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August 29, 2010 12:00 PM   Subscribe

The trend of declaring something specific to a certain time is only a few centuries old: people in the 13th century recognized that they had very much in common with people in the 6th or 3rd centuries, at least. Perhaps the endless train of what is called progress has done away with that, but can we declare that our enlightenment is different simply because we dig through the TPA reports instead of the soil?
posted by curuinor at 12:20 PM on August 29, 2010

if the history of development and progress is productivity improvements among 'factor endowments' then how these are distributed, temporally and organizationally, becomes the guiding factor in human affairs. i would argue these factor endowments -- land, labor and capital -- would include scientific understanding and technological advancement, cultural adaptivity and force projection, as well as resource access, climate suitability and geographic location. moreover, they are all embodied in 'institutions' (not always political, but influential, e.g. arts & media) that abide by certain rules, principals or goals.

per gellner, there were two periods where factor productivity improved so rapidly that it might be considered a phase change -- "all that is solid melts into air," as marx & engels described it -- the neolithic and industrial revolutions. how factor productivity shifted marked the character of the age.

the agrarian age was a feudal society as opposed to the tribalism that preceded it or, more precisely, from which it evolved. while still strictly hierarchical, often by lineage, class distinctions grew prominent and stratified. kingdoms and empires could rise and fall, but for the vast majority of people the overall structure of existence was by and large a steady state.

with the industrial age and the breaking of malthus' grip, a new political institution was inaugurated: the nation-state. the 'reproductive surplus' that industrial organization allowed, also called for new forms of political control. religious order and a warrior class were no longer sufficient to channel the ever growing will of the people. ideology came to displace creed and caste as much as, if not more than, merit.

the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism was nominally about how the fruits of industrial organization were distributed; accruing to 'owners' of the means of production -- the propertied class (and its protection racket) -- or the 'people' of which we can all count ourselves among (in solidarity). regardless, as the relative importance of land diminished, labor power was ascendant while capital still wanted its factories full. furthermore, institutions of learning took over many of the functions of the clerisy as access to the proverbial gellnerian 'well of truth' was located outside the walls of the city, helping democratize epistemic authority and promote knowledge discovery and transfer.

the question of the day is whether we are in the midst of another phase change shift in the means of production and what the institutional ramifications might be. (re)globalization and technological advancement (G&T) have boosted productivity, but this has not accrued to wage labor, but rather the state/corporation. meanwhile, G&T is also running up against resource constraints, perhaps returning us to a malthusian steady state, at least in terms of aggregate physical reproduction in a zero-sum world. in short, industrial-age institutions appear either dysfunctional or inadequate when addressing the challenges that the increasingly visible contours of what the post-industrial age is beginning to look like present. ignoring, dismissing or denying the shift is only likely to prolong the transition (or have it occur more abruptly and perhaps more violently than it need have been).

so what is 'different' about the post-industrial age? for one, force projection is limited, especially among nuclear powers, but also because of the increasing sophistication of guerilla, insurgent and terrorist networks. full spectrum dominance, as it were, has become exponentially more difficult as vectors multiply -- when knowledge, organization and idea generation are sources of power and wealth. indeed, they are not even amenable to domination and instead need to be cultivated. similarly, in an age when the bit supplements the atom as a unit of measurement, the idea of 'ownership' is not readily defined, 'intellectual property' becomes an oxymoron and information markets cease to function efficiently.

rather than trying to engineer arbitrary scarcity and divisions back into a society whose sunk cost was premised on to how it used to be in some ancien régime or imagined utopia, we need to get with the program and learn to utilize collaborative tools and develop behavioral skills, such as group communication and sharing, where the market fails in strategic areas such as efficiency, allocation and outcomes when providing for the general welfare.

can the nation-state adapt? through state capitalism or corporate plutocracy? or are there new political institutions that might evolve given the 'cognitive surplus' that the post-industrial age has bequeathed, and especially given the resource limitations and physical constraints we are beginning to run up against.

lastly, given the limitations of force projection, the primary motivating factor for production is money -- cultural credits of relative worth that depict a store of value, means of exchange and unit of account. hence, ownership and control of the printing press can be a powerful stewardship position. while an imperfect transference between what we know about the future and its difference with the past, the financial system as an information aggregator should bear some semblance with once and future reality. when it consistently cannot (allocate scarce resources to optimal risk-return projects efficiently and effectively) then non-linear externalities are likely at play. what then can replace or redefine the monetary system?

