Political Power and Technological Truth

In the top-down view, history is written by the winners. It is about political power triumphing over technological truth.

Why does power care about the past? Because the morality of society is derived from its history. When the Chinese talk about Western imperialism, they aren’t just talking about some forgettable dust-up in the South China Sea, but how that relates to generations of colonialism and oppression, to the Eight Nations Alliance and the Opium Wars and so on. And when you see someone denounced on American Twitter as an x-ist, history is likewise being brought to bear. Again, why are they bad? Because of our history of x-ism…

As such, when you listen to a regime’s history, which you are doing every time you hear its official organs praise or denounce someone, you should listen critically.

Political Power as the Driving Force of History 

How do the authorities use history? What techniques are they using? It’s not just a random collection of names and dates. They have proven techniques for sifting through the archives, for staffing a retinue of heros and villains from the past, for distilling the documents into (politically) useful parables. Here are two of them.

These techniques are used to write history that favors a state. Here are more examples:

Point being: once you get your head out of the civilization you grew up in, and look at things comparatively, the techniques of political history become obvious. One of those techniques deserves special mention, and that’s a peacetime version of the “atrocity story”:

One of the most time-honored techniques to mobilize public animosity against the enemy and to justify military action is the atrocity story. This technique, says Professor Lasswell, has been used “with unvarying success in every conflict known to man.”

The concept is as useful in peacetime as it is in war. Why? Because states get their people hyped up to fight wars by stressing the essentially defensive nature of what they are doing and the savage behavior of the enemy. But war is politics by other means, so politics is war by other means. Even in peacetime, the state is predicated on force. And this use of force requires justification. The atrocity story is the tool used to convince people that the use of state force is legitimate.

Coming from a different vantage point, Rene Girard would call this a “founding murder.” Once you see this technique, you see it everywhere. Somewhat toned-down versions of the atrocity story are the go-to technique used to justify expansions of political power.

Indeed, almost everything in politics is backed by an atrocity story.28 There’s a sometimes real, sometimes fake, sometimes exaggerated Girardian founding murder (or at least founding injury) behind much of what the government does.

Sometimes the atrocity story is framed in terms of terrorists, sometimes in terms of children…but the general concept is “something so bad happened, we must use (state) force to prevent it from happening again.” Often this completely ignores the death caused by that force itself. For example, when the FDA “prevented” deaths by cracking down on drug approvals after thalidomide, it caused many more deaths via Eroom’s Law and drug lag.

And sometimes the atrocity story is just completely fake; before Iraq was falsely accused of holding WMD, it was falsely accused of tossing babies from incubators.

With that said, it’s possible to overcorrect here. Just because there is an incentive to fake (or exaggerate) atrocities does not mean that all atrocities are fake or exaggerated.29 Yes, you should be aware that states are always “flopping,” exaggerating the severity of the fouls against them or the mascots they claim to represent, trying to bring in the public on their side, whether they are Chinese or American or Russian.

But once you’re aware of the political power model of history, the next goal is to guard against both the Scylla and the Charybdis, against being too credulous and too cynical. Because just as the atrocity story is a tool for political power, unfortunately so too is genocide denial — as we can see from The New York Times’ Pulitzer-winning coverup of Stalin’s Ukrainian famine.

To maintain this balance, to know when states are lying or not, we need a form of truth powerful enough to stand outside any state and judge it from above. A way to respond to official statistics not with either reflexive faith or disbelief, but with dispassionate, independent calculation.

The bottom-up cryptohistory we introduced in the previous section is clearly relevant. But to fully appreciate it we need an allied theory: the technological truth theory of history.

Technological Truth as the Driving Force of History 

The political power model of history gives us a useful lens: history is often just Leninist who/whom and Schmittian friend/enemy. But it’s a little parched30 to say that history is always and only that, solely about the raw exercise of political power. After all, a society must pass down true facts about nature, for example, or else its crops will not grow31 — and its political class will lose power.

