If here could be anywhere, why is everybody trying to make it there? The previous piece on complacency ended with a wary truce between comfort and conflict. Whether we are lotus-eaters or Cassandras, the outcome is malaise, conformity and petty competition. This week we will conclude the investigation of stagnation hypotheses with a look at how forces of homogenization like globalization and media can answer the question posed above. In doing so, I hope to make the case that technology, teleology and tail risk are the keys to unlocking exploration and innovation.
The importance of place cannot be overrated, and we have the aphorisms to prove it ("location, location, location", "right place, right time", "no place like home"). It is, of course, not simply physical location that matters in terms of opportunity and motivation, but also the social environment in which we exist. But that social environment is so intrinsically related to place, we often use metonyms as a stand in: Wall Street, The Hill, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, etc. It is easy to see why this was the case before transportation and communications technologies made it possible to develop relationships across great distances, but if anything, technology and social changes have only served to heighten the importance of place, both as an ideal and a reality.
A City and a Tower, Whose Top May Reach Unto Heaven
First, let us deal with globalization as a separate entity from media (an impossible distinction made for the sake of simplifying analysis). Of the many critics of globalization, Joseph Stieglitz, mentioned here before, is perhaps the most well known. Aside from media, globalization can be thought to take place on three-axes, trade, government and finance. First, we must acknowledge the massive global reduction in poverty that has been produced in part by globalization. Abhijit Banerjee, co-Nobel Memorial Prize recipient, authored with Esther Duflo, an essay on the trade benefits of globalization. This is despite their nuanced take on the importance of political institutions in international development that won them the Nobel. The opening of global trade and the rejection of mercantilism is one of the earliest successes of economics and rationalist thought by luminaries such as David Ricardo. Yet, as we discussed last week, trade between nations does not prevent violence. It does mean, however, that one can have roughly the same experience of drinking a can of Coca-Cola in the United States, China, Nigeria and Germany. Global trade means being able to eat the same things, wear the same clothing, use the same microwaves, drive the same cars and even build the same skyscrapers.
That the environment we live in and the goods we consume are increasingly similar around the world is not a new point or even terribly interesting on its own. From an economic perspective, countries are simply exploiting their comparative advantages and scaling production to the greatest set of consumers possible. If Mexico can grow the best avocados the most cheaply and Korea can design and build better, cheaper washing machines, why shouldn't consumers from London to Lagos all aspire to the same consumer experience? It is certainly more efficient.
Similarly, global standards and increasingly super-regional legislation, such as vehicle emissions and EU regulations around food safety, work at the margins to reduce differences around the world. This is not to make light of the externalities caused by pollution or unsafe food practices, but to point out how the reduction of differences is happening not just on the basis of individual choices about consumption. Returning to last week's discussion of "Seeing Like a State" by James Scott, government's attempt at administration at scale requires both ordering nature towards uniformity and applying the rational and scientific design of social order to eliminate diversity.
Then there is the flow of global finance, which has enabled a leveling of prices around the world through arbitrage. Today a condo in Vancouver may be owned by a billionaire in Hong Kong, a Middle Eastern sovereign wealth fund may invest in a San Francisco venture capital firm, a bank in New York may package American mortgages for a Swiss insurance company. Without regard to national borders, the alienation of wealth from the communities where it was produced has led to increasing competition.
Competition is, in fact, a universal feature of sameness. As trade, policy and finance reached a peak of globalization, comparative advantages in manufacturing, regulatory shopping between regimes and financial flows seeking yield all create a form of monoculture. Monoculture may go by many different labels like supply chain risk, race to the bottom, or financial bubbles. The essential components of monoculture derive from the social ordering and rational administration Scott calls "legibility," which may be just as much a feature of free-markets as of government bureaucracy. Scott elucidates,
As I finished this book, I realized that its critique of certain forms of state action might seem, from the post-1989 perspective of capitalist triumphalism, like a kind of quaint archaeology. States with the pretensions and power that I criticize have for the most part vanished or have drastically curbed their ambitions. And yet, as I make clear in examining scientific farming, industrial agriculture, and capitalist markets in general, large-scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification as the state is, with the difference being that, for capitalists, simplification must pay. A market necessarily reduces quality to quantity via the price mechanism and promotes standardization; in markets, money talks, not people. Today, global capitalism is perhaps the most powerful force for homogenization, whereas the state may in some instances be the defender of local difference and variety. ”
While the effects of global trade, law and finance are on the one hand to enable scale, efficiency and rationalism through legibility, they are at the same time alienating to the individual. Who does one appeal to if you, for example, lose your job due to lower labor costs in another country, or your energy bills go up to meet global climate standards, or you can't afford to buy housing due to foreign investors bidding up prices? That these effects are likely justifiable in aggregate is not the problem, it is lack of representation or ability to exit that is unfair.
