(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘decline

“The advance of machine-technique must lead ultimately to some form of collectivism, but that form need not necessarily be equalitarian”*…

Whither our relationship with the technology that’s become so engrained a part of our lives? And what of the companies that provide it? Tim Carmody muses…

The end of the heroic age of the tech giants does not imply that tech giants are in decline, but confusing the two is natural. Observers and analysts usually talk that way about companies, especially tech companies and the platforms they enable: they grow, mature, then decline (in relevance if not in revenue).

In general, what characterizes this phase of the tech giants’ development is a shift from unlocking user creativity and customer value to doubling down on surveillance, usually augmented by AI. Mass surveillance was always an important emergent part of the tech giants’ strategy, but was arguably secondary to delighting users and giving them greater capabilities. Now surveillance and nonhuman solutions are dominant, and the creative possibilities are now almost all residual.

(Yes, this “emergent/dominant/residual” schema is a Raymond Williams reference.)…

… Both of these declines — the decline of the consumer experience and the decline of the market forecasts — are driving tech companies’ retreat from what I’m calling their heroic phase. But neither are identical to it.

We can imagine — in fact, I predict — that these companies’ stock prices will rebound along with the rest of the market. Their profits will soar — the newfound emphasis on profits rather than reinvestment demands that they soar. Their technical innovations will continue, especially in AI, automation, and cloud computing. And yes, customers from you and me to the DoD will continue to shop for, use, and stream their products.

The main difference is that it’s now clearer than ever before that these companies’ interests are not the same as their customers’, or their workers’. There’s nothing universal about the technology revolution, no rising tide that lifts all boats. We have to give up that fiction in order to see things as they really are…

Eminently worth reading in full: “Two ways to think about decline,” from @tcarmody via @sentiers.

* George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier


As we (re-)think tech, we might recall that it was on this date in 1871 that Andrew Smith Hallidie received a patent for an “endless wire rope way” which he then put into practice as the Clay Street Hill Railroad– the start of the San Francisco cable car system.


A view of the railroad in 1876 (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 17, 2023 at 1:00 am

“You say you’re a pessimist, but I happen to know that you’re in the habit of practicing your flute for two hours every evening”*…

The Harrowing of Hell, Hieronymus Bosch

A couple of weeks ago, (R)D featured a piece by Jonathan Haidt, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” in which Haidt critiqued, among others, Robert Wright and his influential book, Non-Zero. In the spirit of George Bernard Shaw (who observed: “Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society. The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.“) Wright responds…

… There are three main culprits in Haidt’s story, three things that have torn our world asunder: the like button, the share button (or, on Twitter, the retweet button), and the algorithms that feed on those buttons. “Babel is a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done to nearly all of the groups and institutions most important to the country’s future—and to us as a people.”

I would seem uniquely positioned to cheer us up by taking issue with Haidt’s depressing diagnosis. Near the beginning of his piece, he depicts my turn-of-the-millennium book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny as in some ways the antithesis of his thesis—as sketching a future in which information technology unites rather than divides…

Well, two things I’m always happy to do are (1) cheer people up; and (2) defend a book I’ve written. I’d like to thank Haidt (who is actually a friend—but whom I’ll keep calling “Haidt” to lend gravitas to this essay) for providing me the opportunity to do both at once.

But don’t let your expectations get too high about the cheering people up part—because, for starters, the book I’m defending wasn’t that optimistic. I wrote in Nonzero, “While I’m basically optimistic, an extremely bleak outcome is obviously possible.” And even if we avoid a truly apocalyptic fate, I added, “several moderately bleak outcomes are possible.”

Still, looking around today, I don’t see quite as much bleakness as Haidt seems to see. And one reason, I think, is that I don’t see the causes of our current troubles as being quite as novel as he does. We’ve been here before, and humankind survived…

Read on for a brief history of humankind’s wrestling with new information technologies (e.g., writing and the printing press). Wright concludes…

In underscoring the importance of working to erode the psychology of tribalism (a challenge approachable from various angles, including one I wrote a book about), I don’t mean to detract from the value of piecemeal reforms. Haidt offers worthwhile ideas about how to make social media less virulent and how to reduce the paralyzing influence of information technology on democracy. (He spends a lot of time on the info tech and democracy issue—and, once again, I’d say he’s identified a big problem but also a longstanding problem; I wrote about it in 1995, in a Time magazine piece whose archival version is mis-dated as 2001.) The challenge we face is too big to let any good ideas go to waste, and Haidt’s piece includes some good ones.

Still, I do think that stepping back and looking at the trajectory of history lets us assess the current turmoil with less of a sense of disorientation than Haidt seems to feel. At least, that’s one takeaway from my argument in Nonzero, which chronicled how the evolution of technology, especially information technology, had propelled human social organization from the hunter-gatherer village to the brink of global community—a threshold that, I argued, we will fail to cross at our peril.

This isn’t the place to try to recapitulate that argument in compelling form. (There’s a reason I devoted a whole book to it.) So there’s no reason the argument should make sense to you right now. All I can say is that if you do ever have occasion to assess the argument, and it does make sense to you, the turbulence we’re going through will also make more sense to you.

Is Everything Falling Apart?@JonHaidt thinks so; @robertwrighter is not so sure.

Apposite: “An optimist’s guide to the future: the economist who believes that human ingenuity will save the world,” and “The Future Will Be Shaped by Optimists,” from @kevin2kelly at @TedConferences.