This leads to a different set of tech-focused lenses for analyzing history.

You might find it a bit surprising that there are as many different models for understanding history — let’s call them historical heuristics — as there are programming paradigms. Why might this be so? Well, just like the idea of statecraft strategies that we introduce later, the study of history can also be analogized to a type of programming, or at least data analysis. That is, history is the analysis of the log files.

And that’s why historical heuristics exist. They are strategies for distilling insight from all the documents, genes, languages, transactions, inventions, collapses, and successes of people over time. History is the entire record of everything humanity has done. It’s a very rich data structure that we have only begun to even think of as a data structure.

We can now think of written history as an (incomplete, biased, noisy) distillation of this full log. After all, if you’ve ever found a reporter’s summary of an eyewitness video to be wanting, or found a single video misleading relative to multiple camera angles, you’ll realize why having access to the full log of public events is a huge step forward.

A Collision of Political Power and Technological Truth 

We’ve now defined a top-down and bottom-up model of history. The collision of these two models, of the establishment’s Orwellian relativism36 and the absolute truth of the Bitcoin blockchain, of political power and technological truth…that collision is worth studying.

Let’s do three concrete examples where political power has encountered technological truth.

In the first and second examples, the employees of the New York Times Company simply misrepresented the facts as they are wont to do, circulating assertions that were politically useful against two of their perennial opponents: the tech founder and the foreign conservative. Whether these misrepresentations were made intentionally or out of “too good to check” carelessness, they were both attempts to exercise political power that ran into the brick wall of technological truth. In the third example, the Chinese political system delegated the job of finding out what was true to the blockchain.

In all three cases, technology provided a more robust means of determining what was true than the previous gold standards — whether that be the “paper of record” or the party-state. It decentralized the determination of truth away from the centralized establishment.

A Definition of Political and Technological Truths 

It isn’t always possible to decentralize the determination of truth away from a political establishment. Some truths are intrinsically relative (and hence political), whereas others are amenable to absolute verification (and hence technological).

Here’s the key: is it true if others believe it to be true, or is it true regardless of what people believe?

A political truth is true if everyone believes it to be true. Things like money, status, and borders are in this category. You can change these by rewriting facts in people’s brains. For example, the question of what a dollar is worth, who the president is, and where the border of a country is are all dependent on the ideas installed in people’s heads. If enough people change their minds, markets move, presidents change, and borders shift.37

Conversely, a technical truth is true even if no human believes it to be true. Facts in math, physics, and biochemistry are in this category. They exist independent of what’s in people’s brains. For example, what’s the value of π, the speed of light, or the diameter of a virus? 38

Those are the two extremes: political truths that you can change by rewriting the software in people’s brains, and technical truths that exist independent of that.

A Balance of Political Power and Technological Truth 

Once you reluctantly recognize that not every aspect of a sociopolitical order can be derived from an objective calculation, and that some things really do depend on an arbitrary consensus, you realize that we need to maintain a balance between political power and technological truth.39

Towards this end, the Chinese have a pithy saying: the backwards will be beaten. If you’re bad at technology, you’ll be beaten politically. Conversely, the Americans also have a saying: “you and what army?” It doesn’t matter how good you are as an individual technologist if you’re badly outnumbered politically. And if you’re unpopular enough, you won’t have the political power to build in the physical world.

Combining these views tells us to seek a balance between nationalism and rationalism, where the former is thought of in the broadest sense as “group identity.” It’s a balance between political power and technological truth, between ingroup-stabilizing narratives and inconvenient facts. And you need both.

So that’s how the political and technological theories of history interrelate. Technological history is the history of what works; political history is the history of what works to retain power. Putting all the pieces together:

Can we generalize these observations into a broader thesis, into an overarching theory that includes the clash of political power and technological truth as a special case? We can. And that leads us to a discussion of God, State, and Network.