Final Update Q3 2023
The loneliness epidemic, AI & job automation, remote work, native influences on the Enlightenment, Brazilian inequality, the source of myths, the future of english, masterpieces, remote work, & more
No articles next week.
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The loneliness epidemic is not what people say it is
Examples of how AI is automating work
We think of the Enlightenment as a purely European thing, but many of its ideas were inspired from abroad
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The impact of slavery in Brazilian inequality today
Elephants and cyclops
The English advantage for immigration
More on how to create masterpieces
The impact of supernovae on us
The latest on remote work: How it impacts productivity and other aspects
My Loneliness Is Killing Me
The US Surgeon General published an advisory on the epidemic of loneliness and isolation.
Hillary Clinton piled on.
But if you read Uncharted Territories, you know from A Mental Epidemic that this is some careful mental gymnastics to make it look like loneliness is spiking across the world. It’s not. Aloneness is spiking around the world, and people love it. Also, suicide rates are falling around the world.
The problem is that more young adults in the US are committing suicide.
At the same time, they’re feeling more depressed:
Immediately, the culprits become social media and phones. Indeed, we have plenty of evidence that they do make people unhappy, as @Richard Hanania rounds up in this article.
But if these are the culprits… Shouldn’t more young people around the world commit suicide?
They’re not! In fact, it’s hard to find countries where more young adults are committing suicide!
This paper looked precisely at the reasons why there are more teenage suicides in the US. What did it find?
Probably not the guns
Probably not the opium epidemic
Surveys say there’s not more bullying (but then what is causing the higher rates of depression?)
Surveys also don’t suggest there are more suicide attempts (but if that’s true, it means suicide attempts are just more lethal. How does that marry with the fact that depression is increasing?)
Maybe it's suburban life (but why is it impacting young adults more now? Does it have a weird connection with phones or social media?)
Maybe it’s the culture wars?
The upshot is that we don’t really know why more US young adults are committing suicides. Which means we shouldn’t be blaming these suicides on broad concepts of loneliness (when in fact we mean aloneness), nor should we be blaming social media (because then why not similar trends abroad?). There’s something else going on, and we need to find out what it is. We can’t solve a problem we don’t understand.
AI and the Automation of Work
Time to first response went from 1m 44s to INSTANT!
Resolution time went from 2h 13m to 3m 12s
Customer support costs reduced by ~85%
When I was the Chief Product Officer of a tech company earlier this year, and started looking into AI options, the improvement of customer service was the clearest opportunity, followed by better search and recommendations, and the improvement of sales.
I don’t think AI will eliminate all customer service jobs. If we apply the insights from When Will AI Take Your Job?:
Better customer service (CS) will make more people reach out to the company.
Whether CS jobs increase or decrease depends on whether the volume of complaints grows faster than the productivity improvement.
In this case, I can’t see complaints growing by more than 2-3x. If that’s the case, it won’t counterbalance the 85% reduction in costs.
What we can expect, however, is that the remaining CS positions will be more interesting, since they’ll handle the cases that the AI can’t.
We can expect the trend to continue.
IBM will replace no less than 7,800 jobs thanks to AI. 30% of back office jobs will be gone within five years.
This article on translator automation also illustrates the same process: Over the last decade, translation has gotten cheaper, which has increased the volume of work. The result is that it’s harder to get well-paid translation jobs today. This means that the translators’ realm is already on the downhill side of automation.
The number of translators and interpreters rose 19% between 2010 and 2021: from 58,400 to 69,400. But their median income, adjusted for inflation, fell by 8%. In 2010, a typical translator made $60,357 (in 2023 dollars). By 2021 it was $55,483. CSA estimates that global revenue from translation, interpreting, and other language services grew by 23% (in inflation-adjusted dollars) between 2012 and 2022. Yet when CSA surveyed translators on the state of the industry, many of them were quite negative about their career prospects.—Source.
As ChatGPT and the like get better and specialize easily in obscure disciplines and companies, the more specialized translation gigs will be eliminated too.
How Europeans Farmed Ideas in the Age of Discovery
In The Illusion of Nation-States, I explained that in the past, there were only a few nation-states —countries like China, Japan, or France—and that the spread of the concept across the world is a very recent phenomenon—a child of the 19th and 20th centuries. And as I discussed in Internet Will Kill Nation-States, without the printing press, you can’t have a nation-state.
The authors of The Dawn of Everything suggest that the idea of the nation-state, however, was discovered by Westerners traveling to China during the Age of Discovery, and then brought back and applied at home1.
I can see how this could be true: As we discussed in What China Wants and Why, China’s geography is extremely unique. It induced the formation of a massive, unified state much earlier than in most other parts of the world. On the other hand, China had the printing press but didn’t use it much2. I don’t think this undermines the idea of the printing press as a requirement for the formation of nation-states in Europe: There, the printing press probably unified regions in a way that geography wouldn’t have allowed otherwise.
Universal Rights from Native Americans
In The Twin Revolutions of Politics and Fertility, I explain how France went through the demographic transition earlier than any other country, and in Children Equal Power, I show that this caused it to initially lose the World Wars against Germany.
I assumed back then that this was the result of the Enlightenment: The more you believe that science is behind the workings of the world, the less you believe it’s God. But according to The Dawn of Everything, this is another idea that comes from the Age of Discovery.
Specifically, this is their claim: Europe was mostly feudal, religious, and monarchic in the 1500s when Europeans arrived in America. But in North America, the French and English interacted a lot with local tribes, where people were much more equal and much less subject to the whims of superiors. This made Europeans question the aristocratic hierarchies of the Old World: Why should I do what the king says? Why am I less than him? Than aristocrats? THe clergy? This eventually resulted in processes like secularization, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and hence the French Revolution. In other words: these Native American ideas triggered the modern political age.
Here’s an example of such thinking, which later influenced thinkers like Voltaire. This comes from Kondiaronk, a famed Huron chief:
Do you seriously imagine that I would be happy to live like one of the inhabitants of Paris? To take two hours every morning just to put on my shirt and make up? To bow and scrape before every obnoxious galoot I meet on the street who happens to have been born with an inheritance? Do you actually imagine I could carry a purse full of coins and not immediately hand them over to people who are hungry? That I would carry a sword but not immediately draw it on the first band of thugs I see rounding up the destitute to press them into Naval service? If on the other hand, Europeans were to adopt an American way of life, it might take a while to adjust but in the end you will be far happier.