Post Apathy Newsletter: August 2020

Post Apathy Newsletter: August 2020

Post Apathy's newsletter for August 2020, featuring curated content on culture & society, governance, technology, and more.

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This is the 2nd edition of the Post Apathy newsletter since its relaunch in July, containing 2 original essays, 6 articles, and 4 podcasts. If you missed my previous newsletter, you can find it here. Post Apathy's focus is on curating content that provides ‘navigation-grade information’. This can help us achieve clarity on the political, economic, and social systems of our day, realise what our goals in life are, and work towards actualising them. The obvious first step is acquiring the right information. The internet is chockful of stuff – but most of it is useless. Post Apathy curates content that is rich in signals and long-term relevance, and can be applied across space-time.

The latest from Post Apathy

On the Commodification and Technification of Urban Spaces and Relations

I explore the commodification of urban relations in early industrial society, the technification of urban relations in 21st century Chinese society, and its creeping influence in the western hemisphere via archaic mob justice and surveillance.

Chronopolitics and American Statecraft

I analyse the temporal dimension of geopolitics and offer a conceptual model dividing states into three temporal categories: the historical, the suspended, and the futurist state.

Culture & Society

Why Every City Feels the Same Now

By Darran Anderson

In the concluding remarks in my piece on commodification and technification, I mentioned the stifling homogeneity of cities and how this correlates with the increasing use of a ‘common currency’ to negotiate urban spaces and relations across the world. From New York to Shanghai, the same Marriott hotels, Starbucks cafes, and McDonalds eateries that were once restricted to airports and retail parks now dominate the urban environment.

They form what the anthropologist Marc Augé called non-placesThe source of this non-place form of architecture comes from the oversized influence of modern corporations. As empires made their mark through the erection of landmarks like courts, theatres, and palaces, corporations do so through the building of bland airport architecture. They have no need to pander to local tastes and sensibilities as they can simply dictate them.

The author calls this homogeneous form of architecture modernity’s worst catastrophe, alienating man from his surroundings and any vernacular that may identify him to a time and place. As citizens are turned into consumers, the mechanics of life are forgotten. How do our cities really work? Few denizens could actually tell you. Life has become compartmentalized and we are thoroughly alienated from the cities in which we live. The author’s conclusion, and one I am wholly in agreement with, is that future architecture and urban design must re-engage with the vernacular if we are to reverse this alienation.

For a social analysis of the phenomenon of global sameness, visit my previous newsletter's Culture & Society section to read about 'The Ikea Human', a social commentary on the people that have helped to form this worldview.

Governance

The Codevilla Tapes

By David Samuels

This is one of the most clarifying interviews I have ever read, discussing the nature of American empire, who the ruling elite are, the source of the class and culture wars, the rise of techno-surveillance society, and other things. Codevilla believes the American ruling class has come to see itself as distinct from the rest of America, laying the groundwork for the rise of a populist leader like Trump. This elite class was forged by and for the elite cadres of the Democrat party and the Republicans have always played second fiddle to it.

These elites prize intellectual superiority over those they deem unfit to run society, and Codevilla tears into the supposed meritocracy of this elite class, noting that the liberal position of removing competitive exams has resulted in greater gatekeeping against diversity to protect access to elite privileges from “lesser beings of superior intelligence”. Whenever this class talks about meritocracy, it is exclusively about assimilating those they find attractive and loyal to the regime, therefore acting as both a defense against nepotism and a method of elite regeneration.

Big Tech forms part of this elite class that Codevilla terms 'the paper belt', a constellation of cities (New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston) that hold most of the power in America. Big Tech's path to dominance was lined not by innovative technologies but legal strategies designed to create monopolies, and by ingratiating themselves to their East Coast cousins in New York and D.C. through lobbying. As such, Silicon Valley is not an outlier but a direct part of the 'paper belt'.

Ultimately, democracy in America is not about the individual vote but elites turning the working and middle classes into their “clients”, taking their votes and securing the legitimacy of their rule in return for payoffs and “patronage”. The rise of minority politics is another ploy by which elites generate new clients. The counter-rise of the Trump voter base in turn started out as a desperate attempt at achieving elite reform but is succumbing to a counter-elite’s capture of clients. This interview continues at length, but it is well worth poring over as it offers a straightforward assessment of the state of America in a prose that is unforgiving and clear.

You can visit my last newsletter's Governance section to read Wolf Tivy's essay on the nature of power and how to use it. It is an interesting philosophical exercise in envisioning how a proper elite should think - and it's markedly different to Codevilla's description of our current dysfunctional, rent-seeking, elites.

History

Why Civilizations Collapse

Burja’s thesis is that we may be entering a period of sustained civilisational decline in the western hemisphere. This decline occurs as a low-grade but constant loss of capabilities and knowledge that eventually degrades our ability to perpetuate society. This can occur suddenly as in the Bronze Age or a slow grind into extinction like the Byzantine empire. Gradual decline is not noticeable at first and it can occur very slowly, for instance, as little as a 1-2% GDP decline per year. Then, within a very short amount of time, vast swathes of society begin to collapse as the whole interdependent set of institutions holding it together (religion, organs of state, social and material technologies, etc) are revealed to have been hollowed out a long time ago, running on the fumes of their institutional inheritance. This is what Burja calls 'institutional failure as surprise'.

