Thursday, April 19, 2018

Last Remaining Internet Author Paid accidentally by Parakeet

Dateline: Cubicle District 64, Year 2028Mystifying tens of millions of authors, Horatio Masterson is the only remaining writer who is still somehow being paid for his work, and in this exclusive report, we reveal the secret of his success.

The internet’s early enthusiasts promised a socialist paradise, but while advances in communications technologies encouraged many more people to speak their minds and try their hand at some art form, the “Let Information Be Free” movement ensured that most of these budding writers, painters, musicians, filmmakers, and other artists became paupers.

As we’ve all come to realize, the trouble was that the large manufacturers that advertised on the internet had much more clout than content-providers, because things like clothing, furniture, and cars were more in demand than ideas. Robots can produce things more efficiently than can human labourers, and so those people were swiftly put out of business. Unable to be retrained for the new economy, they took to overdosing on opiates, committing suicide, or getting themselves locked up in prison. 

Artificial intelligence provided the same unbeatable competition to those who had made a living with mental rather than manual labour. But whereas the machines used to manufacture material goods were enormous and costly, and thus not easily replicated, AI programs proliferated and so after 2025 anyone could create a work of genre fiction, a digital painting, a hit song, or even a computer-graphics-laden film just by turning on the AI on a common mobile device. Once art’s mystique was gone, demand for the arts dried up.

That didn’t stop the world’s artists from expressing themselves in their work, since they’re compelled to be creative; only the economic value of their products has fallen off a cliff. No one was interested in paying for a stream of content on the internet, including for this very article you’re reading, because so many artists were willing to work for free. After all, they created mainly to express themselves, not to make money. The market for news, pop cultural reviews, or philosophical articles thus became oversaturated.

Only Mr. Masterson discovered some trick to earning a living as a content-provider on the internet—in his case as a culture critic who writes articles on various subjects. A team of social scientists investigating the phenomenon confirmed that Mr. Masterson is human, not a bot or a cadre of hackers faking the payments. But Mr. Masterson’s writing isn’t noticeably higher in quality than that of the millions of other such texts available for free all over the internet.

The miracle is that someone somewhere is paying Mr. Masterson to write. We’re used to seeing all the internet money going to the advertisers, not to the thinkers and artists, as our species came to appreciate our inferiority to the new generation of machines and artificial minds.

But the secret of Mr. Masterson’s success hasn’t been revealed. Until now.

Our producers tracked down the flow of funds and discovered that his benefactor is a parakeet owned by a wealthy woman named Elizabeth Milton. Unbeknownst to her, the parakeet, named Jimmy, has gotten in the habit of pecking at the same keys on an old keyboard connected to Miss Milton’s computer that she’s left on for years but doesn’t use.

Coincidentally, the timing of Jimmy’s pecks coincides with the publishing of Mr. Masterson’s daily output of articles, so that as soon as each article is released, Jimmy has accidentally sent the author hundreds of dollars for that day from Miss Milton’s bank account.

Miss Milton confirmed that she’s never read anything written by Mr. Masterson, but that she doesn’t intend to turn off her computer, because she’s under the impression that Jimmy likes the sound of its humming.

“I suspected some such oddity,” said Mr. Masterson after we revealed our discovery to him. “It seems, then, I’m in a precarious position as a professional author. I’m the last of my breed. Should dear Elizabeth’s parakeet cease to push those precious buttons on the keyboard—or as soon as the bird passes away—I don’t suppose such a lucky confluence of events will happen again for me or for anyone else.”

Other writers resent Mr. Masterson’s stroke of good fortune. Tomas Bombastico is an unemployed teacher who publishes his lectures on YouTube and his academic articles on his blog—all for free, of course.

“I’ve read Mr. Masterson’s output,” said Mr. Bombastico. “His articles are nothing special. My writing is ten times more interesting and no one pays me a dime. And there are millions of other writers just like me, writing pages and pages that no one ever reads or pays for. It’s a travesty.”  

Mr. Bombastico resented the suggestion that if all those writers hadn’t been willing to sell themselves so short, perhaps the market wouldn’t have become oversaturated.

“We write because we have to express our ideas,” he said, “and we’ll do it for free if we have to. But where’s our crazy parakeet?”

