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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Religion Is A Purpose Engine

Builds Upon: A Formal Mental Science,
Loopholes In Evolution

Superstition, darkness, the inquisition, the opiate of the masses.

This is religion in polite ‘rational’ society.

Yes, religion has been used as a control mechanism and to help keep people docile under oppression but to focus on this only is to think very small.

Religion is a purpose engine for human societies.

The same type of thinking that allowed humans to plan for the winter or the dry season enabled us to become aware of our mortality and the impermanence of all things. This awareness allowed us to arrive at the logical conclusion that the universe is indifferent and our petty struggles pointless.

Humans require some means of fixing this bug. We must have some way of establishing meaning and purpose.

Nihilism is fatal to the continuity of the human species.
No nihilistic human society has ever survived. Societies that lose their sense of purpose are quickly subsumed by their neighbors and forgotten.

A well-established reason to exist better determines a society’s competitive success than sheer numbers, force of arms, or abundant natural resources. Meaning comes before all else.

This does not mean we all ought to try to revive traditional Christianity or any other religion. The old ways have failed for a reason in our own age and we are naive to suppose there ever was a golden age.
Systems of absolute morality have always been a clumsy way of regulating human behavior.
Absolute morals must self-contradict in countless unforeseen ways. A whole science of apologetics is required to keep the system afloat. Absolute morals set a standard that’s impossible to emulate in real life. Most people just ignore The Rules because absolute morality lays out an abysmally poor model of human reality.
In a highly religious society the payoff for clever, hypocritical defectors is very high while those who naively follow the rules are easily exploited. This is the problem that irks critics of religion to no end.

Despite all these shortcomings, however, religions kept thriving societies alive for millennia.

If a traditional religion is no longer suitable as a purpose engine, it must be replaced.

Secularism, a philosophy that favors a lowest common denominator that offends no one is not the answer. It provides a legal basis for a society of many factions but it cannot provide the power of purpose and meaning.

The ‘humanism’ set forth by atheists is not a viable answer. It is Christian ethics without Christianity to support it, a foundation fancifully suspended in mid-air.
Strong atheism reduces to nihilism. It can never uphold or produce a system of social values derived from a system of absolute morality.

There are two main functions that must be performed by a replacement purpose engine.

1) Avoid nihilism.

Traditional religions perform this function by assuming the existence of an eternal, omniscient creator(s) that cares about its creation.

I would propose that a post-religious thinker must assume a higher purpose.

This higher purpose ‘exists’ precisely because we perish without it.
The possibility of a pointless existence self-eliminates.

The higher purpose is pragmatically self-evident from the very laws of our universe.

2) Establish purpose.

In traditional religions the omniscient creator(s) gives us some kind of mission in life.

I have my ideas on how this problem might be approached. I hint at these ideas throughout this blog and will continue to develop them in new posts.

Conclusion:

The old religions arose spontaneously from societies operating wholly in a state of nature.

If Western civilizations continue on their present course, they will be engulfed by the old religions as they falter. The cycles that led to the rise and fall of our civilization will repeat. Better luck next time.

For now, there is a brief window of time to experiment with creating a deliberately engineered purpose engine; a construct superior in function to those that arise by chance and which can never develop beyond a bare minimum required by natural selection.

The fatal flaw in Western enlightenment thought is its relentless obsession with the material and the empirical.

After centuries of technological breakthroughs, methods of social organization, the use of belief systems, the power of human consciousness have remained in an uncultivated, pre-scientific state.
Indeed, it is precisely this lopsided mode of development which now brings the West crashing down.

Physical Training for Heretics

In late November I signed up for a 4 mile New Year’s run in the town I was living in.
I hadn’t done a competitive run in several years, not since I’d been a college student with a secure place in suburbia.

I’ve been an endurance athlete since I was an 8th grader and over the years I’ve learned a few things about what works.

Growing up, I spent years on cross country and track teams putting in a high volume of training every week only to be drained on race days and burnt out by the end of the season.
Experience has taught me that it pays to be strategically lazy.

In preparation for this race, I went out running no more than 4 times a week, often less. I kept the distance pretty short for most workouts but pushed my limits with sprint intervals every time. I’ve learned the hard way that high mileage at a steady pace just wears you out while yielding relatively low returns.

I also had some weights to work with that I used about 2 times per week. I focused on intensity in order to get the most out of my time.
In between workout days I’d enjoy some cigars, sip some brandy, and go out for leisurely walks.
I never bothered to time myself or chart my progress.
Every two weeks or so I’d go out for 10+ miles. On one of these trips I went about 16 miles and loafed the whole way through breathing mostly through my nose. However, for these runs I’d wait until it had been 18-24 hours since my last meal.
These runs were about teaching my body to use its glycogen stores efficiently and to cope with sustained stress.

I barely worked out at all the week before race week, I was busy hanging out with someone I hadn’t seen for a long time. When he was gone, I went back to training with just a few more days to go before the race. I realized I had definitely gotten a bit out of shape and did what I could with the days I had left.

