Wednesday


Saint Augustine made a distinction between progress for the City of Man and progress for the City of God.

Recently I wrote about progress in Biology Recapitulates Cosmology where I contrasted Stephen J. Gould’s explicit anti-progressivism to more recent forms of progressivism found in futurism and technological thought. Western thought has a long history of finding both progress and decadence in its own historical record. Even as St. Augustine was writing while the Roman Empire was falling apart and there were barbarians literally at the gates of Hippo where Augustine was Bishop, Augustine acknowledged that the City of Man was in a bad way and likely to get worse, but the City of God was going from triumph to triumph as divine providence led the way — thus rescuing a kind of progress from the ruins of a civilization in the process of collapsing around him. Augustine’s was a brave gambit, and later attitudes tended to be more narrowly progressive or declinist, not making the distinction that Augustine made.

Is Augustine’s thought an example of smuggling progress into human history by way of divine providence, or are contemporary conceptions of progress a secularized formulation of divine providence, as Karl Löwith would have argued? This is an interesting question, but I am not going to try to answer it here. I have strong views on this, and I want to write a detailed post (or several posts) specifically about this question (though I have already written some specifically about the idea of secularization, in addition to citing Löwith’s influential work in several posts, such as Addendum on ontological extrapolation, Addendum on Incommensurable Civilizations, The Feast of Saint Nicholas, and Marxist Eschatology).

In any discussion of progress one must carefully distinguish between the kinds of progress that are possible. For example, we can distinguish at least technological progress and moral progress and aesthetic progress, just for starters. One might explicitly argue for technological progress, and all those measures of quality of life directly attributable to technological progress like per capita GDP, access to clean water, and so forth, while saying nothing about moral progress or aesthetic progress (as seems to be the case with Kevin Kelly’s explicit argument for progress in What Technological Wants). I don’t think that many people today would assert that the pictures painted today are obviously better than the pictures painted in the past even if our technology seems obviously superior. Therefore aesthetic stagnation might go hand-in-hand with technological progress. I also doubt that many today would argue that we are becoming obviously more ethical with the passage of time and the growth of technology.

It would also be a good idea to distinguish between stagnation and retrogression, so that we are thinking in terms of a continuum that runs between the polar concepts of progress and retrogression, with stagnation as the “golden mean” between the two (as it were). It is common to use the term “stagnation” not only to indicate a socioeconomic system that is moving neither forward nor backward, but also for socioeconomic systems that are losing ground and moving backward. Thus making the distinction between stagnation and retrogression, and placing both in relation to progress, allows us to differentiate societies that are static from societies that are declining. For lack of a better term, we can call the continuum between the polar concepts of progress and retrogression the continuum of progress.

To gain a proper appreciation for the role that the continuum of progress has played in human affairs we must further distinguish the perception of progress, stagnation, or retrogression from any quantifiable measure of progress, stagnation or retrogression. If we want to think about economics in isolation (i.e., in isolation from other possible social measures of progress), we can immediately see the significant role that perceptions play, as it is often claimed that the collective action of declining consumer confidence can cause an economy to go into recession even if there is no other trigger for an economic downturn. Keynes’ remarks about the role of “animal spirits” also has a role to play in economic perceptions in contrast to economic reality.

Human beings being what they are, a significant divergence between appearance and reality can be maintained for some period of time if enough people are prepared to delude themselves. This is am important point, so I want to go into it in more detail, and most especially I want to elucidate economic appearance and reality in terms of two philosophical ideas: self-deception and the sorites paradox.

I have mentioned in other posts that I think the role of self-deception in human affairs is greatly underestimated. Self-deception is simply lying to oneself, and it is especially associated with the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre. People lie to themselves all the time, and for a variety of motives. If you approach life as though everyone was always on the up-and-up, you will soon find yourself disabused of that illusion, for it is illusion rather than reality that is the order of the day in human affairs. Human society only exists in virtue of a complex tapestry of fine-crafted duplicity that people teach themselves to believe in as the price of being part of any society.

The sorites paradox is an ancient idea associated with the ambiguous use of terms. If you have a heap of grains of sand, and take away one grain of sand at a time, when does it cease to be a heap? Contrariwise, if you begin adding one grain of said to another, when does it begin to be a heap? The same paradox is also formulated in terms of baldness: if you pluck the hair off a head one by one, when does the head qualify as being bald?

