Intellectuals care more about correctness (or what they perceive as being correct) than consensus; for collectivist and identity-driven movements, it’s reversed. For example, Francis Fukuyama, considered one of the intellectual ‘founders’ of neoconservatism, went from in 2001 ‘co-signing William Kristol’s September 20, 2001 letter to President George W. Bush to “capture or kill Osama bin Laden”, but also embark upon “a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq”‘ to, just two years later, demanding Rumsfeld’s resignation. Fukuyama signed a similar letter in 1998 directed at Bill Clinton. Although the subsequent deterioration and financial cost of the occupation vindicated Fukuyama, such an abrupt about-face after only two years did reek of perfidy and betrayal. Not surprisingly, Fukuyama and Kristol are no longer close friends.
Nerd mannerisms and appropriations, especially in pop culture and on Instagram, where pretty women donning faux glasses post memes about social isolation, have become the ‘new normal’, and words like ‘normie’ have become pejorative.
Nowadays everyone wants to be the ‘smartest person in the room’, not the most outgoing or popular. But ironically, in being smart, you become popular, whether you seek the attention or not.
Autistic-like traits such as social awkwardness, dismissiveness, curtness and bluntness (as opposed to sugarcoating, sentimentalism, and extroversion) convey authenticity and credibility, versus being a shallow ‘normie’ or ‘people-pleaser’, leading to a boost in social status both online and offline, whereas decades ago these smart people were ignored or relegated to the lower echelons of the social hierarchy.
Fast-forward to today, from Silicon Valley to Wall St., to having the most subscribers and followers on Instagram, Twitter, Vine, and YouTube, and in terms of higher wages (for STEM jobs), surging real estate (in Silicon Valley), stratospheric Web 2.0 valuations, and a perpetually rising stock market, as well as approbation and cultural appropriation, it’s not a stretch to say nerds, or more specially, introverts, rule the world right now.
Due to STEM, his popular blog, and by being really smart, Scott Aaronson has far more status than the vast majority of ‘normies’ (except for, perhaps, some athletes and actors). Same for Tyler Cowen, an economist (which is close enough to STEM), whose Marginal Revolution blog is extremely popular, read by thousands of people every day. Yeah, Marginal Revolution is not a big as TMZ or ESPN, but 1,000-10,000 dedicated readers/fans is about 1,000-10,000 more than the typical ‘normie’, who has close to zero after excluding immediate fiends and family. Those are just a handful of examples of out many; more will be given later.
We all want to be perceived as smarter because smart people are among the most successful in society today as measured by wealth, wages, and social status. While famous athletes and other entertainers make a lot of money, no one seeks their counsel on anything substantive, whereas if you’re smart you are elevated to the status of an ‘oracle’, and your opinions on a wide-range of issues – be it global warming, economics, sociology, or history – are valued and sought.
Intellectuals, particularly in the most difficult of fields, have become America’s new priesthood or nobility, sought for answers and bestowed with high social status, and whether it’s the latest gizmo from Google, Amazon, or Tesla, or the latest particle discovery in the field of high-energy physics, their contributions are broadcast by the media to the world. From The Daily View [...]
Smart people are among the most important and respected people in the world. They have the most Karma on Reddit, the most points on sites like Stack Exchange, the highest reputation on forums, and most views on YouTube for technical, artsy, or philosophical subjects. They have the credentials – SAT scores and degrees – to lend their expertise in a variety of fields and are showered with accolades …
Smart people are displacing ‘old money’ on the Forbes 400 list, getting their Web 2.0 companies valued or acquired for billions of dollars, watching their stocks and real estate zoom into the stratosphere – even as real wages for most people haven’t budged. A meritocracy epitomized by Bay Area tech scene or the financial cognoscenti of Manhattan, where erudition, wealth, and the specter of all-knowing omnipotence is valued.
And from the Economist, Be nice to nerds:
“Be nice to nerds. Chances are you may end up working for them,” wrote Charles Sykes, author of the book “50 Rules Kids Won’t Learn in School”, first published in 2007. Today there are more reasons than ever to treat nerds with respect: never mind the fact that every company is clamouring to hire them, geeks are starting to shape markets for new products and services.
Behaviors that may seem repulsive and anti-social, paradoxically, draw people in as ‘nerds’ are sought for their expertise and sober objectivity in contrast to the mainstream media, which is full of hoaxes, sensationalism, inaccuracies, omissions, and biases. From Deconstructing a Viral Article:
As I show in the example of Warren Buffett, intellectualism, competence, and merit is what draws people in, not being extroverted. Every year, thousands of people flock to Omaha for Buffett’s annual shareholder meetings – not because Buffet is a people-pleaser, but because he is very competent and his insights are invaluable. Elon Musk, another example of someone who is extremely competent, had the most popular Reddit AMA ever. Richard Dawkins, who lately seems to have gotten into habit of offending the easily offended, also had an enormously popular AMA.
They (nerds, quants, wonks, experts) are providing the answers to life’s most intractable mysteries, from theories of the origin of the universe, to theories of biology, economics, and sociology – to try to explain why wealth inequality is so persistent or why some groups always underperform academically and economically despite despite billions of dollars of entitlement spending over many decades. Sugar-coated, politically correct explanations and ‘nice’ discourse has fallen short at explaining the world, and people demand answers, even if such answers aren’t wrapped in a pretty bow of political correctness.
A lengthy 1994 New Yorker profile of Bill Gates aptly applies to many smart millennials today, who disregard obsoleted social conventions and niceties for bluntness and disheveledness, in their ‘pursuit of the truth’:
“Bill just doesn’t think about clothes. And his hygiene is not good. And his glasses—how can he see out of them? But Bill’s attitude is: I’m in this pure mind state, and clothes and hygiene are last on the list.”
Gates is famously confrontational. If he strongly disagrees with what you’re saying, he is in the habit of blurting out, “That’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard!” People tell stories of Gates spraying saliva into the face of some hapless employee as he yells, “This stuff isn’t hard! I could do this stuff in a weekend!”
