Thursday, August 16, 2018

Simulacrum Society, Part 3: The Trial Never Ends

[Part 2 is HERE.]

See Q's first speech, Star Trek: The Next Generation S1: E1, 
"Encounter at Farpoint" (1987),
Owned by ViacomCBS

H3: Have you reached a better understanding of humanity now, one that includes its successes as well as its failures? 

H4: I'm not certain my conclusions will please you, but I won't be accused of a lack of effort, so here goes: 

The 21st century midwifed five major changes: 

1) The transformation of religion into a community-building vehicle rather than an engine for intellectualism, especially where subsidized by the state; and, in areas where religion declined, a lack of equivalent substitutes that promoted meaning or historical context; 

2) Women's cultural decisions to imitate men, but without attacking institutional economic factors that disproportionately promoted male influence, such as military spending; 

3) Data-driven economics prioritizing capital inflows without regard to intangibles such as well-being and individual agency, plus governments searching for relevance amidst the rise of the private sector and fragmented informational access; 

4) A failure to realize humanity had limits and that technological progress beyond a certain point, especially if debt-driven, promoted slavery rather than free agency; and 

5) A clash between cultures, one that believed publicizing behavior led to immodesty and inexorable falsity, and another that believed, on balance, publicity generated positive returns by providing models to aspire to. 

H3: For f*ck's sake, I can't take this anymore. All I wanted was some recognition that human beings, our ancestors, weren't chumps. Do you have some way of communicating without a multi-part tome? 

H4: [Sigh] Then let me tell you a story. You know Singapore, a tiny nation-state that built one of the world's most successful societies from scratch? 

H3: Yes, we studied them in school. Interesting country, fascinating leader

H4: In just 50 years, Singapore had flourished and was no longer associated with chewing gum bans, caning, and fines but with peace summits, hedge fund managers, and wealth. The basis of its society was trust and efficacy in all areas, allowing diversity to prosper. Although many Western pundits questioned its one-party dominance, others realized it made no sense to waste time and money shifting national goals every four years.

After achieving almost every benchmark of a highly developed country, Singapore's main economic goal was transforming itself into a digital society and moving all government services online by 2023. To its credit, it expressly included senior citizens and the disabled within its purview to avoid exclusion.

["Here in this island nation, we aim to build a fair and just society, where growth and prosperity benefit everyone, and the human spirit can flourish... We will leave no one behind, whatever the vicissitudes of life." -- Singapore PM Hsien Loong LEE (December 31, 2019)]

H3: That's great, right?

H4: Indeed, it's one reason you and I are here, connected to the grid and on this pod. But it's important to realize Singaporeans, along with Estonians and Finns, didn't have much choice but to become guinea pigs in a society increasingly tilting away from the tangible and continuing to struggle with cybersecurity. 

In a push to trickle down the benefits of cyberinvestments to the civilian sector, governments outside the EU were numb about privacy concerns and could not achieve consensus regarding an appropriate balance between freedom of speech and protection of vulnerable populations. Problematically, in order for a digital society to work, it needs all the data. AI can never be sure the 90% it has reviewed is the most relevant or correct if there's 10% missing. 

H3: Hence, the rise of the surveillance state in the 21st century--an effort to capture all voice, facial, gait, and location data. Governments and corporations had to see everything in order to optimize the digital economy. Anyone trying to disrupt the model, even by excluding himself or herself from cell phones, was interfering with trillions of dollars of investments by multiple countries. 

H4: In the meantime, Singapore had decided the right balance involved mandatory military service for male citizens and political speech in designated areas only with a permit. Yet, other than its brilliant founder and Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore in 2018 failed to produce a single notable poet, philosopher, or author raised and educated within city limits. (Kevin Kwan was raised in the United States and Chua Beng Huat studied in Canada.) No one publicly questioned why Singapore, given its lack of creative output, should be so enthusiastic to become fully digital. Everyone assumed it was the way to go, especially with China rolling out a social credit score. It was as if insurance companies--the wealthiest and most influential businesses in the world at the time--had taken over human "progress."

H3: Why are you complaining? We're safer than we've ever been, in part due to the sacrifices made by the Chinese, Singaporeans and other people during the 21st century.

H4: Did they have a choice? World governments decided it was impossible to create enough good jobs if population growth continued, so they set about lowering birthrates, increasing the age of new parents, and making consumer debt more palatable. We know governments in debt have no qualms about placing their citizens in debt, too. 

From LinkedIn, July 2019
No one asked if this was the best way forward. The future would involve digital transformation and financial leverage, and developing countries would just have to get on with it. 

[Roughly two fifths [40%] of the world's population is effectively outside the financial system, without access to bank accounts, much less credit." (Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money, paperback, Penguin Books, 2008-09, page 282)]

H3: I'm still confused about why you're complaining. 

H4: Remember: these were governments and corporations that could not solve segregation; fair pay and hiring processes that rewarded merit regardless of one's gender or accidental place of birth; increasing rates of divorce, depression, and suicide; a fair criminal justice system; and the military-industrial complex
Huat's Liberalism Disavowed (2017)
Take the simple act of hiring employees. People would joke about repressive governments making them pay to work without realizing they'd described the status quo: after all, didn't they pay money to colleges, funded mostly by government/student loans, in order to secure a chance at a middle-class job? 

Lacking context, their "solution" to any wide-scale problem was always a hammer. Depressed? Take pharmaceuticals requiring persistent increases in dosage. Divorced? Download this app to meet new people. Lonely? Here's a website to find group activities. 

Even after spending obscene amounts of capital on psychological and academic studies, few people could discuss simple issues--such as the advantages and disadvantages of voluntary same-sex segregation--aside from the usual Puritanical spiels. In fact, our research proves the calming effect women's chemicals have on men and the way men's chemicals spur higher red blood cell production in women--and we've used these findings to create more comprehensive pharmaceuticals, finally solving a bevy of psychological and physiological ailments. 

