We continue answering the questions we asked earlier. It was claimed last time that maze levels and the danger of mazes was lower in the past than it is now, and that overall maze levels have been rising, as measured both by maze levels within organizations across the board, and maze levels within the overall society.

The world is better for people than it was back then. There are many things that have improved. This is not one of them.

I am confident this is the case and have pointed to ways to see it. I recognize that I have in no way proven this is the case. I don’t have a way to do that. Rather I am relying on your own observations and analysis. If you disagree, I hope the discussion that follows will still prove useful as a comparison to what you see as an alternate possible scenario where these dynamics are less toxic.

Now we ask what may have been different in the past, and whether we can duplicate those causes.

Why was it different? Can we duplicate those causes?

The sketched model suggests several causes.

One can model this as a two-level problem. Something happens (e.g. technological change) resulting in a change in circumstances (e.g. more real need for large organizations, cause one), which then causes higher overall maze levels. 

Since this question asks for potential action on a large scale, political proposals will need to be among the proposals discussed. Let us do our best to debate models and how the gears in them work, and stay away from actual politics. To that end, I am not claiming any of these policies are good ideas and should be implemented, or bad and should not be implemented. I am only claiming that they would have particular physical results in the world. If they are obviously good or bad ideas, I shouldn’t need to say so.

Cause 1: More Real Need For Large Organizations

Modern life has larger organizations with more levels of hierarchy. Corporations are bigger. Governments are bigger. Political organizations are bigger. Universities are bigger. They wrap that bigness in more levels of hierarchy than ever before, with increasing amounts of bureaucracy and administration.

Jobs are done that previously did not get done. Where the same job persists, that same job takes more people. 

There is little doubt that some of the problem is caused by the increased complexity of real needs. What is difficult is figuring out how much is necessary versus how much is unnecessary.

Do we see these bigger organizations mostly because technological and economic development requires it? Or do we mostly see bigger organizations because maze-supporting behaviors and rules have made it so?

How much of what goes on in a large organization is bullshit, and could be eliminated, shrinking its size?

How much of needing a large organization is due to regulation and subsidy? How much of this additional size and regulation is due to additional demands for safety, either real safety or the illusion of safety? 

How much is our unwillingness to let ‘too big to fail’ organizations fail, and the perception that size is necessary, good and/or prestigious?

To the extent that this is the problem, we are mostly stuck. We can still make different trade-offs, since we can give up some of the additional complexity and its benefits to reduce the large-organization costs paid, but there are no easy wins to be had here.

My low confidence belief is that this accounts for a substantial portion of the problem, but less than half. It would be foolish precision to give a more exact number.

Cause 2: Laws and Regulations Favor Large Organizations

There is genuine need for larger organizations with more levels of hierarchy. But once you create those organizations, they have a logic of their own that generates further need for them. Those within these organizations steer conditions in their direction. A lot of the bigger organizations are there because they are structurally advantaged because they enjoy regulatory capture, or because of other barriers to smaller competition, rather than because being larger make any economic sense.

While we were making life harder for the small, we made life easier for the large. We removed technological and legal costs and barriers to larger organizations of all kinds. The friction caused by those costs previously ensured that big organizations only existed when there was a big payoff. Now we can also get them because of mission creep, because it gives people making the decisions more power, or often because someone’s ego gets stroked by the idea.

We were so busy figuring out how we could go big, we didn’t stop to ask whether we should.

As opposed to doing new things, where we are now so busy asking whether we should we no longer stop to ask whether we could.

Cause 3: Less Disruption of Existing Organizations

Wars, natural disasters, economic collapses and other large negative shocks are the standard historical method of preventing large organizations from hanging around for too long.  

Fortunately, we’ve managed to mostly avoid major destructive wars for some time. Natural disasters are not the threat they once were. While we had an economic collapse of sorts in 2008, it was nothing like the Great Depression. The title of one of the definitive books on that crisis, and the one I read to better understand it, was literally Too Big to Fail.

Existing large organizations were protected by government intervention. When they were so damaged that they could not be defended, instead of letting them fail, they were forcibly merged into even larger organizations

With our much larger productivity and surplus, our greater ability to do finance and run large deficits for long periods, and greater ability to absorb negative shocks, and our growing distaste for risk and loss of any kind, along with a long peace, and our judgment of leaders on extreme short term perception of outcomes, we have biased things greatly against disruption.

