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

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Three great eigenmodes

Societies have existed so far in three basic eigenmodes. (Some might argue for a fourth eigenmode; see below.)

I have described two of these eigenmodes already: hunter-gatherers such as the San, and cities such as New York. The third eigenmode is intermediate between these two. It consists of societies whose members grow their own food and live in isolated settlements with no formal governmental structures.

Let us characterise these eigenmodes more closely...

San family group

Example: San
Size of typical community: 10 people
Political mechanisms: Egalitarian; no formal leaders (elders may be respected). Those who try to 'act big' are mocked and resented. Friction/conflict is resolved by one party moving away to join friends, relatives or in-laws in another group (or by violence).
Economic mechanisms: Foraging (living off the land); nomadic; very simple equipment. Philosophy of share-and-share alike. Intricate customs give members rights to specific parts of the day's catch. Those who do not 'pull their weight' are subject to teasing and gossip, but there is no explicit reckoning of debits and credits.
Social identity: Each family-level group considers itself part of a tribe of several hundred people, coming together a few times per year.

New Guinea village

Example: New Guinea highlands
Size of typical community: 1000 people
Political mechanisms: 'Big men' attain prestige through ability, hard work, accumulating wealth and careful cultivation of social networks. They wield influence not formal power. Disputes lead to feuds, where a man allies with his brother against his cousin, and with his cousin against a more distant relative. Big men or priests mediate to break the spiral of violence.
Economic mechanisms: People farm/garden. They help each other, e.g. in harvesting/housebuilding, but debts must be repaid (perhaps many years later). Elaborate displays of generosity gain prestige. People are self-sufficient and specialisation is rudimentary.
Social identity: Kinship (degree of relatedness) dictates people's obligations and behaviour towards each other.

New York panorama

Example: New York
Size of typical community: 100,000+ people
Political mechanisms: Leaders exert formal power, promulgating laws and enforcing them via police and law courts. The position of leader and the hierarchy of officials are permanent, though the individuals fulfilling these roles may change.
Economic mechanisms: People are specialists and must exchange with others to obtain the necessities and luxuries of life. These exchanges are commercial transactions, in which there is an explicit and immediate balancing of value. The political authority demands a share of economic output (tax), to spend on public goods like defence, roads and social security.
Social identity: People can be themselves; this contrasts with other modes, where everyone knows everyone else's business, family and background.

If you brought some ancient Romans to modern New York and asked them to buy a bottle of win in a shop, then, apart from the language issue, they would understand exactly what was involved. They would be familiar with shops and money. They would also recognise other aspects of the city such as street signs, public and private buildings, and even wheeled vehicles (though they might be surprised at these being self-propelled).

By contrast, if you brought to New York some people who had lived all their lives in an isolated New Guinea village and asked them to buy wine in a shop, they would have little idea what you were talking about. They would find the whole environment of the city unfamiliar and bewildering.

(Nevertheless, a New Guinea highlander might be at home with particular pieces of technology, such as a transistor radio, where the Roman would not have a clue, so this is not an issue of mental capacity.)

This reflects the fact that the ancient Romans, though they lived two millennia ago, were in the same social eigenmode as modern city-dwellers, whereas the inhabitants of a 21st century village cut off in the highlands of New Guinea, are in a different eigenmode.

Some might say that there should be an intermediate eigenmode, that of the 'chiefdom', between the village and the city. A chief's authority is more permanent and formal than that of the village big man, but less formal than that of a city government. For example, the chief collects tribute, unlike a big man, but this falls short of a proper taxation system. However...

  • While the chiefdom is indeed distinctive, the existence of three basic eigenmodes can nevertheless be accounted for by factors that I will explain shortly (in another post). I therefore prefer to see chiefdoms as eigenmode "2½" (with the village as 2 and the city as 3).
  • Although there are three basic eigenmodes, there may be many variations on them. A Roman city has its basic features in common with a modern city, but in detail obviously there are differences. Both are eigenmodes in the sense of being self-consistent solutions to the problems of social living. However, in comparison with Rome, the modern city solves the problems with more extensive economic specialisation, more effective policing, higher population density, and a greater ratio of urban to rural population.

