Essays exploring the possibility of psychohistory

Leaking into the Future

This entry is part 11 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

Liminality is hard to navigate, and one can be forgiven for flailing gracelessly when attempting to do so. What makes me impatient though, is people not even recognizing liminality when it is all around them. People continuing to march into non-existent futures, like non-playable characters (NPCs) in video games making walking motions with noses pressed up against impenetrable walls. When there’s masses of such people all around, the liminal turns into the surreal. I made up a visualization to try and get at this sense of surreal mass obliviousness to liminality.

It’s not complete, and you could argue with the particular patterns of forks and merges I have illustrated, but the important thing is the topological structure, and the cowpath-like tracks leaking away from the entire paved system, in a fundamentally new direction. History hasn’t just been knocked off course; our normal processes for constructing history have been knocked out. What I called the Plot Economy in my March 9 post (has it already been 2 months? Wow!) has shut down. Collectively losing the plot means our ability to keep a constructed sense of historical time going has shut down.

Instead of “progressing” or “declining” into a future mapped out over decades, from within the safety of grand narratives shared with millions, we are leaking into the future, one day at a time, sans narrative support.

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A Dreaming World

This entry is part 12 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

I haven’t written a truly interesting general trend piece since approximately 2017, when I wrote Premium Mediocre. I don’t count Internet of Beefs (2020), since it is less of a trend piece, and more of a “there are no more trends” end-of-history type argument. The closest I’ve come is probably my Superhistory, not Superintelligence essay on AI (on the Ribbonfarm Studio newsletter). But though large in scope, that’s more a reframe essay than a trend piece. Another close-but-no-cigar piece was the pandemic-themed first chapter of Clockless Clock, my serialized book-in-progress. Again, large in scope and sweep, but more metahistorical than historical.

But it’s not just me. If it were I’d conclude that maybe I’m just growing old and worse at this game. Thing is, I haven’t even read a truly interesting general trend piece in the last 5 years. One that makes me feel attuned to the fate of the world. I’ve read many insightful essays about specific topics like Covid or Russia, slice-of-the-local-zeitgeist impressionist pieces, subtle technology analyses on things like AI or crypto, good explainers on why certain specific things like the real estate boom or the chip shortage are happening (and how to bet on them), ambitious manifestos about the way the world ought to be or become, but not truly interesting general trend pieces. And I think there is a reason: we are living through a liminal, dreamlike period of world history marked by what I’ll call psychohistorical tenuousness.

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Narrative Slipstream Effects

This entry is part 13 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

Drafting is a behavior in bird-flock-like systems where one agent rides the slipstream of another in a way that delivers a collectivizable benefit, usually net energy savings. The instantaneous savings rates from drafting can be very non-trivial, ranging from 5-50%, depending on the agent geometry, formation topology, physics of the situation, and other conditions. Birds, bicyclists, race-car drivers, long-distance runners, and truckers on highways do it. It is possible to do it with airplanes, though the technology hasn’t been commercially deployed yet, as far as I know. Autopilots capable of maintaining the precise wingtip-to-wingtip formations required, for long periods (which human pilots can’t do), were developed in the early 90s. It is possible to do it with driverless cars. The reason only race cars do it today is that it requires precision bumper-to-bumper driving in platoons (linear formations of several cars) at high speeds, which ordinary drivers can’t do. A project back in the 90s, the Berkeley PATH project, demonstrated this with specially kitted-out Buicks on specially modified “smart” highway segments. Teslas today have the hardware and software capability to do it. The main blocker is not technological, but legal: who will be held liable if a platoon crashes?

Drafting offers a very fertile metaphor and mental model for social systems comprising individuals who “travel together” in a conceptual space with political, cultural, and economic dimensions. Something like Hofstede’s cultural dimensions model might be a suitable metaphoric space for thinking about societal formation flight. The equivalent of the shared travel path is the shared grand narrative, and we can think in terms of narrative slipstream effects delivering the benefits of drafting.

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Realtechnik, Nausea and Technological Longing

This entry is part 14 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

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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