As a kid I used to be afraid of the dark. I grew out of it, as most kids do. Now, as an adult, I find it hard to sleep if it isn’t pitch dark. Being a diurnal species with greater vulnerability to nocturnal predators, the association between fear and darkness has some basis in reality. It takes thousands of safe and undisturbed nights to flip that genetic predisposition through conditioning.
As Marshall McLuhan observed, industrial civilization is a highly visual one, based on an extension of sight over other senses. This suggests that any inherent biases in our visual processing are likely to show up in our larger-scale, collective civilizational behaviors. In particular, I am convinced that the metaphor of darkness is how we viscerally process uncertainty of any sort. We turn any lack of conceptual visibility into stories of hidden dangers real and imaginary. We prefer high-visibility conditions, even if they represent greater real dangers.
In other words, our civilizational itself is a diurnal one, partly driven by fears of monsters lurking under beds at night. We have a fear of dark ages.
For historians looking back, the sign of a dark age is the lack of comprehensive, consistent and canonical records. The actual history that unfolds may be marked by progress or decline. The European Middle Ages, once known as the Dark Ages, are now widely regarded as a period of widespread cultural development. It just wasn’t of the Greco-Roman variety that preceded it, or the Renaissance variety that followed.
The tendency of contemporary historians to avoid the label dark due to its inaccurate pejorative connotations is unfortunate. It’s like concluding, from the lack of monsters under beds, that there is no such thing as darkness.
So let’s separate the question of progress versus decline from the question of darkness and lightness, and adopt the following definitions:
A dark age is a period of history with highly localized patterns of civilizational evolution, poor global communication, and an inconsistent, polycentric historical record. Progress and decline remain relatively contained within local environments during a dark age.
A light age is a period of history with highly globalized patterns of civilizational evolution, excellent global communication, and a consistent, canonical historical record. Both progress and decline tend to be highly contagious during a light age.
Some comments on the definitions are in order. First, note that contagion is a subtle phenomenon: whether an idea or practice spreads or fails to spread is not necessarily correlated with whether it is good or bad. Second, note also that scaling implies contagion. While an idea or practice can spread without scaling, it cannot scale without spreading. Finally, by global here, I mean simply the opposite of local, not necessarily planet-wide. Any phenomenon that extends far beyond any local boundary is global. So continent-scale things, such as the Great Wall of China, Roman roads or Abbasid era trade routes, are global things.
Some implications of the definitions are obvious and widely understood today.
- A light age is more likely to be dominated by a handful of large centralized empires or superpowers; a dark age is likely to be politically decentralized as a city-state polity.
- A light age is likely to have an established and widely spoken global default language of culture (such as English) and dominant broadcast communications; a dark age is likely to be a babel of languages and dominant word-of-mouth communications.
- A light age is likely to represent knowledge in highly codified and legible forms; a dark age is likely to use tacit and illegible forms.
- A light age is likely to project its fears and hopes onto visions of apocalypse or utopia that spread by contagion; a dark age is likely to (locally) project its fears onto hated and demonized near neighbors and its hopes onto fortress-like conditions of impregnable security from non-local threats.
- A light age is likely to have many global, bureaucratically organized provisioning systems with hubs of large-scale activity. A dark age is likely to use peer-to-peer coordination for non-local needs and few scaled systems.
- A light age is likely to be evangelical, inclusive and ideological, with cultures competing to convert each other. A dark age is likely to be insular, exclusive and ritualistic, with cultures rejecting proactive conversion desires.
- Light ages are likely to see population growth. Dark ages are likely to see stable or declining populations.
So far, these distinctions are neutral. To talk about decline and progress in light/dark contexts, we need additional assumptions and operating values in the picture.
Decline and Progress
Because communications are good in a light age, and ideas (good or bad) spread easily via shared global languages, broadcast models and canonical grand narratives providing context, a light age is likely to be a bipolar one. Either everything is going great (great progress), or everything is falling apart (world wars). By contrast, a dark age is likely to have a spread of positive and negative evolutionary paths.
This is actually one source of the darkness itself: if in a collection of a 100 city states, 30 each are doing well and poorly, and 40 are in the middle, the ones that are either doing well enough to brag, or experiencing misfortunes momentous enough to document (wars, plagues and such) are likely to document their exceptional experiences, while the rest goes undocumented. So you get conflicting and incomplete historical records. In a light age by contrast, global conditions drive local conditions strongly, and also supply a default narrative. You get a coherent and internally consistent account of the period, with fewer gaps.
So the obvious and tempting 2×2 (dark vs. light, decline vs. progress) would be fundamentally ill-posed because decline vs. progress is by definition not a global condition in a dark age. It makes no sense to ask whether a dark age is progressive or regressive. A better visualization would be something like this:
This picture is something of an agnostic, Occam’s razor view that assumes that there is no fundamental decline/progress bias in either light or dark ages. So in this picture, a dark age is characterized by the bulk of the population experiencing either mild progress or mild decline. A minority is experiencing remarkable progress or catastrophe. A light age is likely to swing between brightly lit global horror stories (such as world wars) and great leaps forward (of a non-Maoist kind).
