Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Spontaneous order creates things we don't like too

Why can't we accept that some powerful forces create both good and bad things?

It's popular to draw lines between free market economics and Darwinian evolution. Both systems depend on a competitive environment that allows helpful traits to survive, whereas critics of these systems claim that higher levels of order and function need to be planned by an intelligent source.

The meeting points of evolution and free markets is spontaneous order, where order emerges through the actions of self-interested participants and creates something that looks like it was designed. Adam Smith's invisible hand is the typical example.

While I see people are willing to accept spontaneous order created the things they like, such as butterflies and iPods, there is a tendency to attribute wicked things to a devilish planner, such as the AIDS virus, racial tension and rival political movements.

Media Bias

Most conservatives express views that the mainstream media has a liberal bias, and I generally agree with them. Where we disagree is that cause of that bias. I typically hear that the bias is a conscious effort to distort events to sway the public into taking a political position. Instead, I see it as a natural result of an industry that has more lefties than righties.

The individual reporters have a left wing worldview, which we can expect to cause the news product they create to lean to the left. It's difficult to create a study that reflects the bias of the reporting, but it's somewhat simple to find out the bias of the news team. We already understand why researchers who believe in astrology can create dubious scientific studies on the matter. The same principal applies to summarizing current events.

But what I typically hear from the right is not a media bias created by unintentional wordings and gatekeeping, but instead a nefarious plot.

That doesn't mean that all news groups attempt to be unbiased - it's a successful marketing niche for MSNBC, Fox News and The Nation magazine. One minor form it takes is with wordings. All news agencies strive to use consistent wording, so what do you do when a partisan issue like illegal immigrant comes up? One answer is to select partisan wording that will please the audience. The left has been chewing on weird phrases like "undocumented workers" - as if documentation was the issue instead of immigration status. "Illegal visitors" caused a firestorm recently, because the story was on illegal aliens who were not workers or planning to live here, and the news agency forbid the term "alien." Fox does the same thing using terms like "illegals," which always struck me as an jagged and ugly expression.

Racist plots

A few months ago I had to stop watching Crips and Bloods: Made in America on Netflix because it wasn't labeled a mockumentary. The film kept drawing lines that weren't there, such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as a government plot.

I thought it's well-understood that the racist organization that conspired to kill Malcolm X was the Nation of Islam. Government plots have been blamed for a host of terrible things that have devastated black communities, such as the crack-cocaine epidemic, the AIDS virus and even conflict with other minorities.

In reality, crack-cocaine was an innovate drug that stretched expensive cocaine so it could be smoked quickly and cheaply. AIDS was created by nature, not a plot by the government against blacks or a lance from God to destroy gays. As for racism between minority groups, this is simply how racism forms - one group develops contempt, blame and distrust for another. It doesn't matter if it's Korean shopkeepers in black neighborhoods being called "blood suckers," that's the neomercantalism of "buy local" and "buy black" at work. No one thinks the Anti-Chinese Mongolian neo-Nazi's were concocted by a white power organization, so why should conflicts between blacks and Hispanics?

That's not to dismiss all claims of institutional racism - episodes like the Jim Crow laws had a very big impact on the world. Those certainly existed, but there is a huge difference between Black History Month being February, the shortest month, and the very real Stolen Generations where Australian Aboriginal children were forced into adoption.

Obsolescence doesn't need to be planned

Obsolescence, where older technologies need to be replaced, is a natural part of creative destruction. It was not a plot to sell wagons wheels for thousands of years and then to replace them with rubber tires, nor were record players created with eight-tracks, cassettes, CDs and mp3s in mind.

Yet if you watch The Story of Stuff - and I'm not suggesting you should - you'll hear that bulky computer monitors were a scheme until flat screen computer monitors arrived. The idea of planned obsolescence - where companies time the release of products and make things break early in order to cheat customers into buying the same items over and over again - is no less of a wild conspiracy theory than the moon landing hoax or the mafia assassinating JFK.

I remember in my fourth grade public school class being handed a propaganda magazine printed on recycled paper about a fictitious handheld video game system that is designed to break after three months to make kids buy more. It was a fairy tale then, and it's a fairy tale now. That's costly to arrange and it would give the products a bad name. Imagine what a PR disaster that would be if it was revealed to the public.

