Flying Car Traffic Control

Delta VDelta V wrote on 04 Sep 2012 20:16

Where were we?

Oh, yeah, FO had posted a link, and FM5K wrote a rather thorough takedown/rant, and many of us would much rather talk about stuff like that than the corpse of ME3.

So, without further ado:

The essay in question.

And FM5K's reply, unquoted to preserve formatting:

@ Foolish Owl

At risk of derailing, I must address the link you posted.

I found that articles quite insightful, very interesting, and though-provoking. Unfortunately, I also found it wrong.

The problems appear early, with sprinklings of a political endgame in the text, but don't emerge to dominate until the second half of the essay. The early parts are devoted to addressing the question, "Why don't we have flying cars?" and I found very intriguing. I believe the author identifies some interesting trends and correlations.

However, the second half, in which he points to the causes and reasons, is filled with perplexing intellectual contortions, best expressed through the series of logical equivalencies the author attempts to create: "capitalism = bureaucracy = stagnation", "information technology = no new technology", and "capitalism = central planners". The last one is particularly curious, given the occasional detours the article takes to issue a paean to lost Soviet glory, which surely had no shortage of central planning.

The pastiche of damning bureaucracy, while calling for more of it, finally comes to a head, and a logical conclusion, when the author plants his giant black "A" flag for anarchy in the conclusion.

Suddenly, it makes sense, at least internally.

However, I must counter this conclusion with several points.

