Tag: <span>Technology</span>

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


The Drug Crisis (Part 1): The Role of Progress and Technology in Creating the Crisis

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I- COVID Deaths vs. Overdose Deaths

According to Our World in Data, essentially a million people have died from COVID in the United States. Depending on your political persuasion you may think that this is an undercount or an overcount, but as we don’t have the time to get into all of that, this is the number we’re going to use. Not only is it probably about as accurate as one is likely to get without massive effort, particularly if you just want to compare the US with other western democracies, it also happens to be nearly identical to the number I’m going to use to start my discussion of drugs. As it turns out, about a million people have also died from overdosing on drugs in the US since 1999, which is generally when the current crisis is said to have started. Though again you can quibble about that number as well, but I’m going to assume that all different quibbles basically balance out.

So we’re left with 1 million people who died of COVID and 1 million people who died from overdosing, that’s our similarity, but what are the differences?

  • Our overdose statistics go back to 1999, while COVID has only been around since the beginning of 2020. Obviously on a day to day basis COVID is far more deadly.
  • On the other hand, with the exception of a small dip in 2018, overdose deaths just get higher and higher every year, while with COVID we expect the opposite, fewer and fewer deaths as time goes on. 
  • It’s nice to imagine that the United States could have locked down as hard as China and prevented nearly all deaths—though if you’ve seen the news, even China is having problems with that strategy now. But in reality everyone knew that, regardless of what we did, some COVID deaths could not be prevented. On the other hand, in theory, nearly all overdose deaths should be preventable. It’s extremely difficult to avoid getting Omicron. It seems significantly easier to just take fewer drugs.
  • Obviously the previous point is an oversimplification, but we assume at some point (nowish?) that COVID will just be treated like the flu. What is the analogy for overdosing? What is the minimum number of overdose deaths we should expect if things worked as they should? The 17,000 overdose deaths we had in 1999? The 10,000 we had in 1998? The 2,500 we had in 1980?
  • Finally, the biggest difference. COVID has gotten, and probably will continue to get, vastly more money and attention. This is the case even if we compare money and attention for COVID since 2000 with money and attention for overdoses since 1999. Which is not to say we haven’t spent a lot of money on the War on Drugs, much of it misspent, but even critics of the war only put it around a trillion dollars, and this is the cost going all the way back to 1971. While COVID spending is already closing in on $4 trillion

This post is dedicated to considering the drug crisis, and while we have been dealing with this crisis for several decades, I think the pandemic has definitely thrown many of the key issues into sharper relief. People would be very angry if COVID deaths just got worse despite everything we were doing, and yet that’s exactly what’s happening with overdose deaths. With COVID everyone is currently engaged in the exercise of deciding what level of danger is acceptable, are we trying to get it to the same level of the flu? Or is that too ambitious? Or perhaps not ambitious enough? And yet people don’t seem to be doing this with overdose deaths. No one can even imagine that we should be able to drive these deaths back down to their 1998 level or even their 1980 level. But 2022 does not seem all that different from 1998, and yet 10x as many people are overdosing, where does that order of magnitude increase come from? Is it entirely the fault of Purdue Pharma and Oxycontin? Or are there other factors? 

Most of all I want to consider, where do we go from here?

II- How “Technology” Contributed to the Increase 

When considering how the number of overdose deaths increased ten-fold in less than 25 years, I’d like to start by looking at the role of “progress” and “technology” in that increase. You may have noticed that both words are in scare quotes. This is an acknowledgement that I am using them in a more expansive fashion than most people. I nevertheless think that the designation and the grouping is accurate. As the “technology” case is easier to make, let’s start there.

The smoking gun here is fentanyl. To begin with it was first synthesized in a lab in 1960. Using technology which had only been invented in the 50s. Fentanyl is a product of modern technology, which not only didn’t exist, but was impossible to imagine more than 100 years ago. Of course, I understand why it was synthesized. The article I just linked to raves about its utility. Having a super potent opioid is perfect for all sorts of entirely legitimate ends, like anesthesia, and pain relief for terminal patients. But this potency, combined with its ability to be synthesized in a lab, make it perfect for the illegal drug trade as well. The potency makes it easy to smuggle and its ability to be artificially synthesized makes it hard to target the source. 

I’ve been careful to talk about overdose deaths in general, but when most people think about the drug crisis and overdosing on drugs they’re largely thinking of drugs in the opioid class, like heroin and prescription opioids like Oxycontin, or synthetic opioids, like fentanyl. And it is true that deaths from synthetic opioids (mostly fentanyl but excluding methadone) have increased 50 fold(!!) since 1999, with most of that increase coming since 2013. But deaths from cocaine have increased by 4 fold, while deaths from psychostimulants, which mostly refers to meth, have increased 30 fold in that period with most of that increase also coming since 2013. 

Though these latter two categories are less obviously stories of something created by technology getting out of hand, technology has still played a major role. 

If we start by looking at cocaine, it’s not immediately obvious why it’s gotten so much worse. Of course deaths from overdosing on cocaine have not increased at nearly the rate that deaths from meth and opioids have, but a 4x increase is still very significant. I murders or suicides or something similar had quadrupled recently then that’s all anyone would be talking about. And yet you probably haven’t heard anything about this increase. Even the books I read don’t spend any time on it. In part that’s probably because everything is going up. Even deaths from benzodiazepines are rising (a point we’ll return to) and in part it’s because the cocaine crisis started a long time ago, but as it turns out it also involved technology.

In the early 80s there was a glut of cocaine and in order to get rid of it dealers started turning it into crack. From Wikipedia:

Faced with dropping prices for their illegal product, drug dealers made a decision to convert the powder to “crack”, a solid smokeable form of cocaine, that could be sold in smaller quantities, to more people. It was cheap, simple to produce, ready to use, and highly profitable for dealers to develop.

The farthest back I’ve been able to find numbers is starting in 1968, and from then till now the low point of drug overdose deaths was 1980, just before this glut occured. As I’ve said I haven’t read much about the way that crisis unfolded. But what’s interesting is although there was a lot of attention on the “Crack Epidemic” it eventually dissipated, but the actual deaths from cocaine didn’t really go down, and the 90s were worse than the 80’s. In fact in 1999, when all the graphs start, it’s cocaine that’s the leading cause of death, not any of the various opioid categories. 

The important point is that it does appear to be an example of this same process of dealers discovering a new drug, or a new form of an old drug and coming up with innovative ways to sell and distribute it. A story that’s going to get repeated again and again. Which takes us to meth.

