Atlantis on the Hudson: Our Pre-Technological Politics
New Yorkers lack the basic social technology necessary to do politics well
New York City has a lot of curious problems. Despite being America’s preeminent city, possibly the world’s, it continues to lose the ability to course correct and do fundamental things. For example: it uses sidewalks as garbage bins, it can’t build subway lines (and hasn’t in about 80 years), and it can’t build housing.
In the face of these truly extraordinary circumstances, the vast majority of New Yorkers, especially those with intellect, money, and time to spare, do nothing.They don’t try to learn the source of the problems, and they assume they’d be unable to fix the source if they discovered it. They just vaguely blame city hall, take the punches on the chin, and move along. Why is that? I think it’s profoundly strange behavior.
Not only have these people given up on attempting to solve their problems, they are fundamentally incurious about them. The surrender and disinterest are both bad, but it’s the second one that really gets me. Through my work with Maximum New York, I’ve met people who are dazzlingly brilliant in almost any field of human endeavor you can think of. And almost unanimously, they are incurious about the true nature of their city’s problems. They can’t even tell you how the government works in the most basic terms.
What would cause a city’s population to behave this way? People have been trying to answer this question for a long time, and they each get at a piece of the truth, but none have developed an answer or solution. Some call it “voter apathy,” but I don’t think that frame captures what’s really going on. Others call it a lack of civic virtue, but as a sole explanation that would imply vastly more immorality in the population than I observe. These are useful modes of analysis, but there’s one I’d like to add.
New York and Its People Have Lost Critical Technology
This overbearing incuriosity in the face of crumbling capacities resembles a civilization that has lost the ability to understand and build its own advanced technology.
The inertia of the past allows them to keep using their tech as long as it lasts, but when it breaks it just disappears, unable to be fixed. People steadily adjust to their monotonically decreasing baseline of well-being as their technology fades, returning them to more expensive and labor-intensive modes of existence. After a generation, no one would lament the state of things, because they’d have no experience of a better way of life. They probably wouldn’t demand the return of their advanced tech, and would even start to doubt it had existed, quite simply because they wouldn’t understand it. They’d be unaware of what exactly it could do, and so they wouldn’t know what they were missing out on.
If you don’t believe me, just go into any office skyscraper in Manhattan.Probably 10-40% of the work done in those buildings could be outsourced to relatively simple spreadsheet functions, rather than weeks of mind-numbing manual typing. But essentially none of the workers do that, not even in secret so they can enjoy an easier workday.
Why don’t they do this? Why doesn’t management demand it? The answer is that these legions of workers do not know how to use Excel; that knowledge doesn’t exist in their culture. Even though they know that more advanced cultures (“finance and math people”) have it, they completely doubt their ability to acquire it, despite its existence on their computers and free YouTube tutorials. That’s why they don’t demand this superior tool, or even learn it themselves. This general phenomenon runs rampant in our contemporary culture. People don’t even use the technology they have available now, even when its soaring advantages are clear in some form to everyone. You can bet these same people would give up on lost technology.
So how does this apply to the citizens of New York City?
They have indeed regressed to a much lower level of technological sophistication, with all the attendant psychological effects mentioned above. But the tech they’ve lost, to the extent they ever had it, is social technology, rather than material technology. Samo Burja has this to say about social tech:
It’s important to note that all except the simplest social technologies are designed. Though many of our crucial social technologies seem like natural parts of reality today, this was not always so. At some point they required intentional construction and adoption. Many social technologies we take for granted, including the very idea of having such critical systems as currency, law, and government, were born from concerted human agency. It is for this reason that we call it social technology, rather than social “norms”, or take a broader anthropological or philosophical approach. Much like material technology, social technology is designed, adopted, and scaled. It is proceduralized and documentable.
Social technology is a tool that directs people to knowingly or unknowingly take certain actions, and in so doing it has the ability to shape an extremely broad range of human action. It can be used to reduce coordination costs between people, causing them to work together more effectively towards a goal, but it can also be used to restrict collaboration and action.
Corporations are a widely recognizable class of social technology; these are mechanisms for organizing and directing many humans toward a common set of goals. Politics has its own version of these, political parties being the most obvious, but there is a vast field of political social tech that has been long lost to most New Yorkers. They do not know how to coordinate to achieve political goals at all. This means they do not know how to innovate better political tools, and that they are completely at the mercy of whatever groups possess any level of political social tech whatsoever.
To those New Yorkers I present a (modified) lesson from the Peloponnesian War: the technologically advanced do what they can, the luddites suffer what they must.
Social Technology is a Powerful Lens to Understand NYC’s Present and Achieve Its Future
The lens of social technology illuminates different paths forward for New York than many traditional political lenses, and that’s why it’s important.
In the most basic sense, it considers the problem of brilliant people ignoring their city—not coordinating to solve city-wide problems or to create city-wide abundance—to be a problem of non-technological people who need to be introduced to technology.And after that introduction, they need to be taught to understand and innovate upon it while being motivated by grand visions of what they could accomplish.
Imagine if there were only five people who knew how to code. We wouldn’t have anything close to our current level of technical sophistication across every sector, simply because only five human minds could work on coding problems.That’s essentially where we are with NYC social tech—we need radically more minds engaged with it, but to do that they must first be taught how to use the tech, and what it could do with innovative improvements.
Maximum New York is doing this, and will do it at an accelerating rate going forward. How exactly to do this is a whole separate essay, or book more likely. But Maximum New York starts by giving people the relevant knowledge and context of NYC’s civic system to see how a dedicated group of individuals, experimenting as they go, can do three things: remedy the ills that the city suffers from due to its lack of technology, rebuild that technology itself, and innovate on it to produce new forms of abundance.
*Part 2 of this piece is here.
A special thanks to my friend Étienne who read drafts of this piece and provided great feedback.
See this Bloomberg piece for a neat-but-shocking chronicle of NYC’s subway construction. For more detail on the housing situation, see my post “Anchor Higher: 15 Million New Yorkers”, in which I note, among other things: “We’re currently stuck trying to maintain an increasingly decrepit housing stock at higher and higher opportunity cost. 71% of NYC’s residential buildings were built before 1951 (!!), and 39% of them could not legally be rebuilt to even their current size, let alone larger, if they were knocked down, incentivizing owners to keep old buildings when they otherwise wouldn’t. These numbers are shocking, or at least they should be.”
There are a lot of ways to measure this, my own fieldwork among them, but voting rates are the easiest. Almost the entire NYC government was up for election in 2021, but only 21% of people bothered to cast ballots, and they weren’t even all filled out completely.
The Romans lost their own superior concrete, and Americans almost lost the ability to produce ships capable of lunar travel (SpaceX will prove whether we have regained that ability or not). See this list as well.
Pretend, along with me, that it is post-covid.
As opposed to something like “voter apathy,” which other lenses try to solve. Apathy might be at play here, but it’s often the apathy of the pre-technologic person who looks at a dead cell phone and tosses it aside, not some callous lack of civic virtue. The voter apathy lens scolds this person for not understanding the cell phone’s potential, but does not provide the relevant context to arrive at that understanding.
Not to mention the technology (social and material) of manufacturing, which is a whole separate discussion. The United States does at least seem to be waking up to the danger of losing those technological capacities though.