In the intimate context of hunter-gatherer life, defection was difficult. As societies increased in complexity, and people interacted with strangers, the civilization toolkit emerged to police defection.
- 1 Introduction of Scarcity
- 2 Game A's primary problems
- 3 Game A's increasing complexity
- 4 Game A's tools
- 5 The Industrial Revolution created a global society
- 6 Game A's trends of emergence
- 6.1 Innovations in transport and processing of energy, matter and information.
- 6.2 A positive feedback loop: more population leads to more emergence and vice-versa
- 6.3 Rivalrous dynamics - Innovate or perish
- 6.4 Innovations often redistributed power within societies
- 7 The status quo
- 8 The crises produced by Game A
- 9 Modern society dramatically affects the planet
- 10 There is a war on sensemaking
- 11 The need for a phase shift or evolutionary transition
Introduction of Scarcity
With the advent of agriculture, humans started to shape the environment for their own needs. For the first time, farming allowed the creation of a surplus. As Daniel Schmachtenberger notes, this created the concept of (property) ownership since now there was something to own. Ironically, the notion of scarcity and the need to distribute scarce resources among the population followed - the beginning of economics.
Game A's primary problems
Game A is almost everything that humans have been doing to design their world, especially in the last 10,000 years, to coordinate beyond the Dunbar number.
Game A, fundamentally, is about being able to solve three primary problems:
- Resource production - coordinate people for the extraction of resources from nature, providing for the group's well-being
- Interior defection - survive internal defection as the population begins to grow beyond the Dunbar number.
- Exterior competition - survive and out-compete other groups
Accordingly, Game A is primarily characterized by scarcity and thus rivalrous or win-lose dynamics: How do we increase our resources production? How do we divide up the scarce resources? How do we compete with other groups of people?
Civilization became the toolkit to solve these problems. Civilization exerts continued effort to police local defection against the global optimum. However, this policing has been resting on a growing dependence on formal institutions and less interpersonal relationships.
Game A's increasing complexity
After agriculture first spread across a region, with enough surplus, chiefdoms tended to follow. Anthropologist Robert Carneiro defines a chiefdom as "an autonomous political unit comprising a number of villages or communities under the permanent control of a paramount chief." The exception was Papua New Guinea, probably because the root crops could not be stored, and agriculture was not quite productive enough to generate a surplus. Chiefdoms, the scholar Randolph Widmer wrote, "were at various times the most common form of society found throughout Europe, Africa, the Americas, Melanesia, Polynesia, the Near East, and Asia."
Chiefdoms sustained the basic trend toward larger and more complex social organization. The chiefdoms' villages evolved into greater conglomerates like towns, then city-states, then multi-city states, and then civilizations.
More refined and productive farming technology eventually allowed for the creation of more populous and more complex societies. These agrarian civilizations appeared all over the world. They are usually divided into four world zones: The Americas, Afro-Eurasia, Australasia, and the Pacific Island societies. Although every civilization was different, they had many things in common. They all had big cities. These cities featured monumental architectures like temples, pyramids, and palaces. They also had rulers, hierarchies, tax systems, armies, and a large population of peasant farmers to support civilization.
With scarcity and rivalrous dynamics in Game A comes the power to influence and control resources.
Game A strategies to solve the three problems of resource production, interior defection, and external competition are:
- Formal Roles and Hierarchy
- Formal Narrative / Religion
- Armies / Police
- Formal Law
The Industrial Revolution created a global society
As the Persian, Roman, and Mongol civilizations expanded, they developed long-distance trade routes to expand their regional influence. New transportation and navigational technologies started to connect all world zones.
The Agricultural Revolution allowed humans to better harness the sun's energy, yielding more caloric output. Animals like horses and oxen pulled carts and carried burdens ten times heavier than humans could.
The next big revolution was the Industrial Revolution, which saw the origins of the modern world we live in today. The industrial revolution was arguably the primary cause of the dramatic trajectory change in human welfare, starting between 1800 and 1870. As Luke Muehlhasuer write, "Everything was awful for a very long time, and then the industrial revolution happened."
As the diagram shows above, all five measures of well-being dramatically increased after the Industrial Revolution:
- Physical health, as measured by life expectancy at birth.
- Economic well-being, as measured by GDP per capita (PPP) and percent of people living in extreme poverty.
- Energy capture, in kilocalories per person per day.
- Technological empowerment, as measured by war-making capacity.
- Political freedom, as measured by percent of people living in a democracy.
