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Legends of the Ancient Web (2017) (idlewords.com)
567 points by panic 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 111 comments



Great talk! Wanted to add a few thoughts that came to mind as I read it:

1. The radio history lesson is great, and I'd agree is appropriate for our current situation. It reminds me a lot of early US history and the use of newspapers in the colonies. James Callender is one of many interesting people from that time. [1] He was Thomas Jefferson's to go muckraker.

2. Reed's Law [2] also came to mind. Radio and Newspapers are mass mediums, which the internet is not (only). Reed's law isn't perfect, but it's a good filter when trying to apply pre-internet lessons to the internet.

4. Just a theological aside: Ecclesiastes is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon, which the Bible also calls the wisest man who ever lived. It was likely not actually pre-exilic, but it's interesting/helpful to read it as if it was given by the wisest man who ever lived who happened to have absolute power.

[1] https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/jam...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reed%27s_law


Is the premise of Reed's Law relevant to the sorts of social control problems that the author is discussing, though?

I think it's more the ability to do individual targeting that matters, from that perspective. And Reed's Law doesn't say anything about that (other than in the trivial "subnetworks of size of 1" sense)

I think the internet is fundamentally different from the old broadcast media, but not because of Reed's combinatoric observation.

In particular, notice that the radio also allowed these subgroups; e.g., the interference issues in the USA leading up to WWI seem like an apt historical example.


> the interference issues in the USA leading up to WWI seem like an apt historical example.

It's a good question. I think you need to apply Reed's law at scale, not in the formative state. For example, the initial internet in 1969 was limited to a small group of universities, and not accessible like it is today. My point is you can't cherry pick a point in time for the technologies and compare them. Early radio vs. mature internet aren't the same thing.

My original point was that radio and newspapers were one way mediums that limited control to a small group of people. A different way is to say the internet enables platforms, as opposed to gatekeepers. Both can be megaphones to the savvy and powerful, but they are fundamentally different in other ways.

The recent #MeToo movement is an example of this: that never would have happened if we were limited to traditional mass media, because there was no way for people and have their voices amplified. This is a good example of how the combinatoric effect of Reed's Law relates the social control argument.

It's a bit dated, but Small Pieces Loosely Joined lays out some of these ideas very well. http://www.smallpieces.com/


This was a great talk indeed. Highly recommended read.

I liked the story from Poland near the end. I'm Polish, and I've never heard of it before.

Regarding the ending, 'idlewords, you say:

> I tell this story to reassure you that just because everything is heavy and political right now, it doesn't mean we can't also fight these fights on our own terms, as nerds.

Does this mean a departure from your usual views that we should stop trying to solve political problems with tech, or am I misunderstanding either your usual views or that line in the presentation?


Thank you for those kind words!

I included the story about the radio astronomers because it's such a nice example of doing something creative with technology in the service of a broader goal, while staying true to who you are—a big giant nerd.

I don't think applying technology to political problems is anathema, it just requires special care and humility.

My quarrel is with people who think you can treat human society like a deterministic computer system, and 'hack' it. Politics is hard!


Thanks for the clarification. Based on your previous talks, I assumed you're leaning towards thinking that (almost) all of our current problems are primarily social, and no technology is of help here.

If I may pick your mind a little bit more - what do you think of the approach of a hypothetical person, who decides that politics is too hard and, with good intentions, thinks unilaterally unleashing new technology on the world is a more efficient way to fix things?

--

Also, I've been browsing through your other recently published talks, and there was this paragraph in one of them[0] that caught my attention:

> This is an inversion in political life that we haven’t seen before. Conversations between people that used to be private, or semi-private, now take place on public forums where they are archived forever. Meanwhile, the kind of political messaging that used to take place in public view is now visible only to an audience of one.