  1. The author attempts to boil a social/scientific phenomena down to a single point of data. This is logical flaw more commonly associated with conspiracy theorists than academics, attempting to justify a series of unfortunate occurrences and cruel twists of causation as being planned, rather than emergent trends at a particular locus. This is why "truthers" insist on cruise missiles or controlled demolition of the Twin Towers, rather than the fact that assholes with box-cutters slipped through a gap in US defense infrastructure, and that the construction of the buildings had never included the idea "well, what if hundreds of gallons of burning fuel were suddenly deposited at high speed into the top floors?"
    1. This point is particularly cruel, because it diverts an otherwise interesting question into answers that can be dismissed as "claptrap", and all other points on this list stem from this singular fallacy. By assigning a simple point of blame, the author creates a single point of failure.
  2. On the issue of stagnation and central planning:
    1. The author is correct in identifying the loss/end of the space race as it existed in the Cold War. Like the author, this fills me with immense sadness. No person born in my generation, or in my parents, has set foot on alien soil. As an American, it bears particularly poignant sting, with the recent death of Neil Armstrong, with not a single successor to the legacy. We stood astride the lunar soil, our eyes turned outwards, and then quit. Like Rome, we drew a wall and said, "far enough". I makes me physically ill. At least China is driving forward, and my hope is that it reignites competition.
      1. But why? The loss of the competitive drive offers a reason, but a shallow one.
      2. The growth of unmanned progress, which does appear to fit into the author's supposition of safe, stagnating technology turned inward, raises an interesting point.
    2. But this is not a decision made in the private sector. As a whole, the American ambition drifted from building up/out/forward, and turned to the welfare state, of patching over the problems of today.
      1. Nothing fills me with as much disgust as the phrase, "Why would we go to the moon when we have problems here in the USA?"
        1. We go to the moon so that we can grow. We go to the moon because we must always cross the next mountain, sail over the great ocean. Stagnation occurs when we stop striving. Yes, it is illogical (short term) to throw our species into the black of space. Our logical civilization will be studied by the successors of illogical civilizations if we make that timid choice.
      2. We are spending less and less of our resources on building the future, and more and more on fear-based ventures.
        1. Health care is the great project of the modern age, as the author identifies, but he only references its corporate management, not the societal myopia behind it. We spend more and more capital, public and private, on preserving life - often without quality, mind you - than on building a better future.
        2. To invest in education creates a smarter workforce.
        3. To invest in infrastructure builds a more efficient nation.
        4. To invest in end-of-life care spends billions to keep a dying man or woman alive with machines to pump air, blood, food. In the end, they never leave their bed. They never recover. They never contribute. Instead, they linger and dwindle like vegetables, sucking down hundreds of thousands of dollars of resources, putting the family through contortions, and then footing the bill to God-knows-where.
          1. That may sound cold, but I assure you, it is not. I watched grandparents - good, strong people - reduced to things, lingering without living, on tubes and wiring and clicking, beeping Frankenstein machines. They could not speak, they could not respond. They drifted through sleep. They were terminal. They were dead, but we, as a society, decided that they should take their time in doing so. The family spent thousands, insurance spent more, and my parents were twisted into loops of unknowing and "please, God, no". When they died, it was almost a relief, because there was resolution. Was that worth it? Was there ever a chance at treatment? Or were we simply turning a sad day into a sad month-long conga line of mutual suffering, and spending so many resources to do it?
        5. So we, as a society, fight great battles of this ("Obamacare" and its political slap-fights), while never addressing the question: "How much of our labor and capital is being spent to keep us alive, while how much is being spent to help us live. But fear gets votes, so the public sector panders about "death panels" and end of life care, while the private sector, which follows the money, balloons an entire industry on defying nature without ever defeating it!
        6. Worse still is the focus on the welfare state, not as a humanitarian endeavor to aid the least fortunate recover their footing, but as a state of living, and entire gray market of electronic benefits, public housing, and a locked cradle-to-grave culture of dependence. If we are going "wage war upon poverty", then why do things by half-measures. Stop providing life-support that will never solve the problem, and start providing skills training. Direct intervention may be necessary, to separate out the generations that can be saved from the cultures that foster generational poverty. Of course, this is reprehensible, from a perspective of rights, but let us be honest: if we aim to cure the disease of generational poverty, then was must act stridently.
        7. However, if our welfare programs are not to "cure" the social problems, but to assuage them, then we must re-analyse their applications. They are charity, then, speaking not to the good of the state, but to the human qualities of sympathy, empathy, and of perhaps some fear of karmic balancing or divine father-figure sitting in judgment.
          1. If these are charity, and not societal surgery, then they should remain as charity, given from what we can spare, not commanding the national debate. The question, "Why should we spend millions on a supercollider, when people live in squalor?", is little more than a societal suicide note.
