Prolegomena to Any Dark-Age Psychohistory

This entry is part 10 of 15 in the series Psychohistory

When I think about history, the picture in my head is that of a roiling canvas of many choppy, intertwingled narrative streams, enveloped by many-hued nebulous fogs of mood and temper. Star-like cosmic irruption-events, ranging from discoveries to disasters, wink through from the void, disturbing the flow of human affairs and forcing steering imperatives onto those living through them. The picture is as much a portrait of a sentimental sense of history, as it is a map of an unfolding gestalt of events.

When I try to capture this poetic mental image in a drawing however, all I get is the kind of crappy cartoon you see below.

It’ll  do to get the idea across though. This particular sample from my doodle files is what contemporary American history looks like to me today: a generally well-defined low-fog Blue story, getting interrupted by less well-defined, high-fog Red tendrils.

It is this kind of image that is conjured up for me when I ask myself the question many are asking today: Are we in a Dark Age?

Though a question about history, it is unfortunately not the sort of question historians can answer today, largely because they appear to have collectively decided it’s not a good question, at least not for historians. If it’s a good question at all, they seem to have decided, it’s one for poets.

You could say, in abandoning questions like Are we in a Dark Age?, history has lost its sense of poetry.

As a result, history has been slowly turning, in the last century, into a dry, cautious, empirical discipline, devoted to ever more precision and accuracy within ever narrower views of its subject matter. One unfortunate result is that powerfully evocative and psychologically useful ideas like “Dark Age” have been abandoned as insufficiently nuanced.

Well, as we like to say around here, fuck nuance. Let’s see what we can do with the concept of a Dark Age, and boldly go where angelic historians refuse to go.

From Petrarch to Psychohistory

The term Dark Age was supposedly coined by the Italian poet, scholar, diplomat, and traveler Petrarch (1304-1374), to refer to the period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. He’s apparently also considered Patient Zero of the Renaissance, in part due to his rediscovery of Cicero’s letters (in many ways, the Renaissance was a mind-virus that infected Europe at around the same time as the Black Death). You can get a sense of the sort of guy he was from this bit from a letter he wrote to his friend Guido reminiscing about his time as a student in Bologna (from Life of Petrarch):

More venturesome than I had been before, I went off with other students, on holidays, going so far afield that we often got back late at night. The city gates were usually wide open; and if they were shut it was no matter, for the confident city was surrounded not be a wall but by an old and decaying stockade, and one could get in anywhere…Things are very different there now: peace has given place to warfare, freedom to servitude, abundance to want, play to sorrow, singing to lamentation, and the dances of girls to bands of robbers.

Petrarch, clearly, was as much an observer of landscapes of sentiment and meaning as he was of events. As much psychologist as historian. Here’s another bit, written in middle age, when he thought he’d tired of wandering (from Petrarch and His World).

I confess that in my youth my purpose was to follow the Homeric maxim, to observe the cities and customs of many men, to see new lands, the highest mountains, famous seas, lauded lakes, secret fountains, notable rivers, and all sorts of remarkable places…But I have wandered enough; my desire is sated….If I should find under heaven a good place, or at least one not actually bad, I should gladly remain there permanently. But now I keep turning over and over like a man on a hard bed, and I can obtain no rest in spite of my desire; and since I can find no softness in my bed I try to ease my weariness by constant shifting; and so I stray hither and yon place, and I seem to be a wanderer forever….If one thinks that reward is to be found not in the spirit but in some place or other, if one calls immobility constancy, then the gouty must be extremely constant, and the dead are more constant still…

This bit too exhibits the sort of situationist interplay of introspection and observation that makes for a decidedly sentimental sense of history and one’s own place in it. Petrarch was my kind of guy.

It makes poetic sense that a guy like this would be the one to reach into the past, across a thousand years of historical funk, from the vantage point of the 14th century, and discover what would become the seeds of a more elevated mood. A mood that would spark a new consciousness lasting over six hundred years into the future. A mood that would trigger a new dialectic between felt self and aspirational self, felt power and actual agency, individual being and collective being, the is of being human, and the ought of being human.

Petrarch, in other words, didn’t just name the Dark Ages. He helped end them by catalyzing a new mass consciousness. He helped engineer a future at the same time that he was discovering a past.

To peek ahead a bit, Petrarch was the first known psychohistorian; a Promethean thief of a heavenly consciousness to make benefit glorious continent of Europe.

Petrarch was also known as the “first tourist” it seems, for his travels, work as a diplomat, and generally cheery cosmopolitan outlook in spite of plagues and wars raging around him. Curiously, his life seems to have almost exactly overlapped with that of Ibn Batuta (1304-1374) also a cosmopolitan traveler, scholar, and diplomat, but in Muslim lands (Adventures of Ibn Batuta is a good read on him). I personally think Ibn Batuta has a better claim on the title for his wider roving range, but both were exemplary cosmopolitan globalists, curious, restless, adventurous, and with a tendency to treat the entire world as their personal playground. Wars, plagues, and political conditions be damned. Both seem to have been the sort of person who does things because they can be done (half a millennium before George Mallory attempted to climb Everest simply because it was there, Petrarch climbed Mount Ventoux simply because it was there).

Both differed from earlier travelers like Marco Polo in that they traveled through territories that, despite their size, were marked by strong political-cultural continuities.

Famous 14th century travelers like Petrarch and Ibn Batuta explored large home bases rather than venturing across borders. Their work helped weave together a new kind of mass consciousness within the polities they served. By contrast, earlier terrestrial explorers like Marco Polo and Faxian (and later oceanic ones like Columbus and Zheng He) crossed cultural boundaries and ventured into extremely foreign territories as cultural explorers. They connected existing islands of consciousness rather than catalyzing new awakenings.

You might say that Petrarch and Ibn Batuta, through their energetic criss-crossing of cultural polities, helped awaken egregores by weaving smaller strands of consciousness together. Other explorers merely introduced existing egregores to each other. The distinction is analogous to the one we make today between Internet-enabled lifestyle designers and the older breed of Lonely Planet backpackers. They are integrators of a global online consciousness rather than lay ambassadors traveling between nations.

