Panaceas and boogeymen
A panacea is a cure for all illnesses. In the context of this article, the illnesses are both real and metaphorical. Here’s a few panaceas that have conquered the minds of many modern people.
“Economics makes the world go around”
“If only enough/more was spent on X, …”
“Sharing economy will revolutionize the way we do things”
“If only we could get rid of those pesky regulations, and let the market decide”
“More growth, more jobs, better life”
“We need universal basic income”
The main difference between Christianity and economics is that Christians openly admit that they’re a cult/sect/religion. Economics, on the other hand, masquerades itself sometimes as a science, sometimes as a technique for productivity, however, it’s either too abstract, or too imprecise to have practical uses. We’re going to be lazy in order to omit linking specific sources, but there’s plenty of material. For one, economists have failed miserably to avoid so-called economic/financial crises. Same can be said about inflation, and unemployment. And let’s not even discuss environmental devastation for the sake of brevity.
Economics worships growth. Growth is the main ingredient of the economic panacea. A common saying states that a person who believes in an endless growth on a finite planet is either a madman, or an economist.
There is a special sect of economists known as libertarians, or Austrian economists, or classical liberals. Their panacea is free market forces. The main problem is that there’s no consensus on what a free market is. Another problem is whether a hypothetical free market can solve all types of issues. Many would oppose a free market for human organs, for example. We’re sure some libertarians will find a justification for an organ market, nevertheless, free market is quite a limited system, and should be applied only to certain domains.
Additionally, libertarians neglect the fact that mass society requires rules and regulation, and vast bureaucracies of the state. Some libertarians don’t want mass society, however, they aren’t ready to reject the products and benefits (electric equipment, cars, infrastructure) that require mass society. This “eat your cake, and have it too” mentality is no surprise, and its inconsistency is often ignored, or rejected.
“Blockchain will transform the economy”
“Full automation will end employment”
“Advances in technology will bring abundance, and end poverty”
“Artificial intelligence and singularity will give humans godly powers”
“Humans will colonize space in X years”
The main issue with this panacea is that every technological solution has a cost, and unintended negative consequences. For example, computer networks cheapen communication, and substitute direct contact for computer-mediated interactions. Many people voiced concerns about virtual “social” networks, and smartphone zombies. It’s clear that those types of interactions are of lower quality than in-person conversations.
Computers are said to increase productivity. Ironically, computers make people more productive at being unproductive. This is known as the Productivity paradox. It is also been stated that computers don’t increase test scores, and have little positive effect on education. See Neil Postman’s work for that.
You may be surprised, but we’re not that far from full automation. Only 20% of jobs are crucial, and 80% of jobs can be eliminated without interrupting the techno-industrial complex. See this blog’s entry on bullshit jobs. Clearly, automation, efficiency, and productivity was offset by bullshit jobs, bullshit service economy. It is reasonable to predict that elimination of the remaining 20% will have the same result.
Many technophiles have space exploration aspirations. We don’t know enough about this domain, but here’s an interesting article that suggests that there are negative consequences to being in space.
Perhaps the most interesting group of technophiles is the cult of singularity. Modern version of the rapture, or the second coming. Of course, there’s a possibility of it coming true, but the parallels between singularity cult and traditional religions are uncanny. It seems like it would take just as much faith to believe in singularity, and faith isn’t what techno-nerds see as virtuous, or useful.
“We need more awareness about X”
“Data and algorithms will allow us to do X”
“The solution to problem X is more education”
Modern world is obsessed with information and data. The information superhighway created information pollution, information glut.
It is easier than ever to get things published, however, it’s expensive to get people’s attention. People are bombarded with mass produced imagery, sounds, and texts to the point that a whole industry of marketing and advertising is required to be noticed.
There is a group of people who benefit from the data glut. They offer computer services for data processing, and charge a pretty penny. They religiously promote the predictive powers of algorithms, and the value of insights acquired by such means. However, the ability to predict certain things is greatly overrated. For example, many types of cancers can be predicted, but there’s still no effective cure. The predictive powers are important for more abstract fields such as advertising and marketing, which ended up primary sponsors of data wizards.
It is also said that more education can solve issues like unemployment. Some say that education is the key to more innovation. However, it seems like unemployment is uncorrelated with education levels, and research drought / stagnation phenomenon indicates that more education didn’t result in more scientific and technological progress.
