Chapter three of that book begins with these words: "History is a fragment of biology." Desmond Morris develops this idea into a book length argument called The Human Zoo. It is almost exactly twice the length of The Lessons of History. Ladies and gentlemen, meet bride number two.
According to the New York Times, "Morris is concerned with the tension between our biology and our culture, as it is expressed in power, sex, status and war games." His thesis is simple: the advance of human technology and civilization has propelled us into a world we are not evolved for.
Like the Durants, Desmond Morris is a popularizer. The Human Zoo was written in 1969, and given how much our understanding of biology, anthropology, and evolution has changed in thirty years, the book may be even more dated than our first bride. Yet the core argument remains compelling. The author distills it in his introduction:
Under normal conditions, in their natural habitats, wild animals do not mutilate themselves, masturbate, attack their offspring, develop stomach ulcers, become fetishists, suffer from obesity ... or commit murder. Among human city-dwellers, needless to say, all of these things occur. Does this, then, reveal a basic difference between the human species and other animals? At first glance it seems to do so. But this is deceptive. Other animals do behave in these ways under certain circumstances, namely when they are confined in the unnatural conditions of captivity.
Morris argues that we are living in self-created captivity. From this starting point, he traces the symptoms of our condition, stopping along the way to marvel at what we've achieved.
Popular books on evolution always risk being reduced to the idea that biology is destiny. The Human Zoo is almost a classic case. His "ten commandments of dominance" apply equally well to baboon leaders and U.S. presidents ( 1) You must clearly display the trappings, postures, and gestures of dominance. ... 2) In moments of active rivalry you must threaten your subordinates aggressively). Morris' entire thesis rests, however, on the interaction between biology and an environment that is not determined by our genes, but created by our technology.
The modern human animal is no longer living in conditions natural to his species. Trapped, not by a zoo collector but by his own brainy brilliance, he has set himself up in a huge restless menagerie where he is in constant danger of cracking under the strain.
Despite the pressures, however, the benefits are great. The zoo world, like a gigantic parent, protects its inmates: food, drink, shelter, hygiene, and medical care are provided; the basic problems of survival are reduced to a minimum. There is time to spare. How this time is used in a non-human zoo varies from species to species. Some animals quietly relax and doze in the sun; others find prolonged inactivity increasingly difficult to accept. If you are an inmate of a human zoo, you inevitably belong to this second category. Having an essentially exploratory and inventive brain, you will not be able to relax for very long. You will be driven on and on to more and more elaborate activities. You will investigate, organize and create and, in the end, you will have plunged yourself one step further away from your natural tribal state, the state in which your ancestors existed for a million years.
Morris' style is more didactic than personal. I never felt the affection for him that I did for the Durants. Perhaps that's because The Human Zoo struck me as a fundamentally more pessimistic book than The Lessons of History. Morris doesn't cry doom on every page, though.
If I seem to be saying 'Go back, you are heading for disaster,' let me assure you that I am not. We have, in our relentless social progress, gloriously unleashed our powerful, inventive, exploratory urges. They are a basic part of our biological inheritance. There is nothing artificial or in-natural about them. They provide us with our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. What I am trying to show is the increasing price we have to pay for indulging them and the ingenious ways in which we contrive to meet that price, no matter how steep it becomes.
The Human Zoo points out more than once how wondrous the world we've built for ourselves is, how remarkable is our "fabulous cloak of civilization." But in the end, there is the inescapable conclusion that we weren't made to live in this world. We are lucky, because we are versatile, smart, plastic. We've adjusted, but we also continue to require of ourselves further and yet further adjustment. Things are essentially unchanged since Rome, but the scale and the stakes grew higher.
The crowds became denser, the elite became eliter, the technologies became more technical. The frustrations and stresses of city life became greater. Super-tribal clashes became bloodier. There were too many people and that meant there were people to spare, people to waste. As human relationships, lost in the crowd, became ever more impersonal, so man's inhumanity to man increased to horrible proportions. However ... an impersonal relationship is not a biologically human one.
We evolved to live in groups of 20 or 30, where everyone knew everyone else. Any being not part of this unit was probably not human, and wasn't treated as such. The implications for today's world are depressing, more so because it seems difficult to refute them.
Is there a chance that technology will overcome biology again? That we will be able to engineer better instincts for ourselves, instincts consistent with city life and global civilization? Reading The Human Zoo made me reach for hopes like that, improbable or no. It's sobering, even depressing stuff, but it's also fascinating. The detailed examination of human behavior is worth indulging Cassandra. The sections on power, status, and sex are revealing, and the book presented me with genuinely new ideas when I first read it. A new idea. How often does one of those come along?
Do you remember the story of the detainees? They were not terrorists, soldiers, militants, or members of a 'most wanted' list. There were no warrants out for their arrest. They were rounded up by Israel for the crime of being male, being of a certain age, and being Palestinian. Do you remember?
"I was watching CNN in a hotel in Zagreb earlier to day whilst waiting for a business appointment. As I watched, I heard a report from a female reporter near Jenin who said that Israeli tanks and armoured personnel carriers were moving through the area instructing all Palestinian males between the ages of 15 and 50 to come out of their homes and wait for transport to a place where they can be 'questioned'.
Now I have no idea what the Israeli military actually has planned for these people but I felt a sudden surge not unlike panic inside me when I heard the reporter say that. In my part of the world many times within the last ten years, powerful armies have moved into a community and taken away entire male populations based on the simple fact of their ethnic background. I found myself desperately hoping that those Palestinian men would find some dark cellar or attic to hide in rather than be bused off somewhere, their fate entirely dependent on the wishes of armed men who by and large feel no commonality of community with them.
