Month: November 2018

Stubborn Attachments vs. The Vulnerable World and Fermi’s Paradox

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Imagine there’s an urn. Inside of the urn are balls of various shades. You can play a game by drawing these balls out of the urn. Drawing a white ball is tremendously beneficial. Off-white balls are almost as good but carry a few downsides as well. There are also some gray balls and the darker the gray the more downsides it carries. However, if you ever draw a pure black ball then the game is over, and you lose.

This is a metaphor for technological progress which was recently put forth in a paper titled, The Vulnerable World Hypothesis. The paper was written by Nick Bostrom, a futurist whose best known work is Superintelligence, which I have referred to more than once in this space.

In the paper, drawing a ball from the urn represents developing a new technology (using a very broad definition of the word). White balls represent technology which is unquestionably good. (Think the smallpox vaccine.) Off-white balls may have some unfortunate side effects, but on net they’re still very beneficial, and as the balls get more grey their benefits become more ambiguous and the harms increase. A pure black ball represents a technology which is so bad in one way or another that it would effectively mean the end of humanity. Draw a black ball and the game is over.

As an example of a “black ball technology” Bostrom asks us to imagine a hypothetical alternate history:

On the grey London morning of September 12, 1933, Leo Szilard was reading the newspaper when he came upon a report of an address recently delivered by the distinguished Lord Rutherford, now often considered the father of nuclear physics. In his speech, Rutherford had dismissed the idea of extracting useful energy from nuclear reactions as “moonshine”. This claim so annoyed Szilard that he went out for a walk. During the walk he got the idea of a nuclear chain reaction—the basis for both nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs. Later investigations showed that making an atomic weapon requires several kilograms of plutonium or highly enriched uranium, both of which are very difficult and expensive to produce. However, suppose it had turned out otherwise: that there had been some really easy way to unleash the energy of the atom—say, by sending an electric current through a metal object placed between two sheets of glass.

Having asked us to imagine this alternate history Bostrom asks us to further imagine what would have happened to the world had this been the case. I suspect most of us have a hard time imagining anything other chaos and anarchy.

This is the “Vulnerable World Hypothesis” (VWH) from the title. The hypothesis that somewhere in the urn there is a black ball (and probably more than one). Sure, nuclear weapons ended up being difficult to create, but perhaps engineering new, highly infectious diseases will be as easy as ”sending an electric current through a metal object placed between two sheets of glass”. If there is a black ball in the urn, then the worry is that if we keep drawing from the urn eventually we’ll pull it out, and as I said, the game will be over.

Once you start thinking about this idea, there are some interesting (and frankly frightening) possibilities. One of the things that Bostrom doesn’t go into very much is that the shade of the ball might change after being drawn. To begin with when you do research It’s not always clear what sort of technology you’re going to end up with. For example when Roentgen stumbled on X-rays, that ball may have looked a little greyish, but once their medicinal application became apparent the color of the “X-ray ball” ended up being very white.

One consequence of this, is that in addition to not being able to choose the shade of the ball before we draw, the balls can change color the longer they’re out. You can draw a ball which looks bright white and ends up getting darker and darker the longer the technology is in use. Certainly some people would argue that coal falls into this category. (The gradually darkening of the ball being appropriate in this example.) When people first started burning coal the ball must have seemed pretty white, but now there are at least as many people who think it’s going to destroy the planet (and very few people think it’s great.)

Social media is definitely not as black as coal (pun intended), but I think everyone agrees that it’s getting grayer with every passing year. It’s hard to imagine it will go all the way to black, but once again this illustrates that it’s impossible, if you’re actually drawing balls to not draw ones that are bad because even after you draw them the shade may not be apparent, possibly for decades, or in the case of coal, centuries. Thus even if you think that somehow humanity will coordinate in some amazing and unprecedented way if a true black ball is drawn, we might not know until it’s too late.

As you might imagine this metaphor is not encouraging. The only way humanity avoids drawing a black ball, and thus “losing the game” is if they stop drawing, or if there are no black balls. The first seems possible but very, very, unlikely, though as unlikely as the first one is the idea that there are no black balls seems even more unlikely. I am reminded of Taleb’s Black Swan, just because the only swans you’ve ever seen are white doesn’t mean there aren’t any black swans, but of course this situation is even worse. It’s not as if we have only drawn white balls so far, and can thus plausibly hope that’s all there are. We have already drawn many balls that are very, very grey (thermonuclear weapons anyone?) and many of the balls are getting darker with each passing year.

Interestingly at around the same time as I came across Bostrom’s paper, I also finished reading Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals by Tyler Cowen. You could consider this book a companion to Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (and Cowen mentions that book approvingly). Whereas Enlightenment Now’s thesis is that everything is going great and will continue to do so as long as we don’t abandon the ideals of the enlightenment, Cowen’s thesis is that everything is going great and will continue to do so as long as we don’t take our eyes off the ball of economic growth. As you might imagine the VWH doesn’t fit in very well with either model, but in particular Cowen could be said to be advocating not only that we continue to draw balls from the urn, but that we increase the speed at which we do so.

If we set aside the VWH for a moment, Cowen’s focus on growth, to the exclusion of nearly everything else, makes quite a bit of sense, and it’s worth laying out the case for it. Here’s the books own summary:

Growth is good. Through history, economic growth in particular has alleviated human misery, improved human happiness and opportunity, and lengthened human lives. Wealthier societies are more stable, offer better living standards, produce better medicines, and ensure greater autonomy, greater fulfillment, and more sources of fun.

Cowen is not claiming that growth makes everyone better at the same rate, or that there aren’t pockets of problems. Rather, his claim is that if you compare the world of today with the world 200 years ago that basically everything is better, even if there are individual years within that span that were worse than the previous year. Over a long enough time horizon all the problems of unequal distribution and outcomes are eventually solved..

Some people would counter that modernity has brought a decrease in contentment and happiness, but Cowen argues that this is just a problem with the way we describe happiness.

To give an example, if you ask the people of Kenya how happy they are with their health, you’ll get a pretty high rate of reported satisfaction, not so different from the rate in the healthier countries, and in fact higher than the reported rate of satisfaction in the United States. The correct conclusion is not that Kenyan hospitals possess hidden virtues or that malaria is absent in Kenya, but rather that Kenyans have recalibrated their use of language to reflect what they can reasonably expect from their daily experiences.

In other words happiness is relative, but in absolute terms Americans are way better off than Kenyans. And that this is because of economic growth. This is an important point for Cowen to clarify, and beyond that, there are of course all manner of nooks and crannies to his arguments. For example, he makes a big deal of preserving certain rights and values even if they conflict with maximizing growth. He also has interesting things to say about charitable giving and redistribution, but I don’t have the space to cover most of them. There is however one concept of his which I do need to bring up because it’s so central to the rest of the book, his idea of “Wealth Plus”.

Wealth Plus: The total amount of value produced over a certain time period. This includes the traditional measures of economic value found in GDP statistics, but also includes measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities, as summed up in a relevant measure of wealth.

Thus when Cowen talks about maximizing growth, he’s talking about maximizing Wealth Plus. Which means he doesn’t think people should work fourteen-hour days, nor does he think it’s a good idea to destroy the environment. In fact to his credit Cowen advocates for very low time preference, something we share. And, insofar as leisure time, and amenities and traditional wealth contribute to happiness, maximizing Wealth Plus generates happiness as a useful byproduct.

Recently I have become more and more convinced that one of the central tensions in the modern world is the tension between the values of happiness and survival. Now, Cowen goes to great pains to say that he is not trying to maximize a single value:

…I hold pluralism as a core moral intuition. What’s good about an individual human life can’t be boiled down to any single value. It’s not all about beauty or all about justice or all about happiness.

