Why our society might go “splat!” on the windshield sooner than we think

Ray Kurzweil likes to talk about the fact that humans are bad at modeling exponential rates of growth. In this case, he’s talking about the rate of change in information technology. Whatever you think about Ray’s general ideas as outlined in books such as , I think it’s a pretty good insight that needs reiteration.

More generally in social processes, I think humans living at any given time are not very cognizant of nonlinearities, and the sorts of exogenous shocks that might happen in their lifetimes. And why would we be? The evolutionary psychological model for why we’re bad at conceptualizing rapid change is that until recently not much changed for most people at most times.

That is, humans were animals which lived near the Malthusian limit at a stationary state. The rate of change did increase during the Holocene, but even with ancient Egypt consider how different the life of a peasant in the Old Kingdom was versus the New Kingdom. Over 2,000 years not much had changed. Even at the elite levels, not much had changed (in fact, the Egyptian religion maintained cultural continuity from ~3000 BC to ~500 AD, with the shutdown of the temple at Philae). Now consider the 2,000 years between ancient Rome and the modern West. Or, consider the 300 years between the Augustan Age and revival of the Empire under the Tetrarchy, and contrast that to the present year and 1717.

The modern world is strange because great changes in technology and social values can occur over and over across a single lifetime. Someone born in 1896 would mature and develop a world-view conditioned by the “long 19th century,” which lasted until 1914. Then they’d experience the “shock” of the “War to End All Wars.”

Arguably the period between the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and outbreak of World War I in Europe in 1914 was marked by evolution, rather than revolution, in social and political structures. 1848 did not prefigure a tumult equivalent to the French Revolution or the period of the Napoleonic Wars. Italy and Germany were unified ultimately under conservative nationalists. Darwinism, abolitionism, and women’s rights arguably were movements who were seeded during the Enlightenment and exhibited long pregnancies until the point that they erupted to prominence.

Between 1914 and 1920 a whole world fell away. The Empire of the Tsars collapsed, and was replaced by the chiliastic Bolshevik regime. Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were dismembered and their monarchies were overthrown, while Germany transformed from a conservative monarchy to a liberal republic.

In culture, the shift in Victorian and Edwardian mores into something different kicked into hyperdrive in the early 1920s. A decade of excess and sybaritic indulgence was nothing like what had come before (unless you go back to the late 18th and early 19th century, before the Victorian revolution of mores). Arguably what happened in the late 1960s was just as rapid, and even more shocking. 1969 was far more distant culturally from 1965 than 1965 was from 1955.

What are the reasons for these sorts of changes?

First, there’s the exogenous shock of environmental shifts. The snap cold spell of the Younger Dryas after more clement conditions must have scrambled a lot of complacencies. In Spencer Wells argues that agriculture arose as a cultural adaptation to the fact that the environment changed so quickly.

Perhaps a more common shock is a disease. In the late 2nd century the Roman Empire, which had experienced decades of peace and prosperity, was subject to bouts of plague, which reoccurred periodically from that point onward. Though the Roman Empire exhibited cultural continuity from the late republic down to the transformation of the East Roman Empire to Byzantium, the period between the late 2nd and late 3rd century witnessed massive social-cultural transformations. The period before is generally termed the Principate, and the period after Dominate.

Though the Younger Dryas was probably something not under human control, a major issue with regard to disease is that humans are impacted by it, but they impact disease as well. If populations crash, they often have more resources, and so bounce back from plagues…until the population increases so much that plague has to “check” it again.

Second, there are various factors endogenous to human psychology.

The major one that comes to mind is group psychology, the ‘culture of cognition’, or group conformity. The whole field of cultural evolution, as outlined in books like , models how this happens.

Basically, as a human being, you can’t reason yourself to every decision you make. A lot of decisions are intuitive and reflexive. For example, the decision to pull your hand away from the heat of a fire, or to eat something sweet in excess. But many decisions are socially conditioned. In many cultures, you don’t eat with your left hand. In some culture eye contact with someone you don’t know well is disrespectful, but in others, it shows you don’t have something to hide. We are excellent at picking up social cues and conforming, explaining why autism is such a disconcerting condition for many.

Group conformity means that societies can change very rapidly in norms as positive feedback loops kick in. It also means that there is often stasis which prevents people from doing new things. The way women dressed in the 1920s was a radical change from what had occurred before, but since it was a society-wide change women felt they could do it. In contrast, European peasants were very resistant to the adoption of potatoes as a food crop because it was a nightshade. Today it is ubiquitous in societies like Germany and Russia. One culture which adopted the potato relatively early was Ireland. And Ireland suffered the consequence of this early and ubiquitous adoption when the blight decimated their crops. Sometimes conservative reluctance to adopt the new thing is functionally adaptive!