Before the Industrial Revolution, in the 1400s, the world was divided into four isolated world zones: the Americas, Australasia, the Pacific, and Afro-Eurasia. European exploration eventually united all four world zones, and humans became a globally connected species. Technologies, innovations, ideas, goods, and belief systems were shared across the world.
The Industrial Revolution's marked impact is attributable to four factors:
Cheap fossil fuels
Coal, oil, and natural gas served as new sources of energy. These fossil fuels, storing energy from the sun for hundreds of millions of years, allowed the powering of engines of all kinds.
Wood was the primary source of energy in the pre-industrial world. For the same amount of heat, coal required much less labor to mine than cutting wood, and coal was much more abundant than wood, supplies of which were becoming scarce.
Improvements to the steam engine
Fundamental improvements to the steam engine were essential for the Industrial Revolution. Technical enhancements by James Watt saved 75% of coal costs and allowed steam engines to be used in various industries. The steam engines could use the untapped sources of coal to generate cheap energy and mechanically move large loads. By the early 19th century, steam engines drove industrial-scale production. The innovations of railways and steamships revolutionized transportation as well.
Increases in commerce and global markets
In agrarian civilizations, elites tended to extract resources through the threat of force. Increasingly, there emerged other classes of merchants and artisans who profited via competitive markets. To succeed, they needed to be innovative with their goods and services to flourish in competitive markets. By 1500, expanding global networks of exchange increased the importance of commerce and markets everywhere.
The Scientific Revolution brought growth in knowledge
Science differed from previous knowledge traditions by admitting ignorance, testing hypotheses, which lead to a surge in new technologies. As Francis Bacon argued "knowledge is power." Science is a particularly useful method to understand causal relationships.
Before the Scientific Revolution, most human cultures did not emphasize progress and had a static view of the world. During the last five centuries, belief in increased prosperity and well-being by virtue of scientific research strengthened. A strong feedback loop developed, whereby the more resources groups invested in science, the more knowledge and power they received.
Game A's trends of emergence
Since the beginnings of agriculture, there have been some trends of emergence through innovation, which explain humanity's path into the modern era::
- Improvements and innovation in transport and processing of energy, matter and information.
- A positive feedback loop: more population leads to more emergence and innovations, while more innovations allow for more population.
- In rivalrous dynamics, societies must embrace innovation or get conquered by more advanced societies.
- Innovations often redistribute power within societies.
Innovations in transport and processing of energy, matter and information.
As we moved from hunter-gatherer to agricultural civilization to modern civilizations, energy demand continually increased. Today, we can harness energy from the environment (sun, water, wind) and nuclear, which is the same way stars generate energy. As Daniel Schmachtenberger says, "we now have the power of the gods."
With increased energy, we could move matter faster and easier. Our transportation technologies have moved from animal and horses to trains and ships. Today, we can almost send and receive anything anywhere within days. Furthermore, commercial flights and space missions are possible.
Many information technologies have dramatically increased humanity's ability to coordinate. Two primary innovations were writing and the printing press. First, writing helped store knowledge efficiently for centuries. Second, the printing press drastically reduced the cost of printing books and spreading knowledge. The printing press helped overhaul religious ideology and ushered in both the scientific and industrial revolutions.
Before the 20th century, information spread through our transportation technologies like trains and ships. In the 20th century, this changed with the invention of the telegraph, the telephone, the computer, and the internet. The latter allows us to connect with anyone in the world in seconds. The distance between people has continued to decrease over time.
With this decreased distance in communication, people with common interests can come together. This has lead to tribalism that fragments the population (ex. dissolution of Yugoslavia). On the other side, globalization of economics and culture integrates the world. This represents a tension between fragmentation and integration.
Furthermore, with the information revolution, information is encoded in bits with 1s and 0s and copied at a very low cost. Instead of atoms, these bits have very little weight and travel close to the speed of light.
Other social and information processing technologies include the invention of money and markets. Money added liquidity to exchanges of goods. Markets brought together many buyers and sellers and used prices to efficiently value goods and services.
A positive feedback loop: more population leads to more emergence and vice-versa
With the agricultural and industrial revolutions, the human population has dramatically expanded. With the industrial revolution, the global population has grown from 1 billion in 1800 to 7.6 billion in 2018. There is concern that the exponential population growth is putting a strain on natural resources, food supplies, and housing.
Additional population provides more nodes for emergence and innovation. The potential for collaboration and interactions grows exponentially with the number of people.
