Sunday, July 17, 2016


Working on a model. A lot of things have puzzled me for the last several years, especially things that look, to me, like people fighting against their own self-interest; people blind to the disconnect between their own peaceful words and violent actions; people arguing and even rioting against their own civil rights (WTF, people?); demands to add power to already failed initiatives and institutions...

The people that see the problems I see tend to have certain things in common. And the people who don't see the disconnects also tend to have things in common. I think the disconnects fall on a common fault line, though. So let's see if I can dig this out here.

There is a natural world. In that natural world, things follow the laws of physics and the laws of biology. If you want a rock on top of a hill, energy must be expended to get it there. Most things you eat comes from the destruction of another living creature. Want a burger? A sweet, docile, brown-eyed cow must be killed, chopped up into it's constituent parts and some of those parts ground into piles of once-living flesh. Want a beer to grow with that? Barley must be chopped and carefully rotted.

There is an economics to the laws of biology/ecology. It's not exactly a zero-sum game, but energy must be exerted to get benefits. You must expend the energy to move to shelter. To get food. To not be killed by creatures that want you for food.

This reality underlies everything. Bellies need to be fed, in order to feed bellies, something must be destroyed and some person must initiate that destruction. Meat doesn't come from grocery stores, it comes from ranchers and slaughterhouses.

That reality is stark, and people are very uncomfortable with it. Extremely darwinian. There will be winners and losers and extinctions.

Nobody likes extinctions and they dislike people losing (in an abstract way) and hate being losers themselves, and so they set up or empower someone else to set up a system that overlays and attempts to control the natural world. You can't control the natural world, but you can influence the effects.

But by creating this second ecosystem that overlays the natural one, you create a second way to play the game. If I can't feed my family, I can invoke the rules and someone else will feed them. If I'm not a good enough businessman to prosper, I can apply for grants or get a bailout or donate to a congressman who might write rules that hamper my competitor.

Technology has out paced population. We don't live in a scarcity economy and almost no one has any direct connection to something as primal as procuring food. We have machines powerful enough that it takes a remarkably small number of people to deal with the real world-- to butcher the animals and move the heavy rocks and build the roads and...

So for most people, the artificial overlay of rules (written and unwritten; intended and unintended...) have always been more powerful than the real world. And the people who manipulate the artificial world (politicians and bankers, for instance) have always been more powerful than the ones who work in the real world (industrialists, for instance*). Thus, the artificial world feels more real, and in day-to-day life, has more impact than the real world of hunger, cold and injury.

That's background. Here's the deal.
No matter how detailed, intense, powerful or all-controlling the artificial world becomes, the natural world never goes away. And every so often, in a natural disaster or a spree shooting, the natural world intrudes. For people who see the artificial world as the real world, the answer is obvious: We need more rules. In modern society, the response to fear has become micromanagement. Which works so well in the business world, right? Sigh.

But hurricanes and spree-shooters don't follow human rules, that's what makes them what they are. They follow physics or the laws of biology. Society's rules are just magical incantations and they only work on believers.

Universally (so far, I'm sure there are exceptions) the people that see the problems I see have lived close to the edge. They have been hungry with no one there to help, they have had people try to hurt or kill them and been profoundly alone. Which means they come overwhelmingly from the poor and rural demographics. Conversely, the ones who believe you can create a written answer to a physical problem have spent their lives in a rich, privileged and artificial world.

Both the worlds exist. Both affect our future. We need to recognize them both and recognize when a problem is beyond the reach of the artificial world's tools. IME, the people who have been exposed to the real world have no problem recognizing the artificial. They may get significantly self-righteous that their world view is the real or good one (long look in mirror here... I'm back) but unless they are completely off the grid, they know damn well about the overlay. Does anyone truly believe  that hard work and reliability is the fast-track to promotion in a big organization? Or that brilliantly arguing your professor into a corner will improve your grade?

But it is possible to live entirely in the artificial world and to believe that it is the only world. That writing rules somehow, magically, controls events. And for the most part, this isn't only a safe bet but a good one. The artificial overlay is the most powerful of the two worlds right now in day-to-day life. Right up until it fails.

*When you reflexively think about "evil corporations" are you thinking about the ones who provide your laptop, phone, car and food? Or the ones who exist just to manipulate interest and debt? I'd argue that they are very different.


Slim934 said...

I really like the message of this post, but I'm not to keen on the notion of "natural vs. artificial" world. I think the term "artificial" here can be taken in a somewhat fuzzy manner. It's true that the actual makers and destroyers (farmers, machinists, industrialists, etc.) operate in the natural world, but so do bankers and makers of law. Banks and judges were both market institutions before being co-opted by the state. I think a better heuristic is "would this person exist without the state writing their job into existence?" There are many cases where the answer is "kind of" (where the state intervenes in some sector of the economy) and then there are "not a snowballs chance in hell" cases (basically anyone who enforces the dictates of something like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Federal Reserve). Or "are these laws that people would be willing to pay to enforce vs. laws that could only exist if the person writing them were not also the one personally paying for them"?

I like the old school Class Warfare stuff of the classical liberals (before they were corrupted by the degenerate ideas of Marx). Producer (farmer, machinist, industrialist, honest banker, etc.)vs. Parasite class (state bureaucrat, politically connected banker/landowner/industrialist, etc.) This to me is a very good heuristic for understanding the world. And that the level of artificiality is a measure of how much control the parasite has compared to the producer.

I know this comment is somewhat of a diversion of the main point, which to me reads more like "civilization is great, until it breaks down and people should understand what keeps the artificial afloat". Which I think is true. My point is that the artificial world is only as artificial as how much is deviates from demonstrated consumer preferences (ie. a consumers dollar vote). Under that metric, the world we live in is VERY artificial, but just from a (slightly) different perspective than I think is being put forth in this post.

