The elite case against big product “x” (today it’s Facebook)

For most of my life I’ve been reading well-structured, well-supported, well-written, and well-cited pieces arguing for why and how people should not do extremely popular thing x, where x can change based on the person making the argument. Often the argument itself is quite good but does very little to create mass behavior change on the ground. I often agree with the argument, but whether I agree with it or not is less relevant than whether the majority of the population changes its behavior in measurable ways (for truly popular products and services, they don’t). Today, the x is Facebook.

Based on past examples of “the elite case against ‘x,'” I predict that today’s NYT and BBC articles do very little to change real-world, measurable behavior around Facebook and social media. To the extent people move away from Facebook, it will be toward some other Facebook property like Instagram or toward some other system that still has broadly similar properties, like Discord, Snapchat, etc. Today’s case against Facebook, or social media more generally, reminds me of the elite case against:

* TV. TV rots your brain and is worse than reading books. It destroys high culture and is merely a vehicle for advertising. Sophisticated pleasures are better than reality TV and the other “trash” on TV.” Yet TV remains popular. Even in 2017, “Watching TV was the leisure activity that occupied the most time (2.8 hours per day). And 2.8 hours per day is lower than the “four hours per day” time I’ve seen quoted elsewhere. Today, though, most people don’t even bother arguing against TV.

* Fast food, especially McDonald’s, Taco Bell, etc. It’s filled with sugar and, rather than being called “food,” it should probably be called, “an edible food-like substance.” There is also an elite case against factory farming and animal torture, which pretty much all fast food suppliers do. Yet McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and similar companies remain massive.

* Oil companies. Oil use has led us to more than 400ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. We’re on the way to cooking ourselves. Yet the market response to hybrid vehicles has been to ignore them. Almost no one walks or bikes to work. Again, I would argue that more people should do these things, but what I think people should do, and what people do, are quite different.

Oddly, I see the elite case against car companies and airplane companies much less frequently than I do against oil companies.

* Tobacco. It gives you lung cancer and smoking cigarettes isn’t even that good. While it appears that smoking rates have been declining for decades, 15.5% of adults still smoke. Taxation may be doing more to drive people away from tobacco than asserting the number and ways that tobacco is bad.

* Video games. They’re a way to evade the real world and perform activities that feel like fitness-enhancing activities but are actually just mental masturbation, but without the physical limits imposed by actual masturbation. They simulate the social world in a way that makes us more isolated and frustrated than ever before.

What other examples am I missing?

Today, we have the elite case against social media. It may be accurate. It’s generated good books, like Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Social media has generated lots of op-eds and parenting guides. Some people have announced publicly that they’re deleting their Facebook or Instagram page, yet Facebook is a public company and keeps reporting massive levels of use and engagement.

It turns out that what people want to do, is quite different from what The New York Times thinks people should do.

The most despicable sentences I’ve read recently

In November, NASA announced it would be conducting a “cultural assessment study” of SpaceX and Boeing to ensure the companies were meeting NASA’s requirements of “adherence to a drug-free environment.” The Washington Post reported that officials had indicated “the review was prompted by the recent behavior of SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk.”

From this piece. Boeing is good at hewing to bureaucratic edicts issued by bureaucratic organizations but is bad at recovering rocket stages and decreasing the price of space launch. SpaceX is great at, you know, putting shit into space, which is what both companies are putatively supposed to be doing. For Boeing, compliance with infinite rules and regulations takes precedence over lowering the cost of space access.

The quoted paragraph reminds me of Peter Thiel’s point in Zero to One: as HP floundered, it was still really good at “following the rules,” but really terrible at building products people want. Senior administrators were adepts at process but novices at results. Many people who are good at results do not care for excessive process.

Perhaps we should focus less on virtue signaling and demographics, and more on results. I suspect the NASA of the 1960s was not terribly interested in its employees’s private lives, but it was very interested in putting a man on the moon. Today, NASA seems unable to do the latter but very good at the former.

