Month: <span>August 2022</span>

Eschatologist #20: The Antifragility of Taboos

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We covered the fragility of systems and technology in the last newsletter. In this newsletter I’d like to move from the material to the ephemeral. In other words, let’s talk about culture. This is a huge topic for a short newsletter, so while much of what I say can be applied to traditional culture in general, I want to focus on traditional taboos. The older and stronger and more widespread the taboo, the better.

You might imagine that since taboos are also human creations that they would suffer from the same fragility I described in my last newsletter. But there is a difference between systems which were invented and systems which have evolved. The process of evolution separates the antifragile from the fragile. 

Antifragile things are made stronger by disorder, chaos and other shocks (up to a point). Fragile things are made weaker. Invented things, by nature of their novelty have not been subjected to ongoing shocks or chaos, while evolved things have undergone that evolution in the presence of and in response to such shocks and chaos.

All of this is to say that for something to become a taboo, it must have survived. It must not have broken. Which means, it’s antifragile. More specifically it made the culture as a whole antifragile. 

At this point some of you are saying, “Yeah, yeah. Chesterton’s Fence. I get it.” But I would argue that this is a stronger argument than the one Chesterton was making. Chesterton pointed out that you shouldn’t remove a fence unless you understood the reason it was constructed. But this assumed that if you put in some effort, you could uncover that reason. Probably just by asking around. The fence is an invention, and it’s assumed you could find the reason for its invention.

Evolutions leave fewer clues, but despite that they end up being even more important. You might be familiar with the famous example of how the preparation of manioc evolved in order to eliminate the cyanide. The indigenous people who undertook such preparations had no idea what cyanide was, nor would the connection between chronic cyanide poisoning and the processes of manioc preparation have been easy to discern. Now that we can test for cyanide the reason for the extensive preparations is obvious. But just because we can uncover the underlying reason for one taboo, doesn’t mean we can uncover the underlying reason for all taboos. 

To take an example that’s closer to home, let’s consider the longstanding and very widespread taboo against premarital sex. (Consider for a moment: Why should China and the West, historically so different in most other respects, have this exact same taboo?)

Adherence to this taboo has plummeted since the sexual revolution, and to the extent people think about why it existed in the first place they imagine that sex produces children who need to be cared for, but now that we have numerous methods of birth control we can dispense with it. They might admit that there used to be a reason for the taboo, but that technology has solved the problem—that our inventions have eliminated the need for our evolutions. 

I think this is sheer hubris, and I’m not alone. In her recent book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, Louise Perry makes the case that the taboo solved numerous other problems like preventing sexual violence, which we’re only now grappling with. That “hook-up culture is a terrible deal for women”. 

But does this mean that all traditional taboos are antifragile evolutions that should be maintained absent ironclad evidence to the contrary? And what about traditional culture more broadly? 

I’m arguing that in both cases this should be the default. That we should be very careful anytime we think we’ve invented our way out of a problem previously solved by cultural evolution. And in particular we should never imagine that our ancestors were silly and superstitious and had no reason for a taboo. And yet both things are far too common. In so many areas we’ve abandoned thousands of years of wisdom because it seemed unnecessary, archaic, or just inconvenient. 

This has been and will continue to be a mistake.

Some might dismiss me as an old man yelling at the clouds, but if old men have been yelling at clouds for thousands of years, I’m asking you to assume that there’s a good reason for it. 


I’m always on the lookout for good band names and this newsletter had a surprising number: Material to Ephemeral, Evolved Taboos, Sheer Hubris, and of course Old Men Yelling at Clouds. To those I’d like to add, Donations Encouraged.  


The Involution of Everything

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I.

A couple of weeks ago, over on his Astral Codex Ten newsletter, Scott Alexander posted, A Cyclic Theory Of Subcultures, which posits that movements go through four phases: precycle, growth, involution, and postcycle. 

In the precycle phase people join the movement out of love, and it’s probably inaccurate to label it a movement, it’s just something a few people do. But at some point the excitement felt by those initial people starts to spread to the wider world. And because it’s new it’s naturally exciting, there’s “a vast frontier, waiting to be explored”. As a consequence of this early entrants receive disproportionate payouts. To continue the territory metaphor, imagine buying a lot of land… in San Francisco… in the 70’s. But in the case of a movement, imagine the first few people to start a blog, or get hired by Amazon.

As the movement grows it takes on the characteristics of a “status Ponzi scheme”. As long as there’s new people joining the movement and territory still to be claimed there’s plenty of status for everyone, and no reason to compete. But like all Ponzi schemes eventually you run out of new people. All the people granting status expect to receive status and there are no new entrants to provide it. Accordingly, things start to collapse. This is when involution sets in. As Alexander describes it:

Thanks to the Chinese for teaching me this lovely word, which I think works better than Turchin’s term “stagflation” in this context.

