Dateline 2010: the world-historical situation

In the twilight century of western civilisation, the US, the last resting place of western power, has as its primary purpose the containment of rising China. China has as its primary purpose to put the world 'back to rights'. It is playing a waiting game, and is anxious not to jump the gun.

Dark Age Watch (DAW on hold.)

Issue du jour 1: War with Iran--important to containing China but delayed over two years

Issue du jour 2: The world economy--unbalanced, interwoven, delusional--some predict its unravelling

Issue du jour 3: Somalia--leading the world into a dark age

Issue du jour 4: Pirates exploit the decline of international order

Sunday, 29 April 2007

Outward pressure

Easter Island is a triangular speck in the Pacific Ocean, over a thousand miles from the nearest inhabited land. When it was 'discovered' by the Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen, on Easter Sunday 1722, it already had people living on it.

Humans had only been on Easter Island since about AD 1000. Nevertheless, that they had reached this remote spot points to humanity's strong centrifugal tendency. Humans were already in Australia a few thousand years after our emergence as a species, and that journey would have required a sea crossing at some point.

This shows that people do not naturally live together at high densities. They are driven, to some extent, to get away from each other. This outward pressure has several aspects:

  1. For a given technology and way of life, a particular land area will support a limited number of people. As population increases, humans find it easier to move to empty land than to develop ways of supporting more people from the same territory.
  2. Living together causes friction and conflict. Some people may bully others or may impose themselves on others in an effort to keep order. At least part of the population finds it preferable to move away, rather than stay and have its freedom curtailed.
  3. While many humans are happy to drift along with what they know, others have a high degree of 'natural curiosity' that makes them want to explore beyond the known, both geographically and in other ways.

It is now fairly clear, based on genetic data, that humans arose in Africa recently, and spread out from there. Modern humans are therefore all quite closely related.

Nevertheless, I disagree in detail with current reconstructions of the peopling of the world (link requires Google Earth; a Google Maps version is here). According to the view presented in the preceding link, while people reached Australia about 40,000 BC, they did not reach North Africa until 20,000 BC, even though they had evolved on the African continent. Furthermore, while people had got half-way down the African coast by 40,000 BC, they supposedly did not reach the southern tip of Africa until 25,000 BC, even though they were in China and Spain by 40,000 BC and in Britain only a couple of thousand years later. Such a pattern makes little sense and rather shows the limitations of the gene-mapping methodology on which this reconstruction is based.

I suggest that, after emerging in central east Africa, the human species spread to and throughout every continent within a few thousand years, say around 40,000 BC. Only the peopling of oceanic archipelagoes that are not connected to the mainland by chains of intervisible islands did not occur until much later, say from about 5000 BC.

(Although mainstream opinion holds that humans did not move into the Americas until after about 15,000 BC, some archaeologists do place the entry into the Americas around 40,000 BC, on the basis of sites that remain controversial.)

I am still researching this issue...

Saturday, 28 April 2007

Now we are awake

Clive Wearing was a musician who in the 1980s suffered an infection that destroyed his hippocampus, the part of the brain that lays down long-term memories. Thereafter Clive was unable to remember anything beyond a few minutes at a time. He lived in an eternally fleeting present, in his wife's words 'with no past to anchor it and no future to look ahead to'. As if to compensate, he maintained a diary in which he jotted down his thoughts every two or three minutes. The entries in the diary looked something like this:

10.20 Awake at last
10.23 Actually now I am awake
10.25 The above is mistaken. I am awake now!
10.28 No, no, no. NOW I am completely awake.
10.33 Now I really am awake.
Etc. (See C Blakemore The mind machine pp. 55-8)

The human race suffers from a similar kind of amnesia. Each generation believes that it, at last, is awake, and that its parents and all the generations that went before were scarcely conscious.

This is what lies behind the belief that, until very recently, change has been minimal and only in our era has humanity achieved social and technological take-off. Previous generations are thought to have slumbered their way through lives that showed little variation from start to finish.

In my last post, I quoted a recent writer making this point. Another recent expression of it is the claim of the psychiatrist, R D Laing that "We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is disappearing".

