Last week on The Melbourne Flâneur, I stated that the reason why we avail ourselves so frequently of the metaphor of viruses and virality is because it describes the exponential way that information travels around the globe in contemporary life.
As a writer sensitive to cliché, I’m getting sick of hearing the word ‘unprecedented’ in the discourse surrounding the emerging Coronavirus situation, because this world-historical event is not unprecedented.
It would be more accurate say that, with the apparition of Coronavirus, for the first time in human history we are confronted with a ‘visible metaphor’ which illustrates—like a time-lapse film—just one of the exponential curves of existential crisis that humanity has been travelling on since at least the Industrial Revolution.
For the first two centuries, it appeared as though we were more or less on a straight line, one which appeared to be rising only very gradually thanks to ‘infinite progress’—‘la grande idée moderne’, as M. Baudelaire vituperatively called it, with its ‘odeur de magasin’.
Then, about 1960, the line began to rise appreciably at double the rate in half the time.
It’s no historical coincidence that at the beginning of the decade, President Kennedy should call for a man to be put on the moon by the end of the same decade. Anyone who has read Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon (1970) will have an appreciable sense of just how exponentially technology had to double and redouble itself in order to accomplish that goal.
By 1960, the line of technological progress was already very steep indeed. However, the gradient appeared to the generations alive at that time to be, if not gentle, then at least ‘manageably uncomfortable’. The steepness of the gradient they were travelling on was imperceptible due to what Robert Greene calls ‘generational myopia’.
They had the sense that they were still more or less in level relation to the x-axis. They had no sense at all that they had ceased to move appreciably along it and were, instead, now moving upward by compounding leaps in relation to the y-axis.
The paradox of exponential technological progress which feeds into Greene’s theory of generational myopia is that the rate of change is so fast that it appears to the observer travelling on the runaway train that hardly any progress is being made at all.
To explain the feeling contained in that paradox by another metaphor, we are on a planet which is hurtling around the sun at a rate of about 107,000 kilometres per hour, and yet we are so fundamentally, somatically adjusted to this movement that it feels to us as though the earth is perfectly still.
If the earth were to suddenly stop—or even to reverse its motion—I’m sure that this novel experience would make itself palpably felt to every individual of every species.
But so long as our vision of infinite progress is bounded by the frame of our own lifetime, we have no real sense of where we came into the world on this curve, and its differential relationship to the point where we will exit it—let alone the shape of the exponential curve for all the generations who will experience it.
We are, in essence, unconscious to this imperceptible reality which is taking place at a level above the cognitive capacity of both temporally limited individuals and generations to consciously perceive.
I said in my previous post that the exponential nature of Coronavirus is not merely a visible symptom of the invisible relationship we have been having with exponential technological progress for the past 300 years, but that it is a visible symbol of it.
And at some level, to consciously grasp the vastness of a phenomenon which is operating unconsciously across centuries, at a multi-generational level, we will have to grapple with the symbol of it.
When I was a young film critic on the Gold Coast in the early naughties, an old American gentleman who lived not far from me gave me a book which has been the single most influential work of philosophy upon me as a writer. It was a complete, unabridged edition of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918/1922).
Every culture, according to Spengler’s morphological view of history, has its ‘symbol’, the internal image that it is looking for in the external environment, and which accords with its deepest ‘soul-feeling’ for the true nature of the world. For Western man (or ‘Faustian man’, as Spengler calls him), that image is a line, a gently curving arc which disappears at the vanishing point—the symbolic thrust into the infinite.
All the products of a culture are the material images of this symbol. For Faustian man, the ogival arches of Gothic cathedrals—indeed, the cathedrals themselves—one-point perspective in oil painting, double-entry bookkeeping, long-range diplomacy and long-range warfare, trains, telegraphs and telephones—and even rockets—are all images of this symbolic thrust into the infinite, the belief that, in the furthest reaches of the cosmos, or in the indivisible heart of the atom, we will, eventually, touch the Face of God.
The quintessential cultural product of Faustian man is the discovery of differential calculus;—and indeed, without the discovery of how to plot the rate of change of a curve in the 17th century, NASA would not have been able to land a man on the moon in the 20th.
But Spengler—who predicted that such a soul-deep drive to parse out smaller and smaller differentials to the point of infinity would eventually result in the cataclysm of the First World War—saw that, by the 20th century, the culture of the West had ossified into a civilization—and that civilization was dying at a differential clip.
The symbol of the ‘gentle arc’ of infinite progress upon which it believed itself to be travelling no longer served it. Instead, by the dawn of the 20th century, that gentle arc had become an exponential curve.
Spengler predicted a long and painful decline for the West in which people would progressively lose faith in this symbol which had underwritten all the spectacular progress they enjoyed. But despite the decline into chaos, Spengler offered an olive branch of optimism: a new symbol, something that spoke more directly to the spirit of the time, to people’s intrinsic feeling about what the true nature of the world is at the moment of crisis, would spontaneously emerge to form a new culture.
In my view, a widespread, conscious understanding of the nature of the exponential arc we are travelling on is required to perceive this symbol, and the Coronavirus, our exponential bête noire, the archetypal shadow of all the poisonous virality we visit upon one another in a networked world, is the dark mirror which reflects the symbol of our time.
That symbol is the decentralized, distributed, horizontally scaling neural network.
