Monday


A drawing of James Watt’s Steam Engine printed in the 3rd edition Britannica 1797

A drawing of James Watt’s Steam Engine printed in the 3rd edition Britannica 1797

Historians can always reach further back into the past in order to find ever-more-distant antecedents to the world of today. This is one of the persistent problems of periodization, and it often results in different historians employing different periodizations of the same temporal continuum. There are periodizations that involve greater and lesser consensus. There is a significant degree of consensus that the industrial revolution begins with James Watt’s steam engine developed from 1763 to 1775. Watt’s steam engine, of course, does not appear out of nowhere. It was preceded by the use of much less efficient Newcomen engines used to pump water from mine shafts. It was also preceded by hundreds of years of medieval industry that employed wind and water power to run machinery, so that it was “merely” a matter of installing one of Watt’s new steam engines in an existing mechanical infrastructure that made the industrial revolution possible. Of course, the reality of the historical process is much more detailed — and much more interesting — than that. The steam engine was a trigger, and large scale economic and social forces were already in play that made it possible for the industrial revolution to transform civilization.

Sir Richard Arkwright, oil on canvas, Mather Brown, 1790. New Britain Museum of American Art

Sir Richard Arkwright, oil on canvas, Mather Brown, 1790. New Britain Museum of American Art

The life of Sir Richard Arkwright reveals the search for historical antecedents in particular clarity — as well as revealing the complexity of of the historical process — as Arkwright spent the greater part of his life inventing textile machinery and building mills, some of which were horse powered and most of which were water powered. In 1790 Arkwright built the first textile factory powered by a Boulton and Watt steam engine in Nottingham, England. Arkwright was a man of many plans, who always had another new project into which he poured his apparently abundant energies. The industrial application of the steam engine was only one of many of Arkwright’s projects. Men like Arkwright prepared the ground for the Industrial revolution by a thousand events that occurred long before the industrial revolution. Everything had to be in place for the steam engine to be exploited in the way that it was — a capitalist economy as described by Adam Smith on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, legal institutions that respected private property, nascent industry powered by wind and water, literacy, science in its modern form, and so on.

Richard Arkwright's water-powered Masson Mill

Richard Arkwright’s water-powered Masson Mill

The steam engine might have come about merely by tinkering — its construction was not predicated upon the most advanced scientific knowledge of the time, or the application of this science — and it might have stayed within the realm of tinkering, confined to a social class that did not receive an education in science. Instead, something unprecedented happened. The development of the steam engine led to theorizing about the steam engine, which in turn led to the development of a fundamental science that is still with us today, long after steam engines have ceased to play a significant role in our civilization. Other technologies replaced the steam engine, and the technologies that replaced the steam engine were replaced with later technologies, and so on through several generations of technologies. But the science that grew out of the study of steam engines is with us still in the form of thermodynamics, and thermodynamics is central to contemporary science.

Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot, 01 June 1796 to 24 August 1832, was a French military engineer and physicist; in his only publication, the 1824 monograph Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, Carnot gave the first successful theory of the maximum efficiency of heat engines. (Wikipedia)

Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot, 01 June 1796 to 24 August 1832, was a French military engineer and physicist; in his only publication, the 1824 monograph Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, Carnot gave the first successful theory of the maximum efficiency of heat engines. (Wikipedia)

Indeed, we have passed from the study of ideal steam engines to the study of the universe entire in terms of thermodynamics, so that the scope of thermodynamics has relentlessly expanded since its introduction, even while the applications of steam engines have been been reduced in scope until they are a marginal technology. How is this unprecedented? No Greek philosopher ever wrote a theoretical treatise on Hero’s steam turbine, and if a Greek philosopher had done so, there simply was not enough of a background of scientific knowledge to do so coherently. Archimedes did write several treatises on practical matters, and there was enough mathematics in classical antiquity to give a mathematical treatment of certain problems that might be characterized as physics, but Archimedes remained an individual working mostly in isolation. His work did not become a scientific research program (in the Lakatosian sense); he was not a member of a community of researchers sharing results and working jointly on experiments.

Hero's Steam Turbine remained a curiosity in classical antiquity; it did not spark an industrial revolution.

Hero’s Steam Turbine remained a curiosity in classical antiquity; it did not spark an industrial revolution.

There is a striking resemblance between the industrial revolution and the British agricultural revolution. In most feudal societies of the time — and almost every society at the time was feudal to some degree — the land-owning classes that controlled the agricultural economy that was the engine of society would not work with their hands. To work with one’s hands was to acknowledge that one was a laborer or a tradesman, and this would be a considerable reduction in social status for an aristocrat. What is distinctive about England is that a few aristocrats became passionately interested in the ordinary business of life, and they threw themselves into this engagement in a way that cast aside the traditional taboo against the upper classes working with their hands. A figure who somewhat resembles Arkwright is Sir Thomas Coke of Norfolk, an aristocrat who did not scruple to mix with his tenant farmers, and who actively participated in agricultural reforms. The selective breeding of stock became progressively more scientific over time, and influenced Darwin, who devoted the opening chapter of On the Origin of Species to “Variation under Domestication,” which is concerned with selective breeding.

Portrait of Thomas William Coke, Esq. (1752-1842) inspecting some of his South Down sheep with Mr Walton and the Holkham shepherds Thomas Weaver (1774-1843) / © Collection of the Earl of Leicester, Holkham Hall, Norfolk

Portrait of Thomas William Coke, Esq. (1752-1842) inspecting some of his South Down sheep with Mr Walton and the Holkham shepherds Thomas Weaver (1774-1843) / © Collection of the Earl of Leicester, Holkham Hall, Norfolk

The core of scientific civilization as we know it is the patient and methodical application of the scientific method to industrial processes (including the processes of industrial agriculture). All civilizations have had technologies; all civilizations have had industries. Only scientific civilizations apply science to technology and industry in a systematic way. The tightly-coupled STEM cycle of our industrial-technological civilization has led to more technological change in the past century than occurred in the previous ten thousand years. Thus technology has experienced exponential growth, but only because this growth was driven by the application of science.

The STEM cycle is a distinctive feature of industrial-technological civilization, but it did not achieve its tightly-coupled form until the nineteenth century.

The STEM cycle is a distinctive feature of industrial-technological civilization, but it did not achieve its tightly-coupled form until the nineteenth century.

The role of science in industrial-technological civilization may be less evident than the role of technology, and indeed some desire the technology but are suspicious of the science, and seek to decouple the two. While some technologies pose some moral dilemmas, these dilemmas can be met (if unsatisfactorily met) simply by limiting the application of the technology. The ideas of science are not so easily limited, and they pose an intellectual threat — an existential threat — to ideological complacency.

The scientific revolution led to the scientific study of society, which in turn led to ethnography, and from ethnography we derive a view of the world that has been interpreted as calling into question the basis of scientific civilization.

The scientific revolution led to the scientific study of society, which in turn led to ethnography, and from ethnography we derive a view of the world that has been interpreted as calling into question the basis of scientific civilization.

The scientific civilization that has been created in the wake of the industrial revolution is so productive that it enables non-survival behavior orders of magnitude beyond the non-survival behavior of earlier civilizations. Human intellectual capacity gives us a survival margin not possessed by other species, so that even in a non-civilized condition human societies can engage in non-survival behavior. Here is a passage from Sam Harris on non-survival behavior that suggests the meaning I am getting at:

“Many social scientists incorrectly believe that all long-standing human practices must be evolutionarily adaptive: for how else could they persist? Thus, even the most bizarre and unproductive behaviors — female genital excision, blood feuds, infanticide, the torture of animals, scarification, foot binding, cannibalism, ceremonial rape, human sacrifice, dangerous male initiations, restricting the diet of pregnant and lactating mothers, slavery, potlatch, the killing of the elderly, sati, irrational dietary and agricultural taboos attended by chronic hunger and malnourishment, the use of heavy metals to treat illness, etc. — have been rationalized, or even idealized, in the fire-lit scribblings of one or another dazzled ethnographer. But the mere endurance of a belief system or custom does not suggest that it is adaptive, much less wise. It merely suggests that it hasn’t led directly to a society’s collapse or killed its practitioners outright.”

Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, Introduction

As a result of the productive powers of scientific civilization, science can remain a marginal activity, largely walled off from the general public, while continuing to revolutionize the production processes of industry. This process of walling off science from the general public partly occurs due to the public’s discomfort with and distrust of science, but it also occurs partly due to the desire of scientists to continue their work without having to justify it to the general public, as the process of public justification inevitably becomes a social and political process in which the values unique to science easily become lost (This will be the topic of a future post, currently being drafted, on science communication to the public).

This social disconnect sets up an image of embattled scientists trying to carry on the work of scientific civilization in the face of what Ortega y Gasset called the revolt of the masses. A public indifferent to, or even hostile to, science decides, through its representatives, what sciences get funded and how much they get funded, and their social choices decide the social standing of the sciences and scientists. Can scientific civilization endure when those responsible for its continuation are increasingly marginal in social and political thought?

The house of industrial-technological civilization cannot long stand divided against itself. But taking the long view that was seen to be necessary to understanding the industrial revolution — that the steam engine was a trigger that occurred in the context of a civilization ripe for transformation — we must wonder what pervasive yet subtle changes are taking place today that may be triggered by the advent of some new invention that will transform civilization. While I think that scientific civilization has a long run ahead of it, scientific civilization can take many forms, of which industrial-technological civilization is but one early example. We live in the midst of industrial-technological civilization, so its institutions feel permanent and unchangeable to us, even as the most passing acquaintance with history will demonstrate that almost everything we take for granted today is historically unprecedented.

