Mazes Sequence Roundup: Final Thoughts and Paths Forward

There are still two elephants in the room that I must address before concluding. Then I will discuss paths forward.

Moloch’s Army

The first elephant is Moloch’s Army. I still can’t find a way into this without sounding crazy. The result of this is that the sequence talks about maze behaviors and mazes as if their creation and operation are motivated by self-interest. That’s far from the whole picture.

There is mindset that instinctively and unselfishly opposes everything of value. This mindset is not only not doing calculations to see what it would prefer or might accomplish. It does not even believe in the concept of calculation (or numbers, or logic, or reason) at all. It cares about virtues and emotional resonances, not consequences. To do this is to have the maze nature. This mindset instinctively promotes others that share the mindset, and is much more common and impactful among the powerful than one would think. Among other things, the actions of those with this mindset are vital to the creation, support and strengthening mazes.

Until a proper description of that is finished, my job is not done. So far, it continues to elude me. I am not giving up.

Moloch’s Puzzle

The second elephant is that I opened this series with a puzzle. It is important that I come back to the beginning. I must offer my explanation of the puzzle, and end the same place the sequence began. With hope.

Thus, the following puzzle:

Every given thing is eventually doomed. Every given thing will eventually get worse. Every equilibrium is terrible. Sufficiently strong optimization pressure, whether or not it comes from competition, destroys all values not being optimized, with optimization pressure constantly increasing.

Yet all is not lost. Most of the world is better off than it has ever been and is getting better all the time. We enjoy historically outrageously wonderful bounties every day, and hold up moral standards and practical demands on many fronts that no time or place in the past could handle. How is this possible?

Here is my answer:

It is possible because old things that get sufficiently worse eventually die, and get replaced by new things that are better. It is possible because competition is never perfect, and optimization for a fixed set of metrics is never total. People need and demand slack, and care about many factors on many meta levels. No matter how many times we say it is difficult, not game theoretically sound or even impossible, coordination continues to happen all the time.

Moloch wins when all things are equal and the situation is at a strict static equilibrium. Things are not equal. The situation is not static or strict. While there are some places where Moloch has not won, exit to those areas serves as an additional safety valve.

We have spent the bulk of this sequence dealing with mazes. Mazes are, among other things, a case of what happens when all of that breaks down – when we strip away the protections. They then go on to create all sorts of strange negative feedback loops, and make life inside them, and if left unchecked life even much of life outside of them, quite bad. In many ways, even this sequence has only scratched the surface of the dynamics involved.

Good News, Everyone!

To the extent that this makes one estimate that the world is a worse place, and its people are less happy and less likely to succeed or improve, this is bad news indeed.

But, to the extent that we already knew there was a problem, to the extent that we already knew how functional our world was and how happy people are, this is not bad news. This is good news. We already knew there was a problem and had an amorphous sense of hopelessness and doom. Now that we know more about what the problem is, we have a more specific source of hopelessness and doom that we can try to do something about. We can explore further. We can limit the damage on a personal level, seek to get things done, and perhaps even improve conditions in general.

The other good news is in our estimates of the effectiveness of doing object level things. We know about how much real and useful stuff is actually created and accomplished, in the sense that we know what useful stuff we get to use and we live real lives. If we are screwing people up this much, we are wasting this much of everyone’s time, and otherwise getting in our own way, then what does that say about how powerful it is to actually do things? If only a handful of people at a major corporation are producing all the value while everyone else plays politics, then what does that say about that handful of people?

If, as my model holds, people who are allowed to actually do real things  consistently output insanely great things, then imagine what would happen if we let more people do that. Then realize there are still places where this is possible. Imagine what you could accomplish if you did that.

I hope this journey has been enlightening, and that it inspires further explorations along with concrete actions. Perhaps we can create useful common knowledge. With luck, some people will avoid falling into maze traps as the result of what has been written here. With even better luck, this can improve the fate of some organizations, or even lead to broader motions towards taking down maze levels.

