Friday, October 28, 2016

In Soviet Russia, Internet invents you

This article on the history of Soviet efforts to build something like the internet is absolutely fascinating. They didn՚t manage to succeed of course, but it looks like the nerdy subculture that grew up around the effort was amazingly similar to the US equivalent.

My favorite part was this:
The forces that brought down OGAS resemble those that eventually undid the Soviet Union: the surprisingly informal forms of institutional misbehaviour. Subversive ministers, status quo-inclined bureaucrats, nervous factory managers, confused workers and even other economic reformers opposed the OGAS project because it was in their institutional self-interest to do so….

There is an irony to this. The first global computer networks took root in the US thanks to well-regulated state funding and collaborative research environments, while the contemporary (and notably independent) national network efforts in the USSR floundered due to unregulated competition and institutional infighting among Soviet administrat. The first global computer network emerged thanks to capitalists behaving like cooperative socialists, not socialists behaving like competitive capitalists.
This hints at something I՚ve thought about for a long time but haven՚t really managed to articulate: that the human built-in propensities for both competition and cooperation, for self-aggrandizement and for doing genuine good for others, are more or less constant no matter what the formalized institutional system of society.

We live in an ostensibly capitalist system, but corporations sophisticated methodologies to make their inside feel like a socialist collective farm, with everybody pulling in unison for the team and acheive “alignment”, a little bit of Newspeak that Mao would feel right a home with. And contrariwise, it is certain that even in the deepest and most committed precincts of the communist world, people were quite adept at pursuing their own rational and individual self-interests, even if that could never be publicly acknowledged. This is what killed the Soviet internet and no doubt many other worthwhile initiatives.

It may even be the case that actual cooperation is inversely correlated to how much it is part of official ideology.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Quest for Intelligent Trump Supporters

I՚ve indicated in the past that I was looking for intelligent Trump supporters to engage with, and couldn՚t really find any. Well, Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex has published his own thoughts on the election (advocates voting against Trump), leading to over 2000 comments at this writing, many of them pro-Trump. Scott is very intelligent and draws an intelligent crowd, so there we go. Lots of bright people are engaging with the nature of Trump and politics in general, and they represent a diversity of views on the political spectrum.

Unfortunately it all seems like a waste of effort to me, because it is 100% unquestionably obvious that Trump has no serious policy knowledge or positions, so there is no point debating them. Scott acknowledge this:
Donald Trump not only has no solution to that problem [full employment], he doesn’t even understand the question. He lives in a world where there is no such thing as intelligence, only loyalty.
But he nevertheless goes on to pick apart Trump՚s policy statements in detail, because he apparently has boundless time and energy. I certainly didn't have the time to do the same, nor to read all 2000 comments, but here are a few pro-Trump people and their arguments:

Protest Manager
“President Obama set out to change that, since the only think he hates more than American power and success, is a Republican success.”
This is standard wingnut delusional resentment. The guy is also anti climate science, and eventually got himself banned.


Racism doesn՚t exist, it՚s something invented by Democrats and a threat, and thus
“A vote for Hillary is a vote increasing existential risk!”.
That this is elaborate nonsense should be obvious (indeed it seems obvious to the writer).

SSC people are big on existential risk except they seem to think that the most significant factor is not climate change or hostile AIs, but mean SJWs. Charitably, this means they are very young and overly influenced by their college experiences, or possibly living too much of their lives on the internet.

E. Harding

This guy has the most seemingly-fact-based arguments for Trump. If I wanted to have an argument, I might start with him. But of course most of it is wildly colored, eg:
“Obama created ISIS, almost certainly deliberately.”
This is a ridiculous distortion of the truth, which is that the west had some complicity in the creation of ISIS but it was due to the usual incompetent meddling in foreign wars, not some nefarious plot because Obama likes it when Americans are beheaded.

Luke the CIA Stooge
Trump Is not an existential threat. THE US FEDERAL GOVERNMENT IS AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT.…I support trump [because] He’s most likely to permanently damage the authority, legitimacy and power of the US federal government.”
At least this is consistent. If I was the anarchist hothead I was 30 years ago, I might buy this argument. Trump indeed is likely to do permanent damage to the US government, and if that's what you want he's a good choice.

In summary, I՚m not impressed and at this point I don՚t even feel much of a need to have this debate, because it is obvious based on character alone that Trump would be a terrible president. But – I suppose it must be acknowledged that not all Trump supporters are idiots or racists. They have arguments, just not very good ones.

Finally, I should mention Scott՚s conclusion:
The enemy isn’t leftism or social justice. The enemy is epistemic vice.

When the Left errs, it’s through using shouting and shaming to cut through the long and painful process of having to justify its beliefs. It’s through confusing disagreement with evil, a dissenter who needs convincing with a thought-criminal who needs neutralizing.
First, this acknowledgement is an indication of the fact that to a large segment of Scott՚s audience, the enemy is in fact leftism and social justice. That there is a large body of people to whom “justice” has become a curse word is alarming.

Second, I think this exposes a deep philosophical rift between me and Scott and his fellow rationalists. The idea of “epistemic vice” presupposes “epistemic virtue”, that is, that there is some objective model of the world that if we could all somehow figure out, it would solve these difficult problems like full employment and foreign religious wars.

Regardless of whether objective truth exists, elections are not about figuring it out, they are battles over which alliance of forces will get to rule. In this particular election, the lines couldn՚t be clearer: it is the liberal globalized capitalist elite, with generally enlightenment values including technological progress and human universalism, against whatever it is Trump represents, which is some ill-defined mess of ethnic chauvinism, aggressive nationalism, and anti-rationality.

There is no objective reason to prefer one of these sides to the other. There՚s a lot to dislike about the Davos elite, and there are various reasons people have for being on the side of Trump (or the equivalent in other parts of the world, like the National Front in France). These reasons make sense to them, and I don՚t think there՚s much hope of reason convincing them otherwise. No amount of epistemic virtue can settle what is at its root a radical clash of worldview, a power struggle, not an argument.

BUT, it is glaringly, painfully obvious which side of this someone like me, or Scott, or his readers, should support. If your primary values are reason and fact-based decision making, the choice is obvious. If you put overall human welfare over the interests of your immediate ethnic group, the choice is obvious. If you are repelled by violence, the choice is obvious.

[ update: ok, here is a large list of "scholars & writers" who support Trump. Oddly there are no links to any actual writing, so who knows what the arguments are. The list seems to be a mix of well-known worthless right-wing hacks (Bill Bennett, David Horowitz, John Lott] and unknown academics from places like Hillsdale College. But I guess they count as "intelligent". ]