Whither?

2009-03-07

Andy Skelton provided an interesting comment on my post Sand; I started to comment in reply but the text got so long that I've turned it into a standalone post.

Andy works for a software company, so I'll use one of my favorite analogies: scalability. It's extremely difficult to scale up human society. If you consider that human beings spent hundreds of thousands of years living in small bands of 25 to 50 people (infrequently gathering into larger groups for purposes of trade, exogamy, etc.), it's no wonder that we haven't figured how to live in larger societies of thousands or millions of people. The 13 American colonies had a combined population of a little under 3 million, in which mostly direct democracy was perhaps barely workable.

A related scalability inhibitor is the inability of human beings to keep many more than five things in mind at any one time. This factors into power theory in geopolitics: when there are up to five significant powers involved in a negotiation, it is possible to balance all the interests. The American Constitution is an example of this, since it was essentially worked out between Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and perhaps New York -- the other states were merely along for the ride. But once you have more than five major powers, it is extremely difficult to keep everyone's interests in mind, so all power tends to migrate to the center (can you say "District of Columbia"?).

I also have a hunch that it's difficult to maintain human liberty in crowded conditions such as those experienced in modern cities. Historically speaking such cities are fairly unnatural. [Although I note the late medieval saying "Stadtluft macht frei" ("City air makes you free") -- there was much more freedom of thought and economic opportunity in a medieval city than in the countryside (where most people were bound in serfdom).]

Taken together, these factors indicate to me that in the long run human beings will be free again only after we go off-planet (or the human population declines so seriously that authoritarian control becomes ineffective).

Thomas Jefferson said we needed a revolution every 20 years or so. We're long overdue. :) Although I think that's unlikely, it would not surprise me to see the following factors emerge in a significant way in the relatively near future (though I tend to take the long view because I've studied so much history, so "near future" might mean the next 50 years): passive resistance, localism in the midst of globalism, intentional communities and even gulching (extreme instances of localism), natural sorting of people into communities of like-minded others, secessionist movements where feasible (Alaska seems like a possibility to me), radical simplicity, income reduction so as not to fuel the bastards (also called "to go Galt"), alternative currencies, an underground economy based on gold and silver, barter (Craigslist++), escapism (of which Second Life is an example), purely electronic interactions (think social networking taken to the next level), the extension of a gift or attention economy from the open-source software community into more aspects of life, and probably many trends I'm missing.

As to the question "what to do?", I must say that I don't have the answers. The current climate is challenging a lot of folks to rethink long-held assumptions, to form stronger bonds of friendship and community with like-minded people both locally and on the Internet, to prepare for eventualities they hadn't previously considered, and so on. All of that is to the good, I think, and necessary. But in the midst of all that turmoil, I think it's important to (as Andy says) keep laughing and singing, because it's far too easy to let our assumed "rulers" snuff all the joy out of existence.

Most of history is not a matter of revolutions but a matter of muddling through. There's a kind of arrogance involved in thinking that right now is the turning point of the human experience. Maybe it is, but more than likely it isn't. So there is value in trying to "keep your head while all about you are losing theirs" and also to keep working on creating positive value in the world in whatever form is open to you (for me that's technology and philosophy and music, for others it might be medicine or education or raising good children).

At least, that's my perspective: I try to understand the world around me, honor my chosen aims and interests, work hard to create things of somewhat lasting value, do right by the people who matter to me, and enjoy life along the way. I don't see a good reason to change that philosophy just because there are a whole class of bastards in this world who seem to be doing their darnedest to destroy everything that peaceful, productive people have built up. But the existence of those bad actors means that the rest of us need to be more clever, more attentive, more creative, and yes perhaps more passionate about preserving and expanding what truly matters to us.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal