site banner

Culture War Roundup for the week of June 19, 2023

This weekly roundup thread is intended for all culture war posts. 'Culture war' is vaguely defined, but it basically means controversial issues that fall along set tribal lines. Arguments over culture war issues generate a lot of heat and little light, and few deeply entrenched people ever change their minds. This thread is for voicing opinions and analyzing the state of the discussion while trying to optimize for light over heat.

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is. Extremists with opposing positions can feed off each other, highlighting each other's worst points to justify their own angry rhetoric, which becomes in turn a new example of bad behavior for the other side to highlight.

We would like to avoid these negative dynamics. Accordingly, we ask that you do not use this thread for waging the Culture War. Examples of waging the Culture War:

  • Shaming.

  • Attempting to 'build consensus' or enforce ideological conformity.

  • Making sweeping generalizations to vilify a group you dislike.

  • Recruiting for a cause.

  • Posting links that could be summarized as 'Boo outgroup!' Basically, if your content is 'Can you believe what Those People did this week?' then you should either refrain from posting, or do some very patient work to contextualize and/or steel-man the relevant viewpoint.

In general, you should argue to understand, not to win. This thread is not territory to be claimed by one group or another; indeed, the aim is to have many different viewpoints represented here. Thus, we also ask that you follow some guidelines:

  • Speak plainly. Avoid sarcasm and mockery. When disagreeing with someone, state your objections explicitly.

  • Be as precise and charitable as you can. Don't paraphrase unflatteringly.

  • Don't imply that someone said something they did not say, even if you think it follows from what they said.

  • Write like everyone is reading and you want them to be included in the discussion.

On an ad hoc basis, the mods will try to compile a list of the best posts/comments from the previous week, posted in Quality Contribution threads and archived at /r/TheThread. You may nominate a comment for this list by clicking on 'report' at the bottom of the post and typing 'Actually a quality contribution' as the report reason.

Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

The Titan submersible suddenly became very hot culture war.

The wikipedia link is quite thorough.

TLDR as of 2023-06-22 000000z seems to be:

5 people are trapped on a submersible that has lost contact with the outside world.

It was trying to visit the wreck of The Titanic.

Major effort rescue is on under way.

They are running out of air in the next couple of hours.

The name of the vessel is Titan (come on, no one can be that brazen, you are tempting fate)

The people are couple of billionaires, explorer, and the CEO of the company

The vessel can be opened only from outside.

The vessel used some off the shelf parts (like a logitech controller) and somewhat exotic materials.

Now comes the culture war

  1. Somewhat lack of empathy for the people there because of their status in the crazier places of the internet.

  2. The way the vessel was built and operated embodied the SV ethos. There are reports that it was not certified or audited by anyone, that the hull testing procedures were not adequate, that the company moved fast and broke things. So right now said ethos is having torn a new one.

  3. Surfaced a recording of the CEO bragging how they don't want to hire 50 years old white guys because they are not inspiring.

To me actually 2 is the most interesting one out there - 1 is just internet being the internet, 3 - if a small error could lead to death - hire the most safety oriented, pedantic and boring people there are to design your product.

But with silicon valley moving more and more prone to overtaking the meatspace - their physical products kinda suck. From smart thermostats to fridges to whatever we actually have degradation of the experience. So I think we are in a rough ride. And the more products they make smarter or move fast - the more human lives will be at stakes.

On one hand it's hard for me to be mad as the CEO and designer of the sub was also the operator and appears to have gone down with his ship. At the same time the more I read the less surprised that something went wrong. When a former employee raised concerns about the design's safety the response seems to have been "Shut up, if you won't do what we say, we'll just hire someone else who will". Accordingly, I'm tempted to read "we don't want to hire 50 years old white guys because they are not inspiring" as we don't want to hire experienced engineers because they'll rain on your parade by questioning your brilliance and insisting on expensive things like extensive dive testing and triple redundancy on all safety-critical systems.

