The Great Switch
Global superpowers shape the world in their image. The Dutch gave us the joint-stock corporation. The French gave us philosophy and culture. The English, their language. The Spanish, their glory. For more than half-a-millennia, the West has dominated the world, and likewise, duplicated its culture a million times over across the globe. But what will happen when it's the East spreading its culture?
Will we be members of a surveillance state like in China? Will the Bill of Rights be shredded? Will dissension be suppressed and lead to single-party rule of government?
Likewise, will infrastructure costs match Asia's? Will the cost of building subways and roads come down to the order of millions of dollars, as opposed to hundreds of millions of dollars? Will litigation decrease? Will city council meetings with never-ending Q&A with wacko citizens become a thing of the past? Will education levels and literacy become more consistent across the country?
China's language, mannerisms, politics, consumer goods, and ideas will now be our world. Are we prepared to integrate these ideas? Every culture will have to decide whether to adapt or resist.
If there is an inherent media bias, one that cuts across both conservative and liberal outlets, its adversarial reporting. There can be no news without a "for" and an "against." Even non-political news, such as that of a crime, is adversarial, telling the story of good versus evil.
Our national consciousness is shaped by historians, which are a type of media, and they too report the past as adversarial. One of the highlights is the Civil Rights Era, where the Protest was king. Again, the framing is adversarial. Whereas in prior eras (except the Civil War) the enemy is outside, such as in wars against foreign nations, in the case of the Civil Rights Era, the enemy is ourselves. Such a view of history is odd, because it disowns the non-protestors, the "Silent Majority" as Nixon called it. The media narrative of that era is a triumph of good over evil, with the idea that we're somehow now good.
African-American Vernacular is trying to move away from English, which means at least one dialect has intent. Just a' the rappers
In the chorus of the 2012 song, "Birthday Song," the artist 2 Chainz raps, "They a' me what I do and who I do it for." Here, a' is an abbreviated version of aks or ask. Not all rap songs use this pronunciation, but it may be common where 2 Chainz is from in Atlanta. It's an example of linguistic drift in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), and because that drift is so easily noticeable, it may indicate that AAVE is drifting quickly.
Do dialects have intention? Some dialects sound "snobby" and some more "down-to-earth." A study on waitresses in Texas indicated that they speak in more rural or "folksy" accents when talking to working-class customers but switch to a more formalized-sounding, mainstream accent when speaking with white-collar ones. The customers themselves presumably don't change their accents.
If individuals modulate their accents as the situation demands, do groups do so as well? If one group of people consistently has one type of relationship with another group, will their dialect reflect a desire to maintain a certain distance? Is AAVE trying to get away from mainstream English?
American Power Couples
American-style love is a high-risk, high-reward act that is designed to deliver the power couple. The power couple is the foundation of the American Dream. According to Stephanie Coontz's Marriage, a History, though, this was not always the case. Before the 1950s, marriage was more commonly like a business partnership. Marriage was meant to combine properties, forge alliances between family trees, and to divvy up responsibilities for actual businesses, such as farms. In the business marriages of the 1800s, both husband and wife were farmers, just with gender-specific roles.
A key upside to power couples, besides the intrinsic rewards of that kind of arrangement, is a higher investment in child-rearing. Power couples, which are couples that can easily spend many hours together, also happen to spend more time raising children. Primatologists and biologists have long examined the correlation between high parental investment and intelligence. Children who are raised with power couples will have more hours at the dinner table, with both parents sharing lessons from life and work. Or if the parents are pedagogical, then the power couple will spend more hours tutoring children or helping them with their homework.
Another benefit is the professional synergies that arise with a partnership compared with a sole proprietorship. If the workforce is steering towards creative work, for which America is the avant-garde, then a couple that is tightly integrated with each other's work will perform better than one that is not. The benefit of tight integration isn't obvious in most settings: it's often better to have a detached couple, where each partner is not distracting the other. But the upside to synergy is unlocked when placed in the context of creativity. In America, all work is at least pseudo-entrepreneurial. For example, getting key promotions often requires a team effort, where the whole couple networks as a unit with the higher-ups in an organization.
The upsides for power couples are inherent in the name: a power couple has more power. The downsides are that the conditions for succeeding as a power couple are steeper than a functional couple. To form a power couple, you typically have to find your "soul mate," which is often compared to searching for a needle in a haystack. Those who pursue the power couple path and fail may end up losing out on coupling in general.
