Essays exploring the possibility of psychohistory

Ancient Rivers of Money

This entry is part 1 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

Sometimes a single phrase will pop into my head and illuminate a murky idea for me. This happened a few days ago. The phrase was “ancient rivers of money” and suddenly it helped me understand the idea of inertia as it applies to business in a deeper way. Inertia in business comes from predictable cash flows. That’s not a particularly original thought, but you get to new insights once you start thinking about the age of a cash flow.

We think of cash-flow as a very present-moment kind of idea. It is money going in and out right now. But actually, major cash flow patterns are the oldest part of any business. It is the very stability of the cash flow that allows a business to form around it. In fact, most cash flows are older than the businesses that grow around them. They emerge from older cash flows.  When you buy a sandwich at Subway, the few dollars that change hands are part of a very ancient river of money indeed. Through countless small and large course changes, the same river of money that once allowed some ancient Egyptian to buy some bread from his neighbor now allows you to buy a sandwich.

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The Stream Map of the World

This entry is part 2 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

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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Hacking the Non-Disposable Planet

This entry is part 3 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

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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Technology and the Baroque Unconscious

This entry is part 4 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

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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The Abundances of Ages

This entry is part 5 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

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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Eternal Hypochondria of the Expanding Mind

This entry is part 6 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

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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Think Entangled, Act Spooky

This entry is part 7 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

I like the concept of the Anthropocene. It finesses or postpones at least some of the conflict around the idea of climate change, broadens the conversation to include all human impact on the environment, and grounds thinking in geological (heh!) time without overloading it with burdensome sentiments like guilt or fear. The term leaves the future open to both positive and negative possibilities. It acknowledges human agency as the most powerful force currently reshaping the planet without getting too judgmental about what that means.

The Ash Yggdrasil by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

I find existing definitions of the Anthropocene unsatisfying though. Most of them, reasonably enough, focus on planet-scale external markers, ranging from the birth of agriculture to the first nuclear tests and climate change. But this seems too open narrative arbitrariness and not open enough to insight. If we turn inward though, there is a rather natural and fertile definition that immediately suggests itself:

The Anthropocene begins when survival in the built environment is as cognitively demanding as survival in the natural environment of evolutionary adaptation.

Note that “as cognitively demanding” is not the same thing as “as hard across the board”. It means you you have to think as hard for the same survival probability, but many other things might get easier.

A good illustration of this is life in a major city versus life in a small town. The former is more cognitively demanding but many things besides thinking become a lot easier. Nobody ever moved to a bigger city in search of a simpler life. A less emotionally stressful life, perhaps. A less impoverished life, perhaps. A more comfortable and convenient life, perhaps. But not a simpler one.

Now let’s apply that reasoning at civilizational history scale.

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The Epic Struggle between Good and Neutral

This entry is part 8 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

/* Zapp: prepare to continue the epic struggle between good and neutral */

Let’s say you are a member of the proud Red tribe, enjoying a ritual communal feast. There is mirth and joy in the air. There is eating, dancing, and various other sorts of revelry in progress. Everybody is enjoying the priceless feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves.

Suddenly, a young buck of your tribe runs into the camp ground, exhausted, wounded and bleeding. He delivers news of a grievous insult to your tribe dealt by the chief of the hated Grey tribe, and dies.

Now a different sort of priceless feeling of being part of something bigger descends on your tribe. This feeling is not derived from festive joy, but from infinitely outraged honor. Joy races against rage in every head. Hot heads and cool heads, young bucks and grey eminences, all start talking at once, to process the emotional calculus.


Eventually, a consensus narrative emerges and a course of action develops. The narrative has done its job: helped you decide how to feel, allowing action to cohere and precipitate.

How should we understand the unfolding of this course of events? The answer lies in a principle it’s taken me quite a while to formulate to my satisfaction: narrative abhors a vacuum. 

What sort of vacuum?

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Prolegomena to Any Dark-Age Psychohistory

This entry is part 9 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

When I think about history, the picture in my head is that of a roiling canvas of many choppy, intertwingled narrative streams, enveloped by many-hued nebulous fogs of mood and temper. Star-like cosmic irruption-events, ranging from discoveries to disasters, wink through from the void, disturbing the flow of human affairs and forcing steering imperatives onto those living through them. The picture is as much a portrait of a sentimental sense of history, as it is a map of an unfolding gestalt of events.

When I try to capture this poetic mental image in a drawing however, all I get is the kind of crappy cartoon you see below.

It’ll  do to get the idea across though. This particular sample from my doodle files is what contemporary American history looks like to me today: a generally well-defined low-fog Blue story, getting interrupted by less well-defined, high-fog Red tendrils.

It is this kind of image that is conjured up for me when I ask myself the question many are asking today: Are we in a Dark Age?

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Plot Economics

This entry is part 10 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

For the fourth time in my adult memory, humanity has collectively, visibly lost the plot at a global level. My criteria are fairly restrictive: The dotcom bust and the 2007 crash don’t make my list for instance, and neither do previous recent epidemics like SARS or Ebola. Global narrative collapse is a fairly severe condition, but apparently no longer as rare as it once was. Here’s my shortlist:

  1. Fall of Berlin Wall (1989, I was 14)
  2. 9/11 (2001, I was 27)
  3. Trump election (2016, I was 42)
  4. Coronavirus (2020, I am 45)

It always seems to happen relatively suddenly (but is not always entirely black-swan-level unanticipated; it is typically a gray swan), and in each of the first three cases, by my estimate, it took humanity 1-2 years to reorient. I expect this one will take about 18 months, unless a bigger gray or black swan eats this one (one I’m watching out for is Trump losing in 2020 and refusing to honor the electoral verdict). We will find the plot again after the first vaccines are administered at a large scale, presumably during the 2021 southern hemisphere flu season. We will learn how effective the vaccines are, and the markets will decide how to reprice modern pandemic risks correctly.

So what do we do in the meantime?

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