there is all the money in the world, if there is the trust and agreement to back it up. one way to ensure that is to become too big to fail (TBTF). it makes sense. if there was one overriding, if uncomfortable, lesson over the last decade is the benefits one receives when you have the ability to take everyone down with you. you have natural allies and help when you need it. nowadays, TBTF is a strategic imperative whether financial or nuclear. but when everything is in superposition, like a bose-einstein condensate, particles move as one, which constitutes a phase change and a new form of matter. join the dance.

information entanglement suggests that, as interest groups align, structural integrity must remain consistent with observed environmental interactions. internal reorganization to more efficiently process data -- thru flattened hierarchies, revealed preference (on a long-enough time horizon, even if imperfect), a holistic perspective, short and dense feedback loops, and continuing education -- should result in 'inward growth' and an increased capacity for humane and sustainable activities along other dimensions, not measured by outward physical appearance or material possession, but by emotional satisfaction and scientific achievement. in sum, let's focus first on what is allowed, then on what matters, and work from there...
posted by kliuless at 12:34 PM on August 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

That sounds vaguely like a quotation from somewhere, especially the entanglement bit.

Hasn't that TBTF mentality been there all along, though? Two superpowers, both seemingly too big to fall, what's good for GM is good for America, an so on? Isn't that just an effect of creating institutions that define people?

How will you have stores of value which are not money? All the investments, financial instruments and such which exist need be defined in terms of a general money, simply because if we don't, then the nasty problem of barter, which money more or less solved, comes back again. Even incredible computational power cannot efface the symbolic and emotional value inherent in a common store of value. The nation-state may die, but it will be replaced with something that controls value. Unless we change the human mind in a fundamental way, that new repository of value will be fundamentally money.

When has humanity not had a capability for inward growth? Will there be some great outspurt of it? I suspect that the question of "what is allowed" and "what matters" has been asked by more people in more times than just the civilization of information in the era of mass information. Why should we be so proud to say that we are of special note in that regard?
posted by curuinor at 12:51 PM on August 29, 2010

I don't understand how it's plausible to claim that social problems are ultimately problems of empathy. We can safely assume that in patriarchal societies, empathy, compassion and love between men and their wives, mothers, sisters, daughters is common. The rationale for keeping women out of political and economic life was often expressed as a form of compassion for their supposed fragility, we can find things like noblesse oblige and the white man's burden, slave owners who cared for their slaves, etc. It's tempting to say "Ah, but those were just ideological rationalizations, it's not real empathy." But this is a dangerously optimistic and even arrogant position which claims that we are free of ideological blinders, we know what real empathy is, so it's just a concrete problem to be solved, not a philosophical problem. We've already arrived at the truth, so all we need to do is promote greater empathic awareness. Perhaps a re-education camp of some kind? The problem is that once we've established the moral legitimacy of a global system centered around empathy, we're immediately faced with the problem of those who resist, and this always ends up with "No empathy for the enemies of empathy."
posted by AlsoMike at 12:57 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Isn't that just an effect of creating institutions that define people?

or just the notion of a higher power or authority... it seems like people need/crave it (TBTF entities like a security blanket), so the question might be is there a better way to define/create institutions at least nominally TBTF?

How will you have stores of value which are not money?

money has already been reincarnated as an information system, no more or less, but one specialized at regarding relative worth and scarcity... i'm just wondering what happens to 'money' in a post-scarcity information economy; i'd posit that societies able to generate scarce (esp public) goods 'n services have an alternative cultural cachet of 'values' that belies the market.

Why should we be so proud to say that we are of special note in that regard?

well, the way you frame it death be not proud as we've always had the capability for inward growth :P whether we've utilized that capability, of course, is another question! but i believe it's becoming a pressing issue and a vital question if we are to survive, much less thrive... how are we to live without outward growth?