As long as some violence exists somewhere, our outrage about it may not decline, even if overall, violence is declining
There is both relative and absolute outrage. If there is a global downtrend in violence stretching 5,000+ years, then our relative outrage should be declining. Everything is so much greater compared to barbaric times when people would duel for no reason, when world wars were continuous, and when states treated everybody like slaves. And yet, as long as there is some reprehensible thing going on somewhere, outrage may take seemingly forever to die out.
The focus of outrage might change over time, as layers of reprehension peel away. So for example, while police brutality is in the news, it may be on the decline, long-term. It gets more attention because there aren't greater injustices to focus on. There's simply no war to protest, nor a civil rights march one can join.
The total volume of outrage as a proportion of the world's population may have gone down, but it's balanced by a base layer of outrage that will always exist so long as there is some crime happening somewhere.
The problem with conspiracy theories is that once they are proven out, we no longer classify them as such, but instead treat them as accidents, evil deeds, terrorism, war, or any of the myriad bad things that fill history books. There is no hall of fame for vindicated conspiracy theorists. A conspiracy theory is simply a plot or mystery that mainstream or official inquiry isn't pursuing.
Once official inquiry begins, the theory simply becomes an investigation, and whoever leads that investigation puts their stamp of normalcy on it. All previous rumors, rumblings, and misgivings that preceded the investigation, or even agitated for the investigation, are forgotten, and the theorist is left to work on defending their craziness while working on the next conspiracy.
Doing Psychedelics in the 1960s
In the 1960s, psychedelics seemed equally likely to become to be the secret to happiness or a complete sham. There wasn’t any experimental evidence to prove otherwise, but there was plenty of anecdotal evidence. The epistemic environment in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time was similar to that of a cult uprising.
Before the advent of mass atheism, how would you know whether or not to join a cult? Typically, you verify that a cult is working by looking at the people around you. You would look at proxy variables, like a sense-of-community, belonging, the possibility of sex, or even fun. And who knows, participating might put you on the ground floor of the next Christianity since every major religion once started as a cult. Maybe the cult you’re joining has the actual secret to getting into Heaven. Nobody has proof that Heaven doesn’t exist.
Just as there is no outside view that Heaven doesn’t exist, there was no outside view in the 1960s that psychedelics weren’t going to unlock the “spirit molecule” or some global awakening. Now, sixty years later, it’s clear that the acid heads weren’t right. Or were they? Bill Gates and Steve Jobs famously did acid, as did many Silicon Valley pioneers. And now Silicon Valley is ascending to world domination, much like Christianity. Maybe that’s all that everybody was after in the first place, to be players in grand dominance games. It would have been rational to believe all the hype surrounding psychedelia if the upshot was that you were going to become an early adopter of something greater.
50% of Americans reject evolution. The sad thing is that that number probably won't change for a long time, if at all. Scientific advances since the mid-1800s ceased to become advances in the lay understanding of science. All advances before then ultimately permanently enlightened humanity. 99% of people believe the Earth is round and that the Earth revolves around the sun, despite a lack of direct observation. But concepts like relativity or evolution either require an advanced understanding of science or a tremendous amount of faith in it. And most people's faith in God is stronger. Of the 50% of Americans who do believe in evolution, probably only 5% remember why they adopted that belief in the first place. And only 1% can explain the actual evidence for it.
You can probably take every academic discipline and point to a date in history when it breached that esoteric threshold, after which any further advances only enlightened experts and insiders. If you took the earliest of those dates, they would mark the beginning of the end for the "Renaissance Man," the person who could know the sum of human knowledge up to that point.
What does it mean if all future advances are increasingly esoteric? What if it gets to the point where even the vast majority of academics within a discipline can't keep up? One journalist reported that professors now rubber-stamp peer reviews simply because they don't have the time, energy, or expertise to wrap their head around the papers.
There is a video on YouTube of the construction process for a Boeing 747, and it occurs to the viewer that there probably doesn't exist a single engineer working on it who has a concept of how to build the whole thing. All the instruction manuals have been lost or are indecipherable. If you annihilated that factory and asked them to make a Boeing 747 from scratch, they'd have to nearly re-invent it.
Likewise, computer chips are now manufactured using automated processes programmed using computers. If we destroyed all the computers in the world today, how long would it take for us to get back to a modern processor like the Intel Core Duo 2.4 Ghz? Would we have to recapitulate the history of the development of computers?
