The Capitalist’s Zombie

I’ve been in Chile for a few days, preparing to lead some sessions over the next week or so at a startup bootcamp put together by Exosphere. Naturally, my mind has been wandering to other matters Chilean.

Chile, as an acquaintance remarked recently, has an economy based on two things: copper and astronomy. It’s also an economy that is to economists what Southwest Airlines is to management consultants: a very significant case study. It was the site of neoliberal experimentation by the Chicago School in the 1980s. More recently, it has been the site of the hilariously adolescent Ayn-Randian-Libertarian experiment that was Galt’s Gulch.

I was pondering these matters as I was shopping for, among other things, an interesting local beer to fuel my time here. After some fumbling with my near-non-existent Spanish (with some help from my Italian host who fumbles less), I ended up with a sixpack of something called Baltica Dry.


It is apparently the pretty-decent-and-cheap local Löbrau. It does not really appear to be “local” in any sense other than the brand name. As best as I have been able to discover, it appears to be brewed and canned for the Chilean market by Anheuser-Busch in the US (the particular sixpack I bought appears to have been canned in Uruguay though). So now, I basically have no clue about the provenance of my beer.

Baltica Dry is an example of what I call a capitalist’s zombie.

It struck me, as I pondered the fact that I had bought a simulacrum of a “local” beer, that I actually did not care. I am not a beer connoisseur, and for the most part the nuances of microbrews, nanobrews and such are lost on me. As far as I was concerned, I was in a new country and I was drinking a beer that was “local” enough to satisfy my minimal curiosity about local beer-life. And I didn’t even have to drink it ironically to be satisfied.

If I hadn’t bothered to idly google the beer, I’d never have figured it out.

To understand what a capitalist’s zombie is, you have to understand the nature of critiques of capitalism and how they apply to things like Baltica Dry.

Critiques of capitalism tend to be of two sorts. One kind of criticism lends itself to empirically based debates. For example, the critique that capitalism creates compounding patterns of oppression and hidden environmental damage. The debates in this bucket are well-posed and data-rich. We can argue, for instance, whether capitalism operating within liberal democracies creates more or less oppression and environmental damage than (say) a comparable theocracy or communist state. We can argue about whether guard labor stabilizes capitalist systems in crony-capitalist corners of the space of possible market-economic orders.

There are difficulties of course. For example, liberal-democratic capitalism tends to catalyze organic technological innovation, which makes comparisons with competing, non-innovative economic systems rather tricky. Tricky, but not impossible. Ultimately you can slowly sort this stuff out through careful debate about empirical truths and clearly articulated competing values. This sort of stuff is best left to Ultimate Wonky Macreconomic Wrestling Federation. It’s a spectator sport for those of us without a seat at the interest-rates-and-minimum-wage-levels table.

If you’re like me, you conclude on the basis of watching such debates, that capitalism is the worst possible system of economic organization except for all the others. If you’re not like me, you conclude that capitalism is impossibly evil and embark on a quixotic quest to come up with a non-communist, non-fascist, non-theocratic alternative that all can agree on and won’t produce revolutions, bubbles and busts. Best of luck with that.

But there is a second kind of more interesting critique of capitalism that does not lend itself to well-posed empirical debates and is therefore out of scope for the wonk-lords of the UWMWF.

This is the claim that capitalism destroys an ineffable and priceless kind of essence that permeates human cultural life in non-capitalist economic systems. The idea of this essence, I am convinced, is at the heart of all humanist value systems.  It is this essence that humanists are referring to when they talk about “real” versus “fake” versions of things which, to non-humanists, might appear to be just two different things with some kinship (usually the parent-child kinship of derivation, which means older is better to most humanists). It is this essence that they are talking about when they go on and on (and on and on) about “authenticity”.

In case it isn’t obvious, I am not a humanist. Except sometimes, ironically.

Humanism is often confused with pluralism but it isn’t that, really. But on the other hand, it is somewhat unfair to label humanism a single, totalizing, universalist value system, as I have sometimes done in my more strident online exchanges with card-carrying members of the humanist meta-tribe.

To steelman humanism a bit: it is a sort of restricted pluralism that stops short of full cultural relativism. Both radical Islamic terrorists and super-liberal UI designers are typically humanist, but hardly of the same variety. Fascists and communists of the last century were also humanists but practically slaughtered each other en masse in WW II. What they all share, and what marks them as humanists, is belief in the priceless essence that makes the human human. They only differ in their beliefs about how it is distributed. Fascists believe that some races have more of the essence than others. Authentic UI designers believe Macs have more of the essence than PCs. Islamists believe that medieval technology and men contain more of the essence than modern technology or women. My buddy here on ribbonfarm, Sarah, believes charming traditional towns have more cultural ether than tiled suburbs.

But all believe in the essence.

Belief in this essence is what stops humanists from taking relativism to the extremes that non-humanists often do. Belief in this essence is what creates a systematic bias in favor of the old over the new.

Let’s call this hypothesized substance cultural ether. You can use the term to restate very complex critiques of capitalism in forms like “indie coffee shops have more cultural ether than a Starbucks store” or “Baltica Dry has more cultural ether than Bud Light, but not as much as my favorite local microbrew.”

Belief in cultural ether leads to a weak sort of values absolutism: things with more cultural ether are absolutely more valuable than things with less, and market mechanisms are absolutely incapable of pricing them. Humans and living things are more valuable than non-living things (though flags and idols are notable exceptions). Gifts have more value than things exchanged for money. Atoms have more value than bits. And older things, as I noted before, have more value than newer things.

Does cultural ether exist? The capitalist’s zombie is one way to explore the question.

If I hadn’t googled to figure out that Baltica Dry was a globalized AB brand, would my experience of “local” beer still have been fake and inauthentic?

Economics as Cultural Simulation

Here’s a question: how can you tell whether a given charming little cafe with attractive hipster baristas, distressed furniture, and chalkboard menus is the real thing or a very carefully crafted fiction created by a giant corporation with a talented marketing staff?

If it gets increasingly hard to tell over time, does that mean the fiction is obscuring cultural “reality” better or actually converging towards an indistinguishable simulation of what was never “real” in any absolute sense at all?

If you can’t tell the difference, does the “real thing” still have more cultural ether than the simulacrum? If you can tell the difference, but enjoy the “fake” ironically, does that make it real in a different way, imbuing it with cultural ether from a different source (whatever allows you to recode its significance?)

A tentative definition: In the pure case, a capitalist’s zombie is an economically significant entity based on capitalist market mechanisms that is  indistinguishable from a competing entity that does not rely on market mechanisms to exist but embodies a quantity of cultural ether where the zombie embodies none.

The capitalist’s zombie is similar to the philosophical zombie. The question of whether or not cultural ether exists is exactly analogous to the hard problem of consciousness, but for groups of people enacting culture in some way or objects with cultural significance. In the former case, to believe in cultural ether is to believe there is something it is like to be a “family” or “tribe” or “religious event” for instance. In the latter case, we get various subtle forms of animism and idolatry, both modern forms involving Macbooks and Apple Watches and ancient forms involving idols and totem poles.

In case it isn’t obvious, I don’t think cultural ether exists.

At all.

I am a culture-ether atheist. Any evidence of its existence can always be reduced completely to individual subjective experience. The sum is not greater than the parts. Anything that still seems mysterious simply hasn’t been sufficiently well-simulated by economic mechanisms yet. To simulate something with economic mechanisms is in a sense to progressively demystify it. And replace a quantity of collectively valued “cultural ether” with individual understanding. Economic evolution is the process of slowly shrinking and ultimately killing one minor metaphoric cultural god after another.

do believe consciousness exists in the sense of the hard problem (so that’s a good test of individualism: if you believe there is such a thing as consciousness, but not such a thing as group consciousness or cultural-object consciousness, you’re an individualist).

The capitalist’s zombie is also similar to the experience machine thought experiment, except that it is much looser, and takes a broader view of what counts as “simulation” (to me the difference between Baltic Dry “local” beer and a brain-in-a-vat system is a question of degree and fidelity levels rather than kind).

The question of whether cultural ether exists applies to any kind of ostensibly non-capitalist (or partially-capitalist) organization, object or communitarian form, whether structural, functional or behavioral (such as a family gathering, a festival or a parade).

The central critical question about humanism, for non-humanists taking steelmanned humanism seriously, is this: how can a participant in any of those forms tell a sufficiently well-designed simulation from a “real” and “authentic” form that is claimed to have more cultural ether?

To take an American example, at what point does the commercialization of Christmas turn The Real Authentic Christmas into the Capitalist’s Zombie Christmas. Or to take another American example, when does a tacky wedding put on by a greedy Bridezilla, complete with a gift registry designed to turn friends-and-family into a kickstarter for her new life, lose all the cultural ether associated with a “real” wedding ceremony?

