Muck and Mystery
   Loitering With Intent
blog - at -
October 10, 2004
Micro Macro

A theme of sorts that can be abstracted from earlier posts is the foolish and destructive behavior of activists animated by fear of the future. Some of the attributes shared by these activists are pessimism and myopia. They approach life and thought with expectations of doom and seek evidence to justify their emotional expectations. They share social mind space with a motley band of brothers oppressed by millenarian type fantasies. Though primarily associated with religious sects millenarian thinking aptly describes the whole brotherhood:

[M]illenarian ideas have qualities which makes them tend to form the nuclei of narrative communities. The believers in the millenarian story have a role to play in the story, and so to accept the story is to feel that one is, or should be, part of the community of believers. Non-believers are not part of the community. But, in such situations, there is a natural tendency to think that everyone who is not part of the community is an enemy of the community, and since the real enemy is the Adversary, they are (at least) the Adversary's tools. It is hard enough to live peacefully with one's mundane enemies; but who could be asked to live peacefully with representatives of cosmic evil, especially when the final conflict is approaching rapidly? Accepting a millenarian story, then, entails joining a certain narrative community, and often thus cutting oneself off from other communities. This carries very high costs, both emotionally and socially. This discourages people from joining, partly because they're risk averse, and partly because most people don't like thinking of their friends and family as minions of Satan. (On the other hand, if you do join, that last effect gives you a very strong incentive to get them to join too.)

... there is an element of positive feedback at work. If there is only one person in the village who thinks the millennium is at hand, they are a crank in the eyes of their neighbors, and who wants to join a crank? (Besides, they're probably subversive in the eyes of the authorities.) On the other hand, the one person in the village who doesn't believe the millennium is at hand is going to be subject to intense pressure to see the light (or leave). For that matter, when you're surrounded by people who all believe something, you are much more likely to come to believe that yourself, regardless of social pressure. (This is often a good strategy, but it's prone to failures in the form of what are called "information cascades".) This ties back to the previous paragraph: all else being equal, the costs of leaving old social networks and communities to join the movement is lower if the movement is larger.

... millenarian movements are not sustainable, for the simple reason that the millennium is not now at hand, and never has been. When this becomes apparent --- and the human capacity for wishful thinking is not so great that it won't, eventually, become apparent --- something has to give. Either the movement ceases to be millenarian, or it collapses qua movement, leaving behind, perhaps, a few die-hard followers who keep finding reasons why the glorious day should be just a little more remote than they thought.... (Logically speaking, the failure of all previous millenarian expectations doesn't mean that they will necessarily be disappointed in the future.

The post dnE ehT ... toN enumerated some of the recent failures of millenarian thinking and noted a pattern:
Though they seem silly and venal, motivated by lust for money and power, enviro-hustlers may in part be victims of their own deformed mental processes, helplessly emotional and unreasonable, blinded by a wiring flaw in their brains that reverses appearances. A passage in Neal Stephenson's recent Quicksilver, set (partly) in preindustrial Britain, mused about the conservatism and pessimism of the age as demonstrated by mediocre academics. It was as if they were peering into the wrong end of a sort of telescope and instead of seeing far away things with increased size and clarity, they saw near things alarmingly reduced. The effect was an inversion of order, the conviction that the history of life was a regression from a golden age to barbarity and impending catastrophe, when any honest accounting would have to conclude that life had gotten ever better since we scurried naked and vulnerable from the garden. The wrong-way peering of doom mongers, predicting the end with tedious regularity, especially in years that end in 666 or 000, continues unabated. It's not about science, it's religion, a social methodology to comfort the mis-wired souls unable to gaze on reality and smile. We can feel compassion for them but we really do need to keep their sweating palms off the levers of power.
This microscopic focus, seeking hidden clues and signs of the impending apocalypse, can be contrasted with those who seek to enlarge their visions to include far longer time frames and fields of inquiry. The post Modest Praise dealt with this in part and referenced other papers, especially this brief introduction to the ideas of C.S. Holling et. al. that they call Panarchy:
Panarchy focuses on ecological and social systems that change abruptly. Panarchy is the process by which they grow, adapt, transform, and, in the end, collapse. These stages occur at different scales. The back loop of such changes is a critical time and presents critical opportunities for experiment and learning. It is when uncertainties arise and when resilience is tested and established. We now see changes on a global scale that suggest that we are in such a back loop. This article assesses the possibility of using the ideas that are central to panarchy, developed on a regional scale, to help explain the changes that are being brought about on a global scale by the Internet and by climate, economic, and geopolitical changes.
By seeing larger cycles of growth and subsequent deconstruction to enable further growth Holling demystifies change and provides mental tools to identify useful behaviors that complement the momentum of large scale trends rather than squandering energy resisting change and making things more painful than necessary.

