Technological progress masks societal decline.
For neoreactionaries, the principal question is not: Who will build the roads? but rather: Who will design and implement social technology? Material conditions change. Social technology is slow to catch up, and even slower as creative destruction increases churn.
Entrepreneurs in the traditional, commonplace sense exist in order to instigate changes in material conditions, but the absence of social entrepreneurs developing social technology to bring into equilibrium material conditions with social tech is ubiquitous—so ubiquitous we don’t even think about it. “We need more marriage, we need more marriage” Saying it won’t do it. The mechanisms by which we form these unions rely on material conditions that existed fifty years ago, and more.
Marriages are still happening. Rarely any social institution goes out the door instantaneously–instead, there’s the feeling of the rug slowly being pulled out from underneath: it becomes slightly easier to fail and slightly harder to succeed. The distribution slowly shifts. Rinse and repeat, and books about a crisis in marriage rates fly off the shelves.
To bring the abstract down into the concrete, this phenomenon might be expressed like so: “We were able to make it when we first got married, but we wouldn’t be able to do the same today.”
This brings me to Social Matter’s first law: Social technology has a tendency to lag behind material conditions.
Like classic public goods problems, social tech is nonrivalrous and nonexcludable.
Investment in developing new material conditions to increase value results in quick and very positive feedback if successful. The profit and loss mechanism is extraordinarily helpful. Provide what people want, and people will pay you generously for it (there are obvious caveats—ignore those for now). But social technology is not the same sort of thing. It faces the same problems that regular corporations face in the free market, namely that because of the spillover effects of R&D, firms generally invest underinvest, generating output below the socially optimal level.
That’s controversial for some, but not for others—but the fact of the matter is that the counterfactual seems pretty sound: were companies able to capture the benefits created by R&D exclusively, they would invest far more into it than they currently do, leading to major increases in technology at a much faster rate.
Social entrepreneurs suffer from this, too. Nobody buys social tech, and it’s very difficult to trademark it, bottle it up, sell it, and in other words, capture the benefits from sustained development and implementation. Plus, social tech is scary. Social entrepreneurs have to have the personalities to be able to sustain incredible flack in the initial stages of social tech introduction, and furthermore, they require a lot of initial resources—resources that are required in the long-term. Social tech isn’t scarce, either—but its implementation requires very important underlying causal conditions that sometimes make it incredibly difficult to duplicate.
So social tech is underproduced—far below the optimal level. The optimal level would be closer matching to material conditions. So, what does it? Well, conservatives have manifestly been utter failures at even addressing the ‘big questions’ in the first place. “Get married, get married, get married” is tuned out. Nobody likes a broken and un-nuanced record. Droning on without developing a framework of why people aren’t getting married in the first place is the typical conservative experience of banging one’s head against the wall, repeatedly, and expecting different results.
This is a tough problem. How do we increase marriage rates? Remove toxic social tech, but also remove institutions perpetuating perverse incentives. We’re well aware of the latter: alimony, no-fault divorce, bias towards feminism in the courts, division of assets, custody, etc. But of the former? What’s there to say? Toxic social tech basically describes progressive memetic entryism, infection, and dominance which infects the theology the religious use in structuring marital and gender relations.
Even so-called theological complementarianism is insufficient. Big, expensive weddings are not it. “Wait until you develop your career first” is no good. “Wait until you achieve high status and financial stability first” is no good. “Wait until you have a car, your own house, and a white picket fence” is no good. “Wait until you have more experiences” is no good.
Social technology is a conduit by which the achievement of laudable, society-promoting goals is more easily attained, given existent material conditions, not material conditions of a bygone era. Here’s an example: fifty years ago if you went out to dinner with your friends, you weren’t beset by buzzing, ringing distractions that deliver small doses of dopamine. The smartphone didn’t exist. But now it does. And there is little to no indication that it’ll be leaving us anytime soon, barring doomsday scenarios.
Innovation is disruptive. Adapt or die. Social technology becomes outmoded, but there’s a pacifying process: sure, people feel lonely and empty and isolated, but so long as they can afford their hits of dopamine, it’s tolerable, and so there’s no reason to kick up that much of a fuss. Besides, individual fuss won’t do much, so why bother?