And in both cases, if increasingly sophisticated economic mechanisms and incentives appear and “restore” the appearance of authenticity with increasing fidelity, does the cultural ether return? Or is it a case of once you go zombie, you never go back?

Let’s take the strongest possible such case: a young child being adopted into a foster home whose adults are being paid for their services by the government. Not the kinds of foster care we have today, but a possible evolved future form based on advanced market mechanisms in an extreme capitalist state, perhaps invented by burned and chastened veterans of experiments like Galt’s Gulch.

In other words, a system of market-based foster care in which it might be possible for a thoughtful adult caretaker, armed with the right kind of knowledge, to both make a living from raising a child or two, and provide the child with an experience of growing up that is indistinguishable from being raised by a caring biological family.

If the child grows up in this capitalist-zombie family into a strong adult with a healthy and positive memory of her childhood, how different is this family from a traditional family chock-full of humanist cultural ether (presumably contained in genetic bonds)?

When you consider that the bar is actually much lower and very easy to beat — many poor families treat children like free, exploitable labor or, in high-poverty developing countries, even commodities for sale — the idea that such zombie families created by sufficiently thoughtful economic mechanisms and incentives might be indistinguishable from real ones doesn’t seem too outlandish.

Simulation Fidelity

There is a key assumption buried in the critical question about humanism and the examples I used to illustrate it. The assumption is that the market economy is not a static set of mechanisms, but an evolving set of mechanisms. One that can over time do more things, and do them better. As it learns to price more things, accommodate more social costs and externalities, leverage more technology, and  embody more scientific knowledge about everything from child-rearing to pleasant coffee-shop experiences, it becomes increasingly indistinguishable from the pre-market-economy social forms it replaces through simulation.

This evolutionary character of markets is what is missed by critics who treat the simulation-fidelity gap as an absolute, and symptomatic of a permanent loss. This is the reason why parodies like the Libertarian Police Department, while hilarious, miss the essential nature of markets.

This is my personal steelman form of the efficient-market-hypothesis. In its naive form, the EMH is full of holes both mathematical and conceptual. But as a directionally correct approximation of idea that simulation fidelity increases over time, with capitalist’s zombies becoming increasingly indistinguishable from non-market competitors putatively full of cultural ether, it is very useful.

If this is indeed what is happening, then we have a very important prediction: the empirical matters debated by the UWMWF will become increasingly less important over time, and the matter of capitalist’s zombies will become increasingly important.

My larger point with the thought experiment is to argue that there is no way to reconcile the beliefs of humanists and non-humanists. Cultural ether is by definition an unfalsifiable idea. But the capitalist’s zombie also makes the existence of cultural ether, like the question of existence of god, a question that does not need to be answered at all. It is possible to keep moving forward without answering it, by making it less and less relevant and something fewer and fewer people care about.

Those who believe there is something to the idea will focus on areas where the simulation (or proposed simulation) is so bad that it insults the idea of the original. Ironically, their criticisms will have the effect of improving the simulation rather than creating their hoped for regressive drive towards the “real” thing. The satire that is the Libertarian Police Department essay will actually lead to future experiments in market-based policing becoming more like non-market based policing, rather than having (what I presume is) the intended effect of dismissing the very idea of market-based policing through ridicule.

Or to take a more real example, all the criticism of how ebooks have less cultural ether than paper books and how blogs have less cultural ether than newspapers simply had the effect of gradually improving ebooks and blogs gradually so fewer and fewer people cared enough to resist. Ironically, because even believers in cultural ether tend to defect, the simulation actually acquires cultural ether by their very act of defection, making it more attractive to stronger believers in cultural ether. All it takes is one diehard print journalist to embrace blogs and the rest have less of a case.

As the simulation fidelity improves, more and more people will drop out of the activist humanist camp around any particular cause, with a “real enough for me” resignation letter.

Just like I did with my acceptance of Baltica Dry as a local Chilean beer.

Those who don’t buy the idea of cultural ether at all (and I am in that group) can simply disengage from capitalist’s zombie debates and buy market-based simulations of culture with the level of fidelity they care enough to pay for.

My hypothesis here is that capitalism is an evolving computing system that gradually grows in sophistication to simulate more and more of the forms of culture and society, with increasing fidelity. If you’ll allow me out on a highly speculative limb for a bit, the size of the Keynesian deficit in an economy is a good measure of the simulation debt in a society: the amount of lost cultural ether we want to recover through sustainable economic simulation (and stimulation).

This evolutionary hypothesis applies to capitalism itself, which after all is just another element of culture. It is quite possible that developments in cryptocurrencies, trust mechanisms and automated contracting will make the entire visible scaffolding of economic life disappear entirely from view, creating a perfect simulation of pre-monetary human life.

In other words, to make up yet another snowclone from Clarke’s Third Law, a sufficiently advanced market economy is indistinguishable from the culture it simulates. 

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I’m wondering how cultural impacts of markets vary with “simulation fidelity”. At low fidelity, market ploys are not threatening. Victorian-style advertisements seem quaint, straightforward, and emphasise practical needs: “Soap: it cleans your skin!”. Such approaches are now used only ironically, subverting the expectation that products are authentic lifestyle choices.

    With increasing fidelity, we might reach an uncanny valley of disturbingly imperfect faux-authenticity. A hipster-horror, where the authentic microbrewery or cafe draws you in, then has its facade scratched to reveal a grinding, impersonal market engine, driven by pod-hipsters wearing chainstore knock-offs of last week’s chic.

    • Or for some, it’ll be a case of “oh, that’s why it costs less than I expected” and go away happy that they spent $15 for an experience rather than $30.

      I am not sure there’s an uncanny valley here. Just two kinds of people who will never agree: those aghast at the horror of it, those going right along with it.

  2. Perhaps ‘authenticity’ symbolizes wealth being transferred in small amounts to many entities in the immediate vicinity, while ‘non-authenticity’ symbolizes wealth being transferred in large amounts to few entities far away– Supporting ‘non-optimized’ capitalism instead of supporting ‘optimized’ capitalism.

    One might argue that caring about distribution of capital is itself a form of cultural ether (e.g. transfer of captal to AB is bad compared to transfer of capital to Mr. Chilean Beer Baron). But it seems more a matter of self-interest, assuming that money one puts into a non-optimized system has a better chance of ending up in the pockets of one’s friends, family, neighbors etc. Economists and other humanities-types almost certainly have well-developed language to describe the benefits of keeping wealth in small, intimate groups.

    So, it’s kind of begging the question re: whether the notion of cultural ether is actually necessary to explain liking ‘authenticity.’ And of course the ‘real’ and ‘fake’ can be distinguished by how much they pay their employees and suppliers.

  3. You are missing the point. Why does Baltica Dry simulates a local beer in the first place?
    Precisely because capitalism lacks authenticity, it needs and strives to simulate authentic things. It’s predating on the real value of those things. That real value is your cultural ether. That ‘cultural ether’ is what’s usually called human culture, by the way.
    Now, the next time you’re enjoying your Baltica, remember that you’re indebted, at least for part of that enjoyment, to the cultural ether imbued in the real thing that’s being simulated. Probably that was also the reason why, more or less unconsciously, you bought that beer in the first place. You were after an authentic experience of the “local” (i.e. real) flavor of Chilean beer. Now, please don’t think that because you were deceived, the real doesn’t exist.
    Real things do not lose their value or entity because a sufficiently good (in the best of cases) simulation can be made of them. Precisely the opposite: the fact that they are at least worthy of being more or less well simulated, indirectly inform us about their real value.
    And of course, that real value can be directly experienced, too.

    • Certainly capitalism exploits the value of real things. I am saying those real things do not need “cultural ether” as part of an understanding of their value. And once you take away cultural ether, it becomes hard to absolutely say that one real thing is better than another real thing. I certainly wouldn’t want a local, organic artisan-constructed computer or airplane for example.

      There are value systems within which the locally brewed beer is better, and others in which the remotely brewed beer in a local package is better and ones in which the global brand is better.

      There is no _privileged_ value system, and in particular no coherent argument for such privileged value systems based on notions of some things being “more authentic” or having more cultural ether.

      • Authentic things can be worse than their simulations. Locally brewed beer can taste bad, be badly produced, vary wildly in quality, etc.

        But, the question is, why are authentic things being simulated? And the answer usually is that to simulate is cheaper than to be authentic. Locally brewed beer is probably costlier to produce, and has therefore a lower profit margin. Even the beer’s name, Baltica Dry, seems like a clear allusion to the Baltic Dry Index, an index related to freight costs. It’s cheaper to produce the beer remotely and transport it, probably due to labor and raw material costs, than to produce it locally. But it’s convenient, for marketing reasons, to dress it as locally produced.

        As I said, authenticity is not (at least, not necessarily) a guarantee of quality. It’s a safeguard, and also an expression, of truth. And there you have it, *that* is its cultural ether. Authentic things can be unreliable, difficult to find, costlier. But they have a unique flavor.