So, what do self-deception and the sorites paradox have to do with the continuum of progress as it applies to economic appearance and reality? Economic progress is one of the most quantifiable forms of progress of all human endeavors. Whatever economic measure we care to take — GDP, per capita GDP, steel production, potable water, and so forth — we can measure these and monitor progress based upon them. If you decide that progress is a nation-state in which there is a chicken in every pot, you can measure if there is a chicken in every pot, and how often, etc. So it would seem, given these relatively discrete measures, that the measurement of economic progress would be difficult to fudge.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and much of this has to do with the predominant role that human perception plays in large economies that can only be measured statistically. Because of the potential divergence between economic perception and economic reality, a population might believe itself to be experiencing progress even while it is moving backward. Or a population might believe itself to be moving backward even while objective measures demonstrate progress (of whatever sort of progress is defined as progress by that society).

Statistical measures of a large economy bear a strong resemblance to the sorites paradox. You might be able to demonstrate that a population is incrementally growing wealthier, but since a heap of wealth is always just a heap of wealth, and you don’t notice a few dollars more or a few dollars less, any more than you would notice a few grains of sand more or less on a heap of sand, it is entirely possible that even as a society grows wealthier, it might believe itself to be growing poorer, or even as a society is growing poorer, it might believe itself to be growing richer. Such counter-factual perceptions, if maintained by collective self-deception, can make an entire nation believe that it is going in the right direction when it is not, or vice versa.

Schumpeter noted that the growth of mature industrialized economies usually hovers about two percent, and although this modest two percent growth will double the size of the economy every 35 years — which is an impressive achievement if we think of the long history of stagnation of agricultural civilization — it probably isn’t enough to satisfy those who believe that they are getting a bad deal from the system. Schumpeter might have also noted that a two percent growth rate wouldn’t be noticeable from year to year, even if it is noticeable in the longer term — being noticed is different from being measurable. And if we add the difficulty of noticing two percent growth to the possibility of collective self-deception that growth is not happening, well, people may well believe that they are going backward even when the economy doubles in size every generation.

What I wrote in the above paragraph about growth also holds for economic decline: a decline of two percent per year might never be noticed year-on-year, even if it is obvious over the longer term. And if there is a collective self-deception that things are getting better, because we want to believe that things are getting better, people can easily delude themselves that the world is improving even as they are impoverishing their descendents.

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Monday


In The Industrial-Technological Thesis I characterized industrial-technological civilization as involving an escalating cycle of science, technology, and engineering, each generation of which feeds into the next so that science makes new technologies possible, new technologies are engineered into new industries, and new industries create the instruments for further scientific research. I further argued in Civilization, War, and Industrial Technology that the only property more pervasively inherent in industrial-technological civilization than escalating feedback is war — since escalating feedback is characteristic only of The Industrial-Technological Thesis, whereas war typifies all civilization. Thus technological growth and war are both structurally inherent in The Industrial-Technological Thesis, so much so that to entertain the idea of civilization without either is probably folly.

Now I realize that in recounting the escalating spiral of science, technology and engineering, that I was recounting only the “creative” side of the “creative destruction” of industrialized capitalism, and that the creative destruction of capitalism as it is played out in industrial-technological civilization also has a destructive side that is expressed in a way entirely consonant with the distinctive character of industrial-technological civilization. Each phase in the cycle of science, technology, and engineering fails in a distinctive (and in a distinctively interesting) way.

The counter-cyclical trend to that of the exponentially escalating spiral of science, technology, and engineering is the exponentially deescalating downward trend of science in model crisis, stalled technology, and catastrophic failures of engineering. Science falters when model drift gives way to model crisis and normal science begins to give way to revolutionary science. Human beings, being what they are, have invested science with the “truth” once reserved for matter theological; but science has no “truths” — there is only the scientific method, which remains the same even while the knowledge that this method yields is always subject to change. Technology falters when its exponential growth tapers off and its attains a mature plateau, after which time it changes little and becomes a stalled technology. Engineering falters when industries experience the inevitable industrial accidents, intrinsic to the very fabric of industrialized society, or even experience the catastrophic failures to which complex systems are vulnerable.

Industrial accidents are intrinsic to industrialized society, and cannot be wished away.

I hadn’t previously thought of these disruptions to industrial-technological civilization together, but now that I see them whole I see that I have already written separately about all the phases of failure that so closely parallel the successes of industrialization. Mostly, I think, these disruptions have taken place separately, and have therefore only proved to be temporary disruptions in the rapidly-resuming cycle of technological growth. However, once we see the possible failures as a systemic, counter-cyclical trend that destroys old knowledge, old technology, and old industries in order to make room for the new, we can easily see the possibility of an escalating disruption in which scientific model crisis would limit knowledge, limited knowledge would lead to long term stalled technologies, and stalled technologies would lead to escalating industrial accidents and complex catastrophic failures.

None of this, of course, is in the least bit surprising. Ever since the industrialized warfare of the twentieth century we have been discussing the possibility that industrial-technological civilization will more or less inevitably destroy itself. Civilization, when it was suddenly and unexpectedly preempted by industrialization, has opened Pandora’s box, and the evils that fly free cannot be shut back inside.

