The East versus the West – Development, Hubris and Catch-up

Why the West Rules - For Now -  Ian Morris   Big History, Civilisation Development, USA v. China

Ian Morris is a historian with an interest in archaeology who goes beyond a traditional historical method that relies on written records. He uses carbon dating techniques, DNA and chemical samples from a range of archaeological sites in tandem with statistical records from the more recent past to construct an intriguing index of social development over 20,000 years. The index is made data on caloric energy inputs (as a proxy for standard of living), city size (as a proxy for organizational complexity), information and communication technology (as a proxy for trading capability), and military size (as a proxy for political power). See The Measure of Civilisation: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations.

Why the West Rules – For Now uses the index to analyse the 20,000-year peaks, troughs and trend in the Asian East and the European West. Morris’s index shows that both civilisations have collapsed three times over the millennia and that they collapsed when the index plateaued at a score of 30. He suggests that they collapsed in the face of a perfect storm of simultaneously occurring climate change, famine, state failure, migration and disease – his “five horsemen of the apocalypse”. The index finally managed to push through the upper bound in the 15th century to reach 100 in the mid 19th century as a result of the First Industrial Revolution. It accelerated from there to its current score around 900 in the West.

Morris’ index raises critical questions in relation to the future. Can humans sustain the current pace of technological development or will development plateau at a new upper bound? Will the world social order look anything like the current order if Moore’s Law (doubling of technological capacity) continues at its current pace? What will the world social order look like if the index hits a plateau?

Morris cites three forces which he believes will determine the outcome – continuation of Moore’s Law, the “five horsemen” and nuclear proliferation. Moore’s Law, the information and technology phenomenon which refers to the doubling of computing capacity every two years over the last 50 years, has hyper-revolutionary implications, including the possibility of artificial intelligence with a capacity to learn from errors. Compound growth at this rate suggests not only unimaginable wealth and a convergence of East and West, but in tandem with developments in biotechnology and genomics, suggests a qualitative change in what it means to be human and elimination of the economic laws of scarcity. The emergence of this radical difference has come to be known in Artificial Intelligence circles as the Singularity – first enunciated by John von Neumann in 1958 and popularized in 2005 by Ray Kurzweil, now head of Artificial Intelligence at Google.

The second factor that informs Morris’ view about the future is his awareness of how past civilisations have collapsed at upper bounds which exerted themselves in the presence of the “five horsemen of the apocalypse”. A perusal of any newspaper shows that climate change, mass migration and state failure are daily issues and that there are scientists who suggest that famine and disease are also not too distant on the horizon. More significantly, this time, the collapse could be global rather than local.

The third factor is the arsenal of nuclear weapons and modern war-making capabilities that could trigger something like end-of-world collapse. Evidence suggests that nuclear weaponry does not necessarily lead to catastrophe so long as they are held by a small number of “responsible” states (even if oppressive and undemocratic) and so long as there are no “errors”. But the logic of proliferation to non-state actors who give little stock to human life or to state actors with inadequate safeguards or little to lose poses serious global dangers.

Morris suggests that the “five horsemen” are on the horizon and that in the next 35 years, society will either continue its headlong rush towards the Singularity or come up against a new upper bound limit, from which it could collapse. Morris is agnostic as to whether the winner of the current epic tussle will be Moore’s Law or the “five horsemen”. He does however claim that history is a dynamic in which a future never develops linearly along a trajectory and that one thing that is certain is that a future is never like either it’s present or past.

Dowlphin is unhappily drawn to the engrossing horror story rather than the magical hope of a future in which Economics is relegated to the dustbin of history via the Singularity.  Regrettably, Dowlphin is sceptical about technological optimism which ignores the Keynesian insight that goods and services do not get produced if there is insufficient income to translate unlimited psychic desires into effective market place demand. Dowlphin suspects that given current cultural, political and institutional conditions, technology is likely to be biased towards replacing people with machines and enhancing profits at the expense of wages. Dowlphin believes that this implies that a dystopian technologic serfdom is more likely than universal utopian wellbeing, and that the upper bound or collapse is therefore more likely than the Singularity.

The rationale for Dowlphin’s pessimism is the increasing inequality within economies that has occurred over the last 50 years and the halving of economic and productivity growth evident in the last 10 years – despite 50% p.a. Moore’s Law technological growth. In the words of Nobel Prize winning economist, Bob Solow, “there are computers everywhere except the economic statistics”. At the global level, inequality has decreased as China, India and the rest “catch up”, but Dowlphin suspects that this will be a universalising of technologic serfdom rather than a universalising of wellbeing.

See also Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve for four lectures on how energy capture and geography have affected values.

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