We need fewer bureaucrats and bureaucratic barriers and more people with a piratical gleam in their eye trying new things. Elon Musk has that piratical gleam and that is part of what makes him a hero, despite his flaws (which are real). Online, it is easy to tear people down (The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium describes how the Internet enables nihilism and tearing people down while doing too little real building of new things—comprehensive post this important book will be forthcoming). It costs a billion dollars a mile to build new urban rail in the United States, since contractors must specialize in placating politicians, employing too many people at too high waves (“In his exposé, Rosenthal talked about labor problems: severe overstaffing, with some workers doing jobs that are no longer necessary, and wages well into six figures”), and dealing with lawsuits rather than specializing in building shit quickly. We need to find our way to a new, better equilibrium that de-emphasizes drug testing for harmless substances and emphasizes getting the thing done.

Giving and receiving books

Tyler Cowen writes, “Why you should hesitate to give books as gifts and instead just throw them out,” which is a fine post, but I’d note that many people are cost-constrained when it comes to books, and many used books now end up on Amazon, where they must be specifically sought out. And I love to give friends books (and receive books), but the following rules for giving books must be obeyed:

1. Zero expectation. The sender must not expect the receiver to read or even consider the book. Books should only be given, never returned, particularly in the age of Amazon. Amazon has made book scarcity a thing of the past. It is even possible to rapidly scan books, using the right equipment, which may be relatively inexpensive. The majority of books I give or send are probably never read, and that’s fine with me.

2. Despite “zero expectation,” the sender must think the book will interest the receiver or be at least as good as the median book the receiver might otherwise read.

3. This is my own idiosyncrasy, but I very rarely throw out books, though I will donate unwanted ones in batches. Someone with different inclinations and hourly rates might automate the process of selling older books on Amazon. The net take from selling a book for even $10 or $12 on Amazon is like $4 – $6—not worth it for me.

4. I like writing in books and like it when my friends do. Receiving a book my friend has annotated is like getting the pleasure of the book and the pleasure of conversation.

5. “Zero expectation” also means “zero expectation” in terms of time. I mail books in batches whenever there are enough and it’s convenient for me. It may be months after I finish a book, and that’s okay. I have a stack sitting around right now, waiting to go out.

6. I like it when publishers send me books! But they often send emails first asking if I’ll promise a review, etc. My stock reply is always the same: Send the book, but I promise nothing.

7. When I was younger I thought I’d be rich when I have the money to buy all the books I can read. Now I have to limit the number of physical books I have due to space and practicality constraints. Large numbers of physical books are not compatible with high levels of mobility. This is very annoying but also true. Bad city zoning makes this problem worse by artificially increasing the price per square foot most people pay for housing in a given locale. Would we have a better media if writers had more space for books and consequently read more?

“How good is the very best next book that you haven’t read but maybe are on the verge of picking up? So many choices in life hinge on that neglected variable.” I say my problem today is finding the best book, which I no longer do so well on my own; if the five best readers I know would send me more books, I would be very happy, even if only one works for me.

It’s striking for me how many people with nothing to say get on social media to say it, relative to simply reading more or learning more. We have all these communication media and too little to fill them with, in my view. It could be that I’m guilty of that right now.

A good rule is, “Would you buy this friend a beer or coffee?” If yes, why not a book? I’d like to see book-giving become more of a social norm, like getting a round of drinks.

What Santa Barbara says

Among Paul Graham’s many interesting observations is:

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message

Since reading that I’ve been more attentive to what a city says. I was just in Santa Barbara, which is beautiful but also shockingly boring and sterile. Virtually nothing has changed in it since the 1970s; sometime around then, the city used zoning to freeze its built environment. Today, Santa Barbara feels more like an artifact than a living place. Intellectually and technologically, it’s a dead city. It’s very beautiful, and its message seems to be: you should be rich, beautiful, and relaxed. But the first item and third are at odds. Few buildings are more than two stories. No wonder hotel rooms are crazy expensive.

