We covered the fragility of systems and technology in the last newsletter. In this newsletter I’d like to move from the material to the ephemeral. In other words, let’s talk about culture. This is a huge topic for a short newsletter, so while much of what I say can be applied to traditional culture in general, I want to focus on traditional taboos. The older and stronger and more widespread the taboo, the better...
Recently I came across a theory for the progression of subcultures, which seemed to have significant explanatory power for what's happening to Western culture in general. Among the many things this theory speaks to is why cultural fights have become so vicious, why young people are disengaging, and whether wokeism has peaked.
I use the baggage chaos I encountered on a trip to Ireland as an example of fragility.
I’m leaving for Ireland in just over a week. The trip is about half touristy stuff and half genealogical. I discuss my Irish ancestors, in particular Charles Conner who came to America during the Potato Famine. I then discuss some potential lessons that famine has for our own time.
The future is important, it is where we're going to spend the rest of our lives. But there are lots of different frameworks for how the future is going to go. Has technology saved us? Is it about to save us? Or will technology doom us? Does the arc of the moral universe bend towards justice or are we a few years away from collapse. In this episode I consider a half dozen eschatological frameworks, and what each of them say about the future and how things are going to end. In triumph or disaster.
Interestingly, the tragedy of Uvalde has been overshadowed by the unconscionable delay of the police. This is not the first time law enforcement has failed to operate in the way it should. An action by US Women Gymnasts seeking $1 billion dollars from the FBI for failing to stop Larry Nassar was also in the news recently. And again we have to ask why did law enforcement, in this case the FBI, fail so dramatically? This episode will explore both of these examples and attempt to come up with some sort of answer for that question.
Abortion is back in the news, but rather than arguing for one side or the other I thought I'd take a look at the arena of moral debates in general. Are we getting better at solving these thorny problems or worse? I suspect we're getting worse, both because of internet echo chambers, but also because we've solved all the easy problems and only the really tough ones remain.
As you can imagine, this is bad.
In an episode that draws heavily from the book The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos by Sohrab Ahmari I consider the apparently conflict between being authentic and doing what you're "supposed" to do.
I'm moving and as a result I'm thinking of my decades long battle with my yard, and I'm wondering if there is any lesson for the modern world. I suspect that there is, but you should also consider that fact that I really hate yard work.
You may be familiar with the hygiene hypothesis, which holds that the increase in allergies we've been seeing are due to inadequately stressed immune systems. That in the absence of parasites and pathogens our immune systems overreact to things which aren't dangerous. Is it possible that something similar is going on with our psychological immune systems? If so what sort of "pathogens" should we be introducing?
I wrap up my discussion of the drug crisis. I begin with discussing the fact that the US appears to be unique in the rate at which overdose deaths are increasing. This is not quite true, but there are some peculiarities which make the US a nice juicy target if you were interested in selling opioids, and other drugs, this goes both for legal and illegal drugs. Given the scale of the problem we've discovered a lot of things that don't work, and a one big thing that made the problem worse (the pandemic). But we don't have a lot of good ideas for how to fix it. Nevertheless I offer up some ideas.
An examination into how deaths from overdosing on drugs got so bad. Everyone knows how Oxycontin contributed to the problem, but there's far more to the story than that. Join me for a discussion of drug marketing, meth, benzodiazepines, and cocaine, and how it all combines into one of the deadliest trends of our time, one with no signs of slowing down.
The last few decades have been a historical aberration, a time when things seemed simple and progress seemed inevitable. Alternatively we threw up our hands and assumed that our problems were so great that they risked causing the "End of the World". Reality is more messy, we will neither be permanently saved or irrevocably destroyed. Rather the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine demonstrates that messiness has returned, and we need to get better at dealing with it.
I initially decided to to weigh in on Ukraine because so many other people were. But as the situation becomes more and more potentially apocalyptic it started to appear that I would have to. But don't worry, I don't rehash the same talking points as everyone else. My big worry is whether we can figure out some point of stability where nukes exist, but no one uses them. We had that during the Cold War, but that was a bipolar situation where both sides were very similar in strength. Essentially the easiest situation imaginable from a game theory perspective. Unfortunately the future promises to be multipolar, contain lots of nations with nukes who all are at various power levels. How are we going to navigate this treacherous situation? Is it even possible?
It seems that some people are over-reacting to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. We have gone so long without a war that we can only imagine it in apocalyptic terms. But that's precisely what we don't want to do because unlike any other point in history this war could turn into the apocalypse, and that's the last thing we want to do.
At some point, in some episode (and probably several episodes) I asserted that:
The world is changing faster than we can adapt to it.
Then (and now) this statement seemed obvious, so I remember being surprised when I got some pushback on it. But upon reflection it was also illuminating. Many disagreements come down to core values and assumptions which are so deeply embedded that we’ve forgotten they’re there. It’s what makes these disagreements so intractable. We’re arguing from different, unseen foundations. I decided it was past time to unearth this particular foundation, and examine its various parts. What do I mean by “the world” and “change” and “speed” and “adaptation”? And if we can come to an agreement on all of that, what are the consequences of change moving faster than our ability to adapt?
I take a break from talking about the collapse of society and the world to rant about reading. In particular all the people who say I'm doing it wrong.
It's time for my newsletter again, and after going step by step through the ideas of Taleb we finally arrive at his crowning idea: antifragility. Perhaps the biggest contribution Taleb makes to our understanding of the world that by grappling with the idea of the opposite of fragility he was able to define fragility, and point out that the modern world is chock full of it.