Friday, August 20, 2004

Ontological Deficit part III: California Dreaming Brad?

Look, Brad Delong is a great guy. He's the kind of guy I'd risk my skin to save his neck without ever having met him. That's how great he has. And the oldman has a very high regard for his own skin.

But like the rest of America he has an ontological deficit. One thing he has going for him however is that unlike the conservative viewpoints I've detailed earlier, Brad Delong still has the ability to read. As a matter of fact, he's reading and discussing a review of a book called "Accelerando".

Accelerando is the story of three generations of a dysfunctional family living through the Singularity. What makes the novel unusual is not the size of the ship or the strange cocktails or even the sexual metaphors—a coital act culminates with the transfer of “source code”—but the fact that Stross is attempting to imagine the relatively near-term future. This is a strangely courageous act, because modern science fiction is facing a crisis of confidence. The recent crop of stories mostly take the form of fantasy (elves and wizards), alternate history (what if the Black Death had been deadlier?) and space operas about interstellar civilizations in the year 12,000 (which typically gloss over how those civilizations evolved from ours). Only a small cadre of technoprophets is attempting to extrapolate current trends and imagine what our world might look like in the next few decades. “We’re staring into a fogbank,” Stross says, “and we literally do not know where we’re going, only that we’re going there very fast.”...[emphasis added]

However, I've never been quite sure what the "Singularity" is supposed to be--or how we are going to get there. I look forward to a future of VR games, robot factories making stuff, and lots of people making a living helping the old get around and advising the young on how to play various status and mating games. I can see how Moore's Law and nanocomputation will solve the hardware problem of making machines-that-think possible. But I cannot see how we can solve the associated firmware and software problems.

Now Brad is not a futurist and neither do I expect him to be a physical scientist or even a good guide to literature. He is however an economist. I do expect him to understand basic facts about economics. I don't think this is too much to ask.

Now the most simple economy you can have is a generalized labor and no-surplus commodity economy. The next development is usually to specialize in the production of commodities. The third step is to produce goods from those commodities. Then when sufficient specialization and a surplus of basic commodities is achieved, you can start providing services. This is basic economic thinking.

All economies therefore evolve. You can have an agrarian economy. You then start producing food more effectively and efficiently. The manhours needed to produce a food surplus decline. Then some people start specializing in making goods and distributing them based on agrarian goods, or start specializing in mining or other basic commodities or making things from non-essential commodities like Iron, Gold, etc. After you industrialize, you can then start developing a surplus of manufactured goods by developing economies of scale. As the proportion of people needed for manufacturing drops as part of the population, people are then freed to specialize in services. And so on and so forth.

This is incredibly basic economic thinking. The whole process depends on two basic ideas. The first a tiered hierarchy of tradeable surpluses from basic commodities to exotic ones to manufactured goods to services, etc. The second is an expanding variety and quantity of specializations of occupational skills in the labor pool. Tradeable surpluses and the increase in the diversity and quantity of skilled specialized labor are the two fundamental building blocks of economic development.

Capital as it turns out is merely a means to an end, to achieve this goal, and societies can and have historically developed to a certain extent using only barter along these lines before needing capital.

So doesn't Brad understand that the future he envisions: "I look forward to a future of VR games, robot factories making stuff, and lots of people making a living helping the old get around and advising the young on how to play various status and mating games." is a future of ever increasing tiered surpluses of every imaginable tradable asset combined with extremely advanced occupational specialization? So the whole structure depends on a continuing and increasing per capita structural increase in surpluses in the social hiearchy of value that defines the infrastructure of the society.

Yet haven't we just gotten done talking about the inexorable logic of the exponential growth in demand to limited supply of basic commodities such as fossil fuel energies?

The future Brad envisions as we understand it cannot exist. Or rather it will only exist for a relative handful of people. There will always be Paris Hiltons, and there will always be those willing to swallow their pride to service the Paris Hiltons of the world. I do not judge them. I just call the big picture like I see it. Indeed most the visions fo the so-called writers of science fiction that they're peddling are not just naive like Brad but contemptible in their ignorance. The oldman is a die-hard science fiction fan. He is also a minor scientist.

These two facts about his upbringing lead him to look at the basic situation and say, that science fiction has little to offer if it attempts to imagine a hi-tech future where basic commodity per-capita bottleneck problems have already been solved. Because that's where the real nitty gritty of the science fiction writing of the next few decades lies. What kind of world is that? A dystopic world where a few percent of the world's population has access to advanced hi-tech robotics and computing technology, where most of the world's population is condemned to live in resource shortages exacerbated by the usage of technology and information to controll the masses and redirect a disproportionate share of resources to the elite.