To show that this attitude is itself a constant of history--just as Clive Wearing constantly believed himself to be waking up--I would like to offer some quotations from earlier writers on the same topic...

Our century has more history in its hundred years than had the whole world in the previous four thousand years; more books have been published in the last century than in the five thousand years before it; for it has profited by the recent inventions of typography, cannon and the marine compass.
-- Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639)

We have raised up a truly philosophical age, in which the deepest recesses of nature are laid open, in which splendid arts, noble aids to convenient living, a supply of innumerable instruments and machines, and even the hidden secrets of our bodies are discovered; not to mention the new light daily thrown upon antiquity.
-- Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716)

No age hath been more happy in liberty of enquiry than this.
-- Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Whoever reads these chronicles will find that, from the birth of Christ on, the whole history of the world in these hundreds of years is unparalleled, in every way.
-- Luther (1483-1546, in 1521)

I owe all the above to Pitirim Sorokin in Social and cultural dynamics pp. 272-3. To continue...

[The pace of change today] makes my head giddy.
-- Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95)

What marvellous, stupendous accomplishments human effort has achieved.
-- Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

As for the arts and skills, both those useful for the necessities of life and those created for pleasure, they were either invented or tested by our city [Athens], who then passed them to the rest of the human race to use.
-- Isocrates (436-338 BC)

The discovery of a means to test weights by balances and scales has delivered our life from fraud...Countless numbers of machines also exist...[and] are at hand every day: mills, blacksmiths' bellows, wagons, two-wheeled vehicles, turning lathes, and other things...
-- Vitruvius (1st century AD)

Monday, 23 April 2007

Human achievements

It is usual to think of human development as being very slow until recently, when it suddenly took off. Here is a typical quote, from the British sociologist Anthony Giddens, relying on the American political scientist John H Kautsky: is the 'relatively overwhelming absence of major social and economic
change' that characterizes the variant forms of society that existed across the
face of world history until some two or three centuries ago.

(Giddens The constitution of society p. 199)

When one thinks of the inventions of the last one or two hundred years--radio, the internal combustion engine, heavier-than-air flight, spaceflight, computers and the internet--it certainly looks as though many dramatic innovations have occurred in a very short time. Compared to the 30,000 years of the upper paleolithic, when people continued to live by hunting and gathering, the twentieth century seems to have been characterised by dizzying change.
One can also predict this on theoretical grounds. The more people on the planet, and the more technology there already is, the faster we might expect inventions to come.
Yet how should we measure the significance of an invention?
Which was more revolutionary: the invention of the typewriter or the invention of writing? There is a case for saying that the change from a world without writing to a world with writing was more fundamental than the mere technical improvement represented by the typewriter. The word processor is another (impressive) improvement within a long list of improvements affecting writing, such as paper, ink and moveable type, but neither it nor any of these is as revolutionary in its implications as the invention of literacy itself. The word processor is a great boon, but it is just a better way of producing letters and reports. It has not transformed society that much, if we remember that people still managed to organise such things as the Normandy landings or the Apollo programme without it.
The internet, too, could be seen as just another incremental improvement in information technology, building on the original invention of writing. In other words, in this important area of life, the really dramatic change occurred some five thousand years ago. Everything since has been by way of refinement only.

The invention of writing was revolutionary. Everything since can be seen as a technical improvement in the ability to prepare and disseminate written information.

In ancient times, people were already writing letters and books. Through letters, people could carry on conversations when they were physically separated. Through books, people became exposed to ideas and participated in a far-flung intellectual community. What are email and the world wide web but just better ways of achieving the same thing?
All we are seeing today are the latest twists in a long process of getting more information, more quickly to more people. Ever since the invention of writing, there has been almost continual improvement, both technological and institutional. For instance, communications could be improved by better transport or cheaper writing materials, and these could result from technical innovations as well as from the efforts of politicians and entrepreneurs in setting up factories and commercial networks. To give a couple of examples:
  • In Roman times, communications were improved not only by the building of roads but by the cursus publicus (public mail), which was initially set up for governmental purposes but was also used by private persons. A system of relay stations, where horses were changed, allowed mail to be carried over hundreds of miles at the rate of a horse's gallop.
  • In eighteenth century Britain, communications improved as tarmac and sprung carriages enhanced the speed and ease of road transport. A network of stage coaches was set up, distributing mail throughout the country.

