A Cyclic Theory Of Subcultures

“During Involution phase, many counterelites are trying to slice off adherents and resources at the same time. Some people even become meta-counter-elites, complaining that the counterelites themselves have strayed from the true principles, etc. The actual elites realize their status is also precarious, and some of them side with the counterelites in order to get a new base, bringing the conflicts to the highest levels. The overall tone of the movement becomes darker. Ordinary rank-and-file members hear so much criticism of the movement that it’s hard for them to stay optimistic about it. They stop talking about it as The Amazing Movement That Will Change Everything, and become defensive: “I’m not, like, one of those members of the movement, I just sort of think some of their ideas make sense sometimes.”

-Scott Alexander, “A Cyclic Theory Of Subcultures.” Astral Codex Ten. August 9, 2022
  • Phase One: Pre-Cycle, niche
  • Phase Two: Growth, moving to mainstream
  • Phase Three: Involution, complexity, sub-groups, elements shrink
  • Phase Four: Post-Cycle, established institutions, final form or return to Phase One

See also  Giambattista Vico‘s La Scienza Nuova which posits a civilization cycle and is described in Wikipedia as follows:

“Relying on a complex etymology, Vico argues in the Scienza Nuova that civilization develops in a recurring cycle (ricorso) of three ages: the divine, the heroic, and the human. Each age exhibits distinct political and social features and can be characterized by master tropes or figures of language. The giganti of the divine age rely on metaphor to compare, and thus comprehend, human and natural phenomena. In the heroic age, metonymy and synecdoche support the development of feudal or monarchic institutions embodied by idealized figures. The final age is characterized by popular democracy and reflection via irony; in this epoch, the rise of rationality leads to barbarie della reflessione or barbarism of reflection, and civilization descends once more into the poetic era. Taken together, the recurring cycle of three ages – common to every nation – constitutes for Vico a storia ideale eterna or ideal eternal history. Therefore, it can be said that all history is the history of the rise and fall of civilizations, for which Vico provides evidence (up until, and including the Graeco-Roman historians).”

Pretty straight-forward parallels, with the post-cycle indicating a frozen state where institutions persist for some period before descending back into Phase One or dissolution.

Forer Statements As Updates And Affirmations

“The Forer Effect is a trick used by astrologers, psychics, and social psychologists…What statements show a Forer effect? Wikipedia just says they should be vague and somewhat positive. Can we do better?…

…Or you could phrase them as affirmations, or arguments for self-compassion…

– Scott Alexander, “Forer Statements As Updates And Affirmations.” astralcodexten.substack.com. July 26, 2022

I found the concept of the Forer Effect and the exercise or turning it around interesting. But, I think where it fails for me is I think trying to compare ourselves to the internal states of other people, an experience we do not have direct access to and can only guess at, is rarely an exercise that has value. We do not know what other people’s lives are like. And, for those whom we have a lot more interaction and might be able to guess, it’s largely irrelevant.

My wife is someone who seems genuinely happy as a default state. Does it make any sense to use what I imagine her experience is of the world as a comparison for my experience? I assume I am different from her and from most people. I think the real question here is whether a given behavior is adaptive or maladaptive. Is my self-criticism, on net, a positive or a negative in my life? Is my sense of being different from other people a positive or negative force in my life?

When you reframe this discussion and try to get away from comparison and think instead of other ways of being, or perhaps other times in your own life, you are at least interacting with your lived experience and trying to do something to improve it. Personally, ‘I find questions like: does anyone else experience/believe/whatever X?’ to be in the same category. Whether other people have similar experiences is largely irrelevant, isn’t it?

We live in an environment where we are constantly being manipulated and influenced. Of course, everyone feels critical of themselves and awkward because we are products of that environment. If we lived as hunter gatherers 500,000 years ago, the uncertainty and doubts we have would be completely different. So, the fact other people have the same outlook and behaviors that you do is not surprising. It would be surprising if they were much different.

So, perhaps the more interesting question is: how am I different than most people? Or, as Scott Alexander puts it:

“These affirmations aren’t foolproof. 50% of people are in the top 50% of most-sexually-awkward people, and 1% of people are in the top 1% most sexually-awkward. When I read these, I feel like most of the time I can think “Ah yes, this is a Forer Effect, good thing I caught myself before I believed it”, and then for one or two of them I think “No, I am just literally objectively in the top 10% of the population on that trait.” This is why I’m calling these “potential updates” instead of “absolutely correct articles of dogma”.

-ibid.

To me, this is the more interesting question. If you are going to engage in comparison, which I don’t think you should – i.e., comparison is the thief of happiness, wouldn’t it be more interesting to focus on where you are truly different from others?

Meritocracy, Intelligence & Education

“…we need to dismantle meritocracy.

