- History happens
This is an antidote to false hopelessness and improper pessimism or optimism. History tells a story of the “unthinkable” and the “impossible” happening. Not all the time, but sometimes. The key is to understand where you are and what is possible in your context. In the right context, much is possible.
2. History proceeds by punctuated equilibrium
Excepting for natural disruptions (e.g., a volcano), human social systems evolve in the same way that everything evolves: punctuated equilibrium. Some dynamic — say hip hop — begins as an emergent potential that is poorly understood, largely ineffective in expressing its power and with few linkages/allies in its ambient environment. If this dynamic has the right elements, it will slowly grow. It will get better at expressing its power, change and form alliances, break down inhibitors and move to the “inflection point” where it rapidly accelerates into the larger cultural dynamic. It will then transition into its fullness and become integrated into the larger cultural dynamic — with ripple effects up and down all other systems. It will then begin to become “root bound” as it deploys its potential into actuality and begins to have “decreasing returns to complexity”. It enters the “rococo phase” becomes less creative and is in turn disrupted by something new that has emerged in its context.
In economics, this fundamental has been perceived as “schumpeter” waves or “creative destruction”. But it is crucial to understand that all of the systems touch each other and they all process with largely similar macro dynamics. There are “s-curves” everywhere.
3. Everywhere means everywhere
The cultural s-curve associated with the rise of “black music” (jazz, blues, rock and roll, hip hip hop) played a role in significantly changing many aspects of American (and global) culture. Identity, family, language, fashion, how we move through space, what we value. There were multiple different s-curves (disruption waves) passing through each of those aspects of culture. Even as rock and roll was moving through culture, we saw economic disruptions relating to the triumph of the union movement, the migration of labor in the post-War environment. We saw s-curves in family dynamics associated with the expansion out of dense multi-family urban environment into nuclear (and relatively mixed) suburbs. We saw s-curves in gender relations. These waves are passing through many, many different aspects all the time and they are all interacting with each-other all the time.
When they align and “co-resonate” they form into “bigger” waves. Big waves bring bigger changes. With a big enough wave, nothing is sacrosanct, which is simply to say that everything is more or less fluid — the hotter the temperature (the more significant the disruption wave) the more “solid” stuff will be liquefied. We can and should certainly talk about the more and less solid aspects of our culture. Fashion is notoriously fluid. Mathematics has proven quite solid. But its all just a matter of temperature.
4. We are currently at a major historical inflection point
Right now, several major s-curves are linking up at the same time and reinforcing each-other. The memetic wave coming out of the 60's consciousness movement (inclusive of civil rights, womens right’s etc); the massive information technology wave; the globalization wave; the “Triumph of Western Civilization” wave; the post-war economic model wave; etc. This is a magnitude 9 event on a “cultural evolution” richter scale. It is at least as significant as the inflection point around the 17th/18th Century (which led among other things to science, industrialism, the rise of cities and the downfall of monarchy). Given the novelty of the waves we are dealing with, it is very likely that our current historical moment is a once in a thousand-year or a once in ten-thousand-year event. A “mode of civilization” level event (e.g., the rise of Western Civilization from the dark ages) or a “mode of human organization” event (e.g., the rise of “civilization” itself).
The temperature is high and rising.
5. We are already in a crisis. We just don’t know it yet.
Unless you had some reason to understand how tsunami’s worked, when the water went out at Phuket you didn’t know you were already in the middle of a crisis. That is us. When a once in a thousand-year disruption wave comes through, your ways of thinking about the world don’t work. As a consequence you are fundamentally inhibited from perceiving reality clearly. Your right brain might be screaming “alarm!” but your left brain looks around, blinking stupidly in the light, struggling to make sense of what is going on and trying to find some tool in its toolkit to address it. This is a mistake — it is the toolkit itself that is broken.
The first step to dealing with a crisis is recognizing that you are actually in a crisis.
6. Human beings aren’t evolved to deal with 1,000 year crises, but culture might be
Like mayflies adapted to the variations of one day cycles, human beings “perceive” only enough of the span of time to be meaningful to their individual agency. Events that occur in time spans measured in millennia rather than centuries are simply outside of the parameters that our models contemplate. This is as true of our soft “day to day” models as it is of our famously “black swan” vulnerable formal models. Simply put — we are not structured to “see” 1,000 year crises.
But, as we are part of systems that do endure for millennia, we might well be structured to “feel” them. What kind of coherent entities perceive long term history enough to have evolved mechanisms to deal with 1,000 year events? The answer is culture. Humanity as a whole has undergone many major crises. While we as individuals live and die in a mere century, our cultural narratives are passed on and capture much of what is known about those historical crises. Thus, major crises are likely to be perceived and contemplated most fundamentally at the mythic level. The big and deep stories that hold whole cultures together and that are stored in our intuitive, aesthetic, ethical, “unconscious” levels.
One might imagine, then, that as the crest of the crisis rises and our architectures of execution are liquified in the disruption, we will need more and more to rely on our deepest narrative artifacts. The deep archetypes. The Ur folk tales. The components that have weathered many crises and endured and, therefore, present some of the only colorable hints we have about what a “crisis surviving” thing looks like.
7. At the same time, we can say intelligent things about the future.
Modern Science is much more capable of understanding than anything that has come before. The whole point of information technology is that it allows information to flow in a fundamentally different way than it has before. As a consequence, we can predict that what has come before will not be repeated — although it will rhyme.
There are many things we can already say about the present crisis and there are many probabilistic conjectures we can make about what the Future (i.e., a survival/resolution of that crisis) will look like. They will of necessity be vague, but they will also be actionable and form a foundation from which we can (perhaps relatively quickly) begin to gain our bearings and then recohere.
We might imagine, for example, that the present crisis is like a system transitioning between two attractors. For 1,000 or 10,000 years, a given attractor field has defined the “possibility space” of human social existence. Some distance in the future, there is a different attractor field that will equally define a potentially quite different “possibility space”.
Like a satellite transitioning between two different gravity wells, we have always been under the influence of “both” attractors, but until relatively recently the “past” attractor has been dominant over the “future”. Our present dynamics are akin to approaching the “event horizon” — the “punctuation” in punctuated equilibrium. As we approach this event horizon, the dynamics of the future attractor accelerate their influence over the possibility space and, consequently, our social existence.
Methodologically, then, we can endeavor to map this new attractor by identifying present system dynamics that appear to be generated by the new attractor rather than by the old attractor. Those dynamics that appear to be inconsistent with our deep past, and particularly those dynamics that have emerged relatively recently and appear to be *accelerating* in presence, intensity and influence are most likely of that order. While this will by necessity be a rough method, it nonetheless can lead to a large number of hints.
In this essay I present what I currently believe is the best reduction of what the future attractor’s topology implies in terms of human social (political) dynamics.