Tag: <span>Tim Urban</span>

The 13 Books I Finished in March

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  1. What’s Our Problem?: A Self-Help Book for Societies by: Tim Urban
  2. The Machinery of Freedom – Guide to a Radical Capitalism by: David Friedman
  3. The Moth Presents All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown by: Various
  4. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by: Edwin H. Friedman
  5. Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass by: Theodore Dalrymple
  6. Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us by: Russ Roberts
  7. Darkness at Noon by: Arthur Koestler
  8. The Horse and His Boy by: C. S. Lewis
  9. Prince Caspian by: C. S. Lewis
  10. Voyage of the Dawn Treader by: C. S. Lewis
  11. The Silver Chair by: C. S. Lewis
  12. The Last Battle by: C. S. Lewis
  13. Till We Have Faces by: C. S. Lewis

In March I once again failed to get out two essays, to my eternal shame. But I did finish Part One of my book. It’s currently at 63 pages as a Google Doc (not including endnotes), but it would be 92 pages at 300 words a page, and 118 pages at the Amazon nonfiction average of 233 words per page. Basically it’s an incredibly in depth expansion of my post Fermi’s Paradox As a Proof of the Existence of God with lots of extra stuff thrown in. I have a few people who are going to read the whole thing and tell me how it hangs together in its entirety, but I could use a few more, let me know if you’re interested.

(That’s one of the problems with writing is you’re in the weeds so often that there’s always a risk you’ll step back and find out that the entire garden looks awful. Even if the individual flowers are all pretty.)

One of the reasons why I didn’t get two essays out last month is that I went to Gary Con. The annual celebration of the life of Gary Gygax put on by his son Luke. It’s been attracting some celebrities. Joe Manganiello has been coming for a while, but there are others as well. A quick story, the game I was playing was taking a break, and I ran to the concessions stand to get a drink and some chips. The guy in front of me had just ordered a cheeseburger and I was debating whether I should see if I could quickly check out ahead of him while he waited for the cheeseburger, and I was so wrapped up in my ruminations that I just about didn’t realize that the guy I was preparing to cut in front of was Vince Vaughn. Even had I remained oblivious I don’t think I would have ended up cutting ahead of him because his cheeseburger arrived pretty quickly. But it’s too bad I didn’t realize earlier that I was standing next to him. I would have told him I was a big fan of Brawl in Cell Block 99. (Definite content warning on that movie by the way, It’s brutal!) That’s the trick. I assume everyone mentions Dodgeball and stuff like that. You have to go for the deep cut.

I- Eschatological Review

What’s Our Problem?: A Self-Help Book for Societies

by: Tim Urban

Published: 2023

746 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The answer to the question posed by the title, which for Urban boils down to adding a vertical axis to politics on top of the horizontal one we’re all familiar with. The horizontal axis is the left vs. right, Democrats vs. Republican continuum. The vertical axis goes from “primitive minds” on the bottom to “higher minds” on the top. The primitive mind consists of all the urges built into us by evolution. Urban refers to it as “our idiot ancient programming”. It’s the innate drive for food, sex, and power. The higher mind is built out of reason, science and open debate. Urban defines it as “our magical thinking brain”. Our problem is that people are spending too much time at the bottom of the vertical axis (irrespective of whether they’re on the right or the left) and not nearly as much time at the top. (Also see my last newsletter.)

What’s the author’s angle?

There’s rarely been a book where the author’s angle or in this case his journey, has been talked about as much as with this book. Urban decided to write a post about this topic. That post became a series of posts. Then midway through the series he announced that it would be a book, and six years after deciding to write about the subject it finally arrived. In other words no one can say he didn’t think long and hard about this topic.

Who should read this book?

