Creative Destruction

August 6, 2010

The Mindless Crowd

Filed under: Blog Status,Navel Gazing,Philosophy — Brutus @ 2:46 pm

After more than two years without a new post, I decided that from time to time I will post new entries that are more brief and less analytical than those at my personal blog, The Spiral Staircase. Feel free to comment. Regrettably, I lack administrative access to change the blog theme and with it the stupid turtle head at the top of the page. Oh, well ….

This explanation of what happens when crowds panic is too interesting to pass up. Although many clumsy thinkers tend to explain crowd effects in terms of group mind or mob mentality, the explanation provided at the linked page supports the idea that individuals become mindless parts of the crowd, which is itself also mindless. Behaviors of the mob, including the so-called wisdom of crowds, are certainly observable and in some cases even predictable, but they don’t rise to the level of a hive mind or collective consciousness. That mistaken thinking is borrowed in part from observations of the social behaviors of insects and in part from the more imaginative stories of science fiction that examine human consciousness (albeit somewhat intuitively, not knowingly) by projecting collective consciousness on alien cultures.

November 15, 2007

Shameless self-promotion

Over at Sophistpundit I’ve written up a pretentious little call to arms against media regulation.  Enjoy!

June 4, 2007

The Secret To Success

Filed under: Philosophy — Robert @ 1:32 am

Or so the story goes, anyway.

(It is sound advice.)

(H/T, the Evangelical Outpost.)

May 3, 2007

Problems of Social Organization

Filed under: Environment,Ethics,Philosophy — Brutus @ 10:54 pm

We’re a species tragically marred by our own success. This article by Jeremy Rifkin presents the depressing numbers. Similar disaster is predicted everywhere these days. Here’s just one other example. (You’ve got to be living under a rock not to be aware of other, similar reports.) Some are considering how to face coming catastrophe: see here and here and here. The picture is bleak, and it’s been looming over the horizon for no short time.

The overarching story is that humankind and human nature has run its course and that, like the virus that eventually destroys its host, we have unwittingly sealed our own sad fate and ruined the planet for human habitation (and most other habitation with it). Unfortunately, unlike a virus, we can’t simply leap to a new host. In short, our basic form of social organization in the modern world, capitalist industry, has wrought changes in the ecosystem so vast that they’re now unrecoverable, and we’re too committed to our current paradigm to change in time to avoid catastrophe. In addition, our sheer numbers have been gained through a base exploitation of everything at our disposal, as though no other living creature has any right to survive.

Lost somewhere in the detritus of my abandoned and unfinished blog posts is the notion of maximizing, minimizing, and optimizing. Whereas most of nature occupies a niche in relative balance with the rest of creation — or at leasts lacks the wit and tools to overcome the cycles of ebb and flow — mankind since the Industrial Revolution (and perhaps since the Enlightenment) has been hellbent on maximizing its ecological niche. (Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel demonstrates rather unequivocally that this has ever been our modus operandi. Human expansion in prehistory was always the trigger for local extinctions. Basically, we ate everything.) We’ve succeeded marvelously. Now, in this our latest stage of development, our impact is astonishing. Industry has provided us the means to wrest from the Earth everything we can, and no morality has effectively suggested that a more restrained approach to living, establishing, for example, an optimized or balanced harmony with the rest of nature, might ultimately be a better way of living.

I’ve been reading on the subject for over a year now and am still struggling to get my head around it. The extrapolation of current trends is almost too depressing to contemplate, and I can’t profess to having the hopefulness of many others who have similarly recognized our dilemma. However, the ethical response is to at least acknowledge what’s happening in the wider sweep of human history and hopefully alleviate some suffering down the line.

The best statements on this topics I’ve come across so far are two essays in Orion Magazine: “The Idols of Environmentalism” and “The Ecology of Work” by Curtis White. They are beautifully written and lack the sort of doom and gloom that is inescapable for me. They suggest the basic response that Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael and other books, has been recommending: that we walk away from civilizational culture.

