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Posts Tagged ‘future

“Charisma is not so much getting people to like you as getting people to like themselves when you’re around”*…

Donald Trump and Barak Obama at Trump’s inauguration (source)

Charisma: hard to define, but clear when one encounters it. Joe Zadeh looks at charisma’s history– both as a phenomenon and as a concept– and contemplates its future (spoiler alert– AI figures).

After recounting the story of Stephan George, a German poet and thought leader who was hugely consequential in Germany in the first half of the 20th century, he turns to pioneering sociologist Max Weber, who met George in 1910…

At the time, charisma was an obscure religious concept used mostly in the depths of Christian theology. It had featured almost 2,000 years earlier in the New Testament writings of Paul to describe figures like Jesus and Moses who’d been imbued with God’s power or grace. Paul had borrowed it from the Ancient Greek word “charis,” which more generally denoted someone blessed with the gift of grace. Weber thought charisma shouldn’t be restricted to the early days of Christianity, but rather was a concept that explained a far wider social phenomenon, and he would use it more than a thousand times in his writings. He saw charisma echoing throughout culture and politics, past and present, and especially loudly in the life of Stefan George…

Weber had died in 1920, before George truly reached the height of his powers (and before the wave of totalitarian dictatorships that would define much of the century), but he’d already seen enough to fatten his theory of charisma. At times of crisis, confusion and complexity, Weber thought, our faith in traditional and rational institutions collapses and we look for salvation and redemption in the irrational allure of certain individuals. These individuals break from the ordinary and challenge existing norms and values. Followers of charismatic figures come to view them as “extraordinary,” “superhuman” or even “supernatural” and thrust them to positions of power on a passionate wave of emotion. 

In Weber’s mind, this kind of charismatic power wasn’t just evidenced by accounts of history — of religions and societies formed around prophets, saints, shamans, war heroes, revolutionaries and radicals. It was also echoed in the very stories we tell ourselves — in the tales of mythical heroes like Achilles and Cú Chulainn. 

These charismatic explosions were usually short-lived and unstable — “every hour of its existence brings it nearer to this end,” wrote Weber — but the most potent ones could build worlds and leave behind a legacy of new traditions and values that then became enshrined in more traditional structures of power. In essence, Weber believed, all forms of power started and ended with charisma; it drove the volcanic eruptions of social upheaval. In this theory, he felt he’d uncovered “the creative revolutionary force” of history. 

Weber was not the first to think like this. Similar ideas had been floating around at least as far back as the mid-1700s, when the Scottish philosopher David Hume had written that in the battle between reason and passion, the latter would always win. And it murmured in the 1800s in Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man Theory” and in Nietzsche’s idea of the “Übermensch.” But none would have quite the global impact of Weber, whose work on charisma would set it on a trajectory to leap the fence of religious studies and become one of the most overused yet least understood words in the English language.

A scientifically sound or generally agreed-upon definition of charisma remains elusive even after all these years of investigation. Across sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science, history and theater studies, academics have wrestled with how exactly to explain, refine and apply it, as well as identify where it is located: in the powerful traits of a leader or in the susceptible minds of a follower or perhaps somewhere between the two, like a magnetic field…

…Weber himself would disagree with the individualized modern understanding of charisma. “He was actually using it in a far more sophisticated way,” he said. “It wasn’t about the power of the individual — it was about the reflection of that power by the audience, about whether they receive it. He saw it as a process of interaction. And he was as fascinated by crowds as he was by individuals.” In Weber’s words: “What is alone important is how the [charismatic] individual is actually regarded by those subject to charismatic authority, by his ‘followers’ or ‘disciples.’ … It is recognition on the part of those subject to authority which is decisive for the validity of charisma.”

The Eurocentric version of how Weber conceptualized charisma is that he took it from Christianity and transformed it into a theory for understanding Western culture and politics. In truth, it was also founded on numerous non-Western spiritual concepts that he’d discovered via the anthropological works of his day. In one of the less-quoted paragraphs of his 1920 book “The Sociology of Religion,” Weber wrote that his nascent formulation of charisma was inspired by mana (Polynesian), maga (Zoroastrian, and from which we get our word magic) and orenda (Native American). “In this moment,” Wright wrote in a research paper exploring this particular passage, “we see our modern political vocabulary taking shape before our eyes.”

