Bottlenecks to Progress in the Internet Age

I have been reading A New History of Western Philosophy by Anthony Kenny and it resurfaced thoughts that I have often had when learning about historical figures and everyday life in prior eras. In particular, how these figures were able to overcome the dual problems of censorship of political and religious elites and the limited availability of information will always fascinate me.

The lack of access to crucial historical texts was perhaps the major bottleneck which prevented philosophical progress in medieval Europe. In fact the capture of Constantinople by Ottoman forces in 1453 ended up being critical for the Renaissance. This is what forced the Greek scholars, who had kept the philosophy of Plato and other ancients alive, to flee to Italy, where Scholasticism (the rigid fusion of Christianity and Aristotelianism) dominated. The spark of new classics was enough to light the flames of new philosophies that burned the Scholastic tradition to the ground.

Think about that. Works of Plato, lingering somewhere in Byzantine libraries for hundreds of years, simply needed to be transported across the Meditteranean and communicated by the scholars who kept them to unleash a wave of progress the world is still reverberating from. Obviously there were many factors behind the Renaissance, but it is a remarkable feature of this time that a relatively small set of books could cause such massive intellectual changes. In part, this is because there simply wasn’t that much new stuff to read. Something coming out was a big deal. Even if it was a re-release. In fact, it wasn’t really until the 19th Century that it became impossible to read everything worth reading in most subjects.

Beyond the scarcity of written material, religious and political persecution has been another persistent feature of the Western Philosophical tradition’s opposition to progress. The political turmoil in the lives of almost every major Medieval and pre-Modern philosopher is striking. Each writer had to self-censor, and in many cases were forced to flee or outright killed. To name a handful:

Boethius (tortured and killed by the Ostrogothic King Theodoric)

Giordano Bruno (denounced and burned at the stake in Rome)

Baruch Spinoza (excommunicated and exiled from the Jewish community in the Netherlands)

John Locke (fled England to the Netherlands to avoid political persecution before returning)

In stark contrast to this is the extraordinary availability of information today and the ease with which new ideas can be articulated. This is perhaps the most remarkable fact about our era (and what makes you reading this possible at all). It also opens the question, why, since the invention and wide scale adoption of the internet, productivity and economic growth haven’t sped up more? One theory (articulated by Tyler Cohen), is that we have already taken much of the low hanging fruit that yielded the massive economic progress of the 1900s. Science, likewise, is using more people to make less progress than it did in the past. 

If this is true, then it seems that we hit a sweet spot for GDP growth and scientific progress somewhere in the 20th Century. Our intellectual and political climates were just good enough to unleash discoveries and inventions just out of reach of previous generations, but much easier to find than those to follow.

On the personal side, it might be hard to relate to GDP figures. But the relationship between personal productivity and economic productivity is a topic that still sometimes crosses my mind (despite how differently they may be defined). For myself, having been born in an age and place where the internet was nearly ubiquitous, and my capacity for distraction by it nearly endless, I wonder what its overall effect on our productivity has been.

On the one hand, learning has been unquestionably easier. Writing papers often includes of cycles of: typing, opening a new tab, searching Google, finding crucial information, and switching back to type my findings and analysis mere seconds later. This would have taken orders of magnitude longer in the pre-internet age but is now a seamless feature of student and writer’s lives. Educational content producers and random helpful figures on the internet are easily found and often filtered by how useful their information is. Finally, Wikipedia (which yesterday turned 20!) is always there to provide an overview on just about anything.

But that is helpful only when I am working. An expression which I have found most apt in describing my personal productive capacity is Parkinson’s law: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. The shorter the deadline, the more productive I will be to finish it. A longer deadline gives me time to slack off and fuel procrastination. And while procrastination has existed since the day man began working, the magnitude of its influence has grown larger than ever before.

The attractiveness of distractions has particularly grown as our attention has been commodified with a profit motive attached to our eyeballs. Devices and applications are extremely efficient, not at improving your overall well-being, but guiding your attention in whatever way software engineering teams see fit. This is a uniquely modern curse. 

