STEM cycle epiphenomena 10

In my post The Industrial-Technological Thesis I proposed that our industrial-technological civilization is uniquely characterized by an escalating feedback loop in which scientific discoveries lead to new technologies, technologies are engineered into industries, and industries produce new instruments for science, which results in further scientific discoveries. I have elaborated this view in several posts, most recently in The Growth of Historical Consciousness, in which latter I noted that I would call this cyclical feedback loop the “STEM cycle,” given that “STEM” has become a common acronym for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” and these are the elements involved in the escalating spiral of industrial-technological civilization.

industrial technological civilization

Elsewhere, in Industrial-Technological Disruption, I considered some of the distinctive ways in which the STEM cycle stalls or fails. In that post I wrote, in part:

Science falters when model drift gives way to model crisis and normal science begins to give way to revolutionary science… Technology falters when its exponential growth tapers off and its attains a mature plateau, after which time it changes little and becomes a stalled technology. Engineering falters when industries experience the inevitable industrial accidents, intrinsic to the very fabric of industrialized society, or even experience the catastrophic failures to which complex systems are vulnerable.

The last of the above items — failures of engineering and industrial accidents — I have further elaborated more recently in How industrial accidents shape industrial-technological civilization.

industrial technological civilization destructive cycle

This is not at all to say that these are the only ways in which the STEM cycle falters or fails. As I noted in Complex Systems and Complex Failure, complex systems fail in complex ways, and industrial-technological civilization is by far the most complex system on the planet. (Biological systems are extremely complex, but industrial-technological civilization supervenes upon biological complexity, and therefore, in the most comprehensive sense, includes biological complexity in its own complexity.)

industrial accidents

In several of my posts on what I now call the STEM cycle I have called this cycle driving industrial-technological civilization a “closed loop.” I now realize that the STEM cycle is only a closed loop under certain “ideal” conditions (I will try to explain below why I put “ideal” in scare quotes). The messiness and imprecision of the real world means that most structures that we impose upon the world in order to understand it are simplified and schematic, and my description of the STEM cycle has been simplistic and schematic in this way. The actual function of science, technology, and engineering under contemporary socioeconomic conditions is far more complex, and that means that the STEM cycle is not a closed loop, but rather an unclosed loop, or an open feedback loop in which extrinsic forces at times enter into the STEM cycle while much of the productive energy of the STEM cycle is dissipated into extrinsic channels that contribute little or nothing to the furtherance of the STEM cycle.

Not every scientific discovery leads to technologies; not every technology can be engineered into an industry; not every industry produces new scientific instrumentation that can be employed in further scientific discoveries. Industrial-technological civilization produces epiphenomenal scientific knowledge, epiphenomenal technologies, and epiphenomenal engineering and industry — but enough science, technology and engineering participate in the STEM cycle to keep the processes of industrial-technological civilization moving forward for the time being.

I noted above that the STEM cycle is a closed loop only under “ideal” conditions, and these “ideal” conditions for the STEM cycle are not necessarily the “ideal” conditions for anything else — including the development of the features we value most highly in civilization. Pure science often results in little or no technology, and only rarely does it produce technologies in the near term. Many if not most technological innovations emerge from a long process of technological development that has scientific research only as a distant ancestor. The purest of the pure sciences — mathematics — has recently shown itself to have important applications in computer science, which has a direct impact on the economy, but it would be easy to cite numerous branches of mathematics which seem to have little or no relation to any technology, now or in the future.

Many perfectly viable technologies remain as mere curiosities. The history of technology is filled with such “hopeful monsters” that never caught on with the public or never found an application that would have justified their mass production. An interesting example of this would be the Einstein-Szilárd refrigerator, designed by Albert Einstein and Leo Szilárd. Both were to have much more “commercial” success with the atomic bomb, though I suspect both would have rather been successful with their refrigerator.

A great many industries, perhaps most industries, fulfill and respond to consumer demands that have little or no relationship to producing new scientific instruments that will lead to new scientific discoveries. And when industries do change science, it is often unintentional. The mass production of personal computers has profoundly affected the way that science is pursued, and has greatly stimulated scientific discovery (as has the internet), but little of this was the direct result of attempting to produce new and better scientific instruments.

