This time it’s different
The JC’s amateur guide to systems theory™
With every single technological advance, from the invention of writing to the invention of television, those who have failed to appreciate the non-zero-sum nature of technological evolution have prophesied doom and been proven wrong. Every time, they have made some version of the argument: this time it is different, and been proven wrong.
What’s truly amazing about these times is that we have more access than ever before to material that demonstrates the continuity and repetitiveness of history, including evidence of the insistence by critics of all eras that this time is different, yet so many still buy into the pyramid scheme that we are special. It is both self-aggrandising and self-exonerating; it feels right.
- —Lauren Oyler, London Review of Books
“And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, one girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.
Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terribly stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost forever.”
Stiffen your sinews when you hear this one.
“This time it is different”. This time, the fact that [Here insert inconvenient but basic operating assumption of life on Earth that hitherto has spoiled the plans of dreamers and fantasists with unerring regularity] doesn’t matter, because our new [here insert machine/technique/technology/philosophy] consigns these unwelcome considerations to the past. We are in a new paradigm! previous assumptions no longer hold!
Law is the world’s second-oldest profession. when considering threats to the legal business model, bear in mind the colossal power of the “Lindy effect” on a calling that has held its own at the top of the social heap for an unbroken stretch of four of five thousand years. A much better question to ask is, “in what way have things changed, such that this time could not possibly be the same?”
The Lexrifyly IPO
He’s not proud of it, but in his wild, early years, the JC spent a time in the company of a British coven of vampire squids. It was the early noughties. It was source material for Deltaview Force: An Opco Boone Adventure
He remembers a spring day in March 2000, when he came across one of these little tadpoles. The poor little punk was in a state, lolling around his cubicle, waving a red herring for PetVan, or BluBeenz, or Lexrifyly or some such thing — one forgets — his mouth frothing, is glowing eyes rolling in their sockets. All this little analyst could do was mutter, over and over, “I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE”.
The JC flipped a few pages — prospectuses only had two or three hundred back then, so you could lift them unaided — and remarked, “but, surely, it has no forecasted revenue, let alone profit, in the next nineteen years. It even says so in the prospectus.”
Young Renfield — for that was his name — convulsed in bubbling, foamy laughter.
“Yes it is! It is all disclosed man! We’re only taking orders stapled to big-boy letters! We’re 'wildly over-subscribed!”
“But this company won’t make any money?”
“You fool,” he cried. “Revenue is irrelevant! This is the internet! There is no money any more! Money is irrelevant! I am irrelevant! You are irrelevant —”
“Now steady on, my good man —”
He laughed a maniac’s laugh. “We are all irrelevant! Everything is free! We are liberated! There are no bricks and/or mortar! we are going to be rich!”
The poor lad then dissolved into a gurgling hysteria, then rolled over and shot me with intense, red-beaded eyes. “How much can I put you down for? We’re full on our lines but I can get you a piece —”
The JC walked on — not for the first time his natural timidity seeing him in good stead. Ten days later the market imploded, taking the young tadpole, PetVan, BluBeenz and Lexrifyly with it.
On the lessons of history
The strangest thing about the “this time it’s different” crowd is how closely it maps to the data maximalists: those techbro reductionists who, hopped up on Ayn Rand, singularity chat and simulation hypotheses conviction believe in a determinist, algorithmic, predictable, solvable universe.
You know, one where if the same thing happens twice, the outcome definitively will not be different.
For if you insist upon viewing the the unfolding universe in your rear-view mirror, reversing into the future, as it were, by reference only to the things you know that have already happened — for this is what data maximalists necessarily do — then surely your corpus must tell you that things will not be different. Your corpus includes: every popular delusion, every madness, every irrational exuberance, every bait-and-switch, every pump-and-dump, every wishful misapprehension, every Svengali, every charlatan, every fraudster, every fuck-up, every hysteria, every Ponzi, bubble, boiler-room, flash-crash, scam, meme-stock, short-squeeze, operational risk incident, rogue trader, credit crunch and every unexpected failure of a systemically important financial institution — all of these are coded, taxonomised, analysed and canonised in your data set — and even though your data-set tells you unanticipated fuck-ups outweigh successful innovations 10,000:1 — surely its tell you, if it tells you anything at all, that the one thing we can be certain of is that there will be fuck-ups.
People will be disappointed. People will lose money, in unpredictable and predictable ways. The universe will not be suddenly better disposed to the same wilful, wistful, wishful, misty-eyed optimism that it has hitherto crushed like a bug at every opportunity.
For, however measly, paltry and useless the data we have currently collected is; however infinitesimally tiny a subset it is of all possible data, in all times, at all places and through all dimensions, anywhere in the total space-time of our multi-hued universe, the one thing it tells us, the single inference we can, with sparkling clarity, draw is that there will be fuck-ups.
So isn’t it the richest of dyspeptic ironies that these millenarian thought-leading data pioneers all somehow manage to extrapolate from this catalogue of resounding woe, that this new forward plan for this new fangled-idea, is different?
Prior times it seemed to be different, but wasn’t
- FTX has none of the traditional systemic risk of centralised finance because crypto. And Sam Bankman Fried’s parents worked in compliance, so there’s that. @ Everyone 2021.
- Millennial investors have changed the rules of finance forever because bitcoin, memestocks, NFTs, Reddit and so on. — Every hot take ever on Twitter, 2021.
- We have eliminated boom and bust. — © Gordon Brown, April 2000.
- It’s the end of history. We libtards have won. — © Francis Fukuyama, 1992
- How you value businesses without reference to cashflow or profitability. — © every investment banker ever, in the run-up to the dotcom bust in 2000
- We have efficiently allocated risk to those best placed to bear it through credit derivatives. — © every investment banker ever, in the run-up to the global financial crisis, 2004-8
- Mark-to-market accounting of future income streams in a market that doesn’t exist yet is sensible. — © Arthur Andersen Jeff Skilling and the crazy gang at Enron, continually up to October 2001
- The Singularity is definitely going to happen, and the universe will wake up, rewriting the laws of physics as we know them etc. — © Ray Kurzweil, 2005.
- Software is eating the world. — © Marc Andreessen, 2009
- The machines are going to take over, breed us in slimy pods as battery fuel for Skynet which the machines will need because um they just will. Look! Chess-playing supercomputers! — © Daniel Susskind, A World Without Work
- Everyone is going to be nice to each other now Generation Z is in control and we have taken out and shot all the old white men. — © Every millennial, and millennial apologist ever, 2018 -.