I suspect most readers, like me, grew up learning to think of history as progress.
But at UR we care not for tradition. We accept no givens, we serve no idols. Au contraire—we crap on them. (Expect a new crop of bitter, perverse screeds against democracy, coming soon.) So it’s worth asking: is history actually the story of progress? Or were we just told to think so, like good little school-bots?
The idea of decline, a la Spengler, is unfashionable these days. But of course it has featured prominently in many cultures and civilizations, such as classical China, the Roman Republic, various Catholic traditions, etc., etc. And as Deogolwulf points out, universal faith in progress is evidence for, not against, decline.
Still, we have HDTVs and 500-gig hard disks. Did Marcus Porcius Cato have either of these fine conveniences? Did Oswald Spengler, for that matter? So perhaps we can sneer at them after all. Spengler was a Nazi, Cato walked around flanked by fasces-wielding lictors. The past is darkness and superstition. The future is fiber optics and universal enlightenment.
Ray Kurzweil, whose synthesizers gave us a whole era of death disco, and who’s certainly a very smart man, has taken the idea of progress to an extreme, and predicted an event he calls the Singularity. In the singularity, computers grow so smart they design themselves, making them even smarter than Kurzweil, and so ad infinitum. Kurzweil expects this as soon as 2035.
I am no Kurzweil, but I know a thing or two about computers. I don’t find the Singularity improbable at all. Certainly technical progress accelerates itself exponentially. I think 2035 is a little soon, but I have no strong feelings on the issue.
But historical progress—whatever that may be—is something else. History is littered with the ruins of failed civilizations. Without getting into the trap of defining “progress” or “decline,” surely we can agree that Rome fell and Babylon is no more. They didn’t rename the Forum the Campo Vaccino for nothin’.
History is not an experiment. We can’t separate social progress (or decline) from technical progress. We do, however, have imaginations. And we can imagine them separately.
In the last 200 years we see enormous technical progress—the Industrial Revolution. Clearly the leading edge of the Singularity. Exponents everywhere. Small exponents, but exponents.
But in 1776 Edward Gibbon wrote: “We may therefore acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased and still increases the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race.” (Click the link for context.) Clearly, dude had a definition of “progress.”
Don’t you think that, if Gibbon could see the state of the world in—say—1976, he might want to edit that prediction a little? He would certainly keep the knowledge, probably the wealth, maybe even the happiness. But “virtue?” By our definition, perhaps. Not by his.
Twenty years after Gibbon wrote, the Jacobins were making leather out of human skins. Read Gibbon’s passage, which is justly famous. There is no presentiment at all of the incredible barbarisms that would erupt, not in Papua New Guinea, but in France, Germany, Russia and North America. (Europe may have perfected “total war,” but it didn’t invent it.)
Now imagine the history of the last two centuries with these brutal wars of totalitarian democracy, but without the Industrial Revolution. Um…
Or even forget the wars. Imagine all the political, economic and cultural changes of Western civilization—the explosive growth of the centralized State, the rise of the criminal class and the destruction of legal clarity, the disappearance of craft training in the arts, the Dilbertian sclerosis of industry, the replacement of uniformed warfare by suicide bombing, the colonization of the First World by Third World peoples, and above all the tremendous narrowing of mind that has destroyed any intellectual tradition which dared to deviate by a millimeter from the chiliastic faith of the Allied victors, the moral catechism of the Baedeker raids, a robotic and crypto-Christian universalism, a disaster that still adorns itself with the Orwellian names of “diversity,” “human rights,” and “multiculturalism,” but resembles nothing so much as the Catholic Church at her inquisitorial, Cathar-roasting worst. But without any 500-gig hard disks or HDTVs.
Let’s call this the “weak Antisingularity hypothesis”—the idea that technical progress and social progress are uncorrelated, and may even run in opposite directions.
The weak Antisingularity hypothesis doesn’t mean the Singularity won’t happen. What it means is that technical progress has overcome the declining trends in Western society. Perhaps in the absence of the Industrial Revolution, the experience of late Antiquity would have been revisited, and Uzbek horsemen would be cantering across the ruins of Paris. But we do have the steam engines, the SUVs and HDTVs, and we will have the Singularity. Exponential technical acceleration has broken the savage cycle of history.
Unfortunately, there’s also a “strong Antisingularity hypothesis.” The strong Antisingularity hypothesis suggests that the coincidence of technical progress and social decay is not, in fact, a coincidence. It’s actually a case of cause and effect.
It’s very easy for technical progress to cause social decay. Evolution designed humans to compete in a variety of brutally selective environments. When robots—or Helots—do all the work, why bother? We can just sit on the couch, play XBox 360, smoke green bud and masturbate frantically. Idiocracy beckons.
If technical progress actually causes social and political decay, Mike Judge is an optimist. What happens when the Singularity really approaches, but it’s not quite here yet? When the curve of technology is almost vertical, but not yet infinite? “Damn, yo.”
What the strong Antisingularity hypothesis suggests is that we haven’t escaped the cyclical pattern at all. We are just in an unprecedentedly steep upcycle. The Uzbeks may yet water their horses in the Seine—if there are any Uzbeks left. Or horses, for that matter.