The Unapologetic Case For Bullshit

In 1986 Harry Frankfurt published the first edition of On Bullshit, the essay that, in the years that followed, was to become the authoritative take on the topic. In it, he lamented the amount of bullshit plaguing every aspect of public life, arguing that production of bullshit was tightly correlated with the increase in opportunities and (perceived) obligations for people to speak their mind, even in the absence of a strong “apprehension of reality”.

Thirty years later, this trend is anything but receding. The web in general, and social media in particular, have multiplied the number of channels where we can exercise our fundamental need to be consulted. At the same time, ‘reality’ is an increasingly opaque concept, challenged by fake news on one side and the genuine unintelligibility of a world in the midst of a technological, social and political revolution on the other.

How do we navigate in this situation? Frankfurt, as we will see later, argues for self-restraint in lack of certainty. In a previous post, I have also put forward what I defined a ‘precautionary principle’: when faced with common talk (a sub-category of bullshit) it is better take the safe option and trust our common sense. But the more I think about methods and tools to resist bullshit, the more I become  forgiving of it.

It is easy to dismiss bullshit as pure noise. To treat it as the inevitable, and yet insufferable, exhaust of a world in decline. In doing so, however, we risk falling in an excellence trap: the belief that progress is a smooth climb towards the highest peak.

Maybe, a perfect world would not be a world without bullshit, but rather one where there is just the right amount of it. Maybe, to reach higher peaks of truth we sometimes need to descend into bullshit valleys. Traverse a knowledge fitness landscape, in other words, where bullshit can be adaptive.

Can we make an unapologetic case for bullshit, without descending into post-truth relativism?

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CEOs Don’t Steer

There is a pattern to the most influential business writing, in The World is Flat league. Especially writing that CEOs seem to like enough to exhort their organizations to read. Every such work offers one big, unqualified, unquantified, universal proposition. Usually with an obvious black-and-white moral assessment attached as an implied parenthetical [and this is a good thing]. The proposition will typically offer a big generalization covering a really vast range of things going on in the environment: An extreme, if very lossy, compression.

There are no if…then…else conditions attached. There are no temporal markers or spatial delimiters like this will be true between 2017 and 2022 in the developed world.

Compare:

The World is Flat [and this is a good thing] 

to

Under Certain Assumptions, the World Will Likely Continue Flattening for Approximately at Least Another Decade, and This Is a Probably a Good Thing.

This pattern isn’t mere rhetorical pithiness in the title or a distaste for weasliness. It permeates the entire idea being offered. And it exists as a consequence of a CEO trait:

CEOs Don’t Steer [and this is a good thing].

Big business ideas are the way they are because they are designed to feed and nourish this CEO trait. It’s a proposition that, at first sight, sounds both wildly untrue and something that would be really bad if it were true.
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The Blockchain Man

The term Organization Man is a rich one. From it, we can conjure up an image and a life.

It’s a man, not a woman. He’s white, standing somewhere between 6’0 and 6’2. He has a strong chin and medium length light brown hair parted on the left.

He walks from one meeting to the next wearing a dark suit with a pressed white dressed shirt and dark Oxford dress shoes. His wrist holds a watch – nice, but not extravagant, with a brown leather strap and a gold-rimmed face.

More than just an image, you can conjure up a life for The Organization Man, a term coined by William Whyte in his 1956 book of the same name. Even though the novel predates Whyte’s book by 30 years, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt (1922) established the archetype perfectly.

Today, the successor of the Organization Man — the Blockchain Man — is starting to emerge. To understand how he might evolve, let us first look back.

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Common Sense Eats Common Talk

In November 2008, with the financial crisis in full swing, Queen Elizabeth attended a ceremony at the London School of Economics. Facing an audience of high ranked academics, she posed a simple question: “Why did nobody notice it?”

How could it be that no one among the smartest economists, commentators, and policymakers in all her kingdom – and beyond – had been able to see the formation of a bubble of such dimensions?

Illustration of The Emperor’s New Clothes by Vilhelm Pedersen, Andersen’s first illustrator

And yet critical facts were readily available – facts that could have warned about the craziness of the housing market, on which an even bigger financial house of cards had been erected. A short trip to a “regular” American neighbourhood – like the one undertaken by Mark Baum in The Big Short – would have presented an endless list of properties under foreclosure, real estate agents openly bragging about the laxity of credit requirements, and exotic dancers with multiple mortgage-financed properties.1

Such evidence would have been sufficient to convince most people of the existence of a bubble. However, in London, New York and the other financial centres of the world, an entire class of experts kept blatantly ignoring the facts, anecdotal evidence, and common sense that could have anticipated what was about to happen.