The West’s reigning philosophy is scientism and this has created the illusion of our society being rationally planned and on course. Burja believes otherwise; we live in socially-engineered societies where knowledge has been compartmentalised and one part of society (e.g. economists) do not understand how another part of society (e.g. technologists) works. This compounds the problem of identifying and reversing decline. Simply put, no one knows what is going on. If you do not know what is going on, it is easier to pretend that the good times will continue.

What is the solution? Burja suggests that we need to empower a small group of people to conduct ‘macro-scale social engineering’ in order to reverse the decline. America has a unique advantage here, soaking up extraordinary talent from around the world, talent that can be put to identifying the techne of civilisation and restoring it. For some, this may be controversial, especially those on the libertarian-right. It may smack of socialism or other bogeymen ideologies that herald totalitarianism. However, upon closer inspection of the institutions that underpin our societies, we may well find that even in the ‘free and democratic West’, we live in the long shadow of social engineers who built its bedrock institutions to guide society towards a desired end.

Ideas & Thinking

The key lessons from “Where Good Ideas Come From”

By Steven Johnson

This book review compresses the work of Steven Johnson into 9 key lessons, comparing biology to the creation and spread of ideas. Firstly, evolution and innovation happen within the bounds of the ‘adjacent possible’. In essence, life is a process and each next step unlocks further possibilities – but those possibilities cannot exist without the previous steps. For instance, Apple would not have existed if not for the space race and the creation of supercomputers to help reach the Moon.

Secondly, world-changing ideas are the slow accumulation of knowledge rather than sudden breakthroughs. Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution was not a ‘eureka!’ moment but a lifelong process of learning. Thirdly, like the existence of “keystone species” in the ecosystem, our technological platforms today rest on a core set of keystone technologies, without which none of these platforms could exist. Lessons 4-9 continue with the same running theme of the importance of processes and collaboration to help evolution and innovation. Collaboration matters just as much as competition, networks help ideas spread, serendipitous discoveries are facilitated by sharing intellectual and physical spaces, and we need to leave room for error instead of tightly-controlled environments, as many discoveries are made by accident.

Lesson 9 is particularly interesting to me. The term expatiation as used in evolutionary biology describes a trait originally developed for a specific purpose being used in a completely different way. Johannes Gutenberg used the wine screw press for squeezing juice out of grapes and combined it with his knowledge of metallurgy to create the printing press. These unconventional uses of old technology are what I call ‘applied history’. Past societies and traditions are rich with intellectual and material resources that we can repurpose to help solve the problems of today. We need to start respecting history and mining it for wisdom.

Political Economy

How the World Works

By James Fallows

The dominant economic dogmas today (as taught throughout the education system) are Adam Smith’s laissez-faire capitalism and Karl Marx’s centrally-planned communism. However, there is a third way between them: the state capitalist model pioneered by Friedrich List. Fallows argues that List had a greater influence on early American capitalism in the 19th century and today's East Asian state capitalism than the ideas of either Marx or Smith. Fallows makes a compelling case that East Asian state capitalism is a lost American tradition of political economy, namely, the American School of economics.

List's main ideas can be found in his seminal work 'The National System of Political Economy', where he lays out his theory of productive powers and attacks Adam Smith's focus on consumption. For List, consumption was not the ultimate measure of a society's economic well-being. Rather, a society's economy should be measured by its productive power. I have written a bit on this idea of productive powers in a piece comparing Ibn Khaldun with List, and I think it is a crucial concept we need to internalise if we want to scale back the amount of rent seeking that is occurring in the economy (you can read more about rent seeking in my previous newsletter's Political Economy section).

Friedrich List observed that the British had adopted protectionism in key industries to ensure their growth to maturity. America, too, would see a protectionist regime pioneered by Alexander Hamilton, whose long shadow America lives under even today. Like Britain, once America had assured the maturity of its protected industries, it then preached free trade to other nations with weaker industries so America could dominate their markets. As such, free market rhetoric acts as a Trojan horse for imperial interests. The rise of neo-Listian political economy (its flagship publication being American Compass) is an interesting attempt at rediscovering the lost legacy of the American school of economics and its emphasis on the role of the state in protecting industry and cultivating the productive power of the nation.

Published in 1993, this is one of those timeless essays that forces you to reflect on the economic dogmas of the past few decades and how so few of the things we project to happen materialise. Why was the popular belief that Japan would supplant America as the largest economy? More importantly, why is China nearly absent in their discussions around rising states? The essay itself makes sparse mention of China and calls into question the entire 'discipline' of economic forecasting. Instead, we should focus on the cultivation of productive powers, although, this is a long-term game whose benefits take a generation or two to materialise. As such, China may very well outdo America by 2030, but 2040 is still in the game.

