Computers will erase the Public/Private Distinction


What does the following image show:

Is it:

  • An organizational chart for a giant company?
  • A network diagram showing a tree topology, possibly for use in a command-and-control system for a massive network of computers?
  • A depiction of a single roman legion, broken into centuries and cohorts?
  • A map of the catholic church showing the pope, archbishops, and bishops?
  • A representation of regional towns, and major cities, and the capital from ancient China?

Why do these things all look similar? Is it possible that they have something fundamental in common?

Most adults today think that corporations are fundamentally different from governments, which are fundamentally different from religions, which are fundamentally different from political parties, &c &c &c.  I think this distinction will seem increasingly vacuous to people a few decades in the future. The reason this distinction has made sense in the past is, ultimately, because computers weren’t a thing, and coordinating human activity at scale has always required computation.

The best we could do to coordinate ourselves without digital computers was to form network hierarchies out of human beings. And, humans being story-driven primates, we used narratives about humans to control and coordinate our behavior.   But, humans being computers, we arranged ourselves in the same kind of network hierarchies necessary for controlling any kind of system at scale.

The surface differences between a corporation, a government, a religion, a political party and  a bowling league belie the fact that they are all ways of coordinating human activity at scale. There isn’t yet one word for all the different things of that category.    I’ll bet good bitcoins that there will be soon.

You can see the need for a word like this now, as people grope around at words like ‘culture’ and ‘society’. In the past, ‘culture’ referred to a distinct style of dress, clothing, music, food, ritual celebration. We could talk about southern culture, or hiphop culture, or redneck culture. But can we say the same thing about “cancel culture?” Is there a distinctive style of food associated with “rape culture?”  Lately, culture is  “a thing lots of people are doing.”  We don’t have a word yet that simply means “a collection of people behaving in a similar fashion and sharing a similar value system” do we?

What’s the real difference between the Mexican cartel and Mexico’s legitimate government, if both of them are providing medical supplies and humanitarian aid?  Do we call Pablo Escobar a Drug Lord because his revolution was commercially motivated? Or because it failed?  How do we decide which governments are legitimate and which ones aren’t? I think it’s in a similar way that a distributed database decides which instance should sit in the red/root/master/primary node at the top of that tree diagram up above.

I think we’ll soon see a graph like this one for content, but for some other word. But i’m not certain which word that would be.

What is that spike? Why did the word ‘content’ start to rise in 1997, and then explode in frequency in 2007? Does this chart remind you of dopamine levels following a triggered release that returns to baseline? 

Anticipation of Cocaine Triggers Dopamine Increase in Rats
Probably just a coincidence, but still cool

I think what’s happening in the ‘content’ graph above is that the human superconsciousness learned a new concept, ‘content’, which is why we started talking about it a whole bunch for a few years, until slowly tailing off to the trend we had been on. I expect this will happen again, with some other word, that we’ve long gotten used to, and convinced ourselves we had mostly gotten rid of.

There’s a reason we learned the idea of ‘content’: new technology created a unified interface, which erased the previous distinction. I think something similar will happen between corporations and governments.

Content, as a concept, is new

If all of this sounds confusing, imagine trying to explain the word “content” to an intelligent, curious person from the year 1990.

Lisa Simpson: “What is this content thing you keep talking about? The content of what?”

You: “Well, content could be a movie, or a TV show, or a song, or a story, or a picture, or a video game. It’s anything you can download.”

Lisa Simpson: “Download?”

You: “Yeah, download, from the internet. It’s a network of computers that can all send each other messages. It’s great!”

Lisa Simpson: “OK… I guess I can imagine playing Oregon Trail without needing to use the disk. I could ‘download’ the game from the ‘internet’.  But what do computers have to do with movies or TV shows or songs?”

You: “Computers in the future have much better graphics, and better sound. You can watch TV shows or movies on computer screens, and people also carry around computers in their pockets. These pocket computers are also phones. People use their phones to watch movies and TV shows, to read books, play music and games. All that stuff is called ‘content’. It’s what we do with our phones when we aren’t arguing at each other about which new religion is correct.”

Lisa Simpson: “OK… I guess those are all forms of entertainment. And I can see how you could represent them all digitally. And yes, if I try, I can imagine people playing music from tiny computers in their pockets, which are also phones they use to read and play games. But my imagination is limited to just picturing that in my head. It still feels so foreign to me that it’s difficult to imagine the implications of what it means.”

The Interface is what feels Real to most people

I’m going to guess that if you’re reading this blog, you’re not likely to have been drawn from a random sample of the general public. You’re more Lisa than you are Bart Simpson; you might have appreciated the fact that most of entertainment in the past was just information, whereas most people would have shrugged and said ‘so what’?

Most people don’t care about what’s behind the interface. But you do. That’s why you’re reading blogs instead of scrolling content generated by a machine that’s trained to prod you emotionally.

