Embracing our Glorious Future as Amish or Termites
(On this day after All Hallows' Eve, I present a tale of future scenarios that may seem like nightmares. This is an article about our limits of choice, collectively, as human beings in the 21st century.)
The only ways forward
At this point in our evolution as a social species, humans have only two viable ways forward, and both of them, in my view, suck, though one is much worse than the other and it happens to be the most likely outcome for us.
Our choices are the ones in the title: We becoming like the Amish, or we become more like termites. These are our viable choices. There is a third way, if you can call it that. It’s what will happen if we don’t go one of those two other ways, and that’s extinction. Or catastrophic complexity collapse, in the sense that if we have another world war, the battles after that will be fought with sticks and stones. I’m not calling that a choice because, One: It’s too awful to even contemplate as an option, and Two: It’s more a default than a choice, in that if we don’t choose one of the other two options (or perhaps some hybrid of the two), we will inevitably end up there. If we choose not to decide, this will be our choice.
The main protagonists
The forces compelling this choice are technological advances and increased globalization, as in interconnectivity. This one-two punch is putting ever more power into the hands of both individuals and mobs. It’s in the hands of individuals because of the inherent asymmetry of entropy. In short, it’s easier to destroy than to build, and technology is a great multiplier of this asymmetry. Picture the pyramids. Whatever strategies were used to build them, if we discount the supernatural or alien, building the pyramids cost a lot of people a lot of their time and a lot of their sweat. Collapsing a pyramid to rubble, using the tools of the time, wouldn’t take the same level of effort as building, but it would still be a major undertaking. Let's call the build-to-destroy ratio ten to one. By the beginning of the 20th century, the great Giza could be reduced to rubble with a single detonation of TNT, though in an amount that for certain would have taken a while to accumulate and prepare. Meanwhile, building back Giza with early 20th century technology would still be a massive undertaking. I’d estimate this build-to-destroy ratio at 100 to 1 at least. Today, 4500 years after their first construction, rebuilding the pyramids would still be a major undertaking. But the average Chinese fireworks factory, or perhaps Beirut fertilizer warehouse, has enough material lying around to send every one of those giant blocks sky high in seconds. I wouldn’t even begin to guess at the ratio, and we’re just getting started.
These ratios, by themselves, won’t necessarily lead us to catastrophic collapse. Destroying civilization with 20th century technology is still hard. It requires either nation-state level weapons, or vast resources and coordination. Globalization, which is just another way of saying interconnectivity, gives us two additional amplifiers for destruction. The first is the fast accumulation of extraordinary wealth by a new oligarchy of people and corporations. We haven’t had nearly enough discussion of how extraordinary, and game changing, it is to have so many quick accumulations of extraordinary wealth.
Consider LeBron James, a 36 year old basketball player. He’s made a billion dollars so far. That’s the same amount of money earned by the average American worker in about twenty thousand years. There’s no doubting LeBron’s talent, but there’s also no doubting that his net worth is a function of our global marketplace (not to mention LeBron’s willingness to speak kindly of the country that tightly controls access to a billion-plus potential fans).
New wealth isn’t necessarily bad wealth, and extraordinary wealth concentrations by themselves don’t lead to disaster. But in the end it’s a numbers game. Get together a large enough collection of people with effectively unlimited wealth and zero intergenerational experience managing it, and sooner or later one of them will decide to fund gain-of-function research on strains of pyramid-eating super-scarabs. Perhaps you can think of some very wealthy technologists who are already engaged in some very dubious world-changing efforts?
The other amplifier has to do with the speed and reach of our communication networks. Imagine, for a moment, that all societies are always tinderboxes, and the tinder takes the form of anger, discontent, or resentment. This shouldn’t be too hard to imagine, since I’m betting you carry with you some non-trivial amount of each of these things. In my experience, everyone has a baseline level of aggravation most of the time. Sometimes, this level of personal tinder gets hot enough too combust. You may recall the 1980s form of this, “Going Postal” and shooting colleagues. Apparently the USPS at the time was run by incompetent (or perhaps hyper-competent) sociopaths who pushed workers to the breaking point. Bad systems lead to more individuals combusting. Sometimes that leads to positive change, but usually it just leads to rampage.
Adding pervasive and quick connectivity completely changes the dynamic. I once did a simulation of bee colony attacks as part of my work in statistical modelling. Bees trigger attacks by way of scent thresholds. Each bee will only initiate an attack, and lay down its own scent, if a certain fraction of the other bees are also attacking. Most of the time this leads to an appropriately proportional response that builds then dies out. Sometimes it means the colony goes all in against a perceived intruder. External events, combined with nearly instantaneous communication, can trigger a mob action that grows in seconds. It’s amazing, and frightening, to watch.
My first memory of this happening among humans was after the Rodney King beating trial. Within hours of the non-guilty verdict, thousands of rioters had flooded the streets, and LA was in flames. That was mostly a localized phenomenon, and it took time to spread. The BLM riots, first triggered by the George Floyd video (and, in my view, a huge cache of latent anger and energy built up during months of lockdowns), were much more widespread and hair-trigger. Over the summer, each additional event that could be viewed as a police abuse led to an even quicker mob reaction as news spread to a latent mob that treated it as a kind of collective bat signal to come out and riot en masse, which is of course the only way to riot.
If you want to take down the pyramids in 2021, and you don’t have the wealth of a LeBron, or the weapons of a nation state, your best bet might be to convince people that the pyramids are an intolerable symbol of oppression, and then find some triggering event to bring a million people to Giza at the same time to tear it them. Don’t forget to use a catchy hashtag on Twitter!
I can’t give you a failsafe formula for manufacturing enough coordinated outrage to incite a mob action of that magnitude. But my point here isn’t that you, in particular, have this power in your back pocket to pull out at any time. Again, it’s a numbers game. Once you have a colony of hair-trigger bees, or enough people wandering around with a personal cache of angsty tinder in their individual pockets, some external event, combined with instant colony level communication, can create mobs big enough to literally move mountains. Or destroy civilizations. And globalization means we are all now part of a single colony.
Did I mention that one of our ways forward was to become termites?
The case for the colony
How does mimicking a termite colony solve the problem of preventing individuals from kicking off apocalyptic events?