Native American beliefs were of particular interest to Weber. On his only visit to America in 1904, he turned down an invitation from Theodore Roosevelt to visit the White House and headed to the Oklahoma plains in search of what remained of Indigenous communities there. Orenda is an Iroquois term for a spiritual energy that flows through everything in varying degrees of potency. Like charisma, possessors of orenda are said to be able to channel it to exert their will. “A shaman,” wrote the Native American scholar J.N.B. Hewitt, “is one whose orenda is great.” But unlike the Western use of charisma, orenda was said to be accessible to everything, animate and inanimate, from humans to animals and trees to stones. Even the weather could be said to have orenda. “A brewing storm,” wrote Hewitt, is said to be “preparing its orenda.” 

This diffuse element of orenda — the idea that it could be imbued in anything at all — has prefigured a more recent evolution in the Western conceptualization of charisma: that it is more than human. Archaeologists have begun to apply it to the powerful and active social role that certain objects have played throughout history. In environmentalism, Jamie Lorimer of Oxford University has written that charismatic species like lions and elephants “dominate the mediascapes that frame popular sensibilities toward wildlife” and feature “disproportionately in the databases and designations that perform conservation.” 

Compelling explorations of nonhuman charisma have also come from research on modern technology. Human relationships with technology have always been implicitly spiritual. In the 18th century, clockmakers became a metaphor for God and clockwork for the universe. Airplanes were described as “winged gospels.” The original iPhone was heralded, both seriously and mockingly, as “the Jesus phone.” As each new popular technology paints its own vision of a better world, we seek in these objects a sort of redemption, salvation or transcendence. Some deliver miracles, some just appear to, and others fail catastrophically. 

Today, something we view as exciting, terrifying and revolutionary, and have endowed with the ability to know our deepest beliefs, prejudices and desires, is not a populist politician, an internet influencer or a religious leader. It’s an algorithm. 

These technologies now have the power to act in the world, to know things and to make things happen. In many instances, their impact is mundane: They arrange news feeds, suggest clothes to buy and calculate credit scores. But as we interact more and more with them on an increasingly intimate level, in the way we would ordinarily with other humans, we develop the capacity to form charismatic bonds. 

It’s now fairly colloquial for someone to remark that they “feel seen” by algorithms and chatbots. In a 2022 study of people who had formed deep and long-term friendships with the AI-powered program Replika, participants reported that they viewed it as “a part of themselves or as a mirror.” On apps like TikTok, more than any other social media platform, the user experience is almost entirely driven by an intimate relationship with the algorithm. Users are fed a stream of videos not from friends or chosen creators, but mostly from accounts they don’t follow and haven’t interacted with. The algorithm wants users to spend more time on the platform, and so through a series of computational procedures, it draws them down a rabbit hole built from mathematical inferences of their passions and desires. 

The inability to understand quite how sophisticated algorithms exert their will on us (largely because such information is intentionally clouded), while nonetheless perceiving their power enables them to become an authority in our lives. As the psychologist Donald McIntosh explained almost half a century ago, “The outstanding quality of charisma is its enormous power, resting on the intensity and strength of the forces which lie unconscious in every human psyche. … The ability to tap these forces lies behind everything that is creative and constructive in human action, but also behind the terrible destructiveness of which humans are capable. … In the social and political realm, there is no power to match that of the leader who is able to evoke and harness the unconscious resources of his followers.”

In an increasingly complex and divided society, in which partisanship has hindered the prospect of cooperation on everything from human rights to the climate crisis, the thirst for a charismatic leader or artificial intelligence that can move the masses in one direction is as seductive as it has ever been. But whether such a charismatic phenomenon would lead to good or bad, liberation or violence, salvation or destruction, is a conundrum that remains at the core of this two-faced phenomenon. “The false Messiah is as old as the hope for the true Messiah,” wrote Franz Rosenzweig. “He is the changing form of this changeless hope.”… 

How our culture, politics, and technology became infused with a mysterious social phenomenon that everyone can feel but nobody can explain: “The Secret History And Strange Future Of Charisma,” from @joe_zadeh in @NoemaMag. Eminently worth reading in full.

Robert Breault


As we muse on magnetism, we might recall that it was on this date in 1723 that Johann Sebastian Bach assumed the office of Thomaskantor (Musical Director of the Thomanerchor, now an internationally-known boys’ choir founded in Leipzig in 1212), presenting his new cantata, Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75— a complex work in two parts, of seven movements each, marks the beginning of his first annual cycle of cantatas— in the St. Nicholas Church.

Thomaskirche and it choir school, 1723 (source)

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that”*…

Noah Smith‘s sobering reflection on the rise of authoritarianism and illiberalism…

[This week] is the 20-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq — a multi-decade debacle that would see hundreds of thousands of innocents killed, trillions of dollars flushed down the drain, America’s image in the Middle East destroyed, and the acceleration of the end of U.S. hegemony.

