Essays exploring the possibility of psychohistory

Plot Economics

This entry is part 11 of 15 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?

[Read more…]

Leaking into the Future

This entry is part 12 of 15 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.

[Read more…]

A Dreaming World

This entry is part 13 of 15 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.

[Read more…]

Narrative Slipstream Effects

This entry is part 14 of 15 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.

[Read more…]


This entry is part 15 of 15 in the series Psychohistory

A counter-intuitive feature of wind power is that it is usable regardless of the direction the wind is blowing, so long as it is sufficiently steady and you have the right technology. A windmill that can pivot, or a sailboat, can make use of any kind of steady wind. A sailboat can sail in any direction relative to the wind, though it may have to to tack or jibe to do so. But if there’s no wind, the sails are useless. You have to row or burn fuel.

The metaphor of a steady wind is more expressive than that of a rising tide. A rising tide floats all boats, but all go in only one direction: up. By contrast, a steady wind eases all journeys, regardless of direction. Imagine a cluster of sailboats huddled together in a windless doldrums. Once a wind starts blowing, all can start moving. And if they’re all headed to different places, they will start moving apart. The little boat cluster will experience expansion.

Imagine a steady wind blowing across an infinite two-dimensional ocean, a worldwind. The little boat universe on it will experience expansion.

[Read more…]