I didn’t spend much time in San Francisco, but the most immediately apparent thing to me is just how many cars, car lanes, drivers, and parking exist there. For years, I’ve been reading about the city’s environmental pronouncements and commitments. The lived experienced on the ground, however, is one of traffic, cars, and the smell of exhaust. Some parts of the city, like the new transit center, are shockingly beautiful. But the cars on the ground contrast so much with the rhetoric on the Internet. I recently heard the term “performative environmentalism,” and it applies to SF.

Once you’ve ridden a Bird scooter, as I did in L.A., any city without scooters feels deficient, like a city without sidewalks would. If we turned 10% of public parking spaces to scooter and bike parking spaces, we’d see a lot more people out of cars. Oddly, a lot of the rhetoric around Bird scooters concerns where they’re parking, but they weigh like 20 pounds and are maybe six inches by four feet. Seemingly no one considers the many astounding photos of dockless vehicles that currently litter our streets. Perhaps we ought to think more about the rules that apply to the one new things versus the rules that apply to the old thing.

California has an odd Red Queen effect going on, where half of the state is trying to draw people in (weather, tech, economic fecundity) while the other half tries to kick people out (zoning, Prop 13 (it’s crazier than you realize), inadequate mass-transit, traffic). New York has some similar challenges, but it feels more immediately vibrant than Santa Barbara, and similarly vibrant to LA. But without the Bird scooters. Yet. California and New York both feel post-artist, and I mean that in a bad way. We ought to be trying to build cities where everyone can live; sadly, we’re doing the opposite right now. Maybe, as the percentage of renters increases, we’ll see voters behave in ways congruent with their interests, just as homevoters have.

What motivates charitable giving?

Many of you don’t read Grant Writing Confidential, the other blog I contribute to, but “Philanthropy is not being disrupted by Silicon Valley” has wide applicability and will interest many of you, so I’m linking to it from here. There’s also a subtler, deeper point that I didn’t elaborate there: I think most people don’t understand what motivates charitable giving (I didn’t, for a long time). That may be good—perhaps greater ignorance leads to greater giving—but it seems obvious to me now.

It seems strange that greater ignorance would leave to more giving, but I think about my own experiences, since I’ve worked for nonprofit and public agencies in varying capacities for about 15 years. And I’ve been associated with universities in various capacities for about the same length of time. Before I began working in and around universities, for example, I likely thought that donations to universities are an axiomatically good thing.* Now I know a lot more about them and am also a lot more skeptical: universities use far too much of their money on administrators and amenities—signaling functions, basically (the hate for colleges in some precincts has its origins in excess administration). Now I’m much less pro-university and, if I had a bunch of cash to give away, I’d be very unlikely to dump it on a university. I know there’d be a decent chance that most of that money would fund runaway tuition sticker prices.

To be sure, there are probably good ways to give money to universities. Probably the best is to fund particular science labs at non-elite, non-wealthy schools. Stanford probably doesn’t need more money in its labs, but most University of [State] schools probably do, and funding them is underrated. But to learn which labs at which schools need funding is such an undertaking that knowledge would-be donors might simply not bother. In that respect, ignorance might be good—for me, too.

I also used to be convinced that more transparency is better in the vast majority of human realms. Now I’m not so sure. We seem to have far greater political transparency than we once did, thanks to the Internet and some other features of the modern media, but has that made politics better? If so, I don’t see it: We can’t get infrastructure built, and many lobbies are good at pushing their narratives out.

The truth is not transparent and obvious, as I once thought it was, and virtually all of us are susceptible to advertising, marketing, and sloganeering. That last one is especially apparent on Twitter. We “know” some of the important solutions to improving infrastructure development, but in the same sense we (in the sense of “the human race”) know how quantum mechanics work. But I can’t give you a detailed, technically accurate description of quantum mechanics, and how many humans can? A million, maybe, out of seven billion people? Less? I know more about what needs to be done regarding infrastructure, but to explain it all would take a long time a lot of background reading. Most people won’t bother. What good is transparency if the best answers are difficult enough to comprehend that no one seeks them?