That then combines with the effects of regulatory capture and crony capitalism. The rise of mazes and maze behaviors is a vicious cycle. 

We’ve also seen a dearth of positive shocks. Technological breakthroughs, economic developments and other big positive events allow new entrants to gain advantage over existing entrenched interests whose cached actions are increasingly inefficient and no longer make sense.

It is unknown to what extent this dearth of positive shocks is due to inherent difficulty in pushing forward at the current technological frontier, to what extent it is a cost of choices we have made, and to what extent it was the intent of the choices that were made.

In many cases, here and now, progress and disruption that would challenge existing systems is being forcibly suppressed. Some of the mechanisms of this will be among this list of causes, again with a mix between inherent, unintentional and intentional. Incumbents of all kinds by default are fragile and would prefer the status quo not be disrupted. Being mazes only enhances these incentives. In other cases, we’ve run into some combination of increasing difficulty of underlying problems, and our increasing lack of ability to do things even when not inhibited. 

Cause 4: Increased Demand for Illusion of Safety and Security

Safety and security are important. They are not infinitely important. They are extremely poor choices for sacred values.  

Illusion of safety and illusion of security are increasingly seen as important sacred values. Occasionally so are actual safety and security. 

In important ways, we are less secure than in the past.

Due to cultural changes, atomization and government interventions, we cannot count on our family, our friends or our community to support us. Even when we can count on them to support us, what we are counting on is a different order of magnitude of support from far fewer people. Government safety nets, even at their best, are a poor replacement.

We are taught that fulfilling all the requirements to responsibly have children and a family requires many stars to simultaneously align. We are put on very tight deadlines. There is huge risk that these things will not happen for us at all. They are the things that many people value the most today, and which most people valued most in the past. One is not permitted to ‘skip ahead’ as one is often kept in educational limbo and then a post-education period where you are not expected to be able to seriously attempt a family, until the clock has almost run out, then the scramble begins.

We also in important ways have longer memories and less ability to recover from mistakes or poor trajectories. The very idea of things going on one’s ‘permanent record’ puts one in continuous danger even as a young child. Path dependence goes up. We have this concept that one’s ‘life can be over’ as the result of quite minor misfortunes. Potentially this can be as small as an ill-advised tweet, or a poorly navigated social interaction.

Then we are expected to end this journey with millions of dollars in ‘life savings’ as a substitute for the old support systems. That money can still be expropriated at any time by the medical or elder care systems. 

Rates of depression, suicide, traumatic stress and other mental health issues have skyrocketed, likely largely as a result of all of these other dangers and pressures, also largely because we are taught to find lesser and lesser issues unacceptable and crippling. Increasing numbers of people generally feel unprepared for problems that would not have much fazed them in the past, or in some cases would not have even qualified as problems. We can’t even.

In important ways, we are more physically safe than in the past.

Our trauma care and treatment of infections has dramatically improved. The rates of physical trauma, street crime and infection have gone down and the consequences tend to be less severe. Murder rates are down. Cars are vastly safer than in the past. Planes are much less risky than the car ride to the airport. Whenever I hear about accidents from travel these days, it’s almost universally in fiction, or what would have in the past been a minor accident that now makes the news. Our food supply is vastly safer. Our toys and playgrounds are vastly safer.

Our physical products and physical spaces and lives are universally are vastly safer.

Life really shouldn’t feel physically scary the same way that it used to.  The rising physical risks are suicide and drug abuse, which are a different kind of physical risk, and the consequences of too much safety such as allergies.  

In important ways, we are also more emotionally safe than in the past, as well. In other important ways, we are far more emotionally at risk.

We are safer in the sense that things that many unpleasant things that were considered normal parts of life are now considered unacceptable, and thus we guard against them. We still must deal with violence, with racism, with sexism, with abuse, with religious intolerance, with homophobia and transphobia, and hosts of other similar problems. Insert all additional concerns here. But without in any way saying that any of our current concerns are illegitimate, oh my are all those problems in a vastly better place than they used to be. As Jim Norton commented in his most recent stand-up special, many of the stories our grandparents tell of how they met would, by modern ears, horrify us.

Such questions are treated as much more of a priority than they used to be, especially in educational settings. We also make aggressive use of psychiatric medication.

We are less safe from such things in two ways. 

