Conservative Historian

The Ghosts in the Machine

January 21, 2022
Conservative Historian
The Ghosts in the Machine
Show Notes Transcript

There have always been ghosts in the machine.  Unanticipated aspects that inadvertently emerge apart from the initial plan.  What are these ghosts in history and in our own society.  

Ghosts in the Machine 

January 2022


"Evolution is neither a free-for-all nor the execution of a rigidly predetermined computer program. It could be compared to a musical composition whose possibilities are limited by the rules of harmony and the structure of the diatonic scales-which, however, permit an inexhaustible number of original creations. Or it could be compared to the game of chess obeying fixed rules but with equally inexhaustible variations."

 Arthur Koestler, The Ghost in the Machine


"You will see light in the darkness

 You will make some sense of this

 And when you've made your secret journey

 You will find the love you miss."

Sting, from the song Secret Journey, from the Police Album Ghost in the Machine


During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Will Smith ruled the box office. But one of his movies, based on an Isaac Asimov short story called i Robot, was not among the biggest. No sequels or franchises in the vein of Independence Day or Men in Black. And yet there is an Asimov quote featured in the movie that is more poignant than most of the other dialog in Smith's canon. And as read by James Cromwell, it seems even more weighty. I would encourage you to see the YouTube clip as well. 


"There have always been ghosts in the machine. Random segments of code have been grouped to form unexpected protocols. Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul. So why is it that when some robots are left in darkness, they seek out the light? Why is it that when robots are stored in a space, they will group rather than stand alone? How do we explain this behavior? Random segments of code? Or is it something more? When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become the search for truth? When does a personality simulation become the bitter mote... of a soul?"  


With the release of a new Dune this past year, Frank Herbert is all the rage but that author, realizing what robots would do to his story of essentially medieval-type noble houses fighting over land, or oil in the form of spice, with an Emperor (think Holy Roman) in the background and an incredibly effective fighting force, think the Mongols, as part of the mix. None of this would be possible with robots, so Herbert dismisses them. As Rick Stevenson of Screenrant notes, "the start of the main Dune book franchise at around 22,000 A.D. Due to the massive time jump into the future and the various pieces of sci-fi tech seen in the film, it would also make sense for the world to be filled with robots, supercomputers, and artificial intelligence, but it isn't. In Herbert's original Dune timeline, he briefly describes how artificial intelligence and all other thinking machines were wiped out in a series of devastating wars called the Butlerian Jihad. The original Dune novels explain that the fighting started because of an ideological schism between two factions of humanity – one that had come to rely on the thinking machines for most aspects of life and one that believed doing so was inherently harmful to the human race." 


Why this dissertation on A.I. in a history podcast? Because Asimov's thesis is that Robots, like societies, are designed and programmed for specific purposes. The entire conceit of Marxist, socialist, and progressives is that they can create a society with predetermined outcomes if only they had the power of design, the power over the people, the control over you. Asimov contended that since humans designed robots, some form of humanity, however large or small, would permeate the programming. 


As machines capable of learning, these "random bits of code," these unanticipated free radicals, would alter the aims of the machines. Humans designed them, and more human they would become. Of course, the nightmare scenario would be a robot designed by a totalitarian power with the ability to outfight any hundred humans and outthink thousands. Hence other robot movies are not as benign as Sonny in iRobot. Something more like Skynet of Terminator fame.  


We are not at that threshold (quite) yet, but history, and current political systems, are rife with ghosts in the machines. These are not foreign introductions, such as the British East India Company invading late Mogul era India but rather hidden changes within societies themselves that manifested in ways unanticipated.  


I would distinguish these ghosts from unintended consequences. Though not siblings, they are cousins. An example of an unintended consequence is nowhere more apparent than in the results of man-made laws. Prohibition was supposed to alleviate poverty, reckless behavior, and broken families by eliminating demon rum. What we got was Al Capone. 


The ghosts described here are not so obvious. Where illegal transport and sale of alcohol occurred immediately after the passage of the 18th amendment, ghosts take longer to materialize and are often not a direct outcome from the design. Free radicals, indeed. 


About 10,000 years ago, humanity achieved one of the most singular distinctions of any species with the domestication of foodstuffs. The Neolithic or agricultural revolution resulted in a demographic transition and significant population and population density increases. The population of hunter-gatherers rose at a meager rate, constrained by the land's carrying capacity. The rise in Paleolithic global populations parallels the increase in range as humans migrated from Africa to Asia, Europe, the Americas, and Australia. The growth rate of human people increased by as much as 60-fold with the Neolithic Revolution.  