Urban’s thought process is interesting. And his dissection of Social Justice Fundamentalism (his term for what others call wokeism) is probably worth the price of admission all by itself. But overall I found the book to be on the naive side. I think if you were previously a big fan of Wait but Why you would appreciate the book. But if you’re on the fence, or if you’re looking for a reason to say no to this book (or no to more things in general) I would just read a good review instead. I would start with mine of course, but if that leaves you wanting more, consider this one from Astral Codex Ten.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned above this book started out as a series of posts. It was called The Story of Us. At the time I was reading along, and I had decided to review those posts in this space (once he was done). It was a rare instance where I was actually working ahead. And of course I was punished for it because he never finished the series, and the book is actually pretty different. But it’s interesting to look back at what I wrote down in December of 2019 and January of 2020, to compare his initial run at this subject with the final book. It’s different enough that he has taken down those posts, so I only have my notes and what I remember.

In both the book and series of posts he starts with the idea of the “primitive mind” and contrasts it with our “higher mind”. In addition to the attributes I mentioned above in the summary, the primitive mind engages in power games, which are bad. In power games the people who win are just those who have the most power. In contrast to the primitive mind, the higher mind engages in contests of ideas. This involves debate and discussion where the best ideas win. In the series he calls these contests “value games” but in the book they’re called “liberal games”.

It’s curious that he decided to make this change, but I have a theory. One of the things that really stuck out to me about the initial series was that he basically went all in on freedom of speech. I’m a big fan of it myself, and I particularly liked that he differentiated between just laws protecting freedom of speech and an actual culture of free speech. But it’s also abundantly clear that in the age of social media, an “anything goes” approach to speech generally results in horrible cesspools. But, on the other hand, when organizations restrict speech it also leads to all sorts of problems. In the series, he didn’t acknowledge this tension which struck me as naive.

Therefore I assume that changing it from “value games” to “liberal games” is an attempt to shed some of his naivete, by framing free speech within classically liberal norms. (Not progressive norms, that’s a whole different thing.) Accordingly, I see a lot of places in the book where it looks like he dialed back some of his naive absolutism — where he acknowledged that it was complicated. But I don’t think he went nearly far enough. For example the idea that our primitive brain is “our idiot ancient programming” is a direct quote from the book. So while the book is better than the series in many respects it still has a naive idealism that significantly undermines its utility. I talked about some of this in my end of month newsletter. Let’s consider yet another example.

Eschatological Implications

For Urban, the load bearing member of his whole framework is the higher mind. The book’s fundamental claim is that if we can get people to use their higher mind as opposed to their primitive mind, and ideally with groups of other people who are also using their higher mind, all our problems will be solved. In the series he claimed that the higher mind “values truth above all else.” (Not only a direct quote but it was bolded in the original). The series also gave one the general feeling that the higher mind is some kind of transcendental, salvific force which resides in the hearts of all men.

This was one of the things he dialed down in the book. But you still get the feeling that the higher mind is something within everyone and they just need to make the decision to flip the switch on their brain from “idiot[ic] ancient programming” to “magical thinking”. He gives some mild suggestions for how best to do that, but it never sounds, on the individual level, that it should require any massive outpouring of willpower.

Whether turning on the magical thinking brain is straightforward or not, my biggest problem is with his characterization of the primitive mind.

Even in the book he has the tendency to frame the primitive mind as being irretrievably evil, and the higher mind as being entirely benevolent. That if we could just squash the primitive mind and embrace rationality, utopia would be realized.

The problems with this framing are legion. To begin with, it assumes that because our primitive mind is stuck in a world that disappeared thousands of years ago that nothing it prompts us to  do will be a good idea. And it further assumes that deciding everything on the basis of pure reason will give us better answers and better outcomes than anything we do instinctually. This is patently untrue, and the last dozen or so decades have provided numerous examples of how monumentally untrue it is. 

He spent more time attacking the primitive mind directly in the series. In the book he pivots to offering an in depth examination of how the primitive mind is currently ruining everything. He spends 75% of the book talking directly about the populist right and the woke left. But out of that 75%, 10% is the populist right, and 65% is the woke left. (I actually didn’t realize how big the disparity was until I just ran the numbers.)

