when there was a greater emphasis on community, and you’d have to encounter the same people and their disapproval for the rest of your life. Now with selfishness ascendent and the ability to find whole new groups to interact with, groups who may even applaud your choice, I don’t think disapproval is nearly as effective. (But, then again, even something being illegal isn’t entirely effective.) I’d like to close out by examining two examples of this.

First, there’s the behavior of male managers and executives in the #metoo era. From a recent article in Fortune:

A new set of findings from women’s empowerment non-profit LeanIn.Org and online survey platform SurveyMonkey reveal that, since the media reports of sexual harassment first emerged last fall, male managers are three times as likely to say they are uncomfortable mentoring women and twice as uncomfortable working alone with a woman. The hesitation to meet with women outside of work is even more pronounced: Senior men were 3.5 times more likely to hesitate having a work dinner with a junior female colleague than a male one–and five times more likely to hesitate to travel for work with a junior woman.

There are of course a number of follow-up articles berating men for this behavior or assuring them that they have nothing to worry about. But the #metoo movement, whatever it’s accomplishments, however important it might be on net, has created some incentives, and male executives are following those incentives. I’m sure there are some who will read those follow-up articles and continue to mentor or return to mentoring, but some will not because the incentive to not do so is too great. Which is to say being accused of harassment has become so bad that they are incentivized to not do anything which might open them up to the possibility.

My second example is transgender athletes, where I think the incentives are even clearer and what disapproval there is, getting progressively weaker. This was brought to my mind recently by some statements Martina Navratilova made. I guess back in December she said some things about transwomen competing and after getting a lot of pushback, she promised to keep quiet until she had done some research. Just recently, she came back and said, “Well, I’ve now done that and, if anything, my views have strengthened.” Going on to say:

To put the argument at its most basic: a man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organisation is concerned, win everything in sight and perhaps earn a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires. It’s insane and it’s cheating. I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her. It would not be fair.

There’s a whole mess of stuff going on in with this statement, but for the purposes of this post I just want to focus on one thing. Is it conceivable that someone who doesn’t really suffer from gender dysphoria would nevertheless take hormones in order to “win everything in sight…earn a small fortune and then reverse his decision”? Well the only thing stopping them is people calling out the tactic and the instant criticism of Navratilova illustrates how effective that is. So the only thing left is determining whether the incentive exists. Could they win everything in sight? Well that’s a big topic I don’t have time to go into, but a search for transgender athlete wins should be enough to convince you that it’s a definite possibility.

As you might imagine athletics is not the only place where someone might be incentivized to switch genders, and there’s at least one case of a transwoman being put in women’s jail and then committing multiple sexual assaults. Once again, in the absence of anything to prevent it, this person followed their incentives. In the case of the prison it’s clear that this was a bad person, but there are lots of bad people, and some of them are going to do whatever they can get away with, and if we abdicate the responsibility of determining what that is, they’ll end up getting away with quite a lot.

What this all boils down to is that we need focus more on what people are incentivized to do, rather than on what they should do. Particularly given the fact that while progress and technology have only somewhat altered what we should do, they have dramatically altered what we’re incentivized to do.


I think when I do these closing pitches for donations that I’m trying to incentivize you to give me money. I don’t think the incentives I offer are very strong. Though I was just thinking of how it would be nice if the donations could pay for me to subscribe to all the paywalled news sites, since that doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing I would do normally, but maybe it’s the kind of thing a blogger “In search of the truth!” would do. If that seems like a reasonable ask, consider donating.


A New Sort of Monopoly

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


Last week I mentioned that certain potential problems could only be solved at the federal level. The example I gave was social media, specifically Facebook, but it’s not just Facebook, traditionally stopping powerful companies in general has been something only the government can do. But before we get to that, in the last post I also briefly mentioned that one, unrealistic, possibility would be for the individuals themselves to cut themselves off from these powerful companies. Well, over the last several weeks Gizmodo reporter, Kashmir Hill, tried to do just that.

Hill decided to live, in turn, without each of the tech giants: Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple, and on the final week she attempted to live without all of them. And as I pointed out, it ends up being pretty difficult, if not impossible. In fact that’s the title of of the article she wrote about her week without Amazon. I Tried to Block Amazon From My Life. It Was Impossible. So I guess we’ll start there. The Amazon week was particularly interesting because when most people think of Amazon they think, “I could easily go for a week without buying something on Amazon.” But that’s not the hard part of the exercise it’s going for a week without using AWS.

For those who don’t know, AWS stands for Amazon Web Services, it’s the Amazon cloud offering and it’s used by a huge chunk of the internet. (I use it for my business.) She didn’t include many statistics, though her subjective impression was summed up in the title of her article: It was impossible.

When I say a huge chunk, I think the best measure is that as far as cloud services AWS is 42% by revenue, which seems high, but not ridiculous. However when you’re used to 100% of the internet being available 100% of the time, 42% is huge, as people found out when it went down twice in 2017. And as the author found out when she tried to cut it out of her life.

But the title of this post and our eventual destination is a discussion of monopolies and 42% doesn’t sound like much of a monopoly. Maybe not, but one of the first points I want to make is that unlike some of the more traditional monopolies, the current tech monopoly is harder to see. You might notice that all of the oil refineries in your state are run by Standard Oil and sue them as Ohio did in 1892. Or that every single computer in the office is Widows, leading to that Microsoft antitrust action of 2001 but I think far fewer people understand how deeply embedded Amazon is in their life, even if they ignore the actual store. (Also it should be noted that AWS is where most of Amazon’s profit comes from.)

As an illustration of this mismatch in perceptions consider Facebook. If you were going to pick the company from her list which has been subjected to the most criticism recently, that’s who you would choose. And yet when it came time to cut Facebook out of her life it was relatively straightforward, nothing close to as “impossible” as cutting out Amazon. And, insofar as our level of concern should correlate with the difficulty of cutting something out of our life the animosity directed at Facebook might be misplaced.