We are less safe in the sense that we no longer are taught that such things are acceptable, or that we should be able to ‘walk it off’ when they happen or take it on the chin. Nor are we forced to practice dealing with them. Thus have a much harder time dealing with them when they happen. We have the problems that come with a revolution of rising expectations.

We are also less safe in the sense that mazes turn everything into a signal and tool in the maze’s political games. Even when one could shrug off an event and its direct consequences, that event also comprises a move within the game. If people observe that offense can be done to you without retaliation, that is a license to everyone to ramp up the level of offense. This transforms your social identity into one to whom offense can safely be done, thus destroying your status and any hopes for success, including assistance with high placement into another maze.

A lot of this safety comes at the direct expense of fun, learning and efficiency. And a lot of it makes us so safe that people are failing to encounter the adversity they need to become resilient.

This all seems quite bad to me on its own merits, but one could disagree. It largely reflects the very good news that life is safer and thus we are free to demand it be safer still. This being a cause of increased maze activity doesn’t depend on it being otherwise good or bad.  

This rise in risk of failure tracks the physical and social risks of ‘falling off the track’ described above. Emotionally falling off the track has also become far more dangerous. 

The risk of things going wrong has gone down at many steps. So has our tolerance for those things going wrong, and our tolerance for risk of things going wrong. We have gone from resilient to fragile. Meanwhile, we’ve lost traditional supports, and many circumstances and life transitions have become far more perilous than they have ever been.

This has bled into even tiny decisions, such as what to have for lunch in a strange town.

One of the highest value practical lessons of rationality is to recognize what is actually safe and unsafe and to what degree, and when it makes sense to take an unconventional path.

How do these phenomena raise maze levels?

Mazes are, among other things, engines for producing the illusion of safety and the illusion of security. In some ways and cases, they do this by producing the real thing. In other cases, it is pure illusion. Either way, they have a huge comparative advantage. 

Working for large organizations is seen as safe and secure. So is working as part of a profession whose rents are protected by regulation and other barriers to entry. Working elsewhere is seen as risky and insecure. 

A product made by a maze is seen as reliable and consistent, even if low quality or a bad value.

Existing risks are ‘grandfathered in.’ Once an activity, product, drug or what have you is approved and becomes standard, that becomes subject to a different frame, where taking that risk isn’t considered risk, and it doesn’t open you up to being blamed if something goes wrong. If no one gets fired for buying IBM, as the saying goes, it’s going to take a damn good reason to buy something else.

Inside a maze, that is a huge support for doing business with and helping other mazes over other non-mazes. Outside a maze, people are still largely seeking to avoid being blamed and/or blameworthy.

When your options are bad, it is even more important to show that you have made the conventional, standard and therefore ‘safe’ choice, so that when it blows up in your face, it is not your fault. For a current real example in my own life, I will be using a health insurance broker to navigate the dystopian wasteland that is the individual health insurance market in New York, and placing a high priority on a policy that provides illusion of security.

Even if all is well and safe and good, and that is not in dispute, when something is new, or isn’t the generic standard thing, the default consumer does not know this. Why go to the trouble of finding out, when anything that goes wrong is then your fault, even if it had nothing to do with your choice, or your choice actively made it less likely

New risks, and any downside of a new proposal to basically anyone, are taken vastly out of proportion. Mazes are much better equipped to handle this than non-mazes, as this forces one to play the system and the games of propaganda and public relations, hiding what needs to be hidden, and spending huge amounts of time, money and expertise on the right to do anything. Many of the costs involved are fixed. Small scale efforts often don’t survive this. 

Safety regulations and other requirements for doing things are almost always conceptualized based on what currently exists. Lobbyists made sure that existing systems could handle them, and protested loudly if that would be expensive. If you’re thinking of a new way of doing things, even if it makes the existing system look vastly unsafe in some way, it is likely to violate one of the existing technical requirements, or make some aspect slightly less safe in some fashion. 

Real shame, that. 

I leave as an open question how often the purpose of the safety regulations is the prevention of innovation and competition.

Cause 5: Rent Seeking is More Widespread and Seen as Legitimate

This is a result as well as a cause.

Mazes have comparative advantage at seeking, securing and extracting rents. Rents are what keep the mazes running once they are no longer capable of efficient creation of value.

Thus, part of their reversal of morality is to turn the destructive act of rent seeking into the legitimate and respectable thing that one does to earn a living, and make positive-sum actions seem increasingly illegitimate.  

