Understanding Politics For Geeks
August 28, 2015 11:01 AM   Subscribe

Vox argues that the reason the technical set gets frustrated with American politics is simple. They have a mental model of the political structure that is divorced from the actual reality of American politics. (SLVox)

The main myths that are hit on:

*The myth of the independent voter,
*The myth of the rational center,
*The myth that the parties are reflections of each other,
*The myth that centrism reflects moderation.
posted by NoxAeternum (84 comments total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
 
Krugman recently blogged about this essay.
posted by diogenes at 11:09 AM on August 28, 2015 [10 favorites]


I feel like the "for geeks" framing mischaracterizes the actually meaty content of the essay, which is mostly a takedown of several pernicious political myths that are far more wide-reaching than nerddom.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:11 AM on August 28, 2015 [27 favorites]


To be fair, lots of professional political elites don't understand how American politics actually works either.
posted by Cash4Lead at 11:12 AM on August 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


Also if the extremes are -10 and +10, then yes, being at 0 makes you a moderate. When the extremes are at 0 and +30 and you're chilling out at +15 thinking pretty well of yourself for being a sensible, rational centrist...
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:13 AM on August 28, 2015 [13 favorites]


Am I the only one that was put off with defining the "crazy zones" with rainbows, 'cause fuck a big bag of that.
posted by Mooski at 11:21 AM on August 28, 2015 [16 favorites]


Weirdly, the most astute political assessments - both domestic and foreign - that I've ever read consistently come from the sharpest programmers. Particularly the borderline-autistic graphics programmer set - I thought I hated the GOP, but the venom I've seen from the sort of person who tackles complex kernel threading nightmares for fun on their weekends is truly something to behold.

I don't disagree with the basic premise of the article - techy nerds as a general category absolutely do hew to that weird centrist quasi-libertarian thing. Half the people I knew in college almost 20 years ago still subscribe.

But the higher you get up the totem pole of that group the more inaccurate that stereotype becomes, until eventually the political makeup begins to resemble any MFA program in San Fran, albeit with a bit of a sneer towards positions that smack of "bleeding heart".

YMM, obviously, V.
posted by Ryvar at 11:21 AM on August 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


Could this be a form of Engineer's Disease?
posted by Sangermaine at 11:26 AM on August 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


Thanks for posting this. It's worth reading the entire thing.
posted by Xavier Xavier at 11:33 AM on August 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


However, for various reasons, aggrieved older white men still punch above their weight, politically speaking. Democratic constituencies cluster in urban areas, where many of their votes end up wasted. GOP demographics are more spread out, covering a larger geographical area, thus giving them a reliably large bloc of low-population states in the Senate and a built-in advantage in the House of Representatives. (That advantage was magnified by the gerrymandering of 2010, giving Republicans what is likely an unshakable lock on the House through 2022.)
Oof. That's a hard paragraph to read.
posted by arcolz at 11:34 AM on August 28, 2015 [15 favorites]


"Wait But Why" Urban's politics have been discussed here previously
posted by RogerB at 11:38 AM on August 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


one way that I am a total snob is that I have trouble reading stuff like this, because:
  1. I am deeply, deeply, judgmental/annoyed about how people here in the year 2015 still need to have this stuff explained to them, and
  2. The article's attempts to reach out to its stated audience through flattering their egos — no! you guys are smart! really! really really smart! you aren't self-important self-deluding intellectually lazy fools at all! you just need this one little thing fixed! — annoy the hell out of me, just because as a resident of the Bay Area I'm surrounded at all times by media and social structures designed to flatter the fragile egos of these particular self-important self-deluding intellectually lazy fools.
but, well, my own personal crankiness aside — and I am such a crank! — anyone who can successfully bring socialism to the nerds is doing god's work, and maybe this piece, despite its unfortunate liberal slant, will be the start of some techbro's awakening.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:41 AM on August 28, 2015 [21 favorites]


Could this be a form of Engineer's Disease?

Yup. Techno-libertarian 'disrupters' who've spent very little time considering how things got the way they are or why some people might think the way they do, attempting to understand incredibly nuanced problems in programmatic terms. Or, as the article points out, simply waving their hands and dismissing them as 'annoying.'

It's been remarked, but reading people like Urban (or Musk, for that matter) I often feel like I'm engaging with the thought pieces of an extremely gifted teenager.
posted by aspersioncast at 11:45 AM on August 28, 2015 [27 favorites]


Could this be a form of Engineer's Disease?

To a certain degree, yes. Even though Urban is described (pretty accurately) in the linked article as someone who has a very thorough and "perfectionist" method for exploring his chosen subjects, the one thing he does well (digging down until he finds something 'foggy", and then digging into that until it is not "foggy" anymore) is missing the key aspect of having that clarity. By this I mean being able to look at the whole of the subject with clarity and understanding all of the parts as interconnected pieces of the whole.

The problem with politics, in general, is that the "fog" can to a greater degree never truly be lifted. Just when you think you have cleared the fog from a particular piece, something you thought you knew may change (either above or below that particular patch of fog), which will utterly change the reality of the whole system. It is an exemplification of basic chaos theory. Everything is a variable, and every variable will/can change based upon some other variable that may or may not have a direct interaction with it. To someone trying to create a static model of something, this is how you drive a person to drink. Every time you look at the model, new patches of fog show up where you thought you had everything clearly defined and understood.

This does not just apply to politics, but it is the easiest way to illustrate it. It is a dynamic system with a variability beyond our current ability to model accurately to predict the outcome of any given event. Because our abstracted idea of the system is based upon a mechanistic model, this extreme fluidity makes it an irreducible problem (something that a programmer friend of mine called the Sisyphus Effect), where every time you go back to the problem it is different than the previous pass, meaning you have to do all the work over again and again.

For people who are trying to create "progress" and to reliably move forward with everything, it is no wonder they look at it with contempt.

At least for me (I am an autodidact who uses the same method as Urban when learning about pretty much anything), learning how to identify the areas where the dynamics are going to change in ways I cannot predict actually helped me gain a lot of insight into many things related to human behavior (politics being one of the minor ones, honestly). Our ability to hold perfect information is extremely limited (I would actually posit that it is impossible, except in closed systems with a very limited set of variables).