In the twentieth century, as a rather unsentimental, anti-romantic, and empiricist breed of historian took over the discipline, the term “Dark Age” was first restricted to the early middle ages and then abandoned altogether. Rigor and legibility though, were gained at the expense of the sort of appreciation of the gestalt of prevailing sentiment that marked the work of pre-modern scholars like Petrarch and Ibn Batuta. We’ve gained a better understanding of what actually happened at the expense of a richer sense of connection to the grand arc of history.

In the effort to understand history better, we seem to have stepped out of it.

Prime Radiant Teardown

Fortunately for us, the twentieth century also gave us newer modes of poetic appreciation of history, so we can step right back in. It also gave us sensibilities besides religious ones defining polities waiting to be woven together into new kinds of consciousness.

It gave us science fiction.

It might seem silly to compare modern science fiction to powerful, life-shaping religious polities like pre-modern European Christianity and Golden Age Islam, yet the comparison holds up surprisingly well. In their time, Petrarch and Ibn Batuta were something like modern comics and sci-fi fans today: eagerly collecting manuscripts, going to conferences, and exploring a large, nascent cultural space that existed as islands of enlightenment (dare I say, wokeness) separated by vast dark tracts of normie unawareness. And through such explorations, much as fandom does today, they wove an emergent consciousness, defining cool before it is recognized as such.

Petrarch was a Renaissance Man before it was cool. Before the normies caught on. Before the summer blockbusters of the Renaissance were created. Before the Renaissance consciousness became the normal one and men like Petrarch faded into the general background tapestry, the way Stan Lee is doing today.

So it is not unreasonable to look for the next tranche of Dark Age insight porn in science fiction, and there is no better person to turn to after Petrarch than Asimov.

Asimov, arguably, managed to seriously advance the study of Dark Ages through his Foundation series, with its sprawling fictional galactic history and the idea of psychohistory (as good a piece of design fiction as time machines). In the grand Asimovian thought experiment, the raw material of the European Dark Ages is turned into a speculative historical praxis for an imagined galactic future.

At the heart of Asimovian psychohistory is Hari Seldon’s project of shortening a predicted 30,000 year Galactic Dark Age, following the collapse of the Galactic Empire centered around Trantor, into a 1000 year one. As you’ll know if you’ve read the series (spoilers ahead), the project doesn’t quite work as intended, but in one sense, something even more interesting than a shorter Dark Age is brought about: humanity must choose among different patterns of emergent consciousness. It is a kind of operatic narrative arc that has since been used by other authors, including Frank Herbert with Dune, and Bruce Sterling with Schismatrix.

There is, of course, a whole can of worms hidden beneath the narrative premise of the Foundation saga, which Asimov largely handwaved away via the plot device of the Prime Radiant, but here’s a short list of obvious questions:

  1. What defines a Dark Age?
  2. Is it a bad thing? Why?
  3. What causes one?
  4. How do you know when one has started?
  5. What determines how long it might last?
  6. What causes an ongoing Dark Age to end?
  7. How do you know when one is ending?
  8. Does it make sense to try and shorten one?

The fictional science of psychohistory is presented more as a governance technology than as an analytical model of history, so it skips past these obvious analytical questions to energetic engineering action. In psychohistory, all that really matters is that history is manipulable; it does not need to be comprehensible.

With some deft steering, certain highly improbable and fragile pathways, down which history might flow, become highly probable and robust. The mathematics of psychohistory is agnostic to the meaning of it all.

This, then, is the psychohistory problem. Making improbable and fragile historical pathways highly probably and robust, by inserting the right interventions. It is a problem similar to that faced by time-traveling sci-fi characters, except without the need for time travel. In psychohistory, you just reshape the multiverse, and the probabilities of various possible histories, in real-time. Much as we attempt to do today with primitive ancestors of the Prime Radiant, like spreadsheets and prediction markets.

The hard part of this problem isn’t what you might think.

Of course the general idea is insanely computationally intractable. Of course you can’t really wrangle the sensitive-to-initial-conditions butterfly-flapping complex system in all its messy generality.

But that’s not the hard part because that’s not what Asimovian psychohistory attempts to do at all. The Prime Radiant wasn’t a general purpose engine of prophecy and predetermination that could be used to manipulate history in any arbitrary way. Rather, it solved the specific problem of modeling a particular Dark Age and taking a clever shortcut around it.

The Seldon Plan, in other words, was less a plan, and more a Grand Hack that exploited localized features in the structure the psychohistorical equations in a Dark Ages regime.

Engineers do this sort of thing all the time with theoretically intractable problems. The entire human technology stack is in fact built around hacks that exploit unreasonably tractable regimes of generally impossible problems. As an example that is metaphorically close to psychohistory, the entire field of fluid mechanics is built around set of generally unsolvable equations known as the Navier-Stokes equations. The aerospace industry exists because we can hack these equations in places.

Psychohistory is not like predicting how butterflies flapping in Australia might cause hurricanes in the Caribbean. It’s like detecting a hurricane that’s already started to take shape, and figuring out how a specific island might be able to ride it out.

So the hard part of the psychohistory isn’t related to what you might call the Chaos Theory Objection, since it finesses the chaotic dynamics (interestingly enough, the chaos theory revolution happened after Asimov wrote the early volumes of the series, and in the later volumes, he accommodates them through a fictional analogue to the argument of the last few paragraphs).

The analogy between weather prediction and a speculative actual science of psychohistory isn’t as shallow as you might think. Humans routinely traffic in both short and long range predictions of the planetary weather and climate, despite the presence of hordes of butterflies flapping around furiously around the world.

The reason we can (you can find parts of the story in Turing’s Cathedral and The Signal and the Noise) is that we can hack the problem in certain regimes, under certain conditions. Patterns of winds and currents make useful short-term prediction possible, once phenomena are detected beyond a certain scale. Over longer time scales, consideration of energy balances across system boundaries enables a different kind of technical hack, allowing modeling of broad-based climate change.

History is in a surprisingly similar condition today: data-rich, computationally tractable in bits and pieces. We already practice the short-term equivalent of weather prediction through the spectrum of divination sciences, ranging from general equilibrium economy models and polling to planning for flu season and superforecasting.

Long-range history though, the stuff of Dark Age questions, is admittedly a tougher matter.