I’m guessing that he feels like his average reader will have no problem seeing the primitive mind in action among the MAGA crowd, but they need significantly more persuasion to see it among their own beliefs. As I said above his deep dive into the left provides the biggest payoff of the book. But when he exempts the higher mind from what has happened and lays it all at the feet of the primitive mind, I think he’s engaged in the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. By this I mean that he ignores how many people think that they arrived at woke ideology through using their “higher mind” i.e. how much intellectualization was involved in the process. But for Urban the higher mind is only the intellectualization that leads to reasoned debates and the search for truth. By taking this framing he ends up placing all the blame for postmodernism, intersectionality, and transgender maximalism at the feet of the “primitive mind”, which seems bizarre.  

I think Urban and the woke left are both making the same mistake and ignoring the wisdom provided through cultural evolution. Both assume that through the exercise of pure reason that you can arrive at a better society than what we had historically. In this journey the woke left has descended farther into tribalism, and Urban is right to point that out. But they both start from the same place: a rejection of tradition and an embrace of “reason” as the answer to everything. In the end the book is complaining about the inevitable outcome of the policy it recommends. We can start over, which is basically what Urban recommends, but I fear that no matter how many times we do, pure reason will continue to take us to places which are similarly ridiculous. 

II- Capsule Reviews

The Machinery of Freedom – Guide to a Radical Capitalism

by: David Friedman

Published: 1973; Additional chapters added in 1989 and 2014

378 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A defense of anarcho-capitalism, that attempts to cover all the bases: providing solutions, answering objections and discussing benefits.

What’s the author’s angle?

Friedman has been working this angle for a very long time (as evidenced by his repeated and extensive revisions of the book). It is something of a manifesto.

Who should read this book?

Many years ago (according to Amazon. 13 years ago) I read Charles Murray’s What It Means to Be a Libertarian. This book isn’t strictly a defense of libertarianism, but it seems worth comparing the two. Friedman’s book got into far more specifics and grappled with problems more directly. Based on that small sample size, I would say if you want to read a book about this corner of the political spectrum. I would recommend this one over Murray’s.

General Thoughts

This was the SSC/ACX selection for March, and we actually managed to get Friedman to attend the club (virtually). I asked him a couple of questions. The first was what sort of science fiction he would recommend as being representative of this ideological space. I guess Vernor Vinge wrote a short story called The Ungoverned, which was directly inspired by this book, so clearly it doesn’t get much closer than that. Other than that he had a couple of recommendations. I thought perhaps he would mention Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, but he hadn’t read it, which seems like a pretty big oversight. But what are you going to do?

My second question concerned whether he felt the world had gotten more or less free since he wrote the first edition of the book in 1973. His overall assessment was that it had gotten less free, though certainly there are areas where things have gotten more free, or I guess technically more anarcho-capitalist, but mostly he felt the trend has been in the other direction. I was glad to hear that he was seeing more or less the same thing I was, even though this would be bad news for him and his ideological allies if everything they hoped for is getting ever more out of reach.

Though perhaps I’m too pessimistic. It seems hard to imagine a straight path from where we are now to the world he proposes, but I can imagine a few ways in which ancap could still triumph. Perhaps in the short term things are getting worse, but what we’re seeing is the final gasp of the old system—the frantic application of more and more laws, regulations and government control, before liberty finally breaks free. I get the sense that, if you squint, it looked something like this in the immediate lead up to the American and French Revolutions, but, overall I think the comparison is weak. 

Alternatively perhaps technology will allow a segment of the population to opt out of state control and into political structures of their own devising. One of which will be the anarcho capitalist utopia Friedman describes in this book. Certainly I get the feeling that some of the big crypto advocates imagine that this will happen, but some of the big internet advocates imagined the same thing, only to end up mostly disappointed. 

What I just described might be termed a soft technological transition. You could also imagine a hard transition, some kind of singularity, perhaps positive, perhaps negative. In the former case we can imagine that a well-aligned, friendly AI, like Mike from The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (another book Friedman mentioned) creates the conditions under which the state is no longer necessary. On the negative side of things lots of people imagine ancap springing up in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Friedman himself thinks getting there through violent revolution would be a very dumb idea. So that’s good.

