What We Are | George Monbiot

Democracy cannot work as it is meant to; human nature does not allow it.

Democracy for Realists, published earlier this year by the social science professors Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, argues that the “folk theory of democracy” – the idea that citizens make coherent and intelligible policy decisions, on which governments then act – bears no relationship to how it really works

we act politically not as individual, rational beings, but as members of social groups, expressing a social identity.

This is not to suggest that it has no virtues, just that they are not the principal virtues we ascribe to it. It allows governments to be changed without bloodshed, limits terms in office, and ensures that the results of elections are widely accepted. Sometimes public attribution of blame will coincide with reality, which is why you don’t get famines in democracies.

This is not to suggest that the folk theory of democracy comes close to reality anywhere, but that the situation is not as hopeless as they propose.

Persistent, determined, well-organised groups can bring neglected issues to the fore and change political outcomes. But in doing so they cannot rely on what democracy ought to be. We must see it for what it is. That means understanding what we are.

Source: What We Are | George Monbiot

Ploughing On Regardless | George Monbiot

Almost all other issues are superficial by comparison to soil loss. So why don’t we talk about it?

according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world, on average, has just 60 more years of growing crops. Even in Britain, which is spared the tropical downpours that so quickly strip exposed soil from the land, Farmers’ Weekly reports that we have “only 100 harvests left”.

To keep up with global food demand, the UN estimates, 6 million hectares of new farmland will be needed every year. Instead, 12 million hectares a year are lost through soil degradation.

A paper just published in the journal Anthropocene analyses the undisturbed sediments in an 11th century French lake. It shows that the intensification of farming over the last century has increased the rate of soil erosion 60-fold.

This is what topples civilisations. War and pestilence might kill large numbers of people, but in most cases the population recovers. But lose the soil and everything else goes with it.

Source: Ploughing On Regardless | George Monbiot

The Manhattan Project Fallacy

When will tech solve the real problems, critics ask? … Assuming that this complaint is sincere, it nonetheless misses the point. What are “real” problems? … It’s a convoluted way of saying that the author wants to deputize Google, Facebook, Apple, and other tech companies to solve social problems.

Tech critics should be very careful what they wish for when they say that they wish that tech companies would tackle the “real” problems. What they are asking for is for tech companies to engineer solutions to social problems, and in particular they are asking for the top-down engineering of solutions to social problems by experts, bureaucrats, scientists, and engineers. This rational design process does not generally improve intractable social problems in flawed systems and if anything is the source of new problems.

a key characteristic of many social problems is a basic disagreement about what to measure and how to measure it.

it is also amusing that the call for the tech world to save us occurs at a time of popular panic over artificial intelligence. … There is a danger from a superintelligent, hyper rational, paperclip optimizing artificial intelligence. … Actually, it’s already taken control. … Yes, dear reader, I speak of the federal government.

The bureaucratic dimension of technical rationality can be considered a kind of artificial superintelligence, at least because most of people’s nonsensical fantasies of superpowerful, superintelligent, and hyper-rational beings tend to describe what already exists in large, impersonal bureaucracies. The pathologies of technical rationality are in fact the nightmare scenario that Musk and Hawking so fear.

The manner in which tech makes a difference or deals with a hard problem is important, and the mere fact that some tech company or funding agency for a technical project is tackling a hard problem that matters does not inherently make it a Good Thing (TM).

Source: The Manhattan Project Fallacy

What’s So Great About American World Leadership? – The Atlantic

The U.S. voters who rejected decades of bipartisan foreign-policy consensus might be on to something.

So far this century, America has failed to achieve most of the key national-security objectives it has set for itself. … We’d better ask why.

The alternative to dealing with other major powers as equals is to confront them as rivals.

Source: What’s So Great About American World Leadership? – The Atlantic

Facebook extremism and fake news: How Facebook is training us to be conspiracy theorists — Quartz

The first problem is that saying is believing. This is an old and well-studied phenomenon, though perhaps understudied in social media. So when you see a post … and you retweet or repost it, it’s not a neutral transaction. You, the reposter, don’t end that transaction unchanged.

It’s worthwhile to note as well that the nature of social media is we’re more likely to share inflammatory posts than non-inflammatory ones

from Facebook’s perspective they have two goals, and neither is about the quality of the community or well-being of its members. The first goal is to keep you creating Facebook content in the form of shares, likes, and comments. … The second Facebook goal is to keep you on the site at all costs, since this is where they can serve you ads.

There will be a lot of talk in the coming days about this or that change Facebook is looking at. But look at these two issues to get the real story:

  • Do they promote deep reading over interaction?
  • Do they encourage you to leave the site, even when the link is not inflammatory?

The larger problem is the far larger number of people who see the headlines and do not reshare them. Why is this a problem? Because for the most part, our brains equate “truth” with “things we’ve seen said a lot by people we trust.” The literature in this area is vast—it’s one of the reasons, for example, that so many people believe that global warming is a hoax.

Source: Facebook extremism and fake news: How Facebook is training us to be conspiracy theorists — Quartz