But, you know, not everyone read James Gleick's "Chaos: Making a New Science" before they finished high school algebra.
posted by daq at 12:02 PM on August 28, 2015 [13 favorites]


I think part of it is engineer's disease for sure.

I think another part is generational. I'm 30, and 9/11 happened in the middle of high school for me. What followed was a decade where republicans steamrolled agendas in a way I think a lot of people weren't thrilled with but felt like it needed to happen. At the same time, the other side looked completely ineffective, and who wants to join a group of mopey losers? It left a distaste in a lot of people I know's mouth for entering into 'politics' even if someone wanted to talk about how the world around them should change. The result is a (possibly accidental) disingenuous framing about being nonpolitical. Or, someone is arrogant and believes that their point of argument is entirely about logic and devoid of their values.
posted by lownote at 12:04 PM on August 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


This issue really seems to be similar to the contradiction between theoretical background of "democracy" and the theoretical background of rationalist enlightenment liberalism, that Carl Schmitt discussed so often.

It can be summed up with the notion that Urban believes he is "Getting to the bottom of something", or more that it is even possible. Whereas in a democracy there is theoretically no such bottom to be reached. That "democracy" is itself the solution to the problem of no bottom. no absolute rational answer to the question of "national interests".
posted by mary8nne at 12:08 PM on August 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


I don't understand why the dilettantes at Wait But Why dot supposedly represent the "technical set."
posted by oceanjesse at 12:13 PM on August 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


oceanjesse, I think what the author means is that they hit a similar demographic to TEDx-style popular infotainment, but calibrated a little younger (college/early 20s as opposed to late-20s and 30s). I agree that the actual "technical set" is more diverse both demographically and ideologically, but there's definitely a cluster of people who self-identify as technically-oriented geeks with a particular set of values, and things like WBW particularly appeal to them.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:23 PM on August 28, 2015


Part of the problem is that it is difficult to be taken seriously unless you pretend these myths are real.

When I read something that contains the idea, "the following ideas are not political," I sorta view it as some combination of situations. One, the author wants to deflect criticism for espousing political ideas. Two, the author is trying to inflate their credibility, claiming that their ideas come from "just the facts" instead of from preconceived political ideas. Finally, maybe the author does not perceive how their "rational" evaluation of a situation is shaped by their ethics, and how their ethics relate to those of the rest of society.
posted by rustcrumb at 12:25 PM on August 28, 2015 [10 favorites]


Yes - the "Independent" I've learned to despise long ago. And I don't mean the paper, but the voter.

Indeed, politics is one area where the general science/tech nerd ethos has not exactly covered itself in glory (I'm looking at you, Larry Lessig).

Oh god, it hurts. I love Lessig, his heart is totally in the right place, but it feels so utterly naive.

I think there's a narrative that pushes "Politicians suck, amirite?" which leads to a weird libertarian abstentionism at best (one could only hope the Libertarians would abstain) and right-wing reactionary populism at worst. The hypocrites who say this then go on to vote for... politicians. This lumping together as a collective identity "Politicians" as if there is no difference.

This leads to a sort of inversion, with anti-Poltician politics of "against the system" type "outsiders" who run and are taken up by these supposedly independent or.. even more... those who claim to have an ideology. This leads to the classic Perot, Nader, Ventura, Paul, Kucinich, Trump, Sanders, type "revolution"/cause celebre.

There are those who consider themselves "independent"but lean a certain way who will ally themselves with someone just because they're not "of the system". This leads to things like hippie style greens voting for Ron Paul, or Libertarian-ish people voting for Bernie Sanders... Ignoring the actual politics of the individuals and just saying "they're against the system" which apparently is good enough for a lot of people.

And the "moderate" independents. The ones who will stay in the system and then shift back and forth with whatever the climes dictate... A sort of nomadic herding political class. The grass is always greener down there.

I think, too, there is a huge confusion of party and ideology, and this cuts across all party lines. Rabid partisans often will often confuse a party with an ideology. So when right-wingers complain about "Democrats, Socialists, Communists" yada yada... They're conflating certain ideologies with the Democratic Party (this is to say nothing of the ill-informed stereotyping that such modes of action take).

Something similar happens with the term "Republican" and "Fascism" or another popular one is "Dominionist" or "NeoCon" or "PaleoCon". Libertarians love "Statist" to depict all those who don't agree with their particular ideology as being under one roof.

In some ways this reminds me of the fundamentalist Christian belief that "He who is not for me is against me", which leads to the idea that all non-Christian things are literally from Satan. The us/them mentality (and of course, how am I any different, as I seem to be implying I'm NOT one of *those* people, and yet I am in my own way).

Anyways, the "Independent" narrative feeds an ego that lets people feel smarter, more "rational" and helps them sleep at night.

"The best lack all conviction..."
posted by symbioid at 12:38 PM on August 28, 2015 [13 favorites]


I think the real crux of the matter is that nerds don't think history matters. Their world is digital, not analog. When you upgrade to an iPhone 6, your iPhone 5 doesn't put on a Guy Fawkes mask and stage an Occupy Your Desk drum circle to promote OPR (Obsolete Phone Rights) and iOS 7.1 survivor benefits.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:38 PM on August 28, 2015 [27 favorites]


One of the articles linked to in the Vox piece, "No Cost for Extremism," is also well worth your time.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:40 PM on August 28, 2015 [10 favorites]


It's worth reading the entire thing.

The deuce you say.
posted by The Tensor at 12:43 PM on August 28, 2015


Also "I am not political" is ALWAYS a political statement. A lack of supposed politicality merely means you endorse the status quo, while vociferously proclaiming an opposition to the status quo. (An oppositiong that does jack shit isn't really an opposition, now, is it?)
posted by symbioid at 12:45 PM on August 28, 2015 [18 favorites]


OK, I just checked and I have to share something kind of funny: Tim Urban was a Government major in college! (Excuse me, concentrator.)

