Saturday, November 27, 2021

Civilization, complexity and the limits of human cognition - another attempt at explaining the 21st century

The 70s were pretty weird, but I was too young to notice. (Not coincidentally, the Toffler/Farrell Future Shock book was written then.) By comparison the 80s and 90s more or less made sense. In 1992 Fukuyama wrote "The End of History" and that seemed about right for the times.

Things got weird again in the late 90s. I was in a .com startup and I remember valuations getting crazy about 1997, 3 years before the .com crash. We were still picking ourselves up from the crash when 9/11 hit. (A year later, on a purely personal note, my youngest brother vanished.) In the early 00s came Enron and other frauds almost forgotten now. Then in 2008 the real estate collapse and the Great Recession. We were barely recovering from the Great Recession when Trumpism hit. Followed by COVID (which was expected and not at all weird) and the Great Stupidity of the American Unvaccinated (which we did not expect and is perhaps weirdest of all).

Each time the world went off kilter I have tried to figure out a root cause:

At last count my list of contributing factors to the crash of '09 included ...

  1. Complexity collapse: we don't understand our emergent creation, we optimized for performance without adaptive reserve
  2. Mass disability and income skew: The modern world has disenfranchised much of humanity
  3. The Marketarian religion: The GOP in particular (now the Party of Limbaugh), but also many Democrats and libertarians, ascribed magical and benign powers to a system for finding local minima (aka The Market). The Market, like Nature, isn't bad -- but neither is it wise or kind.
  4. The occult inflation of shrinking quality: What happens when buyers can't figure out what's worth buying. Aka, the toaster crisis - yes, really.
  5. performance-based executive compensation and novel, unregulated, financial instruments: a lethal combination. See also - You get what you pay for. The tragedy of the incentive plan.
  6. Disintermediating Wall Street: Wall Street became a fragile breakpoint 
  7. The future of the publicly traded company: A part of our problem is that the publicly traded company needs to evolve
  8. The role of the deadbeats: too much debt - but we know that
  9. Firewalls and separation of powers: a culture of corruption, approved by the American electorate, facilitated dissolving regulatory firewalls
  10. Marked!: Rapid change and the Bush culture made fraud easy and appealing

I put Marked! pretty low on the list, but maybe I should bump it up a bit. The Hall of Shame (Clusterstock) lists a lot more fraud than has made the papers [1]...

By 2010 I was focusing on RCIIIT: The rise of China and India and the effects of IT.

... The Rise of China and India (RCI) has been like strapping a jet engine with a buggy throttle onto a dune buggy. We can go real fast, but we can also get airborne – without wings. Think about the disruption of German unification – and multiply than ten thousand times.

RCI would probably have caused a Great Recession even without any technological transformations.

Except we have had technological transformation – and it’s far from over. I don’t think we can understand what IT has done to our world – we’re too embedded in the change and too much of it is invisible. When the cost of transportation fell dramatically we could see the railroad tracks. When the cost of information generation and communication fell by a thousandfold it was invisible ...

In 2016 and again in 2018 I tried to explain Trumpism by contributing factors (I was too optimistic about Murdoch's health though):

  • 65% the collapse of the white non-college “working class” — as best measured by fentanyl deaths and non-college household income over the past 40 years. Driven by globalization and IT both separately and synergistically including remonopolization (megacorp). This is going to get worse.
  • 15% the way peculiarities of the American constitution empower rural states and rural regions that are most impacted by the collapse of the white working class due to demographics and out-migration of the educated. This is why the crisis is worse here than in Canada. This will continue.
  • 15% the long fall of patriarchy. This will continue for a time, but eventually it hits the ground. Another 20 years for the US?
  • 5% Rupert Murdoch. Seriously. In the US Fox and the WSJ, but also his media in Australia and the UK. When historians make their list of villains of the 21st century he’ll be on there. He’s broken and dying now, but he’s still scary enough that his name is rarely mentioned by anyone of consequence.
  • 1% Facebook, social media, Putin and the like. This will get better.

That 1% for Facebook et all is pretty small — but the election of 2016 was on the knife’s edge. That 1% was historically important.

A few months ago I listed 3 causes for the post-COVID supply and labor shock economics of 2021:

1. Wealth became extremely concentrated. 

2. Returns on labor for 40% of Americans fell below modern standard for economic life.

3. Good investments became hard to find.

It's almost 2022 now, so we're into almost 25 years of the world not making sense any more. So now I'm digging even deeper for a root cause.

Today I'm going with Gordon's Lawthe complexity of a complex adaptive system will increase until it reaches a limiting factor. Our civilization is a complex adaptive system and its complexity increased until it hit a limiting factor -- the complexity capacity of the average human. These days between 40 and 50% of American's can't handle civilization 2021 (sometimes I call this mass disability (see also). Witness among other things, The Great Stupidity of the FoxCovians.

It's a variant of the "Future Shock" Toffler wrote about 52 years ago. I don't have a fix; I don't think the world will get less complex. Our technologies are moving too fast. Maybe we'll just get used to not understanding the world and civilization will stumble on regardless. After all, for most of human history the world was incomprehensible -- and we did manage. Sort of. Mostly without civilization though ...