Back in 1994, a less intelligent era dominated by shows like Friends, Baywatch, and 90210, social conventions were more important than they are now, making Gates’ behavior truly anomalous, but now it’s commonplace, almost expected, and (as mentioned earlier) conveys authenticity and honesty. In the 90′s the clubs were busting, but now everyone wants to stay at home, quiet, watching Netflix, being introspective, or posting pictures on Instagram. Nightclub attendance has plunged.
Or as summed-up by the brilliant Eric Winstein, creator of the online mathematics encyclopedia MathWorld:
Respectability is a prison. We don't see that because the door is open, we inmates want life&our wardens threaten time off for bad behavior.
— Eric Weinstein (@EricRWeinstein) August 28, 2016
Right now I think we’re in something of a ‘competence bubble’ of sorts, where competence is valued more than ever as measured by social prestige, wealth, and wages, with ‘social skills’ and ‘people skills’ being less important. This is also related our post-2008 results-orientated economy, whereby quantifiable results have become more important than agreeability, as part of the push by corporations towards greater productivity and efficiency. Smart people, because they tend to be more competent, are especially suited for America’s competitive economic and social environment that prizes quantifiable, individual results over ‘collectivist’ traits like social skills.
To be continued…
Years ago in a philosophy class I posed the question of whether it was more virtuous to have never sinned or to have sinned and then reformed. The evidence suggests the latter, as redemption and America’s culture of authenticity have become increasingly intertwined. ‘Authenticity culture’ celebrates individualism, particularity intellectual endeavors (such as stock trading or winning math Olympiads). This is the opposite of politics, which is collectivist, dumbed-down, and elevates the ‘everyday man’.
It’s not uncommon for reformed prisoners to give motivational talks to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who socioeconomically tend to be the complete opposite of the typical maximum-security prisoner, yet modern wisdom is that these two diametrically opposed groups can somehow mutually benefit from each other’s rapport. Other times the roles are reversed, with the entrepreneurs working directly with the prisoners:
Enter Defy. Defy’s mission is simple: “to transform the lives of business leaders and people with criminal histories through their collaboration along the entrepreneurial journey.” I received an invitation from Brad Feld and Mark Suster to join a group they were assembling for Defy; we were part of a group of CEOs, founders, and VCs who traveled to the prison to serve as judges for the pitch competition taking place that day.
Part of the appeal of ‘reform’ is how post-2008 American economy and society prizes quantifiable results (the ‘ends’) over the means (‘ethics’). The value or intrinsic worth of a person is measured by their intellectual, social, or financial status, with things like ‘morals’ and ‘ethics’, neither of which are as easy to quantify, pushed to the periphery. For example, financiers Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, for which jail was a pit stop on the road to success, given their philanthropy are now forgiven and celebrated. Redemption becomes just another just another way to ‘cash out’ after the dubious venture has run its course.
Rather than going down the boring path of ‘strait and narrow’, many desire to to emulate those who became wealthy by taking shortcuts at the possible cost of ethics. And who can blame them: millions of people who ‘did the right thing’ only find themselves with poor job prospects, unpaid bills, and piles of student loan debt to show for it, and to add insult to injury, are snubbed or looked down upon by a culture and economy that sees these people are either invisible or victims of bad personal choices, not forces outside of their control.
In the past, America looked up to those of upstanding moral character but otherwise were kinda dull or were part of a group or team. Although the rugged individualistic characters portrayed by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood may be exception to this, such characters weren’t intellectual, relying on physical prowess more so intellectualism. America’s brand of individualism has a strong intellectual bent to it – think Edward Snowden or Julian Assange, in which the the ‘ends’ (liberating information) justified the ‘means’ (breaking the law). Rather than the ‘justice league’, it’s the rogue programmer who seeks justice. Or like Michael Burry, as documented in The Big Short, a smart person (a Randian hero of sorts) who in 2007 bet against the housing market (and the prevailing economic consensus) and became wealthy (combining wealth, intellectualism, and individualism…see it all ties together).
Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek situates the Randian hero in Rand’s fiction in the “standard masculine narrative” of the conflict between the exceptional, creative individual (the Master) and the undifferentiated conformist crowd…
Author Stephen Newman compares the Randian hero to the concept of the Übermensch created by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, saying that “the Randian hero is really Nietzsche’s superman in the guise of the entrepreneur”.
In Less Than Zero, a 1985 novel by Bret Easton Ellis, disaffected, rich teenagers of Los Angeles drive around, do drugs, and party – except now it’s older people who are doing this, minus the drug and partying, permanently delaying adulthood to live lives of introspective excess.
Smarter people can more easily adapt to their surroundings in the modern world, so they don’t need close relationships to help them with food and shelter, like our ancestors did. Or, in the modern equivalent, the Wi-Fi password and a spare phone charger.
From memes on Instagram that celebrate solitude and ‘being alone’ over socializing, to people choosing ‘hustling’ instead of the ’9-5′, it seems everyone is like this. For example, memes about choosing money over friends and socializing, frequently go viral:
One can argue we’re in an era of moral ambiguity…no one really knows what is right or wrong. Major pop culture productions like the hit HBO show Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, that blur the lines between criminality and everyday life, are a contributing factor or a symptom of this confusion. There is the contradiction between how culture promotes extreme sanctimoniousness, but also condones amorality, if not outright criminality, on the other.
In part 5 of the series on Wealth, Intellectualism, and Individualism, I outlined the table of contents of the section on intellectualism.
Intellectualism is how you become a part of the process and the national debate, rather than merely a spectator. It’s a common misconception that to be ingratiated you must conform, be ordinary, but it’s actually the opposite: to become a participant, you must be exceptional.
