Why the 21st Century Could Easily Become a Much Bloodier Version of the 20th Century

Humans are Self Organizing Idea Machines, and the Stakes are High

It is extremely difficult to view the present not as the culmination of history, but as a moment in history. And human history is particularly interesting because we have the ability to come up with new ideas of how we should organize ourselves, proliferate those ideas to other humans, and then live within the reality that new system of organization creates. Looking at the horrors that we (humans) have perpetrated against humans as a product of values and systems that we (humans) created and propagated allows for an appreciation of both how precious, and potentially impermanent, a society that functions as well as ours is (including, even, it’s horrific flaws and abuses).

Every crime in history was committed by a person, within some system of values and organization. When the Mongol officers built a wooden floor atop chained Russian captives and held a banquet upon it while the Russians were crushed to death, when Assyrian kings took front row seats and watched with relish as enemy captives were flayed en masse, when everyday people were turned by environment and circumstance into mass executioners by the Nazi regime, both the perpetrators and victims were humans put into that role by an idea that became a system of values and power. The people doing those things are like us — at some level of abstraction, they are us. Violence, inhumanity, and ruthless oppression are neither unthinkable nor uncommon things in human history and it is a dangerous folly to ever believe either that we are incapable of individually participating in them or that we have communally lifted ourselves indefinitely out of them.

These people were physical embodiments of the ideologies they were playing out in real life. Better said, they were the physical bodies of the ideologies — and yes, ideologies have physical bodies in the world. They also create worlds, creating our universe by simultaneously shaping how we perceive the universe around us and directing the actions of the other actors that, in part, constitute that universe. Ideas are powerful, tangible, and real.

When we experiment with how we organize ourselves, we should be aware that many outcomes (perhaps the majority of possible outcomes) would lead to horrific ends.

Essential values to create functioning communities that seem obvious to us had to be learned and propagated at some point by our ancestors. That it is better to be honest than to lie, that it is better to treat even a stranger with hospitality and generosity, that to be resentful and hateful of a successful brother is bad, etc. are all hard-won values created through historical or pre-historical experience wherein societies that contained individuals operating by them were more successful . Over a longer time frame, societies that also have a functioning organizational pattern or institution that effectively instills those values continue to succeed.

For that learning to take place, pathological ideas (ideas that are appealing to us, but lead to bad outcomes over time) have to die before they can spread too far. But, some ideas take a generation or two to go bad. As the ability for ideas to spread quickly increases, the filtering mechanism that kills off bad ones does not necessarily also speed up. The equilibrium is delicate and (likely) now broken.

From a systems framework, it seems likely that most of the innovation that has allowed us to slowly build up these values and beliefs that have helped us rise out of inhumanity functionally happened in informational “islands”. If an early city state in Mesopotamia was home to an innovative new idea of how to run a society, one appealing enough to convince the majority of its populace to organize themselves in a new way, propagation of that idea to other societies would have been difficult and slow. Points of contact and information flow between that city and a neighboring city would be far less than points of information flow between hemispheres now. It might take generations for the organizational structure to spread meaningfully to other Mesopotamian cities, and it may not reached tribes in Germany for hundreds of years, or Polynesia for a thousand.

This process allowed even ideas that were appealing to elements in the network, but created organizational structures that failed over generations (due to how that system would naturally evolve) to propagate, actualize themselves into a reality in some informational island of humanity, and then fail before spreading over a significant portion of the human network. In an informational system of that level of interconnectedness it doesn’t terribly matter if the individual element (human) selection mechanism for a “good” idea is effective, because the pace of the spreading is limited by points of contact and information flow to a level where outcomes are constrained by the selection mechanism of time.

In the 20th century, a lack of pre-existing moral infrastructure due to the decline of the Church (in part itself caused by an increase in interconnectedness through the invention of the printing press) combined with new technologies of interconnectedness and industrial means of violence led to the adoption of pathological ideas on an unprecedented scale (communism and fascism), which led to the bloodiest century in human history.

Now humans are unfathomably more interconnected than ever before, and the pace at which ideas can spread has massively increased, and we are much more levered to our individual ability to distinguish between good and bad ideas.

The portion of the world that had internet access in 1998 (when Google was founded in a garage) was around 2% and now it’s around 40%. Even in the poorest 20% of households in the world, about 7 in 10 now have mobile phones (Niall Ferguson, The Square and the Tower[400–401]). We have a much greater ability than ever before in history to share ideas with each other, and that change happened very, very recently.

Image from Damon Centola via MIT news. (Here)

Two of the major systematic factors (ability for pathological ideas to spread and improved means of violence) that led to the bloodiest century have been magnified for this century.