Conclusion

The central (Immoral) Mazes sequence is now complete.

I wrote it because someone had to, and no one else would. This was the best model I could come up with, presented as clearly as I know how to do so.

There are many things I still want to say, most of which are not mentioned above. Some of them are a matter of putting in the work to write things down. Others I don’t know how to say without sounding crazy, or I don’t understand them myself well enough to write about them. I have experience with mazes, but not with higher maze levels. I can abstractly model that mentality and mode of operation, but I can’t pretend I truly understand it.

The more others can join the conversation and move it forward from here, especially those with more direct experience but that managed to emerge intact enough to tell the tale, the more hope we have for making real progress.

To encourage the story to continue, both for myself and for others, I will now explore the question of Paths Forward. What are the best next questions?

Paths Forward

These topics are not only or even primarily for me. Others can and should take up the mantle as well. Here are some things that seem like good ideas to keep the ball rolling.

I still don’t have (1a) Moloch’s Army in a place where I am ready to post it, but I promise to keep trying. At a minimum, I hope that trying leads to finding more missing concepts and ideas that can help bridge the gap.

I previously tried to bridge into this with The Darwin Game sequence, but that foundation wasn’t enough. If I resumed that line now then I would next talk about (1b) The Rise of Cliquebot. I am still confused on whether that would (eventually) get me where I would need to be.

One of the words I know I will likely need is (2a) Fnord. The word fnord comes from the Principia Discordia. In its original introduction, we are all conditioned when we see the word fnord to not notice it but to become stressed and irritated. Thus, it is peppered into places that people with power want us not to look, but it is entirely absent from things like advertising. Having a name for things that make you not want to notice them, and understanding how that dynamic works, seems important. Mazes, and many aspects of them, are fnords. Another good closely maze-aligned Discordian concept is (2b) The Snafu Principle, whereby communication is only fully possible between equals, leading to Situation Normal All F***ed Up. It should be mostly already covered by implication but is worth a special focus slash better place to link to.

Another key idea I need are (2c) Basilisks, as such things have much more important roles to play than the example that gave them their name. Needless to say one must proceed with caution. Prior restraint will be a thing, here.

I introduced terms for things related to mazes, including maze behaviors, leading Wei Dei to ask the logical question (3a) What Are Maze Behaviors? It would be good to have a compact link-to-it answer. But I’m also coming around, after having started a draft of this, to the perspective that this is likely asking the wrong question. We could be better served to ask about (3b) Maze Levels and especially about (3c) The Maze Nature, which I also introduced, instead. The Maze Nature is closely related to Moloch’s Army and might be the right way in. Or perhaps it will be the other way around.

One worry is that mazes are the wrong central concept on which to build these metrics and understandings. It might be more helpful, either in general or in some places, to talk about (4) Simulacrum Levels. Ben’s post here is the best reference created so far, but it definitely needs to be improved upon. I also do not properly understand simulacrum levels, or at least my understanding and Ben’s are importantly different. These things need to be explored carefully, as the dynamics seem central to what is happening to the world.

Many of the proposed solutions, and hypothesized causes, would benefit from more careful treatment. People could gather numbers, make profiles and case studies especially where they have their own experience. Many great comments were (5a) Maze Examples, people talking about the place they work and saying how that fits into the bigger picture. Some claimed they worked at mazes. Many claimed that where they worked should have been a maze, based on size and what not, but that it totally wasn’t one or at least wasn’t as much of one as one would expect.

The question of (5b) How Did They Avoid Mazedom? is a good one for people who claim it was avoided. And of course someone should try to answer the question (5c) How Maze-Intensive Are Our Corporations? A few things to consider along the way,

The first is that these are the people reading DWATV and/or LessWrong. That is not a random sample. The whole point of such websites is to promote a method of thinking that is incompatible with a maze. If you care enough about good methods of thinking to read these websites, you likely have a strong aversion to maze behaviors compared to others with similar levels of human capital, both not tolerating them in others and not being willing to do them yourself. You likely chose your place and class of employment in part on this basis, regardless of how you thought about that decision when making it.