Technology

Autistification and Its Discontents: From Self-Driving Cars to Self-Thinking Brains

By Cameron Bandari

Cameron sees the continuing 'autistification' of culture by technology as an alarming development. The definition of autistification is 'where the presence of scientism meets the absence of culture, resulting in the promotion of technological-salvationist answers to complex global issues.' In essence, it is the radical simplification of complex issues by epistemologically-violent technologies. This threatens to force us into a mental dependency on things that we cannot rely on to always be there, let alone be on 'our side'.

For thousands of years, humans developed traditions and 'cognitive artifacts' to help deal with things like doing calculations in our heads, navigating the earth and seas, and even methods of thinking that directly impacted the way we store, organise, and recall information. One such method was through rote memorisation and cursive handwriting, which helped to strengthen our auditory memory and our motor capacities for faster recall, speech, and writing skills. These are what Norman Doidge called 'complementary cognitive artifacts.' On the other hand, we have 'competitive cognitive artifacts.' By their nature, competitors weaken our ability to do basic tasks. Take the calculator: we outsource calculations in our head to a machine and over time lose the ability to mentally conduct complex calculations. The complementary artifact empowered us, while the competitor forces us into dependence.

Timur Kuran notes that as information gets more complex, the cognitive overhead increases and we outsource this process to make it easier. Google has become the arbiter of information through its search engine, determining what is and is not truth. Big Tech and MSM can get away with narrative-shaping, but if someone they do not like makes such an attempt, they are quickly "filtered out". Another salient example is Elon Musk's Neuralink company, which seeks to fuse our brains with AI. This will accelerate many of the issues we currently face, such as government surveillance (this has an interesting overlap with my piece on techno-surveillance society) and allow the companies who control this technology to decide which version of reality they want to expose us to, and what they want to bar from our vision. We are already seeing firms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter deciding what information is "real" and what information counts as "fake news", and we have no way of guaranteeing that technology like Neuralink will not simply accelerate this trend.

Ultimately, Cameron proposes that we should apply the Lindy effect to the idea of complementary cognitive artifacts and suggests that our grandma's cognitive artifacts are complementary while Elon Musk's are competitive - and therefore, we may have to consider the fact that nana and tete's wisdom is a far better bet for humanity than the would-be Martian conqueror's own ideas.

Podcasts

Acquired - SpaceX

This is an interesting podcast that explores the history of Spacex and Elon Musk’s grand plan to go to Mars. Elon Musk is a fascinating person, not simply because of his business success, ambition, or work ethic; it is the ability to execute multi-decade plans with several moving parts all acting as a whole - and make a success of it. Space travel, worldwide internet, electric vehicles, energy, geoengineering - he is in everything, and they are not separately moving parts but are part of his general strategic plan, whatever that may be.

Digital Salon with Bruno Maçães: The Future Is in a New America

Bruno discusses his new book, History Has Begun, the potential for America's rebirth, liberal stagnation and why Europe is struggling to innovate, and how China sees an opportunity to integrate Europe into its new world order.

History Has Begun

With Bruno Maçães

Bruno discusses China, Fukuyama's end of history thesis, the future of America (and its potential rebirth), what technology is doing to society, his thoughts on crypto, and what the lasting effects of the coronavirus will be.

Tanner talks with Erik Torenberg about how China views the world, the failure of the "liberalisation" theory, how he would change America's approach on China, and also on its own internal problems with liberalism and how it can be renewed.

Wrapping up

The August newsletter contains a lot of information that should keep you very busy over the next month. The two dominant themes here are geopolitical tensions and political economy, and technology's rise (and threat) to liberal society.

My essay on chronopolitics adds a further dimension to the political-economic and cultural analyses of the conflict between China and the USA. One of the main problems with globalisation has been that we failed to create a language, or at least a shared understanding, of the fact that coming from different places can often mean coming from different "times". The underlying assumption of globalisation was that we were all in the same time period in history (with space increasingly being eliminated by shortening travel distances and the internet). The 'Why Every City Feels the Same Now' essay in Culture & Society notes the sameness which permeates global architecture; this was a byproduct of the worldview of roving corporations who assumed that they had finally collapsed the world into one horizontal space-time plane.

China's resurgence and the rise of the other illiberal historical states has fundamentally broken this illusion. 'How the World Works' in the political economy section and the podcasts by Bruno Macaes and Tanner Greer are very relevant as to how and why the Chinese model is posing such a threat. But there is also another theme to this, one explored by 'The Codevilla Tapes' interview in Governance and the aforementioned podcasts: America's internal contradictions have finally come to a head after decades of people on the fringe warning that the endpoint was always going to be economic collapse, political dysfunction, and social strife.

All of this is happening when there is now a genuine challenger to America's liberal order for the first time since the USSR collapsed. The future of liberalism in America is deeply uncertain, not least because states and corporations are attempting to fill the void of social customs and norms with the use of surveillance and other technologies that threaten a new era of big government control and infringement on our rights and liberties. As Bruno Macaes says: history has begun. The liberal end of history and man's apathetic submission to a life of consumption is over, and we must start thinking about political economy, society, and technology in existential terms once again.

Until next time.