Eternal Hypochondria of the Expanding Mind

The story of neurasthenia or “invalidism” is a curious mid-nineteenth-century chapter in the story of the emancipation of women. As Barbara Ehrenreich argues in Bright-Sidedit was almost entirely a social phenomenon:

The largest demographic to suffer from neurasthenia or invalidism was middle-class women. Male prejudice barred them from higher education and the professions; industrialization was stripping away the productive tasks that had occupied women in the home, from sewing to soap-making. For many women, invalidism became a kind of alternative career. Days spent reclining in chaise longues, attended by doctors and family members and devoted to trying new medicines and medical regimens, substituted for masculine “striving” in the world.

What makes this curious, and rather ironic, is that invalidism was becoming widespread just as new possibilities were being opened up to women, through the slow substitution of fossil fuels for muscle power.

This was not a coincidence of course.

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Schumpeter’s Demon

For a while now, I’ve been dissatisfied with our shared mental models around the creative destruction being unleashed by the Internet.

On the one hand, we have coarse-grained and abstract models based on long-term historical cycles and precedents. This is the sort of thing I’ve explored quite a bit in previous posts. It involves careful analogies to previous technological revolutions. It involves debates around whether or not technological progress is stalling and whether a return to growth is possible.

On the other hand, we have detailed situational models, full of incomprehensible minutiae, that seem to develop around specific important decisions. An example is the  set of mental models that drove the “fiscal cliff” farce, which just played out in the US Congress.  Another is the set of mental models in evidence around the SOPA/PIPA debate last year.

The first kind of mental model is so large-scale in its concerns, it is effectively a fatalistic level of analysis. The other kind is ineffectually preoccupied with each immediate situation in turn. It quickly drives itself into a dead-end each time, and defaults to buy-more-time decisions.

I’ve thought of an allegory for understanding economic creative destruction, that I’ll call Schumpeter’s Demon. It just might be capable of informing meaningful action.

From Incomprehensible to Arbitrary

William James’ observation, “The progress from brute to man is characterized by nothing so much as by the decrease in frequency of proper occasions for fear” has long seemed to me a near-perfect definition of civilization. But it doesn’t get at the costs of this process. Which is why I was inspired, a while back, to make up my own no-free-lunch version of the aphorism: Civilization is the process of turning the incomprehensible into the arbitrary.

A lot of my recent thinking and writing (and coincidentally, consulting work) has revolved in one way or another around this idea. Last week, I figured out a pretty neat 2×2 that captures this notion of civilizational progress, and folds in a bunch of other interesting ideas that I am thinking about, in satisfying ways. Here you go:

The diagram may be hard for you to parse if you haven’t been following some of my recent writing. There are also ideas in there that I haven’t yet written up. The diagram maps to the aphorism from bottom-left to top-right, but via a path of wiggly process through the other two quadrants.

It’s going to take me another week or two to dig out from under my move and post a decently polished full-length post (thanks to guest bloggers for keeping things moving along in recent weeks), so lucky for you, this short post is all I have for you this week.  I have a lot more to say about the ideas in this 2×2, but I’ll save that for future posts.

If you really want more, here are the slides, and here’s the video, from my talk at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab last week. Warning: as with many of my recent talks, this is very much work-in-progress material, probably with lots of flaws and errors. I’ve sort of adopted a blogger-approach to speaking in recent years, where I release early and often. It’s a refreshing change from the more academic present-when-done style I operated in until a few years ago, but it does result in more bugginess.

Notes on Spatial Metaphors for Social Systems

Distance metaphors are natural in any conversation about social phenomena. We talk of the distance between governance systems and the governed, guerrilla movements and host populations,  rich and poor, Chinese and American, Red and Blue.

Kevin Simler’s recent guest post made use of the standard geometric-metaphoric scheme, the Hofstede cultural dimensions model, to talk about startup cultures. The model also forms the basis for the analysis of globalization in Pankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0, which I reviewed last year. So distance metaphors are very robust across a wide range of social phenomena, from small startups to the entire planet.

Topology — the study of the pre-geometric structure of a space, such as whether it is orientable or not, doughnut shaped or spherical, and so forth — is not as natural or easy to apply, but is also useful if you can pull it off, as Drew Austin’s recent post on the Holey Plane demonstrated.