Psychologically what is going on with conformity? I have long believed that there are ideas and norms which are widely shared which are also superficial or shallow. For example, most conservative Protestants have been opposed to evolutionary theory for a few generations. But whenever they attempt to organize to change public education around this position cultural elites, including conservative ones, have been able to block them. Or, consider Republican attitudes toward Russia, which has gone from being mildly xenophobic to mildly xenophilic. Though I wouldn’t say that the Democrats were ever xenophilic toward Russia, of late there has been a touch of xenophobia evident through the recycling of Cold War tropes in that camp. But the reality is that most Americans don’t have strong opinions on Russia, and can be easily persuaded by their cultural leaders to change their tune.

Then there’s the issue of preference falsification. This Bloomberg piece, Why Weinstein Held On For So Long and Fell So Fast, outlines the thesis. The classic case is Communism. By late stage Communism, the majority of the populace was cynical and self-interested. Once the regimes began to allow for dissent, it turned out very few were going to go to the mat for Communism, because they didn’t believe in it (the widespread re-conversion of Russian society, including its leaders, to Orthodox Christianity, strikes me as a case of broad superficial beliefs which spread rapidly through group conformity as a tribal marker). There are norms, beliefs, and behaviors, which are not antifragile.

I’m sure there are other things going on. Shocks through the increased volatility of the financial sector due to tail-risk chasing (inadvertent) to get better returns. The sensitivity of just-in-time supply chains to disruptions. Can you think of more?

8 thoughts on “Why our society might go “splat!” on the windshield sooner than we think

  1. There may be a crisis in the financing of our blue model social welfare state, which could be highly disruptive. Same thing in China, though there it is the squandering of the people’s lifetime savings, upon which they are depending in old age.

  2. @Razib

    Some food for thought:

    In terms of cultural evolution, what is the effect of the true believer? As opposed to the person forced into their beliefs due to social influence, imitation, or tribal identification? Why do they seem to be disappearing in the West today (e.f. disappearance of cults and cult leaders in the US, enervation of countercultural movements with youth rebellion that results in real personal costs, etc). What are the factors that could cause their frequency to wax and wane?

    Does science need true believers? Does democracy and the liberal order need them? (My suspicion is yes, not least to maintain the institutions necessary to sustain such an order.)

  3. they are founders of bitcoin start-ups šŸ™‚

    no, though seriously. i think ‘true believers’ are in academia and among start-up entrepreneurs. they could make a lot more $ and get more social status (that is, E(x)) becoming MDs….

  4. “Iā€™m sure there are other things going on. Shocks through the increased volatility of the financial sector due to tail-risk chasing (inadvertent) to get better returns. The sensitivity of just-in-time supply chains to disruptions. Can you think of more?”

    A very crazy guess, but perhaps the current BitCoin bubble will crash in mid-2018, precipitating another 08-09 economic scenario for late 2018-early 2019.

  5. @Razib

    Haha I agree. One thing I am interested in is how to increase the number of “true believers” in any culture. There seems to be an association between this and the concept of “Geist” in Germanic philosophy. There also seems to be an interrelation between the prophet, the scientist, and the “starving artist”, which you extend to startups šŸ˜‰ insteresting observation!

    This strikes me as a problem that can be analysed both in mathematical, social-sciencey terms and humanistic ones. For the former, c.f. the idea of “CREDS” in maintaining memetic potency in the literature on the cultural evolution of religion. Intuitively, it would seem the process that causes the failure of a social organisation to continue being a generator of social order, transforming into a net that accumulates entropy instead, would be the falling away of true believers, or the organisation’s inability to produce or maintain such believers.

    Hmm, it strikes me that any workable theory of “social entropy” has to do, fundamentally, not just with ordered behaviour and its measurement, but also with goal alignment and its measurement, which is much, much harder to do.

  6. A repeat of the Carrington Event might have an interesting effect on a society whose supply chains are dependent on electronics and the internet.

  7. “the current BitCoin bubble will crash in mid-2018, precipitating another 08-09 economic scenario for late 2018-early 2019.”

    No. It is a couple of zeros short of being important. There is supposedly a hard upper limit on the number of bit coins of 21 million. At $10,000 per, that is 210G$. Any really big bank right now has a capitalization in excess of 100G$. So the amount at stake is trivial in relation to the financial system.

    Further, I would guess that any bank examiner would cock a snook at any bank that accepted a bitcoin as collateral for any type of transaction.

    The bubble will burst, because there is nothing there. After all you could plant a tulip bulb. But, a bitcoin? But, the bust will not affect the official financial system.

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