Real post-modernity

In 2016, I read The Sovereign Individual and watched James Burke’s Connections for the first time. Both give a more or less technologically deterministic theory of society and history—that very particular technological developments are a very strong factor in how human affairs play out. I should note that this way of viewing things is highly criticized: to take an example which both of the above make use of, the role of the stirrup in supporting the development of Feudalism is more hotly debated than either let on. If nothing else, recent events remind us that sometimes things besides technology can have a big impact on history.

Still, what I took away from both books was the high degree of historical contingency of things usually taken for granted. I came to view a number of facets of our times as more artifacts of the historical period of modernity than as inevitable or guaranteed for the future. This insight won’t seem particularly deep to anyone who loves history, but as an engineer and investor at the time, it was a big deal to me and I’ve been obsessed ever since.

Below I will talk about some things that I believe are highly contingent features of modernity that were already under some strain prior to the events now unfolding.

Rationality, freedom of expression, & the republic

The shocking and new idea that humans can and should make the world a better place was set into motion by the scientific discoveries of Kepler, Copernicus, Newton, and others. Though they helped to usher in modernity, none of these men were modern. The idea of making the world a better place through the effort of man—or progress—would have been alien to them. Francis Bacon’s philosophy truly inaugurated the modern notion of progress [1].

Academic post-modernity had long assailed modern and enlightenment values, prior to the popularity of social media, which I believe was the first truly postmodern cultural artifact. From a technological determinist’s perspective does social media make a liberal democracy more or less efficient to operate compared to other ways of organizing society? Does it do anything to prove or disprove the American foundational ideal, taken from Mill and others, that a chorus of views filtered through man’s rationality would produce better outcomes? Are our beliefs more rational because of social media? Are different viewpoints now more tolerated? [2]

Social media seems to me to be the nail in Mill’s coffin, yet I am too much a creature of modernity to believe the potentially creative destruction of such an ideal is a good thing.

Likewise, what does intensified data collection and AI do to the relative efficiency of authoritarianism and liberalism? When political culture is construed as a type of critical infrastructure composed of information, with information security properties, it’s clear the answer is not straightforward.

Globalism & Urbanization

A case for contingency can also be made for the first agricultural cities, though here the causal arrow is much more obviously not merely pointing from technology to society. Upstream of the new sedentary mode of living and its feature, the domus, were likely global climate pressures. Material and political concerns interplayed as grain-based production surpassed other viable plantstuffs in most localities due to the ease with which it can be taxed, compared to say, potatoes, having more strict seasonal requirements as well as more conspicuous outputs—you can’t hide corn from the tax man. Taxation was pivotal to achieve scale, itself key to conquering people who had no scale. Coercion also appears to have played a major part in subsidizing the transition to agriculture, with the walls around early cities being used to keep enemies out and subject populations in, in some cases [2].

Still, the vast majority of humans didn’t live in cities until even more recently. The city as a social formation really exploded due to both the demands & opportunities of industrial production in the 19th century, and sprawled out into a more suburban formation with the development of the mass consumer in the 20th century.

With cities growing everywhere, surely the city isn’t a contingent “demographic regime” recently under stress? Well in the US at least, we’ve been de-urbanizing for quite some time and papering over this fact with immigration. Due to differential birth rates and domestic outmigration, there’s been a long running trend to ruralization.

Globalism is often credited as a way to rationally optimize economic output via comparative advantage, growing the pie for all. But there is a sentimental component to the story as well which I’ve touched on before. The horror of industrialized warfare in the 20th century did a lot to ideologically supplement economic interdependence. Ending or at least limiting total war was a major project of 20th century leaders and their publics who had experienced it firsthand. A moral tailwind helped us organize around the observation that trading partners have a lot to lose going to war with another, perhaps to as great of an extent as the economic benefit itself.

We’re already revisiting the premises of a zero-slack, globally distributed, just in time supply chain in particular and globalism generally as both a matter of national security and culturally as a factor of vulnerability to pandemic. Will our 21st century pandemic and the sentiments of its survivors favor continued interdependence or more manufacturing at home and less global human movement? Will immigration continue apace? Will domestic outmigration from cities accelerate as urban centers become epicenters of infection?

Economic growth as a paradigm

There is no unanimous consensus among demographers on how the population will look throughout this century. A large camp sees continued but slowed growth into eternity. Another camp, however, sees the fertility decline of developed nations enveloping the whole world as development proliferates and an eventual decline in population.

Western nations try to solve at least two economic problems with immigration: perpetual expansion of consumption & the problem of what demographers call the “elderly dependency ratio” or what we call social security insolvency and healthcare reform pointed at Medicare.