As an example of how you need to be brilliant to be a ‘part of the process’, not dull and or conformist, and an example of how STEM has become so important, not only in terms of high wages and prestige, but for signaling competence – as STEM is a bastion of credibility and objectivity in an era of useless fluff degrees, media sensationalism, low-information partisanship, and sentimentalism – Terrance Tao, possibly the most brilliant mathematician alive, wrote an article about Trump being unfit to be president, which went massively viral despite the article having nothing to do with math, but because people, especially other smart people, perceive competence in STEM (abstract mathematics in the case of Tao) as being transferable to unrelated fields (sociology, politics), Tao’s opinions on political science are as equally valued as his mathematics research. This transference is also observed with brilliant physicists Stephen Hawking, Sean Carroll, and Michio Kaku, who are as well known for comments about politics, philosophy, and democracy, if not more so, than physics research. Because STEM is considered the pinnacle of intellectualism in the hierarchy of degrees, and thus competence, this transference is irreversible, meaning that a sociologist who tries to lecture about math would be chided (and rightfully so), whereas mathematicians can freely lecture about sociology (or pretty much anything) without losing credibility.
Another example: in June 2016, a post by quantum physicist Scott Aaronson about Trump also went viral, getting hundreds of comments and Facebook shares. My observation is if you want to write about non-STEM topics, ditch the liberal arts degree and get a STEM (which induces economics) degree – and boom – tons of traffic and viralness for your political opinions. Weird how that works.
As part of the post-2008 rise of the ‘STEM celebrity’ and the ‘intellectual rockstar’, Reddit AMAs by scientists get as many up-votes, if not more, as A-list celebrities. Richard Dawkins’ latest AMA got over 7,000 comments. Same for David Dunning, originator of the Duninking-Kunner Effect (victims of Duninking-Kunner are too dumb to know how dumb they are, a problem frequently encountered when debating online), whose AMA last year got over 4,000 votes and 1,000 comments. This also ties into the post-2008 resurgence in philosophy, which has become more STEM-like in recent years borrowing from fields as diverse as neurology, quantum physics, artificial intelligence, mathematical logic, computer science, and ‘theory of the mind’. Some examples include David Chalmers, an Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist specializing in the area of philosophy of mind and philosophy of language, whose groundbreaking theory of ‘philosophical zombies’ has made him something of an intellectual ‘rock star’ in recent years. Another is philosopher John Searle, who rose to fame with his ‘Chinese Room’ thought experiment. Robin Hanson, whose writings and presentations on ‘ems‘, ‘futarchy’, and the ‘great filter’ have spurred significant discussion and debate, has become something of an internet celebrity as of 2016. Nick Bostrom and his ‘simulation argument’, originally published in 2001, has in recent years received considerable coverage by the media. The overarching theme is that we have less free will than we may want to believe, either because we’re all ‘zombies’, simulated beings, or reducible to computer programs. These arguments for ‘predestination’ have become more popular in recent years, probably due to Social Darwinism becoming more relevant in our post-2008 economy, in which genes affect ‘free will’, socioeconomic success, and ‘salvation’.
Interestingly, on Reddit and 4chan, English, History, and Philosophy majors are also respected, too, as they sacrifice monetary gains to pursue a ‘higher’ calling. Such degrees, even though they may not pay very well or have immediate real-world applications, are a solace of intellectual purity, patience, and understanding in a society spoiled by instant gratification, ostentatious materialism, ‘low-information’ pandering, and sensationalism. Both STEM and some liberal arts (not the useless ones like child development or gender studies) combine authenticity, sufficient intellectual rigor, introspection, and abstractions. For the math major such abstractions include axioms, postulates and theorems; for the literature major, it’s words and grammar; for philosophy, it’s ontology and epistemology. ‘Low-information’ means not circuitous enough, too obvious.
Examples of respected fields include comparative literature (being well-read signals intellect and worldliness), philosophy (philosophy majors have SAT scores that are as high as STEM majors; philosophy is becoming STEM-like, and it signals a lot of intellect), history (a very respected field even though it tends to not pay well; signals worldliness and intellect), economics (which could be considered STEM-like because it involves math), and finance (also very STEM-like since it involves math and pays well). At the bottom of the pile are unless degrees, that have no intellectual signaling value or rigor, including but not limited to ‘marketing’, ‘communications’, ‘business development’, ‘child development’, and of course, ‘how-white-men-are-oppressive-studies’.
To be continued…
Continuing on the wealth, individualism, and intellectualism series…
The final pillar is intellectualism. Thanks to recent economic trends, Web 2.0, ‘nerd culture’, the growing importance of STEM, ‘esoteric celebrities‘, long-form journalism, as well as the elevation and idolization of intellectuals in public life, particularity for STEM fields, and recent groundbreaking discoveries and progress in physics, mathematics AI, and computer science, right now America is in something of an ‘intellectual renaissance‘.
This section, the longest of the three, covers:
1. ‘intellect’ as a form of social capital
2. rise of ‘nerd culture’ and cultural appropriation
3. the post-2008 ‘intellectual renaissance’ in America, as evidenced by the increased demand for complicated, esoteric subjects, that until recently were neglected, and in the process turning many intellectuals into ‘esoteric celebrities’
4. rejection of ‘low information’ in post-2013 internet journalism and in online discourse; ‘fact checking’, correctness more important than political tribal loyalty; proliferation of the ‘contrarian mainstream’ and esoteric ideologies
5. the ‘Social Darwinist’ aspect of how less intelligent people are faring worse in America’s competitive post-2008 economy
6. ‘shared narratives’ (#2,3,4,6 are under the umbrella of ‘intellectualism culture’)
7. the wealth-intellectualism-individualism synthesis
Intellectualism is how you become a part of the process, the national debate, rather than merely a spectator. It’s a common misconception that to be ingratiated you must conform, be ordinary, but it’s actually the opposite: to become a participant, you must be exceptional.
