Post Apathy: A Public Research Workshop
We're back for October 2021, featuring both our usual monthly reads - and some exciting announcements. If you decide to read this newsletter on the Post Apathy website instead of in your inbox, you'll notice some changes. Post Apathy is now a Public Research Workshop, a prototype for a new way to research and write in public on the internet. You can read more about these changes in this essay.
As part of these changes, the monthly newsletter is now the Monthly Digest, a summary of the activities of the workshop such as what has been read, added to an archive, and commented upon in any form, packaged for you in a monthly update.
Without further ado, let's move on to the reads of the month. As a reminder, every one of these links is stored in the archives. The Digest is a roundup of the most interesting things I've read and added to these archives in a given month. For October, we have a total of twelve reads that'll keep you very busy.
By Razib Khan
This read makes for an interesting pairing with Samo Burja's 'Why Civilization is Older Than We Thought', and both are sure to leave your head spinning with questions about the true origins of civilization - and perhaps humanity itself. Rapid developments are occurring in anthropology and the history of human civilisation and migration as new discoveries push back the accepted timeline of events such as the rise of agriculture and human migration into the Americas by thousands to tens of thousands of years. Razib does a great roundup of these developments.
By N.S. Lyons
A fascinating read into one of the most important and little known political philosophers in China. In last month's newsletter, the China article concerned Xi Jinping's reforms aimed at reducing the exposure of Chinese society to industries deemed to have the worst features of 'late stage' capitalism. Huning is considered one of the main men behind these reforms. Like many of those who visited America, Huning's observation of American society left him not with an appreciation for the western way of life but a determination to prevent his own nation's adoption of that way of life by any means necessary. Yet for all this, China seems to have been unable to stop some of the worst excesses of what are deemed as American viruses from affecting Chinese society, hence Jinping's reforms. It's a fascinating case study in how China, considered a possible alternative to the American world order and liberal democracy, has succumbed to many of the same symptoms. This is also a good thread on Huning's fascination with the 'neo-authoritarian model' of Singapore.
Culture & Society
By Tanner Greer
Greer summarises and synthesises the work of Joseph Henrich and James C. Scott in exploring the adaptive process of tradition and how it carries wisdom through the ages, even if we don't quite understand why the tradition exists, and why high modernist thought and processes are often inferior to traditional cultural knowledge. Importantly, Greer identifies from the authors' works that inferior traditions (seen as maladaptations) do exist, as evolution is in itself not a demonstration of truth, demonstrating more epistemic humility than anti-traditional arguments resting on evolution.
Tradition has become one of the bogeymen of the modern era, blamed for everything from the abuse of women (patriarchy in feminist theory) to the repression of science and reason (Enlightenment mythologies). Yet even these narratives demonstrate the danger of maladaptations; what was once perhaps an opportunistic attack against the Catholic Church in a distant corner of Eurasia quickly became the reigning narrative against religion all over the world, even where it plainly doesn't make sense. As western societies endure deep social fractures, from drug epidemics to homelessness to the breakdown of the family structure, many are once again starting to approach both religious and cultural traditions wondering if they were right.
By James C. Scott
Published in 1998, 'Seeing Like a State' quickly became a landmark book in the canon of governance (less so 'political science', probably owing to Scott's evisceration of many of their quantitative tenets). In this essay, the author reiterates the lessons of that book. The quest for legibility by the state creates a tunnel vision focusing on the quantification and recording of one particular aspect of reality while ignoring the wider, complex system of phenomena it is embedded in, resulting in a variety of unintended consequences detrimental to human health and social life. Scott's idea of legibility is powerful because it can be applied not just to governance and statecraft but the entire range of life phenomena where the high modernist mindset has been applied to in the quest for efficiency, often with devastating effect.
A biography of the economist Thomas Sowell, who by today's standards champions many 'unorthodox' views, such as being against affirmative action, seriously considers the impact of culture on a minority's successes or failures, and turns the view on poverty and its causes on its head. To the contrary of what many people today believe, Sowell dismisses the notion that poverty needs to be explained, 'because it has been the lot of most of the human race for most of the existence of the species.' What we need to explain instead is why economic growth and prosperity exist.
This question is basic yet serves as a powerful reminder for what questions we should be asking and what answers we should be seeking. Many ideological groups and individuals spend much of their time wondering about various injustices; acts of greed, intentional impoverishment of others, and the existence of structural imbalances in prosperity. Yet this is the story of humanity and the outliers are where societies have become fairer and more prosperous, and it is in these exceptions that we can find a better solution for the alleviation of poverty.
Science & Technology
A tour de force on everything that's gone wrong with medicine in America (and arguably, what is starting to go wrong elsewhere in the Anglosphere); the poor state of medical training, administrative bloat, institutional capture by woke ideology, market manipulation by pharmaceutical and healthcare insurance companies, and the intricacies of vaccine manufacturer geopolitics. The author concludes with a call for consciencious medical practitioners to turn to the gig economy if faced with immoral demands by the medical industry. While strong on its criticisms, this proposed solution seems half-hearted and unlikely to pose a significant obstacle to the medical complex.
Business & Investment
By Byrne Hobart
An interesting exploration of Machiavelli's Discourses on Levy and the lessons therein for where and how to run a company. Levy is the underrated little brother of The Prince but arguably more interesting. Machiavelli's comparison of the optimal environment to build a polity in, the laws by which to run it, and the succession problem that faces entities after their founders leave are compared to corporate culture and how companies must navigate these issues to survive. This suggests something about the scalability of human organisation and how polities, corporations, and small groups can often just be resized versions of each other.
By Ben Thompson
Ben from Stratechery draws on Carlota Perez’s Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital to place Sequoia's shift on a wider historical cycle of technological revolutions. Sequoia's structural changes are a shift from 'financial capital' (making speculative investments in risky endeavours), to 'production capital' (long-term positions in proven companies focused on product improvement and market expansion). Production capital is important in its staying power as investment is tied directly to tangible assets and cannot be divested from with ease, while financial capital is an intangible force that finds it much easier to come and go. The latter is often derided over the former but financial capital does have one advantage: where it lacks in staying power it makes up for in risk-taking, and production capital is less likely to invest in high-risk cutting edge technology than financial capital. Venture capital is one such example of the financial capital needed to encourage new innovation.
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