(I actually think it kind of explains a lot that he was at Harvard -- I think of that general centrist political stance as actually very mainstream and commonplace at the Ivies. I don't know Tim Urban personally, but for some people I've interacted with, it seemed almost more motivated by a sense that politics is just kind of embarrassing and undignified.)
posted by en forme de poire at 12:50 PM on August 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh god... the bit about liberals in urban archipelagos and conservatives in the burbs who are fueled by right-wing radio gave an image first of an enclosing of the people into giant cities, marching towards and destroying the captive populace as we're farmed in the cities.

"We have you surrounded!"

That kinda gave me chills, thinking about it.
posted by symbioid at 12:59 PM on August 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I actually think it kind of explains a lot that he was at Harvard -- I think of that general centrist political stance as actually very mainstream and commonplace at the Ivies

I agree, but think it's better called, as Tariq Ali has it, "the Extreme Center" — that is to say, authoritarian-technocratic neoliberalism.
posted by RogerB at 12:59 PM on August 28, 2015 [10 favorites]


This does not just apply to politics, but it is the easiest way to illustrate it. It is a dynamic system with a variability beyond our current ability to model accurately to predict the outcome of any given event. Because our abstracted idea of the system is based upon a mechanistic model, this extreme fluidity makes it an irreducible problem (something that a programmer friend of mine called the Sisyphus Effect), where every time you go back to the problem it is different than the previous pass, meaning you have to do all the work over again and again.

This may be a derail, but this reminds me a lot of engaging actively with someone else's psychology in an attempt to disrupt calcified systems which aren't serving them and to introduce more accurate, closer to shared, lived reality processes. I spend a lot of my time dwelling on and thinking about things in hugely unscientific terms, but I'm usually paying attention to and tracking a few very discrete symptoms which give me a sense if what I'm doing is improving what's going on or causing damage.

I wonder if this is because politics is really just humans and human interaction writ large - that is, the root of all of it is psychology, and a ton of psychology is what we think and assume about the world (which may or may not be accurate).
posted by Deoridhe at 1:03 PM on August 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


Many people who have a shallow understanding of chaos theory make the same philosophical points about it. I disagree with many such philosophical points.

For example, lack of understandability and the infinite density of periodic orbits does not mean that the system is uncontrollable: you just have to have "strange"-er methods. See, the OGY method or something like that. There's a wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Control_of_chaos)

And it is not necessarily the case that chaotic systems will remain lacunae in our understanding forever: modern machine learning uses many of the same algorithmic technologies (see how many references to k-nearest neighbors you will find in image processing land and dynamical systems land, just see the number). It was an article of faith of the artificial neural net people - actually from the single-layer perceptron people onwards, and some people before that - that these sort of chaotic high-dimensional phenomena can be explained by low-dimensional embeddings. A small non-integral number of dimensions fucking with each other gives the impression of being hundreds of thousands of variables, but you can look for a small description of happenings, and you just worry about overfitting.

It's working like gangbusters for human perception, why not for human social phenomena?
posted by curuinor at 1:05 PM on August 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


Oh god, it hurts. I love Lessig, his heart is totally in the right place, but it feels so utterly naive.

Lessig did a reddit AMA a few days ago, and it was beyond embarrassing. If you didn't know who he was and what his background is, you'd think he was a particularly dim 15 year old.

When asked what he will do if the electoral reform legislation that he says is his single reason for running isn't passed, he says that just won't happen. He swears repeatedly that he will literally do nothing as President except approve that legislation, and resign immediately once he does. In another comment, now the top one, however, he says that he will act on other issues after all, but that somehow his Vice President will handle it all.

I can't believe this guy is a respected, intelligent, highly qualified law professor.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:05 PM on August 28, 2015 [20 favorites]


Anyways, the "Independent" narrative feeds an ego that lets people feel smarter, more "rational" and helps them sleep at night.

If I had a dollar for every Libertarian who claimed that his political orientation was "beyond right and left"...
posted by theorique at 1:12 PM on August 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


I actually happen to have a degree in political science, so I'm no more nor less qualified than anyone else to give an opinion about how politics works.

On the other hand, I have worked in and around political circles, so that, too, makes me no more nor less qualified than anyone else to give an opinion about how politics works.

But I will say this, and it may echo the article somewhat:

I think the main thing a lot of people fail to grasp about politics is the heterogeneity of it all. Politicians are people, voters are people, and people are animals with several competing brain modules mashed together, and if you expect politics or politicians or people's political views to make "sense," whatever that may mean, you're setting yourself up for either frustration or delusion.

The little dig at Lessig was a bonus. That guy should really step out of the way of the people who have been organizing to get money out of politics since long before he started his self-promotion campaigns.
posted by univac at 1:13 PM on August 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


It's not engineer's disease, so much as nerds are notably terrible at understanding other people and power dynamics, because of two fundamental ego myths in the nerd psyche: that they are smarter than everyone else and that everything about them is a reflection of their smartness (worth) and so that anyone with different preferences, goals, or interests is less intelligent. Nerds are, politically speaking, massive fucking chumps.

You see a lot of this everywhere in America, of course, but nerds are actually notably worse at labor politics than most other groups. They are the model minority of false consciousness. Consider the reaction any time the idea of unionizing is brought up. Yeah, most Americans are really deeply anti-union at this point, so that's a commonplace level of political stupidity and false consciousness, but then keep in mind that nerds are maybe the one group of laborers left in the country who could actually pull it off and become politically powerful, and that they're too goddamn stupid to do so, while simultaneously patting themselves on the back for how smart they are and how they're going to change the world. Unions are for losers, competition something something free markets excellence yadda yadda. Meanwhile, people would sell their fucking organs for a SAG card.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 1:13 PM on August 28, 2015 [47 favorites]


It's not engineer's disease, so much as nerds are notably terrible at understanding other people and power dynamics, because of two fundamental ego myths in the nerd psyche: that they are smarter than everyone else and that everything about them is a reflection of their smartness (worth)

I thought that was what Engineer's Disease is: "I'm smart in this one technical field, therefore I am smart in everything."
posted by Sangermaine at 1:15 PM on August 28, 2015 [13 favorites]