The movement has picked the low-hanging fruit of their object-level goals. Artistic movements have created enough works that it’s hard not to seem derivative. Intellectual movements have explored most of the implications of their ideas. Political movements have absorbed their natural base and are facing organized opposition. It’s still possible to do object-level work, but unless you’re a hard-working genius, someone will have beaten you to most good ideas.

And the movement already has most of the infrastructure it needs. Want to hold a conference? There are already five top-notch conferences about the movement; unless you’re a hard-working genius, yours will never be as good. Want to start a newsletter? Maybe instead you should beg for an internship at one of the ten newsletters that already compete for readers – too bad a thousand other people are begging equally hard for that same position.

In other situations, everyone would lower their expectations and be fine. But the subculture is used to being a status Ponzi scheme. This is the stage where the last tier joins the pyramid, realizes that there won’t be a tier below them, and feels betrayed.

Eventually, after all the status seekers get culled, the movement settles down into the postcycle, where people once again mostly join the movement out of genuine interest and not a desire for status, and so the cycle goes.

II.

My initial reaction is that this description applies to more than just subcultures. It also seems like a reasonable description of what’s happening to Western Culture as a whole. This conclusion seemed so obvious to me that I assumed it would dominate the comments on the post, or at least there’d be a thread where it was mentioned and masticated on. But as near as I can tell, after searching for various terms (I didn’t read all the comments, no one has time for that) only one person made this point, UKResident said:

This is a pretty perfect description of our current western ‘civilisation’.

Innovation ––> bureaucracy ––> dogmatism ––> anti-innovation

To which Erusian responded that it might describe our politics, but not the entire civilization. I’m not sure why UKResident felt it necessary to rename the steps. It doesn’t appear to have added any clarity. Nor am I sure why he was the only one to make the connection, or why the one person who did respond dismissed it as purely a political issue. If I was going to try to center it anywhere it would be at the level of the university, but I’ll get to that. Before doing so I need to consider the idea that if hardly anyone else is making this connection then perhaps the connection doesn’t exist. Perhaps it’s only my numerous biases that lead me to a conclusion no one else seems to be arriving at. 

Certainly I have a bias for large, overarching narratives and explanations. Additionally, I have demonstrated repeatedly that I think there is something wrong with the world and I’m always on the hunt for what that might be. But perhaps the most salient admission of bias I could make is that I just barely finished reading The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason by Douglas Murray, which seems very clearly to describe a civilization in the middle of involution.

But I didn’t call out all of the foregoing biases for nothing. You should certainly take them into account, and if that means you stop reading here then I suppose that’s what I get for attempting to be intellectually honest. Though before you bail, I would pose one final question. If you accept that something like this happens with subcultures, what prevents it from operating at a larger scale? Certainly each phase in the cycle would take longer if you’re dealing with an entire culture rather than just a subculture (another point I’ll return to) but beyond that why wouldn’t we see a similar progression? 

If you’re still with me, and you’ve decided that there might be something worthy of discussion—some useful knowledge to be gained, both from the observation more generally, and from the specific application of it to Murray’s book—then we should move on to discussing what that knowledge might be.

Before coming across Alexander’s post, I had already decided that War on the West reminded me of the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, an 1841 book by Charles Mackay. (I only just discovered that Douglas Murray has also written a book called Madness of Crowds, make of that what you will.) Mackay’s book is best known for his discussion of financial bubbles, but he also discusses various other episodes of crowd psychology including things like witch hunts and alchemy. Mackay’s book is basically a collection of episodes of peak mania. I had a similar sense when reading Murray. Or at least I hope what Murray is describing is the peak, that in 100 years when people want to understand just how crazy it got that they’ll be able to pick up War on the West, in the same way we now pick up Mackay’s book to understand how crazy the Mississippi Scheme got in France.

Unfortunately it remains to be seen whether Murray was describing maximum craziness—whether wokeness has peaked as some have predicted. Certainly I hope things are getting a little more sane, but that’s not what I’m claiming. My claim is that Murray is describing an involution. One that has all the same characteristics Alexander describes with respect to subcultures, but that it’s an involution involving the whole of Western culture. Also, you’ll see that as we dig further there appear to be reasons to doubt that we’re at the end of that involution.

III.

Let’s take another look at one of the paragraphs I quoted earlier:

The movement has picked the low-hanging fruit of their object-level goals. Artistic movements have created enough works that it’s hard not to seem derivative. Intellectual movements have explored most of the implications of their ideas. Political movements have absorbed their natural base and are facing organized opposition. It’s still possible to do object-level work, but unless you’re a hard-working genius, someone will have beaten you to most good ideas.