Rivalrous dynamics - Innovate or perish
""Selfishness beats altruism within groups, but altruistic groups beat selfish groups. The rest is commentary.""
Throughout history, more advanced civilizations generally conquer less advanced civilizations. This is exemplified by the former European colonization of most of the world.
Due to rivalrous dynamics, similar to evolution, the weaker civilizations will not last, and the ones with greater coherence, emergence, and innovations will continue to spread. Accordingly, complexity surges.
Innovations often redistributed power within societies
Innovations often expand the number of people who profit from the system and so wield power within it. There is a Hobson "take it or leave it" choice for governing elite: accept valuable technologies that may erode power or block them, which carries the risk of being outrivaled by a more advanced group.
The medieval historian Joseph Strayer once noted "an interesting problem in the history of civilization. If there is steady progress anywhere, it is in the field of technology, and yet this kind of progress seems to have little connection with the stability of society."
Elites dislike power shifts. For example, the instinct of feudal lords was to exploit the emerging class of merchants. However, it didn't take long for the merchants to unite into guilds and demand freedoms. Increasingly towns won the right to self-government. Feudal lords were in competition and soon realized that local prosperity was good for them, but required a bit of freedom.
A more recent example, the legacy of capitalism's growing power can be seen as democracy is widespread and more people have more representation and voting rights. (?)
Technology, time and again, has changed the balance of power within society. Moreover, people tend not to surrender power unopposedly. This underlying tension between the aggrandizing instincts of elites versus the decentralizing tendencies of technology, especially information technology, has played out repeatedly.
The status quo
Our quality of life has never been higher
As described in the previous section, for the first time, there exists a globally connected human society. There are billions of people who can instantly communicate with each other. We generate enormous amounts of energy. We understand quantum mechanics and relativity theory. We have markets that can solve most of our needs efficiently. Medical advancements have increased average life expectancy from 32 years in 1900 to 71 years in 2018.
Here are some other metrics that show the progress we have made, 200 years ago vs. 2015:
- 94% vs. 10% of people lived in extreme poverty
- 83% vs. 14% did not have a basic education
- 88% vs. 15% were not able to read
- 99% vs. 44% did not live in a democracy
- 100% vs. 14% were not vaccinated
- 43% vs. 4% of kids died before they reached the age of five
Now, there are many more metrics to look at. We still have a lot more progress to make, but conditions of life have significantly improved for most people compared to just a century ago.
The crises produced by Game A
""If we are scaling toward the power of gods, then we have to have the wisdom and the love of gods, or we self destruct.""
Global threats to all of humanity
With all this progress, we have become an interconnected world that is susceptible to collapse.
Here are four big problems:
- Exponential tech - Exponential tech in a win-lose world poses an existential risk
- Environment - Human activity dramatically affects our planet
- Fragility - The modern, interconnected world is fragile
- Poorer sensemaking - There is a war on sensemaking
Exponential tech in a win-lose world poses an existential risk
In the 1940s, humanity has gained the ability to self-destruct entirely via nuclear weapons. Other advancing technologies that improve exponentially are AI, synbio, and nanotech. If technological development continues, small groups or even individuals could gain the capacity to devastate all of civilization. Nick Bostrom calls this the Vulnerable World Hypothesis in his 2018 working paper.
Game A is about scarcity and, thus win-lose dynamics. Disagreement often ends in war. Today, this belligerence could produce catastrophic damage. Imagine someone with a gun or bomb that could blow up a whole block now could blow up a whole country because they are unhappy. In other words, misaligned agents could bring about disastrous consequences.
In Game A, rivalrous dynamics push groups to amplify their offensive and defensive capacities in order to survive. This is a prisoner's dilemma or, more abstractly, a multipolar trap, where the agent's optimal equilibrium contrasts with the global optimum. Destructive potential expanded from stone tools to guns to weapons of mass destruction. With exponential tech, it is now lose-lose for everyone because any war may blow up everything.
For instance, there is an arms race between China, the US, and Russia to develop autonomous weaponry. Irrespective of any mutual assurances, each party could defect, constructing these weapons secretly. Contrarily, in April 2018, China indicated its support for a ban of autonomous weapons on the battlefield, only to release plans for an intelligent swarm design on the same day. Lastly, these win-lose dynamics also incentivize speed and the need to cut corners while developing technologies.
Why does the current operating system based on individualism fail?
The invisible hand, introduced by the 18th-century Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith, characterizes the putative mechanism through which beneficial social and economic outcomes may arise from the accumulated self-interested actions of individuals, none of whom intends to bring about such outcomes.