But then he also explicitly says that he wants to maximize Wealth Plus, and as I just pointed out even if Wealth Plus is not a “single value” there is a lot of overlap between it and happiness. Also you’ll notice that survival is not mentioned in his list of potential values, either. And of course all of this takes us back to Bostrom and the urn.

It would appear that regardless of whether Wealth Plus is shorthand for happiness or not, it explicitly calls for us to draw out new balls at an ever faster rate, particularly given Cowen’s assertion that “technological progress [is] a major factor behind U.S. economic growth.”

All of this leaves us with a few possibilities:

1- We stop drawing balls. This would certainly allow us to avoid any black balls, but it’s hard to imagine how we would continue to experience any economic growth let alone the level of growth that Cowen is advocating. Also I can’t imagine any world where the policies necessary to make this happen would be implemented, even assuming they could be enforced.

2- We keep drawing balls, but we implement draconian measures to prevent black balls from truly “ending the game”. This is the suggestion Bostrom puts forth in the paper, and in fact it forms part of his definition:

VWH: If technological development continues then a set of capabilities will at some point be attained that make the devastation of civilization extremely likely, unless civilization sufficiently exits the semi-anarchic default condition.

He then goes on to define “semi-anarchic default condition” as a world characterized by three features:

a) Limited capacity for preventive policing.

b) Limited capacity for global governance.

c) Diverse motivations.

I obviously don’t have the space to go into these three features, but his recommendations end up being quite extreme (think 1984’s Big Brother only worse). They may perhaps be more feasible than stopping technological development all together, but not by much. Making this possibility only slightly more probable than possibility number one.

3- We keep drawing balls, but there are no black balls in the urn. There is no technology that will irrevocably end humanity. For example, I mentioned thermonuclear weapons above, but perhaps their actual effect was to make war so unthinkable that it never happens again (meaning they were actually a white ball.) Or maybe even if there is a nuclear war perhaps over a long enough time horizon it would end up being just be a bump in the road, not any kind of hard stop. I think this is the option most people hope for, though I doubt there is much conscious choice involved. I have some thoughts on how to evaluate the probability of this option, which I’ll get to in a moment, but I suspect it’s lower than most people think.

Thus far none of these possibilities seems especially promising, and none seem to play very well with Cowen’s growth-will-fix-everything model, but perhaps that’s exactly the point perhaps that’s the fourth possibility:

4- Growth will fix everything even the existence of a black ball. Back under possibility number two Bostrom claims that the VWH is only a worry as long as we are in a semi-anarchic state. In an analogous fashion perhaps VWH is also only a worry if you haven’t experienced enough growth or if your rate of growth is too slow. Perhaps the best example of this: many VWH possibilities go away once we have self-sustaining populations on two planets. And it’s also possible that most black balls have a white ball which negates them, we just need to develop it. Returning one more time to nuclear weapons, some have made the argument that once submarine launched nukes were available they provided a guaranteed second strike capability. This made nuclear weapons functionally unusable because the initial aggressor couldn’t guarantee they would escape without retaliation. It could then be argued that nuclear weapons were only a “black ball” during the period between their invention and the invention of submarine launched missiles.]

Perhaps we need to add another shade of ball to the game. A pure white ball, which, when drawn, permanently wins the game once and for all. Perhaps something like creating an omnipotent AI which would fulfill all three of Bostrom’s criteria for moving us out of a semi-anarchic state.

What this means is that even though Cowen’s plan has us drawing balls out of the urn as fast as possible, it might actually be the safest plan, because it leads to the shortest time between a black ball and the white ball which counters it. And if there is a pure white ball we draw it as soon as possible as well. Perhaps this plan will work. Maybe there is a potential future where we can have our cake and eat it to. That focusing on economic growth/happiness is also the best way to ensure our survival as well.

That seems too good to be true, but how can we know? Is there any method which would allow us to evaluate the probability that there are no black balls or that if we just grow fast enough we can counter all the black balls with “defensive” technology, or that pure white balls exist?

Well one thing that would certainly help is if we could point to the example of someone else who had done it. And here we return to our old friend Fermi’s Paradox. Which once again, instead of giving us hope for the future, leads us to the exact opposite conclusion. Could VWH be just one more explanation for Fermi’s Paradox, and further an explanation which puts the Great Filter ahead of us rather than behind us? That black balls exist and that all civilizations eventually draw one, and that’s why we’re alone in the universe?

Long time readers of the blog will know that my preferred explanation for Fermi’s Paradox is that aliens are out there, but they’re so advanced that we just call them “God”. It’s not my intent to revisit that argument here, but it does give us one final possibility:

5- Someone is in charge of the game. If we return to considering possibility number three, the idea that there are no black balls just by chance, that somehow the universe is randomly set up such that there is definitely very destructive technology, but it’s always just this side of being too destructive. This seems suspiciously convenient, also unlikely, particularly when you toss in Fermi’s Paradox. But if you consider my explanation for the paradox, or even religion more generally, there is the possibility that someone is running the game, and it’s designed such that at least some people will eventually “win”. Obviously this takes us into the realm of theology, but that objection aside, I think you’ll agree that it’s clearly the most hopeful of all the possibilities. Of course, there are many people who can’t put this objection aside, which would mean our best hope is possibility four.

When I started this blog a couple of years ago, my very first post talked about being in a race between a beneficial singularity and technological catastrophe. Possibility number four brings us back to the same spot, a race of drawing balls as quickly as possible and hoping we either draw a pure white ball, or that each black ball we draw is quickly negated by a white ball. The only hint we have as to whether this plan will succeed is Fermi’s Paradox, and if it has any predictive power at all we have to assume that this is a race we’re probably going to lose.

Next week I will return to Fermi’s Paradox. I’m continually amazed by how many subjects eventually end up being touched by it, and even though I’ve spent plenty of time talking about it already, we’re going to be talking about it again. I just finished another book on the subject which has revealed even more nooks and crannies to explore.


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SlateStarCodex and Providing Intellectual Cover

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One of my friends was in town for a visit last week. I had been looking forward to the visit, but I was also nervous. I had apparently written some things in this space that set him off, but I wasn’t 100% clear on what they were. When I had tried talking to him about it he said he couldn’t respond until he understood my intended audience. Which seemed strange, but I tried telling him that I mostly write for myself. That, apparently, wasn’t good enough, so after going back and forth a little bit more on it, I told him I would be happy if I could appeal to the same people who enjoyed Scott Alexander and Slate Star Codex. At that point I got the feeling that he had been waiting for this admission, and proceeded to call the whole lot of us “white supremacists” and not “the cute kind”, whatever that means.

That’s a fairly radioactive accusation, but also one that, currently, gets tossed out at the drop of a hat, and applied far too broadly, as well. Which is to say I could certainly imagine nearly anyone getting accused of that, particularly a white male like myself. But I would also expect the person leveling the accusation to identify as progressive, or otherwise hail from the left-side of the political spectrum, which my friend does not.

See, that was the confusing part. This friend of mine is, or at least was, very conservative. My impression is he voted for Trump (at a minimum he attended some Trump rallies). He was excited by the idea of Brexit (I was on Skype with him the night of the vote). And a non-trivial percentage of my previous conversations with him had consisted of railing against liberals. Though, on the other hand, he was getting his PhD in rhetoric, and in connection with that he was on the faculty of the University’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Department. Which, let’s be honest, would be a hard position to maintain for someone who was staunchly conservative. Indeed, whenever I told people about my staunchly conservative friend, the Women Studies professor, they were always baffled.

Perhaps now you can understand why I was nervous about his visit. I don’t think I have a problem being friends with people from nearly any place on the political spectrum. But not knowing where he currently falls on that spectrum was kind of like being invited to a debate without knowing what side I was supposed to take, while also being unclear on the subject to be debated.