Could we ever get to a level of advancement and sophistication where we no longer have an idea how everything around us came to be? What would happen to our faith then?
Every generation looks at everything around them and asks, "Can we do without this?" whether it's racism, sexism, or God
Every generation has liberals, i.e. free-wheeling types who think they can get on without time-tested institutions like work, religion, traditional gender roles, etc. Just because we are moving towards greater liberalization does not mean people are becoming more liberal, but rather that freedom is becoming increasingly safer. An argument often made against atheists is that without God, people won't be able to tell right from wrong. The atheists counter-argue that people still know that murder is wrong, even without someone in a robe telling them so. But perhaps this is only true today. There must have been a tiny minority of atheists a thousand or more years ago who would have said the same things, but without a religious command-and-control structure, they couldn't thrive. We are so much more educated than our ancestors, and so the benefits of freedom from religion no longer outweigh by the costs.
In the world of economics, it appears we've made progress from a gold-backed currency to fiat as if somehow we woke up one day and invented the concept. But fiat currencies have been tried throughout history, and it's only now with the right supporting institutions, such as centralized banking and electronic transactions, that they make sense. Fiat isn't so much an enlightened new idea, as it is a retiring of an older structure that is no longer serving its purpose.
We are proud of our liberal attitudes towards women as if somehow we've cultivated a more egalitarian worldview over time. Instead, it may simply be that the costs of bearing children were too high, or the amount of income per household too little, or the alternatives for women—or anybody for that matter—too few.
Every generation has a vanguard that looks at everything and asks, "Can we do without this?" Can we live without meat? Can we live without work? Can we live without neighbors? And sometimes the answer is Yes, in which case we retire that need. And sometimes the answer is No, leading the vanguard to be ridiculed, and enlightenment postponed till some future generation can bear it.
Feast and famine both drive innovation: muscular Romans had the breadbasket, civic-minded Anglo-Saxons had the cold winters
The Romans conquered as far North as Britain, and the British colonized as far South and as the Horn of Africa, but these can't be the only times that gritty Northern hominids and burly Southern hominids traded dominance.
Perhaps the harsh climates with scare resources helped to isolate tougher hominids. Then, during a reverse Ice Age, the North invaded the South, reaped the abundant resources, and reached population levels they couldn't sustain previously. Those large populations then formed advanced colonies or tribes that then re-conquered the Northern territories and established new hegemonies.
Perhaps a microcosmic version of this exists in modern history. Despite the crude, swashbuckling imagery of Vikings, the first Baltic communities were the prototype of the orderly Dutch villages we see today. Such order was necessary innovation to make survival possible in an otherwise uninhabitable climate. But now those influences are reflected in Western powers, which are still projecting those forms of government Southward.
Assume that such a cycle was to repeat every ten thousand years at a sub-species level or every thousand years at the civilization level. Then imagine each wave introduced something novel, like, perhaps an interest in art at the sub-species level or an interest in democracy at the civilization level. Then one can see how otherwise primitive hominids, through alternating isolation then competition, could rapidly turn into modern humans.
For content, crawlability is the new immortality
One day the birth of the Internet will seem like the birth of history. The amount of available recorded information, if plotted on a line, would look like a cliff starting in the late 1990s.
Even though the “digital revolution” supposedly happened before the Internet with the advent of computers, it wasn't until all content delivery became digital that we encountered this cliff.
If an archivist wanted to save a newspaper today, post-Internet, they would most likely crawl the newspaper's website on their own. If the newspaper's website weren't online, they would ask the paper to type a few commands and email a database dump. And if finally, that wasn't possible, they would ask the paper for access to the published HTML files that once represented their website. If the archivist had to, they could then copy and paste these contents.
Before the Internet, even though the newspapers' contents were most likely digital somewhere, nobody would know where the files were. Or if their location were known, they would require assistance from a technical employee who would have been laid-off by then. Or the file formats might be printer-ready and arcane, instead of web-ready and accessible.
Ultimately, the newspaper would simply dump an incomplete box of back-issues on the archivists' desk, only to then continue to collect dust again, as the archivist moves onto much easier projects.
History is the top 10 versus the next 90, between British royalty and New England gentry, between Lehman and Goldman
History is the story of the cannibalization of the Top 10 wealthiest by the next 90. The rest is just footnotes. The American Revolution was just a war between the New Rich (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, et. al) and British landowners. The Civil War was just a war between the New Northern Rich and the Southern plantation owners. The Great Recession of 2008 was just a war between Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs.
