The myth of progress
Capitalism, via the construction of abstract tokens as interest bearing debt, maximises the efficiency of the accumulation of abstract tokens, specifically it maximises the accumulation of abstract tokens in the hands of those institutions and individuals that claim to have the “authority” to issue debt and that design the social rules around the transfer, repackaging, and annulment of debt.
As long as access to capital affords individuals the “right” to make decisions that significantly impact on the lives of others, the distribution of debt and ownership rights related to land and means of production in society have a huge influence over the well-being of communities and families. This state of affairs is highly problematic, as all humans have limited cognitive capacity and limited ability to understand the lives and needs of other people.
The more capital an individual accumulates, the more their decisions start to impact the lives of hundreds, thousands, and in some cases millions and billions of people.
At the same time, we know that no human can maintain more than 150 relationships with other people, and that all our assumptions about the lives and needs of humans are based on the very small set of people that we relate to. By definition, we don’t understand all the people that we “don’t relate to”. In our busy civilised and hyper-social lives we come across far more than 150 people (Dunbar’s number). We interact within them on a transactional anonymous basis, and we may read about their lives, but it is impossible for us to fully understand their context, as we have not walked in their shoes from the first day in their lives, and thus lack the experience, the insights, and the tacit knowledge that shapes their unique world-views.
Thus, making decisions that potentially affect the lives of many hundred to several billion people without explicit consent of all those potentially affected, must be considered the pinnacle of human ignorance and is a strong indicator of a lack of compassion.
Of course many societies acknowledge the dangers associated with big social power gradients and like to present themselves as democratic, pointing to regular elections and legislation that is developed by democratically elected representatives, claiming that this allows all citizens to contribute to important decisions that shape the operating model of society. There are numerous problems with this naive claim:
- At national, regional, and even municipal level, each elected office holder represents a number of people that far exceeds the human cognitive limit of 150.
- In many societies citizens only have very limited ability and opportunity to contribute to discussions and important decisions that will affect their lives beyond the participation in elections every few years.
- In most societies immense amounts of decision making powers are concentrated at the national, regional, and municipal levels, and the decision making powers at the level of local communities are quite limited. Social power gradients manifest in pyramidal organisational designs within government institutions and corresponding communication structures.
- In a rapidly changing world that is affected by human induced climate change and ecological collapse, elections every few years represent a feedback loop that is far too slow for preventing further damage to the highly complex ecological systems that enable human existence on this planet.
- All modern “civilised” societies rely on the construction of abstract tokens as interest bearing debt and related tools (interest rates, government bonds, etc.) as a key means for influencing economic activity within their jurisdiction. This delegates significant decision making powers to small privileged elites who are granted preferential access to financial capital.
- Capitalised profit maximising corporations are not subject to democratic governance. Instead shareholders and their representatives have the ability to implement whatever organisational design they deem most appropriate for profit maximisation – usually a pyramidal management structure that treats employees and suppliers as resources to be exploited. Once a profit maximising corporation has acquired a monopoly position in a particular domain, it even treats customers as a resource to be exploited. In most jurisdictions the cost of penalties for ignoring or subverting antitrust legislation is negligible.
- Just like in many government organisations the number of employees in corporations often far exceeds the human cognitive limit of 150. As a result not only do shareholders, who are often not employed by the organisation, wield a huge influence, but the appointed top level managers regularly make decisions that affect many hundred or thousands of employees.
- The fixation on governance via abstract monetary metrics and controls (debt creation, budget allocation, interest rates, various forms of taxation, tax rates, etc.) leads to extremely over-simplified models of economic activity and contributes to an illusion of control, whilst creating huge blind spots for externalities that can’t be articulated in monetary metrics. Concepts such as the triple bottom line are well meaning but woefully inadequate attempts for shedding light on the blind spots created by the heavy reliance on monetary metrics. Ignorance is not a good foundation for decision making.
- An honest analysis of the measurable “achievements” of democratic governance as exemplified in current practices in the so-called “developed” world paints a dim picture of collective human intelligence: human activities have triggered the sixth mass extinction event on this planet, billions of humans are malnourished, our ecological footprint has been unsustainable for several decades, and the climate is changing at a rate that is orders of magnitudes faster than all earlier climatic changes in the history of the planet. And even in the light of all these results, monetary metrics are still used as the foundation for economic discussion and decision making.
The systematic analysis of earlier human “civilisations” (societies with cities, written language, and money) conducted by historian Joseph Tainter shows us that so far all “civilisations” have eventually “collapsed”, i.e. they have resulted in a much less centralised and less resource intensive organisation of human affairs.
For observations on the obsolescence of the current capitalist economic operating system in particular, I recommend listening to this very timely interview with anthropologist David Graeber, the author of Debt, The First 5,000 Years.
