Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"Values," abstraction, accumulation, chaos

FOR SOME TIME NOW I've wanted to write about a fascinating book read last month, Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2007). Alas, I read it from the library, and did not take notes; I won't write about it in any critical detail here. (There's an extended discussion of the book online.)
Briefly, it's Taleb's point that history is the litany of convulsive unexpected events punctuating daily predictability. (It occurs to me that The Blog is a convenient analogy.) The title refers to the scientific and philosophical certainty, going back to Aristotle, that swans are white, a black one being exceedingly improbable — a certainty convulsed by the discovery of black ones when Australia was "discovered" in the 17th century.
Taleb uses analogy and metaphor to propel his book, analogy and metaphor and above all humor; and he does this so well that one races through it where one should stop and consider, take note and perhaps demur.
Another bird metaphor intrudes: his Turkey Narrative. The turkey, according to Taleb, assumes that tomorrow will be just like today, someone will come and feed it as has happened every day of his life. The turkey does not suspect that final morning, when instead of being fed he'll be sent to slaughter.
As you might have suspected, The Black Swan is largely about Wall Street. It is also an assault on the idea of the Bell Curve, on the notion that Experts Are Infallible, on The narrative fallacy which, according to the Wikipedia discussion referenced above,
refers to our tendency to construct stories around facts, which … may serve a purpose, but when someone begins to believe the stories and accommodate facts into the stories, they are likely to err.

and on the division of information among the categories Known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.
That last will sound familiar to those whose memories go back to the early days of the present Iraq war. I always thought in not amusing that Secretary Rumsfeld talked about "unknown unknowns"; it seemed a perfectly legitimate concept to me. Turns out that Nassim Taleb was a consultant, on occasion, to the Department of Defense. Indeed he writes, in The Black Swan, of a brainstorming session he attended in Las Vegas, of all places:
The symposium was a closed-doors, synod-style assembly of people who would never have mixed otherwise. My first surprise was to discover that the military people there thought, behaved, and ated like philosophers… I came out of the meeting realizing that only military people deal with randomness with genuine, introspective intellectual honesty—unlike academics and corporate executives using other people's money. … the military collected more genuine intellects and risk thinkers than most if not all other professions. Defense people wanted to understand the epistemology of risk. (p. 126)

TALEB REFERS TO HIMSELF as a "skeptical pragmatist," a phrase I like; and divides the world we live in into two mental constructs: Mediocristan, "the province dominated by the mediocre, with few extreme successes or failures," ruled by the bell curve; and Extremistan, "the province where the total can be conceivably impacted by a single observation," like that of the final arrival of the turkey-farmer. His book goes a long way to suggesting reasons for the institutional failure of the market this year, and indeed the statistical near-certainty that such failures will happen. Another publication, much smaller and less public, discusses a different philosophical approach to the problem: Money and the Crisis of Civilization, an essay by Charles Eisenstein published at Reality Sandwich, an online forum-magazine-construct so visually cluttered I haven't had the desire to explore it further.
I am impressed, though, with Eisenstein's essay (and thank Richard Burg for sending it to me). It explains the paper credit crisis very clearly (perhaps too simply, economists might object), and then comes to a startling conclusion. The entire affair is of course a gigantic Ponzi scheme (here again Wikipedia is entertaining): moreover, Eisenstein suggests, the entire history of capitalist economy is a Ponzi scheme, and the current crisis is another in what may be the death throes of capitalist economics as we've known it for the last century or so.
The startling conclusion is that Capitalism has very nearly eaten itself to death. The problem lies in the conversion of Things to Money. Money originated as a token of a pledge, an object to stand for the promise to pay in the future, with a service or a product, in return for a temporary loan symbolized by the token: a shell, gold, a slip of special paper, whatever.
Eisenstein recites the dismal litany of Things sacrificed, one after another in the several centuries of capitalist history, to the conversion into Money — which had gradually grown from token of delayed repayment to retained "Wealth":
Essentially, for the economy to continue growing and for the (interest-based) money system to remain viable, more and more of nature and human relationship must be monetized. …
The crisis we are facing today arises from the fact that there is almost no more social, cultural, natural, and spiritual capital left to convert into money. Centuries, millennia of near-continuous money creation has left us so destitute that we have nothing left to sell. Our forests are damaged beyond repair, our soil depleted and washed into the sea, our fisheries fished out, the rejuvenating capacity of the earth to recycle our waste saturated. Our cultural treasury of songs and stories, images and icons, has been looted and copyrighted. Any clever phrase you can think of is already a trademarked slogan. Our very human relationships and abilities have been taken away from us and sold back, so that we are now dependent on strangers, and therefore on money, for things few humans ever paid for until recently: food, shelter, clothing, entertainment, child care, cooking. Life itself has become a consumer item. Today we sell away the last vestiges of our divine bequeathment: our health, the biosphere and genome, even our own minds. This is the process that is culminating in our age. It is almost complete, especially in America and the "developed" world. In the developing world there still remain people who live substantially in gift cultures, where natural and social wealth is not yet the subject of property. Globalization is the process of stripping away these assets, to feed the money machine's insatiable, existential need to grow. Yet this stripmining of other lands is running up against its limits too, both because there is almost nothing left to take, and because of growing pockets of effective resistance.