When I was young, I was very libertarian, and I still find ideas like these very appealing, but the older I get the more improbable and naive they seem.

The Moth Presents All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown

by: Various

Published: 2017

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of stories which were initially told live and in person as part of The Moth, an organization dedicated towards precisely that activity. 

Who should read this book?

If you like a good story told well, you’ll probably like this book. Though I don’t know that they had quite the punch I would expect. None were so engaging that I felt the need to retell them to anyone, nor do I think I’ll remember 90% of them a month from now. (And before you blame it on me listening to them at 3x I actually read the physical book in this case.)

General Thoughts

All the stories were good, a few were great, but none were timeless. And as is often the case these days, the message of many was too on the nose. If you listen to The Moth Radio Hour, or have enjoyed previous compilations, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one, but if you’ve never heard of The Moth, then I don’t think this book is strong enough to carry the brand all on its own.

A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

by: Edwin H. Friedman

Published: 2007

260 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That in order to be a successful leader you have to have nerve. This comes from being mentally healthy and principled, but also from ignoring the anxious and mentally unhealthy in your organization. Nerve can also be dissipated by relying too much on data. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Friedman was a Rabbi, a therapist and a leadership consultant. This book, which was unfinished at his death, is an attempt to synthesize his observations about anxiety and dysfunction in families with a similar phenomenon in organizations. 

Who should read this book?

It’s got a lot of gems, and I highlighted numerous passages, but those gems are buried under a lot of meandering analogies, and poorly edited prose. The latter almost certainly stems from the unfinished nature of the book, which also causes it to trail off at the end. It’s possible that a strong conclusion could have entirely redeemed things. I’m not really prepared to recommend this book.

General Thoughts

This book was published in 2007, and it predicts a lot of the intra-institutional dynamics (i.e. fights) that have become so prevalent recently. It also does a pretty good job of anticipating woke capital, so on that front, Friedman deserves to receive credit for his foresight. And I expect that this foresight is a big part of the book’s appeal.

Beyond that I thought his observation that “The pursuit of data, in almost any field, has come to resemble a form of substance abuse.” was also something that was worth pointing out. I don’t accept it unreservedly, but I do think this is accurate for quite a few people. 

Probably the best part of the book for me was when he pointed out that self-assurance, which is critical to good leadership, has come to be seen as narcissistic selfishness, when in reality there’s quite a bit of difference between the two. Here’s one of the passages I highlighted:

How are parents and presidents to value, indeed treasure and preserve, self without worrying that they are being narcissistic or autocratic? To resort to being only an “enabler” for others or to try to concentrate on building teams instead simply fudges the issue. Someone still has to go first!

I think this is related to the data issue, because it’s felt that if you have the data to back up your position then it’s okay to go first. But unless the decision is straightforward you’re never going to have sufficient data. On the other hand if we allow self-reported data of individual harm, then we’ll be deluged by it. Meaning that confident and visionary leaders are being outflanked because they don’t have enough competing data. Or, as Friedman puts it in another passage:

The herding instinct in chronically anxious America has the same effect of furthering adaptation to the least mature, to those who are most unwilling to take responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny. Its influence on leaders is several-fold. It discourages them from expressing “politically incorrect” opinions and encourages them to play it safe generally; it undermines excellence by encouraging society to organize around its most dysfunctional elements; it forces leaders to engage in countless arguments that are dilatory; and it makes it more difficult for leaders to be clear, much less decisive.

Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass

by: Theodore Dalrymple

Published: 2001

263 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of essays chronicling the author’s encounters with the underclass of England in his position as a physician at City Hospital and Birmingham Prison. With particular emphasis on their appalling behavior and misguided ideology.

What’s the author’s angle?

There’s a fine line between being well-informed and biased. I think Dalrymple is more the former than the latter, but there is a selection bias to his sample (most of the people he saw had attempted suicide) and that probably colors his observations.

Who should read this book?

Collections of essays never cohere quite as well as actual books, and it’s possible that the episodic nature of things will not be to your liking. That aside I really enjoy Dalyrmple’s prose, and the people he writes about are fascinating and horrifying in equal measure.