We also know the reason some women felt a subconscious desire to prolong social interactions with men before copulation was to see whether each person adapted well to the other's chemical impact. Seen this way, segregated gender settings imposed a less "contaminated" chemical test when two people decided to test the waters between each other and also made it more likely each gender would feel calmed by the other. 

H3: So romantic difficulties weren't only because of temptation and more choices but a mix of culture and complex biological forces? 

H4: Yes, but that was the least of humanity's problems in 2018. So many different forces upended humanity's customary ways of life, most people spent the 21st century not entirely sure what was going on. Greater technology led to fewer jobs at the very moment women were entering the workforce in developed countries. As the time between educational completion and one's first positive net worth became longer, both women and men in developed countries lost incentives to have children, leading to immigration battles. 

Ironically, immigration presented the most obvious as well as the most difficult way to grow. Most people know if x country attracts a hard worker from y country, it has scored a 200% victory differential. The immediate consequence of y country losing one of its hardest or smartest workers is a minus 100% score, which also disrupts y country's gender relations if its citizen is unmarried. Over time, however, the immigrant becomes a reflection of x country's institutions because his or her child will be influenced more by the country's institutions and residents than by family. This dynamic exists not only because of linguistic fluency differentials, but because immigrant adults typically lack a solid understanding of their new country, leaving their children more susceptible to immediate--and, for the parents, foreign--influences. 

As these sociological forces were intruding on people's lives, the world economic order was breaking apart. Because of the way trade was linked to military cooperation and weapons purchases, freedom of trade didn't really exist, which limited freedom of labor as well as movement. 

H3: Didn't women in so-called first-world societies have a limited period to have children back then, making the education-to-job process harder for them as well as society? Melinda Gates, of all people, wasn't recognized for her fascinating (but probably suboptimal) hypothesis: support roles needed to be monetized for true gender equality. Broad attempts at harmonizing pay scales or other artificial attempts at changing the economic system that didn't touch fundamental drivers of inequality were insufficient. 

H4: [chuckles] Yes. The great politician Lee Kuan Yew made few major mistakes, but he almost lost his people's trust when he offered state incentives for educated women to have children. As one Singaporean taxicab driver remarked, "What, just because I drive a cab, my kid can't be a college professor [one day]?" 

H3: Ha! The limits of top-down governance, even in a small area, had been reached, and no one had accounted for women not having at least two children. Humanity's conflicts make sense now--a lack of advanced biological technology mucked up their entire platform. 

You know, people forget evolution, based on mutations occurring at precise times when the environment allows continued propagation, doesn't always have to be good. Of course we've solved that issue now, and we've decided we can choose for ourselves which mutations and changes we desire.

H4: Speaking of outliers and mutants, the greatest English-speaking writer on human interaction was born to a Missouri farmer who died penniless. Dale Carnegie died in 1955, and no one has been able to replicate his abilities thus far. In other words, humanity's source code hadn't changed for millennia but 21st technology finally caused an almost overnight evolution--and, as you point out, not in a good way. 

H3: You're referring to the visual over the logical. Our ancestors took the digital revolution and channeled it into a visually-driven society, unwittingly reducing space for introverts and philosophers, or as I like to call them, the Shane Battiers, the Tariq Abdul-Wahads, the glue guys. 

H4: You're onto something. In a visual society, people focus on the most obvious or loudest players, when in fact every team and therefore every society needs all personalities playing equally hard. 

H3: "Too many chiefs, not enough Indians." 

H4: More accurately, "Too many wannabe-chiefs, not enough brave Indians." So as humanity shifted its society from the physical to the digital, it stopped asking "big" questions about whether its own progress was optimal and sustainable. By 2018, it had been at least 50 years when a lawyer or philosopher had accomplished anything substantially bettering all of society. After Gandhi, Lee Kuan Yew, Karl Popper... [poof!] 

More troubling, no one asked "Why?" regularly. Devadas Krishnadas once wrote, "[A]mongst the 5 W's--why, what, whom, when, and where--the 'Why?' was the singular most important query to satisfy. If that question had a good answer then the rest would be a matter of tactics." 

In 2018, the answer to "Why?" was most likely, "To get out of debt," "To make money," or some other uninteresting answer. Meanwhile, the number of interesting, authentic people were dwindling--and that's when they weren't killing themselves

It was so weird--everyone knew something was off, but no one had the language to express what "it" was, and the reason no one possessed the language was because visual images and technology had replaced meaningful vocabulary and context.

H3: [Sigh] Oh, come on, you can't be a Luddite. Technology constantly evolves, and we've finally tailored it to individuals, resolving most philosophical objections against its widespread use. 

H4: What about the idea that physical spaces exist to show you things you might not otherwise be exposed to? A digital library with an algorithm tailored to your preferences will provide excellent recommendations, but what about the idea that randomness has value

H3: We have algorithms that provide randomized results. We've thought of everything, and we now have access to everything within our imagination. 

H4: Then why did our ancestors value collaboration so much? Why did so many interesting ideas result from mistakes, including possibly chocolate [from cacao beans exposed to fire]? 

H3: In the past, we had no choice. Today, we can run simulations that provide us with every single possible scenario and outcome. 

H4: But those outcomes are based, at some starting point, on human inputs, even with machine learning. 

H3: Even if I accept your argument that some gaps exist, the amount of information our technology provides is overwhelmingly positive and prevents us from wasting time going down cul-de-sacs. You mentioned relationships, yes? Even if an algorithm does not make a perfect match, it can remove people with incompatible goals, which generates more time for everyone and a better system. 
Taleb, Antifragile (2012)
H4: Can your algorithm measure integrity? 

H3: [Sigh] Of course not--that's not what it's designed to do. Would you prefer the old ways, with hundreds of millions of orphans and divorcées? 

