The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label facebook. Show all posts
Showing posts with label facebook. Show all posts

Monday, October 11, 2021

The Age of Exterminations (IV). How to Kill the Rich

In our times, the Knight Templars have gained the fame of exceptionally good warriors. That may be more than a little exaggerated because when the time came to defend their leaders, arrested by the King of France, they vanished into thin air. Yet, the history of the Templars is interesting as a case of the periodic exterminations of the financial class in history. Could something similar happen to our modern financial tycoons, the Internet barons, Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg, etc.? We cannot say for sure, but we cannot exclude that, either. The recent "incident" that shut down Facebook for a while may well be the harbinger of a reckoning to come.

"A house filled with gold cannot be defended." Lao Tsu, the Tao Te Ching

"All political power comes from the barrel of a gun." Mao Zedong

The Monastic order of the Templars (Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Salomonici), was founded in 1119 as a military force to defend the Christian holdings in the Holy Land. In time, the order evolved into a financial structure: the Templars became bankers and they developed a sophisticated money transfer system that helped pilgrims and warriors to move to and from the Holy Land and to transfer money from Europe to Palestine and back. They have been termed "the first multinational corporation" in history. 

As you may imagine, the Templars were rich, despite the term "pauperes" (poor fellows) in their name. They had land, castles, palaces, and, of course, plenty of gold and silver. The problem was that, with the loss of the last lands controlled by the Christian crusaders in the Holy Land, at the end of the 13th century, they had become useless: no more crusades, no need of a banking system to finance them

At that point, the Templars attracted the attention of the king of France, Phillip IV, in dire need of money, as kings normally are. In 1307, he ordered the arrest of all Templars and the confiscation of their properties.  Most of the leaders were burned at the stake after that they had confessed under torture all sorts of evil misbehaviors: spit on the cross, deny Christ, engage in indecent kissing, worship the devil, and other niceties. 

As exterminations go, this one didn't involve large numbers: we read of 54 executions in France in 1310. Probably there were more in other countries, but the total cannot be higher than a few hundred. Nevertheless, it had a big impact: it is said that the fame of Friday the 13th as an unlucky day originates from the date of the arrest of the Templars: Friday, October 13, 1307.

The question is, of course, can it happen again? How about our class of hyper-rich, the "100 billion dollar club," that includes well-known names such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and a few more? They are clearly going to become trillionaires in the near future. But a house full of gold is hard to defend, as we read in the Tao Te Ching. Could our Internet barons follow the destiny that long ago befell another class of financial tycoons, the Templars?

As usual, the key to the future is in the past. Examining the destiny of the Templars, we may understand the factors that may lead to the extermination of a powerful (but not enough) financial guild. 

First of all, why were the Templars exterminated? I argued in previous posts (onetwo, and three) that certain categories of people can be exterminated and their possessions confiscated when they are 1) wealthy, 2) clearly identifiable, and 3) militarily weak, The Templars clearly satisfied the first two rules but not necessarily the third: after all, they were a military order. Yet, when the King of France descended on them, they didn't even try a military reaction. It may be that the prowess of the Templar Knights was much overrated: they were more like a private police force for a financial organization, not a real military force. But it may also be that it was exactly the presence of this force that hastened their downfall. Sometimes, a little military power may be worse than none at all, since it invites a decapitation strike. This is probably what happened to the Templars, exterminated just to make sure that they would not become a threat. 

The story of the Templars is just an example of a power struggle that has very ancient origins. One of the earliest written texts we have was written by the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna who complained with the Goddess that her temple had been desecrated by a local warlord. Enheduanna does not say if the warlord was after the temple's money, but we know that, at that time, temples were also banks, a tradition that remained unchanged for millennia. For instance, as late as during the first century AD, we have the record of a local leader who raided the temple of Jerusalem and attacked the resident bankers, most likely in order to finance an armed insurrection against the Roman governor. 