Cash ultimately leads to bubbles; "Nothing makes money like money," as the saying goes. As the rich become the ultra-rich, they eventually become a tumor. When the bubble pops, the wealthy individuals of the second-tier become the primary beneficiaries, collaborating with government on asset seizure.
The rest of history is about the least the rich can give the poor to keep the system intact.
Is it a rule of nature or physics that decadence must always follow abundance? Will we be the first creatures to subvert that?
Does decadence necessarily follow from advantage? Take the Panda, for example. It must have descended from a great bear at some point, but because it developed a unique digestive system for bamboo—providing it nearly unlimited mana—it got "lazy" and its powers waned.
Or consider America: it stepped up to the challenge during World War I and II, building itself up militarily and industrially giving it an overwhelming geopolitical advantage. But because of that overabundance, America has gotten more and more decadent since then, with some historians fearing a pattern of decline similar to the Roman Empire.
Does decadence necessarily follow from advantage? How can an organism, person, corporation, or nation maintain its advantage forever? How can it make gains in one area without accompanying slack in other areas? Or maybe it can't.
Labels like the "radical" 60s or the "conservative" 50s only applied to the trend-obsessed middle-class
Victorian England was too repressed. The 1950s-era Atomic Age America was too repressed. These are historical conceptions that supposedly define an era, but really they only affected a narrow band of people: the middle-class. They are the obedient class, the ones who want to stay in line lest they fall into disrepute, or those who want to stay in line, on the off-chance they can gain a promotion. The poor and the wealthy, those who have nothing to lose and nothing much to gain, have been more independent from the tidal forces of social conservatism vs. liberalism.
Historical eras, like the Romantic period or the Radical 60s, also only applied to the middle class. The 1960s hippies were people who wanted to live beyond material possessions. But the poor have always lived off of the land in desperate times. And the wealthy, who own farms, ride into the countryside on weekends whenever they please.
Historical narratives are often just totems. They are discursive short-hand serving the purposes of the speaker: "We should return to the 1950s, with traditional family values," as if that's how we once were. Or, "What happened to the freedom rides and free love?" as if freedom ended when the movement ended, or that the only meaningful protests happened then. There are people who no matter what era they find themselves in, do as they please.
Law of Diminishing Enthusiasm
One of the caveats about accelerating change is that we may reach physical limits to how fast we can make computers. That at some point, all the processors work on an electron scale, and can't be reduced any further, or that solving the overheating problem of CPUs may become intractable.
But there is another limit that could factor in: human demand. All technology is ultimately created to serve consumption. Without demand, there is no further development.
For example, at some point, we won't need anything after HD or Retina displays. The human eye won't appreciate any further refinements. Already we can see the disinterest in CPU speed on computers. In the 1990s, even casual computer consumers cared about how many megahertz their machines had. Now, the number of people that know how many GHz or cores their laptop has is a small minority. Instead, innovation is being driven by the miniaturization of CPUs. But at some point, we will have the thinnest possible phone. Already, some people complain that the iPhone 5 is too thin, and therefore too easily slips out of their hands. After thin-ness, what's next?
That hasn't stopped CPU innovation, though, because there has been this massive expanse of cloud computing and web servers. Consumer demand is still affecting CPU innovation, but it's proxy via demands from businesses like Google and Facebook that are servicing consumers.
At one point, it was video game consoles that were pushing the envelope of processing power. But after the PlayStation 3, there isn't much more that the gamer needs. Theoretically, the PlayStation 4 or PlayStation 5 will have as much graphical processing power as is used in rendering a 3D-animated Pixar film, but video gamers are drifting in the other direction, toward casual games on their iPhones, or are content with less graphically intense games on the Wii. So there is a step in the opposite direction, to make slightly slower CPUs at a cheaper cost.
There's also a limited number of hours a human has. While as a power consumer may own a laptop, smartphone, and a tablet, they divide their time between all three. Can they add another device? Perhaps they will have backup smartphones, and tablets, and eReaders, but again, that will just reduce the amount of time they spend on each device. The introduction of another device will diminish each's significance. We can only consume so much entertainment per day.