How do I know this? This is the world that's already happening. That's the importance of the productivity issues I'm dealing with. Once those numbers are taken apart, then it will be obvious. It will be obvious that currently technology isn't really reducing workers through automation so much as empowering extended logistic management chains in order to outsource capital flight to lower labor and local rent locations.

There are in fact some science fiction writers who have already imagined such a world. William Gibson. Neal Stephenson of Quicksilver and who pegged globalization right on the head.
globalization had smeared things out into a worldwide layer of "what a Pakistani bricklayer would consider prosperity."

But if you have an ontological deficit you don't pay attention to things like this that disconfirm your viewpoint. Even if it's a view point such as that there are no major science fiction authors who have successfully imagined what the next few decades will look like. In the conservative version of ontological deficit, and we may suppose that modern conservatives have because of this a larger deficit, we see that they simply stop reading at all on the off chance that they might come across facts that falsify their world view.

In the liberal version of ontological deficit syndrome, the deficit isn't as egregious since they still know how to read apparently, but they just carefully limit their reading to viewpoints that fail to include falsifying information.

To show that this isn't a single isolated instance, the oldman intends to discuss the future and what it will look like from a liberal point of view but with the illusions stripped away. How will the oldman do this? Why he will examine some of the most liberal states in the union - New York and especially California. If we look at these and consider them places where we can spot trends for the future political environment of America as far as our ontological deficit is concerned, then we're all in a whole bigging heap of trouble.

Which is of course perhaps why there aren't a whole lot good science fiction stories out there adequately describing what the future is really like. Nobody is paying to be told their children will be whores or die for rich men's wars in order to avoid starvation. Furthermore, a look at history in general will immediately confirm how unremarkable such a transition would be. It's just exactly the kind of fucked up mess that humans typically find themselves in.

As Stirling of BOP-news has pointed out, many of the people in the media are paid to be professional imbeciles.
I'm sure Dahlia Lithwick is a very smart person. However, she's in a position from which few people escape looking like a smart person: that is, she's a professional imbecile. Her job is to explain to people who are very stupid why they shouldn't feel stupid. It's Friedman's job, too. It's also a job that belongs to lots of other people. Because stupid people don't like feeling stupid, they are willing to pay money not to feel stupid. Because there are millions of stupid people out there, that adds up to a lot of money. Hence, our top down media would be failing in their fiduciary responsibility if they did not employ people to tell stupid people that it is in insult to call them stupid. Demand, stupid people, finds supply, stupid columns.

This is of course why my readership will never be vast. First it requires people to read, and usually that's a death sentence right there. However it also has the second flaw that it always condemned sentimental and maudlin thinking, however emotionally appealing. Nobody likes a meanie. Thirdly, I like Dan and Brad a lot. I think it's fair to say without their blogs I wouldn't be blogging. However my third point is that I will never hesitate when it comes down to the wire to be viciously and savagely critical of even those who have supported me the most or whom I like a great deal.

Some have claimed that this is because the oldman is a heartless elitist murderous sob bastard who is completely ruthless. The oldman admits there is some justice to these claims. However the oldman also offers that he has never betrayed a trust or taken personal advantage of someone in a position of weakness. Call it pride or an old-fashioned sense of honor or the aristocratic genes twitching. It would be beneath me to do such things.

However I am toughest on those I like the most. And it's good for them. It's like bad-tasting medicine. If you're smart you'd sooner hear it from me, then get caught with your pants down when it counts.

Just call the oldman the boot camp drill sergeant of ontology and epistemology.

So I don't know if Brad is reading this, but my advice to him is stop acting like a starry-eyed comic-book adolescent fanboy and start acting like the world class economist that he is. One cold calculating minute of consideration by his brain should be enough to slice and dice this problem ten ways to sunday, and reveal to Brad the exact trajectory the world is about to take.

Which is to say somewhere between really not pretty and downright ugly.


At August 23, 2004 at 4:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oldman says, "...there aren't a whole lot good science fiction stories out there adequately describing what the future is really like."

I dunno, I don't read all the much Sci Fi. I do know that I've got a whole bunch of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. books on my shelves at home and Vonnegut seems about as dreary about our future prospects as Oldman and I.

If you've not read any Vonnegut, try his first novel Player Piano (1952) for a dim view of a future that Brad Delong painted as bright, and/or Galapagos (1985) which Stephen Jay Gould said was the best description of Contingency Theory he'd ever seen. Dave Iverson


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