I am not on anyones side in that conflict ... yet I cannot help but pray that my feelings when I heard that report were baseless and irrational. There are already enough communities in the world with no young men in them. (more)
Israel detained over six thousand people during "Defensive Shield." According to the Israeli Defense Force (quoted in an Amnesty international report), as of the 5th of May, only 2,350 Palestinians remained in detention. Perhaps 4,000 had been released. Natalija Radic, who wrote the account above, could exhale. There had been no mass 'disappearances.' Rather, we have evidence, again, that the IDF is "the most moral army in the world." Don't we?
"In general, all detainees in these facilities were kept blindfolded for the whole time. Blindfolds were only removed for meals. There were no beds, or mattresses in these facilities, so detainees were kept on the ground. They did not have access to showers, nor to a change of clothes. Food supplied to them was very minimal ... In some places detainees were kept without a roof, under the sky. As can be remembered, during the first days of the operation the weather was cold and rainy, and thus, in some of the places where detainees were staying, they sat handcuffed, in the cold and rain, blindfolded."
"...it is not clear who (if anyone) supplied them with food..." (more)
Those detainees who were released gave accounts to Amnesty that are consistent with Nitzan's.
We were all handcuffed and we sat on a pebbly ground. We weren't given any food, and when we asked for water they poured it over us. The handcuffs were tight and when the blindfolds were taken off on our arrival I saw some people with hands black and swollen. We told the soldiers that they were cutting into us and they said there was no alternative. We started to shout and cry, begging them to ease the handcuffs. It was very cold and some of us had T-shirts and no shoes. We weren't allowed to go to the toilet and had to relieve ourselves there. By 3.30am we were starting to shake and our teeth were chattering with cold.
Remember that these people were released -- that is why they are able to give accounts. In other words, it was determined by Israel that they had committed no crime and that there was no reason to hold them. They were never charged of any wrongdoing, never tried, never given access to a lawyer. One day they were taken. One day they were let go.
These people are the lucky ones. Ghassan Muhammad Sulayman Jarrar is lucky. A sales director at a commercial company, the 42 year-old man "was arrested at his house in Ramallah at 11am on 4 April," according to an affidavit he gave to Amnesty International. This is his account:
At around 12 midnight they tied my hands and blindfolded me. I heard soldiers ask: ''What's his status?'' and the answer, ''There is blood on his hands''. One of them beat me on my left leg with a club. I felt as though my leg had broken and I started screaming and he began to beat me heavily with the club. After that the soldier left. After approximately 10 minutes, they began to hit me again. They repeated this around seven or eight times. Then one soldier arrived and began to strangle me with an old sheet while the other soldiers kicked me all over my body especially in the chest and the kidney area. They did this four or five times, and one time I passed out. When they hit me on the head I gained consciousness again. At one point another soldier came... this soldier began to beat me hysterically and loaded a gun he was carrying and pointed it at my head. One of the soldiers yelled, ''Don't do it'' and dragged him away by force. Then the soldier hit me on the head with the gun. He repeated this sequence several times. I was kept in this situation until approximately 8.15am... [I heard the soldiers discussing killing me] At this moment a bus arrived... The soldiers had to carry me so that I could get into the bus. The bus took me to Ofer detention camp next to Beitunia. ...
Unlike Ghassan, over two thousand Palestinian men may still remain in captivity. We can only speculate as to what has or will happen to these people. Under Israel's Military Orders, they can be arrested without a warrant, then placed under administrative detention, where they are held without knowledge of the evidence against them, and prevented from seeing a lawyer for up to three months.
The IDF itself lists 929 people under administrative detention as of June 3rd. The number of people under administrative detention has never equaled the number of arrests -- it is a subset of the total number of detainees. The last data on the total number of detainees is still the 2,350 figure given by the IDF on the 5th of May, cited in the second-to-last paragraph of one section of Amnesty's report.
How would you get on in a strange city, after having been through what these people went through, knowing that your home is waiting but that you cannot go back?
How would you feel if you were the relative of one of those two thousand still missing?
The logic of the detentions is the logic of the entire occupation. Guilt is not a function of deeds, but of birth. There is no distinction between a terrorist and a civilian. "In Ramallah on 30 March loudspeakers called on all males aged between 16 and 50 to come for questioning." If you go back prior to "Defensive Shield" -- just to February 27th -- the number arrested jumps from 6,000 to 8,500. If you include the present offensive, you can add perhaps a thousand more.
The arbitrary arrest of ten-thousand men and boys is not a unique aspect of the occupation. It is part and parcel of the collective punishment that marks the essential character of Israel's military rule in Gaza and the West Bank. Since yesterday, two million Palestinians have been under curfew. Click the link. Find out how that benign word 'curfew' translates into reality in Palestine.
And what is the answer from Israel? That they will investigate? Read the article. Nitzan's report on detention conditions will never be seen by the court whose case triggered the investigation in the first place. The situation is no better outside the courts: "Eytan was asked to examine the possibility of appointing an internal committee of investigation to check the issue. In other words, should the military look into this, Major General Eytan, under whose command the inhuman facilities were run, will also be responsible for the investigation."
Perhaps the army will appoint a commission of foxes to investigate the events that transpired in the henhouse.
But for the larger issue, there will not even be a sham commission. Even if one accepts Israel's (by no means unasaillable) claim that her actions are the response to, not the cause of, terrorism, the nature of that response must be questioned.
At what point is a response inappropriate? When do we mark the passage from justice to vengeance and from vengeance to new injustice? Do sixteen-hundred Palestinian deaths pay for 559 Israeli deaths? Does the detention of ten thousand men balance the scales? Do the Israelis believe that the two (or three) million people they collectively punish are all guilty, or do they simply believe that it is permissable to harm the innocent so long as they are Palestinian?
