Atlantis on the Hudson, Part 2: The Social Technologies of New York's Future
In my previous post I explained that the inaction of New Yorkers in the face of their city’s problems can be explained through the lens of social technology. The premise: New Yorkers are pre-technological, and their conditioned responses to political social technologies are like those of a society that’s long ago lost its own advanced material technology.
The most common question I got after that post was “what are the social technologies we’ve lost that we used to have?”
I’ll admit that this is a very difficult question to answer, because it requires outlining comprehensive historical vignettes, explaining the social technologies present within them, and tracing their utilization through time. And while that’s a worthwhile task, it’s beyond the scope of the essay I want to write here.
But I have two consolation prizes.
First: that historical accounting of social technologies has already been done, in part, in the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam.He describes and analyzes the long decline in American civic engagement throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and that decline is often in the use of social technologies.
Second: many of those social technologies will be (and are being) resurrected by Maximum New York. The remainder of this essay outlines some of the most important ones that New Yorkers need going forward, all of which have existed historically in different forms and degrees. We’ll need even more different forms for the modern era.
Social technologies that New Yorkers need for good politics
Norms, Etiquette, and Manners
Formalized, legalistic decision making
A scene is a group of likeminded people who bring out the best in each other. Their collective intelligence and achievement, greater than each could achieve on their own, is scenius (the genius of a scene).It’s difficult to deliberately construct one of these, because you almost can’t. You can only set the stage for one to grow over time, and then you can become its steward. Agentic and brilliant people will need to regularly cross paths, motivate each other (through friendly and more rivalrous competition), and come to feel a sense of belonging. Think about Building 20 at MIT, Paris in the Belle Époque, the PayPal Mafia, or even the founding of the United States.
A third place, somewhere other than home and work (the first and second places), is a location like a bookshop, coffeehouse, tavern, clubhouse, union hall, any back room, or a church, where people regularly run into each other. This permits the accumulation of social capital and trust, and can be the physical container of a scene.
Third places are broadly welcoming, low-stakes, low-profile, and somewhat playful. They encourage casual conversation, feature both regulars and newcomers, and cohere through voluntary association (no one is required to be there).
A canon is a collection of works that people generally agree are worth studying and understanding. They might be books, music, video games, certain Twitter accounts, or any kind of media.
A canon’s purpose is to create a shared intellectual context, within which are shared concepts, definitions, and metaphors. Communication is only possible between people who have informational and experiential overlap of some kind, and a canon gives them exactly that. You don’t have to explain yourself over and over if you meet someone who shares a canon, and that canon also establishes the trust necessary to productively disagree and integrate new information.
The Foundations of New York class has its own canon to cultivate political talent and thought.
Norms, Etiquette, and Manners
Norms are shared standards of social behavior. The norms can be legible and formal, in which case they’re set out in an explicit etiquette; or they can be illegible and informal, and promulgated by the individual manners of each person in a social scene. Etiquette and manners are different ends of the same spectrum.
Etiquette and manners are both needed in any social scene, and getting the right balance between them is vital to achieving the ends of that scene.
One of the principle rules of Maximum New York etiquette is that “politics” is not to be used as a pejorative term. It must always be used to refer to some specific aspect of the science of government.Another rule is that, when discussing politics, one must not bullshit; one must make remarks anchored in reality, and with a deportment that attempts to make political statements applicable to personal practice. This one is hard to do, because most people don’t know how to do anything other than bullshit when discussing politics.
Formalized, legalistic decision making
Any group working together towards a common goal needs to make and execute decisions. There are formal and informal components to decision making, and while both are needed, formal processes are often overlooked. The benefit of a formal process that adheres to an accepted formula is that the formula precludes settling things in an ad hoc way, which is usually less efficient and laden with more deadweight loss. Which is to say: the formula is an advanced, labor-saving social technology.
Compare a barter economy to a modern, currency-based economy. Both of them allow trade, but bartering requires you to work out standards of exchange from scratch most times you trade. And whatever standards you work out are often not transferable beyond your own particular trade, and certainly aren’t scalable to a whole society. Very inefficient! Very labor intensive! Money allows everyone to have the same standard of value to judge trades against, and once you know what a dollar is you don’t ever have to learn it again. Much easier.
Most people have experience with decision making in groups, but it’s the informal/barter kind. What they need, and what the Maximum New York School of Civics provides, is an introduction to formal decision making tools. These include Robert’s Rules of Order, and parliamentary and corporate procedure more generally.Importantly, these are the kinds of rules that the city (and other levels) of government use to act, so understanding them gives you a useful lens for understanding those systems.
“In simple terms, if people know strategy, they know how to link means with desired ends.”
Teaching people strategic thinking is vital for any effective organization, but it’s seldom done with enough rigor. The Maximum New York School of Civics addresses it directly as a matter of course when discussing political theory and political practice. Strategic thinking is also encouraged by the second MNY rule of etiquette that I mentioned above: “one must make remarks anchored in reality, and with a deportment that attempts to make political statements applicable to personal practice.” Strategy requires an inner orientation toward reality.
All this to say:
If New Yorkers want to learn how to operate effectively in the realm of politics, then they will need to cultivate all of the social technologies listed above in the context of a political group. I invite them to consider Maximum New York’s.
Bowling Alone came out in 2000, and a revised edition came out in 2020. It has loomed large in social science the whole time. From the book’s Amazon page: “Bowling Alone surveyed in detail Americans’ changing behavior over the decades, showing how we had become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and social structures, whether it’s with the PTA, church, clubs, political parties, or bowling leagues. In the revised edition of his classic work, Putnam shows how our shrinking access to the “social capital” that is the reward of communal activity and community sharing still poses a serious threat to our civic and personal health, and how these consequences have a new resonance for our divided country today.”
There’s a ton of literature on third places; the Wikipedia page lists out the things I mentioned and more.
Canons can be narrow or expansive, depending on context. Expansive canons undergird whole societies, and narrower canons do the same for defined fields of inquiry like philosophy or literature.
Robert’s Rules of Order is one of the most criminally under-read books; it’s also one of those books people will claim to have read more often than they’ll have read it.