H4: When I was younger, I'd have given you an immediate answer. As I get older, I'm less sure. Who's to say an orphan is less valuable than a non-orphan, or a divorcée less interesting than a lifelong spouse? A single random encounter may be more likely to produce a drug addict than an Oprah, but no algorithm could accurately perform a cost-benefit analysis in a person's specific case because the future is elastic

To predict the future, we input all kinds of scenarios into algorithms, not just financial ones, but we know--not least of all because of the 2008-2009 financial crisis--any model based on human input will have gaps even if randomness is minimized. The reason we think our models have improved isn't because technology has gotten better but because our overall approach has minimized randomness, providing better results--at a cost I consider too high. 

H3: Are you going to pay for the social welfare programs necessary to uplift each orphan resulting from a poorly conceived match? Doesn't it make more sense to use that money to further space exploration, healthcare, and other improvements? Listen, we've eliminated infant mortality. It will be 0% in the near future. We can also remove problematic genes in vitro or in vivo and create babies outside the womb. What invention would you need to see before you're willing to become more complimentary in your analysis? 

H4: Hold on--your question includes an unexamined premise. Why would we need to create separate programs for orphans? Why couldn't they use the same programs as anyone else? We know social welfare programs in the past were useless in solving long-term problems, so we changed our approach. The problem wasn't that a child was an orphan, but that such a child had excessive randomness in his or her life, i.e., less stability. 

H3: Wait, I thought you liked randomness. Weren't you promoting it just now? 

H4: [Sigh] No, I was arguing for self-determination, which requires some randomness and some interaction with physical objects. The digital world can be manipulated--opinions often differ based on the inputs given, so one check-and-balance against informational manipulation is randomness and the willingness to explore random paths. To take one example, no physical wooden wardrobe, no C.S. Lewis fable. 
H3: You mean like this? [Waves hand, shows one simulation of a wooden wardrobe, then another, and then another...] 

H4: I keep telling you, there's a massive difference in the way our brains interact with real things, no matter how realistic the simulation. 
Kristof, A Path Appears (2014)
A Japanese writer, Murakami, described the moment he decided to become a writer: he said it happened entirely by chance at a baseball game when he heard the crack of a bat. No physical game, no writer. 
Murakami mentioning "tactile memories"
when describing his decision to begin writing novels.
H3: Modern psychologists disagree, and neuroscientists who've measured the brain's reactions in different scenarios say differences today are infinitesimal between simulations and non-simulations. The reason prior humans couldn't generate the same synapses as us is because their simulations weren't good enough. 

An AR/VR baseball game would have been inferior to the "real" thing in 2025 but now, it's the same--and, quite frankly, better because of the minimized clutter and preparation time. Don't you remember the 2018 Asian Games' debacle regarding online ticket sales? [waves hand, shows website
They had to revert to physical office sales because their third-party ticket seller's website didn't work. We don't have those issues. 

H4: But your analysis is inherently unfair--the younger generation doesn't have the requisite alternate scenario to be able to make meaningful comparisons. They're exposed to simulations much earlier and much more often than prior generations. If our physical landscape has completely changed, how can we measure the impact of the old ways vs. the new when the old ways no longer exist? Listen to Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985): 

By substituting images for claims, the pictorial commercial made emotional appeal, not tests of truth, the basis of consumer decisions. The distance between rationality and advertising is now so wide that it is difficult to remember that there once existed a connection between them... No claims are made, except those the viewer projects onto or infers from the drama... One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it.

H3: We make fair comparisons by measuring infant mortality rates; the decline of extreme poverty; the percentage of children with access to education; the elimination of laws that discriminate on the basis of private activity or immutable traits; accident rates, whether on or off the job; and so on.

H4: You've totally missed the point. Why are movies less interesting today than they were in the American 1940s? Why is dialogue less spry? Why is everything well-done either a joke or a dystopia? But you know what, let's take one of your examples. Do you think if you remove a law against segregation, suddenly segregation disappears?

H3: It's the first and necessary step. Everything improves incrementally once you remove direct obstacles.

H4: Even agreement on common values and how to finance their advancement? 

H3: The mistake you keep making is assuming humanity isn't simple. We've learned from the past and eliminated overly complex interference. We now know the following: 

1) The more diverse a society, the more of a meritocracy it must be to avoid fracturing; 

2) Almost all economic problems stem from short-termism in the pursuit of profit without long-term sustainability analyses, which eventually morph into social problems; and 

3) Each existing constituency typically deserved to reach power but over time, typically three generations, loses its original purpose and becomes corrupt. 

For example, when Americans utilized slavery, racism clearly played a part, but the goal was the same in every generation, though the tools became more complex: cheap labor, higher profits. The Americans imported labor from all over the world, first by force, then through varying stages of exploitation like short-term visas and debt. If a country didn't have a natural resource to exploit, it grew through immigration, sovereign wealth funds investing overseas, and/or short-term labor contracts. Every single 21st century's economic growth strategy involved some form of labor exploitation, because technological platforms were trying to overwhelm competitors' technologies, creating a new digital arms race. At some point, state competitors decided it was too expensive and too difficult to export one-size-fits-all digital platforms into each country and essentially agreed to monopolies within each geographic area. Thankfully, the digital platform wars ended peacefully, with the most advanced players drawing geographical lines around different areas the same way countries did post-WWII and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire

H4: [Smiles] When did you become so damn wonky? 

H3: [Growls] You must be influencing me. 

H4: Doesn't your analogy to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire make you anxious? Did you study the numerous conflicts that resulted from such hasty border creations? 

H3: But that's the beauty of digital borders. Almost anyone can go anywhere else, so there's fewer reasons for conflict. 

H4: Oh, come on, a Vanilla Sky (2001) existence for everyone is your idea of utopia? 