  4. I like this concept but I tend to think it’s more of a Frankenstein’s Monster rather than a Zombie, particularly in relation to the ‘evolution’ you talk about. The ‘evolution’ process is surely about being able to dismantle pieces of the Monster and replace them with new/ better/ upgraded component parts as required to ensure the simulation doesn’t stray too far from the original.

    The inevitability of this approach is that every piece of the original Monster eventually ends up being replaced with something new, so that what is left is indistinguishable from the starting point. Naturally, from there someone else would create a new Monster that replicated the first Monster’s original state because, after all, it was more genuine…

    • Check the history of Frankenstein’s monster. The “monster” was intended as the hero of the story by Mary Shelley, and the human creator Dr. Frankenstein the weak villain who would not let his creation live as it was actually able to. The “monster” just goes around trying to connect like a real sentient being would.

      The subtitle, “A modern Prometheus” says it all. The creator chickened out instead of perfecting a bionic artificial human. Asimov’s Bicentennial Man is more explicitly a tale of that sort, where the humans accept their promethean nature and let their notion of human expand and evolve with their creation.

  5. Tim Brownawell says

    “Cultural ether” seems to be mostly getting at how much of the cost of something goes to personally identifiable labor, vs returns to capital or “cog in the corporate machine” fungible labor. It’s “things with stories” rather than just “things”.

    Many of these stores are deliberately manufactured as an edge against more efficient competition. The rest were randomly assigned by people looking for excuses to keep old habits in the face of innovation.

    People like mythology.

    People also like status. Which you get more of from helping specific individuals, than from helping large faceless groups. People really don’t like entities that remove their ability to gain status in this manner, so such entities receive a negative “cultural ether” score.

  6. The paid adoptive parenthood example is actually a plot point of the new Studio Ghibli movie “When Marnie Was There”. I think it’s important to the child that they know that the parent would care for them even if they weren’t being paid. Given life’s uncertainty, I think the child’s need is justifiable.

    • neuse river sailor says

      Exactly, and that is the difference between fostering and adoption in modern American society. Adopters still expect to see an economic hit, and the child knows that the parents care enough to take them “for better or worse.” But foster care is farmed out on a for-pay basis. Foster care is a real horror story – many poor people take in foster children mainly to get their hands on the government provisions for the child’s care. And the children can be “turned back” if the economic benefit is not worthwhile. Of course there are many foster parents who take in children out of pure benevolence, but increasingly foster care is a commercial venture in America. I hope never to see adoption go there.

  7. Couple of loosely-connected thoughts.

    First, your thought experiment about raising children: Have you seen the move “The Truman Show”? Worth watching, but for the short version it’s a reality show that follows the life of one person from birth to adulthood. Everyone in his life is an actor, and he’s the only one who doesn’t know. He’s perfectly happy until he starts to question the reality.

    Second, the faux-hipster coffee shop: Do you know the term “Quincy punk”? The TV show “Quincy” had an episode where there was a murder in a punk club. They cast a hundred or so extras and had them dress as “punks”, but the producers had no clue about real punk culture. Ever since, the term “Quincy punk” has referred to someone trying to ape the style of a culture they don’t belong to, and it’s not a compliment. So I think James is absolutely right about the uncanny valley.

    Third, on reproductions: I see TV shows about people into antiques. I would rather have a high-quality, inexpensive modern reproduction of something I like. Still, I know that while capitalism is great at copying and optimizing, *someone* has to design the original. I think this applies to culture, too.

  8. I’m not sure I follow all the economic arguments. But the basic idea seems sound. I would characterise it as an extension of dualism, the idea that the world is made up from two kinds of stuff, which I usually call “matter” and “spirit”. Like the author I don’t believe in this duality. But spirit is where believers invest or project our highest values, and to some extent this is implicit in the metaphors we use to describe spirit: it is higher, more refined, light as a opposed to dark, light as opposed to heavy and so on.

    That this idea would form the basis of a system of values in which we evaluate something like beer seems perfectly plausible to me. I remember a similar situation. Hamilton, the city I went to university in, had a medium size commercial brewery: Waikato Ltd. Waikato beer was made and mostly consumed locally. It was made with water from the Waikato River, which ironically was not safe to drink straight from the stream. But then Waikato was bought out by a larger company. Production moved to a larger city and Waikato beer was then imported back into Hamilton. So we asked ourselves, in the mid 1980s, was it still Waikato beer in any sense? And like the author we decided we didn’t care.

    In this view our reasoning began with imagining that the Waikato region, including the river, had a kind of spirit of place. And that beer made in the region bottled that spirit. And that imbibing that spirit, topped up, as it were, our own spirit. By imbibing the spirit of the place we became more in touch with that spirit, we aligned our personal spirit with the spirit of the land.

    I think where things get confusing is relating this kind of dualistic thinking to consciousness and the various views about it. The basic dualism is consistent with Chalmers views on The Hard Problem, but then the author seems to say that he does not believe in the dualism, but does believe in Chalmers views on consciousness. And this seems like a contradiction to me. The dualism is a much older paradigm and I think there are some problems mapping it onto modern views consciousness. Consciousness does not share all the same features and values as spirit – they are projections from two different values systems; one essentially Pre-Enlightenment and one Post-Enlightenment.

    Consciousness as the counterpart to matter in a dualism seems to lack the necessary properties to make up a whole – the metaphors in matter/spirit perfectly counterbalance each other: dark/light, heavy/light, higher/lower, coarse/refined etc. But the metaphors of consciousness do not. But then the whole idea of dualism is questionable these days. Dualism is largely sustained by God of the Gap style arguments – the spirit or consciousness resides in some unmeasurable form so lies outside the ever expanding purview of science. And this includes Dennett who strikes me as another kind of matter/spirit dualist, who is domesticating quantum weirdness and calling it science. Dualistic frameworks, especially where one pole is ineffable, don’t explain anything. They deliberately divide the object of study and define one part by its unknowability. This leads to unresolvable arguments.

    How any of this maps onto economic systems is still unclear to me. Perhaps what it shows is that our minds are adapted to thinking locally. The facts of globalisation and all the simulacra we now face are difficult to process. And sometimes we’re like, “fuck it, I just want a beer”. I wonder, however, if the erosion of locality affects us unconsciously, that it equates to an erosion of our values. We see everything becoming ersatz but feel powerless to change it. People work too much and sleep too little. They have no energy to resist. Most of us have a Hamlet complex – we can see the need to act, but cannot and events overrun us. Some are taken in by the glitter of things. So we go along, but feel that something is missing, something dualists would describe in terms of spirit, and I would call a manifestation of our values.

  9. “Humans and living things are more valuable than non-living things”
    Doesn’t that make vegan/vegetarians some sort of humanists?

    • Touche :)

      But not really. Wanting to not cause pain to others capable of feeling it only requires believing in individual capacity for pain (and empathy enough to want to not cause it). So your question is like how religious people question how atheists can be moral. You don’t need to believe in god to not go around killing/hurting others.

      • No, I don’t buy that morality argument, I rather see it as a matter of defining the boundaries of “kin”.
        If you feel sympathy to, say, an oyster, you are of course entitled to it but that feels pretty weird to me.

  10. Theory: “cultural ether” is an unconscious mental heuristic expressing a preference for polyculture vs monoculture.

    There are plenty of sound, non-magical arguments to prefer polyculture over monoculture. However, most people can’t consciously articulate those arguments, so they say things like “authentic”. Once “authentic” becomes a mental heuristic, it can experience conceptual drift and end up defending things that aren’t actually valuable polycultures, but by-and-large it pushes in that direction.

    Capitalism creates strong incentives towards monoculture: if something works, scale it! Hence why capitalism is “bad”, but democracy is “good”. If capitalism simulates polyculture in response to consumer demand, it will create just enough polyculture to fool just enough consumers, because each step towards polyculture is a step backwards from scalability.

    So, I would argue that capitalist zombies ARE inferior to the real thing, not because they lack any magical essence, but because they are designed to trick our healthy preference for polyculture, in the same way processed sugar tricks our healthy preference for cheap carbohydrates.

    So when you drink your not-really-local beer, you feel okay, because your mental heuristic is satisfied. But the outcome your heuristic is defending — a diverse economy, where beer making know-how is widely distributed — is being undermined.

    • That is a very good point. I think I made roughly the same point with the concept of “combinatorial variety” (monoculture pretending to be polyculture) in my Gollum Effect article a few years back.

      My response would be that as simulation fidelity increases sufficiently, polyculture is actually recovered to the extent that a) people actually value it b) the market learns to properly price the risk exposures created by monoculture.

      • brenschluss says

        I came to agree on Josh’s point — to use the evolutionary metaphor, polyculture dies and evolution is stunted if genetic mutation is lessened. The “local” or “artisanal” or “iconoclastic” is (sometimes, not always) a way to pursue local variations.