Does this perhaps sound like the place Western culture is at the moment, that we have picked all the low-hanging fruit? Obviously when you’re talking about an entire culture, it’s going to play out over a longer time period, but perhaps you can see the progression. For example, let’s consider the subject of rights. Universal male suffrage was declared in 1870 with the 15th amendment (though just in theory, not in practice). Female suffrage came in 1920 with the 19th amendment. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and gay marriage was legalized in 2015. Now the big fight is over transgender rights. When that’s all you have left I think it’s safe to say you’ve picked all the low hanging fruit in the territory of expanding rights. The other things Alexander mentions seem equally applicable. At this point it seems nearly impossible to create art that’s not derivative, and philosophically, we’ve done it all as well. When was the last time there was a genuinely new ideology?

Moving deeper into Alexander’s post, this section seems even more on point:

During this phase, a talented status-hungry young person who joins the movement is likely to expect status but not get it. The frontier is closed; there’s no virgin territory to go homesteading in. The only source of status is to seize someone else’s – ie to start a fight.

I’ve talked about this more in other places, but we’ve turned up the knob on basically everything described in this paragraph. We’ve convinced every young person that they’re talented, vastly enlarging the pool of people who expect high status, and then gone on to place an even greater priority on status with the current trend towards self-promotion and “influence”. And if we dig a little bit deeper, historically the vast majority of people were too worried about survival to worry about status, these days it’s the exact opposite. And all of this is happening at the same time that the frontier, i.e. potential sources of status, is almost entirely exhausted. Leaving the young with no choice but to either start fights or check out entirely. Conveniently we’ve also made both of those activities a lot easier as well.

Continuing on:

Sometimes these fights are object-level: the movement’s art is ugly, its intellectual arguments are false, its politics are unjust. But along with the object level disagreements, there are always accusations that accurately reflect status-famine, ones like “the leaders of this movement are insular and undemocratic” or “the elites don’t listen to criticism”. These accusations may or may not be true. But during the Growth phase, nobody makes them, even when they are true; during the Involution phase, people always make them, even when they aren’t.

That last point is particularly critical: the truth of any accusation matters far less than its efficacy. The youth who are scrambling for scraps of status, who’ve been promised that they’re members of the elite, are going to say whatever works. As it turns out saying “The current elites are racist!” has worked remarkably well at moving status from one group to another, which is almost certainly a better explanation of its prevalence than any inherent veracity it might possess. 

As such, whatever else it might be describing Murray’s The War on the West is basically a chronicle of these fights for status. A description of the entire culture reaching the involution stage of the cycle. Now of course there are exceptions, such fights aren’t happening everywhere all the time, but it’s remarkable how comprehensive this phenomenon is.

I was discussing this idea with a group the other day and I offered up Medievalism as a disciple that was in the postcycle stage, because it was long past the time when there was any new territory to stake out. One of the people in the conversation laughed out loud at this, and proceeded to describe the cutthroat Twitter fight that was happening between medievalists at that very moment. This is presumably an example of the commonly noted modern phenomenon of everything becoming political. Which would appear to be another way of saying that the lack of new territory is not isolated to a few areas. It’s widespread and pervasive. Afflicting nearly every part of Western culture all at once. The medievalists realize there’s no point in writing the fifteen thousandth paper on Chaucer. Politicians know that the era of the grand bargain is over, that congress is mostly a performance space and not a legislative body. And millions of twenty-somethings have gone to college, only to realize that they’re the “last tier” of the pyramid. Yes, some areas of technology and science might still have some interesting territory left, but less than people like to imagine. 

Instead the medievalists fight over whether the term Anglo-Saxon is unforgivably racist. The politicians fight over everything and encourage their base to do the same thing. You might think that it’s impossible to have a fight more all-encompassing than “everything” but students have managed it. They’re having fights about epistemology and ontology, i.e. they’re fighting over what “everything” even means. 

A lot of ink has been spilled over the craziness taking place at modern universities. Many people have defended the craziness with the idea that the students will grow out of it. But if we’re looking at a large-scale involution of the entire culture, then academia is just the tip of the spear, and it’s probably not just a phase young people are going through. The fact that it has spread to businesses with the phenomena of woke capital would seem to be evidence for how broad this cycle really is. 

It would make sense that academia is the tip of the spear. One of their traditional roles has always been to distill culture and transmit it to the next generation. One very obvious example of this effort was the idea of designating certain books to be foundational. Establishing a list and a curriculum around the “Great Books of the Western World”. (As you may recall, if you’ve been following my book reviews, I’ve been quite taken by the idea myself.) Numerous universities required students to become familiar with this canon as part of their undergraduate experience. Some universities still do, though these days they inevitably include books from outside of the West. And even with that adjustment, the practice is controversial enough that Roosevelt Montás, the director for Columbia’s version of the program, wrote a whole book defending the endeavor: Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation (reviewed here).