I'm quoting it here because I found it to be a really insightful observation, that never occurred to me before. The hyper-targeting of political messages is indeed eroding our ability to discuss those issues together, as everyone is starting from a different point of view created by political arguments. Our present times kind of remind me yet another quote from the Bible:

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. (2 Timothy 4:3)

--

One more question: in your talks, you propose a lot of actions that, IMO, share the same fundamental problem - they require coordination, which is something tremendously hard to achieve at scale, especially when the individual incentives pull us all apart. Do you have any ideas on a) alternative strategies that require less coordination, b) ways to reduce the need for coordinating to employ your proposals, or c) ways to boost the ability of 'people of good will' to coordinate?

--

[0] - http://idlewords.com/talks/build_a_better_monster.htm


I would put it differently, that any major technical innovation will change the balance of power between people and institutions, and so have political consequences. You have to deal with those the only way we know how—by engaging with the messy, frustrating, difficult human institutions that we all rely on.

Because people are involved, you can't anticipate the social effects of any technology. It's the problem Soros calls 'reflexivity'—systems with people in the feedback loop don't behave like dumb systems; they take your own motives into account and change their behavior!

So just deploying the stuff and hoping for some kind of complicated socio-technical bank shot that gets you the outcome you want is unlikely to work. You can say "I don't care what the consequences are", but you can't pretend there will be no consequences, or that you can predict them.

That whole concept of the 'inversion in political life' belongs to Zeynep Tufekci, to whom all credit is due for it. I agree that it is brilliant. She is a profound thinker about this stuff. If you're not already familiar with her work, you're in for a treat.

For your last question, this is what I am trying to figure out in organizing Tech Solidarity, and I wish I had any answers. It is very, very hard.


> If you're not already familiar with her work, you're in for a treat.

Just added to my reading list, thanks!

> For your last question, this is what I am trying to figure out in organizing Tech Solidarity, and I wish I had any answers. It is very, very hard.

I see Tech Solidarity is a pretty geographically-localized phenomenon. Maybe you could write something about the experiences and the impact of this project at some point? I wish you luck with this project. Hell, I guess I wish all of us luck.


> My quarrel is with people who think you can treat human society like a deterministic computer system, and 'hack' it. Politics is hard!

I'm going to nitpick here and point out that if you want to avoid getting into stupid philosophical or definitional arguments you should probably say "predictable" or "easily predictable" or "practically predictable" or something along those lines rather than "deterministic".


The old school word for hacking human society is 'terrorism'. You look at the joints of the animal and figure out where to apply the most leverage.


Activism might be a better term.


There's a fine line between terrorism and activism. Civil disobedience actions like labor strikes toes it without stepping over.


In what way is a labor strike almost terrorism?


Well, a labor strike is almost never entirely legal. They're always going to be breaking various civil infractions, if not actually trespassing. But also such things can be tinderboxes just waiting for the right spark to turn violent. A violent strike is certainly terrorism.


"Terrorism" does not mean the same thing as "breaking the low", nor is it synonymous to "violence".

Terrorism is about doing horrible things to scare the living shit out of a population, in order to achieve some political goals.

Calling a labor strike "terrorism" is like calling a taxicab space rocket.


I meant in the real world.


Just a note: Ecclesiastes is definitely not "a rant by an angry, elderly atheist that through some editorial oversight found its way into the Bible."

Rather, it's a compiled lament by Solomon (Jewish king and son of the Jewish king David) about the futility/emptiness of a life lived apart from devout devotion to his god, and the stuff in the book is described later as "many proverbs" that were "arranged with great care" (Ecclesiastes 12:9), a description that comes after a long paragraph by that supposed-atheist that starts

>Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”;

and just before a paragraph ending in

>The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Not exactly "a rant by an...atheist".


Just a note: academic biblical scholars (theists and atheists alike) make strong arguments that the author is NOT Solomon.

The biggest issue is the complicated Hebrew used, much more complicated than earlier writings.

"The presence of Persian loan-words and Aramaisms points to a date no earlier than about 450 BCE"

Even bible.org admits: "To accept Solomonic authorship presently puts you in the camp of very few scholars."

Also, there is an argument that the ending was added by a later scribe (perhaps to make the text more acceptable for inclusion in the OT) because the ending goes completely against the rest of the Ecclesiastes.