February 5, 2007


Filed under: History,International Politics,Navel Gazing,Philosophy — Brutus @ 7:53 pm

I remember watching the street in front of my boyhood home being repaved. The bulk and power of the construction equipment made a lasting impression on me, as bulldozers, cranes, steam (or hydraulic) shovels, pavers, and dump trucks are pretty imposing pieces of machinery. But the one that really fascinated me was the steamroller. What the steamroller lacks in majesty, compared to the glacier anyway (a natural process, I note), it makes up for in fanciful temporal reconceptualization. Watching the steamroller work requires one to think in terms of slow process. It’s also a well-worn cliche in cartoons that villains and heroes alike are frequently flattened by steamrollers only to reappear in the next scene no worse for wear. Roadrunner, Tom and Jerry, The Naked Gun, A Fish Called Wanda, Austin Powers, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? all have steamroller bits in them, always slapstick in tone.

The implied threat of the steamroller, which is different from other heavy equipment, is not merely the specter of death but a slow, agonizing, bone-by-crunching-bone crushing accomplished not by stealth, strategy, or speed but by slow, steady, obvious, undeterred, mindless force. I don’t know of any sort of irrational fear that stems from steamrollers, though, unlike the silent scream or catatonia some experience faced with other looming threats. Because the steamroller works in slo-mo, one feels safe knowing that it’s possible to play in the streets and alight out of harm’s way at the last moment. So being caught under a steamroller represents either a grave miscalculation or the mark of rather extreme stupidity.

So what steamrollers are figuratively bearing down on us at the dawn of this new millennium? I can think of a few. (more…)

November 12, 2006

Cognitive Bias

Filed under: Content-lite,Philosophy — Daran @ 10:17 am


Of course, I don’t suffer from any of these.

October 18, 2006

Americans Too Stupid to Act Democratically

Filed under: History,Navel Gazing,Philosophy — Brutus @ 12:43 pm

Are there are certain thresholds necessary for the operation of democratic institutions? The founding fathers certainly thought so. Our participation in the electoral process, public debate, and other community action is predicated on being informed and educated to at least, say, a high school level. One acid test performed periodically is polling Americans to see how many believe that the sun revolves around the earth. The number changes a bit depending on how and when the question is asked, but the usual finding is that 1 in 5 believe that the sun revolves around us.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the scientific community muddies the waters by periodically redefinining planets and stars or introducing evidence that the earth has a second moon. But still, a fifth of Americans have a basic concept of our place in the universe discredited centuries ago by the Copernican Revolution?

One of my favorite authors, Morris Berman, has a new book called Dark Ages America. I’ve not yet read it, but the blurbs and reviews say that Berman paints a picture of America’s entry into a new dark age and its imminent collapse, at least in part because of its inability to maintain the very democratic institutions that brought it to prominence. It isn’t just the dominance of the Right Wing in politics or fundamentalism in culture, though; it’s that we’ve returned to a sort of shuttered mind characterized by magical thinking and outright denial of scientific knowledge.

There is good evidence that logic, reason, and other Enlightenment values may not be all they’re cracked up to be, that for all their utility they don’t provide substantive human meaning and lead only to a soulless, technocratic society. However, American-style democracy cannot survive without them. If there is a new paradigm forming around us — and many believe there is — it cannot plunge us into a mindset that foresakes what we have learned and achieved in the last 400 years. Rather, we need a synthesis that reincorporates human value, not one that irrationally places man again at the center of the universe.

September 21, 2006


Filed under: Philosophy — Robert @ 3:05 pm

Happiness is not an outcome. It is not a result. It is not something to work for. It is not something to be found.

Happiness is a decision.

August 16, 2006

The Religious Left?