If these demographers are right, though, it seems obvious to wonder whether at some point, facing their own issues with elderly dependency, the nations furnishing developed economies with immigrants might not like to try and keep people around. I don’t know enough finance or economics to have an extremely informed take on what a perpetually declining population would do to investment and fractional reserve banking, but I’m curious if population and consumption growth aren’t fundamentally required by growth economics and its institutions such as investment capital and fractional reserve banking.

Again, this seemingly inevitable thing is historically a product of modernity. Religious and risk considerations made investment in growth a rare thing until relatively recently. Royal charters, the joint stock corporation and secular philosophy teamed up with the lanteen sail, agricultural surplus, and rapid population growth to usher in a new way of doing business, heavily dependent on the assumption of future growth.

Environmentalists and other critics like Ivan Illich have suggested ways society might be organized when growth ends: much more locally. A re-wilding of production—local, diverse, and importantly, more resistant to pandemic—seems substantially more likely now, and the technological substrate will likely evolve in the near team in a way with even greater affordances for localism. Automated local production and scifi levels of biosynthetic industrial inputs to service this localism may not be inevitable but will become far more likely as we manufacture critical goods closer to home and increase our focus on biology.

Conclusion

There are many other facets of modernity that I haven’t looked at here, none of which I strongly assume will be viable forever: the nation state and large militaries, secularism, and mass culture and consumption to name a few.

[1] Credit here to Neil Postman, Technopoly

[2] Credit here to James Scott, Against the Grain

What next? A near-term proposal

My modest proposal: we need to immediately scale up assays (https://twitter.com/florian_krammer/status/1240437786097922049) to be able to verify if someone has had an asymptomatic or mild case and recovered.

Why?

Many people I know are working in essential services and are being exempted from shelter in place orders. If these people get sick over the next few weeks, who will do essential work? Who will keep the supply chain going, grocery stores open, and provide medical care if these people are sick?

The recovered.

Need to scale up assays and prepare training materials for a possible civil service draft of healthy people.

Let's not get caught flat footed on testing again.

After the outbreak

What would the world look like after an historic pandemic?

I’ve been following the coronavirus outbreak for a little over a month now. I won’t recap the current status or even look at some of the potentially dire scenarios a few months down the road. Instead, I will assume a massive impact and give my scifi take on the aftermath.

The Top 5 Funniest Free Real Estate Memes - YouTube

There seems to be a good chance of a very large economic impact—not a recession or a depression, but a need to fundamentally revisit how modern economies operate. Supply chain disruptions will make us realize profit-maximized, just-in-time, global supply networks aren’t even modestly robust against black swan events. As a matter of national security, nations will become skeptical of economic interdependence. This can be addressed with unthinkably expanded global governance or unthinkably reduced globalism. With governments in a prolonged and desperate fight against a new normal of deflationary and stasis economics—some governments will wholesale subsidize the creation of local industry, for reasons of national security, on a scale that resembles war socialism of WW2 more than the neoliberal free markets we’ve become used to. Universal basic income will be more broadly considered and adopted as a means to stimulate the economy, but there may not be enough capability to avoid the complete end of the paradigm of economic growth (which was likely to happen late in the century anyway due to shrinking global population)—closing out the 500 year experiment of modernity.

The black death was one of the largest stimuli in economic history, changing the bargaining power of labor and freeing up resources for more productive and less monopolistic uses—it’s hard to conceive of the renaissance, the age of exploration, or the enlightenment without the destruction of the black death making way for new forms of creation. Though this isn’t the black death even in the worst case scenario, it will hit older demographics hardest, putting a lot of housing on the market and delaying the conversation of social security insolvency for a few more years. Speaking of insolvency, the insolvency of the American healthcare system after paying for coronavirus-associated expenses will cause the collapse of the employer-based insurance experiment and usher in socialized medicine. There will be few brave enough to say this is a bad idea when the time comes.

In the wake of 9/11, the world pumped trillions into homeland security; the geopolitical theses of “new world order” and “end of history” were put to rest; and the culture arced out on a hitherto unforeseeable trajcetory that culminated with the politics of the mid 2010s. Likewise, in the wake of this outbreak, unimaginable investments in healthcare and biotech will take place, international realignments will occur, and the culture will respond. Speaking only to the first of these: The tepid pace of innovation in biotech relative to software will accelerate radically and interplay with the factors discussed above in interesting ways. We will live in an era defined by our newly focused efforts to conquer biology. One of the peace dividends of the war against pathogens and disease will be synthetic biology taking its rightful place in the manufacturing supply chain. Biologically synthesized materials, along with radically advanced automated manufacturing, will re-localize economics. Most things you buy or eat will be made within 500 miles of you and to a greater or lesser extent be the product of biosynthesis and automation rather than natural resource exploitation and human labor [1].