PS I am not an academic scholar but have read a number of academic books on Ecclesiastes as it is my favorite.

https://www.reddit.com/r/AcademicBiblical/comments/6flp42/wa...


I'm not sure I would call the Hebrew more complicated, just idiosyncratic and inconsistent with earlier dating.


I guess he is paraphrasing Wikipedia: "The presence of Ecclesiastes in the Bible is something of a puzzle, as the common themes of the Hebrew canon—a God who reveals and redeems, who elects and cares for a chosen people—are absent from it, which suggests that Kohelet had lost his faith in his old age."


Certainly some of Ecclesiastes sounds like it could be written by an atheist. Especially the last quote in the article. So it's an entertaining speculation at least.

But then I also think "the truth shall set you free" is crypto-atheism.


Yeah, this put me off from reading the rest of the essay.


This is a shame a) in the specific case of this story, as it's a really interesting read around an important and compelling subject, and b) in the general case as it means your sensitivity around niche subjects may restrict your access to all kinds of information that you'd otherwise enjoy or benefit from.


Everyone’s sensitive around some niche subjects.


Wanted to chime in and say the same thing, so thank you. It really irks me when people with little to no theological or historical background pretend to understand religious texts.


Theological background may indicate King Solomon; but historical and textual criticisms strongly indicate that:

1. Ecclesiastes was written during the Persian period, not during the early Judahite period

2. The coda (which is the only bit which conforms to the theology of canon compilers) is probably a later addition.

3. The author's philosophical viewpoint is strongly reminiscent of Greek Stoicism, and God and his existence is at most a peripheral concern to the author.


I'm pretty sure it was a light-hearted joke, not a serious theological thesis.


Maybe I don't get the joke then. To me, it just seems to be purposefully inflammatory and edgy. As it turns out, it's really off-base, too.


> Maybe I don't get the joke then.

The juxtaposition of a cranky critic or unserious person becoming a near-absolute authority on the thing he's cranky/not serious about is a common comedic trope. E.g., insert joke about Satoshi creating bitcoin to make an ironic joke about the dotcom bubble and accidentally launching the first ICO.

The Mel Books skit is not intended to seriously suggest that there were originally 15 commandments. And Satoshi probably wasn't making performance art about late capitalism. And Ecclesiastes wasn't written by a cranky atheist.

It's a joke.

> To me, it just seems to be purposefully inflammatory and edgy

The commonness of this trope indicates that lots of people find it funny, perhaps especially when it's disconnected from anything that's important to them.

But more importantly, no one is laughing at you, and the intent of this joke isn't to inflame.

The author is using a relevant quote from a source, and leading into that quote with a light-hearted joke. The fact that this joke is about Ecclesiastes has more to do with the fact that the author is using a quote from that book (to make a serious point, and a point that's at least not incongruent with the original intent).

The author is instantiating a common joke template in the context of a quote he's using the lead off a talk.

That's all.

> As it turns out, it's really off-base, too.

No, it's not, because it wasn't a serious premise. You can tell that this is the case by the fact that the 20+ slides that follow this one are not on the subject of theology or christian/jewish history...


Bitcoin as performance art is..just perfect.


Nobody understands religious texts, that's why they all have competing interpretations.


"Outcomes matter, not intentions."

Outcomes matter. Of course outcomes matter. But that can't be a complete moral reasoning. Intentions do matter in all things. Intentions are the difference between murder one and a forgivable accident. It's the difference between putting a knife in your wife's back because she cheated on you and swinging around in the kitchen too fast and putting that same knife in her gut by accident.

Intentions tell me what to expect about your future behavior. Intentions, in other words, reveal something important about the actor (and, therefore, future outcomes) that outcomes don't.

Of course outcomes matter. But when we stop caring about intentions, we start thinking of murderers like remorseful spouses, or, say, genuine racists like tasteless jokers.

The idea that only outcomes matter has far too much currency in our current politics.


if outcomes only mattered, i could try to murder my wife as much as i want, and as long as i failed its all good.

edit: also,l we start leading down the machiavellian path, where the ends justify the means.