It is entirely possible that a shift in social, economic, cultural, or other factors that influence or are influenced by the STEM cycle could increase the amount of epiphenomenal science, technology, and engineering, thus decreasing the efficiency of the STEM cycle. A permanent or semi-permanent change in social conditions (i.e., the social context in which the STEM cycle is played out) could introduce sufficient friction and inefficiency into the STEM cycle to retard or cease development and thereby to induce permanent stagnation (one of the categories of existential risk) into industrial-technological civilization.

There are, today, no end of prophecies of civilizational doom and stagnation, and it is not my intention merely to add one to their number, but it is an occupational hazard of the study of existential risk to consider such scenarios. The particular scenario I contemplate here is based on a particular mechanism that I believe uniquely characterizes industrial-technological civilization, and therefore demands our attention as it directly bears upon our viability as a civilization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Ten Thousand Years of Civilization

Lorenzetti's fresco in Siena of the effects of good government on the countryside.

Lorenzetti’s fresco in Siena of the effects of good government on the countryside.

From the Agricultural Revolution to the Industrial Revolution

tripartite macro temporality with binomial captions

I have adopted the term “industrial-technological civilization” to refer to the civilization that we now have, and I have argued that this civilization can be defined in terms of a unique thesis, the industrial-technological thesis, as well as its implied contrary, industrial-technological disruption, which disruption ensues when the mechanisms of industrial-technological civilization go awry.

Industrial-technological civilization was preceded by agricultural civilization. Like industrial-technological civilization, agricultural civilization is multifaceted and represents a robust macro-historical division between hunter-gather nomadism, which precedes it, and industrial-technological civilization, which follows it. Agricultural Civilization is the “middle ages” of macro-historical periodization, coming between the long epoch of hunter-gatherer nomadism (from the emergence of homo sapiens to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution) and the youthful energy of industrial-technological civilization (from the industrial revolution to the present day).

I have earlier attempted to characterize the nature of agricultural civilization in many posts, including the following:

The Agricultural Paradigm

Some Rough Notes on Agricultural Civilization

Pure Agriculturalism

The Telos of Agriculturalism

Recently I have realized that as our civilization can be characterized as “industrial-technological” to bring out the main features of the age, we might similarly identify the agricultural civilization that preceded our civilization as “agrarian-ecclesiastical” civilization. This hyphenated form brings out the main features of the age: both the agriculturalism of the economic structure and the ecclesiastical form of society that maintained the agricultural economy in trans-generational equilibrium (that is to say, the ideological superstructure).

The distinctive differentia of agrarian civilization is institutionalized religion, just as the distinctive differentia of industrial civilization is technological change driven by science. This does not mean that technology is the religion of the industrial age, or that religion was the surrogate “technology” of agricultural civilization. What it means is that fundamentally distinct forms of civilization are based on fundamentally distinct ideas. This is an idea that I attempted to explore some time ago in The Incommensurability of Civilizations and Addendum on Incommensurable Civilizations.

Institutionalized religion — from the worship of a living god in early agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization (as in Egyptian and Mayan civilization, for example) to the elaborately structured monotheistic religions of the late medieval and early modern period — is uniquely suited to the social demands of a risk-averse agrarian economy that was entirely innocent of growth and progress, but was exclusively concerned with stability and continuity. This focus on stability and continuity — eternal verities of society mirroring the eternal verities of the spiritual realities posited by institutionalized religion — meant an economy structured to provide sufficiency for a traditional way of life, but not sufficient for economic growth or social mobility. What was wanted was not incremental improvement in the way of life, but eternal perfection — heaven on earth.

Agrarian-Ecclesiastical civilization is predicated upon trans-generational equilibrium no less than industrial-technological civilization is predicated upon trans-generalization disequilibrium. To this end, social and economic structures embodied counter-market mechanisms — economic checks and balances that maintained the economic status quo to the greatest extent possible. Social change was also systematically hamstrung. Given this commitment of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to stability, continuity, and permanence, the catastrophic failure of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is to allow a revolution to take place — any revolution, whether commercial, scientific, social, or economic. Peasant rebellions have occurred with some regularity in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations, but these rebellions have a ritualistic character that distinguishes from them the revolutions of industrial-technological civilization.