To be continued
In 2015, almost daily, I would check Scott’s blog to see what weird, new social ‘theory’ he had devised but right now, as 2016 winds to a close, it seems things have stagnated to some extent. It’s no one’s fault, really, but even the smartest people will eventually run out of things to say, as there are no more stones to be overturned, and everything there is to say will have been said. Either you come up with new material, change course, stop, or just go in circles.
Pertaining to ‘social theory’, right now ‘intellectualism culture’ and how it ties in with millennials, economics, metanarratives, and NRx, is one of the most interesting things going on right now, and is such a small niche that no one else is writing about it, so that’s what I’m going to focus on.
For awhile it was a mystery why NRx and ‘alt right’ bloggers on Twitter and elsewhere frequently linked and cited the writings of Tyler Cowen and Bryan Caplan, two economists with left-libertarian leanings, as well as the writings of Scott Alexander, but never cite the likes of Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, or Bill O’Reilly. But NRx is ostensibly a ‘right-wing’ ideology/movement, as is the alt-right, and the aforementioned political commentators are further to the ‘right’ than Cowen or Caplan, yet they are ignored, which initially didn’t sake sense to me. After some brainstorming, I realized why, and this lead to a series of posts about ‘intellectual solvents’ and ‘shared narratives’, that argue that, for smart people, intellectual bonds may stronger than ideological ones. Intellectuals, first and foremost, are repulsed by ‘intellectual laziness’, not ideological differences. Examples of intellectual laziness, or as some call ‘low information’, include: factual inaccuracies, reductionist thinking, preaching to the choir, ‘tribal loyalty’, intuition over empirical data and analysis, and so on. Furthermore, both rationalists on the ‘left’ and reactionaries (the ‘right’) converge in rejection of ‘low information’. Hannity, Limbaugh, et al., despite being on the ‘right’, are perceived as being too ‘low information’, which is why they are excluded from the debate, whether it’s about immigration, economics, politics, or finance.
Socialists and rationalists, who are on the ‘left’, and reactionaries and the alt-right, on the ‘right’, also converge in ‘shared narratives’, with mutual agreement, despite being diametrically opposed ideologically, of how mainstream discourse and society is ‘dumbed-down’, be it the public schools, the news media, or entertainment. Both agree that they have been failed by majoritarianism, which emphasis conspicuous consumption, token acts of democracy (voting), and a ‘one size fills all’ mentality that neglects those who are talented and or don’t fit the mold. Reactionaries and rationalists both oppose democracy, as they see it as inefficient and insufficient (some in NRx call it an ‘IQ shredder’), but to achieve different ends: for the ‘right’, to promote right-wing causes; for the ‘left’, to promote left-wing ones. Tyler Cowen, like NRX, is skeptical of democracy, and Bryan Caplan even wrote an entire book denouncing democracy, The Myth of the Rational Voter, whereas many ‘mainstream conservatives’ still hold dear democracy (and the democratic process) as a way of affecting change.
Intellectualism is a universal solvent because, as we see with Cowen and Caplan, it allows entry (like a passport) into differing ideologies and groups that also value intellectualism but otherwise are ideologically opposed. Consider nydwracu, the pseudonym of an influential blogger who is at least tangentially affiliated with NRx and the ‘alt right’, who is also formidably intelligent. Not much is known about him, but I think he studied computer science in college, which in addition to his smart, circuitous style of writing, is proof of superior intellect. Let’s just assume he majored in computer science (because I don’t really know for sure)…he could tell a story of how society doesn’t appreciate intellect and computer science, about how computer scientists (and STEM people in general) are seduced and exploited by less intelligent women for their money (hypergamy), and about how democracy, the public school system, and universities neglect the best and the brightest, on any community that values intellect (be it liberal or conservative) and be welcomed with open arms…as everyone else can relate (a ‘shared narrative’). I’m not being facetious here…these are valid concerns, as there is evidence men are failing at society or being failed by society, and is why MRA and Red Pill (or more broadly, ‘the manosphere’) are such rapidly growing, important movements, by, online, bringing light to these issues that the mainstream media (that only focuses on women’s issues) is ignoring.
Related to entry, when an intellectual encounters another intellectual who may have wandered down the wrong path (a leftist intellectual who supports open borders), the tendency is to patiently and kindly try to correct him, but stonewalling is reserved for the intellectually lazy, regardless of politics, who don’t even deserve a response as it would be a waste of time for the intellectual.
Other examples include Scott Aaronson and Scott Alexander, both of whom are very smart and despite being on the ‘left’ were ingratiated by the intellectual-right. Alexander is most famous for his groundbreaking post on ingroups/outgroups, that was heavily cited by reactionaries, rationalists, as well as going viral on sites as varied as as Reddit and Hacker News, but also the articles ‘Meditations on Moloch’ and ‘Toxoplasma of Rage’, both of which explore concepts within the burgeoning online field of ‘social theory’. Aaronson is most famous not for a post but for a single comment he made in 2015 on his blog, in which he wrote about his inner-war with feminism, how men are possibly unfairly excluded from gender issues, about how men are implicitly treated as ‘predators’, and that for ‘gender equality’ to be achieved men must be included in the conversation, again relating to ‘men’s rights’, and in the aftermath received significant media coverage from major publications such as The Atlantic, which published excerpts of the comment:
“The whole time I was struggling, I was also fighting a second battle: to maintain the liberal, enlightened, feminist ideals that I had held since childhood, against a powerful current pulling me away,” he wrote.
“that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison,” he wrote. “And furthermore, that the people who did these things to me would somehow be morally right to do them—even if I couldn’t understand how.”
This also ties in with ‘shared narratives’, again, as these are problems and questions that are generally unique to smart people and that anyone who is smart can relate to Aaronson’s post, and is why it went so viral and generated important discussion that encompassed the entire political spectrum.
A third example is a post on siderea.livejournal.com about class vs. economics, which, related to post-2008 ‘great online economics debate’, also went hugely viral, and was debated heavily on both left-wing and right-wing communities, as class and economics are issues that transcend political barriers and are issues that smart people care about.