Maciej's talks are the best. His combination of humor and insight is, in my opinion, unmatched. I just wish he posted more often!


I suspect he's consistently this awesome because he doesn't post that often, and can actually put time and effort into things.


The telegraph was the first Internet. It permitted messages to travel across a country in seconds instead of of days. For example the Battle of New Orleans, 29 years before the first telegraph, was fought after the peace treaty for the War of 1812 was signed.

The first telegraphs had only a rate of 20 bits a second (measured in those days at 40 words per minute). Various inventions like multiplexing and speeds via punched tape could increase that an order of magnitude. Thomas Edison inevented several of these speedups.


This reminds me strongly of the Clacks in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels (which is heavily based on the real-world telegraph, though it was a mechanical semaphore system). It quickly took on internet-like characteristics, including image transmission, and then, rather soon, image compression.

X-Clacks-Overhead "GNU Terry Pratchett" http://www.gnuterrypratchett.com/


Beacons enabled rapid messaging in Roman times - message size was clearly limited but messages could cross a country in minutes.


> If you didn't know radio existed, the whole thing would sound like a bunch of pseudoscientific hokum.

I have never looked at it from that angle. Very interesting thought!


I’ve always thought we live in a magical world. On one level, I understand the physical working of many of the technologies that have been mainstream for most of the past century (television, radio, aeroplanes). On another level, I still find them to be magical and marvel at the achievements of human ingenuity, creativity and labour. This includes so many disparate human endeavours, e.g., the laying of the first trans-Atlantic cable, the speed at which a modern block of offices can be built, weaving technology, the development of a free open source OS (Linux), flying all the way to the moon. I suppose this feeling is a case of Clarke’s third law, Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

On a related note, when my younger (Christian) self read the Bible, I skipped Ecclesiastes and the Book of Psalms as they didn’t appeal to me. Thanks to Maciej’s excellent writing and apt quoting (even though I don’t agree that it was written by an atheist), I think my older (atheist) self might appreciate it better and get more out of it. There is plenty of food for thought in its opening verses: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ecclesiastes+1%...


Radios are magic. I like to reflect on the fact that antennas are basically pieces of metal twisted in funny geometrical patterns. The same metal our ancestors knew thousands of years ago.


I mean, transistor-based microelectronics are basically just special rocks that we have inscribed with very precise geometrical patterns and feed lightning into in order to make them behave how we want.


Yeah. As the saying goes, "a CPU is literally a rock we tricked into thinking".


It's very interesting how similar Coughlin's mannerisms are to Hitler's. I would not be surprised if Hitler copied him.

Just to show not all mass media Catholic priests are so unpleasant I give you Fulton Sheen, popular on radio 20s, 30s and TV in the 50s. Was popular among non-Catholics and even won an Emmy.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fulton_J._Sheen


I love how the page about the "ancient web" is built in 2017 using tables. This made me smile.

Some followup watching:

* Empire of the Air | PBS || http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/empire/


This was a great talk!

I really think more of the ideal this presentation expressed needs to be shared. It's very easy to be a cold, hard reasoner when your life is reasonably safe, comfortable, and your belly is full. It's very easy to forget the larger picture.


Were you there to hear it in person? Even just reading it online, I found it really, really well done. Both in terms of content, but also structurally as a presentation itself.


No, unfortunately this is the first I'd heard of it. But it is a great read. Well structured, but with some great bits of history I didn't yet know.

I also hadn't heard anything from Ecclesiastes since I was a kid. Churches started to depart from the old testament unless they wanted to condemn gay marriages, etc for a while there. I still kept my old Bible (as I do many texts). I might even have to give that book a re-read because I definitely didn't appreciate the basic wisdom when I was young. It was well-used, though; sparsely, and with cutting effect.

I couldn't agree more with the conclusion, and it was beautifully illustrated.


A talk that has me both doing some mature self-examination regarding my next career move, AND wanting to learn HAM radio. Inspiring stuff!