If you’ve been following my blog over the last few months I mentioned that I’ve been reading some books in preparation for this post, and The Least of Us by Sam Quinones makes some very interesting claims about meth and technology. The story goes something like this:

Back in the very beginning meth was made using what’s called the P2P method, and it gave off a “smell so rank” it could only be done far away from civilization by biker gangs like the Hells Angels, but sometime in the 1980’s the ephedrine recipe for meth was rediscovered, which was not only less smelly, but also an easier recipe to follow. At the time ephedrine was unregulated, so meth took off. One DEA agent said that between 2000 and 2004 he didn’t remember a single pot or heroin case, it was all meth. (To be clear he was stationed in California, not Appalachia.)

As you might imagine this only lasted for a while before the government responded and started cracking down on the availability of ephedrine. Initially production just moved to Mexico, but in 2008 Mexico banned it outright as well. In a perfect world this would have stopped the meth problem, but we live in a fallen world, and the War on Drugs, though not quite the unmitigated disaster many claim, has nevertheless proven to be an amazingly effective generator of negative second order effects. In this case rather than stop producing meth Mexican producers moved back to the P2P method. Given, by this point, the industrial scale of production, the smell was less of a concern then it had been back in the day, but it turned out that there was a different problem: P2P meth, unlike ephedrine based meth, basically causes people to go insane, or at least that’s what Quinones claims in his book. 

Here’s how one user described it: 

In 2009, out in Los Angeles, a man named Eric Barrera was a long-time user of crystal meth when one night he felt the dope change.

Eric is a stocky ex-marine who’d grown up in Oxnard, not far from Los Angeles. The meth he had been using for several years by then made him euphoric, made his scalp tingle; he grew talkative, wanting to party. But that night, in 2009, he was gripped with a fierce paranoia. His girlfriend, he was now sure, had a man in her apartment. No one was in the apartment, she insisted. Eric took a kitchen knife and began stabbing a sofa, certain the man was hiding there. Then he stabbed a mattress to tatters, and finally he began stabbing the walls, gripped by manic paranoia and looking for this man he imagined hiding inside. “That had never happened before,” he said, when I met him years later.

Eric was hardly alone. The new meth that had just begun to circulate in 2009 was different. Something had changed. Gang-member friends from his old neighborhood took to calling the new stuff “weirdo dope.” “Every bag of dope that I picked up after that,” he told me, “I hoped it would be euphoric like it was before. But the euphoria never came back. Instead I’d be up for days paranoid, wondering, Are they gonna raid the house?”

Obviously the question of what makes this meth different is a big one. And Quinones didn’t have a definitive answer. There seem to be three potential explanations. The first is that the P2P method is prone to contamination from the industrial chemicals used in the process and this contamination is what causes the paranoia. The second possible explanation is that meth comes in two different forms d-methamphetamine and l-methamphetamine. The P2P method produces both in equal quantities. Separating the two is difficult, but according to Quinones, Mexican producers have figured out how to do it. But what if they’re sloppy? It’s possible that if you’re taking a significant amount of l-meth, at the level of an addict, that it might bring paranoia as a side effect. And the third possibility is just some other difference in the P2P process, something we haven’t figured out yet. 

For my part neither of the first two explanations seems particularly compelling. The old ephedrine based meth was made under all sorts of conditions by all sorts of people and yet it reliably produced euphoria? While the P2P meth, now being made on basically an industrial scale, uniformly produces paranoia? Still this is the explanation Quinones seems to lean towards. The other explanation, that the change comes down to an inclusion of the other isomer, makes somewhat more sense to me, given that it’s specific to the new process, but l-meth has been studied a fair amount, and is used as in a variety of medicine and there’s nothing to indicate that it causes paranoia. Though as I pointed out addicts are probably taking a lot more than what any study has used, and there is that old saying that the dose makes the poison. But if I had to make a prediction I think I would assign the highest probability to it being some third thing we haven’t figured out yet, though it would get just a plurality of the probability, not a majority. 

This whole business of meth going from somewhat manageable to causing insanity is not something I’ve seen mentioned anywhere else. So perhaps Quinones is exaggerating the problem. But then again, as I pointed out in the very beginning, lots of things about the drug crisis don’t get nearly the attention they deserve, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to discover that this is a thing and Quinones was the only one dedicated enough to document it. If it is a real thing, it seems like a thing we really ought to get to the bottom of. 

As you can see, technology has done a lot to create and sustain the drug crisis. So much of the story of the crisis is a story of improving technology and distribution methods. Both of Quinones’ books, The Least of Us, and before that Dreamland have large sections that are all about logistics, and improving those logistics, sometimes through better personnel management, sometimes through improved distribution, and sometimes through technology. Though of course in a broad sense improved HR, and improved distribution are also technological advances, ones they’ve borrowed from business. At this point, of course. Mexican drug operations are basically big businesses, ones that are built around taking some chemicals as input and using them to create a profitable output. Businesses that are largely agnostic about which chemicals go in, and which drugs come out. Under this model it made perfect sense to switch to the P2P method for meth. And it made even more sense to replace heroin production and distribution with fentanyl production and distribution. If you were in business and you could replace hundreds of farmers and truckers with a few chemists and just a couple of truckers, you would count that as progress. And indeed it is, which takes us to:

III- How “Progress” contributed to the Increase  

In Quinones’ book Dreamland (see my original discussion here) he puts forth three developments which combined, in perfect storm fashion, to create the opioid crisis. The first, and best known was the introduction of Oxycontin by Purdue Pharma, the second was the development of a sophisticated heroin distribution system running from Northwest Mexico into the US. And the third was an ideological shift in the way the medical profession viewed pain.

As you may have noticed from the title I decided to split this post into two parts, and we’ll discuss Oxycontin and Purdue in the second part. I’ve already discussed the Mexican logistical revolution as much as I’m going to (which is not to say that my coverage has been comprehensive or even adequate, more just that I ran out of time and space.) Accordingly the only thing remaining is to discuss the way the treatment of pain changed. But in doing so I don’t want to just discuss changes in the treatment of pain. I want to look at changes in the way we do everything.

While I won’t be discussing Purdue Pharma, just yet, I do want to spend a small amount of time talking about Arthur Sackler. As I mentioned in my review of Empire of Pain Arthur Sackler was not one of the Sacklers who owned Purdue—those were his brothers—but this fact does not absolve him of all guilt for our current situation, because while Arthur didn’t have any part in the creation of Oxycontin he created the playbook his brothers used to market it. Arthur’s own fortune was made through the marketing of Valium, a benzodiazepine. And what do you know, if we look at our chart of overdose deaths benzos have a category all of their own, and somehow, despite not benefiting from Mexican innovations in logistics, or being involved in pain management, deaths in this category have also increased a staggering amount since 1999: 10 fold, so more than cocaine, but less than meth and fentanyl. Now many of these deaths, particularly since 2014 have involved people who combined fentanyl and benzos, but eyeballing the chart, it looks like benzos went from around 1200 to around 6000 in the years from 1999 to 2011 before combining it with an opioid really took off. Why would that be? We think we know why opioid overdoses increased so dramatically but why did all other categories of overdosing also increase at the same time? I would opine that it all goes back to Arthur Sackler and Valium, and then just a little bit farther still, back to an idea.