          2. If we grow our people, our world, through investing in the future, we will save more people from potential poverty than we could ever rescue by throwing that same money into a cycle that produces no wealth. A child who grows up to become a successful doctor, business-owner, or what-have-you will generate wealth, pulling themselves, their family, and their circle up-wards. A child who grows up on the teat of the state, living on the teat of the state, will continue to pull in money, without generating growth. "Teach a man to fish" and what have you.
          3. Again, this may seem cold, but it is not. How is it fair, to damn entire future generations to cycles of institutional poverty (be it in the hollers of Appalachia, the projects of Detroit, or the war-ravaged heart of Liberia) when we have it within our power to grow those possibilities out of the system.
      3. We grow by moving forward. We answer the challenges ahead of us and become greater for their passing. The society that turns away from the horizon and inward upon itself is a society that is on the track to implosion.
    3. So, the author identifies a problem, but rather than dig into the possible causes, he simply points to a hidden cabal of corporate planners and says, "They want stagnation!" No one chooses stagnation and death. It happens because it was the most likely outcome. We have wealth, we have no major conflicts (the War on Terror does not count). There is no World War, no Cold War, no striving of interest and ideology to drive the dark corners of our brains into "rivalry mode". There is sedentary time, and the opportunity to enjoy our wealth, rather than grow it. Our society has chosen the former.
  3. On the idea that the private sector is inherently anti-growth:
    1. As the culture shifts from "forward" to "inward", the rate of "great projects" may appear to dwindle, but only inside the mechanisms of state. Yes, there are severe problems/risks inherent to private sector driving of the horizon-technologies. (My God, the "patenting the genome" can of worms alone should send every person of rational mind out into the streets and debate halls to call for a meeting on "where is this going/what are we doing?" Yet, there is only silence.) However, among those risks is not inherent stagnation.
      1. Even as the state shirks its duties in the "Space Race", private interests have sprung up to tilt at the windmill, driven by government prizes, personal ambition, and occasional "long-view" futurists. The fact that it has come to this should shame government bureaucrats, but we should, as a people, be glad that at least someone didn't let this ball drop without grabbing for it. Do we want private moguls stamping their face on the manned spaceflight? I don't know, but the state sure as fuck stopped trying to answer that question a few years back, when successive administrations offered pipe dreams, airy speeches, and decimated budgets.
    2. I can speak in anecdotes here, to address both this point and the "information/medical technology is not innovation". I have friends in the new fringe field between computer science and biology, engineers dragged into medicine to work on digitizing the human body, to develop technologies to let us crack the malfunctions that end lives, to decode and defeat cancer. It is amazingly bold work, it is being created in a hybrid field, it is being driven by a conflux of public, private, and academic ambition, and it has the potential to do what the current "end-of-life" care I railed against does not: It might cure, not just prolong. I'll come back to this later, but I wanted to throw this up now, to address private-sector stagnation.
    3. The private sector follows the money. It behaves like a shark, following blood. It can be steered by chumming, and it can be contained in cages. Where the state chooses to chum, and where it chooses to build - or not build - those cages will drive the hunt. If it is going in a direction you find reprehensible, and you lack the capital or will to invest in your own venture, then you should look to society, and ask the more pertinent question: "Where are we incentivizing the private sector to go?" If you don't like that answer… change it, don't rail about a phantom cabal that exists solely to shirk your own responsibility in the social fabric.
  4. On information/medical technology being "no progress", and the decline in the rate of growth of physics/chemistry:
    1. The author refers to the slowdown in physics, which is quite an interesting phenomena. The problem here might be, not that we've stopped learning, but that the learning has grown more difficult, more abstract, more specialized. No more is physics a field where a man (a genius, mind you) might watch an apple fall, or a rooftop worker plummet in relative speed, or two objects collide, and suddenly draw out that crucial question. This is now a field where teams of immense brainpower pour millions of dollars into experiments that more math than practical, to tease out answers to check if their math might be proven wrong, while dealing in particles so minute that "common sense" simply cannot comprehend them, where causality becomes fuzzy, and revolutionary breakthroughs might pass without even the educated populace noticing, because of the sheer level of abstraction.
      1. When painting your house, you notice the changes most obviously in the early coats. The more you paint, the less different each coat looks. We're at that stage in physics, now. We're getting into the fine details, the trimming, the edging, the gloss coats. Until something comes along and makes us repaint the house, it will be very hard to find the broad-stroke changes.
      2. An interesting article on this subject comes from John Horgan. For those of you who don't wish to go down the rabbit hole, the quick notes version is what I said above, combined with "biology is the revolutionary science now".
    2. So, yeah, take that last point, go back to my comments about my friends working in the biotech world, and the crazy-cool stuff they're doing, and shove the whole affair right back at the original article, which claimed that "biotech is nothing new". The author suffers from a myopia of his own, if he can't regard the breakthroughs on life the same way he regards breakthroughs on how things move. Science is not dead. It's just having parties at a different house, now.