Absolutely fantastic talk. Thanks for posting this. It certainly helps put recent developments into perspective.


At first, I found the direct comparison of Google with the Nazi ideology as happened in the picture (https://static.pinboard.in/ancient/thumbs/law.034.thumb.jpg) and the text

> You don't get a clear warning that you're working on something that's bad for the world. They put you to work designing a machine that answers to "OK Google", not "OK Goebbels".

not justified, as Google is a very different organization and has different values and motives. But then I understood the comparison as a mean of drastically warning about what unforeseen consequences lie in these data collections, derived models, undemocratically and centrally controlled systems, proprietary systems, and the induced shift of powers in our society. That change can be devastating for society. As a society, we need constantly be on watch over what these systems and do who controls them. Closed and proprietary systems manufacturers and developers have an immense political influence on our society. Do we agree with their statement? Can we even afford that as a society?


Is this analogy apt or strained: As FDR and Hitler were to Radio, so is Trump to Twitter/Internet? [1]

[1] https://thefifthwave.wordpress.com/2018/01/03/the-schizoid-p...


Depends on whether you compare to 1944!Hitler or 1930!Hitler.

Point being, comparisons to Nazi Germany, or other evil regimes of the past are usually exaggerated because no western country in the present is a comparable regime. Nevertheless, there have been some worrying developments in the west over the past two decades, and they invite caution.

Or, put more bluntly (and I think in line with Maciej's talks): Trump is not Hitler. But the next president - in the US or elsewhere - just might be.


Neither is Trump FDR, I think you missed my point. Trump, like both FDR and Hitler, made novel use of a new communications medium to rally their supporters and reach new ones, while their opponents scratched their heads trying to understand the phenomenon.


You're right; I think I did miss your point. Thanks for clarification.


The real problem is that scientists & technologists are not inherently power hungry.

This has been true throughout human history. The second that technologists realize that it serves the human race for us to be power hungry (at the grandest scale -- not the ego-driven "I launched Instagram" scale) ... society will undergo rapid transformation.

A unified, noble, technocracy is the future of human government... but it requires a new form of revolutionary indoctrination.

EDIT: maybe I should replace "power hungry" with: wanting to be the ones calling the shots. Especially with regards to things like foreign policy etc. Most of us have strong pacifist views but seldom do we actually do anything that enables us to stop constant war. Constant war is culturally ingrained in our governments, which is why it continues to happen. One only needs to look at the history of the CIA, then compare that to what they are doing now to see this.


Here's how I fear it would play out:

A good-hearted techie becomes a singular ruler of the country. By some luck they aren't immediately deposed due to their inability/unwillingness to play internal politics. Soon they discover that just keeping that country from getting invaded by neighbours, or economically sabotaged by others, requires getting ready for war and nurturing - or even employing - the ability to project force.

Say they think "fuck it" and through smarts and few surgical strikes, they take over the world. We have one government on the planet, with one ruler. But how long will that survive, given that there will be people sowing dissent? How long will it take before the governance either dies, or turns into a dystopian story straight from Black Mirror? What will happen when the Mars colony decides to declare independence (a tech person is in charge, there will be a Mars colony)?

Or another scenario - let's say multiple techies take over the world; how fast will the planet turn into a glass desert, forever testifying to the holy war between Emacs and Vim, or JavaScript versus basic sanity?

My point is, I don't believe techies are suited to rule humanity. I don't believe anyone is. And I have no idea if a civilization-scale governance that is stable, universally good, and that would survive more than few decades, is even possible.


Why is Javascript always trashed? Nobody forced you to use it, and there are plenty of alternatives out there...

Imo, it's (or at least was) a great simple language to get started in programming: you can get results fast, stay engaged, and enjoy the process of learning with it, while creating cool stuff.

I feel like sometimes people lose sight of the fact that languages are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. If you love to write perfect lines of beautiful code in Rust and that's enough for you, that's great, but why do you need to bash people enjoying themselves with a tool they're comfortable with to create things?