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Against Steven Pinker’s Case for Humanistic Progress

In Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argues that the Enlightenment worked! Reason and science have brought progress to humanity. Don’t believe it? Pinker proves it with dozens of graphs. The hard numbers tell the tale: scientific advances have led to technological and social ones that have increased human flourishing not just in the West but around the world.

Alas, one sticking point remains: Pinker writes like a jackass. If Pinker’s case against religious, postmodern, authoritarian, and romantic critics of the thesis that rational enlightenment is progressive were as airtight as he suggests with his quantitative analysis, that counting of the numbers should speak for itself. Why, then, does Pinker supplement that supposed proof with his haughtiness and his slippery, specious philosophical arguments? The answer is that the graphs don’t speak for themselves after all. Who would have thought that statistics is a shady business, that you can “prove” whatever you like by twisting the facts as you please, as is common practice in advertisements! Enlightenment Now follows upon Pinker’s similar but more-focused book, The Better Angels of our Nature, which argues that the facts prove that global violence has declined due again to rational progress. But critics pounced on that book’s use of definitions and statistics. Conflicts between states have declined, but civil conflicts have increased, as the discussion in this video points out. Plus, as pessimistic economist Nassim Taleb argued, the 70 years of global peace Pinker points to may be only the trough between catastrophic conflicts that happen on average only once a century and that falsify any such notion of a steady decrease of armed conflicts.

Pinker, however, doubled down on his method and in this newer book presented graphs showing that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are all on the rise. Critics this time have focused on the question of how evenly or fairly these goods are distributed. For example, average global health may have risen only because a minority has received the best medical care, leaving the majority with health problems. Averages can cloak this divide, which is why Pinker dismisses the concern about economic inequality, since as long as everyone’s welfare increases, he says, it doesn’t matter that some people are doing much better than others. Inequality isn’t the same as unfairness, says Pinker, which is true as a matter of semantics but is irrelevant, since empirically the top one percent are more or less sociopathic and thus don’t earn their wealth fairly. 

In any case, these questions of tangible progress don’t much interest me. It’s perfectly plausible that the rise of objectivity and skepticism from the Scientific Revolution onwards has led to technological and thus to some social progress. The main defect in Pinker’s argument, however, is apparent from his chapter on humanism. There he means to show that science is inherently humanistic, and this is the primary point of disagreement between Pinker and his critics; moreover, this question of humanism is the source of Pinker’s dismissive attitude towards those critics. Pinker pretends the numbers speak for themselves, whereas everyone is familiar with how statistics can be abused. The reason for that pretense is to justify Pinker’s lapses in the philosophical and historical departments. From a scientistic perch, Pinker can “argue” the philosophical points about the humanistic implications of reason and science, which means he can presuppose those happy connections, to excuse himself from having to provide anything like a strong philosophical or historical case in addition to his statistical one. The numbers allegedly do the heavy lifting, so all that’s left for Pinker to do is to boast. You wouldn’t expect the scientistic shiftiness from his persona in his public discussions and interviews in which he appears as a longer-, greyer-haired Spock, all mild-mannered and even-handed. But his writing on the philosophical and historical issues is both triumphalist and pitifully weak, as John Gray points out in his review of the book.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Social Reality of Heaven and Hell

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Shylock the infamous Jewish moneylender provides what’s become rhetoric for an egalitarian rallying cry, when he compares himself to the Christian and asks rhetorically, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” The inference drawn from the extracted meme about how everyone bleeds the same is that everyone is therefore more or less equal. In fact, Shylock’s speech reads as a rationalization of his preoccupation with vengeance, on which he subsequently dwells in the last third of the speech. The implicit equality, then, isn’t so much between those belonging to different creeds or religions, but between humans and other clever primates who understand the concept of revenge. In any case, the notion that blood type matters to whether people are all in some important sense equal is quaint. The invention of the computer has demonstrated the many-to-one relationship between software and hardware: instances of the same type of computer can be running very different programs, just as individuals with the same phenotype can be mentally dissimilar. Whether we all bleed the same is thus a classic red herring, as far as an egalitarian should be concerned.