I do agree with the notion that because the division of labor and complexity of production are so great, people are essentially tuned out from the more physical parts of the creation/destruction process and this colors their thinking badly. The same thing is present with respect to long-term perspective. Most people for example do not realize that in any other period of history they would have been dead long before whatever their current age is by virtue of a vastly lower level of production. Perspective is a great thing, and many people do not have it.

Agent Cbeppa said...

Speaking of perspective, have you ever been unsettled when you realize that money (and gold, and other precious but non-functional materials) only has value when everyone agrees it does? I like to think about that when I need to refocus. It's really simple, but also kind of crazy.

Slim934 said...

"Speaking of perspective, have you ever been unsettled when you realize that money (and gold, and other precious but non-functional materials) only has value when everyone agrees it does?"


Kai Jones said...

Can society be too rich? If we are producing dreamers and artists who unmoor us from the life underpinning the society that helps us, are we too rich or just distributing the resources poorly?

Neil Bednar said...

Rory, This is a fantastic post and it articulates a concept I've been trying hard to articulate myself. That said, I think there are probably many different as to say it. I also like the approach of pointing out to people that they are in fact primates, not robots. Unfortunately most people give you a blank stare. Except for the ones who "get it". They give you a smile.

Anonymous said...

Not sure which example of people lobbying against their own best interests you were thinking of. The one that comes to mind for me are the 'should have just let the banks fail' folks (which would have instantly turned the recession into a full-blown depression). And the related 'let the auto industry fail', as though having another million jobs go down the tubes would have been good for anybody. In my experience, it wasn't mainly wealthy people who held those opinions, it was mostly middle class folks who got downsized in the downturn. Farm subsidies are another highly controversial area where a lot of popular opinion seems to be based on 'it's not fair that those guys get...' rather than what's best for all of us in the long term.

Unknown said...

One translation of Plato talks of the players in the artificial world as 'imitators' where they imitate being knowledgeable and wise. Using rhetoric rather than logic and truth. The pattern is the same 2,400 years later, social game players and real world workers (these were of course slaves so perhaps things are a little better?). Of course Athens had plague and war problems which helped doom it.

God's Bastard said...

"Society's rules are just magical incantations and they only work on believers."

I think I just realised why my old job used to really, really piss people off so often. I was supposed to "enforce rules". The problem is that those rules weren't backed by any laws and didn't carry any penalties. And that was for the stated rules - people were constantly expecting us to enforce their own preferences, to make sure that everyone around them behaved in a manner they found agreeable.

So I'd have to tell those people no can do. No, I can't stop people doing something just because you don't like it. No, I can't actually stop people doing something that's against the rules because the rules are not enforceable. All someone needs to do is tell me "no" and I'm powerless. And people would go apeshit at me (much safer than going apeshit at miscreants - they may actually turn on you). Probably really hurts to be told that the world you're living in, the world you rely on for your comfort and safety, is largely imaginary.

Shane Michael Murphy said...

I've been thinking along these lines as well lately, but framed the demographics in slightly different terms. Maybe there's something worth considering the difference? I had been thinking that the "artificial" rules tend to be favored by people for whom the system is working -- who got good grades, which led to good jobs, which led to elevated social status, etc. On the other hand, people who don't care for the artificial rules tend to have been failed by the system. Maybe they were poor; maybe they were criminals; maybe they were smart, but didn't conform to a conventional educational environment, or weren't motivated by grades. In other words, members of the latter group tend to have fallen through the cracks in some way. Do you think the distinction between our models merely semantic? Or is there a qualitative difference?

Josh Kruschke said...

Rory have you read Dr. Yaron Brook's book, "Equal is Unfair - The Inequality Advantage"

To paraphrase. Life/reality is unfair (for the reasons you stated). To combat this some fight for equality of outcome and equality of opportunity, but the only way you can do this is if you try to do away with equality under the law (man made or natural). You can either build systems that work with Natural Law/reality or against it, but understand Natural Law always win out in the end.

Why do they they fight against their own civil liberties, because they honestly think they can make life fair,... at lest thats one theory.

The link is to a talk Mr. Brook's gave to The University of Exeter in 2015:

Anonymous said...

"This home and residents are proudly gun-free"
"Gun-free zone"
"Violence shouldn't exist"
You don't want to be the person who takes the water faucet and light switch for granted.

smurf_goddess said...

Thank you for your blog. I feel like you are one of the few people able to articulate what I am struggling with right now. It is very hard to explain to people who have not experienced both. So thank you.

Rory said...

Thanks back.

Unknown said...

In sociology there is a maxim "things believed real have real consequences." People can be totally off-base and act on it, up to an including mass murder. The further you are from the basics, the more social rules (reality) matter more than physical reality, the more whacked things can get. Wealth makes this worse: a wealthy society can run itself way off a cliff by doing things that are "wrong" but that it can afford to get wrong because of surpluses and then debt.

And the decision making apparatus can be truly out whack with the real world. If you are an important person in America, the last 38 years or so have been great. You're the richest rich the world has ever seen, your friends and family are doing great, etc... Everything looks great. And, more than that, you worked very hard, working hard worked for you, so you assume that if someone else hasn't done great, it's their fault.

But when you look at hard numbers for a huge chunk of the population the US has stagnated for much of that period. But that's not what the decision making part of the US population feels; it's not their experience of the world.

In America, as in many other rich nations, you get rich or powerful by manipulating the system and people, not by solving fundamental problems. That works because of the surplus.

(I should thank you, your section in ComCon on goal oriented vs. org. longevity oriented made huge sense of almost half my career fuckups. Pity I didn't read it 20 years ago. Still, not dead yet.)