Stalled Social Technologies

13 February 2009


For many years I have been of the mind that all known cultures, societies, and civilizations — whatever division of human social organization we care to make — have integral self-limiting mechanisms built into their inherent structure. This is not a conspiracy theory or a claim that societies set out with the purpose of thwarting or hobbling the greater part of a given population. So far, it is only an observation, and a generalization from observations, that human social organization ultimately and eventually comes to stymie social progress, and that this is not due to any outside force but that it inevitably comes from within the social organization itself.

This is not to say that institutions are not brought to an end by external historical accidents — many undeniably are brought low by the special circumstances of history — but that when such an accident does not occur and a social institution seems to face to intrinsic limits to its possibilities for the future, such a society succumbs to what can only be called self-sabotage. In other words, all other things being equal, a society will bring an end to its own progress, or expansion, or what have you. (I realize that I am using a problematic word in invoking “progress”, but here I am counting on my reader giving me the benefit of the doubt, if only for the moment.)

Just yesterday I realized quite suddenly that I now have the conceptual language in order to formulate this observation, and now that I have thought of it, it seems so obvious that it is as though I was planning all along this exposition of ideas in just the order that they have emerged in this forum in order to make my point. We simply have to put together what I have here called social technologies and the Law of Stalled Technologies. (What I have called social technologies have been given exposition in The Tension between Tradition and Innovation, Civilization and War as Social Technologies, and Social Exaptation, inter alia.)

With the application of the Law of Stalled Technologies to social technologies we immediately see that the Law of Stalled Technologies will predict that social technologies when initially introduced will undergo rapid, perhaps exponential, growth, only to achieve a plateau at which further improvements are gradual and incremental, and sudden or revolutionary changes are not to be expected. I would argue that this is exactly what we have seen through human history. And have also seen that new social technologies, as they emerge, sometimes replace older technologies, from which we cannot expect developments that will meet the future needs of a people.

Small bands of hunter-gatherers can be effectively organized by a chieftainship, but as such a band grows the organization possibilities of chieftainship stall and eventually cease to meet the needs of the people. Centralized kingdoms emerge in history, with their hierarchical structure and permanent bureaucracy serving the state. In some cases these organizational structures are so successful that they become empires lasting for hundreds or even thousands of years. But these organizational structures also eventually stall. The mind-boggling complexity of life today is managed by political structures that are spelled out in detailed, written constitutions, which are followed by legislation and civil codes that run to thousands of volumes. Technological civilization requires a technological bureaucracy just to sustain its existence. After this, one must wonder what comes next.

Not the least reason I was pleased with putting these ideas together was that it challenged by assumptions. I find that I am not nearly so sympathetic to mature social technologies as I am to mature hardware technologies, but everything that I said in More on Stalled Technologies in praise of mature technologies can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to stalled social technologies. Mature social technologies keep people alive, and we can’t just rip them out and replace them tout court simply because something better comes along. (This is, of course, the position of classic conservatism as best represented by Burke.) However, it should be pointed out that we can and do violently replace social technologies, although it is a painful process.

Eugène Delacroix's "La Liberté guidant le peuple" is often employed as a symbol of revolution.

Eugène Delacroix's "La Liberté guidant le peuple" is often employed as a symbol of revolution.

Not long ago I wrote in Ostracism and Deselection that political experimentation has become quite rare, that in fact a revolution is required to try a new political regime. The resistance to political experimentation is both a cause and a result of stalled social technologies. When a political regime reaches maturity, it militates against alternatives, and the more it militates against alternatives and frustrates the adoption of small experiments, the more pressure builds beneath the surface and can only be released in a violent revolution that overturns the existing political regime.

A revolution is usually required for an opportunity to try a political experiment.

A revolution is usually required for an opportunity to try a political experiment.

The idea of stalled social technologies is too large a topic even to adequately sketch in the above paragraphs, but I wanted to mention the idea as it is something I will need to further develop in the future. For example, I have been meaning to write a piece on Marx’s sense of historical inevitability, and now any ideas I had on historical inevitability will need to be modified in the light of stalled social technologies. There is even a sense in which the application of the Law of Stalled Technologies to social technologies itself constitutes a scheme of historical inevitability, and I will have to think about this also.

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