March 06, 2006

A Parsec Too Far - Glenn and Jim Approach the Social Speed of Light

Earlier today, Glenn Reynolds (the Instapundit) was commenting on a review of his about-to-be-released book, An Army of Davids. I've been bouncing up and down on my chair waiting for my pre-ordered copy to arrive from No joy so far, but I hope to review the book here on Albion's Seedlings before too long. A few sentences in Glenn's post brought me up short, however.

"It's a great review, and I have no complaints. But I'm a bit frustrated -- with myself -- because Malone doesn't see the connection between the final chapters of the book (on nanotechnology, space, and the Singularity) and the earlier chapters on more contemporary phenomena. That's my fault, not his. I thought I had a pretty clear story arc, starting with events today, then explaining how nanotechnology will represent a vast intensification of current trends, leading to vastly (and to a degree, dangerously) empowered individuals, with worries that we'd see either explosive chaos, or a global police state (I invoke Larry Niven's A.R.M., and note that it's actually a rather benign vision of such things) -- with the space bit appearing to explain why we need the safety factor of dispersing people beyond earth, and how the new space frontier will protect values of individualism. I quote Bob Zubrin on that point."
"It seemed clear to me, but Malone's not the only one to miss that, which makes it my fault. Maybe I'll add a few paragraphs to the next edition, if there is one, to make that point clearer."

Perhaps Glenn's being too hard on himself. Eighteen months or so ago, Jim released his book Anglosphere Challenge to very similar reviewer mystification. Jim's argument, I thought, could be boiled down to three axioms:

  • There's something very unique about the Anglosphere and the roots of that distinctiveness are very old.
  • There's a Technological Singularity on the way and it's going to profoundly challenge human culture.
  • The centuries-old cultural emphasis in the Anglosphere on individuals and civic society provide a unique opportunity for a "network commonwealth" approach to successfully deal with the Singularity.

Everyone got the history part (with many quibbles), and everyone was interested in the network commonwealth idea ... but the Singularity stuff ... not so much. Both these authors have (paraphrasing Professor Reynolds) pushed their readers to extrapolate from current (even ancient) patterns of social behaviour into a social setting with profoundly differently technological foundations. Not many buyers, apparently, if Glenn's comments hold true.

Now most people (even those who are unusually curious, thoughtful and busy) don't pay much attention to "big picture" theorizing. Traditionally, there's a very low "return on investment." Fair enough. And no doubt Glenn Reynolds and Jim Bennett share personal "enthusiasms" for space and nanotechnology that place their expertise well outside the mainstream chatterati. Trying to actually create the future has likely given them a perspective on change that the rest of us don't have. Similarly, Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near can be a pretty spooky read at times. Maybe someone has to work where the real and imagined blur, for an extended period of time, to be comfortable with such thinking.

Nonetheless, Bennett and Reynolds aren't just shooting for a "gee-whiz, Mr. Science" audience. They are extrapolating (or attempting to extrapolate) toward social structures that might be necessary to cope adequately with disruptive events. And if we believe historian Alfred Crosby , the last time we saw such a massive change in worldview was the late 13th century ... when a new emphasis on quantification and visualization took the perennial "good ideas" of Asia and turned them into technological and social modernity within a century or two.

And whether it's a generic Army of Davids or a mobilized Anglosphere working through a network commonwealth, it seems clear to me that some kind of long-term resolution of the disruptive and creative forces in global society has to be thought about, even in the absence of any immediate political solutions. The books by Jim and Glenn come out clearly on the side of a social model that emphasizes individual rights and opportunities. But most of the people on this planet view individuals as instruments of group survival, operating on a very short lease indeed. The "blue-sky" stuff may seem like a tangent for historians and sociologists but it should probably be taken more seriously by us ordinary folk. In my view, the pacing of the modern world is going to be driven by technology and epidemiology. And in Glenn and Jim's view, the sorts of people who can best cope with a very rapid pace will draw on particular styles of behaviour and even more specific historical traditions.

Gizmos and politics deserve the equal billing.

"Lay on, Macduff;/And damned be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'" (Macbeth V viii)"

Posted by jmccormick at March 6, 2006 05:35 PM

I've read Anglosphere Challenge and will probably read An Army of Davids. I'd like to recommend another big picture book: The Pentagon's New Map by Thomas P. M. Barnett.

Posted by: David Aitken at March 7, 2006 11:53 PM

"the sorts of people who can best cope with a very rapid pace will draw on particular styles of behaviour and even more specific historical traditions."

Perhaps this is made very clear in the books you refer to. But it would be useful to hear it from you in words of few syllables:

1. [style of behavior] based on [elements] in [specific tradition] will make the difference in [specific hypothesized environment].

...contrasted to [style of behavior].

Posted by: dilys at March 8, 2006 07:45 AM

I love reading Glenn (and Helen), but his "consequences of future technology" theme seems thought out along only a few lines. C.S. Lewis actually went over many of the issues decades ago in The Abolition of Man, and Weston's speech in Out Of The Silent Planet -- which sounds eerily like some of our libertarians and tech geeks today.

Posted by: Assistant Village Idiot at March 8, 2006 12:17 PM

Thanks for comments. DA: Lexington Green, who posts on Albion's Seedlings, and, introduced Barnett to our readers some months ago. We track his ideas carefully though many of us give greater credence to the historical roots of Core behaviour than TB might.

Dilys: to avoid risk of putting words in Jim B's mouth, please read the shorter Anglosphere Primer at

AVS: Thnx for the citations, which I can track down. The impact of technology on society is a vast subject. The point of my post was merely to hightlight the similar experience that Glenn and Jim had recently when discussing their social hypotheses in the context of a Technological Singularity.

Posted by: James McCormick at March 9, 2006 07:04 PM

Second the suggestion regarding The Pentagon's New Map. Required reading, IMHO.

Posted by: Lawrence Barnes at March 11, 2006 10:42 AM

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