</rant>


> Nobody forced you to use it

Javascript is one of the very few languages that people are actually forced to use.


> why do you need to bash people enjoying themselves with a tool they're comfortable with to create things

Isn't that part of the theme of the post? Javascript doesn't care that it's being used for evil, but the things people create in Javascript often turn that way. They harvest personal data, drain battery life, and litter the internet with obtrusive advertisements. And that's when it doesn't just fail and break the website.

So go ahead. Create kind and beautiful things in Javascript. Just don't be surprised that people blame the language for the dreadful things it's brought us.


Many reasons, a lot of them related to its ecosystem.

But the thing is, you just fell for my bait, thus proving my point. If we were countries, we might just start exchanging stern diplomatic notes.

And then a third country with a strong opinion on the topic comes along and escalates.

;).


I was suspecting this was bait, but I just had to bite on this one, it really annoys me to see these "thought movements" go in motion where, in the end, people don't even know why they're saying what they're saying and it becomes fashionable to trash one side or another... (And this might not be you but since you baited me, you're the target of this argument now.)

So there's my diplomatic note for you. Who wants to escalate this?


> Why is Javascript always trashed?

It's the combination of two adages:

-Build a tool that fool can use, and only fools will use it.

-Every time you make something fool proof, God invents a better fool.

These are mutually recursive.


>And I have no idea if a civilization-scale governance that is stable, universally good, and that would survive more than few decades, is even possible.

I would agree, insofar as the requirements for such a stable (and dare I say peaceful) government will require a letting-go of our basic nature to let Power corrupt us. It might work for a little while though as you say, which would be pretty good considering our track record...


I think the ultimate ideal that humans should strive to is to learn to live without a ruler. If that's impossible then learn to live under the rule of an automaton. I guess what I am trying to say is that we need to move away from our current thinking and consider the possibility of governance without an ultimate authority.


> If that's impossible then learn to live under the rule of an automaton.

I guess you mean some kind of computer/AI? Then who rules (programs) the AI, rules the world. This is definitely no anarchy. Ceding authority to a machine only serves to hide the real rulers.

Check This Perfect Day by Ira Levin, for a perspective on what kind of world this could lead to.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_Perfect_Day


Yes, I considered the problem of who programs the automaton. But I was hoping by the time we cede control to the machine, our species will be enlightened enough to come up with a set of rules that are "reasonable" enough. The important thing here is not the automaton but reaching that enlightened state.


This is actually the future I see: any smart and noble ruler would seek to reach this society and would enact systems that make them obsolete. A good CEO builds something without him there and I think the optimistic view of a singular ruler is that they would empower people enough over the period of their rule that distributed rule would be possible and we would no longer have bloated centralized governments.


The problem is, that singular noble ruler would have to survive long enough to implement their plan fully, probably facing organized opposition throughout it all.

(Related to Maciej's talk - I vaguely remember the Bible saying something about a good ruler dying, and his work being undone by a clueless son; I can't find the passage now, though.)

BTW. I see you implying that smart and noble ruler would implement a one-time solution that forever relieves us from the need of organized governance. That's very similar of what the Friendly-AI Problem crowd talks about - you get only one shot at this, and if you screw it up, you screw up everything, forever.


I don't think this really holds up under even very light scrutiny. Most people in general aren't all that interested in calling all the shots but there've been plenty of technically and scientifically trained politicians all over the world in all sorts of political systems. One leads Germany today, among others.

Most of us have strong pacifist views but seldom do we actually do anything that enables us to stop constant war.

Scientists actively initiated the development of the weapons that define post-ww-2 geopolitics. Subsequently, many were deeply involved in related internal and foreign policy. It doesn't get more 'doing something' than that.


>> This has been true throughout human history. The second that technologists realize that it serves the human race for us to be power hungry (at the grandest scale -- not the ego-driven "I launched Instagram" scale) ... society will undergo rapid transformation.

One of the many problems with this idea is that to do science you have to do science and to do politics you have to do politics. Both take an insane amount of work to keep practicing, let alone to be successful at, so it's really hard to combine the two and be equally successful in both.

