Author: Johnny Tisdale

Delayed Gratification Is A Helluva Drug

Shortly after waking this morning, while stretching, I was surprised by a pervasive, remarkably pleasant feeling. Physically, I was experiencing sensations from internal parts of my body where I normally feel no sensation whatsoever. You know that saying that often accompanies a strenuous workout: “I’m going to be sore in muscles I didn’t know I had?” Well, I was feeling pleasure in parts I didn’t know I had. Though this feeling was pervasive, it seemed to be emanating from within my torso. There was a lightness in my core. I felt like a kid again.

I instantly knew the reason for this good feeling: the fact that yesterday I consumed only 20mg of caffeine. I’ve been decreasing my daily caffeine intake for nearly two months now. Caffeine consumption causes the body to produce cortisol, the stress hormone. Overexposure to this and other stress-related hormones can cause damage to muscle tissue. Subjectively, too much stress makes me feel like my muscles are tight. I think this is where the feeling of lightness came from this morning: my muscles can finally relax, now that I’m liberating myself from years of chronic stress.

It makes sense that this morning I felt “like a kid again” considering that, in American culture, becoming addicted to coffee is a rite of passage into adulthood. I feel this good because my caffeine consumption is nearing levels I haven’t experienced since I was, in fact, a kid.

If you’ve read virtually any self-help book (but especially one that draws from Buddhism) then you will be familiar with the distinction between the fleeting “happiness” that comes from instant gratification (say, the satisfaction a nicotine addict gets from smoking a cigarette) and a more enduring and meaningful sense of well-being that comes from a wholesome lifestyle, complete with proper nutrition, exercise, and meditation. In my own experience, the knowledge that I am no longer the slave of Big Tobacco is infinitely more gratifying than any cigarette I ever smoked.

It seems to me that most people’s brains are wired for instant gratification. I don’t think this is ingrained in “human nature” (a deeply problematic concept). The brain is extremely malleable, structuring itself according to the unique experiences of the individual in whose cranium it resides. So, if most of the people I encounter seem wired for instant gratification, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, since I do live in the United States, whose culture is hyper-consumeristic.

A now-famous study showed that most people will accept a smaller reward (say, $1) now rather than wait for a larger reward in the future (say, $5 a week from now). I believe these findings are not limited to the financial realm, but can be generalized to almost any situation where there is a conflict between instant and delayed gratification. So, most people would rather end their withdrawal symptoms by smoking a cigarette now, rather than power through the pain and reach a state of equilibrium where you no longer need nicotine to feel normal.

But so far I’ve been speaking of people who prefer instant gratification as if they are hapless automatons whose behavior is determined wholly by the advertisements to which they are exposed. But they are people, just like me, with their own thoughts, choices, and perspectives. In fact, there is a coherent philosophical position that instant gratification is actually preferable to delayed gratification, as immortalized by the novelist Willard Motley in the line, “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse!” Or, more recently, the hippie anthem, “Let’s Live For Today.” (Instant gratification is indeed a big tent if it brings together hippies and all-American gluttonous consumers.)

The idea goes something like this: Life is short, and you only get one, so it’s better to get as much enjoyment as possible out of each moment. A shorter life filled with pleasure is better than a longer life filled with austerity and sacrifice. If you’re an all-American gluttonous consumer, annoyed by the constant revelations that your favorite household products are carcinogenic, then enough said. Fuck it, give me cancer. I can’t be bothered to keep up with the research. Let me eat my steak and drink my beer in peace. If I die younger than I otherwise would have, then at least I enjoyed myself while alive.

But if you’re a hippie, then things get interesting, because the counterculture of the 60s brought a little sophistication and subtlety to the idea that it’s better to “live for today.”

When I think of all the worries people seem to find
And how they’re in a hurry to complicate their mind
By chasing after money and dreams that can’t come true
I’m glad that we are different, we’ve better things to do
May others plan their future, I’m busy lovin’ you

The hippie approach to the argument, drawing as it does from the Eastern spiritual traditions that were imported en masse during the 60s, has an air of transcultural authority. It says that planning for the future is a particularly Western habit. Such planning is ultimately futile and does more harm than good. It causes people to become attached to their expectations and to suffer disproportionately when reality does not meet those expectations. It causes people to ignore the beauty of the present moment, and to accept undesirable conditions in the present, because they are putting all their hopes into some future salvation. In this way it’s easy to see delayed gratification as an outgrowth of Western culture. Medieval peasants placed all their hope in an afterlife, while moderns chase “after money and dreams that can’t come true.”