Temples and warlords remained in an uneasy relationship with each other during the Roman Empire, but a few centuries later, raiding Pagan temples became the normal way to finance the Roman armies, a tradition started by Emperor Constantine 1st ("The Great") during the early 4th century AD. Less than a century later, Emperor Theodosius 1st ("The Great") was the last emperor who still could find Pagan temples to raid for their gold and silver. Then, no more temples, and no more Roman Empire

And then, there was the time of the Catholic Church in Europe, which never officially acted as a bank, for a period even forbidding to charge interest on loans to Christians. That left the Jews as typical targets for raids and extermination, a tradition that continued for a long time. But the Church was nevertheless an economic powerhouse thriving on the donations of the faithful and on various economic activities, including owning vast swats of land, various kinds of manufacturing, and even employing prostitutes and managing brothels. It was a juicy target for the military leaders in Europe and the case of the elimination of the Templars was just the harbinger of much worse to come for the Church.  

During the 16th century, it was the turn of King Henry VIII to destroy the Catholic monasteries in England and confiscate their properties (a few monks and abbots were exterminated in the process). Later on, in France, a substantial part of the French revolution had to do with confiscating the Church's properties and beheading a substantial number of monks and priests. The wave of confiscations ended only when, in 1870, the Pope lost his last stronghold, the city of Rome, to the army of the king of Italy. This final battle, fortunately, didn't involve exterminations. 

Now, back to our times. Just like the last Roman Emperors had run out of Pagan temples to raid, our governments have run out of Churches to depredate. But some elements of the power game remain the same: if once temples were also banks, today banks are also temples. You can see that very well if you live in the US, where no respectable bank would renounce temple-like columns on the facade. 

But the question is not architectural: our society is possibly the most monetarized one that ever existed in history and the people who run our financial system yield immense power. That power, though, makes them attractive targets for another kind of power: the military one. Think of our Internet barons, Bill Gates and his ilk. By getting rid of a few tens of them, the government could cash in at least a trillion dollars in a single sweep. That is an amount of the same order of magnitude as the US military expenses in one year. Could that happen for real? 

Of course, right now, it is hard to imagine a court that sentences Mark Zuckerberg to be burned at the stake after having confessed under torture of consorting with the devil and other unholy behaviors. Yet, things that happened once in history can always appear again. 

It will all depend on a balance of factors: power, wealth, control, technology, and more. Something drastic could happen, for instance, if the US government were to find itself in truly dire financial straits. Then, the temptation of using military means to solve the crisis could become strong. After that all is said and done, as president Mao Zedong said, the origin of all political power is the barrel of the gun. Is the recent shutting down of Facebook a signal of a battle being already being fought in the ethereal "Metaverse" regions? Only time will tell.  

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Who is the Emperor of the World? The New Age of Epistemic Dominance

 King Kamehameha 1st of Hawai'i (1736 - 1819) practiced the art of gift-giving during his reign, as it is typical of kings and rulers. It is remembered  that he said, "E 'oni wale no 'oukou i ku'u pono 'a'ole e pau." "Endless is the good that I have given to you to enjoy." In our times Google seems to have taken the same attitude: it gives us gifts in the form of free data. In view of the concept of "epistemic coup" proposed by Shoshana Zuboff, Google is rapidly becoming the Epistemic Emperor of the world.

In Roman times, it was a good thing to be the Emperor: you had gold, palaces, women, slaves, and lots of privileges, including the power to put anyone to death at your will. Emperors were supposed to be semi-divine creatures, enthroned by the Gods themselves but, in practice, they would soon become balding old men (if they survived to old age, not easy given the competition). So, why would anyone obey them?

Not a difficult question to answer. The Roman Emperors practiced a game that all rulers practice. It is called "gift-giving." It is part of the concept of sharing: something deeply embedded in the nature of human beings, ultimately a manifestation of empathy among humans. 

Sharing naturally creates social bonds that generate the hierarchical patterns that allow society to structure itself. In a harmonious society, the leaders govern without the need for force. They rule by their prestige, in turn obtained by judicious use of gift-giving. Gifts need not be in monetary forms: a leader becomes one because he or she shares knowledge, wisdom, or other skills. Of course, societies are never perfect and, in the real world, governance is a combination of positive and negative enhancements: the carrot and the stick. But the carrot is way more effective than the stick: for a leader, a live follower is much more useful than a dead enemy.