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Wednesday


1914 to 2014

One Hundred Years of Industrialized Warfare

Now that it is 2014 the year will unfold with a series of remarkable 100 year anniversaries as we look retrospectively at the events that led to the First World War — the first global industrialized war, and one of the most traumatic events of the twentieth century, or of any century. There were industrialized wars before WWI — the Russo-Japanese War — and there were global wars before WWI — the Seven Years’ War — but WWI as the first global industrialized war introduced several discontinuities into history that continue to shape us today. The Second World War involved a greater number of casualties and more destructive force, but it was the First World War that decisively cut us off from our past and marked our full transition from agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to industrial-technological civilization.

While the anniversary of a conflict is a pseudo-event, in so far as it prompts reflection it does not have to be merely an empty pseudo-event, although a forced search for parallels is likely to be more misleading than enlightening. Perhaps it is inevitable that such comparisons will be made. An article in The Economist discussed the parallels between 1914 and 2014, The first world war — Look back with angst: A century on, there are uncomfortable parallels with the era that led to the outbreak of the first world war. Is this a helpful exercise? Or is the search for historical parallels a kind of pseudo-history that emerges from pseudo-events?

STEM cycle 1

The Nature of Industrialized Warfare

Industrialized warfare is warfare driven by the STEM cycle, with the additional incentive of an existential threat to spur the rate of innovation and to shorten the time lag between scientific innovation and technological application. In short, industrialized warfare is the whole of industrial-technological civilization in miniature, escalated, accelerated, and focused on some particular conflict that has no intrinsic relation to the ways and means employed to wage the struggle.

Industrialized warfare has a distinctive character. In the warfare of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, hostilities often had to yield to the agricultural calendar. Wars were fought in the summer; those pressed into service, if not released at harvest time, would desert in order to harvest their crops — if they did not, they would starve. No major engagements could take place in the winter because of the lack of mechanized transportation. In the spring, as in the fall, the mass of the populace had to plow and plant. Only a small class of professional warriors could devote themselves to a career of arms and could fight year-round.

Industrialized warfare is no respecter of seasons; men can be taken by train into battle under inclement weather conditions (as they were in WWI)), and supplied in the field by transportation and food preservation technologies. Technological changes were matched by social changes; the rigid and hierarchical class structure gave way to a democratic and egalitarian ideal that was exapted by newly emergent nation-states in the form of enlightenment universalism that popularized the notion of every man a soldier. Industrialized warfare is mass war, fought by mass man; it is the warfare that emerges from the anonymization of killing. It is the anonymous and mass nature of industrialized warfare that makes it particularly absurd and senseless, as the individual soldier is no longer a heroic figure, but, like a worker in a vast industry, the soldier is merely a cog in a gigantic machine.

gavrilo-Princip name and date

The Causes and the Possibilities of Industrialized Warfare

It should be evident from the above that the telos of industrialized warfare is global total war, since the industries that make such industrialized conflicts possible are global, and to successfully wage such a war it is necessary to disrupt the global supply chain of one’s adversary. A similar logic dictated the “de-housing” of industrial workers in the strategic bombing campaigns of the Second World War once that became technologically possible. At some point in the development of industrial-technological civilization, World War One or some equivalent conflict was bound to occur, but did this particular conflict in this particular form have to occur? We might shed a little more light on this question if we attempt to analyze it in a finer grain of detail. To do so it will be convenient to distinguish long term causes, short term causes, and triggers. (Long term causes, short term causes, and triggers may be assimilated to Braudel’s tripartite distinction between la longue durée, the conjuncture, and the history of the event; in Braudel in Ecological Perspective I have shown how Braudel’s historical distinctions can be understood in the light of what I call ecological temporality for a broader theoretical context.)

The long term causes of World War One include the development of industrial-technological civilization itself, and the application of industrial technologies to warfighting, as well as the struggle between developing powers within the regions where the events of the industrial revolution had transformed the life of the people most rapidly and drastically. Slightly less long term as causes are historical forces including the rivalry of France, Germany, and Russia for dominance of the Eurasian landmass, with Britain serving as the “off shore balancer” for balance of power politics. The longer of the long term causes stretch back to the origins of civilization, while the shorter of the long term causes shade imperceptibly into short term causes.

Short term causes of World War One include the arms race in continental Europe (including the naval arms race to build Dreadnaught class battleships), the network of secret alliances among the major powers, the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war and the professionalization of the German General staff, with its master plan for war meticulously crafted year after year, the decline of the Hapsburg monarchy and the increasingly restive populations of subject territories, not only in Hapsburg domains but also within the Ottoman Empire, the “Sick Man of Europe.” With Hapsburg and Ottoman power in decline, and ethnic populations newly conscious of themselves as potential political communities, therefore clamoring to fill the gradually growing power vacuum, there were numerous European dyads across which war could break out given the proper trigger and a failure to contain escalation.

The trigger for World War One is one of the purest examples of a triggering event in history: the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, by Gavrilo Princip in the streets of Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. Once the shots were fired and the Duke and Duchess were dead, it was only a matter of repeated diplomatic miscalculations (in an atmosphere of universal preparation for a European-wide war) that escalated the murder into an international incident, the international incident into an armed conflict, and an armed conflict into war between the major European powers and eventually into a global conflagration. Different triggers might have resulted in different details of the world’s first global industrialized war, and different outcomes as well, but that the newly industrialized powers with their new industrialized weapons systems would not decline a test of their newly found powers is as close to inevitable as anything that has transpired in human history (while still not rising to the level of inevitability that coincides with necessity).

Europe had been preparing for a war for a generation, since the end of the Franco-Prussian war. The increasing wealth due to increasing industrialization led many to interpret nineteenth century history in terms of continual progress, but the military planners never lost sight of preparations for war. In France, the loss of Alsace-Lorraine was captured in the phrase, “Think of it always, speak of it never.” With planning for war solidly in place, only the trigger was left to chance. For the First World War to have been significantly different, the short term causes would have had to have been significantly different. And for the First World War to have been a profoundly different conflict than in fact it was, the long term causes wold have had to have been different. With long term and short term causes in place, the structure of the war was largely shaped before it began.

twentury century war collage

Global Industrialized Warfare Since 1914

As we all know, the First World War was followed by an armistice of twenty years (although the armistice was called a “peace”) as a new generation prepared for a new war, and when the next war broke out in 1939 it spiraled into the most destructive armed conflict in human history. The whole development of the twentieth century up to 1945 may be considered one long escalation of industrialized warfare. After that time, European multi-polarity was replaced by the Cold War dyad, which meant that major wars could only break out across this single power dyad, which limited the triggers that could come into play. The effect of stalling major industrialized conflicts led to what I have called the devolution of warfare, allowing human beings to continue the fighting and killing that they love without triggering a catastrophic nuclear exchange that would bring the fun to an end for everyone.

We are still today, even after the termination of the Cold War dyad and the emergence of an ill-defined multi-polarity, living with the the devolution of warfare that has bequeathed to us multiple low-level asymmetrical conflicts around the globe. The very idea of peer-to-peer conflict between major industrialized powers seems distant and unreal. That complacency may be a vulnerability that allows miscalculation to escalate, but what has permanently changed in human history — what Karl Jaspers called “the new fact” — is the availability of nuclear weapons that constitute an existential threat to civilization. This existential threat is the counter-veiling force to rising complacency.

Will the Pacific Ocean be the theater of the next global industrial war?

Will the Pacific Ocean be the theater of the next global industrial war?

The Future of Global Industrialized Warfare

The First World War, although global, was focused on Europe; the Second World War, while triggered in Europe, was not centered on Europe: North Africa, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and especially the Pacific were major theaters of conflict. As the focus of global attention continues its gradual shift from the older and mature industrialized economies of Europe, which have bordered on the Atlantic Ocean and which grew in conjunction with the growing economy of North America, to the now mature industrialized economy of North America, which borders on the Pacific Ocean and grows in conjunction with the growing economies of East Asia, world history (in so far as there is any such thing) slowly shifts from the Atlantic basin to the Pacific Basin. Atlanticism becomes more and more an irrelevant relic of the past. The strategic reality of today is that of a Pacific-centered world order. In deference to this changing strategic reality, the US is seeking to execute a strategic pivot toward the Pacific and to formulate a grand strategy for the Pacific.

Will the Pacific see a major conflict in this century? This has become a major concern of strategists and war planners who see the world’s sole superpower — the US — challenged across the Pacific by the rising economic power of China, which may translate its economic power into military power. If the US and China come to engage in open armed conflict, the likely theater will be the Pacific, much as the US and Japan faced each other over the Pacific during the Second World War, which was the only conflict and the only theater to see major aircraft carrier engagements. Since that time, the aircraft carrier has only grown in stature as the premier instrument of force projection in the world today. China has recently begun sea trails of its first aircraft carrier, and while it is a long way from parity with US Naval strength in the Pacific, it is possible that China could begin to invest in a carrier fleet in direct competition with the US, much as the Kaiser sought to create a fleet of Dreadnaught class battleships in direct competition with the Royal Navy.

If the twenty-first century is to see a major peer-to-peer industrialized conflict, the long term causes are already in place — the aftermath of the Second World War and the Cold War, and the international system of nation-states that we today take to be the permanent reality of global political order — and only long term efforts could address these long term causes. Any short term causes are now in the process of formation, and we would have a realistic chance of addressing these short term causes of a future war by creating institutions that are resistant to escalation and tolerant of miscalculation. Our agency in these matters — they are ideally within our control — is a hopeful sign of the times; what is not hopeful is that efforts to constitute a world order that is resistant to escalation and tolerant of miscalculation are almost nonexistent.

