William James’ observation, “The progress from brute to man is characterized by nothing so much as by the decrease in frequency of proper occasions for fear” has long seemed to me a near-perfect definition of civilization. But it doesn’t get at the costs of this process. Which is why I was inspired, a while back, to make up my own no-free-lunch version of the aphorism: Civilization is the process of turning the incomprehensible into the arbitrary.
A lot of my recent thinking and writing (and coincidentally, consulting work) has revolved in one way or another around this idea. Last week, I figured out a pretty neat 2×2 that captures this notion of civilizational progress, and folds in a bunch of other interesting ideas that I am thinking about, in satisfying ways. Here you go:
The diagram may be hard for you to parse if you haven’t been following some of my recent writing. There are also ideas in there that I haven’t yet written up. The diagram maps to the aphorism from bottom-left to top-right, but via a path of wiggly process through the other two quadrants.
It’s going to take me another week or two to dig out from under my move and post a decently polished full-length post (thanks to guest bloggers for keeping things moving along in recent weeks), so lucky for you, this short post is all I have for you this week. I have a lot more to say about the ideas in this 2×2, but I’ll save that for future posts.
If you really want more, here are the slides, and here’s the video, from my talk at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab last week. Warning: as with many of my recent talks, this is very much work-in-progress material, probably with lots of flaws and errors. I’ve sort of adopted a blogger-approach to speaking in recent years, where I release early and often. It’s a refreshing change from the more academic present-when-done style I operated in until a few years ago, but it does result in more bugginess.