But a recent study suggests that the hippie argument got it wrong. This study found something counterintuitive: In Western cultures where time is obsessively quantified, there is a disconnect between one’s present self and one’s future self, with people more likely to disregard the consequences that one’s present actions will have on one’s future self. You would think it would be the other way around, that the tendency to disregard future consequences would be found in the cultures where people “live in the now.”

I think where the hippie argument goes wrong is in assuming a universal conception of time. It compares and contrasts Eastern and Western lifestyles, without sufficiently accounting for the differences in Eastern and Western conceptions of time. It takes the Western conception of time for granted, using it as the standard, so it’s unsurprising that the conclusions drawn are faulty.

Western time is linear and atomic. That it’s linear means that it stretches in one direction, from past to future. That it’s atomic means that it consists of discrete units (i.e. “moments”). By contrast, many Eastern, indigenous, or “primitive” conceptions of time are cyclical rather than linear and continuous rather than discrete. This explains why Westerners are more likely to disregard their future selves. When you see time as consisting of discrete moments, it’s easy to disregard the version of yourself that will exist at some future point in time. This manifests in such sayings as, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.” By contrast, when you see time as a continuous spectrum, it’s much more difficult to ignore the effects your actions will have on yourself at other arbitrary “points” in that spectrum.

It’s understandable that in the West, many are disillusioned with promises of future salvation. Religious authorities used the promise of Heaven to placate the populations of Europe for centuries. But to disregard all planning, all delayed gratification, is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Heaven is a promise whose authenticity can never be verified in this lifetime.

But there are plenty of goals, realizable within this lifetime, that are worth striving to achieve. The formulation, “It’s better to live a shorter life of pleasure than a longer life of austerity and sacrifice,” is faulty insofar as it assumes that those two extremes are the only options. It ignores the fact that the “austerity and sacrifice” are only temporary, and that the pleasure one will experience thereafter is of a higher quantity and quality than the pleasure you’re experiencing now.

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Techno-Utopian Reading List

Following is a list of selected books I’ve read, in chronological order. The common thread is technological utopia. I want to write something about technological utopia, using these books as some of my main sources.

  • Walden Two by B. F. Skinner
  • The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil
  • Utopias: A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Virtual Communities by Howard P. Segal
  • The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Transpersonal Psychology, edited by Harris L. Friedman
  • Designing the Future by Jacque Fresco
  • Beyond Freedom and Dignity by B. F. Skinner
  • Accelerando by Charles Stross
  • Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance
  • Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
  • Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus by Douglas Rushkoff
  • Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future by Paul Mason
  • The Zero Marginal Cost Society by Jeremy Rifkin

The 10 Most Eccentric Philosophers

Let’s talk about some of the weirdest dudes in the history of philosophy.

Are philosophers inherently, or at least predominantly, eccentric? It’s debatable. Someone on Yahoo! Answers asked why philosophers are so weird, and a few people responded that the question was flawed because it incorrectly assumed that philosophers are any weirder than the members of any other profession. At least, they said, there is no evidence that philosophers are any weirder.

But many of us are familiar with the archetype of the eccentric philosophy professor, haphazardly attired, unkempt, and idiosyncratic. And it would make sense that philosophers are “weird,” because in a broad sense their job consists of stepping back from the polis and subjecting our values, norms, and conventions to a more critical analysis. It shouldn’t surprise us if many of them choose to deviate from accepted social norms where they find them unnecessary, counterproductive, or otherwise undesirable. And they’re likely to be resolute in their deviance given their ability to provide the philosophical justification for it.

One possible explanation is not that philosophers as a whole are weirder, but that philosophy is a profession where being weird is more likely to get you noticed. To not be weird in philosophy is to examine the norms of human society and conclude, “Yep, we’ve got it figured out.” It’s difficult to make a splash if your only contribution is an affirmation of the establishment. If I ask you to bring to mind a philosopher, the person you think of is likely someone who challenged accepted ways of thinking — a weirdo.

Compiling a list of eccentric philosophers takes little effort. A more difficult task would be answering the question: “Who are some normal, boring philosophers?” (The notable exception is Kant, but he was normal and boring to such an extreme that he circled back into weirdness.) There are so many eccentric philosophers to choose from, in fact, that I had to limit myself to historical philosophers of the Western tradition.

Without further ado, let’s check out those weirdos.

10. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

  • He was a child prodigy. As a toddler he was found reading a multi-volume history of England. He began studying Latin at age three.
  • He was ahead of his time in many respects. He was an atheist, an animal rights advocate, and a critic of physical punishment, even for children.
  • He made arrangements to have his body preserved after his death. Called the auto-icon (“self-image”), it remains on display at University College London.
  • A contemporary psychobiographical study claims that he had Asperger’s syndrome.

 

9. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

  • You know you’re eccentric when your very lifestyle draws the criticism of other philosophers. Bertrand Russell criticized Schopenhauer as an insincere person because his comfortable lifestyle was at odds with his ascetic philosophy.
  • His mom was a successful author. When she informed him that his book was inaccessible and probably wouldn’t sell well, he threw a fit and exclaimed that his works would be read long after the rubbish she was writing.
  • Upon becoming a lecturer at the University of Berlin, he scheduled his lectures at the same time as those of Hegel, who he described as a “clumsy charlatan.” However, only five people showed up to his lectures, and he dropped out of academia.
  • As one Redditor put it, he basically had a reverse mohawk. (See the picture above.)
  • He was a lifelong bachelor who kept a series of poodles, all named Atman (Sanskrit for “soul”) or Butz (German for “apple core”).
  • He pushed an old woman down some steps and had to pay her restitution for 20 years. When she died, he wrote in Latin on a copy of her death certificate: “The old woman dies — The burden is lifted!”

 

8. Crates of Thebes (365-285 BC)

  • A pupil of Diogenes, he was nicknamed the Door-Opener because he entered houses uninvited to counsel people.

 

7. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

  • Odd habits aside, he is a controversial figure due to the provocative nature of his philosophy and polemical writing style. His work tends to produce passionate reactions in people.
  • At the age of 24, he was the youngest person to hold the chair of philology at the University of Basel, despite having neither a doctorate nor a teaching certificate.
  • He renounced his Prussian citizenship as a young man and remained officially stateless for the rest of his life.
  • He had many influential and successful friends early in his career, such as Richard Wagner. But he burned bridges due to differences in opinion. In addition, his writing style became increasingly alienating, furthering his social isolation. After living as an independent writer for a decade, he tried to become a professor again, but his anti-Christian views made him unemployable by any German university.
  • He was plagued by episodes of illness all his life. The episodes eventually became so frequent that he couldn’t work for prolonged periods. He took opium and wrote his own prescriptions for chloral hydrate, signing them “Dr. Nietzsche.”
  • Toward the end of his life, he descended into madness. This period seems to begin with an unverified tale in which he caused a public disturbance by defending a horse that was being beaten. In the following days he wrote short letters to friends, now known as the Madness Letters. In one he said, “I have had Caiaphas put in fetters. Also, last year I was crucified by the German doctors in a very drawn-out manner. Wilhelm, Bismarck, and all anti-Semites abolished.” He also “commanded the German emperor to go to Rome to be shot and summoned the European powers to take military action against Germany, [and declared] that the pope should be put in jail and that he, Nietzsche, created the world and was in progress of having all anti-Semites shot dead.”

 

6. Kurt Gödel (1906-1978)

  • He developed paranoid symptoms after Moritz Schlick, who had aroused his interest in logic, was murdered by a former student. He developed a fear of being poisoned and spent several months in a sanitarium for nervous diseases.
  • He was good pals with Albert Einstein. They took long walks together. What they talked about was a mystery to their colleagues.
  • Einstein went with him to his citizenship exam. Einstein was worried that Gödel’s unpredictable behavior would cost him his citizenship, but fortunately, Einstein knew the judge.
  • Due to his fear of being poisoned, he only ate meals prepared by his wife. When she was hospitalized for six months and couldn’t make his food, he starved to death.

 

5. Cratylus (mid-late 5th century BC)

  • He was a disciple of Heraclitus, who said that one cannot step in the same stream twice. Cratylus went a step further and said that it cannot be done even once.
  • He stopped speaking because the meaning of words is constantly in flux.
  • His theories as they appear in Plato’s eponymous dialogue have been reconstructed into the contemporary philosophy Cratylism, which has been influential to Eastern thinkers, including Buddhist semioticians.

 

4. Pythagoras (570-495 BC)

  • He believed in the transmigration of the soul and stopped a dog from being beaten because he thought he recognized the voice of a friend in its cries.
  • He was said to practice divination and prophecy.
  • He was followed by a vegan cult. (The vegan part is a matter of debate. Some say it was a vegetarian cult.)
  • He claimed to remember a few previous lives. In one, he was a beautiful courtesan.
  • He claimed that he could write on the moon.
  • He practiced Mesmerism, allegedly taming bears and eagles by touch.