If both short term and long term causes are in place, and no short term or long term initiatives are undertaken to mitigate potential causes for war, then only the trigger of a future global industrialized conflict is left to chance; the war itself is already shaped by the long term and short term causes: the weapons systems already built and fielded, the military doctrine for their employment, the alliance structure within which military action is undertaken, and the political and economic forces that shape alliances that come into play in the event of armed conflict.

Another global industrialized conflict is possible, though not likely. No one would say that it is inevitable. Much more likely are regional asymmetrical conflicts scattered across the globe, fought with whatever weapons are ready to hand, and for different reasons. There are historical forces that could escalate regional conflicts into global conflicts, and other forces that work against such an escalation. But the price of such a conflict with twenty-first century weapons would be so high that, even if the likelihood of global industrialized warfare is low, it merits our concern as an existential risk.

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Since writing the above the BBC has carried Dancing over the edge: Vienna in 1914 by Bethany Bell about the lead up to war in Central Europe, the Financial Times carried the editorial “Reflections on the Great War: World can still draw lessons from the catastrophe of 1914” (Thursday 02 January 2014), and The Independent carried Is it 1914 all over again? We are in danger of repeating the mistakes that started WWI, says a leading historian by Ian Johnston.

The BBC has since added La Belle Epoque: Paris 1914 by Hugh Schofield BBC News, Paris, and Berlin 1914: A city of ambition and self-doubt by Stephen Evans BBC News, Berlin, and has a page dedicated to The World War One Centenary.

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Tuesday


One of the most famous thought experiments of twentieth century philosophy of mind is presented in Thomas Nagel’s paper “What is is like to be a bat?” Nagel’s point was that consciousness involves a point of view, and that means that there is something that it is like to be in being some conscious organism. Here is the opening paragraph of Nagel’s paper:

Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon. It occurs at many levels of animal life, though we cannot be sure of its presence in the simpler organisms, and it is very difficult to say in general what provides evidence of it. (Some extremists have been prepared to deny it even of mammals other than man.) No doubt it occurs in countless forms totally unimaginable to us, on other planets in other solar systems throughout the universe. But no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. There may be further implications about the form of the experience; there may even (though I doubt it) be implications about the behavior of the organism. But fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.

Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?”, Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, 1979

The choice of a bat for this thought experiment is interesting. As a mammal, the bat shares much with us in its relation to the world, but its fundamental mechanism of finding its way around — echolocation — is sharply distinct from our primate experience of the world, dominated as it is by vision. Thus while what it is like to be a bat overlaps considerably with what it is like to be a hominid, there are also substantial divergences between being a bat and being a hominid. A bat has a different sensory apparatus than a hominid, and the bat’s distinctive sonar sensory apparatus presumably shapes its cognitive architecture in distinctive ways.

bat echolocation

As a philosopher I have a great fascination with the sensory organs of other species, which seem to me both to pose epistemological problems as well as to suggest really interesting thought experiments. In my post on Kantian Critters I argued that if human beings must have recourse to the transcendental aesthetic in order to sort out the barrage of sense perception that the brain and central nervous system receive, then other terrestrial species, constituted as they are much like ourselves, must also have recourse to some transcendental aesthetic of their own (or, if you prefer Husserl to Kant, and phenomenology to idealism, other species must employ their own passive synthesis). This interpretation of Kant obviously presupposes a naturalistic point of view, which Kant did not have, but if we grant this scientific realism, the Kantian insight regarding the transcendental aesthetic remains valid and may moreover be extrapolated beyond human beings.

Can the Kantian transcendental aesthetic be reinterpreted in the light of contemporary natural history?

Can the Kantian transcendental aesthetic be reinterpreted in the light of contemporary natural history?

Distinctive transcendental aesthetics of distinct species would follow from distinct sensory apparatus and the distinctive cognitive architecture required to take advantage of this sensory apparatus. This implies that distinct species “see” the world differently, with “see” here understood in a comprehensive sense and not in a purely visual sense. Although bats rely on sonar, they “see” the world in his comprehensive sense, even if their eyes are not as good as our hominid eyes, and not nearly as good as the eyes of an eagle. A couple of ethologists, Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth, have written several books on the Weltanschauung of other species, How Monkeys See the World: Inside the Mind of Another Species and Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind.

how monkeys see the world

Does a primate have more in common, Weltanschauung-wise (if you know what I mean), with a flying mammal such as a bat (since any two mammals have much life experience in common) or with a terrestrial reptile such as a serpent? Primates don’t know what it is like to fly with their own wings, but they also don’t know what it is like to move along the ground by slithering. Does a primate have more in common, again, Weltanschauung-wise, with a reptile that has given up its legs or with an octopus that never had any legs? We might be able to refine these questions a bit more by a more careful consideration of particular sensory organs and the particular cognitive architecture that both is driven by the development of the organ and makes the fullest exploitation of that organ for survival and reproductive advantage possible.

Pit Viper 2

Among the most intriguing sense organs possessed by other species but not by homo sapiens is the pit of the pit viper, which is a rudimentary sensing organ for heat. Since pit vipers are predators who typically eat small, furry animals with a high metabolism and presumably also a high body temperature, being able to sense the body heat of one’s prey would be a substantial selective advantage.

pit viper pit

Because the pit of the pit viper represents such a great selective advantage, one would expect that the pit will evolve, driven by this selective pressure. To paraphrase what Richard Dawkins said of wings, one percent of a infrared sensing organ represents a one percent selective advantage, and so on. Thus a one percent improvement of an existing pit would represent another one percent selective advantage. While it would be difficult to observe such subtle advantage in the lives of individual organisms, when in comes to species whose members number in the millions, that one percent will eventually make a significant difference in differential survival and reproduction. A statistical study would reveal what a study of individuals would likely obscure.

pit viper triangulation

There is a sense in which the pit of the pit viper is like an eye for perceiving infrared radiation. The infrared radiation spectrum lies just beyond the visible spectrum at the red end, so having a pit like a pit viper in addition to color vision would be like being able to see additional colors beyond red. Having a slightly different visible spectrum is not uncommon among other species. Many insects see a little way into the ultraviolet spectrum (at the opposite end of our visible spectrum from red) and flowers are said to present colorful displays to insects in the ultraviolet spectrum that we cannot see (except for the case I heard about some years ago about a man whose eye was injured and as a result of the injury was able to see a little way into the ultraviolet beyond the visible spectrum).

em spectrum

The eye itself, whatever portion of the electromagnetic spectrum it accesses, is a wonderful example of the power of an adaptation. The eye is so useful that it has emerged independently several times in the course of evolution of life on earth. I don’t know much about the details, but insect eyes, mollusc eyes, and vertebrate eyes (as well as several other instances) are each the result of separate and independent emergence of the eye. The mollusc eye and the vertebrate eye represent an astonishing example of convergent evolution, since the structure of the two instances of eyes is so similar. The eye is of course a provocative evolutionary example because of a famous passage from Darwin himself, who wrote about “organs of extreme perfection”:

“To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound.”

Of this quote Richard Dawkins wrote in The God Delusion:

“Darwin’s fulsomely free confession turned out to be a rhetorical device. He was drawing his opponents towards him so that his punch, when it came, struck the harder. The punch, of course, was Darwin’s effortless explanation of exactly how the eye evolved by gradual degrees. Darwin may not have used the phrase ‘irreducible complexity’, or ‘the smooth gradient up Mount Improbable’, but he clearly understood the principle of both.”

Partly due to this Darwin quote, the evolution of the eye has been the topic of some very interesting research that has helped the clarify the development of the eye. There is a wonderful documentary on evolution, the first episode of which was titled Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (presumably intended to echo Daniel Dennett’s well known book of the same title), which an excellent segment on the evolution of the eye which you can watch on Youtube. In this documentary the work of Dan-Eric Nilsson of the University of Lund is shown, and he demonstrates in a particularly clear and concrete way the step-by-step process of improving vision through the increasing complexity of the eye. When I was watching this documentary recently I was thinking about how the pit of the pit viper resembles the early stages of the evolution of the eye.

eye evolution

The pit of the pit viper is a depressed, folded area lined with infrared sensitive nerve endings that allows limited directional sensitivity. In the long term future of the pit of the pit viper, which at present seems to correspond to the earliest stages of the evolution of the vertebrate eye, sometimes called a “cup eye,” there would seem to be much room for improvement. Of course, the details of infrared (IR) perception are different than the details of human visible spectrum perception, but not so different that we cannot imagine a similar series of stepwise improvements to the infrared pit that might, in many millions of years, yield sharp, clear, and directional infrared vision. If this infrared vision became sufficiently effective, it is possible that brain and body resources might be redirected to focus on the pits, and the eyes could eventually degrade into a vestigial organ, as in bats and moles. After all, snakes gave up their legs, so there’s no reason they shouldn’t also give up their eyes if they have something better to fall back on.

eye_evolution

There is another possibility, and that is the evolutionary advantage that might be obtained through adding a pair of fully functional IR “eyes” to a pair of fully functional visible spectrum eyes. Such a development would be biologically costly, and it would be much more likely that a pit viper would chose one evolutionary path or the other and not both. Yet there are some rare instances of biologically costly organs (or clusters of organs) that have been successful despite the cost. The brain is a good example — or, rather, large complex brains that evolve under particular selection pressures but which later are exapted for intelligence.