        One doesn’t have to believe in “cultural ether”, or authenticity, or a real/fake dichotomy to want to support ‘local things’ — I don’t. But I support ‘local things’ for the same reason I support ‘new things’, in my opinion, a mutation/modification at a small scale is the originating way in which change happens, and I value change over non-change. Drinking Baltica Dry may be fine for all over means, but it certainly won’t make Anheuser-Busch experiment with new kinds of beer.

        Moreover, I don’t think there’s a plausible reason why people will actually begin to value polyculture as simulation fidelity increases sufficiently. The outcome of total fidelity would just mean the exact adherence of large-scale production to small-scale “authentic” production. Any resources (in the form of revenue) from consumers buying their fully-simulated “authentic” beer will just be evenly distributed over all producers, “authentic” or not. And if you do assume that newness comes from the local/experimental, then the capacity for newness will just be more and more diluted as those local producers receive less and less resources.

        Then, of course is the question – does newness come from local/experimental? Will the market actually properly price risk exposures created by monoculture? The latter seems dubious also in a setting in which simulation fidelity is continually increasing rising. It also seems dubious that most companies concerned with fidelity will experiment with the new or the local.

        “I just want a beer; I don’t care where it comes from” is then actually not itself an acceptable statement, I’d argue, since while it’s being agnostic to “cultural ether” and “authenticity” (which is all fine and dandy), it’s taking a stance in relation to evolutionary progression (whatever the fitness function is) — that of stagnancy and non-change.

        • Maybe a way to refine the idea is to look for specific industries that have already gone down the path of high simulation fidelity. My first thought is the movie industry, where decades of experimentation converged on a formula that became the “beat sheet“.

          It’s getting harder for movie makers to get funding from the major studios if they diverge in any way from the formula. But just as critics are complaining that nothing new is happening, the tools of production have gotten so much cheaper that people can make independent films that break with convention, yet still have a shot at wider distribution.

          Are there other industries, or have there been, where experimentation was incrementally driven out to the point that the industry withered?

          • brenschluss says

            Yeah, this is a great point. And to build/revise your last sentence, I don’t think this phenomenon will appear as if the industry is withering — rather, the industry will be stuck in local optima that appears to be global optima. For the participants in the industry in question, then, the industry will appear stable, maybe even with slow regular growth, etc.

            I’m thinking of this slide from Jobs’ original presentation about the iPhone ( You don’t have to believe that touchscreen phones are inherently better to agree that Apple’s design triggered a subsequent avalanche of changes towards touchscreen technology. Whether or not you think the iPhone is great or not, there’s no doubt that it popped the industry out of a local optima and pushed it somewhere else.

      • Yeah, I’ve been reading Jane Jacobs on Ribbonfarm’s recommendation, which is why this occurred to me…

        There’s a free rider problem with your hypothesis that people valuing polyculture will lead to markets pricing it in. I benefit from living in an economic polyculture, but my individual buying decisions don’t have much of an impact either way, so my individual incentive is to NOT price it in and rely on other people to preserve it.

        Moralizing the issue by dressing it up in value-language has a very useful societal function: it overcomes the free rider problem by making compliance an issue of social standing rather than economic trade-off.

        So although sloppy humanist epistemology might be annoying to those of a more analytical bent, consider the public service it does: we get to live in a world with cute boutique coffee shops! Viva la hipster!

    • I agree, but, it’s not only a preference for polyculture, and a diverse economy. It’s more fundamental than that.
      Saying that “capitalist zombies are designed to trick”, is equivalent to me to saying that “they lack any magical essence”. Those “magical” essences being, in this case, truth and authenticity, at the very least.

      For some people, it seems to be very difficult to see and ponder the essence of things. To the point that they think, then, that those essences don’t exist. Or that they belong to some magical realm.

      The essence of authentic things is called authenticity. The essence of true things, truth, and so on. And these essences are not magical. The very fact that we pronounce and customarily use words like ‘real’, ‘true’, ‘authentic’, etc. directly points to their respective essences of ‘reality’, ‘truth’, ‘authenticity’, and so on.

      In “1984”, every new edition of the official dictionary contains less and less words than the preceding ones. Words like ‘real’, ‘true’, are directly forbidden, when possible, or their meanings twisted through doublespeak, when not, to point to their opposites, and so to try to nullify them.

      Near the end of “Neuromancer” (warning, mild spoiler ahead), the AI offers a deal to the protagonist: to live forever in the virtual reality with his dead lover. He rejects it. Not because the deal couldn’t be convenient, or attractive, but because it’s virtual. It’s not the real thing.

      • The Neuromancer ending is actually a very good illustration of the Nozick experience machine choice. In practice, I think you’d find, based on past precedents, that more and more people will choose sufficiently good simulations. There are already people signing up to have their brains uploaded if that ever becomes possible.

        I’ll not press further on how you’ve constructed “authenticity” in parallel with “truth” but just stop with what to me is a reductio ad absurdum of that line of thought: the only authentic version of a book is the original handwritten longhand manuscript, complete with the author’s scratch-outs, margin notes, variations in handwriting from tentative to firm/bold etc. Everything else is a weak echo.

        To me that example is simply a case of not understanding the nature of change and transformation at all. Just as you think I miss the point with authenticity, I think people who make whole/partial versions of that handwritten-mansucript argument miss the point of publishing technology and the nature of its creative destructive evolution. This blog is not a weak simulation of a longhand book + coffeeshop discussion. That’s how it might *appear* to those who are attached to the book as the archetypal, uncorrupted form, but this is more than just a simulation of books. It also has its own mutable nature. In your language, a “fake” book becomes an “authentic” blog, but a tweetstorm is in turn a “fake” blog post. To me this sort of silliness makes “authenticity” not a useful concept. I prefer to deal directly with processes of change, mutability, inheritence, derivation, copying etc. It’s all part of the creative destruction that drives all changeable things. Which to non-humanists, is everything.

        • I clearly see your point of view. It’s just that I don’t embrace it, at all. Your search for authenticity in a book leads you the original handwritten manuscript, by example.
          “What do I mean by authentic?” “What do I mean by true?”, and so on. The answers might surprise you. Those words really mean something (you see, I have used “really” without noticing; as a form of emphasis, if you like).

          Accepting the deal at the end of Neuromancer is tantamount to accepting your own premature death sentence. That’s what the deal really is (now using “real” in earnest).

    • I was going to say something similar. The “authenticity” of local beer that’s actually local isn’t magic, it’s a verbal handle on some aspects of production that aren’t captured by the pricing system. Josh mentioned the monoculture vs. polyculture aspect.

      To me, an even more important thing about local production is that it empowers the local economy, and hence the local society. Authentic beer benefits the community, beer shipped from overseas doesn’t – the payment for the beer gets funneled into some giant US corporation, and the locals stay poor. This economic pattern – having poor country serve as export markets for richer ones, and not letting them develop their own industries – has been a core part of the colonial strategy for hundreds of years.

  11. Firstly, congrats on the mobile redesign.

    > The effect of such critiques is to make the simulation better.

    What if that’s the aim? Consider that in digital representation everything is simulation, so it’s a unique case in which there is no authentic. We can then move to more specific values than authenticity: dynamism, coherence, legibility, metaphor etc.

    > This is the claim that capitalism destroys an ineffable and priceless kind of essence that permeates human cultural life in non-capitalist economic systems. The idea of this essence, I am convinced, is at the heart of all humanist value systems.

    It’s not only the essence or cultural ether that can be recovered with a humanist analysis. It’s also the true value of the real, not in terms of real vs. fake, but real value vs. value not being there at all by decree.

    It’s about appropriateness and consideration as well. The distant authoritarian modern minimalist is often unable to have the appropriate empathy to care about the consumer (or ‘user’ in my analysis) eg. Jony Ive enjoys neon garishness, gold watches and also believes that users have evolved past the need for visibility in the graphic user interface, the last point being absurd. It’s not so much that *his* values aren’t real, it’s that they’re highly inappropriate for the audience of consumers and users that designing for. He’s selling his inhuman utopia to himself, screw everyone else. Nothing new here, this is par for the course for authoritarian modernists. (Remember our discussion of Mies Van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House).

    You admit that “Certainly capitalism exploits the value of real things.” My argument is that whether or not cultural ether exists, there are indeed ‘real things’ which are often lost in the modern minimalist enterprise. The funny thing is that in the field of design, modern minimalism doesn’t even attempt to exploit the value of real things. It simply prohibits any real or valuable things from being represented. ‘Authenticity’ for the modern minimalist is not about the simulation or replication of value, but about the renunciation of value to begin with. This is why it is anti-humanist. In its nihilist relativism it rejects that there is anything to value at all.

  12. C. Sullivan says

    This is going to be a little Wallace Steven’s blackbird-y, but I’d rather be brief:

    The essential question is: Does there exist value which cannot be priced? That which is valuable but priceless is the ether.