“Normal” is like standing on the railway tracks, looking at the coming train and asking how fast it is approaching. – David Graeber
The information age
The history of human civilisations to-date can be described as the information age, in which decisions within human societies are driven significantly by information encoded in written rules and in monetary metrics. The information age predates the invention of digital computers by several thousand years.
The physical manifestation of written language and abstract monetary tokens induces and reinforces an illusion of:
- permanence (written words can survive many generations),
- universal applicability (written words can be transported across large distances without distortion),
- precision (written numbers allow quantification to quasi arbitrary levels of precision), and even an illusion of
- shared understanding (via our associative memory familiar written words from unfamiliar people remind us of our personal experiences, and it is easy to forget that others may associate different experiences with the same words).
Written conventions and the fungibility of money equipped “civilised” societies not only with a tool for trade and complex transactions, but also with a tool for storing “value”. The act of quantification of value relies on a tacit consensus amongst the users of an abstract currency. A civilised society allows selfish and unscrupulous people to accumulate money by negotiating hard when selling to strangers and when buying from other strangers. The invention of interest bearing debt offered further “leverage”.
Money can be described as the abstract tool that has allowed humans to extend and scale the dominance hierarchies found in other primate societies to groups of many thousands and millions of people.
Via the reliance on money “civilised” societies actively encourage hoarding of information and resources. In “civilised” societies three types of human behaviour can be observed in the context of economic interactions:
- Reciprocal altruism
- Profit maximisation
Most people rely on one of these three strategies as their default mode of operation when dealing with friends and family, and with a potentially different default mode of operation when dealing with strangers. “Civilised” societies systematically disadvantage altruistic and compassionate people in favour of profit maximisers who are superficially charming and who can get away with creative interpretation of social rules.
Economics can be described as the discipline that attempts to legitimise the behaviour of profit maximisation alongside reciprocal altruism.
It should not really be surprising that to-date all “civilised” societies have eventually ended in collapse. Hoarding of information is not conducive to collective intelligence, and hoarding of resources leads to increasingly resource intensive cultural practices and to a growing ecological footprint.
In our times the close link between information hoarding and resource intensive cultural practices is exemplified by phrases such as:
- Web 2.0 is about controlling data
- The user [information producer] is the product
- Monetisation of data
- Data is the new oil
In the heat of civilised busyness it is easy to overlook that fact that money itself is simply abstract data, and that an objective such as “monetisation of data” encourages companies to develop absurd services that don’t serve any human need beyond the aggregation of capital on behalf of those who are obsessed with hoarding money.
Digital computers have accelerated the production of economic inequalities and have led to entire “industries” that attempt to monetise data, and which, in the pursuit of this objective, further increase resource and energy consumption. Bitcoin and similar cryptocurrencies epitomise this trend.
The global Bitcoin network is consuming more than seven gigawatts of electricity. Over the course of a year that’s equal to around 64 TWh or terawatt hours of energy consumption. That’s more than the country of Switzerland uses over the same time period (58 TWh per year). – The Verge, 4 July 2019
Across the board, all “civilisations”, past and present, consist of organised groups of people that are so large that many interactions are “transactions” between people that don’t know much if anything about each other.
Life in “civilised” societies routinely puts people in situations of cognitive overload. People are forced to get used to the stress of transacting with anonymous strangers and are subject to social pressures to conform to norms and demands that have been decided in far away places, by rulers and bureaucrats who have no understanding of the local context in specific parts of their “empire”.
The knowledge age
In contrast to the myths about “human nature” that power civilisations, human babies are naturally inclined to help strangers, without any need for coercion or external “incentives”:
…helping [unrelated] others with simple physical problems is a naturally emerging human behaviour …at fourteen to eighteen months of age, before most parents have seriously started to expect their children, much less train them, to behave pro-socially. …parental rewards and encouragement do not seem to increase infants’ helping behaviour.
Parents take heed: the parental encouragement did not affect the infant’s behaviour at all; they helped the same amount with or without it.
… the infants were so inclined to help in general that to keep the overall level of helping down – so that we could potentially see differences between conditions – we had to provide a distracter activity in which they were engaged when the opportunity to help arose. Nevertheless, in the vast majority of cases, they pulled themselves away from this fun activity – they paid a cost – in order to help the struggling adult.
– Michael Tomasello, Why We Cooperate, Boston Review Books, 2009
Prior to the information age, for several hundred thousand years humans lived in much smaller groups without written language, money, and cities. The archaeological evidence available and also the evidence from “uncivilised” indigenous cultures that have survived until recently in a few remote places point towards an interesting commonality in the social norms of such societies:
The strongest social norms in pre-civilised societies were norms that prevented individuals from gaining power over others.