But the ghost in the new agricultural machine was the change of diet from one of the varied foods to one in which many existed on a single item. As noted in an essay entitled "Human Health and the Neolithic Revolution: An Overview of Impacts of the Agricultural Transition on Oral Health, Epidemiology, and the Human Body" by Katherine J. Latham notes, "Hunter-gatherers maintained much smaller populations than early agricultural communities. Due to a diverse diet and smaller group numbers, hunter-gatherer societies had less potential for nutritional deficiencies and infectious diseases. With the advent of a sedentary agricultural lifestyle, Neolithic populations dramatically increased. Skeletal analysis suggests that these Neolithic peoples experienced "greater physiological stress due to undernutrition and infectious disease." Only in the 19th and 20th centuries, with globalization and greater prosperity, has this change back to greater nutrition, greater size, and health occurred in selected societies.  


In the Imperial Roman system developed by Augustus, the first emperor went to great pains to portray himself as not an Emperor but rather as Princeps or first citizen. 


With the example of his great uncle's assassination very much at the top of mind, Augustus, though designating heirs from his Julio-Claudian line, did not fix the type of royal succession evident in places like contemporary Egypt where non-Ptolemaic potential kings need not apply. When the third emperor, Caligula, attempted to do away with the pretense of Republican government, well that, and his insanity, came to a very sticky end. This culminated in the accession of Galba, a non-Julio Claudian, as Emperor upon the death of Nero in 69 C.E. 


The fact that Plutarch designated this the year of the Four Emperors, none of them Julio Claudians, and none related to each other, is indicative that Augustus' rejection of royalty directly tied to the role of emperor, created the pattern that the only fundamental requirement for imperial ambition was a decent army. For an empire that stretched from Britain to Arabia and from Morocco to the Black Sea, there would always be armies not under the direct eye of the emperor, and thus would be Emperors wherever more than one legion was based.  


The second ghost in the machine in imperial Rome was Augustus' creation of the Praetorian Guard. Thinking that an elite group of soldiers, 8,000 strong and based near, and with the role of protecting, the emperor, would free the emperor from concern about rivals along the Rhine or the Orontes in Syria. After all, the emperor had no troops in Rome without the Praetorians, but all his frontier generals would. But the ghost is that no one was watching the watchdogs. The Praetorians, starting with Caligula, would be running sore on the body of Imperial Rome, making and unmaking Emperors based on which would pay them more or give them a more accessible berth. It is hard to critique Augustus, who I consider one of the shrewdest figures in history, with a 400-year legacy, longer than any other state. 


Yet the problems that were to plague subsequent emperors and, on several occasions, almost toppled the Empire began with these radicals introduced, inadvertently, by Augustus.  In some ways monarchy, itself contains that ghost of the incompetent heir. It is odd that for centuries, people committed allegiance to an individual based on the accident of birth rather than their leadership skills, intelligence, or prowess in war. The Franks attempted this by dividing the realm on the king's death and letting the successors fight it out. But the successors were almost always related to the deceased king. Even the Mongols wedded to the great warrior concept selected Genghis' successors from his direct heirs. So the Ghost is not a Kublai Khan but rather a Caligula, a man unfit to rule. 


And, of course, our polity has its ghosts. I am not talking about the core challenge of democracy, voters electing politicians who, in turn, give them whatever they want, regardless of expense. That is always a critique of democracy and why our founders built not a democracy but a republic. In the latter, power is divided and dispersed so that simple majorities or ambitious politicians do not have carte blanch to bankrupt our state. Unfortunately, however, we see many trying that today.  


And it is not the emergence of a super-powered presidency with its fourth branch bureaucracy. On the contrary, the Founders understood the danger of the executive, which is why the legislative branch was featured first in the democracy and the Judicial branch as a check on both.  


Instead, the ghost, which the founders did not anticipate, was that the legislative branch, which was supposed to be the ultimate check on power, would become supine in their acquiescence to the executive and the judicial. The Ghost that haunts our Republic are phantom legislators who utilize the power of their positions not to exercise that power in the form of policy but instead use their positions for fame, influence, and later, cold hard cash. Our most famous legislators include Alexandria Ocasio Cortez on the left and Marjorie Taylor Greene on the right. Neither has notable legislative accomplishments, nor does either seek them. But they do seek followers, likes, and controversy to gin up their influencer numbers. These numbers are then utilized to sell books, drive donations, and set up a post congressional role as a commentator on Fox News or CNN.  