There is a pattern, though, where we sometimes think, "No more innovation will happen." For example, there is the famous (though false) quote from the Commissioner of the US patent office who said, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." Or there's another famous (though false) quote from Bill Gates: "640K of memory should be enough for anybody." And just when we were perhaps getting bored in 2009, James Cameron released Avatar into theaters, and 3D became the next big envelope pusher. We thought, "Alas, the PlayStation 4 would need to be at least twice as fast to handle all the 3D games!" But since then, consumers have become lukewarm to 3D. So already, we can see a turning back from new technology faster than we can innovate.
Maybe nothing has changed with regards to the history of marriage
According to Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History, the current model for marriage involves more opportunities for fulfillment. Both men and women can work outside the home, and love is on the table more frequently. But maybe the total proportion of adult heterosexuals who are fulfilled in relationships, marriage or otherwise, is the same. This may be inherent in the differing mating strategies of the sexes, which hasn't changed. Economics, politics, and reproduction are always in flux, but the same basic pollinating male vs flowering female is fixed in our biology.
Mexican drug lords, with their codes of conduct and violence, are perceived by locals the same way we venerate knights
We cling to the notion that knights were heroes and role models. But what if they carried the same connotation that gangsters do today? In some regions of Mexico, drug lords are regarded with respect. Those communities perceive them as gentlemen who adhere to a strict code. Never mind the stories of dismembered limbs, wrapped in newspapers, strewn across the sidewalk.
What if knights were just dapper thugs? What if “killing for the glory of their King” was the same as “gettin’ respect” or “enforcing one’s rep’.” What if they were minorities (dark-skinned folks from Spain), or what if they spoke with what, at the time, were considered vulgar dialects (now our English).
Most wars before Vietnam were "Vietnams," i.e. led by an aggressive elite against significant public opposition
One of the worst historical misconceptions among mainstream Americans has to do with Vietnam. Vietnam appears in the public imagination as a single blemish, the one time when America wasn't living to its true nature. The truth is that most wars before Vietnam were "Vietnams." Most wars before Vietnam were led by an aggressive elite against significant public opposition. Anti-war critics in those wars were jailed and intimidated with McCarthyism-like tactics. As a result, America conducted these wars under false pretenses, with the public being force-fed glossy narratives.
"Nearly all wars" includes the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, and even World War I. There appears to be only one war beyond reproach, and that's World War II. But such a singularly slam-dunk-of-a-war is rare, and it probably only seems beyond reproach because of how much of a boon it was for the United States economy and its supremacy.
Neoteny and Generational Labels
You can predict how every generation will be perceived by taking a random annoying trait of adolescence and blowing it out of proportion. Boomers were considered spoiled brats, and Gen Xers were depressed teenagers. Likewise, Millenials are low-effort wannabes. Never mind the underlying mega-trend that what distinguishes humans is our neoteny, which is the enhancement of childlike features. For example, based on physical features such as skull shape, humans are almost literally chimpanzees who never leave adolescence.
Or never mind the underlying micro-trend that IQ rises every year based on the Flynn Effect. Or never mind that violence, based on deaths per 100,000, has been consistently going down for at least 2,000 years. And never mind that generational stereotypes are popularized by a news media that is primarily consumed by adults. Adults are always wringing their hands at their children. And so picking one common trope from a child development stage and applying it to a whole generation makes for a convenient, non-controversial stereotype.
Philosophy is supposed to be the "love of wisdom," yet my philosophy department never had a course for that
Some of the names of popular topics of philosophy in college are epistemology, ethics, or existentialism. However, despite the etymology of philosophy being "love of wisdom," a course on living well is unlikely to appear on the same list.
Sometimes schools teach wisdom, but they use ideas from more than two millennia ago. Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato may have just been the first life coaches who had no qualms telling people how to live virtuously or how everything is just an illusion.
Finding appropriate authors for a course on wisdom is hard because no choice is going to be without controversy. The benefit that the Big Three Ancient Greek philosophers have, though, is that they're secular and they are so old that we can discuss them from a historically bland point-of-view. Instead of telling students, "This is how you should think," the professor can say, "This is how they thought back then. Oh, and they had slaves," i.e., "Don't take them seriously."
The "founders" of Western thought have gained that title because they're senior and secular.
Rational Conspiracy Theorism
Conspiracy theorists are the subject of derision in the United States, but if you were in the USSR or if you are in China today, that impulse, to think that someone is watching you, would have been accurate. Conspiracy theorism is therefore sometimes an adaptive, and so it can't be easily wished away. Beliefs such as that 9/11 was an "inside job" would have had parallel beliefs in other moments in history that would have been perfectly rational. At times, these plots reached levels of absurdity, such as the pope running his own armies and orgies, that conspiracy theorists were the sane ones.