The key to the social co-operation in complex stateless societies is that they must effectively deal with the “free-rider” problems inherent in groups made up of ego-directed people. Overcoming these collective action problems is essential to understanding the evolution of social complexity in our species. These more successful stateless societies create social organisations that allow individual members of the group to benefit in ways that they cannot in smaller population sizes.
The lack of coercion in complex stateless societies is a key feature of this social phenomenon… unlike leaders in state societies, those in stateless ones do not possess coercive power over others. This is an extremely important observation: the emergence of of complex stateless societies was not a costly process in which the vast bulk of people were forced to give up resources or labor to ego-directed aggrandizers… ad-hoc managerial leadership will emerge to deal with the free-rider problems, on the one hand, and the need to reward co-operators, on the other. This is a kind of leadership created by the group; it is not forced on the group either by aggrandizers or by environmental stresses.
Informal social coercion exists in all stateless societies, and is manifested in taboo, black magic, and so forth. However, stateless societies are notable for their absence of institutionalised elites with power to obligate others without a substantial consensus among the community… power in stateless societies by leaders is ad hoc and granted or withdrawn by the community at large.
…people in small groups create rules and norms to govern the production and exchange of resources, behaviors that makes sustained economic co-production possible. These norms and rules are structured through various kinds of ritual and taboo. These rituals schedule tasks, reward co-operators, and enhance pay-off for prosocial behaviour by all members of the group. They maintain fairness and punish non-co-operators.
…small groups provide a context in which most people know each other. The ability to create social histories of most people and to use these reputations in future interactions is possible in small-group contexts in ways not possible in large groups.
people in successful groups recognise both the individual and the collective advantage of co-operation, and some individuals in the group are willing to absorb some costs onto themselves to maintain norms of fairness in exchange for prestige,
– Charles Stanish, The Evolution of Human Co-operation : Ritual and Social Complexity in Stateless Societies, Cambridge University Press, 2017
Unfortunately the language used by social scientists, including anthropologists, is biased by our culture, and makes use of terms such as ‘leaders’ and ‘prestige’, which carry some semantics in “civilised” societies that do not apply in pre-civilised societies.
The notion of ‘leadership’ as described in the extract above refers refers to an appreciation for valuable domain specific tacit knowledge and skills, and to the trust that is extended to individuals with empirically validated valuable knowledge and skills.
Similarly the notion of ‘prestige’ described in the extract above refers to individuals who consistently act in altruistic ways and contribute their knowledge in ways that benefit the group, who as a result enjoy the trust of many members of the group.
To date the vast majority of anthropological research ignores the role of neurodiversity in shaping human societies. Social scientists routinely assume neurotypical social motivations when observing and interpreting human behaviours. Taking into account that neurodivergent and especially autistic people may not at all be interested in ‘prestige’ in the sense of social status, but are rather motivated by a strong sense of curiosity and individual agency, allows for a more nuanced interpretation.
Regardless of cultural context, the curiosity and unusual sensory abilities of autistic and otherwise neurodivergent individuals result in deep domain specific knowledge and related specialised skills. Some of the acquired knowledge and skills may turn out to be valuable to society and attract the attention of others. In pre-civilised societies neurodivergent individuals will likely have been recognised as trustworthy carriers of valuable knowledge and competencies, the easily transferable parts of which will then have been preserved and propagated to others via cultural transmission.
In pre-civilised societies valuable knowledge was shared and carefully transmitted to future generations. In the absence of written language the knowledge transmission process involved all senses and intensive interaction between recognised masters and motivated novices.
Great climbers and highly skilled hunters, as well as those that excel in other locally valued domains, are sought out, deferred to, and naturally emerge as influential across a wide range of domains. Such respected individuals are rarely ill-tempered or erratic, and instead they are often renowned for their generosity. This phenomenon occurs even in societies that are highly egalitarian, possessing no formal leadership roles or hierarchy.
… once humans became good cultural learners, they needed to locate and learn from the best models. The best models are those that who seem to possess the information most likely to be valuable to learners, now or later in their lives. To be effective, learners must hang around their chosen models for long periods and at crucial times. Learners also benefit if their models are willing to share nonobvious aspects of their practices, or at least not actively conceal the secrets of their success.
… humans reliably develop emotions and motivations to seek out particularly skilled, successful, and knowledgeable models and then are willing to pay deference to those models in order to gain their cooperation, or at least acquiescence, in cultural transmission. This deference can come in many forms, including giving assistance, gifts and favours, as well as speaking well of them in public.
– Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success : How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Princeton University Press, 2015
The extract above underscores that autistic individuals will likely have played a key role in knowledge transmission, as they tend to be the ones who are incapable of keeping hidden agendas and consistently ‘willing to share nonobvious aspects of their practices’ with others.