H3:  You don't get it--the true value of the digital world is peace, not originality. Problems with rapid capital and cultural changes are less problematic when the digital is prioritized over the physical. 

By way of analysis, let's examine a developing country that accepts a large, established restaurant chain. The chain immediately has major advantages over locally-owned businesses such as greater access to capital markets, advertising budgets, ability to scale, etc. What leaders didn't understand was that inviting foreign businesses meant the invitees also captured or co-opted local supply chains. 

For example, a restaurant that served chips or fries had to source potatoes. That meant it could eliminate competition indirectly, even with an inferior product, if it offered potato farmers higher-than-market price, then purchased each lot's maximum output. It could also control fluctuating prices by importing if necessary or relying on derivatives, two options unavailable to most small businesses or local competitors. 

The next thing you know, foreign capital and marketing from outsiders are changing your society in unexpected ways. 
Singaporean gov ad with 100% Caucasians displayed (2018)
Worse, any attempt to fix the problem after failing to create a long-term investment plan usually ends up violating the meritocracy principle we mentioned earlier. In short, countries that successfully deployed foreign capital did so as part of an overall security framework, which forced negotiators into long-term outlooks. Every single successful story of outside influence in the 20th century was within a framework of trade agreements either designed to repair a country after its military defeat (Germany, Japan) or to bring it into a commonly shared security arrangement (Singapore). The future in the 21st century was digital security, and that approach paved the way for us to be here, enjoying this conversation. Countries had to negotiate with each other within a new framework, which took time, but they eventually caught up. 

H4: So you're telling me we've identified solutions to the problems you mentioned above?  

H3: We're working on it. It's an incremental process because as I just explained, technology amplified the risks of sudden change. It didn't actually change anything fundamental--it just made mistakes far more costly. 

By 2018, humanity realized if the result of total surveillance wasn't social harmony, governments would lose credibility. China's approach suddenly became viable, despite fewer consumer choices and the loss of privacy. Many hiccups occurred on the path to achieving a less totalitarian digital society, including cults that ironically failed to achieve critical mass because their methods eschewed digital platforms. Most governments eventually determined a fear-based strategy no longer worked and switched to proving their competence. Singapore became a model for this "soft totalitarian" approach, where citizens knew their government was watching but trusted the judgment of their officials. 

Singapore's model worked because of its small size and affluence, and its approach took time and trial-and-error to adapt to larger countries. Some elements of Singaporean society could not be replicated despite best efforts. For instance, its small size meant government officials were accessible by default, while its mandatory military draft meant almost everyone knew a police officer or military servicemember, making conspiracy plots against minorities implausible. 

Indeed, one could argue Singapore's greatest accomplishment was putting minorities into its police department for day-to-day policing, something no other country managed to do in meaningful ways. It worked in Singapore because LKY consciously ensured the country's military was majority Chinese, and in the unlikely event of a police-led uprising, of course the military had far more capability. In contrast, America's police departments had historical links with the racist Ku Klux Klan, making meaningful diversity efforts more difficult; and although America's military was more egalitarian, its greater diversity was partly due to the country's failures in educational development, which impacted the private sector's willingness to hire and develop minorities. 

Costa Rica and Panama came closest to Singapore's domestic security paradigm, but with a twist: they eliminated their military, effectively gambling their relatively safe and prosperous countries would attract significant capital investment from militarily-advanced countries, which would then interfere in the event of an invasion. Once again, the 20th century's emphasis on using the sea for trade scored winners, as Singapore and Panama had sovereignty over their strategically important ports, while Costa Rica had the best ecotourism in the world. 
John Perry's Singapore (2017)
In any case, China's attempts to copy Singaporean culture failed because Chinese officials didn't appreciate the sacrifices Singaporeans made to enforce their informal motto--borrowed from Indonesia--of "unity through diversity." If America's problem was taking a blunt hammer to its problems, China's was that it preferred a Mjölnir. 

So, as usual, change was incremental, but once humanity saw Singapore's success, at least it had a way forward, though its unevenness caused many countries to take the less difficult path of isolationism--assuring their decline. 

H4: If you're right, then change was incremental because 20th century economies grew in the shape of an upside-down pyramid, which the 21st century spent flattening into something more sustainable. As Michael Lewis wrote in Flash Boys (2014), “Every systemic market injustice arose from some loophole in a regulation created to correct some prior injustice.” In other words, laws didn't get repealed--humans just added more of them to their rules-based foundation and relied on selective enforcement under a deterrence framework. In effect, lawyers, legislators, and so-called "elites" dug their own graves by failing to think long-term while outsourcing their roles to the executive branch's whims. 

William O. Douglas (1963)

H3: So you're arguing humanity had delegated its destiny and way of life to the executive branch long before the "strongman" politician came into vogue? 

H4: From a strictly economic analysis, nothing is inherently wrong with a strongman or illiberal politician--as long as the quality of life for all residents improves steadily over time. LKY proved that. 

The problem in 2018 was the economic foundation of worldwide civilization was built on military spending, and such a foundation no longer supported benefits that accrued to all residents. In the past, military spending provided far more than defense. It provided logistics, trade, knowledge transfers, cultural exchanges, and process improvements [e.g., Kaizen (改善), inspired by American William Edwards Deming, who believed higher quality ipso facto reduces costs and boosts productivity, which in turn improves market share]. 

If your R&D--and therefore innovative capacity--is linked to unchecked military spending, everything designed to restrict its growth will fail. Liberals lost credibility by not understanding this simple concept and by discarding individuals who operated outside their preferred networks. 

H3: Unions, universities, political parties... all of them apparently accepted the principle of "100 dollars for the military yesterday, 10 dollars for me today, 11 dollars for me tomorrow, and isn't everything just great?"