The Roman Empire was a monetized society, but the gift-giving game was played without involving money when the Emperor graciously provided the plebeians with "panem et circenses," (bread and games). If the plebeians were not happy enough, the Emperors could switch from the carrot to the stick, and employ the armed forces stationed in Rome, the Guardia Praetoriana, to teach the rabble a lesson. Of course, the Pretorians needed gifts, too, and they usually got them in the form of money. No Emperor could survive for long without large, sometimes extravagant, payments to the troops supporting him.

But, where did the Emperors get the resources they needed to provide gifts to their followers? Of course, from taxes. It was a tool that they would often use also to impoverish and eliminate potential competitors. The poor were normally too poor to be taxed and so the Emperor, though no Robin Hood, played a useful role in terms of wealth redistribution. Otherwise, wealth would have mostly accumulated in the coffers of the wealthy nobles (just as in our times it accumulates in the bank accounts of our financial tycoons). The Roman system was far from perfect but, as long as there was something to redistribute, it worked. When the Roman state collapsed, there was nothing left for the Emperors to tax or rob, and nothing to redistribute. No gifts, no empire

Here is another example of how ancient rulers tended to rule by their prestige. Below, you see the plaque on the monument to Ferdinando 1st, grand-duke of Tuscany from 1587 to 1609, still standing in Florence today. It says "Maiestate Tantum" meaning that, like King Kamehameha of Hawaii, the Duke ruled "by prestige only." That's the way of the good rulers. Note the bees collecting around the queen bee!


Fast forward to our times, and you can clearly see how we still practice a simple, non-monetized form of gift-giving on Christmas. But that is just a relic of old times. In practice, the Western society was built over a century or so by a gift-giving system larger and more pervasive than ever seen in any society in history. Politicians get elected by promising gifts to their voters, but they mainly provide gifts to lobbies, corporations, and power groups. And the lobbies give back awesome gifts to politicians. In the flurry of transactions, something trickles down to ordinary people. It is this network of givers and receivers that keeps the Global Empire together. Or, at least, has kept it together so far. It is a hierarchy based on money: the more you have, the higher you are on the social ladder.

In practice, you don't climb the social ladder by showing around the balance of your bank account. You do that by the mechanism called "conspicuous consumption." The more you consume, the higher you go. 

"Consuming" means, ultimately, to throw away old stuff and replace it with new stuff -- it is a practice that has much in common with the ancient usage called "potlatch" of the North-Western American Natives. In a potlatch, a chief would show his social worth by destroying valuable things he owned, "consuming" them. In our case, conspicuous consumption is done on a much larger scale and it is normally monetized. But you probably understand that if you can buy stuff and then throw it away it is only by means of a gift from the powers that be: the salary you receive for doing something that you know is useless, too.

And here you see the problem. With the gradual depletion of the mineral energy resources that power our society, consumerism is toast, just like the Roman Empire was when it ran out of gold. At some point, people will have to discover that the "money" they cherish so much is no more than numbers in a computer memory, and that these numbers can be erased at will by the powers that be. For a start, no more mass tourism and no more dining out. Then, in a short while, the flow of trinkets arriving from Amazon will dry out, too. It is coming, it has to.

No money, no conspicuous consumption. But how will the elites maintain their power? Right now, they seem to have decided to go for the stick, but governing by force is expensive and it has never really worked. What we need is government by prestige, but based on what? Right now, the prestige of our politicians seems to be more or less at the same level as that of leeches and other invertebrates. Evidently, some change is necessary. 