If someone was under full sacrifice-everything pressure from anything, they’re not going to read a book length sequence about it, because they can’t.

The second is that the best way to get comments on the internet is to get someone to tell you that you are wrong. People who think the model is failing in their case are much more likely to comment (or so my model says) than people for whom the model is accurate. That is how commenting typically works. So the sample does not provide much evidence, in that sense.

The third is that mazes are things people do not want to see, and people will select for choosing exactly the mazes they do not notice. If they did notice them, and were of the type to be reading this, they would probably avoid them. My estimate of the maze levels of several of my jobs jumped dramatically in the months after I left, because I had the chance to get perspective and to experience life without that aspect of things. Even if you are not yourself being eaten by the maze in question, it is instinctive to not notice it, or to justify what you are experiencing as normal and healthy and reasonable, or at least not so bad, when it is nothing of the kind.

It is also inevitable that some people have already self-modified to adapt to the mazes and that this makes it harder for them to notice what is going on. Not only does it mask this thing especially hard, it masks noticing things in general. Eventually, this would drive people away from reading such things, but inertia in such matters can last a while.

I am sure reading this sequence helps (in a probabilistic sense) but it is a hard problem. It is clear to me from the comments that I am not yet getting the full situation across successfully to many readers.

One thing someone will need to at some point write (6a) Mazes That Are Not Within Organizations, discussing dynamics that produce similar results without people strictly being bosses and subordinates. And generally (6b) What Types of Things are How Maze-Like, (6c) To What Extent do People At Large Have the Maze Nature, (6d) Close Examination of Maze Interactions, and so on.

The model of perfect competition presented early in the sequence proved very non-intuitive to many people and got a lot of push back. A lot of that was my using technical economic terms that trigger strong intuitions about what the answers are. I think a lot of this is that these terms are usually taught in a school context,  where there are right answers and right principles that these things are supposed to illustrate, and the models always work a certain way. I was using them a different way, changing the assumptions and what things would be implied versus not implied, in order to provide justification for the transition to the later part of the sequence.

If I had to do that over again, I’d look for a way to take a different approach entirely, because it looks like it was more confusing than I expected, and the objection I felt I needed to overcome was much weaker than I expected it to be slash to the extent it existed the people who had the objection didn’t feel satisfied by the explanation. So it didn’t really work the way I wanted it to. I do stand by what I wrote, and think there’s important stuff there, but kill your darlings and all that.

However, there’s a whole series of posts I could write (7a) On Competition, going deeper into what I was getting at there. Or even (7b) On Ultimate Human Value and all that, which is kind of a big deal, but again, super hard and I’m constantly terrified of writing to advocate ethical positions because I assume others with better rhetoric and academic chops in the area would just blow anything I write to shreds and nothing would be accomplished. That doesn’t mean I think I’m wrong or anything, but it’s a problem, and it’s why the old “(7c) Can I Interest You In Some Virtue Ethics” post never got written after the last paths forward. Still, (7d) How Consequentialism Is Ruining Things And What To Do About It might be more tractable. I thought our decision theory would be better than this by now, but alas.

Another valuable thing to do would be to give people practical advice. Advice on how to choose fields of study and careers and jobs and where to live, and other major life choices, to avoid the dangers of mazes, while taking into account the many other things that matter. We have things like 80,000 Hours, but that leads to a consequentialist calculation with many of the key terms missing because they haven’t been quantified, and many of the best options never considered because they can’t be standardized, which is playing right into the hands of mazes. It’s the same as the usual social pressure to go work for mazes, if hopefully a little more efficient about collecting at least something in return. So, (8) Practical Career Advice to Avoid Mazes, A Continuing Series.

In particular, we need (9a) How to Start a Small Business. Not a start-up –  I don’t think creating or joining one of those is a bad idea, but the how of that is something we are much more familiar with already – but a small business that actually does business. A way of life that involves buying things and then making or transporting things and selling things and having the things you sell generate revenue that pays expenses plus the rent. The kind of thing immigrants often do to great effect, except you can do even better if you are already integrated into the culture and have better connections and seed funding.