 

3. Diogenes of Sinope (412-323 BC)

Diogenes Sitting in his Tub by Jean-Léon Gérôme

  • As a youth he asked the Delphic Oracle for advice and was told to “deface the currency.” He took the advice literally and was exiled for debasement of currency.
  • He then decided the oracle had meant political currency, so he moved to Athens, where he defaced social conventions. He taught by example, living a simple life, eating and sleeping wherever he chose, urinating on those who insulted him, and defecating and masturbating in public.
  • He had an affinity for dogs. He followed Antisthenes around like a dog and once pissed on some banquet attendees.
  • He walked around in broad daylight carrying a lamp. When questioned, he said that he was looking for an honest man.
  • He destroyed his only wooden bowl after seeing a boy drink from his cupped hands. “Fool that I am, to have been carrying superfluous baggage all this time!”
  • Against custom, he ate in the marketplace. When confronted, he said, “But it is when I’m in the marketplace that I’m hungry.”
  • He trolled Plato’s lectures. When Plato defined man as a featherless biped, Diogenes plucked a chicken and brought it to the Academy. “Behold, I’ve brought you a man!”
  • He publicly mocked Alexander the Great (and insulted his father) and lived to tell the tale.
  • He was captured by pirates, to be sold into slavery. When asked his trade, he replied that he only knew how to govern men. Xeniades liked his attitude and bought him to tutor his sons in Corinth. There he passed his philosophy on to Crates, who passed it onto Zeno of Citium, who developed it into the philosophical school of Stoicism.

 

2. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

  • His family was one of the wealthiest in Austria-Hungary, second only to the Rothschilds of conspiracy theory fame. His father didn’t want his children to learn bad habits in school, so he was educated at home. After two of his brothers committed suicide, his father relented and allowed Ludwig to attend school. (His other brother eventually committed suicide as well, and he contemplated it often.) He attended the same school as Adolf Hitler. He didn’t fit in because he dressed elegantly and spoke an unusually pure form of High German — with a stutter.
  • He inherited a fortune from his father. He gave some to artists/writers (including Rainer Maria Rilke), then gave the rest to his siblings.
  • He showed up at Cambridge unannounced to study the philosophy of logic and mathematics under Bertrand Russell. He began following Russell back to his room after each lecture to continue discussing philosophy, to Russell’s great annoyance. But Russell soon regarded Wittgenstein as a genius.
  • He refused to believe Russell’s assertion that “There is no hippopotamus in this room at present” because all existential propositions are meaningless.
  • He joined the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club, a discussion group for philosophy students. Other members complained that he dominated the discussions, not allowing anyone else to speak. It was at a meeting of this club that he threatened Karl Popper with a fire poker.
  • He was decorated for courage on the front lines of WWI. After the defeat of the Austrian army, he spent nine months as prisoner of war in Italy.
  • He worked as a teacher in an Austrian village. He resigned due to a controversy that arose when he boxed the children’s ears if they made mistakes in math.
  • He refused financial help from his family, not because they weren’t on good terms but because, as a matter of principle, he wouldn’t accept money he didn’t earn. He lived in a “tiny whitewashed room that only had space for a bed, washstand, a small table, and one small hard chair.”
  • His Tractatus inspired the creation of the Vienna Circle, a discussion group consisting of several influential scientists and philosophers. When he spoke at one of their meetings, he turned his back on them and read poetry aloud to express his dissatisfaction.
  • He had a religious approach to life but disliked organized religion because he could not bring himself to “bend the knee.” Rudolf Carnap said that while most in the Vienna Circle approached philosophical problems with a scientific attitude, Wittgenstein’s approach was more akin to that of an artist, or even a prophet.
  • Pursuing his PhD from Cambridge, he offered the Tractatus as his thesis. It was examined by Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore. At the end of the defense, Wittgenstein clapped each man on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry. I know you’ll never understand it.”
  • He became the philosophy chair at Cambridge. One student described the lectures as more akin to séances.
  • He worked at a hospital in London during WW2, where he told patients not to take the drugs they were prescribed and kept his identity as a famous philosopher secret.
  • When a doctor told him he might only live a few days longer, his reply was, “Good!”

 

1. Empedocles (490-430 BC)

  • He died by throwing himself into a volcano to prove to his disciples that he was immortal. Not much is known about him other than that. I give him the #1 spot because he was willing to die for his eccentricity.

The Decline of Neil de Grasse Tyson

Neil de Grasse Tyson has arguably overtaken Bill Nye as the popular face of science.