So the power hungry science becomes a power hungry politican, after a while. What did we gain? We have power hungy politicians right now.


I think there's an important distinction between being power hungry and recognizing the need for active participation in society, taking responsibility for how our work is deployed, and using democratic technology as a counterweight against the influence of despots and corporate oligopolies. The world needs more power hungry people like I need a hole in my head.


Username checks out


This sounds like the plot of Persepolis Rising...

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28335696-persepolis-risi...


A "noble" anything is the future of human government.

I'm not betting on it happening during my lifetime.

For now I'd prefer us to have better systems for using human flaws for good government (greed, fear, narcissism & pride, etc.).


The problems of political relations are shaped by the dynamics of the system, not by the inherent character flaws of the people operating that system.


And the problem with that was identified by Lord Acton in 1887 (https://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/165acton.html): "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Your technocrats may be noble, but they are also human. Give them enough power and they will swiftly lose their nobility.


> "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

There's a corollary here.

I think a probably-more-precise description is that corruption isn't just caused by the presence of power, it's the result of the disparity between power and wisdom.

If you increase power without increasing wisdom, you'll see more corruption. If you have absolute power, you probably don't also have absolute wisdom (if such a thing is even conceptually possible).

There's a second corollary here: Power doesn't only corrupt the one that wields it. Its mere presence can sour others. (Envy, greed, etc.)

In a similar vein, people also love to say that knowledge is power, but I think "information asymmetry" fits better.

(Also, power is inherently temporary.)


It's not simply the holding of power that corrupts. 10 years ago I was a tech Director at an investment bank. The politics were brutal, so I quit. I returned a couple of years later as a contractor, and found some people treated me differently. They were no longer interested in chatting, and didn't laugh at my lame jokes. Other people treated me the same; they were my real friends. When you have power and influence, even if relatively minor, people will suck up to you. You may not be aware of it happening. It's insidious, and it will corrupt you if you're not on your guard. Some people enjoy it; in my experience they're often dangerous.


> They were no longer interested in chatting, and didn't laugh at my lame jokes.

Was this because:

  A. They never liked your "lame jokes" in the first place and were
     behaving without integrity in the past?
  B. The politics got to them and they ceased to enjoy the finer things in life?
I like puns. When I was depressed years ago, I had a hard time laughing at any jokes, even really clever puns. I also became quieter and more reserved.

It's very likely you've got anecdotes that would support A over B, but as an outsider, I'm cautious to assume. :)


Of course, we shouldn't dole out arbitrary power to scientists. The founding fathers did a great job several centuries ago at building a balanced system... but who is to say that there isn't something better, that has technology as a foundational layer.


Even earlier than that, Plato had somethings to say about philosophers and kings.


If you are interested in the history of communications, you may also be interested in this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semaphore_line


>I don't think we've even seen a Father Coughlin of the Internet

Alex Jones?


In tone, yeah, but Alex Jones has nowhere near the influence of Father Coughlin.


Will there be a video version released?


Kudos, learned a lot from history to politics.


If you're not familiar with it, Ecclesiastes is a rant by an angry, elderly atheist that through some editorial oversight found its way into the Bible.

Not an atheist. Ancient jews believed in God but not in the afterlife.


I'm not an expert at all, but your response made me curious as to why that (presumably humorous) aside would have been thrown in.

Anyway, my research, such as it is, took me as far as the Wikipedia article on Ecclesiastes[0], which maybe provides soft support for the claim?

The presence of Ecclesiastes in the Bible is something of a puzzle, as the common themes of the Hebrew canon—a God who reveals and redeems, who elects and cares for a chosen people—are absent from it, which suggests that Kohelet had lost his faith in his old age.

Anyway, I hope that this won't discourage people from reading the entire thing, which I thought was well written and well worth the time.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecclesiastes#Canonicity


I have no idea who wrote that in Wikipedia. My source was a Theology PhD about 35 years ago. Before maccabees there was no believe in afterlife, that came from Egypt and eastern cultures. Even in Jesus times, Sadducees didn't believe in afterlife.


