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Clown fest (updated)

The continued expansion of the internet has brought with it a surge in information, analysis, opinion and insight. At the same time the vast mental and social freedom in cyberspace has manifested an exponentially growing forum for self-expression – which ends up serving as virtual playgrounds for the human ego. This complex cyber landscape exists concurrently with accelerating real crises in energy, the economy, and the environment. Thus at the same time that the overall fabric of our social arrangement is shifting, the internet has become an odd melting pot for scientists and preachers, altruists and hucksters, knights and clowns alike. Perhaps I've been slow to notice it, but it seems to me that as time passes, on the discussion topics that really matter, the clowns are starting to dominate. Of course, as the goings on in our country more and more resemble a circus, it is no wonder that clowns are rising to the top of many discussions. This short campfire looks at what this might mean.

Clown Fest

Ive gotten 95% of my information from the internet over the past 5-6 years. There exists a special mix of intelligence, altruism and collegial respect that can unite to make internet forums worth much more than the price of admission. As such I've become habituated to a variety of sources, bloggers, websites, and internet personalities. Of late it seems these forums have become more shrill and predictable in their aggregate coverage of real life. Recently the signal to noise ratio is so low that I find myself using the internet for learning less and less, and when I do, with increasing occasion shake my head at the content. Buzzwords such as 'fiat currency', 'fractional reserve system', 'banksters', 'hyperinflation' and even 'peak oil' are prevalent, though the analysis and understanding of these concepts seems shallow and repetitive. Worse, the denizens of particular forums (not surprisingly) all seem to drink their own particular form of kool-aid. Given the prevalence of high quality content and thought of a few years ago, the blending and parroting of the major themes that a casual perusal of the resource/energy/finance blogosphere reveals today reminds one of the time shift in the movie Idiocracy. A psychiatrist might label this phenomenon ‘information anhedonia’. An economist would say we’ve reached ‘decreasing informational returns from the marginal blog entry’. I'll just call it ‘clown-fest’.

We evolved to favor the ‘in group’ over the ‘out group’, for resource, defensive, and ultimately reproductive advantages. The internet has spawned millions of ‘in-groups’ – peak oilers, tea-party evangelizers, deflationistas, gold-bugs, Austrian economics followers, anti-abortion activists, and myriad less controversial groups such as ‘Claremount High School Boosters", "Kerr Jar Enthusiasts", “Earthworm Snack Creators” and the like. People gravitate towards groups they identify with. And they usually stay there. (After all, a room full of clowns feels a lot less clown-like).

Achieving status is a primary driver in the biological kingdom and remains a key driver in our human social groups. But today, for the first time in our species history, the same ‘feelings’ we get from moving up in a real life social hierarchy can be attained cheaply and easily online. Being the most vocal, most persuasive or most interesting in a small group of dedicated/interested followers engenders the same neural reward as being the head of a small business, or a Mayor, or a high school basketball star. Our brains don’t really know that being the head of the “Morel Foraging Society” or “Nudists for Nader 2012” with several hundred members online is different than being County Treasurer in real life – we receive respect, positive feedback, deference etc. from the people in our ‘in-group’ (the fact they might be just anonymous mushroom pickers or passionate nude people is not relevant to our brains).

Most people are both reasonable, and passive. Some people are either unreasonable or assertive (or both). In a free form forum one unreasonable or assertive person will drown out 10 or more who are either reasonable or passive. Especially for those whose assertion or unreasonableness in real life leads to fewer social opportunities, the internet has been a godsend. Either anonymous or in their own name, they can easily accumulate a following by articulating what people already believe or like to hear. Given the self-selected audience, there doesn’t exist the normal social checks and balances. As such, due to the myriad different categories, those assertive and/or social acceptance seeking souls who find their niches online dig in hard and ‘feel’ as if they are true celebrities. Combine that with the iterations and scale that come from long time periods, little or no barriers to entry and an apathy/lack of interest from those not spending time on the internet and these folks have become ensconced at all sorts of cyber guideposts on topics that cover the map.

Basically, since people believe in authority figures, and nominate their own authority figures based on their own belief systems, it is no wonder that time and numbers has by circa 2010 amassed an internet army of clowns. We see increasingly hysterical caricatures emerge on the internet/media that undergo some perceived status/ego boost that they wouldn't/couldn't have gotten in normal situations. The feedback from the true believers (of whatever tribe they communicate to), then locks these personalities into an utterly confident belief in their own position as an expert, and their actions become considerably (and understandably) clownlike over time. I notice this dynamic in numerous areas of discourse but its particularly prevalent in the the peak oil and finance circles where I have spent alot of time.