We know well many details of many problems, but that hasn’t resulted in solutions, or even attempts. People are starving in India and Africa not because of the lack of information, but due to other systemic issues.
Just like a free market, full democracy is hard to define and implement. In ancient Greece or in early USA, slaves could not vote. Even nowadays, individuals under 18, or convicts cannot vote in most democratic societies. Voting in many instances is futile, as one vote among millions means nothing. The electoral college system in the US makes votes even more meaningless.
Democracy is often equated with freedom, and soldiers are sent to foreign lands to “fight for freedom and democracy”. Many soldiers figure out the scam subconsciously, and come back home with PTSD often failing to adjust to civilian life.
Democracy on its own cannot solve many issues. Iraq as areal life scenario shows that democracy had little effect on the welfare of the people, and the cost of regime change was devastating. In a purely hypothetical situation, democracy can lead to the tyranny of the majority. In a world where election news coverage is dominated by a handful of large corporations, tyranny of the oligarchy emerges. Needless to say, there’s no correlation between democracy and freedom. It’s just a common myth modern societies have.
Many people are disenchanted by politics, but many still try to “make the world a better place”. Political debates are popular, but rarely result in practical consequences. Everything seems to continue as usual. Once in a while there’s someone who claims to have a universal solution, but if we study history carefully, we can conclude that individuals cannot design a society. There are underlying forces that shape social development. They have to be respected, else the designs fail.
Unless you’re lucky, you’ve probably heard about diversity, and how it’s a magic elixir kool-aid every cool company needs to drink these days. The belief in the benefit of diversity stems from the “reducing single point of failure” argument. The argument is valid for biological systems: biodiversity leads to higher stability, and resistance to shocks such as pathogens. It is unclear whether diversity helps, harms, or has no influence on the stability and performance of social and technical systems. For example, it makes sense for a company to hire men for construction jobs as men are physically stronger. The debate, however, is focused around computer-related jobs, we are not going to discuss that, since we believe that those jobs are largely unnecessary (most of them are bureaucratic and abstract, and have no direct influence on the techno-industrial system).
image source: Heiko Muller
A boogeyman is something that is blamed for all illnesses. Strangely, there’s a large overlap between panaceas and boogeymen.
Communism, capitalism, nationalism
“This is the result of greed and capitalism”
“Communism simply doesn’t work, look at what happened in the Soviet union”
Soviet communism failed. 20th century nationalist movements led to horrible wars. Capitalism is dying a slow death by either creating inequality, or damaging the planetary environment.
Talking heads like Bill Maher blame capitalism for the evils of the world. Pundits like John Stossel say it’s communism that doesn’t work, and only leads to misery. It seems that all socio-political systems lead to a great deal of evil and misery. Thus, swapping one political system for another is a superficial fix that ignores underlying problems.
Global warming / climate change / carbon dioxide
There’s a problem with defining what global warming is in technical and scientific terms. If one region became warmer by 1 degree, and another one became colder by 1 degree, what is it? Another problem is enormous political interests that have hijacked the discussion.
Why is it a boogeyman? Because global warming is proposed to be the main force behind many issues such as crop failures, droughts, hurricanes. On the contrary, other forces and factors are more influential, such as exploitative agricultural practices, deforestation. When it comes to hurricanes and sea level rise, there’s no unusual activity, however, it is often stated that hurricanes are more frequent, which isn’t supported by data yet.
Additionally, despite hundreds (thousands?) of other emissions present in car exhaust, everyone seems to only talk about carbon dioxide. Carbon tax, carbon emissions. Nitrogen oxides are more toxic, but almost completely ignored by the talking heads.
Media / advertising
The influence of the media is enormous. They tell people what to buy, what’s cool and interesting, even how to think. However, the media have to stay profitable, and thus, have to give people exactly what they want. Mind-numbing TV shows are not a result of some conspiracy, or government plan, but a response to popular demand. The recent trend of fake news is likely in the same alley. There’s an army of marketing technicians who constantly monitor trends and moods to give suggestions to content creators. It is a vicious feedback loop where no individual is responsible.
Why should you care?
If you don’t want to be caught up in endless debates, superficial fixes, circlejerks, you should identify panaceas and boogeymen, and treat them with caution. Are there any problems that can be better solved by adding technology, and other panaceas, than removing them?