Encephalization Quotient

Encephalization Quotient

Natural selection is a great economist, and often reduces organisms to the simplest structure compatible with their function. This is one of the reasons we find the shapes of plants and the bodies of animals both elegant and beautiful. The economy of nature was resulted in the fact that a large brain, and the intelligence that large brains make possible, are rare. Despite their rarity, and their biological expense, large complex brains do emerge (though not often), and, like the eye (which has emerged repeatedly in evolutionary history), large brains have emerged more than once. Interestingly enough, complex eyes and large complex brains are found together not only in primates but also in molluscs.

The octopus (among other molluscs) is bequeathed a large, complex brain because the octopus went down the evolutionary path of camouflage, and the camouflage of some molluscs became so elaborate that almost every cell on the surface of the organism’s skin is individually controlled, which means a nerve connected to every spot of color on (or under) the skin, and a nervous system that is capable of handling this. It requires a lot of processing power to put on the kind of displays seen on the skin of octopi and cuttlefish, and an evolutionary spiral that favored the benefits of camouflage also then drove the development of a large, complex brain that could optimize the use of camouflage.

The octopus also has remarkably sophisticated eyes — eyes that are, in some respects, very similar to yet more elegant in structure than primate eyes. Our eyes are “wired” from the front, which gives us a blind spot where the optic nerve passes through the retina; mollusc eyes are “wired” from the back and consequently suffer from no blind spot. (“Wired” is in scare quotes here because it is a metaphor to refer to eyes being wired to the nervous system; while electrical signals travel down nerves, the connection between distinct nerve cells is primarily biochemical and not electrical.)

cephalopod eye

How an octopus sees the world is as fascinating an inquiry as what it is like to be a bat — or a serpent, for that matter. Both the octopus and an arboreal primate live in a three dimensional habitat, and this may have something to do with their common development of sharp eyesight and large brains, although there are vastly greater number of organisms in the sea and in trees with far smaller brains and far less cognitive processing power. (A recent study reported in The New York Times suggests a link between spatial ability and intellectual innovation, and while the study was primarily concerned with the ontogenesis of creativity, it is possible that the apparatus of spatial perception and the cognitive architecture that facilitates this perception is phylogenetically linked to intellectual creativity.) This simply shows us that intelligence is one strategy among many for survival, and not the most common strategy.

Life in an arboreal niche would make spatial ability a significant selection pressure.

Life in an arboreal niche would make spatial ability a significant selection pressure.

A large, complex brain is very costly in a biological sense. In a typical human being, the brain represents less than three percent of total body weight, yet it consumes about twenty percent of the body’s resources — that’s a very big chunk of metabolism that could be directed toward running faster or jumping higher or reaching farther. Nothing as unlikely as the brain’s disproportionate consumption of resources would come about unless this expenditure of resources bequeathed some survival or reproductive advantage to the organism possessing such a high cost of ownership. The brain isn’t a luxury that produces poetry and art; it is a survival machine, optimized (in hominids) by more than five million years of development to make human beings effective hunters and foragers. The brain was so successful, in fact, that it made is possible for human beings to take over the planet entire and convert it to serving human needs. Thus the relatively rare and costly strategy of developing a large, complex brain paid off in this particular case. (One may think of it as a high risk/high reward strategy.)

brainEvolution

If the evolution of the brain and the exaptation of intelligence to produce civilization did not result in the disproportionate evolutionary success of a single species, it seems likely that we would see intelligence emerge repeatedly in evolutionary history, much as eyes have evolved repeatedly. On other worlds with other natural histories, under conditions where intelligence does not allow a single species to dominate (possibly due to some selection pressure that does not operate on Earth), it is possible that evolution results in the repeated emergence of intelligence just as on Earth evolution has resulted in the repeated emergence of eyes. On Earth, intelligence preempted another developments, and means that not only human history but also natural history were irremediably changed.

Mass extinctions have repeatedly preempted developments in terrestrial life, and now it seems that an anthropogenic mass extinction event is again preempting the development of life on Earth.

Mass extinctions have repeatedly preempted developments in terrestrial life, and now it seems that an anthropogenic mass extinction event is again preempting the development of life on Earth — further demonstrating human dominance of the planet.

In The Preemption Hypothesis I argued that industrialization preempted other developments in the history of civilization (for more on this also see my post Human Agency and the Exaptation of Selection). This current line of thought makes me realize that purely biological preemption is also a force shaping history. Consciousness, and then intelligence arising from biochemically based consciousness, is one such preemption of our evolutionary history. Another preemption of natural history that has operated repeatedly is that of mass extinction. But whereas historical preemptions such as the development of large, complex brains or industrialization represent a preemption of greater complexity, mass extinctions represent a preemption of decreased complexity.

Some weedy plant species...

Some weedy plant species…

It seems that “weedy” species that are especially hearty and resilient tend to survive the rigorous of mass extinctions; the more delicate and refined productions of natural selection, which are dependent upon mature ecosystems and their many specialized niches, do not fare as well when these mature ecosystems are subject to pressure and possible catastrophic failure. One could think of mass extinctions, and indeed of all historical preemptions that favor simplicity over complexity, as a catastrophic “reset” of the evolutionary process. Events such as mass extinctions can favor rudimentary organisms that are sufficiently hardy to survive catastrophic changes, but, as we have seen, there is also the possibility of historical preemptions that favor greater complexity. The Cambrian Explosion, for example, might be considered another instance of an historical preemption.

The Cambrian explosion, or Cambrian radiation, was a preemption of historical continuity.

The Cambrian explosion, or Cambrian radiation, was a preemption of historical continuity.

There is a tension in the structure of history between continuity and preemption. In the particular case of the earth, the continuity of natural history has been interrupted by the preemption of intelligence and then industrialization. These preemptions of greater complexity — in contradistinction to preemptions of lesser complexity, as in the case of mass extinctions — may provide for the possibility of the continuity of earth-originating life beyond the terrestrial biosphere. In the case of an otherwise sterile universe, the intelligence/industrialization preemption would be a basis of a new explosion or radiation of earth-originating life in the Milky Way. In the case of a universe already living, it may be only intelligence and industrial-technological civilization that is a novelty in the natural history of the universe.

Milky Way

Whatever happens on the largest scale of life, as long as life continues to evolve on the earth, its development is likely to be marked by both continuity and preemptive developments. In thinking about the pit viper, I suggested above that the pit viper might eventually, over many millions of years, develop a fully functional pair of IR eyes in addition to its visible spectrum eyes. This suggestion points to an interesting possibility. In so far as complex life is allowed to develop in continuity, with a minimum of preemptions, specialization and refinement of existing mechanisms of survival may give rise of species of greater complexity than what we know today. While mass extinctions have repeatedly cleared the ground and given a more or less blank slate for the radiation of resilient weedy species, this may not always be the case.

An event of this magnitude becomes less likely as the solar system ages and settles down into a routine.

An event of this magnitude becomes less likely as the solar system ages and settles down into a routine.

As our earth and the solar system of which it is a part becomes older, catastrophic events may become less common. For example, stray bodies in the solar system that might collide with the earth, while once common in the early solar system, eventually end up colliding with something or getting swept out of the path of the earth’s orbit by the gravity of Jupiter. If, moreover, civilization expands extraterrestrially and seeks to protect the earth as an existential risk mitigation measure, life on earth may become even more secure and even less subject to disruption and preemption than in the past. New species might eventually come into being with a delicate complexity of sensory organs and accompanying cognitive architecture that facilitates these senses. Imagine species with a whole range of sensory organs that complement each other, without former mainstay sensory organs being reduced to vestigial status, and this might possibly be the future of life on Earth.

pit viper striking

Eventually the most interesting question may not be, “What is it like to be a serpent?” but, “What will it be like to be a serpent?”

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The reader can compare my earlier post, The Future of the Pit Viper, which was the origin and inspiration of this post.

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Tuesday


digital-man

Prior to the advent of civilization, the human condition was defined by nature. Evolutionary biologist call this initial human condition the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (or EEA). The biosphere of the Earth, with all its diverse flora and fauna, was the predominant fact of human experience. Very little that human beings did could have an effect on the human condition beyond the most immediate effects an individual might cause in the environment, such as gathering or hunting for food. Nothing was changed by the passage of human beings through an environment that was, for them, their home. Human beings had to conform themselves to this world or die.

The life of early human communities was defined by nature, not by human activity.

The life of early human communities was defined by nature, not by human activity.

Since the advent of civilization, it has been civilization and not nature that determines the human condition. As one civilization has succeeded another, and, more importantly, as one kind of civilization has succeeded another kind of civilization — which latter happens far less frequently, since like kinds of civilization tend to succeed each other except when this process of civilizational succession is preempted by the emergence of an historical anomaly on the order of the initial emergence of civilization itself — the overwhelming fact of human experience has been shaped by civilization and the products of civilization, rather than by nature. This transformation from being shaped by nature to being shaped by civilization is what makes the passage from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agrarian civilization such a radical discontinuity in human experience.

This transformation has been gradual. In the earliest period of human civilizations, an entire civilization might grow up from nothing, spread regionally, assimilating local peoples not previously included in the project of civilization, and then die out, all without coming into contact with another civilization. The growth of human civilization has meant a gradual and steady increase in the density of human populations. It has already been thousands of years since a civilization could flourish and fail without encountering another civilization. It has been, moreover, hundreds of years since all human communities were bound together through networks of trade and communication.

Civilization is now continuous across the surface of the planet. The world-city — Doxiadis’ Ecumenopolis, which I discussed in Civilization and the Technium — is already an accomplished fact (though it is called by another name, or no name at all). We retain our green spaces and our nature reserves, but all human communities ultimately are contiguous with each other, and there is no direction that you can go on the surface of the Earth without encountering another human community.

