Wednesday, 26 May 2010

An attempt at a simple, two-rule morality

I've been thinking about morality recently. Plenty of people claim to offer moral systems, but as a modern, relatively enlightened individual most of them seem to include relatively arbitrary injunctions, and as a geek most of them seem both over-complicated and over-specified, and yet still riddled with unhandled edge-cases.

Take the Ten Commandments, for example:

  1. I am the Lord your God
  2. You shall have no other gods before me/You shall not make for yourself an idol
  3. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of your God
  4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
  5. Honor your father and mother
  6. You shall not murder
  7. You shall not commit adultery
  8. You shall not steal
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor
  10. You shall not covet your neighbour's wife/You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour

As a modern weak atheist there seem to be some obvious errors or redundancies there:

  • The first two injunctions presuppose a belief in supernatural entity, so as someone who finds no rational reason to believe in a supernatural entity, these seem suspect or redundant. Firstly they could be better summarised as "Do not believe in any gods other than me". Secondly, unless God can himself demonstrate his moral authority (instead of, as most religions do, simply assuming it) they seem more concerned with promoting and propagating one religion than with laying down universal moral rules to live by.
  • The latter half of the Second Commandment seems to contradict the First Commandment and the first half of the Second. As a non-Christian, I would define an idol as an entity which is worshipped blindly and absolutely. This definitely includes the Christian God. Alternatively, one can take the assumed definition in context as "anything other than the Christian God"; but then (as above) it amounts to an empty re-iteration of the first commandment-and-a-half, which themselves rely on the undemonstrated assumption that the Christian God is an absolute moral authority.
  • The third again seems unnecessary - why should a system of morality define it as immoral to take the name of its creator in vain? A system of morality should stand up on its own to reasonable argument, and defining veneration of its creator as a moral requirement frankly sounds far too much like begging the question.
  • The fourth is simply redundant - why should a moral system concern itself with keeping a day of the week specifically marked out? Admittedly there may be some social benefits to setting aside a whole day of the week for adherents to remember and reflect upon their moral choices, but I don't see why such an injunction is morally good, rather than simply a good idea.
  • The fifth is again a good idea, but too over-simplified and prone to edge-cases. Sure honouring your parents is good for social stability, but what if your father is a deadbeat dad and your mother a shiftless crackhead? This commandment smacks entirely too much of the kind of unconditional, assumed authority that typifies the Ten Commandments, and is far too incomplete to serve as a good rule. Moreover, why should parents get special treatment? Why not simply honour anyone who is wiser, more intelligent or more experienced than you?
  • The sixth through ninth are pretty good, prohibiting murder, adultery, theft and lying. However, you have to be careful with definitions - for example, distinguishing between "murder" and "killing", which may include self-defence or defence of a third party). Moreover, I can't help wonder if these are overly specific, leaving out whole classes of immoral behaviour not explicitly prohibited. Take "dropping litter in public", for example - most of us would agree that it's a comparatively moral issue, and yet it's not covered by these four injunctions.
  • Leaving aside the implication that a wife is a possession to be owned, the tenth is again pretty good - I've always understood this as an injunction to try not to feel jealousy (because it's frequently a sterile, unproductive emotion), but rather to concentrate on bettering your own life and resist the temptation to waste it wishing you had someone else's.

Clearly, then, there's a lot of fat that could be cut, and a lot of edge-cases to handle.

Instead, I present my best stab at a moral system. It's only two injunctions:

  1. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, at the highest level of abstraction possible.
  2. Always seek to minimise harm in the long run.

There are a couple of subtle but key points here.

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a pretty good moral system on its own, but the addition of "at the highest level of abstraction possible" removes edge-cases and makes it a lot more specific and defensible.

For example, it would now prohibit a masochist excusing undesired violence against others on the basis that he liked to receive violence himself. Rather, he is now constrained to consider their wishes when deciding whether it's acceptable to hurt others, rather than simply the shallow fact of his actions.

The second injunction is a somewhat Utilitarian attempt to minimise the total amount of harm in the world (where we define harm in the usual way, as "physical or mental damage").

This prohibits short-termism in decision-making (which often merely saves up problems or harm for later, possibly even increasing the total amount of harm).

It also allows for harm to be caused where necessary, but only where such harm is in the service of preventing greater harm - this would permit otherwise difficult moral choices, such as the hypothetical "killing a single child to prevent a nuclear weapon going off in a major city".