While there is no shortage of “wave” theories of varying degrees of believability (Elliot/Kondratriev wave theories, Carlota Perez’s models, Turchin’s cliodynamics, and so on), and quixotically hedgehogish systems theory models (Limits to Growth is the poster child for overpromising and underdelivering in this vein), there is nothing that quite rises to the level of Asimovian psychohistory.

Can we get closer?

Sentiment Superstates

So if the Chaos Theory Objection to any future psychohistory can at least be locally finessed for specific problem regimes such as “shorten a Dark Age”, what is the hard part? And what exploit can we used to create Grand Hacks like the Seldon Plan?

The hard part has to do with construing the idea of a mass consciousness in an appropriate form. This is the entity that goes dark in a Dark Age, or lights up in a mass awakening or enlightenment. And not just in descriptive terms, but as something that can meaningfully take control of its own destiny and lend itself to normative speculations about what we — in the broadest species sense of the pronoun — ought to do with ourselves.

If human history can be construed as the record of actions of a coherent collective agency, whose beliefs and actions are not entirely inscrutable, the act of anticipating and steering our future becomes relatively more tractable. We can simply ask ourselves: Where are we going? Can I make a different suggestion?

That’s the core hack of psychohistory. Construe human mass consciousness in a form that can be asked such questions and be expected to answer. The solution to the fundamental psychohistorical equation is to construct a God out of ourselves. A head placed on top of visible and invisible hands.

If there is no meaningful answer, if history is a tale told by an emergent idiot in general-equilibrium; the noise and fury of buying and selling signifying nothing, there’s nothing to see here.

If on the other hand, the answer is more than the inscrutable emergent noise, if mass consciousnesses can be conjured up by the incantations of poets, psychohistory becomes a meaningful possibility.

Humor me. Let’s consider that possibility that there is something here. That the act of sentimentally narrativizing history is more than poetic apophenia.

If there’s a there there, how might we rigorously understand and gain control of it?

How do we even approach a question like are we in a Dark Age? Are there diagnostic investigations we can undertake, the way a doctor might investigate depression or other psychological states with blood tests?

Can we, in other words, meaningfully investigate sentiment superstates, and answer questions about the future based on the action dispositions latent in them? We can say that an optimistic person will try bold experiments and a pessimistic person will withdraw fearfully behind defenses. Can we make similar assertions about entire cultures? An entire species? Can “humanity” as a whole be (say) in a dark mood?

Can we capture the governing temper of a people, at all levels at which they meaningfully define themselves, in a conceptual model? The way we capture the state of a gas in terms of distributions of positions and velocities?

It’s not quite as straightforward as simply surveying emotional states. A mass consciousness is far more than the sum of individual moods. A Dark Age is more than a bunch of people checking “depressed” in a mood survey. A mass consciousness is something like a ghost in the machine that is the institutional order. It is a coherent superstate that has certain tendencies and dispositions. Something that lends itself to anthropomorphic description and control.

To invent psychohistory, we’d have to make up a model of this superstate and the entity that is in it. Then we’d have to exploit the equivalent of energy balance equations in human mass psychology expressed in terms of it. Finally, we’d have to do the equivalent of climate modeling to come up with assessments analogous to global warming. With all the concomitant epistemological, ontological, and methodological risks and temptations.

A tall order.

We have to model not just the flow of discrete events and patterns of causation, but the human responses to it. And the human responses to the human responses. And the human responses to the human responses to the human responses.

And we must model responses of all sorts: intuitive and logical, moral and pragmatic, sentimental and unsentimental, impulsive and slow-burning.

The Dark Age question has elements of all those aspects, but fortunately for us, there is a simplifying factor: it is primarily a question about the arc of collective sentiment. Other things matter when it comes to shaping history, but sentiment is a particularly strong and basic global condition that affects everything else, like the temperature of a room, or an electric field potential across a space. The workings of reason and intuition, conscience and self-interest, base urges and lifelong callings, all depend on the background canvas of sentiment on which they play out.

So figuring out the future of collective sentiment isn’t the whole answer, but it is a big part of it.

The sentimental human response to its experience of history is something like an infinite empathy regression up a civilizational stack, starting from the individual level. An analogy can be made to knowledge. Knowledge states level up from private belief (I know and you know), through mutual belief (I know you know, you know I know) to common knowledge (I know you know I know… all the way up the infinite stack of tortoises). Sentiment superstates similarly cohere recursively from I feel… all the way up to We As a Species Feel….

It is the response of this superstate to events that we must project forward in time to explore Dark Age questions and possibilities for a psychohistory.

Sentiment Superstate Trajectories

So we’ve made progress here.

The Dark Age question is a question about the shape of a sentiment superstate trajectories. Assuming one exists, and we’re not just attributing moods to something like a meta-market of human destiny that incorporates both priced and priceless dynamics.

It is the palpable, visceral sense of being part of such sentiment superstates that leads to assertions about history that at first sight seem to be religious in nature.

Take for instance, Martin Luther King’s famous line (originally from an 1853 collection of sermons by Theodore Parker), “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

In the terms of our discussion we can translate this into a psychohistorical proposition: a global human sentiment superstate exists, has a detectable moral disposition, and its trajectory evolves towards greater justice.

As it happens, I don’t think this particular assertion is true, but it is well-posed. It is the sort of assertion that a future science of psychohistory will need to pose and investigate.

Events themselves have no innate sentimental character of course. They only acquire a gloss of sentiment and meaning when a consciousness of some sort is in a feedback loop with them.

Sentiment superstates arise as self-fulfilling attitude prophesies. Homo sapiens power-posing in front of the mirror of the past, as it prepares to tackle its own future (interestingly, the one effect that matters in this analogy, felt power, is the only effect claimed by the power posing research that has not been discredited).

Examples are all around us. Yes We Can. Make America Great Again. Software is Eating the World.

These are all invocations of sentiment superstates that perhaps, kinda sorta, work. Some of the time. For some of the people. If you can fool them sufficiently with appropriate kinds of artful theater.

Do such sentiment superstates have a material foundation at least as strong as individual consciousness? This is a difficult question. Sarah Perry has written about egregores as an outcome of material cultural practices, which I think of as anthropomorphism done right, and Kevin Simler has written about superorganisms and their moral leanings from a relatively strict evolutionary-behaviorist perspective. There is certainly prima facie evidence here.