The civilization of the present, which I call industrial-technological civilization, is as distinct from the agricultural civilization (which I call agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization) that preceded it as agricultural civilization was distinct from the nomadic hunter-gatherer paradigm that preceded it in turn. In other words, the emergence of industrialization interpolated a discontinuity in the human condition on the order of the emergence of civilization itself. One of the aspects of industrial-technological civilization that distinguishes it from earlier agricultural civilization is the effective regimentation and indeed rigorization of the human condition.

The emergence of organized human activity, which corresponds to the emergence of the species itself, and which is therefore to be found in hunter-gatherer nomadism as much as in agrarian or industrial civilization, meant the emergence of institutions. At first, these institutions were as unsystematic and implicit as everything else in human experience. When civilizations began to abut each other in the agrarian era, it became necessary to make these institutions explicit and to formulate them in codes of law and regulation. At first, this codification itself was unsystematic. It was the emergence of industrialization that forced human civilizations to make its institutions not only explicit, but also systematic.

This process of systematization and rigorization is most clearly seen in the most abstract realms of thought. In the nineteenth century, when industrialization was beginning to transform the world, we see at the same time a revolution in mathematics that went beyond all the earlier history of mathematics. While Euclid famously systematized geometry in classical antiquity, it was not until the nineteenth century that mathematical thought grew to a point of sophistication that outstripped and exceeded Euclid.

From classical antiquity up to industrialization, it was frequently thought, and frequently asserted, that Euclid was the perfection of human reason in mathematics and that Aristotle was the perfection of human reason in logic, and there was simply nothing more to be done in the these fields beyond learning to repeat the lessons of the masters of antiquity. In the nineteenth century, during the period of rapid industrialization, people began to think about mathematics and logic in a way that was more sophisticated and subtle than even the great achievements of Euclid and Aristotle. Separately, yet almost simultaneously, three different mathematicians (Bolyai, Lobachevski, and Riemann) formulated systems of non-Euclidean geometry. Similarly revolutionary work transformed logic from its Aristotelian syllogistic origins into what is now called mathematical logic, the result of the work of George Boole, Frege, Peano, Russell, Whitehead, and many others.

At the same time that geometry and logic were being transformed, the rest of mathematics was also being profoundly transformed. Many of these transformational forces have roots that go back hundreds of years in history. This is also true of the industrial revolution itself. The growth of European society as a result of state competition within the European peninsula, the explicit formulation of legal codes and the gradual departure from a strictly peasant subsistence economy, the similarly gradual yet steady spread of technology in the form of windmills and watermills, ready to be powered by steam when the steam engine was invented, are all developments that anticipate and point to the industrial revolution. But the point here is that the anticipations did not come to fruition until the nineteenth century.

And so with mathematics. Newton and Leibniz independently invented the calculus, but it was left on unsure foundations for centuries, and Descartes had made the calculus possible by the earlier innovation of analytical geometry. These developments anticipated and pointed to the rigorization of mathematics, but the development did not come to fruition until the nineteenth century. The fruition is sometimes called the arithmetization of analysis, and involved the substitution of the limit method for fluxions in Newton and infinitesimals in Leibniz. This rigorous formulation of the calculus made possible engineering in its contemporary form, and rigorous engineering made it possible to bring the most advanced science of the day to the practical problems of industry. Intrinsically arithmetical realities could now be given a rigorous mathematical exposition.

Historians of mathematics and industrialization would probably cringe at my potted sketch of history, but here it is in sententious outline:

● Rigorization of mathematics also called the arithmetization of analysis

● Mathematization of science

● Scientific systematization of technology

● Technological rationalization of industry

I have discussed part of this cycle in my writings on industrial-technological civilization and the disruption of the industrial-technological cycle. The origins of this cycle involve the additional steps that made the cycle possible, and much of the additional steps are those that made logic, mathematics, and science rigorous in the nineteenth century.

The reader should also keep in mind the parallel rigorization of social institutions that occurred, including the transformation of the social sciences after the model of the hard sciences. Economics, which is particularly central to the considerations of industrial-technological civilization, has been completely transformed into a technical, mathematicized science.

With the rigorization of social institutions, and especially the economic institutions that shape human life from cradle to grave, it has been inevitable that the human condition itself should be made rigorous. Foucault was instrumental in pointing out salient aspects of this, which he called biopower, and which, I suggest, will eventually issues in technopower.

I am not suggesting this this has been a desirable, pleasant, or welcome development. On the contrary, industrial-technological civilization is beset in its most advanced quarters by a persistent apocalypticism and declensionism as industrialized populations fantasize about the end of the social regime that has come to control almost every aspect of life.

I wrote about the social dissatisfaction that issues in apocalypticism in Fear of the Future. I’ve been thinking more about this recently, and I hope to return to this theme when I can formulate my thoughts with the appropriate degree of rigor. I am seeking a definitive formulation of apocalypticism and how it is related to industrialization.

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Saturday


Was the rise of the middle class

Proletarians walter crane

a temporary aberration of industrial capitalism?


In several posts I have argued that the view that Marx may be dismissed because the end of the Cold War “proved” that capitalism has defeated communism (a thesis that might also be identified with Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis) is mistaken. I am not a Marxist sentimentalist, who, like many on the left today, needs to believe in Marx, including that which has been shown to be manifestly false or inadequate, but the point I want to make has nothing to do with a sentimental connection to Marxist thought. To twist the world around so that it either agrees perfectly with Marx or utterly overthrows Marx is to completely miss the point. What is the point? The point is to find that which is of perennial value in any first rate thinker.

Here are some of the posts in which I have addressed this question:

Globalization and Marxism

The Continuing Relevance of Marx

The Extinction of the External Proletariat

Marxist Easchatology

My argument in these posts has been that, since the industrial revolution is still unfolding, it is not yet the case, nor has it yet been the case in global history, that the economy of the entire world has been industrialized — a condition that I have called industrialization at totality. Therefore the predictions of Marx that, once industrialization had run its course, consolidations within industry would concentrate wealth at the top and gradually tend to immiserate the proletariat until the proletariat was better off overthrowing the few at the top and taking over industry for themselves, still remain as predictions that could be proved to be true by subsequent historical events.

We are now witnessing the extension of the industrial revolution to those parts of the world that were called the “Third World” during the latter part of the twentieth century. China and India are rapidly industrializing, and it is changing the overall structure of the world economy. It was just reported in the past week that, by 2030, China’s economy will be the largest on the planet (though not by a per capita measure). In the later twenty-first century, Asia will consolidate its industrialization while Africa will be well on its way to industrialization. Sometime in the twenty-second century we may see the entire world consisting of industrialized nation-states in which subsistence farming simply no longer exists.

In this scenario of global industrialization as I have outlined it above, it is likely that the living standards of peoples all over the world will have been greatly improved, and this flies in the face of the Marxist prediction of immiserization. If this is the case, there will be no incentive for worldwide proletarian revolution, and then at that time Marx will have been proved wrong. But the convergence of the world entire upon industrialization is only the beginning of the story.

We are now seeing in the advanced industrialized economies what industrialized capitalism looks like in its senescence, and what it looks like, unfortunately, is macro-parasitism in the form of crony capitalism. Those who are in a position of influence with respect to the privileged elites of industrialized nation-states shamelessly use their influence to obtain favorable circumstances for themselves and their cronies in industry. Thus while the initial stage of global industrialization will likely bring significantly higher living standards to the masses, if this system is allowed to develop globally as it has developed in North America and Western Europe — and I see no reason why it should not do so — what we will see one or two hundred years after the consolidation of global industrialization is a global regime of crony capitalism every bit as egregious as Marx predicted.

This is a development that we should all find worrying. We are in danger of creating a society as backward and as retrograde as feudalism at its worst, only feudalism with the instruments of industrialized technology at its command — something that Winston Churchill might well have called, “the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

While part of this development is due to blind forces acting within the economy, part of it is a policy choice that has been knowingly pursued by those in a position of political power. Of course, policy choices can, in turn, be the result of blind political forces, in contradistinction to the blind economic forces that act directly upon the economy, but the result is the same. When political organization careens thoughtlessly from one crisis to the next, never acting but only reacting to the forces to which it is subject, this is an abject dereliction of political responsibility by those placed in a position that gives them the opportunity to do something other than merely react to pressure.

In previous posts such as Celebrating the American Laborer and The Genealogy of Labor I have pointed out how the so-called “middle class” has been fetishized in American political thought, but even as it is fetishized it is being reduced to insignificance by the economic and political forces mentioned above. And because of the ability of large sections of the population to engage in economic self-deception (of the kind I described in Progress, Stagnation, and Retrogression), we might continue to frame ourselves as a “middle class society” for decades even while the middle class is disappearing.

So I, too, risk appearing as just another commentator bemoaning the loss of the middle class in the US, so that what I say is very likely to be drowned in the background noise of economic complaint. But the problem is real, and it is worse than we suppose. It is bad enough that in the advanced industrialized nation-states we could be said to be witnessing the re-proletarianization of the workforce. What is a proletariat? The word “proletariat” comes from the Latin prōlētārius, the lowest class of Roman citizens. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a proletariat as, “Wage earners collectively, esp. those who have no capital and who depend for subsistence on their daily labour” and “The lowest class in society; the poor, the masses.”