A hierarchy doesn't necessarily have to be based on money -- especially if money becomes useless when there is nothing left to buy (I called this "The problem of the shipwrecked sailor"). All hierarchies are, ultimately, based on prestige, and prestige can be gained in many different ways. For instance, early medieval Europe was poor and and "consuming" things (that is throwing away the old for the new) would have been considered a sin of vainglory. Prestige was the result of knowledge: the access to the sacred books of Christianity gave to the Christian church a prestige and a political importance that today we can't even imagine anymore. (*)

Once we get rid of consumerism (we must), we will move to a form of prestige based on knowledge. It is not just prestige: those who know more have more power, just think of what we call "insider trading." But, on the whole, prestige is the main output of knowledge. Those who know more -- or have access to more data -- are higher in the hierarchical scale. 

And we arrive to what Shoshana Zuboff calls the "Epistemic Empire" -- government by knowledge. Of course, our knowledge is not anymore stored in holy books, it is stored in the Web. Those who control the Web, control the world. The ruler of the Web is the emperor of the world: an epistemic emperor. 

So, who controls the Web? The struggle is ongoing, but the outcome starts to be evident. Imagine you were transported to Imperial Rome, how could you say who is the ruler of the place? Easy: the one who gives the most gift to the public: smaller rulers couldn't match the Emperor's largesse. In our times, it is just as easy: take a look at which internet company is giving away the larger number of gifts: by far it is Google

Let me write down a list of the free tools that Google provides.

  • Google Blogger
  • Google Books
  • Google Calendar
  • Google Data Studio
  • Google Docs
  • Google Earth
  • Google Jigsaw
  • Google Mail
  • Google Maps
  • Google Marketplace
  • Google Mobility
  • Google Ngrams 
  • Google Pay
  • Google Scholar
  • Google Translate
  • Google Trends

and many more. Just take a look at this page

It is amazing that Google gives you for free such huge databases as "Google Earth" and "Google Ngrams." No other Web entity does anything comparable. The financial tycoons, Musk, Gates, Bezos, and the others are unbelievably stingy in comparison, they look like petty provincial tyrants. Other entities do provide data for free, for instance, the World Bank, NASA; and even the CIA, but the scale is much smaller. Then, Wikipedia, but that seems to be rapidly becoming mostly a battleground of paid trolls. Facebook, then, doesn't give you anything, it only takes from you. Most of the new social networks seem to be interested mostly in showing you cute kittens and scantly clad young ladies. As for the world's universities and scientific research centers, they are a sad bunch of misers. They pretend to be creating knowledge but, in effect, they get money from the public and give nothing back to the public. Finally, governments are giving you only propaganda and fake news, the equivalent of counterfeited money. There is absolutely no data coming from governments and their mouthpieces called "The Media" that you can really trust.

So, Google plays the role that the Emperors of once would play, that of redistributing some of the wealth that the system creates. In return, just like the Roman citizens of old times, you have to pay back with your taxes. How? Not in monetary terms, of course, because the gifts you receive are not monetary. You pay data with data. By using Google services, especially their search engine, you give data to Google: it is an exchange, a gift-giving system. With the data you provide, Google builds up its knowledge, and with it, its dominance. And Google can afford to give you back knowledge as a gift. It is the dominance of the Epistemic Emperor of the world: Google.

One thing we know is that powerful entities always strive to increase their power. So, Google is clearly poised to sweep away the whole band of bloodsuckers that we call "universities" and take over the task of public instruction, something that governments don't seem to be able to supply anymore. At the same time, Google had already tried to oust its only remaining competitor, Facebook. The now-gone "Google+" didn't succeed at that, but, as we all know, revenge is something that is best served cold. The clumsy censorship machine that Facebook created is backfiring. Lots of people still use Facebook but hate it deeply and would love to leave it if they just could find something equivalent. Not that Google doesn't censor, but it does so in a much subtler way (see the Google Jigsaw site). So, the destiny of Facebook may be written in the cloud. Don't forget that FB rose on the ashes of a previous social network, the now-forgotten Friendster. Sic transit gloria!

And from now on? The huge and proteiform Google virtual machine can only continue expanding, not necessarily destroying the competition, but merging with it in an even larger machine. Google may take over one public service after the other, replacing even the state. After "Google University," we may see a "Google Police," a "Google Court," a "Google Retirement" a "Google Bank" (actually, it is already there) and, why not, a "Google Government." Government for Google, by Google, in the name of Google (***). After that, there remains only "Google God" -- which seems to be incarnating already (Facebook, clumsy as usual, has now a "pray" button).