One might also mention things like the postage stamp and the fountain pen, as well as the continuous evolution of printing since the days of Gutenburg and Caxton. A list of all the inventions and improvements that have advanced information technology would be enormous and would show that in every period, not just in recent times, people might have perceived themselves to be living amidst great changes.

An effect of the internet has been a 'democratisation' of information flow. Blogging allows anyone to publish their opinions, and through blogs we are exposed to alternative narratives beyond those of the 'mainstream media'. We need not believe everything we read, but sceptical commentary ('conspiracy theory') surrounding events such as 9/11 alerts us to possibilities that mainstream channels might wish to conceal. We can take a more intelligent view of what we are being told and it is seemingly harder for the authorities to deceive and control their populations. This feels like a revolutionary social change, but such democratisation has always been an accompaniment of improving information technology. It is said that the introduction of printing loosened the hold of the church over what was published, and helped stimulate the Christian Reformation. The first newspapers and journals in the eighteenth century would have seemed as excitingly subversive as blogs do today, and like blogging they were made possible by technological improvements, in this case to do with better printing presses and the distribution networks created by the stagecoach.

If we think of truly revolutionary inventions--those that are not just an improvement to an existing technique but stand themselves at the beginning of a long process of improvement--they might be more evenly distributed throughout history than we appreciate. Things like agriculture and metal-working were enormously transforming in their day, and unleashed tremendous potential for the future progress of the human race. How can we seriously think of the first generations to farm the land or to cast bronze and still agree with the above quotation that 'social and economic change' was 'overwhelmingly absent' until recent times.

Revolutionary, transforming innovations have occurred throughout history, and the more recent innovations are not necessarily more significant than those of the past.

If things that initially seem revolutionary like word processing and printing can be seen as incremental improvements, then what seem to us like small changes in, say, the design of stone tools might have seemed quite revolutionary when they were made. To us stone tools are just stone tools, but to people who knew nothing else subtle variations would have been important, and perhaps made as much difference to their way of life as the move from typewriters to word processing has made to the task of running a business today. In the same way, what seem to us like big changes, such as the introduction of the internal combustion engine, may seem like trivial improvements to people in the far future--yes, we have dispensed with the horse but otherwise we are still crudely travelling around in four-wheeled vehicles along streets and roads on the planet's surface. When people are zipping from galaxy to galaxy by some form of matter transportation, the difference between a motor-car and a horse-and-cart will not seem that great.

Those fundamental inventions that were made long ago, such as farming, writing and metal-working, did not come entirely out of the blue (I will deal with this in a later post). Nevertheless, insofar as their inventors had fewer models to go on than inventors do today, their achievement might be seen as all the greater. Something like the sewing needle has barely changed since it was invented 30,000 years ago. It was brought to perfection by people living in paleolithic times, and yet it remains a vital component of our technology (I thank my sister for this example).

I do not want to turn things on their head and argue that it was the stone age people who were the real innovators. What I do want to point out is that innovation and change have been part of human experience from the beginning, and the idea that things have dramatically sped up in our own time is a matter of subjective perception as much as objective fact.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Periodisation and orientation

In earlier posts, I talked about the overall history of the human race, from its beginnings forty or fifty thousand years ago to its culmination a million or so years from now. I did this so as to dispel the chronocentrism or distortion that comes from viewing history from our particular vantage point.

Since we represent the greatest level of advancement humanity has yet achieved, we tend to have a conceited view of ourselves and of our importance in history. It is common to talk of things happening in our day as 'unprecedented'. Of course, they are unprecedented, but this is an inevitable consequence of the fact that we live in the present and at the forward edge of time, as every generation has done and must do.

The people who lived two thousand years ago did not think of themselves as the ancient Romans, living in the past. They thought of themselves as the most sophisticated, technologically advanced civilisation that the world had ever seen, and that is what they were. Only now do we see them as part of history.