Only a world detached from locality can reveal the importance of place. Fewer differences between places makes the existing differences all the more salient and important. First the train, then the automobile, and ultimately airplanes, broke down local monopolies and unlocked the vast advantages of scale and agglomeration. The local opportunities diminished and the global opportunities, located in specialized hubs became vastly more appealing. Communication technology followed transportation and surpassed it, as telegram gave way to radio, which yielded to television and ultimately social media. As digital technology spread its reach even wider than transportation, so too did sectors of symbolic manipulation, a topic we will return to shortly.
The city, or polis as Plato called it in The Republic, gave birth to our modern word politics. The city is the fundamental political unit and as such, it represents various types of polity. One of the late 20th century's most admired thinkers, Leo Strauss, wrote of two cities, Athens and Jerusalem, representing ideal rulers as defined by two types of wisdom, philosophical and prophetic, respectively. In Strauss's telling, the success of the western world comes out of the synthesis of the philosophical reason and the prophetic revelation. This theory, and its implications for American cities, deserves its own piece which I will share at a future date, but for now let us pause on the observation that there are as many political arrangements as there are cities. To the extent that all cities are becoming alike, so too are the possibilities for social order becoming alike.
Fewer and fewer differences, more and more competition and a narrower and narrower conception of what is politically possible brings us to what Marshal McLuhan termed the "global village." Contrary to the hippieish-sounding phrase, in this 1977 interview McLuhan said, "Village people aren't that much in love with each other. The global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations.... ordinary people find the need for violence as they lose their identities. So, it's only the threat to identity that makes them violent." The degree to which metropolises around the world have become nearly indistinguishable is striking, but it pales in comparison to the uniformity of global media, the primary subject that McLuhan is famous for analyzing.
The People Is One, and They Have All One Language
The global village that McLuhan had predicted in the 1960s had come to pass by the '70s. His popular ideas like "medium is the message," "global village," and "hot" and "cool" media had already brought him fame in the 60s, but McLuhan, a forceful and frenetic thinker, pushed his previous theories into uncharted territory. He turned "medium is the message" into Medium is the Massage; he described hot and cool media as seen in the rearview mirror, "marching backward into the future;" and he transformed the global village into the "global theater." Here we begin to see the stupefying effects of modern media on exploration and innovation.
The global theater is McLuhan's way of speaking about the space age that naturally followed the radio and TV broadcast age. While the global village was tribal and brought us in communication with (radio) or face to face with (TV) one another, the global theater is performative and creates an environment of universal surveillance. Dan Geer, the chief Information Security Officer of In-Q-Tel, had this to say in a 2014 talk titled We Are All Intelligence Officers Now:
As I said before and will now say again, the controlling factor, the root cause, of risk is dependence, particularly dependence on the expectation of stable system state. Yet the more technologic the society becomes, the greater the dynamic range of possible failures. When you live in a cave, starvation, predators, disease, and lightning are about the full range of failures that end life as you know it and you are well familiar with each of them. When you live in a technologic society where everybody and everything is optimized in some way akin to just-in-time delivery, the dynamic range of failures is incomprehensibly larger and largely incomprehensible. The wider the dynamic range of failure, the more prevention is the watchword. Cadres of people charged with defending masses of other people must focus on prevention, and prevention is all about proving negatives. Therefore, and inescapably so, there is only one conclusion: as technologic society grows more interconnected, it becomes more interdependent within itself. As society becomes more interdependent within itself, the more it must rely on prediction based on data collected in broad ways, not in targeted ways. That is surveillance. That is intelligence practiced not by intelligence agencies but by anyone or anything with a sensor network.
The transition from terrestrial broadcast to satellite was also a transition from analog to digital. This semiotic revolution was the fourth in a string of media revolutions that reflect McLuhan's admonition, the medium is the message. The first was of course, the printed word. While movable type hastened the Protestant Reformation and sent religious shock waves throughout Europe and its Western colonies, the apex of print media would not be reached until the steam age. Although Johannes Gutenberg created the printing press in 1439, it wasn't until 1814 when the process for printing on both sides of cheap paper would be invented, kicking off a newspaper boom. Then, with the widespread use of steam engine locomotives, beginning in the U.S. in 1830 and culminating with the completion of a transcontinental route in 1869, our relationships, not only with cities, but also with media were fundamentally changed. Train schedules increased leisure time and created demand for paperbacks and magazines.
The social relationship with media of this era was materialist. Media was a tangible product and our relationship with it reflected that. Powerful institutions like newspapers, publishing houses, governments and universities were the creators and individuals were the consumers. It was an early industrial model that reflected the changes in manufacturing from cottage industries and feudal production systems to increased legibility, to use Scott's term, both ordering society around the structures of print media and the use of media to maintain that social order. Thinkers like John Dewey, of the Dewey decimal system, deeply influenced philosophy of education and Fredrick Taylor's popularization of scientific rationalism deeply influenced the philosophy of management. It was the creation of what McLuhan called "typographic man."