    I read a Maeve Binchy book once. It was set, as most of her works are, in a small Irish village in the 1960s. In it she makes a passing remark about one of the housewives thinking to herself that she must buy her day’s groceries at one of the village’s three small shops instead of another, because she had patronized the other the day before, even though it was less convenient for her. All three shops could not survive if the inhabitants of the village did not follow this custom of distributing their patronage. The economic incentives surrounding the transaction — what shop is closest and has the best and cheapest eggs — were entangled in a web of non-economic incentives and obligations: Not to be seen to snub a fellow villager, enabling their survival and the survival of the village. In a broader sense, I think this entanglement is the source of the quality of “authenticity”.

    A capitalist zombie product can nevertheless become infused with authenticity, because it has the potential to be imbued with the immaterial and intransitive property of nostalgia, the ability to evoke a recollection of lost time. “An official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle.” The Venus of Willendorf.

    Paradox: If price is sufficient to contain all value, then the for profit foster family would abandon the care of a given child in favor of caring for others if they offered more money, no? If not, then the price does not comprehend the motive. If so, then can the simulacrum truly be indistinguishable from the real, if the child gains knowledge of the ease with which it may be destroyed?

  13. If you don’t believe in “cultural ether”, how can you posit something that is a “high fidelity simulation” of it?

    This is the big flaw in zombie arguments, and one which is handily dealt with by the philosophical content of the Turing Test: To be indistinguishable from “real” is the same thing as _being_ “real”, unless you believe in some kind of “essence”.

    Once you ditch essence, you are left with either “convincing” or “not convincing” in some individually or communally defined role.

    • Nope. You’re pulling the equivalent of an ontological argument stunt.

      I am merely arguing that you can produce a high fidelity simulation of the *physical realities* (atoms/bits) that evoke belief in cultural ether to a high enough degree that those who believe in it cannot tell the difference.

      There are two senses of “real” that are being conflated in this entire discussion.

      Real as in materially real: things embodied as atoms in some way.

      Real as in subjectively real: things you believe in, including gods, flying spaghetti monsters and cultural ether.

      I am saying you can simulate material reality with an arbitrary degree of fidelity without invoking or using cultural ether. Somebody mentioned the Truman Show, and that’s the sort of thing I mean. The cultural ether is ONLY real to Truman. But the material reality is equally real to all in the movie, Truman and actors in the dome alike.

      The same is NOT true of the individual philosophical zombie argument. While the capitalist zombie rests on the assumption that individuals are not zombies, individual zombie arguments do not rest on (say) “non-zombie neurons.”

      Of course, you can argue as some do that subjective consciousness is just a kind of confusion and that it’s zombies all the way down, with no ether anywhere. Either of the cultural ether variety or of the individual qualia variety. Why I don’t buy that is a different conversation.

      • Actually, I’m trying to get away from ontology and onto epistemology, which I think is where a lot of these problems get cleared up, or at least reframed enough so that we can see we were arguing about the wrong things.

        I think we strongly agree that values exist strictly in individual experience, even if individual experience is heavily shaped by social context.

        My contention is that you aren’t going far enough, in the sense that you are still taking about simulating the physical experience that stimulates the values.

        Having tried “authentic, popular, local beers” in many countries, I can tell you that, with few exceptions, they are all remarkably alike! I would bet that if you removed the labels, you may not be able to tell them apart, by taste or chemical composition. The authentic locality of them, even when they are legitimately made by a local company with local ingredients, was always “all in our head”. So there is nothing physical to simulate, but rather the right context and associated symbols.

        On the matter of zombies, the point is that the only non-zombie we can vouch for is our individual selves. We take all other reports of sentience based on faith and seeming verisimilitude. We have no other way to ascertain “authenticity” other than “seeming”, including the “seeming” of empirical measurements and observations.

        • I am not going far enough perhaps, but what I am trying to do is give the benefit of doubt to people who are more sensitive than me. I do know people who can tell wines apart without labels and such. So I think there’s likely a physics reality to terroir etc. that will take a lot more work to simulate with sufficient fidelity to fool the most extreme connoisseurs.

          My broader point is that such refined tastes become irrelevant a lot of the time even before we get there, because a lot of people with less refined tastes defect before then. Serving the ultimate connoisseurs with highest possible fidelity is not necessary to make them both politically and economically irrelevant in most cases.

          • As someone who fancies himself to have some level of connoisseurship in various things, including wine, I wouldn’t want say that there is NO physical basis to any of these things, but psychological studies of wine enjoyment (and other connoisseurship) have shown that perceptions of quality are easily fooled by manipulating context.

            It is often the _belief_ that something is hard to fake that gives it its “authentic” signalling value. A lot of hipster “authenticity” seems horribly fake to me, but it is obviously accepted by its target audience.

        • Nobody ever accused Gueuze of being just another beer. It looks like many indistinguishable products are riding on the coat tails of a few characterful ones.

  14. This is sort of like “Roko’s Christmas Basilisk”.

    Even wondering about the authenticity of any experience automatically cheapens the memory of it AND all future encounters with it. The only escape is to decide everything is some arbitrary level of simulation (or at least, the level you can afford.)

  15. Chris Johnson says

    I came here to make Josh’s point, but alas, I suppose I’ll make another one instead.

    You propose subjective evaluations of cultural ether map to individual subjective experiences, and I agree with this fully. To loop back to an age-old philosophy question, though, can we say certain subjective experiences are (near-)universally better than other ones? Nailing a hammer to your hand is a subjective experience, drinking a cool beer is another one. When you get down to the level of human biology, authenticness of cultural experience *does* intertwine with human nature in ways that make this complicated in ways that (I would argue) capitalist mechanisms alone cannot sort out.

    Religion is a pretty good example here, and interesting you brought it up, because it lies directly in the tired zone of back-and-forth multiculturalism debates. The naive position is that all religions (and cultural paths that follow) are entirely equal in the range of subjective experiences they are able to support, but I do not think this is the case! For example, Buddhist and Christian traditions have an unending plethora of dogmas, exceptions, and myths to justify almost any capitalist-mechanism-produced life outcome. But thinking about cultures as complex systems, where tiny chaotic differences in theology can lead to a vastly different allocation of roles, myths, etc. as they actually appear, opens up the possibility to agree *in principle* that some of these slippery cultural ether differences actually do end up affecting the range of capitalist outcomes that are made possible by a foundational cultural mythology. This occasionally comes to a head with tragedies like Charlie Hebdo, debates about female genital mutilation, American identity politics, high-profile rape cases in Delhi, etc.

    If you actually follow this line of thought, you’ll quickly find yourself in a “My Hedgehog is better than your Hedgehog!” style of argument that typically gets sorted out in holy wars and esoteric theology disputes, which I think you (correctly) try to avoid. At best, it would revise you down from being a cultural ether atheist to a cultural ether agnostic, but even then I’m sure you’d want an example, which would be impossible for me to provide without also trying to convert you to Christianity, which sounds roughly as fun as nailing a hammer to my hand, so I’ll defer for now.

    • You are conflating two different questions: the existence of hedgehog ideologies in a state of competition is a matter of empirical, material reality. There are churches and mosques and people going to them and doing ritual things and then going out again and killing each other. No issues with that situation assessment.

      But that does NOT make what these groups believe in real. If you say the “sacredness of mass” and “praying five times a day” have cultural ether content (quite distinct from the ultimate kind of cultural ether — “god” concepts), you are believing in more than is necessary to account for what you see. What you actually see is people kneeling and bowing and chanting hymns and stuff. Nothing in that stuff requires ethereal explanation. Nor does the fact that different hedgehog ideologies fight over cartoons and female genital mutilation.

      • Chris Johnson says

        I apologize — I didn’t mean to conflate cooky religion metaphysics with a more banal interpretation of cultural ether which just refers to the vast complexity of how cultural-capitalist assimilation actually plays out.

        Thinking about it more clearly now, I think the argument I was trying to make was about simulation fidelity — there are certain cultural aspects/institutions that deliberately block attempts at simulation, and this is one of the key things religions/Hedgehog philosophies provide. I doubt we’ll ever have a simulacrum of Vatican city in Las Vegas, for example, because Catholic orthodoxy deliberately obfuscates itself to prevent others from imitating / re-apportioning it. The rest of my argument was pretty muddled and I’m sorry I made you read it.

        There’s another angle here with human geography that I think also makes this discussion a lot more interesting, but lies squarely in the empirical realm. Lots of cultural cuisines are actually based on the underlying economic realities of what crops grow there, what resources are available, etc. Getting Western food in Korea, for instance, is hard, because cheese is not a natural part most east asian diets. So at least with cuisine choice and “authenticity” of food, I think most of that can boil down to subconscious signals that we ascribe to cultural ether without thinking about it.