That major forces in our society are pushing this, and that it has been working, have been addressed earlier in the series. To the extent that they haven’t been, it’s another post or even sequence, and I won’t argue further for it here. 

Cause 6: Big Data, Machine Learning and Internet Economics

Big data and machine learning swing the balance in favor of mazes. 

Mazes are full of people who could not communicate with each other (extreme case of the SNAFU principle), who are many steps removed from the object-level considerations they neither understand nor have the data or skill to process, and make decisions based on metrics and political considerations largely around those metrics. And not caring about incidental effects.  

Machine learning gives a powerful tool to anyone with a metric to optimize and lots of data that can be gathered. The explicit price of this is giving up on a gears-level understanding of what is going on or how things work, not caring too much about incidental effects, and trusting the algorithm. Thus, machine learning helps mazes be much better at what they wanted to do anyway, while charging them prices they’ve already paid.

Others are then judged by those mazes and metrics and pushed towards using more machine learning style strategies. If they give in to this, outsiders lose their advantages of actually understanding how things work and what is important and seeing incidental effects, and are at a severe data disadvantage because the only data that counts is no longer the type of data they have. 

Mazes also benefit because big data and machine learning love huge amounts of data. Huge amounts of data demand scale. Instead of having humans in charge of decisions, now algorithms are in charge of those decisions. The blindness of those inside the maze becomes a blindness from lack of data for those who don’t have sufficient scale.

Internet economics is then shaped by this machine learning and by optimizing for metrics, especially when bidding for advertising and trying to reach the point where one can use advertising to scale. A lot of costs are fixed, which favors large over small. Other aspects do favor small over large, and favor better over worse. So it’s not a complete loss. And there’s a lot of pushback.

I am not claiming this is one directional or simple. 

In addition to the issue of what algorithms do to mazes that use them, there is the issue of what algorithms do to the people the algorithms are reacting to, when they want to change and/or are shaped by how the algorithms react. When algorithms are optimizing how to react to us, we face similar underappreciated pressures even if we are not using them, which also contributes to all this. Our entire mode of thinking about the world becomes warped. That’s a much bigger topic beyond scope.

Cause 7: Ignorance

Mazes are an example of a thing that, unless they have already sufficiently corrupted values in general, could be destroyed by the truth. 

Mazes depend upon the public, and in particular on potential workers and associates, not understanding how mazes work or what working in or with a maze will do to their lives and souls. People do understand that there is something soul-crushing about ‘working for the man’ and that is true as well, but mostly misses the point.

It takes a minimum of years inside a maze to start to understand how mazes work from the inside, or how bad it gets in middle management, if no one explicitly tells you. By that time, many are too invested to stop, or have already self-modified in ways that leave them no longer able to perceive the problem. Even if you have the data needed to put it together, my experience is that to fully appreciate what you are dealing with, you have to quit first. Which would mean you need to quit before you realize how badly you need to quit. Whoops.

If someone does explicitly tell you beforehand, you’re inclined not to believe it, because such warnings usually lack the gears and sound absurd, and come from people who appear biased against business or are experiencing sour grapes. Because things would sound so absurd, those doing the warning will round down their warnings to sound reasonable. Then the listener does the same. Even when the source is credible and provides gears, as I hope this source does when combined with the original book, the brain constantly instinctively rounds it all down to avoid seeing the thing. Those who recoil in horror at the thought of working for a maze, who are not doing so based on hard won experience, usually don’t know the half of it.

This is enough to ensure that workers at large corporations make more money than those at smaller ones. Tyler Cowen and other defenders of large corporations use this as evidence that large corporations make people more productive. I think this represents a terribly incomplete model of how labor markets work. Workers are not primarily paid in some relation to their marginal product. The accounting identity neither holds nor does it enlighten much.

My model is more along the lines of: Workers are paid in relation to what it costs to attract talent to a position, and then the business either is or is not viable. One of the inputs to that is indeed the worker’s perception of their marginal or average production at that job. There is some expectation that great success will be shared with the workers to some extent. Not to do so would make them upset. This is mostly a threshold effect and acts largely on marginal compensation via reciprocity and fairness. This isn’t centrally about supply and demand curves meeting. In good times one gets a raise. 

