Weirding Diary: 7

This entry is part 7 of 11 in the series Weirding Diary

The lament that the United States is turning into a third-world country is at once too pessimistic and too optimistic. What is actually happening is that a patchwork of post-industrial first and fourth-world conditions is emerging against a second-world backdrop.

Here are my definitions:

  • First world: Small, rich European countries. Islands of gentrified urbanism in the US.
  • Second world: Suburban/small-town America, parts of larger European countries, small Asian countries, parts of the Soviet Union before it collapsed, parts of China today.
  • Third world: Countries in global south that began modernizing a century later than Europe, and still have relatively intact pre-modern societal structures to backstop the shortcomings of incomplete industrial development.
  • Fourth world: Parts of the developed world that have collapsed past third-world conditions because industrial safety nets have simultaneously withered from neglect/underfunding, and are being overwhelmed by demand, but where pre-modern societal structures don’t exist as backstops anymore.

The fourth world emerges when large numbers of people fall through the cracks of presumed-complete development, and find themselves in worse-than-third-world conditions: More socially disconnected, more vulnerable to mental illness and drug addiction, with fewer economic opportunities due to the regulation of low-level commerce, and less able to stabilize a pattern of life.

Schemes like LBJ’s Great Society failed to fulfill their promises, but still prevent those facing impoverishment from fending for themselves. The fourth world is the worst of all worlds; an artifact of failed authoritarian high-modernism. A condition of pervasive dependency on non-dependable systems that eliminate old alternatives and limit the growth of new ones. The underbelly of zombie monopolistic safety nets that lack the autopoietic potential to endure through political and economic cycles as living social systems. The functionality withers away, but the negative externalities don’t.

The Great Weirding is revealing that modernization and development are not the same thing. It is a mistake to govern under the presumption that entire populations must necessarily arrive at stable 100% first-world conditions after a transient “development” period. Modernization is the evolution of both wealth and poverty into newer technological forms.

Systems designed for the lowest strata must not assume those strata will eventually go away.

Series Navigation<< Weirding Diary: 6Weirding Diary: 8 >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. How much do you feel that this is a state vs. Federal problem within the United States? The states don’t tax enough in the hopes the Federal government will bail them out with grants and such for roads and other infrastructure.

    • Ryan Spence says

      This is a helpful metaphor regarding how to imagine scaled social fabric’s swarming response to lines made official by structures. Don’t think it is particular to a particular nation-state. I believe VR is bringing into focus the results of pulling too frequently on any particular bedsheet without recognizing the chilling effect on the bedmate.

  2. Benjamin Mahala says

    Interesting and important distinction between the third and forth worlds. This made clear to me something I’ve been thinking about. There is a meme in the blockchain space that blockchain systems are for the third world; but I don’t think that’s correct. The third world has strong cash based informal markets and weak / expensive internet connectivity. It’s the forth world where informal internet markets might be most useful, since they have gone through the first world purge of informal cash markets and have stronger internet access.

  3. Joe Fallica says

    Haven’t read Ribbonfarm for a while, caught up on a years worth. Weirding is an interesting concept. As its creator, would you consider constructing a similar explanation of the weirding effects of the conflicting relationship between the individual and the societal pressures vis a vis the individual’s performance at life, perception of events, influence in beliefs and like that.

  4. Pierre-Emil Chantereau says

    From a historical perspective, the cycle model would indicate that the 4th world develops into the third as more resilient ways re-emerge. With the permanent state of low grade conflict acting as a stressor, those who can’t move back into the 3rd world lifestyles (permaculture communities, homesteading, resilience networks) will fail to reproduce over generations, and thus can only act as sieve on a generational time span. People either move into another space, or perish.

    Fall of Rome style.

  5. Looks like a Seneca Curve to me. For context (no affiliation):