Yup. I know a lot about computers and hold down a modest (or perhaps amazing) IT job so all of my opinions are Independent Apolitical Logic and nothing but. I also balk at people who say "I'm not into politics" because it's usually their response after trying and failing to politically troll me. Or it's a disclaimer that they're about to say something totally stupid and misinformed and then will agree with anything you say so long as you don't use the words "liberal" or "conservative." On a Venn diagram there is some overlap with the "I like all music except rap and country" set.
posted by aydeejones at 1:26 PM on August 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


curuinor,
Ah, by I did not say we would never understand it, I simply said that in our current understanding of it there are enough undefined and unknown variables so as to make it a point of frustration with those who wish to have a solved problem set. In fact, over the last 30 years, we have made amazing strides in understanding the dynamics of the system, and have even been utilizing the exact methods you linked to in attempts to control politics. But this will lead my down several essays worth of detailing exactly what has been measured in the past, what it being measured now, and how much more we are attempting to measure. Chaos is simply a large enough problem set that does not have an adequate means of predicting outside of post measurement. We can tell you where the attractor is, but we cannot tell you where it will be beyond a certain degree of statistical ranges (can you tell I also love meteorology?).

It is interesting that you bring up k-nearest and the uses in machine learning, as that is a method used currently in facial recognition systems, which are... used to measure facial responses by focus groups watching politicians speak. But that is a whole different discussion from the FPP topic.
posted by daq at 1:27 PM on August 28, 2015


Also "I am not political" is ALWAYS a political statement. A lack of supposed politicality merely means you endorse the status quo, while vociferously proclaiming an opposition to the status quo. (An oppositiong that does jack shit isn't really an opposition, now, is it?)

Yup. I got to watch, somewhat in horror, as a white man explained to a black woman (both colleagues) why he didn't vote because it would mean that he approved of the status quo political system, and completely ignored her when she tried to tell him that that was frankly, offensive to her, as (1) her own grandparents fought for the right to vote that he was throwing aside and (2) it was very clear to her that, while "both parties are bad" was true to a certain extent, there was definitely one party that made her life materially better over the last few years, e.g., her getting birth control covered by her insurance and some at least lip service paid to the concerns raised by black lives matter.

What killed me was just how utterly smug he was-- just a "I can see the system for what it *really* is and you sheeple can't" feeling, and a complete lack of recognition for the privilege he was displaying by getting the choice to "opt out".
posted by damayanti at 1:29 PM on August 28, 2015 [35 favorites]


I thought that was what Engineer's Disease is: "I'm smart in this one technical field, therefore I am smart in everything."

I think the difference is basically between "I am smart at X, therefore I must be smart at Y", followed by massive failure, and "Z is inherently dumb and bad, I'm not going to bother with Z because I am so smart, not dumb like a dumb Z-er", proceeded by a completely thorough asswhupping at Z by people who do pay attention to it, while the nerds aren't even aware it's happening.

Like, nerds who think they can just walk in and be good at, I don't know, flower arranging, will completely fuck it up and be laughably bad. Politically speaking, what you have is a bunch of nerds loudly disclaiming how much flower arranging totally sucks and they're too smart for that, while somehow also serving as human vases and forming part of a pleasing tableau of hyacinths, ie getting chumped hard by their employers and industry.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 1:31 PM on August 28, 2015 [7 favorites]


Meteorology is a good example, because the state of the art in prediction of such systems is much better, due to oceans of ink published and mountains of money put in it.

I think the prototypical nerd's thought that politics can be subject to reduction is more akin to Seymour Papert's attempt to solve all of the task of making a computer see... for an undergrad summer project... in 1966. It's a completely hubristic attempt at the task, but if you shove a few hundred billion dollars and and entire scientific field at it, you might get slightly better results and the roadmap to really good results.
posted by curuinor at 1:35 PM on August 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


The problem with that is, what are "good results" in the case of politics?

With human vision there are obvious, concrete goals. You can work towards having a computer do what a human eye can do. This can be measured, evaluated, and improved, to bring the computer closer and closer to the goal of human vision.

With politics, one of the fundamental problems is that people disagree on what the goals should even be.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:43 PM on August 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


Well, really I was poking at the connection to AI more than computer vision in particular, where people want rationality or the particular brand of irrationality that people have or just predicable advantageous behavior or simple heuristics that can be understood. But the AI people tried really hard at it and were complete failures for a long while... until they had major breakthroughs and then they failed at it for some more years and lost funding and suddenly, more major breakthroughs and more failures and so on.

No homogeneity of goals in that field, anyhow. Ridiculously gnarly difficult problem. That's the way in which it's like politics.

This is a derail, but it might be an interesting one.
posted by curuinor at 1:49 PM on August 28, 2015


Weirdly, the most astute political assessments - both domestic and foreign - that I've ever read consistently come from the sharpest programmers.

I've worked with a really sharp colleague who was a Randroid "because Rand Paul is the only politician who tells the truth." That was all he could articulate about his position.

Another who was a wealthy Libertarian who believes that parents are morally obligated to die with as much money as possible so their children can inherit it, therefore taxes are immoral and therefore the government should be shut down and the best way to do that is to have meetings in public libraries and elect people into government.

And a couple who decided they were going to vote for the candidate they thought most likely to win, regardless of party or platform, because that way they "win" as voters.

Programmers can be as dumb as anyone else.
posted by Foosnark at 1:55 PM on August 28, 2015 [11 favorites]


Oh, I should note that in the case of American politics, I tend to include the attempted manipulations as part of the system, not as an act by some outside observer/interlocutor in attempting to gain control. The political operatives and social scientists who are mapping out the territory are not neutral parties in the system, as they are literally inextricably linked and only exist within that system. Again, why the myth of "independent" is such a prevalent one. Even the players believe that their actions are motivated outside of politics, and yet all they do is add more variables to the politics. Partly why I think the OGY idea is interesting, but immediately brings to mind that the mere idea of controlling the chaos should not be the end goal. Simply understand that it is there and act accordingly.

