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Ambivalence on Technocracy

I really have a knack for clickbait titles, don’t I?

Hello hello! The weather is emphatically swinging into spring here in the SF Bay Area. Cheery sunshine = I feel cheery too. One of my friends delivered a lamb for the first time today, which is amazing 🐑

My last email to you was about livestreaming. In retrospect, that post was vapid and undershot my standards for Sonya Notes. Editorial quality will hopefully improve as I continue to iterate, and I appreciate your patience so far!

Granted, I originally pitched Sonya Notes as an experimental newsletter. Experiments often yield dumb results, so I don’t feel too guilty.

I’ve been sitting on the following post for a while, trying to get it where I want it.

“I marveled at how the flow of people through security screening looked like a time-lapse factory film.” Photo by Melissa Gutierrez.
“I marveled at how the flow of people through security screening looked like a time-lapse factory film.” Photo by Melissa Gutierrez.

Two of my favorite heuristics conflict with each other:

  1. Competitive markets solve most problems on their own. (The largest exceptions are externalities and physical monopolies.) Market participants should be free to express their preferences and create an emergent equilibrium, instead being subject to an authority that tries to engineer specific results.
  2. Any given member of the general public is a moron with no proper idea of what is good for them or anyone else. (See also: Cipolla’s laws of stupidity and Hanlon’s razor.)

#1 is a libertarian idea and #2 is a progressive idea (at least according to early American progressivism or perhaps High Modernism). #1 is bottom-up improvement of society and #2 is top-down improvement of society.

It’s worth noting that I phrased #1 as optimistic and #2 as cynical. (I used to go around defining myself as a “cynical optimist” like Bryan Caplan. Still pretty accurate: I’m cynical about human nature and optimistic about technology.)

The conflict between the heuristics is okay, as long as I’m aware of it. Heuristics need to be useful cognitive shortcuts more than they need to be completely accurate in all scenarios.

Despite my politics being laissez-faire overall, I have a soft spot for paternalistic technocracy. I think mixing the two yields a basically functional government. The current American system is too hands-off in some ways, but mostly far too interventionist (in the lives of its citizens, but also in the affairs of foreign countries).

I like how Redditor darwin2500 put it, with flipped rhetoric:

[P]ersonal responsibility is often a great idea for giving an individual one-on-one advice to improve their life, and is usually a terrible credo for public policy debates and political activism.

A society without both personal-level and systems-based vigilance and improvements will ultimately fail. You can’t only focus on one and not the other.

I tend to say that “anything gov’t touches is so routinely dysfunctional that we should only delegate issues that can’t be handled any other way” — in other words, minimum viable government. I would be a minarchist if minarchism accounted for social safety nets.

The soul of libertarianism is “everyone gets to do whatever they want unless they’re directly harming someone else,” for a pretty narrow definition of direct harm. (Yes, it has failure modes.) I find that very appealing, as a person who chafes under authority.

The soul of progressivism is “we need to take care of everyone and here’s how,” with a very strong desire for rules and behavior-shaping.

I don’t have a neat conclusion, so I’ll end with this quote about populism, which I recoil from, excerpted from an essay called “The Ignoble Lie”:

The uprising among the working classes across the developed West arises from a perception of illegitimacy — of a gap between claims of the ruling class and reality as experienced by those who are ruled. It is no coincidence that these rebellions come from the socialist left and authoritarian right, two positions that now share opposition to state capitalism, a managerial ruling class, the financialization of the economy, and globalization.

See also: “The Twin Insurgency” by Nils Gilman.

Originally posted on Substack.

Capitalism in a Nutshell

Matt Levine’s newsletter Money Stuff is always excellent and usually funny. (And the poor man knows I think so.) However, this passage from the August 12th dispatch soberly explains one of the main ways the United States’ political system enforces capitalism:

“Loosely speaking, there are two main kinds of income: income from labor, like salaries, and income from capital, like dividends and capital gains. In the U.S., the former is taxed more heavily than the latter, with a top marginal rate of 39.6 percent on ordinary income, versus 20 percent on capital gains and dividends. There are a number of efficiency and fairness arguments in favor of a lower tax rate on capital gains, but there are also those who suspect that an important reason for the difference is that (1) rich people tend to get more of their income from capital than poor people do, (2) rich people tend to prefer to pay lower taxes, and (3) rich people tend to get their preferred policies enacted.”

That Feel When the Brick Saw Earns Six Times Your Wage

“If you look at my body as a tool of the company, I am not receiving the same level of maintenance as this inanimate object [the brick saw]. From the $164.08/mo I pay in health insurance, to the gas and vehicle wear I expend driving around to jobs, to the thousand extra calories I have to eat every day to maintain at such high levels of activity, all the way down to the sunscreen I have to wear every day and the ibuprofen I take to ameliorate the pain caused by the job — all of it is paid for personally by me, from my wages.” — user TRASH_UPLOADER on Reddit

Eat the rich or the rich will eat you. Photo by Nick Mustoe.
Photo by Nick Mustoe.