  16. G. W. Devon Pack says

    Rather than the term ‘cultural ether’, I think a more useful concept would be to call it ‘affiliational premium’. The affiliational premium is the added economic value that one assigns to objects that resonates with one’s psychological and cultural capital, the tribal markers that connote one’s perceived social status.
    So I would say that ‘cultural ether’ exists as a psychological/economic preference: the added cost to enjoy a particular brand
    For the purpose of this thought experiment, let us posit Budweiser and ‘Indie Craftbrau’ beer may be functionally equivalent. But a consumer pursues the ‘independent/authentic’ brand because of certain psychological affirmations:
    (1) “The authentic is my neighbor”- by purchasing here, I am supporting my community/tribe/affiliation
    (2) “Local is accountable”- I am paying a premium to deal with a small business that will be responsive to my needs and complaints. If I get an awful mega-corporate beer and complain, my distress will be unanswered; If I get an awful indie local brew and complain, I can expect faster and better treatment from the craft-brew
    (3) “Local is better/stranger”- A mass produced beer is a risk-averse beer, a lowest common denominator product. By preferring the ‘culturally authentic’, I am choosing more unusual, ‘acquired taste’ products, which highlight my sophistication.

    So I would argue that this ‘cultural ether’ can be measured, and has been proven, and documented, through extensive marketing studies. Cultural ether, or the affiliational premium, is a set of normally subconscious economic biases that are oriented towards objects that re-iterate one’s egoistic ideation of social position.

    I would say that the ‘cultural ether’ or authenticity is a recurrent desire to exist and interact within a social contract that occurs on a level cognizable to our tribal/troop primate instincts. Are you familiar with the concept of ‘the monkeysphere’ aka Dunbar’s number? The small and authentic is given a preference because of the perception of empathy, and accountability.

    But I would agree that it is possible to create simulations of authenticity, and those occur frequently. It’s just that doing so requires a higher level of ‘customer service’ labor and responsiveness to maintain the tribal perception of the consumers. It can be easy for large corporations to lose this affiliation. But ‘cultural ether’, I would argue, is a consumer preference which actually scales inversely to the size and scale of the organization. As the old saying goes, “you can trust a person, but you can’t trust people.”

  17. Denis Zgonjanin says

    If cultural ether exists because it has not been yet simulated, it seems to me inevitable consciousness will have to follow the same path. In the simplest sense, the beings nearest to us in evolutionary terms seem to have the same opaque consciousness we do. Continuing down the chain, what is the most complex species in which consciousness disappears? If there is no clear demarcation, then it must not truly be opaque. The belief that it is possible for a non-conscious species to acquire consciousness in a discrete step seems to imply an unknowable force which bestows consciousness-power.

    Following this logic, one is lead to all those who base their philosophy on unfalsifiable beliefs – Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, Žižek, and so on.

    More to the point of your great piece here, it seems to me more people believe in cultural ether every day, not fewer. Post-GreatRecession especially. And aspects of culture ether are being enshrined in law. Example are EU food labeling laws – where your Champagne must come from a tiny region of France. These laws, while existing within the capitalist framework, serve to prevent the creation of capitalism zombies. Same thing with caps on production volume on what can be considered “Craft Beer” in the U.S.

  18. Assorted reactions:

    Your definition of humanism makes some sense, but it isn՚t much like any of the standard definitions of humanism that I՚m familiar with. “Humanism” usually has anti-theological connotations, for one thing, so radical Islamists are not likely to fall under it. I think what you are referring to is what I usually call anti-modernism, which can take all of the forms you list.

    A recent book on arguments for resisting the market.

    Fake authenticity (this essay is 16 years old so missing out on a decade-and-a-half of extra ironical layerings)

    “Any evidence of its [culture-ether] existence can always be reduced completely to individual subjective experience. “

    Completely disagree — individual experience is over-rated, group experience is real as fuck. I suspect Sarah with her interest in ritual and the social roots of consciousness would be on my side here. Ritual is largely about generating this group experience. And something like “authenticity” plays a role in how well it works, although that notion has been severely damaged (see the fake authenticity link). But that doesn’t mean that a party or other gathering doesn’t have a spirit of its own that everybody there participates in and is aware of.

    As it happens I am currently writing something on nerdy antipolitics, the thesis is roughly that nerds aren’t comfortable with the social and so are drawn to some really bad radically individualistic ideas (like libertarianism). But there’s no reason the more reflective nerds have to give in to this temptation.

    • My problem with the idea that there are aspects to collective experience NOT reducible to individual experience is a very simple one: who is doing the experiencing if not the individuals within their skulls?

      If we had, say, brain to brain neural connections of a much more organic form than is possible through the low-fi/low-bandwidth brain-to-brain connection allowed by language and the senses, I’d be open to the argument. You could say a Borg-like collective hive-mind, by establishing brain-to-brain neural level connections with shared organic memory etc., creates “something it is like to be a collective.”

      There are episodes in Star Trek Voyager where 7 of 9, the rescued Borg drone, has problems because other people’s memories are flooding into her head and she has symptoms of being an isolated fragment of a “we” rather than an “I.”

      But that is not the current state of humanity. There is no meaningful indexical “I/we” associated with a group. Maybe we’ll get there with brain-to-brain connections. But not now. Not with even the most extreme ayahuasca type assistance and most powerful ritual stimulus of hugging and dancing and singing or whatever. We are fundamentally trapped in our own skulls and can at best send out very weak SETI-level signals via language, touch, expressions, dancing together, praying together etc. There is “no there there” to the “we.”

      • Hm well we probably don’t want to get into the old reductionism/holism debate here. Nothing-buttery is tricky — you can say there is no group experience. but then there is also no individual experience, there is no self in the skull either, which is just a bunch of neurons. But in practice we talk like there is someone there there. Trying to be a total eliminative materialist makes you sound like an idiot (see BF Skinner or the Churchlands). It may be true in a way, but it is not very useful.

        Anyway, to say the group has a locus of experience (a self of its own) is somewhat stronger than the point I was trying to make. A group may not have a self, but the collective experience of the people who are participating it is quite real, and quite shared, just because people are very attuned to each other. All the experiencing may take place within individual brains, but there is a lot of synchronization going on.

        Modernism/capitalism is a powerful force for atomization, for whatever reason, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept it as normal or good, or the right framework to think about how humans work.

        • See that’s the part I don’t get. How do you make this leap? “you can say there is no group experience. but then there is also no individual experience, there is no self in the skull either, which is just a bunch of neurons.”

          The two have NOTHING in common besides some abstract patterns. One is a densely connected cellular substrate of billions (trillions?) of cells and connections. The other is groups of <150 or so communicating with low bandwidth with very different physics.

          Like I said, I buy Chalmers' "Hard Problem" framing. I don't think denying the sum-greater-than-parts aspect of group experience commits you to denying subjective consciousness of the hard-problem at all. Different beasts. You are making an argument of the variety "You deny there are flocks of green flamingoes therefore you are also denying the existence of pink flamingoes."

          The collective experience of participants of a group experience is of course real. Mirror neurons and all that sort of thing. Maybe you feel things in the presence of your child that cannot be evoked in any other way. You could say the same of feelings evoked by a sunset etc. That doesn't make it essentially "group" in any way anymore than having unique reactions to a sunset creates a sun+me collective of 2.

          The whole point of the original philosophical zombie idea is that you can't actually show that other minds even exist. I believe they do by analogy (the others seem like me in many ways, so it is reasonable to think they experience subjective consciousness like I do) but I have no material proof of the belief.

          So no, I am not an eliminative materialist. I am a minimal essentialist. I only accept the existence of individual subjective consciousness because that's the only thing I have direct evidence for and a reasonable way to attribute to other individuals.

          • I agree that we certainly don’t have conclusive evidence group experience is a real phenomenon, and that denying group experience doesn’t commit you to deny individual experience. That said, I think the idea that individual minds can merge into collective consciousness is reasonably plausible, for wild-ass speculation versions of reasonably plausible. Personally I wouldn’t be that surprised:

            -Our visual / auditory communication channels may not be that high bandwidth relative to neurons, but information is compressed VERY efficiently. Mirror neurons can basically be viewed as a massive dictionary caching the mental state of the other person. Same with language: I bet “the trout leapt from the mountain stream” conjured a remarkably detailed image in your head when you read it.

            -We live in a super-individualist culture relative to the historical space of human social organization. So I would expect our personal intuitions and experiences would be skewed towards not perceiving group consciousness.

            -I can think of examples in less individualist contexts where it seems more plausible. For instance, on a professional sports team — players seem to develop a proprioceptive sense of where each other are.

            I recently read A Fire Upon the Deep by Verner Vinge, where he hypothesizes a race of aliens where each individual consciousness consists of 4 – 8 bodies that think together via audio. These conglomerations can change over time, as bodies die / are born. Total speculation, but it felt pretty plausible… I don’t find it hard to believe that multi-body consciousness could be a thing.

          • Not really interested in arguing the point, I don’ t think there is a fact of the matter. But I do think that in both kind of systems (individuals and groups) there is some benefits from being able to view them in a reductionist frame and different benefits from viewing them in a holist/soulist frame. And we are much better at the latter, that sort of thinking is what we evolved to do, reductionist thinking is a late System-2 addition.