Beyond being an example of the way academia distills culture, I want to talk about the “Great Books” effort for another reason: I think it’s a useful marker if we’re going to try to determine where we are in the cycle. There are many questions worth trying to answer as part of this discussion, but perhaps the most important is: how long can we expect the involution to last? (if we’re ready to entertain the idea that that is indeed what’s happening.) While Alexander didn’t say anything about this in his original piece, you can imagine that somewhere along the growth curve, indeed probably near the top, the subculture would want to catalog and compile all of the progress they’ve made. We might even call this process canonization. I could also see an argument that this canonization process would represent the first signs that the movement was past its peak and beginning a descent into involution. If there’s no status to be gained for originality anymore then cataloging the originality which has already occurred would seem an obvious next step.

Even if the “Great Books” programs of the post war period give us some sense of when the cycle peaked, we still need at least one other point before we can have any chance of fitting things to a curve, and from there arriving at the durations of each of the four periods. Fortunately history gives us a pretty good idea of when the precycle period occurred and when things transferred from that, to “growth” and Western Culture really took off. Which is not to say that we can specify a precise year or anything like that, but what we can say with certainty is that it happened at least a couple of centuries ago. Personally I would nominate the American Revolution as a very conservative estimate for the transition from precycle to growth. As in, I definitely don’t think you can place the transition any later than that. 

For the sake of argument let’s run with these two data points. First off they give us a growth period of around two hundred years. Which we can use as an initial, depressing estimate, for the length of the involution. Though of course nothing says that each period has to be of equal duration. But as I said it’s a place to start. Can we make any guess as to the length of the precycle? If we assume that it was also two hundred years, and once again take the American Revolution as the end point then two hundred years before that puts us around the birth of Galileo and the end of the Renaissance. Three hundred years puts us in the middle of the Renaissance, right on top of Da Vinci. Again, precision is basically impossible, but if we were to say that each period lasts at least a couple of centuries, that feels like we’re in the right neighborhood.

Accordingly, unless the involution period is significantly shorter than the previous periods, this methodology would seem to indicate that it’s far from over. That it’s only just getting started. I would hope I’m wrong, but this methodology would seem at least as good as people who search their feelings or read the tea leaves in an attempt to determine whether wokeism has peaked or not. And it is possible that wokeism is just one of the initial phases of the involution, that there are other phases yet to come. If that’s the case I have no idea what these subsequent phases will look like. Perhaps something akin to a counter-reformation? But I’ve already engaged in enough crazy speculation today, so it’s probably best to step back from that cliff.

V.

Alexander mentions Peter Turchin, the current sage of historical cycles, in his original post, and gives him credit for inspiring the idea, but beyond that he doesn’t spend much time on him. However, if we expand the cycle to the whole culture, as I am attempting to do, I think it takes us to some interesting places vis-à-vis Turchin.

One of the central mechanisms for Turchin’s cycles is the process of elite overproduction. Obviously you can see exactly how that plays out in the subculture cycle. During the growth phase there’s plenty of room and status for all the potential elites, things transition to the involution phase when all the elites that were attracted to a movement that was growing arrive to find that all the easily acquired status has been claimed. The cycle naturally leads to elite overproduction. Once things tip over into involution some of the elites, or potential elites, will stick around and fight over the shrinking pool of status, but some will decide that it’s not worth it and either go looking for some other subculture which is still in the growth phase, or they’ll abandon their ambitions and accept some low status position. This is how it works for subcultures, but what happens if you’re talking about the entire culture?

If you’re talking about the entire culture then each of those three options plays out differently. Those who lack ambition have a more difficult time finding some arena that isn’t swept up in the, near-ubiquitous, involution. This means that comfortable, if boring, positions in postcycle subcultures are much rarer. Instead, if you lack ambition you frequently end up forced out of the culture entirely. Certainly we’re seeing an increase in this sort of disengagement. And whatever its charms there’s very little evidence that it’s beneficial for the people who end up choosing it. (Or perhaps more accurately, forced into it.) 

Transferring to some other culture that’s still in the growth phase is also not really an option. I suppose you could go to China, which is experiencing growth of a sort, but I’m unaware of any significant number of potential elites who have decided to take that option. Historically moving to a different culture was an option. I’ve only managed to read one of Turchin’s books, Secular Cycles, and in that book he covers eight historical examples of elite overproduction, but each one is limited to a specific country. Which means when England descended into involution people could leave and go to other countries, particularly if they were elites. To give you a specific example, in the days of Peter the Great, and later Catherine, there were an enormous number of British and Dutch expats that came to Russia seeking their fortune, precisely because their own country had a surfeit of elites. This is also the story of the early days of America and later the American West. 

Unfortunately these days there’s nowhere for elites to go. There is no Russia-equivilant that’s attempting to rapidly modernize, or frontier waiting to be tamed. There are places like Africa and South America I suppose, but again I am not aware of a large exodus of elites towards either of these places. Also one part of our strange cultural involution has been to place these locations off limits with the negative connotation of neocolonialism. 

Finally you can choose to stay and fight it out, and there would appear to be a lot of that going on, but when things are reduced to a single arena, and this arena encompasses nearly every aspect of life it’s inevitable that fights will become more vicious. Which is also, unfortunately, something we’re seeing more and more of.