Fortunately, as I kind of hoped, being able to talk face to face was enough to mostly clear things up. Yes, he is still pretty conservative. For example, he mentioned that he watched CNN on election night because if the night had gone against the Democrats he wanted to be able to watch the panic, and experience the associated schadenfreude in real time. He felt that Acosta crossed a line with the White House intern, and he was glad Beto O’Rourke lost. But of course all this didn’t necessarily resolve my confusion, I still had to reconcile his accusations both with my behavior and with his actual ideology.

To cut to the chase, apparently his problem with me, and with Slate Star Codex, and the rationality community as a whole was that we provide intellectual cover for bad people. And before I get too deeply into things I should mention I don’t consider myself to be part of the rationalist community (and in fact I’ve frequently been critical of them) and I definitely don’t want to take any undeserved credit for their accomplishments, or saddle them with any of my many faults. However, according to my friend we’re all guilty of this same crime.

The obvious next question is who are these bad people and how do we provide intellectual cover for them. While he brought up the subject of “white supremacists” in our initial conversation online. In person we mostly talked about Men’s Rights Activists (MRA for short), as the bad people in question. I’m still confused about the white supremacist accusation, but perhaps that will have to wait until his next visit. (Also in terms of providing cover there isn’t Trump doing far more of that then a couple of bloggers?)

There is one problem with making this switch. Most people have no problem understanding why white supremacists are bad people, but they may be unfamiliar with the MRA movement. They’re mostly what the title would suggest, sort of the male version of a feminist, but obviously we’re not interested in a bland or neutral take on things. We’re interested in the ways that they’re bad people. For a sense of that, let me quote from the criticism section of the relevant Wikipedia article:

The men’s rights movement has been criticized for exhibiting misogynistic tendencies. The Southern Poverty Law Center has stated that while some of the websites, blogs and forums related to the movement “voice legitimate and sometimes disturbing complaints about the treatment of men, what is most remarkable is the misogynistic tone that pervades so many”. After further research into the movement, the SPLC elaborated: “A thinly veiled desire for the domination of women and a conviction that the current system oppresses men in favor of women are the unifying tenets of the male supremacist worldview.”

Professor Ruth M. Mann of the University of Windsor in Canada suggests that men’s rights groups fuel an international rhetoric of hatred and victimization by disseminating misinformation via online forums and websites containing constantly-updated “diatribes against feminism, ex-wives, child support, shelters, and the family law and criminal justice systems”

These are the bad people my friend is worried about, though in our conversation, I think he was most worried about one specific argument MRA advocates make on the aforementioned forums and websites: the argument that evil women are “withholding” sex and love from “worthy” males.

With the bad people identified let’s move on to a discussion of how I and others might be providing intellectual cover. Like most people on most issues my friend’s sense of the other side’s arguments seemed vague. (I’m sure I’m guilty of this myself.) Which is to say, he didn’t provide any concrete examples. He, nevertheless, brought up an interesting point, and I’d like to steelman it as much as possible. Accordingly, on his behalf, I’ll be providing the three best examples I can find, of posts which could be construed as providing intellectual cover for the MRA. One example will be from SlateStarCodex, one will be from Robin Hanson, and one will be from this blog. (Should you feel there are better examples leave them in the comments.)

Starting with SSC, it was difficult to choose just one post. There’s his Untitled post, which he considers his most controversial post about feminism. There’s his post Lies, Damned Lies, and Social Media (Part 5 of ∞) where he discusses false rape allegations. And then there’s his post I Do Not Understand “Rape Culture” where he argues that there really isn’t a culture of rape. But I think I will actually cover his post Radicalizing the Romanceless, since it seems most on point to the “evil women…worthy males” narrative.

Near the beginning of the post Alexander tells the story of, Henry, a patient he was treating who was picked up by the police for beating his fifth wife. When questioned, he admitted to beating the first four as well. And more interestingly the reason he was beating his fifth wife is that she was yelling at him for cheating on her with one of his ex-wife’s, yes one of the ones who already divorced him because he was violent. Obviously this guy is both not a “worthy male” nor does he have any problem getting women.

I’ve been using the term “worthy males” but another, far more common, phrase you’ll encounter a lot on the internet is “nice guy” as in “I’m a nice guy why won’t girls go out with me?” Alexander says that growing up he was a “nice guy”, not in any kind of absolute or cosmic sense, just that he was nicer than Henry. But contrary to Henry, who as we have seen had no problem attracting numerous women Alexander made it to 25 without ever having been on a date. And unsurprisingly this seemed unfair to him. He didn’t think he deserved to date any specific girl, he just felt that overall he shouldn’t be doing way, way, way worse with girls than a guy like Henry, a literal wife beater.

So here we have a nice guy, who could be said to feel entitled to some success with women. And how do feminists react to this? Well, Alexander then goes on to excerpt from four feminist websites (Jezebel, XOJane, Feminspire, and feministe) all of which basically declare “nice guys” to be infuriating, pathetic, worthy of mockery and in general horrible. In other words it could be argued that this post puts forth exactly the ideology mentioned above, that evil women are “withholding” sex and love from “worthy” males. Which is exactly what my friend was claiming. Now to be clear I think this vastly oversimplifies the point of Alexander’s post, and I’ll be returning to that, but at its core this is my friend’s argument.

Moving on to Robin Hanson. His example is more recent, and you may have heard of it, given that it ended up being national news and was mentioned in Slate, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the NYT (as an opinion piece by Ross Douthat).

It all started with a blog post, though a tweet about that post may have poured fuel on the fire. The tweet said:

Those w/ less access to sex plausibly suffer simiarly(sic) to those with low income, & might similarly hope to organize to lobby for redistribution along this axis. Strikingly, I see little overlap between those concerned about income & sex inequality.

This was written after the Toronto Van Attack by Alek Minassian, a self-proclaimed incel (involuntarily celibate) which ended up killing 10 people. And that attack was mentioned in the associated blog post, so the connection to worthy males being denied sex was obvious. As far as the “evil females” part goes, that’s less explicit, but certainly someone is preventing discussion of sexual inequality, and feminists would seem to be the obvious candidates for that. Also this is the incident I ended up discussing most deeply with my friend and he was of the opinion that the whole topic of sexual inequality was territory which was well covered by feminist intellectuals and that Hanson was opinining about things without reading the relevant literature on the other side. So one way or another it’s not hard to infer an “evil women” angle to the whole thing.

Which I guess takes us to me. While I am reasonably confident everyone I’ve mentioned thus far would confidently assert that they never intended to claim that evil women are denying sex to worthy males, I am absolutely confident that that was never my intention. But once again we’re looking more at the concept of providing intellectual cover than direct advocacy, which could come about without direct intention. Along those lines, if we’re examining my potential culpability, I do have a post called Should All Incels Be Killed Immediately or Just Banished Forever? This was mostly written in response to what happened to Hanson. Though I did go fairly deep into the idea of a sexual underclass. In particular mentioning that I knew people who almost certainly belonged in that category.

In the course of the discussion with my friend I mentioned these acquaintances, and, to his credit, his stance immediately softened. This is not surprising, it’s easy to be mad at faceless internet mobs and hard to be mad at individuals. The same thing happens to me. But to be clear I do believe there is a large sexual underclass; I was advocating for them; and I do think the actions of certain militant individuals, a disproportionate number of whom are militants of the feminist variety, make things harder for this underclass. Meaning I probably fall into the same bucket as Alexander and Hanson. Whatever that bucket is.

Have we now reached the point where we can declare that my friend was right, that we are providing intellectual cover for the MRA movement? I’m sure he might answer yes, but I don’t think the answer is nearly so clear cut, and thus far I have used the term “intellectual cover” without really explaining what it might mean.