My own view is through a handwavy, mind-over-matter, non-evolutionary memetic-computational-historicist lens on the matter. The starting point is the observation that human thinking is both universal in a strong sense, and strongly decoupled from evolutionary forces. Our collective cognitive life has a life of its own.

First, consider universality. As socially networked biocomputers, humans form a distributed neural substrate for universal computing. The sentiment superstates we are talking about are something like a global operating system context condition shaping this computer’s behaviors.

This capacity isn’t notional potential, a matter of mere Turing completeness of things like Conway’s Game of Life or Minecraft (these are what are known as Turing tarpits, where “everything is possible, but nothing is easy”). No, we humans have actually loaded cultural software and data into our collective brains and memories that allows us to represent arbitrary realities. And pose and tackle everything from fairly complex math problems to the problem of simulating escaped realities (organized religions being the textbook example). Since the invention of writing, we have been creatures with usably Turing-complete collective minds.

Second consider decoupling from evolutionary forces. We are creatures that have achieved a strong measure of control over not just our reproductive destiny (with birth control, surrogacy, etc), but over basic biological drives (the soft power of human culture is increasingly backed by a veritable pharmacological arsenal for redirecting basic drives). So we are quite far from being slaves to our evolutionary heritage.

Usable universal computing potential and decoupling from evolution make for a potent force. A species level superpower and freedom we’ve decided to try and learn to use.

To a first approximation, we have clumsily taken control over our own programming, and nearly freed ourselves from evolutionary, biological imperatives that previously completely determined history.

The Perils and Promise of Psychohistory

The question is, what do we do with these freedoms, evolved over half a millennium, and whose potency we are just starting to recognize now that they’re in their digitally metastasized forms?

We’ve learned so far that exercising this control can mess us up badly, at every level from individual-endocrinological to global-demographic. But the point is, we can meaningfully program this computer at even the largest scales. If only by way of sentiment invocations via political slogans, and opiates both religious and pharmacological. “We” as a species are not inscrutable to ourselves. “We” are more than a noise-generating meta-market of interacting individual drives. “We” are our own worst market distortion, whether or not such distortions take institutional form.

The objections of libertarians and antifragilistas are moot; the genie has escaped the bottle. There is something it is like to be human at a species level, and we cannot go back.

We’ve lately tended to underestimate both the nature and power of this evolutionary leveling up, which has taken half a millennium to complete. We’ve tended, increasingly, to view the process that began with the European Renaissance as some sort of childishly precious confusion. A laughably naive aspiration to break free of biological determinism that will come to an ugly end any day now.

The terms of our understanding of any-day-now apocalypse have changed over centuries, from religious to biological, but not the assessment or expectation.

Our present biological understanding of culture in biological terms — as a kind of memetic evolution embodied in impersonal institutions — is generally viewed as a (fragile) part of our extended phenotype. One that differs only in degree and flimsiness, not in kind, from similar phenotype features in other species. Apes, songbirds, whales and elephants all arguably have something analogous to culture and memetics. But no other species has achieved any significant degree of institutionalized control over its own evolutionary future the way humans have.

So the biological determinism view is, quite simply, not true, and hasn’t been true for over 500 years of any-day-now apocalyptic expectations that it will become true again. Even without the rest of the dramatic changes wrought by modernity, the invention of symbolic language, impersonal education, and modern birth control alone would be enough to argue for humanity as an ahistorical distributed computer. One where memetics drives genetics, not the other way around.

The collective mind-over-matter control is imperfect, clumsy, and prone to periods of backsliding when biology reasserts dominance. But the hackstability of our institutional-memetic collective self has endured for longer than the revenge-of-biology meme has been part of it.

We’ve certainly flailed in our attempts to use this power, teetering between breeding ourselves out of existence and obliterating our collective consciousness and spirit with addiction technology. To the point that many believe we shouldn’t attempt to exercise any control at this level at all. That we should give up god-playing and tower-of-Babel building, and return control to centripetal, consciousness fragmenting biological forces.

But the inescapable point is, for better or worse, we’ve hacked ourselves something of a genuine memetic consciousness that evolves increasingly independently of our biological stories, and shows growing signs of dominating it.

It is a consciousness capable of evolving according to emergent action dispositions at least, if not focused intentions. Capable of exercising agency over its own future (whatever its biological bits might want to the contrary) and creating “arcs of moral history” that actually bends towards things.

Stop for a moment to consider the profoundness of this development. It does not matter whether you subscribe to an optimistic Whig idea of history, or a pessimistic religious-decay idea of history. It does not matter whether you believe in ideologies that hold to justice (like MLK) or some competing value, such as “freedom,” as the appropriate direction for any moral-arc bending.

The important point is, if you engage in any flavor of such speculation, you assume the existence of an entity, with enough coherent agency, that trying to understand and influence its actions is a meaningful thing to do.

The amazing thing about humanity is not that we are on a journey that lends itself to unreasonably coherent storytelling. Or that we might either drive off a cliff or into a post-scarcity utopia. The amazing thing is that there is something it is like to be collectively human at species-scale at all.

Humanity can be a substrate for a psychohistory in a way no other species can. No other species produces, through its actions individual and collective, fodder for anything more meaningful than a natural evolutionary history. It is meaningless to ask whether the evolutionary history of chimpanzees or dolphins represents progress or decline. They just increase or dwindle in numbers. It doesn’t mean anything except to humans who can sentimentalize their fates.

This probably means there’s a very good chance we’ll go extinct trying to do better than natural evolution. But the chance that we will actually continue to pwn evolution and level up the game to a sustainable memes-over-genes infinite game is not zero.

Dark Age Dynamics

In the completed Asimovian universe, within which he retconned his early robot stories and Empire stories into the Foundation series as prehistory, the idea of psychohistory as a steering of sentiment superstate trajectories is clearly central.

As one bookend, we have the origin story of Seldon’s psychohistory in the prescient ruminations of the telepathic robot R. Giskard, who ponders a “Law of Humanics” by analogy to the Laws of Robotics. This idea is carried forward by R. Daneel (the main continuity character in the Asimov canon) and, via inception, planted in Seldon’s mind.