H4: No one made the link between humanity's loss of originality/creativity and the expansion of unsustainable military spending, which had destroyed privacy. Just like laws built on top of one another with little to no relation to everyday lives, military spending had built t
oo many jobs, especially for uneducated men, to be reduced. More problematically, such spending, including weapons sales, were the real basis for many worldwide trade agreements, few of which could be unwound easily without affecting numerous industries. 

The U.S. assumed it would make a reasonable ROI on its military spending while creating jobs for its citizens worldwide but overestimated its influence. By 2018, it had shut down its base in Subic Bay, Philippines; lost Hong Kong to China (in 1997); lost trading influence with Taiwan; and had only tiny Singapore to counter China's rise in SE Asia. 

[My country feels that money spent on weapons of war and armies is money wasted... security must be secured through the collective and effective strength of the UN... We seek a welfare state and not a warfare state... If independence and freedom are not to be empty slogans then we must continue to spend as much of our resources as we can on fighting the only war that matters to the people--the war against poverty, ignorance, disease, bad housing, unemployment, and against anything and everything which deny dignity and freedom to our fellow man. -- S. Rajaratnam's September 21, 1965 speech to the UN after Singapore's recognition as an independent country] 

H3: You keep mentioning originality. Originality wasn't optimized because military spending--which I support, by the way--fosters trickle-down jobs in the civilian sector prioritizing not just following orders but citizens who follow orders. I get it. What's the alternative? Malcolm X, MLK, John Lennon... a long list of creatives were shot because of poor security

If you want to be fair, you'll argue we've always relied on propaganda to maintain security due to deterrence being the most cost-effective method, but when the spending necessary to maintain security is unsustainable or fails to result in genuine safety or transformative trickle-down innovation, governments lose credibility and people lose hope. At the same time, we never stop trying. 

H4: The logical result of a dishonest society, which you describe as imbalanced, is that Anthony Bourdain spends most of his life poor and then commits suicide while Donald Trump becomes a billionaire and President. And while humanity agonizes over ecology, authenticity has become the most endangered species. 

["Look, I believe in some basic virtues, you know? Mercy, humility, curiosity, empathy. They sound quaint now, but..." -- from Anthony Bourdain's last interview in 2018] 

H3: It's not a perfect society. 

H4: [Becomes angry, but only for a moment] It doesn't bother you that the artwork and creativity from humanity's former generations exceeded the quality of their descendants? Visit any major city in 1600 and observe the central mosque or cathedral and how each neighborhood was walkable (due to a lack of cars, of course). Then visit a major city in America in 2040 and observe the difference in architectural quality--and the abject sameness. It was as if humanity peaked creatively but was too busy applauding its technological advances to realize its overall regression. 

Meanwhile, Robbie Williams might have summarized developed countries' malaise when he sang, "We're praying it's not too late / 'Cause we know we're falling from grace..." 

H3: [Softens a little] Truly, no one thought it strange that developed countries were foisting their advanced economic culture on developing societies despite the latter being more culturally dynamic? 

H4: As you yourself argue, what could anyone do about it? Almost all interesting people were hybrids--mutants like Junot Diaz, Nicola Yoon, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Zadie Smith. Without realizing it, humanity's intellectual evolution had regressed to advanced cave sketching and advanced spearing. People kept citing Greek philosophers without wondering why they themselves couldn't generate equivalently interesting thoughts despite a 2,000+ year advantage. 

H3: Well, returning to the security argument, the Greeks were able to develop many philosophers because they had four slaves for every one citizen, allowing more leisure time after mandatory military service; however, it surprises me that a so-called "advanced" intellectual society couldn't avoid murdering Socrates, exiling Plato, or advancing sexism. Perhaps Socrates' evolving thoughts on democracy should have been a warning to future imitators of Greek civilization. Indeed, at least one man, John Adams, seems to have gotten the message in 1814: 

I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy... Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. 

H4: I have a different view than Adams. The problem wasn't government or political structures, but something in human nature itself that belied humility. Take something as simple as the early and now outdated Islamic practice of dividing men and women in the public sphere. 

I've noticed in historic simulations incorporating hardware and without my tech-suit, when I spend lots of time with the opposite gender, my energy declines, indicating an invisible exchange of testosterone and estrogen levels. Consequently, it's possible Arab fighters separated men and men to maintain higher energy levels, and also that monogamy reduces male sex drive, increasing the likelihood of better parenting and sexual fidelity. Now, what are the chances a Muslim Arab in 2000 A.D. would be able to determine whether any of the aforementioned hypotheses were true? 

H3: Well, what if it was just a way to avoid competition in the public sphere and matters of importance? Segregation usually involves relegating potential competitors to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind role. 

H4: True, but remember the prophet Mohammad (PBUH) married an older, affluent woman, had a child with her, and stayed monogamous until her death. Overall, given his simple background and youth, his societal edicts, mostly in favor of women and minorities, seem guided by the practical influence of an older woman. 
The Butterfly Mosque (2010)
H3: Ok, but what does any of this have to do with your creativity vs. security argument? 

H4: Creativity matters because not only does it provide honest marketing opportunities, saving us from a resource-driven economy, but it also helps ground our natural voyeurism. One reason social media was so predominant in the 21st century was because it tapped into human nature's innate desire to peer into other people's lives. If, over time, the lens becomes manipulated, it means our ability to interact meaningfully with others is reduced, removing many opportunities for collaboration--missed opportunities no technology can register. 

["When you're surrounded by endless possibilities, one of the hardest things you can do is pass them up." -- Murakami, Norwegian Wood (2000), paraphrasing Dostoevsky]

H3: But you're actually talking about the death of local communities like kampongs, not individualism or iconoclasts. People not part of the newly dominant system would of course be ignored--or worse--the alternative being that Singapore wouldn't have had the progress you yourself cited. 