Filed under: Philosophy — Off Colfax @ 4:30 am

Everyone stop what you’re doing. Yes, even stop reading this. I don’t care if you have eggs on the stove. I don’t care if your coffee is getting cold. I don’t even care if you’re late for work and/or school.

Go straight to the Wash Park Prophet in order to read this entry. For Andrew Oh-Willeke has a post that should earn him a Bloggie nomination. Too bad they don’t have a Best Damn Post Ever category. They should.

It’s that damn good.

August 9, 2006

The Peril of Boredom

Filed under: Content-lite,Navel Gazing,Philosophy — Brutus @ 11:24 pm

I overheard a mother at a bus stop trying to interest her son in the video iPod she was carrying, apparently loaded with the usual kid shows. He was having none of it, though he wasn’t causing any disruption or disturbance, while she was in effect a drug pusher. The scene got me thinking about how we soothe our boredom, especially that of children.

Almost every parent insists that children’s unrelenting need for both attention and stimulation is exhausting. Given the tools at hand, it’s inevitable that parents use various means of pacification, increasingly electronic distractions. Some parents recognize that plopping the kid(s) in front of the TV means selling their children down the river of advertising (training them as rapacious consumers), and for some, there’s a sense of guilt. Lately, kids have portable electronic distractions (e.g., GameBoys and iPods) so that even the relative wholesomeness of summer camp is no longer free of electronics. And it’s bleeding into adulthood. Never mind the countless hours routinely forfeited to TV; now a gaming system, an Internet connection, a cell phone, a DVD collection, and a BlackBerry also clamor for time and attention. Workouts, rush hour commutes, plane rides, and virtually any idle time must now be complemented by an iPod or DVD. Electronics makers must be rolling their hands and twirling their mustaches, having convinced most of the population to be plugged in at all times, just as soft drink purveyors convinced previous generations that a meal isn’t complete without a soft drink.

So what’s with the cavernous emptiness of boredom that screams to be filled, even if only with the most banal of stimulation? Why is it so difficult to be content in silence, alone with our own thoughts? Like the T-Rex that can only sense movement in its field of vision, we’re evolved to notice and seek change rather than stasis, which has turned into a fetish for novelty. Many of us are also so ill-equipped to use our own creativity as a source of self-amusement, whether it be writing, singing, or even thinking, that we must instead turn our attentions outward and, in our general laziness, gather whatever stimulation is most readily available. With our current electronics options, much of that stimulation is empty of meaningful content, such as the graphics on a news program that do nothing but temporarily tantalize the eyes, or the variety of new musical styles that are all hook and beat and thump.

It used to be that when a child complained “I’m bored …” to a parent, an aphorism was delivered: “Boredom is the mark of an uncreative and impoverished mind.” The implication of that rebuke was that, by using the imagination, one could dream up things to do that would provide amusement and generate enthusiasm. Perhaps some parents still instruct children that way, but in public at least, the complaint “I’m bored” is usually interpreted as a fire alarm, sending parents scrambling to find something to quench the fire before some mischief sets in. The restless mind of youth transforms into the mind at rest, like the effects of a depressant. And the habit is easily formed: the expectation that stimulation is done to a person rather than something a person does for him- or herself. Over time, one effect is that one’s enthusiasms are dominated by outer directedness, which is to say that we cathect with celebrities, consumer goods, sports teams, alcohol, and drugs, all of which release us from the torments of being ourselves.

UPDATE: I just came across this new product. It’s a shopping cart with seating for kids and a TV screen. For the love of all things holy, don’t look away from the TV screen!!

shopping cart

July 22, 2006

Identifying error

Filed under: Debate,Philosophy,Science — Adam Gurri @ 6:11 pm

Daran does an effective job demolishing the Slate response to the Lancet survey.  Then states:

But the true drawdropping irony in all of this is that Adam, apparently with a straight face, should cite this claptrap in a post exhorting the rest of us to higher standards of evidence!

I happen to believe that what occurred supports the arguments I made in that post.