This is a bottom-up approach that provides more information processing than a top-down approach. Specifically, with the bottom-up approach, there are many situations where perverse incentives contribute to the misalignment of agents leading to overall detriment.
Here are some examples that Daniel Schmachtenberger provides:
- A for-profit military-industrial complex as one of the largest blocks of the global economy. Peace would mean bankruptcy. Ongoing war and threat of war to continually manage is optimal. War for any cause is profitable. Military contractors have massive lobbying resources and major shareholders in decision making positions of military and government.
- A for-profit health care system that makes no money on healthy people, makes a little on permanent cures and makes the most on long term symptom management
- Information as competitive advantage, incentivizing hiding information, protecting it as intellectual property to keep it from being useful to others, and actively creating and promoting disinformation.
This individualism has encouraged people to construct and defend their niches to benefit themselves. Furthermore, politically, there is a lot of strategy and planning, focusing on the narrow goals of some individuals, which may not necessarily account for the well-being of all.
Modern society dramatically affects the planet
Using up non-renewable resources
With exponential technology, we could do enormous damage very quickly. An example is long-range fishing that could deplete the oceans of fish very quickly. The current economy encourages the extraction of dwindling resources faster than they can replenish because a fish is worth nothing in the ocean, but worth something if caught.
Furthermore, our progress has also been dependent on non-renewable resources like oil that have taken its toll on the environment.
Open loops are affecting the planet
Currently, we have an "open-loop" system, where there are externalities that are not factored into the system. We have a linear materials / consumption / extraction system where we extract, use one time, and then dispose. Therefore, waste is accumulated, and natural resources depleted.
Our current open-loop economic systems does not account for the cost to the environment. The consequences are readily observable: sea level rises, desertification, wildfires, ocean acidification, pollution, soil degradation, extreme weather, species extinction at 1000x the normal rate, a 76% decline in insect biomass, and many more issues.
Reaching the limits of earth's capacity
With exponential population growth, many believe our ecological footprint has exceeded the planet's biocapacity. If we do not change our current trajectory, we could be on our way to a Malthusian catastrophe, where population growth outpaces agricultural production.
Fragility in an interconnected world
As illustrated above, every civilization has collapsed. Collapse can be defined as a rapid and enduring loss of population, identity, and socio-economic complexity. Due to global interconnections and dependencies, a severe collapse in one region could prove catastrophic for all of humanity.
As Luke Kemp wrote, there are many reasons why a civilization could collapse, including:
- Climate change - When climate changes, there can be cascading effect. The collapse of the Anasazi, the Tiwanaku civilization, the Akkadians, the Mayan, the Roman Empire, and many others have coincided with abrupt climatic changes, usually droughts.
- Environmental degradation - Societies could collapse when they overshoot the environment's carrying capacity. Jared Diamond's Collapse debatably claimed that this was the fate of Easter Island
- External shocks - Also known as the "four horsemen": war, natural disasters, famine, and plagues. For example, smallpox arriving in the Americas was devastating, and a reason why Aztec and Incas were defeated.
- Inequality - With advanced technology, and accelerated winner-take-all dynamics, the wealth of the top 1% is growing in the US since 1980. Inequality causes social distress, which is arguably one of the reasons why authoritarian hardliners get elected.
- Red Queen Effect - Statistical analysis on empires suggests that collapse is random and independent of age. An explanation is the "Red Queen Effect": if species are continually fighting for survival in a changing environment with numerous competitors, extinction is probable.
- Complexity - Collapse expert and historian Joseph Tainter has proposed that societies eventually collapse under the weight of their own accumulated complexity. We describe this in more detail below.
Dave Snowden created the Cynefin framework to explain the difference between complicated and complex.
- Complicated - In principle can be taken apart and put back together again. Cause and effect are easy to follow
- Complex - Cannot be taken apart and put together again because the phase space in time is changing and dynamic. In complex systems, it is hard to determine cause and effect relationships
Complicated systems tend toward entropy. Complex systems tend toward emergence. Part of the problem we are facing is that we have been trying to replace complex systems with complicated structures for a long time. For instance, the complexity of a tree, as part of the living, natural environment, is transformed into a complicated structure like a house. Moreover, complicated systems are not only prone to failures and anti-fragility but may create externalities. A complicated system may evolve to become ever more complicated until the point where the expenses for its maintenance lead to its collapse.
Here is an example: Because of the difficulty of policing defecting behavior, formal laws are established. These laws are endeavoring to coordinate the complex reality of humans. However, a complicated system can only approximate a complex system; as the complex system changes and new possibilities emerge, the complicated system has to become more complicated.
