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

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Introducing development

I wish to discuss development, by which I mean the growth of technology and societal complexity.

The simplest and lowest-tech mode of human existence is that of hunter-gatherers. We can take this as about the zero of development.

There are variations even among hunter-gatherers. The American Indians of the north-west Pacific coast lived in a rich environment, and supported a high population by hunting and gathering. They had villages and chiefs. This contrasts with people like the Kalahari bushmen, who live as isolated, nomadic families and do not produce anything as lasting and ambitious as a totem pole.

Let us therefore propose a zero of development (D) without necessarily being able to point to a society that actually has D=0. Kalahari bushmen and the societies of the Upper Paleolithic must be close, but even they have technology and ways of behaving that an outsider would have to learn and that make their societies at least a little bit 'complex'. Zero development is the 'Adam and Eve' condition, an isolated couple living off the land in complete simplicity and with no technology whatsoever.

While I have characterised development in terms of technology and complexity, these are not independent factors. They are linked in the society's eigenmode. A society with high technology must be complex. Consider the activity involved in a new release of the Windows operating system -- not just the code developers, but the managers, marketers and distributors, the hardware manufacturers, the bankers who process payments between consumers and producers. And while all these people are getting the new software on the streets, they have to be clothed, fed and sheltered, which involves yet more people connected in yet more economic relationships. Conversely, a society that is as complex as that needs high technology, to provide the necessary transport and communications, and to allow a small number of primary food-producers to support the people engaging in all this secondary activity.

We know that a society's complexity is related to its scale (see here for the discussion).

We can therefore say that development is linked to scale in an eigenmode. That is, each societal eigenmode is associated with a definite scale and level of development. Given the scale, we know the society's development level, and vice versa.

This discussion suggests an issue we will have to come back to once we have a basic understanding of development:

  • Although technology and societal complexity are linked, it is not clear they are in a direct one-to-one relationship. It may be that, within limits, societies with the same technology can vary in complexity, or societies with the same complexity can vary in technology. When, for example, some societies are described as 'underdeveloped', should we understand by this simply 'low in development', or can society's have a development level that is actually below what they ought to have for their given scale/eigenmode'?

What causes development? The case of the Australians suggests that it is not simply an inevitable consequence of time passing.

The eigenmode concept in itself provides little help. It is essentially static, telling us that societies of a particular scale will be developed to a particular extent, but not how societies actually develop and increase in scale. We need to introduce other ideas.

Consider an island that can be divided into five regions: centre, north, east, west and south. And consider three different situations, as follows:

(a) The central region is populated but the rest of the island is empty

(b) All regions are populated, but impassable barriers prevent people in different regions from interacting with each other

(c) The barriers are lifted and interaction between the regions becomes possible

In (a), suppose the population is in an eigenmode (for the moment, do not worry about how it got there, and ignore the possibility of migration ). The population has a certain scale, which corresponds to the amount of interaction among such a population crammed into such an area, and it has the proper development level that both results from and permits that degree of scale. The population is therefore in equilibrium and there is no apparent reason why it should not remain in the same eigenmode for evermore.

In (b), all the regions, being isolated from each other, are identical. The population in each region can be in the same eigenmode as (a). Again, there is no reason why it should not remain in that eigenmode forever.

In (c), the central region experiences interactions with each of the four peripheral regions. (For the moment, assume that the peripheral regions are not in direct contact with each other and remain mutually isolated.) This raises the scale of the central region (remember, scale is a measure of societal interactivity). It also raises the scale of each region with which the central region is in contact. However, the central region experiences four external contributions to its scale, whereas the other regions experience only one external contribution each.

In (c), therefore, the scale of all the regions will increase relative to (b) and the scale of the central region will increase the most. By the logic of eigenmodes, the increase in scale will be associated with an increase in development. And the central region will end up more developed than each of the others.

If we go back to (a) and allow the possibility of migration, the population in each of the peripheral regions will grow, as people move out from the centre. The growth of these populations will raise the scale of the source region. Rather than ending with a situation like (b) where all the regions end up at the same development level as the original, central region, we will actually have the situation described in (c), where all the regions are more developed than the central region was and the central region is developed the most.

In our example, the central region experienced the most development as a consequence of the assumption that the peripheral regions could interact with the centre but not with each other. More realistically, the peripheral regions might be able to interact to some extent. Nevertheless, the north, say, would still tend to interact more with the centre than it would with the south, which is that much further away. In general, if we divide a landmass up into regions, some regions will be better placed than others to interact with their neighbours, and will have higher scale and development.

To summarise, the ability of a population to expand into empty lands can produce an overall increase in development while the highest increases in development will be in the more centrally located regions.

We therefore have a simple understanding of why the ancient spread of humans across the earth would not result in a planet populated entirely at the D=0 condition but would both allow development to take place and lead to a patchy picture with more development in some areas than in others. The development of each region would reflect its centrality and its ease of access to other regions (e.g. regions up and down a river would have more interaction and development than regions with a desert between them).

I want to finish with a question, which takes us more deeply into the issues and which we will have to tackle in later posts.

Let us think back to situation (c). Immediately after the barriers are lifted (if we imagine this hypothetical scenario), the population in each region will have the same technological level as before but can interact with more people (i.e. those in neighbouring regions). Interacting with more people is enough to increase scale. However, that then increases development/technology, and, in general, the increase in technology will itself tend to increase interaction. E.g. development could mean the ability to grow more food and support more people or it could mean better transport allowing people to interact over longer distances. Therefore, the development that results from increased scale will in turn produce an increase in scale. This increase in scale will then generate more development, and so on.

What will happen? Two things are possible. Either increases in scale and development will continue to reinforce each other without limit. Or diminishing returns will set in and the increases in scale and development will peter out, eventually reaching equilibrium in a new eigenmode.

The long term prospects for societal development therefore become a question of the nature of the relationship between scale and development. The case of the Australian aborigines suggests that, at low levels of scale and development, diminishing returns dominate and equilibrium is reached. With the world as a whole, the situation is less clear. There has obviously been positive reinforcement to date, but as global scale and development continue to increase their relationship may move into a region of diminishing returns. After all, one might imagine that there are limits to how many people earth can support, and to transportation speeds and communications bandwidth, all of which would set a cap to scale and development. If we get off this planet into outer space, we could break through those limits into a region of continuing positive reinforcement, but what if diminishing returns set in first, causing us to stagnate before we fully master space travel?

Had Australia been the earth's only landmass, it seems humanity might never have developed beyond the level of the aborigines and never got into space. The earth's landmass is much bigger than that, but the question we would like to answer is, is it big enough?