Early on Arthur and his brothers worked in an asylum, where the insane languished in appalling conditions. Being reform minded they looked for some way to help these unfortunate people. The story of their various experiments is too long to go into here, but eventually they discovered that, to quote from The Empire of Pain: 

When they injected forty patients who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic with histamine, nearly a third of them improved to a degree where they could be sent home. Some patients who had not responded to any other course of treatment did respond to histamine.

“There was a sense, in their press clippings, that this trio of brothers at a mental hospital in Queens might have stumbled upon a solution to a medical riddle that had bedeviled societies for thousands of years. If the problem of mental illness originated in brain chemistry, then perhaps chemistry could provide the solution. What if, in the future, the cure for insanity was as simple as taking a pill?”

The fact that schizophrenics improved when given histamine was obviously wonderful news. On the other hand, the idea that all mental issues, large or small, could be fixed with a pill, was a dangerous overreach. Nevertheless they took this idea and ran with it. While the Sacklers didn’t do much to discover new cures, like the one they’d stumbled on with histamine, their zeal, and in particular Arthur’s, led them to become experts at marketing chemicals. A strategy which relied on this idea that just taking a pill was all it took to cure what ailed you.

You might imagine that the next step in this story was applying the strategy to Oxycontin. But actually the next step was applying the idea to pain management in general. Oxycontin didn’t create a revolution in the ideology of pain management, a revolution in the ideology of pain management created the conditions necessary for Oxycontin. The revolution in the treatment of pain management is a long story, and this post is already long, but I came across this comment over on Marginal Revolution from a doctor which sums up the situation pretty well:

I’m an anesthesiologist, so I do all my narcotic “prescribing” via syringe these days. Before that, I was an internist, writing lots of prescriptions. I was doing this up til the mid-90’s, when we started hearing about the supposed “epidemic” of untreated, severe pain. Lots of actors involved in that little drama: pharma; Big Nursing looking to demonize “uncaring” physicians for their own ends; inter alia. Anyone remember “pain is the 5th vital sign”? I sure do. There was relentless pressure to make sure that no one, ever, faced a quantum of untreated pain. Suddenly, pain surveys and other forms of government coercion became part of the water we swam in. Getting a reputation as an “undertreater” of pain could have serious professional consequences.

Is anyone surprised that the pharmaceutical industry responded to this milieu? And that government piled on through its enforcement arms in HHS? If you tell the public for a couple of decades that everyone is entitled to a pain-free existence (not the actual message sent, but often the message received), then don’t be surprised at the disaster that results.

Presumably the connection between that original assertion of the Sacklers (and to be fair I’m sure it wasn’t just them) and this situation should be obvious: If you can cure something as obviously bad as pain with a single pill why wouldn’t you? But once you start thinking along these lines, why would you limit it to only things which are legal? If you can take some drug and it makes all your problems go away why wouldn’t you?

I understand there are other factors involved. Drugs are addictive. Wicked companies have marketed them with lies and distortions. There are all the advancements in distribution and logistics I mentioned previously. But along side all of that, and perhaps preceding it, is the idea that we can use progress to solve all of the old problems. Anxious? Take a Valium. In pain? Take Oxycontin. Not enjoying life as much as you think you should be? Take meth. 

Because the thing is, that as much as we might want to blame Oxycontin for creating a drug crisis, which came out of nowhere in 1999, deaths from drug overdosing have gone up every year since 1990. In the last 30 years no matter what drug you look at, and no matter when you decide to start looking, everything is going up. My argument is that this phenomenon is yet another unforeseen side effect of progress, one that’s going to keep getting worse. Can anything be done? We’ll answer that question next time.


I didn’t want to split this in two, but things have been extraordinarily crazy, and to add to the craziness, we’ve decided to move. If you want to help with the expense of that consider donating


What “The Expanse” Can Teach Us about Fermi’s Paradox

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This post is going to draw fairly extensively from The Expanse series. It contains definite spoilers for anyone who hasn’t made it through book 3 of the series or season 3 of the TV show. Also the post will have some vague allusions to what happens after that. (I have not personally had the chance to watch the TV show much past season 1, so the exact amount I’m spoiling there might be more than I think.) 

You have been warned.

I.

This blog has been fascinated by Fermi’s Paradox since its inception. As such I’m always interested in the explanations science fiction authors create in the course of tackling the paradox in their books. Some explanations are fascinating and thought provoking, some are implausible and lazy. The explanation given by the Expanse Series, by James S. A. Corey, is fortunately one of the former.

We get Corey’s answer at the end of Abaddon’s Gate, the third book in the series. As it turns out there was someone else out there, and they created a empire of over 1300 planets and knit them together with a network of gates. Earth was supposed to be one of those planets, but the device which would have created the gate (and dramatically hijacked all life on Earth in the process) was captured by Saturn’s gravity and never made it to its final destination.

Eventually people find this device and hilarity ensues. Okay not really, the device (what the series calls the protomolecule) actually turns people into horrible zombie-like creatures who eventually merge with each other into something even more horrible, which then eventually turns into the “Sol Gate” humanity’s very own connection to the ring network. You may have noticed earlier that I said that there was something out there. Well, when the humans travel through the ring they find out that the aliens who built the gates have vanished. Nor is the reason for their disappearance entirely mysterious. It is soon discovered that they were killed off by something even bigger and nastier. 

From the perspective of the series the creation of the gate is good and bad. It’s good because now humans have easy access to hundreds of new, habitable worlds. It’s bad because not only do they know that there exists some other awesomely powerful entity—an entity which is horribly, and seemingly blindly malevolent, something like Lovecraft’s description of the elder gods—but they also may have just brought themselves to the attention of this entity.

