The Abundances of Ages

High culture organizes its world views using overarching frames: intellectual superstructures that serve as extrinsic conceptual coordinate systems.  “Globalization” and “Industrialization” are examples of such frames.

Popular culture on the other hand, tends to be driven by the most visible and drama in the immediate environment.  From the chaos of turbulent change, popular culture tends to pick out specific motifs around which to grow a world view. These motifs mostly arise from the economic abundances that drive that particular age.

In trying to compare and contrast the motifs of different ages, something interesting struck me: the motifs tend to cycle between material, object and cognitive motifs. The objects aren’t random objects, but ones created by the operation of technology. So iron is a material motif for the Iron Age, the steam engine is an object motif for the Industrial Age, and writing is a cognitive motif for the Bronze Age.  Here’s an approximate and speculative table of the motif-cycling I made up.

(I have endnotes for the less obvious table entries, which may need some explanation; and obviously the model is more speculative for ages for which contemporary written records are not available to us).

Why is this cycling important? Well, for all you futurists out there who are stuck in a mental rut asking yourself, what’s the next big thing? the next big thing is almost certainly not going to be a thing at all (object motif).  It’s going to be a material motif. So the right question is what’s the next new material? 

So answers like “3D printing” are wrong in a specific and interesting way. Let me explain.

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Cloud Mouse, Metro Mouse

The fable of the town mouse and the country mouse is probably the oldest exploration of the tensions involved in urbanization, but it seems curiously dated today.  The tensions explored in the fable — the simple, rustic pleasures and securities of country life versus the varied, refined pleasures and fears of town life  — seem irrelevant today. In America at least, the “country” such as it is, has turned into a geography occupied by industrial forces.  The countryside is a sparsely populated, mechanized food-and-resource cloud. A system of national parks, and a scattering of “charming” small towns and villages pickled in nostalgia, are all that liven up a landscape otherwise swallowed up by automated modernity.

In America, larger provincial towns and cities that are just a little too large and unwieldy to be nostalgically pickled, but not large enough to be grown into metropolitan regions, appear to be mostly degenerating into meth-lab economies or ossifying into enclaves of a retreating rich.

So the entire canvas of the town mouse/country mouse fable is being gradually emptied out. If there is a divide today, it is between two new species of mice: metro mice and cloud mice.

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Waste, Creativity and Godwin’s Corollary for Technology

For the last six months, the scarcity/abundance dichotomy has been annoying me.  All dichotomies are false of course, but some are more of a bitch to transcend than others. On a 10-point scale where good vs. evil is a 4 in terms of transcendence difficulty, I’d rate scarcity versus abundance at 8.5.

And it is more than a harmless intellectual distraction. The scarcity versus abundance dichotomy is central to all technological thinking. The two sides of the dichotomy also have the two most powerful ideas in science — the second law of thermodynamics and evolution — as their respective intellectual motifs (I once called these two ideas the only sexy ideas in science; I think they appeal to humans because they both involve irreversibility, but that’s a story for another day).

So anytime you talk scarcity versus abundance, you are holding a sort of sumo wrestling match between two heavyweight ideas. This is why the respective poles of technological visioning, the ideas of the Singularity and Collapse, exercise such a powerful grip on our imagination.

I can’t say I’ve managed to rise above the dichotomy yet, but I am beginning to see a glimmer of a way out of this particular cognitive trap.

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Welcome to the Future Nauseous

Both science fiction and futurism seem to miss an important piece of how the future actually turns into the present. They fail to capture the way we don’t seem to notice when the future actually arrives.

Sure, we can all see the small clues all around us: cellphones, laptops, Facebook, Prius cars on the street. Yet, somehow, the future always seems like something that is going to happen rather than something that is happening; future perfect rather than present-continuous. Even the nearest of near-term science fiction seems to evolve at some fixed receding-horizon distance from the present.

There is an unexplained cognitive dissonance between changing-reality-as-experienced and change as imagined, and I don’t mean specifics of failed and successful predictions.

My new explanation is this: we live in a continuous state of manufactured normalcy. There are mechanisms that operate — a mix of natural, emergent and designed — that work to prevent us from realizing that the future is actually happening as we speak.  To really understand the world and how it is evolving, you need to break through this manufactured normalcy field. Unfortunately, that leads, as we will see, to a kind of existential nausea.

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Hall’s Law: The Nineteenth Century Prequel to Moore’s Law

For the past several months, I’ve been immersed in nineteenth century history. Specifically, the history of interchangeability in technology between 1765, when the Système Gribeauval, the first modern technology doctrine based on the potential of interchangeable parts, was articulated, and 1919, when Frederick Taylor wrote The Principles of Scientific Management.

