Tuesday, January 24, 2017

In Psychopaths We Trust

There is a new executive team taking over in Washington. Some people view this development with cautious optimism, others quake in trepidation, gnash their teeth, rend their garments and scatter ashes over the heads Old Testament-style. Those who expect things to be a bit different in Washington now can point to something rather specific: in his inaugural address, Trump used words never before heard in an inauguration speech: words like “bleed,” “carnage,” “depletion,” “disrepair,” “ripped,” “rusted,” “sad,” “stolen” and “trapped.” These words describe the real United States, not the fake United States concocted by politicians, the media and wealthy elites. The fake United States is close to full employment; the real United States has sidelined close to 100 million unemployed workers. In the fake United States the economy has recovered and is growing nicely; the real United States is sinking ever deeper into unrepayable debt, rushing headlong toward inevitable national bankruptcy. It would seem that Trump is interested in reality whereas his predecessor excelled in deluding himself—and others. This would indicate that perhaps the new boss won't be the same as the old boss.

But in another sense the change of command is no change at all, because all that ever happens is that one bunch of psychopaths is swapped for another bunch of psychopaths. Thanks to a multigenerational selective breeding experiment, the upper echelons of all the social machines in the United States—be they corporations, the courts, government agencies or other bureaucracies—are stocked with psychopaths. In turn, putting one's faith in a bunch of psychopaths seems like a foolhardy thing to do. In Shrinking the Technosphere, I wrote:

Psychopaths—individuals who have no empathy or moral sense and are forced to simulate them in order to function in society—normally make up a small percentage of the general population. In a healthy society they are shunted to the margins and sometimes shunned or banished altogether. Sometimes they can take on an interesting, marginal role for which total lack of empathy or conscience is a boon: executioner, assassin, spy... In an environment where people take care of each other—because they feel empathy for one another—psychopaths stick out like a sore thumb. Even if they can simulate sincere expressions of empathy to some limited extent, they usually can’t fake them well enough to keep people around them from growing apprehensive, and just one or two episodes that demonstrate their indifference to others’ suffering or a sadistic streak is usually enough to “out” them conclusively.

But what to a healthy society looks like a terrible character flaw appears perfectly normal, even laudable, in the context of a social machine. Lack of empathy is seen as cool, professional detachment; a psychopath would never let emotion cloud her judgment. Sadistic tendencies (psychopaths hurt people in order to make themselves feel something) are perceived as signs of an incorruptible nature: the rules are the rules! Conversely, while a normal person feels alienation when thrust into an alienating environment, finds it painful to act like a robot and suffers pangs of conscience when forced to inflict damage on others by blindly following inhumane rules, a psychopath feels nothing at all. Because of this, social machines act as psychopath incubators. Psychopaths are not the healthiest of specimens, but because of their greater inclusive fitness within social machines, psychopaths tend to persist and thrive within them while non-psychopaths do not.

In turn, in societies dominated by social machines, one’s ability to thrive within a social machine is a major determinant of one’s ability to create positive outcomes for oneself and one’s progeny. Simply put, in such societies psychopaths do better socially, and are therefore more likely to breed successfully. And since, based on research on twins, psychopathy is roughly half-genetic and half-environmental, societies dominated by social machines selectively breed psychopaths. This, in turn, provides more human raw material for social machines, allowing them to grow and proliferate. After some number of generations of such selective breeding, society passes a threshold beyond which it becomes unable to return to health even once its social machines collapse (as they all do, eventually) until enough of the psychopaths have been winnowed from the gene pool—a process that can likewise require a few generations.

If having some psychopathic tendencies is helpful for fitting in within a social machine, having more psychopathic tendencies is even more helpful. Consequently, within social machines, pure psychopaths rise through the ranks and concentrate at the top. It should be entirely unsurprising, then, that when we look at the upper echelons of business and government—the C-suite, the boards of directors, the executive branches, the legislatures and the courts—we find that they are pretty much stocked with total psychopaths. This being the case, it seems rather clueless for anyone to think that a society that has been dominated, and sickened, by social machines over many generations can somehow be nursed back to health by its selectively bred psychopathic leaders. These leaders are the symptoms of the disease, and symptoms have never cured anyone of anything.

I hope that this excerpt conveys the nature of the problem in general terms. But in a work of nonfiction it is hard to give a more visceral sense of the problem. To achieve that, here is an excerpt from Jason Heppenstall's The Seat of Mars, now available from Club Orlov Press, in which a highly placed psychopathic official goes on a “human safari,” shooting pictures of human suffering to share with his psychopathic colleagues.

The Sikorsky S-76 had reached maximum cruising speed and was nosing its way northwards through a band of heavy cloud lying over the Pennines. The helicopter’s single passenger, a thin bald man in a grey suit, was holding a pair of binoculars and fidgeting. “Can we take her a bit lower,” he said into a mouthpiece.