More fundamental would be the simple (9b) How to Do Business. There is specialized knowledge of how to start a business, but the most important doing-business related skill is simply how to do business. Start-ups backed by VCs are different because they fundamentally do not (yet) do business. They might do some facsimile of business by getting customers, or even unit economically profitable customers. But that’s a completely different model of how to succeed than trying to find customers and make money from them and use that money to pay the rent and the surplus to grow the business. What such start-ups are actually doing is the performance art of “doing business” aimed at the VCs that are their bosses. Doing business is a different thing entirely.

One hint you might be in a maze is that you are “doing the thing” in quotation marks rather than doing the thing.

I could also perhaps do (10a) Some Businesses Worth Starting, (10b) Some Start-Ups Worth Starting, (10c) Some Ways To Make Money I Made Work Before, and/or (10d) Some Ways To Make Money I Didn’t Do But I’m Confident Will Work. I’m sure good versions of 10c and 10d would be appreciated, but it’s a truism that no one cares about your start-up idea, whether or not they should, so perhaps not 10a and 10b.

Looking at the potential causes in more detail, and attempting to better understand their dynamics, would also be valuable. (11a) To What Extent Do We Need Large Organizations?, (11b) The Demand for Blamelessness, (11c) The Illusion of Security, (11d) The Dynamics of Rent Seeking, (11e) On Atomization, (11f) Education as a Maze, (11g) Education as Maze Indoctrination, and so on.

We could also look further at the solutions. One valuable place to go if we could do it well would be (12) How to Explain Mazes. We could also look at (13a) The Full Alternative Stack in much more detail. The biggest problem starts with (13b) How to Tell if Someone has the Maze Nature slash (13c) How to Tell if Someone Has Edge (or just (13d) Edge). That will need a better name because edge is a massively overloaded term. Here edge means the tendency to ‘angle shoot‘ or otherwise take every opportunity to take local advantage in underhanded ways. Do you always need to be ‘on guard’ against someone, or can you relax?

The other half is a post or series (13e) On Being a Source of Money. This is a huge unsolved problem. The moment anyone sees you (where you can be a person, or a group or organization, or anything else) as a source of funds, even a possible future source of funds, it corrupts all interactions even when everyone involved has the best of intentions. You always have to worry someone is after your money. The people around you are likely to be there largely because of your money. Others have to worry about whether you think they’re after your money even when they totally aren’t, and you can never rule such a thing out entirely. There is a reason a lot of rich people keep their wealth (or at least their giving/funding) a secret. Consider the chapter of Skin in the Game titled Only the Rich are Poisoned. Money can be shockingly useless or backfire, so what to do?

The other solutions to mazedom are largely political actions, where I am loathe to get more into the weeds for mostly-obvious reasons, or at least so far I have chosen to strive to be maximally apolitical throughout not only this sequence but on the entire blog. That’s another thing mazes do. They encourage us to stay out of such questions because they create an amorphous feeling that getting involved might backfire against us at some point in some way. Talking more about (14) How Mazes Scare You in such ways might be important. Of course, a lot of it is also that I do not need or want the trouble of arguing or advocating politics on the internet, nor do I expect much good to come of such a thing, and all that. And once I start down that road it is very easy to make oneself only seen from that perspective. It’s mostly a massively over-determined decision. But perhaps that decision is wrong, or will become wrong?

One more-related-to-this-than-you-would-first-think thing I’ve wanted to do for a while but that would require a lot of work and which might not come together, and which is motivated by this post, is to tell (15) The Journey of the Sensitive One. It would look over the story of the artist Jewel, as told, in explicit content in chronological order across her first five albums.