Here is the story represented as a Double Freytag diagram, which should be particularly useful for those of you who have read TempoFor those of you who haven’t, think of the 1825 Hall Carbine peak as the “Aha!” moment when interchangeability was first figured out, and the 1919 peak as the conclusion of the technology part of the story, with the focus shifting to management innovation, thanks in part to Taylor.

The unsung and rather tragic hero of the story of interchangeability was John Harris Hall (1781 – 1841), inventor of the Hall carbine.  So I am naming my analog to Moore’s Law for the 19th century Hall’s Law in his honor.

The story of Hall’s Law is in a sense a prequel to the unfinished story of Moore’s Law. The two stories are almost eerily similar, even to believers in the “history repeats itself” maxim.

Why does the story matter? For me, it is enough that it is a fantastically interesting story. But if you must have a mercenary reason for reading this post, here it is: understanding it is your best guide to the Moore’s Law endgame.

So here is my telling of this tale. Settle in, it’s going to be another long one.

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Glimpses of a Cryptic God

I rarely listen to music anymore. Strange anxieties and fears seem to flood into my head when I try. When I seek comfort in sound these days, I tend to seek out non-human ones. The sorts of soundscapes that result from technological and natural forces gradually inter-penetrating each other.

At the Mira Flores lock, the gateway into the Pacific Ocean at the southern end of the Panama Canal, you can listen to one such soundscape: the idling of your vessel’s engine, mixed with the flapping and screeching of seabirds. The draining of the lock causes fresh water to pour into salt water, killing a new batch of freshwater fish every 30-45 minutes. The seabirds circle, waiting for the buffet to open.

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Peak Attention and the Colonization of Subcultures

Coded, informal communication — significant messages buried inside innocuous messages — has long interested me.  I don’t mean things like “NX398 VJ899 ABBX3” that the NSA might deal with (though that’s related). I mean things like this:

You: let’s get coffee sometime

Me: Sure, that’d be great

We both know that the real exchange was:

You: let’s pretend we want to take this further

Me: yeah, let’s do that

The question of how such coded language emerges, spreads and evolves is a big one. I am interested in a very specific question: how do members of an emerging subculture recognize each other in public, especially on the Internet, using more specialized coded language?

The question is interesting because the Web is making traditional subcultures — historically illegible to governance mechanisms, and therefore hotbeds of subversion — increasingly visible and open to cheap, large-scale economic and political exploitation. This exploitation takes the form of attention mining, and is the end-game on the path to what I called Peak Attention a while back.

Does this mean the subversive potential of the Internet is an illusion, and that it will ultimately be domesticated? Possibly.

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The World is Small and Life is Long

In the Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling repeatedly uses a very effective technique: turning a character, initially introduced as part of the background, into a foreground character. This happens with the characters of Gilderoy Lockhart, Viktor Krum and Sirius Black for instance. In fact she uses the technique so frequently (with even minor characters like Mr. Ollivander and Stan Shunpike) that the background starts to empty out.

This is rather annoying because the narrative suggests and promises a very large world — comparable in scope and complexity to the Lord of the Rings world say — but delivers a very small world in which everybody knows everybody. You are promised an epic story about the fate of human civilization, but get what feels like the story of a small town. Characters end up influencing each other’s lives a little too frequently, given the apparent size of the canvas.

We are used to big worlds that act big and small worlds that act small. We are not used to big worlds that act small.

Which is a problem, because that’s the sort of world we now live in. Our world is turning into Rowling’s world.

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How the World Works: Part II

Last time, I did a quick comparative scan of Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political OrderPankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0 and David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5000 years, and covered Fukuyama’s book in more detail.

Let’s tackle World 3.0 next.

Ghemawat’s book is a tour de force of quantitative synthesis. Let’s start with an annotated version of the 2×2 that anchors World 3.0 (cleverly rotated by 45 degrees; I don’t know why other 2×2 inventors don’t do this)

This 2×2 is almost the only major piece of conceptual scaffolding in a book that is otherwise an empiricist’s delight. Everything is argued with numbers, and what cannot be argued with numbers is mostly not argued at all. It makes for a book with a lot of narrative potholes wherever the data gods to not smile, but where there is data, the book is extremely solid. It’s a refreshing change for me to read something that stays away from data-free speculation.

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How the World Works

If you want to seriously level-up your thinking about how the world works, you might want to try reading 3 very ambitious books together: Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, Pankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0 and David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5000 years. All three are from the reading list that I posted in August, so I am hoping at least some of you have been attacking them.

It’s worth reading them together because they attempt to tell the same story, towards the same purpose — explaining how the world works in some sense — drawing on roughly the same body of raw material. It is illuminating to see the surprising ways in which the stories agree and disagree. All three books are also particularly valuable for me personally, since I hope to take a stab at telling the same story some day.

My version will of course be the definitive one when I write it, but let’s take a look at the versions of the story on the market today.

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