This is a high profile example of a more general situation in which a narrative establishes itself and resists being disproven, even when it is clearly contradicted by information right under our noses. Like the crowd in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous parable, we watch our sovereign parading naked in the street, but are unable to see through his invisible clothes. Until a young boy steps forward and with a little common sense lifts the veil on our “common talk”.

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There are bots. Look around.

“There are idiots. Look around.”

So said economist Larry Summers in a paper challenging the idea of efficiency in financial markets, a cornerstone of American capitalism. We’ve hit a point where the same can be said of efficiency in a cornerstone of American democracy, the marketplace of ideas:

“There are bots. Look around.”

The marketplace of ideas is now struggling with the increasing incidence of algorithmic manipulation and disinformation campaigns.

Something very similar happened in finance with the advent of high-frequency trading (the world I came from as a trader at Jane Street): technology was used to distort information flows and access in much the same way it is now being used to distort and game the marketplace of ideas.

The future arrived a lot earlier for finance than for politics. There are lessons we can take from that about what’s happening right now with bots and disinformation campaign. Including, potentially, a way forward.

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A Priest, a Guru, and a Nerd-King Walk Into a Conference Room…

…The funny thing is it’s as though they are playing a game of Sardines, all trying to crowd into the corner of the room labeled “strategy”. But the other corners are just as necessary and affect each other in interesting ways.

Tech companies function much like the Roman Republic. Your influence is more or less proportional to your equity stake, which is itself proportional to how early you arrived. The Republic assigned voting power and civic privileges proportional to one’s wealth and pedigree. The bulk of voice and power went to the gentry, somewhat less to smallholders, and so on. At the bottom were those citizens with nothing of value but their labor. They were called the “capite censi”, literally the “headcount”.

Philosopher-gurus are the exception. They sit to the side of the main social structure, but within whispering distance of the top. Half of their value comes from this otherness, enabling aristocrats to argue ideas outside of the rules of the hierarchy. A wink from the ruler is as good as a nod, and it’s tiresome to have your underlings scramble their plans, get spooked, spread rumors, or generally misunderstand when you are simply working through an idea. Talking with a guru is a holiday from intrigue.

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Entrepreneurship is Metaphysical Labor

“Businessmen are our only metaphysicians…”

–Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

We were days away from closing a fresh fundraising round when our CFO pulled me aside to tell me the company did not have enough cash to cover the next payroll run.

“Never miss payroll” is the most uncontroversial of all the startup advice out there. We held this hard-and-fast rule in mind and used our gross payroll figure as a fixed expense in forecasts. Black-and-white issues are rare in startups, yet once you get down to practice, you find that even this simple advice is not so black-and-white.

We called an urgent meeting of the executive team to discuss our cash emergency. The solution we came up with was for everyone on the management team to take a drastic pay cut, but leave all other employee salaries the same, allowing payroll to squeak through at just under our current cash balance. A week later we closed our round and soon things returned back to normal.

So, were we faithful followers of the startup maxim? Did we still “make payroll,” even though several management employees got paid less than their usual wage?

Even if you answer in the positive, the best you could say is something like “Yeah, you made payroll, but…” It’s not 100% clear cut. We only just made payroll because we redefined what it meant to make payroll, and shifted some atoms in the world (that month’s salary calculations) to make the outcome “Did employees get paid?” come out true.

In the annals of entrepreneurship, this tale is a dime a dozen. Every entrepreneur worth their salt can relate with a story of their own company’s near-death experience. In fact, because this story is so common, I believe it sheds light on the defining skill set of entrepreneurship.

Just as emotional labor is arguably the foundation of work in the service industry, I posit that the shared work domain of entrepreneurs the world over is one of metaphysical labor.

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Prescientific Organizational Theory

Organizational Theory isn’t a science, though it would like to be. Unfortunately, building a scientific approach requires understanding from a number of fields that themselves are still only aspiring to be sciences. Because psychology, economics, and sociology are a mish-mash of rules of thumb and vague, non-predictive, and generally unfalsifiable “theories”, organizations are reduced to ad-hoc rules and guesswork: critical, but prescientific.

For now, to abuse the parable of the blind men and the elephant, organizational theorists are still groping at their respective elephants, unable to figure out that the trunk is next to the tusks, or even that they are part of the same animal. It’s not a science: if anything, it’s a field of engineering, albeit one without a grounding in physics or Asimovian psychohistory to draw from. Precisely because the field isn’t scientific, understanding the engineering rules of thumb that were developed over time is fantastically useful for a practitioner.

