Technology and the Baroque Unconscious

Engineering romantics fall in love with the work of Jorge Luis Borges early in their careers.  Long after Douglas Hofstadter is forgotten for his own work in AI (which seems dated today), he will be remembered with gratitude for introducing Borges to generations of technologists.

Borges once wrote:

“I should define the baroque as that style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its own  possibilities and which borders on its own parody…I would say that the final stage of all styles is baroque when that style only too obviously exhibits or overdoes its own tricks.”

The baroque in Borges’ sense is self-consciously humorous. Borges’ own work in this sense is a baroque exploration of the processes of  thought. As one critic (see the footnote on this page) noted, Borges writings “serve to dramatize the process of thought in the apprehension of truth.”

Unlike art, complex and mature technology (not all technology) is baroque without being self-conscious. At best there is a collective sensibility informing its design that can be called a baroque unconscious.

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Three Deep Videos and a Roundup

I am not normally a big consumer of online video content, but in the last couple of months, I’ve watched three very significant videos that together have turned my mind into silly putty. They are incredibly fertile, thought-provoking and demanding without being merely stimulating in an infotainment/mindcandy sense. This is protein, not sugar.

They total about 6 hours, but if you choose to invest a clear-brained morning or afternoon, you will not be disappointed. You should find that you’ve leveled-up your thinking about a lot of stuff that we talk about frequently.

I am also posting a roundup of the last couple of months, since I am now blogging on enough different venues to justify some periodic aggregation.

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The Stream Map of the World

For most of the last decade, Israeli soldiers have been making the transition back to civilian life after their compulsory military service  by going on a drug-dazed recovery trip to India, where an invisible stream of modern global culture runs from the beaches of Goa to the mountains of Himachal Pradesh in the north.  While most of the Israelis eventually return home after a year or so, many have stayed as permanent expat stewards of the stream. The Israeli military stream is changing course these days, and starting to flow through Thailand, where the same pattern of drug-use and conflict with the locals is being repeated.

This pattern of movement among young Israelis is an example of what I’ve started calling a stream. A stream is not a migration pattern, travel in the usual sense, or a consequence of specific kinds of work that require travel (such as seafaring or diplomacy). It is a sort of slow, life-long communal nomadism, enabled by globalization and a sense of shared transnational social identity within a small population.

I’ve been getting increasingly curious about such streams. I have come to believe that though small in terms of absolute numbers (my estimate is between 20-25 million worldwide), the stream citizenry of the world shapes the course of globalization. In fact, it would not be unreasonable to say that streams provide the indirect staffing for the processes of modern technology-driven globalization. They are therefore a distinctly modern phenomenon, not to be confused with earlier mobile populations they may partly resemble.

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The August Reading List Freeze

August is always a bitch of a month for me, to the point that I agree with David Plotz of Slate that we should get rid of it entirely. It seems to be my de facto annual planning month, though I have no reason anymore to be on an annual planning cycle. In August, I always seem to have far too many things in early stages of development, and too few leaving at the other end. I am currently in the early stages of several rather ambitious blog posts, a couple of new consulting projects and a couple of new personal projects. This year, thanks to my summer travels (I am back in Las Vegas now), I also have piles of unprocessed raw material from stuff I researched on the road, to write about.

So that’s a long, whiny excuse for rather sparse output over the last several weeks. I think I’ve hit my August trough though, so I can only build up momentum from here. But in the meantime, I assume many of you are on vacation, or planning to go on vacation, so I thought I’d share my current reading list, if any of you want to read along. Some of this will show up on the blog, some will not. My reading list piles up so fast that I’ve decided to be brutal. This list is it for the rest of the year. I will not be adding more books to the queue until I am done with these.

