Solving the deepest puzzle of the social sciences
Coming back to this after a couple of months, and reading everything again, I am struck by how much great stuff is in the article, and how much more is in the comments, particularly those of David Brin and Swami, and how much we all missed first time.
David and I often argue definitional issues around cooperation and competition, and I suspect we agree on far more than we disagree, and it is mainly a perspectives thing. For me, cooperation is the rules that make competition work for all, and we see it at many levels in biology, and it always requires attendant strategies to prevent overrun by “cheats” – games theory 101.
And going back to the original thesis, there seems to me to be much more at play.
Many factors, all important, many stochastic.
A major one is climate stability.
The sea level stability of the last 10,000 years in unprecedented in the past million years.
Over most of the previous million years sea level was either going up on down about a meter per century (3 ft for Americans). That constant change prevented the establishment of stable coastal trading settlements. It was hardly worth the effort of building large ports if the sea would reclaim them within a couple of generations.
For most of human history – orthodoxy reigned supreme. Challenges to existing ideas mostly resulted in death – a famous example being Socrates.
Stable trading centres allowed trading with distant places, which exposed people to the diversity that comes with distance.
Slowly, very slowly, such diversity became acceptable.
Yet still many institutions fought it, guilds and priesthoods of all manner.
Yet there was money to be made, trade for mutual benefit. And eventually the money won.
Yet without the climate stability, it would have been unlikely.
Then there was the transmission of information.
Writing may have started with trade, and initially been a guild thing, closely protected, and eventually the printing press brought literacy to the masses.
With literacy people could share ideas beyond their immediate circle of contact, and across generations.
Mimetic evolution really got its kickstart to a new level.
The pressures of business to innovate to survive directly conflicted with orthodoxy, and orthodoxy lost (mostly).
Then in the late 1800s computation hit its exponential stride.
Eventually this led to automation at whole new levels.
Various forms of technology had previously increased productivity (animals, water, fire, steam, factories), but the rate of doubling of information technology was something else (every year).
This coupled with all manner of innovation in tools and conceptual understandings led to a rapid evolution in ways of understanding.
Simplistic ideas of truth and right had to give way to uncertainty, complexity, and chaos.
The ideas of purpose and balance in nature supplanted by nature as an open ended evolving complex system – neither knowable nor predictable, except by approximation within various dimensions of uncertainty.
Newton’s view of God’s certainty gave way to profound uncertainty from Heisenberg and Goedel and many others. Now we have ideas like Bayesian uncertainty, maximum computational complexity, chaos and fractal systems bringing new aspects to unknowability, and new opportunities for novelty.
At the same time is a growing awareness amongst individuals that our experience of being is not of reality directly, but rather of a subconsciously created and slightly predictive model of reality that our brains produce. So there is a lot of seeing and experiencing what we expect rather than what is, at different levels – which is kind of a logical necessity, and it requires active mitigation strategies on our part when we suspect real novelty is present.
So it seems to me beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that there are many levels of contribution by many different systems to this prosperity that some of us experience.
And I have no doubt that it is possible to take cooperation to an entirely new level, supported by the ability of automated systems to do all the “grunt” work that once required other people, and empower every individual to do whatever they responsibly choose. And that “responsibility” is not a simple thing. It is very complex, multidimensional, constantly evolving, with lots of unknowns, lots of negotiation, and lots of need of associated strategies at all levels to prevent invasion by cheats.
And such cooperation does not imply sameness or equality of distribution, and it does imply that everyone have a high minimum standard of the goods and services and opportunity and freedom available. And with automation, that is a relatively simple thing to organise – once we stop seeing everything through market values.
And with distributed trust networks, and hi fidelity long term memory, cheating at any level becomes a high risk strategy. Digital systems will allow us to extend Dunbar’s number from about 150 to beyond the 10 billion currently living.