Washington Post writer and blogger Joel Achenbach recently wrote a piece called “Inventing the Future” for his alumni publication. It’s about a brainy fellow Princeton alum named Nathan Myhrvold, who according to Achenbach is brilliant in many areas – physics, software design, cooking, photography, etc. In his article, one quote by Myhrvold caught my attention:
“Broadly, overall, the way society works is emergent, and it is built on progress — it generally runs downhill toward something better,” Myhrvold says as we get deep into the philosophical weeds on all this stuff. The world is a better place now than it was 500 years ago, he declares. Driving that improvement is, he believes, technology. He’s an unabashed technophile. And he seems to have a strong libertarian streak.
A taste of that libertarian streak comes out a couple paragraphs later:
Many of the visionaries today talk of building a “sustainable” society, a word that seems to rile Myhrvold. “The most sustainable thing about human society is that we innovate,” he says. Later, he elaborates in an e-mail: “The answer is not to pine for a past golden age when things were better (there was no such place or time), but rather to ask how we can use more technology and innovation.” Change, he thinks, is intrinsic to our nature. The future will be different. Survival will not involve preservation of things as they existed before: It will require their creative destruction and replacement.
OK…first of all, I’d love to see a debate between Mr. Myhrvold (aka Mr. T – as in Technology) and James Kunstler (aka Mr. Doomed – as in “we all are…”). They both sound bright and opinionated, and they share an interest in predicting the future. But one expresses great optimism about technolgy and the future, while the other is generally very pessimistic. It would be a fun debate – in an intellectual “fight club” kind of way.
Beyond that, up to a point I agree with Mr. Myhrvold about society being emergent: the way a society is and the way people behave in it develops from the bottom up. However, I believe this is only a part of the picture.
I suspect Myhrvold’s sense of emergence is at the heart of a lot of libertarian thought: “just get out of the way and let things emerge!” Libertarians apparently assume things exist in some vaguely positive state – sort of a social petri dish filled with a fertile growth medium. Given that neutral state, things will always work out for the best eventually. If and when they don’t – like the current financial crisis – libertarians just write it off as “creative destruction.”
There are indeed cases in which The Old must collapse in order for The New to come to fruition. (After all, that’s one of the main ideas behind this blog and my website,) But as we’ve seen too often recently, destruction can often be a product of stupidity or greed rather than creativity.
What Myhrvold and other libertarians fail to recognize is the other side of the bottom-up nature of emergence. Things don’t just emerge willy nilly out of nothing; they emerge in a context. The environment in which they exist will usually play a huge role in their outcome.
Take farming, for example. What a farmer grows and how successful he or she is in growing it will largely be determined by the context of his or her farm: the climate, the soil, water availability, general nature of the land, etc. Any farmer who tries to grow corn in the mountains of Colombia is likely to have as little success as one trying to grow coffee in Iowa.
Crops are an emergent phenomena; a farmer may plant the seeds, but then nature takes over. However, the farmer’s success depends on him or her being mindful of the context of the farm and the crops that are most likely to thrive in it for a sustainable period of time. In addition, to get the most productive crop the farmer must keep in mind the specific needs – water, nutrition, etc. – of the crop over the course of the growing season. Otherwise, under/over-fertilization or a drought can have a serious effect on the yield of the crop.
In the same way, individuals and businesses exist within the context of human society. That society, in turn, exists within the larger context of the local and global physical environment. We are each a part of the world, not apart from it.
This may be easier to understand if we borrow an idea from modern science. Physics has found that at its most elementary level, matter is simultaneously an individual particle and part of a collective wave. It’s dual-natured.
The same is true of people and businesses: we are not just a solitary individual or a part of the group. We are always both at the same time. It’s just a matter of perception, like watching a crowd doing a “wave” in a packed stadium. You can watch the wave of humanity roll around the stadium or you can watch a person participate by standing up and then sitting down with those around them. But you can never see both at the same time.
The problem with libertarianism is that by always being focused on the individual it is blind to context. It’s all particle and no wave. At that stadium, it would see a person getting up and sitting down; it wouldn’t see the wave that individual was a part of. On Wall Street the focus was only on the success of individuals; there was no thought of the way the behavior of those individuals was damaging the financial system as a whole. No wonder so many “experts” were caught off guard by the inevitable collapse. They literally never saw it coming.
If a person tried to farm with a libertarian’s blindness to context, they’d most likely lose the farm in short order. They would plant whatever they thought would be most profitable, regardless of its suitability for local climate and soil. Once planted, the crop would be at the mercy of the “invisible hand” of nature. Maybe it would rain, maybe it wouldn’t; being averse to “regulatory meddling,” it would be against libertarian ideology to alter the natural course of things by watering.
With a blindness to context and an aversion to “meddling,” there’s only one crop a libertarian would be likely to have by the end of a growing season: weeds.