  1. Titan by Ron Chernow: Multiple people have recommended this Rockefeller biography to me.
  2. Tycoons by Charles Morris: Seems like a good overview of the Robber Barons
  3. The First Tycoon by T. J. Stiles: A biography of Vanderbilt, probably the founding father of the Robber Baron era.
  4. The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama: Don’t let the vague neocon associations dissuade you. There’s a reason this guy is so famous. If he writes a history of political order, you need to read it.
  5. World 3.0 by Pankaj Ghemawat: As meaty as Friedman’s The World is Flat is not. I suspect it’s going to become the definitive textbook introduction to globalization for those who actually care about getting the details and numbers right. The title is unfortunately rather uninspired, but the contents are solid gold.
  6. Fixing the Game by Roger L. Martin: Haven’t yet started it, but seems like a really intriguing premise: applying the lessons of the NFL to figuring out how capitalism should be fixed to avoid the kinds of messes we seem to keep getting into.
  7. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson: I rarely read fiction these days, but everybody keeps telling me to read Stephenson, so I finally caved, especially since it seemed to go well with the rest of this list.  This is the first volume of the Baroque Cycle. If I have time, I may attempt to finish all three volumes this year.
  8. Debt: the first 5000 Years by David Graeber: I like ambitious reframings of everything from a new perspective, and this certainly qualifies. An attempt to rethink all of civilization and society as a manifestation of debt. If you want to sample before you decide, Julio Rodriguez at Wild Intent has attempted a valiant assault on this Mt. Everest scale book (ambition, not raw size).

Yes. There’s a definite theme here. No, the theme won’t take over the blog. I may even decide not to pursue it at all.

Mostly I am trying to flesh out the thinking around this year’s summer blockbuster hit, A Brief History of the Corporation to figure out just how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Though I hate to admit it, that piece did share some rather unpleasant characteristics with Michael Bay’s movies, so I am trying to think through some Oscar-season type follow ups.

Here’s to all of us seeing this beast of a month through. I’ll be in Hawaii over Labor Day weekend, so there is that to look forward to.

A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100

On 8 June, a Scottish banker named Alexander Fordyce shorted the collapsing Company’s shares in the London markets. But a momentary bounce-back in the stock ruined his plans, and he skipped town leaving £550,000 in debt. Much of this was owed to the Ayr Bank, which imploded. In less than three weeks, another 30 banks collapsed across Europe, bringing trade to a standstill. On July 15, the directors of the Company applied to the Bank of England for a £400,000 loan. Two weeks later, they wanted another £300,000. By August, the directors wanted a £1 million bailout.  The news began leaking out and seemingly contrite executives, running from angry shareholders, faced furious Parliament members. By January, the terms of a comprehensive bailout were worked out, and the British government inserted its czars into the Company’s management to ensure compliance with its terms.

If this sounds eerily familiar, it shouldn’t. The year was 1772, exactly 239 years ago today, the apogee of power for the corporation as a business construct. The company was the British East India company (EIC). The bubble that burst was the East India Bubble. Between the founding of the EIC in 1600 and the post-subprime world of 2011, the idea of the corporation was born, matured, over-extended, reined-in, refined, patched, updated, over-extended again, propped-up and finally widely declared to be obsolete. Between 2011 and 2100, it will decline — hopefully gracefully — into a well-behaved retiree on the economic scene.

In its 400+ year history, the corporation has achieved extraordinary things, cutting around-the-world travel time from years to less than a day, putting a computer on every desk, a toilet in every home (nearly) and a cellphone within reach of every human.  It even put a man on the Moon and kinda-sorta cured AIDS.

So it is a sort of grim privilege for the generations living today to watch the slow demise of such a spectacularly effective intellectual construct. The Age of Corporations is coming to an end. The traditional corporation won’t vanish, but it will cease to be the center of gravity of economic life in another generation or two.  They will live on as religious institutions do today, as weakened ghosts of more vital institutions from centuries ago.

It is not yet time for the obituary (and that time may never come), but the sun is certainly setting on the Golden Age of corporations. It is time to review the memoirs of the corporation as an idea, and contemplate a post-corporate future framed by its gradual withdrawal from the center stage of the world’s economic affairs.

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Cognitive Archeology of the West

This is a guest post by Paula Hay 

Venkat’s recent post The Disruption of Bronze touched on a subject I’ve been pursuing fervently for the better part of a decade now: the time frame in which psychologically modern humans evolved. More than that, however, my interest is in why and how human psychology shifted to cause the sudden, radical changes that ultimately resulted in civilization.

My view is that without an understanding of this shift, there can be no evolution beyond the devouring, predatory virus that is civilized culture. In a mere 10,000 years, civilization has all but wrecked the planet — a truly impressive horror.