It might be most valuable of all to simply get case studies. I would love to see someone take this perspective and in particular examine (16a) What Happened to Boeing? Something seems to have happened that caused them to rapidly have higher maze levels, to the extent that they were unable to produce a plane that did not crash, ignoring huge quantities of written warnings that they were in fact producing a dangerous plane, and despite this being a very very bad thing for such a business to do. Steve Jobs was mentioned as a potentially interesting special case, so someone looking into (16b) Apple and Mazes could be interesting, especially to see if maze levels declined there when he came back and if so how he did that. And so on.

If one wanted to do a full extension of the project, (17) On The Gervais Principle could be anything up to and including its own sequence. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I consider Gervais Principle and Moral Mazes to be fully compatible, and Gervais Principle has a bunch of stuff that expands upon the model.

I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot of other stuff, as well. And of course, I have other things I need to and/or want to write, both about gaming and about other stuff. The game I’m creating is almost ready to get rolling, so I’ll probably want to focus on the gaming side even in my writing more and more over the coming months.

I seem to have already written close to a book’s worth of stuff. The main sequence (excluding this post, Quotes from Moral Mazes and Moral Mazes and Short Termism) is about 40,000 words long, there are a lot of places I could expand upon, and a quick Google says that the average business book is 50,000 to 60,000 words long. If anyone is seriously interested in publishing were I to turn this into a book, or has the know-how to make that happen and thinks it would be a good idea, please contact me with your thoughts and what that would look like. If it would be worthwhile to rewrite this in proper full book form I am open to that idea. If not, it might still be a good idea to print some copies mostly as-is to help reach more people.

And of course, thanks to you for reading, and hopefully thinking about and building upon all of this.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Ben Hoffman, Sarah Constantin and Michael Vassar for providing the impetus to read Moral Mazes and take it seriously. It takes a lot of motivation to get through a book that heavy.

I would like to thank Ben Hoffman, Michael Vassar, Raymond Arnold, Ben Pace, Oliver Habyrka, Zack Davis, Jessica Taylor and my wife Laura Baur for helping me edit the sequence. Without strong editorial feedback, this sequence would likely not have come to be, and if it did it would have been much weaker.

Ben Hoffman in particular was vital early on in helping me wrap my head around the problem, Michael Vassar later on for making sure I didn’t miss the important points, and Raymond Arnold for making sure what I wrote would have a fighting chance of being understood. Many thanks.

I’d also like to thank the commentators, including the ones who made comments I found frustrating and wrong, but especially the ones who challenged me in ways that improved my thinking.

And also those that helped keep up morale so I could finish. Engagement matters, and knowing you have people you respect interested matters too. Little notes of appreciation can go a long way. It’s important to give praise. This includes Scott Alexander, and also Robin Hanson, who said he would read Moral Mazes on the strength of the quotes I provided. I look forward to seeing both their takes.

I’d also like to thank the person who got How to Identify an Immoral Maze to be featured on Hacker News. The majority of hits I get come from being featured somewhere, in one form of another. I do my best not to let that change what I write, other than being happy to edit posts to make them stand on their own better if this is standing between them and being linked in this way. If that is ever the case and the modifications seem reasonable, please do let me know.

Finally, thanks again for reading. I hope the time you have invested has proved worthwhile.

 

 

 

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20 Responses to Mazes Sequence Roundup: Final Thoughts and Paths Forward

  1. Doug S. says:

    First, I would like to recommend a book.

    Second, an article that takes a different perspective on management and how organizations got worse between 1950 and 2000.

    https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/02/how-mckinsey-destroyed-middle-class/605878/

    Third, what happened to Boeing in particular:

    https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/11/how-boeing-lost-its-bearings/602188/

  2. xarkn says:

    Thanks for writing this series. I’ve enjoyed it deeply, and hope you continue writing. Especially 9a-10d! :)

    I’m still confused about how mazes manage to remain so well obfuscated. Moral Mazes was published in 1988, shouldn’t the concepts be widely understood by now? When you’re young, or when you’re a line worker—whether bricklayer or programmer—jokes about the incompetence or immorality of managers and other maze dwellers are widely accepted as humorous but rarely considered as truth. After this series it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that there’s actually more reality than comedy in that ridicule.