Is all this good or bad? An ill-posed question. Google is neither evil nor good (correctly, they removed the "Don't be Evil" motto from their code of conduct). Google is what it is -- and if it is, it means that it had to be

It seems clear that the huge Google machine is, by now, impossible to control by mere human beings and it may well be the reason why the founders (Larry Page and Sergey Brin) are so rarely mentioned. The parts that form Google are self-assembling and creating a huge virtual holobiont that's expanding in the memesphere. The great thing may well evolve further into a hierobiont (**), but that will be beyond our capabilities of human beings to influence or even understand.

All that will last as long as the industrial system can keep the creature alive. Just as the Roman Emperors are gone by now, even Gods have their Götterdämmerung. And what will be, will be because it had to be.

(*) The Christian Church was the first epistemic empire in Europe, setting up a governance system based not anymore on money, but on the monopoly of data and information. Since it would have been unthinkable to teach everyone to read Latin, the Church had the monopoly of the knowledge of the holy scriptures. Hence, it had a near-monopoly of communication and, as a consequence, of governance. In parallel, in the Middle East, Islamic countries were going through a similar evolution, but they maintained a gold-based economy, so they didn't develop the equivalent of the imperial Christian church.

The Epistemic Empire of the Christian Church was a fine-tuned machine that worked well for centuries, then troubles started when new precious metal mines were discovered in Eastern Europe. That made it possible to pay soldiers again and it led Charlemagne to recreate a military-based European Empire in 800 AD. The Church acquiesced to the new entity and the Pope himself crowned the new emperor -- hoping to be able to control the new state just as it had managed to control the many small European statelets. 

But Europe was too small for two Empires. Gradually, the balance of power tilted against the Epistemic Empire in favor of the reborn military powers of Europe. The decisive blow to the Church's power was when Martin Luther translated the Bible into German and made it available for everyone. Maybe Luther knew that he, alone, was bringing down a whole Empire, surely a remarkable feat. Then, the new European powers proceeded with killing and enslaving one nation after the other until, some four centuries later, they were dominating the world.

(**) Hierobiont is a term that I coined expressly for this post. It describes an organization orthogonal to that of a holobiont. A holobiont is created by horizontal (paritetic) network connections, while a hierobiont has vertical (hierarchical) connections. A holobionts is homeostatically stable. A hierobiont is allostatically stable. In other words, a holobiont reacts to a perturbation in real time by damping its effects: it has no separate control unit. A hierobiont, instead, may plan ahead and avoid the perturbation before it appears: it does have a separate control unit (a "brain"). A holobiont practices Judo, a hierobiont practices Kyudo. Purely horizontal holobionts exist, purely vertical hierobionts may exist. We, humans, are a mix of the two: a brain-endowed hierobiont (aka organism) that coexists with a holobiont formed by the microbiota of the system. There are many more possible combinations, holobionts and hierobionts are both fractal. The Goddess Gaia is said to be a nearly pure holobiont, but she may have tricks we don't know about. 

(***) I noted in a previous post how "something" has appeared in the world's military arena that was preventing the kind of reckless behavior that Western Governments had been indulging in for the first two decades of the 21st century. During this period, bombing the country of the evil guy of the year seemed to carry only benefits and no risks -- and it was a lot of fun (except for the bombed people, of course). Strangely, though, from around 2011, that was not done any longer. In 2012 Obama had already announced that he was going to bomb Syria, but he stepped back. And, from then on, it was deafening silence. In July 2021, NATO carried out the "Sea Breeze" operation, right in front of the Russian forces in Crimea. It was the perfect moment to simulate an incident, a false flag, and that would have been the start of WWW3. Surely, plenty of people wanted exactly that. And yet, as I am writing, the Sea Breeze exercise is over from yesterday. Everything went on in total silence and nothing happened. What could that "something" be that stops all wars before they start? It is just a guess, but......