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February 2020: Decadence, incompetence, patches

Western decadence

Peter Thiel reviews Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society. Douthat also recently appeared on The Neoliberal Podcast to talk about his book. (You could also try this podcast which I haven’t listened to myself.) With “decadence”, he refers to “economic stagnation, institutional decay and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.” This strikes me as one of the most pointed and important diagnoses of many Western societies. And the idea seems to be in the air. Alex Danco recently wrote about the development in culture and modern tech from modernist progress to post-modernist innovation: Modernism created true novelty; post-modernism creates novelty through recombination and self-reference. Venkatesh Rao in his insightful piece on the “Internet of Beefs” describes another aspect of this: In a society without purpose, we find ourselves trapped in perpetual online beefs where the stakes are low and the point is the beef itself. In the penultimate section entitled “Rebooting History”, he writes:  

We are not beefing endlessly because we do not desire peace or because we do not know how to engineer peace. We are beefing because we no longer know who we are, each of us individually, and collectively as a species. [We] are faced with the terrifying possibility that if there is no history in the future, there is nobody in particular to be once the beefing stops.

It was not history that came to an end with the fall of the Berlin wall. It was Western narratives that came to an end. Nowadays you have a hard time finding bold but concrete and achievable visions for a better future in Western societies. Elon Musk might be an exception.

Is this process reversible? I don’t know. The Roman Empire does not inspire confidence. It’s definitely another reason to be bullish on China for the 21st century.

Governmental (in)competence

In this long and excellent essay (via Claire Berlinski via Matt Clifford), Philip Zelikow diagnoses why the U.S. government has ceased to be competent. The same analysis probably applies to many other governments. It is full of insights and novel perspectives. The most depressing part is that some of the solutions are already well known: forecasting, checklists, red-teaming, design thinking, pre-mortems, and so on. So it only makes me wonder why such tools are not used more widely. Lack of education might be one issue (as Zelikow himself points out), but this stuff is not rocket science. Dominic Cummings would probably argue that it’s a lack of excellent people in government: “Everyone thinks there’s some moment, like in a James Bond movie, where you open the door and that’s where the really good people are, but there is no door.” The problem with that theory is that it arguably does not even require “really good” people. For instance, it definitely would not have required really good people to realize that you should develop a follow-up plan to invading another country and toppling its regime. I desperately hope they have introduced a checklist for that by now. It probably has something to do with incentives.

P.S.: After reading the article, I realized that Philip Zelikow is also the professor behind the best MOOC I ever participated in: The Modern World, Part 1 and Part 2, on Coursera. I can’t recommend it enough to anybody who’s interested in learning more about the macro-forces that shaped the world we live in today.

U.S. government patches

I recently stumbled across the official U.S. government patch for the U.S. Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team, better known as Project Maven. No, this is not fake as far as I can tell. Don’t believe me? I got it from this official presentation (scroll to the last page). Naturally, I looked for more crazy patches: There are some really great ones for U.S. spy satellite missions. The graphic designers of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency also seem to have had a good time.

Other things worth reading

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