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June 2023
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The Evolution of the Jerk
Filed under: General
Posted by: Alan @ 3:56 pm

The Evolution of the Jerk


Man has evolved from apes. 
Economies have evolved from hunter gathering and farming to distributed
networks of specialization.  Government
has evolved from tribal leaders to democracy. 
Religion has liberalized from an absolute force to a relative
choice.  Technology has advanced us from
face to face communication to far-flung telecom and anonymous internet.  All these changes have made our physical
lives infinitely better: we live longer, healthier, safer, and more comfortably
with far greater freedom.  But the cost
of these material gains is the decline of morals and ethics.  The codes of honor that used to control us,
the religious rules that used to bind us, the societal norms that used to shame
us have all weakened, in some cases disappearing altogether.  The walls that used to hold in our excesses,
the prying eyes that used to threaten exposure of bad conduct, the societal
penalties that used to punish us for failure to follow the unwritten rules are
all fading away.  The advancement of our
civilization has enabled the evolution of the jerk.

As Man evolved from ape to Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal to
Homo sapiens, the maxim “Might makes Right” stood paramount.  Like the alpha ape, the leader of the tribe
had to be strong and demanded unbending personal loyalty.  Humans were weak relative to the animals and
only through our intelligence and cooperation could we survive in the hostile
environment.  Connivers and sycophants
existed, but their power depended on pleasing the leader, limiting their sphere
of influence.  The members of the tribe
depended on each other to live.  Everyone
knew everyone, and everyone had a role to play. 
The greatest personal risk was becoming an outcast, to be stripped of
the protection of the tribe.  Tribe
members had to curb their excesses, bend to the tribal norms, and follow the
traditions and customs.

Fast forwarding to our modern Western society, our mode of
government has advanced from tribal dictatorship to a national democracy.  Democracy by definition means people have
more choice.  The Western culture
encourages individualism, free-thinking, and not only tolerates but even
celebrates the rebel.  For a democracy to
work, people are supposed to think for themselves, make educated
decisions.  The change in scale, from
tribal level to national, impersonalizes the government, one of the controlling
forces of human nature.  The risk of
discovery of breaking the law is much lower, the crime is no longer personal, and
the punishment is humane.  Instead of
backstabbing the tribal leader, we now cheat on our taxes.  Though living in a democracy gives us much
greater personal freedom, it weakens the bonds that control human nature.

Moving from our agrarian village living to the impersonal
living of a city has unleashed great economic benefits, as described by Adam
Smith’s Wealth of Nations.  We now specialize in self-interest
competition in a free market. 
Interestingly, Adam Smith also wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments in which he proposed “a theory of sympathy,
in which the act of observing others makes people aware of themselves and the
morality of their own behavior.[1]”  But in our modern world, in the anonymous
living of a city, we no longer have the “impartial spectator;” we don’t have
prying neighbors.  We often don’t even
know our neighbors though we may live next to them for years.  We can cheat on taxes in our own home,
invisible to others, except on a very rare occasion, caught by a keen-eyed IRS
agent.  We now have the economic
incentive to maximize our self-interest with a minimal amount of fear of being
punished for crossing the line.  Even the
line has moved.  It’s no longer the rather
restrictive but invisible line of societal pressures; now there’s only the hard
line of the law.

Religion used to be
a major force in controlling humans from their base behavior, with mysterious
rituals, iron-clad customs, soaring rewards of heaven and eternal bliss for
good behavior, and not only real-world punishments but also eternal damnation
in hell for sinning.  But the influence
of religion has waned for many.  Even
many of those who go to church (or mosque or synagogue or temple) are just
going through the motions, a salve for their conscience, but not a stick to
keep them in line.  In the past, an
extra-marital affair could get a woman an “A” branded on her forehead, stoned
to death, or worst, excommunicated from the church so her soul was eternally
damned.  Today, people blame men for
cheating, but it takes two to tango.  We
are animals, only slightly evolved from apes, and without the threat of a
massively-exaggerated punishment, we cave into our caveman instincts.