[This week] is also the [time] of the summit between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, in which the leaders of the two authoritarian great powers reiterate their de facto alliance. With one of those powers actively engaged in a war of conquest against a peaceful neighbor, and the other threatening to do the same, the world is in danger of plunging back into the horrors of the early 20th century.

So this is the perfect [time] to repost a fairly melodramatic post that I wrote two years ago, about the rise of authoritarianism and illiberalism. I don’t apologize for the over-the-top language, since I think it’s difficult to overstate the danger; we humans have a strong tendency to stick our heads in the sand until it’s too late, and we need to wake up.

But we also need to remember a crucial piece of this story: It was American folly that began this baleful trend. Our victories in World War 2 and Cold War 1 gave the U.S. the unique opportunity to build a world where countries don’t invade other countries; when we invaded Iraq without cause or provocation, we threw away that opportunity. We brought back the principle of “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must”. We opened the gates, and allowed the Darkness back into our world. Now it’s our responsibility to help fix what we broke…

Illiberalism is on the march, all over the world- thoughts on what’s happening, why, and what we can do about it: “The Darkness,” from @Noahpinion. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Martin Luther King Jr.


As we face the future, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933 that Germany opened its first concentration camp, Dachau. Initially intended to intern Hitler’s political opponents (communists, social democrats, and other dissidents), it’s “mission” was enlarged to include forced labor, and, eventually, the imprisonment of Jews, Romani, German and Austrian criminals, and, finally, foreign nationals from countries that Germany occupied or invaded. There were 32,000 documented deaths at the camp, and thousands that are undocumented.  Approximately 10,000 of the 30,000 prisoners were sick at the time of liberation by U.S. forces in April of 1945.

U.S. soldiers guarding the main entrance to Dachau just after liberation (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 22, 2023 at 1:00 am

“I was a peripheral visionary. I could see the future, but only way off to the side.”*…

Artist’s concept of the Earth 5–7.5 billion years from now, when the Sun has become a red giant. (source)

As Niels Bohr said, “prediciton is hard, especially about the future.” Still, we can try…

While the future cannot be predicted with certainty, present understanding in various scientific fields allows for the prediction of some far-future events, if only in the broadest outline. These fields include astrophysics, which studies how planets and stars form, interact, and die; particle physics, which has revealed how matter behaves at the smallest scales; evolutionary biology, which studies how life evolves over time; plate tectonics, which shows how continents shift over millennia; and sociology, which examines how human societies and cultures evolve.

The far future begins after the current millennium comes to an end, starting with the 4th millennium in 3001 CE, and continues until the furthest reaches of future time. These timelines include alternative future events that address unresolved scientific questions, such as whether humans will become extinct, whether the Earth survives when the Sun expands to become a red giant and whether proton decay will be the eventual end of all matter in the Universe…

A new pole star, the end of Niagara Falls, the wearing away of the Canadian Rockies– and these are just highlights from the first 50-60 million years. Read on for an extraordinary outline of what current science suggests is in store over the long haul: “Timeline of the far future,” a remarkable Wikipedia page.

Related pages: List of future astronomical events, Far future in fiction, and Far future in religion.

* Steven Wright


As we take the long view, we might send grateful birthday greetings to the man who “wrote the book” on perspective (a capacity analogically handy in the endeavor featured above), Leon Battista Alberti; he was born on this date in 1404.  The archetypical Renaissance humanist polymath, Alberti was an author, artist, architect, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher, cartographer, and cryptographer.  He collaborated with Toscanelli on the maps used by Columbus on his first voyage, and he published the the first book on cryptography that contained a frequency table.

But he is surely best remembered as the author of the first general treatise– De Pictura (1434)– on the the laws of perspective, which built on and extended Brunelleschi’s work to describe the approach and technique that established the science of projective geometry… and fueled the progress of painting, sculpture, and architecture from the Greek- and Arabic-influenced formalism of the High Middle Ages to the more naturalistic (and Latinate) styles of Renaissance.

Figure from the 1804 edition of Della pittura showing the vanishing pointsource)


“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust”*…

Beyond the Prisoner’s Dilemma— an interactive guide to game theory and why we trust each other: The Evolution of Trust, from Nicky Case (@ncasenmare), via @frauenfelder@mastodon.cloud in @Recomendo6.

