Since we have launched the new Epsilon Theory site, the engagement from our readers has been, without question, the most rewarding part for both me and Ben. I am grateful for the emails and responses to We Were Soldiers Once, And Young. I’m grateful to our member John, who doesn’t let me get away with any bullshit.
I’m also grateful to our member Thomas, who posted an incredibly thoughtful response to one of David Salem’s notes from last week. In this comment, he challenges whether hope is the right response to our present social and political environment. It’s an earnest and entirely reasonable challenge. “Hope”, as Thomas points out in quoting Henry Rollins, “is the last thing a person does before they are defeated.” And so it is. And yet, I’d like to stand again in defense of hope – and duty, its fellow laborer.
I’ve done so before, in a prior piece I called the Two Churchills. But today I want to talk instead about Two Worlds.
In one world, humans have never been so free to live the life they choose. In this world, diseases are being conquered. Scientific and mathematical breakthroughs are being achieved. Fewer people die in violence, in conflict and in war. Fewer crimes are committed. Fewer children go hungry. Fewer people are imprisoned and killed by their own governments. We are learning to harness new sources of power. We are learning about the stuff we are made of.
This is our world.
Is this world at risk? As it ever was, yes! Our prosperity and fruitfulness appear to have put a strain on our planet’s climate and ecology. The balance between protecting our world and ensuring that we may still be so productive as to offer the poor nations of the world the same promise we took hold of in the last century is delicate. We may face escalating challenges from increasingly resistant pathogens. Many of the technologies we are now exploring – from gene editing and genetic modification of foodstuffs to artificial intelligences – carry immense potential…and uncertainty. And no matter how far our science may advance, we can never bury the road to serfdom brought on by the occasional circumstances in history that have so often compelled societies to vest their power in authoritarian governments.
And yet, on balance the World of Reality is, by any comparison to a world that has existed for human beings, a paradise.
But there is another world, a world which is at once both imaginary and real. It is the World of Abstraction.
The World of Abstraction is a world awash in narratives and memes. It has always existed alongside the World of Reality, because many of those memes are hard-wired into the human brain, or else into human cultures as patterns and heuristics. But in only the last ten years, practically all of humanity has gained near-constant access to the megaphones of always-on news, internet-enabled mobile devices, and broad, multi-layered social media presence. The number of bi-lateral human interactions we have today is a fraction of the interactions we have in front of an audience. When we speak to each other, we speak to each other AND to the crowd of people watching.
The World of Abstraction is The Panopticon. A circular prison with clear glass walls, an invention of Jeremy Bentham to explore prisoner behavior under the conscious influence of the constant, silent knowledge of perfect surveillance. By everyone.
The picture the panopticon presents of the world – what we call common knowledge – isn’t just a fuzzy picture of the World of Reality, shifted slightly by the change in how we communicate knowing that the crowd is watching the crowd. It is something completely changed, affected not only by third- and fourth-level abstractions, but by individuals who recognize how to leverage this panopticon to shape that common knowledge. These are the people we call missionaries. This is how you will know them: they are the ones who tell us what something really means. Some are benevolent, or wish to be. Others are not. When a powerful enough missionary is committed to using this power to create the perception of an existential conflict, our World of Abstraction becomes what we have referred to as a competition game. A stag hunt, as it is referred to in game theory, in which the equilibrium is a bad outcome for everyone. Donald Trump has done this. The US Media has done this. Debating who came first or who is more ‘responsible’ is a vain enterprise, and in the now-typical recursively meta sort of way, part of the conflict itself.
The world’s present travails are not wholly the result of these missionaries and the narratives of which they are the purveyors, nor of the competitive game they spawned. That’s a Pollyannaish delusion, too. Humans have lied, murdered, cheated, stolen and been horribly unhappy for millennia. They will still do those things. We would still disagree with one another in the World of Reality, sometimes vehemently, and would find countless issues for which our differing value systems bring us to an unpleasant impasse. But I am convinced that the specific unhappiness about our current time and our current political environment is not driven so much by the state of the World of Reality, as by the World of Abstraction.
There is good news: the world we truly live in is the World of Reality, friends.
There is also bad news: our brains will do everything to convince us that we live in the World of Abstraction. And in a sense, our brain will be right. A paranoid delusion or a mind beset with depression may cause a person to see and perceive events, people and language other than they truly are, but the actions they take in response will be very real.
So it is for each of us.
Our hope need not be a vain gasp at the end of all things. Our commitment to kindness need not be a futile gesture. In the best case, our hope is a flag in the ground that tells other people, “I am willing to look like a fool in the World of Abstraction. Come look like a fool with me and see the world for what it is.” If enough people rally around the flag and reject the narratives of this competition game, even the ones that feel right to us, even the ones that help our values to win some battle or other, I believe it can be defused. I may be naïve. Or maybe I’m right, and it is possible, but we don’t succeed.
That’s OK. Even then, in the worst case, hope and kindness and a commitment to good faith will be a necessary guide to a functioning civil society, if and when the competitive game causes us to do what competitive games tend to: fall apart.