When you do topology and geometry for social systems incoherently, you get frustrating books like Friedman’s World is Flat.

But more careful approaches aren’t safe either.  In particular, the more I think about Hofstede’s model, the more dissatisfied I get. Is there a better way? I’ve been playing around with a few very preliminary ideas that I thought I’d share, prematurely.

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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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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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Realtechnik, Nausea and Technological Longing

The story of barbed wire is one of the most instructive ones in the history of technology.  The short version is this: barbed wire (developed between 1860 to 1873) helped close the American frontier, carved out the killing fields of World War I, and by spurring the development of the tank as a counter-weapon, created industrial-era land warfare. It also ended the age-old global conflict between pastoral nomads and settled agriculturalists (of animals, vegetables and minerals) and handed a decisive victory to the latter. Cowboys and Indians alike were on the wrong side of the barbed wire fence. Quite a record for a technology that had little deep science or engineering behind it.

Barbed wire is an example of a proximal-cause technology that eventually disturbed multiple human balances of powers, starting with the much-mythologized cowboys-versus-ranchers balance. When things finally stabilized, a new technological world order had emerged, organizing everything from butter to guns differently.  Barbed wire was not a disruptive innovation in the Clayton Christensen sense. It was something far bigger. Its introduction marked what Marshall McLuhan calledbreak boundary in technological evolution: a rapid, irreversible and wholesale undermining of a prevailing planet-wide technological equilibrium. So ironically, the ultimate boundary-maker of physical geography was a boundary breaker in technology history.

The story of barbed wire illustrates the core principle that I want to propose: an equilibrium in technological affairs is necessary for an equilibrium in political affairs. There is no possibility of a realpolitik equilibrium without a corresponding realtechnik equilibrium: a prevailing, delicately balanced configuration of technological forces across an entire connected political-economic-cultural space (which today is always the entire planet).

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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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Rediscovering Literacy

I’ve been experimenting lately with aphorisms. Pithy one-liners of the sort favored by writers like La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680). My goal was to turn a relatively big idea, the sort I would normally turn into a 4000-word post, into a one-liner. After many failed attempts over the last few months, a few weeks ago, I finally managed to craft one I was happy with:

Civilization is the process of turning the incomprehensible into the arbitrary.

Many hours of thought went into this 11-word candidate for eternal quotability. When I was done, I was tempted to immediately unpack it in a longer essay, but then I realized that that would defeat the purpose. Maxims and aphorisms are about more than terseness in the face of expensive writing technology. They are about basic training in literacy. The aphorism above is possibly the most literate thing I have ever written. By stronger criteria I’ll get to, it might even be the only literate thing I’ve ever written, which means I’ve been illiterate until now.

This post isn’t about the aphorism itself (I’ll leave you to play with it), but about literacy.

I used to think that the terseness of  written language through most of history was mostly a result of the high cost and low reliability of writing technologies in pre-modern times. I now think these were secondary issues. I have come to believe that the very word literacy meant something entirely different before around 1890, when print technology became cheap enough to sustain a written form of mass media.

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Hacking the Non-Disposable Planet

Sometime in the last few years, apparently everybody turned into a hacker.  Besides  computer hacking, we now have lifehacking (using  tricks and short-cuts to improve everyday life), body-hacking (using sensor-driven experimentation to manipulate your body), college-hacking (students who figure out how to get a high GPA without putting in the work) and career-hacking (getting ahead in the workplace without “paying your dues”). The trend shows no sign of letting up. I suspect we’ll soon see the term applied in every conceivable domain of human activity.

I was initially very annoyed by what I saw as a content-free overloading of the term, but the more I examined the various uses, the more I realized that there really is a common pattern to everything that is being subsumed by the term hacking. I now believe that the term hacking is not over-extended; it is actually under-extended. It should be applied to a much bigger range of activities, and to human endeavors on much larger scales, all the way up to human civilization.

I’ve concluded that we’re reaching a technological complexity threshold where hacking is going to be the main mechanism for the further evolution of civilization. Hacking is part of a future that’s neither the exponentially improving AI future envisioned by Singularity types, nor the entropic collapse envisioned by the Collapsonomics types. It is part of a marginally stable future where the upward lift of diminishing-magnitude technological improvements and hacks just balances the downward pull of entropic gravity, resulting in an indefinite plateau, as the picture above illustrates.

I call this possible future hackstability.

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