More trivially, it also permits things like "contradicting someone you believe is incorrect", but when considered in conjunction with the first, only if you're happy being contradicted or corrected by others in turn. It also effectively prohibits you from debating others' positions unless you're equally willing to give their arguments due consideration.

So that's it. The first injunction prohibits most non-victimless crimes, because we would all rather not be the victim of them, and the second permits harm to come to others, but only if we can reasonably assert that it will prevent greater harm elsewhere, or in the future.

With a little reasoning, as far as I can tell, every action or injunction we can reasonable justify as "moral" seems to be derived from these two principles.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Geeks can be hard to work with

Geeks and especially programmers often have strong belief in "doing things right". People have remarked on this tendency, and given it a variety of negative characterisations: obsessive-compulsive, irrational, making a moral issue out of a pragmatic question.

As a geek and a programmer, I put my hands up to this stereotype - it doesn't affect us all, but enough of us (myself included) have some degree of it that I don't think it's inaccurate. However, I believe that far from being a drawback, it's arguably a vital component of a gifted developer.

I think this urge toward technical correctness comes from three main sources:


Good programmers spend a lot of their time thinking in details - they have to, to be able to write reliable code. Programmers who gloss over or fudge details write buggy code with unhandled and unknown edge-cases.

Importantly, this code usually "sort-of" works most of the time (or at least, the obviously broken bits quickly get patched), and then occasionally fails spectacularly and catastrophically... at which point it's also usually blamed on the programmer who wrote it, rather than the manager who specified an over-complex requirement, or who provided an unreasonably small amount of resources (time, money, manpower) to achieve it.

Being a programmer is 50% artistic and 50% autistic, so it's hardly surprising that programmers can be a bit Aspergers-y about their code, especially when they're likely to carry the can for any catastrophic failures caused by it.

Artistic merit

Any programmer who isn't a journeyman or hack does the job because they like to create things, and as you get better mere creation isn't satisfying - instead you want to create things of beauty.

It's been noted before that (many or most good) programmers are makers - we need to feel that what we're creating reflects our abilities - something we'd be happy to put our name to - and we like delivering good, reliable, flexible, well-designed systems.

Banging out code or design you know is buggy, unreliable, inflexible or has unhandled edge-cases is simply not rewarding in the slightest. It's like hiring an artist to paint a wall blue, or hiring a sprinter to walk slowly to the shops for you.

To be fair, this is a very wishy-washy, non-business-oriented motivation, but I'd go so far as to say pretty much all the best programmers suffer from it - it seems to go with the territory, and not just from programmers, either - chefs are notoriously histrionic, artists are notoriously high-strung about their work and musicians are notoriously unstable or prone to mental illnesses. I don't think you can have excellence without pride in the work, and I don't think you can have pride in work without disillusionment and frustration when you're forced to churn out work you know is crap.


I've been privately or professionally involved in software development for around 15 years. I've worked in a variety of companies, in a variety of languages and systems, and with a variety of different management styles.

Across all companies, management structures, languages, technologies and system there are only two things I'm utterly certain of:

  1. Given the choice between a longer/more expensive design and a simpler, less flexible one, management will almost always say "design it to the current requirements, because we'll never need <hypothetical scenario X>, and it would be a waste of time to build a system which takes it into account".
  2. From the date of hearing this, within six months to a year they will discover a pressing, immediate, unavoidable and business-critical need for scenario X... and if they don't react well to being told that this will now take longer to accommodate, they often react really badly to being gently informed this is the result of the decision they took several months previously, at which point you (or your predecessor) informed them that this would be the consequence if they ever encountered scenario X.

Personally I try very hard to avoid taking dogmatic positions on anything, but in the years I've spent programming (especially professionally, when you're most likely to have to compromise on the design or implementation to hit deadlines or budgets), I - literally, with no exaggeration - don't believe I've ever heard "we'll never need that" and then not had to implement it (whatever it was) within a few months of that date.

This only has to happen a few times (especially when you're responsible for cleaning up the mess) before you become firmly convinced that creating a system that's any less flexible than you can possibly manage is ultimately tantamount to just fucking yourself square in the ass.

There are reasons...

So yes - there are a number of reasons why programmers are obsessed with Doing The Right Thing, and why we tend to react with aesthetic revulsion to the idea of fudging designs, or hard-coding things for convenience.