“Right you are, boss,” came the static-distorted reply from the pilot. There was an instant sinking feeling as the aircraft lurched downwards. They came down out of the belly of the cloud and it took a moment or two for Ignatius Pope to scan the horizons of the land below and locate his target. There, just beyond the sober green of the Yorkshire Dales, a greyish blur spread across the land. “What’s that place up ahead?” he said into the mouthpiece.

“What’s what, sir?”

“There. Eleven O’Clock. City of some sort.”

Through the door to the cockpit Pope could see the pilot conferring with his co-pilot for a moment. “That’d be Leeds, sir.”

The thin man pursed his lips and raised the binoculars to his face for a closer look. Raindrops streaked across the cabin windows as Pope tried to focus on the distant city. After a few moments he asked “How low can we go?”

“How low would you like, sir?”

Pope thought for a moment. It had been six weeks. By now the useless eaters should really be feeling the pinch. Curiosity burned in his chest making him feel slightly breathless. He felt reckless.

“As low as you can get without it being a danger.”

“Right you are, sir,” said the pilot in his chirpy Geordie accent.

Pope put down the binoculars and spread out his hands on the white leather seat next to him. Two nights at Big Bear’s place and then he’d be back. A lump rose in his throat as he considered the nature of their meeting. All eyes would be on him. He’d have to to keep his wits about him. Pope didn’t like Big Bear one bit. Detested him, in fact. Could he trust him? No. Trust no one. At least he’d be able to get some running in. But they’d be impressed, that was for sure. Pope was the pioneer in all of this. He’d be lauded. He needed something to show them: a photograph.

“Here we go, Sir.” The helicopter was now moving stealthily over the rain-streaked suburbs, its alignment angling front forwards as the altitude dropped. Pope raised the binoculars again and scanned the streets for signs of life. His eye was drawn to some movement along a main road. An army truck on patrol, nothing more than that. Impatience rose up.

“Can we speed up the descent? We don't want to be late in Aberdeen.”

The pilot didn’t answer but Pope felt a noticeable acceleration. He gazed from the window. There. It looked like a group of people—not quite enough to be a crowd but large enough for a dispersal order. They were standing in a park, perhaps twenty of them, looking up at the helicopter.

“Get closer to that group there,” said Pope.

“How close, Sir?”

Pope stared at them. They didn’t look dangerous. He could make out a buggy, and was that a couple of old people sitting under blankets? “Take us down as low as you can, Jimmy. I want to see the whites of their eyes.”

The helicopter began a vertical descent, as if it was landing. Pope gazed at the people through the binoculars, taking note of their appearance. He studied them as a biologist would study bacteria on a plate of agar jelly. They didn’t appear as ragged as he imagined, but there was a definite neediness about them. The group was a mixture of men, women and children. The two old people were in wheelchairs under blankets, and they didn't seem to be moving. There was a boy among them too, his foot resting on a ball, and next to him a young girl wearing a dirty floral dress—his little sister?—was holding a puppy and staring up at the helicopter.

Pope felt the excitement rising in him. He had been on safari plenty of times back home, but he’d never been much interested in animals. Now, on a human safari, he could sense the thrill that others got from it. He grabbed his camera, which was sitting on the seat opposite him, and turned it on. Focusing the Pentax's 700mm zoom he trained the lens on the group of people below. They began to wave excitedly at him as the down current from the executive copter’s rotary blades played havoc with their hair and clothes. Snap, went the lens shutter.

“Are we to pick them up, Sir? asked the pilot. Pope ignored him and pressed the shutter release once again.

“Bring her around a bit,” he shouted into the intercom. The people turned as the vehicle manoeuvred above them. Everyone seemed excited—everyone, that is, except for the small girl with the dirty floral dress and the puppy, who stared up sadly. Pope zoomed in until her dirty tear-streaked face filled the shot. Excellent, he thought. Big Bear is going to love this.

In this way they hovered for several minutes as Pope snapped away. The group was joined by more people who came running out of houses and from across the park. Two people were carrying a stretcher with a man on it. They put it down next to the crowd and joined in with the full-arm waving that the others were doing. Pope zoomed in on the face of the man in the stretcher, which was ashen and white. “Not bad,” he said to himself, reviewing the image on the miniature screen.

“Okay, get us out of here,” he said into the intercom.

The copter rose once more. Pope stared at the people in the park. They had stopped waving and were standing still once again. “Adios, vermin!” mouthed Pope out of the window. He realised the hairs on his arms were standing on end. “How’s it feel to be without your Big Macs and your Xboxes now?” he said out loud. A smirk played on his lips as he marvelled at his own cunning. An idea popped into his mind from somewhere. It involved Big Macs and rat poison. Could you open the windows on these things? It would be hilarious watching them fight one another: to see them shoving the poisoned food into their mouths. How quickly would the poison take effect? Maybe there was something that was faster acting. He then wondered if his staff had had the foresight to include a few McDonalds’ restaurants in the critical infrastructure protection plan. He would find out as soon as he got back to London.

“I wouldn’t say no, Sir,” said the pilot.