His comments about the old white guys are absolutely a cover for hiring cheap, impressionable fresh-outs, to his investors and possibly to himself.

But I have to wonder... is the sentiment wrong? He's absolutely correct that, if he hired experienced people, they would force him to take a maximally conservative approach. It would take many more years and millions of dollars to get to the point of taking paying passengers to sites like the wreck of the Titanic. It's easy in hindsight to see the current crisis and say it was a stupid decision, but I have previously read comments from people on The Motte lamenting that modern people are too afraid of their mortality and unwilling to take risks. I've felt it too, the desire for adventure, for glory, and lamented that the Earth now feels too small to support those things. I have a small amount of sympathy for the CEO because I think he felt the same way. He was fully aware of the risk he was taking - there is a video of him reading, without apology, the waiver signed by his customers which lays out explicitly that the submarine is experimental and could result in serious injury or death. And the fact that he was on board shows he was willing to face those potential consequences.

An interesting comparison is SpaceX, who have a similar approach in some ways. They hire young enthusiastic engineers and take a "move fast and break things" approach, which has resulted in spectacular failures. The devil is in the details, of course. Most obviously, the launches which carry the most risk don't have any passengers on board. There are also industry veterans among their ranks, and the young engineers are selected from the top of their class. OceanGate reportedly hired a graduate who was considered qualified because they were a surfer.

Ultimately, I don't refute the popular sentiment. This guy and his company were not smart and they've suffered the consequences. However, part of me is saddened that future submariners will have to live in this man's shadow, partially for better but mostly for worse.

I have previously read comments from people on The Motte lamenting that modern people are too afraid of their mortality and unwilling to take risks. I've felt it too, the desire for adventure, for glory, and lamented that the Earth now feels too small to support those things.

As someone who might have made one of the comments you're referring to: it's important to keep in mind that context is everything. You can risk your life for a good reason, or you can risk your life for a stupid reason. Going to see the wreck of the Titanic in a sub that, apparently, any experienced engineer could have told you was unsafe, seems like a stupid reason to risk your life to me. At the very least, I don't see any particular glory in it.

And anyway, there's nothing particularly adventurous about going to a place that other people have already gone, using technological means that are already well understood. In general, adventures aren't waiting for you "out there" somewhere, in some special place, waiting for any old person to just stumble upon them. If we can speak of such things as "adventure" or "glory", then we must recognize that they arise out of the network of relations that one finds oneself embedded in. The adventures of Napoleon or Caesar weren't grounded in their location in a particular point in space, but rather they were grounded in who they were: what they meant to other people, what they could command of other people, the way they influenced the structure of (symbolic) events that took place around them. It's not the sort of thing you can find by just looking in the right place.

The upshot is that there is absolutely no shortage of adventure to be found on Earth today. I mean my goodness, we're watching the suicide of an entire civilization in real time! People willfully not reproducing, sterilizing their own children, effacing their own culture... it's fascinating. And you know, if the optimists have it right, we stand on the precipice of the automation of all human cognition (i.e. the obliteration of all value and meaning). What could be more adventurous than all of that? It's certainly more interesting than any rock in space, or any hunk of metal at the bottom of the ocean.

That's all just a matter of opinion though. You might not find any interest in a "hunk of metal at the bottom of the ocean" but many people clearly do. If the CEO was being truthful about his desire to inspire people, then his submarine could have been a stepping stone to letting the average person view the Titanic with their own eyes, and further beyond, opening the depths of the ocean to occupation and exploitation. History has shown there is plenty of glory in colonization!

What really determines if your risk was stupid? An old saying goes, "if it's stupid and it works, it ain't stupid." Likewise, if this Titanic exploration venture worked, would we be calling it stupid?

I do agree there is plenty of adventure to be had today, and as someone who finds "rocks in space" pretty interesting I am participating in the greater efforts to explore and exploit them. Consider my original post a bit of nostalgia.