H4: No, I keep telling you--a world running on military spending always disfavors individuals, especially creative ones. It was worse in poorer countries whose soldiers didn't travel internationally and who believed their civilian duties were more than just make-work to maintain the military-industrial complex. The fourth Jakarta employee who manually checked someone's boarding pass in 2018 had no idea other airports checked it only once or twice or that he was the victim of a meaningful job gap. 

H3: But everyone can argue their jobs are more meaningful or more valuable. 

H4: Sure, but there's a difference between a German company requiring 17 forms for an escalator manufacturer based on a logical QA process involving multiple suppliers and union input vs. a city having a hard time attracting private equity that then sees job growth in security positions because it's the easiest way to attract foreign capital. 

The problem with your acceptance of propaganda (aka marketing) is its assumption of a smooth line of progress; in reality, marketing relies on misinformation or concealment when things don't go as planned.
From 2018
The consequence? Governments, which now control the digital space through various negotiations with each other, have forced cultural localization and imaginary internationalization upon us. 

H3: I don't know the alternative. You prefer the fake news debacle of the 21st century? 

H4: I like choices. Don't you? Why do you think most people, if given a blind test in 2018, preferred to be born in Canada than China? What digital software could accurately measure national pride if one country's pride was based on informally enforced national loyalty days while another's was based on quiet dignity? 

H3: But it doesn't matter anymore. If you want to talk to a Canadian or a Chinese person from 2018 to today, programs are available. Because governments agreed to share voice, location, and facial data--subject to data anonymization and protective orders--you can talk to anyone in any time period. Years prior to 2000 are less accurate, but we have access to those programs, too. 

H4: You're missing my point. You accept propaganda as a sine qua non of modern society. I don't. I agree security is the underlying basis of all economic transactions; therefore, it must be funded properly. But any idiot can protect you with an unlimited budget--the trick is to harness security so it promotes rather than stifles creativity, diversity, and community. 
Nat'l Geographic, Dec 1961.
When technology and security are being used properly within economic development, the result is obvious: low-level security jobs decline over time. In 2018, Abu Dhabi's airport had one employee at the end of several automated checkpoints, not four people checking boarding passes. 

H3: Once again, your argument isn't with security, but the financialization of the world economy, especially where foreign debtors had to pay interest on bonds to creditors with stronger currencies. 

Remember J. Paul Getty: "If you owe the bank $100 that's your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that's the bank's problem." In 2016, America owed trillions to its trading partners, but that meant that countries owed trillions to America, too. 

H4: The complexity was astounding. Ireland became a huge creditor of U.S. dollars by lowering its tax rate to allow American technology companies to sell their own IP to their own subsidiaries, then invested the proceeds into U.S. securities. These royalty payments "averaged 23 per cent of the country’s annual gross GDP," putting it at odds with its trading partners in the EU. 

H3: What if other countries lowered their tax rates even further, leading to capital flight from Ireland?

H4: You're catching on to the unsustainability inherent in the system, are ya? Hong Kong actually had the best approach. It maintained a consistent 15% to 16.5% taxation rate, and highlighted to everyone that its tax rate would stay constant while it became attractive to capital and skilled labor in other ways, not just through its taxation rate. Anyone visiting Hong Kong in 2016 would see a veritable hodgepodge of nationalities, all comfortable, none afraid of their local government. 

H3: Did governments catch on and encourage predictability and adaptability? 

H4: Not exactly. The status quo continued well into the 22nd century because governments lowered interest rates and flooded the marketplace with money. Since they had failed in trickling down the benefits of military spending--infrastructure, better selection of products, free movement, etc.--to all citizens, they would try to maintain the stability of all enterprises until they could determine a better way. 

Remember, governments used to claim authority from some independent source until the 21st century. In the modern era, however, they had two choices: 1) give individual citizens benefits directly, such as housing (i.e., Singapore); or 2) ensure cohesion and societal harmony. As the latter became more and more difficult, governments tried to convince people life was getting better through marketing and opportunities for self-expression. 

H3: The optimism craze, where everything was getting better, even when it wasn't, or only when compared to a much worse time. 

H4: Yup. Now you said simulations had improved to the point where they were equal to or even better than the real thing, right? 

H3: That's what the research shows.

H4: So if the government and corporations wanted to lie to you about how much your life had improved, would it be easier or harder in a fully digital society where the government and its allies control information flows and what you see? 

H3: I accept your logical premise but not the result you are seeking. I do not accept that governments and people desire a more dishonest society merely to sustain their own power. I believe governments are sincere in blocking disruptive information and behavior in order to facilitate harmony and progress. 

H4: You know, some books are out of print. If you wanted to find Warren Hinckle's If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade (1974), you're probably dependent on someone else's interpretation of the source material, which algorithms prioritize. In other words, without physical bookstores and randomness, the information you receive about the past is virtually guaranteed to be secondhand (aka hearsay). Also, as society ages, almost all our information about the past becomes less reliable even if we find accurate source material, because our selection of the source material is now biased due to centuries of algorithmic fine-tuning. In effect, we are now more dependent than ever on large, invisible entities when it comes to developing our perspectives. 

You mentioned I can pull up AI-generated simulations of anyone from the past. Well, why can't I pull up actual interviews with individuals and sort them on my own? I realize the data is immense, but part of the reason life--and, I continue to maintain, human beings--used to be more interesting is because of the ability to interact randomly with information and physical objects. 

That’s gone. The day of the long form interview is kind of gone. It’s sad. -- Larry King, USA TV and radio host (2018)

H3: Suppose I agree the upside-down pyramid is an inherently unstable model. That even if the pyramid grows perfectly rather than unevenly, avoiding a Jenga-like scenario, at some point, reaching the top guarantees poor fidelity between the first and final bricklayers. That after some time, continued growth necessarily requires looking outward, creating tension as funding leaves familiar borders and becomes subject to less predictability. And that even worse, the distance between the top and bottom creates a compassion gap absent a strong leader to bring the community together and to guarantee accountability as well as stability. 