Some of them are unfortunate but understood and accommodated in other disciplines - try commissioning an artist to produce art for your offices then ban him from using anything except potato-prints, or tell an architect (for deadline/budget reasons) to design you a building that they know damn well could fall down at any moment.

Others are actually vital aspects of being a programmer that you can't easily switch on and off - athletes have to be fit, programmers have to be anally-retentive and precise - and that you really wouldn't want to do without in your dev team.

Lastly, if you're a non-technical co-worker or manager, programmers often have a lot more experience working on software projects than you do, and have learned hard-won lessons you aren't even aware are available to learn... particularly lessons where they have to pick up the pieces from their own (or other people's) mistakes.

So yeah, geeks can be hard to work with. But then the guy who knows where the landmines are buried can be awfully prescriptive about where you put your feet as you navigate through a minefield, too. And unless you want your feet blown off, it's often worth listening to them.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

The feeling you're about to get smarter

As you might have noticed if you read this blog, I'm quite an aggressive rationalist - I'm big on introspection, and strive to be as rational, consistent and justified in my beliefs as possible. If someone demonstrates to me conclusively that I'm wrong I'll generally (at least: I'll try to) reverse my position on a dime.

Because I try not to invest identity in my opinions it's usually not too difficult to change a belief or position when new information or reasoning comes along. However, even I'll admit that despite my efforts in this area, It's Not Fun Being Wrong.

In particular, everyone hates that point in a discussion that most rational people experience occasionally, where you discover your argument has a gaping hole in it. You know the one - you get that sick, empty, vertiginous, see-sawing feeling where it feels like you've inched yourself out over a long drop because you trusted the plank you were standing on, only to notice now that it was apparently made of cardboard the whole time.

However, I've realised recently, that feeling is exciting and scary, but it should be savoured and sought-after, because it's the feeling you're about to get smarter.

It may feel unpleasant, but that doesn't mean it should be unpleasant - that's much more down to what we associate with the feeling than the feeling itself. For example, a muscular ache is rarely considered pleasant... and yet after a good workout we can even enjoy it. This is because - while the feeling is the same - when we've worked out hard out we often feel virtuous, and good about ourselves. Although our muscles ache, every time we notice it it's a reminder that we did something we think of as good, and that we're slightly fitter or healthier now (or can just eat an extra cream cake without feeling guilty) as a result.

Equally, it's usually unpleasant to have our insides jangled about, or to feel like we're falling, or to be out of control... and yet many people love roller-coasters. It's unpleasant to be frightened... but some people will watch horror movies for fun.

In every case, the important difference is that although the sensation might be unpleasant on its own, we recognise in each case that we're getting something greater out of it, that makes the uncomfortable sensation worth-while - health and fitness, or novelty, or entertainment and feeling more secure the rest of the time. Indeed, when we associate it strongly enough, you can find yourself searching out these unpleasant sensations, and relishing the discomfort because of what it signifies.

"Being wrong" is one such unpleasant sensation, but as pointed out above, it's actually the feeling that you've just become smarter. This is unambiguously a good thing... and yet we generally don't realise or acknowledge to ourselves that that's what's happening, so people often simply fixate on (or even actively, instinctively try to avoid) the unpleasant sensation.

What this means, then, is that as humans we very deeply, subconsciously, instinctively try to stop ourselves from becoming smarter, and we don't even realise we're doing it. Whatever we consciously tell ourselves, subconsciously we would rather feel good about ourselves and be wrong than be correct or rational in our opinions.

As you're reading this blog, I'll assume you're the kind of person who would rather be right (even if it's uncomfortable) than deluded but confident. This, then, is clearly a problem.

What to do about it?

The good news is that - because it's a subconscious association, it's malleable. You can change and modify (even, as we've seen, completely reverse) these associations with a little effort.

Try the following: next time you realise (or someone proves) you're wrong about something, stop and consciously acknowledge it to yourself. Try to hold and really feel that sensation of being wrong. Try to consciously acknowledge and analyse the emotions you're feeling - are you embarrassed? Ashamed? Annoyed? At the other person or yourself? Do you suddenly feel less sure of your place in the world, or your opinions on certain subjects? Can you feel that bruise on your ego?

Be brutally honest with yourself - if it helps, if you don't feel any of the above (or something similar), you're probably not human.