The exception is when there is a strong union. A strong union changes the calculation from what workers will accept to work here instead of elsewhere, to a zero-sum battle by the union to extract maximal resources from the corporation without too quickly driving it into bankruptcy, versus the corporation trying to retain profits and not let them do that. This conflict plays out in a legal structure where many otherwise legal things become illegal, other otherwise illegal things become legal or mandatory, and the outcomes are weird. Union jobs really are different. 

Another input is the status that goes along with a job, and what it feels like it ‘should’ pay on that basis. In most cases this runs in the perverse direction – a ‘better’ job requires more compensation to keep people happy about their pay. Workers have the instinctual sense that higher status jobs should strictly dominate low status ones. They also have the (usually correct) instinctual sense that if the job does not pay, the promised status is fake slash won’t be accepted. And that if lower status jobs are not paid less, or equal status people who produce better are paid more, then their status is under threat, so they will revolt against such practices. Thus, everyone wants the higher status jobs. You cannot effectively balance this with pay.

It really is a terribly bad idea to let the workers find out what the other workers are paid.

A lot of this, one hopes, is based on how much someone wants to do that job, and have the life that goes along with having that job.

When we see that jobs in big corporations pay more, rather than conclude they must be more productive, I primarily take this as evidence of some combination of two things.

One, that working at a big corporation is something people dislike, so you have to pay them more to do it. This despite them not knowing how much they should dislike it, and therefore demand in compensation, and despite a lot of career lock-in. We also see above-standard pay in large government bureaucracies. 

That can be combine with two, that working at a big corporation is seen as higher status, and therefore demands higher pay. 

We often see poor pay in academia, because people enter thinking they’ll get to think about things all day that they find interesting, and have that position securely for life, they like that lifestyle, and that makes them want the job more. They can then accept lower pay because they (incorrectly) see what they are doing as not being part of a profitable operation, and (correctly) see others think this, so they do not need higher pay to hold onto the job’s high status. 

Prospective academics are almost always, as far as I can tell, at least in willful denial about their job prospects, and about how their jobs will work if they find them. They certainly don’t process the news about the incentives and pressures they will face, and the petty battles and tasks that lie ahead.

Big business still has to write those larger checks every two weeks while staying in business. Isn’t that evidence of higher productivity? It’s some evidence of otherwise higher profitability of the corporation, that this does not drive them out of business. Profitability is not productivity. If we think those higher profits are largely due to extractive practices, rents and regulatory advantages rather than production, that does not count. If we think that it is due to things inherent to the corporation, such as intellectual property or monopoly or returns to scale, and this in turn causes employees to demand more compensation, that also does not count if it’s not the employees (or not all but a handful of employees) doing the production. 

If people knew the truth about working for mazes and especially being in middle management, and/or were facing less outside pressure, they would demand much higher pay. This would make mazes bear more of the real costs they impose on people, while making it harder to attract strong talent. It would be much easier to justify declining such jobs, and harder to push someone into accepting one. Doing other things would get relatively higher status. 

This would all make mazes less competitive.

So would general knowledge of how mazes derive their advantages and rents from regulation and subsidy. Regulatory capture is rife. Much of what opponents of business and other long entrenched mazes do ends up being used by those entrenched mazes to cement their advantages. A common pattern is outrage at the actions of corrupt actors, creating demand for new rules and regulations, which turn out primarily to entrench and enrich those same corrupt actors.

If people understood these dynamics, and knew what mazes were, they would use different tools. They would demand different interventions. Then there are the things that business convinces the government to do directly. If those were better understood, and people could coordinate to stop them, that would be an even bigger boon.  

One could object that this isn’t a difference with past conditions. Did people in the past know these things? 

Ignorance often comes form not knowing the alternatives to the maze way of doing things, or that there exist or ever have existed things other than mazes, or of the ways in which mazes take over non-mazes and how to prevent that. People object that things are terrible, and they respond that since the incentives naturally trend towards these terrible things, how could things ever not be terrible? Despite things sometimes not being terrible, and things not being terrible in general. Those in charge of non-maze spaces invite the maze-runners in willingly, without knowing they have sealed the space’s fate.

This was not true in the sufficiently distant past. It is not even true for your sufficiently distant past. It is learned behavior. We do not begin life this way. Children begin only knowing the non-maze way of doing things. Then we send them to school. Then we give them jobs.