Hugo Chavez, elected president of Venezuela with 62% of the popular vote, concurred with Mr. Arafat. Chavez has long been a victim of Bush's anti-democratic attitude, as the Bush administration funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars through the "National Endowment for Democracy" to anti-Chavez forces and reportedly gave the go-ahead for an attempted military coup by those forces. "After it was over and I was back in power," said Chavez, "his administration actually told me 'legitimacy is not conferred by a majority vote.' Unless, of course, it's a majority of the Supreme Court. I respect the local traditions, however quaint, of the United States, but he hardly sets the best example for the Middle East, does he?"
Arafat, busy working on a plan to find a new Israeli leader ... could not be reached for further comment.
Leonard of Unruled has a fabulous short piece on the cost of maintaining civil order. To summarize: it costs less than $40 per person per month to provide state and municipal courts and police. Two bulwarks of civil society for about the price of cable television.
Leonard suggests that this spending could drop to as little as $10/month if we stop prosecuting drug offenses and other victimless crimes.
Though his point is well taken, I think Leonard's numbers are a little low. He's arrived at his per person cost by dividing spending by the total U.S. population (about 270 million individuals), but it would make more sense to look at the number of adults, or the number of households, to get a proxy for the portion of the population actually capable of paying for government services.
In 1998, there were 102 million households [U.S. Census]. On a household basis, the monthly cost for state and municipal courts and police is $97. So throw telephone and internet service on top of cable television to get a roughly equivalent figure. There were 200 million adults (individuals who were 18 years old or older) in 1998 according to table 12 of the 2001 Statistical Abstract [pdf]. On a per-adult basis, the monthly cost for civil order is $49.
Leonard's key point still stands: even $97 per month is a manageable expense for the average household. And we both agree that it's safe to assume that outlays would decrease in a market-based system where competition fostered efficiency and where the cost of chasing victimless criminals might serve as an incentive to stop chasing them.
The next obvious question is: how much do we now pay per capita for national defense? Based on a figure of $310 billion for 1998 (table 490 in the 2001 Statistical Abstract [pdf]), a household's share of the U.S. national defense budget is about $253 per month and an individual's is $129. Surprised by how affordable this all is?
Erin is playing at the Knitting Factory tonight (7:45pm sharp). With luck, I'll be there. I wish I had a sample of today's song for you, but it hasn't been released yet, and the album it is destined for won't even begin production until September.
I was lucky enough to catch Erin do a live set on the radio this morning. If you haven't heard her voice, it's worth it to check out the song clips on Amazon (I recommend songs 1, 3, and 4).
My apologies for the long absence. Luckily, I'm in a considerably better mood than Byron was. And I brought you presents from my trip: two new search engines.
Search Online is a meta-search that has some nifty features (like an in-window preview of search results).
Teoma is aimed directly at Google. It has a similar page-ranking method, modified to account for what Teoma calls the "authority" of the referring pages:
Teoma provides better results because it goes beyond traditional page ranking methods to determine authority, in addition to relevancy. To determine the authority or quality of a site's content, Teoma uses Subject-Specific PopularitySM. Subject-Specific Popularity ranks a site based on the number of same-subject pages that reference it, not just general popularity, to determine a site's level of authority.
I've used both and I'm very happy with Search Online as a meta-search. As for Teoma, I suppose the fact that this blog doesn't show up in the first 5 pages of results for "objectionable content" is just a sign that their subject-specific ranking method works... but I don't have to like it.
A gin and tonic costs $9 at the Shalel Lounge, but I tell myself that the mark-up is for the atmosphere, which is dark, oriental -- close in that way that makes you feel as if all the bar's occupants are co-conspirators with you in some secret enterprise of goodwill. We're all thrown together in small subterranean rooms. There are stone walls, a pool and a moss garden, Middle Eastern music.
I show up optimistic/apprehensive/curious/skeptical. These people are going to be odd. These people, as if I'm walking into an insane asylum for the gifted and talented. Random rules of conduct pop into my head as I cross 72nd Street heading for the bar. /Remember not to startle the patients/ ... /Don't talk about Israel and try to avoid anyone who is/ ... /Especially keep distance from the Letter from Gotham girl who called you a fanatic/ (you! the calm and reasonable one. definately best to steer clear of her) ... /Try and remember which blogs go with which names/ ... /Have fun/ ...
Maybe I'm exaggerating a little.
The truth is, anyway, that I've got my share of skeletons.
- Number of Star-Trek conventions attended: 2 (in my youth! ... but still)
- Number of Ayn Rand books owned: North of five for sure. (Hell, I own books by Peikoff and Binswanger)
I find great parking a block from Shalel Lounge. I look sharp.
And I have a wonderful time. The inmates are normal, perfectly adjusted people after all. Even the guy (not John Hudock) who also has a Star Trek convention in his past, and Leonard Dickens, who could've talked anarcho-capitalist shop with me for hours. I promise him a post about David Friedman in the near future. Maybe we're all eccentric in the same fashion.
Jane Galt is a charming hostess, and her salon is a vastly more amiable affair than I imagine Rand's were. Paul Frankenstein is much taller in real life. Mindless Dreck is calm, suggesting to me suburban erudition. He mentions that he'd recently linked me, and so of course his stock goes up. Caryn Solly and I don't talk enough. Maybe next time.
This is only the second time I've met other bloggers.
Like most internet gatherings, it's primarily men. Maybe two to one. The women strike me as pleasant. Ravenwolf hasn't let her recent award go to her head. Jane is talkative, happy. Erin Hayes puts up with my rambling about finance for a good five minutes. Elizabeth Spiers mentions having read the blog, and we jointly subject Erin to five more minutes of money talk.