General Thoughts

I imagine that if I had read this book when it first came out that I probably would have concluded that England was a few short years away from a complete meltdown. At least among the underclass, yet more than two decades on I’m not aware of any such meltdown. What happened?

I can think of at least five possibilities.

  1. Computers and the internet saved the underclass. Rather than acting out their bad behavior in the streets and at night clubs, they ended up increasingly staying at home. Here they binged Netflix, played computer games, and got into virtual fights rather than physical fights.
  2. It’s still just as bad if not worse, but it basically goes unreported because no one cares. And it’s particularly hard to get a clear view over here. But stories like the Rotherham grooming scandal give us occasional glimpses into the continuing awfulness.
  3. My reference class is flawed. Yeah it’s bad, but the conditions Dalrymple describes have been going on for decades. I just have very little experience with the true underclass so I assume that what he describes in this book is some kind of radical departure, but it’s actually business as usual. 
  4. It was so bad that there has been negative selection pressure. They’re essentially killing themselves off. Perhaps they’re suffering from an opioid crisis similar to the US.
  5. Dalrymple is lying.

I’m sure there are others possibilities, but those are the ones that occurred to me. I listed them according to my assessment of their likelihood (most to least). I suspect there’s some truth to options 1-3. There’s a bit of evidence for 4, but it’s small potatoes compared to what’s happening in the US. Finally, I think I would have come across evidence of Dalrymple’s perfidy if any such evidence existed. 

I guess if it’s mostly the first option, then that’s good, right? Even so, I wish it were better.

Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us

by: Russ Roberts

Published: 2022

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Russ Roberts is an economist, and host of the well known Econtalk podcast. This is a book about how, for the really important stuff, economic reasoning is insufficient. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Since, on some level, he seems to be undermining his entire profession, I’m not sure what his angle is. But I confess I’ve only heard maybe one or two episodes of his podcast. I’m definitely a Russ Roberts neophyte. 

Who should read this book?

If you’re struggling with big decisions, this is a useful book. And it’s pretty short. I think it also makes a solid case for getting married and having children.

General Thoughts

For me the book can be summed up in the following excerpt:

Let’s start with Persi Diaconis, a chaired professor of mathematics and statistics at Stanford University. He’s a member of the National Academy of Sciences. His research is on chance, risk, and probability. He’s presumably a pretty rational guy who you’d think would have a lot of tools for making a good decision in the face of a wild problem. Yet when he faced his own wild problem, he confessed to abandoning the rational approach from his own research, a story he told in a talk on decision-making.

Some years ago I was trying to decide whether or not to move to Harvard from Stanford. I had bored my friends silly with endless discussion. Finally, one of them said, “You’re one of our leading decision theorists. Maybe you should make a list of the costs and benefits and try to roughly calculate your expected utility.” Without thinking, I blurted out, “Come on, Sandy, this is serious.”

This book is an examination of the limits of making “serious” decisions solely on the basis of their expected utility. Or rather the difficulty of really getting to the true utility a given decision is going to provide. That important things are difficult to measure and those things you can measure are often misleading. 

One wonders if most of our problems these days don’t suffer from these issues. But that we keep doubling down on the idea that we just need more measurement, more data, all to our detriment. 

Darkness at Noon

by: Arthur Koestler

Published: 1940

254 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A fictionalized account of the Moscow Trials when Stalin purged the Soviet leadership of anyone who was disloyal to him, particularly the Trotskyites.  

Who should read this book?

I really liked this book. It’s pretty heavy, but if you have any interest in seeing the underbelly of a dictatorship, but also one that’s not a caricature, where real philosophy is discussed, then you should read this book.

General Thoughts

I don’t want to give too much away, but this is not a simple novel, and Rubashov is not merely a victim of totalitarianism, but for many years he carried it out. When it comes for him, he gets to reflect on all that he has done and the brutal logic he has espoused all these years. It’s a great book, and rather than try to describe it’s greatness any further, I’ll turn it over to Orwell, who said it best:

Brilliant as this book is as a novel, and a piece of brilliant literature, it is probably most valuable as an interpretation of the Moscow “confessions” by someone with an inner knowledge of totalitarian methods. What was frightening about these trials was not the fact that they happened—for obviously such things are necessary in a totalitarian society—but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them. 

