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Culture war games: a perfect storm of temptations

Why Fiction Trumps Truth
By Yuval Noah Harari

It is sobering to realize that the Scientific Revolution began in the most fanatical culture in the world. Europe in the days of Columbus, Copernicus and Newton had one of the highest concentrations of religious extremists in history, and the lowest level of tolerance.

Newton himself apparently spent more time looking for secret messages in the Bible than deciphering the laws of physics. The luminaries of the Scientific Revolution lived in a society that expelled Jews and Muslims, burned heretics wholesale, saw a witch in every cat-loving elderly lady and started a new religious war every full moon.

If you had traveled to Cairo or Istanbul around 400 years ago, you would have found a multicultural and tolerant metropolis where Sunnis, Shiites, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Armenians, Copts, Jews and even the occasional Hindu lived side by side in relative harmony. Though they had their share of disagreements and riots — and though the Ottoman Empire routinely discriminated against people on religious grounds — it was a liberal paradise compared with Western Europe. If you had then sailed on to contemporary Paris or London, you would have found cities awash with religious bigotry, in which only those belonging to the dominant sect could live. In London they killed Catholics; in Paris they killed Protestants; the Jews had long been driven out; and nobody even entertained the thought of letting any Muslims in. And yet the Scientific Revolution began in London and Paris rather than in Cairo or Istanbul.

The ability to compartmentalize rationality probably has a lot to do with the structure of our brain. Different parts of the brain are responsible for different modes of thinking. Humans can subconsciously deactivate and reactivate those parts of the brain that are crucial for skeptical thinking. Thus Adolf Eichmann could have shut down his prefrontal cortex while listening to Hitler give an impassioned speech, and then reboot it while poring over the Auschwitz train schedule.

Even if we need to pay some price for deactivating our rational faculties, the advantages of increased social cohesion are often so big that fictional stories routinely triumph over the truth in human history. Scholars have known this for thousands of years, which is why scholars often had to decide whether they served the truth or social harmony. Should they aim to unite people by making sure everyone believes in the same fiction, or should they let people know the truth even at the price of disunity? Socrates chose the truth and was executed. The most powerful scholarly establishments in history — whether of Christian priests, Confucian mandarins or Communist ideologues — placed unity above truth. That’s why they were so powerful.


Posted in Games.

Culture war games: of humane impulses and correct conduct

Adults are the only ones who fell for the Momo hoax
By Andrew Tarantola

I wish I could tell you that moral panics were something new but, as Chris Ferguson, professor and co-chair of psychology at Florida’s Stetson University, explains to Engadget, they’ve been around for millenia.

“I mean, you can see narratives in Plato’s dialogues where Athenians are talking about Greek plays — that they’re going to be morally corrupting, that they’re going to cause delinquency in kids,” Ferguson points out. “That’s why Socrates was killed, right? Essentially, that his his ideas were going to corrupt the youth of Athens. Socrates was the Momo challenge of his day.”

Unfortunately, humanity appears to still be roughly as gullible as we were in the 5th century BC as new moral panics crop up with uncanny regularity. In recent decades we’ve seen panics about Dungeons and Dragons leading to Satanism, hidden messages in Beatles songs, killer forest clowns, the Blue Whale, the Knockout Game, and the Tide Pod Challenge.

Despite the unique nature of threat presented in each panic, this phenomenon follows a pair of basic motifs, Ferguson explained.

“There’s this inherent protectiveness of kids,” he said. “There’s also the sense of like, kids are idiots and therefore adults have to step in and ‘do something.’ — hence the idea that your teenager can simply watch a YouTube video and then suddenly want to kill themselves. It’s ridiculous if you think about if for 30 seconds but, nonetheless, this is an appealing sort of narrative.”

“There’s the general sense of teens behaving badly and technology oftentimes being the culprit in some way or another,” Ferguson continued. “It just seems that we’re kind of wired, particularly as we get older, to be more and more suspicious of technology and popular culture.”