The hypothesis here is that things were different in the past because people were regularly exposed to non-mazes as central actors in their worlds. This taught them that small maze levels were the normal way of being, instead of being mostly exposed to mazes as central actors, building their lives around them, and being taught that this was the normal way of being. People used to realize that the things involved in this were weird and now they aren’t weird anymore. This leaves us blind to what mazes result in. People used to expect better.

Ignorance often also takes the form of not knowing how to do actual business. Most people today have no idea how to go about working on their own, feeling mostly that There Be Dragons. Or generally how they or their worlds might survive without giant engines taking care of things for them on all levels. That did not used to be the case.

Cause 8: Atomization and the Delegitimization of Human Social Needs

A large cost of working in mazes is that they do not permit full independent outside social lives. People are told to isolate themselves and neglect basic human needs. Our society’s willingness to treat such a condition as normal, acceptable and appropriate means that they can pull this off. 

In the past, in most times and places, I believe that people would have realized how terrible all of this increasingly has been and prioritized fixing it. This would have made people realize that joining an all-consuming maze was a huge life cost not to be taken lightly, rather than a source of palliatives to help one suffer through an impoverished social life.

For those in middle management or above, they are being evaluated on everything they do. This includes who they choose to associate with, including who they marry and how they raise their kids, how they spend their time outside of work, what church if any they go to, and so forth. They are also under increasing pressure to spend every possible waking moment on job-related things. Socializing with coworkers mostly counts.

Even for those not in middle management, jobs play havoc with their schedules and flexibility. Almost total reliability is demanded at most jobs in large organizations during standard hours, and most require also working outside of those hours when asked to do so. Any exceptions are quite costly. Vacation time is both slim and usually planned well in advance. This is hard on someone trying to live life, especially with a family. You end up tired all the time. Your life becomes a grind. Any free time largely needs to be spent recovering. 

The majority of your waking hours are spent interacting with your coworkers, who you mostly did not choose. They then effectively become your friends, and often even your family, the same way they do in most workplace television shows. They are the people who have things in common with you, who you can reasonably keep up with and make plans with. Often they are the people you date, despite all attempts at policy to the contrary, and whether or not there are bad dynamics involved.

On a broader scale, you do not only keep the hours they tell you to keep. You live where they tell you to live, so you can work where they tell you to work. In the ongoing battle to create a rationalist community in New York, there is the constant assumption by everyone that finding a good job somewhere determines where you live. One of my three closest remaining friends, a former Magic: The Gathering professional, recently uprooted his family, including three kids, and sold his apartment, because job offers in another city were somewhat better than those here. His entire family knows zero people in the new city. That is now simply what one does. People who have skills or ambition are expected to walk away from everyone they have ever known for a job. 

This happens because basic human social needs have been delegitimized. Work provides one with one’s ‘social life’ and ‘friends’ and even ‘family,’ and we are expected to count that as a benefit. I believe that in most times and places, this would rightfully be seen as a deeply impoverished bastardization of these concepts. People think their Facebook ‘friends’ are friends, or even close friends. They’re not.

Atomization has many other causes as well. I have wide uncertainty how much higher maze levels caused atomization, as opposed to atomization causing higher maze levels. The deligitimization of basic human needs seems more tied to maze issues. 

Given all that, how does one invest in real and deep long term friendships and groups, when they are increasingly unlikely to last? 

If you have a better answer than ‘persevere and hope for the best’ please share. I give great thanks for the few old friends that are still around.

Cause 9: Educational System

We indoctrinate our citizens to the horrors of mazes early and often.

Our first step is to imprison our children, starting from around the age of five, for the bulk of their waking hours. During that time, all of their behaviors are tightly controlled, and they are taught that their success in life depends on satisfying the arbitrary demands of the person put in charge of them, who will mostly use negative selection to determine outcomes. When asked to justify doing this, the reply is typically that if you do not do this to your child now, your child will be ill-prepared to be subjected to increasingly intense versions of it as they progress through the educational system.

You had better suffer and kill your soul now, or else you won’t be prepared to suffer worse things later.

Once taught that life is about obeying arbitrary dictates and doing work with no object level application whatsoever, giving most of your life over to arbitrary schedules and demands, and gathering together credentials and approvals necessary to get the labels that get others to give you status and compensation, where everyone is on the lookout for reasons to put black marks on your record, you are ready to work in a maze without recoiling in horror.

This process also saddles its students with massive debts that force them to then take jobs they hate, and gives them credentials that give them an advantage in narrow rent extraction in one area, preventing choice or exit.