As the other bookend, we have a planetary consciousness, Gaia, created by the (by then millennia-old) R. Daneel, as a sort of failsafe pathway for the Seldon Plan, striving to become a Galactic Communist Consciousness, Galaxia.

A fun plot element in the latter half of the series is when the leaders of the Second Foundation, nominal stewards of the Seldon Plan, get suspicious because the Plan is evolving too perfectly (the work of the Gaians). The implication being, the more a mass consciousness is aware of, and integrated within, itself, the more it becomes the master of its own destiny.

It is tempting to parody Asimov’s notions of a mass consciousness as a sort of nutty extrapolation of (say) a Swedish social democracy egregore combined with some sort of society-wide ideological false consciousness. The Star Trek universe can in fact be read as precisely this kind of parody (though not an intentional one). Manu Saadia’s Trekonomics claims that elements of the Star Trek universe were directly inspired by Asimov’s world, with Spock being inspired by R. Daneel, and the Borg being a sort of evil Gaia.

Though that’s arguably an accurate view of Star Trek, I suspect such a reading misses the point of Foundation. Though some corners of Asimov’s political universe are clearly social democrat (such as the Caves of Steel era Earth, and some eras of  Foundation), the historical canvas he constructs is fundamentally open to all kinds of trajectories. Foundation really is about the mechanisms of history, not Asimov’s own ideological preferences for the shape of its moral arc.

The radical idea in the Foundation series is that catalyzing the right kind of mass consciousness — one whose nature is defined by a sentiment superstate rather than an explicit ideology — is a way to gain collective control over shared fates.

The risks to the Seldon Plan arise not from conflicting ideologies, but more powerful means for shaping sentiment superstates, the most famous being the Mule’s mind-control capabilities. In the story, the Mule manages to temporarily overwhelm the weaker steering technologies of the Second Foundation.

In his account of psychohistory, Asimov gestures towards good answers to the obvious questions, with  suggestive motifs and historical vignettes that point to what might be important in a real science of psychohistory.

There is the notion of imperial collapse at a great center, and with it, a simplification of civilization: depopulation, loss of key technologies, reliable connectivity, and knowledge. And of course, the collapse of the sentiment superstate of the Empire.

There is a period marked by rising levels of uncertainty, and various extremist ideologies gaining momentum. Familiar archetypes appear on the political stage, such as of Laskin ‘Jo Jo’ Joranum, a sort of Trump-like populist-authoritarian figure who tries to gain political control of the decaying empire.  There is Seldon himself, as First Minister to Cleon I, helping the Empire fight a rearguard action against collapse long enough to get the two Foundations off the ground.

There is Preem Palver, a Petrarch-like figure in the story, the First Speaker of the Second Foundation who restores the Seldon Plan after the disruption caused by the Mule, and inaugurates a Golden Age period of the Seldon Plan (the Mule, I think, works best as a personification of the Black Death).

The picture Asimov paints is superficially that of a Tainterian Dark Age, after Joseph Tainter’s model of collapse in terms of sclerotic over-complex institutions disintegrating under their own weight. Whether or not there are Bannons and Millers around trying to nudge the fall in specific directions is a mere detail.

But you can’t take these events at face value or assume that Asimov had an obvious sort of Tainterian Dark Age in mind. In fact, I’ll argue that he didn’t. The Tainterian parade of unfortunate events is a superficial layer of history in the Asimovian world.

Take for instance, the destruction of knowledge by the Trantorian era of Fake News, and the role of the Encyclopedists in establishing the First Foundation. On the surface, this is an obvious reference to such events as the loss of knowledge from classical antiquity and the burning of the Library of Alexandria. But on the other hand, in Foundation, it is quickly revealed that the Encyclopedists and their general knowledge preservation project are merely cover for a deeper political project. One based in part on a narrower and more specific preservation project: control of nuclear technologies as a wedge capability that might allow Terminus (the First Foundation) to grow at the expense of its neighbors in the Galactic-rim backwaters.

This is not so much preservation of knowledge for its own sake, or even control of a strategic technology for its abstract potential. This is preparing for a particular path-dependent steering around anticipated collapse events. A loading of the dice of history, in this case with nuclear capability.

This is a case of inventing the future rather than predicting it, bootstrapping into a higher-probability, more robust pathway via a lower-probability, more fragile one.

So preservation of knowledge (and by implication, the destruction and recovery of knowledge as a key element in the understanding of a Dark Age) cannot be taken uncritically as a “thing” defining Dark Age dynamics.

Or take the idea of a center-periphery power dynamic, everybody’s favorite pattern in history.

In the European Dark Ages, the Arab world arguably played the role of First Foundation, while early Christian institutions played the role of Second Foundation, preserving (so to speak) the core of the European psyche and its emotional currents. So even though the Renaissance took root in northern Italian cities, the city of Rome and the surrounding Papal States, far from being a pillaged and looted core that had exited history, had something of an pivotal ongoing role to play.

Just as the fallen imperial center, Trantor, played a pivotal role through the Asimovian Dark Age.

The Asimovian model of a Dark Age, despite being fictional, is almost as full of ambiguities as the real historical period it drew inspiration from, but it does clarify a few things.

First, history is best understood as a sort of double helix of material and psychological events; genetic and memetic evolutionary trajectories. The Foundation saga offers a bold thesis about history: it is a mind-over-matter story. The history of the psyche matters more than the history of material events. The meaning of history is a strong function of what you think it means.

There is a reason the Second Foundation was the more important of the two foundations. There is a reason the role of Rome in preserving the Christian faith of Europe mattered more than the role of the Arab world in preserving the secular knowledge of Greco-Roman antiquity.

Second, psychohistory is not a science of pure prediction. It has predictive potential because it actively attempts to shape history by constructing polities that can hold and evolve germs of sentiment superstates. It is the Seldon Plan rather than the Seldon Prophesies (an underrated innovation on Asimov’s part, given the popularity of prophecies as a plot device in such stories).

There is a reason the stewards of the Plan scramble to keep it on track by any means necessary. Because if it derails, all the potential of psychohistory, the unreasonable effectiveness of the attempt to steer around a Dark Age, is lost. The mysterious equations of the Prime Radiant are only worth something if they remain within the bounds of solvable, steerable regimes.