Robert Pupkin (an alias) proposed a novel (to me) argument in favor of higher taxes for married people. We probably disagree on a number of things, but we had a civil and even pleasant discussion of the marriage penalty.
You have to choose between meeting everyone or getting to know a few people, at least somewhat. I pick option two, and so I say somewhere between zero and twenty words to Dr. Weevil, Sasha Castel, Liz, Brian, Adina, and the NYC Blogger team. Corante's John Hiler gets a few more than twenty. He strikes me, like his Microcontent News, as intelligent and fair-minded. The second is a rarity, isn't it?
A soft-spoken R. Allan Baruz explains the split between the Coptic and Catholic churches. I nod, resolving to remember before my grandfather, the Coptic priest, finds out. Today, I've already forgotten, but I'll look up monophysite at work tomorrow.
It's a long night, starting at 6:30 and ending for me around one, in another bar, with Jane, Max, Paul, Jessica, and Ken. Max Jacobs is my Jewish alter-ego, and the third anarcho-capitalist in the group. I could mistake him for me if I keep drinking, but I've switched to water now, thinking of the drive home. With Jane, Max and I talk Israel and Palestine; no hostilities break out.
Jessica and I explain to (the inimitable) Ken the shortcomings of A Man in Full. We all agree that Tom Wolfe is a fabulous writer anyway. A lot of intellectual crap, you'd think, but nobody shows off. By 1am I'm thinking about curling up on the bar's couch and sleeping. It's a 45 minute drive home, and my belly has only two slices of pizza to soak up the alcohol. I've been drinking water for the last three hours.
I'm not good at greetings and partings, in a purely tactical sense. I say goodbye without insulting anyone too badly (sorry Jane). The car is where I left it, no ticket. The drive home is smooth. The World Cafe is on the radio.
My car is a lozenge hurled down the throat of the night.
I have to resist the impulse to write sentences like that one.
A group of bloggers, some of whom I often read, have been sharing lists of their ten favorite novels. Though extremely tempted to join in, I've decided to do something different.
This is Seven Brides for Seven Brothers Bloggers, something I started under a slightly different name with a group of friends a few years ago. The contract was simple: each person recommends a book, and receives one recommendation from each of his fellows. Recommendations are given in order. The first book determines a theme that the next recommendation must somehow adhere to, and so on. Creativity in the interpretation of themes is encouraged.
What follows is a solitaire version of the game, to be played out over several posts. I'm limiting myself to non-fiction, and upping the number of brides to ten, in deference to the bloggers who started me on this kick. I hope that among these assembled brides or grooms you find at least one that suits.
There are different ways of beginning. You can start with a particular book, or with a catalyst for the next person's choice of the first book: a specific date, a character type, an action, an aphorism, a mood. For non-fiction, I like to start with a question. This is an old one:
Over the course of a lifetime of professional work, Will Durant and his wife Ariel wrote the monumental Story of Civilization, an eleven volume history of humanity beginning thousands of years before Christ and ending at the close of the 18th century. The first book in the series was published in 1935, the last in 1975. As a whole, the series consists of over ten thousand pages.
The Lessons of History is the summary of this life's work, an encapsulation in one hundred pages -- not of our entire past, but, as the title says, of its lessons. It's been called "the finest 100 page non-fiction book ever written." The book begins, appropriately, with doubt.
As his studies come to a close the historian faces the challenge: Of what use have your studies been? ... Have you learned more about human nature than the man in the street can learn without so much as opening a book? Have you derived from history any illumination of our present condition, any guidance for our judgements ... any guard against the rebuffs of surprise or the vicissitudes of change? ... Is it possible, after all, that history has no sense, that it teaches us nothing, and that the immense past was only the weary rehearsal of the mistakes that the future is destined to make on a larger stage and scale?
To begin with, do we really know what the past was, what actually happened, or is history a fable not quite agreed upon? ... Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice. ... It is a precarious enterprise, and only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions.
And if you haven't by this point realized the kinds of writers in whose hands you've placed yourself, the next sentence settles the matter: "We proceed."
The Lessons of History is one of the most interesting kinds of books I've ever come across -- it's not history, philosophy, or politics. It doesn't make an argument, it doesn't tell a story. What it does is present the accumulated wisdom of two people who spent most of their lives studying humanity's life. The product of that study is our good fortune, and passages like this:
So the conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it -- perhaps more valuable as roots are more valuable than grafts. It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race. It is good that the old should resist the young, and that the young should prod the old; out of this tension, as out of the strife of the sexes and the classes, comes a creative tensile strength, a stimulated development, a secret and basic unity and movement of the whole.
The book has enough of its authors' personalities in it that you are guaranteed to disagree with some of its conclusions. In some sense it is dated, written in a time when communism was still the great adversary, by people who were born before the turn of the last century.
But everyone is limited by time and circumstance. The only way to defeat the familiar is to expose yourself to the strange: travel, study history. Learn.
Since wealth is an order and procedure of production and exchange rather than an accumulation of (mostly perishable) goods, and is a trust (the credit system) in men and institutions rather than in the intrinsic value of paper money or checks, violent revolutions do not redistribute wealth so much as destroy it. There may be a redivision of land, but the natural inequality of men soon re-creates an inequality of possessions and privileges, and raises to power a new minority with essentially the same instincts as the old. The only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual, and the only real revolutionists are philosophers and saints.
The Lessons of History is a genuinely different enterprise from the works that generated it. It begins with doubt (the first chapter is titled "Hesitations"), and it's still questioning at the end. The final chapter is called "Is Progress Real?" As I read it now I'm not sure what the answer is. It would make a good starting question for a game of Seven Brides.
After attending a D.C. blogger party (much like the one I'll be at today here in NY, I'm sure), Tom came to a succinct conclusion on blogging: "I suppose that all this writing and linking to one another may be a bit self-indulgent, but then, what are selves for?"