In the conversation with my friend he offered up the example of eugenics, and laid out the following pattern: You might have an idea which starts out being uncontroversial (indeed it’s hard to find a public figure in the early years of the 20th century who didn’t support eugenics.) But, later it becomes apparent that this idea can be taken to an unfortunate extreme. In the case of eugenics this happened under Hitler and the Nazis. The same public figures, who previously supported eugenics, recognized the harm that came from the idea, and abandoned their former support. (Whether they did this out of principle or political necessity is something we didn’t get into.)

He argues that we’re seeing the same thing with the examples I gave and the MRA. If I’m understanding him correctly, his point is that there’s nothing inherently wrong with speaking up for the sexual underclass, until it becomes apparent that speaking up in this way emboldens men’s rights activists and incels who then go on to rape women and drive vans into crowds, and that just as eugenics advocacy stopped once it became clear what Hitler was doing, our advocacy (such as it is) should stop now that it’s become clear how bad the MRA and incel movement is.

As an aside it’s interesting to do a Hansonian substitution in that last paragraph, and imagine that we were talking about advocacy for the poor and underprivileged being fine until they resort to violence (as they frequently have) at which point all advocacy has to stop. Of course people are free to argue that the substitution is invalid, because there is no sexual underclass (though what else would you call adults with no access to sex?) or because there is, but they are privileged in other ways that make up for it. And maybe one or the other of those is true.

Beyond the problems of applying the pattern to advocacy for the less fortunate (recall that Eugenics was about culling the less fortunate not helping them) there are many other problems with comparing the MRA and incels to Hitler and the Nazis:

  1. It’s immediately suspect as being a Reductio ad Hitlerum argument.
  2. However bad you think the MRA and militant incels are, the Nazis were literally millions of times worse.
  3. What other examples are there of this pattern outside of eugenics and the Nazis? You might mention racism and the Confederacy. But once again, millions of times worse.
  4. There is at least one example where an ideology caused greater harm than that caused by the Nazis, but that ideology is not off limits. Of course I’m thinking of the example of communism.

If I believe that abortion is murder (or at least a close cousin, which I do) and that certain flavors of strident feminists have increased the rate of abortion (which I also believe, though accurate numbers are hard to come by) then you might put feminism in the same bucket with communism as things we can discuss despite the harm they’ve caused.

I am reasonably certain (though here we are outside the bounds of the things he and I discussed) that my friend would have argued that feminism causes very little harm, and that the harm it does cause is entirely outweighed by the good it does. Being fairly conservative he probably wouldn’t make the same argument about communism (though as far as I can tell MRAs and incels make him much angrier than communists) but there are obviously lots of people who still support communist ideology despite all the deaths.

If we switch from the argument that MRAs and incels do bad things to the argument that the things they do are so bad that it outweighs any conceivable benefit, then that’s a different argument, with a higher standard. Also recall, that my friend’s initial point was not that the people in question are men’s rights activist, but rather that we provide intellectual cover for people who define themselves as such. Meaning the harms he is so worried about are even harder to lay at our feet. Also note that we don’t have to show that MRAs and incels do more good than bad on net, we only need to show that the second order effects of being sympathetic to lovelorn nerds are a net positive.

On the bad side of the equation, have any of the people mentioned (myself included) actually done something objectively wrong?  Can you point to anyone in the community who has committed violence? Anyone who as advocated for violence? On this point, and in the interest of continuing to steelman things, at one point Hanson does say that inequalities of any sort all do frequently lead to violence, but that’s a far cry from calling for violence.

The main bad thing my friend pointed to, as I mentioned above, was speaking without first educating ourselves. Of holding forth on the subject of feminists and sexual inequality without knowing the latest thinking on the subject. And while I disagree with the assertion that, Robin Hanson, for instance, knew nothing about the topic, I wonder if my friend is falling into a similar trap, of not being entirely educated about the sort of advocacy that is happening in the posts I’ve used as examples. And here we turn to the good side of the equation.

As I’ve already made it clear in my previous post I do think there is a sexual underclass. And that some of the people in that underclass are quite literally worthy males and nice guys. The form I’m most familiar with are the socially awkward nerds. Let’s take the experiences of one of them, Scott Aaronson, who could have been used as an example of a blogger providing intellectual cover, but makes a better example as the kind of person we’re actually hoping to support:

(sigh) Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year.

My recurring fantasy, through this period, was to have been born a woman, or a gay man, or best of all, completely asexual, so that I could simply devote my life to math, like my hero Paul Erdös did. Anything, really, other than the curse of having been born a heterosexual male, which for me, meant being consumed by desires that one couldn’t act on or even admit without running the risk of becoming an objectifier or a stalker or a harasser or some other creature of the darkness.

Of course, I was smart enough to realize that maybe this was silly, maybe I was overanalyzing things. So I scoured the feminist literature for any statement to the effect that my fears were as silly as I hoped they were. But I didn’t find any. On the contrary: I found reams of text about how even the most ordinary male/female interactions are filled with “microaggressions,” and how even the most “enlightened” males—especially the most “enlightened” males, in fact—are filled with hidden entitlement and privilege and a propensity to sexual violence that could burst forth at any moment.

Because of my fears—my fears of being “outed” as a nerdy heterosexual male, and therefore as a potential creep or sex criminal—I had constant suicidal thoughts. As Bertrand Russell wrote of his own adolescence: “I was put off from suicide only by the desire to learn more mathematics.”

At one point, I actually begged a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs that would chemically castrate me (I had researched which ones), because a life of mathematical asceticism was the only future that I could imagine for myself. The psychiatrist refused to prescribe them, but he also couldn’t suggest any alternative: my case genuinely stumped him. As well it might—for in some sense, there was nothing “wrong” with me. In a different social context—for example, that of my great-grandparents in the shtetl—I would have gotten married at an early age and been completely fine.

Now, the whole time I was struggling with this, I was also fighting a second battle: to maintain the liberal, enlightened, feminist ideals that I had held since childhood, against a powerful current pulling me away from them. I reminded myself, every day, that no, there’s no conspiracy to make the world a hell for shy male nerds. There are only individual women and men trying to play the cards they’re dealt, and the confluence of their interests sometimes leads to crappy outcomes. No woman “owes” male nerds anything; no woman deserves blame if she prefers the Neanderthals; everyone’s free choice demands respect.

That I managed to climb out of the pit with my feminist beliefs mostly intact, you might call a triumph of abstract reason over experience. But I hope you now understand why I might feel “only” 97% on board with the program of feminism.

I wish I could say that the feminist portion of the internet reached out to Aaronson with compassion and understanding, but, unsurprisingly, that did not happen.

I think I can confidently say that none of the people I mentioned are claiming that worthy males or nice guys are being denied sex that’s rightfully theirs by evil women/feminist. As you can see from the above quote they’re actually going out of their way to say the opposite. But surely, the kind of experience Aaronson (and others) are having should not be off limits for discussion. Even if my friend is right about the intellectual cover argument, and I don’t think he is, how cruel would you have to be to hear a story like Aaronson’s and respond by telling him to “Shut up!”


Unlike Aaronson not only are you welcome to tell me to “Shut up!” It’s something that probably needs to happen more. But yes it is probably still rude, so if you want to consider softening the blow, considering donating at the same time. Maybe you’ll confuse me as much as my friend did.


Is the World Coming Together or Splitting Apart?

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I ended the last post promising to talk about a future dominated by the clash of civilizations. Some of you may have picked up that that was a reference to the book of the same name published in 1996 by Samuel Huntington. The books full title is The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. When I came up with the idea to write about Midler’s book on China, I realized that it would dovetail right into Huntington’s book, so immediately after finishing What’s Wrong with China I read (actually listened) to Clash of Civilizations. And while I don’t know that you need to read both books in exactly that fashion, the connection is very interesting.