It remains a valid question whether there can be a fourth eigenmode beyond the three outlined above, i.e. one that has not yet been realised. I believe the answer may be yes, but I need to discuss other things before I can talk about this properly.


In my last post I talked about the lifestyles of New Yorkers or San hunter-gatherers as being each a self-consistent solution to the problems of social living.

I call such a self-consistent way of life a social eigenmode.

'Eigen', from the German, means 'characteristic'. An eigenmode is therefore a characteristic mode of social living, i.e. one that is feasible/allowable as opposed to impossible/inconsistent. (This use of the prefix is derived from mathematics. An eigenvector of a matrix is a vector whose direction does not change after multiplication by that matrix; in this sense the vector is characteristic of the matrix.)

Let us put this symbolically.

Suppose a society's way of life (mode) is designated by M, which includes technology, population density, customs and everything else that describes how the society's members live.

Such a society is then exposed to the problems of social living, e.g. obtaining sustenance, caring for the young, resolving disputes and so on. These problems challenge or 'act on' the society's mode of existence. Let us represent this by P(M).

If the society's way of life is not a successful solution to the problems of social living, the society will necessarily change to a different way of life, say to M'. Let us write this as P(M) -> M'. If M' also does not solve the problems, the society will need to change again, say to M''. I.e. P(M') -> M''.

A social eigenmode is a value of M that satisfies the equation P(M) -> M. A mode that satisfies this equation is one that solves the problems of social living and does not need to change in response to those problems.

An eigenmode is therefore an attractor of the operator P(). [At least, if the operator P() has attractors, they will be eigenmodes.] What this means is that any given mode of existence will evolve, under repeated exposure to the problems of social life, towards one of the allowable and self-consistent eigenmodes successfully solving those problems, and there it will stay.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Societies and self-consistency

The Namibian government was recently criticised for its treatment of the San or Bushman people, hunter-gatherers living in the Kalahari Desert. It had forced them to leave the desert and give up their traditional lifestyle. According to the government, this was so that the San would undergo development and become part of mainstream Namibian society. The San and their supporters said that the government's real motive was to facilitate exploitation of the desert's mineral resources. A court case found in favour of the San, although the dispute will no doubt go on.

Kalahari San (Bushman)
There is a tendency to think of people like the Kalahari San, whose way of life is essentially that of the Upper Paleolithic, as cases of arrested development. It seems as though their society, unlike our own, has failed to progress. They appear to be living fossils, hangovers from the stone age. It may even be thought that the dark-skinned San lack the intellectual resources of the white races, whose technological civilisation now dominates the planet.

Such ideas need to be put aside...

  • On the racial issue, the Sami, or Lapps, of Norway and Sweden are fair-skinned, have been hunter-gatherers in modern times and remain so, in part, to this day.
  • Rather than being a hangover from the stone age, the San may have taken to their way of life in the Kalahari only a few centuries ago, fleeing from slaveraiders and European colonists.
  • The San are just as keen and capable at dealing with modern technology as people belonging to western society. And the average person in western society had no more involvement in developing advanced technology than did the Bushman in the following picture.

San hunter with GPS device

Nineteenth and early twentieth century anthropologists thought in terms of a ladder of social evolution. At the bottom were 'savages' like the San. Next came 'barbarians', who farmed rather than hunted for their food but were otherwise self-sufficient with a simple lifestyle. Above these were 'chiefdoms', and finally 'states' or 'civilisations', with formal governmental structures and complex economies. Societies were presumed to progress through the successive stages.