As I mentioned this all comes out at the end of book three. The series just barely concluded with book 9 (review coming soon!) So based on this mix of good and bad news what do you imagine the humans do in the subsequent books? Well, and I think Corey predicts this accurately, they spend all of their time on the bounty of the 1300+ systems they’ve just discovered, and almost none of it on the giant, horrible elder gods lurking in the shadows. Now to be fair, they’ve got a lot of problems to deal with other than the elder gods. The animosity between Earth, Mars and the Belters has not gone away just because there’s a bunch of new worlds, in fact if anything the discovery has inflamed tensions. But still one would hope that should we be confronted with this situation in actuality that we would spend more time on the giant, horrible alien problem than the people in the book do, but maybe not.

There is however one person in the books who’s different. One person who will stop at nothing to ensure the survival of humanity. This is Winston Duarte. If you have read many books like this, you may have already guessed that he’s the bad guy. Whether this would be so in reality is not the point of this post, and to be clear, in the context of the books he does end up doing some very bad things. No, the point of this post is to imagine what we might do if we were Duarte. If we decided that the problem of the missing aliens was really the biggest problem humanity faces. 

Of course to a certain extent there are such people, people who are really interested in identifying and dealing with existential issues, because if we don’t we may not be around to deal with anything else. I’ve reviewed some of their books, for example: Global Catastrophic Risks by Nick Bostrom and Milan Ćirković and The Precipice by Toby Ord. And I will continue to review and read these books. I think they touch on one of the most important subjects people can be thinking about. But while reading the final book of The Expanse I was struck by the similarity between Duarte’s situation and our own. And I wanted to use it as a springboard to revisit the profound implications of Fermi’s Paradox, and how it’s easy to understand those implications when it’s fiction, but far harder when it’s reality.

II.

The insight which prompted me to write this post was the realization that there are a lot of similarities between our position and the position of the humans who have just discovered the gates. There were many, many years when neither was even aware of the problem, and then suddenly, in their case, and almost as suddenly, in our case, we both realized that we had a big problem. Both of us have every reason for believing that there should be aliens out there. And as it turns out (thus far) the rest of the universe is empty.

Of course there are obviously some differences. To begin with you may think that our situation is not as bad as the one Duarte is focused on, but I’m not sure that’s the case. He has the advantage of knowing exactly what the problem is: there is some sort of Lovecraftian elder god which eradicates any civilization above a certain level of technology. Of course this is a very big problem, possibly insoluble, but at least he knows where to direct his attention and his energy. And while it is true that nearly everyone else in the books seems to be ignoring the problem. At least they’re aware of it. And when the time comes it doesn’t take much to get them to throw enormous resources at it. On the other hand, most people today aren’t even aware that there is a problem, if they are aware of it they may wonder whether it’s appropriate to even call it a “problem”, and if they grant all of that, there’s still very little agreement on what sort of problem it might be.

To get more concrete, sitting on a shelf in front of me is a book which contains 75 explanations for Fermi’s paradox, and even this collection of 75 explanations doesn’t cover all of the possibilities. Duarte only has to concern himself with one of those explanations: malevolent aliens, and not even malevolent aliens as a general concept, but rather a specific malevolent alien whose existence has already been demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt. This is not to say that all of the questions posed by the paradox have been answered. For example, did the ring builders really wipe out all other life before being wiped out themselves? But as far as Duarte is concerned the part that matters has been solved, and now he just has to deal with the problems arising from the reality of that solution. And he has lots of options for doing just that. The elder gods might have left clues as to their motivations; there might also be precautions he could take; experiments he could run; or at least data he could collect. 

Duarte doesn’t have to worry about other possible solutions. He doesn’t have to worry that all intelligent aliens destroy themselves in a nuclear war so humans will as well. Or at least he doesn’t have to worry about this nearly as much as we do. Humans are now on hundreds of worlds, and have gone hundreds of years without such a war. He doesn’t have to worry about the difficulties intelligent species might encounter in making it off their home planet in the first place. Humans (in The Expanse) have already shown that can be done as well. Nor does he have to worry about interstellar distances, not only has the gates made this point moot, but even without the gates a major plot point of the first few books is that the Mormons (Go team!) are preparing to leave the solar system in a generational ship. And the list of things he no longer has to worry about goes on and on beyond these examples.

On the other hand, when we contemplate the silent universe we have to consider all 75 solutions, while also being aware of the fact that this list might not be exhaustive, we have probably overlooked some of the possibilities, perhaps even the correct one. 

Some of the potential solutions to the paradox are better for us than the elder gods of The Expanse. Some are worse. You might take issue with the idea that anything could be worse than implacably hostile, nearly omnipotent super aliens, but I disagree. There’s always some chance that we could avoid, placate, or defeat the other aliens. In fact, the chances of avoiding them seem particularly high, since we already managed to do so for tens of thousands of years. But if we consider the entire universe of possible solutions, there are explanations where our chances of survival are much, much lower. As an example, what if the answer to Fermi’s paradox is something inherent to intelligence, or technological progress, or biological evolution itself? Something that hasn’t merely defeated one set of aliens (as was the case with The Expanse) but has defeated all of the potential aliens. Something which because of this inherency will almost certainly defeat us as well.

Back in 1998 Robin Hanson gave a name to this idea of something that defeats all potential aliens, he called it the Great Filter. This is the idea that there is something which prevents intelligent life from developing and spreading across the galaxy in an obvious fashion. Some hurdle which makes it difficult for life to develop in the first place, or which makes it difficult for life, once developed, to achieve intelligence, or which makes it difficult for intelligent life to become multiplanetary. Since Hanson came up with the idea, people have obviously wondered what that hurdle or filter might be, but more importantly they’ve wondered, is it ahead of us or behind us? 

Pulling all of this together, I would say the idea that the Great Filter is ahead of us, and not merely ahead of us, but nearby—a built in consequence of technological progress—is a far scarier solution to the paradox than even the elder gods of The Expanse. The only thing that mitigates the scariness of this solution is the fact that it’s not certain. There is some probability that the true explanation for the paradox is something else. 

It is this uncertainty, and not the magnitude of the catastrophe which represents the key difference between Duarte’s situation and ours.

III.

This is not the first time this blog has covered potential catastrophes with uncertain probabilities. In fact it might be said to represent the primary theme of the blog. So how do you handle this sort of thing if you’re a real, modern day Duarte, rather than the fictional one a couple of centuries in the future? How do you proceed if the threat isn’t certain, if there’s no data to collect, no experiments to run, no motivations to probe? Are there at least precautions one could take?

There might be, but most people who do end up focusing on this sort of thing spend far more time trying to assess the probabilities of the various catastrophes, the various solutions to the paradox, than in trying to understand and mitigate those catastrophes. And frequently the conclusion they come to is that one can explain the paradox without resorting to catastrophic explanations. It can be explained entirely by the fact that we’re extraordinarily lucky. And I mean EXTRA-odinarily lucky. Since I’ve already alluded to Stephen Webb’s book If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens… Where Is Everybody?: Seventy-Five Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life we might as well look at the account he gives of our unbelievable luck.

