The future, always in motion and therefore difficult to see

The future is always difficult to see, but especially during those discontinuous events called revolutions.  As Clay Shirky explains in this look at “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” (13 March 2009).  He discusses journalism, but his lessons are applicable to the world of today — small and large.

Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial treatment of Gutenberg’s invention, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, opens with a recounting of her research into the early history of the printing press. She was able to find many descriptions of life in the early 1400s, the era before movable type. Literacy was limited, the Catholic Church was the pan-European political force, Mass was in Latin, and the average book was the Bible. She was also able to find endless descriptions of life in the late 1500s, after Gutenberg’s invention had started to spread. Literacy was on the rise, as were books written in contemporary languages, Copernicus had published his epochal work on astronomy, and Martin Luther’s use of the press to reform the Church was upending both religious and political stability.

What Eisenstein focused on, though, was how many historians ignored the transition from one era to the other. To describe the world before or after the spread of print was child’s play; those dates were safely distanced from upheaval. But what was happening in 1500? The hard question Eisenstein’s book asks is “How did we get from the world before the printing press to the world after it? What was the revolution itself like?”

Chaotic, as it turns out. The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?

During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change – take a book and shrink it – was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today.

Other article by Clay Shirky

About our time

I believe we are in a transitional time, when the post-WWII era passes away.   It is like a singularity in astrophysics, where the rules break down.  We cannot see beyond it because we do not understand the choices that will determine our fate – let alone how we will choose.  It also resembles a singularity in that what lies on the other side is unimportant until (or unless) one survives the passage through it.   We can only work hard to see that the new era is as good or better than past one.

For more on this see these posts:

Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For information about this site see the About page, at the top of the right-side menu bar.

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest are:

Posts about the forecasts and warnings:

  1. We have been warned. Death of the post-WWII geopolitical regime, 28 November 2007 — A long list of the warnings we have ignored, from individual experts and major financial institutions.
  2. Geopolitical implications of the current economic downturn, 24 January 2008 – How will this recession end?  With re-balancing of the global economy — and a decline of the US dollar so that the US goods and services are again competitive.  No more trade deficit, and we can pay our debts.
  3. What will America look like after this recession?, 18 March 2008  — The recession will change many things, from the distribution of wealth within the US to the ranking of global powers.
  4. Consequences of a long, deep recession – part I, 18 June 2008
  5. Consequences of a serious US recession – part II, 19 June 2008
  6. Consequences of a long, deep recession – part III, 20 June 2008
  7. Forecasting the results of this financial crisis – part I, about politics, 13 October 2008
  8. Forecasting the results of this financial crisis – part II, a new economy for America, 14 October 2008
  9. Miscelaneous news and thoughts about the financial crisis, 16 October 2008
  10. A look at the next phase of the crisis, as it hits the real economy, 31 October 2008
  11. A look at out future, 2009 – 2010 … and beyond, 9 November 2008
  12. A look at 2009 economy – some guesses, 28 December 2008

22 thoughts on “The future, always in motion and therefore difficult to see

  1. Fabius: “It is like a singularity in astrophysics, where the rules break down. We cannot see beyond it because we do not understand the choices that will determine our fate – let alone how we will choose…

    Me: A Grand, academically sophisticated, “supernova” status given to the bestial Henry Kissinger petrodollar recycling schemes.

  2. I don’t mean to criticize your insights overall, but much more needs to be done to prepare for the obvious challenges ahead. The system of cheap imports of goods and natural resources from China, the Middle East, etc under a global hegemony is going into a decline, providing around 5 years or so for the US to adjust; which is actually very little time. Within a short while, the US needs to create a huge base of skilled local workers who can work for the international markets at globally competitive wage levels. It also needs to clear the decks meanwhile to extract more resources from its own geography, and produce more goods on its own for the local consumption. Plus all this requires a major shift away from over-allocation of innovative resources to the military, and a major re orientation of foreign policy towards ensuring competitiveness of exports rather than assuring the cheapness of imports.

