Banking on Bitcoin: Among the Pragmatic

Editor's Note: Bob chose to go with something a little different for his newest post. It doesn't directly relate to Bitcoin but is rather a response to a recent NYTimes Op-ED, Among the Disrupted.

Bob Fogg is an anonymous finance insider and works at a large buy-side firm, which provides him with an intimate view of the industry.

After reading Leon Wieseltier’s New York Times Op-ED, Among the Disrupted, I felt uplifted, torn and unsure of exactly what he was saying. I read it a few more times. I can understand how his essay could be mistaken for the ramblings of a well-read homeless man. On the surface it comes off as a spirited attack against science, technology, the future, and progress from someone who has been “disrupted” by such innovation. I imagine Wieseltier’s big words and complex sentences scared many away, but when broken down his argument is succinct. Below is the tl;dr breakdown, with everything that makes the piece elegant stripped away:

  1. Three observations of the current age:

    • Quick and shallow thoughts are becoming valued over deep and slow thoughts.
    • Quantitative information is being treated as a substitute for qualitative knowledge.
    • Things that do not have a direct economic utility are deemed to be worthless.
      • The above three trends suggest our current culture is trying to move past the values that make us human.
  2. How is culture defined?

    • Culture is the fluid sum of all the individual worldviews that exist in a population; certain individual worldviews are more predominant than others.
  3. A posthuman worldview has become predominant in our current age, but similar versions have become predominant in past ages.

    • Mark Greif studied the last posthumanistic age in his book The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973 and concluded that it’s a bad idea when humans attempt to recreate themselves into something they fundamentally are not.
  4. Humanism is easy to attack because its definition is vague, sentimental, and inchoate.

    • How is humanism defined?
      • Humans are special and different.
    • History can be understood through human action, not just science.
    • Universal moral values exist and are important. Humans espouse these values, such as tolerance and compassion.
  5. Please see 1.3.1

    • How is posthumanism defined?
    • Human agency is secondary to impersonal forces and structures (Wieseltier doesn’t specifically define these structures, but I imagine he means such concepts as supply and demand, gravity, diminishing returns, survival of the fittest, etc).
  6. We are in the midst of a digital revolution, and we must seriously consider how this revolution is going to affect us. Technology will change the means through which we live.

    • Posthumanism seeks to change the end towards which humans strive.
    • Humanism seeks the intangible substances of the spirit.

Among the Disrupted in five words: Culture mustn’t be determined by engineers. (“Engineers” sounds so much more poetic than “posthumanists”)

Now that the boring part is out of the way, let’s evaluate.

Wieseltier pens a beautiful apology of humanism while condemning the irrational exuberance of those from the “church of tech.” Among the Disrupted is a heartfelt piece that left me nodding in agreement (I prefer real books over e-books). He sets up the clash of humanism and scientism as one of the most important battles of this era.

While procrastinating from doing real work and reflecting on this clash, I realized that I am not particularly worried about the rise of the church of tech. I can understand how someone in their 60’s (Wieseltier was born in 1952) could be threatened by the advent of a mindset that directly goes against what he stands for, but Wieseltier has lived through a similar era once before.

Posthumanism is a zeitgeist, but only a zeitgeist. As Wieseltier notes, we are right in the middle of a massive societal upheaval where many aspects of our lives that were once thought to be secure are now revealing themselves to be built on sand and limestone. I can say with a pretty high degree of certainty that record stores, snail mail, videogames that come in packaging, and telephone landlines will not exist 50 years from now. The best and worst part of being in the midst of such societal turbulence is that many changes are unrealized. Many promised overhauls are only ideas, and unrealized ideas can be more fear-inspiring than realized ones. How many times has a team (regardless of the sport) been deemed unstoppable in the preseason only to severely underperform expectations? What is fragile eventually breaks. What is irrational is eventually exposed.

I don’t share the same degree of concern as Wieseltier about the trend towards posthumanism. The posthuman zeitgeist of the digital age could be replaced with any other sweeping cultural vendetta that rocks a society (Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, Arab Spring... to name a few). Wieseltier acknowledges what I see to be the real issue, but he does not directly strike it.

“Answer, rather, the practical matters,” he [Greif] counsels, in accordance with the current pragmatist orthodoxy. “Find the immediate actions necessary to achieve an aim.” But before an aim is achieved, should it not be justified? And the activity of justification may require a “picture of ourselves.” Don’t just stop. Think harder. Get it right. […]

Every phone is every pocket contains a “picture of ourselves” and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it.

In times of stability and comfort it is easy to tie your idea of yourself to things outside of yourself. Times of disruption reveal how a person truly defines himself. Record stores, mail, etc are going to die whether humanism, posthumanism, or whatever else the current zeitgeist may be. Technology is a medium through which culture acts, and technology disrupts. Whether we like it or not, technology is going to change the means through which we act as a society and culture.

“We fill preexisting forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.” -“Borges and I” by Frank Bidart from Desire: Poems; borrowed by David Foster Wallace for the epigraph of The Pale King. I strongly recommend both books.

Technology is a means, but only a means. What someone decides to do with technology is completely up to him. I have just as much ability to dictate technology as it has to dictate me. The question is not whether you and I are comfortable with the picture of ourselves that is stored in our pocket. The question is whether you and I are comfortable with the picture of ourselves. That picture is reflected on your phone, through your job, through your interactions with others…through how you live.

Among the Pragmatic in five words: You must determine your picture.

Previous Posts:

Banking on Bitcoin: Decreases Divulge Different Agendas

Banking on Bitcoin: Decentralization means Direct Access

Banking on Bitcoin: Operational Inefficiencies

Banking on Bitcoin: Operational Inefficiencies

Banking on Bitcoin: Misunderstanding Mindsets

Banking on Bitcoin: #FirstWorldProblems

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