I did a very detailed breakdown of it in a previous post, but in essence it assumes that there are 1 trillion planets in the galaxy and out of the trillion places where it could have happened Earth was the only place where life did happen.

That we were lucky enough to be on a planet in the galactic habitable zone.

…which also orbits a sun-like star

…in the habitable zone of that same star

…which turned that luck into life

…that this life was lucky enough to avoid being wiped out prematurely

…developing from single-celled to multicellular life

…and not merely multicellular life, but intelligent, tool-using, mathematical life.

In other words we won the lottery, but actually we did better than that. You actually have a 1 in 300 million chance of winning even a really big lottery, like the Mega Millions. 1 in a trillion is actually 3,000 times less likely even than that. 

This explanation and similar explanations for the paradox are given the label “Rare Earth”, and I’ll admit that I’m probably not the best person to talk about them because they strike me as being optimistic to the point of delusion. Similar to the people in The Expanse who look at the gates and only see the hundreds of inhabitable worlds, not the omnicide of the aliens who built the gates in the first place. Yes, it’s possible that Earth, alone out of the trillion planets in the galaxy, has managed to get past the Great Filter. That some species on some planet was going to get lucky, and it just happened to be us. That, now, as the beneficiaries of this luck, a glorious transhuman future stretches out in front of us, where everything just keeps getting better and better. Certainly this vision is attractive, the question is whether it’s true. Of course it’s impossible to know, but many people have decided to treat it as such. Is this because the body of evidence for this position is overwhelming? Or is it because it’s comforting? My money is on the latter. But we’re not looking for comfort. We’re not interested in the hundreds of habitable worlds. We’re Duarte and we’re focused on the danger. 

This is not to say, in our role as Duarte, that we entirely dismiss the possibility of a Rare Earth explanation. Only that such an explanation is being adequately handled by other people. Duarte doesn’t need to focus on how to speed up the colonization of the newly discovered worlds. Everybody else is doing that. He’s focused on the paradox, and the potential danger. He doesn’t care whether there are a trillion planets in the Milky Way or only 800 billion. He doesn’t worry about knowing the minutia of astrobiology. He’s just worried about preventing humanity’s extinction, and in that effort, spending all of your time debating probabilities is just a distraction. 

Why? Well to begin with, as we’ve seen with people making the Rare Earth argument, people will ignore probabilities when it suits them. And if they were really concerned about assigning probabilities to things, what probability would they assign to the ideas I’m worried about, the ideas I’ve talked about over the course of this blog? For example, the possibility that intelligence inevitably creates the means of its own destruction. Less than 1 in a billion? Less than 1 in a thousand? And yet for reasons of sophistry and comfort they will proudly claim that Fermi’s paradox has been dissolved because we happen to be the result of odds which are much longer than that. 

Second, and even more importantly, assigning such probabilities is difficult to the point of basically being worthless. We have no idea how hard it is for life to arise on an earth-like planet, and still less of an idea how hard it is for that life to progress from its basic form to human-level intelligence. And if, despite these difficulties, we decide that we’re going to persist in trying to assign probabilities, it would seem easier and more productive to try to assign probabilities to the potential catastrophes rather than buttressing our illusion of safety. It’s easier because while we have no other examples of complex life developing we have plenty of examples of complex civilizations collapsing (for examples see the Fall of Civilizations Podcast) And it’s more productive because even if everyone who believes in the rare earth explanation is absolutely correct, we could still be in trouble from our own creations. 

IV.

If the previous parts have been enough to make you sympathetic to the “Duarte viewpoint”, and you’re ready to move from a discussion of probabilities to a discussion of precautions, then the obvious question is what precautions should we be taking?

Here I must confess that I don’t actually know. Certainly there’s the general admonition to gradualism. Also I think we should be attempting to reduce fragility in general. And to the extent I have advice to give on those topics, I have mostly already given it in other posts. What I was hoping to do in this post was to make the whole situation easier to understand by way of analogizing it to the situation in The Expanse and in that effort there are a couple of points I would still like to draw your attention to.

As I said I’m not sure what precautions we should be taking. But I am sure we have more than enough people focused on “colonizing new worlds” and not nearly enough focused on “scary elder gods”. Additionally we seem unwilling to make many tradeoffs in this area. Lots of people give lip service to the terrible power of the elder gods, but almost no one is willing to divert resources from the colonization project in order to better fight, or even just understand their awful power.

Finally there’s the objection I think most people will have, particularly those who’ve read the books, or who are otherwise familiar with totalitarianism. If we do manage to get more Duartes isn’t it possible or even likely that they will go too far? That the neo-neo-luddites will throw the baby out with the bathwater? If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that reasonable people can disagree about how threatening something is, and whether a given response is appropriate for that threat.

Obviously such an extreme outcome is possible, but thus far it isn’t even clear that we’re going to ban gain of function research despite there being at least some chance that it was responsible for the pandemic. If that’s where we’re currently at on managing the unexpected harms of technological progress I don’t think we’re in much danger of going too far anytime soon. 

I suppose the big takeaway from this post is that we need more Duarte’s. I suspect that there are a lot of people who read The Expanse and think: Those foolish individuals! They’re so focused on colonizing the habitable planets, when really they should be focused on the huge malevolent aliens that wiped out the last civilization. If you are one of the people that comes away with this impression then you should come away with precisely the same impression when viewing our own situation


It’s possible that someone out there is wondering what they could get me for Christmas. Well mostly I want the ability to ruthlessly crush my enemies, just like everyone. But if that seems too difficult to arrange, consider donating


The Problems the Past vs. The Problems of the Present

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I.

A search of my blog reveals that I’ve never had occasion to mention Gwern, of gwern.net. This is the post where I rectify that omission.

Gwern is a prolific and talented essayist who’s, deservedly, famous across maybe 0.1% of the internet and, tragically, completely unknown in the other 99.9%. Not only is Gwern prolific but his essays are obviously well-researched, carefully crafted and extensively footnoted. So one would expect that the first time I mention him it would be to agree and expand on something he said. But no, I’m doing the opposite of that. In an act of apparent madness, I’m going to come out swinging. I intend to criticize one of his essays. The particular essay I’m taking aim at is titled, My Ordinary Life: Improvements Since the 1990s

The essay is mostly a list of such post 1990s improvements or as Gwern introduces things:

When I think back, so many hassles have simply disappeared from my life, and nice new things appeared. I remember my desk used to be crowded with things like dictionaries and pencil sharpeners, but between smartphones & computers, most of my desk space is now dedicated to cats⁠.