But it’s not just about STEM, gender, and the dumbing-down of society – there’s a whole list of ‘shared narratives‘ and important questions that mainstream pundits ignore or only gloss over, and this ties into how internet journalism has evolved, to a pre-2013 era dominated by chest-thumping pundits, ‘listicals’, and ‘culture war‘ issues to one now that favors shared narratives, long-form content, data visualizations, nuance, and more esoteric matters (topics such as the Fermi Paradox and Hanson’s Great Filter). Consider the issue of unemployment due to automation, which is an angle to the unemployment problem that mainstream pundits seldom discuss. Most mainstream pundits only look economics superficially, with trite, banal generalizations such as ‘we need more jobs, but greedy companies refuse to create them’ (for the ‘left’) or ‘people need to stop being lazy look harder for work’ (for the ‘right’) or ‘millennials are lazy and entitled’ (both) and refuse to consider alternative theories and ideas (such as post-scarcity, economic class v. social class, post-labor societies, social Darwinism, automation, etc.) that deviate from their narrow, pre-established, unmovable political views and biases.
Perhaps we’re kinda in a post-pundit era. Pundits used to have a lot of influence, but since 2013 or so, not as much. Through much of the 80′s and 90′s, pundits dominated the newspapers, radio, and TVs, their opinions broadcast to a Zingiest that eagerly spread the word, as well as influencing policy. Thomas Sowell, through his widely read books and columns, played a role in creating Reganomics, but nowadays one would be hard-pressed to find a pundit that influenced Obama as much as Reagan was influenced by by Sowell and Laffer.
One could argue that the first shoe to drop was the decline of talk radio and newspaper circulations and subscriptions, as a consequence of the internet era. As information became more disseminated and fragmented, the influence of the handful of so-called ‘mega pundits’ became diluted as thousands of smaller pundit such as bloggers and podcasters competed for people’s attention. Suddenly, the opinion pages of the WSJ and NYTs were read by fewer people, and fewer people care what Paul Krugman or Thomas Friedman have to say, unlike in the early 2000′s when those mega-pundits had much more influence on the ‘national debate’.
Online, on major communities like Reddit and Hacker News, I can hardly recall anyone referencing anything written or said by a major pundit. For the ‘right’, no mentions of anything by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or Bill O’Reilly. Likewise, no mentions of Paul Krugman, Maureen O’Dowd, Thomas Friedman, or Thomas Blow, all of whom write for the biggest newspaper in the world, The New York Times. Ross Douthat is a notable exception, because he taps into these ‘shared narratives’ probably better than any other pundit.
The second shoe to drop, and a much more recent development, is the post-2013 rise of ‘intellectualism culture‘, as I alluded to in Alt-Right and Internet Journalism, consequentially lessening the viralness and influence of 80′s and 90′s-era partisan punditry, which has given way to ‘shared narratives’ and a more introspective or nuanced writing style. Although Ann Coulter articles are shared among conservative communities and websites, her articles almost never go viral on major social bookmarking sites. This is because her articles (as well as the same for leftist pundits like Krugman) are perhaps perceived as too opinionated and shrill, not intellectual or nuanced enough. Rather than tapping into a ‘shared narrative’ or using data visualizations, these pundits are just preaching to the choir, which was an effective strategy as recently as a decade ago, but will fail to expand the underlying message that the pundit is trying to convey to a savvier audience that has become deaf or repulsed by demagoguery.
Let’s say you want to ‘raise awareness’ (which is a hackneyed expression, but raising awareness is what pundits try to do) about America’s immigration problem. The pre-2013 approach would be to write a divisive opinion piece, replete with hyperbole and metaphors (such has referring to immigrants as ‘hordes of invaders’), and such an article would be widely read and well received by those already in your ‘tribe’, but it be very hard to get the article to go viral elsewhere. The post-2013 approach would be to ditch the hyperbole and opinions and instead create an article full of data visualizations that shows many immigrants are coming to America and how the native population is being displaced, and so on. The latter has a greater likelihood of going viral and, ultimately, raising awareness about immigration.
One question is: why learn advanced mathematics? This is related to the is-ought problem, as posed by Hume. The examples in differential geometry can be difficult and time-consuming , unlike simple calculus, and are best done with computer, not by hand. A single tensor, as found in general relativity, may have dozens of components…writing them out would be taxing. The question is, what do want to do with this knowledge. There is value in learning complicated, abstract math to signal intellect and thus become more popular online, and maybe get consulting work. That alone is very valuable, and is why STEM graduates or graduates from elite schools make so much money and have such god job prospects compared to everyone else, because such degrees generally require a lot of intelligence to obtain and thus signal competence.
But also, why is there so much interest in learning complicate, esoteric math concepts? All things ‘smart’ have gotten more attention as of late, such as as theoretical physics, quantum mechanics, philosophy and math (as well as all these things melded together). It seems, especially as of 2013, there is huge demand for learning complicated mathematics, coding, and trading algorithms. It’s like the AP-math class of high school but expanded to include almost everyone, not just a dozen students. Popular sites like WaitbutWhy are popularizing ideas (cryonics, fermi paradox, etc.) that just as recently as a decade ago were mostly of the domain of scifi aficionados and scientists. Pre-2008, the internet was a pretty ‘dumb’ place, dominated by crappy MySpace profiles, LiveJournal and DeviantArt, V-Bulletin forums, bombastic opinion pieces, bland advice pieces, and content transcribed from offline sources to the internet. Then, around 2013 or so, came long-form, infographics, data visualizations, and social networking like Facebook and Twitter (which replaced Myspace). And also, the rise of ‘expert culture’ – sites like Reddit, Hacker News, Medium, as well as those ‘question and answer’ sites that have social aspects to them (math exchange/overflow, stack overflow/exchange), all of which reward competent, helpful people with ‘karma’ and status. In the past, you either had to go to a crappy V-Bulletin site or a newsgroup, and your contributions were generally ignored outside of their respective communities. ‘Expert culture’, which is related to ‘intellectualism culture’ is how ‘esoteric celebrities’ are created, because now these competent, smart people are having their contributions broadcast to the world, gaining wealth and social status in the process. There are huge markets for this stuff, tons of readers, and lots of viralness and page views – and no topic is too complicated or esoteric. I liken it to a ‘Cambrian explosion’ of intellectualism.