My recollection is that when the book first came out Huntington got a lot of grief for his emphasis on the coming clash between Islam and the West. But he also predicted significant friction between the West and China, which wasn’t commented on as much but may have ended up being more important. And having read Midler’s book (and to reiterate I have no particular expertise on Islam or China) I think in the end China may end up posing the greater problem. The big difference being that the Chinese civilization has, what Huntington calls a “Core State”, while Islam does not. This makes China less inclined to random acts of terrorist violence, but far more unified in whatever actions they do take. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Where I’d really like to begin is to look at Clash of Civilizations from something of a historical context. The book, as I mentioned, came out in 1996 but the article on which it was based was published in 1993. This was, as you’ll recall, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and people were trying to figure out what this meant for the future. Two broad theories were advanced. There was Huntington’s of course, and then there was Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History, published in 1992, which advanced a very different theory, and which I’ve mentioned several times in this space. To be clear, I suspect that I’m too hard on Fukuyama, and that there are nuances which I’m missing, and ways in which it was more accurate than I give it credit for. That said if you were going to declare a winner out of the two views I don’t see any way to not declare Huntington the victor.

As you might be able to tell from the title Fukuyama asserted that the future would be fundamentally different than the past. Conspiracy theorist caricaturize this as the New World Order. (Oftentimes referencing the speech by Bush Sr.) I don’t think it ended up being quite as menacing as they thought. In fact, I think it would have been nice if there had in fact been a new world order, and for a while in the 90s it appeared as if there might be, but I think it’s evident now that it was at best a temporary transition period between the ideological conflict which defined the Cold War back to the civilizational conflict which has dominated the rest of human history. A small breather between rounds in a boxing match rather than the start of something long-lasting or genuinely different. Though I think some people still hold out hope that it’s the reverse that what we’re looking at is the last gasp of pre-modern sectarian strife before we finally make the full transition to a true global, universal culture.

As I said, I think it’s clear that the evidence is heavily in favor of Huntington. But the idea that as our world becomes more interconnected we are gradually transitioning to a universal culture, has some evidence on it’s side as well. And it’s always been one of the principal objections to Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Consequently he devotes a chapter of his book to answering it and identifies four ways in which the term is meant:

First it might be referring to the idea that humanity has a universal morality. It is true that nearly all cultures are opposed to murder and in favor of families, etc. But this has so far not prevented any wars between those cultures. If you’re looking for an argument against a clash of civilizations, then this is a fatal flaw.

Second there’s the advance of civilization, increasing literacy, urbanization, and other forms of progress. Once again this is true, but irrelevant to a discussion of civilizational conflict.

Third, and what most people, including Fukuyama, mean by the idea, is a civilization based on a recognizable set of western values like liberal democracy, market economies, individual rights, etc. Huntington actually prefers to call this the Davos Culture, after the annual gathering in Switzerland, which may be a more accurate description. The key problem Huntington points out with this idea, and one of the reasons why he prefers to call it the Davos Culture is that it’s largely only shared among the elites of a society:

Davos people control virtually all international institutions, many of the world’s governments and the bulk of the world’s economic and military capabilities. The Davos Culture hence is tremendously important. Worldwide, however, how many people share this culture? Outside the West, it is probably shared by less than 50 million people or 1 percent of the world’s population and perhaps by as few as one-tenth of 1 percent of the world’s population. It is far from a universal culture, and the leaders who share in the Davos Culture do not necessarily have a secure grip on power in their own societies… its roots are shallow…

He specifically talks about how many people share the culture outside of the West, but when one considers the election of Trump and Brexit are we sure how many people share it even inside of the West?

The fourth thing people mean when they talk about universal culture is entertainment culture and in particular the dominance of Hollywood movies and Western music (not to be confused with country music). This may be the strongest claim for a universal culture. Because, while the Davos Culture may be limited to a small elite, Hollywood is making almost as much money in China as they make in the US, despite the fact, as I pointed out in my last post, that their culture is otherwise very different.

It used to be said that two democracies have never gone to war. That’s not entirely true, but along those lines can we say that two countries who both enjoy the same movies have ever gone to war? My guess is that they probably do go to war (particularly if Inglorious Bastards is to be believed.) And as Huntington points out, it’s very easy to find young men, say in Iraq. Who wear jeans, drink coca-cola, enjoy Marvel movies, and are still plotting to kill Americans. Furthermore when you look at places like Iraq, Iran and Turkey, are they more or less western culturally than they were 30 years ago?

Speaking of Turkey, their example is an interesting one. I don’t have the time to go into any great depth on it, but basically, in the wake of World War I, Kemal Ataturk rebuilt Turkish society along a western, secular, democratic model. If there was a poster child for transitioning to a universal culture, Turkey was it, and yet if you look at Turkey today, you’ll see a society that’s becoming less democratic, less secular, and less western (particularly if you count freedom of press and speech as a core western value). This is despite it being more modern in most other respects. As Huntington points out:

Modernization, in short, does not necessarily mean Westernization. Non-Western societies can modernize and have modernized without abandoning their own cultures and adopting wholesale Western values, institutions and practices. The latter, indeed, may be almost impossible: whatever obstacles non-western cultures pose to modernization pale before those they pose to Westernization. It would as Braudel observes, almost “be childish” to think that modernization or the “triumph of civilization in the singular” would lead to the end of the plurality of historical cultures embodied for centuries in the world’s great civilizations. Modernization, instead, strengthens those cultures and reduces the relative power of the West. In fundamental ways, the world is becoming more modern and less Western.

This last point is critical, and when you think about it, self-evident. If the West is completely dominant, then there’s a strong motivation to be more Western. And insofar as it’s probably unclear what part of Western practices and culture created their dominance you’re going to want to adopt them all. While this vastly simplifies things, I’m sure that it was something like this going through Ataturk’s mind as he worked to put things back together after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. But, once you begin to catch up with the West, the dominance gap lessens, and with it the motivation to adopt their culture, particularly those parts that seem to have nothing to do with modernization. This is the case with any country you choose to examine, not just Turkey. It was certainly the case in my last post, where we examined China. When they were struggling there were numerous reasons for change, now that they’re ascendent the impetus for any change, and particularly one which is strictly cultural, decreases more and more.

If you agree that this is a fatal blow to the idea of a universal or Davos Culture, then the next question must be, what does a world of numerous clashing civilizations look like? Actually, I guess we know the answer to that one, we just have to look back through history. The question is more properly what does a world of numerous clashing civilizations look like when you add modern technology? And more critically, does that modern technology make this competition better or worse?

At this point it’s useful to step back and define what we mean by both “clashing”, and “civilizations”. We’ll start with the second part. What is a civilization? Huntington goes all the way back to ancient Greeks to use the example of Athens and Sparta as different countries, but the same civilization, versus the Persians which was a different country and civilization

Blood, language, religion, way of life, were what the Greeks had in common and what distinguished them from the Persians and other non-Greeks. Of all the objective elements which define civilizations, however, the most important usually is religion, as the Athenians emphasized. To a very large degree, the major civilizations in human history have been closely identified with the world’s great religions; and people who share ethnicity and language but differ in religion may slaughter each other, as happened in Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia and the Subcontinent.

The emphasis on religion is interesting, both because it gives us a useful shorthand, but also because it immediately draws us back to the issue of a universal culture. Could a proponent of universal culture reopen the argument by claiming that it will come about through the natural progression of secularism? Perhaps claiming that while modernity doesn’t necessary lead to Western universalism, that it does lead to secular universalism and in the end that will be close enough? That we will lose the distinction between separate civilizations at the same time as we abandon religion? There’s always a chance that this is the way it will play out, but secularism also leads to a lower number of births meaning that the percentage of people who are religiously unaffiliated is actually expected to go down in the coming decades not up. Which definitely makes it less promising as a path to a universal culture.