But this is not the picture mass culture believes. Mass culture seems to operate according to this picture:
In other words, at a mass culture level, we systematically censor out the possibility of brightly lit decline and systematically assume a correlation between dark ages and decline/regress. This makes sense, because by definition, the existence of a “mass culture” requires a light age, and a simple status quo bias and normalcy-seeking instincts would account for the picture above.
This pair of biases: overestimating the dangers of darkness and underestimating the dangers of light shows up in our collective psyches as fear of dark ages and an irrational attraction to light.
A little sidebar is in order here.
If you’ve been following the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb from Black Swan and Antifragile, particularly his notions of Mediocristan and Extremistan in the former, and fragility/antifragility in the latter, you will notice a clear connection here. Dark ages correspond to Talebian mediocristan, and light ages to extremistan. Dark ages are antifragile, light ages are fragile.
You could represent Talebian philosophy in a simplified form with the following diagram:
The simplification here is that Taleb’s views are probabilistic rather than deterministic, and non-dichotomous (every age always has a large “dark” component, but a light component may or may not be present, and may or may not be comparable to the dark component). But these nuances don’t matter for our purposes here.
In other words, Taleb’s view is something of a strictly reactionary view relative to widespread biases. Instead of censoring out the possibility of brightly lit apocalypse scenarios, he censors out the possibility of brightly lit great leaps forward (mainly by sharply discounting the benefits as either trivial, misattributed to light-ness or non-existent). Instead of assuming a negative bias for dark ages, he assumes a positive bias: angels under the bed.
In Antifragile in particular, Taleb marshals a great deal of evidence in an attempt to demonstrate that the picture above is in fact the accurate one. He attempts to attribute all significant progress to darkness and all decline to lightness. He attributes no progress at all to brightly lit conditions (which in his scheme of thought would map to authoritarian high-modernist “Soviet-Harvard” environments based on bureaucratic application of highly codified knowledge).
My own view would probably be fairly close to the first, agnostic/Occam’s razor view, with perhaps a slight negative or positive bias based on fundamental thermodynamic assumptions I happen to be making that day. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I believe that the 2nd law is dragging us inexorably downwards. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I believe our strapping young yellow sun has created an impenetrable bubble of low-entropy conditions for us to enjoy for the forseeable future, modulo errant asteroids or wormholes opening up and dumping Cthulhu on us from another dimension.
A Diurnal Civilization
One way to understand ourselves collectively is to assume that we are a diurnal civilization. A minority of marginal subcultures (such as Talebistan) is nocturnal.
The diurnal mainstream is vulnerable to daytime dangers, thanks to the false sense of security that light (in the form of reassuring narratives of deterministic progress or predictable decline, along with a high-certainty view of the world beyond local borders) provides. Up or down, in the daylight, we think we know what we’re up against. So we are blindsided when the very sources of light turn out to be sources of extreme risk. Critics of modernism like James Scott and Taleb are right about that much at least.
Do mainstream fears of darkness (in the form of uncertainty about the future and risks lurking beyond local borders) during light eras map to how people actually experience their lives during dark ages?
I think the jury is out on that question. I suspect people who lived in dark ages through histories probably felt happy and secure at home, but extremely fearful and anxious when venturing abroad. A happy, but self-limiting condition. A world of localized hedgehogs.
Nocturnal subcultures, I suspect, overestimate the safeties of darkness. No news is not always good news. They likely also underestimate the benefits of light: global mobility, a planet-wide capacity to communicate, and inclusive patterns of progress, the benefits of economies of scale and mass (non-artisan) patterns of production, and so forth.
It is not yet clear whether the coming century will be dominated by dark or light, and what effect the Internet has, but what seems certain is that relative to our current brightly lit times, there is a general darkening going on.
So in a relative sense at least, we are entering a darker age, even if there is a significant brightly lit aspect to our lives. In an absolute sense, our dark future is certainly going to be far more brightly lit than either the Roman or Renaissance eras. But it is not absolute lightness that drives our behavior as much as relative lightness. For the foreseeable future, memories of the brightly lit 20th century are going to shape our narratives, and we’ll see ourselves as inhabiting darker times by comparison.
The guest post last week about algorithmic governance demonstrated how both new dark-age and light-age infrastructure is taking shape (in the form of Athena and Adjustment Bureau algorithmic governance patterns).
One way to adapt to the growing darkness is to draw from another of McLuhan’s ideas: hot vs. cool media. Hot media are those that radically extend one sense in a non-participatory way. Cool media re those that extend more than one sense, in a more participatory way.
So a darkening of our age is also a cooling of our age. Rather than giving up our highly visual ways of understanding the world, we have to strengthen other ways of understanding it: hearing, touch, taste and smell. I don’t mean this literally (i.e. we’re not talking about listening to more radio over watching TV/reading or eating more globalized cuisines). I mean changing the nature of our ways of knowing. For example, in decision making, chess/Go type mental models are light age mental models. Poker is more of a dark age mental model.
More about that sort of thing another day.