Literally hundreds of experiments in dozens of countries using a variety of experimental protocols suggest that, in addition to their own material payoffs, people have social preferences: subjects care about fairness and reciprocity, are willing to change the distribution of material outcomes among others at a personal cost to themselves, and reward those who act in a pro-social manner while punishing those who do not, even when these actions are costly.
Initial skepticism about the experimental evidence has waned as subsequent experiments with high stakes and with ample opportunity for learning failed to substantially modify the initial conclusions.
This shift in the view of human motives has generated a wave of new research. First, and perhaps most important, a number of authors have shown that people deviate from the selﬁshness axiom and that this can lead to radical changes in the kinds of social behavior that result. For example, Fehr and Gächter (2002) have shown that social preferences leading to altruistic punishment can have very important effects on the levels of social cooperation (Ostrom et al. 1992).
– Joseph Henrich et al., Foundations of Human Sociality, Oxford University Press, 2004
Given what we know about neurodiversity and autistic people, the above results are unsurprising, and entirely consistent with the level of attention that autistic people tend to pay to social justice and fairness, irrespective of whether these attributes are valued by the surrounding culture or not. Given the neurotypical human tendency for over-imitation, any fairness norms invented by trustworthy autistic carriers of valuable knowledge will easily be absorbed into the cultural repertoire of the group.
… once culture gets off the ground it enables adaptation to new niches, situations, climates, and ecologies in a vastly more efficient way than can be achieved by ordinary natural selection… Societies with culture… quickly adapt to circumstances of any kind, … without waiting for the cumbersome process of natural selection to do its work.
– Robert A. Paul, Mixed Messages : Cultural and Genetic Inheritance in the Constitution of Society, University of Chicago Press, 2015
The combination of neurodiversity and the human capacities for collaboration and cultural transmission that defined the knowledge age enabled humans to thrive for many hundred thousand years in a diverse range of circumstances – until humans invented the ingredients of “civilisation”, which, via the introduction of written language and money, shifted attention away from valuable knowledge to the accumulation of social power.
Whereas pre-civilised societies appreciated the talents of autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people, the tools of “civilised” societies provide irresistible opportunities for ego-directed aggrandizers, which I am tempted to describe as “human primates” who are only interested in the acquisition of social power and related status symbols.
The knowledge age 2.0
“Civilisation” can be thought of as a social operating system that is afflicted by a collective learning disability induced by primate dominance hierarchies, which dampen feedback loops and flows of valuable knowledge. The result is a cultural inertia that perpetuates social power gradients and that discriminates against the discoverers of new knowledge that might undermine established social structures.
The exciting aspect about the human capacity for culture is that via a series of accidental discoveries and inventions, we have created a global network for sharing valuable knowledge, as well as opinions and misinformation. It apparently takes a virus like SARS-CoV-2 to put this network to good use, and to shift “civilised” cultural norms away from profit maximisation and back towards sharing knowledge for collective benefit.
I’ll hand over to one of my autistic peers for a synopsis:
It is fascinating to notice that SARS-CoV-2 has very rapidly induced cultural changes that affect the foundations of “civilisation”:
- Cities – explicitly designed to facilitate rapid sequences of human interactions in anonymous contexts, have been forced to adopt and enforce rules for physical distancing and limiting social interaction.
- Written language – when used as a tool for propaganda and distortion, now contributes to the spread of the virus, and yet can play a critical role when used for sharing valuable knowledge.
- Money – when used as a tool to protect social power gradients and profits, now has become a negative indicator that signals a lack of trustworthiness.
It is clear that the future of human societies now critically depends on cultural evolution of these foundations. Concepts such as cities and written language as well as quantitative metrics may survive, but their scope of applicability and the operational rules and rituals associated with them may be transformed to such an extent that we will invent new words to clearly distinguish between the old semantics of the information economy and the new semantics of the emerging knowledge age.
In a world increasingly not only connected by trade in goods, but also by exchange of violence, information, viruses, emissions, the importance of social preferences in underwriting human cooperation, even survival, may now be greater even than it was amongst that small group of foragers that began the exodus from Africa 55,000 years ago to spread this particular cooperative species to the far corners of the world.
– Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, A Cooperative Species : Human Reciprocity and its Evolution, Princeton University Press, 2013
Planetary intelligence is achieved by creating a feedback loop of mutual learning between the rapid learning cycles (mutations) of viruses and learning cycles at human scale, which are now amplified via a global digital network at super-human scale. Humans are learning the hard way that messing with that network for misinformation and attempts of hierarchical control works against humans and the entire planetary ecosystem.
Once ego-directed aggrandizers with “leadership aspirations” are again recognised as the biggest threat to society, our capacity for culture may again make us more intelligent than the other primates. We can reorient towards a kinder human scale world that nurtures a global knowledge commons and that celebrates mutual aid.