But also, people observe, read headlines about high-IQ founders, venture capitalists, and coders making tons of money in Web 2.0 (Uber, Pinterest, Snaphat, Dropbox, etc.); STEM people getting tons of prestige, status, and global notoriety for their finding (Arxiv physics and math papers frequently go viral); and how the economy, especially as of 2008, rewards intellectualism and STEM in terms of higher wages and surging asset prices (like stocks (the S&P 500 has nearly tripled since the 2009 bottom), web 2.0 valuations (Snapchat is worth $15 billion, on its way to $50 billion), and real estate (Palo Also home prices have doubled since 2011)), and, understandably, many people want a piece of the wealth pie. They see that intellect – which includes STEM, finance, and also quantitative finance – is the path to both riches and social status (as embodied by wealthy geniuses like Musk, Thiel, Zuckerberg, Shkreli), which is why there is so much interest in these technical, difficult subjects, unlike decades ago when only a handful of people were interested. This is the so-called wealth-intellectualism synthesis.
An explanation for this ‘explosion’ may have to do with how the internet evolved, as well as demographic changes. From the late 90′s until around the early 2000′s, the internet was dominated primarily by music downloading/sharing and pornography, as well as crudely designed ‘personal webpages’ and news repositories (cnn.com, fox.com, etc.). Internet and computer speeds were slow, and what little precious bandwidth there was could not go to waste, so that meant a lot people used the internet to circumvent restrictions found offline, for example, not having to pay $18 for a CD but instead downloading the songs for free using a service such as Napster (which lead to a lot of lawsuits), which took a long time due to slow internet speeds. But at the time, it was amazing….people underestimate how important music downloads were for the early internet. While teens and 20-somethings were downloading music and pornography, older people were primarily using the internet to check news, finance (motley fool and yahoo finance were two popular sites). By 2002-2009, almost everyone has some form of high-speed internet, forums and social networks such as Myspace and v-bulletin are very popular and begin to overshadow music and porn downloads (because the internet is faster, people don’t have to chose between downloading music or porn (first priority) or social networking (second priority); they can easily do both), but the internet is still a pretty ‘dumb’ place, as mentioned earlier. At this point, millennials are still in their in their early to late teens and don’t have as large of a presence on the internet as they do now, which between 2002-2009 was dominated by gen-x.
Fast-forward to 2013, and now millennials are either finishing college or just graduated, and now dominate the internet, which has evolved from being dominated by Myspace, porn, and music downloading (all of which have now been pushed to the periphery, and Myspace has been replaced by Twitter and Facebook, which are much better), to now being dominated by sites such as Medium, Reddit, and Hacker News, that reward intellectualism and have huge traffic and growth. Although Slashdot, a smart site, was popular in 2002-2009, it was mostly an outlier, not the mainstream. Furthermore, millennials, being overeducated and more intellectually curious than earlier generations, are leading this intellectual renaissance/explosion, and have a keen interest in ‘smart’ topics such as economics, philosophy, computer programming, physics, finance, HBD, political science, sociology, etc. – not just music downloads or checking sports scores, and readily debate these complicated subjects on social news sites such as Reddit or Hacker News or on Twitter, which is both good and bad, to some extent. It’s ‘good’ because millennials helped create the ‘alt right’ another other esoteric ideologies and movements (such as MGTOW and Red Pill) that defy the boring, politically correct left-right dichotomy. Debating physics and economics online, imho, is more interesting than downloading music. Instead of trying to find the latest ‘Britney download’, young people now want to learn about functional programming, how to make money online (such as through stocks and finance) and be self-sufficient (instead of broke, dull, and spendthrift like their baby boomer parents), learn about Tensor flows, or the space-time continuum. They are also taking to Medium and Tumblr to blog about philosophy and how to find meaning in life, but also about programming, social theory, and start-ups. But on the other extreme, unfortunately, there are the millennial SJWs, who seem to have an especially large presence on Twitter, with ‘BLM’ Twitter mobs and campus crusaders.
As I explain in The Genius of Ross Douthat, partisanship and ‘culture wars’ have given way to ‘shared narratives and themes’ (existential matters, the economy, anxiety, distrust of elites, etc.) that cross the political aisle. This was especially evident during the 2016 GOP convention, where in his well-received speech Peter Thiel openly proclaimed being gay and implored the GOP to focus not on ‘culture’ issues (such as gender-neutral bathrooms) and instead focus on more ‘worldly’ objectives. From his speech:
But today our government is broken. Our nuclear bases still use floppy disks. Our newest fighter jets can’t even fly in the rain. And it would be kind to say the government’s software works poorly, because much of the time it doesn’t even work at all. That is a staggering decline for the country that completed the Manhattan project. We don’t accept such incompetence in Silicon Valley, and we must not accept it from our government.
Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East. We don’t need to see Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails: her incompetence is in plain sight. She pushed for a war in Libya, and today it’s a training ground for ISIS. On this most important issue Donald Trump is right. It’s time to end the era of stupid wars and rebuild our country.
When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union. And we won. Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?
Of course, every American has a unique identity. I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all I am proud to be an American. I don’t pretend to agree with every plank in our party’s platform; but fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline, and nobody in this race is being honest about it except Donald Trump.
The US government being ‘broken’ is another example of a narrative that both liberals and conservatives can agree on. The same for how ‘culture wars’ (which he explicitly mentions in his speech) are a distraction, and how America should focus on ‘real problems’, not contrived ones.