It is much more akin to a system that has two discreet but perpendicular central points it is trying to achieve. One is to reach equilibrium, and the other is to self sort (which, of course, since the selection is unbalanced, will cause always cause the system to never reach equilibrium). Now if we could only find a way to harness the energy potential of this system, we'd finally have a self-perpetuating source of free energy. (that was the joke, btw. yes, it was a bad one. yes, I feel bad for making it.)

Oh, and I forgot entropy. That's something to consider in all of this as well, but we could go on and on and on and on...
posted by daq at 1:56 PM on August 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


I can't believe this guy is a respected, intelligent, highly qualified law professor.

Oh, I can. Lessig is the ur-example of the ivory tower professional who refuses to let reality intrude on his beliefs of how things should be. He's outright stated that he refuses to consider that the Supreme Court is an inherently political body, because to do so would destroy his belief in constitutional law.
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:57 PM on August 28, 2015 [9 favorites]


It's my understanding that American politics is divorced from reality.
posted by Splunge at 2:02 PM on August 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yeah I've known some really good programmers who have had... well, just really eccentric political beliefs.

Yeah, most Americans are really deeply anti-union at this point, so that's a commonplace level of political stupidity and false consciousness, but then keep in mind that nerds are maybe the one group of laborers left in the country who could actually pull it off and become politically powerful, and that they're too goddamn stupid to do so, while simultaneously patting themselves on the back for how smart they are and how they're going to change the world.

I stand pretty favorably toward unionization of tech jobs as somebody who does one but this fails to take on just why particular ideologies tend to appeal to the kind of people who do these jobs. I have a few notions but I'll have to put some thought into how to articulate them.
posted by atoxyl at 2:07 PM on August 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I have a bunch of degrees in political science, and while I'm not really any more qualified than anyone else to talk about how politics really works, I *can* say with some little authority that this article is a pretty good introduction to Things We Actually Know. If you liked it, a more thorough guide is Hans Noel's Ten Things Political Scientists Know that You Don’t (link opens pdf) which includes some bonus things that we know, and even some things you might know that it turns out there isn't much good evidence for.

The problem with politics, in general, is that the "fog" can to a greater degree never truly be lifted. Just when you think you have cleared the fog from a particular piece, something you thought you knew may change (either above or below that particular patch of fog), which will utterly change the reality of the whole system.

That overstates the problem to some extent. Sure, you're not ever going to get a unified field theorem of politics, but we already have decent models for the basic gist of different aspects of political life. Predicting presidential elections, for example, is pretty old hat, and by this time next year we'll either know pretty well who's going to win or we'll be able to confidently predict that the outcome will be close and uncertain (though we can still fuck up like pretty well everyone did in 1994).
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:07 PM on August 28, 2015 [18 favorites]


This piece was as full of error as the "mental picture" they argue nerds hold.

A huge error is to the quantitative and qualitative importance of centrism, independence, and political skepticism. Hundreds of years of elections have demonstrated that first-past-the-post elections work powerfully to create two dominant political parties constantly seeking political equilibrium with each other. As the non-partisan and less-partisan center shifts, politicians shift to maintain their share of it -- they are the marginal buyers who set the price of political victory.

The second is to fail to understand the power of ideologues, as opposed to interest groups, on the left and on behalf of the Democratic Party. Sure, most Democratic Party voters are people who wish for, or want to preserve, certain specific spending programs and regulatory protections that directly benefit them, but the Democratic Party would be nowhere without its immensely important ideologues, who fund their campaigns and shape the mass media narratives about them. And, of course, these people because of their private sector wealth are a strong anchor on the redistributionist drift of the Democratic Party -- if our campaigns were all publicly-funded and the New York Times were owned by a private equity firm, Democratic policy priorities would be a lot more left.

A final error is dramatically to overstate the impact of political isolation. While some important institutions -- humanities departments, newsrooms, white Evangelical churches -- are political monocultures, many other, and often extremely powerful ones, have a strong representation of liberal, conservative, and centrist thought coming together to form consensus. It's axiomatically true of the financial industry -- the political power of Goldman Sachs famously isn't that it's Democratic, or Republican, it's that it's simultaneously neither and both. It's also true of the technology industry, of the Catholic Church, of the student body at Harvard Business School or Stanford Business School, of the pro-Israel lobby.
posted by MattD at 2:16 PM on August 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think the real crux of the matter is that nerds don't think history matters. Their world is digital, not analog. When you upgrade to an iPhone 6, your iPhone 5 doesn't put on a Guy Fawkes mask and stage an Occupy Your Desk drum circle to promote OPR (Obsolete Phone Rights) and iOS 7.1 survivor benefits.

I just wanted to point out that this attitude doesn't just yield bad politics, it also yields bad code. There are, broadly speaking, two approaches to historicity among programmers. One approach involves treating history as bad. This approach results in attempts to reinvent absolutely everything as often as possible, which is pretty much the apotheosis of wastefulness. The other approach to history is the one we see reflected in Neal Stephenson's In the Beginning was the Command Line, which among other things positions Unix as "the Gilgamesh epic of the nerds." If we come to computing that way, with tremendous respect for the work upon which current work is built (instead of hatred for everything that's not brand new), at the very least we don't end up wasting all of our time by accidentally recreating all the problems of the past out of a willful ignorance of how the past dealt with those problems.

If your code hates the past, you'll end up reimplementing UNIX badly in your attempt to escape history. If your politics hates the past, you end up repeating the political blunders and the political atrocities of the past.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:26 PM on August 28, 2015 [30 favorites]


"The Republican Party is dominated by ideologues who are committed to small-government principles, while Democrats represent a coalition of social groups seeking public policies that favor their particular interests."

I do think the Republican party has different sets of idealogues, though. There's a lot of overlap, but still.

Screw You I Got Mine: They just want to keep, or enlarge, their advantage over others. They oppose social justice measures, and favor policies that rob from the poor to give to the rich.

Bigots: the "Screw You I Got Mine" types of social status. White, male, straight, chain-smoking, coal-rolling, warmongering, gun-waving Americans are meant to rule, and everyone else should just get on their knees and/or learn to take a joke.

"Moral" Conservatives: They want eveyone else to live by their rules and beliefs. No abortions, no gays, no evolution, the man is the king of the nuclear family, and only Christianity and Judaism are acceptable religions.