Photo of Neil de Grasse Tyson from bgr.com.

As one Redditor explained quite eloquently, Bill Nye is losing some longtime fans.

I’ve been a huge fan of Bill Nye since I was ten. Bill Nye the Science Guy was entertaining and educational. Bill Nye Saves the World is neither. In this show he simply brings up an issue, tells you which side you should be on, and then makes fun of people on the other side. To make things worse he does this in the most boring way possible… He doesn’t properly explain anything, and he misrepresents every opposing view.

Another Redditor said:

I was hoping for a science show meant for adults – the audience they had constantly laughing and making sounds looked like adults… but the content of the show was something you’d expect from a grade 6 science class.The show just felt all over the place, using stupid skits, forced audience reactions, and the most basic science concepts.

At first, Neil de Grasse Tyson (NdGT) seemed to avoid this pitfall by being “that chill science guy.” Now some fans are wondering whether he’s any less pedantic than Bill Nye. They complain that he got people excited about science, only to say, “Being excited by science is MY thing! Let me shut you down real quick plebs!”

For example, during the recent eclipse, he told people to stop being excited — because, statistically speaking, eclipses are not rare.

Tyson became the posterboy of /r/iamverysmart, a subreddit dedicated to “people trying too hard to look smart.” It got so bad that moderators were forced to ban any mention of NdGT because such posts are “low hanging fruit.”


If his own fans dislike NdGT’s newfound pedantry, you can only imagine how conservatives feel. (Bill Maher jokingly introduced him to a conservative guest as someone he should be worried about — because he’s “black and a scientist.”) Breitbart called NdGT “an attention-seeking media troll who courts adoration from bloggers, students, and hipsters while picking off low-hanging fruit and mocking people he doesn’t like.”

Not everyone can be a Carl Sagan, the kind of science popularizer who shares his zeal without alienating, politicizing, or self-serving.

When I listened to Carl Sagan speak, I felt like I was listening to a man who had a genuine love for and interest in the material he was sharing. I feel the same when watching David Attenborough, Brian Cox, or even Michael from VSauce. I used to feel that way about Bill Nye. Today’s Bill Nye seems so arrogant and caught up in his own celebrity. He and Neil de Grasse Tyson strike me as two people whose main objective is to feel smarter than everyone they talk to. If that’s how they want to carry themselves, fine, but when it comes to something like climate change, when we need to convince certain people that it’s the real deal, Bill’s demeanour hurts more than it helps.

Brian Cox is an English physicist often described as the British NdGT. Cox, who once “rebutted” Neil de Grasse Tyson’s suggestion that lightsabers wouldn’t work, is frequently suggested as an alternative for the popular face of science.

Science needs popularizers who can share the wonders of science in a way that’s not about proving their intellectual superiority.

Bitcoin and the Decentralization of Society

In response to Jamie Dimon’s criticism of bitcoin, John McAffee spoke of cryptocurrencies as emblematic of a paradigm shift: “The blockchain is, even now, ushering in a new economic and social paradigm that will rival, if not exceed, the impact that agriculture had in human society.”

People have been talking about the potential of decentralization to revolutionize economics for a long time, but no one knew how to “solve the problem of distribution required to power these decentralized systems” — that is, until the advent of the blockchain, which is “capable of melding ‘decentralized’ and ‘distributed’ into a single unit,” rendering centralized authority unnecessary.

Bitcoin represents decentralization in the realm of economics. How will decentralization work in the realm of politics, or the structure of society itself? The question of decentralization in politics is not necessarily separate from the question of decentralization in economics. In Marxist and critical theory, the economic structure of a society is the base upon which the “superstructure” of culture is built. As the economic base becomes more decentralized via the increasing prevalence of cryptocurrencies, the superstructure — the institutions and culture of society — will become more decentralized as well.

Money is power. If money is regulated by a central bank, then power will be concentrated in the hands of those who control the banks. If the big banks are cut out of the equation by bitcoin, then they will no longer control the circulation of money, and hence they will lose power. In this sense, the decentralization of money and the decentralization of power are the same thing.

Decentralization and democracy go hand in hand. Power was once concentrated in the hands of an absolute monarch. Then monarchs were forced to share their power with nobles, who were in turn forced to share their power with democratically elected officials. In the federal system, power is not centralized in a single national government, or in state governments. The federal government and the various state governments share power with each other. Even within the national government, power is split among three separate branches.

