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Egypt, Watson & the Future of Civilization

by Michael Shermer, Mar 15 2011

What does the democratic uprising in Egypt and other Arab nations have to do with IBM’s Jeopardy champion Watson in determining the fate of civilization? Think bottom up, not top down; think exponential growth, not linear change; think crowd sourcing, not elite commanding; and think open access and transparency, not closed entree and secrecy. Under the influence of these four forces, such seemingly unconnected events are, in fact, connected at a deeper level when we pull back and examine the overall trajectory of the history of civilization.

  1. Bottom up, not top down. Almost everything important that happens in both nature and in society happens from the bottom up, not the top down. Water is a bottom up, self-organized emergent property of hydrogen and oxygen. Life is a bottom up, self-organized emergent property of organic molecules that coalesced into protein chains through nothing more than the input of energy into the system of Earth’s early environment. Evolution is a bottom up process of organisms just trying to make a living and get their genes into the next generation, and out of that simple process emerges the diverse array of complex life we see today. An economy is a self-organized bottom up emergent process of people just trying to make a living and get their genes into the next generation, and out of that simple process emerges the diverse array of products and services available to us today. And democracy is a bottom up emergent political system specifically designed to displace top down chiefdoms, kingdoms, theocracies, and dictatorships.
  2. Exponential growth, not linear change. Science and technology have changed our world more in the past century than it changed in the previous hundred centuries—it took 10,000 years to get from the cart to the airplane, but only 66 years to get from powered flight to a lunar landing. Moore’s Law of computer power doubling every eighteen months continues unabated and is now down to about a year. Computer scientists calculate that there have been thirty-two doublings since World War II, and that as early as 2030 we may encounter the Singularity—the point at which total computational power will rise to levels that are so far beyond anything that we can imagine that they will appear near infinite. And not just in raw number crunching power but in cognitive processing ability, as witnessed in the difference between IBM’s Deep Blue chess playing master and IBM’s Jeopardy champion.
  3. Crowd sourcing, not elite commanding. Knowledge production has been one long trajectory of shifting not only from top down to bottom up, but from elite commanding to crowd sourcing. From ancient priests and medieval scholars, to academic professors and university publishers, to popular writers and trade publishing houses, to everyone their own writer and publisher online, the democratization of knowledge has struggled alongside the democratization of societies to free itself from the bondage of top down control. Compare the magisterial multi-volume encyclopedias of centuries past that held sway as the final authority for reliable knowledge, now displaced by individual encyclopedists employing wiki tools and making everyone their own expert.
  4. Open access and transparency, not closed entrée and secrecy. The Internet is the ultimate bottom up self-organized emergent property of crowd sourcing millions of computer users in an open access and transparent exchange of language, knowledge, and data across servers; although there are some top-down controls involved—just as there are some in mostly bottom-up economic and political systems—the strength of digital freedom derives from the fact that no one is in charge.

For the past 10,000 years humanity has gradually but ineluctably transitioned from top down to bottom up, from linear change to exponential growth, from elite commanding to crowd sourcing, and from secrecy to transparency. Together these forces are driving us to Civilization 2.0 on a scale I derived for classifying the rich array of human societies throughout history:

Civilization 1.1: Fluid groups of hominids living in Africa. Technology consists of primitive stone tools. Intra-group conflicts are resolved through dominance hierarchy, and between-group violence is common.

Civilization 1.2: Bands of roaming hunter-gatherers that form kinship groups with a mostly horizontal political system and egalitarian economy and utilizing sophisticated tools to extract what they could from relatively resource poor environments.

Civilization 1.3: Tribes of individuals linked through kinship but with a more settled and agrarian lifestyle with the beginnings of a political hierarchy and a primitive economic division of labor and employing mostly animal and human labor.

Civilization 1.4: Chiefdoms consisting of a coalition of tribes into a single hierarchical political unit with a dominant leader at the top, and with the beginnings of significant economic inequalities and a division of labor in which lower-class members produce food and other products consumed by non-producing upper-class members.