    Dilbert started in 1989. It has obviously resonated strongly with a wide audience. Is it more joke or more truth? What would you tell a child who asks you if Dilbert is real or joke?

    Moral Mazes are also much less of a problem when you’re living in dream time, as Robin Hanson calls it. In the 20th century the world prospered more than it has ever; so much that it could withstand all the maze dwellers you’d throw at it, and still have resources left over to give you and your friends comfortable and secure jobs. The principal-agent problem wasn’t even coined before the 1970s.

    • Kenny says:

      > When you’re young, or when you’re a line worker—whether bricklayer or programmer—jokes about the incompetence or immorality of managers and other maze dwellers are widely accepted as humorous but rarely considered as truth.

      I don’t think that’s true at all – that such views are rarely considered truth! I think mazes are responsible for a LOT (if not almost all) of the fear and hatred people have towards ‘capitalism’ and ‘business’, and there’s a lot of people that think that both are the work of Moloch.

  3. Radu Floricica says:

    Reading about ways you want to expand the idea, my instincts tell me this would be a good moment to set up a few anchoring points, just to make sure the whole edifice cen’t come crashing down.

    How about taking 2-3 of the SIMPLEST predictions this theory makes and set up experimental conditions for verification? I underline simplest, because the tendency is to try experiments that give new information. At this point however I think just plain experimental confirmation would be invaluable.

  4. Jorge says:

    One-clicked the book, so it served as effective advertisement if nothing else. Hopefully I also manage to persevere.

    Aside- Do you need playtesters for your game?

  5. A thought I had as a got through the wrap-up. It seems strange to me to connect Mazes to Moloch, because Mazes seem like they can only exist when the system as a whole is sufficiently flush with cash that it makes sense for the competent people to prioritize artful symbol manipulation and political games over skills and activities that are, in some respect, useful. The conceptual similarity is that, in both cases, values are being sacrificed to optimize for something. But Mazes feel so much worse because you’re optimizing for something artificial and silly.

    We live in a world where material wealth is plentiful, but social wealth is much less so. There are fewer people with whom we can create meaningful relationships, fewer ways that we can earn respect and admiration, and such respect and admiration pays fewer dividends. So competent people turn to bureaucratic organizations that can reward them with very large, quantifiable tokens of respect and admiration that can be tracked on a hard drive and cashed in most places in the developed world.

    • TheZvi says:

      The first example of a Molochian hell in Scott’s article is where everyone shocks themselves for hours a day and punishes anyone who doesn’t, which of course is not in any way a metaphor for jobs. But it also requires huge abundance! It’s not very productive to spend eight hours shocking one’s self. Yet the connection seems clear.

  6. Hareeb al-Saq says:

    I think you’re looking at Moloch’s Army too narrowly. Consider the self-evidently large class of people who will gladly shoot themselves in the feet constantly for the privilege of watching others suffer, combine that with some crab-bucket effect, and you get Moloch’s Army straight out of schadenfreude and jealousy. The embrace of mazes to vicariously crush souls and plans is just a highbrow version of the embrace of bullies and thugs to vicariously abuse people to see literal tears and anguish.

    • TheZvi says:

      I don’t think this is right. There certainly are such people, but I wouldn’t overestimate how many, and this theory both predicts too much and fails to predict the specifics we observe.

      • Hareeb al-Saq says:

        I’ve also seen approximately nobody, at least not with the mental aptitude to begin to get anywhere at all, who actually hates value for the sake of hating value. It’s more situation-specific and it’s asymmetric. To the extent some people legitimately value going so hard they destroy all slack, are you sure that isnt a manifestation of valuing what you think you can succeed at, at least relatively (and a metric to schadenfreude-trash people who dont?)

  7. Pingback: Protecting Large Projects Against Mazedom | Don't Worry About the Vase

  8. Alsadius says:

    Regarding publishing, why not self-publish? It’s pretty easy these days.

