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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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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