Obviously Facebook engages in a lot of shady practices like data collection and distorting what people see in their feed. But if you think Amazon and Google aren’t collecting data you may be in for a rude shock. As a matter of fact Google collects more data than Facebook. And as far as distorting information have you ever done a search for “American Scientists” on Google? If you get a chance to do that, look at the images which are displayed along the top. The Google list of American scientists exercises, what I can only describe as, a significant amount of affirmative action. Of the first 10, eight are African American. (Einstein and Fermi are the other two). Compare this to Bing and it’s reversed, of the top 10, two are African American.

This might be a small thing. But I think it shows a clear ideological bias (one you might agree with, but a bias nonetheless) and given that Google has 93% of all search traffic, even small things can add up. And as long as we’re on the subject of what percentage Google controls of certain markets. Hill’s experience with cutting out Google was described as “screwing up everything” because 88% of all mapping applications (including Lyft and Uber) use Google.

In other words despite my sense that Google is less reviled than Facebook (I guess it could be the same, but I doubt it’s more). They’re far more deserving of it. They collect more data, they’re more ideologically biased and they’re more of a monopoly. But, because most of what they do is behind the scenes (similar to Amazon), people don’t notice how ubiquitous they are. Another example of a potential, yet subtle danger. Another example of how monopolies could exist but in a different form than we’re used to.

Okay, so a Gizmodo reporter tried to live without the tech giants and it was super annoying and the tech giants themselves do lots of suspect things on top of that annoyance. And yes they control vast swaths of the internet and by extension our lives, but that’s why they’re tech giants. Does this mean that something needs to be done? If so what?

I’ve already mentioned the word monopoly a few times, and we’ve now arrived at the point where we need to discuss what a monopoly is and why it’s bad. We have not reached the point where we label any of the aforementioned technology companies as monopolies, but we will.

Historically the most famous monopoly, which I already mentioned, was Standard Oil. But more recently, there was antitrust action against Archer Daniels Midland for conspiring to fix the price of Lysine and citric acid. In both cases the worry was that in the near absence of competition they could raise prices, rake in profits and harm the consumer, who would end up paying much higher prices than they would have otherwise. And currently high prices are considered to be the best standard for determining whether something is a monopoly or engaged in antitrust behavior, but Facebook is free, and so are most of the offerings from Google. Amazon charges money, but it’s certainly hasn’t used it’s position to raise prices. Accordingly, many would argue, they’re not monopolies. But it sure seems like they might be headed in that direction. Is it possible that by targeting prices have we mistaken the symptom for the disease? Or that this is too simple a way to look at things?

If the disease is harming customers, then it seems like there are probably many ways that can happen beyond just high prices. At a high level, economic theory holds that capitalism is good because competition works in something of an evolutionary fashion, with new innovative companies replacing old uncompetitive companies, what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction”, going on to describe it as “the essential fact about capitalism.” Lack of innovation is another sign of customer harm, but that was covered by price as well. Since price is a signal of innovation, lower prices are a also good indicator that a company is innovative, while higher prices are a good sign that the company is not innovative or colluding to stop innovation. But once again price is just a proxy for what we’re really worried about, innovation, something which is not only good for customers, but good in and of itself.

Still even once we toss innovation in, it’s not clear that the tech giants are monopolies, since most of them got where they are through being innovative, and have largely continued to innovate. In the last post I talked about the life cycle of a democracy, well businesses also have a lifecycle and all of the tech giants are still in the early stages of theirs. Meaning that I would expect them to continue to be innovative for awhile. And once again this would lead many people to the conclusion that they are not monopolies. But is it possible both of these standards are overly simplistic? Is it possible that the tech giants represent new kinds of monopolies? When you read about the experiences of Hill do you come away thinking something unusual and alarming is going on? If so you’re not the only one.

Not that long ago, Lina Khan, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, published a paper, titled, Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox, where she discusses whether Amazon should be examined more closely by antitrust regulators. As you might have guessed the answer is “Yes,” but the route by which she arrived at that answer is the interesting part.

To begin with I didn’t realize that current antitrust doctrine views low consumer prices sufficient, by themselves, to deflect any antitrust accusations. And that this standard is a by product of the influence of the Chicago School of Economics, under whose influence a switch was made in the late 70s early 80s, at least according to Khan. Though when she discusses the individuals, their motivations and actions at the time it sounds believable to me. Specifically, the individuals in question, which included Robert Bork of Supreme Court nomination fame, argued against the idea of predatory pricing. The theory that large companies could use low prices to drive their competition out of business and then achieve a monopoly in the absence that competition. According to Khan:

Ward Bowman, an economist at Yale Law School, argued that the premise of predatory pricing laws was wrong. He wrote, “The Robinson-Patman Act [the prime example of such a law] rests upon a presumption that price discrimination can or might be used as a monopolizing technique. This, as more recent economic literature confirms, is at best a highly dubious presumption.

[Bork] described predatory pricing generally as “a phenomenon that probably does not exist” and the Robinson-Patman Act as “the misshapen progeny of intolerable draftsmanship coupled to wholly mistaken economic theory.”

As the writings of Bowman and Bork suggest, the Chicago School critique of predatory pricing doctrine rests on the idea that below-cost pricing is irrational and hence rarely occurs. For one, the critics argue, there was no guarantee that reducing prices below cost would either drive a competitor out or otherwise induce the rival to stop competing. Second, even if a competitor were to drop out, the predator would need to sustain monopoly pricing for long enough to recoup the initial losses and successfully thwart entry by potential competitors, who would be lured by the monopoly pricing. The uncertainty of its success, coupled with its guarantee of costs, made predatory pricing an unappealing—and therefore highly unlikely—strategy.

As with so many things we discuss in this space, the Chicago School critique was written before the internet changed everything. And it may not have been true even before then. The question of whether Standard Oil engaged in predatory pricing is still hotly debated. But that aside, how did the internet change the theory and practice of predatory pricing?