His speech, arguably the highlight of the night and even overshadowing Donald Trump himself, was met by raucous cheers by the audience, indicating that perhaps the GOP has thrown in the towel on the culture wars. You see this in the online in the ‘alt right’ movement, with Milo who is openly gay as their ‘shitlord leader’. Or Donald Trump, who has positioned himself more as an ‘economic warrior’ or a ‘border-control warrior’ than a ‘culture warrior’. Hot-button issues such as abortion, gun control, contraception, gay marriage, or the ‘separation of church and state’ have been pushed to the periphery or ignored all together.
To some extent Scott also concurs, in POST-PARTISANSHIP IS HYPER-PARTISANSHIP:
The consensus explanation was that there was a moment in the 90s and early Bush administration when evangelical Christianity seemed to have a lot of political power, and secularists felt really threatened by it. This caused a lot of fear and arguments. Then everyone mostly agreed Bush was terrible, studies came out showing religion was on the decline, evangelicalism became so politically irrelevant that even the Republicans started nominating Mormons and Donald Trump, and people stopped caring so much.
Not only have they stopped caring that much about religion, but they’re willing to adopt progressive religious people as role models and generally share stories that portray religious people in a positive light. Pope Francis gets to be the same sort of Socially Approved Benevolent Wise Person as the Dalai Lama.
The Defense of Marriage Act was a big deal, until the court struck it down in 2013 and everyone seemed to stop caring. Same for Obamacare, which generated a lot of heated, emotional debate between 2009-2013, and now it’s just become background noise, something that is annoying but tolerable. Prayer in schools, ‘under god’ in the pledge of allegiance, etc. were a big deal in the early-mid 2000′s, but now hardly any discussion about those things.
Perhaps many Americans have become inured and indifferent to ‘culture-war outrage’ and ‘partisanship’ that reached a fever pitch in 2008. Tribal politics were more appealing during periods of economic crisis like in 2008 or in the early 2000′s after 911, but as the stock market keeps making new highs and companies like Google and Facebook keeps reporting blowout earnings and computer sci and math become more important than ever, people are now seeking nuance and understanding, as part of the rise of ‘shared narratives’ and intellectualism. Instead of duking it out about gender-neutral bathrooms, people are now wondering if post-scarcity is possible, if quantum physics and relativity will ever be reconciled, if wealth inequality threatens the economy, if liberal arts degrees instead of STEM are a waste of money, if the stock market is a good buy at these levels, or if the singularity is near.
The traffic of medium.com and vox.com, two sites that epitomize the post-2013 trend towards ‘wonkish’ journalism and intellectualism, have exploded in recent years:
Although Vox.com, overall, does have a liberal bias, they frequently entertain contrarian, non-PC ideas as IQ-determinism, the Revolutionary War being a bad idea, and feature-length write ups about neoreaction (NRx) and the ‘alt-right’. These contrarian articles, as well as articles that are chock-full full of data and graphs instead of emotive partisanship, and the fact that these articles always go viral, is part of bigger trend of an ‘intellectual renaissance’ of sorts unfolding in America.
Same for medium.com, another website that entertains contrarian and complicated, intellectual stuff, that is seeing massive growth since 2013 and is now one of the top-400 sites in the world according to Alexa. Just this morning I checked my email and in the spam folder are tons of articles from Medium about programming, technology, psychology, machine learning, and other smart topics. It’s not like I deliberately chose to follow bloggers who write about smart subjects – the whole site is like that.
Signaling is actions and mannerisms that are intended to boost one’s social status among like-minded peers. Such mannerisms can include actions (writing, activism, etc.) and aesthetics (physical appearance, materialism, etc.).
I define two types of signaling: intellectualism signaling and visual/materialism signing.
The latter is much more primitive and mainly done to satisfy biological urges, in courting the opposite sex but also in some circumstances boost status, ultimately to increase the probability of procreation. Examples include a muscular man wearing a tight shirt to accentuate his physique. Or someone buying a fancy car or a fancy watch to impress a girl or his friends. Material possessions and visual musculature signal wealth and strength, which are traits some women are seek in men.
The former, intellectualism signaling, is slightly more complicated, and I think more interesting.
Signaling, according to Wikipedia, is defined as:
In contract theory, signaling (or signalling: see American and British English differences) is the idea that one party (termed the agent) credibly conveys some information about itself to another party (the principal). For example, in Michael Spence’s job-market signalling model, (potential) employees send a signal about their ability level to the employer by acquiring education credentials. The informational value of the credential comes from the fact that the employer believes the credential is positively correlated with having greater ability and difficult for low ability employees to obtain. Thus the credential enables the employer to reliably distinguish low ability workers from high ability workers.
I define this type of signaling as ‘intellectualism signaling’, and it has become very prevalent since 2008 in our competitive economy and society that increasingly rewards intellectualism and ‘results’ (individualistic traits) over collectivism and cooperation.
Intellectual signaling can include any intellectual activity that is public and unpaid. Teaching a math class is not signaling, but answering questions in an online math community is because it’s public and there is no expectation of pay. The reward, rather than money, is a boost in ‘expert status’, which is why this category is the same as ‘expert culture’.
If intellectualism signaling, unlike visual signaling, does not seem to fulfill a biological function (procreation), so why is it important, so prevalent? As I explain in In Search of Fulfillment, power, which comes from a boost in social status, elicits positive feelings, as much if not more, as material possessions: people trade time (unpaid experts answering questions through sites like Mathoverflow) and money (an alumni buying a building bearing his name) for power and status, in the former performing feats of intellectualism to boost status even if such acts do not have quantifiable economic return:
Part of the reason has to do with signaling and social status from other like-mined peers that comes from performing difficult feats of intellectualism, even if such feats don’t pay well. The gains in status are valuable, even if such worth cannot be as easily quantified in an economic sense. Popularity, even if it’s only as an esoteric celebrity, means feeling good, endorphin flowing, etc. If people pay money for entertainment and drugs that are supposed to elicit these feelings, then it must be worth something. For example, wealthy alumni trade money for status in having buildings named after them or through philanthropy, creating a legacy that will outlive their lives.