Likewise, not being sensitive to conspiracy can be maladaptive in other contexts, especially if we expand to non-political ones. For example, at any given moment, there could be a plot to take over your company or job, or maybe your neighborhood association is now beholden to special interests, i.e. real estate developers.
Rational thinking is, at it's core, an aesthetic exercise
Rational thinking, at its core, is an aesthetic exercise—not a moral, practical, or logical one. Nazi and Enlightenment thinkers alike were motivated by the beauty of their ideas. How else would you miss the irony of creating a country founded on both freedom and slavery? How else would you premise the creation of a master race on the annihilation of the most intelligent people in your country?
Morality would find those ideas repulsive. Practicality would find them expensive. It's only in beauty that paradoxes are permitted. Consider the Japanese. How else would you go from being a people who, in the first half of the twentieth century, conducted bioweapons experiments on humans, to being renown in the second half for social programs for the elderly, low crime rates, and overall politeness? This is the same country that has the highest return rate for misplaced wallets. Why do the Japanese do this? Is it because it's the right thing to do? Or is it because it's the most elegant?
Synergy is the cause of the long-term trend in peace: The more people need each other, the less they hurt each other
Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, convincingly argues that, despite the appearance of a bloody twenty-first century, the world has a long-term trend of declining violence, both in terms of war-related deaths and homicides. Most of the book explains that the trend is real, but only a small portion of the book suggests why the trend exists.
Because the trend is so long-ranging and smooth, it implies a single, large causative feature running through mankind's existence. Pinker suggests that the cause is the transition to Market Pricing ethics, where every human is valued in proportion to the benefit they provide to society. This immediately sounds cold and dehumanizing, but perhaps Market Pricing is so prevalent because everybody is simply more valued now. Competition for resources is less important than cooperation over resources. States must collaborate to solve global warming, cities must collaborate to solve regional transportation infrastructure concerns, and neighborhoods must work together to properly stack high-rise buildings.
As the world becomes more crowded, humanity becomes more and more dependent on superstructures for their survival. Pinker chooses the start of the trend out of convenience when data first became available, but the start also coincides with the creation of what he calls "The Leviathan," which are city-states whose rulers care a lot about whether or not their subjects are fighting.
At each stage of history, we surrender more and more of our independence to systems that organize humans. We cannot survive now without civilization, and those who have chosen not to civilize, have gone extinct. Organizations such as nations, institutions, and religions, are racing in search of better mechanical and social technology to survive in a crowded field. Meanwhile, their human being constituents become further and further integrated for the good of the group.
The Amish are actually very modern since it's only in modern times when the impracticality of being radically practical can be a point of pride
The Amish are usually considered a throwback, but it's more significant than that. Their lifestyle is a luxury. They are willfully recapitulating olden times, not just because older is more authentic, but because those ways aren't necessary anymore. If an Amish person were transported back in time to when subsistence farming was common and nobody had electricity, there would be nothing interesting or special about their religious posture. Their existence today is only interesting inasmuch as it is completely unnecessary to live with such chaste restrictions.
However, perhaps the Amish are actually on the cutting edge of retro-futurism. We are losing more and more of our old traditions due to productivity gains from technology, that at some point, people will have jobs simply to keep up the simulation of wage-based living. Perhaps a completely ludic economy, one where nobody has to work, will descend into anarchy, and so some restoration of the past will be necessary to keep order.
The goal now isn't to seek terra incognita, but to revisit old lands with a fresh set of eyes
Now that every section of the Earth has been explored, where are the next adventures? Perhaps the beginning of post-modernism occurred not at the end of World War II, but when Antarctica was discovered. Or maybe that's why all the world wars happened, because that's when land became truly scarce, and there was nothing left to colonize; the great nations started getting anxious. There was nothing left to explore. Well, there was the moon, but we gathered nothing from there. So perhaps we're at the end of all linear explorations. In a linear exploration model, each new discovery accumulates and adds to the previous exploration.
Instead, now, we have cyclical explorations. We explore things that have already been tread on but have been forgotten for a handful of generations. Sometimes, in our own feverish excitement, we believe we're explorers. For example, the psychoactive pioneers of Timothy Leary and Terrence McKenna are really just re-discovering old shamanistic practices that have been lost for generations. The radical 1960s were in many ways a recapitulation of the Transcendentalists of Emerson's era or of prior anarchists.