Psychohistory is psychology-first history, a read-write activity rather than a read-only activity. It is history-making as an active, situated force, a sociopolitical praxis.

Understood as such, it follows that the Asimovian idea of a Dark Age is essentially a psychological one that works because it is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy on steroids. Like markets, but with meaning.

Secret Worlds of Surprise

I draw one key inference from Asimov’s grand tale. Dark Ages are dark because sentiment superstates at species-scale collapse, leading to a loss of collective steering authority over history. We experience this as a Great Weirding, a not-knowing-what-to-feel because we are used to taking our emotional cues from the sentiment superstate. We are not used to having to make up our own feelings.

So to answer my own question, yes we are in a Dark Age now.

The psychohistorical project of shortening the Dark Age — the Seldon Plan/Hack — was primarily a project of restoring a sentiment superstate. Recreating something for which steering is meaningful at all.

I’ll make explicit a definition I think is implicit in both Petrarch’s ideas and Asimov’s:

A Dark Age is an age where the dominant grand narrative is a closed one, but there is subversive vitality in the margins.

It is obvious what it means for a geography to be closed (walls, draconian visa regimes etc), but what does it mean for a narrative to be closed?

A closed narrative is one that works to reject novelty and externalize rather than absorb the fallout of surprises. It is a narrative that views the domain of potential human experience to be largely known, mapped, and correctly valued. Experiences of the unknown are by definition and default somewhere between not worth having and dangerous to have.

In a closed narrative, surprises are bad.

An open narrative is the opposite: one that works hard to seek out and absorb novelty without the plot unraveling. A narrative that views the domain of potential human experience to be largely unknown, unmapped, and in a virgin, unvalued state. Surprises are good. Because they provide steering authority. History is like a space probe without much fuel. We can only steer it when it swings by large planets, using carefully calculated gravity-assist type moves. The trick to psychohistory is scripting the sequence of gravity assists out of unknown future events in order to shorten a Dark Age. It’s like planning the Voyager mission without knowing where Jupiter is, or indeed, that there is planet like Jupiter out there capable of providing slingshot boosts.

So a non-dark sentiment superstate is one that not only invites and accommodates novelty via an open narrative, it actually has an opinion about how to use it to steer.

Dominant and marginal too, have obvious meanings in spatial terms, but aren’t so obvious in narrative terms. I like to think of the dominant narrative as the one that has a hegemonic share of psychological energy. 

It is what you might call a narrative-emotional monopoly condition prevailing in the sentiment superstate. Here is a picture of four psychohistorical states of a polity, based on whether the dominant and marginal narratives are open or closed.

In both Foundation and European history, the Dark Age was characterized by a closed dominant narrative (defined, in the case of Europe, by zero-sum conflict with Islam and the rather harsh mind-closing state of Christianity in its early centuries) and a subversive vitality on the margins (the Arab world, and the pagan cultures of Northern Europe). The Renaissance, when it came, was driven by vitality returning to the center from the margins.

With our understanding of open/closed and dominant/marginal, we can make up another, equivalent definition of a Dark Age:

A Dark Age is one where curiosity is covert, and surprise must hide in secret worlds.

The figure of Petrarch embodies the defining psychological quality of the opposed force to a Dark Age: open curiosity. An undisguised seeking out of knowledge beyond immediate need, a hankering to travel without obvious purpose, simply for “tourism.” A cosmopolitan curiosity about cultures remote in time or space, but close enough in psychological distance that they they might be woven into a larger sentiment superstate.

So that gives us an idea of what exactly is dark about a dark age. It is not that there is no light, curiosity, or intellectual vigor. Those are human traits that cannot be stamped out except through extinction of the species. A dark age is where light is forced to hide behind domestic walls, and seek its frontiers in hidden, subversive ways.

The Dark Age Question

To return to our big question, are we entering a Dark Age now, and if so, how long might it last?

The answer is yes, and I don’t know.

In lieu of an actual answer, and an actual Prime Radiant (we’re doing prolegomena here, not answers), here’s a partial picture I made (of contemporary American politics, like the picture at the top of this post) to help think about this. I tried to map the flows of sentiment in the form of a Sankey diagram.

Here’s a key to the numbered regions. The details don’t matter as much as the gross morphology of the thing, about which we are asking the Dark Age question.

You do not need psychohistorical equations, for instance, to observe that about a third of the US population is driven by a kind of closed-narrative grievance whose evolution is almost certainly going to be driven by the aging of the Boomer generation.

That’s a strand of world history that’s probably not steerable in any meaningful sense, nor one that can be interwoven with any others. It just has to run its course. There is no nascent sentiment superstate there capable of doing anything creative. The underlying grievances are not readily addressable, and there are no clever hacks that will turn the acute Dark Age consciousness that is #MAGA into any sort of generative pluralism.

The idea of civilizational potential retreating into a pair of yin-yang Foundation poles also lends itself to immediately useful speculations. Together they represent the flight of two kinds of cultural capital — material and sentimental — to new homes. Even as the basis of traditional financial and political capital starts to erode.

A fun game to play is to debate candidate Foundations. I favor the idea that Silicon Valley is the First Foundation, and that certain corners of online culture are a de facto Second Foundation (there is a tantalizing possibility that this online culture will institutionally crystalize around blockchain technologies). Other mappings are possible.

But the specifics of the mapping don’t matter. What matters is the idea that when Dark Ages start, the open narrative cultures of material and psychological curiosity go hide somewhere, creating secret worlds of surprise. As they gain strength, and as the Dark Age starts to decay through its own closed nature, they can eventually become dominant again. New connections can be woven by a new breed of tourists of psychological landscapes. New Petrarchs and Ibn Batutas can start to weave together, and reboot, a new sentimental superstate. The dominant story can become an open one again.

When that happens, there will be something it is like to be human again.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Fun post! When does the actual Rao-ian plan come out?

    The Golden age with a dark underbelly seems like a perfect framing for the California of the 50s/60s that politicians still evoke (see Cox, John) and if you listen to the Bannon-ites the (in their minds) descent of a place like LA into a diverse mileau that prize political correctness above enabling normies to afford a home is exhibit A of the need to make things great again.