To bring this back full circle, I must clarify that I would unquestionably submit to the current challenges of slowing growth and hyper-distraction rather than those of intellectual scarcity and persecution. We have traded away the incredibly cruel world of the past for good reason. 

However, we must think harder about the questions posed by the information age. How should one deal with the experience of information overload and the increasing complexity of decisions (particularly major life decisions)? How should we design our relationship with our technology to leave us well informed, more in control, and less distracted? How should we think about the economy and our role in it — particularly if much of the low-hanging fruit has been plucked, and humans (with the same brains and bodies) are demanded to jump higher than before in order to achieve the same GDP growth achieved in the past?

The curses of the past have been traded away for lesser, and in some ways opposite, curses of the present. Acknowledging them, and answering the questions they raise is something I will continue to attempt. Luckily, the internet has shown me that I am not alone.

Book Review: Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein

To read Why We’re Polarized book notes click here

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Klein’s Why We Are Polarized is a compelling account of how structural forces embedded in the American political system have prompted rational actors to significantly increase political polarization since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. He charts the ways that the breakup of a de-facto four-party system (Dixiecrats, other democrats, liberal Republicans, and conservative Republicans) ushered in party polarization, not just by policy, but of race, geography, culture, and other factors. His conversational style and peppering in of surprising facts (did you know that a filibuster was ended in 1908 when the blind senator Thomas Gore tried to pass the floor to a senator who had left the room?) eases the reader into the dark, but natural, conclusion Klein accepts: polarization is here to stay, and we should be thinking about how to structure our institutions around this reality.

Much of Why We’re Polarized is informative, charitable, and historically minded. The book avoids, in a conscious manner, blaming any individuals or group for bringing the polarized political environment about. Klein acknowledges and tries to reign in his liberal biases, leaving, to my eyes, relatively few sections of the book where a charitable conservative reader would roll his eyes. It provides a psychological grounding, from studies where groups of kids shift out-group members out of money, to an analysis of sports teams rivalries and riots, in order to understand the depth of group, and fundamentally, identity-based thinking. He uses this grounding to make sense of the trend of increasing polarization. And for some reason, if you doubted polarization was occurring, Klein provides much to disabuse you of such notions. Election results, polls, demographic data, and particularly in the second half of the book, recent political events, from the snub of Merrick Garland in 2016 to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, make polarization seem all too real.

The book does fail in at least a couple of ways, however, to argue for its central narrative from the ground up. There are enough brute facts to easily make it convincing that polarization has grown, and we are living in a dysfunctional period of American governance. It is also clear that the two political parties each have different incentives. However, for a deeper understanding of what polarization is, it would have been helpful to have more than a few pages dedicated to describing the phenomena and instead defined it and its subcategories rigorously. Klein makes use of comparative politics in describing the ways in which our presidential system makes governing in periods of split control and high partisanship near impossible. This international perspective is missing when one tries to gauge how normal (or not) high polarization is beyond America’s borders.

Perhaps most frustratingly, the primary historical narrative Klein offers — that the Democratic and Republican divergence “revolves around race”, principally after the Dixiecrat exit from the Democratic party — while in many ways compelling, is given without any meaningful thought to alternative arguments. There is little to no talk about the ways in which WWI, The Great Depression, WWII, and the Cold War might have helped bind the country, and parties, together. Additionally, there is a brief section, near the end, that describes how the one-party dominance of the American political system has been key in reducing polarization. However, it seems this could help construct a competing narrative to the one Klein offers in the first half of the book where it was the Republicans steadily regaining strength, post-1932, that was the primary driver of increased polarization, and party differentiation.

Klein might argue that what I have listed is still not mutually incompatible with his main thesis. However, displaying alternative theories, at the very least, provides the context in which curious readers can grapple with history themselves. Beyond these complaints, this book still does much to synthesize US history, human psychology, and contemporary politics in an interesting and useful package. If any of these topics interest you, it might be worth picking up.