We’ll talk all about changes actually related to technology, but in the end it always comes down to dollars and cents. And here the key change is that investors in Amazon apparently don’t care about profit. There are lots of examples of this, including Amazon’s stock price going up after reporting a quarterly loss, and the tiny profits Amazon posts even when it is profitable, but I think one commenter put it best. “Amazon, as best I can tell, is a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers.” At its core this is how Amazon can engage in, what was previously considered, irrational predatory pricing. They can afford to. But saying this is a little like an autopsy declaring that a person died from blunt force trauma. That may be so, but the difference between dying from slipping in the bathroom, and being beaten to death by a bat in a back alley is huge. Which is to say, why are investors willing to ignore profitability? Are they stupid or murderous?

In essence what the investors are doing is valuing growth over profitability. There could be a couple of reasons for this, they could be stupid, because five years from now some competitor will come along and Amazon will go the way of Sears or Myspace. Or more likely, they could be counting on Amazon to continue growing and get more and more profitable. Given that Amazon’s price to earnings ratio currently sits around 80 and that as recently as 2015 it was at 741 they appear to think that despite controlling nearly 50% of online retailing, that Amazon still has a lot of growing to do, and that something about that growth will make it largely immune from significant competition. In other words, the numbers indicate that investors are already pricing it as monopoly.

There are at least three reasons for this (and probably more).

First the marginal cost of online retailing is vastly lower than traditional retailing. And also benefits much more from an economy of scale. While not a perfect example imagine the differences in opening a store in a new area. Say that, hypothetically, Utah had a great firewall similar to China and they didn’t allow Amazon in. And then one day they change their mind. This would be a relatively trivial adjustment for Amazon, particularly if all of their shipping companies were already operating in Utah. Now imagine that Walmart had been banned in Utah and that ban had suddenly been lifted. It would take many years for Walmarts to be as common in Utah as they are everywhere else. This same thing applies to individual products, particularly digital ones. Now you might imagine that this would make it easy to compete with Amazon, but that’s not the case which takes us to our second reason.

Amazon like most of the tech giants enjoys a powerful network effect. It may be less obvious than the network effect enjoyed by Facebook, but it’s nevertheless a huge factor. If you’re going to sell something you need buyers, and if you’re going to buy something you need sellers. By creating a platform to connect the two Amazon has a gigantic advantage over someone starting from scratch, even if if the tech is easy, the marketing is fantastically difficult. I understand that if there’s only one seller network effects are not quite so great, but over 50% of items sold on Amazon are from third party sellers. There’s also the vast fulfillment network they’ve created. When Hill was attempting to cut Amazon out of her life she ended up buying something from EBay, only to discover when it arrived, a “Fulfillment by Amazon” sticker.

Finally there’s the customer data, that holy grail of the tech economy, and Amazon has a ton of it. (Though again, probably not as much as Google.) This data gives them an edge against any possible competition that is almost impossible to duplicate. Certainly no startup could duplicate it. Also as an aside it increases the potential risk, not only do customers have to worry about worse quality or higher prices, they have to worry about Amazon protecting their privacy as well. And remember this is all run by someone who’s had trouble keeping pictures of his privates, private.

When all of this is combined, it paints a troubling picture. To quote from Khan again:

For the purpose of competition policy, one of the most relevant factors of online platform markets is that they are winner-take-all. This is due largely to network effects and control over data, both of which mean that early advantages become self-reinforcing. The result is that technology platform markets will yield to dominance by a small number of firms. Walmart’s recent purchase of the one start-up that had sought to challenge Amazon in online retail—Jet.com—illustrates this reality.

The key phrase there is “winner-take-all”. If network effects and control over data self-reinforce, then there doesn’t appear to be any way for real competition to arise. Certainly the Amazon investors seem to be of that opinion, and I see no reason to disagree with them.

There is one objection I should address before we move on. However unassailable Amazon is by other online retailers, there are other tech giants. The competition between Microsoft and Apple is the stuff of legends and is still ongoing, Amazon and Google might not seem like competitors but if you’re looking to buy something, both of them really want you to come to them first. And the list goes on. Perhaps this is all the evidence necessary to dismiss any monopolistic concerns, but it doesn’t seem like it to me. Also as the Archer Daniels Midlands case showed, it’s a lot easier to collude when there’s only a few big players. And lest you think that the tech giants wouldn’t do that, they already did. They colluded to cap the salaries of tech workers. In the end it spread to such an extent that it affected over a million employees. Something to keep in mind.

You may still be unconvinced that Amazon and the rest are monopolies or well on their way to becoming such, but for the moment let’s assume that they are. Why is this bad? There is of course the danger of higher prices, or less innovation, which are non-trivial. But I’m less worried about the lack of tech innovation then I am about idea innovation. Specifically the marketplace of ideas envisioned as the primary reason for free speech. And here while there are some crimes to Amazon’s name, what’s most interesting/alarming is the recent trend of denying payment processing to people on the far right. (That was a Breitbart link, if you prefer here’s a Daily Beast link.) Finally beyond issues of censorship there is the general fragility of having a single point of failure, as people affected by the AWS internet outages and more especially people involved in data breaches have discovered.

Khan offers several solutions, but the one I find the most interesting is to treat the tech companies as similar to utilities and place them under common carrier obligations. And let’s be clear interesting does not mean good or preferable, it just means interesting. In particular I think it would be an interesting answer to all of those people who claim that only the government can restrict free speech and that private individuals and corporations should be able to do whatever they want. That becomes less true if the company is being treated as a utility. But I don’t have the space to go into that again, nor to examine the utility idea in more depth either.

To be clear I am mostly interested in how technology has changed the ways in which a company might discourage competition. And to be clear that’s exactly what every company wants. Companies are not pro-free market. Which is something I probably should have made a point of explaining earlier. I’m also interested in the ways in which technology makes being a monopoly easier, but also less obvious as Hill, the Gizmodo reporter discovered. As far as what should be done about it, here, as I mentioned, there are also interesting ideas, but I’m far less certain about what, if anything should be done. It is however one more piece of evidence for increasing complexity, and it remains an open question whether our institutions can keep up.