More speculatively if the most important element of a civilization is religion, could it be argued that people without religion are also without a civilization? Insofar as one of the key attributes of a civilization is the ability to propagate forward in time, the low secular birth-rates we already mentioned could be a fatal weakness. Might a lack of religion carry other weaknesses with it as well that make it impossible for the irreligious to ever coalesce into a full civilization?

We could get a lot deeper into the attributes of civilizations, including a discussion of the difference between being civilized in the sense of level of modernization (though I prefer to equate it to low time preference) and a Civilization. But I think everyone already has a pretty good idea of what a civilization is. It is, however, worth a brief aside to examine what Huntington (and the other scholars he draws on) count as a civilization:

Western: While Western Civilization definitely encompasses Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand, the interesting question here is whether to include Latin America. There is an argument to be made for a separate Latin American civilization, and perhaps if they spoke Spanish in Brazil the answer would be obvious.

Sinic: China, along with much of Southeast Asia, the largest civilization. Definitely on the ascent, and helped out by the advantage of having a very clear core state. Being the largest and possibly the most unified as well is a big deal.

Islamic: The second largest civilization, but hampered by having no definite core state, and by the Sunni-Shia division. But also ascendent, or at least fired up.

Hindu: Narrowly the third largest civilization, at least at the time of the book, though I’m guessing if anything the gap would have widened. Since Islamic birth rates have probably exceeded Indian birth rates. Mostly restricted to a single country, and also on something of a rise.

In terms of population, those four are the big ones, and I should mention that if you include Latin America, Western Civilization would probably jump ahead of Islamic and Hindu. (Though I haven’t bothered to compile recent figures).

After that you get two small (but feisty!) civilizations:

Orthodox: This is basically Russia, with parts of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and perhaps Greece. As I said feisty, but unclear whether it’s about to slowly be gobbled up by Western, Sinic or perhaps even Islamic civilizations, or whether it’s ready for a re-emergence.

Japanese: This is definitely a single country civilization. And I’m not sure what the future holds here.

You’ll notice that no civilization includes Sub-saharan Africa (North Africa is Islamic). I can only imagine that some people will find that to be inaccurate, or offensive or both, but it would appear to nevertheless be true. This is not to say that one won’t develop, but without a common religion or even a common language, there’s nothing that currently fits the bill.

Once you’ve established that there is no Universal Culture, at least not one with any power. And then gone on to identify the distinct cultures that do still exist. Moving from that to a future where these civilizations clash is an obvious next step. And if, by this point, it doesn’t seem obvious to you there’s a 368 page book on the subject I’d be happy to recommend to you. As I said in the beginning what I’m most interested in is how technology changes these clashes.

First on the list, has to be nuclear weapons. I’ve talked about these a lot in the past, so I’m not going to go into too much depth here, but it boils down to an argument, on one side, for them drastically elevating the violence and destruction of civilizational clashes, and on the other side an argument that their use is so terrible as to make civilizational conflicts almost exclusively non-violent, or at the very least something which generally happens through proxies.

Next on the list, is an item we’ve already covered, does technology lead to some sort of Universal Civilization? The answer we arrived at appears to be no, it does not, despite the ease of communication, and travel and the like. In fact, there’s considerable evidence that it might do the exact opposite, which takes us to our third potential difference.

Rather than bringing us together, technology seems to be fracturing people into mini-civilizations. The internet has allowed geographically scattered people to gather into very tightly defined communities, something that previously wouldn’t have been possible. These ideological echo chambers are definitely not a “Civilization” but it’s unclear how they’ll interact with traditional civilization, particularly as there is some evidence that they can cut across civilizational lines. (Another thing that used to be very difficult.) I can think of several possibilities:

1- Somehow the fracturing, paradoxically, is what actually leads to a universal civilization, perhaps by creating a set of high level rules allowing the various factions to interact which goes on to achieve universal adoption.

I haven’t seen much evidence for this. If it were going to happen you would expect something like the First Amendment to be a very important initial foundation, and instead it appears to be increasingly controversial.

2- These factions will seem like a big deal until something catastrophic happens, like 9/11. At which point all the differences will be put aside and one civilization will rise up in anger against another civilization, and the civilizational clash will happen more or less as it always has.

Of course the post 9/11 civilizational clash we did get was pretty mild as clashes go. But it’s hard to see where it had anything to do with an incipient universal culture. It seems more related to peculiarities of Western Civilization and the fractured nature of the Islamic Civilization.

3- These factions gradually hollow out the larger civilization, sapping civilizational unity and causing most energy to be directed inward in a low intensity civil war, rather than outward at other civilizations.

Based on past experience, I would lean towards number two, but it also seems like two only operates in the presence of some strong external unifying factor. (It has often been said that the Cold War would have ended instantly if the Earth had been attacked by aliens.) And as much as we would prefer that Pinker and the rest are correct and large external catastrophes such as the great wars of the 20th century are largely a thing of the past. I have also pointed out that war might have played an important role. Leaving us in a situation where a given civilization would pull together in a heartbeat if there were another 9/11 (as Western Civilization did after the first one.) But that such catastrophes won’t happen (or won’t happen often enough.) Leaving us with possibility 3, gradually being ripped apart from within.

If civilizational clashes still end up occurring, then those who can generate strong external threats, while minimizing factionalization are going to triumph in these clashes over the long run. That may be so obvious as to go without saying. But this takes us back to the question of how technology will change these clashes, and the answer is, social media has made factionalization considerably easier, while modernity has made external threats far more rare. So yes it’s obvious that external threats bind civilizations together while factionalism tears them apart, but never before has the first been so rare while the second has been so easy.

Once we consider these factors it would appear that other civilizations may have the West beat. Islamic civilization comes with factionalism built in, in the form of the Sunni-Shia split, but we helpfully lob cruise missiles at them every so often, meaning external threats are never very far from their thoughts. And if any civilization was going to be good at reducing factionalism it would be the Sinic/Chinese.

I’m sure there are other ways in which technology changes civilizational conflict, but I think the items I just covered are the big ones. To close out I’d going to toss out a few miscellaneous questions and speculations on the topic that linger after reading the book.

What’s going to happen with Sub-Saharan Africa? If they haven’t already got a civilization are they going to develop one? How does that happen? I get the feeling that it probably helps if you have an empire combined with a religion, and I don’t see any budding African empires, and while Sub-Saharan Africa is mostly Christian, that doesn’t (as far as I can tell) seem to provide much unity to the region. When you combine that with the expected population growth you have a lot of people without a civilization, how would that fit into Huntington’s Model?

Huntington appears to be of the opinion that ideological conflicts were an historical anomaly, a brief detour before returning back to the more typical civilizational conflict. While I agree that there doesn’t appear to be much evidence for a universal civilization as the next step, I’m not convinced that the next step couldn’t be multipolar ideological conflict. As I said social media is making it easier to organize around ideologies even across civilizational boundaries. So far the Davos Culture seems to be doing this most effectively, but rather than being the harbinger of a universal culture could it instead be just the first of many trans-civilizational cultures?

FInally, while I’ve covered some of the possible effects technology might have on civilization there are probably many others. Most of the data we have on how civilizations behave and how the interact with other civilizations comes from a time before industrialization. It could be argued we have some data on post industrial civilizations, but we have essentially zero data on post internet civilizations.

Huntington identified religion as the most important element of Civilization cohesiveness, and so far changes in technology, whether from industrialization or the internet, all seem to have weakened the power of religion. I know I said earlier that the future will have less unbelievers than the present because of birth rate differentials, but that doesn’t mean that those who do believe won’t practice their belief in very different ways. What does that mean for the larger civilization if it’s religious core is constantly being altered?