            Language like “essentially group” is a trigger warning to me — I don’t believe in essences, but human group behaviors are obviously real things in the world that I would like to understand.

            That doesn’t make it essentially “group” in any way anymore than having unique reactions to a sunset creates a sun+me collective of 2.

            But there are plenty of explicitly group experiences (rituals, music, dance), where there are obvious mechanisms to entrain people to each other. 1-1 interaction probably has similar dynamics although less obviously. More fundamentally we construct our individual selves through social mechanisms so our precious solitude is not really all that atomic, it’s really more of a product of all the other selves that we interacted with in the past. Annoyingly, this is still true no matter how lonely and isolated we might sometimes feel.

    • Also: thought of a Minsky connection. Knowing you, I suspect you’re making an unconscious leap from “society of mind” to “societies are minds.”

      Metaphorically, perhaps. But you can’t ignore the physics differences between a brain and a society and conclude from similar patterns of functional organization that similar emergent phenomena exist.

      The uncanny similarities in separated identical twins raised apart strike us as uncanny *because* we can’t immediately see how they could happen. By contrast, it does NOT surprise us when the left and right hands move in synchronization and it DOES surprise us when split-brain studies show that an individual I can be split into two I’s at some level.

      As far as we can tell, the human brain (and other similar complexity animal brains) are the only things on the planet that “there is something it is to be.”

      Hoftstadter tried really bravely to dramatize “something it is like to be an anthill” in GEB, but imo, failed and strengthened the case that there is in fact nothing it is like to be an anthill.

    • We don’t like the authentic because it is real … real and authentic are synonyms, so they don’t explain each other. We like the authentic because it is hard to mass produce, and so scarce, and so suitable to serve as a status maker.

  19. Hi Venkat,

    What do you think about Hariri’s comments here

    “…where every human being is valuable as a soldier in the trenches and as a worker in the factory. But in the 21st century, there is a good chance that most humans will lose, they are losing, their military and economic value. This is true for the military, it’s done, it’s over. The age of the masses is over.”

    If most humans lose their economic value, is there any value for the market in simulating anything for the large mass of humans anymore?

    “a sufficiently advanced market economy is indistinguishable from the culture it simulates. ” Doesn’t this assume that most of the culture consumers have the money to pay for the simulation?

    • The claim that humans are losing their economic value under the current social order (via robots replacing them or whatever), whether or not it is true, actually has nothing to do with whether they will have economic value in the future. Remember economic value is created by human wants and needs. New wants and needs inspired by new technology (nobody “wanted” video games a 100 years ago because they didn’t know such things were possible) create new uses for human beings capable of providing them. So human beings have a changing valuation under changing technological conditions. This means they represent a huge amount of future optionality.

      So the question is a zero-sum one that ignores the fact of technological progress in a way. There is no meaningful way to assess the discounted present value of humans in the future. Maybe

      • “humans are losing their economic value”
        Well… At least the minimal economic value of the “long pig” will remain.
        (Yet another argument against vegetarianism :-D )
        More seriously, do you still more or less follow JMG and what do you think of his latest exacerbated anti-technology doomerism?

  20. I’ve been trying to figure out how to define the difference between “authentic” and “not authentic”, because I sense there is a difference but couldn’t describe it in a way you hadn’t already deconstructed. I think I’ve got it.

    An “authentic” thing or behavior is as it is because of the influences that lead to it. It may be a conscious creation, but its form is designed based on criteria other than mimicry of something else.

    The alternative is a sort of cargo cult approximation. It copies the form of something else not because the form is required or because the creator favors it, but consciously in order to simulate something else.

    Even in nature there are animals that mimic the form of other animals, either for defense or camouflage. A scarlet king snake looks like a coral snake, but it’s not an “authentic” coral snake. In copying the visual similarity, it hopes to fool predators into thinking it has the venom, the “essence” of what is important about the coral snake.

    But what if the simulation fidelity increased to the point that visual inspection could not tell the difference, and the king snake actually developed venom. At that point it’s “close enough” for all practical purposes. But if DNA testing (or some other test) could spot the difference, it would still be meaningful to say that this snake is not an authentic one of those snakes.

    Back to your beer, they had copied the obvious signifiers of a “local beer” without doing the risky part of brewing a beer locally. If they increased the fidelity to the point that they also copied the process, then they would actually be a local beer.

    • Is it a fake coral snake or a 100% authentic king snake?

      The “fakeness” only arises as an exemplar of a particular theory of evolutionary biology.

      You can make a completely authentic meal of local cuisine using ingredients produced all over the world (and this isn’t just a modern phenomenon. The spice trade, for example, has a long history.)

      It is our values and interests that define the “authenticity”, not any inherent physical characteristics of the snake or foodstuff.

      • It’s a 100% authentic fake coral snake.

        Don’t get me wrong, but I’m starting to take this in a light mood.

        A fake snake is fake in relation to the real one. The real one is the one she is trying to simulate. If she gets better at the simulation, it’s still a fake. A better simulation doesn’t make for a real snake.
        If the fake snake develops venom, let’s say, as a way to improve its simulation(something absurd, because it runs contrary to the spirit of the simulation, which is precisely not to have to develop venom as a defense mechanism in the first place. Venom is expensive to produce, etc. etc.), then, is not simulating anything anymore! Now it’s a freaking real venomous snake in its own right.

        • The snake isn’t _trying_ to do anything. It is just doing its snaky thing, entirely sincerely and authentically, oblivious to any of this.

          That it looks like a venomous snake but isn’t is an artifact of our preoccupations and interests.

          • In my town we like to call it thinking. Maybe because we like to call things by their names.

            As Garcia Lorca said, “vendrán las iguanas vivas a morder a los hombres que no sueñan”. We can also say, after him, that “the real snakes will come to bite those who don’t think.”

            I have no particular problem with capitalist zombies simulating real things. That’s the world we live in, you take it or leave it.
            Maybe you that are young and full of energy can also pretend and act like they are the real deal. But for an old hipster like me, that’s too much of an effort.

  21. It seems to me that cultural ether does not need to exist in order for one to believe there’s a difference between Baltica Dry and some hypothetical ‘real’ local beer – the difference is where the money that one spends on the beer goes. In the former case, it goes to AB. In the latter, to some local company. To the consumer, the difference in the experience may be so small as to be imperceptible, but to the producer the difference is everything. The question is whether the consumer should care about the producer’s interests, and I’m struggling to think of a good (that I would be happy to defend against all reasonable counter-arguments) reason why they should. Supposing the beer was entirely produced by a firm of robots owned by a sentient AI – should we care? I’m tempted to think that the answer is ‘no’.

    That said, if one takes a producerist (?) view – think here of the market’s-eye-view of the exit/voice/loyalty relationships consumers have with producers – then it’s possible to see the transaction as being about more than just buying some beer. It’s also a vote for the kind of future you want for beer production – you will get more of what you vote for, because those producers you purchase from will be getting signals from you via the market. Rewarding AB for producing a good facsimile of local beer might encourage them to do more of that kind of thing, but the lost sales might also discourage local beer producers. Might the equilibrium in which local producers innovate and multinationals copy them after some time-lag break down? Is it rational for you, as a consumer, to support the local producer in order to maintain enough variety in the marketplace, or should you reward the multinational producer for paying attention to consumer desires? Perhaps it is possible to smuggle producerist thinking into a consumerist mindset after all.

    Venkat, I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before but a lot of your ideas are mirroring stuff that Guy Debord wrote in the Society of the Spectacle. In particular, your notion of capitalism as an “evolving computing system that gradually grows in sophistication to simulate more and more of the forms of culture and society, with increasing fidelity” is roughly correlate to “It is its own product, and it has made its own rules: it is a pseudo-sacred entity. It shows what it is: separate power developing in itself, in the growth of productivity by means of the incessant refinement of the division of labor into a parcellization of gestures which are then dominated by the independent movement of machines; and working for an ever-expanding market”. The difference being that Debord thinks that this is obviously bad! When he talks about replacing the real with the image of the real, I think he is talking precisely about the replacement of high-cultural-ether realities with low-cultural-ether ones. “Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance” reflects your view that, so long as one cannot observe the difference between the ‘authentic’ and ‘zombie’ products, there might as well be no difference at all.

    The two chapters on time and history are also very relevant to your previous writings on the same topics.

    • No, I don’t think I’ve heard Debord mentioned before. I am very sloppy about tracing the genealogy of ideas I rediscover :)

      The pay-for-diversity-in-production angle is the one interesting criticism/build in the comments I want to think about more.

      The price of an item seems to comprise three elements:

      1. The price of the thing itself, including the experience of whatever it simulates to whatever degree of fidelity the customer is paying for.