It might be thought that this website has a similar view of 'progress'. In an earlier post I showed history as a graph of upward movement towards ever higher Kardashev levels. It is true that I consider human destiny to be mastery of the universe, and since we started from nothing there has to be a process of growth or development to get from here to there. However, we are not 'better' or 'cleverer' than stone age people (past or present). Different ways of life are sensible and successful solutions to the circumstances in which people find themselves, while the dynamic that propels societies from one to the other has a rationale of its own--it is not simply the piling up of inventions by particular brilliant individuals. We should not confuse societies with the people that live in them. The greater complexity of some societies can no more be attributed to them being composed of more capable human beings than the greater complexity of some biological organisms can be attributed to them being composed of more capable molecules.

The way of life of the San and other hunter-gatherers has a logic to it...

  • Since they live off the land, the San must form small, widely-spaced groups and move regularly in pursuit of food. Most of the time, they separate into bands of no more than ten adults and roam territories hundreds of miles across over the course of a year. The San could not live in a group of 100,000 people because such a group would instantly devour any patch of berries or colony of rabbits it came across. A city-sized community of hunter-gatherers would have to move impossibly far and impossibly often in order to support itself.
  • Meanwhile, since the San live in such small groups, their way of life has to be very simple. Think about all the expertise and labour that goes into building a car, or setting up a GPS network. An isolated group of ten people, however capable or intelligent, could never undertake projects of this kind. To have, say, a motor industry you need a large number of people, with some mining the raw materials, others designing and assembling the product, and still others growing the food to keep everyone alive.
  • Finally, since they move around so much and carry everything with them, the San's way of life again has to be very simple. Instead of transporting a drinking beaker everywhere, for example, it is easier just to cup your hands.

Therefore, San communities must be small and mobile because they live simply. And the San must live simply because their communities are small and mobile. The two things go hand in hand.

Contrast this with the situation of New York...

  • A huge, settled population like that of New York cannot live directly off the land. It has to have an elaborate economy. It needs a large number of specialists doing and making the things without which New York could not function--food retailing, plumbing, building, policing... At the same time, all the complex things that go on in New York, such as stockbroking or providing an underground train service, require the co-operation of a large, dense population.

So New York's large size goes hand in hand with its technological complexity, just as the small size of San groups goes hand in hand with their simplicity.

You cannot mix and match the characteristics of the two lifestyles.

The San lifestyle is incompatible with, say, advanced plumbing, just as the New York lifestyle is incompatible with the lack of advanced plumbing.

If for some reason New York's economy were dismantled and the population were forced to become self-sufficient hunter-gatherers, life in the city would become intolerable. The inhabitants would quickly flee the city and spread across the landscape in search of food. It would not be long before they were back to the San way of life.

Rather than thinking in terms of backwardness and advancement, we might see the San and New York lifestyles as alternative, self-consistent solutions to the problems of social living.

When we look at the San lifestyle, we should not regard it as indicating a failure of intellect or imagination but should recognise it as one of the possible ways that humans may live, whose simplicity is one of its inevitable and essential characteristics.

It might be objected that the San's lack of movement towards a more complex, 'civilised' eigenmode is a kind of backwardness. However...

  • Since the San reject the town-life that the Namibian government wants to force on them and have campaigned to go back to the desert, it is clear that they prefer their desert lifestyle. They enjoy hunting and gathering, which gives them all the food they need, for a few hours work a day, while in the desert they are freer than they would be in civilised society, where they would have to obey laws and pay taxes.
  • The complex lifestyle of civilisation can be seen as something that was forced on people when hunting and gathering became untenable, rather than as a product of greater cleverness. Civilised people are not necessarily better off than the San. Many still idealise and hanker for the simple, self-sufficient life. Hunting, for example, is often the prerogative of a privileged elite, while gathering, such as blackberrying, may be done for pleasure.

My main aim in this post has been to introduce the idea that all the features of a particular way of life fit together in a logical manner. As a subsidiary point, I have wanted to challenge the notion that social sophistication should be put down to the greater inventiveness of certain races accumulating over time. Rather than ranking societies on a ladder of progress, we will understand them better if we approach and explore them as individually self-consistent systems.