Stories and shared narratives, as signaling, is a common means of intellectualism to boost social status. If someone posts story about ostracism and getting bullied in high school and the story receives ‘up-votes’ and other tokens of adulation, the writer’s status rises even though he’s not richer, nor did he build anything. In the past, power and status was through nobility, industry, government, physical strength, or wealth, but ‘intellectualism culture’ and ‘expert culture’ has enabled otherwise ordinary people to hold some degree of power and status. Intellectualism, unlike connections, is an internal trait and is thus highly meritocratic. Given how much the post-2008 economy prizes intellectualism, intellectual wealth is almost tantamount to monetary wealth – if not more.
Careers have been built on simple stories, an example being Obama, whose memoir Dreams from My Father helped launched his political career. By mentioning Obama, I’m not denigrating stories and the people who tell them, but I’m amazed by the power of the medium. Many Medium authors have gone massively viral telling stories – the fat passenger on the plane, the article I linked to here, both which went hugely viral, and so on. I guess, the point is, if you want an inexpensive but not necessarily easy way to boost your social status, tell a good story – and or – write the next ‘great American article’. Knowledge really is power, more so than ever.
Apologia signaling – posts on social media (Tumblr, Facebook, LiveJoural, Medium, etc.) about being misunderstood and other types of introspection – can also count as intellectualism signaling through telling stories. This includes ‘naval gazing’, a label that is often used pejoratively, but includes articles about intellectual topics (coding, economics, start-ups, etc.) written from a first-person perspective, often with anecdotal evidence but also technical analysis, and a high caliber of writing ability. This style can be annoying in its tendency to overgeneralize or ‘lump’ people into simple, reductionist categories (rich vs. poor). An example of this type of signaling is Siderea’s long-winded article on class, which combines a personal narrative with fairly complicated, in-depth economic analysis of class structures in America. This signals intellectual competence to like-minded peers who also value intellectualism.
Virtue signaling involves narratives to convey sentimentalism, with facts and objectivity tending to be less important than promoting a social cause. Too many people lump all signalling with ‘virtue signalling’, even though virtue signaling is just one type of signalling. In recent years, with the post-2013 SJW-backlash and rise of centrism and rejection of ‘low information’, virtue signaling and pandering actually seems to have lost its effectiveness, and people who resort to it tend to be called-out, even by the peers the are trying to impress (examples being classically-minded liberals criticizing SJWs). Ideologically, this can both ways, with liberals promoting ‘social justice’ as signing progressiveness to like-minded liberals, and conservatives tending to promote the virtues of traditionalism to other conservatives. Virtue signaling may be the lowest form of ‘intellectualism signalling’, as it tends to require little intellectual rigor and is quite partisan in nature, and the writing ability is mediocre.
Related to the Wikipedia definition, although philosophy has few ‘real world’ applications, an advanced degree in philosophy signals to employers and peers an above-average ability to read and comprehend difficult texts as well as an above-average ability to make inferences from disparate pieces of information – skills that not confer status in an intellectualized cultural enthronement but are skills employers seek. A person who has a PHD in a STEM subject (which I include philosophy as ‘STEM’) has a high-IQ and thus can learn and retain difficult material quickly, so an employer will be able to quickly get him up to speed on any task, not just tasks pertaining to physics, philosophy, or math
Then you have ‘intellectualism-wealth signing’, which is is related synthesis of wealth and intellectualism, as embodied by the likes of Musk, Zuck, Gates, Buffett, Bezos, and Martin Shkreli. Wealth and displays of wealth as measured by bank statements and trading accounts, if obtained through intellectual means, is a valid form of intellectualism, in contrast to ostentatious materialism signaling (fancy cars, big home, Rolex, etc). Based on my own empirical observations on Reddit and elsewhere, many Millennials are rejecting ostentatious materialism in favor of intellectualism-wealth signing. For example, a bank statement showing wining stock trades is an example of intellectualism-wealth signing, because making a lot of money in the stock market, when most people fail, is a an intercultural endeavor, requiring a high-IQ. Founding a hugely successful web 2.0 company or making a lot of money as an Amazon self-publisher are other examples.
Last and probably not least, there is counter-signaling, which Wikipedia defines as showing off by not showing off, or by playing humble: for instance, the nouveau riche are known to flash their cash – expensive champagne and brand new sports cars – while those with old money are more understated, and may drive an old 1989 Volvo. Instead replace, ‘nouveau riche’ with ‘low-information rich’, in contract to ‘intellectualism-wealth’ that is more humble. Counter-signaling also ties into the rejection of ‘low information’ by intellectual circles. Signalling too strongly may be a sign of being too beholden to a belief, as if converted, so counter-signaling is a way of, incidentally, of signalling open-mindedness and other intellectual traits, than being too narrow-minded and and provincial. Pre-2013, for example, the vast majority of liberals online seemed to support social justice causes and then in 2013-2014 there was split, as some on the left realized they had taken their activism and virtue signaling ‘too far’, so ‘counter-signaling’ moves the pendulum closer to the middle as a way of promoting more intellectual honesty and less partisanship/tribal behavior. This lead to the rise of ‘rationalism’ and a return to centrism. Also in 2013-2014, we saw the rise of the ‘alt right’, which uses counter-signaling to question conservative orthodoxy on certain issues such as abortion, in questioning the ‘pro-life temptation’. The article generated a staggering 440 disqus comments, in contrast to the 20-40 comments of a typical Radix article, indicating considerable debate. The debate process itself, to always be questioning than just shutting up and being spoon-fed pablum, is a major part of what differentiates the ‘alt right’ from the ‘mainstream’.