Now you're fully engaged, and aware of how you feel, try to modify it. Acknowledge that you're feeling bad, but remind yourself it's only because your ego is wounded. Realise that the only thing making you feel bad is egotism, but that even that is both instinctive (ie, uncontrollable and not your fault), and a normal part of being human.

Remind yourself that you want to be smart and right and rational about things, and remind yourself that what you're feeling is the feeling of getting smarter, that that's unambiguously good. Try to explicitly relate the uncomfortable sensation to the positive feelings you have about being smart, or correct, or rational in your beliefs. Nice, isn't it? So, like exercise, or taking care of paperwork, that feeling you initially shied away from or avoided is actually a good thing, even if it's briefly uncomfortable in the short term.

Once you're smarter or more right about a subject, you're generally smarter or more right about it for the rest of your life. Isn't that worth a brief, temporary, silly little sting?

Now you've got the hang of it, go out and try to find things you're wrong about. Read up on subjects that interest you. Challenge your beliefs and attitudes by seeking out dissenting opinions and viewpoints, and see if you can prove your existing opinions wrong. Treat it like an intellectual game of conkers - every time you're proven wrong you get a little bit smarter, and every time you win a debate you can reward yourself by being a little more confident in that opinion or line of reasoning.

Test your ideas by subjecting them to challenges, discard the ones which fail and adopt the ones which succeed. And remember - the whole time you're doing it, you're becoming smarter, more educated and more rational.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

It's not a moral question, it's a simple impedance mismatch

I was talking with my girlfriend about housework the other day, when I came to a realisation I think explains a lot of the common niggling disputes between men and women (especially men and women in relationships, or who cohabit).

I should probably emphasise first that what I'm discussing here are general trends I've noticed in the genders - when I refer to "men" or "women" I'm discussing these general trends, and nothing in this post necessarily applies to any specific individual or small group of them.

I should also emphasise that my girlfriend is a wonderful, caring, kind woman, and nothing about this specific issue should in any way reflect on her character. Despite our odd little disagreements she's challenging, intelligent and awesome, and I'd hate to imply otherwise.

Moral questions vs. impedance mismatches

Briefly then, my girlfriend always used to get annoyed that our two flatmates (both male) rarely did the washing up - she would get endlessly pissed off that they "were happy to use clean plates where they were available", but always "left it for her to do" when it came to actually washing them.

Now, I know from times when she's been away that they're perfectly happy to do the washing up, but - being slobby, single young guys - they'd rather let a whole load mount up over the course of three of fours days (washing up individual items if required during this time), then tackle the whole lot in one go a couple of times a week.

Basically, my girlfriend prefers a clean kitchen as often as possible (a "little-but-often" strategy to washing up), but because my flatmates aren't bothered by dirty washing next to the sink they prefer to minimise the frequency of washing up they have to do, even if it means doing more when they do do it (a just-in-time washing up strategy, combined with a "rarely-but-a-lot" strategy that occasionally clears the lot).

From my girlfriend's point of view washed plates were "clearly" objectively good and dirty washing up was "clearly" objectively bad, so they were selfishly taking advantage of her and using her as a washing up skivvy, and (as the apparently aggrieved party) she understandably got quite annoyed about this.

However, from my flatmates' point of view clean or dirty plates were both relatively neutral prospects, so by making an arbitrary judgement and then trying to pressure everyone else into doing what she wanted, my girlfriend appeared (being uncharitable) to be an obsessive-compulsive nutter who was constantly cleaning, then getting all annoyed and frustrated with them because they weren't as "unreasonably obsessive" about it as she was.

The key thing here is that neither party was right - rather than a moral or objective right/wrong issue it's a simple impedance mismatch between two different styles of housekeeping.

As long as you don't leave food on the plates to rot and you have enough crockery/cutlery to use there's nothing morally, scientifically or legally wrong with leaving the washing up for a couple of days, then doing it all in one go.

My girlfriend was choosing to tackle the washing up every evening because she "can't relax properly in a dirty house" then essentially blaming the flatmates for not being the same type of person as her.

My flatmates were leaving the washing up, because they're the kind of people who can only relax when they don't have an hour or so's washing up hanging over their heads to be done later in the evening. And as a result they were allowing my girlfriend to do more than her fair share.