WHICH LEADS ME TO the phrase in today's subject-line. I think of this latest crisis, the one centered on the Global Economy and its collapse (though no doubt to be set right temporarily by the infusion of money promised, yet again, by an unknowable Future), as more evidence that contemporary social life is accelerating itself to death. Matt Matsuda writes about this in his book The Memory of the Modern (Oxford University Press US, 1996):
One key, recurring word explains all: acceleration. Pierre Nora begins Les Lieux de mémoire under its sign: "The acceleration of History: let us try to gauge the significance, beyond metaphor, of this phrase. An increasingly rapid slippage of the present into a historical past that is gone for good, a general perception that anything and everything may disappear." As History accelerates, the "lieux de mémoire" are designated sites which defy time's destroyer, the places of commemoration where memory anchors the past. My studies, rooted in the biology, technologies, and political economy of the late nineteenth century are somewhat differently oriented: they attempt to approximate Henri Bergson's understanding of memory as action and transformation. In looking to shattered monuments, financial markets, high-seed machines, and the nervous system, my subjects are not the memories preserved from an accelerating history, but histories of accelerated memory, subjected to the dramatic rhythms of an age.

(Think of Francis Ponge's note, in Soap, that that (French) literary device the momon is typical of late historical eras in which rhetoric, dying, turns on itself; Ravel's La Valse is a good example.)
If we're indeed in a "downhill slide," acceleration is as inevitable as gravity; putting on Henry Paulson's brakes will generate a lot of heat, very little light, and only somewhat slow the collapse of the monetary economy. So what should we do? In Taleb's words,
Snub your destiny. … You stand above the rat race and the pecking ordere, not outside it, if you do so by choice.
Quiting a high-payiing position, if it is your decision, will seem a better payoff than the utility of the money involved… (p. 297)

And in Eisenstein's:
Individually and collectively, anything we do to resist or postpone the collapse will only make it worse. So stop resisting the revolution in human beingness. If you want to survive the multiple crises unfolding today, do not seek to survive them. That is the mindset of separation; that is resistance, a clinging to a dying past. Instead, allow your perspective to shift toward reunion, and think in terms of what you can give. What can you contribute to a more beautiful world? That is your only responsibility and your only security. The gifts you need to survive and enjoy will come to you easily, because what you do to the world, you do to yourself.

I THINK IT'S OUR endless tendency to evade the immediate that gets us into trouble, whether the evasion is prompted by boredom, distaste, laziness, or greed. It has something to do with our apparently also innate tendency to abstract and generalize, to categorize. Obviously it's useful to do that; it makes it possible to sort things out, to lay things aside for future use, to communicate concepts effectively (if not always truthfully) by using analogy and narrative. The problem is that it's so easy to forget that that's what you're doing, that you're dealing with not the thing but the idea of the thing. The Industrial and postindustrial ages have accelerated the extend to which the concept, the idea, has displaced the thing, the real. Profit-based economy is in a state of near-terminal confusion about this, generating commodities sold and bought for their code value, conceiving and generating services serving artificially generated needs.
When Senators Obama and McCain are asked what they will do about the economy they tend to talk about taxes, bailouts, jobs, mortgages: all of them very important politically. Lately Obama has also been talking about government kicking the economy by addressing infrastructure repair, which sounds a lot like a WPA effort: if so, good, say I: that was an triple effort aimed at improving the economy, employing the out of work, and providing for the community.
In the last analysis much of what I've been calling vaguely "the problem" results from the detachment of details from the context in which they exist. Money from an economy; concept from a reality; profit from an exchange; individuals from society. And, increasingly, it seems to me that this kind of detachment grows exponentially — accelerates, in fact — in a society whose numbers increase unsustainably, resulting in greater pressures of various kinds, and the temptation to turn against one's society, one's community, for sheer survival (as one thinks), rather than to trim one's individual sails, turn away from the accumulation of wealth, and take an appropriate place within the world as it is.
As the turbulence accompanying this process, and generated by it, continues, the things that truly matter to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are overcome by an accelerating accumulation of complexity leading to chaos. I hope the next Administration will think about these things. Perhaps the Department of Defense can give the departments of the Treasury and of Health and Human Services some pointers.


Atun said...

In the first chapter, the black swan theory is first discussed in relation to Taleb's coming of age in the Levant. The author then elucidates his approach to historical analysis. He describes history as opaque, essentially a black box of cause and effect. You see events go in and events go out, but you have no way of determining which ones produced what effect. Taleb argues this is due to The Triplet of Opacity.

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Daniel Wolf said...


N.O.Brown got it right, I think, when he wrote that "The dynamics of capitalism is postponement of enjoyment to the constantly postponed future."

Charles Shere said...

Yes. In my simplistic view of things, capitalism = calvinism, depending on Pie In Sky. And, for that matter, paganism = alertness to things as they are, as opposed to monotheism = commitment to a more or less arbitrary abstract concept (ideal, theology, theory).

John Whiting said...

A favorite book of yours is highly relevant: Lewis Hyde's "The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World".