Civilization 1.5: The state as a political coalition with jurisdiction over a well-defined geographical territory and its corresponding inhabitants, with a mercantile economy that seeks a favorable balance of trade in a win-lose game against other states.

Civilization 1.6: Empires that extend their control over peoples who are not culturally, ethnically or geographically within their normal jurisdiction, with a goal of economic dominance over rival empires.

Civilization 1.7: Democracies that divide power over several institutions, which are run by elected officials voted for by a limited number of citizens as defined by race, gender, and class, with the beginnings of a market economy.

Civilization 1.8: Liberal democracies that give the vote to all adult citizens regardless of race, class, or gender, and utilizing markets that begin to embrace a nonzero, win-win economic game through free trade with other states.

Civilization 1.9: Democratic capitalism, the blending of liberal democracy and free markets, now spreading across the globe through democratic movements in developing nations and broad trading blocs such as the European Union.

Civilization 2.0: Globalization that includes worldwide wireless Internet access, with all knowledge digitized and available to everyone, a completely global economy with free markets in which anyone can trade with anyone else without interference from states or governments. A planet where all states are democracies in which everyone has the franchise.

Reaching Civilization 2.0 is not inevitable. As we are witnessing in Arab countries this month, resistance by nondemocratic states to turning power over to the people is considerable, especially in theocracies whose leaders would prefer we all revert to Civilization 1.4 chiefdoms. But by spreading liberal democracy and free trade, science and technology and the open access to knowledge through computers via the Internet will, in the words on a plaque posted at the Suez Canal: Aperire Terram Gentibus—To Open the World to All People.

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58 Responses to “Egypt, Watson & the Future of Civilization”

  1. Max says:

    What does the democratic uprising in Egypt and other Arab nations have to do with IBM’s Jeopardy champion Watson in determining the fate of civilization again? 42?

    In 2030, computer scientists may still be figuring out whether P=NP, as they have been for the last 40 years.

    • Max says:

      Well this is neat.

      “Crowdsourcing peer review:
      A claimed proof that P≠NP spurs a massive collaborative research effort”
      http://www.sciencenews.org/index/generic/activity/view/id/63252/title/Crowdsourcing_peer_review

      “The paper spurred an intense, open, Internet-based effort to understand it and pursue its ideas, attracting such luminaries as Fields Medalists Terry Tao and Timothy Gowers. The examination uncovered deep flaws that are probably irremediable — but has also helped spur on a new model of research.”

      • tmac57 says:

        That was pretty interesting Max,though it was a bit arcane to me. I especially found the last paragraph relevant:

        Even though the blog commenters believe that the paper is unlikely to yield new results, most participants found the discussion galvanizing. The process was enormously addictive, sucking logicians into learning statistical physics and mathematicians into grappling with computer science. This interdisciplinary engagement with the problem is perhaps the most significant outcome of the effort. “Even at a conference you don’t get this kind of interaction happening,” says Suresh Venkatasubramanian of the University of Utah. “It was like the Nerd Superbowl.”

      • Max says:

        The P=NP problem is relevant to the discussion of Watson and Moore’s Law as well, because the complexity of NP-hard problems such as the traveling salesman problem is often exponential, which means that adding a few points to the problem can double the amount of computation needed to solve it, and waiting 18 months for hardware to catch up is not a viable strategy.
        But good sub-optimal solutions can be achieved with bottom-up computation, such as genetic algorithms and ant colony optimization.

  2. QuestionAuthority says:

    Not certain at all that there will ever BE a “Singularity,” much less that it will happen in my lifetime. Ray Kurzweil sounds more like an evangelist than a scientist to me on this topic.
    I’d love to be proven wrong, though.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      As fantastic as Kurzweil’s projections are, I don’t find them to be all that unreasonable. We now have handheld devices with computational power that would have only been possible with liquid cooling just 10 years ago. While time and technology move forward, Moore’s law scales down as we design more machines that are capable of designing other machines.