I’m hoping to build a monopoly in blog posts related to techno-pessimism with a large heaping of politics, religion, and Fermi’s Paradox. If you’d like to help with that consider donating. At least as long as my payment processing isn’t cut off.


Democracy on the Downhill

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


There are a lot of reasons to write, but one of the biggest one’s for me, above even persuading others (assuming that actually happens) is the way in which it refines my thinking. The work of translating an idea from my head to being written in such a way that other people have some chance of understanding it clarifies it in a way that nothing else can. I experienced this phenomenon in my last post, when I finally articulated the difference between what I’m trying to do and the exhortations of your standard “prepper”. Though, as you may recall, I’m not opposed to that sort of preparation, but my focus is different. I’m focused on the more subtle dangers facing us. Dangers which are harder to see and thus more difficult to avoid.

As I pointed out in that last post some of these dangers are subtle because they come cloaked not as a danger, but as something beneficial. I gave the example of healthcare, which seems entirely unobjectionable but may be crowding out other spending with more long term benefits. In the most extreme case, you may remember a post from not that long ago where I talked about the Galactic Stomach Ache explanation of Fermi’s Paradox which hypothesizes that the reason the universe is silent is that inevitably life extension spending crowds out spending on everything else. And, as I mentioned in my last episode it may currently  be running as high as 100 to 1.

Healthcare spending is of course not the only subtle potential danger we face, there are obviously dozens if not hundreds of them, perhaps thousands if we’re especially liberal with what level of probability counts as “potential”. What are we to do about all of them? It would seem obvious that the first step is to identify them, which I’ve already spent a lot of time doing. But in this post I’d like to focus more on what to do about them once they’ve been identified.

I’ve already talked about preppers and that is of course a very good way of dealing with a certain class of potential dangers. And, to reiterate, I recommend it. But there are other classes of potential dangers where having a multiyear supply of food is not going to help you very much. Let’s take the potential danger of social media. And remember I’m saying potential danger, I think the jury’s still out. But if it does end up being dangerous, having a stockpile of food and ammo, or even a large stockpile of wealth is not going to help very much if your kids are being irreparably harmed by, say, Facebook. Okay, then what would help?

Certainly one option is to withdraw from society completely. Homeschool your kids. Stay completely off the internet. Live like the Amish (or join the Amish, do they accept converts?) But let’s be honest, this isn’t an option for most people. Perhaps it should be, perhaps people just need to be stronger. But it isn’t and they aren’t.

Yet another option is for the companies to police themselves. I know there are a lot of libertarians who not only think that this is the way that it should work, but that it’s the way it will work, after there’s enough outcry from the customers. But there are several problems with this option. One, as was so eloquently pointed out, we are not Facebook’s customers we are Facebook’s product, the advertisers are its customers, and there’s every reason in the world to expect that they like all of the questionable things Facebook does, since Facebook is almost certainly doing it for them.

Two, even if we are Facebook’s customers, they are interested in keeping us happy and healthy only insofar as that makes us more likely to give them money or in the case of social media, attention. If they can get more money or attention by making us less happy and healthy that’s what they’ll do. Witness the tobacco companies. And of course there’s evidence that social media is making us less happy, and that the more you use it the worse you feel.

Finally, even if Facebook and other social media companies were willing to police themselves. If this policing makes them less profitable, which seems like a reasonable assumption, then some other company will come along which foregoes this policing and subsequently out competes them. (This may have already happened. Have you gotten a notice in your email recently informing you that Google+ is shutting down? Or maybe you’ve heard of MySpace?) On the flip side of that, if the current market leaders refuse to police themselves it’s unlikely that more circumspect companies will be able to challenge that dominance. This is not to say there’s not a niche for such companies. DuckDuckGo will certainly survive as a company, but they’re never going to pass Google in search volume.

If withdrawing entirely from society and self-policing are unrealistic then what’s left? As much as it pains me to say this, I think all that’s left is the government. I’m very much in favor of the principle of subsidiarity (i.e. issues should be dealt with at the lowest level possible) but part of the problem with technology is that it increasingly creates problems which can only be dealt with at the very highest levels. Which would be bad enough, but technology also create problems difficult even for experts to understand to say nothing of the average voter.

All of this leads me to the true topic of this post: democracy. In the broadest sense democracy is our tool for solving potential problems like social media, and I worry it’s not up to the challenge. This is the point where someone will chime in with the observation that the US isn’t a true democracy, it’s a republic. And insofar as I am making a recommendation in this space (and I’m mostly not) it would be a recommendation to make things more republican (in the system of government sense not the political party sense) and less democratic (ditto), but I’m afraid that even this small adjustment is unlikely to have any traction. In fact I’m worried that America is “over the hill” and that the only question is: how quickly are we picking up speed? Allow me to elaborate:

There’s a famous quote about democracy from Winston Churchill:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

This is all true, democracy is a bad form of government, it’s just that unless Christ returns to personally reign, or until we invent the AI equivalent of that. It’s the best form of government we’ve got in this world of “sin and woe”. As it turns out Churchill was not the only person to recognize that, the founders did as well, and they adopted various strategies to deal with the problems of democracy. There are checks and balances, separation of powers, enumerated rights, etc.

I would argue that all of these strategies have worked pretty well, but as I already alluded to perhaps the greatest weakness of democracy is that it is only as good as its citizens/voters. In particular it depends on the knowledge of those voters. This is one of the reasons why we have the aforementioned republic as opposed to a true democracy. The voters only need to educate themselves about the candidate, not about every individual issue. But what happens when the system of voter education breaks? Or changes drastically? Arguably at least one of those happened in the last presidential election and possibly both. The results, according to many people, were disastrous.

