By Alan Tien
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.” 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 Improbable 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 infinity.
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.