47 Comments

Beautifully written. Halfway through I got the idea that "Wizards" and "Prophets" can be used as stand-in terms for "Progressive" and "Conservative". Progressive people want to push the envelope, abhor rules they deem archaic and in general just want to change the status quo, whereas conservative people are cautious and think hard about how a change in status quo can have negative effects - they in effect gatekeep the most ludicrous ideas. We really need both to advance in a manner that will harm us least. This see-saw seems ineffective, but in reality has built the societies with the highest quality of life on planet earth. It goes without saying that a democratic society with free spech is a requirement for this to work - there has to be a fair marketplace of ideas and the possibility to change course via elections.

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The place where Wizards and Prophets shake hands is breakthroughs in ways of being curious/synthesizing data about the world.

To look closely at a local system can still draw on habits of ethnography/statisitics/debiasing where someone has a global breakthrough, and then, rather than prescribe a universal program of action, you have a universally at-least-semi-helpful mindset to see where you actually are.

I like the Double Crux approach to mapping disagreements as an example of this Wizard-Prophet collaboration: https://www.rationality.org/resources/updates/2016/double-crux

It's a way of conceptualizing/diagramming a disagreement that doesn't offer you One! Weird! Trick! for debunking errors or people, but a way to be more attentive to the individual in front of you and his or her *specific* ways of thinking differently than you.

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Excellent and thought-provoking review; how long will Borlaug be the most important person that most people have never heard of?

The Wizard and the Prophet do seem to appear everywhere once you start looking for them. Still, I don't love the actual names, which are presumably coined by Mann. I would prefer to call them the Engineer and the Priest.

"Wizard" seems wrong to me because of the association with magic, ritual and the viscera of the ancient world. We did have people who called themselves wizards or shamans or witch doctors, but they no longer exist in the developed part of the world thanks to the restructuring of society wrought by Mann's "Wizards." I prefer the term "Engineer," because the Engineer sees the world as a series of problems to be solved; a world of inputs and outputs. The best Engineers figure out how to bootstrap what they have into something better, but can often lose the forest for the trees.

As to the Prophet, this also seems to be poor choice of names. If you read Marc Andreessen's Techno-Optimist Manifesto, it's hard to see him calling himself anything other than a Prophet. Yet Mann would clearly call Andreessen a Wizard (where I would prefer the term Engineer). Perhaps Mann is thinking of the Old Testament tradition of prophets--men who mostly attacked the decadence of those living in the fleshpots of the cities, but today we use the term for any who make predictions about the future. And many of our most successful prophets are those who promise a bright future brought about with technology. I prefer the term "Priest," because priesthood is fundamentally concerned with the sacred and the holy, with rituals and traditions. The objections to change--its unnaturalness, its strangeness, its _wrongness_ are priestly objections.

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Jan 22·edited Jan 22

Finding the balance or marriage between these two energies is on my mind a lot these days.

I especially appreciated this part: "And this obviously poses a huge problem for the bureaucracies that have embraced Vogt’s apocalyptic message — if we don’t change what we’re doing, and soon, we’re all going to die! — because executing local and particular solutions require actually knowing things."

Clinging to the universalist idea of "a solution" prevents finding appropriate responses in diverse environments. Shaky first draft math metaphor: It's like trying to approximate some superwonky function with a straight line/flat plane. At best you'll intersect with the actual function a few lucky times. In switching to an approach where you approximate the function at specific points using more terms, you'll get a better fit, but it won't necessarily be applicable to other parts of the curve/surface.

In accepting a localized approach, you can still apply extremey sophisticated techno-scientific wizardry, you just lose any faith in proclaiming any universality to your solution and to high-mindedly force it upon other environments. The optimizing forces of wizardy are subsumed, asked to hone in on a specific point rather than maximize across the board with a single solution.

This approach tastes like the "McGilchrist Manouvre" (https://jonathanrowson.substack.com/p/introducing-the-mcgilchrist-manoeuvre) of "right hemisphere (particular and holistic) -> left hemisphere (analytic and reductionistic) -> right hemisphere". Instead of the "left only" approach of universalist optimization, where the corrosive powers of the life-blind and tool-fixated, maximizing left hemisphere are not supervised by the life-aware, values-aware, sees-the-whole right hemisphere. A "right only" approach looks more like handing the reigns of power to a child wielding a horoscope.

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Yes, being a Prophet without just being a tedious no-machine is something I've had to work on. The main way I try to get the best of both worlds is to focus on the tightness of the feedback loop. If the thing you're doing can be locked into a small shed and not touch the outside world until you stumble out cackling "I've done it!"; fantastic, Wizards all the way. It's a good and right thing to look for the leverage points of the universe and see what happens when you push.

Where Wizardry goes wrong is when you're looking at the *model* and using that as your sense for the feedback loop. Models are not tools for sensemaking and bad things happen when you try. An analysis of whether your plan worked that invokes a quality metric of your own creation is essentially nothing at all. Science first and foremost has to ground out in anecdote. So now I'm extremely respectful to the stories of Wizards that involve a thing they actually noticed changing in a predictable way due to their interventions. But I'm still openly contemptuous of any sort of "if we burn the commons for more parking, the Blumbo-Dingweed score will go up 30%, how could we not?" argument, which is the best part of being a Prophet.

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The Land Institute or Neal Spackman seem like Wizard/Prophet hybrids. In many ways Doomer Optimism is a hybrid project, but it begins fundamentally with a Prophet mindset.

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Prophets create only sermons and bureaucracies, they are psychologically incapable to come with clever solutions.

Organic and sustainable agriculture sounds good but it barely works and can't scale.

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Another James C. Scott book with an anti-Wizard approach is Seeing Like a State.

It seems to me that in those areas where governments don't coerce, we should generally be in favor prophetmaxxing and wizardmaxxing. The market will generally do a good job of figuring out what works best. And then in those areas where governments do coerce, we shouldn't be prophetmaxxing or wizardmaxxing, because that's what leads to famines, overregulation, stagnation, perverse incentives, unintended consequences, etc.

I think the above is, overall, a Prophet mindset, but I'm not sure.

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Feb 18·edited Feb 18

I mean, there are people who try to steal what the others accomplish, and others who try to take it by force...

Thieves and Fighters, of course. ;)

Also:

Ironically, if biotech actually *could* grow you a convincing body of the other sex, I would argue everyone should spend a year as a man and a woman before making up their minds which to be.

I am under no illusions this is a typical view!

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What’s your Enneagram type?

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Excellent review as usual, and a very good description of the two sides of the human coin, or the tension and tradeoffs we have to make.

I do want to pick one particular nit: "the slow-moving, sclerotic meritocracies of our regulatory/NGO complex aren’t staffed by those people." The word "meritocracies" is not the one I would use there. Actual merit has little to do with their selection and promotion system. Credentiocracy or even just bureaucracy probably is closer to the truth.

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Enjoyed the review!

This other one is for a younger audience, but you should check out the recent Borlaug biography “Hero for the Hungry.”

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Thanks for the shout out for King Charles - a much misunderstood and maligned man, mostly by Wizards 😂

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Enjoyable read (as always).

Commenting to say that the critique of the '15-minute city' reads very much like a conservative desperately trying to convince herself that the liberals' new thing is bad even though everything about it sounds nice, because "it just won't work trust me".

"[I]mposing restrictions on who can go where, when." ?? Be serious lol.

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… so what are your enneagram type and color season?

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