On new year’s I ended up finishing the 4 miles in about 25 minutes, around an average of 6:15 per mile. I was pretty pleased with the result. It was comparable to the pace I’d been running at when I was 8 years younger and putting in 10 times the effort. I was pleased because I realize I could have easily done better.

And this leads me straight to an older experiment in heterodox training.
Most endurance coaches discourage extensive weight training.
When weights are involved at all, it’s always low weight at high reps. But 8 years ago as a college sophomore I decided I wanted some muscles so I started hitting the gym, often right after cross country practice.

I normally would start out a season at about 6:35 pace on an 8k(5 mile) course and plateau around 6:15 pace. Even at a very small college I was pretty mediocre at the competitive level(Not sucking begins below 5:30 per mile). Yet even as I worked myself to death trying to run and lift at the same time, my race times started to plummet. I was constantly sore and exhausted but I kept getting new PRs. Finally, around mid-season, I broke 6 flats.
At the same time, I was benching more than my body weight and heavy squatting about twice my body weight.
It was soon after this point that exhaustion finally started to catch up with me. I had to choose.

I quit cross country and ceased to be a specialist. Ever since then, I’ve focused on reaping the benefits of multiple types of physical activity.
I’ve found that approaching the Pareto point in different types of exercise:

-Is easier, less time-consuming
-More fun
-Feels better
-Causes much less wear and tear

Than trying to compete in just one.

I often wonder what I could accomplish if I had the rare combination of leisure and resources to pursue a serious program making use of everything I’ve learned.

But the real payoff, perhaps, is having an enjoyable hobby that doesn’t eat up tons of time and effort while keeping me in pretty decent physical condition.

Above all, my move away from the micro-specialist philosophy of sport was a formative experience in shaping the way I think about societies and nations.
In time, I was applying the same principles I used on my own body to much more massive bodies.

What Pets Tell Us

Builds Upon: Misery Enablers

I remember listening to a woman at a social event talk about how she spent a thousand dollars on a surgical procedure for her dog.
This woman was not rich. She was a teacher living in an apartment. She had made a very substantial sacrifice to keep her pet alive.
Later, I wondered: Would she be willing to give me, a human stranger, a thousand dollars if I were in trouble? I doubted it.

The truth is that pets for many of us are far dearer than people. This truth tells us very important things about our culture and society.

In most societies there is hardly even a word for ‘pet.’ The concept barely exists. For most Spanish speakers, ‘mascota’ is about as close as it gets.
For most people on earth, the idea of spending resources on an animal that provides only company is ludicrous. Their lives are already filled with a family, a clan, and a community. Most people on earth have very limited resources. They live in crowded houses and would never think of going out of their way to acquire an extra non-human mouth to feed. Even more extravagant would be the cost of vet appointments, vaccinations, neutering, and especially surgeries. All a complete absurdity.

In what kind of society then do animals become more important than people? What kind of culture takes pride in sentimental attachment over bonds of loyalty?

I can well understand deep attachment to an animal. When I had no one I could really talk to through four years of high school, I had a dog. I’m not sure I would have survived without this dog. He without a doubt meant more to me than the surrounding humanity I had failed to bond with. Every night he slept on my feet when I would otherwise have been completely alone.
I understood intellectually that the dog would be considered a parasite from a biological point of view. I thought of any number of creatures that insinuate their way into ant nests, termite mounds, beehives… and cleverly impost as a member.
I even called my dog, “little parasite” as a term of endearment.
Now that my dog has passed away, I like to visit his grave site out in a patch of sighing sagebrush whenever I visit my parents’ house.

I have no plans to ever replace my dog at any point in my life.

I’ve come to understand that abundant pets are a symptom of social disease. A result of division and loneliness. Pets are compensation for feelings of alienation and fear.
They are an easy shortcut to acceptance and adoration from another being when we cannot get enough from people.
In wealthy, dying societies with few or no children, pets become child substitutes. Indeed, some of the dogs women love most have flat faces, large eyes, are completely helpless, cry a lot, and weigh 7-8 pounds.

Pets are substitutes for human relationships that we lack. For if we were truly socially fulfilled the very idea of a pet would never occur to us.

Technological Minimalism

Builds Upon: The Obsolescence of ‘Conventional’ Military Operations,
Extreme Competition Reduces Adaptibility

The year 2010 has come and gone without either hoverboards or moonbases.
What is the meaning of this?

There’s something that novelists and screenwriters either forget, or overlook for the sake of including cool stuff in the plot.

Just because a technology becomes possible doesn’t mean its implementation is economically desirable or feasible.
Perhaps modern technology could turn lead into gold, but the intensive process of nuclear bombardment would be a huge net economic loss.
We can go to the moon now, but getting there remains fantastically expensive. Meanwhile Earth still has an entire uncolonized continent. Until millions of people are willing to live in Antarctica, until space travel becomes exponentially less expensive, until there is some significant incentive to establish a presence in space, moon bases will remain a staple of speculative fiction.

Even now there are a number of technologies presently in use that are unsustainable in the long term. Far from colonizing space, humanity is already technologically overextended, operating at a huge energetic net loss.