      Computers are helping advance our understanding of the gene, which will lead us to emulate the technology of life. There have already been prototypes of DNA-based computers that cannot crunch numbers but can solve complex problems instantly

      Before you know it, we will build a better neuron. And it will have an Apple logo stamped on it.

    • I thoink “top-down” vs. “bottom-up” is itself stereotypical, two-dimensional, false-dichotomied thinking, Michael.

      Take crowdsourcing. Somebody organizes that, usually immediately; if not, soon after.

      And, good fucking doorknob on singularities. I think you’re been reading too much Kurzweil or Shirky on the future of the internet.

      Try being more skeptical about that, too: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2011/03/dark-side-of-internet-and-social-media.html

      • What I meant on the crowdsourcing is that there’s often middle levels that get involved, and then there’s feedback between middle and bottom, and middle and higher levels. The polarities of top-down vs. bottom-up are just too simplistic. (Of course, I don’t think that’s probably the first time that one could be laid at Shermer’s doorstep either.)

      • Robo Sapien says:

        I’m not sure I understand what you mean by feedback between levels, or what it has to do with the top-down and bottom-up concepts. You say it is too simplistic, but I ask why must it be more complicated than that? No offense, but your arguments seem to exhibit more anti-Shermer bias than supportive information.

        He is talking about the propagation of ideas – they either come from the top and get handed down the hierarchy, or they manifest from the collective via natural selection.

      • Robo, often stuff starts, or at least gets organized … **in the middle.** Simple enough, eh?

        But, by talking about a false dichotomy between top-down and bottom-up, Shermer (and others) ignore this fact.

        Let’s take, say, Sierra Club. A new environmental campaign may start at neither San Francisco HQ, nor at a local club level, but at a state chapter level.

      • In addition, read Bad Boy Scientist below. He says Shermer’s language, if you will, is but one way of looking at things, one paradigm, that can be too constraining.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        Point taken, but I still think you’re misinterpreting Shermer on this one. He opened the article with “almost everything important happens from the bottom up” — the key word is almost. There is no false dichotomy here, nowhere did he constrain things to an either/or context or imply that one must be true because the other is false. I think his observation of bottom-up mechanics is rather sound, if somewhat limited in scope.

        The concepts of top-down and bottom-up really have nothing to do with the top, the bottom, or levels in between. Think of top-down as distribution, and bottom-up as growth. There is no “middle-outward” model to apply. Where I would tend to disagree with Shermer is that I believe both to be equally important, fundamentally; All things come to existance in a bottom-up process of creation, which is only made possible by the top-down process of destruction.

      • No, Robo, you’re missing my point.

        It’s not a question of top-down vs. bottom-up.

        It’s a questions of top-down AND bottom-up being offered as the only two alternatives, vs. middle-outward-in-both-directions, or even thinking beyond this two-polarity paradigm, as Bad Boy Scientist notes below.

        There’s a LOT of stuff that happens at the “meso” level.

        Take the human body. It’s often best not to look at it in terms of either whole body or individual cells, but in terms of organs and systems.

    • Marie says:

      Agreed. Even Moore (who never called his projection a law) believes that we’ll reach the end of that “law” around 2017 simply because physics won’t allow transistors to get any smaller. After about 10 atoms across, it becomes impossible to keep your electrons from leaking.

  3. Marcus says:

    “Life is a bottom up, self-organized emergent property of organic molecules that coalesced into protein chains through nothing more than the input of energy into the system of Earth’s early environment.”

    Uh…yeah….Ok…sure…..Talk about total and utter leap of faith here….This is embarrassing…

    • Robo Sapien says:

      I’d imagine not as embarassing as calling someone out for assumption and then finding out they were correct. What Shermer stated is fact, life on earth did emerge in this way. The how and why are arguable, but irrelevant.

      It would be a short leap, for sure.

      • Actually, Marcus does have a partial point.

        “Abiogenesis,” the origin of life, is technically different from the evolution of life, once started, into all its various genera, species, etc.

        And, abiogenesis is a bit dicey right now as to by what path the first life form may have started.

