Monday, October 4, 2010

The Game

Its goes by many names including: “politics”, “promotions”, “public relations”, “punditry”, “preaching” and "Pin the Tail on the Stupid". But among players it is simply called “The Game”. The objective is to get ignorant people to believe falsehoods for fun and/or profit (if you’re profiting by telling the truth you’re not playing the Game). The key to success in the Game is the ability to get people to turn off their objective reasoning skills (i.e., to be stupid).

In the Game you get points whenever you profit from someone else accepting your baseless propositions as facts. In the same way that most drug dealers know not to “get high on their own supply”; true players know not to internalize anything they say in the context of the Game. Points are awarded in the Game based on a combination of the blatancy of the proposition’s falsity (i.e., the stupidity required to believe it), the number of people who believe it and the depth to which they believe it. The accumulation of points manifests as increases in the player’s worldly influence and wealth.

Thanks to the Internet no idea is too stupid (i.e., too egregious a violation of the fundamental laws of logic) to gain traction with some group of marginalized tinfoil hatters. Skilled players try to broaden the distribution of their most preposterous propositions by connecting different groups of believers together using conspiracy theories and then encouraging them to ideologically cross-pollinate. To maximize the depth of penetration of more improbable ideas players typically shape them to be consistent with the personal narratives of their marks. The best players are actually able to convince their marks that believing pure drivel makes them more knowledgeable than everyone who doesn't. Such tactics increase the persistence of an unlikely belief, which in turn increases the chance of it being passed on to other like-minded individuals. As a result, these absurd propositions can provide a solid foundation for building multilevel monuments of idiocy that accumulate huge points in the Game thanks to a multiplier effect.

At the periphery of the Game are lurkers who watch it as a harmless, if sometimes mean-spirited, pastime. Lurkers are able to appreciate the subtleties of the Game but are saddled with too much conscience to play it. The less sympathetic lurkers get a perverse enjoyment out of seeing marks proudly brandishing, as signs of their “superior” intelligence, the stupid ideas that active players have pinned on them. Anyone who wonders why more sympathetic lurkers don’t intervene to warn those being played has obviously never tried to separate people from beliefs that are important to them. As bad as the inaction of lurkers may seem to outsiders, it is the professionals who you really should watch out for. The high-end pros in the Game are wielding immense power in society and often pulling down seven and eight figure (USD) annual salaries. This can incentivize them to play a merciless game that is indifferent to any harm they might cause. These players are generally willing to ruin careers, destroy lives, bring down political systems and if necessary wreck economies in their single-minded pursuit of points in an ultimately meaningless game.

The Game has been played in one form or another since time immemorial. In its earliest versions it was often synonymous with we now think of as product advertising. While much of the action today is still driven by the movement of goods and services, some truly innovative moves have come out of the news media in their efforts to attract viewers and be regarded as relevant (the media equivalents of wealth and power). Their success in combining news, opinion and entertainment into an addictive concoction that is completely lacking in substance has opened the door to a whole new level of play. And through that door has marched the two major American political parties. The Democratic and Republican Parties have revolutionized the Game in terms of the generation and mass distribution of completely idiotic ideas that a significant percentage of the country believe with all their hearts. As such, the lurker-organized fantasy leagues invariably heat up during the run-up to elections. But be aware that the members of these political parties are by no means the top of the Game hierarchy.

In the Game if you are not a player you are probably a mark. The key to avoiding being played is a willingness to question your beliefs. Any belief you have that is based more on your self-image than on empirical evidence from the world around you is, at best, suspect. If you can think of anyone who might be benefiting more from your belief than you are, you have definitely been played. Unfortunately, if you’ve been played by a high-end player, suspecting as much will not provide enough of an incentive to abandon the belief, unless you are also a player. In other words, faced with the choice, a mark will always take the blue pill.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Socialism versus Capitalism

Britannica defines socialism as "a system of social organization in which private property and the distribution of income are subject to social control". It is based on the idea that in the world beyond subsistence farming many people contribute to the production of goods and services, and on the theory that everyone who contributes to the production of something should profit from the revenue it generates, in proportion to the value of their contribution.

Socialism goes off the rails when those who determine what represents an "appropriate" distribution of profits allot themselves a disproportionate share simply because they can. This tends to create a bureaucratic class that sustains itself by feeding off the efforts of both the executives and the workers.

Capitalism is a system in which "most of the means of production are privately owned and production is guided and income distributed largely through the operation of markets". When everything is in balance it is market forces that determine the appropriate distribution of revenue in a given enterprise.