  9. Kenny says:

    Thank you for this post, the entire series (which is excellent), and your writing in general! I’ve already shared posts in this series with several other people.

    > There are many things I still want to say, most of which are not mentioned above. Some of them are a matter of putting in the work to write things down. Others I don’t know how to say without sounding crazy, or I don’t understand them myself well enough to write about them.

    I’d like to know what you’d say that you think sounds crazy. I’ve thought other things you’ve said (written) were ‘crazy’, but I trusted you then and you trust you now, so I was confused that you *seemed* crazy instead of believing that you were crazy.

    If you are open to sharing your ‘crazy’ thoughts, I’ll promise not to disclose them without your permission. I’ll even sign an NDA if that somehow puts you at sufficient ease.

    I also hope to be back in NYC soonish so maybe you could share some of those thoughts with me in-person.

  10. Todd says:

    Really enjoyed this series. Thanks for writing – and just listened to the audiobook of Mazes as well based upon this.

    I do think that there’s some potentially more charitable explanations for some of the management practices discussed in both your series and Moral Mazes, since a key part of organizations is trading off the effectiveness of an individual for the organization as a whole. Sure, you get Goodharting and politicking, but I think some of these decisions are informed trade-offs. Still, a fascinating read (and listen).

    Let me know if you have any interest in having a recorded conversation about some of these ideas for a podcast as well. Couldn’t find actual contact info, so feel free to email if interested: todd at southloopsc dot com

  11. sniffnoy says:

    Oh man so I have possibly a lot of things to say about this and now I need to remember what on earth they all were, this is probably going to be multiple comments…

    Anyway let’s go one section at a time and start with: Moloch’s Army.

    So, yeah, Moloch’s Army definitely exists. The thing is that, on reading your description, I’m actually not clear on just who you have in mind, because, well, it seems like it could be describing a lot. Maybe it’s better to think here not in terms of people but in terms of tendencies?

    So let me just sit down and describe some things that Moloch’s Army could be, or forms that Moloch’s army can take.

    So, the obvious thing that comes to mind, is, you know, authoritarianism/traditionalism/tribalism/collectivism/conformism. That thing where people really believe in not reasoning, not thinking, not questioning, just doing what the group does, what the strong charismatic leader says, what the group has always done (these may conflict but the conflict will be smoothed away with doublethink). People who really believe in what Jonathan Haidt referred to as “loyalty”, “authority”, and “sanctity”. That they know the one true way and anything different, anything weird, can be dismissed as bad on that basis alone. Who believe, fundamentally, that rule of man is correct, and are just looking for a strongman to bow down to. Just asking questions proves that you’re a traitor. That whole pre-Enlightenment way of thinking. The people who’d be endorsing the divine right of kings, if we still had kings. People who are still living in something like what David Chapman calls the “choiceless mode”.

    (I think people often don’t get what I mean when I say “authoritarianism”. It seems a lot of people hear the word “authoritarianism” and think of people who want to dominate others and control them. But that sort of authoritarianism isn’t scary — it can’t work if nobody goes along with it. What I mean when I say “authoritarianism”, what’s scary, is people who want to submit to such people, and act to put them in positions of power…)

    (Note also this can be distinguished from reactionaries who do reason from sacred texts and thereby often come to a very different answer than the tradition or the charismatic leader… yet in practice they seem to often go together anyway, because they too don’t allow questioning and are quick to shout “traitor!”, and once that happens… well, you know the rest of the process; ultimately it’s politickers who thrive in such an environment.)

    I mean, the extreme examples of this are Hitler and Mussolini, right? Hitler actually wrote down what he thought, and, while I’ll admit I’ve never bothered to read it personally, my understanding is it’s exactly what you’d expect — Hitler doesn’t want you to think, that intereres with feeling the national unity! Mussolini didn’t have that same level of coherence and had to get someone to ghostwrite his manifesto, and while I haven’t read that, I gather it still didn’t end up very coherent.

