Society is stupid as hell.
Not, like, the concept of society. I might be a misanthrope, but I don’t denounce society as a whole. I mean the specific society, the one I live in, and in all likelihood the one you live in as well. This dumbass society has metastasized across the planet. (Caveat: if you do live in a non-stupid society, please email me, I need to escape.)
Example: the landlord cut down the trees at my place. This is the new owner; she hasn’t evicted me yet, but yesterday she evicted the elms.
These were good-sized trees. Their branches shaded my second-floor window, constantly in sight but silent, like the world’s chillest roommates. They kept out the brutal desert sun and gave me a little cover from prying eyes. Now they’re gone, and I’ve got a wide-open view of the car lot and the convenience store. And in turn, they have a view of me.
This is an example of stupidity. Not the people involved: the guy who actually cut the trees was smart enough. At least, he dropped them skillfully into the narrow path between the building and the fence. He also had the smarts to call the landlord and put her on speakerphone when I barrelled down the stairs to yell at him. “Just doing my job,” he said apologetically, sharpening his saw.
The landlord, too: not aggressively stupid. She thinks the root systems of the trees will damage her investment. She’s working with the one piece of data she has: the value of the house. If the trees bust up the foundation, the house will be worth less. That’s as far as she can see.
That’s why society is so dumb. Each human has so much intelligence: the landlord knows about real estate markets, the landscaper knows about saw blades, and I know about all the things I do in this building that shouldn’t be visible from the street. But that intelligence is trapped in our heads. Society coordinates our behavior through the filthy lens of price alone.
This is the “general intellect,” (a phrase used once by Marx and then discarded): the collective knowledge of humanity, as instantiated in our tools and rituals and languages. The house, the saw, the fence are all thoughts made real. They are more than just the labor of the people that built them, though they are that as well. These artifacts are crystallized knowledge.
The concepts of price and property and employment are key pieces of this intellect. These are software libraries, loaded by our human bodies and enacted to the digit. The general intellect of society perpetuates itself through these interacting parts: the trees will affect the price of the house, the price will affect the owner, the owner hires the landscaper to remove the trees. Nowhere in this interaction does the society ask what I think, much less how the elms might feel.
We didn’t build this. The house and the property laws were both already here when I was born. We are each individually smart, but the society makes us dumb. It reduces everything to one signal, the price.
Price is a measurement of how much of something there is, versus how many people want it, right? Markets are a decentralized way of allocating scarce resources. At least, they’re supposed to be. But there are so many things unmeasured, and so many other metrics by which we could allocate things. The feeling that the trees gave me, the temperature difference they made in the apartment, the carbon they were drawing from the air: none of these things are calculated by the pricing machine. Only the amount of houses and the amount of saws and the amount of mouths to feed are counted. We’re trapped in the self-fulfilling logic of general stupidity.
This isn’t the only way to live. For fifty thousand years humanity did without capitalism, without the reduction of all things to exchange-value. We certainly had some other bad ideas in that time, but it proves that we can organize a society differently. If I had lived in a pre-capitalist society, someone still might have cut down the trees. But not to “protect their investment”.
And while this society is relatively new, it is also five hundred years old. The combined knowledge of humanity has advanced. Each one of us carries an external brain that gives us access to the biggest library ever imagined, that performs the functions of a hundred machines, that lets us think and work and organize in real time with other humans around the globe. Every human now is as powerful as all the humans of the 16th century combined. Or we could be, if we weren’t hindered by society’s obsession with price-finding.
Our general intellect is genius-level, but our general executive function is terrible. It’s like our society is drunk, or concussed. Or undeveloped, child-like.
That’s a hopeful way to look at it, I suppose: maybe as a species we’re teenage, unruly, taking stupid risks and refusing to live up to our potential. Maybe we’ll grow up just in time.
Or maybe we’re just a collective dumbass and we’re going to skateboard off a cliff. Who knows.
Thanks for reading,
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