H4: The pattern has been attenuation, then repression to maintain the status quo. 

H3: Right. What's the alternative? 

H4: [Sigh] The alternative is to heed Robert Frost: "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out." And to understand walls do not have to be physical or even concrete to impose barriers. 

Trade agreements, laws, currency fluctuations, changing immigration rules, tariffs, foreign capital, etc.--all of them were intangible walls designed to create predictable systems of trade--and all of them, being intangible, were harder to control. This paradox caused less compassion in the 21st century because individuals implicitly understood they could not effectively assist farther blocks/communities outside the parts the system could control. 

More interestingly, places with less control--and therefore more danger--were more compassionate but unevenly so. Their tolerance allowed elements of radicalism, not just ideas the majority preferred. 

H3: So New Orleans, America was more vibrant than safer San Jose, America?

H4: Exactly. 

H3: And your alternative is... 

H4: Humility and the willingness to change your entire way of life, which is impossible absent societal cohesion. Singapore, for example, switched to an exchange rate mechanism rather than follow Western finance, which based government action on the money supply (M0-M4). It made perfect sense because shadow banking--the combined value of off-balance financial transactions through Western Union, PayPal, BitCoin, informal networks (not necessarily illegal), etc.--had reached trillions of dollars, making M1/M2 benchmarks almost meaningless. 

John Lanchester,
London Review of Books (2018)
H3: And raising or reducing interest rates doesn't work if the data you're using isn't complete. 
El-Erian, The Only Game in Town (2016)
H4: Exactly. And yet, in 2018, the brightest minds in the West were so pleased technology would finally allow real-time data analysis, they forgot their data was meaningless if it wasn't complete: 

[T]he most interesting things we want to do aren't to predict what GDP is going to do next month, but to make predictions about what happens if we tinker with the system. If we change the rules so that, say, people can't use as much leverage, or if we put interest rates at level X instead of level Y, what happens to the world? ... Places like the US Federal Reserve Bank make predictions using a system that has been developed over the last eighty years or so. This line of effort goes back to the middle of the 20th century, when people realized that we needed to keep track of the economy. They began to gather data and set up a procedure for having firms fill out surveys, for having the census take data, for collecting a lot of data on economic activity and processing that data. This system is called “national accounting,” and it produces numbers like GDP, unemployment, and so on. The numbers arrive at a very slow timescale. (J. Doyne Farmer)

H3: That's just poorly designed simulation, which we've solved. Back then, governments had to directly or indirectly merge operations with private companies or risk becoming obsolete. Regulations and the market had become too fragmented. 
In Behalf of Advertising (1929)
Thus, once a platform like Google dominated, it received tacit support from the national government, leading to regulatory conflict: at the same time a country didn't want to fall behind international competitors, its government was responsible for regulating private sector excesses. The question was how to do so effectively. 

["Globalization needs regulation but everyone is reluctant to demand it for fear that it may discriminate against them." -- Misha Glenny, McMafia (2008), pp. 150.]

H4: Conflicts abounded, driven by unnecessary complexity. Such a fragmented system certainly created jobs--every lawsuit filed by a plaintiff's lawyer meant a job for a defense lawyer--and therein lies the rub. More jobs, but no real progress, especially if insurance covered the bills and/or judgment. Without intending it, human beings had outsourced progress to insurance companies, financial organizations, and lawyers masquerading as knowledgeable government officials. 

H3: You're saying Marc Andreessen was wrong. Software didn't eat the world--finance and insurance did. 
Goldman Sachs alumnus Steve Bannon
Democratic checks and balances don't work if insurance interferes with accountability, if debt props up the incompetent, and if stability means more than integrity.
Perry's Singapore (2017)
H4: Yes, and one cannot issue or roll over trillions of dollars of debt without favoring stability over integrity, predictability over randomness. The ideal situation was Singapore: shared data between the government, often a stakeholder, and private industry, but with the government having a hands-off policy and allowing private competition for purposes of determining the most meritorious entity.  

H3: I agree Singapore offers many lessons in understanding the 20th and 21st centuries. Its remarkable progress proved co-opting organizations and marginalizing political opposition can work--as long as residents share common goals and as long as efficacy is the goal. But of course, they, too, were subject to the "law" of the third generation: "Fu bu guo san dai," or "Wealth never survives three generations." 

["We are ideology-free. What would make the place work, let's do it." -- LKY, 2007]

H4: Something like that. Almost everyone who remains in a place tends to go with the flow because the formal and informal rules they've accepted promote certain behaviors, which always exclude certain people and groups. Then, unless constrained by size or some other limiting factor, provincialism and disconnect develop within the status quo, a gap that allows new ideas room to maneuver--but only if the best ideas are allowed to take root, which requires the exact ingredients the status quo usually lacks, i.e., humility and adaptability. 

So remember the paradox: your belief system is the result of a prior belief system that worked so well, its adherents felt a special relationship to the divine or a particular method, but over time, its formal and informal rules lose sight of their original purpose, giving rise to yet another belief system that seems just as divine because it's countering one that has become antiquated. Yet, human nature doesn't change at all, creating confusion and conflict because the new adherents cannot access the reasons the old belief system worked in the past--if they could, they wouldn't need a new one. 

["And it is absolutely inevitable that when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, the people, in general, will suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will be most unwilling and indeed unable to conceive of any changes to it." -- James Baldwin, The Creative Process (1962)]

H3: In effect, humanity is always doomed to forget, then repeat history? 

H4: Bingo. The inability to access context is driven by multiple factors, not just struggles for informational integrity, but the unavoidable fact that everything degrades over time. 

["Those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever. They can fulfill their duties only by trying to reconstruct precisely things as they were, and by wresting the past from fictions and legends." -- Czeslaw Milosz (1980)]

H3: Why am I getting depressed? 

