Not studying the history of religion

Modern progressives are almost entirely non-religious or actively anti-religious. Which means, they aren’t too keen to study the history of religious movements unless it’s a sort of simplistic Dawkins-esque tract.

This creates the situation where modern progressives think they are immune to and completely removed from one of the most fundamental forces in human history. If a modern progressive interacts with a religious person, it’s akin to the noble savage of yore.

And that’s what you get things like a fifth of female climate scientists to have no or fewer children. There have been doomsday religions for centuries. There have been waves of asceticism — salvation only comes from not having a family, not eating certain foods.

None of this is to say we should trash the environment. We shouldn’t. But it does give climate change” as a movement a bit more context.

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Two older films

I recently watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Godfather, which both provide something of an anthological sketch of audience expectations at the time they were released.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off shows that in the 80s, and really up until 2020, people took a fake sick day from time to time. It was just a part of life that we all did but also knew not to abuse. The key difference is that when you took a fake sick day, you went and had fun.

You could have fun because you didn’t have a phone that allowed you to be tracked and reached 24/7. You didn’t feel the need to take pictures and post them. You lived, you had fun, and then you moved on.

I compare this to what I see in the workforce among the under 30 crowd today, which is in a constant state of moaning, needing a sick day, a 🪫 status in Slack, mental health problems, constant illnesses. A friend was telling me about someone in her young 20s going into a righteous rage about the audacity of being expected in the office on a Monday. How would she rest from the weekend?

If all this slacking off meant that people were outside and having a great time, I’d be all for it. Instead, I suspect most aren’t even getting out of bed and staring at either Netflix or TikTok.

They sure aren’t doing this!

The pacing of The Godfather is slow and deliberate. There isn’t constant dramatic music. Many important things happen off screen and are only implied. The plot is incredibly complex with lots of minor characters coming and going.

In short, you can’t watch this while you’re staring at your phone. Emily in Paris this is not.

Dune is the closest modern equivalent, but it’s based off a novel from the same era as The Godfather and the films are a stark departure from the methodical, deliberate pacing of the book. The movies are a sort of sensory overload that the book is very much not.

But that’s also not the full story. It’s wild just how popular Brandon Sanderson and other epic fantasy / sci-fi writers have become. People happily listen to Joe Rogan ramble on for hours. Yet it’s odd that these aren’t really things you can mention at work without raising eyebrows. But it’s fine to talk about watching Emily in Paris all day because you couldn’t get out of bed because it’s a Monday and cloudy so mental health.

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The Haidt of controversy

I’m guessing most of you are familiar with Jonathan Haidt’s work on the harm of social media and smartphones. He’s out with a book summing up years of work and has been making the podcast circuit. His arguments are compelling and his case against tech is absolutely damning. His suggestions for ameliorating the problem are shakier, mainly because there is no obvious or realistic societal solution, especially for kids.

There’s been a barrage of criticism. Most of it deals with technical points, correlation vs. causation. Some of it is ethical: We need Facebook Twitter Mastodon to keep virtue signaling. Some of it is an appeal to lack of agency / late stage capitalism / whatever other -ism is popular, therefore we have no alternative to just being blobs watching TikTok videos.

I think it all sort of misses the point.

Everyone I know, myself included, that’s done a massive scaling back of online life has reported huge benefits. This isn’t a matter of burning all my devices, but preferring to email a friend instead of an Instagram story, not having any tech in the bedroom (especially considering iPhone alarms are no longer reliable), using more traditional media instead of getting news from social media (for example, The Economist and Atlantic have informative email newsletters which leave me more informed than getting the news” from Reddit).

For adults it’s painfully obvious yet incredibly simple. Get off your phone and social media. Start with Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, and, as much as I hate cliches, your life will be transformed.

For kids, I have no idea. From what I can tell, American kids don’t seem to interact with each other much in real life, and not sitting on snapchat all day means zero social interaction. Holland seems better for now, but America is usually the bellwether so who knows how much longer I’ll see kids playing outside, not glued to their phones.

The other thing is that in the space of ten years phones went from being an oddity to so ubiquitous that people have forgotten what life was like before them to the point that I’m basically Ted Kaczynski because I can take a shit without my phone. I honestly think people have forgotten that it’s ok to be bored and unstimulated for a few minutes, that you don’t need to escape from every instance of social awkwardness, and that despite all the conveniences that phones offer, we can also get by without them, and did so just fine ten years ago.