Conservatives By Default: Maybe they belong in the above category, but I think they are less authoritarian and more just... afraid. Uneasy about questioning things. Baseball and apple pie and the Bible and the military can't be wrong. We are the good guys and we know what's best.
posted by Foosnark at 2:27 PM on August 28, 2015


If your code hates the past, you'll end up reimplementing UNIX badly in your attempt to escape history. If your politics hates the past, you end up repeating the political blunders and the political atrocities of the past.

You can't see me, but trust me, I'm standing and applauding.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:40 PM on August 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


"...Libertarian who believes that parents are morally obligated to die with as much money as possible so their children can inherit it"

Somebody clearly doesn't understand the concept of "Libertarian" (not you... I mean them)
posted by symbioid at 2:54 PM on August 28, 2015


(I mean, there are a few issues with that, but the concept of "moral obligation" doesn't necessarily strike me as particularly Libertarian in nature).
posted by symbioid at 2:55 PM on August 28, 2015


If your code hates the past, you'll end up reimplementing UNIX badly in your attempt to escape history. If your politics hates the past, you end up repeating the political blunders and the political atrocities of the past.

The problem is that the people of the past were not any smarter or wiser than the people of the present. Tear apart any old house and you'll more likely than not find that the wiring and plumbing are total disasters that can only be brought up to code by being completely redone. Knowledge of the past is well and good, but we shouldn't let our reverence for the past calcify into a thoughtless conservatism that prefers the status quo out of mere familiarity.
posted by Pyry at 3:07 PM on August 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Knowledge of the past is well and good, but we shouldn't let our reverence for the past calcify into a thoughtless conservatism that prefers the status quo out of mere familiarity.

Oh, certainly. I couldn't agree more, comrade.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 3:12 PM on August 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


I love it when people put forward Not Voting as their mechanism for change.

It's like this bold statement of "I will do nothing, and things will change to be more like how I want them!", and then things don't change to be more like the way they want them, and usually that's better than things changing the way they want them because they're dumb enough to pretend like Not Voting Changes Things, so how good could their other ideas be?
posted by oceanjesse at 3:26 PM on August 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's plausible to argue that organizing to take power by electoral means is impossible in the current system, and that therefore non-electoral politics should be the focus instead. I don't buy that argument — I think that organizing to campaign in bourgeois elections is itself a decent way to get people together to do real politics — but it's plausible.

On the other hand, arguing that one shouldn't vote because voting doesn't change anything and then failing to organize to do anything at all is a simple endorsement of the status quo.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 3:39 PM on August 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


That mirrors a lot of nerds (mostly engineers) I've talked to about politics. It doesn't get into ideas of politics as consumption and identity, which I think is a major factor in America.
posted by codacorolla at 3:43 PM on August 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


If you don't vote you automatically relinquish you right to bitch about politics.
posted by gottabefunky at 4:00 PM on August 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


univac: "I actually happen to have a degree in political science ... On the other hand, I have worked in and around political circles, so that, too, makes me no more nor less qualified than anyone else to give an opinion about how politics works.

But I will say this, and it may echo the article somewhat:

I think the main thing a lot of people fail to grasp about politics is the heterogeneity of it all. Politicians are people, voters are people, and people are animals with several competing brain modules mashed together, and if you expect politics or politicians or people's political views to make "sense," whatever that may mean, you're setting yourself up for either frustration or delusion.
"

Eponysterical
posted by Reverend John at 4:26 PM on August 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


That mirrors a lot of nerds (mostly engineers) I've talked to about politics. It doesn't get into ideas of politics as consumption and identity, which I think is a major factor in America.

That is itself a popular notion among "too smart for politics" people though - that political participation is only about signaling an identity.
posted by atoxyl at 4:40 PM on August 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


Meanwhile, people would sell their fucking organs for a SAG card.

Why would the tech industry want to be more like that again?
posted by markr at 4:58 PM on August 28, 2015


gottabefunky: "If you don't vote you automatically relinquish you right to bitch about politics."

No - you lose the right to bitch about electoral politics. You still have the right to an opinion and you still have the right to abstain. That whole argument is facile, specious, and frankly, bullshit.

I almost always vote. And while I think abstention as a policy is fairly dumb, I think there are people who truly are politically minded who don't vote and still have some solid political thoughts, and there are those who should NOT vote because they are ill informed.

If someone doesn't care enough to study the issue and just have dumb opinions, they have the right to those dumb opinions and even have the right to say them. They're just dumb. And I would be glad if they decided not to vote instead of voting their idiocy. Yes - this raises the argument of "well then people should get informed". And it would be nice, but you've seen what passes for politics in this country... Will it really enlighten them or will it just reinforce old prejudices anyways?
posted by symbioid at 6:09 PM on August 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


I have a bunch of degrees in political science, and while I'm not really any more qualified than anyone else to talk about how politics really works, I *can* say with some little authority that this article is a pretty good introduction to Things We Actually Know. If you liked it, a more thorough guide is Hans Noel's Ten Things Political Scientists Know that You Don’t (link opens pdf)

Ahen. Those are things that Americanists know!

APSA in less than a week!
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:28 PM on August 28, 2015


*gets popcorn*
posted by clvrmnky at 9:07 PM on August 28, 2015


To be fair, Nate Silver doesn't vote (I literally heard him say that he doesn't vote to be fair!).
posted by oceanjesse at 9:35 PM on August 28, 2015


Just realised this article is by David Roberts. He's a well-known voice in climate writing, I've been a fan for years. I'm glad to see him taking the topic on from a different angle and in a new venue.
posted by harriet vane at 12:23 AM on August 29, 2015


The gist of this article seems to be that "radical conservatives will show up and you need to show up too." I feel comfortable not thinking about politics and not voting because I live in a state and district that is overwhelmingly democrat. If I lived in Ohio or Florida yeah I'd spend more time following the issues.

Blame the electoral college I guess?

