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This is a newsletter about the problems brought on by modernity, and the potential cataclysms they might spawn. Consequently, you might imagine that I’m very interested in any book that claims to identify not merely a problem but the problem. This is a daunting task, but it’s precisely the one Tim Urban takes on in his book What’s Our Problem?

I’ll do a full review in my upcoming book roundup, but I’d like to spend a moment in this space talking about his concept of golems and the genies.

For Urban a golem is similar to a mob, but more permanent, and not quite as “in your face”. It’s a tribal construction with a message that appeals to “the primitive brain”. Golems are selfish and destructive.

Genies are also large groups of individuals but they’re composed of people using their “higher mind”. Individuals who believe in reason and science, along with free speech and open debate. Genies are responsible for all the progress we’ve experienced over the last several centuries.

For Urban, our problem is that society’s golems have become terrifying and powerful, while its genies have gradually weakened to a point of virtual impotence. The golem of populism has wounded the genie of deliberative democracy and the golem of wokeness has deranged the genie of academia. Urban fears that the wound is fatal and that the derangement will lead to permanent insanity. 

Urban wants to heal the wound and soothe the derangement. This is a laudable goal. Unfortunately Urban’s divisions are too simplistic. But beyond that he overlooks the deep trends that have undermined the genie’s ability to grant wishes, while energizing the golem’s ability to destroy.

Genies are great for gaining knowledge through science and using that knowledge to create innovation. Unfortunately they’re the victims of their own success. Newton didn’t even need other people; he came up with the law of gravity and calculus all on his own. Now it takes dozens if not hundreds of scientists to make even small advancements. All the low-hanging fruit has been picked. Our genies are basically out of wishes.

This is not to say our genies are entirely out of wishes. We got a vaccine for Covid, but when you look beyond that we’re still arguing over whether the shutdowns worked, how much harm was done to children and whether widespread masking was effective. There are no similar arguments about gravity. (If you want a closer comparison, consider the smallpox vaccine.) Genies need more people in order to form, and they’re weaker when they do form.

On the other side of things, many forms of technology are designed to turbo-charge the “primitive brain” and by extension our golems. Urban points out that our evolved behaviors are adapted to a different time and place. Not only does this cause us to sometimes act inappropriately, but it has also provided a hook companies can use to manipulate us. Urban mentions the way that social media takes advantage of this by feeding us only opinions we already agree with, creating ideological echo chambers. But it goes beyond that.

The best example of how this works is junk food. The primitive mind craves sugar and fat. Both are rare in nature, and they almost never occur together. But with technology companies can make abundant and delicious foods which contain both — for example Twinkies. In the environment we were adapted to there was never a danger of getting too much sugar and fat, there was only the danger of getting too little. As such our primitive minds are adapted to crave things like Twinkies, and it has no protection against eating too many, because historically that was never possible. Companies have taken advantage of this fact — not because they’re necessarily malicious, but because that’s what companies do — in just about every area you can imagine: food, entertainment, sex (i.e. pornography), tribalism, and social interactions.

Urban’s desire to empower our genies and defeat our golems is a good one. But recent technology has changed the rules putting genies at a fundamental disadvantage, even in the absence of populism and social justice fundamentalism. Meanwhile, it’s taken golems and turned them into Godzillas, unstoppable engines of destruction which ignore all our pathetic attempts to stop them.

Perhaps stopping Godzilla can be done, but if so it won’t be cheap. If you want to help in that fight, consider donating