DeBoer is skeptical of “equality of opportunity”. Even if you solve racism, sexism, poverty, and many other things that DeBoer repeatedly reminds us have not been solved, you’ll just get people succeeding or failing based on natural talent…

…One one level, the titular Cult Of Smart is just the belief that enough education can solve any problem. But more fundamentally it’s also the troubling belief that after we jettison unfair theories of superiority based on skin color, sex, and whatever else, we’re finally left with what really determines your value as a human being – how smart you are. DeBoer recalls hearing an immigrant mother proudly describe her older kid’s achievements in math, science, etc, “and then her younger son ran by, and she said, offhand, ‘This one, he is maybe not so smart.'” DeBoer was originally shocked to hear someone describe her own son that way, then realized that he wouldn’t have thought twice if she’d dismissed him as unathletic, or bad at music. Intelligence is considered such a basic measure of human worth that to dismiss someone as unintelligent seems like consigning them into the outer darkness. So DeBoer describes how early readers of his book were scandalized by the insistence on genetic differences in intelligence – isn’t this denying the equality of Man, declaring some people inherently superior to others? Only if you conflate intelligence with worth, which DeBoer argues our society does constantly. 

-Scott Alexander, “Book Review: The Cult Of Smart
Summary and commentary on The Cult Of Smart by Fredrik DeBoer
.” Astral Codex Ten. February 17, 2021.

There’s a lot going on in this review. I’d highlight that Fredrik’s DeBoer’s blog has an RSS feed, which you can add to your RSS reader. I’m looking forward to reading more of his commentary.

Open Question: Is education an unqualified good?

I recently had an online discussion with someone who, in broad strokes, seems to agree with the above position, i.e., if we only had enough education, we would solve much of society’s problems. I think this is a standard U.S. liberal stance, which positions educational attainment as the means for advancement into the middle class.

Education is the great lie of U.S. liberal politics. Lest you think I’m a conservative trying to own the libs, let me first talk about the great lie of U.S. conservative politics in order to draw parallels.

The great lie of U.S. conservative politics is that you can have a global war-fighting capability and small government. The U.S. conservative lie is easy to grasp. There’s obviously a tension between government size and the ability to fight any war, much less a capability that involves nearly a thousand foreign military bases and nearly a trillion dollars of military spending every year, more if we include the debt servicing for past wars.

But, how is education like war? Isn’t education an unqualified good? The similarity is that just as small government caps one’s ability to fight wars, there is a demand limit on education. Most education is vocational instruction. People go to school in order to get a credential that gives them a better chance of getting a job. The education is, in large part, a secondary effect to the real demand for better employment opportunities.

It’s also possible to juice this demand. For example, I know of one university, and I imagine it is a feature of most universities, where jobs that used to employ people straight out of high school now require a university degree. The university, by implementing this requirement, increases demand for its product. But, does being an administrative assistant in the university organization really require this level of training? Does one need a Bachelor’s degree in communication, business, English, etc. in order to answer the telephone, write a Word document or navigate an Excel spreadsheet? Aren’t these skills acquired in the high school curriculum these days (and if not, shouldn’t they be)?

And you can see this happening at a broader scale as university administration has become professionalized. Instead of professors running university business in addition to their teaching, professors teach and the university business has been outsourced to administrators.

And, it’s not just universities. The same phenomena is happening across industries. It’s true of every level of government. It’s true of most industries, but particularly those that are tied closely to government. Look through the top industries by GDP in the United States: healthcare, durable goods manufacturing, food & travel, retail, etc. Almost everywhere you look, advancement implies management.

So, people go to school to learn a vocation. You get in the door, and then, in order to advance, no matter what industry you are in, you need to get into management. Leaving us to wonder, what exactly is vocational education for? Further, how large is the real need for managers, as opposed to front-line workers?

If you think it through, it is obviously a con, no different in its contradictions than talking about small government and global war. Management, by definition, has to be small. So, no amount of education is going to improve the lot of people getting educated to qualify for those relatively few positions. The only way that education works is if there are paths of advancement that actually require an education and aren’t management.

For example, if Dragon Naturally Speaking has taken over all the transcriptionist jobs, if Level 5 artificial intelligence has taken over from the teamsters, if 3D printing technologies have reduced the number of people working at construction sites, if fast food can become a largely automated process, etc., what will become of those people doing those jobs?

The most likely outcome is that there will be a compression of people into low skill jobs, driving down wages for everyone. There will be some people that will move into positions of managing machines. Someone will have to check on the artificial intelligence drivers, to make sure the results are as intended and to intervene when it starts to become very Sorcerer’s apprentice. But, the net is less jobs for people and more jobs for machines.

And, this is where the education argument starts to look plausible. People can be trained and are needed to supervise and inspecting the work of machines. In some ways, we are already preparing for that world, where people in low skill jobs are treated as if they are machines. For example, see some of the discussion about the conditions in Amazon warehouses and how that is breathing new life into the labor movement.

But, in the end, there is limited demand for education. Most people go through the process of getting an education credential for the vocational dividends that pays. But, it is clear that the university model and the push for education doesn’t deliver on its promise. And, when people are sitting on a mountain of debt and cannot find work, are they going to sell the educational dream to their children?

Another detail worth consideration, did the COVID-19 pandemic finally show that the promise of MOOCs are not something that can be delivered using the university model and university price points? At the very least, the focus on education and how it is delivered needs to be completely rethought. And, as DeBoer points to a deeper problem, our society’s focus on intelligence and expanding it through education is a fundamentally flawed project, as bad as small government and global war-fighting.