All exploration is local now. You are a pioneer if you are the first of your tribe to do something, to forge out into the woods, and come back with the good news. In many ways, this has been the dominant model of exploration. The Native Americans, for example, didn't have any illusions about whether the lands they discovered had prior human contact. What mattered to them was that they found new territory and game for their people.
I often travel, with a sense of adventure, with the wind behind my back and the excited encouragement of my peers. And when I arrive, I find that the land has already been discovered, and all epiphanies I was expecting to get have already been tread on, over and over again, to the nausea of the locals. I could then simply stop traveling, but then I would have no stories to tell.
The history of progressivism is the story of the least the rich can give the poor to keep the system intact
The history of the world is the history of success, thus dividing the world into two camps: winners and losers
Every field has its natural biases. A programmer, for example, is more likely to view the universe as an elaborate watch, and that its creator is a brilliant Watchmaker. These kind of personality biases are liable to extend to other large categories, such as one's political orientation.
Does studying history lend itself to a political bias? At its root, history is the study of success. Identifying successful leaders and successful patterns is the dominant narrative in history books. Even unsuccessful endeavors (such as the Vietnam war, from America's perspective) are designed to be cautionary tales for understanding the creation of future successes.
This, on the surface, seems like a good thing, because we are ultimately seeking the success of the human race, but success is inextricably linked to competition. You can't have success without the backdrop of competition, and therefore success always involves some diminishing of others.
For a radical liberal, such emphases are meant to be destroyed, whereas a conservative is liable to see this pattern as the way things are (and by implication, meant to be). As history shows, the strong have always preyed on the weak and will continue to do so, and so we should simply focus on being as strong as we can, the weak-be-damned.
The middle-class is the least free because the poor have nothing to lose and the rich can always afford to lose more
Victorian England was too repressed. The 1950s-era Atomic Age America was too repressed. This is why they were followed by great releases: the Romantics and the Radical-60s respectively. At least, that's how the common interpretation of history goes. In actuality, social freedoms have been around forever, it's just that they've existed in only two classes of people: those without money and those with.
Consider women and freedom for example. The poor woman who came from an orphanage has never been pressured by anyone to start a family. She doesn't have a kitchen to tend to or a crying baby to feed. Likewise, the rich widower has never been held back from writing novels or from indulging in the same pleasures as men. She has always had her own money and she has always had her own lovers.
The premature prophets of peace, like Neville Chamberlain, have soured us on the possibility of timely prophets, like Steven Pinker
Is it better for a prophecy of peace to come true, or for a promise of doom to fail? The early-to-mid twentieth century saw a handful of proclamations about world peace. World War I was ironically called "The War to End All Wars," and the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared "peace in our time" following Hitler's promise of non-aggression. The disappointing bloodbaths that followed ruined all similar proclamations for a handful of generations. Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, recently described how we have actually been on a path towards peace since the beginning of recorded history. The World Wars only seem so destructive because the world populations then were much greater. People seem unaware that the nineteenth century was full of world wars that happened more frequently.
Pinker doesn't make any bold promises of peace, though, largely because of how ridiculous those statements seem in light of the existence of any kind of war, but also because of how foolish past proclamations seem in retrospect. Pinker is protecting his reputation as a futurist by just presenting the data and trend lines. But he is also protecting us from appreciating the kind of golden age that may already be here.
The strength of a nation's creative class is only important if it indirectly helps build war machines
Everything comes back down to war. In the contest for scarce resources, force is the final answer. The ability to remove an opponent, i.e. to kill members of the same species, is the ultimate use-case for all the tools that evolution has provided us. Perhaps in 99 years out of a 100, those tools are not necessary, because there is an abundance of food, or simply that constant war is not efficient for a species. But it's in that 1 out of 100 times that all that intervening 99 years of work comes into play.
There is often an underlying notion that the history of humanity of moving towards greater intelligence. Richard Florida's Rise of the Creative Class, for example, paints a picture of a world where everybody is individually expressing themselves through creative projects. That somehow, a world where everybody is creative is the ultimate fulfillment of humankind's destiny. That just around the corner we will achieve that glorious intellectual environment of Ancient Greece, like Raphael's The School of Athens.
However, this supposed glory days of Ancient Greece was built on the backs of a 50% slave population. Also, Ancient Greece was supplanted by Ancient Rome, which had some elements of anti-intellectualism. Cato the Elder, for example, was for traditional Roman military values and plainspokenness.