        As a naturalist, materialist, etc., I believe the first life form came from nonlife, but, I think details of the “how,” while not a leap of faith, are certainly thinner than for evolution itself, properly and narrowly speaking.

        “Utterly embarrassing”? I think not. “Frustrating and unlikely to see major advances in the next 15-20 years”? Quite likely.

  4. JVW says:

    Marcus, how is that “embarrassing”? What is the alternative, non-embarrassing answer?

  5. Marcus says:

    That statement is not factual, that is a statement of faith. We don’t know how the first life formed. “Coalesing protein chains” “nothing more than energy”. We know these exist but we simply do NOT have a clue as to how and WHY this all occurred in the first place! There are profound philisophical assumptions in that statement.

    • “There are profound philosophical assumptions in that statement.”

      Without defending Shermer’s simplistic, libertarian futurism, I would agree that there are significant, specific scientific assumptions in the statement in question (specifically the statement about how life arose on Earth), but I wouldn’t say they are philosophical assumptions.

      Calling them philosophical assumptions sounds like some veiled form of postmodernism or creationism to me.

      Asking the question “WHY this all occurred in the first place” is itself a profound philosophical assumption; it assumes a purpose, and implies a directed cause.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      As I said already in my first reply, the HOW and WHY are totally irrelevant. Shermer’s facts are straight, and his statements make no suggestion as to the origin of life.

      “Organic molecules coalesced into protein chains” – this statement is true. The organic molecules he refers to are the first self-replicators, the origin of which we have no clue about. It is those molecules that formed the proteins from which life is constructed.

      He would be guilty of blind assertion if he had said something like “Organic molecules appeared randomly and formed protein chains” or “6000 years ago, God pooped organic molecules that coalesced into protein chains”

  6. JVW says:

    Unless you want to posit a supernatural explanation you’re going to have to start with some kind of rational, natural explanation. This one seems to be fairly consistent with what we do know.

    I don’t see how that is embarrassing. Unless you have a better answer that is less embarrassing, other than “nobody knows”.

  7. Max says:

    Maybe computing does need a paradigm shift from algorithms to evolving neural networks or something, but I don’t see that happening within a generation and a half.

    As far as network architecture goes, maybe you heard of “cloud computing”. It sounds airy and distributed, but in fact it’s centralized. It’s 500 million people logging onto one website of one company that knows everything about them. It’s the opposite of peer-to-peer networks.

    • @Max … so far, though, the “cloud’s” security has not been tested in anything scaled up from the small level at which it currently operates. Another reason to be less utopian about the Net than Shermer is!

      • Max says:

        The latest (April) issue of Popular Science has piece on “Hacking the Cloud”.
        No link yet, but here’s an excerpt:

        As businesses’ operations move to the cloud, all that stored data – everything from personal information to credit-card numbers, as well as businesses’ intellectual property – makes for a huge target…
        “Cloud environments are more vulnerable than regular environments – period,” says Rodney Joffe the senior technologist at telecom giant Neustar. “By their very nature, they assume remote access, unlike regular environments behind a firewall.”
        Take Amazon’s EC2 cloud, the biggest pay-as-you-go cloud. NASA

      • Max, I read an article in some computer security mag a month ago that was on the same lines. Discover or some other pop sci mag may have had something relatively recently, too.

        Exactamento, otherwise. That’s why I don’t use Google Docs.

      • Max says:

        Google argues that it’s like keeping money in a bank versus hiding it at home. Like a bank, the cloud is a big target with more defenses. It’s probably more secure than peer-to-peer networks. See, “WikiLeaks Was Launched With Documents Intercepted From Tor”
        http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/06/wikileaks-documents/

        In the thread on Education 2.0, I suggested that Google Docs could be a way to get around carrying computer viruses home from school.

      • Given the financial issues of the past two years, if I were Google, I wouldn’t use the bank analogy.

        That said, I will, myself, follow up on that.

        If cloud computing engages in lowest-common-denominator security, it probably will be exactly like money in the bank in the past decade, in some way, shape or form.

  8. Leo says:

    But when will I get my flying car!? I was promised there’d be flying cars.