The problem here is that trickle-down-innovation can be incredibly harmful and destructive for the happiness and flourishing of the lower classes. Does happiness increase appreciably? Does it really? Is that even the point?
Sounds awfully Marxist, doesn’t it? In the wake of the failure of capitalism to evolve through a series of stages to full-blown communism, Marxists were forced to offer up explanations for lack of historical fulfillment. Like every cult leader to bless the earth with his presence, when prophesied scenarios don’t come to pass, there are a couple of options: (1) the prediction was metaphorical, (2) a small mistake was made, and the new date is…, and (3) we successfully thwarted X, or we were thwarted by Y.
The latter part of (3) sounds familiar. Capitalists invented new forms of stimulus-devices to pacify the proletariat and to dull their revolutionary instincts.
Back to smartphones. As a case study of social technology, there’s the flat-out ban on smartphones. If you’re coming to dinner, leave the smartphone behind. I tried this once with a friend of mine. She nearly had a panic attack when her phone wasn’t within reach of her at all times. No good. Why? For a couple of reasons. First, you have to work with people where they’re currently at. And second, for the social technology to ultimately be useful, it has to be scalable and easily adaptable to different environments. Since there’s no good reason to think that folks will put in the investment required to temporarily wean someone off a phone just so they can come for dinner, then that bit of social tech fails the scalability test. Is it possible? Sure. But it requires far too much investment for the return, so it’s not going to occur often.
How about: smartphones in the middle of the table, and the first to touch their phone buys a round? The punishment can be modified, or perhaps one person will have a basket with the phones out of reach. The phones are there in case of an emergency (which isn’t going to happen), so that’ll stem some panic.
This is a trifling example, but that doesn’t change the argument. Conservatives have no understanding of the relationship between social technology, (that is, the set of rituals and practices by which an institution achieves a desired outcome), and material conditions.
Back to marriage–for a less trifling example. There’s a blanket rule in traditionalist circles that the prospective couple shouldn’t cohabitate–and that’s sensible. For one, it gives occasion to nonsense–the guy will break off the engagement, and the girl has to move out, after she’s been used. The second reason is that parents usually aren’t smart enough to know when it’s appropriate to slightly reshape and adjust norms in light of particulars that render normal adherence to the norms useless, or even harmful. That is, we have blanket rules for a reason, and that’s that most people are incapable of dealing with hard cases. The third reason is the empirical literature on cohabitation. It’s not promising, but that of course could be due to a variety of reasons–it isn’t like we have somber rituals about cohabitation, so the people who end up cohabitating are already flippant about the institution of marriage in the first place.
So there are definite self-selection effects which make untangling causality beyond the reach of most. But theoretically, there may, as an example, be material conditions which make marriage incredibly difficult in the absence of cohabitation, for financial reasons, and so on. In that case, the social technology to employ would be the creation of rituals and the imbuing of significance–a mini-ceremony, as it were, with appropriate vows exchanged–for the express purpose of marriage soon to come.
With this in place, we’d certainly see a turn around in the empirical data. I have no doubt. It might have the potential to go awry, but there doesn’t seem to me to be anything particularly and intrinsically noxious about cohabitation. Cohabitation is lite-wrong, which is the best terminology I can come up with to describe the phenomenon. Unlike murder, there’s no eternal quality of ‘badness’ hovering over cohabitation, but it wouldn’t be right just to merely call it inadvisable, either. Traditionalist community standards are important, and perception is important–perception, I think, ought to be included in the moral calculus, even if not given the same weight. Flaunting norms on a whim without sober and serious thought and counsel creates scandal, and scandal has a moral status attached to it. It constitutes an offense against the community, and so it’s worthy of being called lite-wrong.
For now, cohabitation produces what it produces because of a lack of ritualistic oversight–that’s an important term. Ritualistic oversight is helpful in beating back self-selection effects which would pollute an otherwise potentially decent arrangement, relative to the new or hypothesized material conditions.
The world is contingent and scary. Norms are necessary, and the consequences of norms are that some folks fall through the cracks. That is a necessary sacrifice–for the good of the whole. The framework above–it’s all neglected by conservative thought. The best they can come up with are clever barbs against liberal hypocrisy, as if that required effort.
Before you build up, you have to tear down. Building on top of a rotten foundation is sure to invite calamity.