  3. Sorry if I’m overemphasizing this, but it’s actually hard to find many people who realize that the global hegemony is over. It’s imperative to prepare for its end, at least slightly ahead, so enough leeway is available for the inevitable re adjustment. China has decisively moved towards independence from the dollar hegemony and the US exports. But it will take a few years more for them to re deploy, and this is the only backstop for the US Treasury debt and the rest of the system meanwhile.

    As the Chinese interior becomes the focus of economic endeavor for China, with ever higher import dependence for resources and components, China has no option but to challenge the US dollar hegemony in trade.The US needs to think of itself as a large country with a lot of people and resources, that can both fend for itself, and deliver to the outside world as well.The paradigm of being like a small British Isles, dependent on weaponries, diplomatic tricks and sailboats to leech the world’s resources, needs to be done away before you can say Lord Robert Clive. (186 words)

  4. Indian Investor makes good observations. FM probably agrees with them. These are what I’d call “rational predictions”, what the US should do if it wants to survive intact (with present political institutions and culture, present distribution of wealth, not quite present levels of consumption.) Maybe events and external conditions will force us onto this path, or maybe entrenched special interests, and the political habit of taking the easy way out (i.e. bowing to those special interests, and selling the result as a “solution” to the ever gullible American public) will take us in a more reckless direction. I personally am worried that the age-old solution of war, political reaction and the suppression of internal dissent are on the way.

  5. Two points:

    1) Those interested in detailed discussions of the newspaper crisis should visit Newspaper Death Watch

    2) Read Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue and Orality and Literacy(New Accents) by Walter J. Ong.

    According to Wikipedia:

    Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (1958) elaborates the contrast between the visual and the oral that he found in Louis Lavelle’s La parole et l’ecriture (1942). In addition, Ong details how the spatialization and quantification of thought in dialectic and logic during the Middle Ages enabled “a new state of mind” to emerge in print culture, as he himself puts it in The Barbarian Within (1962: 72) — a state of mind representing “a real mathematical transformation of thinking” (ibid.) associated with the emergence of modern science.

    Ong’s most widely known work, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), a volume in the New Accents Series, is translated into eleven other languages. In it he attempts to identify the distinguishing characteristics of orality: thought and its verbal expression in societies where the technologies of literacy (especially writing and print) are unfamiliar to most of the population. He then reviews the transition from an oral culture to a writing culture, that is to the use of the technologies of written words for communication.

    Ong drew heavily on the work of Eric A. Havelock, who suggested a fundamental shift in the form of thought coinciding with the transition from orality to literacy in Ancient Greece. Ong describes writing as a technology that must be laboriously learned, and which effects the first transformation of human thought from the world of sound to the world of sight. This transition has implications for structuralism, deconstruction, speech-act and reader-response theory, the teaching of reading and writing skills to males and females, social studies, biblical studies, philosophy, and cultural history generally.

  6. Can anyone give an example of a point in history where a people prepared for a discontinuous event? All I see from history are reactions. e.g. We have known of the coming energy crisis for a long time but have done little if nothing to prepare.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Societies grappled with immediate problems, and lacked the ability to see — let alone respond — to larger trends. Everybody is limited by their information collection and analysis systems. If they show only crudely what is happening now, with neither comparisons to the past nor forecasts of the future, than planning (as we know it) is impossible.

    As a crude analogy: imagine traveling around the world before the invention of maps, before discovery that the world was round, on foot. With only a vague idea where you had been, where you were, where you were going — and almost no idea of the altneratives around you.

    So the very concept of planning for radical change requires a thousand innovations, which put the necessary cognitive and technological tools in our hands. But will we use them?

  7. “Can anyone give an example of a point in history where a people prepared for a discontinuous event?”

    The Second Coming and equivalent religious predictions strikes me as “discontinuous events.”
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    Fabius Maximus replies: We have a winner for “best comment” on this thread!

  8. Orwell made a pretty good prediction of the future in “1984”. Insofar as he proves to be correct, that would be a “discontinuous event”, in which democracy evolved into totalitarianism.

    Correct predictions of the future require, among other things, a heroic self-liberation from ideology. Ideology, the self-serving haze of intellectual, moral, emotional attitudes each of us carries around with himself, is the blinder that makes it hard to see beyond the present.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: In what sense was Orwell correct about the future in 1984? That was a quarter century ago, and little or nothing he warned of has come true.