This history, which those who favor democracy call progress, is the history of ever increasing decentralization. However, many people think this trend has reached maturity with representative democracy, and any further advance would be undesirable. After all, the obvious next step is direct democracy, characterized by its critics as mob rule. As the saying goes, “Direct democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.”

Our representatives must forgive us if we do not share their concern. Such fears accompany every step in the evolution of society. Monarchs probably warned that everything would fall apart without a powerful ruler. Nobles probably warned that everything would fall apart if commoners were given a seat at the table. In each case it is obvious that the scaremongers’ real concern is the preservation of their own power. We might say that representative democracy is one wolf and two sheep, and the wolf gets to decide what’s for dinner.

The buck does not stop with representative democracy. The forward march of decentralization must continue. As Max Stirner wrote in The Ego And Its Own, the French Revolution saw power wrested from the hands of the individual monarch and placed in an impersonal State. This was a necessary progression, but it was only an intermediary step. We simply traded one master for another — and, in Stirner’s eyes, the new master was not necessarily better than the old:

The monarch in the person of the “royal master” had been a paltry monarch compared with this new monarch, the “sovereign nation.” This monarchy was a thousand times severer, stricter, and more consistent. Against the new monarch there was no longer any right, any privilege at all; how limited the “absolute king” of the ancien régime looks in comparison!

We must come full circle back to the individual — or rather, to individuals. Power must rest in the hands not of a single individual, but of each and every individual. That is the endpoint of decentralization (unless we want to give power to the cells that make up our bodies). Only then will people be free.

Decentralization is at the heart of several influential political movements. The headless suit in the logo of the hacktivist collective Anonymous symbolizes the group’s decentralized nature, as there is no central nervous system calling the shots.


Similarly, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and antifa have no centralized leadership. Yet they seem to leave much to be desired. Decentralization leaves these movements vulnerable to infiltration and sabotage. The distribution problem had to be solved for decentralization to work in economics. There are still problems to be solved to allow decentralization to work in politics.

Just as blockchain technology is used for monetary transactions, it could be used for voting and other forms of decision making. It could enable direct democracy. Rather than voting for senators and congresspersons to “represent” (make decisions for) us, we could use our smartphones to vote directly on the decisions. Just as the blockchain prevents fraud in monetary transactions, it could prevent election fraud. And just as the blockchain keeps transactions anonymous, it could keep votes anonymous.

At this point, it seems that it is not a question of if technology will further decentralize power in our society. It is only a question of how and when.

Escape the Goolag

I used to love Google. Their motto was “Don’t be evil,” which allowed me to believe they were different from most corporations. Although some friends tried to tell me that Google is just another corporation, I didn’t want to believe it. I have recently seen the light.

It all started when I read “Google Is Not What It Seems,” an excerpt from Julian Assange’s book When Google Met Wikileaks.

Google is “different”. Google is “visionary”. Google is “the future”. Google is “more than just a company”. Google “gives back to the community”. Google is “a force for good”… Nobody wants to acknowledge that Google has grown big and bad. But it has. Schmidt’s tenure as CEO saw Google integrate with the shadiest of US power structures as it expanded into a geographically invasive megacorporation.

The deeper I dug, the more I realized that if Google was ever the non-evil corporation they claimed to be, that time is long gone. “Don’t be evil” is no longer their motto. It now appears to be, “Define evil…”

My problems with Google fall into five main categories:

  • Relationship with government
  • Monopolization
  • Unethical business practices
  • Censorship
  • Privacy

Relationship with government

Google’s close relationship with the intelligence community and State Department is detailed in Assange’s article.

The meeting of When Google Met Wikileaks fame was initiated by Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who allegedly wanted to interview Assange for a book he was writing. But at the meeting, Schmidt was accompanied by Lisa Shields, Jared Cohen, and Scott Malcolmson. “At this point, the delegation was one part Google, three parts US foreign-policy establishment” but Assange didn’t know that. He was aware that Shields was the vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, “a US foreign-policy think tank with close ties to the State Department,” but because she was introduced as Schmidt’s significant other, he thought nothing of it.

Assange later learned that Cohen and Malcolmson had deep ties with the State Department.

Cohen worked at the State Department before becoming the director of Google Ideas. He and Schmidt “co-wrote a policy piece for the Council on Foreign Relations’ journal Foreign Affairs, praising the reformative potential of Silicon Valley technologies as an instrument of US foreign policy.” Apparently their pitch was successful: It seems that Cohen now does for Google what he once did for State. Assange jokes that he could be called Google’s “director of regime change,” as his “directorate appear[s] to cross over from public relations and ‘corporate responsibility’ work into active corporate intervention in foreign affairs at a level that is normally reserved for states.”