Even this post is less likely to be read and understand than a random sloganeering, virtue signaling Tweet is going to be repeated. Knowledge is hard and feelings are easy. That itself is not a popular thing to say but it is true. And if “Knowledge is hard and feelings are easy” were turned into a viral Tweet, it would only demonstrate its own point! Frustrating, in a way, but perhaps the lesson is “chill out, because it’s really hard to get substantive improvements in the world, and most of those improvements probably don’t happen on the Internet.”

You may have noticed that I’ve wandered a long way from the title of this post. That’s deliberate. What motivates human giving probably shouldn’t be stated, because stating it runs contrary to social desirability bias. I will say that “effectiveness” and “ensuring the greatest efficiency per dollar spent” do not motivate the vast majority of donors—though almost all donors will cite those ideas. If you’re the sort of person who wants to know what motivates giving, and you’re frustrated by the way this essay doesn’t directly answer your question, see “Philanthropy is not being disrupted by Silicon Valley,” which offers some answers and links to better ones. But I don’t think most of us really want to know.


* The word “likely” is important because I don’t fully know my mental state from a long time ago.

The specific objects may change but the effect remains the same

In Tereza’s eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood. For she had but a single weapon against the world of crudity surrounding her: the books she took out of the municipal library. . . . They not only offered the possibility of an imaginary escape from a life she found unsatisfying; they also had a meaning for her as physical objects: she loved to walk down the street with a book under her arm. It had the same significance for her as an elegant cane for the dandy a century ago. It differentiated her from others.

(Comparing the book to the elegant cane of the dandy is not absolutely precise. A dandy’s cane did more than make him different; it made him modern and up to date. The book made Tereza different, but old-fashioned. Of course, she was too young to see how old-fashioned she looked to others. The young men walking by with transistor radios pressed to their ears seemed silly to her. It never occurred to her that they were modern.)

The specific objects may change but the effect remains the same. Replace “transistor radio” with “iPhone” or similar. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was first published in English in 1984. I think some version of the clerisy will always exist, and, fortunately, membership is not restricted to the degreed; it is open to anyone who wishes to read and think.

Postmodernisms: What does *that* mean?

In response to What’s so dangerous about Jordan Peterson?, there have been a bunch of discussions about what “postmodernism” means (“He believes that the insistence on the use of gender-neutral pronouns is rooted in postmodernism, which he sees as thinly disguised Marxism.”) By now, postmodernism has become so vague and broad that it means almost anything—which is of course another way of saying “nothing”—so the plural is there in the title for a reason. In my view most people claiming the mantle of big broad labels like “Marxist,” “Christian,” “Socialist,” “Democrat,” etc. are trying to signal something about themselves and their identity much more than they’re trying to understand the nuances of what those positions might mean or what ideas / policies really underlie the labels, so for the most part when I see someone talking or writing about postmodern, I say, “Oh, that’s nice,” then move on to talking about something more interesting and immediate.

But if one is going to attempt to describe postmodernism, and how it relates to Marxism, I’d start by observing that old-school Marxists don’t believe much of the linguistic stuff that postmodernists sometimes say they believe—about how everything reduces to “language” or “discourse”—but I think that the number of people who are “Marxists” in the sense that Marx or Lenin would recognize is tiny, even in academia.

I think what’s actually happening is this: people have an underlying set of models or moral codes and then grab some labels to fit on top of those codes. So the labels fit, or try to fit, the underlying morality and beliefs. People in contemporary academia might be particularly drawn to a version of strident moralism in the form of “postmodernism” or “Marxism” because they don’t have much else—no religion, not much influence, no money, so what’s left? A moral superiority that gets wrapped up in words like “postmodernism.” So postmodernism isn’t so much a thing as a mode or a kind of moral signal, and that in turn is tied into the self-conception of people in academia.