I’m not sure I’d go that far. Trump is a joke of a president, but that will end at some point. I still have faith that an election is going to take place next year. And yes, he’s a joke, but I’m a little unclear on what he’s done that’s so cataclysmic. I suppose, particularly if you’re a deficit hawk, which I am, that his tax cuts could qualify, but as someone who’s self-employed and pays what seems like (excuse my language) a shit-ton in taxes it’s hard for me to get too worked up about that. Mostly it seems like Trump hasn’t done much of any lasting consequence other than placing two justices on the Supreme Court. Which brings me to the next point.

As I mentioned the founders were well aware of the various weaknesses of democracy, and the constitution contains systems for mitigating these weaknesses, but it was written 230 years ago, and it’s starting to show its age. And by that I am talking less about the document as written, and more about the ways people have figured out how to route around it. No matter how gifted the founders were, any system is going to have weak points that only become apparent over time as the ebb and flow of politics pushes against the limits of what’s allowed. Returning to Trump’s Supreme Court picks, In our day it’s become apparent that deciding what the constitution means is the most important role in government. This is why the Kavanaugh fight was so contentious. It’s why Justice Ginsburg’s health is constantly in the news. This is why a lot of people voted for Trump who otherwise wouldn’t have. Whatever his failings his Supreme Court nominees would be miles ahead of Clinton’s, for those people at least. There are obviously people who feel the exact opposite.

One would think it would have been obvious that under a constitutional system that the people deciding what that constitution meant would end up wielding considerable influence, but it wasn’t until 15 years after ratification that Marbury v. Madison came along and enshrined judicial review. Also I think it’s clear that the latitude exercised in constitutional interpretation over the last half century has been significantly greater than what was exercised previous to that point. Accordingly it’s not entirely surprising that in Federalist 78 Hamilton described the Judicial Branch as the “least dangerous” branch because it has “no influence over either the sword or the purse” and must ultimately depend on the Executive Branch to make its judgements effective.

I’m not sure what Hamilton imagined would happen if the Executive Branch started ignoring the Supreme Court, but I pretty sure if it happened today that the shit would hit the fan. (I guess it’s like they say, once you start swearing it’s difficult to stop.) Depending on who wins in 2020 we may get a chance to find out.

As I said, it may be that American democracy, such as it is, is beginning to show its age. Norms that have existed for a long time are being eroded. Weak spots in the system are being exploited, and it feels like we’re headed for a crisis. Something very similar occurred near the end of the Roman Republic. And it might be instructive, or perhaps just sobering, to look at that example.

Over the holidays I read The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan, the podcaster best known for his History of Rome series. It was a great book about a fascinating time in history, with, as Duncan points out, some possible lessons for our own time. One of those lessons concerned the gradual erosion of the Roman “constitution”, as people repeatedly did things that weren’t technically illegal, but broke with tradition.

What truly bound all Romans together, though, were unspoken rules of social and political conduct. The Romans never had a written constitution or extensive body of written law—they needed neither. Instead the Romans surrounded themselves with unwritten rules, traditions, and mutual expectations collectively known as mos maiorum, which meant “the way of the elders.” Even as political rivals competed for wealth and power, their shared respect for the strength of the client-patron relationship, the sovereignty of the Assemblies, and the wisdom of the Senate kept them from going too far. When the Republic began to break down in the late second century it was not the letter of the Roman law that eroded, but respect for the mutually accepted bonds of mos maiorum.

He goes on to give examples of individuals doing things which were technically legal but in violation of mos maiorum. Things like applying a permanent veto on legislation, serving more than one term as Consul or Tribune of the Plebs, not allowing things to come to a vote, etc. Now hopefully we’ve learned some things since then, like actually writing our constitution down, but given the debate over the second amendment, and the push to interpret the Constitution as a living document, I’m not sure how much it matters. Also the UK has an unwritten constitution and I don’t think they’re significantly worse off than we are on this point.

In any event it’s easy to see current examples of long standing conventions which are being ignored, and with increasing frequency. Examples in our own day include Merrick Garland and DACA, Obama’s executive action for Dreamers. But of course what counts as an example for you will probably entirely depend on your ideology. And it’s possible, even likely, that one side is more guilty of this than the other, but if the Roman example is any guide once one side violates an established norm the other side will quickly follow. I am convinced that if the situation had been reversed that Democrats would have also refused to vote on the Republican version of Garland. And, even if I’m wrong about that, now that it has happened I’m 100% certain they’ll do it in the future.

In addition to exploiting constitutional gaps, and the slow erosion of convention there is another weakness of an aging democracy which is becoming more and more apparent recently. This is one of those subtle dangers I warned about. This particular danger is not subtle because it’s hard to understand, but because it seems like a good thing. I’m talking about compromise.

As an example let’s turn to a recent blog post by a friend of mine. I mentioned this friend in a previous post and at the time he was running for office in British Columbia. He did not win, and, I assume in partial consequence of that, recently announced that he was done with compromising. I’ll let him explain:

In 2001, I decided to give progressive politics a try and for the next seventeen years, I subscribed to a utilitarian political project. By that, I mean that I stood behind organizations, electoral and non-electoral, that made sense in what is called the “hedonic calculus.” Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the authors of a particular theory of liberalism, argued that our choices should be based on choosing the course of action that causes the least harm and the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. So, I joined the NDP and worked to elect candidates who had a shot at winning with the policies that did the least harm and the most good.

[…]

But in 2018, this stopped working for me: the hedonic calculus of progressive politics failed. Back in the 1980s and 90s when I had rejected this calculus, I articulated its inherent problem: progressive politics articulates that which we can reasonably expect to be done, not what needs to be done. Every day that passes, the gap between these things widens. Now, in the second-biggest extinction event of the last four billion years, with human beings having killed half the life on the planet in my lifetime alone, what we can reasonably expect to be done is to kill the planet ten to fifteen years later than our current trajectory will kill it. It is little more than making sure that we pay ourselves $15/hour for murdering all creation rather than $11/hour.

