A Message From the Bow of Civilization

Years ago it occurred to me that unfounded, arbitrary opinions about the zeitgeist were an endemic nuisance. Moreover, short of having a well-grounded, circumspect, and reliable basis for viewing trends and events in the world, my own thoughts and assessments would only add to the accumulating detritus.

Intellectually, the challenge was to find a way to generate reliable assessments and work my way up to the metaphorical bow of civilization so I could make useful comments about:

What is going on in the world and what it means; and
Where we are heading as a civilization and what it implies.

Like any scientific endeavor, the most the important, yet basic task was finding a way to “connect the dots” among diverse fields of thought. This meant a framework or lens able to reliably contextualize and see the unfolding picture of trends and events at any scale without blinders or biases.

While acknowledging I am never smart enough to be unequivocally certain, I am confident that I have found a reliable framework (here) and with it have now reached the bow of our civilizational ship. This message describes what I have learned about our journey, our present location and what is on the horizon.

Context — The prime directive

The key discovery in my quest was how all systems evolved in a simple, symmetrical manner that essentially resembles the human aging process. In other words, each system evolves through a basic aging sequence: emergent birth, development, maturity, destabilized senescence, and a nonlinear change. Further, that the system’s conception establishes both the parameters for a system’s evolutionary change and its finite lifespan.

You know firsthand that as a system ages it experiences excess complexity. Eventually this complexity destabilizes the system and it becomes increasingly vulnerable to a nonlinear existential change, usually the death of a system. Just as we seek medical advice to mitigate the nonlinear threat, all systems explore various temporary “para-organizational” survival options by optimizing and or amplifying certain types of actions.

Optimizing actions are variations of past actions (e.g., smoking less). However, inasmuch as these actions reflect the type of actions that led to the destabilized condition, they are always insufficient. Thus, at best, optimizing actions can only delay a system’s death.

Amplifying new and novel actions, on the other hand, have the potential to reconfigure a system’s organizational structure and operation (e.g., stem cell treatment). While rare, if the actions are appropriate to the changed environment, they can self-organize to create a new system that restarts its evolutionary lifecycle anew.

Thus, faced with a nonlinear existential threat, the type of actions dominating the system’s exploration of its survival options can determine whether a system dies or lives and continues evolving.

But there is a catch.

No system exists in isolation. All evolving systems are “nested” inside prior systems that together co-evolve as a single ecosystem (e.g., life on earth).

On a grand scale, all systems in the cosmos reflect a single co-evolving ecosystem. This, in turn, means there is a directionality to the ecosystem’s evolutionary change, which then must influence change in each individual system. So, when a system is faced with a nonlinear existential threat, to survive the actions amplified must reflect this directionality, effectively “maximizing the evolvability” of the entire nested co-evolving ecosystem.

In other words, for a destabilized system to avoid death and emerge as a new system, the old system must self-organize itself into a new structure and operation. Moreover, this new configuration must maximize the number of new options for a continued co-evolution of the entire nested ecosystem. Thus, maximizing evolvability is the equivalent of a cosmic prime directive.

So, to reliably contextualize and see the unfolding picture of trends and events in the world at any scale, without blinders or biases, and thus “connect the dots,” starts with an evolving systems framework.

So, what is going on in the world and what does it mean?

To view humanity as a single, co-evolving civilizational system starts by understanding the dominant trends in each of its key nested systems — communication, rules, politics, economics and technology.

The medium is the massage

Human symbolic communication is unique, evolving from primal utterances, to language and cave painting, to writing, printing, broadcasting and now digital media. Moreover, just as a microscope or telescope facilitates seeing entities and activity at different scales in greater detail, each communication system increased the quantity and speed of informational flows for better access to a more granular and detailed understanding of our world.

Generally, 20th century “mass” media revealed a top-down, mainstream reality. 21st century digital media, however, is doing the opposite. It is enabling endless bottom-up, idiosyncratic mixing and mashing of realities that de-massifies society. Consequently, as with the explosion of opinions about the zeitgeist, finding any shared reality is a challenge.

In this respect, despite the current focus on digital hardware devices and online commercial and social activities, the direction of digital media is clear. It is toward ubiquitous, on-demand, ambient knowledge systems.

As these ambient systems evolve they will augment and supplement educational systems, thereby enabling everyone to learn virtually anything faster, easier and better and overall become smarter.

Inasmuch as providing unreliable information marginalizes the utility of these ambient systems (e.g., Siri) inevitably they will need to evolve in ways that essentially eliminate all knowledge asymmetries. (Full disclosure, this is what my company provides.) The unintended consequence will be to accelerate the evolution of a shared understanding of our civilizational situation.