The Founders created a branch that was supposed to govern and manage the budget. But in making that branch and providing it with legitimacy for many representatives, they inadvertently created a channel for fame. But, of course, there can be only one president, usually for four years. And being a chief executive, fame will accrue. But unlike presidents, nobody ranks legislators or has an entire books series devoted to them. And once a president is in office, that is the height of any career (except for maybe William Taft, who went on to become Supreme Court Justice). But not everyone gets there. So, a legislator is incentivized to not only get the fame now, regardless of intended role but to stand out from their 534 peers. And since creating a bill pales against that of drumming up a fake controversy, the focus is on the inane over the productive.


But one could argue that the Founders could not have known about social media, the fuel of this fire. Certainly not in the Twitter form, but they were painfully aware of partisan newspapers such as the Gazette and the Aurora. At different times members of rival factions, such as Hamilton and Jefferson, financially supported these organs. The difference was that these individuals used the media to drive through favorable policies through Congress. Today the individuals use the media to promote themselves, the policies being merely the prism, but not the end. And yet not even Twitter or Facebook can account for this view. Senator Joseph McCarthy was one of the most famous politicians of the 20th century in an era of no social media. But not for legislative prowess. McCarthy is renowned for divisiveness and persecution and today would probably voluntarily leave his Senate seat for a cable news gig and speaking opportunities at select political events.  


Another Ghost is inherent in the concept of activism. For many of the movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were stated goals, once achieved, meant that the organizations moved onto to other things or dissolved. But was it the intent of the progenitors of the civil rights movement that the movement itself would become permanent? Of course, the free radical here was when the action moved from the logical phase of fighting the apparent inequalities in society into permanent

employment and a highly lucrative one. From a movement to an industry. Jesse Jackson has a net worth of over $10 million. BLM founder Patrice Cullors owns four homes. Al Sharpton flies around on a private jet. Jeff Bezos' wealth is based on creating a superior eCommerce experience and providing cloud-based technologies for companies to run their businesses. Robert E Johnson's wealth emanates from providing a singular entertainment experience for a subset of society missing programming that reflected their culture and tastes. Al Sharpton's wealth comes not from giving answers to inequalities but to divisiveness and hatred amongst groups of people. At least the 19th-century snake oil peddlers hurt only those who purchased their products, caveat emptor indeed. But in Sharpton's case, he not only hurts the people he is purportedly trying to help but those ancillary people smart enough not to buy into his grift. 


Without the regulatory world and punitive nature of governmental entities such as the EEOC and certain members of the judiciary and Congress, Sharpton's extortion schemes would fall flat.  


The ghost in the machine is the notorious last of the natural rights stated in the Declaration, the pursuit of happiness. It is this phraseology that is ever defined in terms of broader government. And an overlarge government, endemic in people's lives, is what makes activism tick. There is talk of the fourth branch of government, unelected bureaucrats surreptitiously running the government through stealth regulation. But the overmighty bureaucrat at HHS or Labor is a government employee. An activist does not work for the government but rather lobbies for provisions to enhance their missions and extensions themselves. 


New administrations can affect policies emanating from the executive. Activists are immune to this type of pressure. Presumably, there might be some reason for an OSHA bureaucrat, and thus their pay comes from governmental run-rate revenue. Activist revenue emanates from donations and paid speaking gigs or appearances on cable news. Only when their message breaks through the clutter can they achieve their funding. 


An activist who brings a measured, thoughtful response to, let's say, drilling on public lands will not get the attention of the ardent progressive with more dollars than sense. Instead, the message of "they are destroying the environment" or "they are murdering species including the beloved polar bear," or best of all, "drilling is a mortal threat and we will all die in 12 years" will resonate and drive funds. And like corporate lobbyists, the activists, highly active on all social media, have an over influence on policy. (Quick note, after repeatedly missing the marks on doom predictions, the environmental activists no longer provide such precise dates. Instead, they say either in a few decades or better, by 2060, when most of us will be too dead to remember that there was only one Nostradamus).  


Activism is the cousin to lobbyists, but when someone from Exxon shows up at the Energy Department to ask for greater drilling rights in Alaska, the motivations are clear, open up drilling, we make money, and give your voters cheaper gas. Greater drilling rights would help the company (and, by extension, the lobbyist). Activists, however, are against it. They need to revert to the aforementioned apocalyptic rhetoric to limit drilling on the tundra and thus raise gas prices. The Founders who built the government all achieved their income (yes, much of it enslaved person driven) from something other than government or public policies. Washington was a planter, Adams a Lawyer, Rush a doctor, Morris a farmer, and so forth. The concept of making money being an advocate of policy outside the government was something foreign. Activists are free, but to the earning of money based on people's misery, they certainly are also radicals.  