Today, we solve most problems by using complicated systems to manage the complex. Science has been an excellent tool to determine cause and effect for complicated systems. This is why many infectious diseases were eradicated since they are identifiable, and an accurate diagnostic tool likely exists. On the other hand, non-communicable diseases like diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases are harder to overcome because they are complex.
As Tainter hypothesized in his book "The Collapse of Complex Societies", societies eventually collapse under the weight of their own accumulated complexity. Take oil as an example. First, societies start with the lowest hanging fruit. For a little while, there is a substantial boon of surplus capacity and energy that allows the society to grow. Later on, this society finds itself dependent on its tools. As the society picks the low hanging fruits, upgrades to technical infrastructure like pipelines and tankers are needed to be able to continue to maintain the same amount of supply.
What will end up happening inevitably, as Tainter points out, is that society gets an S-curve happening at the level of innovation. At a certain point, it takes more energy per unit innovation. As society burns through the low hanging fruits, it arrives at an increasingly fragile relationship between how it meets its needs and its relationship with the resources that happen to be in the environment. This tension then generally leads to a collapse.
On a grander scale, our system is optimized to continue growing its complicatedness to reduce everything that is complex into something simple. Our civilization is a kind of paperclip maximizer. An example is the emphasis on GDP growth at the expense of other variables. No matter how comprehensive a set of variables we optimize, as complex systems can with current methods only be approximated, there will be imbalances and missing factors. This reductionism leads to externalities.
Our system is fragile
As we move up the technological curve, any perturbation may entail more pronounced cascade effects. Our system is currently not set up to have the resilience to deal with these culminations.
One hundred fifty years ago, shutting down the power grid would not have had much impact. However, because we are so reliant on the system, an agent's capacity to shut down the power grid could result in a catastrophe. Centralization and connectedness introduce a fragility, whereby several different ways to shut down the power grid like an EMP, cyber warfare, or even a distributed drone swarm are imaginable. Experts predict that a Carrington flare, a solar geomagnetic storm, would cause widespread electrical disruption, blackouts, and damage to the electrical grid. To make a point, the solar storm of 2012 missed earth's orbit by nine days.
Natural disasters could also compound this issue. An example is the 2010 eruptions of Iceland's volcano. Although in a remote location and relatively small for a volcanic eruption, air traffic was disrupted by the ash plumes for an entire week. Overall, 10 million travelers were affected. If the flights had been disrupted for more weeks, it could have affected global supply chains.
There is a war on sensemaking
Finally, there is what Daniel Schmachtenberger has called a war on sensemaking. Our information ecology is broken, making it harder to understand what is happening and make the right choices. Every individual or group has vested interests for sharing information, rendering it challenging to assess a source's trustworthiness.
For example, marketing and sales are rarely telling the truth and doing what is best for the customer. There is an incentive to manufacture artificial demand because one group wants to maximize the customer lifetime value, decoupling revenue from actual use-value.
Furthermore, companies have teams working on hacking our attention by broadcasting supernormal stimuli. Economic incentives lead to more sensational and fake news being consumed and shared. In a search for user attention, platforms create filter bubbles that repeat and confirm their views and lead to strong ideologies.
Finally, information is and has always been used as a competitive advantage, epitomized in the concept of intellectual property. With rivalrous dynamics, incentives to conceal and misinform others for a competitive advantage abound.
All these factors make it hard to do proper sensemaking. The sensemaking crisis may be characterized by the observation that our ability to trust mediated communication is rapidly approaching zero.
The need for a phase shift or evolutionary transition
As Daniel Schmachtenbeger said, ""if we are gaining the power of gods, then without the love and wisdom of gods, we self-destruct" ".
When a shift is getting exponentially better and exponentially worse at the same time, it shows that a system is destabilizing. So, we will either get the emergence up into a higher degree of order or an entropic drop down into a lower degree of order. That is the precipice we are on.
The challenges we face are solvable. For the first time in history we have the technological infrastructure and capability to make the changes necessary to create a world that works not just for human life, but for all life now and in the future. Our problems are not the result of unavoidable human nature but are the result of changeable systems.
If there is one species capable of addressing this sort of problem, it is us. The human niche is niche switching; we can figure out what to do in new situations. It is what we do better than any other species that has ever existed on earth. We have collectively figured out what to do when the wisdom of ancestors has run out and will need to do this again to tackle these problems.