Capitalism begins to run amok as certain private enterprises become powerful enough to be largely immune to market forces in the context of determining compensation. At this point the executives in these enterprises will often overvalue the worth of their contributions, thus depriving their workers.

Socialism was a reaction to the excesses of capitalism that in the 19th century produced fabulously wealthy industrialists (the so-called robber barons) supported by impoverished workers. As is often the case the cure for this situation proved to be worse than the disease as socialism in places like the Soviet Union and China produced parasitic bureaucracies that fed voraciously on their entire citizenry.

Capitalism tends to promote a greater separation between the top and bottom of a society while socialism tends to promote a smaller separation. This means that in essence capitalism is the more hierarchical system while socialism is the more egalitarian one.

From a socialistic perspective capitalism is a system that encourages a tendency for a select few to profit disproportionately from the work of many. From a capitalistic perspective socialism is a system that encourages a tendency for negligible contributors to profit disproportionately from the unique skills of a select few. Both systems persist because both systems have a point.

For the foreseeable future most modern societies will cycle back and forth between their capitalistic and socialistic tendencies as the weaknesses of the currently dominant system lead to a public backlash that will push it to the margins for a time as the other system is embraced until its weaknesses become intolerable to the citizens and they bring the first system back. This cycle will only be broken when either the entire system collapses or a new system emerges that encompasses the strengths of socialism and capitalism while addressing their weaknesses. Fasten your seat belts it’s going to be a bumpy night.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Knowledge Allergic Information Addiction: Symptoms and Treatments

There are at least two significant negative effects of being a knowledge allergic information addict. First it is a self-marginalizing condition since the more its victims emphasize the differences between things the less like anything else they will see themselves as being. In the case of politically extreme knowledge allergic information addicts, this progression works along these lines: “First I used information to marginalize the liberals/conservatives (since I am not one of them and believe they are not good people). Then I used information to marginalize the moderates. Then I used information to marginalize those on my side of the political spectrum who disagree with me on any political issue. Then I used information to marginalize those who agree with me politically but not on other areas. And so on until I was the only right-thinking person left.” Rest assured this progression works beyond the political domain. As this symptom progresses victims increasingly see the world as being populated by opponents united in complex conspiracies against them.

A second major debilitating symptom of being a knowledge allergic information addict is that regardless of how much information you amass the world seems, if anything, less comprehensible. In the epistemology described here, complexity reflects the ratio of information to knowledge in the given person’s perspective. This means that the more you focus on the differences between things rather than their similarities, the greater the complexity you will experience around you. For knowledge allergic information addicts this complexity can defy comprehension. This is because complexity is reduced through understanding, which is the conversion of information into knowledge. The basis of understanding is the realization that things are connected by what separates them. For instance, the bricks in a wall are connected by the mortar that separates them. However those who are allergic to knowledge resist their allergen through a symptomatic tendency to not see the connections between things their information separates. As long as this inclination persists understanding of the world around them will continue to elude them.

These symptoms incline knowledge allergic information addicts to perceive the world around them as an incomprehensible place full of people who are not like them and so could easily be conspiring against all they hold dear. Needless to say it is difficult to reason with those suffering from this condition about the validity of knowledge that they see as contradicting their interpretation of the world. The longer these informed yet biased perspectives persist, the more deeply they are integrated into their owners’ self-image. This means that the longer a knowledge allergy goes untreated the more its victim will perceive external attempts to help as personal attacks. As such, it is unlikely that a cure could be facilitated through a straightforward rational intervention.

There is hope for those afflicted with this disease. Though their minds tend to be closed through self-justifying interpretations of what they already believe, they remain mentally active in their quest for new information to feed their addiction. Their willingness to expose themselves to new data keeps open the possibility that they will eventually encounter mind-expanding insights that lead them to question the foundation of the informational world view that emerged from their condition. Without knowledge to provide cohesion these informational perspectives are generally houses of cards that become flimsier the larger they grow. As a result, the product of this disease eventually becomes the best path to a cure.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Addicted to Information Yet Allergic to Knowledge

The easy availability of huge volumes of data via the internet has led to an epidemic of information addiction. A growing number of people cannot go an entire day without an information update. In a rational society the desire for more information would normally not be interpreted as a bad thing. Unfortunately this condition is increasingly accompanied by an allergic reaction to relevant knowledge thus undermining the potential value of the information addiction.