Gapers (gay-pers) are people who prioritize Shotgun much more than a normal human being. These people will alter their usual behavior and even undermine their own ethics in order to gain the rights to Shotgun. They do this through legal means however, such as sprinting for doors, so they cannot be voided. The term gaper was originally given to Will Henderson who once rode Shotgun for 2 months straight.
Always wave as you pass through town heading
toward the cemetery. Despite the bloat
of sausages and pale beer, a bloat rapidly
diminishing due to the twin troubles of
plague and starvation, the villagers are not
idiots. They are well aware you are in service
to Herr Doktor, and mistrust your lurking
motives. They know Herr Doktor has
unusual ideas, and he does, because Herr
Doktor is insane.
Commiserate, then, with the villagers.
Shake your head at the strange doings in the
castle. Grumble, piss and moan; squint at
the clouds and pestilence and hopelessness.
Should anyone stare too long at the hump,
stretch and rub it, saying, "Oh my aching
back." Keep in mind that later, in the rank,
river mists, you'll be stealing body parts
from the graves of their loved ones. Due to
the epidemic, it will be exceptionally easy
to play the ghoul. It's the very reason your
master moved his elaboratory to the castle:
the abundant material. The young go as fast
as the old. The digging is recent, the earth
newly turned, and the parts high-quality.
Granted, the smell isn't rosy, and the work
can be tough on your hump -- a lumpen
mass of gristle, muscle, bone and sinew --
but this ensures you don't dawdle on the job.
It takes some bottle to do the thing right,
quickly but never rushed.
Pennies on the lids are yours to take or not.
That is the beginning to Tobias Seamon's How to Be Igor. You can find it here, on page 32 of "Manual." Dean Allen describes the project like this: "The proposal was to write pieces unified by a central theme, to be gathered up and presented in some fashion. It took a while to arrive at an idea upon which the majority could agree; eventually the contributors acquiesced to take the concept of 'how to' as a starting point..."
And so we have Tobias Seamon's piece, How to Be Igor, my favorite in a strong collection.
Perhaps you are wondering why there is a market. You are sitting at your computer, suffering through a well-titled but rambling article, when it occurs to you that Bruce Sterling just doesn't get it.
A lot of people just don't get it. "It" may be fashion, or Pokémon, or the right way to treat a woman, or hip-hop, or evil. For Bruce Sterling, "it" is the market (or maybe "it" is how to write a novel without sacrificing characterization at the altar of thought-provoking but pedagogical set-pieces on politics and technology). You can read badreviews elsewhere; this is about trade and technology.
"SXSW Interactive has suffered surprisingly little from the collapse of dot-communism. The core demographic at SXSW is the woolly-eyed digital creative, a species of creature from way before the Boom. Those characters were never anywhere near the big IPOs. They were all fueled by sheer subcultural coolness.
Back in the Neolithic dawn of the Internet, you see, the academics who built it used to beat the living crap out of a businessman the very moment they saw him. One peep of commercial spam on their stainless not-for-profit network, and the net-gods would reach right into your router and just throttle you, like an egg-sucking dog." (more)
The blog community was abuzz with interest in Sterling's remarks about three months ago. Everyone was talking about it. Doc Searls even talked about it twice, calling it "an approximately perfect piece of writing" because "there's a quotable line in just about every paragraph, and Bruce drives every nail home with a perfect whack."
Well, no it isn't, and no he doesn't.
The key point of Bruce's that I take issue with is the idea that the Internet is somehow antithetical to the market. This has Bruce really excited. I have a somewhat detailed refutation of this notion, but if you're pressed for time, here's the abridged version: oh, come on now.
Bruce thinks the Net is "just plain too much for business to handle." It's "downright toxic to free enterprise." Capitalism's failure to embrace the Internet is the best thing since, well, since the "beached gasping of Marxism-Leninism," for those of you who don't mind a little contradiction with your wrongheadedness.
"When was the last time that you saw commerce, global capitalism, competition, the profit motive, the real deal ... choking on advanced technology as if they'd swallowed a jalapeño? What a spectacle!
Unworkable business models, the squalid collapse of e-commerce plans and b-to-b markets. Hundreds of dead corporations, with e-biz magazines gone thinner than Kate Moss. And those overachievers from Enron, my God!"
Sterling's euphoric chronicling of the bursting technology bubble is fine up to a point. Criticizing unworkable business models beforehand is commendable. Criticizing them in hindsight is OK too, and easier. The problem is Sterling's conclusion that business and technology don't mix and that the Internet will somehow spell the end of global capitalism, competition, and the profit motive. This is wrong. It isn't just wrong, it's exactly the same kind of hyperbolic, history-ignoring thinking that got us into the tech bubble in the first place.
I'm going to refute Bruce in three easy steps, first with some history, second with some analogy, and lastly with a bit of philosophy. Here is the program:
1. Investment bubbles are a regular historical phenomenon
2. The destruction is the system
3. Commerce is bigger than technology
Investment bubbles are a regular historical phenomenon Bruce is impressed by the .com carnage of recent years, and rightly so. Money was flagrantly wasted, unsound businesses were pursued with vigor, and an incredible amount of value evaporated, bringing to nothing the vast quantities of capital and human energy that had been devoted to new enterprise. This is a story that deserves to be told, and one that we ought to try and learn from (again).
I use the word 'again' because this movie has been shown before. Anyone who didn't know that Startup.com was a remake is hereby afforded a little perspective: the Internet bubble is our modern re-enactment of the 1960s airline bubble. Or, if you like, the auto bubble in the teens. Or how about the radio bubble (in the 1920s) and the telegraph bubble (1870s)? I can keep going. There were railroads (in the 1840s in Britain, in the 1860s and 70s in the U.S.) and canals (in the 1790s and 1830s) and turnpikes (in the 1660s). These are technology-driven bubbles, not fad-fueled manias like tulips, or fraud like the South Sea scam.