You may be wondering why academia is being dragged into this. Stories about what “postmodernism” means are bound up in academia, where ideas about postmodernism still simmer. In humanities grad school, most grad students make no money, as previously mentioned, and don’t expect to get academic jobs when they’re done. Among those who do graduate, most won’t get jobs. Those who do, probably won’t get tenure. And even those who get tenure will often get it for writing a book that will sell two hundred copies to university libraries and then disappear without a trace. So… why are they doing what they do?

At the same time, humanities grad students and profs don’t even have God to console them, as many religious figures do. So some of the crazier stuff emanating from humanities grad students might be a misplaced need for God or purpose. I’ve never seen the situation discussed in those terms, but as I look at the behavior I saw in grad school and the stories emerging from humanities departments, I think that a central absence better explains many problems than most “logical” explanations. And then “postmodernism” is the label that gets applied to this suite of what amount to beliefs. And that, in turn, is what Jordan Peterson is talking about. If you are (wisely) not following trends in the academic humanities, Peterson’s tweet on the subject probably makes no sense.

Most of us need something to believe it—and the need to believe may be more potent in smarter or more intellectual people. In the absence of God, we very rarely get “nothing.” Instead, we get something else, but we should take care in what that “something” is. The sense of the sacred is still powerful within humanities departments, but what that sacred is has shifted, to their detriment and to the detriment of society as a whole.

(I wrote here about the term “deconstructionism,” which has a set of problems similar to “postmodernism,” so much of what I write there also applies here.)

Evaluating things along power lines, as many postmodernists and Marxists seek to do, isn’t always a bad idea, of course, but there are many other dimensions along which one can evaluate art, social situations, politics, etc. So the relentless focus on “power” becomes tedious and reductive after a while: one always knows what the speaker is likely to say, unless of course the speaker is seen as the powerful person and the thing being criticized can be seen as the obvious (e.g. it seems obvious that many tenured professors are in positions of relatively high power, especially compared to grad students; that’s part of what makes the Lindsay Shepherd story compelling).

This brand of post-modernism tends to infantilize groups or individuals (they’re all victims!) or lead to races to the bottom and the development of victimhood culture. But these pathologies are rarely acknowledged by their defenders.

Has postmodernism led to absurdities like the one at Evergreen State, which led to huge enrollment drops? Maybe. I’ve seen the argument and, on even days, buy it.

I read a good Tweet summarizing the basic problem:

When postmodern types say that truth-claims are rhetoric and that attempts to provide evidence are but moves in a power-game—believe them! They are trying to tell you that this is how they operate in discussions. They are confessing that they cannot imagine doing otherwise.

If everything is just “rhetoric” or “power” or “language,” there is no real way to judge anything. Along a related axis, see “Dear Humanities Profs: We Are the Problem.” Essays like it seem to appear about once a year or so. That they seem to change so little is discouraging.

So what does postmodernism mean? Pretty much whatever you want it to mean, whether you love it for whatever reason or hate it for whatever reason. Which is part of the reason you’ll very rarely see it used on this site: it’s too unspecific to be useful, so I shade towards words with greater utility that haven’t been killed, or at least made somatic, through over-use. There’s a reason why most smart people eschew talking about postmodernism or deconstructionism or similar terms: they’re at a not-very-useful level of abstraction, unless one is primarily trying to signal tribal affiliation, and signaling tribal affiliation isn’t a very interesting level of or for discussion.

If you’ve read to the bottom of this, congratulations! I can’t imagine many people are terribly interested in this subject; it seems that most people read a bit about it, realize that many academics in the humanities are crazy, and go do something more useful. It’s hard to explain this stuff in plain language because it often doesn’t mean much of anything, and explaining why that’s so takes a lot.

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