  9. George Geckleham says:

    a) Most of this article is bullshit, for the same reason as Kurzweil’s tripe.
    b) The article has fuck-all to do with skepticism.
    c) It does however serve as a shining example of what a skeptic wouldn’t be caught dead writing.

    • George, well put.

      Of course, it won’t change Shermer’s mind.

      Neither does pointing out that he keeps known racialists on the masthead of Skeptic magazine.

  10. Beelzebud says:

    How is this any different than any other type of Utopian ideal that has been suggested? Switch the adjectives around and you have communism.

  11. rafael says:

    That’s make me remember the well written and clarifying book: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Computer has changed our lives in a unprecedented level and will (what i believe)improve everyones lives
    Exchange ideas and information in essential for both science and society in general. The next pivotal step is to teach Science as a “filter” for all this huge information that came out everyday on internet

    • tmac57 says:

      Exchanges of ideas and information are not always a good thing.There is a reason why nuclear weapons technology is kept secret,and explosive,and incorrect political ideas (think ‘Israel being behind 911′),can spread easily in the internet/information age.I am not knocking technology or information freedom,I just wanted to point out that this can be a double edged sword.It is tempting to think that a useful technology will ALWAYS or inevitably be used for whatever positive applications can be imagined,but the negative ones can be a wild card when thinking about the future.

  12. This whole post assumes we’re going “forward” as we speak. Of course, Shermer would say that we are, I’m sure, with Randian nutbars like Paul Ryan highly placed in Congress, that Shermer thinks we are making “progress.”

    I mean, instead of Civilization 1.9, we might actually have moved back to Civilization 1.87 right now.

  13. Max says:

    Freedom House saw a decline in global freedom.
    http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=594

    “On January 13, 2011, Freedom House released its findings from the latest edition of Freedom in the World, the annual survey of global political rights and civil liberties. According to the survey’s findings, 2010 was the fifth consecutive year in which global freedom suffered a decline – the longest period of setbacks for freedom in the nearly 40-year history of the report. These declines threaten gains dating to the post–Cold War era in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the former Soviet bloc. The latest survey hightlights the increasing truculence of the world’s most powerful authoritarian regimes, which has coincided with a growing inability or unwillingness on the part of the world’s democracies to meet the authoritarian challenge.”

    As far as the revolutions in the Arab world, we’ll see if they end up democratic or theocratic.

  14. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    Top-down, bottom-up. I am not sure what Dr Schermer means by these terms. I am further confused by his comparison between chemistry and political science. Whereas in political systems there can be groups of people where the decisions are made at grass-roots level and forced upon the leaders as opposed to being made by the leaders and imposed upon the individuals, there don’t seem to be two ways of forming chemicals. All chemistry is ‘bottom-up’ because it happens on the particle level. But I am not sure calling it ‘bottom-up’ even makes sense.

    Is accelerating an automobile top-down, since the car accelerates as a whole (rather than each individual particle accelerating)? Or is it bottom-up because the torque of the tires, creates a force against the pavement which has an opposite but equal force on the car’s tires’ which accelerates the tires, which accelerate the wheels, which accelerate the axels and (well, you get the picture). When the driver, distracted by this line of reasoning misses a turn and the car sails off the edge of the road is the downward acceleration due to gravity top-down (because the whole car is being accelerated uniformly) or bottom-up (because each particle of the car is gravitationally attracted to each particle of the Earth and it is the SUM of these forces which provide the macroscopic view of a car falling).

    Although I find many of Dr Schermer’s ideas thought-provoking, some of them need a bit work before they are ready for ‘prime time’.

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      Sorry. Hit submit prematurely.

      The fact is whether something looks ‘top down’ or ‘bottom up’ often depends solely on how it is being looked at. I think this line of thinking would benefit from using a different categorization system – like particle/individual interactions vs ensemble interactions. In nature as well as society we see both types of interactions at play.