July 21, 2006

Who’s Really Minding the Geopolitical Store?

Filed under: Current Events,Philosophy,War — Brutus @ 12:41 pm

Over at Wash Park Prophet, Andrew Oh-Willeke has two very interesting posts about the military and methods in which modern wars have been waged (a first post, rather long, and a second, much shorter). Although geopolitics falls outside my usual focus and definitely outside my expertise, these posts raise some interesting points about how we live in the modern world.

It’s inevitable, perhaps, that we must accept that war is still very much a part of life at many locations around the globe, including North America, and that strategic defense needs must be monitored, recognized, and met. Of course, none of that is static, and technology in particular transforms the playing field continuously. That ongoing transformation is especially apparent after the end of the putative Cold War, with the U.S. surviving as the sole superpower and our enemies no longer, or at least not currently, being nation-states but loose networks of terrorists. (Never mind that the U.S. is “at war” with Afghanistan and Iraq. These aren’t wars in the traditional sense any more that the “war” on terrorism or the “wars” on poverty and drugs.) Terrorist targets typically aren’t militaries but have shifted to civilians and symbols of the governments and cultures those terrorists aim to antagonize.

So as history chugs along and technology, among other things, changes the rules of engagement, who’s minding the store to ensure that we adapt responsibly to current needs? That’s the question the Wash Park Prophet prompted upon my reading of his brief history of modern warfare (the first post) and the failure of the U.S. Navy in particular to recognize how vulnerable it has become (the second post). If some guy with a blog and some free time can assemble well-argued posts on the subject, I have to wonder who in government is paying attention to these issues and planning for the future? The Pentagon? Some government-sponsored think tank? No one? Waiting for an academic review, conducted from the perspective of hindsight, certainly can’t be the answer. That takes too long and, in the meantime, too many lives and opportunities are squandered.

It’s been argued for some time that traditional government, not unlike traditional warfare, no longer fulfills its mission, which itself is difficult to articulate. Significant evidence (omitted for brevity) of government failure, mismanagement, and corruption in the public sector is sometimes likened to market failure in the private sector. As with all mature systems, formalism sets in and renders long-established government bureaucracies incapable of responding to the changing face of both domestic and geopolitical issues. Considering that electoral politics dominates the political sphere (and the cult of personality, corrupt fundraising, and obvious profit taking that go with electoral politics), it’s a wonder that anything gets done at all. I don’t consider the mere shuffling of the deck that occurred when the Dept. of Homeland Security consolidated the work of several independently operated agencies an example of progress.

So as the public goes about living their lives — paying mortgages, raising children, writing the great American novel, and the like — we entrust and empower our government to develop a cohesive and comprehensive view of providing for the public welfare. On even the slightest review, however, what we actually have for government looks more like a headless beast, all bloated body and tentacles operating without coordination. We can mostly likely respond to new threats and cataclysms as they occur, but it would sure be nice to be able to anticipate them, which I fear we can’t when no one is truly minding the store.

June 19, 2006

The Ghetto of Edutainment

Filed under: Education,Philosophy — Brutus @ 1:41 pm

At the Chicago Public Library recently, I stumbled across a couple DVDs from a 16-title series called Physical Science in Action. See this container:


My science background is woefully inadequate, so I thought perhaps I could get some succinct info on basics such as magnetism, gravity, properties of matter, characteristics of waves, etc. I neglected to notice that the DVD series is intended for Grades 5 to 8. All well and good, I suppose, but once I viewed the DVD on gravity, I got rather irritated.


June 17, 2006

“I don’t see why people care about patriotism.”

Filed under: Philosophy,Popular Culture,War — Robert @ 1:24 pm

""The entire country may disagree with me, but I don't understand the necessity for patriotism. Why do you have to be a patriot? About what? This land is our land? Why? You can like where you live and like your life, but as for loving the whole country… I don't see why people care about patriotism."

