The Dimensions of Culture

A nation of a billion doesn’t necessarily produce more original thinkers than a society of 10 million.
All the people who ever lived in classical Greece would fit in a single dreary modern city or province.

More scientists are alive now than in all the rest of history combined and they are able to draw from the knowledge of all those who came before them.
Yet our society doesn’t necessarily produce thousands of Isaac Newtons.
The Europe of Isaac Newton’s time had a fraction of today’s population and a much smaller percentage of their number were scientists. These few scientists had far less wealth at their disposal and only a fledgling scientific tradition to draw upon.

In the modern USA, one can drive hundreds of miles and experience the same exact culture, same dialect, same architecture, same chain restaurants.
Though one travels a long distance geographically, one has not gone far in terms of culture.
Meanwhile in the English countryside, there are noticeable changes in people’s accent, physical appearance, and their local ales every 20 miles or so. There is more cultural variation in a 100 mile stretch of the geographically smaller UK or France than in 1000 miles of the United States.

When it comes to societal variation or creativity sheer numbers of people or money don’t seem to be the decisive element.
The ways that people are organized and categorized are far more important.

A ‘medium-sized’ town of 150,000 people in our own time produces little in way of ideas and culture.
Yet for several centuries Venice was a superpower with nearly the same population.
The classical Athenian city state only had about 300,000 inhabitants and most of its soldiers, statesmen, and thinkers came out a pool of 40,000 citizens.
Far later in history, London had a population less than 1 million until the 19th century.

Even the greatest megalopolises of ancient times numbered no more than 1-2 million people. In our own time, Tenochitlan, Rome, or Babylon might be big enough for a professional sports team or two but they’d otherwise be undistinguished from hundreds of other urban centers.

Now, it takes a city of 20 million to do what a city of 1 million people used to do.
A town of 150,000 once fit to be the capital of a superpower now does what a village of 7,500 people used to do.

As the number of people and amount of wealth grows, it becomes evident that additional size doesn’t change the proportions of the system itself.

In certain material ways, size does translate into increased proportions. A modern city of 20 million has far more, far larger buildings than its equivalent in the ancient world.
A city with 20 times the population might build 20 hanging gardens each 20 times the size of the original.
We might also consider that a wal-mart supercenter in a modern rural backwater would easily have been one of the great wonders of the ancient world.

Yet how does proportion work if we think in terms of culture and ideas?

If a cultural bloc is composed of 150,000 or 20 million people, how much does output of culture and ideas really change?
At the very least, we don’t see the exponential growth we’re used to seeing if we are looking at purely material criteria.

There is a key bottleneck here:
-Skyscrapers can be built ever larger and more numerously as a civilization expands.
-Yet the idea of building a skyscraper can only be come up with once no matter how many skyscrapers a civilization might build, no matter how large they are.

Furthermore, if material development outpaces everything else, might it actually hurt the growth of creativity and ideas by creating a social mono-culture in its wake?
After all, what invisible impact might there be on human creativity in aggregate when one can buy the same cup of coffee at the same exact coffee shop with the same floor plan across a swathe of thousands of miles?

If we make all the same basic assumptions about our world as our neighbor and share many of the exact same experiences in our daily lives, to what extent are we capable of producing anything different?
If the number of subcultures and cultural blocs remains constant with size—or even decreases, why would we expect any increase in cultural output?
Indeed, if 150,000 people were organized into 20 different subcultures, might we see more creativity than from a population of 20 million divided into only 10 subcultures?

Ultimately, we must ask ourselves: how might we engineer a human civilization to maximize human cultural and creative output?
In recent weeks I’ve received questions about the concept of a revolutionary ‘steam engine of the mind.’
As part of my ongoing reply: Imagine a civilization that combined modern size with ancient proportions in the realm of culture and ideas.

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13 responses to “The Dimensions of Culture

  1. You hit the nail on the head when you said: “When it comes to societal creativity sheer numbers of people or money don’t seem to be the decisive element.
    The ways that people are organized and categorized are far more important.”

    I have always believed that a organization’s structure and bylaws will influence it’s use of language and it’s direction.
    Currently, our society is organized by the precepts set out in Roberts Rules of Order. Creating a new governance model would be a noble endeavor of the first rank. How would you change Roberts?

    • Civic organization isn’t really what I speak of here.

      I’m thinking about this a bit more abstractly: In terms of group identities.

      For instance, let’s compare a stretch of the Caucasus mountains to an area of flat river plain in Northern China.