What we must not forget is that we, and our time, are also part of history, which started a long time ago and will continue a long time after we are gone. Once we were the future; today, for a brief moment, we are the present, where everything seems to be happening; and for the remainder of eternity we will be the past, getting deader and more ancient as time goes on.

History is a continuously unfolding saga, and we are just at the latest point of it.

Now that that point has, I hope, been made, I want to concentrate on the history that has actually happened.

We can begin by thinking in terms of the three ages--stone, bronze and iron--that were defined by the Danish archaeologist, Christian Jürgen Thomsen (1788-1865) and his Swedish pupil J J A Worsaae (1821-85). This scheme is a convenient simplification. There was no sharp transition between the various ages, and they occurred at different times in different parts of the world. People continued using stone tools during the bronze age, and they were already experimenting with iron long before the bronze age was over.

The human species emerged in the middle of an ice age, the Würm glaciation, which had then been going on for 60,000 or 70,000 years. (This was just the latest cold snap within the ice age proper, which started 40 million years ago and became more intense 3 million years ago, with repeated cycles of cooling and warming.)

The emergence of humans marks the beginning of the Upper paleolithic (paleolithic = 'old stone' [age]) . Stone tools were being made before this by sub-human hominids, but hundreds of thousands of years could go by with little change in their sophistication. The Upper paleolithic was characterised by more advanced stone-working, a shorter duration, and a process of continual improvement.

With the end of the ice age, it is conventional to recognise the beginning of a new period, the Mesolithic (middle stone age), some 30,000 years after humans emerged. This was characterised by finer stone blades, or microliths, which included arrowheads. It is mainly relevant to Europe, since Africa and the Middle East were already steaming into the Neolithic. This shows the relative arbitrariness of the division into distinct periods; we could as easily consider it a sub-stage within the paleolithic.

The Neolithic (new stone age), from 8000 BC, corresponds to the introduction of agriculture (until now, people had largely hunted and lived off the land). Cities arose in the Middle East, and, though this was still the 'stone age', copper and gold began to be worked (archaeologists sometimes speak of a separate 'Copper Age' or Chalcolithic).

The Bronze age came in from around 3500 BC, when people began mixing copper with tin or arsenic to produce bronze, this being harder and more useful than pure copper.

Finally, the Iron age came in some time after 1000 BC. In so far as hammers and cutting edges continue to be made of steel (an iron alloy known virtually from the beginning of the iron age), we can regard ourselves as in the iron age to this day.

I return to the point that this periodisation is a matter of convenience, to give us some signposts. We should not imagine that a gong rang and suddenly the stone age turned into the bronze age etc. Rather one thing led to another, and everything grew out of what had gone before. Nor should we imagine that the raw materials--stone, bronze, iron--were the be-all and end-all. It is just that these survive best in the soil and are most noticeable to archaeologists. There was also continuous development in other technologies and in the more intangible social, economic and political institutions.

Monday, 2 April 2007

The terrible coming of iron

In an earlier post, I presented history as a straight line of steady, upward growth in human capability. This is true only to a first approximation.

Examining history at the next level of detail reveals occasional dark ages, during which the documentary and archaeological records are meagre. This meagreness would appear to be the result of retrenchment in both government and commerce, whereby people no longer produced the kind of durable remains that would survive to the present.

As well as times of retrenchment, these dark ages were also times of innovation, being associated with major transformations of society.

Take as an example the dark age that affected early civilisations in the eastern end of the mediterranean and south-west Asia, around 1000 BC, and that was linked to the introduction of iron. [See a map of the inter-bronze-iron dark age (c. 1200-700 BC) here, in Google Earth. For a Google Maps version, go here.]

The story went something like this. A series of bronze age societies had taken shape over the preceding millennium and were in relative equilibrium, both internally and in their interactions with each other. The introduction of iron changed the equation, and upset the logic on which these societies were based.