VI.

The test of any model is its utility. Does it allow us to explain things we previously couldn’t, does it make useful predictions, and do those predictions come to pass?

It’s my hope that the preceding sections did some of that first bit, that you encountered a few ideas that explained or at least clarified things which were previously opaque. As to the second bit, I definitely made some predictions, and in the interest of clarity I’ll gather them here:

  1. The entire culture is going through a period of involution.
  2. This period of involution is a long way from ending.
  3. Wokeism has not peaked, but we should expect other methods of status subversion to emerge.
  4. The methodology we’re currently employing for raising teenagers, and children more generally is making the problem worse.
  5. Consequently the number of young adults who decide to disengage entirely will continue to increase. 
  6. Fights over what status remains will become ever more vicious.

I am aware that these predictions are not particularly amenable to being graded. But then again I’m not a particular fan of short term predictions with attached confidence levels. My goal is to help you prepare for black swans, and ultimately my claim is that during periods of growth we see an increase in positive black swans, and during periods of involution we see an increase in negative black swans. And if we have switched from one to the other on a culture wide basis, that’s something worth paying attention to.

That just leaves us with the question of whether these predictions will come to pass. Obviously we can’t know that yet. But I’ll add the list above to my annual prediction roundup, so I will continue to check in on things. 

Finally, while we’re doing a round-up of “the model”, it’s worth spending at least a little bit of time examining the last of the four periods of the cycle. If our entire culture is going through this process, what will the postcycle period of Western culture look like? 

Given that I’m predicting we’ve still got decades left in the involution period. I’m not sure there’s much utility in trying to envision the postcyle period. Will liberal democracy eventually end up with the same cultural cache as feudalism? Will we all end up trying to claim status in a new American monarchy? Will we all end up as Confucianists? Will the singularity make all of these questions moot? 

I know that some of my readers will immediately answer “Yes!” to that last question and wonder why I took so long to get to it. And perhaps that is the solution to everything we’ve been discussing. But as I am on record as doubting that the AI singularity is just around the corner, I don’t think we should punt on these questions. In particular I’m interested in how Fukuyama’s “End of History” plays into discussions of a postcycle. 

As you might recall Fukuyama claims that liberal democracy is the ultimate system of government (in both senses of the word ultimate) that there is no better system we can switch to. Meaning that if we expand our horizon back by a few thousand years we can imagine numerous previous cultures going through the precycle, growth, involution and postcycle stages, dimly iterating, via the proxy of status, towards the science and progress that finally reached it’s full flowering in the system of liberal democracy. But now that we’ve finally reached it, it’s a dead end. What do we do now? Is the obvious answer that we have to figure out some way of abandoning the pursuit of status all together? Perhaps, but if that’s the case, then out of all the things asked of us by modernity, that may be the most difficult request of all.


I like to think the sort of techno-pessimistic, religiously tinged, Taleb-adjacent, pseudo-eschatological blogging I do is still in its precycle phase, ready to break out as the next revelatory ideological trend. If you want to get on that rocket before it blasts off, consider donating


The 8 Books I Finished in July

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  1. To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by: Evgeny Morozov
  2. Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? by: Mark Fisher
  3. How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe by: Thomas Cahill
  4. The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History by: Alexander Mikaberidze
  5. Kidnapped by: Robert Louis Stevenson
  6. Weird of Hali: Providence by: John Michael Greer
  7. Queer Mormon Theology: An Introduction by: Blaire Ostler
  8. The Ethics of Beauty by: Timothy G. Patitsas

I just returned from GenCon, that mecca of tabletop gaming in Indianapolis, which marks the end of Summer and the end of travel. The airlines had one last curveball to throw me, they canceled my flight out on Sunday and I had to spend yet another day in Indianapolis. Which is why my review post is later than it’s ever been. 

It was an extraordinarily busy summer, and while I had fun, I’m glad it’s over and I can settle into a routine. Of course I still need to unpack, since moving into our new house 34 days ago I’ve only spent 11 nights there. And most of that time was focused on getting ready for the next trip. 

I guess my point is that while I’m optimistic that my writing schedule will return to normal, I still have a lot of digging out to do, so I appreciate your continued patience.


I- Eschatological Reviews

To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism

by: Evgeny Morozov

Published: 2014

432 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The way technology companies focus on manufacturing problems to fit solutions they’ve already created rather than solving problems that actually exist, or what Morozov terms, “solutionism”.

What’s the author’s angle?

Morozov is a technology critic who has built his entire career on pointing out how building technology just because you can is misguided.

Who should read this book?

If you feel that technology is not all it’s cracked up to be and has started to create more problems than it solves.