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Creative Destruction

15 August 2012

Wednesday


Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase ‘creative destruction’ to describe the growth of a capitalist economy.

The phrase “creative destruction” is indissolubly linked to Joseph Schumpeter, who coined it. Schumpeter devotes a chapter of his masterpiece, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, to “The Process of Creative Destruction.” It has been observed that Schumpeter’s work was neglected for decades until in the late twentieth century the role of the entrepreneur in economic growth began to be appreciated.

I would argue that half of Schumpeter’s famous phrase continues to be neglected today, since the focus on entrepreneurial activity has primarily taken the form of singing the praises of innovation and the virtues of start ups, without an equal appreciation of the importance of business failure, bankruptcy, and economic collapse, despite the very prominent role that all of these phenomena have in the world today. It has been said that capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity with Hell, and this comparison is telling, more telling than I think most people realize, because the doctrine of Hell is about as unpopular as the idea of bankruptcy.

What events in recent world history have been more important than, for example, the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, the dot com crash, the bankruptcy of Enron, or the bankruptcies of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns? There have been many events of roughly equal importance to these massive examples of the “destructive” phase of “creative destruction,” creative examples among these, but it would be difficult to name obviously more important events that these for shaping the world in which we live.

I think it is probably a little exhilarating for business types and economists to talk about the virtues of innovation, but the exclusive focus on innovation creates a kind of conceptual vacuum around its opposite number, but we are in as much need to innovative forms of business dissolution as for business innovation. The recent financial crisis and the consequent “great recession” (as it is now being called) focused a lot of attention on enterprises that were perceived to be “too big to fail.” That is to say, if very large institutions were allowed to fail catastrophically, the damage throughout the economy could be greater than that of keeping a failing business afloat. “Too big to fail” talk was also a constant accompaniment of many national crises, like that in Greece now, or the Argentine debt default more than ten years ago. I can easily imagine, in this spirit, someone arguing that the Soviet Union was “too big to fail.” In fact, I am certain that there are those who are argued that an engineered “soft landing” for the Soviet Union might have come at a lower human cost than that more or less catastrophic failure that the Soviet Union did indeed experience.

It is just as important for us to rid ourselves of what we no longer need as to innovate new products that are suddenly the thing that everyone needs. In my discussion of technological succession I emphasized that apparently exponential technological growth is often the result of several overlapping technologies succeeding each other in quick succession. This has certainly been the case with personal computers, as one generation of technology has rapidly succeeded another, and people have thrown out one computer after another as technology advances so quickly that the old computers are not merely inconvenient, but essentially useless.

There have been many news stories about computer waste, so if an individual wants to be informed about the process, the information is there for the taking. I recommend, rather than reading some news stories, watching the film Manufactured Landscapes, about the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky, in which you can see the painstaking work in a Chinese village of breaking up old computer parts, as well as the much larger scale but essentially parallel task of the ship breaking yards of Bangladesh.

It isn’t just individual objects like computers and ships that must be destroyed, or simply abandoned and allowed to sink into the landscape. In my post on Failed Cities I suggested that the process applies to entire cities as well:

“…industrial succession is part of the Industrial Revolution, and that the civilization that has emerged from industrialized societies is a civilization that must reckon with the industrial succession that comes with the Industrial Revolution. The rational approach to this would be to plan for cities to emerge around particular technologies, and for these same cities to be abandoned gradually as that same technology inevitably becomes obsolete.”

Ideally, the rational approach to obviously temporary supply chains would to build the facilities with the intention that they will be taken down and taken apart when this particular industrial process is succeeded by another industrial process. Unfortunately, civilization has not yet reached the point at which this level of planning and foresight can be integrated into large scale business operations.

In another sense, however, cities do in fact embody this idea — cities actually embody creative destruction — in the way that the build environment on the whole is always in flux. The same film I mentioned above in connection with computer waste disposal, Manufactured Landscapes, also features the ever-changing urban landscape of Shanghai.

Cities that have been continuously inhabited for long periods of time are inevitably built up and built over, sometimes intentionally destroyed no longer useful structures, and sometimes having existing structures destroyed by war or natural disasters. This is what makes cities so fascinating to archaeologists, since anywhere you dig is likely to reveal the history of the site in the layers below ground.

The city, then, considered from the perspective of the big picture and la longue durée, are or ought to be the model for the economy overall, which suggests that cities are the macroscopic model of rebuilding that needs to be realized on a microscopic level throughout the economy. We need an urbanism of objects to take control of our economic innovation and dissolution. Perhaps most macro-economic planning has been a failure in part due to the fact that it has not been conceived in this way.

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