The Singularity vs. Nightfall

Ian Morris begins his massive history of Eastern and Western social development, Why the West Rules-- for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, at the very beginning --15,000 years ago, deep in prehistory-- and he runs through the typical Guns, Germs, and Steel stuff (with more details about Chinese history) but he comes at this massive scale of time from the perspective of an archaeologist, and on the "maps vs. chaps" debate, he's firmly on the side of the maps (unlike someone like Paul Johnson, who goes more for the chaps) which might be offensive to some because he takes the humanity out of history, and views the span of human achievement as something of a Civilization computer game, with an algorithm for social development based on energy capture, urbanization, information technology, and war-making capacity . . . so you're going to get a lot of numbers, as societies advance, which is sometimes disconcerting but it all eventually makes sense and if you can't figure out how to break through the hard ceiling-- perhaps this occurs at a social development index of 24-- then you don't get to stagnate at whatever glory you have achieved, instead things tend to spiral out of control and your civilization collapses . . . you can't turn away the four horsemen of the apocalypse: climate change, famine, state failure and migration (occasionally, there is a fifth horseman: disease) and you need particular resources to defeat these horsemen, and of your geographical and technological situation doesn't possess them, then you're screwed . . . no matter who is making the decisions . . . but with great collapse comes great resilience and great recovery-- so you might as well embrace the impending apocalypse, because while a few good decisions might head off or postpone a collapse, if it's going to happen, no individual human-- brilliant leader, scientist, thinker, moral crusader, or whatever-- is going to defeat the lazy, scared, concerned masses . . . you might be able to temporarily plug the dike, but you're not going to stop the flood . . . and Morris doesn't see any inherent superior value to Western culture-- there's no cultural bias here-- the East surges ahead of the West at times (541 AD to 1100 AD in particular) and then hits a hard ceiling and it takes the Industrial Revolution for the West to make the big move ahead and it really didn't matter who invented what or when (Stigler's Law of Eponymy) and then, finally, Morris gets to now and that's when the book really takes off-- he explains the economic marriage of America and China (we buy Chinese products and China buys our debt, making the America dollar more valuable and the Chinese renminbi less so and if we stopped buying Chinese products, they could dump all the US dollars they own on the market, thus totally devaluing our currency . . . so we're stuck with each other) and how we are headed towards an uncharted future as far as social development-- we might hit 5000!-- which could result in cities of 140 million people or more, but we're hitting a hard ceiling around 1000 points, and we can't go on this way-- all the citizens of earth can't live the way the richest countries live-- we're burning too much fossil fuel, contributing to what Morris calls "global weirding" and as the world becomes smaller and flatter, developed nations are becoming more concerned with immigration (a prescient prediction of Trump's victory and Brexit . . . the book was published in 2011) and because we are at such a technological high point, the stakes are infinite . . . we may see a transformation in the next fifty years that makes the Industrial Revolution look like the domestication of the goat, a singularity situation where AI and energy capture make the world so small that geography and nations are meaningless . . . or we may be staggering towards a collapse like no other, where-- as Einstein pithily predicted-- we fight World War IV with rocks . . . the scary thing is that, with the technology we now possess, it only takes one thing to go wrong and then we are shrouded in nuclear winter or enduring the desert of the real, while it will take incredible diplomacy and cooperation to make everything go right, so that we break through the next hard ceiling and propel ourselves into a phenomenal future . . . I'm rooting for humanity to do it, but I'm not sure we've got it in us, but if we don't succeed, there's always the hope that some other life form-- cockroaches? rats?-- will step up to the plate and eventually swing for the fences . . . anyway, this is a must read, but when you get bored of the ancient Chinese history, skip a bit brother, and get to the conclusion (which a good hundred pages in itself).


5 comments:

zman said...

Ian Morris put his finger in the dyke? When did that happen?

Dave said...

oops-- i thought they were homographs . . .

Whitney said...

Global weirding is when you read posts about the wrong Ian Morris and can't process the "sentence" without thinking this was our Ian doing all this

Dave said...

i totally imagined ian as the author while i was reading it . . .

zman said...

I had no idea that he moved from poetry to prose.

A New Sentence Every Day, Hand Crafted from the Finest Corinthian Leather.