Venkatesh Rao is the writer behind “Breaking Smart,” a “technology analysis site” that’s the subject of our conversation today. While his site’s format is unusual in its composition, being a collection of 30 essays clumped into a “season” that will be updated every 2 yearsi in a sort of Netflix-binge-eat style, Rao’s mold-breaking would seem to end there, much to ironic hilarity of his blog’s pseudo-intellectual title.ii
So here we go, for your enlightenment and entertainment, “Understanding Elite Discontent.” Or not !
Because they serve as stewards of dominant pastoral visions, cultural elites are most prone to viewing unexpected developments as degeneracy. From the Greek philosopher Plato (who lamented the invention of writing in the 4th century BC) to the Chinese scholar, Zhang Xian Wu (who lamented the invention of printing in the 12th century AD), alarmist commentary on technological change has been a constant in history.
Let’s break this down. “Cultural elites”iii most assuredly do not view unexpected developments as degeneracy. What we – and yes, I include myself firmly in this much despised camp – view as degeneracy are the expected developments ; that is, the highly predictable and completely foreseeable destruction wrought by making good things “accessible” and “easy-to-use.” This is why it drives us nuts when metatards screech about how “Socialism hasn’t worked yet because we just haven’t tried the right formula. But it will!“
We, the cultural elites, love unexpected developments and are in fact in a superior position with which to judge their merit and value, first to ourselves and then by extension to society. This is why we’ve flocked to Bitcoin : it’s a truly unforeseen stroke of both genius and luck, the likes of which haven’t been seen for millennia, and it represents true technological change and legitimate progress, not the consumeristically perverted interpretations thereof.iv
As to Plato and Wu, even if they were wrong, they were still right. On the one hand, they were both on the right side of history, for which reason we still read their works today. At the same time, had they been factually incorrect, “The People” would’ve created such a bounty of literature and philosophical understanding in the past two-and-a-half millennia. Isn’t it kind of telling that the most influential writings of history, those that have sprouted forth from the most fertile minds ever known, were composed by “cultural elites” ? Yes, education is power, but form is not function.
As to pastoralism, that its converse, urbanism, is implied to be the summun bonum smacks of mentally impoverished pro-multiculturalism, replete with the exact same misconstruction as to the practical and social implications, with density as with diversity. It’s in no way “better” or “more moral” to be wedged into a 300 sq ft concrete box half-way up in the sky from which you can never seen the morning sun and have to eat out every meal because your kitchen is only large enough put your pet cat’s food dish.
Sure, cities boast cultural festivals and theatres and restaurants and all the rest, but they’re also high-strung environments devoid of the calming tranquility of the rural landscape. Not everyone, and by this I mean every person, which is to say every “cultural elite,” can find the mental lebensraum they need to reflect and explore while living in a metropolis full-time. That we find solace in the serenity of Mother Nature is perfectly reasonable and not to be diminished in the slightest.
Viewed through any given pastoral lens, any unplanned development is more likely to subtract rather than add value.
It’s a very naive presumption to claim that elites are stuck viewing the world through any single lens. In fact, it’s exactly backwards. Go figure ! Whereas eagles can choose to look over here or to look over there, to view the world upside down or rightside up, to observe from a distance or to observe at proximity, worms have no such privilege ; they see the same ten cubic metres of shit day in and day out, regardless. From such a dismal vantage point, it’s amazing that these worms can see their own navels, much less into the distant inner workings of their masters in the sky. That the shit-slingers try and try until they’re blue in the face and the cows come home is more a testament to human persistence than ingenuity.
This tendency to view adaptation as degeneracy is perhaps why cultural elites are startlingly prone to the Luddite fallacy. This is the idea that technology-driven unemployment is a real concern, an idea that arises from the more basic assumption that there is a fixed amount of work (“lump of labor”) to be done. By this logic, if a machine does more, then there is less for people to do.
Oooh, fallacies ! Mental bugs ! Shortcomings ! Deficiencies that only the strong suffer from and the weak are immune to ! “Luddite fallacy” sounds like a mental gilded cage from which the only escape is wholesale adoption of the party line, y’know, like “climate deniers.” Surely, “The People” – or as Rao inexplicably and unduly refers to them, “The Prometheans” – have a solution !
Prometheans often attribute this fallacious argument to a lack of imagination, but the roots of its appeal lie much deeper. Pastoralists are perfectly willing and able to imagine many interesting things, so long as they bring reality closer to the pastoral vision. Flying cars — and there are very imaginative ways to conceive of them — seem better than land-bound ones because drivers predictably evolving into pilots conforms to the underlying notion of human perfectibility. Drivers unpredictably evolving into smartphone-wielding free agents, and breaking smart from the Organization Man archetype, does not.
Mkay. So it’s no great surprise that metatards imagine themselves superior to their superiors for as long as they have food on their plates and shirts on their backs. That’s no great revelation. But what’s remarkable is the notion that free agents wield SMARTPHONES. Seriously now. There really is nothing in the world of computing (and I use the term “computing” in the absolutely loosest possible sense only for effect) that’s more akin to a TV and less akin to a programmable device with root access and therefore nothing less free and quite so entirely entrapping. Smartphones are about as empowering as Britney Spears’ poptunes and unsurprisingly cater to the exact same demographic : little girls, be they 11-years-old with a bare cunt or 38-years-old with big bushy balls.