I have observed that absolutely no one today wants to be called a proletariat, and because of the economic self-deception that I described in Progress, Stagnation, and Retrogression it is entirely possible to be a proletariat for all intents and purposes while denying that one is such a thing — or even that there is such a thing. This is the opposite of class-consciousness: it is class unconsciousness. So if it is part of orthodox Marxist doctrine that class consciousness will emerge with the growth of the proletariat, then in this I think Marx was dead wrong. But if this sad scenario comes to pass, class unconsciousness will be sufficient, because we know from Freud that the unconscious can manifest itself in inconvenient forms, such as neuroses. We should expect to see, then, social neuroses — the sort of thing one would expect from neurotically miserable civilizations.

The proletariat is an industrial serf — the peasant of the factory system — and a serf or a peasant feels little or no connection to the social order of which we forms the lowest tier. This is a problem. If those whose work makes industrial-technological civilization function come to realize that they have no stake in this civilization, they will do nothing to sustain it, nothing to maintain it, nothing to preserve it if it is in danger. Thus the re-proletarianization of the workforce is potentially a profound source of existential risk — the risk of flawed realization.

It has been argued that a society must get its system of rewards more or less right if it is going to incentivize productive and innovative behaviors, and this is the argument that is used to defend stock options with an up side and no down side, to defend disproportionately large executive pay packages, and in general to defend every method that the privileged employ to milk the system for their own exclusive benefit. That these are spectacularly self-serving arguments made by the shills of the privileged class has not stopped them from being made — repeatedly.

But there are two sides to the incentive system: capital and labor, and labor requires its incentives no less than does capital. Some interesting results in experimental economics in scenarios designed by game theorists give us the precise counter-argument to the incentive system argument as used to defend the absence of upper bounds to elite compensation. One such game involves giving a certain amount of money to player A with the instruction that Player A must share the money with Player B. If player B accepts the proposed allocations of shares, both players get to keep the money; if player B rejects the allocation of shares, neither player gets anything. When such experiments are run, most offers made by player A are for a 50/50 split, and these offers are almost always accepted. When player A offers an allocation that disproportionately advantages player A, like a 90/10 split favoring player A, such allocations are almost always rejected. In other words, player B would usually rather get nothing than see player A get almost everything.

This is an ominous result for contemporary economics in the advanced industrialized nation-states, because the gradual convergence upon a “winner take all” incentive system is pushing the rewards system in the direction of giving the privileged classes almost everything while giving the unprivileged masses very little of what is available over all. Now we know from game theory and experimental economics that players almost always refuse such a deal when it confronts them in an explicit form.

It is no leap from this result to get to the point that the less privileged working classes who make the economies of advanced industrialized nation-states operate, when they fully realize that the deal they are getting is so disproportionately small, that they would prefer nothing at all to allowing the other player in the game to get almost everything. Of course, the masses are slow to realize this, and the elite classes who also operate the mass media are in no hurry to explain this to the masses. But we cannot count on a system of radically disproportionate rewards to last indefinitely.

If real, substantive, systematic, and effective measures are not taken to approach a more equal distribution of the rewards of industrial-technological civilization, Marx will be proved right in the long term. If those who are the primary producers of this wealth do not share in the wealth, they will see no reason to continue to cooperate in the production of wealth in which they do not share.

Of course, a lot can happen in the two to three hundred years it could take for global industrialization to consolidate its position and then to reach the sad state of crony capitalism now seen primarily in only the most mature industrialized nation-states. Unprecedented and unpredictable historical developments of many different forms could hold off global industrialization or direct it into unexpected channels. In such cases, the proof or disproof of Marx may have to wait even longer.

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Friday


Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal: The Virgin Mary of Breezy Point, as the sculpture has come to be known after Hurricane Sandy.

Recently, the largest city in the richest country in the world was hit by a storm of considerable strength (14 Stunning Sandy Statistics). Fatalities for the storm’s entire progress, from the Caribbean to New England, numbered a little less than two hundred; property damage is being quoted in the billions of dollars. It is more difficult to measure the disruption to business and individuals lives, but this too was considerable, and will continue for some time.

Cities are the centers of industrial-technological civilization, and they are vulnerable. Of course cities have always been important in the history of civilization; civilization began with cities like Çatal Höyük in present-day Turkey. Some cities are very old. Damascus has been a city for more than four thousand years. And some cities are quite young, like Brasília, which recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.

The city as a center of industrial production, organization, and finance is quite recent, however. Most industrial cities supervene on much older cities, and I have commented elsewhere how the tourist’s introduction to a legendary ancient city often involves a desultory bus trip through uninspiring suburbs and industrial development that seems to have nothing to do with the historical center around which this development took place. The industrial city that lies at the center of industrial-technological civilization almost always consists of those recently built portions of a city of a strictly utilitarian character, not excluding the contemporary research universities where the sciences and technologies that drive industry have their origins.

The cities of industrial-technological civilization are very recent, then, even when they supervene on much older cities, and are the result of the rapid and unprecedented urbanization that began with the industrial revolution and which continues today, even as we have recently passed the threshold of being a majority urbanized species. The oldest industrial cities are only about two hundred years old, many are less than a hundred years old, and many are less than fifty years old. In regions such as East Asia where the industrial revolution only arrived in the second half of the twentieth century, the process of urbanization is still getting underway, and the industrialized cities are very young, even as the cities upon which they supervene are very ancient.

86th Street Subway station flooded – Hurricane Sandy

The industrial revolution interpolated (and is interpolating) a radical historical discontinuity into the lives of industrialized peoples and their communities. As the industrial revolution arrives in a given region, an entire generation leaves en masse the countryside with all its ancestral memories going back to time out of mind, joining the steadily growing urban masses where they have established new lives, new homes, new traditions, and new communities. In the process of urbanization, the local knowledge of an entire people is obliterated in a single generation, and those thrust into a new and unprecedented social milieu find themselves daily discovering or inventing the knowledge of the ordinarily business of life that is necessary of industrial-technological urbanism.

In addition to the perennial human needs for food, water, waste disposal, clothing, and housing — all of which have been raised to a new order of magnitude by contemporary urbanization, and therefore in themselves pose an unprecedented challenge — there are more recent utility infrastructure developments that have become essential to contemporary industrial-technological urbanism: electricity chief among them, but also telephone lines, internet connectivity, cell phone signals, and wifi signals. few if any of these recent infrastructure additions have been robustly tested against natural disasters.

Natural disasters of the greatest scope occur infrequently, say one in one to five hundred years, and so we have a well-known phrase like, “100 year flood,” although hydrologists don’t use this terminology. Instead, hydrologists speak in statistical terms of “recurrence intervals” or “return period.” Similar considerations hold for other natural disasters besides floods: great fires, earthquakes, and the like. Pre-industrial civilization has been around long enough to have been exposed even of long recurrence intervals on the order of five hundred years, and if you see an area recently devastated by a natural disaster, you will often see that the oldest structure that pre-date industrial-technological civilization are still largely standing, even while recent construction has been leveled by the event. There is a reason for this.

Ancient cities were built, and devastated, and built again, and devastated again, and eventually people learned their lesson and figured out how to build cities that would not be leveled by likely local natural disasters. This is not true for industrial cities, as I have described industrial cities above. The whole of industrial-technological civilization has emerged in such a short period of time, and industrialized cities are so young, that many have not experienced a single natural disaster of any scope, because their entire history to date lies within a recurrence interval — just as the whole of human civilization lies within the present interglacial period.

The unparalleled opportunities brought by electricity, telecommunications, and internet connectivity come with associated risks and vulnerabilities. It is likely that at some point in history to come, a catastrophic outage of the internet could result in social unrest, or, at very least, the disruption of commerce sufficiently severe that ordinary people feel in going out the ordinary business of life. Of course, outages are restored, and cities are rebuilt, but it all comes at a cost since industrial-technological civilization is still very young, its learning curve is very steep.

It is also like that in some future war a major urban area will be subjected to an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that will destroy all but the most robust and hardened electrical appliances, and this will be an outage that will not soon be made good. But that is a subject for another post.

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Monday


When writing about civilization I have started using the term “industrial-technological civilization” as I believe this captures more accurately the sense of what is unique about contemporary civilization. In Modernism without Industrialism: Europe 1500-1800 I argued that there is a sense in which this early modern variety of civilization was an abortive civilization (a term used by Toynbee), the development of which was cut short by the sudden and unprecedented emergence of industrial-technological civilization (an instance of preemption). I also discussed this recently in Temporal Structures of Civilization.

What I am suggesting is that the industrial revolution inaugurated a novel form of civilization that overtook modernism and essentially replaced it through the overwhelming rapidity and totality of industrial-technological development. And while the industrial revolution began in England, it was in nineteenth century Germany that industrial-technological civilization proper got its start, because it was in Germany that the essential elements that drive industrial-technological civilization came together for the first time in a mutually-reinforcing feedback loop.

Karl Eduard Biermann (1803-1892) Borsig’s Maschinenbau-Anstalt zu Berlin (1847)

The essential elements of industrial-technological civilization are science, technology, and engineering. Science seeks to understand nature on its own terms, for its own sake. Technology is that portion of scientific research that can be developed specifically for the realization of practical ends. Engineering is the actual industrial implementation of a technology. I realize that I am introducing conventional definitions here, and others have established other conventions for these terms, but I think that this much should be pretty clear and not controversial. If you’d like the parse the journey from science to industry differently, you’ll still come to more or less the same mutually-reinforcing feedback loop.

The important thing to understand about the forces that drive industrial-technological civilization is that this cycle is not only self-reinforcing but also that each stage is selective. Science produces knowledge, but technology only selects that knowledge from the scientific enterprise that can be developed for practical uses; of the many technologies that are developed, engineering selects those that are most robust, reproducible, and effective to create an industrial infrastructure that supplies the mass consumer society of industrial-technological civilization. The process does not stop here. The achievements of technology and engineering are in turn selected by science in order to produce novel and more advanced forms of scientific instrumentation, with which science can produce further knowledge, thus initiating another generation science followed by technology followed by engineering.