– Dixie Chick Natalie Maine, as reported in the Telegraph.

"We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and then bid the geldings to be fruitful."

C.S. Lewis

May 14, 2006

Gay Marriage; or We Are all Traditionalists

Filed under: Debate,Ethics,Human Rights,Philosophy,Politics — Adam Gurri @ 1:19 pm

Gay marriage is one of those issues, like abortion, where I generally cannot stand the pat-answers on either side.

I got thinking about this subject again because I saw the discussion on the "slipperly slope" argument that Ampersand linked to, using polygamy as the example here.


What’s The Female Case For Polygamy?

Filed under: Debate,Feminist Issues,Philosophy,Science — Robert @ 3:13 am

Re: polygamy, a commenter over on some lefty-fem blog asks "what’s in it for a woman that she couldn’t get more of with a monogamous marriage?"

I have a stab at an answer on that thread, but would welcome other ideas. Personally, although I am happily married, the idea of multiple wives strikes me as a window into hell. But intellectually, I am very curious as to what the positive case for the institution of polygamy is, from the female point of view.

April 28, 2006

This is depressing

Filed under: Philosophy,Politics,Popular Culture — bazzer @ 1:41 pm

As if the rumor about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck redoing "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" weren't bad enough, now I have to contend with the prospect of Brangelina desecrating Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. I don't think you have to be a devout Objectivist to feel some measure of apprehension about this project.

I'll confess that I have less patience for Rand's writings than I did in my college days. Her rigid, pedantic prose quickly wore thin on me. Moreover, despite Rand's personal hostility toward religion, she ironically managed to create a religion herself, one that's every bit as unyielding and dogmatic as any other kind of fundamentalism.

Still, if I'm being totally honest, she probably had as big an influence on my own political philosophy as any one, single person. When I first encountered her work some 20 years ago, it changed my way of thinking in profound ways, as only a small handful of books have ever done.

Despite her hidebound dogmatism, I still find her straightforward, across-the-board skepticism of the modern, collectivist state to be more appealing and intellectually honest than the convenient piecemeal antistatism of modern-day conservatism and liberalism, both of which can talk a mean game about individual liberties… except when it comes to all those unpleasant activities which they really, really want to regulate.

Rand still occupies a soft spot in my heart, and I have a feeling that her work deserves a better treatment than Mr. Pitt and Ms. Jolie are likely to give it. Bummer.

April 18, 2006

Angry People Suck?

Filed under: Philosophy,Science — Robert @ 11:06 pm

Interesting discussion of the contagiousness of emotion, and why surrounding yourself with positive people might be better for you.

(So much for blogging!)

April 12, 2006

They don’t exactly float in the air

Filed under: Debate,Evolution,Philosophy — Adam Gurri @ 3:38 pm

Here at Creative Destruction, a post of mine sparked quite a discussion. The original post took a quote from the Vulgar Moralist, and he has just stepped into the arena.

I am interested in “ideas” only so far as they influence behavior.

Suppose, then, that all of us non-Mormon Americans keeled over tomorrow, and left the country in the hands of the Latter Day Saints. With a greater degree of freedom than is the norm in the Muslim Middle East, the next generation might indeed see some individualists and free-thinkers who deviate from church teachings. But would they approximate the numbers of cultural liberals today?

Traditions are not learned from a manual. They are taught in the school of family life, and in the shared rituals of the community. They are not a matter of intellectual assent or reasoned proof. We feel the moral vision implicit in our traditions in the form of powerful emotions, which link our lives to the larger story of the community, infuse them with meaning, and seem, not infrequently, worth dying for: dulce et decorum est. In a very literal sense, morality commands our biology. (Those interested in the biological drivers of morality, check the work of Antonio Damasio and Jonathan Haidt.)

If the moral community we call “cultural liberalism” physically vanished tomorrow (and I have no idea if this is really in the cards), it would take with it all its traditions, rituals, and habits. The chance of these being reproduced spontaneously in the next generation approximate the chances of spontaneous Muslim generation, should all believers in that religion somehow vanish instead.