  1. Whereas the ingredients of bronze, copper and tin, are found only in a few places, iron is found practically everywhere. Although iron-working requires a more advanced technology, once the process was developed, it could be adopted by almost anyone. The people who had grown rich and powerful controlling the sources of raw materials and distribution networks for the bronze-based economy, suddenly saw their livelihoods disappear.
  2. Since iron-working did not spread instantaneously, those who adopted it first had a great edge over rivals who were still complacently using bronze. Societies that had been most successful with bronze technology were, if anything, least enthusiastic about making the switch, and their rulers and peoples suddenly lost the dominant position they had enjoyed.
As commercial networks collapsed and previously marginal groups began to assert themselves, people struggled to achieve a new equilibrium, i.e. a new way of life adapted to the availability of iron. It is this upheaval that lies behind the meagreness of the historical record. People stopped building large structures, such as palaces, temples and other monuments; trade dwindled, leaving few artefacts for us to find; and society no longer supported administrators and scholars, the kinds of people who generate written records.

It took up to several hundred years to attain the new equilibrium, but when violence abated and commerce resumed, society had been transformed.

In some respects, iron had a 'democratising' effect, producing a proliferation of small states, in which people were given a say in governing themselves. Being less scarce than bronze, it was also less exclusively directed towards elite consumption, and there emerged a middle class, producing and consuming iron-related goods and services. At the same time, iron allowed some rulers to amass military power and conquer a succession of empires. Slavery, although it had existed before, became widespread and endemic, with a large part of the population reduced to unfree status and traded as a commodity.

The author Jim Bailey has characterised these changes, and the disruption from which they emerged, as 'the terrible coming of iron'. This was also the view of the Greek poet Hesiod (late 8th century BC), who regarded the iron-using world of his time as harsher and more miserable than the preceding era of bronze (with a 'race of heroes' having dominated the centuries of conflict between the two).

To sum up, the political, economic and social institutions that 'worked' for the bronze age were not those that would 'work' for the iron age. The period during which bronze institutions were transformed into iron institutions appears from our perspective as a dark age.

I have given this account of the coming of iron not for its own sake but to illuminate a general principle.

History is not a process of steady upward movement but is characterised by periodic setbacks. These setbacks, rather than being mere interruptions to progress, are necessary and fundamental to the way that progress occurs. I call this the phoenix principle.

I would like to make two further points.
  1. This explanation of the bronze-iron dark age does not mean that technology drives history. It only says that to go from bronze to iron required passage through a dark age. What drove that change is another matter, which we will come to.
  2. As an account of some five centuries of history, the above is highly simplified. The aim is to introduce and illustrate the phoenix principle. Ultimately we are going to need more than the phoenix principle to understand history, but we must learn to walk before we run.

Sunday, 1 April 2007

A demonstration of self-organised criticality

I do not want to overstress the concept of self-organised criticality (SOC), but it is something I will be returning to from time to time.

The following program shows SOC with an example from Per Bak's How Nature Works. The square at top left is a simulated sandpile. When you press the Step button, a 'sand grain' is added to a random position on the pile. If the height at a given position is 4 grains or more, the height is decreased by 4 and 1 grain is added to each of the neighbouring positions, to the north, east, west and south. If the position is at the edge, the grains 'fall off the side'. The height at a given position is shown by shades of grey, with white for 0 grains and black for 3 grains. A field shows the mean height across the whole sandpile.

At first, grains appear in scattered positions, but eventually the pile has grown to the extent that 'avalanches' can occur, whereby the grains 'toppling' from one position cause other positions to become too high and they topple in turn. A field shows the size of each avalanche, in terms of the number of positions where there is a change in height (minimum 1).

As the simulation proceeds, the number of avalanches of different sizes is recorded and eventually a log-log graph is plotted, i.e. a plot of log(NS) against log(S), where S is the size of avalanche and NS the number of avalanches of that size. The tell-tale signature of SOC is that such a graph should give a straight line.

Pressing the Step button repeatedly is time-consuming and labour-intensive. Instead, you can press the Run button, which keeps stepping automatically. To pause the simulation, press the Run button again. After the graph has been plotted, the simulation goes into Pause mode, but you can start it again by pressing the Run button.

A field shows the number of events to collect before plotting the graph. This is initially set to 10,000, but you may change it to any value. If the simulation is in Run mode, changing the value does not take effect until after it has gone back to Pause mode.

I may be improving this program in due course.