Many of these technologies don’t even do their jobs significantly better than plain human labor. Consider leaf blowers vs. rakes!

A technology is an asset when it makes the necessities humans must accomplish easier.

A technology becomes a liability when it becomes a necessity itself.

Whether an hour commute is made by car or by horse and buggy, it matters little how far of a distance is covered. It still takes an hour to get to work. Between these two scenarios there is no change in the quality or nature of the worker’s life. The only difference is that the car is more dangerous, expensive and energy intensive.

Yet one can not go back to a horse and buggy. The suburbs spawned by car cultures are often miles from the nearest place of work. Most roads can be used only by cars. Getting to work by any other means is unthinkable. A technological improvement is nullified once it becomes a necessity. For more energy and effort, it merely replaces the function of its predecessor.

-As a car allowed people to travel further to work, the workplace became further away.
-As house appliances and freezer food freed up time for housewives, housewives ended up entering the workplace and staying as busy as ever.
-As cell phones became affordable, it soon became socially and professionally impossible to live without them.
-Internet access that gave us the freedom to work from home now obligates us to work at home in addition to regular work hours.

Once any useful new technology becomes a common standard, it ceases to be an improvement. Thus our lives in the 21st century are not unlike those of the first city dwellers 6000 years ago. We merely accomplish the same tasks through more elaborate means to in order to keep up with more elaborate requirements. The struggle for survival and prosperity is constant. There are perhaps more prosperous people now than long ago, but as ever, the wealthy are few and the poor a teeming desperate horde.

Technological progress remains locked in a cycle of escalation that contributes little meaningful improvement to the lives of individuals in the long term. All the while it has expanded beyond the limits of sustainability by relying on energy stores that will take many millions of years to replenish themselves.

Technology clearly has the power to improve the quality of human life. It’s just never to date been used in a measured way that allows it to produce assets rather than a long list of liabilities. Without some kind of plan, new technological developments quickly become just another typical characteristic of the same oppressive agricultural society.

In order to maintain a technology as a net benefit to a given society, and to do so effectively possible, considerations of technological minimalism become necessary:

If automobiles were to be invented again, a society could keep the local traveling distances manageable by a horse and buggy or even by foot. If traveling distances are kept shorter within a smaller area, it takes fifteen minutes to get to work by car instead of an hour. When the area in which people live is smaller private vehicles are not a necessity and public transport becomes a more attractive option. Thus people can share the costs of transport and eschew the risks and exorbitant expense of individual vehicle ownership. Not only does everyone gain continuous benefit from the motor vehicle, no one needs own a horse and buggy any more either. In this scenario, the society accomplishes a strong gain in both efficiency and overall quality of life for its citizens…

Technological minimalism at the fundamental level is about trying to accomplish a task as easily and effectively as possible, with the smallest possible expenditure of energy. Not just fuel energy,
-The cost of equipment and raw material required to construct the technology,
-The amount of human effort required to make it work.
-The amount maintenance required to keep it working reliably.
-The amount of skill required to use it properly.

A society that observed technological minimalism would as a whole look much more than our own like a single living thing. It would do its best to make the most of every single scrap of energy. It would run vigorously on a level of effort and energy that would not sustain a modern society for an instant…

I was impressed when I saw a movie called The World’s Fastest Indian about an eccentric New Zealander, Burt Munro, who makes the world’s fastest motorcycle in his own garage. When Munro arrives at the Utah salt flats to try for the record, he’s almost laughed out of the competition. Everyone else has sleek cutting edge vehicles designed for them by major automotive and military technology corporations.
This crazy old man’s home made contraption is a complete joke. When the judges inspect the interior of this vintage motorcycle they find odds and ends such as a doorjamb and a brandy cork serving critical functions.
Yet the humble man working in his garage has a superior grasp of all the principles involved in creating his speed machine. He knows exactly what sorts of materials are required to do the job. He knows when a chunk of metal taken from a door will serve just as well as the latest professional grade parts.
Burt Munro had a fine grasp of technological minimalism.

He is a real life example of how a solid understanding underlying principles yields minimal, elegant solutions to large and/or complex problems. Imagine the ethic that produced Munro’s motorcycle applied to an entire society!

The Bicycle and the Chasm

Builds Upon: Domitian’s Error

Imagine a narrow sharply winding path about 2 feet wide with a dark yawning pit on either side.  The path is the only route across a chasm and it must be crossed on a bicycle.

One wishes to preserve one’s life and not fall in, but the default human response is fear.  Ironically the desire for life will make one nervous and probably cause one to lose balance and fall to their death.  Therefore, if one truly desires to live, one must suppress their overwhelming desire to live.  It is a paradox of sorts yet in application it makes perfect sense.  If one is cool and in control while going across the chasm, the short ride is quite doable.

This thought experiment is a principle in itself.  It illustrates how the truth can be both paradoxical and counterintuitive at first glance.

It is a demonstration that you have to separate your principles from intentions and determine what your actions accomplish in actual implementation.

It is about how the most ardent passions are not the epitome of living, how they can be destructive and counterproductive.

It is about how one tends to lose what one most desperately desires by virtue of desperately desiring it.