All opposition as astroturfing

I've written about this before, the idea that anyone who disagrees with you is a front for your opponent, but it could use more focus on rival political groups.

First off, astroturfing - fake grassroots movements - happen. For example, there are pro-Walmart groups that have been faked by the company, and the same has happened with anti-Walmart groups funded by their competitors. After the revelation of a few of these groups, I have seen wanton and reckless accusations that everything hostile is astroturf. This begins and ends with the small-government, low tax "Tea Party" movement.

I have seen so many accusations that the Tea Party is a front group by corporations, billionaires and the Republican party that I don't need to link a single one - they are out there in droves. But if they weren't centrally-planned, then what created this movement in 2009?

There are a few theories. One is a campaign to mail tea bags to politicians, another is a blogger who put together a tax protest in Seattle. The origin I find compelling is the Rick Santelli CNBC viral video that drew immediate attention and pitched the idea of a "Chicago Tea Party" in July. The first protests were April 15 of that year - a little early - but I think that's because once Santelli planted the idea, a collection of individuals planned tax day without being lead by anyone.

The important thing is some of the opposition to this group can't grasp the idea that people would so strongly disagree with them that they'd organize a movement. The nerve!

Inside the tea party is no refuge from conspiracy mongering either. Having been to gatherings of both the Tea Party and overlapping 9-12 Project, I've heard accusations of astroturfing abound. Here's an example:

There was a rally for the nationalization of health care in Portland, I heard there would be a counter-protest nearby, which I attended solely for networking. While there I witnessed a full-grown man from "our side" yelling slogans at "their side" and behaving childish.

Weeks later I mentioned him at a 9-12 Project meeting and the people in charge nodded and said he was a plant from the opposition. I asked how they knew, and was told "they do that sort of thing."

My obvious follow-up was, perhaps they do but how do we know this was an example of that, and not just some jerk?

I was again told, because they do that sort of thing.

People, that is not evidence. There's nothing to prevent a loose-cannon right-winger from showing up at a public protest and being obnoxious. It sounds a lot more likely than an actor was employed to disrupt things, and by disrupt I mean got on my nerves and very few others. They didn't think this could just be some idiot - it had to be planned.


  1. I like this article, and ten years ago planned obsolescence definitely sounded like more a loony bin theory. But in the age of software and smart phones it's kind of hard to draw that line. To say that Apple or Verizon doesn't practice this (or at least something very similar I'm not sure what I should call) is not that much of a stretch. There's been what...5 different iPhones in a span of about 2 years? Same with Droids and Blackberries.The technology retention rate in similar industries like PC/videogame hardware last ten times that.

    Software is the same story. Microsoft did it to people right in front of their face, and actually had the balls to basically tell consumers "Vista's coming out in a month and it's gonna be the shit! Windows 7 will come out in a year and be a lot better though, but it's fine"

    This is a lot like the debate we had about DLC. Rushing games with incomplete content to get it out faster, but later selling that content as DLC to essentially make it a whole purchase for more than the original intended price.

  2. Johnson, I think Moore's Law is the real culprit - where technology advances faster and faster. Early adopters always get an iPhone with less features. Remember the iPad came out without a camera - everyone knows it'll be on there eventually. I don't think Vista was invented to be anything other than an operating system. It's very different from Windows 7 and it can be thought of as an experiment that didn't pan out. Otherwise, are we to believe that they spent all that time developing it for a short window of time?

  3. Moreover, the fact that microsoft said "this thing is coming out after that thing" doesn't imply a conspiracy to screw you out of some cash. They are, afterall, teling you that it's on its way and will be here in x months, so you could wait if you wanted.

    I imagine that the reason these sorts of things happen is more to do with the fact that it takes a bunch of time to build things like OS's but the underlying technologies change pretty quickly, so to keep up MS has to start on the next one now. But they don't want to abandon the one they were already working on 'cause they spent money on the thing and someone might buy it anyway. So they know that there's this better thing coming along, but that's going to take a while longer than this other thing.