A hoard of leftovers: the age of the activist

It’s no mystery that a more socially radical faction of the left-wing has emerged, and if you have been in university in the past ~5 years, you know what I mean.

In this speech, Jonah Haidt explains the radicalization of the American university.

As late as the mid-1990s, the left-to-right [political] ratio [at US universities] is only 2-to-1 […] Just 15 years later, it had changed to 5-to-1.

According to Haidt’s data, as late as 1996, psychology professors were 4-1 Democrat. By 2016 (the time of the speech), it had become 17-1 Democrat.

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Left-right ratio of psychology academics, up to 2014, from Whiteshift

Journalism has profoundly changed as well. The national news used to be regarded largely impartial, like a public service announcement. Today, journalism is half entertainment, and half activism-in-disguise.

There are dozens of online rags with (what seems like) the one mission of hating my demographic. If I had to guess, they are more politically extreme than 90% Americans, but extremely common.

But whether you think this is justified, it’s hard to deny that distrust of the media is at an all time high.

Why did this happen?

The answer is the Internet, but not in the way that you think.

This image explains it all:

Screen Shot 2018-12-18 at 5.38.24 PM.png

Confused? I will elaborate:

  • The green Os represent exclusive/valuable entities
  • The red Os represent non-scarce/undesirable entities
  • The underscores represent “slots.” A “slot” is a space in which an entity is visible. In this representation, there are a fixed number of slots

If an O is underlined, it means that the entity is occupying a “slot”.

  • The “before” and “after” sections represent two different situations. The words imply the passage of time. However, the two sections could also represent two arenas being compared against each other (this will make sense later).

Still confused? I have an example: an online comments section, such as a Youtube comments section.

Although you might think that all Youtube comments are bad, there is a gradient of quality; some are worse than others. For simplicity, we will decide that “good” comments are represented by the Os, while “bad” comments are represented by the Os.

There are a limited number of comments displayed on the page below each video. You can theoretically open more, but most Youtube videos will only display around twenty comments out of the possibly thousands. Each space where the comment can be displayed is a “slot”, represented by an underscore.

The underlined Os are the comments that are displayed below the video. A good comment sorting algorithm will place the “good” comments most prominently, which is why the Os are underlined first. (As a side note, Youtube had no workable comments sorting algorithm for a while, hence the bad reputation of Youtube comments).

Some more notes on the image.

In the “before” column, there are more than enough good entities to fill all the slots. In the “after” column, there are not enough good entities to fill all slots, leaving open slots for bad entities. In other words, the good things are absent, and the bad things take their space.

Here is my thesis. People tend to confuse the slots that good entities hold with the good entities themselves. This leads to confused thinking. This quasi survivorship bias is something I call a “hoard of leftovers”. The phenomenon is the frequent cause of two errors of perception.

Error #1: People tend to ask, “why are there so many bad [entities]?”, not what they should be saying, “it looks like there aren’t any good [entities].”

Suppose, for example, a Youtube video that does not lend itself to good comments. No matter the reason. Maybe the video is very short, or maybe there just isn’t anything interesting to say about it.

The result is no good comments (Os). But instead of saying, “I guess this video doesn’t lend itself to good comments,” people will instead say, “wow, why are the comments are so bad!”

This is the wrong question, and an error of perception. If a video has a million views, then even if as few as 0.001% of viewers leave comments, there will be more than enough comments to fill all the slots. The presence of comments is an inevitable consequence of statistics. The question should really be, “why aren’t there good comments?”

Error #2: People ask, “why did [good entity] become so bad?”, not what they should be asking, “why did [good entity] go away?”

Because, in actuality, the good entity didn’t become anything, it died off.

My best example is the disruptive affect of the Internet, the most revolutionary technology in recent decades.

Like the automobile disrupted the horse and carriage, almost any new technology will disrupt the previous technologies or economic models. In this sense, the Internet has arguably been the biggest disruptive force of late.

The Internet makes traditional revenue models defunct. For example, it used to be that to hear your favorite bands in your home, you had to buy their record. But now, the Internet allows you (through Youtube, Spotify, etc.) to listen to any song instantly and for free.

The Internet has also disrupted the revenue model of journalism. People used to buy newspapers. Now, that is rare. We expect to get our news for free.

With a revenue source removed, there is less money in the game for journalists. This makes journalism as a profession untenable for a good deal of honest people. What’s left over? People who pursue journalism out of some other incentive than money. That is to say, people who simply want the satisfaction of feeling that they are changing the culture. The ability to engage in activism is their “payment”.

That is a problem. I consider the wage-seeking journalists to be fundamentally a good thing. We need to be able to fund difficult, sometimes expensive investigative reporting, and investigative reporters need to sometimes be able to put their biases when the facts of the story go against the causes they wish to advance.

When you make journalism unprofitable for a number of non-activists, what’s left?

Screen Shot 2018-12-19 at 1.02.48 AM.png
O = impartial journalists – many now crossed out
O = partial journalists (activists)

The Os, activists, are left, a hoard of leftovers.

In that image, we imagine the total number of “slots” (journalism job openings) is fixed. In real life, the Internet compounds the problem by expanding the number of platforms. This has a positive effect of giving a voice to contrarian thinkers, but it also waters down the standard.

How about education?

In the old days, a selling point of a college education was the access to resources, such as lectures from renowned professors, the library, and a population of intellects and researchers. Now, there is so much information from the Internet (Wikipedia alone), that you don’t really need all of that. You can teach yourself any topic.

Faced with this disruption, universities have become a slightly different animal, and have re-calibrated their purpose as a result.

We don’t need universities to advance general knowledge. That’s not to say they don’t do that, only that we are less reliant on them. Partially as a consequence, some departments have oriented themselves towards a more narrow goal: advancing left-wing social ideas.

Or, rather, the old guard left, and the tenured positions were filled with activists. The university had leaned left before, but not like this.

Full disclosure: I feel a bit embarrassed saying this, but Eric Weinstein has explained this transformation before (that’s the Weinstein who influence my third order thinking post, not to be confused with Bret).

If you think about it, education was already suffering from the “hoard of leftovers” problem even before the Internet. The less “activist” types tend to go into private industry, because that is where the money is. The most competent wage-seekers are absent, and you are left with non-wage-seekers (activists).

So why did journalists and professors become so activist?

That question is an error of perception. They didn’t “become”. The traditional models just died off.

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