In essence the list is an effort in the same vein with Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (which I did a post on back in 2018.) Though Gwern’s effort is more modest and more focused. In particular he worries that we suffer from a sort of blindness because these post 1990’s improvements:

[R]arely come up because so many of them are about removing irritations or creating new possibilities—dogs that do not bark, and ‘the seen and the unseen’—and how quickly we forget that the status quo was not always so. The hardest thing to see can be that which you no longer see. I thought it would be interesting to try to remember the forgotten. Limiting myself to my earliest relatively clear memories of everyday life in the mid-1990s, I still wound up making a decent-sized list of improvements to my ordinary life

After that intro Gwern proceeds to detail around 60 improvements, some of which are very broad (e.g. smartphones) and some of which are comparatively narrow (e.g. movie theater seats), but mostly these improvements are the kind of things you expect from someone who wants to defend progress and modernity. And to be clear I basically agree with him about all the items on the list, they are improvements. Still, despite this agreement I’m left with two observations:

  • We can agree that smartphones are an improvement over dumb phones, and that movies seats which recline are an improvement over movie seats which are identical to the ones in your school’s auditorium, but what precisely are we improving? Comfort? Is this strictly a hedonic analysis, or is there more to it?
  • As long as we’re talking about the seen and the unseen, everything Gwern puts on his list is very tangible, and easy to measure. What about things which are less tangible and harder to measure? What has happened since 1990 in those areas? Is it possible that by putting so much focus on improving our material world that we’ve neglected or even damaged less material aspects of our life?

Before tackling these observations directly, I’m going to start by approaching them obliquely in the form of a story. 

II.

My great-grandmother, Zena, had great difficulty bearing children. Over the course of 6 years she gave birth to five children, and all of them were either stillborn or lived only a few hours. Despite this she wanted to try again. My great-grandfather tried to talk her out of it, but eventually Zena prevailed upon him to try one more time. His condition was that it would be the last time. She was determined that this child would live and so as soon as she found out she was pregnant she went on bed-rest.

In later years my grandfather talked to a woman who lived in the same small Idaho town as his mother-in-law and who attended her during this time. The person said that Zena knew that the baby would live, but that she would die. And indeed that’s exactly what happened, my grandmother was born, but three weeks later her mother died. She was only 31.

My grandmother went on to have 10 kids, and those 10 kids produced 55 grandkids and those grandkids have produced, thus far, over a 100 great grandkids, and there are even a few great-great grandkids.

As you might have already suspected this story has a religious element to it. Obviously there was no way for Zena to be sure that she would die and her baby would live, but I also have no doubt that she had faith that this is what was going to happen. Whether this belief came to her before she got pregnant or while she was on bedrest, at some point she clearly made the decision that this was a sacrifice she was willing to make. 

Why was she willing to make this sacrifice? Here again religion enters the picture. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormons) we have people set apart as patriarchs, and their chief task is to give people what’s called a patriarchal blessing. This blessing is only given once, generally in someone’s late teens, and it is a blessing that lays out the future path someone’s life will take. In Zena’s blessing she was promised that she would have a “numerous posterity”. As you might imagine this promise was critical to the decision she made, and from my perspective, as one of her “numerous posterity”, the promise was very much fulfilled. 

It is not my intention to get into theological debate over the reality of faith, premonitions and blessings. I presented the story of Zena because I want you to imagine what would happen if she was given a choice, perhaps presented by a colleague of Clarence in a different version of It’s a Wonderful Life. She can choose that, rather than going through with her sixth and final pregnancy, she will instead be whisked forward exactly 100 years to 2012 where she will enjoy all the conveniences of modern life, all the things on Gwern’s list, but she will never have any children. 

Even without it being a condition of “the deal”, the idea that 2012 Zena would end up being childless is not hard to imagine, an increasing number of women are. Also as I pointed out in a previous post, fertility issues, which Zena was already grappling with, have only gotten worse. 

I admit that there are certainly a lot of factors to consider when deciding to journey to 2012 from 1912 and one might imagine that Zena would refuse just based on her unfamiliarity and the strangeness of it all. But as part of this hypothetical I want you to imagine that “Clarence” imparts information or reassurances, such that this unfamiliarity is not a factor. Zena still has the attitudes of someone born in 1881 but in whatever fashion 2012 has been robbed of its weirdness. I want Zena’s choice to be simple, have a child secure in the faith that this is the realization of the blessing she was given, or remain childless but have access to all the benefits of the modern world.

We know the choice she made in 1912. Knowing the dangers she chose to have my grandmother anyway. But would 1912 Zena have traded that child for all of the wonders of 2012 and beyond? My sense is that, if she had been given this choice, between having the child she so desperately longed for, but also dying in the process, and having no children, but all the conveniences of the modern world, that she would have still chosen as she did.

You don’t necessarily have to agree with me for the rest of my argument to make sense. I brought up the story of my great-grandmother, because it’s a stark example of what I want to talk about. Not because it’s the only example. But what exactly is it an example of? 

III.

Having told my story let’s return to the observations I was left with after reading Gwern’s list, and particularly the questions it evoked. As you’ll recall the first one was:

  • We can agree that smartphones are an improvement over dumb phones, and that movies seats which recline are an improvement over movie seats which are identical to the ones in your school’s auditorium, but what precisely are we improving? Comfort? Is this strictly a hedonic analysis, or is there more to it?

Having told my story and introduced my hypothetical, are we any closer to answering these questions? What sort of improvements are offered to 1912 Zena by 2012? Do any of them amount to anything other than improved comfort? You may review Gwern’s list yourself but I don’t really see anything on it that doesn’t belong in the comfort bucket. But that doesn’t mean that things other than comfort aren’t part of the 2012 package, just that they aren’t on this particular list.

As I cast around for things which might qualify as non-comfort related improvements it occurs to me that most people would consider the Zena of 2012 to be far more liberated, for one thing she could vote! Also, she would have a much better chance at pursuing some sort of fulfilling profession. But I think even if these things were given special emphasis when our hypothetical Zena made her choice, I still think she would choose having a child vs. not having one and being an attorney or doctor. Obviously this choice would be informed by turn of the century attitudes which are much scarcer these days, on top of her deep religious faith, which has also gotten scarcer. But setting aside whether those attitudes are good or bad for the moment. I think the discussion as a whole has revealed another area where 2012 might be an improvement over 1912. In addition to improving Zena’s comfort, the world of 2012 might also increase her influence and impact.

