Real post-modernity

In 2016, I read The Sovereign Individual and watched James Burke’s Connections for the first time. Both give a more or less technologically deterministic theory of society and history—that very particular technological developments are a very strong factor in how human affairs play out. I should note that this way of viewing things is highly criticized: to take an example which both of the above make use of, the role of the stirrup in supporting the development of Feudalism is more hotly debated than either let on. If nothing else, recent events remind us that sometimes things besides technology can have a big impact on history.

Still, what I took away from both books was the high degree of historical contingency of things usually taken for granted. I came to view a number of facets of our times as more artifacts of the historical period of modernity than as inevitable or guaranteed for the future. This insight won’t seem particularly deep to anyone who loves history, but as an engineer and investor at the time, it was a big deal to me and I’ve been obsessed ever since.

Below I will talk about some things that I believe are highly contingent features of modernity that were already under some strain prior to the events now unfolding.

Rationality, freedom of expression, & the republic

The shocking and new idea that humans can and should make the world a better place was set into motion by the scientific discoveries of Kepler, Copernicus, Newton, and others. Though they helped to usher in modernity, none of these men were modern. The idea of making the world a better place through the effort of man—or progress—would have been alien to them. Francis Bacon’s philosophy truly inaugurated the modern notion of progress [1].

Academic post-modernity had long assailed modern and enlightenment values, prior to the popularity of social media, which I believe was the first truly postmodern cultural artifact. From a technological determinist’s perspective does social media make a liberal democracy more or less efficient to operate compared to other ways of organizing society? Does it do anything to prove or disprove the American foundational ideal, taken from Mill and others, that a chorus of views filtered through man’s rationality would produce better outcomes? Are our beliefs more rational because of social media? Are different viewpoints now more tolerated? [2]

Social media seems to me to be the nail in Mill’s coffin, yet I am too much a creature of modernity to believe the potentially creative destruction of such an ideal is a good thing.

Likewise, what does intensified data collection and AI do to the relative efficiency of authoritarianism and liberalism? When political culture is construed as a type of critical infrastructure composed of information, with information security properties, it’s clear the answer is not straightforward.

Globalism & Urbanization

A case for contingency can also be made for the first agricultural cities, though here the causal arrow is much more obviously not merely pointing from technology to society. Upstream of the new sedentary mode of living and its feature, the domus, were likely global climate pressures. Material and political concerns interplayed as grain-based production surpassed other viable plantstuffs in most localities due to the ease with which it can be taxed, compared to say, potatoes, having more strict seasonal requirements as well as more conspicuous outputs—you can’t hide corn from the tax man. Taxation was pivotal to achieve scale, itself key to conquering people who had no scale. Coercion also appears to have played a major part in subsidizing the transition to agriculture, with the walls around early cities being used to keep enemies out and subject populations in, in some cases [2].

Still, the vast majority of humans didn’t live in cities until even more recently. The city as a social formation really exploded due to both the demands & opportunities of industrial production in the 19th century, and sprawled out into a more suburban formation with the development of the mass consumer in the 20th century.

With cities growing everywhere, surely the city isn’t a contingent “demographic regime” recently under stress? Well in the US at least, we’ve been de-urbanizing for quite some time and papering over this fact with immigration. Due to differential birth rates and domestic outmigration, there’s been a long running trend to ruralization.

Globalism is often credited as a way to rationally optimize economic output via comparative advantage, growing the pie for all. But there is a sentimental component to the story as well which I’ve touched on before. The horror of industrialized warfare in the 20th century did a lot to ideologically supplement economic interdependence. Ending or at least limiting total war was a major project of 20th century leaders and their publics who had experienced it firsthand. A moral tailwind helped us organize around the observation that trading partners have a lot to lose going to war with another, perhaps to as great of an extent as the economic benefit itself.

We’re already revisiting the premises of a zero-slack, globally distributed, just in time supply chain in particular and globalism generally as both a matter of national security and culturally as a factor of vulnerability to pandemic. Will our 21st century pandemic and the sentiments of its survivors favor continued interdependence or more manufacturing at home and less global human movement? Will immigration continue apace? Will domestic outmigration from cities accelerate as urban centers become epicenters of infection?

Economic growth as a paradigm

There is no unanimous consensus among demographers on how the population will look throughout this century. A large camp sees continued but slowed growth into eternity. Another camp, however, sees the fertility decline of developed nations enveloping the whole world as development proliferates and an eventual decline in population.

Western nations try to solve at least two economic problems with immigration: perpetual expansion of consumption & the problem of what demographers call the “elderly dependency ratio” or what we call social security insolvency and healthcare reform pointed at Medicare.

If these demographers are right, though, it seems obvious to wonder whether at some point, facing their own issues with elderly dependency, the nations furnishing developed economies with immigrants might not like to try and keep people around. I don’t know enough finance or economics to have an extremely informed take on what a perpetually declining population would do to investment and fractional reserve banking, but I’m curious if population and consumption growth aren’t fundamentally required by growth economics and its institutions such as investment capital and fractional reserve banking.

Again, this seemingly inevitable thing is historically a product of modernity. Religious and risk considerations made investment in growth a rare thing until relatively recently. Royal charters, the joint stock corporation and secular philosophy teamed up with the lanteen sail, agricultural surplus, and rapid population growth to usher in a new way of doing business, heavily dependent on the assumption of future growth.

Environmentalists and other critics like Ivan Illich have suggested ways society might be organized when growth ends: much more locally. A re-wilding of production—local, diverse, and importantly, more resistant to pandemic—seems substantially more likely now, and the technological substrate will likely evolve in the near team in a way with even greater affordances for localism. Automated local production and scifi levels of biosynthetic industrial inputs to service this localism may not be inevitable but will become far more likely as we manufacture critical goods closer to home and increase our focus on biology.

Conclusion

There are many other facets of modernity that I haven’t looked at here, none of which I strongly assume will be viable forever: the nation state and large militaries, secularism, and mass culture and consumption to name a few.

[1] Credit here to Neil Postman, Technopoly

[2] Credit here to James Scott, Against the Grain

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