There are reasons to think, on the contrary, that the rich and the poor effectively occupy very different worlds, phenomenologically speaking. Of course they live in different parts of the city or country, in different-sized houses and so on, but their qualities of life are also divergent, as are the social systems in which they operate. This is shown, for example, by the proverbial golden parachute which saves only the wealthy. In most cases, the wealthy aren’t socially punished for their failures. They fail as often as any other fallible person, but normally they don’t suffer much as a result of their misdeeds. On the contrary, the punishment is typically externalized, which is the Orwellian kernel of truth in trickle-down economics. For example, the vulture “capitalist” swoops in, purchases and dismantles a company, earns a bonus from the short-term boost of the company’s stock price (since in theory the company’s temporarily worth more as a skeleton than as a working business, until the realization kicks in that a skeletal company can’t make much money), and flies away from the wreckage as the stock price plummets and the company goes bankrupt. Instead of being tarnished by associating himself with antisocial, Darwinian logic, the CEO is celebrated in the business literature and the banks are quick to finance his next takeover venture. Then there are the many examples of white-collar criminals hiring a team of the best lawyers to get away with their crimes, or of their having hired armies of lobbyists to have legalized their destructive lifestyle in the first place. The rarified world in which the power elite lives goes to great lengths to prevent this dashing knight from failing in the fullest sense, from hitting rock bottom by recognizing, for example, that his business model trains him to be a predatory sociopath who must segregate himself from mass society to avoid the backlash he deserves. White-collar sociopaths who wreck companies and thousands of employees’ lives are heralded as gods, while blue-collar sociopaths who rape or murder are locked away or executed.

In the ancient and medieval worlds, this difference in social class was codified in warfare, when the nobles would engage only in single combat, away from the chaos of the war itself. Often, the defeated king or lord would be captured and held for ransom instead of killed, whereas the peasant soldiers would savage each other in a free-for-all bloodsport. In the modern world, the highest-ranking military commanders are typically civilians who command the troops far from the battlefield, while the grunts languish beneath the fog of war, showing fealty not to those commanders but to their brothers-in-arms. At least in societies that have no military draft, the grunts who derive from the lower social stratum fight in a world in which the element of chance predominates. The stakes for the soldier are a matter of life or death, whereas the main concern for the generals is their military career. For reasons set out by John Ralston Saul in Voltaire’s Bastards, modern social systems compel rationalist leaders to fail upward, because these systems are amoral and their inclination is only to ensure that the systems are efficient. The ultimate outcome is irrelevant, according to the instrumentalist, as long as the system and its logic prevail. Thus, the dishonour involved in commanding the Iraqi battlefield from the Green Zone, which invites contempt from America’s adversaries and which hurts American troop morale is of no consequence, because this democratically-controlled military system is presumed to be much more technical and efficient than the Islamist militant’s guerilla warfare. As Saul points out, this instrumentalist reasoning was fatally undermined by Robert McNamara’s loss of the Vietnam War. Saul assumes, though, that this value of efficiency should be taken at face value.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Open Letter to President Trump, from the Entertainment Industry

With all due respect to the outcome of the 2016 presidential campaign, to those who voted for Donald Trump, and to the policies and performance of the Trump administration, we members of the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild of America, and of numerous other unions pertaining to American arts and letters implore Donald Trump to stop pretending he can be president, so we can skip to the part where artists get to lament or ridicule everything he’s done in office.

The artistic importance of the Trump White House’s shenanigans dwarfs the political or economic effects of that administration’s actions. The Trump administration isn’t competent enough to put its stamp on history by the strength of its convictions or by the novelty or relevance of its policies. The Trump family intended to get into politics only to enrich themselves or to show off. But as far as the rest of the world should be concerned, their regime will have only entertainment value and so Hollywood, for example, must be allowed to capitalize on that fact.

Decades from now, no one will associate the Trump administration with any political accomplishment, despite the need for an overhaul of the neoliberal way of doing business at home and abroad, as is plain from the rise of state-controlled capitalist countries such as China, Russia, and Iran, and from the decline of liberal democracy in Europe and North America.

Only the artistic commentaries on the Trump fiasco will matter, and these will consist of mountains of films, novels, poems, television series, plays, songs, and operas that will duly arrive at the meaning of Trumpism for the benefit of humanity.