As I said it might, but right off the bat I’m doubtful. The question which confronts us is whether it’s possible that a childless Zena in 2012 would end up being more influential than the real Zena with her nearly 200 descendents (and counting)? Your answer to this question probably hinges a lot on the value you ascribe to my grandmother, and her numerous descendents. For my part I place a lot of value on those descendents, seeing how I’m one of them. And I think anyone who’s not an antinatalist would have to agree with me. To be sure it’s not inconceivable that 2012 Zena might have more influence. For instance she could end up marrying and then divorcing Jeff Bezos leaving her with billions of dollars with which to make an impact. But absent such improbable circumstances, I think it’s clear that the real Zena ended up being more influential. Particularly since her influence has had so long to operate.

If we decide that 2012 does not offer Zena more influence in the world, then once again we’re back to the idea that the difference between 2012 and 1912 is strictly one of comfort. Which is not to say that comfort is meaningless, but I for one have always believed there had to be more to life than that. And yes, there are all the things religion considers to be important, and certainly that’s a big part of this story. But even if we ignore that in deference to all the irreligious people out there, I believe there is one last measurement we should examine: From the cold and clinical calculus of evolution and genetic fitness, the actual Zena was an enormous success. 

From this standpoint if you survive long enough to reproduce, then you’ve won, and if you don’t reproduce, then it doesn’t matter what else you’ve done, you’ve lost. Now, to be clear this metric isn’t necessarily any more important than the previous metrics we examined of comfort or influence, but it’s yet another area where the actual Zena did much better than the hypothetical 2012 Zena. 

IV.

It may be argued that I’m putting too much weight on this one, somewhat unique example. And I agree, we will be broadening things out shortly, but first I want to extract as much wisdom as possible from Zena’s story, before we broaden our investigation. In particular now it’s time to examine our second observation/set of questions. 

  • As long as we’re talking about the seen and the unseen, everything Gwern puts on his list is very tangible, and easy to measure. What about things which are less tangible and harder to measure? What has happened since 1990 in those areas? Is it possible that by putting so much focus on improving our material world that we’ve neglected or even damaged less material aspects of our life?

Gwern brings up a very valid point: we have mostly forgotten (or in my kids’ cases never known) the inconvenience of looking up something in an encyclopedia, of having to tie up the phone line to use the internet, or of not having GPS when traveling to an unfamiliar location. And because we’ve forgotten about them they are unseen. But presumably the idea that something might be unseen doesn’t just apply to gadgets? If we’re really worried about overlooking something then those worries should mostly focus on things which are more distant in time and more immaterial in nature—things like the emotions, and mental health, and the drives and religious beliefs of people in the past. Yes, many people no longer remember not having wikipedia, but far more people not only can’t remember, but can’t even imagine having the kind of faith Zena did when she decided to get pregnant for a sixth time. Is the fact that they can’t, a sign of one of these unseen improvements Gwern should add to his list? Or is it an unseen setback? A way in which the modern world is worse than the world of the past?

At this point we will start to broaden things. But let’s start very slowly, with Zena’s husband. In the course of his life he lost his first wife and their first five kids. On top of that he lost his oldest son from his second marriage in a tragic accident when the boy was only three. My other paternal great-grandfather also experienced significant tragedy. Two wives, and eight of his children preceded him in death (out of a total of three wives and eighteen children). All of these events are clearly awful, and the fact that such things mostly no longer happen is a major selling point for many of the people who declare the superiority of the modern world. Which is as it should be. 

Given the tragedies I just mentioned, surely even if Zena wouldn’t come to 2012, her husband, and my other great-grandfather would, right? Perhaps, but perhaps not. To begin with, I think there’s a similar chance that they might end up childless, and possibly unmarried. But beyond the tangible trades like kids vs. no-kids, there are almost certainly less tangible things that would be part of the deal as well. I think if they were presented with this choice, they would want to know about these less tangible things as well.

In my initial hypothetical I said that I wanted Zena’s choice to be simple, a choice between having a child in 1912, or remaining childless but getting all the benefits of the modern world. I didn’t mention all of the disadvantages of the modern world. My guess is that you didn’t notice that omission, because most people imagine the story of the future as one of beneficial progress, not one of uneven progress. But clearly there are some disadvantages, and anyone choosing the present over the past would want to know about those as well. But what are they? Is there some list, similar to Gwern’s, which discusses all of the unseen disadvantages of modernity? 

Before moving on to discuss these disadvantages, let me be clear, I am not blind to the problems of the past. I have put a lot of weight on having children in 1912 vs. not having them in 2012, but of course there were millions of people in 1912 (and earlier) who died without ever having children, or who died while they were children themselves; millions of people killed by tuberculosis, smallpox, or the plague; and finally, there were all the people killed by the wars we have hopefully abandoned. I’m not saying that the past wasn’t full of tragedies, rather my point is that by vanquishing the visible tragedies we have been lulled into the false belief that we have vanquished all tragedies. Not only have we failed to vanquish all tragedies, but with our focus on dealing with what can be seen and measured we have created tragedies in areas that are harder to see and measure. What might those tragedies be?

V.

In some sense the whole point of the blog is to explore the unseen tragedies of modernity, so I’m not going to spend very much time rehashing all of the various candidates. Rather I want to examine things in light of Gwern’s list.

The list provides a useful contrast because it’s basically the opposite of my efforts, it’s a list of the unseen benefits. But what’s interesting about it, what sparked me to write this post in response, is that the vast majority of the list is composed of material benefits. Benefits that are actually very tangible even if people have a tendency to discount them. 

There’s the stuff I’ve already mentioned like smartphones, movie seats, and always on broadband. On top of that there are dozens of other things which boil down to the idea of “Yay! Better technology!” But the thing is, no one disagrees with this, with the idea that we’ve recently gotten some really cool gadgets. They may not realize how fast these gadgets have arrived, in just the last few decades, and for that reason Gwern’s post is still useful. But when people talk about the unseen effects of the modern world they’re not talking about the fact that they no longer have to rewind VHS tapes (another item on the list). They talk about unseen societal problems. But never fear, Gwern does have a section for societal improvements. Though perhaps it would have been better if he hadn’t included it. 

Without this section it would have been a perfectly interesting list covering a very narrow, but still interesting topic. But by including it, and I guess if you’ve made it this far I can be blunt, the whole thing comes across as hopelessly naive. Technology’s effect on society is the whole debate, the thing everyone worries about. It’s where the battle is being fought and where casualties are happening. Some of these casualties, perhaps the majority, are unseen. They’re casualties of mental health, of functional sterility, of loneliness and despair. Though not all of the casualties are intangible, even if it may be argued that they’re still unseen. But I’ll get to that in a moment. First, what does Gwern have to say about such things in his “Society” section?