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When Tools Shape You

The weaponized form of McLuhan’s famous phrase the medium is the message is the phrase, first we shape our tools, then our tools shape us (due to to McLuhan’s friend John Culkin). I have come to prefer this form of the idea, and my favorite motif for it is Doc Ock, the Marvel super-villain.

doctor_octopus_thumb

Doc Ock’s artificially intelligent arms fuse to his brain stem in a reactor accident. In the movie version, the intelligence in the arms alters his behavior by making lower-level brain functions, such as emotional self-regulation, more powerful and volatile. The character backstory suggests a personality — a blue-collar nerd bullied as a schoolkid — that was already primed for destabilization by the usual sort of super-villain narcissistic wound. The accident alters the balance of power between his higher-level brain functions, and the hardware-extended lower-level brain functions. In the Doc Ock story, first we shape our tools, then our tools shape us captures the adversarial coupling between medium and message-sender.

The weaker form of McLuhan’s idea suggests that media select messages rather than the other way around: paper selects for formal communication, email selects for informal communication, 4chan selects for trolling. The stronger form suggests that when there is a conflict between medium and message, the medium wins. A formal communication intent naturally acquires informal overtones if it ends up as an email, memetic overtones if it ends up as a 4chan message.

Culkin’s form is the strongest. It suggests that the medium reshapes the principal crafting the message. The Doc Ock motif suggests why. There is no such thing as a dumb agent. All media have at least weak, latent, distributed intelligence. Intelligence that can accumulate power, exhibit agency, and contend for control.

The most familiar example of this effect is in organizational behavior, captured in an extension to Alfred Chandler’s famous observation that structure follows strategy. That becomes first structure follows strategy, then strategy follows structure. The explicit form is Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy: in a mature organization, agent goals trump principal goals.

A subtler, less familiar example is the philosophical idea that in any master-slave relationship, the slave can self-actualize through labor. In practice, this happens only when the slave has some freedom above absolute wretchedness, with sufficient cognitive surplus to turn learning from labor into political leverage.

In all such examples, the mechanism is the same. A seemingly powerless and dumb agent, by virtue of having privileged access to information and organizational operations, can become the principal by converting growing tacit knowledge of reality into consciously exercised political leverage.

The idea sheds light on why we are instinctively concerned about the Trump administration-in-waiting. While it is plausible, indeed probable, that Trump’s own ideological postures are merely expedient responses to the needs of the moment, the same cannot be said of many of his agents-in-waiting, whether acknowledged or not. They are tools at the moment, being shaped to the will of a victor. Unfortunately, they can easily go from being shaped to doing the shaping.

The Cyberpunk Sensibility

“Cyberpunk creeps up on us. Some kind of alchemy transforms its fictions into truths, and draws us towards places we thought unreal.”@uttunul

Conventionally speaking, cyberpunk is a media genre. It brings to mind William Gibson’s Neuromancer. You fondly remember Blade Runner, and maybe Deus Ex or Ghost in the Shell. The phrase “high tech, low life” floats up from the back of your brain. You picture an exaggerated version of Hong Kong with a heavy dose of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. You’re envisioning the Walled City of Kowloon plus lots of computers. Within tiny apartments, disheveled vigilante hackers stare at their screens, busily infiltrating the databases of megacorps.

coffee-cyber

Illustration by Grace Witherell

But perhaps you’ve also noticed that cyberpunk plot points are turning up in real life. Robot security guards patrol shopping malls. A near-billionaire startup founder sees virtual reality as salvation for the downtrodden global poor. San Francisco’s Tenderloin district is flush with VC money and homeless drug addicts at the same time. And speaking of those vigilante hackers, they’re here in our reality too, pwning companies of all sizes. Some state-sponsored ones like to meddle in foreign politics. It’s all very exciting! Only plutocrats and nouveau mafiosos can avoid feeling uneasy.

Cyberpunk examines the way computing changes power relationships. Asymmetric information warfare has become the norm, as foretold by our pulpy sci-fi prophets. The technological changes that have been snowballing over the past fifty years now mean that anyone can talk to anyone, anywhere, with their identity hidden or not. Edward Snowden can stroll away from his NSA job with a priceless cache of secret documents that detail the crimes of an empire, then escape across continents in a matter of days, to hole up with a rival regime.

So, why bother with any of this if you don’t intend to commit espionage?

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