The massive attention being paid to UFOs in the form of the Pentagon/Naval videos has rekindled interest in the subject and by extension interest in Fermi's Paradox. I think people's interest in these subjects is entirely too trivial. Treating it as a curiosity rather than one of the most important indications of what the future has in store for humanity — either eventual doom or being terribly alone.
In a continuation of the last episode I examine my favorite explanation for the inflection point in 1971: that this is when energy decoupled from economic growth. Economic output which has no connection to energy usage is a new and strange beast, much easier to manipulate in ways that produce inequality and inflation and all the other ills which have afflicted us since the early 70s.
The website wtfhappenedin1971.com presents a series of charts which show that there was inflection in rates of everything from inequality to obesity in 1971. In every case with things getting worse. Why would that be? In this episode I examine at 8 explanations (possibly more depending on how you count). Full warning, my favorite explanation is not included. That will be the subject of my next episode.
And here is where I have cordoned off spoilers for Project Hail Mary. Listen at your own risk.
My capsule reviews for the month:
This episode is in three parts. First is the eschatological reviews:
I've been talking about the knobs of society in my newsletters. Well one of the knobs we appear to have lost all fear of is the spending knob and we've decided we can pretty much turn it as high as we want without consequence. And yet everyone regardless of their economic ideology realizes that we can't turn it up forever. And the key problem is that people imagine that when the time comes when we need to moderate our spending that it will be easy to turn down. I very much doubt that.
I recently encountered the term Wizards and Prophets as a way of describing those who were, respectively, optimistic about technology or pessimistic about it. I think this is a good way of thinking about things, and as the context I encountered these terms ended up being a full-throated defense of wizardry, I thought it might be worthwhile to offer up a defence of Prophets. Those who contend that we are playing a dangerous game, one whose stakes Wizards may not entirely understand. The recent resurgence of the Wuhan lab-leak theory for the pandemic proved very timely.
Making any predictions about China is difficult, but that doesn't mean it's not important. It may in fact be one of the most important things we can do if we want to have some idea of what the future holds. And while predictions are difficult, it does seem like a worthwhile endeavor to look at potential inflection points. Points where we can definitely say that past here things are very different. In this episode I offer up some potential inflection points. I'm not sure that any of them will come to pass, to say nothing of all of them, but they provide a useful marker for where China is headed and what it might mean should it arrive there.
In my last newsletter I described the temple of technology and progress with a countless knobs that could be turned. Some of the knobs obviously inspire caution, but some seem like an unalloyed good. Like the knob for safety. Accordingly that's what we've done we've turned the knob of safety all the way to 11, but as with all progress the effects have not always been what we expect. For example when you maximize safety you can't actually maximize safety, you can only maximize it's perceived importance, which is how we ended up in a situation where, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, we have paused, or refused to approve, or otherwise restricted vaccines, dooming thousands because the vaccines are not entirely risk free. But is anything?
Lately there have been a lot of attempts to relitigate history. It is felt that taking history which has been ignored and giving it new emphasis will both increase the accuracy of that history and also help mitigate the negative effects of historical events. I show that this is generally not the case and that what we choose to emphasis is more based on the narrative we're pushing than the actual impact of the history or event in question.
There were various approaches to fighting COVID, and in retrospect we ended up with the worst of all. It's understandable that we didn't follow China in taking the authoritarian approach. And it's also understandable that we weren't going to be as lackadaisical as we were in 1918. But what kept us from taking the technolibertarian approach of human challenge trials, first doses first, and approving the Astrazeneca vaccine as soon as Europe did. And more importantly why are we now taking the exact opposite approach, "pausing" Johnson and Johnson, while Europe restricts Astrazeneca? Why are we so bold when it comes to government spending and so timid when it comes to vaccine safety?
I present a metaphor for technology and progress as an ancient temple with thousands of knobs. Technology allows us to turn the knobs, but we're never quite sure what they do, and we generally decide to turn the knobs as far as we can without this understanding. In the metaphor they control the weather, but in reality they control the weather of civilization, which just like the actual weather is a chaotic system where small changes can create massive effects. Effects like the hurricane of change and disruption which is currently bearing down on us...
The recent Netflix series "Murder Among the Mormons" bills itself as a true crime drama, but really it's a multi-faceted philosophical inquiry into questions of epistemology. Most notably through the central role fraud and forgery plays in the story, but the inquiry goes beyond that into issues of divine revelation, the reconstruction of history and the role of mercy when truth becomes difficult to pin down.
Scott Alexander recently posted a study showing European municipalities which had the Napoleonic Code imposed upon them did better economically than nearby municipalities which didn't. He uses this to support a contention that radical reform is better than traditional institutions at delivering positive outcomes. My contention is not that we should be looking at narrow metrics of success but rather how radical reform deals with complexity, as opposed to other methods of dealing with complexity like cultural evolution, which seems to be the primary contender to expert led reform in the form of technocracy. All of which is to say that yes, the subject of this episode is very similar to the subject of my previous episodes (book reviews excepted).
Prediction is tough. You never know if things are about to get a lot worse, as was the situation with Polish Jews in 1937. Or if they're going to get a lot better, which was the situation of East Germans in 1988. But there are signs...
The problem of political unity weighs heavily on people's minds. But as with most problems technocrats imagine that if they just implement the right policy that unity will follow. In reality people only unify around myths, and historically myths have been assembled into religions. Both things that technocrats are generally opposed to. But can they survive without them. A survey of the literature says... no.
Technocracies have been much in the zeitgeist recently, at least in the corners of the internet I frequent. And there appears to be significant disagreement as to how effective they are. While I understand the idea behind them and the way in which they're supposed to work, I'm not sure they actually work in the way people expect. Or perhaps more importantly I don't think they're the best tool for dealing with the current crisis. I offer some alternative epistemological frameworks and suggest that technocracies might be missing something important.
As you can see this is a much shorter episode. I'm trying out the newsletter format. The idea is that I'm going to send out a short bit at the end of every month, something that offers an easier entry point to my writing. Something people might be more inclined to share. But I obviously couldn't leave out my loyal podcast listeners, so just as with everything else I write, it gets recorded and also goes out there. That said, number of subscribers is something of a success metric these days so if you wouldn't mind singing up for the newsletter I would appreciate it!
Two episodes ago I covered the disasters which can occur when we try to exercise too much control over natural systems. In the last episode I talked about how systems can be too controlling, and how it's better that a system be legible than that it attempt perfection. In this episode, much like peanut butter and chocolate, I combine these two great ideas into one fantastic idea, and explore how the way we combat wildfires in many ways resembles the way we fight political fires, and that both methods fail in similar ways.
In a recent newsletter, Matthew Yglesias suggested three steps for creating effective policies:
These are great, but I think they could be applied far more broadly, which is exactly what I do in this episode.