Big science is made continually bigger by the relentless expansion of industrial-technological civilization.

Because of this unique self-perpetuating cycle of industrial-technological civilization, continuous scientific, technological, and engineering development is the norm. It is very tempting to call this development “progress,” but as soon as we mention “progress” it gets us into trouble. Progress is problematic because it is ambiguous; different people mean different things when they talk about progress. As soon as someone points out the relentless growth of industrial-technological civilization, someone else will point out some supposed depravity that has flourished along with industrial-technological civilization in order to disprove the idea that such civilization involves “progress.” The ambiguity here is the conflation of technological progress and moral progress.

How many poets today believe that they will improve upon the work of Shakespeare?

It is often said that poets only hope to produce poetry as good as that of past poets, and few imagine that they will create something better than Homer, Dante, Chaucer, or Shakespeare. The standards of poetry and art were set high early in the history of civilization, so much so that contemporary poets and sculptors do not imagine progress to be possible. One can give voice to the authentic spirit of one’s time, but one is not likely to do better than artists of the past did in their effort to give voice to the spirit of a different civilization. Thus it would be difficult to argue for aesthetic progress as a feature of civilization, much less industrial-technological civilization, any more than one would be likely to attribute moral progress to it.

Sir James Mackintosh

Contemporary thinkers are also very hesitant to use the term “progress” because of its abuse in the recent past. When a history is written so that the whole of previous history seems to point to some present state of perfect as the culmination of the whole of history, we call this Whiggish history, and everyone today is contemptuous of Whiggish history because we know that history is not an inevitable progression toward greater rationality, freedom, enlightenment, and happiness. Whiggish history is usually traced to Sir James Mackintosh’s The History of England (1830–1832, 3 vols.), and this was thought to inaugurate a particular nineteenth century fondness for progressive history, so much so that one often hears the phase, “the nineteenth century cult of progress.”

Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet

Alternatively, the origins of Whiggish history can be attributed to the Marquis de Condorcet’s Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind (1795), and especially its last section, “TENTH EPOCH. Future Progress of Mankind.”

Given the dubiousness of moral progress, the absence of aesthetic progress, and the bad reputation of history written to illustrate progress, historians have become predictably skittish about saying anything that even suggests progress, but this has created an historiographical climate in which any progress is simply dismissed as impossible or illusory, but we know this is not true. Even while some dimensions of civilization may remain static, and some may become retrograde, there are some dimensions of civilization that have progressed, and we need to say so explicitly or we will misunderstand the central fact of life in industrial-technological civilization.

Thus I will assert as the Industrial-Technological Thesis that technological progress is intrinsic to industrial-technological civilization. (I could call this the “fundamental theorem of industrial-technological civilization” or, if I wanted to be even more tendentious, “the technological-industrial complex.”) I wish to be understood as making a rather strong (but narrow) claim in so asserting the industrial-technological thesis.

More particularly, I wish to be understood as asserting that industrial-technological civilization is uniquely characterized by the escalating feedback loop of science, technology, and engineering, and that if this cycle should fail or shudder to a halt, the result will not be a stagnant industrial-technological civilization, but a wholly distinct form of civilization. Given the scope and scale of contemporary industrial-technological civilization, which possesses massive internal momentum, even if the cycle that characterizes technological progress should begin to fail, the whole of industrial-technological civilization will continue in existence in its present form for quite some time to come. Transitions between distinct forms of civilization are usually glacially slow, and this would likely be the case with the end of industrial-technological civilization; the advent of industrial-technological civilization is the exception due to its rapidity, thus we must acknowledge at least the possibility that another rapid advent is possible (by way of another instance of preemption), even if unlikely.

Because of pervasive contemporary irony and skepticism, which is often perceived as being sufficient in itself to serve as the basis for the denial of the technological-industrial thesis, one expects to hear casual denials of progress. By asserting the technological-industrial thesis, and noting the pervasive nature of technological progress within it (and making no claims whatsoever regarding other forms of progress — moral, aesthetic, or otherwise), I want to point out the casual and dismissive nature of most denials of technological progress. The point here is that if someone is going to assert that technological progress cannot continue, or will not continue, or plays no essential role in contemporary civilization, it is not enough merely to assert this claim; if one denies the industrial-technological thesis, one is obligated to maintain an alternative thesis and to argue the case for the absence of technological progress now or in the future. (We might choose to call this alternative thesis Ecclesiastes’ Thesis, because Ecclesiastes famously maintained that, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”)

The industrial-technological thesis has significant consequences. Since civilizations ordinarily develop over a long time frame (i.e., la longue durée), and industrial-technological civilization is very young, we can likely expect that it will last for quite some time, and that means that escalating progress in science, technological, and engineering will continue apace. The wonders that futurists have predicted are still to come, if we will be patient. As I observed above, even if the feedback loop of technological progress is interrupted, the momentum of industrial-technological civilization is likely to continue for some time — perhaps even long enough for novel historical developments to emerge from the womb of a faltering industrial-technological civilization and overtake it in its decline with innovations beyond even the imagination of futurists.

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Sunday


A few days ago in Myth, Ritual, and Social Consensus I expounded what I called the myth of the happy family. In that post I made a number of corollary claims that I had planned to develop more fully, but which I did not at that time expand upon.

Two unexplained asides in the following paragraph, taken that from post, in particular require further elaboration:

For every myth, there is a true believer out there (or many of them) for whom a given myth is an adequate expression of the world. By the same token, for every myth there is a skeptic (or many of them) who feel shortchanged by a myth that did not and could not be, for them, an adequate expression of life. So it was with the myth of the happy family. Some gloried in it; others despised it. Because a myth reaches only a part of a mass population on a visceral level, for the myth to have social efficacy it must be policed by social and state institutions. The myth of the happy family could only be perpetuated by the brutal suppression of any non-conforming element that defied the myth or failed to fulfill the rituals by which the myth was reenacted in the daily lives of the members of industrialized society. For example, the myth of the happy family essentially excluded social mobility.

The two items above that I want to discuss are:

“a myth reaches only a part of a mass population on a visceral level”

“the myth of the happy family essentially excluded social mobility

As for the first item, one of the important distinctions between the function of myths in traditional (non-industrialized societies) and the function of myths in contemporary societies is that contemporary societies are mass societies. Those mythologies that date to the Axial Age derive from societies in which the presence of a living god or the presence of a living prophet in the midst of the people was considered commonplace, and possibly also the conditio sine qua non of political society. The great gulf between the rulers and the ruled in traditional societies was paradoxically wedded to an intimacy born of very small societies

Intimacy between rulers and the ruled in traditional societies has been a casualty of mass society. Today rulers and ruled communicate through mass media outlets such as television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and the internet. However skilled contemporary politicians become in the exploitation of mass media, it is still mass media and it is not a personal, face to face encounter — not even from a distance.

The exponential increases in population that accompany the early stages if industrialization and urbanization (the result of improved nutrition and improved medical care) create mass society, and mass society can only be reached through the mass media. Even if a politician today preferred to meet constituents face to face, it is physically impossible for any one individual to meet millions of people; any politician who disdained the mass media would be defeated, so that the use the mass media is strongly selective. However, once mass media becomes the primary tool of political communication, it changes the nature of communication. Mass communication is de-personalized. Another word for “depersonalization” is “dehumanization.” We have all felt this, that the bureaucratic organization of mass society is depersonalizing and dehumanizing, even if we hesitate to admit to ourselves the full implications of this feeling.

A small, traditional society is dominated by personal relationships and interactions on a human scale. As we have seen, this is impossible in industrialized societies. In anonymity of mass society, social sanctions and social rewards that functioned efficiently in small, traditional societies function inefficiently or not at all. It would be extraordinarily difficult, in the midst of a large conurbation to, for example, enforce “shunning,” since a shunned individual or family could simply move to another neighborhood within the same large city. It is not at all unusual in our time for individuals to “re-invent” themselves by suddenly finding new friends, going to different places and participating in different events than those that has previously given structure to their lives. This kind of personal reinvention was impossible in the past for those who remained within their community.

In traditional societies, mythologies were coextensive with the closed social group that constituted the society. If anyone was alienated by the mythology that permeated a traditional society, they would have to leave because they could not avoid it. This is no longer true. Today, a particular mythology may be dominant, but the minorities that do not share the mythology are significant. In the early modern period, several nascent nation-states sought to purge their countries of non-conforming elements, as when France sought to expel or convert the Huguenots and Spain sought to expel or convert the Jews. For ideologically-motivated monarchs who sat at the head of the dominant mythology, there was a strong desire to “clean house,” but this strategy turned out to be economically ruinous. The practice has not entirely disappeared, as the Nazis tried to exterminate the Jews and recently several exercises in “ethnic cleansing” have sought to purge the body politics of elements deemed undesirable, but in democratic capitalism such efforts are difficult to carry out and counter-productive.

As a result of these trends, the dominant myth of a given mass society is probably only felt on a visceral level by a core minority in positions of privilege and status. This dominant minority that lives the myth might prefer that everyone shared their personal commitment to the mythology they understand to be central to their society, but such mythological conformity can no longer be enforced in fact, and an attempt to enforce it would be so socially disruptive that it would threaten the social cohesion of the society and therefore the myth itself.

