To get a grip on altruism, see humans as molecules + BS jobs: The myth of efficiency

To get a grip on altruism, see humans as molecules

EXCERPT: . . . Raising the temperature of a solid will eventually turn it into a liquid, and then a gas. Similarly, we can think of a kind of ‘social temperature’ that dictates the rate at which people interact, and how unfamiliar they are to us. In the thought experiment, we often encounter people we hardly know, much like a hot gas of molecules crashing into one another, or forcing our way through a crowd to board the subway. In this scenario (much like in real subways), it is hard to foster cooperation.

What happens at the other end of the spectrum – in ‘solids’? A solid population would be unchanging, just like the molecules in a brick or rock. You’d always see the same people, and know their reputation and behaviour. For most of us, this solid, crystalline phase represents the backbone of our social life. We have long-lasting connections to friends and family, and interact with them often, but don’t see as many friends-of-friends or family members several-times removed.

The fact that these connections are rare can help to insulate you from defectors. If there is one defector on the subway platform, you might be susceptible to getting swindled – but if your cousin’s partner’s plumber, Donny, happens to be a defector, you are unlikely to be affected in any way. So if we start with connections between everyone, as in a gas, cooperation will fail – because everyone is susceptible to the few jerks. But if we begin to snip these social wires, we might produce connected cooperators who are well insulated, feeling the effects of defectors only through friends-of-friends-of-friends.

Solid semiconductors – bits of metal that are the backbone of every gadget in the modern world – open up another perspective on the physics of altruism. In semiconductors, changes in the microscopic structure of a metal can affect how much electricity must be applied to ‘activate’ it, such that the amount of current passing through jumps from zero to a particular number. Similarly, a recent paper in Nature written by my colleagues predicted how large a financial reward (the electricity) is required for altruism to ‘turn on’ and spread through a group (the semiconductor). Some networks require a reward of $1.05, for example, and are pretty great conductors of altruism; some demand $100 or more, and are very difficult to activate.

What about ‘liquid’ populations? In an earlier paper, we examined how cooperation conducts in supple social materials such as clubs, workplaces, coffee shops and artistic movements. Here individuals belong to one or more groups and can change their memberships as they like. If it’s easy to switch, then a liquid almost effortlessly sustains cooperation – at the sign of the first defector, all the cooperators simply leave and restart the organisation elsewhere. But when there are barriers to migration, rules-of-thumb start to appear. If moving is costly, cope with defectors for as long as you can before leaving; otherwise, bail and take as many cooperators with you as possible.

Of course, the real social fabric is a complex mix of populations in many phases....


Myth of capitalist efficiency: BS Jobs, a theory by David Graeber

EXCERPT: . . . The argument of both essay and book is this: in 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advances would enable us to work a 15-hour week. Yet we seem to be busier than ever before. Those workers who actually do stuff are burdened with increasing workloads, while box-tickers and bean-counters multiply.

In an age that supremely prizes capitalist efficiency, the proliferation of pointless jobs is a puzzle. Why are employers in the public and private sector alike behaving like the bureaucracies of the old Soviet Union, shelling out wages to workers they don’t seem to need? Since bullshit jobs make no economic sense, Graeber argues, their function must be political. A population kept busy with make-work is less likely to revolt.

[...] As well as documenting personal misery, this book is a portrait of a society that has forgotten what it is for. Our economies have become “vast engines for producing nonsense”. Utopian ideals have been abandoned on all sides, replaced by praise for “hardworking families”. The rightwing injunction to “get a job!” is mirrored by the leftwing demand for “more jobs!”

Rather than directing our frustration at the system itself, we let it curdle into resentment towards workers with less bullshit jobs. Thus the hated “liberal elite” are those who get paid to indulge in such compelling and glamorous activities that many people would undertake them for free. Yet even members of that dwindling caste dutifully take on more and more paperwork, in a gesture of warped solidarity with their colleagues in admin. The problem of bullshit jobs has a lot to do with the problem of bureaucracy, the subject of Graeber’s previous book *The Utopia of Rules*.

The problem with *Bullshit Jobs* is that [...] Graeber uses the hundreds of messages he received in response to his essay as source material, quoting testimonies at length. This puts the cart before the horse, and is also rather tiresome. I wanted to see the phenomenon traced back to its source. He provides one “smoking gun” in the form of Barack Obama’s explicit justification for sticking with the US health insurance system: otherwise, millions of form-filling jobs would be lost. [...]

Will robots do away with bullshit jobs? Probably not, since computers need humans to break down complex tasks into units basic enough for them to digest. Some radical leftists are touting the idea of “fully automated luxury communism”, but for Graeber this relies on the assumption that jobs are primarily about making stuff. Most jobs – even those that aren’t officially in the “caring profession” – are about responding to the needs of other people, and robots aren’t very good at that....


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