Countries often go through intellectual purges and survive, possibly even thrive. We may yet see how China, post-Cultural Revolution, with its restriction on freedom of speech, will play out.
Creativity in America has led it to be the economic powerhouse that it is (combined with a great civic organization, hard-working people, and diverse natural resources). The GDP bought from that innovation has given the country a military necessary to rule the world. But could a less creative and innovative nation have a greater military in the future?
The standard narrative is that America's continued pluck and innovation America will keep it ahead. But all that creativity is only important if it can ultimately impact its war machine.
Warm cities are lazier than cooler ones unless they are a popular metropolis like Los Angeles, Miami, or Ancient Rome
A common argument for why cities in warmer climates aren't as prosperous as cities in colder ones is that it's harder to survive in colder climates. This argument falls flat easily when considering that there have been many other times in our history where the only interesting cities were in latitudes closer to the equator such as in Ancient Egypt or Assyria.
But there's another counter-argument, one that can draw from modern times. San Diego is a city that is free from weather-related strife, which could imply that its residents are going to eventually be lazier because they don't have to work as hard. However, a lot of wealthy people move to San Diego for the better weather, so perhaps San Diego might gain a net increase in tenacious citizenry, assuming that that wealth was generally acquired by smarter or more hard-working people.
Likewise, our ancestors who drifted up to colder climates must have done so because they couldn't make it in the warmer ones. While colder climates require more human effort to extract calories from the ground, warmer climates have more people which means more competition, which also requires considerable human effort. The statement, "It's too crowded here, let's move somewhere else," is ultimately a veiled expression of the form, "There is too much competition for resources here."
We, as individuals, resist even the slightest rollback, which is why we, as a group, collapse in the face of shortage
The mystery of civilization collapses is always the suddenness of it. Why couldn't the Mayans or the Easter Islanders simply reduce their populations to a more sustainable level? Perhaps these two civilizations are apples and oranges. In the case of the Easter Islanders, they ran out of resources all of a sudden. But in the case of the Mayans, there was a weakness in trading partners and also deforestation, like the Easter Islanders, but surely they could have gradually slimmed down, to prior sustainable levels? But if that's the case, couldn't the Easter Islanders also have pared back when they lost nearly all their trees. Wouldn't they eventually have gotten their trees back over a handful of generations?
The problem has to do with the simple fact that population shrinkage is very difficult. If there is a resource crunch of only 10% for an island, the 10% of the population that have to die will not go down softly into the night. Even if a king decreed, "You can only have one child" it would be crushing for any ambitious member of the tribe to limit their offspring. And so war ensues, and that +10% over-farm is a constant state of affairs, maybe for a handful of generations, even as the resources dwindle to their breaking point. And the survivors continue to reproduce at their prior rate, because their grandfather had 3+ children, and their father had 3+ children, and they'll be damned if they're not going to push for the same.
And then the resources accelerate out of existence, to the point of apocalyptic and cataclysmic consequences, often coinciding with cannibalism.
This basic fact—that we refuse to die—is why we as a group, at some point, collectively die as we are trounced by a new civilization that starts the process all over.
We shape the world, and it shapes us back, and the fact that we get used to it has been essential to our survival
The prophecy of future shock, which is defined as the neurosis caused by a rapidly changing world, would have already happened. We would have been shocked when we covered the Earth with farms, or when we developed mass weaponry, or when we worked sixteen-hour days in soot-covered factories, or when we crammed into small boxes in tall skyscrapers, or when we lit up the night with candles, or when we cooked all our meals with fire, or when we moved from the plains to the glaciers. We shape the world, and it shapes us back, and the fact that we get used to it has been essential for survival.
While conservative and liberal sexual mores ebb and flow, sexually conservative and liberal people stay the same
Historical narratives aren't trends, but rather totems used for persuasive power. "We should return to good-natured 1950s values." "We should avoid Victorian prudery." Even though there are trends, they aren't necessarily that significant. For example, while the average number of lifetime sexual partners has ebbed and flowed, going from 3 in more "conservative" times to 17 in "liberal" times, it doesn't mean that the people of those times were that much different. Someone could go from 3 to 17 sexual partners and not be any more conservative or liberal of a person.
When people imagine historical periods, it's usually visualized through fashion, through a period movie they saw, or through a famous person of that time. Doing so gives the impression of different people in different times, when perhaps, for the most part, people might have always been the way they are now.