Starbucks Competing For Corporate Cluelessness Award

Joe Berkowitz for Fast Company: “This Is What Happens When You Walk Into Starbucks And Talk To The Barista About Race”. The entertaining article points out some of the ludicrous aspects of Starbucks’ #RaceTogether campaign. I emailed the link to a friend, who prefers to remain anonymous for job reasons, but commented:

“This reminds me of Netflix saying it was going to split the company into two brands and no longer have a single brand aimed at people who wanted to watch movies. I mean… it’s true that I pay separate fees for the DVD’s and the streaming… but two separate brands was just stupid. I mean, one of those ideas that you didn’t test on anyone. #RaceTogether is just such an idea. Massively stupid and damaging to the brand… but probably not forever. It will go away, and then people will forget about it after a few months.”

Basically. To enforce my friend’s point, I had totally forgotten about the Netflix fiasco! Remember how bad the new name was? Qwikster. Bahaha. I love when brands phenomenally mismanage things.

Starbucks UGLY SIDE !!!
Photo by Ahmad Ziyad Maricar.

See also: Hamilton Nolan mocking the Starbucks initiative, Khushbu Shah rounding up salient tweets, and Hayley Peterson reviewing the hilarity of a Starbucks exec deleting his Twitter due to #RaceTogether criticism. Bruh. How can you lack self-awareness so profoundly?

Jokes aside, Tressie McMillan Cottom makes the most humane observation:

“It takes a lot of training and a lot of institutional support to teach people things they would rather not hear. I wonder what kind of training and support the hourly wage baristas at Starbucks will get.”

You’re Not Tech Scum; That Was Mean

After I published the “r u tech scum” article, my cousin Peter Downs commented on Facebook:

“I think both you and Robles have some strong points but I also think the way you talk about programmers is unnecessarily demeaning and overall harmful to your argument. Labeling all the programmers as ‘tech boys’ or ‘sans personality’ is a pretty great way to ensure that they don’t listen to your arguments.”

Peter has a good point. (We’ve actually had a version of this discussion before; I probably should have learned my lesson then.) He’s right that using intentionally divisive terms like “tech scum” is shitty, and I shouldn’t have done that, even for the sake of an intriguing headline. As for the “sans personalities” quip, that was inspired by OkCupid dates I’ve been on with startup guys—but it was still definitely unfair.

evict google : sidewalk graffiti, san francisco (2014)
funeral march -- signs of gentrification : mural, the mission, san francisco (2013)

Photos by torbakhopper, 1 & 2.

At this juncture, Broke-Ass Stuart needs to be quoted:

“I […] agree that the culture of the tech community seems to be one that is tone deaf to the [role] it has played in San Francisco’s gentrification, [but] the tech workers aren’t necessarily to blame for the city’s change. Yes, they are the ones moving into spaces previously inhabited by lower wage peoples. And yes, the unexamined sense of entitlement that seems to be part of it is frustrating to say the least […] but still, they aren’t the real bad guys.

The real villains in the San Francisco housing crisis are the real estate developers and realtors who are making obscene amounts of money off people’s sorrow. And of course the politicians who are in their pockets.” [Bold added; links in original.]

Basically, yeah. I do want to add something Ryan Holiday wrote about #GamerGate, which applies here if you mentally tweak it a bit:

“Just because you don’t personally condone the threats and attacks doesn’t mean your group isn’t responsible. In fact, one of the basic tenets of our legal system is essentially ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ when it comes to gangs, groups and conspiracies. This is especially true, I said, ‘with movements with vague, amorphous goals and little centralized leadership. It makes it hard (or rather easy) to say the good stuff is us, the bad stuff is not us. Conversely, it allows opponents to paint you as the opposite. It also creates an environment in which a lot of people are riled up and members who are loosely associated can do things that reflect poorly on everyone else.'” [Bold added; link in original.]

Here’s my point: there are things about tech/startup culture that suck—click the links in the Broke-Ass Stuart quote and Google “women in tech” for examples—and everyone who benefits from startup-driven displacement, racism, and misogyny bears responsibility to disavow what is done in their name.

Peter has done that, the disavowing, so he’s justified in being annoyed when I describe techies in a one-dimensional, derisive way. It’s important to acknowledge that a lot of people who work in tech are awesome and doing the best that they can like we all are, as we stumble through an economic/political system that makes it hard to move without stepping on someone else.

I will try not to be so reductive in the future, and I hope Peter will call me out again when I inevitably mess up. Hooray for discourse!

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