"No empathy for the enemies of empathy."

that's like no tolerance for intolerance... i dunno, i think that kinda dissolves (or devolves) into definitional identity politics -- a series of accusations -- that i think most people can surmise is generally unproductive and exhausting; an inquisition against those bearing 'false empathy' or something. obviously if not supported by evidence, empathy would make a poor choice upon which to ground one's civilization, but by the same token i find it hard to disagree with the logic of "caring for one another" as a good basis from which to start. is there nothing new under the sun?
posted by kliuless at 3:11 PM on August 29, 2010

This seems overly complex to me. Let's try another attitude to empathy:

When the West was filthy rich, thanks to good government and industrialisation and exploitation of the rest of the world, we had full employment and unlimited power. We felt pretty good and that things were going to get better. The working classes agitated for some of the wealth, and generally they got it because of a tight labour market. This kind of worked from the Nineteenth century to the late 20th. Note that when things got in the way, like non-Western countries trying to stop us exporting opium or booze or manufactured goods, we got pretty pissy and shot people. We also set up schools and healthcare and did humanitarian intervention and shut down the slave trade and suchlike. So the West, rich and powerful, did good and bad.

In the late 20th century non-Western countries started to use the successful Western systems of capitalism, industrialisation and freeish markets to expand industrialisation. Most of our population benefited materially, and everyone benefited at some point. For example, if you were a car production worker, you benefited from cheap toys for your children, even at the expense of the toy production worker. He in turn benefited from cheap cars. So you didn't really get together, and we had free trade. We got materially richer, but the industrial sector in the West moved from massive employers of low-skilled men to high-value employers of tiny numbers of well-educated men and women. Also, the huge supply of cheap labour in the industrialising non-West, has kept labour from capturing lots of the new money sloshing around the world, so the capitalists have got it. Hence, more inequality within rich countries, but less inequality between unskilled workers in the West and unskilled workers in the non-West.

Meanwhile we continued to convert natural resources into economic growth. If you look at England, long industrialised, you'll see a landscape almost completely altered for human needs. Almost every acre has been deforested and turned into farmland (or later replanted to provide us with wood!) or drained of marsh or mined for coal and iron and copper. We should expect every other nation to do the same to their environment with time. This is sad, but probably inevitable. Unless you can persuade the English to devote 40% of their country to forest I don't see how you'll persuade the Brazillians to let all that Amazon go to waste.

So the key things for the future are continued scientific and technological progress, because since the industrial revolution we've based our society on that, and we can't stop now. There are too many of us. If it all goes wrong, which is entirely possible, we'll have an awful couple of centuries where billions die and we'll end up poor peasant farmers again. If not, we might attain some kind of technological utopia, which will look largely like the West now with even longer lifespans and better health. But we'll still not necessarily be happy because that comes from lots of things like friendships and love and personal events and genes.

Oh, unless we can change our brains...
posted by alasdair at 2:59 AM on August 30, 2010

Well, alasdair, I'd say in response that scientific and technological thought are human endeavors, and as such I'd hope that those engaged in advancing them have some capacity for empathic thought. It seems people often forget that technology is a tool, it is a means to an end, not the end itself. What is the point of gathering all this knowledge and putting it to use if it's going to be used in a way that disregards the thoughts, feelings, and desires of our fellow human beings?

In other words, science and technology don't move arbitrarily forward. They involve the active recognition of the important problems of the day and attempts to solve them. If some sort of concern for others isn't on the minds of those working to advance science and technology I'd say we're fucked. Empathy, therefore, I see as more important than any empty notion of technological progress saving our asses.
posted by vam3c at 8:45 AM on August 30, 2010

I think we're at cross-purposes slightly: I mean "science and technology" to be the set of things we know and can do. You, I think, extend this to mean "what we use science and technology for", and that's where we disagree.

I think we'll be as empathic in the future as we've been in the past. We'll be nice when the cost isn't too great and our interests are not threatened, and nasty otherwise. There was never a period when we were more empathic in the past. And our brief Western window of empathy was due to demographic, technological and scientific change - we're suddenly less keen on refugee immigrants now, for example, when they're not infrequent Russian poets but numerous starving Africans looking for a job.

So we need to use technology to get us out of our resource constraints, both informing policy and determining how it can be applied. Because there isn't any fundamental choice with our current population and politics. We are trapped in a development, technology route until we get the population down and move to a sustainable system with high technology (education, solar, nuclear, demographic shifts, genetic engineering) or we get the population down and move to sustainable system with low technology (hundreds of millions of peasant farmers using iron-age technology.) Barring nuclear war those are our two outcomes. No?
posted by alasdair at 9:19 AM on August 30, 2010

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