The Body of Western Moral Truth Died (or at Least Experienced Massive Organ Failure) When the Printing Press Killed the Church

Moral values and ways of being that withstood this test over thousands of years (arguably millions of years if you accept that even pre-human ancestors were learning these values in some way) are extremely valuable. Many of those moral “truths” that underlied the consciousness of the West (and therefore western society) on an individual level were codified in the Bible (especially the old testament) which is an amalgamation of ancient myths from various cultures in the middle east and Mediterranean that were grouped together to create a narrative that provided guidance for successful individual and communal orientation.

The institutions that perpetuate and instantiate those values (the organs that maintain the body of moral truth), however, are native to a system of certain interconnectedness. They do it by controlling information flow and pushing those values down all the way to the individual level. It is not a coincidence that the creation of the printing press (which changed the substrate system of information sharing in the western world) shortly preceded the Reformation, which in turn shortly preceded the Enlightenment.

Without the printing press and pamphlets, Martin Luther may have ended up like many other small-fry heretics posting opinions, gathering a small following, and then being crushed by the long arm of the Church.

Luther’s 95 theses were originally sent as a letter to the Archbishop of Mains in 1517, but had spread all over Europe by 1521 when he was denounced as a heretic. Cities with a printing press were significantly more likely to adopt Protestantism, and cities with more printing presses were even more likely to adopt Protestantism. By the end of the sixteenth century nearly 5,000 editions of his works had been printed by German printers. (Dittmar and Seabold ‘Media, Markets and Radical Ideas’ via The Square and the Tower by Niall Ferguson [83])

Before the printing press, book reproduction was a laborious endeavor largely undertaken by monks. This rapid spread of Luther’s ideas could not have been achieved in that world.

Even putting pamphlets aside, once the Bible could be printed relatively cheaply, it inevitably fell into the hands of more individuals. This both allowed for a greater proliferation of individual interpretations, as well as a greater ability to propagate each interpretation. That, in turn, provides a much greater number of elements (humans) in the network the ability to choose what interpretation to believe and propagate. The Catholic Church, as instantiated pre-printing press, was unsuited to this new substrate of information connectivity, which produced the Reformation. Once the monolithic claim to intellectual and moral perspective of the Church was fragmented, additional focus was also obviously turned to another ancestor of Western thought, Greek reason, which also inevitably led us further away from the Church and the Bible because the truth claims of the Bible are not suited to survive an empirical scientific epistemology.

And so, coming into the end of the 19th century Nietzsche’s “God is dead” was not a triumphant declaration but an ominous observation that the framework western society relied on for meaning and individual/communal orientation was no longer functionally instantiated.

My own reading of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, at least, is not that individuals necessarily would successfully reinvent themselves into Overmen capable of rising outside of the fallacies and failures of individual thought committed by the Last Man, and create a functional morality as good or better than the one we had developed over the entire evolution of Western thought. Rather, it claimed that it was at least an imaginable possibility and seemed like the only way to avoid the alternative atrocities of nihilism, which he accurately predicted would result in socialism (“will to equality”) and lead to millions of deaths. As humans, we aren’t good enough at creating and identifying the best ways to live without the body of historical moral knowledge — so one possible solution was to just get better at it (become the Overman [Ubermensch]).

Anyone who has seen the robot dogs built by scientists today would be extremely wary of any scientists claiming they could create a human body more fit to live in as a person than the one that we have evolved for ourselves over our history. Yet, if we found out that we would inevitably be separated from our bodies and could never re-habitate them we would undoubtedly hope and push for brilliant invention at a level never before seen by humans in creating a new one.

That is where we have been for the past two centuries in our search for morality: separated from our evolutionary moral body and turning to our greatest minds to try to construct a new one. We’ve been trying to re-invent the technology of morality since the Enlightenment.

The Evolutionary System for Self-Organizing Ideas is Broken

The fundamental thing that happened here is that interconnectedness of the system by which ideas spread massively increased. An idea spreads through this substrate by individuals being exposed to it, believing it’s a good idea, and then propagating it until it manifests as a reality in a group of people who attempt to live by it. The balance between the speed at which ideas can spread and the pace at which they are selected against created the evolutionary environment for improving ideas about social values and self organization — and that equilibrium has shifted dramatically. If an idea seems like a good idea to most of the people who hear it, but leads to bad unforeseen outcomes over the course of a couple generations, it can be considered a pathological idea — and pathological ideas have become much more viral.