Mobile phones changed people’s perceptions, and gave rise to this idea of content, I think because they gave us a common interface to similar things that all previously felt different, because we interacted with those similar-under-the-surface things through very different interfaces. And while the Lisa Simpsons of the world, the nerds, want to understand what’s behind the interfaces we interact with, most people don’t care.

So what i think would ultimately erase this public/private distinction, in the public consciousness, would be a new interface to both of these things, which was more or less the same. And, because ‘the public’ has such a strong brand identity in many of our minds – indeed, it has taken the place of organized religion for a lot of us – I think what would erase the public/private distinction is for people to find that corporations actually do a better job of ‘scratching the itch’ that governments currently attempt to scratch.

The merging of formerly separate interfaces reveals underlying unity

We currently interact with states by:

  • believing we have some ability to control them and direct their actions
  • believing they do, or at least ought to, impart our values on the world
  • paying taxes to them, but only as much as we have to
  • sharing the messages they want us to share, but only when we agree with those messages

We previously (i.e. before the internet) interacted with private corporations by:

  • buying their goods and services, if we like their location on a quality/price tradeoff curve
  • buying their shares, but only if we think they will appreciate in value

But this interface is slowly morphing, in part because of social media. We now also interact with corporations by

  • sharing the messages they want us to share, as long as we agree with those messages
  • buying their goods and services, if we like the messages they share, and refusing to buy them – regardless of price OR quality, if we don’t
  • buying their stock based upon some combination of their perceived monetary AND moral values

these are both ’emotional interfaces’ – you give something of value, money, a symbol of a feeling, in exchange for some other feeling: a full stomach, a rested neck, a fluttering in your heart, a feeling of pride and purpose, a feeling of control over an otherwise chaotic and hostile world.

The rules used to be that the ‘corporate interface’ only gave you mundane feelings, whereas governments gave you more special, dangerous, volatile feelings like ‘we are the good guys, going to beat up on the bad guys.’ But the interface is the same: put money, time, and energy in, get feelings out. Just like with content, there really only was one interface (put data into head, get feelings in head), but the implementations of these interfaces were physically different (phones, books, tv’s, screens, computers).

The interfaces between consumers/investors with companies, and voters/donors with governments, are becoming increasingly similar on an emotional level.

Technology is morphing both of these interfaces: with governments, technology shows their failures, incompetency, and corruptions in such a way that it becomes more difficult for us to believe that governments share our values and enact them on the world. By increasing the number of perspectives we can choose from, technology is also weakening the illusion that we actually control the government. How many policies and ideas have widespread support among the public but never show up as vote in congress? We voted for an anti-war president twice, and just got more war.

At the same time, technology is morphing the corporate interfaces as well. Companies used to do their best to avoid taking a side in politics. Why alienate half your market? But corporate presence on social media, plus the political near-uniformity of millennials and ‘very online’ people means there is now selection pressure for digital messaging that is politicized, becuase that’s what your target market wants. So far companies have chosen either: “be directly and explicitly conservative”, i.e. Hobby Lobby, Chick-fil-A, or “lean left while pretending you are still apolitical” (i.e. basically every other large corporation). And this distribution only makes sense: if most of your customers buy into a specific religion, why not put its symbols all over your products?

MyPillow is a great example; this guy is clearly targeting conservatives with his pillows:

If he were targeting liberals, he’d do it like this:

Vivek Ramaswamy calls this last pattern “woke capitalism” which i think is a bit of a misnomer because it also includes groups like “Black Rifle Coffee Company”, which is effectively “Starbucks for conservatives.” Vivek seems this situation as being awful and something we should push back against. I see ‘values-based-capitalism’ as being inevitable.

As of right now, most major companies have adopted the logo of an organization founded by marxists and advancing a deeply unpopular policy agenda, and then being surprised that people think maybe they are biased. I think the surprise is genuine, and it’s a result of deep implicit bias. This is kind of funny, considering Google taught us very clearly that even if we don’t mean to be biased towards groups we like, we are.

People at Google got real defensive if I suggested that maybe this applies to political groups. Am I really supposed to believe that white democrats would really prefer to hire Donald Trump over Barack Obama because trump is white and Obama is black? Or am i supposed to believe that implicit bias only applies to race and gender, but not to political views?

I think their defensiveness is an example of the misnamed ‘white fragility’ – it would be better named ‘the fragility of acknowledging that you are in a dominant social position in a culture that has lionized weakness and subservience in order to promote the value of an all-powerful state’

For some reason it hasn’t caught on

The bias is invisible to the people at these companies precisely because it is so pervasive. Check out this chart of political donations by employees at alphabet (Google’s parent company):

Donations from Alphabet employees, to political groups, by recipient ideology

Now go look at the same chart, but for donations by the company itself:

Donations from alphabet corporate, to political groups, by recipient ideology

From these charts, a few things are clear:

  • From a management, “shareholder value” perspective, the company thinks it makes sense to support both parties roughly equally, while…
  • Employees overwhelmingly support democrats, and …
  • Employees gave more than 10 times as much as as the company did

I think the realty is that markets give people what they want, and people want to be part of something bigger and more powerful than themselves, which enforces their own preferred values on the world.