To their credit they didn't tend to see it as a value judgement either, so (unsurprisingly given their less-than-fair workload) they didn't tend to judge my girlfriend for her irritation with them. They were more puzzled and confused as to how and why she thought she was entitled to the moral high-ground (especially when there was none to be had) than offended.

In many relationships this mechanism generalises to much/all of the housework, and appears to be a common cause of domestic friction in couples and families.

Another example - should the toilet seat be left up or down?

Another example is the perennial and endless inter-gender wrangling about whether the toilet seat should be left up or down. A lot of women I know see the toilet seat as the same sort of moral issue/value judgement, and request or require that the man put the seat down when he's finished peeing.

When asked why, the most common response is "it looks nicer down", but most men honestly don't care either way, so it looks pretty much the same to us. Moreover, we reason, if it looks nicer with the loo seat down then surely it looks nicest of all with the lid down as well... and yet very few women will make a point of doing that.

The first point suggests to us that it's just an arbitrary, amoral preference rather than a real moral issue, and the second makes it look like an arbitrary and irrational preference at that - regardless of the reasons claimed, women as a group seem to just disingenuously prefer the most convenient option for them, rather than the genuinely nicest-looking one which would put us both out equally.

This is the root of a common objection by men - "well, fair's fair," we think - "the most convenient option for us is to keep the lid up, so why don't you put it back up when you're done?" This is an (admittedly ham-fisted and ill-expressed) attempt to highlight that mere convenience is an inadequate rationale, because it cuts both ways and cancels itself out.

We're trying to explain that we see it as an equal, arbitrary choice with the other party unfairly imposing their choice upon us, rather than the irrational resistance and stubborn attempt to achieve victory that many women apparently see it as.

Since I first noticed this dynamic with the washing-up issue, I've come to realise that this mistaking of simple impedance mismatches for objective moral value-judgements is an incredibly common source of inter-gender friction.

So next time you find yourself in one of those clichéd wrangles, try considering this model, and see if you can isolate and explain the impedance mismatch to the other person instead of merely following the script and getting nowhere.

As I said, lest anyone jump to conclusions my girlfriend is a wonderful woman, but all relationships have these sorts of little niggles, especially when you begin cohabiting. Ever since I realised and explained this process, we've found it much easier to both accommodate the other's desires - she doesn't get so wound up about perceived "taking advantage" of her, and I (and my flatmates) don't mind pitching in and helping out more with the washing up, because we understand now why she was so insistent about doing it so regularly.

Coda - a plea for assistance

Finally, I'm acutely aware that the two examples above both involve the female partner jumping to make the moral judgement, and not the male. I certainly don't intend to imply this is typically (or even mostly) the case, but I've had a hard time so far coming up with examples of "men" as a group commonly doing it... though it's entirely possible that I'm fundamentally unqualified to do so, by reason of my maleness!

However, I really hesitate to lay the "blame" for these issues generally on the female half of the couple, so I'd be fascinated if any commenters could offer any examples from the female perspective - things that you (or "women generally") really don't care about, but which men tend to instinctively assume is some sort of objective or moral value-judgement.

If so, please do drop me a comment and let me know. ;-)

Sunday, 17 January 2010

There are fewer conspiracies than theorists think, but you should still listen carefully to them

Being online for the last 15 years, and having a strong (if sceptical) fascination with conspiracy theories I've run into quite a few over the years.

Many are clearly and obviously ridiculous on the face of them, while others somehow suddenly turn from "ridiculous paranoid fantasy" into "boring history" in the public consciousness - usually (and oddly) without ever passing through the stage of "important and shocking revelation" in-between.

Obviously these days (after years of the X Files and similar cultural touchstones) "conspiracy theory" is a loaded and negative label, and most people instinctively disregard anything described as such. However, I think this is somewhat unfair - there are more conspiracies out there than people typically realise, and they've often played a much larger role in shaping the world than most people give them credit for, even starting wars, bringing down presidents and contributing to the maiming or deaths of hundreds of innocent citizens.

In addition to the "obviously idiotic" and the "obvious-with-hindsight", I believe there is a class of conspiracy theories which - while incomplete and mis-attributed - still conceal a nugget of truth and worthwhile insight, as long as you disregard their more fanciful claims.

As an example, with the rise in filtering systems and various countries' attempts to filter the net, the meme is gaining strength that these are simply cynical excuses by authoritarian governments to restrict their citizens' freedom, and censor the public discourse.