With humans destitute of the evolutionary body of purposive, moral, and metaphysical infrastructure of previous generations that could not be sustained in a more connected (read: complex) system by old institutions, the pathological structures of communism and fascism spread massively before history bore out the medium term outcomes of those systems. Fascism (Mussolini, Hitler) turned horrific within the space of a lifetime and Communism (Stalin, Mao) consistently turned horrific within the space of two generations (a necessary centralization of control over resource allocation attracted the sort of people who wanted to control the resources and would do anything to achieve that — e.g. despite Lenin’s desire to not have Stalin rule, Stalin ended up in totalitarian control of the state [not to give Lenin too much credit here — the violent excesses began immediately]). Even if you have a true communist idealist design a government from the ground up, they create an environment where anyone ruthlessly seeking power has a target and can kill the old guard of idealists to put themselves in absolute control of state resources.

Marxism is a particularly interesting example. As compassionate, educated, liberal minded citizens of a capitalist society we are easily enchanted by the ideas of Marxism before studying and understanding the historical examples of how it played out. This should be completely unsurprising as it is a system conceived and propagated by a compassionate, educated, liberal minded citizen of a capitalist society — necessarily in line with the values of (and against the strains of) a person of that type. More than that, communist principles dictate a good way of operating in small, tight knit groups (families) — it’s reasonably likely that for much of our evolutionary history as foraging bands we could successfully organize that way as well. Communist principles can feel viscerally right to us.

“Not only does the West lack a uniform faith that could block the progress of a fanatical ideology, but, as the father of Marxist philosophy, it makes use of exactly the same spiritual assumptions, the same arguments and aims.” -Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self [3]

If I were born before we had examples of the horrific end state of instantiating the Marxist ideology on a national scale I would most likely be a Marxist. But we do have those examples, and we should know better. Unfortunately, the change in the system connectivity of humanity combined with the tools of the industrial revolution made the lessons of fascism and Marxism the two most costly lessons in the history of humanity — yet we still haven’t learned them. Both are re-entering the mainstream (I focus on Marxism here not because fascism presents less of a threat, but because in the communities I have lived in, people are appropriately terrified of fascism and inappropriately accepting of communism).

The lesson is not simply that fascist or Marxist ideologies lead to bad results. It is not a meaningless distinction that original capitalist theory was descriptive of the economic system that had developed while original Marxist theory was prescriptive of a wholesale imagined economic system that seemed more appealing. Adam Smith set out to understand how these large scale societies managed to continue operating; Marx set out to imagine how they ought to operate.

You come up with a more efficient layout of walkways on a college quad if you clear the quad, wait to see where footpaths develop through natural walking patterns and then pave them rather than having a team create a layout. We are bad at predicting the outcome of complex systems and should be extremely cautious about how we influence them. The lesson comes in three parts:

(1) We are bad at designing wholesale new ways to organize complex systems

(2) We are bad at discerning between good and bad ideas other people come up with for organizing complex systems

(3) When the complex system we are messing with is constituted of humans, the stakes are very high

We may have paid over a hundred million lives as a species due to pathological ideas in the 20th century — and with the ability we have to spread pathological ideas (pamphlets and radio don’t hold a candle to YouTube and Twitter) and the technology we have for killing people only growing with time (warhawks and Little Boy don’t hold a candle to drones and the Satan 2 ICBM), the stakes have gotten even higher.

The Free Market of Ideas can be a Dangerous Place

The John Stuart Mill concept of a marketplace for ideas works only if people communicate in pursuit of truth honestly and without bias, while effectively enough applying objective logic to correctly anticipate outcomes. We know enough about consistent cognitive fallacies to not expect this, and yet are consistently surprised by our own failures. To take, as an example, the world of media, the existence of an open and free sharing of information on the internet did not lead to a generalized identification and approach to a common truth.

If you look back to a less interconnected system, say the 5 channel cable media world, there is an inherent weakness and an inherent strength. The inherent weakness is that a central authority can propagandize and control the narrative very easily by influencing a relatively small group of people. The inherent strength is that only a small group of people need to be inculcated with a sense of journalistic responsibility to provide broadly “good” journalism.

The defense the internet creates against the propagandized, central media is that it is incredibly difficult to make it impossible for an individual to access a counter-narrative. The great weakness of this new, much more interconnected system is that when an individual has access to a large set of possible narratives and limited interest or time to vet every possible piece of information, the tilt of confirmation bias means that purveyors of information in an open market that create, reinforce, and feed a certain ideological narrative develop a loyal community (regardless of the truth of that narrative) and are selected for.