      There’s many times more people living on that river plain yet the mountain range is inhabited by isolated tribes living in their separate valleys. We’ll see a lot more languages spoken and of greater variety than we’d find on the flat plain.
      We’d also find a lot more variety in cuisine, in the arts, in writing systems, just about anything we could think of.

      So let’s say we had a million people to play with and we have to engineer their social structure to produce as many variations as possible within a few generations.
      We’d probably want to simulate the tribal isolation of the mountains to get the results we’re looking for. Or if we look at historical examples we might also take inspiration from the trade cities of the Levant in which normally isolated cultures from all over the world mixed and exchanged ideas.

      In my next post I’ll be explaining these ideas further. Perhaps you’ll join me next time on 6 Heretic’s Way *stares at camera dramatically another second or so before fade to black. End music and credits*

  2. Misogynistic or warlike cultures too? I wonder if there are more creative thinkers out there than we imagine, all across the planet, we just don’t know about them because they never have a chance. Looking forward to your next installment.

    • I just read Culture Code as suggested by the author here and followed that up with Brave New World. Me thinks creativity is being bread out of us. We are bombarded with advertising from the time we are babies and the education system (in the US anyway) is designed to stop people from thinking. Brave New World indeed. Any voice that is “off code” in the culture will be ignored first, made fun of or shamed when it does not go away, and finally attacked and silenced.

      Probably the creative types are bloggers like our friend Giovanni here, and the rest of us trying to find the truth. Not sure if there are enough of us to make a difference except on an individual level right now. Cultural change happens over many many generations and we in the US are several generations into the “useful idiot” training that we receive now. Anybody here read Delusion Damage’s post on farming people? I’ll dig it up and post it here if you want.

      • I just looked for the article you mentioned so I could post the link here. Delusion Damage appears to have taken down most of his articles for the time being.

        But he’s one of several bloggers to post similar thoughts.

        Off of hand, I can think of a Hawaiian Libertarian post entitled ‘Feedlot USA

        You might find my human husbandry article of interest.
        I make some further speculation about the impact on intelligence in ‘Is IQ Intelligence.’

  3. Unfortunately DD took his posts off line and we are left with his blog role. Fortunately I archived his posts (for personal use and research purposes only)

    Thanks for reminding me of Keoni Galt’s feedlot piece. Looks like he is coming at it more from the poison food and emasculation angle where as DD is coming from the economic exploitation angle. Both of them hit on the brainwashing aspect though. I will check our your pieces as well. I just found your stuff a couple weeks back so I am slowly going through your older posts. Interesting stuff; keep up the good work. And, if you haven’t read it, Brave New World has a lot to say about social engineering. Aldous Huxlley also wrote a follow up essay, i think in the 50’s that looked at the rise of Fascism, Communism and Nazism. He also compares BNW to 1984. Still working my way through that.

    Anyway, from Delusion Damage…

    “Farming People
    September 19 2011

    People are farm animals. They are being farmed. From breeding to raising to milking to slaughter and packaging for consumption, every step of the human-farming process is streamlined to yield maximum profits to the farm.
    Following a brief nursing period after birth, the young human is separated from its family and stored for 8 hours a day in a warehousing facility to grow to a properly exploitable size. This time, however, is not wasted, but used to prepare the human to produce maximum yield later in life by brainwashing it with conformist rituals and making it psychologically dependent on the herd and the familiar processes of the farm.

    When the human is full-grown and ready for economic consumption, it is transferred from the holding facility to the slaughterhouse. The slaughter takes place slowly over 40-50 years, during which time every possible drop of money is carefully squeezed out of the human by the employment machinery until there is nothing left but a spent, broken shell.
    Once completely useless, the used-up human is transferred to a final carcass storage facility where minimum-wage laborers feed and wash the still barely living carcass until it finds the good sense to stop breathing and can be safely transferred to its end placement location in the ground.

    Human breeding is selectively controlled through a clever manipulation of the brainwashing process – conditions on the farm are carefully maintained at a low enough standard to make breeding a risky business, thus ensuring significant hesitation to breed among the flawed human specimens who despite their brainwashing think too much to be optimally exploitable livestock. Meanwhile, the perfectly dumb human specimens without the troublesome tendency toward excessive thought breed at full capacity, ensuring the next generation of humans contains a higher percentage yield of optimally dumb obedient workers.

    Revolutionary advancements in the effectiveness of labor extraction have been achieved in the last few centuries through a gradual transition from punishment-based motivation to reward-based motivation. All the unexploited capacity of slaves who would only work just hard enough to avoid the whip has been harnessed through the use of complex mind control techniques designed to make the slaves believe they are working for themselves, and that harder work will bring greater rewards. Thus, each human works at its individual maximum capacity, providing the farm with a far superior yield compared to the old system. At the present time, the new model is nearly ubiquitous all around the world.