There are those who think on even larger scales. Their work isn't at the edges of science like Holling's and doesn't pretend to such rigor, but it is worth considering in any case since science often begins with such metaphorical insights. This paper by GMU economist Robin Hanson is an example. [via EconLog]

A revised postcard summary of life, the universe, and everything, therefore, is that an exponentially growing universe gave life to a sequence of faster and faster exponential growth modes, first among the largest animal brains, then for the wealth of human hunters, then farmers, and then industry. It seems that each new growth mode starts when the previous mode reaches a certain enabling scale. That is, humans may not grow via culture until animal brains are large enough, farming may not be feasible until hunters are dense enough, and industry may not be possible until there are enough farmers.

Notice how many “important events” are left out of this postcard summary. Language, fire, writing, cities, sailing, printing presses, steam engines, electricity, assembly lines, radio, and hundreds of other “key” innovations are not listed separately here. You see, most big changes are just a part of some growth mode, and do not cause an increase in the growth rate. While we do not know what exactly has made growth rates change, we do see that the number of such causes so far can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

While growth rates have varied widely, growth rate changes have been remarkably consistent -- each mode grew from one hundred and fifty to three hundred times faster than its predecessor. Also, the recent modes have made a similar number of doublings. While the universe has barely completed one doubling time, and the largest animals grew through sixteen doublings, hunting grew through nine doublings, farming grew through seven and a half doublings, and industry has so far done a bit over nine doublings.

This pattern explains event clustering – transitions between faster growth modes that double a similar number of times must cluster closer and closer in time. But looking at this pattern, I cannot help but wonder: are we in the last mode, or will there be more?

If a new growth transition were to be similar to the last few, in terms of the number of doublings and the increase in the growth rate, then the remarkable consistency in the previous transitions allows a remarkably precise prediction. A new growth mode should arise sometime within about the next seven industry mode doublings (i.e., the next seventy years) and give a new wealth doubling time of between seven and sixteen days. Such a new mode would surely count as “the next really big enormous thing.”

The suggestion that the world economy will soon double every week or two seems so far from ordinary experience as to be, well, “crazy.” Of course similar predictions made before the previous transitions would have seemed similarly crazy. Nevertheless, it is hard to take this seriously without at least some account of how it could be possible.

Now we cannot expect to get a very detailed account. After all, most economics has been designed to explain the actual social worlds that we have seen so far, and not all the possible social worlds that might exist. Even then we are still pretty ignorant about the causes of the previous transitions. But we do want at least a sketchy account.

It turns out to be hard to create such an account using things like space colonization or new energy sources, mainly because we now pay only a small fraction of our budget on things like land and energy. But we pay seventy percent of world income for human labor, so anything that can lower this cost can have a huge impact. I am thus drawn to consider scenarios involving robotics or artificial intelligence.

Though the conclusion is mundane - the standard expectation of various sorts of singulatarians that nano-bio-AI developments will redefine our concepts of wealth and pose daunting social obstacles as the bottleneck to progress, human labor, it made obsolete - the formulation is useful since it provides a context for cycles of change and an explanation for their increased pace. The cycle after the one approaching now, though we have no way to anticipate its nature, will likely follow comparatively quickly if the pattern holds.

OK, that was phun, but how can we integrate the micro and the macro to inform current behavior? What do we short lived humans with our immediate needs do while the history of the universe unfolds? What difference does it make that the millenarians are daft since nothing that they say or do can alter cycles in constructive ways? All they can do is trigger an apocalypse to destroy civilization and so derail the growth cycle.

hmmm, trigger an apocalypse, spite the future by destroying it. That pretty much describes their fondest dreams. It's not the least unusual to hear them yearning for destruction from the smallest to the largest scales to "shake things up". All the world changers' efforts may be futile - either counter-productive or irrelevant - but it does seem possible to destroy civilization using a variety of methods, anything from a variety of modern weapons to pervasive social insanity.

It looks like a train wreck either way for most of the human population. Either human labor loses value and new social arrangements must be worked out - a daunting task not without attractions if done well - or human population is drastically reduced by the collapse of civilization followed by a long dark age that holds a strange attraction for millenarian pessimists.

TrackBack URL for Micro Macro -