Self-organizing order

A remarkable feature of evolution is how, out of seeming disorder, order self-organizes. So, just as Newtonian, Einsteinian, and quantum physics each discovered order in the universe at different scales of activity, civilization evolved rule systems at different scales of activity; from belief in supernatural forces, to ruthless coercion, to arbitrary secular and religious edicts, a supremacy of law ideal, and now a relativistic legal ideology.

Consequently, as the complexity of civilization grew, the rule systems evolved to becomes less arbitrary and capricious. However, four notable “order” related rule problems remain.

  1. Many countries still rely on arbitrary secular and religious edicts.
  2. The reliance on relativistic legal ideology for order in advanced countries means rules are both biased for and against certain groups and selectively enforced.
  3. While each rule system claims to define a baseline legal reality, law enforcement, judges and politicians regularly change baseline definitions without fully acknowledging it or the implications.
  4. Despite 20th century efforts to formulate an international rule system, the overall paucity of subjects covered and general absence of tangible enforcement mechanisms and incentives means that only coercion and economic necessity have any effect.

Thus, within and among countries, the efficacy of the prevailing rule systems is dubious. As a result, the direction of domestic rule systems is toward greater surveillance techniques and covert manipulations. Meanwhile, the direction of the international rule system continues to be an exceedingly random and arbitrary situation with only marginal and selective enforcement.

Nature abhors a vacuum

Politically, humans began as small local tribes open to participation by everyone. Writing differentiated people and led to elite, hierarchical religious and secular systems as empires and then nation-states. Elite struggles generally evolved from despots, to dynasties, and now representative arrangements favoring capitalist economics.

While the number of participants in political processes has increased over time, all prevailing rule systems provide minimal regulation of elite governmental behavior (i.e., absence of genuine accountability). Generally, this has created confusion about priorities and a well-founded sense political evolution has been arrested. The result is new political struggle.

Consequently, to maintain elite, hierarchical top-down decision making and their respective rule systems, all the prevailing old political cultures are creating surveillance states. An emerging digital networked culture sees both the benefits of opening up the political process to greater participation and creating a distributed collective intelligence, and the risk in both a growing surveillance state and continued minimal regulation of governmental behavior.

The international political system mirrors national elite, hierarchical system structures but, due to a historical political bias, are representationally skewed. Consequently, any important policy area impacting international governance is either coercive or voluntary in nature and spirit. In other words, the evolution of global governance has been arrested as a hybrid empire — representational system.

Thus, nationally and internationally, the direction in political systems is an escalating struggle and clash between hierarchical and networked cultures to expand participation and control of issue agendas, decision making and, in particular, the rule system.

Money, it’s a gas

Economic efficiencies are a feature of all systems; from basic entropy to biology to civilizational activities. While civilization has had many different economic systems, Adam Smith capitalism, essentially a 17th century innovation, now dominates. As such, the “invisible hand” and “creative destruction” market system functions to optimize wealth creation.

Thus, greater operational productivity creates wealth to fund further productivity. Increased productivity is aimed at increasing competitiveness and innovation, which results in creative destruction and more accumulated wealth. It is an insatiable, dialectical process first accelerated by the Industrial revolution and then supercharged by the digital information revolution.

In this respect, capitalism is really, at a fundamental level, an information processing system. With the days of wage arbitrage over, real increased productivity only comes from technology. So, in the end, wealth creation becomes a technological arms-race to augment and then substitute labor with more autonomous systems.

While technology is inherently deflationary, it also negatively impacts traditional jobs, careers and societal systems. In this respect, it is not surprising that an inherent feature of capitalism is growing inequality, which has, obviously, been exacerbated by political actions and inaction.

So, the direction of the economic system is toward an accelerating substitution of autonomous systems for labor. Ironically, while this exacerbates inequality and sociopolitical unrest, ultimately it is moving us ever closer to as a “Post-Capitalist” and or “Post-Scarcity” civilization.

First we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us

While technology existed before humans, our unique ability to intentionally and systematically store information in tools enabled us to simultaneously lever up our species and facilitate the management of civilization’s increasing scale and complexity. Thus, since the Stone Age, our technologies have evolved, mutated, and multiplied to cover the earth like biological life itself, paralleling human evolution and continually making the supernatural natural.