The inescapability of religion

If we are honest with ourselves, i think we ALL want a religion to dominate the entire world, and the only thing we disagree on is what religion should be the thing dominating the world. None of us really want there to be huge portions of the world governed by people whose value system is totally alien to us, who ban things we think should be human rights, and allow things we find abhorrent. None of us. The only thing we disagree on what exactly is abhorrent and what is good. You know, the same things humans have always disagreed over.

Some of us pretend the dominant religion we favor isn’t really a religion, see, just a set of rules and values that we want to see enforced everywhere. People who want secular humanism and free exchange to be the prevailing norms are still pushing a religion, but we’ve constructed our verbal categories in such a way that we can pretend ours isn’t a religion, instead of dealing with the thornier problem of arguing that our religion really is better, which strikes us as distasteful. Our solution to the distaste we have for saying ‘powerful good guys should impose their will on the world’ is to collectively pretend we aren’t doing it and get real mad at anyone who suggests that this is what we are doing.

We have pushed the notion of the dominant good guy into our collective jungian shadow. We used to be ashamed of sex. Now we are ashamed of power.

Our ancestors may have been brutal, but at least they could say things like ‘we should end slavery everywhere because it is wrong‘. We can’t say that last part because it re-opens the firey garbage can of ‘well what do we mean by right and wrong’, and we prefer to keep that thing shut, because opening that can it is harmful to minorities and women (which is wrong but we can’t say that and don’t need to because all of us know what ‘bad for minorities’ really means, it’s a euphemism for god’s / goodness’ / equity’s sake).

“I am all of us, enforcing the one true value system on the world. ”

The story governments tell us

Governments have attempted to give people the feeling they want, of “i am part of the good team, which always wins because it is good”, but they can’t do it because people have vastly different values.

So governments aren’t really doing a great job of making people feel that we control them, or that they share our values. Meanwhile, corporations are doing their best to tell us that they do share our values. But corporations are still pretending that they aren’t taking a side in politics, by doing the same thing we do with religion: pretending political views aren’t really political. Orwell would love this.

So, currently, most big companies are trying have it both ways – to get the benefits of taking one side in a deeply polarized country, while claiming that they aren’t really doing so. See the split between corporate and individual donations. But conservatives see the writing on the wall, and are becoming more and more eager for an exit. We should expect ‘the fox news of big tech companies’ to come along any day now. As conservatives start opting for explicitly conservative businesses, why would the other business bother to remain neutral? Where’s the shareholder value in that? If you have no conservative customers, why bother to try remaining impartial?

Donald Trump looking at all the shareholder value he’s created

So big companies are already taking sides: conservative companies do this explicitly, while democratic run companies take a side implicitly, while explicitly they continue to pretend that they are impartial because they are run by people who grew up believing corporations are bad guys who have prevented the government from doing what’s right. I don’t think they’ll keep pretending to be neutral indefinitely. It just takes a while for collective fictions to catch up with changing reality. Money in politics is now dominated by democratic donors. But how many democratic voters currently believe this is true?

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, i remembered thinking ‘well there’s no way this leads to war because the democrats hate war due to how abysmal Iraq was.’ And then i watched how Russia became public enemy number one. And now the republicans are starting to become anti-war. If i were some guy in the CIA and i wanted to us to go punch Russia in the dick, the main problem I’d need to solve is “how can we get the democrats on board with aggressive military action?” Blaming Russia for trump seems like a great solution: russia being white also makes it easier for democrats to see them as bad guys. We sure would be in trouble if there were an ethnonationalist force as dangerous as the nazis were, but they didn’t do us the favor of looking enough like us that we can pretend we aren’t one group trying to dominate a different group! Meanwhile, more republicans are adopting anti-war poses, as well as being skeptical of the power of giant companies, both of which used to be democratic positions. The key fact here is used to be.

And as democrats start becoming more ok with the idea corporations are actually OK things – as long as they ESG hard enough – I expect we’ll see corporations start giving people the feeling of power over them. Because this is what people want: they want to feel that they have power. Companies try to give people what they want in order to make money. If people want a feeling of control, and the feeling of control can be delivered at scale without cost or risk that outweigh the benefits, even if the costs and risks are real! – companies will give that feeling. They will compete to do so.