To be clear he doesn’t use the word compromise, that’s my word, but I think it fits. Democracy is all about compromise. All about, as he says, “that which we can reasonably expect to be done, not what needs to be done.” He gives an environmental example, and part of the reason I used this example is that, for those of you who think I’m too conservative, it’s an example from an exceptionally liberal perspective, but which nevertheless illustrates the potential problem of compromise: If something absolutely needs to be done, then compromise forever allows a minority to keep it from getting done. Beyond his example of environmental apocalypse, the right (or at least those worried about the debt) have their own example. It’s clear that continual compromise may have slowed the growth of the debt, but if, in reality, it needs to eventually be paid off, or at least kept below the rate of inflation, that will never happen as long as the sides are compromising. The same applies if you have the opposite view and believe debts don’t matter, we’re never going to go in that direction either if we continue to compromise.

Two posts ago I talked about the metaphor of the transit system, where it doesn’t matter what train you get on when you’re in the main metropolitan area because they all follow the same route and all hit the same stops, but once you leave the central area one route heads north and another heads south. Compromise can be viewed as keeping the trains on the same route for as long as possible but the longer you go the harder it becomes. And as I’ve been pointing out our system has been traveling for quite a while, and it’s becoming harder and harder to keep the routes together. I don’t think it’s impossible, and there are lots of benefits to staying on the same route, but what if we really need to go north? What if any other route other than north “kills the planet” as my friend is claiming. If so then going east is somewhat better than going south, but eventually we still won’t get to where we need to go.

Back in October I told the story of Air France Flight 447 which had essentially the same moral. The plane was stalling and needed to dive to pick up speed, one pilot realized this, but the other pilot thought it needed to climb. The plane was designed to average out the two inputs, and as a result of this compromise the plane crashed into the ocean killing everyone aboard.

Earlier I compared what’s happening in our own very old republic to what happened at the end of the Roman Republic, but there is at least one crucial difference, and it’s one I keep coming back to, technology. And it’s this that makes my friend’s example so interesting. The danger he warns about is something that can only happen at a certain level of technology. The Romans didn’t have to worry about global warming, and while they did have monetary issues they were both more localized and more straightforward. It should go without saying that the worldwide 2008 crisis is unimaginable in ancient Rome. Primarily what the Romans worried about were other Romans, or hostile nations on their border, and in those cases compromise was nearly always a good thing. They could also, and frequently did, go to war.

Turning to our day things are completely different, but only recently so. We have the power to radically change all manner of things for good or for ill. If my friend is right (you can read my own views on global warming here) we have the power to kill the planet, and accordingly compromise, if it allows catastrophe to proceed, just more slowly, is no longer always or even mostly a good thing. And war, that other tactic beloved by the Romans, is now also unthinkable, at least between two countries with nuclear weapons.

Tying all of this together we have an increasing number of subtle dangers which can only be dealt with by government at the highest level, but the government we have is suffering from various weaknesses, some obvious, some due to the gradual erosion of convention and tradition. And even if we could overcome all that and compromise, this may do no more than slow down the apocalypse, and actually work against preventing it. Finally even if we thought war was a good idea (and it might be) that’s not an option either.

The world is in need of some serious repairs and all of the tools we would normally use to fix it are either old and worn down, ineffective, or might actually make the problem worse.


Ancient Rome is a very interesting place, but make no mistake I wouldn’t want to live there. For one thing there was no way to ask for donations to niche but otherwise brilliant blogs.


Start Here

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


I’ve noticed a hole recently. More specifically, a hole in my writing. I frequently meet people who I think would enjoy or appreciate my ideas, and yes, occasionally, when I meet these people, I say “Check out my blog!” and give them the URL. But I do it less often than I should, and part of the reason for that is I’m unsure where I should tell them to start. There was the very first post, which was intended as an introduction, but at this point that was two and a half years ago, and in that time things have evolved somewhat. And even assuming they read the first post, where do they go from there? Certainly I can’t expect them to then read everything up to the present day. So this is the post where I’m going to fill that hole. If you’re not its intended audience, i.e. you’re one of the people who’s been faithfully reading since the beginning or at least a long time, then I hope that it will be interesting to you as well, but you have my permission to skip it.

This blog starts with two basic and related questions. “What does the future hold?” And, “What should I be doing about it?” Many people, if not most, don’t think very deeply about the future, and what thoughts they do have assume it will be similar to the present, except possibly with better smartphones. Meaning they should largely continue to do what they’ve been doing. There is another, smaller group of people, who do think deeply about the future and they’ve concluded it’s going to be “Awesome!” That technology will solve all our problems. And beyond working to bring that future to pass as quickly as possible, what they intend to do is sit back and enjoy it.

My answer is different than both groups. It’s taken from a verse in the Bible, the Book of Jeremiah, chapter 8, verse 20:

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

This answer is the theme of the blog, and also the origin of the domain name as well. But to properly understand how I arrived at that it I’m going to have to walk you through a few things first. To start with, when people think about the future they usually do so on one of four levels, two of which I’ve already alluded to:

1- Taking the present as a guide: These are essentially the people I mentioned above who don’t think very deeply about the future, and default to assuming it’s going to be similar to the present. To be fair, if you’re just going from one year to the next most years are pretty similar, so this isn’t a horrible strategy. Also thinking about the future is difficult, as we’ll see.

2- Taking the recent past as a guide: Not that long ago, by historical standards, we learned to start “harvesting” technology, and we entered a “summer” of progress. The harvest was bountiful and the summer was bright. As I said above, it’s been pretty awesome. We went from the steam engine all the way to nuclear power. We eliminated slavery and promoted democracy. We experienced exponential economic growth. And, at least in the developed countries, even relatively poor people have it pretty good when compared with the historical average. These people are not so naive as to think that nothing changes, but they feel that the harvest of technology and summer of progress have altered conditions so completely that only recent trends matter.

