Friday, August 21, 2020

Collapse Is Silent But Its Signs Are All Around...,


theinsideview |  We can define civilizational collapse as a process wherein most recognizable large-scale institutions of a society vanish, coupled with a drop in material wealth, a drop in the complexity of material artifacts and social forms, a reduction in travel distance and physical safety of the inhabitants, and a mass reduction in knowledge.

Loss of knowledge is especially damaging, since it accelerates the other aspects of collapse and ensures that they will be long-lasting. Nearly all of the written evidence we have of societal decline comes from elites. Historically, literacy was restricted to the traditional elite class of a society, as they were the only ones with any use for reading and writing. This accounts for the total disappearance of writing after the Late Bronze Age collapse, since Bronze Age societies had a very small literate class. 
The result was a wholesale loss of civilizational knowledge. When writing reappeared in the eastern Mediterranean centuries later, it was based on the new Phoenician alphabet, rather than the old hieroglyphic system that gave birth to the cuneiform of the Assyrians or the Linear B of the Minoans. Such losses of knowledge are a constant throughout human history: as with FOGBANK, or as with the state of New Jersey recently scrambling to find a COBOL programmer with the ability to overhaul their legacy information systems.

Despite how difficult it can be to gather historical data, it’s still a far better way to understand societal collapse than purely theoretical models. Rather than picking and choosing our preferred explanations of collapse beforehand, we should first recognize that there are simply too many causal variables to control for. The best we can hope for is rigorous cross-comparison with the historical record, using sets of natural experiments between past societies. A broad historical literature of collapse does exist, especially on the Late Bronze Age collapse and the fall of the Roman Empire. But the scholars that pose these questions often have particular—and popular—answers in mind as to what causes collapse: environmental fragility, moral decline, an overloading of systemic complexity, and so on. 

The morality play is written first, the facts are found second, and this often results in a shoddy final product of a theory. Thus, the relevance of history for investigating our own society’s potential collapse is also obvious: without comparing the present to other civilizations, we can’t say much of anything useful about it.

It is hard to come to a consensus on historical cause and effect. In geology, we didn’t build another planet to discover the Earth’s plate tectonics, but rather dug among the rocks on which we found ourselves. In our macro-study of history and civilizations, we too must rely on in-depth exploration of historical examples.

That exploration is still itself theory-driven. Good historians and theoreticians explicitly acknowledge the theses they work with, so I will do the same. My theory of history is great founder theory: I propose that social technologies do not evolve out of mass action, but rather are devised by a tiny subset of institutional designers. Looking at history, we see that new organizations and social forms often arise within a single generation, showing jumps in social complexity far too rapid to be explained away by collective action or evolution. This would be the equivalent of expecting a tornado tearing through a junkyard to assemble a Boeing 747 or a Tesla Cybertruck.

Designing complex objects through collective action, or perhaps through an intermittent individual strategy similar to the open software approach, is tempting. However, unowned commons tend to be raided, and individual visions tend to differ massively. It often takes an exceptional individual with exceptional vision to create a new social or material technology. It’s hard to remember nowadays that the smartphone once had to be devised as a combination of the cell phone, the tablet, and the camera, and did not merely emerge out of mass market sentiments. It took a single individual, Steve Jobs, to see that while a combination of the car, the airplane, and the submarine would produce an inferior version of all three, the opposite case would be true in the creation of the smartphone. And then that individual had to implement the vision.