Innovation, Stagnation, and Optimization

10 January 2013


Civilization as social technology: the Byzantine Empire was a machine for getting people into heaven. Was it also the poster child for civilizational stagnation?

Civilization as social technology: the Byzantine Empire was a machine for getting people into heaven. Was it also the poster child for civilizational stagnation?

In my post from yesterday, The Byzantine Superweapon, I suggested that the civilization of classical antiquity experienced technological stagnation from lack of interest in technological innovation, rather than lack of ability in technological innovation.

Above I specifically mentioned technological stagnation, i.e., stagnation specific to technology. To say that a civilization experiences technological stagnation is not to find it stagnant across the board, and generally suffering from decay, decline, and decadence (the condition once attributed to “dark ages” — a term now generally held in historiographical disrepute). The condition of technological stagnation is an intentionally narrow and focused formulation. In other words, technological stagnation simpliciter does not equate with a “dark age.”

Now, it may well be that classical antiquity also suffered from other forms of stagnation — e.g., political stagnation, social stagnation, ideological stagnation, religious stagnation, aesthetic stagnation, which, when taken together, may well constitute a “dark age” — but to only discuss classical antiquity in terms of its technological stagnation is to engage in a kind of historical abstraction. In other words, it is to take a scientific perspective, and indeed a formal perspective, on history.

In the Preface to my Political Economy of Globalization I wrote this about the abstract nature of economics:

“Logic, as paradigmatically representative of rationalism, has in particular been subject to attacks from a variety of perspectives — empiricist, Marxist, feminist, post-modernist; every tendentious school of thought seems to find its own particular fault with logic. This is not to say that the doctrines of logic are fixed, which they are not, but that there are, on the one hand, constructive ways to contribute to the changing discipline of logic, and, on the other, ignorant and uninformed criticisms that contribute nothing because they are so wide of mark that they have no relevance. A political critique of logic is without meaning, rather than false. Similarly, a cultural critique of economics that fails to recognize economics as a particular species of abstract thought is meaningless, though not false.

To which was appended this footnote:

According to Robert L. Heilbroner, “…economics only comes into being in the first place through the most heroic process of abstraction.” (Between Capitalism and Socialism: Essays in Political Economics, New York: Vintage Books, 1970, Preface, p. xiii)

Heilbroner himself famously called economics the work of the “worldly philosophers,” and in this spirit we tend of think of social sciences like economics and history as being more concrete sciences, but they are as given to abstraction and formalization as any other theoretical discipline.

I make these distinctions, conditions, and qualifications in order to make it clear that it is entirely possible and coherent to talk about some kind of historical phenomenon in tightly circumscribed terms. We must get clear about this in order to move on to the next observation that, even if classical antiquity was a civilization in terminal decline, stagnant in almost every field of endeavor, this is not true of all civilizations.

Once we adopt a sufficiently objective and impartial perspective on history and civilization, I think it will be obvious that in most civilization — also throughout entire eras of civilization, which witness several closely related civilizations rise and fall in parallel and in succession — growth and stagnation are localized phenomena.

It is entirely possible that a civilization experiences growth and even innovation in one area while experiencing stagnation or decline in another area. Moreover, innovation and stagnation may migrate among different expressions of civilization throughout the history of a civilization.

Human history exhibits a pattern of localized escalating growth and localized stagnation, perhaps also localized decline or catastrophic collapse, so that human creativity gets poured into one area at the expense of other areas, and then after this particular fascination wanes, another area of interest captures the human fancy and is the recipient of disproportionate attention, effort, and resources. This makes for a highly uneven texture of human experience and the human condition.

Our own industrial-technological civilization, for all its achievements, experiences limited and localized stagnation. I think we need to honestly acknowledge that specifically in terms of the human presence in space, we are in a period of extended stagnation (hopefully not permanent stagnation). This is not only about the human presence in space, but also space technologies. Kurzweil is known for mapping out the exponential growth of technologies, and this model fits some technologies (like computer technology) but it pretty obviously doesn’t apply to space propulsion technology (or, at very least, to the systematic exploitation of propulsion technologies). We’re still using the chemical rockets of the 1960s, just as we are still using the subsonic jets of the 1960s — although the onboard entertainment offerings are much improved.

An optimal civilization, consisting of intelligent institutions, would involve minimizing stagnation across the board while maximizing innovation across the board. Whether or not human beings could sustain this effort I can’t say for sure, but I have to admit that I am quite optimistic about this, because an optimized civilization would be a much more exciting and interesting context for all human endeavors, to which everyone would have something to contribute. In an optimized civilization we would not have to settle for our less than optimal labor market, and an optimal civilization would offer the possibility of optimally harnessing human enthusiasm, which would in turn mitigate the existential risk of permanent stagnation.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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