      2. A gift economy component that’s basically paying for “local” cultural ether (which the zombie can seem to “unfairly” appropriate via simulation)

      3. An insurance component that has to do with ensuring the future consumption of the same/similar/family of experiences being currently paid for in the individual consumption instance. In particular, insurance against monoculture risks.

      I am not sure (3) is actually necessary. Existing antitrust models achieve the same end for up-to-industrial products and services (atom based). For bit-based products and services, we’re still working it out. But with bit-based products, since perfect simulation is by definition a possibility from Day 1, it is not clear how to frame the question.

      • Actually, I’ve come up with a counter-argument to my own point. If your innovative local style is capable of being simulated, it is by definition no longer innovative. We might in fact see the simulation as the thing that spurs the local producers to stay one step ahead.

        I remember this story popping up a few years ago, not far from where I was living at the time. Personally, I thought that some of the comments were hilarious, with people claiming that although they had very much enjoyed the coffee whilst they thought that the shop was independent, they would refuse to go back knowing that the shop is owned by a large corporate.

        Having lived in the area, I can confirm that there’s a large supply of genuine independent coffee shops, but the reason that the ‘fake’ independent coffee shop was able to fool people was that all of the independents look exactly the same. This BBC article even explains the formula: “With its expensive light fittings, exposed brickwork and red velvet cakes, it fits the current indie cafe template to a T. The customers tote sleek laptops, sleek buggies, or both. Coffees come in artfully mismatched cups. Tea brews in retro-chic pots topped with egg-timers filled with coloured sand.”

        If what you are doing is so formulaic that it can easily be imitated by a national supermarket chain with no prior experience in your line of business, perhaps you’re really not adding all that much to the diversity of the marketplace to begin with. Perhaps commoditisation is precisely what needs to happen in order to spur innovation (just as the shabby hipster coffee places were a reaction to Starbucks when they first started to appear).

  22. Your analysis fits well with (my reaction to) the 2009 documentary Beer Wars. Craft brewers decry the bland uniformity of Anheuser-Busch and Miller, which took hold following Prohibition. Plucky Doghead Craft Brewery manages to establish a national distribution, working their way up food chain. Toward the end of the movie, though, Doghead bemoans the fact that Big Beer has begun manufacturing craft-like beers: you can’t win against such ruthless competition!

    Personally, I wondered how they could complain. At the start of the documentary, Big Beer was morally bad because they made bad beer. Now they’re bad because they make good beer? Doghead has conquered, culturally if not economically. This little story can be regarded as a computational evolution of modern capitalism.

    Of course, my sympathies still lie to some degree with the little guy – maybe because I’d rather avoid a big McJob, and clearly the little guys would like to make money. Further, as Josh points out, more small “authentic producers” can assist in preserving (or creating) polyculture, and many of us like diversity – though over time the market will reproduce diversity of choice for all. So these are just my sympathies given where I’d like to work, not my Authentic Response to True Culture.

  23. Joseph Kern says

    “If it gets increasingly hard to tell over time, does that mean the fiction is obscuring cultural “reality” better or actually converging towards an indistinguishable simulation of what was never “real” in any absolute sense at all?”

    This is what Jean Baudrillard called a second order simulacra:

    “Second order, associated with the modernity of the Industrial Revolution, where distinctions between representation and reality break down due to the proliferation of mass-reproducible copies of items, turning them into commodities. The commodity’s ability to imitate reality threatens to replace the authority of the original version, because the copy is just as “real” as its prototype”

    • Maybe it is important to note that for Baudrillard there were only simulacra of various orders, not an underlying reality distinct from all of them. The 2nd order simulacra responsed to 1-st order simulacra. They were brute approximations of original goods whose existence could be confirmed but whose value is floating and dependent on their significance as an original item. Baltic Dry however would already count as a 3rd order simulacrum, because there has not been an original in the first place, only the postulation of the cultural ether in which the zombi/double is supposed to be a missing / predicted particle.

      Not sure what to make of Borgesian brands like Moleskine or Tolkienesque like Monkey 47? They seem to be originals but in a parallel universe.

  24. Something that’s been missed here: the purpose of a truly capitalist zombie is not to create a perfect copy of the original, but to make money. So although a capitalist imitation of some good might improve, it will not do so monotonically, and it will approach a point that is not the desired (by the humanists) end goal. Capitalism is an efficient, evolutionary search algorithm, but for a *different function*. Although it can produce good quality simulacra, it does so because it is coincidentally convenient to do so, not because that is what it is trying to do, or what it is asymptotically approaching.

    So the “essence” of “authenticity” is *why* something is being done, and this means there will typically be a difference between the “authentic product” and even the best capitalist simulacrum. People have been making bread for thousands of years, and yet capitalism has not created a mass-produced product that can match a home baked loaf, or that of a skilled baker. _This is capitalism working as designed_, as the vast majority care more about the convenience, shelf-life, and price point. Everyone, in fact, except those who *really care* about bread. This example is by no means unique. The humanist position on beer (I’d say steelmanned, but this is the form I actually believe) doesn’t demand that a brewery never scales or turns a profit in order to stay “authentic”. It’s that it never puts that ahead of quality, as defined by the most obnoxious of beer snobs such as myself, even if doing so might make a larger profit.

    There will of course be some situations where the easiest way to make money is to actually make the damn thing yourself, to the same design specifications as those who truly love it. But in this case – the case where a business really is fanatical about quality, and agrees with even the die-hards about what quality actually means – what you have is not a capitalist zombie, but a capitalist person. Should market conditions change such that compromising this position could increase revenue, you might (or might not) see a capitalist zombie bite; you can see this as an “authenticity test”, with measurable outcomes.

    • You do a good job of describing one half of a treadmill or cycle, the way that capitalism tries to find ways of mass producing status symbols….symbols that served to mark status because they were rare, difficult or expensive. The other half of the treadmill is the way society is always moving on to the Next Status Game.

      “Over the course of the 20th century, the dominant North American leisure class underwent three distinct changes, each marked by shifts in the relevant status symbols, rules for display, and advancement strategies. The first change was from the quasi-aristocratic conspicuous leisure of the late 19th-century time to the bourgeois conspicuous consumption that marked the growing affluence of the first half of the 20th century, a pattern of status competition that is commonly referred to as “keeping up with the Joneses.”The next change was from bourgeois consumerism to a stance of cultivated non-conformity that is variously known as “cool,” “hip,” or “alternative.” This form of status-seeking emerged out of the critique of mass society as it was picked up by the ’60s counterculture, and as it became the dominant status system of urban life we saw the emergence of what we can call “rebel” or “hip” consumerism. The rebel consumer goes to great lengths to show that he is not a dupe of advertising, that he does not follow the crowd, expressing his politics and his individuality through the consumption of products that have a rebellious or out-of-the-mainstream image—underground bands, hip-hop fashions, skateboarding shoes, and so on.But by the turn of the millennium cool had ceased to be credible as a political stance, and we have since seen yet another shift, from conspicuous non-conformity to what we can call “conspicuous authenticity.” The trick now is to subtly demonstrate that while you may have a job, a family, and a house full of stuff, you are not spiritually connected to any of it. What matters now is not just buying things, it is taking time for you, to create a life focused on your unique needs and that reflects your particular taste and sensibilities”

  25. I have an alternate hypothesis about what’s going on. (And this is quite tentative, so I may well be wrong) There’s a “cultural ether” here which is real, and what it measures is emotional connection.

    To take the example of the neighborhood café versus the carefully crafted marketed experience: the neighborhood café, having its environment created by a small set of people who had been paying attention to it (and its customers) for a length of time, has implicit within it an emotional connection between those people and the thing. The “mass-market” version of it may or may not have that experience; significantly, even if there was an emotional connection between the makers and the made, that connection may well be completely inaccessible or unknowable to the customers, who never encounter the people responsible, and therefore even if it was present it doesn’t participate in the exchange and so has zero effective value.

    In the case of the beer example, I suspect that there was no cultural aether to be had at all, or that any of it would be created entirely by the consumer. Locals, I suspect, just think of it as “standard beer” and it has no more emotional resonance for them than Bud Light does for Americans. Visiting tourists of certain sorts may look at it, and be so excited about the extent to which they are experiencing the local world that they may add to it a substantial emotional resonance of their own; by doing so, they themselves are manufacturing the cultural aether which accompanies their glass of beer. It only participated in the economic transaction of buying the beer indirectly, because they knew they would get that shot of aether with it, and so the beer was more appealing to them – the beer seller probably had no idea, and certainly wasn’t manufacturing any of it.

    This sort of aether is, I think, a potentially meaningful quantity, in that independent observers could meaningfully agree on whether someone got some of it or not.

    (Perhaps it should be referred to as “cultural phlogiston,” since even though it isn’t exactly what was originally expected, there is actually something there?)

  26. Does that mean marketing is necromancy? Because that would explain a lot.

  27. Baltic a local brand name? It’s halfway across the world from Chile!