> a God who reveals and redeems, who elects and cares for a chosen people

Yhwh is indeed the God of his own people, and fights alongside his people, against other peoples and their god(s).

Sometimes he gets upset with his people and punishes them, usually very harshly (mass drowning, mass fires, getting them lost in the desert for generations, etc.)

The role of prophets is mainly to try to talk God into being a little more lenient and maybe not kill everyone this time.

The idea of a benevolent God is fairly recent. (Conversely, the argument that God doesn't exist because there is so much evil in the world is fairly weak. The God of the Old Testament doesn't have a problem with evil, he just wants his team to win.)


It's a joke.


It doesn't matter.


Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.


No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them. So yeah, it really doesn't matter.


HN: Whereby, when presented with a Maciej slide deck, pedantry takes precedence over humor.

Oh well, at least he can take solace in

> that no matter how bad my talk, it won't be remembered.


HN: Whereby, when presented with a Maciej slide deck, pedantry takes precedence over humor.

Please, try to understand what others try to do before throwing unwarranted insults in the conversation.

That was a joke. So? There are a lot of people that ignores what I said. I wasn't attacking the author, just adding some rare facts to the conversation for people that could be unaware of it and wonder wth the author was meaning.

Now your comment, what exactly does it add to the conversation?

Edit: your response (that I can't responde to) is even worse. <sigh>


HN readers can be expected to know what the Book of Ecclesiastes is, and if not, to look it up in the dignified privacy of the search engine box.

Please don't do flamewars on HN. You guys have managed to produce almost half the thread at this point. That's some low-quality yield.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


Ahem, could you please review my comments and find a single insult in them? Because I can't. On the other hand:

- Pedantry - Rude - Dickish dismissal - Dismissive jerk - Unkind

And then "lighten up" :)


> I wasn't attacking the author, just adding some rare facts to the conversation for people that could be unaware of it and wonder wth the author was meaning.

I wasn't responding to your original comment, which I thought added value.

I was responding to "It doesn't matter."

You're dismissing someone else's perception of the context in which the statement was made.

Sure, humor might not matter to you.

To some HN users, it might even matter less than factual correctness to a granular level. But to say it doesn't matter, full stop? That's just rude.

> Now your comment, what exactly does it add to the conversation?

It circles back from your dickish dismissal with an excerpt from the webpage for the sake of humor.

Try lightening up. Or, at the very least, maybe try to not be a dismissive jerk to other people. It costs very little to be kind.

EDIT: If you want to respond, click the "x minutes ago" to access a comment directly and you'll get the reply box. i.e. https://news.ycombinator.com/edit?id=16107228


Didn't you just criticize other people for "pedantry taking precedence over humor"?

Please don't do tedious tit-for-tats on HN. As the guidelines say in another context, it never does any good and it makes boring reading.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


I did, but as far as I can tell there was no humor in the comment I was responding to?


You're correct, but the article is overall a great read. This one little factual oversight is tangential.


That's not a factual oversight, it's a joke. I knew that. I even found it funny. I just added a little information that I find interesting.


I don't have a great deal of tolerance for any "factual oversights". If you're not certain of it, don't mention it.


yeah they kind of lost me at that point


That's the first slide! You pulled the ripcord while the plane was still at the terminal.


Thank God for zero-zero ejection seats... unless you get sucked into the turbine of an overflying jet.


i heard the engine rattling, and its not the only plane in the terminal.

on a serious note, i already knew they didnt have their facts strait, and it was clear they were going to paint the article with some sort of rhetoric.

i'm sure you enjoyed the article and it has good content, but it wasn't for me and i moved on.


But even on such a tight schedule, you took the time to come to the comment and take part in a pointless thread about a joke.

> i already knew they didnt have their facts strait

Deducing this from this joke alone is irrational, so to be charitable let's assume you had other reasons for dismissing the talk. Why not expose them instead?


FYI - You're responding to the author.




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