III- Religious Reviews

The Chronicles of Narnia

By: C. S. Lewis

The Horse and His Boy

Published: 1954

199 Pages

Prince Caspian

Published: 1951

195 Pages

Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Published: 1952

223 Pages

The Silver Chair

Published: 1953

217 Pages

The Last Battle

Published: 1956

184 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

The adventures of British children, and others in the magical realm of Narnia. Adventures that generally end up being Christian allegories. 

Who should read this book?

Given how short the books are and their status as classics, it’s hard for me to not recommend that everyone should read all seven. But, if you’re not sure you can commit to that, I think there are two other groupings that make sense:

  1. Just read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and stop there
  2. Read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and what might be called the Caspian Trilogy, so Prince Caspian, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair.

General Thoughts

On this read through of the series I ended up focusing mostly on two things. The standout characters (which were mostly not the children who had been transported from Earth to Narnia) and the Christian allegories embedded in the books. (Some more deeply embedded than others.)

On the character side of things, I really liked Reepicheep, but of course I’ve always liked Reepicheep. Bree, the horse from The Horse and His Boy was more fully formed than I remember. But the one who really stood out to me this time was Puddleglum from The Silver Chair. I think he barely registered when I was a kid, but I quite liked him this time around. 

Turning to the allegories they seemed mostly well thought out, interesting, slightly opaque, but not excessively so. That is until I got to The Last Battle. Lewis’s message here left me confused. Much of the plot hinges on the fact that Aslan is not a tame lion. In previous books I really appreciated this sentiment, particularly as it related to Jesus. At some point (evidently at least as far back as Lewis) people started to imagine Jesus as being infinitely meek and tolerant. Which seems to be a distortion of the scriptural record. One that Lewis is combating by having his Christ figure be a lion, and not a tame one at that.

That’s how it played out in previous books. In The Last Battle this idea that Aslan is not tame is used to excuse the idea that he could be infinitely erratic and contradictory. I sort of see how that might work in the context of the book, but I’m not sure what phenomenon of actual Christianity it’s supposed to represent. I guess it could be a representation of the opposite point, that Aslan being untamed could be analogous to Jesus being non-judgemental, and both lead to an unmooring of doctrine and expectations? But of course if it is then in our world they use it to excuse disobedience whereas in Narnia it’s used to compel a disturbing level of blind obedience. As I said I’m not sure what Lewis was going for there at the end of things… 

Till We Have Faces

by: C. S. Lewis

Published: 1956

314 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, told from the perspective of Psyche’s aggrieved half-sister.

Who should read this book?

I liked this book better than any of the Narnia books, though the difference was not extreme. It’s his last novel, and generally acknowledged to be his most mature as well. It was recommended to me by a couple of other people in my writing group who also really loved it.

General Thoughts

This post is already long and late. But, on the other hand, when you read six books by Lewis in a single month you want to have something deep and worthwhile to take from the experience. Something you can pass along. Perhaps I do. Consider this quote from the book:

Much less does it give them understanding of holy things. They demand to see such things clearly, as if the gods were no more than letters written in a book. I, King, have dealt with the gods for three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.

This is a book about holy wisdom. About denying what is actually True, for what is understandable (much like the theme of Wild Problems above, though told in a completely different fashion.)

We’ve adopted an almost entirely data-driven approach to interacting with the divine and the mysterious. We demand that it give straightforward answers and simple solutions. That we can look at the statistics and see that religious people are happier, or that they have more children. But there’s so much more:

It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.

In addition to dropping the ball last month, this post was late because I had still another trip at the beginning of April where I went completely off the grid for three days. It was simultaneously wonderful and terrifying. If that reminds you of my writing, consider donating.

Eschatologist #27 – Golems and Genies

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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