When the overall structure of the economy, despite its mechanism to slow and stifle unwelcome developments nevertheless resulted in change, there were uprisings from below, popular revolts that sought to slow and stifle these unwelcome developments. Almost all peasant rebellions in the European middle ages were conservative rebellions, in which the motivation was to restore the status quo ante. Marxist historians of the recent decades have reviewed the record of repeated peasant revolts in the middle ages — and there were many, most prominent among them being Wat Tyler’s Rebellion of 1381 and the Great Peasants’ Revolt of 1525 — and drawn conclusions about a nascent stirring of class consciousness among the agricultural proletariat, but these peasant rebellions never questioned the structure of authority. Indeed, peasant rebellions often appealed to the political trope of “good king, bad advisers,” and believed that if they could only get to the king to make their grievances known, that all would be put right.

In agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization we find capitalism without a free market — carefully channeled within traditional guild structures that limited entry into the professions, limited competition, and maintained the professions and the trades as traditional modes of life no less than the traditional lifeways of peasants and nobility. The legal infrastructure of capitalism without markets, guilds and monopolies, constrain and restrict trade exclusively within ideologically-approved channels. We can compare this systematic limitative structuring of the economy with Erwin Panofsky’s famous thesis in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. In this famous study, Panofsky argued that the medieval mind expected to see its ideas explicitly manifested, as we see in the argumentative structure of scholastic philosophy and the physical structure of gothic architecture, with its ribbed vaults and flying buttresses. Panofsky’s thesis could be extended to the legal institutions of the economy which made social position similarly explicit through mechanisms such as sumptuary laws. The elaborate legal codes that enforced the commercial structures of guilds and monopolies can also be seen as exemplifying this thesis.

Later in the development of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, mercantilism was essentially finitistic capitalism, and as such represents the survival of the finitistic assumptions of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization into nascent modernism — though modernism not yet far enough advanced to have crossed the threshold of industrialization and therefore falling short of the macro-historical revolution that defines the advent of industrial-technological civilization.

In an economic environment in which there is no steady expansion (and therefore no inflation built into market mechanisms) in the currency, in which currency (in so far as it was used, i.e., rarely) was tied to some commodity (gold or silver or real estate), and in which no systematic expansion of industry or exploitation of resources occurred, the finitistic, steady-state, zero sum assumptions of mercantilism were true, even if they are no longer true today, in the context of industrial-technological civilization.

Agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations built on the presumption of non-development aimed not at progress but at perfection. Perfection is a finite good, a finite ideal; once realized, nothing remains to be done. Thus perfection as a social goal embodies something like Comte de Maistre’s finitistic political theory. Contemporary civilization, at least since the industrial revolution — i.e., industrial-technological civilization — has often been criticized for its faith in progress, but this is not quite the naïve belief that we have made it out to be. The cycle that drives industrial-technological civilization — science developing new technologies that are engineered into industries that provide improved instruments for the further development of science — is intrinsically infinitistic; as such, it is the negation of finitistic political theory. Progress, in contradistinction to perfection, is an infinitistic ideal; there is always the possibility of further progress.

Comte de Maistre’s Finitistic Political Theory was an expression of the finitistic, backward-looking assumptions of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. In agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, transcendence is an exteriority, lying outside time; in industrial-technological civilization, transcendence is immanent, and nothing outside time exists. Perfection as a virtue and as an ideal no longer applies to expanding societies engaged in the continual process of self-transcendence. In infinitistic contexts, progress replaces perfection, although progress itself is as problematic an ideal as perfection.

Each macro-historical division of civilization — of which agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is one — embodies distinctive assumptions, has risks and opportunities peculiar to its socio-economic structure, and struggles with distinction problems, none of which may be found in other macro-historical divisions. Agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, for example, was entirely free of large-scale industrial accidents, which are intrinsic to industrial-technological civilization, but was subject to permanent risk of famine, given the intensively local nature of the economy, in which economic units were isolated and people would starve if local crops failed.

Another example: in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization one of the most central social and political issues is the control of the institutionalized church within the boundaries of political control. In industrial-technological civilization, this imperative of ecclesiastical control virtually disappears. The most successful economy of industrial-technological civilization, that of the United States, is predicated upon separation of church and state, to the point that there is complete laissez-faire in matters of religion, which we have discovered is conducive to the smooth and seamless functioning of a market economy. But, as we have seen above, agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations tolerated only capitalism without markets, or highly restricted markets within traditional and legal parameters, so that for agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization the problem of how to contribute to the smooth and seamless growth of a market economy was a problem that literally did not even exist.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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