Recently I launched a YouTube channel. This channel provides another medium in which to share my thoughts, as well as a place to access recordings of my talks and interviews.
The first several videos dive into my thoughts on institutions, history, and modern society.
- Silicon Valley Was Wrong: The Internet Centralized Society It is commonly claimed that the Internet has been a decentralizing force for society, providing more power to individuals who can wield the new technology. This theme is ubiquitous within hacker culture and the cyberpunk literary genre, for example. However, today we find precisely the opposite: the Internet has, on the whole, been a centralizing force for society. A few large media companies have massive influence over public discourse as well as access to data about the behaviors of millions of users. While this has made individuals more transparent and more legible to large institutions at great scale, I argue that it has not made those large institutions more legible to us.
- Why America is Not an Open Society In this video, I explore three common models given as explanations for the success of America, and argue that they don’t capture the complete picture. If these common perceptions are not true, then what more nuanced theory of history explains America’s success and prosperity?
- I. America as an open, transparent society. Do ideas rise and fall on their own merits and strength of evidence, or is it possible to manipulate public opinion towards misinformation given enough material resources? To answer this question, I explore Edward Bernays’ 1928 book Propaganda, psychiatry in communist Yugoslavia, Lysenkoism, and the (lack of) transparency of modern media institutions such as Facebook.
- II. The American public as rational, self-interested actors. I discuss the success of Sweden’s welfare state and examples of how individuals often make economic choices that depend on trust and that reflect care for others around them, as opposed to making all choices out of pure economic self-interest.
- III. Decisions in American governance as the output of democratic processes. In reality, many decisions are not made by officials in elected positions, because much political steering power is instead held by entrenched bureaucracies and civil servants.
- Will China Out-Innovate the United States? The United States prides itself on being a hub for world innovation and on attracting top talent from all over the world. However, China’s economy is now comparable to that of the United States, and its international influence is growing to match. What forces drive this rise, and will there be consequences be for American innovation? Furthermore, what can we learn by observing the books Xi Jinping keeps on his desk?
- How to Predict the Next Global Hub What sociological factors have made modern Silicon Valley a hub for thinkers, innovators, and entrepreneurs? The most important factors may be unexpected, and the most expected factors may be unimportant; for example, London at its peak was crime-ridden. I explore Alexandria under the patronage of the Ptolemaic dynasty, economic opportunities in Paris during the 18th century, and the social landscapes of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Shanghai.
- How I Learn History When learning history, how can we reconstruct what has truly happened? The most useful method is to ingest information from primary sources directly; these sources are not filtered through somebody else’s interpretation. Do in-depth case studies, read the firsthand accounts of those who were there, and reconstruct how individuals and situations were affected by the institutions and bureaucracies around them.
- What Is Your Theory of History? Whether they realize it or not, everyone has their own implicit theory of history. We use our theories of history to make predictions and to decide what is important at the largest scale for our societies. An unexamined theory of history, however, can easily be inconsistent in how it reasons about the past, present, and future — and poor predictions are the result. By applying systematic thinking, you can build a theory of history that is consistent and coherent.
Talks and interviews
In addition to new content, the YouTube channel provides a location for recordings of my talks and interviews.
- Civilization: Institutions, Knowledge, and the Future This is a talk I gave with the Foresight Institute; I’ve written about it here. For the YouTube channel, I’ve also curated some standalone excerpts from this talk:
- The Lycurgus Cup: What happens when a civilization’s technology becomes lost for over a thousand years? What can we learn about the economic output of the Roman Empire at its peak and before its fall? What technologies might our own civilization stand to lose? When our descendants read about our achievements, will they believe us?
- Intellectual Dark Matter: Physicists have inferred the existence of dark matter not by direct observation per se, but by observing the force it exerts on surrounding matter. Likewise, through observing history we can infer the existence of certain knowledge that has been developed and used by historical civilizations and which, though lost to the ages, has nonetheless shaped the trajectory of future civilizations.
- Artificial Intelligence: Existential Hope Scenarios This is a panel discussion with Mark Miller, Jessica Cussins, and De Kai in which I propose concrete actions towards guiding AI research to safe outcomes. I also discuss how to identify the highest risk areas of research, the feasibility of regulating software, and international cooperation.
I hope you find it interesting!