Each of these investment booms and busts was precipitated by a truly revolutionary invention that did indeed change the world. The human response to these technologies was a myriad of attempts to capitalize on them for good and for profit. The promise inherent in change inspired men (mostly, in those days, though I would be extremely interested in counter-examples) to build, as it always has. Those with energy started companies, those with capital invested in them.
Twenty-thousand telephone companies were started between 1894 and 1903
At it's peak the U.S. auto industry had close to 2,000 car-makers
1,200 new railroad issues hit the market in 1845 alone
The airline industry once hosted over 100 companies
For reasons that don't need to concern us here, new inventions have historically led to overbuilding. Too many companies, too much investment, too little prudence. Every one resulted in a crash.
At the end of the 1690s bubble, 70% of all corporations on the English stock market failed
Shares in British rail companies lost 85% of their value at the end of the 1840s panic
After its share price increased 5,500% from 1914 to 1920, GM lost two thirds of its value
After its share price increased 7,600% from 1921 to 1929, RCA lost 98% of its value
Despite the carnage attendant with each previous technology bubble, successful companies emerged to compete in each bombed-out market segment. It would seem silly today to argue that business and technology don't mix if the technology in question is automobiles or radios or railroads, yet such claims are made without irony with regards to the Internet. No technology yet discovered has proved itself in any way antithetical to trade and free-markets. Living now in the wreckage of the Internet bubble, this truth may be hard to apprehend, but as with previous technologies it will become obvious as years pass.
The country may well be headed for five years of recession or even depression. It's hard to argue that what the economy has been through (or is in for) is good. However, it is in rough times that we need a sane perspective more than ever. History provides one, and what it tells us is that technology bubbles do not signal the end of market forces.
Regardless of why crashes happen, it is clear that many have coincided with the introduction of new technology to the market, and that -- in every case -- the wheels of capitalism have continued to turn afterwards. This is in keeping with the conclusion that one well-known economist came to...
The destruction is the system Saying that the Net is hazardous to free enterprise is like saying the environment is toxic to natural selection. "But look at all the dying animals, Jim! They can't make it in the New Environment. Evolution is choking on advanced biology!" Please.
The simple point is that failed companies are not an example of the end of the market, they constitute the workings of the market. Moreover, they are a natural consequence of adaptation to new technology. Evolution is not "for bad little boys" -- it is just how things work.
The superficial parallels between natural selection and economics are strong: when variations meet change, a minority of adaptive variations are successful; the rest die. We should not be alarmed (or gleeful) at the number of failures, but rather ask ourselves if anything we observe in the current situation is suggestive of a systemic breakdown. The answer is no.
What we are observing is (mostly) the normal work of an economy. As Schumpeter said, "This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism."
In the natural world, living things have experienced spectacular and fundamental advances in technology: the flagellum, eukaryotic cells, multi-celled organisms, sex, the brain, language. There have been extinctions and even mass extinctions, and to the extent that resources are scarce there is open warfare between most living things. Dramatic upheaval has been a constant in the world of biology for billions of years, but -- just as in economics -- this upheaval represents not the collapse of the system, but its normal and proper functioning.
Often times, the normal function of the system means the loss of something unique and beautiful like Archaeopteryx or Kozmo.com. These fragile, elegant creatures were simply not cut out for the harsh realities of their environment, and while it is permissible to mourn them, we can't let our grief prevent us from learning by their example. Free delivery of low-margin goods just isn't a workable business model. And chaos is natural.
Except When It Isn't Chaos is natural. Many factors that contribute to and influence bubbles are endogenous to an economy. A few years of economic growth can produce unfounded confidence that growth is inevitable, leading to a flawed estimation of risk and to over-investment. New technologies open new markets and create uncertainty as to who will capture value within existing markets, which leads to the logical conclusion that a great deal of wealth is up-for-grabs, which leads to many, many different people investing capital in pursuit of that wealth, sometimes to the absurd point where $500 million is invested in order to capture a $250 million market.
Scenarios such as this are common in the history of business. They are not so much a byproduct of any specific technology (like the Internet), but of the way human beings react to the opportunities that technology presents. In other words, bubbles are natural. And yet . . . let us now have it both ways.
Though bubbles are a recurring theme in history, the phenomenon may not be entirely natural -- that is, though many of a bubble's causes are clearly endogenous to economic systems, this does not mean that all of the causes are endogenous.
The size and character of a boom and bust cycle may be heavily influenced by factors exogenous to an economy. A case can be made that bubbles are the result of government intervention, or at least that small "natural" bubbles become Depression-like catastrophes only when governments tamper with markets -- particularly with regards to the money supply and credit.
In short, governments inflate the money/credit supply beyond equilibrium, and this excess of capital adds fuel to the fire of developing technology bubbles; the magnitude of the resulting damage is a function of how much "fuel" has been poured on. Elaborating that case will have to wait until another time, but for a somewhat technical discussion of current events from this perspective, check out PrudentBear's Credit Bubble Bulletin. For a more thorough academic treatment of the subject, try Hayek and his mentor Mises.
Whether natural or government sponsored, in hundreds of years of history not a single bubble has proved "toxic to free enterprise." Ultimately, this is because commerce is fundamental to technology.
Commerce is bigger than technology (So you wanna be a human...)
Why is there a market? Trade emerges as a response to three fundamental facts about reality. One: humans are contingent beings with survival needs. Two: scarcity is a defining characteristic of the world (be patient, you non-zero-sum advocates). Three: preferences vary.