General Thoughts

I may not be the most objective person when it comes to reviewing this book, since it was very much preaching to the choir, but boy did he preach! This is a long and comprehensive examination of all of the ways people have used recent technology, particularly the vague agglomeration we call the internet, to solve problems. At first glance this activity should be unobjectionable, haven’t humans been using technology to solve problems for thousands of years? Indeed they have, but many things are different this time around:

The breadth of change: The internet is essentially ubiquitous. 63% of people worldwide have internet and almost as many are on social media. That’s a long way away from everyone, but when you compare it to other technologies which have been around for far longer it’s quite impressive, for example: the automobile. China only has 219 vehicles per 1000 people and they’re above average. Even if you assume that each vehicle is used by two people you’re still looking at only 44%, and India is far worse with only 55 vehicles per 1000, which would be 11% using the same reasoning. But 73% of Chinese have internet access and 47% of Indians, despite it being a much more recent technology. 

The reach of the change: Morozov mostly takes the breadth of the change for granted. He spends much more space discussing the question of reach, pointing out how “the internet” has burrowed into every aspect of our life. Controlling what we see, who we communicate with, and how we exercise. Of course in some areas this control has been around for a while particularly in the area of what we see. (Think TV networks.) But previous to the internet it was a very crude form of control. Now companies are collecting data that allows them to be very specific and very invasive in their control. There’s good reason to believe that this invasiveness is already harmful, and the goal of nearly all companies is to become even more invasive. (Though inevitably they call it something else.) The book lays out some truly dystopian scenarios in areas like law enforcement, marketing and insurance. 

The underlying ideology of the change: All new technology ends up having an effect on ideology, often engendering entirely new forms. Henry Ford, in addition to revolutionizing the world with his Model T, proposed changes to healthcare, politics, and the way people worked. All of these changes were closely tied to his advances in automation. Accordingly it’s unsurprising that the internet would also come with ideological baggage. Morozov also spends a lot of time on this subject as well. One might imagine that internet startups would want people to adopt their solution because if they do the startup will make a lot of money and be successful. But Morozov claims that it goes well beyond that, that there is an overarching ideology behind most startups that animates and informs it. This is solutionism. In its more benign form it imagines that technological solutions are better than non technological solutions. But there’s a more aggressive form which holds that there are problems we don’t even recognize which technology can uncover and solve. Morozov spends much of the book talking about these latter “problems”. Which takes us to:

They’re attempting to solve problems which don’t actually exist: Perhaps the biggest problem with our recent attempts at using technology to solve problems is that many of the problems we’re attempting to solve might not be problems at all. The book is full of examples, but one that really stuck with me was the argument over openness. Quoting from the book:

Our Internet debates, in contrast, tend to be dominated by a form of openness fundamentalism, whereby “openness” is seen as a fail-safe solution to virtually any problem. Instead of debating how openness may be fostering or harming innovation, promoting or demoting justice, facilitating or complicating deliberation—the kinds of debates we are likely to have about the uses of openness in the messy world that we live in—“openness” in networks and technological systems is presumed to be always good and its opposite—it’s quite telling that we can’t quite define what that is—always bad.

Openness is not merely solving a problem no one is complaining about, it’s solving a problem no one can even concretely name. Such is the misguided nature of solutionism.

Eschatological Implications

Depending on how you look at things we’ve been expecting technology to save us since at least the 50s. Unfortunately, as the famous Peter Thiel quote goes, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” A discussion of why it turned out this way would take up far more space than we have, but this book explores one of the major factors behind that divergence. Essentially it turned out that creating problems which could be solved by the technology you already had was easy. Creating technology that could solve the problems you already had was very difficult.

Of course no one wants to admit that this is what’s happening. Everyone wants to imagine that they’re doing important work. Beyond ignoring difficult problems this leads to two additional biases (and probably several others):

  1. They only consider technology’s good qualities without considering its downsides. 
  2. They ignore other better ways of solving a problem in favor of potential technological solutions.

Taken together, technology, rather than proving to be humanity’s salvation, has proven to be an expensive distraction, where people create things for the sake of creation, rather than having any long term plans, and when their creations end up having downsides, they’re extraordinary slow to recognize those downsides because their so enamored by these creations. 

As a result rather than bringing out a utopian future we end up slouching towards a vague dystopia never sure why things aren’t actually improving despite the thousands of promises we’ve been made.


II- Capsule Reviews

Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?

by: Mark Fisher

Published: 2009

80 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Fredric Jameson or Slavoj Žižek or perhaps both, said “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”. This book discusses how capitalism grew to encompass the whole of our imagination, and the brief glimpses one receives of potential alternatives. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Fisher has been described as a Marxist pop-culture theorist, a description I would agree with after reading the book.

Who should read this book?

People looking to steelman communism. In particular the author does a good job of showing how the Marxist concept of ‘Late Capitalism’ foretold much of the craziness we’re currently experiencing.

General Thoughts

You may recognize the initial sections. I already reviewed this book a few months ago and I just copied them over from that review. But having finished the book in audio form I thought I needed to go back and do an old-fashioned read through. You know the kind where you can make highlights and re-read passages that you didn’t quite get the first time.

