Preparing for Nero

Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Hidden Face of God grapples with the reality that over time in the Biblical narrative the deity becomes less and less a direct presence. In Genesis, humankind has conversations with the divine, and arguably even wrestles with God himself. This is not what we see in later books. Or more precisely, we don’t see.

For a nonbeliever, this is an issue of intellectual curiosity (I’d be one of those). But if you are a believer in the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, then these are serious and important questions. God is, after all, the most important truth of them all.*

The “hiding” away of a great truth or truths is not simply of relevance to God or the supernatural. Whigs believe that modernity converges toward truth. But Whigs may not get to define the truth of matters on this question.

Let’s posit, hypothetically, that the notionally open Enlightenment republic of letters, which plumbs the depths of nature and society for Truth, is beyond its high tide. That over the next decade or so intellectuals, seekers of the truth in a notional objective reality, slowly withdraw from visibility or at least begin to engage in explicit and self-conscious opacity. In public speaking for example making recourse to code or dog-whistles. But private intellectual communities will persist.

The question is how will they persist? Face-to-face salons and meet-ups are one option. Then there are private e-lists and slack channels, as well as direct message communities on Twitter and Facebook groups (these have all emerged in the last few years as public discourse on social media has gotten nastier).

The major problem I see here is that you trade off scale for security. Consider what happened with JournoList. Any “exclusive” group will become infested with moles over time, and private conversations will be made public. People will anticipate this as a group becomes popular and become less candid. As a group scales, it loses its utility.

In contrast, in-person meetings are generally totally free from these worries (unless someone is recording you). Unfortunately, these do not scale well. Adding and removing people from in-person meet-ups takes a lot of work. From what I’ve seen often that work is done by a few individuals who eventually get burned out. At which point the group dissolves or breaks up into smaller more socially-focused units. If a group can not scale, its utility is constrained and limited.

What we need are technological tools which will allow for surreptitious private candid freethought in a public world dominated by social credit and conformity due to authoritarianism. Demagogues may persecute those who speak uncomfortable truths for the sake of the body politic, but if these people are discreet they surely have a role in to play in the great game of mass manipulation that will probably become much more advanced as this century proceeds. Truth is a tool which even the princes of lies can use to win their battles. When Nero comes all will make peace with the new brutality no doubt.

The reality is that many of our institutions are already quite corrupt. And yet it is also true that privately many people who lie in public exhibit virtue and common sense. They are constrained by the system, they do not create it. Of course, they are craven and one has to understand that they will make the denunciations necessary when the time comes for them to do so. But it’s all just business. This seems the human norm.  Technology has to work with our nature, not against it.

Snapchat’s feature of messages which disappear was created so that teens could exchange nudes. The aim here was to share an intimacy, titillate, not create a permanent record. Similarly, any technological system to foster intellectual discussion has to take into account considerations of privacy, trust, and permanency. In a way, the peer-review system has some of these features, but it is rather slow and calcified at this point.

We need better things….

* Christians reverse the disappearance of God through the incarnation, but that’s a different thing altogether.


6 thoughts on “Preparing for Nero

  1. Gosh, you begin to sound like a prepper…

    There will probably always be the choice to move abroad, or do you really think that the whole world would become a Stalinist hellhole?

    OK, when I see the developments in China, I’m a bit worried about future possibilities. But I think, there will always be countries which appreciate intellectual freedom (more or less). If you’re somewhat flexible there will be a way.
    & from abroad you then may have technical opportunities to influence things in your home country.
    (Not that I believe that things in the US will really become so bad, emigration would be necessary.)

  2. > Technology has to work with our nature.

    Technology is only bound by our understanding of the world around us, and temporarily by our dogmatic perceptions of the world, and in the ever-shifting landscape of power that has always sought out novel uses of technology, ones perceptions of such “has to work with our nature” often depends on what side of the figurative metadata drone strike one is on.

    RE: bossel
    > If you’re somewhat flexible there will be a way.

    Agreed, but if my observations of how most people go about their lives are any evidence, most considerations of flexibilty dont extend very far from their local dynamics of “social credit and conformity due to authoritarianism” field.

  3. the snapchat thing was ruined when ppl learned to take screenshots. online, i think the only weapon is anonymous accounts.
    do you have a dummy twitter account? could be used to follow all the people you’re “not supposed to” follow and leave fun troll comments. very liberating!

  4. The “disappearance of God” always seemed like a strange hill for someone as intelligent as Friedman to die on– maybe it’s my nonbeliever bias here, but honestly is it that difficult to explain why e.g. Herodotus could get people to think that cows gave birth to rabbits [or whatever it was], but not that armies of hecatonchires had been throwing mountains at each other within living memory? That you’re not going to find a religion that says “The entire world was drowned in a deluge, oh, about twenty years ago or so”?

  5. The supposed demise of JournoList didn’t much affect the media’s coordinated narrative-building machine, so I assume it still exists in some form. These memes they want to push still mysteriously appear in almost the exact same form across a wide variety of media outlets.

  6. I’ve had another thought on this: Oink and WhatCD were file sharing sites in the mid 2000s (with prominent members like Trent Reznor.) They were eventually busted by the authorities but they thrived for a while because they had a “buy in,” meaning that you had to be invited by a member and, once you got there, the only way you were really “in” is if you had something to share. I think the minimum was like 50GB of music, books, software or movies to share or else you were banned. There were other rules too but the point is that it worked because each person *had something at stake.* If they got busted then potentially every member was at risk of prosecution. IDK how that’d work exactly with a secret intellectual society, i’m fine with this site for that purpose, but i remember liking their business model:)

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