The article concludes that I should start "nerdsplaining*" to people who can make a difference. The nerds who would be convinced by the facts and rationalism in this article are already well aligned with those politics. A large majority of "nerds" are just emotional contrarians who see politics as football for intellectuals. Are we really going to pretend that most political discussion is raw policy debate and not just social posturing? In my experience successfully convincing someone of a certain idea has way more to do with the person doing the convincing rather than how well researched your charts are.

*If this movement is successful I wonder how many weeks it will take before "rah-rah nerdsplaining" becomes a pejorative.
posted by laptolain at 3:54 AM on August 29, 2015


"Aggrieved Entitlement" is the phrase I've been looking for to describe everything from Tea Partiers to mass shooters to white supremacists to Sad Puppies. Thanks.
posted by lordrunningclam at 4:37 AM on August 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


I thought that was what Engineer's Disease is: "I'm smart in this one technical field, therefore I am smart in everything."

It's more than just that though. It has to also include contempt for the users.
posted by srboisvert at 7:43 AM on August 29, 2015


The problem is that the people of the past were not any smarter or wiser than the people of the present. Tear apart any old house and you'll more likely than not find that the wiring and plumbing are total disasters that can only be brought up to code by being completely redone. Knowledge of the past is well and good, but we shouldn't let our reverence for the past calcify into a thoughtless conservatism that prefers the status quo out of mere familiarity.

Aha, but "learning from" is not "reverence." What you learn in this scenario is, the smart people of the past were the ones who came up with codes for house construction, and lives were saved because the number of house fires and other problems went down. This is valuable when dealing with people today who want to chuck boring, complicated things like building codes out the window and let "the market" take care of everything.

It's like the anti-vaccination thing. People who grew up never having a friend or relative die of measles, or polio, or whooping cough don't appreciate how dangerous they were and how important vaccines are to keeping them at bay. In which case, you have to use the evidence of history to remind them otherwise. Forget that history, and you leave yourself vulnerable to anti-vax nonsense.
posted by emjaybee at 9:14 AM on August 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


I often feel like I'm engaging with the thought pieces of an extremely gifted teenager.
This. Listening to IT Professionals talk about politics is like getting relationship advice from tumblr porn.
posted by fullerine at 2:01 AM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


One of the things I notice when I talk to my engineer boyfriend about politics is that he has (what I consider) to be a really naive view of how people, and therefore politicians, work. He thinks that all people are honest unless it has been publicly proven otherwise. He thinks that politicians always mean what they say, and that what they say is always in line with their real motives. He thinks all people are rational actors who just need to be presented with the right sort of proof to be convinced of something. He's never studied history or any social science in any depth, so he's fairly oblivious to any larger social patterns or systems of oppression. All of which means that he frequently comes to the conclusion that politics don't make any sense. I see echoes of that in the way that Urban talks about politics too.
posted by colfax at 8:24 AM on August 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'm always fascinated by the thought pattern that goes "I don't understand thing, therefore thing is incomprehensible."
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:38 AM on August 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


On the other hand, I think most geeks don't get politics is because politics is about emotion these days and not logic (which most geeks are good at). For example, you would expect a party to be formed of like-minded individuals, have a clear agenda on all major issues and more importantly use data, facts and scientific reasoning to arrive at the agenda. Also, all members are consistent with that narrative unless new facts come into light.

For example, every programmer knows which sorting algorithms work faster and specific cases where other algorithms can be used. But Climate Change or Vaccines? Every politician, has his/her own views about these issues, often different or even contradictory views to their own party members!

In other words, geeks are used to thinking of system behaviors based on logic, not individual behaviors based on randomness that keeps changing (party politics, constituent voting, personal views etc).

In the midst of all the noise everyday in the media, allegations, counter-allegations, veiled opinions, controlled media propaganda, every person on the street has a different view on who is honest in the political spectrum. Is there even a way to judge? Hence the political naivette
posted by theobserver at 10:20 AM on August 30, 2015


On the other hand, I think most geeks don't get politics is because politics is about emotion these days and not logic (which most geeks are good at).

I think a lot of why emotion is something that a lot of male geeks don't get is because emotions are coded feminine, and so are devalued. The current valued mindset is that logic is superior because it is "objective" (even though it isn't) and emotions are inferior because they are "subjective" (which most human experience is). The truth is that emotions are a valuable source of non-verbal information, and verbal information is limited to conscious learning and doesn't include implicit and observed learning. Being aware of, tracking, and understanding ones emotions can allow one to assess and value ones' observations and experiences even if it is more challenging to put into words.
posted by Deoridhe at 1:26 PM on August 30, 2015 [6 favorites]


logic (which most geeks are good at).

If by "are" you mean "fancy themselves as being".
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:01 PM on August 30, 2015 [10 favorites]


@deoridhe: Agreed, but that is one of the difficulties. Politicians wear false emotions - do you think someone is really roiled by a major issue or is it an act?

What I am trying to get at is that there is no consistency of thought - emotions must also be based on some facts, otherwise they are empty.

Also, geeks, including women, feel that emotions are private and should have no place when deciding weighty issues that impact the whole nation. To quote Robert Ludlum, "Strategy can be based on emotion, but foundation and execution must be ice cold."
posted by theobserver at 10:47 PM on August 30, 2015


Politicians wear false emotions - do you think someone is really roiled by a major issue or is it an act?

By and large I'm not talking about politician's emotions, but rather the emotions of those aligning themselves with politics - in which case yes, I think most people who are engaged feel strongly about their perspective. I also think that perspective is informed by a significant number of assumptions and implicit biases which were not transmitted or learned linguistically, and so they express themselves via emotions not via logic.

Take, for example, the Tea Party. Yes, there is a subset who are cynical opportunists, but many of the people engaged in that movement are driven by emotions which are based in their view of how the world should be, and how it is different than it should be. Some of these are a legacy of the failure of the class war - unions were successfully remade and/or re-branded into another form of non-responsive authority - or a legacy of the rare economic bubble that were the 50s. Some of them are a legacy of racism and sexism, both of which are transmitted implicitly as well as explicitly. All of them are about a narrative in which the aggrieved should be prosperous and happy because they are good people, but the world has been perverted by the feminists/Jews/blacks/liberals and they need to fight back and protect what few comforts and advantages they have.