  9. Not saying this will be a revolution on the scale of the printing press but has the potential. Wolfram Alpha has developed original scientific methodology and theory that has already produced real world results, the latest of which is a new search engine, or rather ‘answer engine’ to be released in May. You will be able to ask it questions that have never been asked and it will be able to provide answers. More importantly, it is based on the same ‘New Kind of Science’ principles that will have far wider applications and implications over time. Possibly.

    * Wolfram Alpha Search Engine.
    * Background article.
    * Online copy of his meisterwork

    Am almost half way through and must say it is extremely interesting, original with exceptional clarity and simplicity of writing style and presentation.

  10. Endorse 2-4 strongly. The gravest challenge is breaking the back of the Congress and the Pentagon which has for decades distorted development and innovation. We will remain a world power but we need a new national defense strategy, different force mixes, and different weapons systems. This is a big debate. Japan remains an ally, we defend Freedom of the Seas resolutely, regain control of our borders, close 95% of foreign bases. (Give statehood to Guam and independence to Porto Rico or Statehood.)Oil is going to be with us for several generations yet; we have plenty, we need to drill for it. We need a national energy policy, stop bullshitting about wind power, get real with nuclear and solar. A new agricultural policy, end farm subsidies, resume farming, discourage meat, dairy etc. –eat healthy. Get the government out of the education business, end the student loan racket. This is just for openers. If changes result in much lower standards of living, all bets are off. Ask readers conforming to this rectangle requirement to list the six big things which need to be done to move America from the debt model to a sustainable model.

  11. “Can anyone give an example of a point in history where a people prepared for a discontinuous event? All I see from history are reactions. e.g. We have known of the coming energy crisis for a long time but have done little if nothing to prepare.”

    We have also known about the looming threat of overpopulation exacerbated by the peak rates of consumption which are now (in the past year and a half), slowing down considerably. Some people have prepared but you have been deceptively distracted.

    Consumption rates are slowing down, population die off is increasing, and peak oil will be less of a problem because the ruling elite, in a well orchestrated and comprehensive plan have prepared for this “discontinuous event”. In the past forty plus years world society has deceptively and intentionally been dumbed down making it ignorant and receptive to the intentionally created financial crisis now playing out.
    The global middle class is being eliminated and a two tier ruler and ruled world, with the ruled class in perpetual conflict with each other, is being created. Replacing the ‘overseer’ management duties of the eliminated middle class will be the much less expensive, and low resource consuming, law enforcement class …

    Shell Game

    The beltway ruling elite,
    Have hijacked Uncle Sam,
    The world no longer trusts him,
    They now call him Uncle Scam,

    Uncle Scam now looks third world,
    Like a banana republic goon,
    They made the change by leveraging,
    His good name to the moon,

    But they did it for a reason,
    That the marks all fail to see,
    They want control of liquidation,
    They want control of you and me,

    Spurred by unsustainable consumption,
    And over population that is looming,
    The wealthy ruling elite,
    Now stop the middle class consuming,

    The elite will choose the winners,
    They will choose who will live or die,
    Unless you awaken to their machinations,
    You can kiss your ass good bye!

    Deception is the strongest political force on the planet.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Another report from the Gamma Quadrent. Quite unlike Earth. Here fertility is crashing in almost every developed and most developing nations. As the population bulge passes (population rising due to young average age in most emerging nations), a crash will follow unless current fertility rates reverse. Japan’s population is already declining, and other nations will follow during the next decade.

    “population die off is increasing”
    Sounds bad. Good thing it is not happening on our planet (at least outside Africa).

  12. Clay Shirky’s article is indeed excellent, and a hat tip to FM for citing it. What’s striking is how easily you can substitute other industries for “newspapers” in Shirky’s article. For example, you could probably slot in “free open source software” (stuff like Mozilla Firefox) in place of “paid software.” Ditto “free or nearly free content” for “TV industry,” also for “movie industry” and “music industry.” You could replace “bookchan” for “book publishing industry,” drop in “blogs” for “magazine industry,” and in the near future you may well be able to substitute “personal reprap” for “factory” and “genetically engineered food” for “farming industry” and “grameen loan” for “conventional bank.”

