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What do I get high on?

July 28, 2009

What turns me on when I look at society? Who do I believe in? What do I cheer about and why am I definitely an optimist?

Even though I believe that it’s always individuals that act, feel, choose etc.., and not abstract concepts such as nations or ‘business’ or labor, and even though I acknowledge that individual excellence is often the source of major inventions and improvements whether in the sciences (Einstein etc..) or in the private sector at large (innovators, forward-looking entrepreneurs etc…), what’s really cool and what I really marvel about is the fantastic diversity and phenomenal complexity of emergent structures, arrangements, concatenations of relationships that take form in large human societies (where by large I mean ‘in the hundreds of people’, or more), as well as the process, the underlying feed-backs and impulses, that might be at work when such structures evolve.

One salient example of such an evolving structure is our current form of government, our body of laws, and our crop of politicians. This is actually the least interesting, because the forces that are at work in this context are mostly modeled on our individual form of rationality, which is bounded, imperfect and easily gullible. We create government in our own image (to paraphrase a famous line). History is the history or our political institutions, our leaders, our generals (and their wars). All eyes are pointed there, that what’s most visible. What politicians do, their laws, their decrees, their authoritarian rules and regulations, these are very well defined and easily describable actions. We anthropomorphize government and judge it as if it was a single rationally acting individual. Why? Because we evolved for hundred thousand years in the context of small tribes or small bands of hunter-gatherers where problems were solved by appointing a chief who would then go about solving them engineeristically. But by focusing only on what’s visible we miss completely the rich and complex “invisible” substrata of societal ecology. “Invisible” doesn’t mean ‘dark’ or ’shady’, it just means ‘not-well-understood’, ‘not-yet-fully-explained’,

‘hard to formulate’. The fundamental conundrum is that knowledge is dispersed, decentralized, disaggregated, in the mind and feelings of millions of diverse individuals. Politics pretends to be the only justifiable way of putting such broken information together into an aggregated, averaged, smoothed, easily manageable quantity. Well, it just ain’t so. There are myriads different ways in which people’s knowledge, dispersed to the four corners of the globe, can be harnessed to achieve practical goals, through impersonal interactions that rely mainly on non-designed and unintentional signals

As a civil-societarian (my term, but maybe not) I enjoy studying and learning about these harder-to-describe beneficial effects of human interaction. That’s why I question the visible actions of politicians. Give me a law and I’ll question its intended effects, I’ll look for its panoply of unintended consequences, and will try to imagine a parallel word without said law. My goal is to run away from the political spectrum, step-back and get a broader picture. What are the trade-offs? When studying the ‘visible’ it’s easier to attain a certain degree of certainty and confidence. But on the other hand, one risks sharing a little too much in the human hubris and arrogance of thinking that one is consciously designing and shaping the world (I myself have erred in this direction way too many times that I care to admit). The ‘invisible’ is less easy to quantify, there’s less empirical data, hence there’s more debate, based mainly on logic and intuition. However, it’s safe to say that the social sciences and our general culture have made and continue to make substantial progress in understanding this more subtle aspect of human interaction. That’s why I’m fundamentally an optimist.

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