Now that we can retweet or share ideas on a large scale with little work, the most ‘fit’ idea for the environment is one that can get itself re-shared — and two major factors in getting people to re-share an idea on the internet are confirmation of pre-existing bias and intensity of emotional or moral language, which produce more ideologically siloed and politically polarized sub-networks (a fun video on how ideas get shared Here). An open, interconnected, system of information flow did not produce a “better” media. It produced one of fragmented, confirmation bias driven silos of narratives that are not being selected for truthfulness. (An article I wrote about that Here)

Now, the informational interconnectedness (complexity) of the system of human elements has increased unfathomably from when Nietzsche proclaimed that God is dead. This is by no means a call to return to old institutions, in fact it is nearly the opposite. In the same way the substrate had changed so much that the institution of the Catholic Church as an effective instantiation of the sort of system self-regulation that prevents us from descending into the horrific cruelty and violence into which we consistently descend, the level of complexity we have reached (particularly in so far as it reduces the degree to which geography is the most meaningful informational and economic distinction between humans) is approaching a level where nation-states as primary institution of self-organization are likely going to become untenable.

One consequence of this is that things are likely to become very bad. The Reformation has a lot to teach us about the horrors of the deaths of obsolete institutions. There were at least a million violent deaths in the fallout of the Reformation (just in Europe, and from a much smaller population). We have much better means of violence than they did, and the nation states control those means.

The bigger question, though, is whether we even have the capacity to create any alternative, functioning, self-regulatory institution that can instantiate organizational principles that defend us from the worst of ourselves. It doesn’t seem like the old tools will still work. They evolved for a different world. The Church survived in world where a reasonably small collection of people could dictate purpose, meaning, and moral judgment to large groups, perpetuating effective values learned from ancient history. That dies with broader access to information. The nation-state survives in a world where a unified geographic unit was a primary factor of identity and interconnectivity, making the defense of that space from strangers a mandate that justified sacrifice and ideological commitment from the individual.

Beyond being incompetent at governing the digital medium that holds most of the relations in the world today, shifting economics of globalization and digital value production make the cost of a centralized nation state’s highly evolved ability to field an army and protect a geographic area (very important when the most economically valuable resources in the world were immobile, large scale factories) untenably high. A full exploration of these dynamics is done in James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg’s The Sovereign Individual, who also see the parallel:

“The costs of supporting institutionalized religion at the end of the fifteenth century had reached a historic extreme, much as the costs of supporting government have reached a senile extreme today.” [16]

That geographic, highly centralized institution dies when non-geographic identities and organizations are stronger and/or more efficient than geographic ones. We may be simply left with the same last hope Nietzsche was grabbing at (I think what some modern thinkers like Jordan Peterson are grabbing at now) which is an individual self-evolution on an astounding scale.

What Happens Next?

What dictates the organization and behavior of elements in a system are the relations between them that pass information and the vast majority of those relations are now digital. The actual tools with which we can create self-regulating bodies for elements in this system must be tools and subsystems that transform and shape interactions and information flow digitally, or else the majority of the system will be governed by chaotic relations that are subjected to the unbridled inadequacy of collective human cognitive failures.

Attempts to instantiate order in this system without providing solutions for the flow of digital information are trying to govern the ocean from the surface. Here are a few possible upcoming solutions: decentralized cryptographic systems, a much more digitally-obtrusive nation state, or centralized corporations effectively governing the internet through monopolized digital information flow.

This is the significance of cryptography today. The basic tools for designing such systems exist. This is not to say that any cryptographic system that has been built so far provides the solution, or even necessarily that any will. The fabric of the system of human elements is now primarily digital, and primarily non-geographic, and this is simply to claim that the tools exist to make decentralized, self-governing systems in the flow of digital information. And it may be our best bet as a species against continuing 21st century along the path we started down in the 20th century.

Non-geographic substitutions and alternatives for traditionally government-provided services already have an impact. An everyday Venezuelan could have opted out of their geographic storehold of value before facing hyperinflation significantly more easily than an average German before the Weimar Republic inflation. There exists, now, access to non-geographic monetary policy self-sovereignty.

What the propagation of decentralized systems may provide is a low creation cost way of testing out alternatives to governmentally enforced organizational structures before nation states fail completely to provide them. Hopefully there is something to turn to. But there are many other paths forward from here.

Even in that case there will have to be some form of physical governance and monopolization of violence, even if it looks very different from the bloated nation-states of the present. The Sovereign Individual, for example, envisions an outcome where nation-states are instead replaced by streamlined, non-intrusive, micro-sovereignties that compete with other micro-sovereignties to provide something closer to government-as-a-service. My concern with this is that the path from here to there is likely to be a bloody one — and even in this state there would need to be separate governing bodies at work in the actual digital relations.