    You have to wonder about the smoking crater that will be left of our economy when all these changes are complete. How many jobs will really be left? Energy company CEO, train conductor, policeman, fireman…what else?

  13. I kinda agree with I on the Ball Patriot in this: “The global middle class is being eliminated and a two tier ruler and ruled world, with the ruled class in perpetual conflict with each other, is being created. Replacing the ‘overseer’ management duties of the eliminated middle class will be the much less expensive, and low resource consuming, law enforcement class.”

    For one example, the trillions of dollars being shovelled to the investor class, while autoworkers, teachers and prison guards are being cut back (all with once-powerful unions) indicates an unprecedented bias in our governing institutions toward the wealthy.

    I’m not sure I agree that the ruling classes have planned the financial debacle to serve their ends — after all investors in stocks have lost half their wealth, probably permanently.

    The necessary assumption, if Patiot’s prediction is to come true, is that the majority of citizens remain sheep.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree with this, but prefer to call them the “rich” (not the “investor class”). As for the question “are we sheep”, see these articles:

    * Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
    * de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
    * The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
    * We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
    * This crisis will prove that Americans are not sheep (unless we are), 8 January 2008
    * About security theater, a daily demonstration that Americans are sheep, 25 January 2009

  14. FM doesnt like green ideology , which is a shame as I think it has great potential , and most religions would be happy with it … After all , even little thievin’ ol UK has , according to BBC , 1% of worlds population but also produces 1% of the world’s grain .

    Another alternative to return to the status quo , was discussed in my local post office this morning . They are no longer allowed to stock the forms with which one can reclaim car tax when ones geriatric car dies in a cloud of black smoke . The forms are now at a post office 3 miles away . The local post office is soon to be shut. The excellent building may be pulled down to avoid the landlord having to pay Unoccupied Business Premises Rates . ( A tax . ) We decided a system of bribes , corruption , nepotism and intimidation would probably be no worse or more expensive to live under than the present system . Viva anarchy !
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I dislike all ideologies. IMO Marx was correct to call them instruments to create a false consciousness and prevent clear thinking.

    “Viva anarchy!”

    A commonplace view of people living in stable prosperous societies. People in societies that have experienced anarchy say “better a thousand years of tyranny than one day of anarchy.” A day of anarchy can burn to the ground what took generations to build.

  15. “I’m not sure I agree that the ruling classes have planned the financial debacle to serve their ends.”

    My best guess, from FM’s ‘gamma quadrant’ of course, is that we have an ongoing financial war between various titan networks. The 2-hour run on the banks on 9-11 2008 didn’t just happen by chance (i.e. either the date or that so many billions were suddenly sold at once). Presumably the purpose was to collapse the system. It failed. But that also doesn’t mean that those which prevented the collapse have your middle class’s benefit in mind either.

    There are only two ways this will play out:
    a) enhanced centralisation (most likely unfortunately) or
    b) fracturing (painful but better).

    I still suspect that war is the most likely outcome. It prevents b) whilst furthering a) and the sort of structures that might emerge from b) do not exist. The path of least resistance is centralisation, in other words. Unfortunately.

  16. Certainly the betting should follow that thinking. It is what people “think” they want. That is why I am betting on the populist explosion in several years. Too early to say about O. but for now he is falling behind the curve fast. Having a one party system since Nixon (at least) we do not have the language for a debate yet. The press is truly braindead but not more so that the populace. But I believe there are lots of people in this country who have a great deal to lose who have had no interest in politics ever, who are realizing they could lose all they have created. They will be showing up and they will not be spouting Marx, Ayn Rand, Swamianyone. We need to revive federalism, probably create regional institutions, and drain the Washington swamp.

  17. “population die off is increasing”
    FM: “Sounds bad. Good thing it is not happening on our planet (at least outside Africa).”

    Starvation is a multifaceted process that takes place over time. When the mind is co-opted by the ruling elite, to exploit it, the human spirit dies. It is called a living death. Put your thinking cap on!