I previously wrote at somewhat more length on this in these posts: The Case Against EducationThe Case Against Education: FoundationsThe Case Against Education: Splitting the Education Premium Pie and Considering IQSomething Was Wrong

Cause 10: Vicious Cycle

Mazes are self-reinforcing.

Many of these causes make this clear. Mazes cause a problem and shift in priorities and values, which in turn makes mazes more attractive and devalues non-mazes. It makes people rely more and more on mazes for their needs. More mazes gives maze activities more interactions with other maze activities and those caught in mazes, legitimizes maze activities and delegitimizes non-maze activities, causing a vicious cycle.

Once people are sufficiently dependent on mazes, or mazes gain sufficient influence and power, there is a critical phase shift. Morality’s sign flips. The forces of social approval, which previously were pushing against maze behaviors, instead start pushing for them. People punish others for not orienting towards mazes and away from the object-level, where before they did the opposite and some people chose mazes in spite of this.

That phase shift seems to have happened in the bulk of general society, including our school system and our political system, and increasingly in social life lived via social media, causing an accelerating problem.

Reputational systems in general have largely become maze-oriented reputation systems. School is about ‘what looks good on an application.’ Work is about ‘what looks good on a resume’ when it isn’t about the boss. Romantic life is even based largely on ‘what looks good on a dating profile’ or in the first moments of interaction, favoring the legible over the illegible more than previous systems.

The more one must likely deal with mazes in the future, and the more they determine our futures, the more ‘guard one’s reputation’ means ‘make sure the searchable record does not contain things mazes will dislike, and let one tell to mazes the story one wants to tell.’

These new concerns crowd out what one would otherwise be concerned about. One key thing they crowd out is wanting to be known in good ways for who you actually are and what you do, by people who observe you, who will then tell other people. Mazes can and often do start to destroy your connection to object level reality long before you ever set foot in one. 

Even when the reputation system is based on explicitly being judged by those who interact with you, such as customer reviews, it’s about an average quantification. This largely becomes another metric game. Such systems do excellent work detecting when things are wrong, but mostly operate via negative selection due to clustering of ratings near the top of the range allowed. Thus they likely will become increasingly distortionary with time towards prioritizing avoiding the things that legibly cause bad ratings, effectively punishing anything non-standard or any attempt to be exceptional, because when you earn that sixth star, you’re not allowed to collect it.

A costly way to go above the non-costly maximum would potentially help, but has its own problems, and further discussion is fascinating to me but beyond the scope here. It is a hard problem.

More Mazes, More Problems

Next post I will present the best potential solutions I could come up with. This is not a problem that can be fully solved, but certainly there are changes on the margin that would decrease the rate at which things get worse, or even roll the damage back somewhat.

Implementing them, of course, is a whole additional problem.



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One thought I had is many of these causes directly follow from the meme that "Cthulhu Always Swims Left".

It's well known that size of government only grows bigger. As you explained above, it's not surprising that large corporations grows at the same time.

Your "Cause 8" was particularly provoking. I moved from another country to work where I am now. And my observations match almost perfectly with what you wrote. It is an absolutely sad state of affairs; where so much of a person's identity and well-being is embedded in this organization with sole purpose of profit making; and where so much of a person's interactions are with people who's only relationship with you is that you're both working for the same entity to make profits.

Not sure if you purposely want to avoid potentially fraught discussion with politics, but much of above reminds me of general criticisms towards modern day leftism.

(First comment, might as well say thank you for writing the maze series. Certainly got me to think.)

Your "Cause 8" was particularly provoking. I moved from another country to work where I am now.

I'm interested to hear more about your experience here.

Hey escape_the_maze, welcome to the forum!

I'm one of the mods, and wanted to give some context for the "purposefully avoid politically fraught discussion" thing. The overall LessWrong site-culture aims to discuss politics sparingly and carefully, since political discussion tends to end up taking over any size that allows it. (That's not to say we do it never, but it's not a primary feature of the site, and it's something we somewhat discourage from newer users who haven't absorbed as much of the site culture)

That all said, your comment seemed generally relevant. I agree that thinking about how mazes relate to government and politics is ultimately pretty important but I wouldn't encourage it as the first thing you do here.