* Friedrich Nietzsche (criticizing Schopenhauer)


As we look on the bright side of life, we might send darkly-tinted birthday greetings to Oswald Spengler; he was born on this date in 1880. Best known for his two-volume work, The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), published in 1918 and 1922, he was a historian and philosopher of history who developed an “organic theory” of history that suggested that human cultures and civilizations are akin to biological entities, each with a limited, predictable, and deterministic lifespan– and that around the year 2000, Western civilization would enter the period of pre‑death emergency whose countering would lead to 200 years of Caesarism (extra-constitutional omnipotence of the executive branch of government) before Western civilization’s final collapse. He was a major influence on many historians (including Arnold Toynbee and Samuel “Clash of Civilizations” Huntington).


“The entire empire has sunk into a quagmire of extravagance from which they cannot extricate themselves”*…

If you ever visit Rome, and wander through the Colosseum or Circus Maximus, it’s hard not to be struck by a sense of fragility and impermanence. Here are the remnants of the most powerful and complex of ancient European societies, now reduced to ruin and rubble. How did this once proud and mighty empire crumble?

Joseph Tainter’s 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies has an answer to that question, and to similar questions you might ask about the collapse of other ancient societies (Mayan, Incan, Babylonian etc). His book is widely cited and discussed among those who are interested in the topic of civilisational collapse. Having now read it, I can see why. Tainter presents his views with a logical simplicity that is often lacking in these debates, only setting out his own theory after having exhaustively categorised and dismissed alternative theories. What’s more, his own theory is remarkably easy to state and understand: societies collapse when they hit a point of rapidly declining marginal returns on their investments in problem-solving capacity.

Despite this, I have yet to see a really good summary of his theory online. I want to provide one… I’ll try to focus on the essential elements of Tainter’s theory, and not on his dismissal of rival theories or his detailed case studies. I’ll also aim to be critical of the theory where needed, and to provide some reflections on whether it can be applied to contemporary societies at the end. These reflections will be somewhat idiosyncratic, tied to my own interests in democratic legitimacy and technology…

Academic and blogger John Danaher (@JohnDanaher): “The Collapse of Complex Societies: A Primer on Tainter’s Theory.” To observe the obvious, Tainter’s theory is usefully– provocatively– applied to (large) organizations and their “problem-solving capacity” (e.g., innovation and competitive responsiveness) as well…

(Via Matt Webb, whose contextualization is fascinating…)

* Liu Cixin, The Three-Body Problem


As we deliberate on decline, we might recall that it was on this date in 1789 that George Washington was elected President of the United States by a unanimous vote in the Electoral College.

Washington’s inauguration


Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 4, 2021 at 1:01 am

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when… our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness”*…

I’ve always been bullish about American scientific and technological supremacy, not in some starry-eyed, jingoistic way, but due to the simple reality that the United States remains the world’s research and development engine.

This is true for at least four reasons, which I detailed previously: (1) Superior higher education; (2) A cultural attitude that encourages innovation; (3) Substantial funding and financial incentives; and (4) A legal framework that protects intellectual property and tolerates failure through efficient bankruptcy laws. There’s a fifth, fuzzier reason, namely that smart and talented people have long gravitated toward the U.S.

But while Americans believe in unalienable rights endowed by our Creator, we are not similarly guaranteed everlasting technological supremacy. China is already challenging the U.S. in computer science, chemistry, engineering, and robotics. Without a consistent and relentless pursuit of excellence, the eagle risks losing its perch.

Unfortunately, there are a confluence of factors that, when combined, constitute an existential threat to American science: Postmodernism, political partisanship, and trial lawyers…

Alex Berezow of the American Council on Science and Health (and founding editor of RealClearScience; @AlexBerezow) explains (and offers some hope): “The Slow Suicide of American Science.”

And lest we think this a very recent phenomenon, consider this collection of pieces from New Scientist in 2011: “Science in America: Decline and Fall.”

(Image above: source)

* “I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…” – Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995)


As we listen to reason, we might we might recall that it was on this date in 1996 that the cable channel Fox News debuted.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 7, 2020 at 1:01 am

“What goes up must come down”*…




For most of human history, the world’s population grew so slowly that for most people alive, it would have felt static. Between the year 1 and 1700, the human population went from about 200 million to about 600 million; by 1800, it had barely hit one billion. Then, the population exploded, first in the United Kingdom and the United States, next in much of the rest of Europe, and eventually in Asia. By the late 1920s, it had hit two billion. It reached three billion around 1960 and then four billion around 1975. It has nearly doubled since then. There are now some 7.6 billion people living on the planet.

Just as much of the world has come to see rapid population growth as normal and expected, the trends are shifting again, this time into reverse. Most parts of the world are witnessing sharp and sudden contractions in either birthrates or absolute population. The only thing preventing the population in many countries from shrinking more quickly is that death rates are also falling, because people everywhere are living longer. These oscillations are not easy for any society to manage…

Demographic decline– the end of capitalism as we know it?  “The Population Bust.”

See also: “UN world population report predicts slowing growth rate, 10.9 billion peak by 2100” (source of the image above) and The Rise and Fall of Nations: Forces of Change in a Post-Crisis World, by Ruchir Sharma.

* Isaac Newton


As we ponder population, we might recall that it was on this date in 1845 that the first issue of Scientific American was published.  Founded as a weekly by painter and inventor Rufus M. Porter, as a four-page weekly newspaper, its early emphasis was on a broad range of inventions ranging from perpetual motion machines, through an 1860 device for buoying vessels (created by Abraham Lincoln), to the universal joint which now can be found in nearly every automobile manufactured.  It became the somewhat more substantial monthly publication that we know and love when,in 1948, three partners (publisher Gerard Piel, editor Dennis Flanagan, and general manager Donald H. Miller, Jr) who were planning on starting a new popular science magazine, to be called The Sciences, purchased the assets of the then century-old Scientific American instead and put its name on the designs they had created for their new magazine.


The first issue of Scientific American


Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 28, 2019 at 1:01 am

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