Scott Malcolmson was ostensibly present at the meeting because he was the book’s editor. But three months later he entered the State Department as speechwriter and advisor to Susan Rice. He’s also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

When Assange realized that the meeting had been more with the State Department than with Google, his initial reaction was “to think of Schmidt as a brilliant but politically hapless Californian tech billionaire who had been exploited by the very US foreign-policy types he had collected to act as translators between himself and official Washington.” He would learn that Schmidt is perhaps more politician than techie.

There was nothing politically hapless about Eric Schmidt. I had been too eager to see a politically unambitious Silicon Valley engineer, a relic of the good old days of computer science graduate culture on the West Coast. But that is not the sort of person who attends the Bilderberg conference four years running, who pays regular visits to the White House, or who delivers “fireside chats” at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Schmidt’s emergence as Google’s “foreign minister”—making pomp and ceremony state visits across geopolitical fault lines—had not come out of nowhere; it had been presaged by years of assimilation within US establishment networks of reputation and influence.

Assange summarizes Google’s problematic relationship with the government as follows:

By all appearances, Google’s bosses genuinely believe in the civilizing power of enlightened multinational corporations, and they see this mission as continuous with the shaping of the world according to the better judgment of the “benevolent superpower.” They will tell you that open-mindedness is a virtue, but all perspectives that challenge the exceptionalist drive at the heart of American foreign policy will remain invisible to them. This is the impenetrable banality of “don’t be evil.” They believe that they are doing good. And that is a problem.

Monopolization

Is Google a monopoly? Tech billionaire Peter Thiel certainly thinks so. He writes that Google’s market share of search is 67%. Since his book was published, that figure has increased to 81%.

Strangely, though, Thiel characterizes that as a good thing. He says that Google’s status as a monopoly means that it isn’t “so focused on today’s margins that it can’t possibly plan for a long-term future.” This freedom from “the daily brute struggle for survival” allows Google to offer its employees “utopian” benefits.

Ok, that’s great for Google employees, but what about the rest of us? Thiel argues that monopolies are good for society because they “drive progress.” That’s ludicrous. In the capitalist worldview, it’s competition that drives progress, and monopolization is the antithesis of competition.

Unethical business practices

Google’s monopolization of search gives it the power to bend other companies to its will. For example, they threatened Forbes with lower search rankings if the latter refused to implement the +1 button on their articles. And Google has for years been under investigation by the European Commission for abusing its power to give some of its own services (e.g. shopping, maps, and flight information) an unfair advantage. The commission recently fined Google a record $2.7 billion.

Censorship

Google can also use its power to “quash ideas it doesn’t like,” as Forbes journalist Kashmir Hill put it. When she published an article exposing Google’s practice of threatening companies that refused to implement the +1 button, she was forced to remove the piece. She later found that it had been removed from the cache.

Perhaps the most infamous victim of Google “censorship” is James Damore, the software engineer who was fired for penning a memo in which he criticized the company for perpetuating an “ideological echo chamber.”

Google owns YouTube, and the company has recently come under fire for teaming up with the Anti-Defamation League to censor content it deems offensive.

Privacy

Assange writes that Google’s “penchant for luring people into its services trap with gigabytes of ‘free storage’ produces the perception that Google is giving it away for free, acting directly contrary to the corporate profit motive. Google is perceived as an essentially philanthropic enterprise—a magical engine presided over by otherworldly visionaries—for creating a utopian future.” But as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Google is a corporation. It’s not providing you with gigabytes of free storage out of benevolence. When you use these services, you are the product. Google collects data on you and sells it to advertisers.

When it comes to privacy, Google is hypocritical. It seems to have little concern for individual citizens who want their information removed from search results. Schmidt said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” And yet, Schmidt is extremely careful to hide the details of his own private life.

Apple created a stir when they announced that the latest version of their browser, Safari, would automatically block the tracking technique used to track users’ activity across websites. The advertising industry pitched a fit. They wrote an open letter to Apple, begging them not to do it. They said it would undermine “the business model of the Internet.” This is an odd thing to say because the Internet isn’t a company and doesn’t have a business model. The only business model Apple is hurting is that of companies like Google, who make money by infringing upon the privacy of individuals. Excuse me if I don’t feel sorry for them.