These concerns are persuasive in that they recognise the problems with such systems - that once in place they only tend to ratchet tighter, and that people will accept any amount of change as long as it's introduced in small enough increments. However, systems like censorship (and by extension even really huge conspiracy theories like the idea of the so-called New World Order - an internationalist/globalist conspiracy to dissolve national boundaries and unite the world under one global government) wouldn't necessarily even require a conscious conspiracy.

These trends (if they exist) aren't some Machiavellian super-conspiracy implemented by a smoky room full of the rich and powerful - they're simply the emergent behaviour of lots and lots of different people, all following their own, parochial agendas, who find themselves (often quite unconsciously, or inadvertently) all pushing society in a similar direction.

Returning to net censorship, what happens is that one short-sighted government puts a filtering system in place to filter out "unambiguously evil" content like child pornography, and then later on that mechanism is inherited by later governments, who have their own ideas about what's considered ban-worthy.

Successive governments only encroach on freedom a tiny bit from the previous government, but every time someone complains you get people shouting down dissenters on the grounds "it's only a trivial change, so why are you getting so bent out of shape about it?", or the ever-popular "Yeah, but X is evil - how can you not want X filtered out?" (where X is "terrorism", "hate speech", "child pornography" or the current bête noire.

The other important part of this process is that it's a ratchet effect. Almost no government - short of massive upheaval like a revolution or regime-change - is going to ease off on the filtering, because firstly there's no political capital in doing so, and secondly it would make them look soft on terrorism/paedophilia/whatever the current reason is.

So you have a mechanism where controls ratchet ever-tighter, it's practically impossible to ever loosen them short of a major social upheaval, each step is such a tiny one that people can't emotionally appreciate the importance of resisting it, and anyone who does resist is easily dismissed as reacting disproportionately, or being actively in favour of terrorists, or paedophilia, or whatever the excuse du jour is for "just tightening restrictions a little bit, just this once".

Importantly, and this can't be said enough, this doesn't even require a Machiavellian conspiracy or a particularly authoritarian government behind it - it can happen simply by lots of honest but short-sighted people of good conscience just doing what they think is for the greatest good... but if allowed to run unchecked (and as previously indicated, it's hard to check it without looking like a lunatic or conspiracy theorist) it still ends up in a more restrictive, less free, more authoritarian state in the end.

Project this trend far enough ahead (a few decades is usually enough, although sometimes as little as one will do) and you can quite easily get from an open, successful democratic society to an authoritarian police-state with no large or jarring social upheavals required.

This is exactly why it's so vitally important to never, ever grant any additional powers to any government unless they're absolutely unarguably necessary, and even then grant them for a limited span of time, and never, ever renew them unless there's a proven requirement to do so (ie, never renew because it's the default position to keep the law on the books, as was arguably the case with the PATRIOT Act renewal in 2005/2006).

Plenty of people instinctively recognise themes and trends like these, but a common cognitive illusion called an overactive sense of external agency (PDF warning) causes them to mistake simple but counter-intuitive emergent behaviour for a conscious, intentional conspiracy. This makes them easy to dismiss as paranoid or crazy, and makes it easy for others to dismiss both them and any legitimate trend they've identified (an example of the Association Fallacy, also known as damning by association).

Clearly I'm not suggesting that all (or even most) conspiracy theories are realistic, accurate or plausible. However, if you run across one it's always worth making an effort to separate out the What and the How from the Who and the Why, and seeing if the processes and effects it describes have any validity on their own.

If someone tells you that a concerted cabal of international bankers and financiers are attempting to bring together and integrate the disparate economies of the world, dissolving national sovereignty and bring the world to heel under one world government made up of shape-changing lizards, you can safely laugh at the lizards.

However, shorn of its intentional (and sensationalist) nature, there is a distinct trend towards economic and political integration in international politics, the advent of the internet and international trade deals have inadvertently acted to make national boundaries progressively more porous, and increasing geopolitical integration necessarily reduces national sovereignty somewhat.

When you put it like that it's boring and mundane, but wild-eyed, crazy-haired conspiracy theorists have been pointing out the What of it since the 70s or 80s, and - vaccinated against listening by their kook-like presentation and the cultural stereotype of the "crazy conspiracy theorist" - most of us still aren't even consciously aware it's going on.

I find that extremely interesting, although I ascribe to it no particular group, agenda or intent.