3- Taking all of human history as a guide: This approach is similar to the last one, but broader, and while no one in this category gives the same weight to 25 AD that they give to last year, when attempting to predict the future, they still give some weight to 25 AD. This obviously makes them less inclined to think that we have permanently banished war between the great powers, and less inclined to cast aside religion and tradition. They also have a greater tendency to think differences in culture are profound, or that technology has not changed things as much as people think.

4- Taking the attitude that the future can’t be predicted: It could be argued that this attitude is undoubtedly true, but not very useful. Perhaps, but just because I said that the future can’t be predicted doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be done. The mere realization of its unpredictability makes some actions better than others. For example diversification vs. betting everything on a single investment, regardless of how safe it seems. A lesson some Bernie Madoff investors learned too late.

Of these four levels, the first level is fine probably 90% of the time, maybe even more. Which is part of why most people end up on this level, but when we start talking about how often it works at a societal level, it goes from adequate to hopelessly naive. And I think we can safely remove it from further consideration.

The second level is the “Awesome!” level. The idea that the harvest is going to continue and the summer is never going to end.

The third and fourth levels might seem different, but the difference is less than you imagine. Level four says bad things might happen and we should live in such a way that, if they do, if things turn out to not be awesome, then it won’t be the end of the world (and I mean this literally). Level three says that bad things have happened a lot, and that based on historical evidence the world has generally not been awesome, and that further, religions, traditions and cultural norms have developed to minimize the impact of the bad things when they do happen.

We can combine three and four together into the camp of people who think the future is not going to be awesome versus, level two, the camp of people who think it is going to be awesome. I’m in the non-awesome camp. Though I’m aware that I may be wrong, and when people in the “awesome camp” point out that things are pretty great right now, relatively speaking, they’re not wrong. What we’ve been able to do over the last few hundred years has been truly incredible. But here’s the main point, and if there was one thing I want you to take away from this post, and actually from everything I’ve written it’s this:

If I’m wrong and the future is awesome, then we will have only lost the time and resources that I, and others like me, spent preparing for something that never happened. But if the other side is wrong, if the future is not awesome, if catastrophes happen which could have been avoided, then the cost is the full weight of those avoidable catastrophes.  Which could be millions of people dying, or billions, or everybody.

This asymmetry, when combined with the fact that we cannot predict the future is why I’m on the “non-awesome team”. Without the ability to predict what will happen, it’s best to prepare for the worst.

That phrase “prepare for the worst” may incline you to believe that I’m just another “prepper” who’s going to urge you to stockpile guns, ammo and food. Well, I’m certainly not going to tell you not to do that (if you’ll forgive the double negative) but I also think “the worst” could encompass situations far more subtle and slow-moving than a nuclear holocaust. For all it’s terror, wide scale nuclear war is fairly straightforward. First as I pointed out in a previous post The Apocalypse Will Not Be as Cool or as Deadly as You Hope it probably doesn’t mean the end of all human life. Second if it does happen it will reduce everything down to a simple question of survival in very difficult circumstances, and I think despite the conveniences of modern life that it will turn out that we’re still pretty good at that. So, yes it is probably a good idea to prepare for that, but if it happens I think you’ll know what to do. This blog is dedicated to more subtle dangers where the correct action might not be quite so obvious.

The source of these subtle dangers turns out to be the same as the source of awesomeness: progress and technology. In addition to harvesting stuff like representative government and antibiotics, the harvest has also brought us the aforementioned danger of nuclear weapons, and by some accounts the more insidious danger of social media. So let’s talk about technology.

As I said at the beginning my answer to the question of what the future brings is that the harvest of technology is past. But what do I mean by that? Surely technology is still advancing? Don’t new smartphones still come out every year? (Now with three rear facing cameras!) They do, but a harvest implies things that are beneficial, that are life-sustaining, and more and more, new technology is neither. I mentioned social media and just this week a study was released by Stanford claiming a marked improvement in mental health from quitting Facebook. This is not to say there aren’t also stories about potential cures for cancer (though this most recent story is probably bogus) but I’m not sure where the balance between harmful and beneficial technologies sits at the moment. It may on net have tipped to harmful, and even if it hasn’t, as I pointed out in a recent post. It only takes one really bad technology to destroy us while there may be no amount of technology that will permanently save us.

Another thing to consider is how would technology save us? Over a long enough time horizon, to be truly saved we have to leave Earth. Until we do that we have “all our eggs in one basket” so to speak. I was about two years old the last time there was a man on the moon, and growing up I read a steady diet of science fiction stories from the likes of Heinlein, Asimov, Card and Hogan which all naturally assumed that we would soon leave the Earth and journey out into the cosmos. (level two!) But we never even went back to the Moon, and currently we spend about $64/person/year in the US on NASA as compared to the $10,739/person/year on healthcare. Now of course you could argue that we should add the operating costs of SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic on top of the NASA figure, but even if we did it wouldn’t break $100/person/year, and beyond that the vast majority of that does not go towards anything that would allow us to permanently and sustainably leave Earth. Think of other things you spend more than $100/year on, McDonalds? (I admit I myself suffer from mild addition to sausage egg McMuffins) and you get some sense of how low of a priority it really is.

I compared NASA spending to healthcare spending just now for a reason, because healthcare spending represents one of the subtle and slow-moving dangers I was talking about. A big part of what makes it subtle is how unobjectionable it seems. What kind of heartless person (other than me I suppose) would have a problem with spending money on health? But why do we spend so muchmoney on it? If technology and progress are so great why are they making us less healthy? Why has the rate of diabetes increased by eight times from 1959 to 2015? Why has there been a worldwide increase in obesity? And why is it more pronounced in “more advanced” countries? Why has there been a large increase in mental illness, particularly among teens? And why does it appear to correlate with social media use? (All level four) Considering all of this, I stand by my assertion that the “summer has ended.” And, to bring it back to the original point, it’s going to be hard for technology to save us if we’re spending 100x as much on the problems technology creates as we are on the salvation we hope it will provide.