These artistic monuments to Trump’s folly are waiting to burst forth, but the artists are prevented from starting their labours in earnest by the fact that this administration is still perpetrating its absurd pretense that it has some business to accomplish. Decorum requires that artists hold their fire until Donald Trump is no longer president or until the full farce of his time in office has unspooled.

To begin the cinematic excoriations midstream, for example, would invite Trump’s defenders to retort, “Too soon.” But we believe the majority of Americans have waited long enough. Donald Trump has no legitimate business to tend to as president. His time in high office has been laughable from beginning to end. We demand that President Trump bow out of his political fraud so that the entertainment industry can turn its full attention his way.

The dozens of movies alone that will soon enough be made about the Trump disaster will be worth more to history than everything Trump will have done while he was president. Indeed, Trump’s abominable presidency will have the sole merit of providing so many raw materials for artistic and comedic sublimation.

In effect, President Trump is working consistently only for one special interest besides that of his personal family’s enrichment, and that’s the entertainment sector. Trump’s every utterance and buffoonish performance feed artists a wealth of absurdity to challenge their respective muses. Far from working to improve America as a whole, President Trump has effectively aligned himself with the liberal entertainment industry, since it will be left to the artists to redeem the shit sandwich of his presidency.

But by remaining in office where he obviously doesn’t belong, he’s delaying that superior work that needs to be done.

Thus, we the undersigned say: Enough with the fake politics; let’s skip to the art.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Travesty of Self-Help Advice

Outside of the academy, self-help platitudes have largely substituted for philosophical literature. This is both pitiful and fortunate. The pity is that the advice peddled by self-help writers is abysmal. The blessing is that if the masses are attracted to New Age-flavoured self-help therapy, they haven’t the stomach for authentic knowledge and so it’s just as well they steer clear of philosophy. Still, here’s a philosophical take on some pearls of self-help wisdom.

Warped Stoicism, Garbled Liberalism

The charlatan sometimes lures you in with a veneer of ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Stoicism. Authentic Stoic philosophy is tragic, because it was meant for warriors in a literal battlefield in which a violent death can come to anyone with no warning. The Stoic concedes that we have no control over the external world and therefore shouldn’t expect to get what we want if our desires are based on the false premise that we can control anything other than ourselves. Thus, we shouldn’t expect to be happy if we think happiness ought to include monetary wealth. As in Eastern religions such as Buddhism or Jainism, we should tailor our desires to natural reality: our naïve, self-centered, extravagant desires are unrealistic; the external world is indifferent towards our success (especially in war), and so the most we should hope for is to avoid disappointment if we can learn to be humble, to expect to control only our mindset. This is why Epictetus said the Stoic is invincible, since as long as he or she aligns her thoughts with natural reality, the Stoic won’t expect more than the world is likely to provide.

All by itself, then, genuine Stoicism refutes most of what passes for self-help wisdom, because Stoicism includes the tragic principles of Buddhism, which were much more recently reformulated by pessimists and existentialists in the wake of modern science. But in summarizing the top self-help lessons, one charlatan recommends taking “full responsibility” for your life. “This means that you have to own your mistakes and your victories too. You should not blame anyone else for the conditions in your life. You have to take responsibility for your life so as to live the one that you desire. Do not place responsibility for your life in the hands of your parents, guardians or romantic partners. The quality of your life is completely up to you. Do not make excuses, only progress.” Another source puts the point this way: “Don’t be an asshole. There’s enough negativity in the world; don’t contribute to it. If you’re able, be kind, but if you’re having a rough day, just try not to be a complete dick.”

This advice appears to be a garbled rendition of Sartre’s view and is thus in line with the bastardization of Stoicism. The exoteric slip-up here is to slide from Sartre’s early phenomenological focus on how consciousness is free to escape the present, to the notion that our freedom encompasses our “life.” In short, Sartre’s early account of freedom amounts to Stoicism, so his point is that we’re free to adjust our conscious states to accept reality. Thus, he says in Being and Nothingness that even a prisoner is free as long as he or she doesn’t wish to leave the prison cell. This is just the Stoic warrior’s tragic attitude of accepting the unpleasant likelihood of suffering or death in war, which extends to the broader conflict between nature and all creatures not occupied on a formal battlefield.