Societies progress mainly by creating, assimilating, or adapting [technologies]….Because technological innovation in society is on a whole irreversible, the arrow of time in history is consistent with the arrow of time in physical and biological realms of evolution…[It’s an] evolutionary progression toward more dynamic and autonomous systems…through correspondingly more complex social structures. [Laszlo]

Marc Andreessen’s “software eats the world” describes our trajectory in the digitizing of reality. Indeed, there is no technical reason that virtually every aspect of our physical and biological world cannot be redesigned, synthesized and remixed endlessly. Of course, this creates both benefits and risks.

While the tech benefits are great, the number and scale of risks ahead are accelerating and thus unprecedented. In particular, the lethality and potential for accidental or deliberate use of some technologies is stunning (e.g., autonomous weapons, cyber-war, bioweapons, nano-tech, artificial intelligence as a weapon).

It is fair to say that, absent an evolution in nation-state political systems, there will not be an evolution in international systems. More to the point, continuing this tribal political system structure is certain to escalate the global arms-race, which increases the chance for a catastrophic event by accident or intent.

So, the direction of technology is toward a digitized reality and an increasingly risky weapons arms-race. However, in an increasingly tightly interconnected yet demassified world, with an inadequate rule system and arrested political evolution, the margin for error can diminish significantly as we go out in time.

What we have here is a failure to communicate

Thus, the dominant trends in the various nested civilizational systems can be summarized as:
  • Communication is being demassified but reliable on-demand ambient systems will increasingly eliminate knowledge asymmetries enabling everyone to understand our shared civilizational situation
  • Rules and their enforcement remain random and arbitrary, especially for elite governmental behavior, while growing social unrest is accelerating the growth of the surveillance state
  • Politics is experiencing an escalating struggle between elite hierarchical and distributed network cultures over participation and control of issue agendas, decisions and, in particular, the rule system
  • Economic system is accelerating the substitution of technology for labor, which exacerbates inequality and social unrest while moving us toward a “Post-Capitalist” or “Post-Scarcity” world
  • Technological risks, in an increasingly tightly interconnected yet demassified world, with arrested political evolution, means the margin for error can diminish significantly as we go out in time.

So, on the one hand, a demassified civilization with ambient knowledge systems will become smarter and more aware of their local and civilizational situations. On the other hand, the absence of a political system evolution, economic dislocation, the rise of the surveillance state and an accelerating weapons arms-race is an accident in the making.

In the context of a global weapons arms-race, a painful economic transition ahead will exacerbate tribal frictions and demand greater regulation of governmental behavior. This will exacerbate the struggle between political cultures. Consequently, there will be a simultaneous escalation in the domestic surveillance state and the international weapons arm-race. This level of excess complexity is not sustainable.

In effect, civilization is now living through a historically unique technological time-warp. Simultaneously, every scale issue — communication, rules, political, economic, technological, and so on — is generating increasing friction and a disorienting centrifugal force. In other words, what we now have is an old, destabilized, often chaotic civilizational system.

Thus, at both the individual and civilizational level, the basic trends are compressing the world and accelerating the arrival of some kind of nonlinear event. Said differently, the existing domestic and international elite, hierarchical political systems are going to experience unprecedented pressures to evolve or die.

So, where we are heading and what does it imply?
There are only a finite number of event scenarios for what lies ahead:
  • Tribal and economic unrest grow and dramatically advance the surveillance state to maintain order and continues to arrest political system evolution
  • Technological arms-race in weapons exacerbates international tensions and creates 
    o — new system of world governance and rules 
    o — isolated catastrophe(s); or
    o — global catastrophe
  • Network culture and ambient knowledge systems evolve a new model for political and rule systems
  • Artificial general intelligence experiences an intelligence explosion to our collective 
    o — detriment, or 
    o — benefit

It is clear to virtually everyone that our political systems are old, excessively complex and dysfunctional. Yet, no one can imagine system death.

So, the thing about looking out to the horizon — where our civilizational ship is heading — is that those who are in control of our political system prefer to see either mirages or, based on biological and or historical tribal DNA, only a zero-sum outcome.

The real problem is political elites, of course. They have spent decades clawing their way up various hierarchies and benefit from the status quo. They have no intrinsic incentive to do anything contradicting their self-interest. In other words, they will pursue only system optimizing actions.

Indeed, it is easy to rationalize incremental optimizing change will soothe the savage beast in us, or it will just become someone else’s problem after they have moved on.

And, why not?

This is how it has always been.

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You can find more of my ideas at my Medium publication, A Passion to Evolve or my website dochuston1. com
In any case, may you live long and prosper.