#30 - Investigate the monasteries

Modern gatekeepers of knowledge are like 16th-century monasteries

In 1535, the chief minister of England, Thomas Cromwell, sent out his agents to investigate the character and value of all ecclesiastical property in the English kingdom. The report uncovered a counterintuitive truth: English monasteries were rampant with corruption and scandalous immorality among the supposedly “chaste, holy, and upright” monks and nuns that occupied them.

There are probably many reasons for the surprising corruption within monasteries, but I’d like to focus on one: Monasteries resisted scrutiny because of their outward superiority (“you can’t investigate us, we’re monks!!”). The modern gatekeepers are similar to the 16th-century monasteries in this regard, and while I don’t think that these gatekeepers are morally corrupt, we nevertheless need to investigate them and hold them accountable.

Superiority through sacrifice

Erasmus, a 1500s Dutch philosopher and theologian who had actually left monastic life, wrote in a letter to a friend:

Monastic life should not be equated with the virtuous life. It is just one type of life . . . A life for which I was averse both in mind and body: in mind, because I shrank from ceremonies and was fond of liberty; in body, because my constitution was not adapted to such trials.

By suggesting that the monastic life is “just one type of life,” Erasmus implied that monastics self-righteously considered themselves superior to non-monastics. Monks rooted their superiority in their strict “ceremonies” and “trials” while others who were “more fond of liberty” were categorically barred from joining their elite ranks.

We see something similar today with the modern gatekeepers of knowledge, the highly-educated professionals, academics, and technologists aggregated in New York, Silicon Valley, and Washington D.C. These modern monastics don’t differentiate themselves through bodily or religious sacrifices, but through sacrifices of time. In other words, the modern monastics participate in long, highly stratified games to acquire further knowledge and status. If you’ve played the game and consistently win according to its rules, you do everything in your power to prop up the rules. So, you categorically exclude everyone who threatens to play the game according to different rules.

One of the clearest examples of this is the legal profession, perhaps the most stratified profession in America. When you graduate law school and go into a law firm, you’re known as a “first-year associate” at the firm. The second year, you’re a “second-year associate.” And so on. Your title changes by the year. Your worth is determined explicitly by your tenure. And when you hit the ever-lucrative partner status at the firm, there’s further stratification into titles like “managing partner,” “equity partner,” “non-equity partner,” “partner in name only.” And even on the Supreme Court of the United States, where you’d think you’ve reached the top of the race, you still have stratification. Indeed, SCOTUS has one “Chief Justice” and eight “Associate Justices.” The newest Associate Justice is perpetually on what’s called “cafeteria duty,” and when all the Justices meet in the inner sanctum to talk about a case, the newest Associate Justice always speaks last and must be the one to open the door whenever anyone knocks.

So, some of the whispers I hear around law school is that after you graduate, you should spend at least a couple years at a law firm, since that will give you the respect and credibility necessary to leverage yourself into other positions in the legal field. In other words, you need to pay your dues to get your foot in the door of the legal monastery.

Similar things can be probably said about the medical monastery, the academic monastery, and the tech monastery. But my issue is not about the existence of these monasteries, but about the monopoly they have over discourse in their relevant fields. They should not escape scrutiny from the outside.

To be fair, we can’t trust any Joe Schmoe to opine about a specific field like intellectual property law. But I also will note that while you probably need a law degree to litigate intellectual property issues for a client, you certainly don’t need the degree to learn about intellectual property law, discuss it, and even drive it forward.

Bob Laughlin and The Crime of Reason

Bob Laughlin is a Stanford physics professor who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1998. After he won the Nobel, he thought he’d have the intellectual freedom to investigate more taboo topics, including the most taboo of them all: The level of productivity and innovation in other scientific fields. He was convinced that a bunch of academics in universities were doing fake science, wasting government money on fake research that wasn’t really going anywhere. And he started his investigation with the biology department at Stanford.

You can imagine how this ended for Laughlin: Catastrophically. According to Peter Thiel, who apparently knew Laughlin and his graduate students in the late ‘90s, Laughlin’s graduate students could no longer get PhDs, and Laughlin no longer got funding because his idea was so forbidden by the establishment.

Bob Laughlin distilled his theory of knowledge and innovation in The Crime of Reason: The Closing of the Scientific Mind. One of Laughlin’s theses is that because the information age has made knowledge free and abundant, the gated institutions (the modern monasteries) must now try extra hard to make their sacred knowledge inaccessible, incomprehensible, and unknowable. You can only acquire that specialized knowledge if you pay your dues and enroll in the monastery to become a monk yourself. After all, according to Laughlin, knowledge often has economic value to the holder, and if that knowledge is free, then the modern monasteries, predicated on access to that knowledge, will not be able to exist. Laughlin argues that we are losing the right to understand things, to figure them out on our own, and to use that knowledge to better ourselves and our world because the Internet is accelerating the sequestration of certain forms of higher knowledge.

Now, I’m not sure if I agree fully with Laughlin’s conclusion. In my opinion, the pre-Internet world was the one dominated by gatekeepers. The Internet opened the floodgates to a wealth of knowledge and gave everyone a voice to discuss their opinions online. We live in a world today where we have far more information at our fingertips than we could have found in our local libraries fifty years ago.

At the same time, however, I have this nagging sense that Laughlin is onto something. If we have unprecedented access to knowledge today, we should theoretically be more able and willing to challenge what happens in the modern monasteries. But my sense is that many people are afraid of, or even silenced from, asking these interesting, taboo questions in the first place. We should be fact-checking the political, economic, and scientific claims coming from the lawyers, doctors, and academics. We should be fact-checking the fact-checkers. We should be obsessed with a search for truth. We should support more people who actually investigate the monasteries.


📚 What I’m reading

Jack Ma, Xi Jinping, and Ant Group’s pulled IPO.

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2020.

China clamps down on its tech companies with new antitrust rules.

Snap acquired Voca.ai, which makes AI-based voice agents for call centers. Two theories for the acquisition: (1) Offer Voca.ai to businesses that are on Snapchat, and help those businesses better connect with Snapchat customers; (2) Voice assistant for Snap’s Spectacles.

A lengthy profile of Elon Musk and his 2020.

A shorter profile of Peter Thiel. Bloomberg does a quick tour of Peter Thiel’s investments and the success of those investments. Interesting quote: “There’s little evidence that wealth in and of itself is the goal for Thiel. ‘I think Peter is motivated genuinely by a certain curiosity, almost as if he’s moving pieces around on a chessboard.’”

Tim Wu responds to Ben Thompson’s response. Last week, I linked to Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia, who wrote a very critical take of Ben Thompson’s antitrust analyses, calling it “a little too much Kool-Aid.” I also linked to Ben’s response, where he ended by suggesting that Wu might be a protectionist modern monastic that I described in this article. Wu’s response to Ben’s response, though, leaves me with the impression that he and Ben are both on an intellectually honest search for truth and how to handle the power of tech platforms, regardless of their respective backgrounds in law and business strategy.