      Oh, one last thing, I cannot think of any successful human endeavors which involved more than one person and did not lean heavily on leaders. I’m not sure what makes a leader an ‘elite commander’ in Schermer’s view, but even the smallest tribe has a chief. Even the critical mass bicycle coalition has coordinator/leaders – despite their protests to the contrary.

  15. Chris Morris says:

    Actually, Marcus does have a partial point.
    “Abiogenesis,” the origin of life, is technically different from the evolution of life, once started, into all its various genera, species, etc.
    And, abiogenesis is a bit dicey right now as to by what path the first life form may have started.
    As a naturalist, materialist, etc., I believe the first life form came from nonlife, but, I think details of the “how,” while not a leap of faith, are certainly thinner than for evolution itself, properly and narrowly speaking.
    “Utterly embarrassing”? I think not. “Frustrating and unlikely to see major advances in the next 15-20 years”? Quite likely.

    As a completely untrained scientist and an agnostic, I find this debate fascinating if at times way over my head. Has it occurred to any of the experts that there may be no Singularity which is comprehendible by mere human brainpower even with the aid of super-computers ? The hunt for the Singularity seems very worthwhile but the confidence that it may be established within the next generation seems too optimistic. We speak of infinity, eternity and other immeasurables, but can our brains really grasp what these concepts really mean?

  16. Chris Howard says:

    Free markets = Free exchange of ideas.
    Democracy = capitalism (free market)
    Does this logically follow?

  17. wazaghun says:

    “Reaching Civilization 2.0 is not inevitable. As we are witnessing in Arab countries this month, resistance by nondemocratic states to turning power over to the people is considerable, especially in theocracies whose leaders would prefer we all revert to Civilization 1.4 chiefdoms. But by spreading liberal democracy and free trade,….”

    I am sorry but I simply can’t stand this bullshit anymore.
    Take a look at the past 20-30 years of northern africa and the middle east and you know who “resisted” turning the power over to the people. Not only the fragging dictators but the very west who supposedly “spreads liberal democracy”. The same west who was so surprised by the current revolutions in arab countries that he didn’t actually know what to say or when he said something then it was the wrong thing.
    We can see how democracy and liberal values are spread right NOW with the Obamas and Merkels of the world speaking about how good it is that people try to archieve democracy and “peaceful revolutions” while at the same time letting the Gaddafis of the world commit mass murder. Is this sitting around watching the scene “spreading” of democracy? Do we need a no fly zone in 2 or three days still?
    How can it be that the 1000 saudi soldiers marching into Bahrain and shooting people (along with the Bahraini forces) that were demonstrating peacefully are (according to Clinton) simply on “the wrong track”? Because the blood of political nessessity is still way stronger than the water of democracy.

    Actually I wouldn’t mind if people said they wouldn’t get involved. That’s their business after all. But IF one doesn’t get involved then why not simply shut the f… up?

  18. MadScientist says:

    “… computational power will rise to levels that are so far beyond anything that we can imagine that they will appear near infinite”

    That sounds very Kurzweilian and I doubt you can say such a thing to someone running complex meteorological or astrodynamic models without being laughed out of the room. Chip complexity has not been performing at Moore’s Law for a few years now; we’re starting to hit some pretty hard fundamental physical limits and further linear gains seem to have an exponential cost. Consumers will see quite a few changes yet as folks work out how to commercialize the most recent products of research, but the miniaturization which drove much of Moore’s Law is coming to an end and many current increases come through an increase in physical size as well. There is no ‘Singularity’ – that is a myth based on a simplistic extrapolation of past conditions well into the future and with no consideration whatsoever of reality.

  19. Keno Nash says:

    @tmac57 Have finally returned to the world and took up your challenge to review Clint Eastwood’s, “HereAfter”. Look forward to becoming an active member of this community.

    • tmac57 says:

      Ha Ha.Hi Keno.Thanks for the reminder,I had completely forgotten about that exchange back in Nov. (I had to search the archives).I really would appreciate an unbiased look at the movie because I am a big Clint Eastwood fan,but the subject matter of this one kept me away.Cheers!