Let's do a little Ayn Rand and start with the basics.
Humans have needs. You are a person, and your existence as a person is contingent. In order to live you must eat, drink, sleep, excrete, shelter yourself from the extremes of the elements, and breathe.
Stayin' alive requires a lot of verbing around. In pursuing the satisfaction of your needs, you will quickly find that you exist in an environment of scarcity. This scarcity obtains in material objects, in time and presence, and in ability.
Material objects -- animals, vegetables, minerals, and land are not infinitely available
Time and presence -- we are mortal, we experience time linearly, and we cannot be in two places at once
Scarcity is experienced in the context of varying preferences. Human preferences vary because of natural variety in genetics (or character), and because of the differential impact of experience.
In terms of experience, scarcity itself influences our preferences. For example, the human body can survive without food for about thirty days. In this sense, humans face a permanent, near-term scarcity of time: we never have more than 30 days until we absolutely must eat again. As more of this thirty day period elapses without us finding nourishment, time grows scarcer and our preference for food increases. One hour after a meal, we are likely to choose numerous other activities over eating again. But if it has been 240 hours since our last meal, food will probably be at the top of our list. Scarcity has altered our preferences (or, the marginal utility of that next bite has increased).
We appear to be born with unique tastes (babies prefer their mother's voice), but experience has an ongoing effect on what humans desire. Though our biological needs are identical in general, our experience of scarcity will be specific to our individual circumstances.
Pheasants and Boy Bands The differential experience of scarcity contributes to variations in preferences.
If I expect to be in New York in a few years, and to need to feed myself, I might prefer to do so (in a roundabout way) by getting a degree from Harvard. If you expect to be in the jungle in a few years, also needing to feed yourself, you'd probably prefer an education focused on hunting and survival. You can't kill a pheasant with a Harvard diploma.
If my wedding anniversary is on April 14th and yours is on December 3rd, our preference for anniversary gifts will be highest at different times (this is an interesting kind of time scarcity). If I am thirsty and you are hungry, we will seek to acquire different things from among the world's limited supply of material objects. If I have a date with Mary on Saturday, and your date with her is on Sunday, we'll each prefer to schedule our dates with her sister Anne for different days.
The preference for skydiving may be higher among the terminally ill than it is among pregnant women -- time scarcity influences the actions of the terminally ill skydiver, while scarcity of offspring defines the preference of the pregnant abstainer. Teenage girls are more partial to 'N Sync than the general population is (their preference being the result of a scarcity of sense).
All of this is good news. This variation in interests means we will not all want the same thing at the same time. Situations like that can be resolved (through queuing, price-allocation, or force), but the solutions tend to leave many people unhappy. We are lucky that our preferences vary.
We are needy beings. We have varying preferences. We live in an environment of scarcity. How should we interact?
Force is always and option. Aggression and threats of aggression are common ways that humans interact when seeking to solve their own problems. From the viewpoint of utility, as opposed to morality, the problem with force is that it is costly. Even the winner of a fight may be wounded badly. And if the loser is left alive (as they must be if the winner hopes to make use of their labor, knowledge, or ability) then winning one contest may not be enough. The winner may have to repeatedly assert their dominance, incurring new costs with each such instance, and always risking a loss of dominance to their opponent.
Force often works, but it's an expensive strategy.
The alternative is trade. Trade is a cheap (efficient) way to convince others to act in a fashion that benefits us, by offering them a benefit in return. Trade arises because it is a good way of solving the problems that result from living in an environment of scarcity. Trade works because we are needy beings with varying preferences. All of the variations in preference mentioned above represent opportunities for mutually beneficial interaction. Each instance of scarcity represents a need that trading could meet.
Capitalism and free trade are the best solutions we've invented so far to handle this problem of convincing people to act in our benefit. Trade is less costly than force, more effective than begging, and more efficient than reciprocal favor-granting. I get value from the system by putting value into the system. Given a medium of exchange (money), people can trade even if their wants and needs don't directly coincide. I can convince farmers to feed me by paying them money even if I don't have that new tractor they want. Money is the symbol of the value I've put into the system. I earn it by meeting the needs of other contingent beings who literally tell me, "I have this need and would like you to fill it. If you do, I will help you fill your needs."
"Commerce ... competition, the profit motive, the real deal" -- the things that Bruce Sterling is ready to commit to history's dustbin -- aren't going anywhere. If we take our heads out of ... the clouds for a minute, we'd see that the Internet is not about to make free enterprise obsolete.
Trade is a strategy for dealing with fundamental truths about ourselves and the world we live in, and it will persist so long as these fundamental truths persist. So long as we have needs, so long as there is scarcity, there will be ways that we can benefit from others whose circumstances and preferences are different from our own.
We have changed our lives in astounding ways since civilization began, and yet commerce has remained a constant. Trade has remained relevant in a period during which we discovered or invented fire, agriculture, the wheel, writing, mathematics, currency, navigation, gunpowder, the printing press, electricity, metallurgy, combustion, flight, antibiotics, microelectronics, plastics, and fission. Is the Internet going to do what these technologies have failed to do?
In fact, instead of doing away with commerce, new technology has introduced commerce into areas where it previously didn't exist. Plato didn't earn royalties on sales of The Republic. He was an aristocrat and the son of an esteemed family in Athens. Eventually he founded the Academy, and might have been paid for his labor as a teacher. Fifteen hundred years later, Robert Nozick was also a teacher, but Nozick could sell his intellectual products apart from his labor. Commerce now exists where it didn't before. It is rooted in fundamental facts of reality. It's here to stay.