Escape the Goolag

What can we, as individuals, do to challenge a leviathan like Google? We can wean ourselves from Google’s teats, which are more numerous than the utters of a mutant cow. Listing them all is beyond the scope of this article, but following are the three Google services most likely to be part of your daily life:

  • Google search
  • Google Chrome
  • Gmail

Instead of Google search, use DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t profit from your searches or collect data about you. Instead of Chrome, use an open-source alternative such as Firefox, which can be augmented with plugins to protect your privacy. (Or, if you’re really serious about privacy, use Tor.) Instead of Gmail, use a privacy oriented service like Proton Mail, which automatically encrypts all of your messages.

JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon’s Criticism of Bitcoin Sparks Internet Firestorm

JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon disparaged the cryptocurrency bitcoin on Sep. 12, calling it a “fraud,” comparing it to the tulip mania of the 17th century, and predicting that it will “blow up.”

Speaking at the Barclays Global Financial Services Conference, Dimon remarked:

When the DOJ calls someone up and says, “That’s an illegal currency and it’s against the laws of the United States… if you do it again, we’ll put you in jail,” it’s over.

Dimon added that an employee who traded bitcoin would be fired “in a second, for two reasons: It is against our rules and they are stupid, and both are dangerous.”

It is unclear whether Dimon considers his daughter “stupid,” as he later joked that she “bought some bitcoin, and it went up, and she thinks she’s a genius now.”

Asked to explain his comments at the Delivering Alpha conference, Dimon warned that while governments presently view bitcoin “as a novelty,” they will “close it down” when it gets too large.

Dimon clarified that his criticism is aimed not at blockchain technology but at virtual currencies that circumvent government control. JP Morgan itself is working on a blockchain, “Quorum,” which is bitcoin’s main competitor.

Dimon’s comments ignited a backlash from bitcoin supporters.

ShapeShift CEO Erik Vorhees tweeted, “My memory is failing, was it Bitcoin or was it JP Morgan that was bailed out by the government?”

Forbes senior editor Laura Shin said the idea that bitcoin could be “closed” is “ridiculous – hilarious, even” because its decentralized nature makes that nearly impossible.

In an open letter to Dimon, Shin suggested that his uneasiness regarding bitcoin stems from its potential to disrupt financial services:

I would be surprised if cryptocurrencies, with their many advantages, don’t prevail over the long-term – especially at a time when everyday people are still angry about paying for the economic crisis caused by financial institutions while bankers made off with bonuses. Since the triumph of cryptocurrencies is the fact that they cut out the middle man… I could understand if you wanted Bitcoin shut down or hoped it was a fraud. I mean, if I were you and if I really understood the disruption crypto assets could bring to financial services, I’d be very scared… It just remains to be seen how much longer people who want to buy crypto assets – or engage in any financial transaction, for that matter – will do so through a middleman like JP Morgan Chase.

Others speculated that Dimon was engaging in market manipulation — causing bitcoin’s value to decrease so that he could “buy low.” The value of bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies) did drop following Dimon’s comments, although a causal link has not been established. Many interpreted a widely circulated screenshot as proof that JPMorgan had purchased bitcoin.

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One Redditor even called for a class action lawsuit against Dimon, alleging:

  1. He badmouthed bitcoin.
  2. The day after, prices fell.
  3. His company bought the dip.
  4. Altcoins lost value along with bitcoin.

But a JPMorgan spokesperson told Business Insider that the orders shown in the screenshot “are not JPMorgan orders. These are clients purchasing third party products directly.”

That explanation did not pacify Dimon’s critics.

If the CEO of the financial firm that handles my investments firmly states that a particular investment is a fraud and likens it to the tulip bulb bubble and I felt strongly enough that he was wrong and I was willing to put my own money behind it, I would seriously need to question who is handling my investments moving forward.

While most of those responding to Dimon’s comments were critical, some in the industry defended him. Ron Insana, senior analyst at CNBC, agreed with Dimon’s point that “bitcoin is in a bubble,” while acknowledging that “as in the case of many prior breakthrough technologies, the transformation will indeed be disruptive and extremely important.”

Meanwhile, MGT CEO John McAfee denied that bitcoin is in a bubble. He characterized the blockchain as “ushering in a new economic and social paradigm” that will render centralized control of currency obsolete.

What people see as a bitcoin “bubble,” from the perspective of the new paradigm, is merely the predictable and systematic devaluation of fiat currencies that will continue, with obvious ups and downs, until all fiat currencies reach the zero point.

As the relative value of bitcoin temporarily drops, they will point to this as proof of their understanding. It won’t matter. The reality of this new world is what it is. Those who understand will be the leaders of this new world.

Whatever Dimon’s intentions, his comments clearly had the effect of generating publicity for bitcoin.