* J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan


As we rethink reciprocal reliance, we might send far-sighted birthday greetings to Michel de Nostredame; he was born on this date in 1503. Better known as Nostradamus, he was an astrologer, apothecary, physician, and reputed seer, who is best known for his book Les Prophéties (published in 1555), a collection of 942 poetic quatrains allegedly predicting future events.

In the years since the publication of his Les Prophéties, Nostradamus has attracted many supporters, who, along with some of the popular press, credit him with having accurately predicted many major world events. Other, more critical, observers note that many of his supposed correct calls were the result of “generous” (or plainly incorrect) translations/interpretations; and more generally, that Nostradamus’ genius for vagueness allows– indeed encourages– enthusiasts to “find” connections where they may or may not exist.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 14, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Material progress does not merely fail to relieve poverty, it actually produces it. This association of progress with poverty is the great enigma of our times. It is the riddle that the sphinx of fate puts to our civilization. And which NOT to answer is to be destroyed.”*…

John Burn-Murdoch brings the data…

Where would you rather live? A society where the rich are extraordinarily rich and the poor are very poor, or one where the rich are merely very well off but even those on the lowest incomes also enjoy a decent standard of living?

For all but the most ardent free-market libertarians, the answer would be the latter. Research has consistently shown that while most people express a desire for some distance between top and bottom, they would rather live in considerably more equal societies than they do at present. Many would even opt for the more egalitarian society if the overall pie was smaller than in a less equal one.

On this basis, it follows that one good way to evaluate which countries are better places to live than others is to ask: is life good for everyone there, or is it only good for rich people?

To find the answer, we can look at how people at different points on the income distribution compare to their peers elsewhere. If you’re a proud Brit or American, you may want to look away now…

To be clear, the US data show that both broad-based growth and the equal distribution of its proceeds matter for wellbeing. Five years of healthy pre-pandemic growth in US living standards across the distribution lifted all boats, a trend that was conspicuously absent in the UK.

But redistributing the gains more evenly would have a far more transformative impact on quality of life for millions. The growth spurt boosted incomes of the bottom decile of US households by roughly an extra 10 per cent. But transpose Norway’s inequality gradient on to the US, and the poorest decile of Americans would be a further 40 per cent better off while the top decile would remain richer than the top of almost every other country on the planet.

Our leaders are of course right to target economic growth, but to wave away concerns about the distribution of a decent standard of living — which is what income inequality essentially measures — is to be disinterested in the lives of millions. Until those gradients are made less steep, the UK and US will remain poor societies with pockets of rich people…

Britain and the US are poor societies with some very rich people,” from @jburnmurdoch.

For a different (but not altogether contrary) perspective, see Noah Smith (@Noahpinion): “No, the U.S. is not “a poor society with some very rich people” (“We’re a rich society with some very poor people…”)

For an authoritative (and fascinating) account of how we got here: “Our Ancestors Thought We’d Build an Economic Paradise. Instead We Got 2022,” from @delong, adapted from his terrific new book, Slouching Toward Utopia.

Henry George, Progress and Poverty (whose point seems to accrue whether one comes down with Burn-Murdoch or with Smith…)


As we ponder progress, we might recall that it was on this date in 1962 that Americans met The Jetsons; the animated series premiered on ABC (the first color series on the network). The show was scheduled opposite Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Dennis the Menace and didn’t receive much attention; it was cancelled after one season and moved to Saturday mornings, where it was very successful.

Apart from flying cars and outer-space dwellings, much of the technology of The Jetsons has become commonplace: people now communicate via video chat on flat screens; domestic robots (like Roomba) are widespread, and various high-tech devices are the instruments of our leisure. But The Jetsons broader portrayal of life is still far from commonplace: while its world is one in which capitalism and entrepreneurship still exist and technology has not changed fundamental elements of human nature, it posits social advances (e.g., George Jetson works an hour a day, two days a week) that haven’t accrued and a society– no people of color, no working mothers, no single parents, no gay marriage, no poverty– that seem (to put it politely) quaint. Still, Smithsonian‘s Matt Novak, in an article called “Why The Show Still Matters” argues, “Today The Jetsons stands as the single most important piece of 20th century futurism… It’s easy for some people to dismiss The Jetsons as just a TV show, and a lowly cartoon at that. But this little show—for better and for worse—has had a profound impact on the way that Americans think and talk about the future.”


And we might agree with  Andrew Womack (@Womack) and Rosecrans Baldwin (@rosecrans) that “it is a special pleasure to link this year after year: “it’s decorative gourd season, motherf*ckers.”

Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 23, 2022 at 1:00 am

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