Our inter-connectedness has developed as the result of an only partly economic process. The horrors of industrialized warfare in the 20th century left us searching for the means to crusade against war itself. The doctrine of inter-dependence is as much a security and diplomatic doctrine as an economic one, and it’s done a decent job at what it was designed to do. It has made us more vulnerable to the kind of threat an outbreak presents, both epidemiologically and in terms of supply chain resilience. So overall, the pendulum swinging back in the other direction isn’t as unthinkable as it seems.

On the cultural front, the political bickering—a luxury of late empire—we’ve witnessed recently will be replaced by a resurgent high-modernism. As the culture of the enlightenment was partially a coping mechanism for the horrors of the wars of religion, our desire to move on, along with our rediscovered sense of efficacy will relegate political spectacle and ideological overaffiliation to the status of shamefulness that it deserves. The tragedy of the civic commons, whereby certain types of people make their living destroying social capital, trust, and consensus-making for their own advantage, will be replaced, however temporarily, by a sense of cooperation and shared purpose.

I don’t know if any of the above will happen. I don’t even know if I think any of it will happen, but imagining a different world always helps me cope with the one we’re actually in.

[1] Lab-grown food will soon destroy farming – and save the planet. George Monbiot.

Politics, designed

The most revolutionary thing you can do in today’s politics is to assume at least a few people on the other side are acting in good faith. Seeking and finding villainy among those who disagree with you is neither hard, brave, nor virtuous. It’s the path of least resistance afforded by the way our society is currently organized, and like most default choices, doesn’t have the end user’s best interests in mind.

The use of knowledge in the tech industry

How much and what kinds of knowledge are most useful?

I want to have a somewhat abstract discussion on the use of knowledge and how people regard knowledge in various settings, but in particular I will focus on my experiences in a fairly specific cross-section of the tech industry. I will suggest a framework and pose some questions.

The first question is how does knowledge pertain to success in Silicon Valley? If you want to “win” in tech, is it better to invest in knowing things rather than, say, knowing people? Or is tech a more purely social game? What is the relative value of intellectual capital vs pure social capital? I have thoughts on this that I’ll write about later.

The three approaches to knowledge

Supposing that knowledge has some non-zero value, I can think of 3 approaches to obtaining and utilizing it I’ve seen firsthand.

The most common pattern I saw was a belief that knowledge is important and that it was held by successful people. Folks like Peter Thiel or Marc Andreessen have very important knowledge and if you can somehow get it from them, you’ll be far better off. Let’s call this the model of privileged knowledge.

Another possibility that I’m not sure I know as many pracitioners of is that the milleu of knowledge is such that there are some fundamentals that everyone needs to know and there's a vanishing advantage to acquiring knowledge beyond this point. Furthermore, this knowledge is basically a commodity, so you can get it by business reading books and blog posts. Let’s call this the model of commodity knowledge.

Finally, there is the point of view represented by Peter Thiel’s notion of “secrets.” Specifically, that there is a means of deducing important knowledge through intuition or analysis, and that this is the most valuable kind of knowledge due to the need to avoid competition. Let’s call this the model of proprietary knowledge.

My experience

Anecdotally, I think the predominant view of most of my acquaintances is tech (mostly novice VCs and entrepreneurs) for example, is that you should believe and profess that knowledge is useful but actually act as though social capital is more important and optimize for that, accumulating whatever priveleged knowledge accrues along the way.

If there is a predominant pattern of belief is in privileged knowledge, as I suggest, venture capitalists or others who would sell mining equipment in a goldrush, would do well to position themselves as gatekeepers of an important knowledge base.

On the other hand, and to take myself as an example of what not to do: I was very attracted to the model of proprietary knowledge. However, I would caution anyone who would use this approach in SV. One of my proprietary findings is that, despite what it would like to believe about itself, tech is unable to value or do much with contrarian or proprietary knowledge bases.

Questions

Overall, I’m interested in what the ROI of knowledge is for the various games one might play in tech, which approach to knowledge acquisition is the most useful, which is the most useful to seem to use and in what areas, and which approaches to knowledge are believed in and by whom. I’d also be glad to hear of any other approaches to knowledge.

These concepts had been floating around in my head for a while and were catalyzed by a discussion with David Lee

Loading more posts…