And this brings us to our final Ghost; balkanized, national information. The concept of opinions wrapped in the false patina of journalism or news is not entirely new. In the first administration, that of Washington in the 1780s and 90s, there was a Thomas Jefferson-backed newspaper, the Aurora, and the Gazette of the United States, which enjoyed Alexander Hamilton's backing. Some of the cynics at the New York Times or Breitbart might blanch at what some of these two-party organs said about the opposition. Yet both were published simultaneously due to one of the critical pieces in the Bill of Rights, freedom of the press.  


The founders knew that the majority of information available would be localized. For example, would the Civil War have been as vicious and contentious had Southerners had access to New York Papers or the Northerners to the papers in Atlanta? This is not a defense of the indefensible Southern slaveholding but rather, as slavery, a standard societal institution on a global basis for the first 4800 years of human civilization, began to fade in the 1800s, could a compromise have been reached that had not resulted in the deaths of 600,000 young men, the rise of the KKK and lynchings, and the imposition of Jim Crow? Perhaps not, and it is speculative, but we know that information was compartmentalized by region. We also know that the concept of a national press, a platform that could communicate to all Americans every day, was foreign given the limitations of technology and distribution at the founding.  


Yet the advent of radio, television and the internet made this concept possible. At the height of network television, Walter Cronkite communicated with nearly 30% of all households on a nightly basis. The founders imagined a sort of a competitive marketplace in which a free press would hold the government accountable. But what happens when even with national technologies, Americans choose only to receive information based on agreement and reassurance with pre-existing political views and ideologies. In the case of Cable News, Tucker Carlson presides over the largest share of viewers, but his nightly audience accounts for just over 1% of the total population. Rachel Maddow commands even less than 1%. Yet their ability to keep their audiences satisfied with a steady diet of biased opinions and pseudo information has little diminished the monetary value of what they do. Carlson enjoys a $6 million per year salary. He is probably in for a raise with Maddow's newly minted $30 million per year haul. That pales against Sean Hannity, that tribune of the working man, who makes over $40 million per year and commutes on a private jet. And all of these for not communicating with 99% of the nation.  


A free press is essential. Whether Fox or CNN, both sides serve as a thorn in the side of whichever political party is in power, always a positive for a polity. We experience information different from the kind of censorship and propaganda common in authoritarian places like China or Putin's Russia. But to call what Carlson and Maddow do as news is a mischaracterization. Ben Shapiro is a more normal, incisive, and balanced commentary than any of the figures thus named. But his network, the Daily Wire, labels his broadcast not the Ben Shapiro news hour but the Ben Shapiro show. The ghost is that the press has morphed into infotainment to monetize their operations, with a greater emphasis on the latter than the former part of that term. One of the sea changes in news operations has been the flip from an advertising to a subscriber model. In 2000, the New York Times derived 75% of revenues from ads, with the remainder from subscribers. 


Today it is the opposite. Advertisers want larger audiences, but a subscriber model wants the stability wrought by loyalty. And to keep subscribers coming back entails giving them what they want to hear. A person attending a rom-com movie will be sore if the principals do not get together in the end. Likewise, streaming a Game of Thrones prequel without dragons, wars, and perhaps zombies will leave said streamer considering other services. And so, it is with that ghost in our society in which, like the Romans in the movie Gladiator are asked by the unconquerable Maximus, "Are you entertained?" A balanced, nuanced, incisive view does not for too many viewers.  


And this ghost brings us back to our iZombie movie. When I go onto Amazon and purchase one of my history books, Amazon reads this and suggests other history books. But what if I want to expand my horizons and want something on astronomy or a book of poems from medieval Arab writer Ali ibn Muhammad ibn al-Walid. The algorithms do not work as well. In the i Zombie movie, Sonny's random act saved the day from the purely A.I.-driven robots. One of the laws instilled in the robots was to let no harm come to humans, which the A.I. driven robots took to mean that the best way to keep them safe was to take away all human rights, keep them in their homes, or never let them interact. In our age today, the ultimate ghost in the machine of government is the will of the American people to be accessible even if freedom comes with risks. The latest responses to COVID are a prime example.