  20. gdave says:

    I haven’t seen the element of this essay that struck me the most commented on yet: the “Civilization 1.1-2.0″ scheme. It just seems almost ridiculously teleological, not to mention not simply Euro-centric, but Ameri-centric. It’s not a bad summary of the evolutionary pathway that led to the 21st Century United States, but I don’t think it matches up particularly well with most other countries or civilizations.

    India from the 1950s to the 1980s, for example, gave “the vote to all adult citizens regardless of race, class, or gender” (C1.8), but like many third world countries pursued autarkic economic policies that were in effect “a mercantile economy that seeks a favorable balance of trade in a win-lose game against other states” (C1.5) or even “with a goal of economic dominance over rival empires” (C1.6).

    In fact, Mr. Shermer’s description of C1.5 and 1.6 economies describe not just many countries throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries with different Cx.x politics, but deep strands within C1.9 countries, such as the United States. Most ordinary people, and many policy makers, in the U.S. still view trade as a zero-sum game.

    And where does China fit? It is “utilizing markets that begin to embrace a nonzero, win-win economic game through free trade with other states” (C1.8), but is “a political coalition with jurisdiction over a well-defined geographical territory and its corresponding inhabitants” (C1.5) or even an empire “that extend[s its] control over peoples who are not culturally, ethnically or geographically within [its] normal jurisdiction, with a goal of economic dominance over rival empires” (C1.6).

    Nations, societies, and civilizations, like living organisms, simply don’t evolve along neatly laid out paths. They respond to ever-changing environments in complex, ever-changing ways. They don’t go “forward” to C2.0 with occasional “reversions” to C1.4, any more than animals evolve “forward” from sea to land with occasional “devolutions” from land to sea. They don’t evolve in any “direction”. They simply adapt (or don’t) to existing conditions.

    And the C1.1-2.0 scheme doesn’t even really capture the full complexity of the pathway that led to the current United States, much less its current state. There are a number of strands of political, economic, social, philosophical, etc. thought that interweave and interact, in a constant state of flux. They evolve in response to each other and the external environment, and wax and wane in influence. Just take, for example, trade policy in the United States. It has hardly been a smooth and continuous path from mercantilism to free international trade; indeed, U.S. trade policy, like that of most nations, is an ad hoc mixture of mercantilist, zero-sum and free trading, non-zero sum policies, depending on the exact mix of political forces in play at the time a particular policy was adopted. And that’s a relatively simple case where there have been two fairly distinct, identifiable, and stable political traditions in American history.

    • tmac57 says:

      gdave-Very well stated! We,as a species do not seem very comfortable with the idea that life is complex and messy,without easy answers.That is why,IMO,that we gravitate toward simplistic political ideologies,religion,stereotyping,etc. Nuance and ambiguity have developed a poor reputation (think the political meme of the ‘flip-flopper’).The thing that puzzles me,is that I’m pretty sure that Shermer is well aware of all of this,but appears to be bedazzled by a rather narrow political view,that has ‘the’ answers to all questions.I just don’t know ;)

    • Beelzebud says:

      It’s just the Libertarian version of Utopia.

      • Alan says:

        Exactly!

        Just as true socialism (not the smear term for anything which Tea Baggers dislike, but honest socialism) was the utopian ideal of the Left, Libertarianism is the utopian ideal of the Right.

        And, just as the socialist notion that good intentions and altruism when taken to an extreme would produce utopia turned out to fail in practice, so does/will Libertarianism fall apart.

        Much of our recent issues with financial disasters/scandals have come from living out the Libertarian dream of relaxed regulation — in effect, Libertarian ideals put into practice. But, because it wasn’t done in the “name” of Libertarianism libertarians discount such criticisms without a second thought. But, that is what you get with any “faith based” ideology (religious or secular) — any failures are ascribed to not “doing it right” or “doing it strongly enough” no matter how “right” or how “strong” it was done previously. Since real life can never match an ideal those that believe in that ideal always have an “out” to use as an excuse for the failures of those beliefs.