As part of this process I convinced my Slate Star Codex book club to re-read it with me. I’m not sure what I expected but when it came time to discuss it, most of them hated it. (You should certainly keep that in mind if you decide to read it.) For my part, I countered by arguing that they were missing the point, not necessarily the point of the book, but the point of reading a book like this. 

If I had to characterize their overarching complaint it was that Fisher didn’t put forth arguments, ones which proceeded step by step to a conclusion. Rather, they contended, he aired grievances, which, first off, probably weren’t as grievous as he claimed, and secondly, most likely not caused in the manner he claimed (to the extent that he even bothered to put forth a cause and effect). The thing is, I’m mostly on board with this characterization, my argument was that it’s a mistake to use these points to summarily dismiss Fisher, because there’s something deeper going on here, and we need to understand it.

As you may have already guessed, as a Slate Star Codex book club, they’re very familiar with rationalism. And while only a few of them self-identify as rationalists, given the choice they would prefer that people be Alexandrian Rationalists over Fisherian Marxists. Taking this as my starting point, I supported my side of the argument with the following example:

A young man of my acquaintance has read all the canonical texts of rationality. He’s read the Less Wrong Sequences, and Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. And yet, when it comes to his political ideology, he’s basically a Fisherian Marxist. He hasn’t read Capitalist Realism, but he’s read several books that are adjacent to it, and the podcasts he listens to (where he gets most of his political information) are definitely also inspired by Fisher. In other words he’s done all the things one might recommend for turning someone into a rationalist, and yet he found people like Fisher more appealing. Why is that?

I think the power of Fisher lies in the fact that the world he describes ends up being a better match for the world this young man experiences than the sterile and esoteric discussions of the rationalists. Is the rationalist worldview truer in some objective sense? Probably. But as it turns out, that’s not the deciding factor. The deciding factor is whether it’s more compelling. And on that count I think there’s a lot that can be learned from this book. 


How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe

by: Thomas Cahill

Published: 2003

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The conversion of the Irish to Christianity by St. Patrick and their subsequent importance in post Roman Europe.

What’s the author’s angle?

Cahill wants to emphasize the mostly unsung contribution of the Irish in the history of the “Dark Ages”.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for yet another reason why Ireland is awesome, this book is perfect, and covers a history that isn’t very well known.

General Thoughts

This was another book I read in preparation for my trip to Ireland, and in that respect it was perfect. My favorite part of the trip was encountering the deep history of the country: its castles, churches and other ruins. Much of this history was a direct consequence of Ireland’s deep religiousness, which wouldn’t have happened without St. Patrick. Or at least it would have been very different. The book covers a fair amount of territory, so here are the high points:

  1. St. Patrick is an amazing figure. I had no idea how wide reaching his influence was or how much respect his contemporaries held him in.
  2. The Irish did a huge amount to preserve literature after the collapse of Rome. See, for example, the Book of Kells, which is one of the can’t miss attractions of Dublin.
  3. St. Patrick was the first to establish a non-Roman version of Christianity (not counting the very early church). This was instrumental in its spread into Germany and Scandinavia. 
  4. Ireland exported monasteries. Many people from Ireland left the country to found monasteries on the continent.

Claiming that the Irish saved civilization or even western civilization may be an exaggeration. But they did a lot more for it than I realized.


The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History 

by: Alexander Mikaberidze

Published: 2020

864 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The global impact of the Napoleonic Wars. With a deep look at the politics and not merely the battles.

What’s the author’s angle?

Mikaberidze wants to remind people that the Napoleonic Wars should really hold the position of the first world war. He backs this up with a wide-ranging examination of battles, revolutions and political machinations taking place all over the globe.

Who should read this book?

There are history books which read better, and there are history books that go deeper, but there are not many books with the breadth of this one. It’s long, so it probably isn’t for everyone. But if you’re interested at all in this period it should definitely be on your list.

General Thoughts

I was reading recently about the lack of quality leadership. Whatever your opinion of Napoleon, they don’t make people like that anymore. Mikaberidze describes him thusly:

Combining the authority of head of state and supreme commander had clear advantages: Napoleon could set objectives and pursue diplomacy and strategy more effectively than his opponents, whose hands were often tied by military councils or royal sovereigns—not to mention the complications of coalition warfare. The advantages of having a single person firmly in charge of all aspects of the war effort were magnified by the fact that the one person at the helm was arguably the most capable human being who ever lived. (Emphasis mine)

For all that he made a lot of mistakes, and his time in power was short, and his record is mixed. And I’m sure living through that period of history, particularly if you were part of the 99%, was fairly hellish. But at the remove of 200 years the whole thing makes for some amazing history. 


Kidnapped

by: Robert Louis Stevenson

Published: 1886

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The adventures of David Balfour, whose evil uncle arranges for him to be kidnapped, and sent to the Americas. His escape and entanglement with the Appin Murder, when Colin Roy Campbell was assassinated, presumably by the Jacobites

Who should read this book?