We’re left in a situation where, even if we accept Huntington’s thesis, there’s still a lot of questions. Enough that we can imagine many possible futures, unfortunately out of all those futures, I think the least likely is one where everyone comes together in a universal culture where all ideological and civilizational conflicts cease. Which is to say, I’m not sure Huntington is correct in every particular, but I am sure that Fukuyama is wrong.


Have you heard that joke about two civilizations waking into a bar? No? Neither have I, but if thinking about that sort of thing is something you want to support consider donating.


China and the Strangeness of Civilizations

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I recently finished listening to the book What’s Wrong with China by Paul Midler. Previous to reading this book I knew that the Chinese viewed the world differently than Americans or Europeans, but I was under the impression that these were differences of degree, not of kind. To put it another way, I thought we were all on the same graph, the average Chinese person was just in a different place on the graph, though as they became more globalized and affluent they would gradually move closer to the western norm. (While at the same time we would probably move closer to them.) I imagine this impression is pretty widespread, but after reading the book I’ve realized it was hopelessly naive. China is not merely a foreign country, it is an ancient and entirely different civilization with an almost alien way of thinking. They’re not on the same graph with the western democracies (hereafter just the “West”). They may be on some graph, somewhere, but if they are they probably don’t even use the same coordinate system (probably polar, I always hated polar.)

You may be inclined to argue that even if I’m correct about this, all that it means is that we just need to work harder at understanding them. Maybe, but if Midler is to believed things are actually moving in the opposite direction, and our understanding of Chinese culture is actually getting worse as time goes on.

This makes a certain amount of sense. There was a time when travel to China was a lot more difficult. When someone could write a book called Fifty Years in China (actually three people wrote books with exactly that title) and you knew that those were fifty long years of actually being immersed in China. With the telephone, and air travel, and especially the internet, these days, a year spent in China is very different than a year spent back then, to say nothing of spending 50 years there. Also, these days, we are more likely to minimize differences, not only because people interested in China are predisposed to be favorable to it in the first place. But also because it’s considered borderline racist to say anything negative about another culture.  Midler asserts that the combination of all these things is leading to a decline in our actual understanding:

It is curious that books written on China in the 1960s–Dennis Bloodworth’s The Chinese Looking Glass is an example–should read finer than most of what is produced these days, and that even these books pale in comparison to the works of the previous generation. The trend appears to go back quite some time. In the 1930s, Ralph Townsend was convinced that his contemporaries wrote nothing as accurate as that which was produced by Arthur Smith and Abbé Huc. The writer G. F. Hudson, a contemporary of Townsend’s, went further by claiming that “China was better known to Europeans in the eighteenth century than in the nineteenth, despite extensions of scholarly inquiry, simply because earlier reports had less cause to misrepresent what they found.”

At this point it’s only natural to ask for examples of the alienness I’m claiming the Chinese possess. Well as someone who’s never been to China, and has only the book to go by, I hardly think I’m qualified to do it justice, but if I don’t provide any examples, it would also severely weaken the point I’m trying to make. So I’ll do what I can.

In America we can imagine buying counterfeit merchandise (say a Prada handbag). And when we imagine it happening we probably picture a slightly shady street vendor, perhaps in New York. But of course you don’t imagine it happening if you walk into the official Prada store on fifth avenue, and yet in China it does. Not because the official store doesn’t sell the genuine article, but because they sell both. The merchant in question has to sell some real merchandise to keep their license, but if they think they can get away with it they’ll sell you the counterfeit version instead, even though they have the real stuff. Midler describes it this way (emphasis original):

This made no sense to me, at least not at the time. How could I be treated fairly while another customer was being taken advantage of in the very same shop? Many of us have a preconceived notion that there are only two kinds of service providers: the good and the bad. You have the reputable mechanic and the dishonest one, the fair attorney and the predatory one.

Chinese business operators instinctively understand how a hybrid model achieves the highest level of economic returns. Businesses that offer a fair deal to everyone leave too much money on the table, but those that cheat indiscriminately risk entirely losing their reputation.

Based on this and other examples I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Chinese don’t really use honesty as a framework for their behavior in anything remotely resembling the way it’s used in the West.

As my second example of the alienness of The Chinese culture, the Chinese are not troubled by mechanical or technological failures, they are troubled by social failures. A couple of quick examples of this:

When a plane or a train crashes in the West (see my last post) there is an enormous inquiry, we want to know what happened and how to keep it from happening again. In China, when one high speed train ran into another which had stopped. The Chinese put very little effort into understanding what had happened. Instead, they immediately moved backhoes in and buried the trains. Under pressure, they eventually did conduct an investigation, but it’s unclear how in-depth it really was. The chief result seemed to be a lot of people getting fired for “official corruption”. According to Midler, the Chinese people were horrified by the accident, but not, perhaps for the reasons you’d expect. Their horror came not because of the systemic failures which allowed it to happen, and not because of the governmental cover-up, and not because of the corruption. They were horrified because the driver of the train that was stopped should have texted the other drivers to let them know. It was the social failure not the mechanical failure which alarmed them.

For the other example, I’ll just quote from the book:

[I was reminded of a story] told to me by an importer from Canada. While he was visiting a supplier, a shop floor worker had lost a finger in a piece of machinery. Holding his injured hand, which was wrapped in a towel and bleeding profusely, the laborer sat on the floor while colleagues went to find the missing digit. The factory boss then rushed over and, after pausing to assess the situation, began hitting the injured employee over the head. “How many times,” he said, while beating the poor worker, “have I told you to keep your damned fingers out of that machine!”

Most western companies would have been worried about putting a system in place to make the machine safer. On the other hand, in sweatshop style conditions, with no regard for worker safety you can imagine the person being callously fired. But this in between business of yelling and hitting is either extraordinarily cruel, or, and this is my opinion, it’s prioritizing the social over the technological and mechanical. Either way it’s very different from what you might expect.

For my final example of Chinese alienness, I’ll balance things out by choosing something which the Chinese probably does better than the West. As it turns out, the Chinese are somewhat baffled by what they see in Hollywood movies, particularly crime capers, where the full deal is worked out in advance. We’ve all seen a movie where everyone agrees to split things equally, and then of course, inevitably, the deal doesn’t go quite the way they expected and mayhem and violence ensue. The same could be said for business deals, where, in the West, contracts are rigorously hammered out in advance. The Chinese don’t do that, they understand that things look different at the end than they did at the beginning and they are very willing to change the deal as circumstances change:

Chinese partnerships appear to us to be far better coordinated because often they are. Chinese do not so easily constrain themselves to the initial terms of a deal, and they show a willingness to reevaluate at any point along the way. This is not to say that those who are in a position of power do not still take advantage of whatever leverage they hold. But, all else being equal, participants have a higher expectation that their contribution will be rewarded in a more or less accurate way on a flexible scale that is subject to adjustments.

This frequently takes the form of there being an understood percentage for performing certain tasks. If an agent brings a new client to a factory it’s understood he’ll get 3% of the deal. This is the case even if he’s never had any previous contact with the factory, and he definitely doesn’t need to have a contract. If the agent’s relationship with the new client is particularly good, he may be able to get 4%. If it turns out the client can barely stand the agent, and never wants to talk to him again, he’ll still walk away with 2%. So there is some wiggle room, but they’re unlikely to be cut out entirely, a situation I’ve seen all the time in the US.

Midler ascribes this to the Chinese having a finely honed sense of fairness and that therefore most entrepreneurial relationships work better.

The ability of the Chinese to accurately assess the value of a person’s contribution—combined with a confident faith that decision makers will act upon this information—opens up endless opportunities.