As I mentioned, it’s underwhelming, and it probably would have been better if he’d left it out entirely. About half the word count concerns stuff that seemingly didn’t fit neatly anywhere else. Things like better board games, faster shipping, and IP law. That leaves just five items which are:

  1. Lower Dysfunctionality
  2. War on Drugs Lost
  3. War On Smoking Won
  4. Nicotine gum & patches 
  5. Environment

Whether the environment has, on net, improved since the 1990s I will leave to others. I have no problem granting that we did win the war on smoking, though one could make the case that the modern world made smoking a problem in the first place. (Sales of cigarettes in 1912 averaged ½ a cigarette per adult per day, which rose to 11 in 1963 before falling to 3.5 in 2012. Which is still well above the 1912 rate.) Also, as Gwern himself admits, there has been some retrogression in the form of vaping. If we put nicotine products in with smoking that just leaves “Lower Dysfunctionality” and the “War on Drugs Lost”. 

Let’s take the second one first, and since we’ve narrowed things down to a single point we can afford to include the entire text:

  • War on Drugs Lost: with the gradual admission that the War on Drugs was never a good idea, marijuana has been medicalized or legalized in many states, and psychedelics research is enjoying a renaissance; other drugs are increasingly treated in a more appropriate medical/​​rehabilitative framework.

I don’t really have strong feelings on the issue of marijuana and psychedelics. I think it’s possible that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, from the idea that they’re horribly dangerous to the idea that they’re the cure for everything. But as I said, I don’t really have a dog in that fight. Which just leaves us with the bit about “other drugs” being “treated in a more appropriate medical/​​rehabilitative framework.” So I guess the entirety of the opioid crisis is covered in this one phrase?

If you ever read my previous posts on Dreamland by Sam Quinones, you may recall that the medicalization and normalization of opioids sort of kicked off the whole crisis. In fact there was just a paper released that tied the crisis to the introduction of OxyContin in 1996. (Should it have been on Gwern’s list?) Unfortunately that wasn’t the biggest recent news on this subject. That belonged to the news that overdose deaths from May 2020 through April of 2021 reached 100,000 which was a 30% increase over that same period the year before. Anyone want to place a bet on whether more people will die from overdoses than COVID in 2022 or 2023? What about whether it will get more coverage in the press? As I alluded to earlier, even tangible casualties sometimes get less attention than they should. 

Before I leave the subject of drugs I need to include a statistic I came across recently in The Economist:

There are 50% more injection drug-users in San Francisco than there are students enrolled at its public high schools.

I thought that was a particularly trenchant summation of a lot of our current “unseen” problems.

VI.

This just leaves us with “Lower Dysfunctionality”. Again I’ll quote Gwern in full:

  • Lower Dysfunctionality: crime, violence, teen pregnancy, and abusive drug use in general kept falling, benefiting everyone (even those not prone to such things) through externalities
    • URBAN LIFE: it is now reasonably safe and feasible to live in (most) big cities like NYC, Chicago, or DC—we’re a long way from Taxi Driver and annual summer urban riots (outside California). This is a large part of why urban living has become so much more desirable (with the unfortunate consequence of urban inelasticity driving up rents, as the increases in desirability outpace the non-increases in availability).

To begin with he’s trying to cover an enormous amount of ground with this one point. Furthermore it’s interesting that Gwern, who’s the king of links and footnotes, would have none for this point. Perhaps you can start to see why I think he should have just left it out. It’s both insanely ambitious and woefully inadequate. The point acknowledges the many intangibles of modernity but leaves most of them off of the list (both the list within the point and the larger list) and those it does mention it dismisses in four words, that they: “in general kept falling”.

As you can imagine, I would have really liked to have seen links or footnotes, because while the data on property crime looks pretty good, the data on violence shows a huge spike over the last two years. The abusive drug use I mostly already covered, which just leaves us with teen pregnancy and the larger issue of sex in general. This is a huge topic, and this post has already run long, so let me just toss something out there. Why is porn not on his list? 

Recall that it’s a list of the improvements brought about by technology since the 1990s. It’s hard to think of anything technology has done more to “improve” than the availability of pornograpy. And yet, it’s not on the list. Not only does it match well with the technology criteria, I think it matches well with the theme of “unseen” improvements as well. (It’s not as if it doesn’t get any attention, but it doesn’t get much.) So why did Gwern leave it off his list? Is it because it isn’t clear yet if it’s an improvement or not? Or maybe he decided it was one of the few places where technology didn’t improve things, it made them worse. Or perhaps it’s too contentious. Or maybe, he just didn’t think of it. Certainly all of these are possibilities. And while I’m interested in whether Gwern thinks it belongs on his list, in the end one man’s opinion doesn’t make much of a difference. In reality we all need to have an opinion on it, because everyone is walking around with a smartphone or working on a computer where, unless they do have an opinion and have acted on it, it’s never more than five seconds away. 

This is a great example of my point, it is the intangibles of the modern world and our opinion of them where everything of consequence is being decided. Everyone agrees that smartphones are a cool technology. What they can’t agree on is whether the alchemy of that technology and the technology of social media is awful or awesome. Or whether it’s awesome for adults, but awful for kids. Or whether it’s okay if used in moderation but terrible if used to excess. Or whether it’s possible to become addicted to it. Which is to say no one is arguing that there haven’t been improvements in material conditions since the 1990s. And certainly since 1912. What people haven’t been able to figure out is if it also comes with unseen setbacks. And if it does, whether the setbacks outweigh the improvements or vice versa.

In the end Gwern was right about one thing, there is the seen and the unseen. The problems of 1912 are easy to see. People, like Zena, died in childbirth, and other people died while they were still children. Then there were those who went hungry.  Disease was rampant. But I don’t think they had many unseen problems. On the other hand these days any problem we can see has someone working on it, and on many of them, particularly the problems of the past, we’ve made great progress. But I fear that we have accumulated intangible harms, while also losing many of the intangible benefits as well. There’s more to life than the comforts we’ve created and the toys we’ve built. More to appraising whether the present is better than the past than creating a list of material improvements. More to the world than what we can see.

You may think that it’s a tragedy that anyone would want a child so badly that they would be willing to die in the attempt. I think it’s a tragedy that no one can even imagine that level of devotion and faith any longer. 


I should apologize to my relatives for appropriating the story of Zena for my third rate blog. As penance rather than following my usual strategy of asking for money I will instead ask that you do some genealogy. Work on finding and collecting the stories of your own ancestors. Start with FamilySearch.org