Holy crap, that turned into a rant.

I have a bunch more, about "safe" progress, litigious society, the patenting of ideas, the informatics revolution, the new fields of "kitchen/shed science" - hint: it's in bio/chem, not physics - and an entire rant on computer science being far more than the dead-end the author calls it.

Unfortunately, I must get running, and this turned from a quick, "I disagree" into a point-by-point explosion of text, in a thread ostensibly about Mass Effect… so, yeah, I'll just break off here, with one final point.

Dear Author: Did you just call the internet little more than a mail order catalog?

It is the single greatest forum ever created in human history. It is the sum total of human knowledge - only slightly riddled with porn - and creation. It is a medium and a message, a free and equal idea and ideal, grown greater than the sum of its creators ambitions, animated and driven by the collective rolling tides of its users. It is stupid, it is profane, it is immature. It is riddled with filth and hate.

It is the boldest challenge to conventional thought ever conceived. It empowers. It liberates. It educates.

Its flaws are human flaws, the dark corners of our minds turned loose in anonymity. Their existence cannot be denied, or we deny the truth to ourselves.

It is commercial. It is communal.

It is crushing, it is uplifting.

It is the greatest work the human species has ever constructed, a collective consciousness that distills the zeitgeist of the ephemeral.

It is us.

It is us, digitized, projected, and magnified. It will fail as we fail, succeed as we succeed, an echo chamber to our efforts. It is greater than the sum of its parts, it is the distillation, the fractal chaos and unified theory of who we are and a pointer to what we can be.

And you called it a mail order catalog?

You're a dick.
-Signed, the internet.

EDIT 1: A lot of this was US-centric, so apologies to those of you not from the great land of 'Murka. I let this one run unfiltered, so a lot of my objections to these points are addressed at topical concerns inside the US, but many of them can be broadened out to the world at large. I didn't want to dilute my punches with waffle-language, so I hope it can be appreciated as simple direct response, and not some sort of "America Uber Alles" nonsense.

EDIT 2: If it seems abrasive, it is entirely directed at an essay that took an amazing insight, and then wasted it with a hatchet attack railing against capitalism in general. That's like finding a bear in your house, and then starting a campaign against geese. It's illogical, and reduces the emphasis of "holy crap, bear in my house!"

EDIT 3: I am so sorry for threadjacking. If requested, I'll just pack this wordsplosion up and take it home.

And FoolishOwl's response:

@Fapmaster5000: I've struggled to keep this brief. I can't even begin to address everything point-by-point in a reasonable length.

1. A shortcoming of Graeber's article is that the concept of the declining rate of profit is scarcely explained at all, when it's somewhat complex, and has a lot of implications, on which the premise of his essay depends; his audience might not even know the concept, let alone agree with it.

2. Graeber describes himself as an anarchist; anarchists, including Graeber, are generally highly critical of the Soviet Union, and he says that many of the Politburo's ambitious projects "turned out to be ecologically and socially disastrous". It's not that he's celebrating the Soviet Union; the point is that even the notoriously bureaucratized and conservative Soviet Union was less bureaucratized and conservative than the US, with respect to innovative and disruptive technologies. Central planning means bureaucracy, but it's not the only thing that does; compare the paperwork burdens of an American medical clinic with a British medical clinic, for instance.

3. Most importantly and relevantly: part of what spoke to me about this article was that it frankly countered the nauseating self-congratulatory hypocrisy of the IT industry. I love computers and the Internet, and I believe strongly in the liberatory potential of these technologies; I always have. I also work in IT, in the heart of Silicon Valley, as a tiny cog in the machine of one of the most powerful corporations in the world. From what I can see on the inside, marketing rhetoric aside, no expense is spared on stifling innovation. My employer frequently spends tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to buy out companies, just so that its competitors don't buy them out first. And then, the products or services are allowed to die. This company's competitors behave in largely the same ways, and many entrepreneurial start-up companies are simply angling to be bought out by the big companies. Much of my job is to monitor the servers, maintaining them according to pre-existing contractual agreements, until those agreements run out. The servers alert for problems, and I cut and paste between email and the ticketing system and back again. Seldom am I asked to use the technical skills for which I was supposedly hired, and even then, only trivially. The waste sickens me, as does the waste of my potential and that of my co-workers.

We'd all rather be building robots.

I think that covers it — for now. I'll add my two nickels (inflation!) once I've finished fuming at the essay in question.

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