Reasonable people may disagree with my figure of 100x or the entire argument, but what you can’t disagree with is the enormous amount of change progress and technology has wrought. To return to the two original questions. Given this massive amount of change, “What does the future hold?” And “What should we be doing about it?” Thus far I’ve mostly focused on the first question but now it’s time to turn our focus to the second. As I mentioned if you believe, because of progress and technology, that the future is going to be awesome (level two) then your main goal is to bring that awesome future to pass as quickly as possible. This means adopting new technology and new morality as quickly as possible. The problem is, if we have decided that we don’t know what the future will bring (level four) and by extension what effect new technology will ultimately have, then rapid adoption just hastens the arrival of an unknown, but potentially negative future, and gives us less time to adapt to any potential harms. So what should we do about this?

The answer is: “Be antifragile.” What does that mean? Antifragile is a word coined by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book of the same name, to describe things that get stronger when they’re subjected to stress. Of course, this can only be true up to a point, nothing is infinitely antifragile, but, as you probably guessed, antifragility is the opposite of fragility. In other words, if you’re antifragile then even if the future isn’t awesome you’ll be okay, in fact you may even be better off. Of course you might also add in slow down the adoption of new technology and morality, but as an individual that’s something you have very little influence over. Also having an antifragile mindset give you an intellectual backing for the what, the how and the why of slowing things down.

Of course, it’s easy to say, “Just do that thing where bad stuff makes you stronger.” But what does it actually look like in practice? Allow me to turn to one of my favorite quotes from Taleb:

If you have extra cash in the bank (in addition to stockpiles of tradable goods such as cans of Spam and hummus and gold bars in the basement), you don’t need to know with precision which event will cause potential difficulties. It could be a war, a revolution, an earthquake, a recession, an epidemic, a terrorist attack, the secession of the state of New Jersey, anything—you do not need to predict much, unlike those who are in the opposite situation, namely, in debt. Those, because of their fragility, need to predict with more, a lot more, accuracy.

This example perfectly illustrates the point I made above. If you’re wrong and there are never any difficulties (but how likely is that?) then you’re just that somewhat eccentric guy with spam in his basement who could have had a boat, or a bigger house instead. But if the guy in debt is wrong and difficulties arise then he ends up bankrupt with possibly no house.

Additionally this doesn’t just apply to cash. If you’re married, and in a strong religious community, than difficulties are a lot easier to face than if you’re single, or have no large community to draw on. This is most apparent when you’re speaking of single parent families which are much more fragile than two parent families.

Early on I grouped the historical view (level three) and the skeptical view (level four) together. It’s now time to separate them again because the historical view has a lot to teach us about how to be antifragile. First it’s important to realize that things are either fragile or antifragile. They are either harmed by stress and disorder or they are helped by it. There is a third category, robust, things that are neither harmed nor helped, but in practice very few things are truly robust so I’m going to ignore it.

As it turns out the amount of stress and disorder something has been subjected to is, to a good approximation, equal to the amount of time it’s been around. Meaning that long standing beliefs including culture, religion and tradition are almost certainly antifragile, because the only other option is for them to be fragile, and if they were, they would have disappeared at some point. Broken by the stress and disorder which inevitably occurs over a sufficiently long period of time.

This makes sense, the past contained all sorts of difficulties and uncertainties and it’s only to be expected that people would have developed tools to soften those difficulties. One of these tools was obviously religion, which encouraged things like having kids only if you had two people to raise them, a spare parent in case something happened. And it’s why a taboo against premarital sex didn’t just exist in Christian Europe, it existed in the Muslim Middle East, and even Ancient China.

Accordingly this blog spends a lot of time defending traditional beliefs and religion, because I think they’re still the best strategy for dealing with an uncertain future. This is contrary to the more common refrain that we no longer need religion and traditions because things have changed so much, but if things are changing so much and so fast how do we know what we need? To know that we would have to know what’s going to happen, and we can’t. And if that’s the case, the best strategy is to be antifragile and the best way to do that is using the tools which have been developed over thousands of years for exactly that purpose: traditional religion.

There is, of course, another reason for religion, one I personally subscribe to. Unlike, progress and technology, which I have argued don’t offer salvation, religion does offer that hope. I agree it’s a hope not a certainty. I agree that it requires faith, but I still think it gives better odds than us being saved under our own power.

To tie everything together, I think we should prepare for a future which is not-awesome. That technology and progress are moving things into unknown territory, and bringing with them the potential of subtle and slow moving catastrophes. But that despite these changes the best way to prepare is the same as it’s always been, follow traditional values, because they’re traditional for a reason.

For those encountering my writing for the first time, if any of this resonates with you I urge you to keep reading, I put out a new post every week. (Here’s a link to my mailing list if you’d like to be notified.) And if you’re ready for more right now here are some other posts you might find interesting:

If you’d like to read more about the subtle ways that technology is making things worse check out my post on supernormal stimuli. Examples include things like twinkies and pornography.

One reason to be pessimistic about the ability of technology to save us is that it doesn’t appear to have worked anywhere else. The universe is silent. This is called Fermi’s Paradox and I’ve written lots of posts about it, including what it might say about the existence of God.

As I mentioned above the “awesome camp” has a lot to recommend it, if you’re interested in a deeper examination of why I’ve decided to bet the other way I’d recommend the post where I review Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.

I’ve just barely scratched the surface of antifragility, to say nothing of Taleb’s other ideas like Black Swan events. If you’re interested in learning more see my post on The Ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

The idea I’m perhaps best known for is the realization that proposals for ensuring the morality of god-like AIs strongly resemble the LDS Plan of Salvation.  If you’re interested I did a whole three part series on it. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Finally, remember this: The world is in a state of flux. Things are changing more rapidly than people realize. The future is not guaranteed to be awesome. Religion is not a useless relic of the past and we are not saved.


If this is the first post of mine you’ve read then another thing I do is come up with a clever (or not so clever) way to ask for your donation at the end of every post. But I’ll forebear this time. Just as there as some things you shouldn’t do on a first date, it’s probably inappropriate to ask for money on the first post.