That is due, in part, because the popular culture right now isn’t the popular culture that the people in power grew up with. It’s a “kids today with their music and their hair” situation, Ferguson argues. He points out that “Mid-adult mammals tend to be the most dominant in social species,” but as they age, their power erodes until they are forced out of their position by a younger, fitter rival. “As we get older, eventually we’re going to become less and less relevant,” he said. Faced with that prospect, older members of society may begin to view fresh ideas and new technologies as evidence of society’s overall moral decline.


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Culture war games: the Gorgon Stare of the surveillance state

Historically Hollow: The Cries of Populism
By Bryan Caplan

Amazon is simply the best store that ever existed, by far, with incredible selection and unearthly convenience. The price: cheap.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social media let us socialize with our friends, comfortably meet new people, and explore even the most obscure interests. The price: free.

Uber and Lyft provide high-quality, convenient transportation. The price: really cheap.

Skype is a sci-fi quality video phone. The price: free.

Youtube gives us endless entertainment. The price: free.

Google gives us the totality of human knowledge! The price: free.

That’s what I’ve seen. What I’ve heard, however, is totally different. The populists of our Golden Age are loud and furious. They’re crying about “monopolies” that deliver firehoses worth of free stuff. They’re bemoaning the “death of competition” in industries (like taxicabs) that governments forcibly monopolized for as long as any living person can remember. They’re insisting that “only the 1% benefit” in an age when half of the high-profile new businesses literally give their services away for free. And they’re lashing out at businesses for “taking our data” – even though five years ago hardly anyone realized that they had data.

My point: If your overall reaction to business progress over the last fifteen years is even mildly negative, no sensible person will try to please you, because you are impossible to please. Yet our new anti-tech populists have managed to make themselves a center of pseudo-intellectual attention.

Angry lamentation about the effects of new tech on privacy has flabbergasted me the most. For practical purposes, we have more privacy than ever before in human history. You can now buy embarrassing products in secret. You can read or view virtually anything you like in secret. You can interact with over a billion people in secret.

Then what privacy have we lost? The privacy to not be part of a Big Data Set. The privacy to not have firms try to sell us stuff based on our previous purchases. In short, we have lost the kinds of privacy that no prudent person loses sleep over.


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Culture war games: a willingness to be mau-maued

The Rise and Fall of the Palo Alto Consensus
By Kevin Munger

The Palo Alto Consensus held that American-made internet communication technologies (both hardware and software) should be distributed globally and that governments should be discouraged from restricting speech online. Its proponents believed that states in which public discourse was governed by “everyone” — via social media and the internet — would become more democratic. This would mean both regime change in authoritarian countries (the Arab Spring) and more responsive politics in electoral democracies (something like the White House Petitions).

Part of the appeal of the Palo Alto Consensus was that it would create a dilemma for states: They could not restrict online information flows without upsetting their populations’ social and economic lives. The assumption was that states would be prevented from shutting down information flows about, say, corruption or police brutality. That has been a success. But everyone seems to have underestimated the demand for information about how white nationalism is good and vaccines are bad. The downsides of information flows controlled by powerful institutions are obvious, but now people are coming to recognize their upsides.


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Culture war games: amber waves of green

American voters don’t care about the economy
By The Economist

Polling on behalf of The Economist by YouGov shows that Republicans are four times as optimistic as Democrats about the state of the stockmarket, which Mr Trump often cheers on. Liberals complain about high housing costs and low wage growth—never mind that wages are growing more strongly now than towards the end of Mr Obama’s term.

Mr Trump’s election in 2016 was followed by a rapid switch in attitudes. From the six months before the election to the six months after, YouGov measured a 45 percentage-point increase in the share of Republican-aligned Americans who believed the economy was getting better. Democrats became sharply more pessimistic. So it’s not any longer the economy, stupid. It’s the partisanship.


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