I think everybody should listen to the book. It’s simply delightful as an audiobook.

General Thoughts

Stevenson is one of those author’s who’s still known, but not as well as he should be. Kidnapped was a ripping good adventure yarn (as they used to say) and it reminds me that I should read more old books. As I said, you should actually make sure to listen to it, it’s a book that really lends itself to good narration.


Weird of Hali: Providence

by: John Michael Greer

Published: 2019

263 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the fifth book in the “What if the followers of the Great Old Ones were the good guys?” series. (See my previous reviews here, here, here, and here.) This one draws heavily on Lovecraft’s story “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”. 

Who should read this book?

Anyone who’s read the previous four books. They’re all pretty good, but this one is above average for the series. 

General Thoughts

There are many things that Greer does well. I continue to enjoy his world building, and the way he has flipped the Cthulhu Mythos on its head. The characters are interesting as well, but there are a lot of them and he could do better at helping the reader keep them straight. And while, as I said, his world building is great, he could do a better job of explaining that as well. There’s a lot going on.

But in general this is another series that reads easily and is always interesting (if you like Lovecraftian stuff.)


III- Religious Reviews

Queer Mormon Theology: An Introduction 

By: Blaire Ostler

Published: 2021

152 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The author’s claim that, doctrinally and foundationally, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormonism) is a queer religion, where queer is “an umbrella term to describe those in the LGBTQIA+ community” (among other things).

What’s the author’s angle?

Ostler is trying to convince the LDS Church to change its policies so that queer individuals have all the privileges that “cisgender”, heterosexual people have within the Church, and she advocates for privileges beyond those as well. 

Who should read this book?

Given that I absolutely and entirely disagree with her interpretation of LDS doctrine, I guess I would say no one. But I’m not particularly worried about people reading it. Her position is so extreme that only the already converted will find it at all persuasive. I suppose if you wanted to know what Mormonism would look like if you turned its wokeism to 11, then this is the book for you. 

General Thoughts

If you want an exhaustive review (and refutation) of the book I would direct you to this article on The Interpreter. I’m going to approach the book from a somewhat different angle. I first encountered Ostler and her unique theological views at the Mormon Transhumanist Conference, and in my after action report I ended up pointing to her talk as being among three that were particularly schismatic. I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m not sure why the MTA can’t just admit that it’s schismatic. Their insistence that their views are 100% orthodox continue to baffle me, but as baffling as the MTA’s assertions of orthodoxy are, Ostler’s assertion of orthodoxy is an order of magnitude more incomprehensible.

Ostler’s suggestions and opinions are so extreme that I actually found myself entertaining the possibility that she’s trolling any Church member who takes her seriously. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case, but I’m not ready to entirely dismiss it either. 

If she is in fact serious then I think understanding her belief and background in transhumanism is critical to understanding how she arrived at this position. Which is to say it’s very difficult to go straight from orthodox Mormon theology to the Queer Mormon Theology of Ostler’s book, but if you imagine Mormon Transhumanism as a stepping stone, someplace that’s halfway up the wall, then reaching the radical theology of the book becomes a lot easier.

Specifically, Mormon Transhumanism is big on personal revelation, body modification, and the inevitability of progress, while being dismissive of the Church hierarchy, broader Christian traditions, and Christ’s unique role. All of these ideas are necessary precursors to Ostler’s theology. Which is not to say Ostler’s ideas are unique, most exist in an independent form in the broader world, but wedding them to Mormonism was only accomplished through the intermediary of religiously themed transhumanism.


The Ethics of Beauty

by: Timothy G. Patitsas

Published: 2020

748 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Patitsas starts from a Platonic perspective, asserting that there are three transcendental virtues: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. To this he adds a strong dose of Eastern Orthodox theology. From the combination of the two he arrives at a unique critique of modernity, asserting that we have largely sidelined the virtue of Beauty while placing all of our attention on the virtue of Truth.

What’s the author’s angle?

Patitsas is Director of the Religious Studies Program at Hellenic College, and this book represents both his religious outlook and his academic interest. Despite this, the book is not particularly academic, but I’m sure having something to add to his CV was part of his motivation.

Who should read this book?

If the idea of an incredibly deep dive on the idea of beauty—heavily informed by religion—appeals to you, then this is the book for you! 

General Thoughts

A friend of mine is starting an actual print magazine, and he asked me to read and review this book for inclusion in the first issue. I’m still polishing that review, and I’m sure I’ll post it here when it’s done. Or at least make an announcement about it. But for now I don’t want to spoil the premier issue of my friend’s awesome magazine!


Voltaire (quoting a “wise Italian”) said, the “Perfect is the enemy of the good.” In more recent times it’s become common to say that the perfect is the enemy of the done. I have no idea why those phrases came to me right now, but if you appreciate things being done consider donating