    But we can still look at what they did, because with this sort of person you certainly can’t just look at what they say. Umberto Eco wrote a good essay on “ur-fascism”, the more general tendency which he believed fascism instantiated, which is on the internet but unfortunately paywalled. Anyway, a telling part of fascism, or ur-fascism, is the focus on machismo. I mean, OK, fascism has plenty of nasty characteristics, why focus on this one?

    Well, because I want to bring this back around to the original context — companies. That’s what we were originally talking about, right? Not just Moloch’s Army in general, but the specific form of it that occur in big companies?

    So I point out the machismo thing because I can’t help but notice that (from what little I know, this is not my area) there absolutely does seem to be, in certain industries or areas anyway, something of a cult of machismo among the high-ranking people there, among the Suits. Sexism not in whatever expanded sense people are using the word today, but in the narrow sense, a very old-fashioned sort. (Which, as other people have pointed out, oddly doesn’t seem to get mentioned nearly as much as claimed sexism that is, y’know, not that, in industries and areas where it’s much less of a problem.)

    And the thing about this is that it is, as you describe, necessarily unselfish. Sexism, the cult of machismo; these are irrational things, they cause one to make worse decisions. They’re not something an amoral optimizer would subscribe to. And yet they’re there. So, I focus on this because I think it’s a clear signal of Moloch’s Army’s presence, of the cult of unreason.

    Of course, you might have meant something much weaker… which is also very much worth discussing. Namely, what Robin Hanson always talks about, what he calls “homo hypocritus”. “Hypocrisy” is a somewhat misleading word here of course, since (to anyone who doesn’t read lots of Robin Hanson) it connotes deliberateness. Whereas what’s meant here is more like compartmentalization. What’s said and what’s done don’t match up, because different systems are governing each. Because we’re not talking here about the people who lie to get ahead, we’re talking here about Moloch’s Army, the people who do this unselfishly. No lies, just lots of doublethink. (This is of course just a weaker form of what I described above.)

    But of course it’s not just any compartmentalization, it’s a particular form of compartmentalization. Where one states high ideals, acts in ways contrary to them, and then when the apparent contradiction is brought explains that no that’s completely compatible, duh, have some common sense — and to the person saying this it all seems true, because they actually don’t know how to take things literally and can only see things through their common-sense goggles.

    So it’s a weaker form, but it too is Moloch’s Army; take it to an extreme and you get the above. It maybe worth dividing things further here, not just into Nerds vs Suits but into Nerds, Hypocrites, Sociopaths (to link to an earlier comment of mine :) ). (See also David Chapman’s Geeks, MOPs, Sociopaths…)

    Also, I wanted to make a note here about antisocial punishment (where people punish someone for doing helpful things because the person might gain social status thereby), because that sure seems like a Moloch’s Army thing, but I couldn’t figure out how to fit it in. Just, that’s another thing you might have been talking about? But I’m not very clear on how exactly it fits in with what’s above.

    • sniffnoy says:

      Oh except hm wait. When you talk about “Moloch”, you’re talking about problems resulting from competition. Whereas what I’m describing is, like, the problems that competition is supposed to solve. Then again, I guess these often coincide in the first place — competition is supposed to prevent mazes, after all. So, IDK, maybe it is what you’re thinking? It’s just odd because, like, the “Moloch’s Army” that I describe certainly speeds along the descent into mazehood, but they’re certainly opposed to competition

  12. sniffnoy says:

    They then go on to create all sorts of strange negative feedback loops, and make life inside them, and if left unchecked life even much of life outside of them, quite bad.

    Did you mean positive feedback loops here?

  13. sniffnoy says:

    (6a) Mazes That Are Not Within Organizations, discussing dynamics that produce similar results without people strictly being bosses and subordinates.

    I mean this is visible all over the place, isn’t it? Informal collections of people that, while nominally about something, have devolved into pure politicking, with the original stated aims nothing by shibboleths. The SJers would seem to be the obvious example to my mind these days, but it’s all over the place…

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