To understand this condition it is important to first understand what information and knowledge are. Information describes how things are different from each other. For example, information is how we establish that the color orange is redder than the color blue. Knowledge characterizes how things are alike. For instance knowledge establishes that orange, red and blue are colors. Our tendency to use the terms interchangeably is based on the fact that things are connected by that which separates them (e.g., the spectrum that distinguishes colors also connects them). As a result, whether something represents information or knowledge is based on how deeply we interpret it. Since we can only experience contrast, information comes from interpreting our experiences. Knowledge generally comes from interpreting information. Understanding is the conversion of information into knowledge.

These days an increasing number of people are obsessed with information. These individuals typically focus on how things are different from them and each other. For instance, in politics when someone offers information that “proves” a sweeping generalization such as, “all liberals are evil” or “all conservatives are stupid” I hear the sniffles of a knowledge allergy. Where such a person does not self identify as evil in the former case or stupid in the latter, this information primarily serves to differentiate and marginalize the subject. It is the inclination of people to deny the knowledge that connects them to the groups they seek to marginalize (e.g., that there are good liberals and intelligent conservatives) that is symptomatic of their knowledge allergies. Chronic sufferers of this condition tend to exhibit symptoms in all areas of discourse, not just the political arena.

In the Internet Age knowledge allergic information addicts are typically out scouring the Web to amass stashes of information that supports their beliefs while studiously avoiding knowledge that contradicts them. Unlike victims of the class-based or divinely mandated knowledge prohibitions, today’s knowledge allergic information addicts are in a position to appreciate the utility of information but often lack the capacity to fully process everything that interests them. The sheer volume of information that is literally at their fingertips these days overwhelms their capacity to understand it all.

As they accumulate unprocessed information, some people develop a tendency to regard the differences between things as more important than their similarities. This inclination can be exacerbated by the fact that our uniqueness is only meaningful in the context of our informational orientation. As such where we value our uniqueness, we tend to embrace information that casts it in a positive light. But there is a threshold of infatuation with our uniqueness beyond which we interpret knowledge of our similarities to others as a threat to our self-esteem (“I have NOTHING in common with those evil liberals / stupid conservatives”). When zealously informed people cannot remain rational when confronted with such knowledge their addiction to information has triggered a knowledge allergy.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Washington Prescription

People often complain that the artistic quality of Hollywood feature films has gone down over the years. Those who make this observation typically blame Hollywood for this phenomenon. However, like any free enterprise system, Hollywood produces products that ultimately reflect the demands of its market. Note that in the face of the general perception that its products' artistic quality is sinking, Hollywood's revenues are setting new records each year. Think about this in the context of the current political mess in Washington DC.

At the risk of being accused of blaming the victim I maintain that the electorate is responsible for the toxic political environment in Washington DC. The politicians there are well aware of the fact that we have the power to vote them out of office. As such, they act the way they do because it continues to provoke a positive electoral response from us. Arguably, most Washington politicians today are directing more of their efforts towards triggering that response than to actually doing their jobs.

Others have argued that the growing influence of deep-pocketed lobbyists is responsible for the current culture in Washington. However, such lobbyists have power in Washington DC primarily because it is still possible to sway enough voters to decide an election through the use of paid political ads. Our relative ignorance of the issues leaves us susceptible to such ads. This means that our political ignorance transfers some of our political power to those who pay for those ads. But we remain the source of that power. The same is true of the growing power of pundits and political entertainers. Being the ultimate power in Washington DC means we are responsible for its current condition.

In order for the electorate to have a direct hand in improving the political atmosphere in Washington DC, we must first accept responsibility for its current state. As long as we deny being responsible for this situation, we distance ourselves from the power to fix it. Expecting that things will get better simply by sending different people into the same noxious environment is analogous to that switching from regular to menthol cigarettes to treat your emphysema.

To improve the political environment in Washington DC we must each take it upon ourselves raise our level of political discourse. In order to do this, we must allow our personal ideologies to be primarily shaped by our life experiences rather than the talking points of people we like or even admire. We must develop our positions on political issues by analyzing them through the filter of our life experiences, rather than simply accepting or rejecting them based on how they are labeled (typically by people with a vested interest in how we react to them). When we present our political opinions to others we must do so in a manner that demonstrates our intelligence and respects theirs. We must give respectful consideration to divergent political opinions presented to us in this manner (rather than disparagingly dismissing them as partisan crackpottery).

As more of us begin to interact in such a manner I maintain that our elected officials will react to the spread of this new reasonable discourse by emulating it, if for no other reason than to avoid losing their jobs. In other words, by becoming a sensible, respectable electorate we can shape sensible, respectable representatives.
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