If you accept that a market will exist so long as scarcity obtains and humans with varying preferences have needs, then the only way that a technology could prove antithetical to markets is if it altered one of these conditions. Needs aren't going away, and neither is variety of preference. Scarcity seems equally intractable at first -- the Internet is certainly not going to eliminate shortages of material objects or time or ability. Most forms of scarcity are unaffected by digital technology. So what's to worry about?
Information. The Internet seems to hold out the genuine possibility of eliminating scarcity with regards to information products. Software, music, movies, books -- anything amenable to digital duplication and distribution -- can now be free thanks to the Net. The title of the Bruce Sterling piece that started all of this is Information Wants to Be Worthless. As I mentioned once before, Nick Urfé thinks it should be. Some artists think so too, while others inspired a Salon article with the title Artists to Napster: Drop dead!
I won't argue shoulds or wants, but I don't think that information will be free in the near future.
Information won't be free for two reasons.
Need is fungible -- scarcity in other areas means that producers of information still need to engage in trade in order to survive
The scarcity of the new -- scarcity will continue to obtain in information products not yet produced
Let's start with the second point.
The scarcity of the new I can go get Time the Revelator off of Audio Galaxy today and save the $13.49 + shipping that Amazon charges. Music isn't scarce anymore.
But what if I want Gillian Welch's next album? This piece of information doesn't exist yet. Gillian has to produce it. Until she does produce it, her future music is as scarce as anything can be. Now what happens if she doesn't feel like making another album? Or if she makes one but doesn't share it? Well, I could try and force her... Or I could offer something in trade. We are back to commerce.
There is a constant scarcity of the new. As people's needs change, they will desire information products that do not yet exist. My desire to hear the album afterTime the Revelator was very low before I heard Time... and now it is much higher. My need for better blogging software didn't exist before I started Objectionable Content, and now I'm willing to pay someone to write an application to suit my tastes.
Absent a market, there's no guarantee that a software developer would create an application to meet my needs of their own accord -- or even that they'd know what my needs are. That's why free enterprise is so useful -- the market functions as a system for conveying information about demand and then rewarding those who provide supply.
There will always be information products that individuals can perceive a need for but that don't yet exist. In theory then, there will always be a reason to trade in order to encourage and reward the creation of these products.
Need is fungible The other reason why information won't be free is that scarcity persists in everything but information. This means that producers of information still need to undertake the effort of surviving.
Need in one or a few areas (food, water, shelter) affects the ability to take action in other areas (making movies, writing software). The fulfillment of Gillian Welch's basic needs still rests on her accumulation of scarce things in limited time. This is an activity that takes effort -- that could, indeed, take up most of Gillian's energy.
The persistence of scarcity in every area besides information means that the producers of information have to remain a part of the market economy. They must continue to work to produce value, in order to exchange that value for other values that meet their needs.
Stored wealth aside, as long as you need to eat, you have to work. If information is free, then artists and software developers and others cannot work in the field of information production, because adding information products to the world will not result in reciprocal compensation for their value.
Therefore, at the very least, producers of information will have to turn their attentions away from art for some portion of their time in order to survive. But, since they are producers of information at heart, these people will want to spend more time at their craft. They will seek ways to be compensated for it. They will try to make information profitable so that they can quit their day jobs. And as consumers of art and information, we will want them to.
If you and I want to see a film of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, we have an incentive to help Tom, Terry Gilliam, Gary Oldman, and the rest of the cast and crew in making the movie. We want to make sure they don't starve while they focus their energies on creating entertainment for us. If only there was some way to share the fruits of our labor with them in exchange for their work in creating the movie...
Perhaps you have heard of such an arrangement. It's called commerce.
A world of abundance What alternative to trade does technology provide? It will always be possible to share some things freely. The amount and number of those things freely shared grows as societies become more prosperous, but so long as there is scarcity there will be some things that are not free.
However, there can be no doubt that we are becoming more prosperous. It is so staggering how far we have come in the history of civilization; sometimes I have to sit and wonder in awe at the wealth that surrounds me. In the West, we live in a world of abundance.
In the old world, Fertility was the Goddess of abundance. The ancestors saw the root and source of things: people -- each soul a light, each creative mind a fountainhead of potential.
If we are in a new world now, then this world's Goddesses are Technology and Trade. They are not opposed to each other, as Bruce Sterling seems to think. They are siblings, twins, even lovers (don't tut-tut, think of Castor and Pollux, Siegmund and Sieglinde, Van and Ada Veen, Isis and Osiris). They are the wellsprings of our plenty. Through them do we pursue "the enlarging of the human empire, to the effecting of all things possible."
The end of scarcity Commerce and technology are creating a world of abundance. Is there a chance that somewhere along the way, we eliminate scarcity?
Nanotechnology might do for matter what the Internet has done for information. This world is coming, and it is a vastly different world. Bruce Sterling could have written about that, he is a science fiction writer after all. I'm just a businessman.
But here is my take: limits are a surprisingly resilient thing. The state of things on the margin tends to shape the rest of the landscape.
The Internet seems like it makes information free, but it doesn't quite. Information won't be free because its creation has costs. At the root, these costs derive from the fact that the production of information takes time and effort, and time and effort are scarce. We can only do one thing at a time, and only so many things in a lifetime. There are opportunity costs, and so there will have to be priorities, choices, things foregone. That means, I will bet, that there will be commerce.
Nano-tech won't make material things free either. Scarcity will find new corners to pop out of. There is a finite supply of matter with which it make things out of, a finite supply of energy. There is friction, entropy.
But what wonderful limits to come up against! How much richer we will be by the time we face these issues as pressing problems and not interesting concepts for speculation. I'd give my right arm to live to see those problems solved (why not? by then it will be trivial to get me a new one). And even if they are not solved -- even if limits and asymptotes and life-on-the-margin all prevail -- well, what of it?
It won't be so bad to have to meet in the marketplace every once in a while.