Besides, telling the customer who wanted his house painted blue, that you then painted green, not to worry because “it’s actually blue when it dries” is unlikely to fool any but the least critical of minds. No one’s afraid of smartphone-wielding anything, least of all the elite, any more than they’re afraid of an ant infestation overthrowing Buckingham Palace and executing the royal family at dawn. Someone’s been reading too much Jaron Lanier, me thinks. And the anyone who thinks that using a free service makes them disruptive, rather than making them a product to be sliced, diced, repackaged, and sold to the highest bidder, is only fooling themselves. If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product, yo.
In other words, pastoralists can imagine sustaining changes to the prevailing social order, but disruptive changes seem profane. As a result, those who adapt to disruption in unexpected ways seem like economic and cultural degenerates, rather than representing employment rebounding in unexpected ways.
Again, this is precisely backwards, which only serves to strengthen the reader’s heuristic that switching the forces of the accuser and the accusee will prove really rather enlightening.
For starters, the elite isn’t a static entity, at least not in any society worth the bother,v as the emergence and evolution of the nascent Bitcoin Lordship well demonstrates. In a healthy hierarchy, there’s a constant struggle for supremacy and an unquenchable thirst for domination both internally and externally. This dynamicism is quite essential to the productivity of the institution, be it a business or a larger social fabric, driving activity over passivity as it does.
Additionally, the only profane type of disruption is socialism. Because Hitler, y’know ? Otherwise, “pastoralist elites,” like for example those in Japan ca. 1500, readily embrace and adopt new technologies so as to prevent other elites from subjugating them.vi While wars are waged at least as much between elites from different camps as between the elites and their internal inferiors, it’s the former that’s the more productive of the two, as the innovative results of war economies well demonstrate, from hunting spears to atomic power.
History of course, has shown that the idea of technological unemployment is not just wrong, it is wildly wrong. Contemporary fears of software eating jobs is just the latest version of the argument that “people cannot change” and that this time, the true limits of human adaptability have been discovered.
Of course shmuv korse. History is being written as we speak and Bitcoin just laid off 50,000 bankers this summer alone. And lest you think that’s all the pain coming the way of fiat financevii from the little game currency that could, it’s still only worth ~$4 bn,viii so this is just the tip, baby, it’s just a tease. Just wait until we’re balls deep.
Today the pastoral-ideal human is a high-IQ credentialist Organization Man, headed for gradual extinction, unable to compete with higher-IQ machines. The degenerate, breaking-smart humans of the software-eaten world on the other hand, have no such fears. They are too busy tinkering with new possibilities to bemoan imaginary lost utopias.
This “high-IQ credentialist Organization Man” is nothing more than someone who values education, discipline, and obeying orders. Somehow, this type of person seems to make a healthy salary regardless of time and place, even if they occasionally pick the losing side of history, go bust, and their children have to start at the exact same place they did, if not lower down on the totem pole. It’s not AI that threatens these folks, it’s themselves.
Compare this mildly tragic fate with Rao’s “tinkerers” and we see that the latter are little more than optimistic artists who put their stupid paws where they don’t belong because “it’s the will of the community” and other related nonsense. “Tinkerers” like this, incidentally, blinded by the “follow your heart” myth as they are, are being hoisted upon the petard of the emerging software paradigm of PGP-signed releases, and as such, aren’t long for this individually responsible world.
I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue-that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow.
I see no such thing. What I see is the elite doing God’s Work and the untermensch doing whatever they’re told if they’re fortunate enough to have bodies and minds supple enough to be told anything at all. After all, it’s the master who chooses the slave, not the other way around.
Besides, what is avarice but ambition ? What is usury but risk assessment ? What is the love of money but the love of power, and thus, life ? What is thought for the morrow but vision ? Framing to the contrary is slave morality at its finest, which is fine if you’re into that sort of thing, but it’s no position of privilege.
For Prometheans, on the other hand, not only is there no decay, there is actual moral progress.
For dreamers, there are dreams. For poor people, there is dirt. For those unfair elite among us, progress is stochastic, material, and expensive. Moral progress is like a moral jellybean.
And life is like a box of chocolates : if you’re the kind of “cultural elite” that can read the label on the side of the box, you know exactly what you’re going to get, there’s no surprise, and the only discontent comes from derps who dun read so good.
Do we understand each other ?
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- In theory, at least. A theory whose hand will be put to the flame in 2017.↩
- The blog’s title, in case you hadn’t guessed, which I honestly hadn’t for the same reason that your grandfather called the TV “the idiot box,” is based on the following :
The name of this site is inspired by the hit American television show Breaking Bad, which follows the life of a chemistry teacher turned drug-kingpin as it winds its way to inevitable doom. Breaking Smart is the opposite of breaking bad: the expanding human exploration of new possibilities, powered by technological serendipity.
So there you go.↩
- This is clearly meant to be a derogatory term here despite wealth and prominent position being sine qua non for any sort of meaningful cultural perspective and despite the baseless implication that the world can be more accurately described from the worm’s perspective than the eagle’s.↩
- Compare and contrast our adoption of Bitcoin with our rejection of biometric tech.↩
- That is, one with plans of legacy.↩
- Oda Nobunaga (1534 – 1582) was a prominent Japanese warlord who initiated the late 16th century unification of Japan by embracing several key Western innovations introduced to him by Portuguese traders who were blown ashore and fortuitously and UNEXPECTEDLY brought with them advanced firearms.↩
- To say nothing of industrial and commercial fabrication and production sectors already decimated automation.↩
- So the charade would have you believe. But can you buy all 14 mn bitcoins for such a paltry sum ? Well, let’s see ’em try.↩