["the whole of recorded history even / is but a little gossip in a great silence." -- Dannie Abse]

H4: Hold on--we have a way out of the cycle. If we're able to remember the overall dynamics of human history, we can see ourselves--though in vastly different groups and geographies, indicating excessive fragmentation is nothing new--as having adapted logically over time to different events. So the Muslim ban on pork, which made sense in an era of unpredictable sanitary conditions, as well as its halal practices, can be adapted to the modern era by realizing our food is best when it comes from local sources and eaten quickly after preparation.

North Carolina has 9 million pigs. Why is that an important number? Pigs create ten times the excrement a human being does. So they’ve got the same population in pigs as New Jersey has people, but ten times the excrement. 
-- Cory Booker, New Jersey (USA) politician

Christian Science's admonitions against medical treatment resulted from sanctioned but mostly incompetent medical providers in the 19th and 20th centuries, and as medical treatment became more individualized and transparent, its objections were less convincing. 

The fundamental dynamic hasn't changed because human nature has stayed fundamentally the same--what's changed is our cognitive ability to reach back in time and adapt our ancestors' understandings to the present-day. As proof, the Islamic halal process follows a remarkably similar process on the Jewish side, showing humanity is drawn to particular practices, especially visually-percipient ones, as a means to bond with one another. 

We can avoid self-defeating cycles within the context of cognitive adaptability through skepticism, aka an acceptance of imperfect information, aka humility. One more example: Hinduism within the context of its caste system makes sense if we interpret it as elders restricting information to promote the perception that certain members, especially older ones, had special access to wisdom or power. The religion's failure to answer whether conversion is possible given the required caste designations can then be attributed to wanting to be seen positively in the continued informational warfare that marks a feature as well as a bug of humanity. 

H3: So everything gets watered down over time? 

H4: In a manner of speaking, yes, because every society has to incorporate changing demographics as well as prevent excessive exclusion. Otherwise, it will become extinct.

It's the same with laws, even our own. No matter the system of law or process, it is always designed to allow people in power to eliminate rivals who threaten the status quo. The legal process is merely a structure that allows the opportunity to claim benevolence and non-absolute power when in fact, laws as written are always expressly designed to eliminate behavior deemed unhealthy to the ruling classes or elites, who then justify the law based on outliers or other propaganda tactics. In short, legal systems have always failed to corral corruption because they were designed to give cover to the ruling elites, making it harder to create the necessary space we mentioned above for new ideas to maneuver. Hernando de Soto, the greatest economist of his generation, even called lawyers "terrorists" for their attempts to maintain the status quo at any cost, regardless of impact on the poor.

["The issue in the 21st century in the West is assetless paper and everywhere else it is paperless assets." -- Hernando de Soto Polar]

H3: What about that Iranian-British-American you mentioned previously? Wasn't he a lawyer? 

H4: Yes, and after Trump vs. Hawaii (2018), he kept traveling outside his "home" country. Unfortunately, Singapore, which had been so lovely in 2001, no longer possessed the spirit of its founder, primarily because it, like many other rich countries, had to import temporary workers without a permanent stake in the country's future, thereby setting the stage for a backlash against newcomers during any future recession. 

H3: So where did he go?

H4: According to his own hypothesis, which presumed humanity's ego would always overwhelm its humility, and further, that this innate defect would always lead to groups overwhelming or co-opting individuals, he had to determine how to communicate better with others. He set out to find a place that developed talent in non-manipulative ways, and where every proven worker, no matter what level, could exercise common sense discretion without fear. 

H3: Did he figure it out?  

H4: Here's what he wrote before his disappearance: 

"Humanity's progress depends on an illogical paradigm requiring minorities and outsiders to want to take root in foreign soil, make the shifting dirt their new home, but to grow much more slowly than desired. 

Additionally, the greatest creativity and bravery are usually the result of a paradox, and if we understood this, we'd be far more curious about each other and far more adventurous. After all, America's greatest military general was Dwight Eisenhower, whose mother was a devout Jehovah's Witness and pacifist (died September 11, 1946). England's most adept politician at promoting conservative economic values was Gordon Brown, a liberal Scot. Muhammad Ali, the world's most vibrant modern-era Muslim? Born and raised in a Christian family. Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian China's greatest seafarer? Zheng He, a devout Muslim. As for Spain's best navigators, Ferdinand Magellan was Portuguese and Christopher Columbus (aka Cristoforo Colombo, Cristóbal Colón, Christoffa Corumbo) was Italian. France's best military commander, Napoleon Bonaparte? Born Napoleone di Buonaparte, an ethnic Italian. Japan's most successful investor? An ethnic Korean, Masayoshi Son. The list is endless. 
E.B. White had it right in the end: "The quality in New York that insulates its inhabitants from life may simply weaken them as individuals. Perhaps it is healthier to live in a community where, when a cornice falls, you feel the blow; where, when the governor passes, you see at any rate his hat." ("Here is New York") In short, if you cannot reach out and touch the source of authority over you, it is unaccountable--and it will generate contempt in the end, under any simulation. 

We are a tangible species rebelling against the increasing intangibility of life. We cannot grasp source code with our hands, but we know it forces impersonalization and therefore individual diminishment. And so we rebel, even against our own interests, not because we do not believe in globalization or the human race's ability to collaborate, but because the way structures and institutions advance interests is against the tactile wisdom of ancestral generations. Whatever its source, authority, whether God or manmade, comes from an implicit social contract, and until we know what the terms are, we will vote to bring down the structures until we can feel their pillars." 

We don't have a record of anything else after 2018--just an enigmatic Nat King Cole song: 
H3: How strange. 

H4: More cardamom tea, my friend? 

H3: Ah, you always have the perfect amount of cardamom. I don't understand why my replicator can't get the right formula. 

H4: [Smiles] Just luck, I guess. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2018)

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