I think this last piece – companies don’t even pretend that ‘we’ control them – is one of the few beams left holding load for the “government is the public, it accountable to us!” meme. I expect it to break soon. How long will it be until corporations start letting their users or other ‘stakeholders’ have a vote on a seat at the board of directors? There would be some risk in this, but man, think of the branding value! And besides, what does one seat on the board really matter if founders have all the control? Why not give the people the feeling that they have some control over you, if that feeling is what they want?

This is something I fully expect in the next 10 years: some publicly traded company will offer votes for a seat on its board, to some non-shareholder group.

So yes, I think private companies have already started moving in on the “this is how we enforce our values together” turf formerly claimed by governments. The mexican cartel was doing likewise. New technological interfaces blur the prior distinctions that were necessary. But wait! There’s more! The incentives at play will only accelerate the process!

The incentives for political donations from ad vendors

Ask yourself a quick question about that $20 million in donations from Google employees. Where did that money go? To politicians. Who spent it on what? Advertising! And who makes up one of the biggest sellers of advertising? Big tech companies make up 65% of the ad market! The economic setup is already deeply self serving. If employees really want the government to enforce their values, and companies can do a better job of this becaues companies are controlled by ideologically uniform groups, why not just hold that money in company stock? Why bother donating to politicians who’ll spend money on google and facebook ads when google and facebook can just cater to politicians directly?

The only argument here is “but conservatives would revolt and stop spending money on these platforms.” But what if that’s going to happen any way?

If the big companies start being more explicit about their values (to reflect both their customer base, and conservatives leaving for places that favor them), and there aren’t great competitive replacements, why bother pretending to be neutral? Ask yourself this: if Google came out and said, “we are a democratic company, suck our corporate balls if you don’t like it!’ are Democrats going to not like this? Are republicans going to trust Google even less than they already did?

If Facebook came out and said “we are a democratic company, we have the right to make this choice, so from now on we’ll just be explicit about it,” what happens to their DAU? If all these tech companies grew their products so large that they can’t find new users, and people start fleeing for sites that cater to their political values, how might they try and hold on? If your growth is flagging, and people only get excited about politics and professional football, and large numbers of them already suspect you are biased against them, why not just lean into that? Because conservatives will all leave?

Or – what if facebook decides that the ideal response to rapidly losing DAU is, instead of competing with other left-wing tech companies, decides to be the right wing tech company? The alternative might be to fight a losing battle for mindshare in one religion with many corporations competing to serve it. Why do that, instead of seizing the wide-open territory of ‘big tech company that backs republicans’?

If facebook losing DAU is inevitable, and they have all this compute infrastructure that spans the world, and an internal cloud product, what if facebook says, fuck it, now we’re the right wing tech company? They’d change their color from blue to red, replace the kente scarf outside menlo park with a ‘no step no snek’ flag, and replace lost ad revenue from departing blue tribers – now even more disgusted with the company – with cloud revenue from right wing companies who can’t find a cloud provider who shares their religion.

Would right wingers be like, ‘oh no, you were bad to us, we don’t trust you?’ or would they flock to a tech provider who at least pretends to share their values? The only way this doesn’t happen is it’s bad for shareholder value. But if the shareholders are revolting, your new investments aren’t paying off, and getting people to build a business on your tech stack gives you lock-in… why not?

If the future is inevitable, you profit from front running it, and you pay a huge cost to try and shovel back the tide. If myspace had been around after trump, maybe they’d have had a chance if they put guns and flags and monster trucks on their front page and said facebook was the social network for millennial libtards.

But, that’s not all! Not only do the incentives favor increasing politicization of big companies, governments have a few weaknesses that private corporations don’t: governments don’t produce valuable goods and services that people actually want to pay for. Private companies do. Governments don’t sell shares that we can reasonably expect will appreciate in value over time. Private companies do. Governments aren’t staffed full of people who are great at allocating capital in order to maximize a return. Private companies are. And, lastly, governments have to let everyone vote, which means those pesky outgroups we don’t like are also allowed to get a vote. Privately held companies don’t have that flaw, and can explicitly restrict their voting pool.

The ‘shares’ of the government are bonds, which lose value over time. Their ‘product’ is taxation, which people genuinely don’t like and will do whatever they can to get around. Their branding is abysmal because maybe half of the time, they become posseted by the evil outgroup. Companies have none of those weaknesses. How long until they mint their own cryptocurrencies and use their private security forces to maintain law and order over the employee/stakeholder dormitories that house their employees and investors?

Lisa’s pupils dilate to the size of bitcoins, the walls turn into throbbing rainbow gradients, and a deep resonant drone fills the air, rumbling your solar plexus and making you feel deeply sated, as if you’d just finished a big meal in some dimension where you didn’t realize you had a stomach.

Lisa has licked the hypnotoad.

PS bonus followup: See this entire page as an argument on Roam.

2 thoughts on “Computers will erase the Public/Private Distinction

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