Likewise, take the mindset of a lot of the white men currently riding the tech bubble. They are good, smart people who have risen in power because of their intelligence and skill within a flawless, logical meritocracy. Other people could have done the same if they were smarter/harder-working. Their failure to succeed must be, because this is a meritocracy, their own fault. If they have enough time they can disassemble and figure out anything, and this must include human interactions, so they have figured out how to meet everyone's needs except the ones who are too emotional and claim otherwise. Logic is superior to emotion, and so emotions should be kept to oneself and not even mentioned in the same general area of important decisions as emotions are inconsistant and people fake them all the time.

Or take a group I'm part of - the white, female social justice warriors. We spend significant time and energy figuring out how to understand and support everyone, and we're of course very good at this and very insightful. Anything we aren't are of, therefore, must be unimportant and isn't necessary to include - we have a pure view of everyone's needs and so can meet them all. And thus were/are black women, women of color, lesbian/queer women, trans women, and disabled women under-served, ignored, and devalued by my own category.


Also, geeks, including women, feel that emotions are private and should have no place when deciding weighty issues that impact the whole nation. To quote Robert Ludlum, "Strategy can be based on emotion, but foundation and execution must be ice cold."

Unless you have figured out a way to make people not have emotions, making any weighty decision that impacts a whole nation that doesn't take into account all of the various emotions at play, who is consulted and why, who is listened to and why, and all of the rest is doomed to not just failure but abject failure. Like I said above, in the comment you replied to, "The truth is that emotions are a valuable source of non-verbal information, and verbal information is limited to conscious learning and doesn't include implicit and observed learning. Being aware of, tracking, and understanding ones emotions can allow one to assess and value ones' observations and experiences even if it is more challenging to put into words."

Count me as one geek girl who thinks emotions are really, really important and more people should take the time to be aware of and communicate both them and the meta-data they include.
posted by Deoridhe at 1:05 AM on August 31, 2015 [5 favorites]


@deoridhe I do agree that emotions are important and that most issues today don't have an overwhelming "scientific" evidence to choose one course over another. The GMO vs Organic, Big government vs private innovation, immigration policy are some areas where the jury is out.

What I was trying to say is that politics today makes it difficult to identify what narratives and positions come out from each party. Also, as noted in the article, every party has members who are liberal in one aspect, while conservative on another.

Also, there is a lot that happens behind the scenes. The party whip threatens to cut funding from a particular Congressman's district and the Congressman is forced to vote against his beliefs. But from the outside, you don't know that's what happened.

In short, there are no clear cut positions and hence discussing politics even in friendly company degenerates quickly into "he said, she said"
posted by theobserver at 3:21 AM on August 31, 2015


In short, there are no clear cut positions and hence discussing politics even in friendly company degenerates quickly into "he said, she said"

This is why "shoulds" and moralizing about the proper way that things ought to be tend to be the domain of abstract thinkers and writers. You see this a lot with libertarians, socialists, and Marxists. Meanwhile, the business of politics contains a lot of grungy deal-making, horse trading, and emotional persuasion, manipulation, and intimidation.
posted by theorique at 4:40 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


To quote Robert Ludlum, "My books are on the intellectual level of a dim sixteen-year-old who watches a lot of CNN, which is how I could write so many. I urge you not to read them."
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:19 AM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]


On the other hand, I think most geeks don't get politics is because politics is about emotion these days and not logic (which most geeks are good at).

Politics has always been about emotion. And logic, fear, love, "me first", "women and children first", and everything else, because it's about people and people are all these things at different times. The Constitution of the United States was not the production of logic only. The Founding Fathers argued passionately about their positions and made deals and broke deals and compromised and dug in their heels. It's always been this way.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:03 PM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


What I was trying to say is that politics today makes it difficult to identify what narratives and positions come out from each party.

I... really don't agree with that. The Democrats might not be all "ABORTION IS AWESOME MAKE IT FREE ALONG WITH CONTRACEPTION" the way I wish they were, but only one party is legislating not only against abortions, and not only to make it harder and more expensive to get one, but against medical procedures that save lives in the case of late-term miscarriage and in cases where things go wrong in the third trimester. Democrats are no where near the reformation of immigration I wish they'd do, but there's only one party talking about how they shouldn't be allowed in the US. Only one party has members (though by far not the majority) who are pro-Union. The other is fielding someone who literally got elected and then gutted his state unions as much as he could, including denying people who had voluntarily given up Social Security to give their state a deal the pension that was supposed to replace Social Security. Only one party is rolling back voter rights, and that's a relatively recent change.

I'm baffled by people who say the parties are the same. They're both pro-business and warmongering, and both gerrymander when they can, but much of the rest of the rhetoric and policies are very, very different.
posted by Deoridhe at 5:06 PM on August 31, 2015 [5 favorites]


"A huge error is to the quantitative and qualitative importance of centrism, independence, and political skepticism. Hundreds of years of elections have demonstrated that first-past-the-post elections work powerfully to create two dominant political parties constantly seeking political equilibrium with each other. As the non-partisan and less-partisan center shifts, politicians shift to maintain their share of it -- they are the marginal buyers who set the price of political victory. "

If there was hundreds of years of empirical evidence, don't you think you could provide some?

There are many problems with this conception, as alluded to in the piece but more forcefully stated elsewhere, but some briefly are:

1) There is no median voter. Instead, voters tend to rank their preferences based on a handful of (not necessarily) consistent policies, and will vote for a candidate who is further from them overall than one who represents their views well aside from their particular hobby horse. The most vibrant example of this is single-issue abortion voters.

2) Independents aren't. They tend to behave exactly like partisans while eschewing the label. But in terms of party voting preference, the moderate (in impact, not position) rhetorical appeal of "independent" policies is more tied to anti-government skepticism than centrism.

3) Because of the coalition nature of political parties, the idea that independents are the "margin voters" setting "the price of political victory" is grossly mistaken — to rebut your analogy in its own terms, you can't buy mutual funds on margin.

The rest of your comment is boilerplate tu quoque that's contradicted by pretty much all empirical evidence.
posted by klangklangston at 10:47 PM on September 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


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