(don't want this discussion to take over the whole thread, so am locking replies to this thread, but you can PM me, either on Intercom (bottom right) or via my user page if you want to ask more questions about that)

I was wondering: is that actually true that mazes are on the rise? Of course, it looks like it, but then, a lot of people seems to be complaining about them the way you do — or at least in related but more obviously leftist ways — wanting more spare time, wanting to be less constrained by petty business rules (eg., wearing a suit), etc. But then we could say that it’s often mainly the rules that change, and not the fact that they are there. Still, it looks common to come up with theories about something when it is starting to be contested, so, it may be the case here, right? (Quite frankly, I unreasonably hope so…)

On a related note, most of what is described in this post are trends by which the individual is more and more constrained by mazes, who determine the city where one lives, one’s friends, etc. Mazes sure do that, but has it been getting worse, compared to times even as recent the 1950s, where social conformity was by far more of a thing than today? Or are we simply getting more individualistic, in the sense of giving more importance to the idea of being free to live as we want — because that’s also, and indeed almost obviously, a thing?

Finally got round to reading your sequence and it looks like we disagree a lot less than I thought, since your first three causes are exactly what I was arguing for in my reply,

This is probably the crux. I don't think we tend to go to higher simulacra levels now, compared to decades ago. I think it's always been quite prevalent, and has been roughly constant through history. While signalling explanations definitely tell us a lot about particular failings, they can't explain the reason things are worse now in certain ways, compared to before. The difference isn't because of the perennial problem of pervasive signalling. It has more to do with economic stagnation and not enough state capacity. These flaws mean useful action gets replaced by useless action, and allow more room for wasteful signalling.

As one point in favour of this model, I think it's worth noting that the historical comparisons aren't ever to us actually succeeding at dealing with pandemics in the past, but to things like "WWII-style" efforts - i.e. thinking that if we could just do x as well as we once did y then things would have been a lot better.

This implies that if you made an institution analogous to e.g. the weapons researchers of WW2 and the governments that funded them, or NASA in the 1960s, without copy-pasting 1940s/1960s society wholesale, the outcome would have been better. To me that suggests it's institution design that's the culprit, not this more ethereal value drift or increase in overall simulacra levels.

I think you'd agree with most of that, except that you see a much more significant causal role for the cultural factors like increased fragility and social atomisation. There is pretty solid evidence for both being real problems, Jon Haidt presents the best case to take these seriously, although it's not as definitive as you make out (E.g. Suicide rates are basically a random walk), and your explanation for how they lead to institutional problems is reasonable, but I wonder if they are even needed as explanations when your first three causes are so strong and obvious,

Essentially I see your big list like this:

Main Drivers:

Cause 1: More Real Need For Large Organizations (includes decreasing low hanging fruit) Cause 2: Laws and Regulations Favor Large Organizations Cause 3: Less Disruption of Existing Organizations Cause 5: Rent Seeking is More Widespread and Seen as Legitimate

Real but more minor:

Cause 4: Increased Demand for Illusion of Safety and Security Cause 8: Atomization and the Delegitimization of Human Social Needs Cause 7: Ignorance Cause 9: Educational System Cause 10: Vicious Cycle

No idea but should look into:

Cause 6: Big Data, Machine Learning and Internet Economics

Essentially my view is that if you directly addressed the main drivers with large legal or institutional changes the other causes of mazedom wouldn't fight back.

I believe that the 'obvious legible institutional risks first' view is in line with what others who've written on this problem like Tyler Cowen or Sam Bowman think, but it's a fairly minor disagreement since most of your proposed fixes are on the institutional side of things anyway.

Also, the preface is very important - these are some of the only trends that seem to be going the wrong way consistently in developed countries for a while now, and they're exactly the forces you'd expect to be hardest to resist.

The world is better for people than it was back then. There are many things that have improved. This is not one of them.

Cause 4: Increased Demand for Illusion of Safety and Security

Re-reading after some life experiences, I see how true it is that, at its core, people just want to appear good and avoid blame at absolutely all cost.

People don't want to make smart purchase decisions, they just want to avoid all possible blame for making bad purchase decisions.

People don't want to the right things at work, they just want to avoid all possible blame for doing wrong things at work.

People don't want to raise their children to be outstanding success, they just want to avoid all possible blame for raising their children to be failure. The distinction may look subtle, but materialize in real life as pressure for parents to force their children into soul-sucking slavery work just so that the parent can avoid possibility of criticism from society.