    Perhaps the greatest risk for optimism is the pervading sense that we are in a dark age… revolutions occur often not just when things get really really bad but when there’s a deep sense of lost opportunity. Constitutional crisis that’s unfolding right now with potential obstruction of justice up to the President himself will accelerate things faster than the 2030-40 timeline positioned here IMHO.

    Also there’s some interesting upcurrents in LA with lots of new urbanist development and some undercurrents bubbling up towards a sustainable, smart city future… Garcetti for President should certainly rocket many of those city data and innovation initiatives front and center… Or maybe we’ll just dither along until the climate bill comes due and the gigastorms destroy us all. If we don’t stumble into nuclear armageddon in our complacency before then

    PS you’re 1000% right that things in California are due for a shakeup in CA post Brown. He in many ways was the Tywin Lannister of California, pulling the ship of state back together after Scwarzenegger burst in like Robert Baratheon to break up the old regime. What’s next is an open question that’s much larger than Newsom vs Cheung et all

  2. Halikaarnian says

    I haven’t read Foundation in a very long time, but from the very start of this piece, I got multiple pings of contrast and similarity to another big sci-fi work about creating resilient civilizational refuges, Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. Would be curious to hear your opinions about similarities/differences there.

    In particular, your ‘short list of obvious questions’ brings to mind the questionnaire dug out by one of the characters in Anathem in preparation for his first sojourn out of his cloistered science fortress in ten years, and traditionally used to gauge societal drift (in particular, towards religious superstition, which seems usefully close to what you mean by a ‘closed narrative’).

    In my darker imaginings, I worry that there is a large portion of humanity for whom, more or less innately, the benefits of breaking free of biological determinism seem either impossible, personally undesirable (often on the basis of old ideas about morality or inherited religious doctrine), or (and perhaps most worryingly, albeit less innately than the previous two examples) as cynical shorthand for the near-term political aims of their particular political/cultural outgroup rather than an honest meta-worldview. This last is terrifying because it is basically the situation we are living in, and (when I’m being particularly pessimistic), the forces of Uncomfortableness seem very proficient in casting undesirable political meanings upon detailed considerations of the very question, and in some cases, on the utility of verbal specificity itself. It would be blackly funny if, instead of the usual things we think about prompting a Foundation- or Anathem-like situation (fundamentalist religious takeovers, ecological catastrophe, devastating wars) it would be a creeping unfashionableness of asking hard questions which infiltrates enough of the societal substrate from which talented people emerge and are nurtured, to crash the systems by which we maintain the ‘sentimental superstate.’

  3. A little perspective is in order. A dark age isn’t “we get some nutjobs in government for a while”. A dark age is more like “lots of us die, the rest become subsistence farmers or marauding warbands, and in three generations almost nobody knows how to read”. This is more like the Renaissance, where the progress took place alongside hideous religious wars, the Spanish Inquisition, and Black slavery (a Moorish import we’d have been better off without).

    We could get a real dark age if some idiot launches the nukes or global warming breaks agriculture, but we’re not even close right now.

  4. This might be my new all-time favorite Ribbonfarm article.

    I have many thoughts on it, but wanted to share one in particular which is kind of wacky:

    I really enjoyed your explanation of how hacking tractable corners of (so-far) intractable problem-spaces allows us to actually do engineering. I think this is one of the most interesting and profound aspects of how our world works: it is possible to manipulate aspects of Nature in highly predictable ways without fully understanding those same aspects of Nature. (Of course, the lack of understanding leaves the door open for uncertainty and unintended consequences…but that’s what makes life fun).

    Psychohistory, with its Prime Radiant device, if it works, aims to basically turn Civilization itself into one of those objects of Nature which can be manipulated in highly predictable ways. Connecting this with some of the work you’ve done on Arendtian action – would this then change Civilization from the space in which Action takes place to an object on which Making is performed? If so, what are the implications of that?

    (Or am I totally off base here?…)

  5. John Stollmeyer says

    I would like to share this in the ephemeral desire to avoid this Dark Age all together, not withstanding John Michael Greer’s (Ecosophia) prognosis of it not bottoming out for another couple of centuries.
    See also Charles Eisenstein’s talk at the same festival.

  6. The solution to the fundamental psychohistorical equation is to construct a God out of ourselves. A head placed on top of visible and invisible hands.

    Like a mecha constructing its pilot. Or a body constructing its brain. If groups are dumber than individuals, are my mitochondria smarter than me? Am I a homunculus regress?

    The amazing thing about humanity is not that we are on a journey that lends itself to unreasonably coherent storytelling. Or that we might either drive off a cliff or into a post-scarcity utopia. The amazing thing is that there is something it is like to be collectively human at species-scale at all.

    This paragraph’s aggressive re-orientation reminds me of a snowclone, “The true wonder of evolution is that it works at all.” We are not adequately intrigued that dumb things get smarter. I was pondering the anti-inductive, negentropic nature of intelligence ( -> markets), and encountered the maximum power principle, a precursorto Jeremy England’s new proposal of dissipative adaptation. Basically, it’s faster to dissipate heat by doing work also (picture a rocket that can’t lift off) and successful organisms are those with more capacity for work than their competitors. Dynamical anisotropic structures decrease local entropy by increasing total entropy, hastening the system’s approach to thermodynamic equilibrium.

    If we cheekily interpret Justice as equalized application of force, and Freedom as minimal physical restriction of possibility, then time’s arrow arcs towards both of them.

    I, too, think a memetic legacy pwns the genetic sort (what a sysiphean crapshoot!) but find it fruitful to see genes and memes as kin, like written and spoken language: shared maps that facilitate cooperation. Gene de-sanctification and artifice is a mix of memetic and genetic impact. Memes don’t beat genes, they eat genes.

    Meanwhile, your rhythmic application of the form, “something it is like to be,” evokes the definition of qualia. I am hesitant to say more, but hope your future writings on psychohistory will have us returning to the hard problem. ;)

  7. :)

    You’re the only author at this blog I really likem and find high-level.
    The most striking characteristic is, to me, your ability to do without illusion.