Midway through this post I am forced to acknowledge the possibility that “I” am the clown. Maybe my being editor here for so many years has given me an exaggerated sense of my own understanding of things. It’s feasible that the signal to noise ratio I see deteriorating on the internet is just fine. It’s possible that what I perceive as signal is noise, and vice-versa. (And, its possible, as my girlfriend says, that its all noise). But why do I hear from friends (who are not clowns) of increasing apathy and disinterest in reading blogs for information? Why do mainstream people roll their eyes when 'peak oil' or 'fiat currency' or 'runaway climate change' come up in discussions? It's reasonably clear to me that honking the squeaky red clown nose on these issues is not only ineffective, but becoming obnoxious.

When Greshams Law trumps Dunbar's Number

One (major) way to combat ignorance, nihilism and divisiveness is with education. But education in forums where the noise to signal ratio rises higher and higher makes civil, informed discourse impossible. With increasing occasion I see Greshams Law, where the 'bad drives out the good', evidenced in internet forums (such as this one). Our brains only have so many cc's of grey matter, and so many neurons/synapses etc. Evolutionary psychologists state that we are able to handle about 150 relationships effectively at one time, before quality deteriorates or someone on front end gets bumped off (Dunbar's Number).

This dynamic is manifesting in resource depletion forums right now. As the signal to noise ratio declines, I find myself spending less and less time at sites I once frequented for information and high quality discussion. Part of the reason for this is that the medium (blogging, the internet), in many ways has itself become the message. Frenetic, living-in-the-moment stimulation junkies interacting in a way that has become socially accepted, and conforms to our evolutionary neurotransmitter hot buttons. Over time, more and more people gain the skills, and confidence to enter discussions online where there is little to no social status downside, especially when they can write/comment under a pseudonym. Combine this with large numbers, and the existence of human ego, and we have a clown uprising in the comment sections around the blogosphere. (and many of the clowns are nasty!). In effect, blogging (for education, and impact) is weighed down by its own success.

The Decoy Effect

It is possible, that with highly polarized issues like finance, energy depletion, and environmental damage, that some leading clowns may act as decoys on the way to (positive?) change. As Dan Ariely wrote about in Predictably Irrational, there is a concept termed asymmetric dominance effect where the existence of a third, extreme value causes what was originally an extreme option to be preferred. The example in the book was (something like) the choice between buying a $250 barbecue grill or a $1000 grill. Ceteris paribus, most people chose the cheaper grill. But if the grill manufacturer put up a super stacked $5,000 grill next to the other two, then people would start to prefer the $1000 grill as next to the $5,000 version it didn't seem so outrageous. This practice, known in professional marketing as 'the decoy effect' may inadvertently apply to what appears to be a clown uprising among the energy/environment/economic tribes. Options for change that at first seem extreme might not seem so extreme in the face of a carnivale barrage.

Clowns -Wrong Facts, Right Side

As critical as this post may seem of the unproductive direction of content and personalities on the topics of our time, those making claims about the demise of fiat, the peak of oil production or the end of growth may have inaccurate bits in their stories and have predicted 5 out of the last 1 calamities, but these well intended errors of omission pale in comparison to the errors of commission by those in charge who rely on assumptions of perpetual growth that would be laughable if they weren't so ill planned for. The damage from our leading institutions conflating resources with reserves, energy with dollars, and debt with real capital is an order of magnitude greater for our societies than some friendy egomaniacs. At this carnival then, the clowns may seem annoying and repetitive, but at least they are on the side of change, something that the snake oil salesmen are not.


If this post has sounded a bit harsh on the status of blogging/education on the major topics of our time, it is meant to be. Those glorifying dystopian futures, and only recommending action steps involving Kruggerands and/or ammunition etc., are probably getting their status/ego boost at an ultimate cost to society. A hijacked pursuit of status and novelty gets firmly in the way of real education and change. Just like time, greed and entropy have caused our political system to become a ‘one dollar one vote’ monolith, the blogoshphere has become a ‘one neuron one vote’ system. Those who have free time and are vocal, novel, confident, and possessive of short memories drown out the less clown-like in their forums - Greshams Law. “Democracies” cease to work in these circumstances unless there exists a strong republic/framework of rules. The watershed moment comes when clowns have become the scout team for the civically minded, rational systems-thinkers who find their voices. Or maybe that already happened years ago and we're mean-reverting.

Send in the clowns. Just not all at once.

Editorial Notes: Updated with Nate's latest version from the Oil Drum. -KS

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