Those were just a few examples of large differences between Western culture and Chinese culture, and perhaps you remain unconvinced that the differences are all that profound, and you certainly don’t like using the word “alien” to describe those differences. You are obviously entitled to your opinion, but in reality I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are 31 chapters in the book, each detailing a significant difference between the two cultures. Perhaps they are not all equally consequential, but when you put them all together, the whole is almost certainly greater than the sum of its parts. If nothing else, I would assume that you recognize the increasing importance China plays in the affairs of the world, and that you would, consequently desire a better understanding of them. If so I would definitely recommend Midler’s book, even if you aren’t inclined to agree with this central premise, that there’s something wrong with China.

The book is mostly a collection of anecdotes about Midler’s many, many years in China as a western representative working with Chinese factories. And it would be surprising if any nation couldn’t be the basis of a whole book of stories, but that also wouldn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of global impact. Therefore, the question we really should be addressing is what do all of these behaviors mean for China’s larger role in the world and in particular what do they mean for the relationship between the US and China?

As I mentioned at the beginning, after reading the book, one of my biggest worries is that while Chinese culture is, and always has been very different from Western culture, our ability to notice those differences and make allowances for them is as bad as it’s ever been. Somehow greater globalism has decreased our actual knowledge about China. And insofar as they’re a big player on the world stage, and only getting bigger, that’s not an ideal position to be in. We should be striving to get deeper at the truth, even if it might reflect poorly on China and its people because this is one area where we can’t allow cultural sensitivity to blind us to reality, particularly since one of the things China has proved more than capable of doing is using our cultural sensitivity against us. And if anything in the post thus far has made you uncomfortable that’s exactly what I’m talking about.

We’ve arrived at a point where we all agree China is going to be a major player if not the major player going forward, but where we also strongly suspect that our knowledge of their culture and the actions flowing from that culture may be less than ideal. That’s not a good combination. I know a lot of people expect that the next few decades will be similar to the last few decades, particularly that peace and prosperity will continue. But if we fundamentally misunderstand the motivations of one the major players in that future, than there’s a good chance those expectations are going to be incorrect. So what do the behaviors described in the examples I just gave mean in terms of the future? How does all of this play out at a global scale going forward? Well, for each of the examples I gave above (except for the last) I’ll attempt to scale up the behavior and make some (necessarily) vague predictions about where it might lead.

In the first example I talked about the Chinese behavior of mixing dishonest and honest behavior in a constant search for maximum profit. At first glance this might appear to be greedy, but otherwise unremarkable. But I think if you dig a little deeper you’ll see that it’s an example of something far more important, the difference between culture and ideology. In the West we have a culture (though it’s hard to imagine a time when it’s been less influential) but for the last century, with Western Culture ascendent, and therefore largely taken for granted, our focus has moved onto ideology. This was most evident during the Cold War which was entirely a conflict of ideology. So then what’s the difference between culture and ideology? Ideology get’s exported and promoted, culture does not.

As with most things there’s some ambiguity in the middle there, particularly in the West where culture and ideology have been cross-pollinating for quite awhile. But even so, it’s notable how reluctant we are to export or advocate for anything that’s explicitly cultural, while we go to great lengths to promote and export our ideology (think democratic elections, free trade, intellectual property protection, etc.) What are the Chinese ideological exports? I’m having a hard time thinking of any. Certainly, to return to the example, I see no evidence that they’re trying to export an ideology of maximizing profits through a balance of honest and dishonest behavior. We have an ideology of honesty and respect for the law. And we think it’s something everyone should be doing. They see their mixed behavior as a cultural advantage, an advantage they want to preserve as they clash with other cultures and civilizations. This is actually a large subject, which is why I’m going to leave off here, and return to it next week.

The second example was about a Chinese focus on social failures rather than mechanical failures. Once again this may not seem like that big of a deal, but I think it speaks to a cultural difference between the West and China which has existed for a very, very long time. It used to be said that China invented gunpowder, but Europeans invented the gun. That China invented paper, but Europe invented the printing press. I don’t think you’re supposed to point this out anymore. But that is more or less what happened, and while there are many reasons why, one of them is a Western focus on systems over people. Whereas China has had a focus on people over systems (as indicated in the example). Now there are probably some ways in which this focus is better, but when we examine the advance of science and technology, and why the world of 2018 looks different from the world of 1018, it’s in large part due to prioritizing systems over people.

Another example of this is the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Despite the fact that the plane was destined for China, and that 64% of the people on board were Chinese nationals, and that China has a GDP 39x that of Malaysia, the Chinese government only covered 10% of the search cost. Australia, which really had no stake in things except to be nearby, and has a GDP 1/9th that of China, covered 32% of the cost of the search and took charge of it as well. How much of that is due to Australia being culturally western?

My worry is basically this, and it’s entirely possible it’s overblown, but a focus on systems ends up being synonymous with a focus on science and engineering, and despite what you may think, science and invention and academic rigor do not come naturally to humans. It’s all more fragile than we think. If Midler is right (and the examples do seem to back him up) and Chinese culture is less focused on systems, then as they begin to take a larger role in the world there is a good chance that the world as a whole will be less focused on these things. You might offer, as a counterpoint the recent news that China has overtaken America as the largest producer of scientific articles, unfortunately this is less encouraging than you might think. First it’s easy to find plenty of other articles talking about the enormous level of scientific misconduct, fraud, and actual fake research in China. Second, China has a habit of artificially inflating statistics which they feel correspond to having a more developed country. For example Midler, claims (and other sources back him up) that:

Beijing central planners understand that an economy can be considered “advanced” once a certain percentage of its population resides in an urban environment, and so it has chosen to forcibly move people from the countryside into the cities.

Given all the problems with Chinese research I imagine something similar might be happening with scientific articles.

The final Chinese cultural difference I want to cover is their focus on dynastic thinking. In short, while we in the West expect that progress will march on more or less forever, in China their view of how the world works is far more cyclical. The West, particularly if you include America, has only been on top once, but they continue to be on top. China has been on top multiple times, and they’ve also bottomed out multiple times as well, and according to Midler there’s a rush to accomplish as much as possible before the current dynastic cycle ends:

Beijing appears to be in a hurry, but for what?

…When the United States voiced it’s concern over reclamation activity in the South China Sea, Beijing did not respond by cooling down related activity. Quite the opposite, project crews began working around the clock…

In moving fast, Beijing was guaranteeing that the international community would apply greater pressure. But by its own calculations, the window of opportunity was going to close one way or another anyway, so why not put as many points on the board before it did so?

…No, this foolish rush is about something else, something simpler. It’s about ringing the bell. It’s about seeing just how far China can take things before that great window of opportunity shuts.

I suspect they’re right that the window of opportunity will be closing soon, if for no other reason than that’s what they believe will happen. And it should go without saying that a future where China continues to progress at the same rate they have been is very different from a future where China has collapsed. And while the Chinese belief that it will happen makes it more likely, it’s possible that our ignorance of this belief isn’t helping anything either.

It’s possible Midler is wrong about the extent to which Chinese culture is different from Western culture. Obviously there have to be some differences, but I suppose someone might argue that the differences are small; or they’re large, but ultimately inconsequential; or that the Chinese culture is being replaced by a universal culture, and in a few years it won’t matter. As I said you could make these arguments, but I wouldn’t. In fact I’m going to spend the next post making that exact opposite argument. That while ideology has recently been more important than culture, this state of affairs is not going to continue. The world is made up of many different civilizations, each with its own distinct culture. They are not going away and the future is going to be dominated by the clash of civilizations.


Whatever the truth of Chinese profit maximization through a risk of behaviors, I obviously have none of that, and keep trying the same behavior over and over again, If my straightforwardness appeals to you at all, consider donating.