And, to be fair, some governments are making a more impressive effort to actively govern the digital connections in the world. China may be the best example of this, with the Great Firewall that blocks access to tens of thousands of foreign websites, the Great Cannon, which attacks websites the government deems hostile, and the Golden Shield, which carries out online surveillance. Since Lu Wei took over the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs, these have become even more effective. (Niall Ferguson, The Square and the Tower [413–414])

The US has only really mobilized in the way of surveillance, forcing companies to comply with a major data surveillance program called PRISM starting in 2007 (run through the Special Source Operations division of the NSA with much of the interception done by the FBI’s Data Intercept Technology Unit — aided by the fact that much of the physical infrastructure of the internet is in the United States). Under the Protect America Act and section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Amendments Act of 2008, this was legal. While the data gathering was formally focused on foreign nationals, any american citizen in communication with a foreigner that the government decides constitutes a threat to the US could be caught in the net. Facebook, YouTube, AOL, Skype, Apple, Yahoo, Google and Microsoft all participated in this program. At the same time a program called MUSCULAR was directly tapping the unencrypted data in the Google and Yahoo private ‘clouds’. (Niall Ferguson, The Square and the Tower [369])

On the other hand, the burgeoning digital incompetence of the nation-states probably makes them uncompetitive in the arena of the internet, as anybody who watched the Zuckerberg testimony can attest. And, even if they improve, the inability to create a monopoly over a digital economy with physical force would mean that they would have to streamline and change themselves so dramatically as to be unrecognizable (because right now they are so resource-focused on satisfying old needs). It is not meaningless that their access to even this digital surveillance information is mediated by the likes of Facebook and YouTube, which themselves have unmediated access to that information.

The irony here is that regulatory court rulings (especially in Europe), which force companies like Facebook to be less of a neutral medium of these new digital connections and more of an active node could make those corporations functionally more powerful than most governments — because they could create (at least partial) monopolies over digital economies.

If you look at a highly interconnected network of 50 nodes and 3/4 of those edges are through Facebook, your assumptions about social power (proxied through betweenness and centrality) are extremely different with Facebook itself being a passive medium versus it being an active node that consciously intermediates and controls information flow. If there are internet tyrants, they are less likely to be organizations that are currently nation-states, and more likely to be organizations that are currently multi-national tech companies that have no system of recourse for their ‘citizens’.

The great popularization of decentralized cryptographic networks to mediate information (and also, therefore, value) transactions is, in part, a response to this. People desire a global provision of services and maintenance of networks that is subject neither to the monopoly fees of inefficient government organizations mal-adapted to the global economy, nor to the arbitrary informational tyranny of tech giants.

And looking at those alternatives, I would certainly hope lots of good decentralized solutions are created. There is no normative claim here that cryptographic and/or decentralized solutions for any particular problem are inherently better than centralized ones, or even that it is necessarily a good thing that humans have become so much more interconnected.

Rather, it is one of many possible frameworks for looking at the popularization of crypto-currencies and other cryptographic objects that might remind people of the responsibility they bear in creating and propagating those systems.

Interestingly, the popularization of crypto-currencies has created a massive redistribution of wealth that seems by anecdotal experience to have been sent to three categories: Criminals, Charlatans, and Visionaries. It would be dangerous to ignore the fact that the rise of crypto-currencies has enriched criminals with primarily black-market dealings and charlatans duping excited newcomers out of a quick buck. And when we are speaking of criminals, we are not just talking about folks who sold weed for bitcoin in 2010, but also human traffickers and murders who have likely made millions (if not billions) of dollars in this redistribution. This gives them an outsized market power in selecting and reinforcing new systems of organization versus the past, especially in the crypto space.

On the other hand, many of the large holders of crypto currencies are ideological visionaries consciously attempting to create new, and better, systems (Roger Ver, Vitalik Buterin, Joe Lubin, etc.). This last group generally is the one that actually designs and produces the systems, which is promising. What we can only hope is that this last group always holds in their mind the danger, difficulty, and responsibility of attempting wholesale redesign of complex systems that impact people’s lives. There are very few paths in the future that are not extremely bloody, and excellent decentralized solutions could smooth the transition away from current failing organizations.

Barring a few technological deus-ex-machina solutions, the 21st century could very easily become a bloodier version of the 20th century.

This is what keeps me up at night.

***I recognize that this piece is meandering. This is because I lack a conclusion: I have neither a high probability expected outcome, nor a great suggestion for a solution. If you have thoughts on where this is going, please reply to the article and help me think through this.