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Fleeting bubbles

I was talking to my parents, who are tech savvy enough to independently manage their myriad of apps and devices, and casually mentioned chatGPT. They’d never heard of it.

In the tech circles I’m in, LLMs have sucked all the air out of the room. And it’s easy to forget that these bubbles are the outliers, not people like my parents.

In Buddhism, the analogy of bubbles on water is frequently used, and it always means that something is fleeting, soon going to fade away into nothing.

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The BBC, Jews, ChatGPT and Hanlon’s Razor

I’ve long lamented the fall in standards at the NYT. The BBC isn’t much better.

Let’s take the story: Apple sparks Palestinian flag emoji controversy.

First off, the headline implies agency. Apple” did no such thing, and as the article explains, or rather links to iMore to explain, Apple shipped a bug intro production. We have no reason to suspect this was a political statement. At least nobody dug deep enough for that.

But what’s more troubling is this line:

TV presenter Rachel Riley, who is Jewish, noted on social media that national flags were not suggested for other capitals.

Ms Riley’s religion has nothing to do with this story, and presenting it here serves no purpose other than to devalue Ms Riley. The story is about Apple releasing a bug that could be interpreted as taking a political stance on a contentious issue. These are objective statements, and the religion or other identifying details of those reporting them are irrelevant. Whether Rachel Riley is a Catholic, Muslim, or Atheist has no bearing on the story.

It’s all rather curious because doing something like this would have been considered to be poor taste, if not outright unethical not that long ago. I don’t want to say that the BBC is rife with anti-semitism. There’s a much simpler explanation, and if we follow Hanlon’s Razor, it’s the non-malicious motive. On the other hand, I don’t think the BBC would ever deadname” somebody. The lack of similar standards towards Jews does at least seem a bit odd, but who knows.

My actual conclusion, though, is that the BBC doesn’t have journalists writing stories anymore.

This whole thing started from a Tweet by Rachel Riley, which she signs as a Jewish woman concerned about the global rise in antisemitism”. That’s her right to disclose her religion herself. That doesn’t mean it’s good journalism to include that in any subsequent stories. The job of a journalist is to sift through sources and present a refined narrative for readers, not just regurgitate raw quotes.

On a lark, I decided to ask ChatGPT to write a BBC style story based off of the original tweet. Here’s my conversation with Mr GPT. It’s uncanny how similar ChatGPT’s article is to the actual BBC article, including:

Riley, who identifies as Jewish, reported that after updating her device to iOS version 17.4.1, typing the capital of Israel, Jerusalem, prompted the suggestion of the Palestinian flag emoji, 🇵🇸, instead of the Israeli flag emoji.

Going back to Hanlon’s Razor and what I’m seeing around me at tech companies, I’d be willing to bet that the BBC is using LLMs to write their second tier stories, with perhaps a brief human check before publishing.

The same Hanlon’s Razor applies to Apple. I’d be willing to bet that predictable emojis are done by frequency with a few safeguards and minimal human oversight.

Tech journalism has descended to quoted Tweets and press releases. No questions, no deeper conclusions. The question that should have been asked about how Apple released this: an activist product owner or a simple bug was never even brought up.

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The man behind the curtain

The lure of the techno-utopians is that we can abstract away the hardships of life with technology. The Jetsons is just around the corner.

Take Amazon’s stores with no cashiers. I remember talking to tech-bro types that thought I was a wild luddite when I pointed out they were just hiring cheap overseas labor to work as cashiers. No fancy technology. No building the future.

And now that’s come and gone:

Amazon is phasing out its checkout-less grocery stores with Just Walk Out” technology, first reported by The Information Tuesday.

Though it seemed completely automated, Just Walk Out relied on more than 1,000 people in India watching and labeling videos to ensure accurate checkouts. The cashiers were simply moved off-site, and they watched you as you shopped.

I once worked at a company that used AI to automate various back office tasks. The AI was nothing other than cheap Ukrainian labor. You can sure get a lot done when it only takes 500 bucks a month to get a Ukrainian student to do an American white collar job remotely.

So many of our recent technological advancements feel like merely shifting externalities. Not having car exhaust in cities is a huge plus, but we’re just moving massive environmental destruction to the mines that are needed for car batteries and the coal power plants to charge them.

I’m not opposed to technology and progress. I’m opposed to not having conversations about the real costs and tradeoffs involved. Having someone in India watch you while you shop and tally what you pull off the shelf isn’t so glamorous after all.

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