        Ultimately, at least when it comes to economics, all such utopian ideologies — socialism, libertarianism, or whatever may arise — fail on the simple and sad truth that at least some percentage of people involved will always try to trick or skew the system in their favor rather than play “by the rules”. With the Soviet Union the “party” just became a replacement for the nobility of the old czarist regime — one group using its ideology to excuse their excesses even as they used them to get ahead of everyone else.

        Likewise, the utopian Libertarian ideal that “true” “Free Trade” with lead to “Civilization 2.0″ also fails because in the end people don’t want “Free Trade” — they want a Sure Thing.

        After all, why risk that someone else might be better at a particular job when you can limit who else or how many compete with you (like having limits to plush financial jobs with thousands of people working to get a few seats — artificial scarcity)? Or, why risk not getting rich when you can rewrite the rules to make sure you make loads of dough no matter what happens (like taking your percentage based on a deal going through, regardless whether it was any good or financially rewarding)?

        Frankly, Libertarianism usually reads as just an utopian fantasy really meant to justify the status quo and equate financial success with moral goodness (after all, you wouldn’t have “succeeded” unless you were “right” or “skilled”). It tells the rich that they deserve to be rich and the poor that they deserve to be poor, even while promising that somehow we could all be rich if only we would all just devote ourselves “properly” to the (fantasy) ideal.

        Sheesh!

  21. The ultimate takeaway from this, besides Tmac’s “Hammer”? Once again, political libertarianism has shown itself to largely be simplistic and black-and-white. #fail

  22. Nykos says:

    Dr. Shermer,

    1. I can’t understand why as a libertarian you support Democracy, nor why you would consider bottom-up democracy an improvement over top-down monarchy. Considering that the Founders explicitly stated that the US was to be a Republic, not a Mobocrac…er, Democracy. As far as I know, no Monarch has engaged in the kinds of slaughter as the leadership of democratically-elected Nazi Germany.

    2. It is well-documented that most cooperatives (=democratically-run firms) are far less efficient compared to joint-stock companies. Why would democratic states behave any differently?

    3. I detect bias in your statements. Specifically, you look at history as an uninterrupted chain of progress in political organization. This to me is a strong indication that you have accepted the official version of history (“written by the winners”) on faith. That’s exactly the version of history we would expect as propaganda from the winners. A more objective history would consist of half good things, half bad things – or at least a proportion closer to 50-50.

    I would also like to hear your explanation as to how and why today’s US government is superior to the US government of 1780 (it sure doesn’t look this way to me). Or why the US or EU governments today are superior to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy or the British Empire. Or why US democracy is superior to Singaporean or HongKong autocracy.

    4. You think that crowd-sourcing is superior to elite rule. Tell me, in your estimation, how many people are required to come up with something as counter-intuitive as Relativity? My instinct tells me: one and one alone, provided his brain has a few peculiar characteristics of genetic origin that crowd sourcing can never match.

    5. You can never escape top-down control by someone else. Energy is conserved in this Universe. IMPERIUM is also conserved. Power can not be made less, only diluted or transferred. That’s why limited government is and will be a myth. It’s impossible for the sovereign’s power to be limited, because of the old ‘quis custodiet custodes’ conundrum. At present, the Cathedral (i.e., Academia) holds power in the US, by means of the civil service state bureaucracy and Supreme Court coming from its ranks. If the Supreme Court says the Constitution means something else than what it says, there will be no one to contest its verdict.

    I used to be a libertarian, but now I’d rather say I’m something else. I won’t tell you what exactly so as to not dismiss me as crank out of hand. The only thing I would like is for you to read at least the “A gentle introduction…” and “How Dawkins got pwned” series of articles:

    http://moldbuggery.blogspot.com/

    Enjoy this thoughtful criticism of libertarianism, socialism, AND conservatism! All of the major political ideologies receive a healthy dose of examination from what I would call a hardcore skeptic.

    • Max says:

      You used to be a libertarian, and now you’re a monarchist?
      “Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.”
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAaWvVFERVA

      But seriously, I’ve argued that anarchy leads to dictatorship because it’s basically “might makes right” and eventually someone comes out on top.

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