    Truth, that “solitary pursuit” that is about “what is still there, once faith in it has abandoned you”.
    Considering that for every normal people (and of course: for every group, society, mainstream culture) knowledge & consciousness are a product of interpretation and desire (just self-helping instruments, that is), that’s the rarest quality to be found in a human being.
    Extremely anti-evolutionary I would say.
    The condition’s name is (real) philosophy.
    I really, really am happy to read your best entries, and some parts of them have gone into my “quotes forever” file [like the one where you say: to win, you must do crap things. To give happiness… false things. And then, if you want truth…]

    Thanks, and sorry for the off-topic.

  8. This is really great. It reminds me of a formulation of strategic foresight that I really like: an attempt to increase the probability of the preferable. I don’t know who came up with it but I got it from S. Candy and J. Dunagan. When I first got into the futures field I had a sort of epiphany when I realized that, far from being and attempt to predict history, it is an attempt to steer it. I use that idea in all the introductions to the field that I teach. More here:
    I share this not to rest originality from your argument (impossible) but because it seems to me that if you’re ever in need of ‘psychohistorical’ allies you’d most likely find them in the futures/foresight field.
    From my perspective, psychohistory thus construed would be something close to a design field, as per Herbert Simon’s famous definition: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” Indeed, psychohistory would then be the most ambitious design enterprise ever. Perhaps even more ambitious than (yet spiritually close to) Bucky Fuller’s ‘comprehensive anticipatory design science’.
    I’m aware that this is still only prolegomena, but I would love to see how this could become something more of a research or practical endeavour, perhaps along the lines of Breaking Smart. I would be happy to help.

  9. No culture is really open, and no culture could be. Every culture has, or perhaps is, a theory of how the world works and what people should do in it. Ideas that don’t conform get marginalized and ridiculed when the culture is feeling confident, and hunted when the culture feels threat.

    For about a decade I was a regular commenter on another future-oriented blog. You definitely know the milieu and probably some of the people. I was one of several skeptics who took the position that we weren’t all going to have our brains uploaded to some combination of Heaven and Dropbox. We were regarded as harmless eccentrics for a while, but sometime between Brexit and Trump the crowd got increasingly hostile and we left. We were only tolerable when it seemed we were wrong.

  10. First, let me say that I celebrate both the vast but integrating scope of your discourse, and the ‘lyricality’ of its delivery!

    There is an opus of which you may not be aware, but might wish to integrate parts of, into your own world vision.

    This opus is also deeply engaged with, and deeply inspired by, the Asimovian Foundation mythos.

    This opus involves very specific definitions of both the term “Dark Age” and the term “[Global] Renaissance” —,E.D._Dictionary,Definition,Dark_Age,update,27OCT2013.jpg,E.D._Dictionary,Definition,Global_Renaissance,27OCT2013.jpg

    It authors also weave their discourse in the dialectic of memes and genes — in that of what they call ‘The Human Phenome’ in co-evolution with “The Human Genome” —,Definitions,Human_Genome_and_Human_Phenome,02NOV2014.jpg .

    Indeed, applying their discovery of a breakout into new mathematical territory, involving a ‘contra-Boolean’ algebra of logic which is grounded in a “non-standard model of the Natural numbers”, they have derived a system of seven simultaneous ‘psychohistorical-dialectical meta-equations’ —,Application_Page_Posting,The_Seldonian_Psychohistorical-Dialectical_Equations,by_Aoristos_Dyosphainthos,20SEP2014.pdf

    — which focus upon a newly-discovered tractable core within the turbulence of human history, including one ‘meta-equation’ that directly addresses the ‘Human Phenome’/”Human Genome” complex unity.

    Their mathematical breakout also has something to say about the supposedly “unsolvable, in closed-form” nonlinear partial integro-differential equations in which most of our best to-date formulations of the “laws” of Nature are expressed, linking that “unsolvability” to the [locally] “unsolvable diophantine equations” into which the expressions implying “Gödel Incompleteness” of mathematical axioms-systems “deformalize”, marking the boundaries between one axiomatic system of arithmetic and its next-higher successor-system in the “incompletable” [Gödel] progression of ever-richer systems of mathematical language.

    That breakout has something to say about mathematical “singularity” — about the finite time divisions by zero that plague especially nonlinear differential equations —,E._D._Notation_Definition,’Full_Zero’_Sign,Sheet_1_of_7,19APR2015.jpg,E._D._Notation_Definition,’Full_Zero’_Sign,Sheet_5_of_7,19APR2015.jpg,E._D._Notation_Definition,’Full_Zero’_Sign,Sheet_6_of_7,19APR2015.jpg

    And it has something to say about new kinds of “transcendental functions” that may solve nonlinear differential equations in a new kind of “closed, analytical form”.

    Finally, their opus involves a programme for averting the ‘New/Final Dark Age’ upon which we are now verging —,_F.E.D._and_E.A.g._,_'World_Wide_Marshall_Plan'_,_28NOV2016_,_last_updated_01DEC2016.pdf

    — and a new institutional design —'Amendatory_Annex'_,_v._09_,_Last_Updated_21NOV2016.pdf,_Draft_of_Proposed_28th_Article_of_Amendment_to_the_Constitution_of_the_United_Sates_,_01DEC2016_,_last_updated_01DEC2016.pdf'Amendatory_Annex'_,_v._09_,_Last_Updated_21NOV2016.pdf

    — supporting a new “sentiment superstate” of ‘Global Renaissance’ and of human flowering, ‘planetary polis’ and beyond.

    The authors of this opus are strong, to my reading, in the area of what might be called ‘collective-cognitive psychohistory’, but they are not so strong where I find your discourse to excel the most: in the area of what might be called ‘collective-affective psychohistory’.

    Perhaps there could be some “complementarity”?

  11. omg.

    the incantations of poets.

    stunning phrase.

    I know I’m in your please go away list. But reading your articles os almost as good as doing mushrooms.

    • Thanks, and no you’re not on my go-away list at all, far from it! Really appreciate your years of reading and commenting, even if I rarely respond. My comment response energy isn’t what it used to be.

  12. Christianity continues as a grand narrative primarily because of the absurd yet vital idea of the immense value of the individual human soul. This is Christianity’s secret sauce – the idea that you – an inconspicuous speck actually matter a whole lot. It will persist in all its glory and folly until something else arises that satisfies or better replaces that basic premise.