    The only part of the equation that remains unsolved is finding productive uses for the massive quantities of labor being extracted from the humans. Presently, the vast majority of it is wasted on make-work projects such as complicated games of bureaucratic paper-shuffling which serve no discernible practical purpose, building intricate machines designed to destroy themselves by exploding, utterly simple manual tasks that machines have been able to do for decades, and pretending to know something in front of a television camera.

    Farm administrators could not be reached for a comment on this issue, but official statements issued earlier urged the population to stay calm with assurances that new jobs are being created.”

  4. “Ultimately, we must ask ourselves: how might we engineer a human civilization to maximize human cultural and creative output?”

    What do you mean by culture? Knowledge?

    I assume that you mean: “How can we maximize knowledge and inventions?”

  5. I think you’re right that the monocolture of stores, etc. causes people’s brains to go dull. It just seems like we’ve created a mass society of dull people that is less and less capable of inventing anything significant.

    This may also explain the IQ drop that has been occurring since the 40s.

    Of course it is not in the interest of a nation state to get people to think differently. It wants easily-interchangeable, like-thinking robots that conform to the same social structures. Plus, people who are entrenched in the system tend to resist change.

    I’m not really sure how to change the current system, honestly. Maybe it would be the best thing to start a different culture elsewhere. All the existing structures I can think of are too ossified, prioritizing quota and procedure over creativity and ability.

  6. The steam engine of the mind requires components. I think certain sounds, the way a vowel sounds for instance, tends to have inherent meanings, beyond what a culture may give them. Sort of like how classical music can stimulate the growth of plants, relax animals and have significant benefits for humans (though I have heard of retailers playing classical music to keep undesirables from loitering).

    From this language, this raw material, you can build concepts. Or maybe in more practical terms, reverse engineer what is useful from what we already have. Programs for processing data combined with sharp senses, for telling us the difference between the Teapot and the Nuclear Reactor.

    We have a general idea for what group size is best for preventing group-think from occurring. Less than 10 people is usually the agreed amount. The larger the group, the higher the cost of communication is. Everyone must devote more mental energy to staying on the same page. Ideas that are too innovative can derail group cohesion and result in confusion, so thinking is simplified. People still bring in their agendas, politics, emotions, but it is expressed within this acceptable band. Otherwise they go too far out of sync and it becomes difficult for them to talk on the same level. Studies have shown IQ effects communication, if they too far apart no real communication can take place, just manipulation. These studies are generally conducted on men though, I have no idea how skewing the genders effects the results. Space must also be accounted for, not to close but not too far.

    Groups that insulate themselves from the outside world and it’s criticisms tend to devolve into senility or insanity. Cults, corporations and empires throughout time have made this simple mistake. It’s just as prevalent in large corporations like IBM, the color of the suit an executive wears can become part of the cultural standard (or a hoodie if you’re employed by Facebook). The challenge, as always, is uniting around a higher goal without losing your identity.

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  8. This was a very thought-provoking post. I think it’s a little less insidious than some might make it out to be. I agree that to a large extent, imagination and creativity are outsourced to the vast network of media that envelops us. The senses are catered to to such an extent that it can numb the mind. Progress is born out of struggle; less struggle, less progress. Yet I believe that exponential population growth works to counter this somewhat, which brings me to this:

    I imagine if we were to plot “axial thinkers” against “time/population,” it would show a very strong inverse correlation. However, this is probably less a function of conspiracy/devolution as it is a natural result of societal development.

    As human societies become bigger and more complex, ideas and developments become bigger and more complex in turn. The mechanical inventions of the occident placed a high emphasis on ingenuity, but a low demand on resources and manufacturing. A water screw could be invented and built by the same individual; a quantum computer cannot. An inventor in the modern age must build on past discoveries by *default*; he cannot choose to ignore the vast history of ingenuity that lies beneath him. So he is already in his mind relying on the work of others. On top of this modern developments require a large techno-economic manufacturing base to bring them into existence. So as ideas become bigger and more complex, they begin to require bigger and more complex networks of individuals to come into existence. So now it takes 10,000 people to produce a creative accomplishment which, adjusted for inflation, is on the same level as ancient and historic inventions.

    Living in the modern world may not be (seem) as inspiring as in formative millennia, but in truth we have a vast support network of information and resources that allows for those with ingenuity to accomplish much more than they would be able to alone.

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