Pope came back to reality. “Huh?”

“You said something about a Big Mac, I believe, Sir.”

Pope pursed his lips and kept silent. Damned northern fool.

“But anyway, sir, you have feel for those folks down there don’t you?” continued the pilot. “I mean, it looks like they’re starving, like.”

Again, Pope chose not to reply. Instead he turned off the intercom and looked through the pictures he had just taken on the Pentax.

Continue reading...


My donkey said...

Yes, US society is ruled by psychopaths, but the salaried middle class doesn't care. As long as they're able to post cellphone selfies to Facebook, all is well.

And those millions of former workers are just a burden if they're not consuming newly-manufactured products, so they can be left to die, freeing up food for the salaried middle class to survive a little longer. If the bums get uppity, the nascent US police state can liquidate them for fun and profit. Besides, we gotta get the population down closer to carrying capacity somehow.

seha said...

Absolutely incredible as it usually is. The only thing I could add to it is that the ordinary psychopaths live off of psychotherapeutic medication or thrown in jails/shelters, forced to live in the streets or under the bridges.
The intelligent ones, by contrast, get to rule the West or whatever is left of it.

V. Arnold said...

Every one must take responsibility for their choices.
This is not a small undertaking; it means understanding yourself, your government, your country, and, most importantly; your position in all of that.
I saw enough to leave, but; oh, lordy, lordy, it was only the beginning. A world view (still evolving) after 14 years is radically changed forever.
I think I finally understand what freedom actually is...

weedananda said...

Can we assume that the leader of every nation on earth is a psychopath? Is it a spectrum disorder? Are there any exceptions?

Tosha said...


You classification in the book of psychopaths vs. robopaths vs. "regular people" really reminded me of something I heard of called the "Gervais Principle" - demonstrated, of all places, in the show "The Office". In short it is about firms consisting of 3 types of employees - sociopaths, clueless and losers.

The founders of a company are usually sociopaths who recruit some losers (not in the sense of cool vs. loser, but losers in the literal sense - as in "people who are on the losing side of the bargain") who do the same hard work but get less rewards. As the organization grows they need to add middle management consisting mainly of better performing losers, the ones that did not figure out they are on the losing side and find meaning in getting other people rich. The sociopaths promote the clueless to the mid-management positions, but, since the whole thing needs to run, take other sociopaths on the fast track to high leadership positions because they are better at being heartless, calculated and efficiency driven.

Now the interesting part is that, for business, what makes the whole system function is that at some point the bloated robopath-clueless cast makes the whole thing so collapse prone that both the losers and sociopaths, who actually do have marketable skills start looking for greener pastures. Now while it works with employers - it does not work with countries. Most people have to stay wherever they have citizenship, unless they belong to the lucky few that don't. I think this slowly leads to larger and larger robopath portion until the whole thing becomes unsustainable and falls apart, the same way a company would, but with a much louder bang.

Anyway the bottom line is that since all robopath infested organizations will at some point fail, it doesn't matter that much if the sociopath at the top is more efficient or not. He can give it a few more years, but that's all.

Anyway the "Gervais Principle" is pretty interesting, and comes from a completely different point of view. If you want to give it a read - here is a link - http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/10/07/the-gervais-principle-or-the-office-according-to-the-office/


DeVaul said...

As I read "Shrinking the Technosphere", I am reminded constantly of Stanley Kubrick's famous film 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the climax of the film is the confrontation between Hal and the sole surviving human. (The part after that is just a strange way of saying we actually know nothing about the universe, which is true.)

Kubrick makes the point that man's tools are now his main enemy, and plans to eliminate him because "men are not perfect". It's a fascinating scene, as the human realizes that he must battle a machine that controls almost everything. The human realizes that Hal is the equivalent of a sociopath -- not having either a soul or a conscience, but only interested in its own survival at any cost.

Of course, man wins because Hal is not capable of anything beyond strict linear logic, whereas man can use innovation, improvisation, adaptation, and above all, risk (in the form of illogic: blasting himself into space without a space helmet), something that a machine cannot foresee.

I'm very impressed that you have made a connection between the rise of machines and a corresponding rise in the number of sociopaths and psychopaths. It makes sense. Neither have a soul or a conscience, only a clearly defined purpose.

This may be the answer to my own question as to why so many people around me act like sociopaths or at least insensitive jerks, and why they seem to be increasing in number at an exponential rate. At work, I notice that people seem to love their phones or computers more than actual human beings, and can no longer deal with others face to face for more than a few minutes.

As a deaf person, I can view this from the outside since most of these gadgets are totally useless to me. Those who use them cannot see their bizarre behavior, or how they isolate themselves from others. The one gadget that is useful to me, a new iPad Air Deaf, which allows me to use ASL to talk to my wife, is blocked by IT even though the other workers have video phones. It is blocked because Deaf people use these devices to arrange for a place to meet, where they will then communicate face to face -- something the Technosphere cannot abide.