Collapse (of either the slow or sudden variety, take your pick) is a certainty, in my opinion; what I needed, for my own sanity, was a context in which to fit this state of affairs. Does the story really begin and end with American avarice? Are humans condemned to repeat the rise-and-fall of civilizations until we wipe ourselves out for the last time? Is there no greater narrative arc here?

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The Return of the Barbarian

Our cartoon view of history goes straight from the Flintstones to Jetsons without developmental stages of any consequence in between. Hunter-gatherers and settled modern civilizations loom large, as bookends, in our study of history. The more I study history though, the more I realize that hunter-gatherer lifestyles are mostly of importance in evolutionary prehistory, not in history proper. If you think about history proper, a different lifestyle, pastoral nomadism, starts to loom large, and its influence on the course of human history is grossly underestimated. This is partly because civilizations and pastoral nomad cultures have a figure-ground relationship. You need to understand both to understand the gestalt of world history.

Modern hunter-gatherer lifestyles are cul-de-sacs in cultural evolution terms. They stopped mattering by around 4000 BC, and haven’t significantly affected world events since. Pastoral nomads though, played a crucial role until at least World War I. Until about 1405 (the year Timur died), they actually played the starring role. And in reconstructed form, the lifestyle may again start to dominate world affairs within the next few decades. Their eclipse over the last 5oo or so years, I am going to argue, was an accident of history that is finally being corrected.

The barbarians are about to return to their proper place at the helm of the world’s affairs, and the story revolves around this picture:

I am about to zoom from about 15,000 BC to 2011 AD in less than 4000 words, so you may want to fasten your seat belts and grab a few pinches of salt.

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The Disruption of Bronze

I pride myself on my hard-won sense of history. World history is probably the subject I’ve studied the most on my own, starting with Somerset Plantagenet Fry’s beautifully illustrated  DK History of the World at age 15.  I studied the thing obsessively for nearly a year, taking copious notes and neglecting my school history syllabus. It’s been the best intellectual investment of my life. Since then, I periodically return to history to refresh my brain whenever I think it my thinking is getting stale. Most recently, I’ve been reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. My tastes have gradually shifted from straightforward histories by modern historians to analytical histories with a specific angle, preferably written by historians from eras besides our own.

The big value to studying world history is that no matter how much you know or think you know, one new fact can completely rewire your perspectives. The biggest such surprise for me was understanding the real story (or as real as history ever gets) of how iron came to displace bronze, and what truly happened in the shift between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.

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The World of Garbage

For the last two years, I’ve had three books on garbage near the top of my reading pile, and I’ve gradually worked my way through two of them and am nearly done with the third. The books are Rubbish: The Archeology of Garbage by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy (1992), Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte (2005), and Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage by Heather Rogers (2005).  Last week, I also watched the CNBC documentary, Trash Inc.: The Secret Life of Garbage. Notice something about the four subtitles? Each hints at the hidden nature of the subject. It is a buried, hidden secret physically and philosophically. And there are many reasons why uncovering the secret is an interesting and valuable activity. The three books are motivated by three largely separate reasons: Rathje and Cullen bring an academic, anthropological eye to the subject. Royte’s book is a mix of amateur curiosity and concerned citizenship, while Rogers’ is straight-up environmental activism. But reading the 3 books, I realized that none of those reasons interested me particularly. I was fascinated by a fourth reason: garbage (along with sewage, which I won’t cover here) is possibly the only complete, empirical big-picture view of humanity you can find.

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Morning is Wiser Than Evening

If I had to summarize my life philosophy in one phrase, I would pick the Russian proverb, morning is wiser than evening. The phrase appears in many Russian folk-tales. I used to read these avidly as a kid. The world of Ivan the youngest of three sons, Vasilisa the beautiful and my favorite, Baba Yaga the witch, who rode around on a stove, is a sad and pensive one, but one you yearn to visit. Morals are careless afterthoughts. Russian folktales  are primarily impressionistic little gems that create a mood more than they tell a story. If you read the stories, you get a sense of where Chekov got his more grown-up inspirations. Chekov is, to me, the quintessentially Russian writer. I’ve read some Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but neither captures what I imagine the Russian landscape to be like, the way Chekov does.

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