What is the place of freedom in this scheme of things? I said tradition is not learned in a manual. Morality isn’t a series of yes-and-no questions. The complexity of human life is too immense for such methods. Personal freedom is the motor of moral evolution: the way we adjust our public traditions to our private needs, and to the everlasting puzzle of the social environment. Not being a social darwinist, I don’t believe moral evolution is necessarily for the good, whether “good” is considered in terms of good and evil or of worldly success.

This is why I felt that Ampersand was way off when he argued that VM’s argument could be boiled down to saying that “ideas are passed on – or fail to be passed on – through breeding. Period.” It isn’t about breeding; it’s about the practitioners of a tradition being around to demostrate just what being a part of that tradition means, on a behavioral level.

Breeding is connected, in as much as if the advocates of a tradition grow fewer with each generation, the likelihoods of that tradition’s long-term survival begins to decline.

March 24, 2006

Finding Balance in the flux

Filed under: Philosophy — Adam Gurri @ 9:04 pm

A recent run-in with a missionary at sophistpundit, along with Bob’s post on intellectual honesty have inspired me to write a bit here.

Much of man’s folly is in his continual quest for instant gratification.  We often fail to realize that everything has a price, and that the price is not always paid in currency visible to the naked eye.

You can’t create something out of nothing.  This is obvious to anyone.  You can just conjure up a cake; you have to get the ingredients.  But more than just the ingredients, you have to put in the right proportions, and bake it for the right amount of time at the right temperature.  Even less intuitive to us is the fact that our talent–in this case, one’s skill at portioning for a batter and timing the baking process–is also something that we contribute.

All these things; our time and our physical resources and our skill, are the price we pay in order to get that cake.  If any of these falls short, we get what we paid for.  There is a balance here, and I think it is often underestimated.

One concept that I think is very difficult for people to wrap their heads around is that value is entirely situational.  There is no basic value to anything.  A product is only worth whatever the consumer is willing to pay for it.  No more, no less.

I started Creative Destruction in the hopes of making a place for people who strongly disagree and probably distrust each other to exchange ideas with one another.  But what would this exchange entail?

I you are perceived to be a conservative by the person you’re in a debate with, the best payment for that person’s trust is to think of as many people they would categorize similarly who you think are failing to measure up to whatever it is you’re talking about.

For instance, if a someone tells you that everything is divided up by political affiliation, and you would end up on the conservative side, I would argue that this isn’t true, that people are people and political affiliation should not be allowed to bar discussion.  Now, to make a case for this, I wouldn’t say “Like Michael Moore, he tries to divide everyone.” In all liklihood, they will not be impressed by this and it will only further their suspicion that you’re unfairly biased against liberals.  So instead, I would say “People like Ann Coulter and Limbaugh are examples of exactly what I can’t stand–people that make money by fueling the fire and making it even harder to cross partisan lines for the purpose of a discussion.”

Some people would consider this approach to be a cop-out.  I don’t think so.  In this particular example, offering up an example of a liberal polarizer has no value to the person I’m engaging in debate with.  But offering up an acknowledgment of the conservative pundits who behave equivalently has much more value to them.  And I have sacrificed nothing–I really don’t like those two.  But the person I’m talking with has put me in the “conservative” category in their mind, and so providing criticism of two people who they’d also put in that category can be seen as an act of good faith.

This does not mean an end to criticism of liberals if you are a conservative, or conservatives if you are a liberal.  What it means is that you should be actively critical of people who you might agree with more on some level, because otherwise criticism of another political affiliation will be easy to view as nothing more than selfishness.

You’ve got to give something before you can hope to get what you want; and there’s no guarantee that what you give will be valuable enough to get precisely what you’re going for.

But I believe people will always reap rewards for this, in the long run.

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