Advancement in our communications from fire signals to
electronic signals is also contributing to the anonymity of our sins.  From the telephone to the fax to the
internet, we no longer need to know the victim to perpetuate a crime.  Watching Wolf on Wall Street made quite an
impression on me.  Not because the movie
was so realistic, but because it characterized the thoughts of the white collar
criminal so well.  The line that really
hit me was, “The money is better in my pocket than yours.”  Jordan felt no compunction ripping off the
poor blue collar suckers over the phone. 
He was fiercely loyal to his friends and employees because they were
tangible, physical, real.  The suckers
over the phone were just a disembodied checkbook.  The internet adds another layer of
obfuscation; hackers in Syria not only do not feel guilt but they may even feel
a sense of justice phishing for financial details of the rich, debauched
Westerners.  They never see their
victims; they can transfer unimaginable amounts of wealth in seconds; and they
face little fear of punishment.  Am I
describing the wolves on Wall Street or the hackers in Syria?  Yes.

The Madoffs
of the world running ridiculously large Ponzi schemes.  Companies like Enron hailed for their innovative
practices.  On a personal level, our
investment in M1NT,
the hottest club in Shanghai, going down the tubes.  Alistair Paton was so smooth, handsome,
well-dressed – in fact very much like Jordan Belfort.  These types of cons have being going on
forever, but today, they can be much larger in scale thanks to the
dehumanization of technology and the legal protection of corporations. 

The book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly
explains how our ape-evolved minds cannot cope with the scale modern
technology affords us.  He has a great
example of lining up all the people in a football stadium.  If you lined everyone up by a physical
attribute such as height or weight or age, the variance is very small, within
an order of magnitude.  However, if you
lined people up by some digital fact such as wealth, the differences can be
many orders of magnitude from the richest to the poorest.  But our brains cannot comprehend this difference.  We can imagine a 10x or 100x difference, but
even 1000x is close to incomprehensible, never mind millions of times
apart.  We are inured to incredibly large
numbers – like Whatsapp being bought for $17 billion dollars – but to our
simple minds, there’s very little difference between a million, a billion, and

Modern telecommunication and internet has made the world smaller and flatter, which is great for me to stay in touch with
my mom, but it also wipes out the competitive barriers of a local winner.  Taleb expounds in The Black Swan that in the
past a local opera singer could make a decent living because he was all the
local residents could hear.  Then came
records and radio which could bring the world’s best opera singer directly to your
family room.  However, the local performer
still had a small edge because a live performance offered higher fidelity.  Today though, with digital recordings, the world-class
opera singer can perform in your family room, and it’ll sound like you were
live at The Met.  You can even watch him
perform on your gigantic flat screen TV so the experience is like the world’s
best opera singer giving you a private performance.  The local opera singer cannot compete.  Technology has created a winner-take-all
scenario.  Only the best performer will
get paid.  Everyone else will
starve.  We see this in the internet
giants crushing all other competitors. Amazon is slowly but surely putting not
just the Barnes and Nobles out of business but also the mom and pop shops
around the corner.  It’s a distributed, impersonal
type of evil, in which we’re all willing participants.  And Bezos is not portrayed as some new-age
Hitler; he’s seen as an internet rock star, a business maven, a modern day hero
we wish to emulate.

The relatively modern creation of the Corporation is yet
another layer of misdirection. 
Corporations are essentially legal entities with many of the rights of
humans, but they allow the humans that create them to hide their guilt behind
the legal structures.  Just like it’s
easier to gamble chips at a casino than real dollars, or spend foreign currency
easier than our home currency, it’s amazing how the human brain loses touch
with reality with only one degree of separation.  That’s what Corporations do.  The execs within the corporation justify
their inhuman and inhumane behavior by solemnly swearing that they are
“maximizing shareholder profit.”  Sociopaths
do best at climbing the corporate ladder because they don’t have minor
inconveniences like guilt and shame to hold them back.  In fact, they are rewarded and acclaimed for
their objectivity, the adherence to the rites of their Accounting God, who
demands human sacrifice to uphold His numbers.

Human relationships - previously buttressed by societal norm
and uplifted by religious values – are under attack by the impersonal face of
technology, implacable façade of corporations, and incomprehensible figures of
infinity.  Unrestrained by the fear of
detection, emboldened by the impunity from recrimination, motivated by the
possibility of impossible wealth, man is evolving again.  Witness the evolution of the jerk.


[1] Wikipedia on Adam Smith

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