This eventually gave way to the propagandist era of media with the technology of the radio. The timeliness of radio and its greater reach than print took this paradise to an extreme. The creation of radio media was still the provenance of centrally controlled organizations (at least at first) with the creation of the large broadcast networks like NBC, which was first named the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), owned by GE, United Fruit, AT&T and Westinghouse. This was also the time of the birth of the global advertising industry, spanning print and audio. The corporate form, personified by billionaire utility tycoon Samuel Insull also gave birth to the public relations industry. A pioneer of regulatory capture, Insull first demonstrated the potency of PR tactics to prevent public control of private utility companies. When President Woodrow Wilson required a shift in public opinion in support of American engagement in WWI, he tapped Insull to head the Illinois Defense Council, which would later give rise to the Council of National Defense.
McLuhan first observed this change in Take today; the executive as dropout, writing, "Environments work us over and remake us. It is man who is the content of and the message of the media, which are extensions of himself. Electronic man must know the effects of the world he has made above all things." Juxtapose this with McLuhan's first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, and we can see how his theory of the new media projects the forms of the old media into the future. It's easy to see how Noam Chomsky (born 1928), arrived at his conclusions in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media. In the propagandist age of media, the state and the market are in control and the public is conditioned by ideas of the medium.
When Manufacturing Consent was published (1988), we were already well past the realization of the culture industry and into the technologist's age of media. With the advent of television, what McLuhan calls a "cool" medium, meaning it requires less imagination and participation of the consumer, as opposed to print and radio, it was already apparent that media was not just a product or a means of mass influence, but a tool for individualization. The 1960s and '70s were a profound period of individualism rejecting the stultifying previous eras of print and radio mass media. The Whole Earth Catalog, Samizdat and Free Radio, and various forms of counter-culture were quickly coopted by broadcast television, which being at the technological frontier was still expensive and centrally managed. The famous 1971 -"Hilltop" Coca-Cola ad is the canonical example. And yet, even as counter-culture was subsumed and mainstreamed to be the culture, our relationship to media – no longer just a manufactured product or program, but a tool – was incorporated into the culture.
The next era of media, which McLuhan did not live to see, but did predict with the global theater, is the symbolic era. With the switch from analog radio and TV broadcast to digital cable TV and internet, media again transformed from tool to code. Robert Reich coined the phrase "symbolic analysts" in his 1992 book, The Work of Nations, to describe the kind of highly paid knowledge work that manipulated symbols, from finance to computer programming. Returning to Strauss' work on esoteric interpretation and hidden symbols, this era is dominated by transmission and revelation of hidden messages.
Today the idea of virtual reality or what Jean Baudrillard called the "hyperreal" in his 1994 book Simulacra and Simulation creates a confounding environment of exoteric conformity and esoteric individualism. Symbols that once reflected reality, such as the stock market, computer code or politics, took on a life of their own and now constitute their own virtual realities, more real than reality. Traders, quants and portfolio managers in finance can get fabulously wealthy with little to no understanding of the underlying businesses behind the derivatives they trade. Software engineers, once calculating rocket trajectories, may spend their whole careers working on software-as-a-service products hermetically sealed in the virtual plane. Even political movements, once engaged in grass-roots mobilization and physical demonstrations, now aim explicitly at garnering social media outrage. America's last great prophet (in a long line from George Fox to Ann Lee, Walt Whitman, Ellen White, Joseph Smith, Helena Blavatsky, Mary Baker Eddy, Marcus Garvey, Wallace Fard Muhammed and many others), Martin Luther King Jr., wrote "In a crisis, we must have a sense of drama." Today one might say, "in a drama, we must have a sense of crisis."
A Steady Hand
Our four eras of media correspond to four ruling paradigms throughout history, although, as McLuhan pointed out, we are "marching backwards into the future," so each successive wave of media formulates the news message in terms of the past. The material age of media referenced the biblical rule of Jerusalem, the rod of iron. The age of propaganda looked back to Napoleon, a great innovator in propaganda, who is credited with the phrase "rule with an iron fist in a velvet glove." The self-conscious technological age of media ushered in by the television looked back to the early 20th century sociologist Emile Durkheim, who popularized Adam Smith's long forgotten Invisible Hand. Today's ruling metaphor may be described as, "reversed like a glove, exposed, placed in the open, stripped naked, and dismantled," a concept explained by René Girard and echoed by McLuhan's global theater, Geer's surveillance, Strauss' esotericism, Douglas Hofstadter's "strange loop," and Charlie Munger's "invert, always invert."
The hyper-awareness of being watched, not only the technological means to do so, but the universal knowledge of those means leads to a failure of teleology. The ancient rationalism of the Greeks focused on cause and effect. The ancient revelation of Jerusalem emphasized the purpose of phenomena (teleology). The era of progress was defined by a sort of truce that unburdened scientists with moral and ethical implications, until the nuclear age, coinciding with the technological media age. With the creation of world-ending power we are again forced to think not only of cause and effect, but purpose and consequence. Media, however, now untethered to reality, can continue its revelatory action, further dragging us backward into the future.
Here we end our analysis of the potential causes of stagnation and begin on the real work towards a solution of sorts or, at very least, some areas that may present possibility without beginning the eschaton.