As for the second item, that social mobility is largely excluded by the myth of the happy family, I suppose that some readers might find this an odd claim for me to make, since the myth of the happy family is so closely associated in the minds of many with the “American Dream,” and for many, again, the American Dream is nothing but social mobility: the you will eventually live better than when you started out, and that your children will live better than you, possibly joining the professional class and moving up in society not merely in terms of income and comfort, but also in terms of social status.

There are as many versions of the American Dream as there are hopeful Americans (and would-be Americans) dreaming for a better tomorrow for themselves and for their children. But in so far as the strong form of the myth of the happy family persists (and it is arguable that it no longer persists in its strong form at all today, even though it does persist in several weaker permutations), it excludes from under its “sacred canopy” anyone whose social status advances to the point that the rituals of domesticity by which individuals participate in the myth become impracticable or impossible. If you are always away rushing to meetings or flying to conferences, you can’t be at home to participate in daily family rituals. If you’re too busy to attend to domestic responsibilities yourself, and you hire help to clean or mow the lawn or to take care of your children, with each domestic responsibility relinquished there goes along with it one domestic ritual, and one less opportunity to participate in the myth of the happy family.

At least one of the drivers of social change in our time, which includes the process I have attempted to describe of seeking a new social consensus for the organization of industrial society, is the fact that the dominant minority who truly believe in and viscerally have felt the myth of the happy family are those who have been most successful and therefore most forced by circumstances to abandon the rituals of the happy family in order to attend to their duties to larger social wholes. Such individuals, trapped by their own feelings and beliefs, produce rationalizations and justifications for being absent from the formative events in their childrens’ lives, but precisely because they are true believers in the myth they know in their hearts that these rationalizations and justifications are just that — rationalizations and justifications.

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Thursday


In several posts I have suggested a generalization of Karl Jaspers idea of an “Axial Age.” For Jaspers (and Lewis Mumford, and others who have followed them), the “Axial Age” was a unique period of human history in which peoples all over the world generated the religious and philosophical ideas that were to inform all subsequent civilization, and chronologically corresponded to the period from about the 8th to 3rd centuries BC. I call the generalization of the idea of a “Axial Age” “axialization,” which seeks to understand the processes of Jasper’s Axial Age as a general historical process that is not confined to the single instance Jaspers had in mind.

The posts I have written on this include (inter alia):

The Aftermath of War

The Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm

Abortive Paradigmata

Axial Crisis or Axial Fulfillment?

Addendum on Axialization: Organicism and Ecology

I have just realized that axialization as an historical process is closely tied to institutionalization as an historical process. In so far as axialization involves a period of unusual intellectual innovation, creativity, and originality in which new ideas and new traditions emerge, it is to be expected that later less creative ages will seek to formulate, elaborate, and establish these intellectual innovations of an Axial Age, and this latter process is institutionalization.

The great religious traditions of the world’s great divisions of civilizations that were the focus of Jaspers’ conception of an Axial Age, I have previously observed, were all emergent from agricultural civilization, and, at least to a certain extent, reflect the concerns of agricultural civilization. In this spirit, I suggested that the the great cave paintings of the late Paleolithic in ice age Europe constituted an axialization of the nomadic paradigm of macro-history.

It now strikes me that not only were the great religious traditions of the world emergent from agricultural civilization, but all of these religions and all of their associated civilizations experienced both axialization and institutionalization under the agricultural paradigm. The institutions of organized religion that have largely served as the organizing principles of the associated civilizations were developed and formalized throughout the duration of agricultural civilization.

I suspect that, since the axialization of the nomadic period came so late in the human development of that period that this axialization never achieved institutionalization, both because the structures of nomadic life did not readily lend themselves to the establishment of institutions, and — just as importantly — because the macro-historical shift from nomadism to agriculturalism meant that the interest and focus of the greater bulk of the human population had shifted to other concerns with the emergence of settled agriculturalism. It is interesting to speculate what an institutionalization of nomadic axial ideas might have been, had settled civilization never emerged.

Agricultural civilization persisted for a period of time sufficient both for the axialization and institutionalization of the ideas implicit in this particular form of human life. Because the ideas implicit in agriculturalism received both axialization (an initial statement) and institutionalization (a definitive formulation), these ideas were not swept aside by the Industrial Revolution in the same way that the ideas implicit in the axialization of the Nomadic paradigm were swept away by agricultural civilization. The nomadic paradigm was swept away so completely by agricultural civilization that this entire epoch of human history was lost to us until it was recovered by the methods of scientific historiography. Throughout the agricultural paradigm, human beings knew nothing except the ideas of the agricultural paradigm. This gave agricultural civilization both a certain narrowness and a certain strength.

I speculated earlier that macro-history may exhibit a “speeding up” such that, while the axialization of the nomadic paradigm came very late in that very long-lasting paradigm, the axialization of the agricultural paradigm did not come nearly so late in the development of agriculturalism. Perhaps, I suggested, the axialization of the industrial paradigm will come even sooner in the relative history of that macro-historical division. But when I wrote that I was not counting on the fact that the institutionalization of the agricultural paradigm had given the axial ideas of agriculturalism a staying power beyond that macro-historical division itself.

Throughout most of the world today, agricultural civilization has been utterly swept away by the industrial revolution and ways of life have been radically change. Yet the ideas of agricultural civilization persist, and they persist partly because of their institutionalization and partly because nothing of commensurate scope and power has emerged to displace them.

Beyond the historical processes of axialization and institutionalization we may have to posit another stage — ossification — in which axial ideas are preserved beyond the macro-historical division that produced them. These ossified ideas serve a retrograde function in keeping human thought tied to a now-lapsed paradigm of human social interaction.

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Sunday


If you ever had it in mind to see the pristine northern coast of Kenya, and especially Lamu island with its UNESCO world heritage site old town and the Lamu archipelago, you had better get there soon. Africa is changing. Industrialization and development is coming to East Africa on a scale heretofore unprecedented. Now the project has officially gotten underway (Lamu port project launched for South Sudan and Ethiopia) and it is likely that the way of life in the region will be changed forever.

It would be difficult to name all the ways in which the planned port and its associated infrastructure will impact East African economic development. You can see on a map of Kenya’s road network that Lamu has been off the beaten track. The main A109 road of Mombasa to Nairobi follows pretty much the same path as existing rail infrastructure. The Lamu Port and Lamu Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) will involve road, rail, and oil pipeline connections to Lamu (as well as a port at Manda Bay, an oil refinery at Bargoni, three airports, and three resort cities). The map above shows some existing infrastructure as well as regions of Kenya slated for petroleum exploration. You can read a fairly detailed sketch of the petroleum geology of the region at the Africa Oil Corporation website. The company appears to be based in Vancouver B.C. In the map below you can see the proposed development, with the road, rail, and pipeline network passing through the area to be explored and connecting South Sudan and Ethiopia to Africa’s newest Port.

While many of the businesses in Lamu no doubt welcome the development, many in Lamu are concerned for their future, and rightly so. (Cf. Audio slideshow: Kenya dhow captain fears new port, Kenyan town awaits port with trepidation, and Save Lamu) It is likely that nothing will ever be the same again. Even if the governments involved in the project are good their word in attempting to retain the character of Lamu’s tourist area and in protecting the environment, economic development on this scale cannot fail to alter the way of life in the region. Construction crews will arrive, and they will need places to eat and sleep. They will also take time off, and they will have money to spend. All the familiar camp followers and profiteers will seek to relieve these construction workers of their paychecks, and in so doing they will make their own contribution to the economy of the area.

After the facilities are built and operational, different economic forces will come into play. There will be regular jobs with regular salaries, and their will be foreign experts and consultants who come. The burgeoning economies of India and China, and indeed many growing economies around the Indian Ocean, will have a growing appetite for oil, and as oil both increases in cost and begins to flow from South Sudan through Kenya and from Lamu’s port into ships that will sail the world’s oceans, the sheer volume of money involved in such transactions will influence life in the region as well. With money come bankers and financial services industries. With trade connections through the region come international relations and the need to be involved in the affairs of other nation-states.

LAPSSET is being billed as the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in Africa. It is not likely to be the last. Africa’s infrastructure has lagged substantially behind that of the industrialized world. This has retarded economic development. As Saudi oil money in the later twentieth century was re-lent out for infrastructure projects through the developing world, now in the twentieth century China’s capital generated from its rapid industrialization needs to find investment opportunities. Many of these are likely to be in Africa. There has been a steady stream of stories in the financial press of Chinese money and Chinese expertise employed in large development projects in Africa. I wrote about this in Unintended Consequences in Africa, and more recently the Chinese financed and Chinese built African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa was inaugurated by Chinese President Hu Jintao.

It is easy to read sinister implications into China’s involvement in Africa, as it was easy to read sinister implications in the disposition of Saudi oil money during the 1970s (think of what the term “petrodollars” means to most people). Money, like industrial development, takes on a life of its own. Both can be controlled (to a limited extent) and regulated (with more or less success), but neither can be wished away. Africa and China are today becoming locked into a “special relationship” because of historical contingencies that cannot be changed and must find some form of expression. It is in the interest of those nation-states that are already industrialized to contribute constructively to the development of Asia and Africa, rather than to respond with fear and apprehension.

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Note added 17 March 2012: There is an interesting article in the East African Standard, Lamu port deal leaves Khartoum feeling put out, describing Khartoum’s growing sense of isolation as a result of being denied membership in the East Africa Community (EAC) and the initiation of the Lamu port project, which includes a pipeline from Juba (in South Sudan) to Lamu. The Sudanese are even pursuing a case of “economic sabotage” at the African Union. Apparently, Sudanese officials haven’t read Hume’s argument about jealously of trade, or they would know that have a thriving East African Community on their border could only be good for the Sudanese economy.

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