    The crash is intentional, you need to dig a lot deeper …
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Starvation has been a commonplace since our ancestors first stood up, an unpleasant physical death.

    “mind is co-opted by the ruling elite, to exploit it, the human spirit dies. It is called a living death.”

    You appear to be conflating the real tragedy of starvation with something you made up. It’s a common tactic, like the feminists who use bizarrely broad definitions of rape to discover epidemics of rape.

  18. “Fabius Maximus replies: Starvation has been a commonplace since our ancestors first stood up, an unpleasant physical death. … You appear to be conflating the real tragedy of starvation with something you made up. It’s a common tactic, like the feminists who use bizarrely broad definitions of rape to discover epidemics of rape.”

    Ahem. Definition of starve:
    As a intransitive verb
    1 a: to perish from lack of food b: to suffer extreme hunger
    2: to suffer or perish from deprivation
    As a transitive verb
    1 a: to kill with hunger b: to deprive of nourishment c: to cause to capitulate by or as if by depriving of nourishment
    2: to destroy by or cause to suffer from deprivation

    The crash is intentional, you need to dig a lot deeper.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: We all know the definition of starve. Is there some point to this, or is it just chaff tossed into the discussion? This definition does not include “a mind is co-opted by the ruling elite {so that} the human spirit dies”, or anything remotely like that.

  19. FM: “We all know the definition of starve. Is there some point to this, or is it just chaff tossed into the discussion? This definition does not include “a mind is co-opted by the ruling elite {so that} the human spirit dies”, or anything remotely like that.

    Not chaff at all … The point is that when you brainwash someone — when you co-opt their minds — so as to exploit them, you have starved their spirits and diminished them as human beings. So deprived of spiritual nourishment, they become state zombies, and their spirits are dead to the potential that they were born with. Starvation is not limited to “an unpleasant physical death” as you implied, it can also include a living death of spirit.

    Brainwashing of the public by the ruling elite in scamerica has been on roids in the past forty plus years and has created a sea change shift in the public’s aggregate motivation from one focused on desire and opportunity about one’s future potential to one focused on fear and anxiety about one’s future potential.

    Those now so focused on fear and anxiety cower and contract, and as a result, are less competitive and consume fewer resources. They also submit willingly to the state — which intentionally induced the fear in the first place — for remedial measures.

    The crash is intentional, you need to dig a lot deeper. Deception is the strongest political force on the planet.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for the explanation. Can you provide evidence for any of this, or should we just assume you have an active imagination? My general assumption is saying those who disagree with you (“you” in a generic sense, nothing personal) have been “brainwashed” suggests some sort of serious cognitive error.

  20. ” .. those focused on fear and anxiety cower and contract … ” Thats true for me , my business and the local kids riding club I used to run , over the last 15 yrs ..not because of bankers but because of 1.the compensation culture 2.overregulation and official distrust .

  21. “Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for the explanation. Can you provide evidence for any of this, or should we just assume you have an active imagination? My general assumption is saying those who disagree with you (”you” in a generic sense, nothing personal) have been “brainwashed” suggests some sort of serious cognitive error.”

    No, wrong assumption on your part as to “some sort of serious cognitive error”, it rather suggests a heightened awareness that we are all a product of what we have been through in life, and, more importantly, there are those among us who will work to shape and form our environments, viewpoints and behaviors so as to exploit us. Those we have trusted have hijacked our government and its institutions and used them to brainwash us and exploit us. Just as our government lied us into the Iraq war and decimated the Iraqi population and culture, they now deceptively destroy our domestic population with lies, propaganda, and apocryphal over regulation (premised on public safety), that destroys our trust and confidence in each other and pits us one against the other.

    You are what you’ve been through, but now and the future are up to you.

    You jest in asking for evidence. you need to be more discerning as to what is really going on in scamerica. Read Anna Nicholas’s post # 21.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Please, no mas. It’s astonishing how many ways people can say “I’m right and have no need to show why.” I congratulate you on your self-esteem, but no more on this site unless you can provide some sort of evidence.

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