The Millennial generation are no longer Faustian men, but are the inheritors of the Faustian soul-feeling for differentials, for the rate of change of a curve. Their curve, however, is exponential, rising not in an arithmetic but in a geometric progression, just as a neural network compounds its computing power exponentially with the introduction of each new node to the network.
Physicist Theodore Modis said that (following the differentials established by the Faustians), ‘by the year 2025 we would be witnessing the equivalent of all the major milestones of the twentieth-century [i.e. electricity, automobile, DNA structure described, nuclear energy, WWII, space travel, Internet, human genome sequencing] in less than a week’.
The exploding exponential curve, the accelerating thrust towards the point of singularity as it manifests itself in the metastasis of networks, appears to me to be the symbol of the new culture which will emerge from this crisis—if we survive the differential cataclysm of societal disintegration and atomization.
This was the danger I alluded to in my previous post when I stated that viruses are symptomatic of the vulnerabilities endemic in the new, ‘network-centric’ mode of life we find ourselves in at the start of the 21st century.
These emergent, decentralized networks of self-organizing agents find their geometric efficacy hampered as they are forced to operate under the linear, arithmetic restrictions of hierarchical global legacy systems based on the infinite derivative extraction of finite resources.
These fragile, ailing global legacy systems are symbolic artefacts of the Faustian world-view. They are examples of a systems paradigm called ‘Scientific Management’, which emerged in excelsis from the military and executive approach taken to winning the Second World War.
Scientific Management is about the efficiency of linear processes, and is therefore dependent upon hierarchy for its effective execution. It was adapted, as a morphological archetype, to a mechanistic age based on linear processes and literal ‘chains of supply’. Under the conditions of World War II, where Allied success depended upon maintaining a centralized supply chain, it is understandable that a Scientific Management approach to systems should then be templated for post-war use in organizations such as governments and businesses all around the world.
The Baby-boomers, as the last Faustian people pur-sang, enjoyed the benefits of the Scientific Management approach instituted by their parents. And, as Jordan Hall has observed, the meme of ‘O.K., Boomer’ is a reaction of frustration on the part of Millennials to the deep, almost somatic intuition that the centralized, hierarchical application of Scientific Management to global systems which was templated after Bretton Woods is no longer functional in a decentralized, networked world order.
In contrast, the ‘network-centric’ paradigm is about managing the ‘flow’ of intangible information, and the intuitive emergence of knowledge creation by self-organizing systems. It emerged as an alternative approach to Scientific Management in the 1990’s, with the wider and wider diffusion of networked computers in what we now call the ‘Internet’.
Network-centric systems such as the Internet—(which, as a cultural product, is surely to post-Faustian man what calculus is to Faustian man)—operate by means of exponentials: the computing power of a network follows a geometric progression in proportion to the number of nodes which plug into the network.
The Coronavirus is also a decentralized, distributed, horizontally scaling neural network like the Internet. And as the ‘shadow symbol’ of our time, it is actually showing us how our global order needs to be restructured in a network-centric fashion to out-flank it and other infinite impact crises which operate geometrically rather than arithmetically.
The virus is actually telling us how we need to behave as a collective in order to out-flank it.
It is telling us how we have to reorganize our common life as a distributed, decentralized, networked collective in order to deal effectively with the common existential challenges we will face in confrontation with our global ‘soul-image’, the exponential curve as it manifests in complex adaptive systems.
When I saw, on Four Corners last week, the havoc that Jair Bolsonaro’s government is wreaking in the Amazon, I had to shake my head with exasperation—not because I’m so concerned environmentally, but simply because, once you’re aware of infinite impact risks and the interaction of exponential curves of existential crisis in complex adaptive systems, you clearly see that the savannization of the Amazon is but another particular example of the same general morphological ‘soul problem’ which Coronavirus is making visible to us in another manifestation.
The soul problem of our time is to consciously see and understand how the exponential curve interacts in networked systems.
What made me shake my head was the observation that Senhor Bolsonaro—as an old military man and a Boomer to boot—is failing to apprehend the symbol of our time: instead of taking a geometric, network-centric view of the Amazon and its interaction with global systems, he and his government are proceeding on the linear, arithmetic assumptions of Scientific Management.
In other words, this old warrior is taking a World War II approach to 21st century problems.
Daniel Robert Alexander of the University of Phoenix, writing as long ago as 2008, chose, as the subject of his PhD thesis, to ask military and business leaders what naturally occurring and human-induced crises they thought that they would confront in the years between 2015 and 2025, and what leadership competencies they thought they would need to combat these crises.
‘The problem is,’ Alexander wrote, ‘beginning in the second decade of the 21st century, executive decision-makers who do not have the leadership competencies necessary to generate appropriate responses to human-induced and naturally occurring crises will adversely affect the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of people within hours….’
The infinite impact tsunami of a human-induced health, global economic and global political crisis has been ‘selected for’ by two generations of leaders, post-World War II, who followed a systems paradigm based on Scientific Management. And due to the exponential curve we are travelling on, the n-th order infinite impacts derived from this approach are now affecting lives and livelihoods at an exponential rate within hours.
It would be unfair to attach blame to the Greatest Generation for bandaging together a coherent global order based on the short-term efficiency of Scientific Management practices out of the shattered remnants of World War II, a fragile world they could delicately pass on to their children. After all, as Spengler had predicted, by that stage, we were well beyond the civilizational curve.
Moreover, the children of the Greatest Generation had lost faith in the Faustian project, and rejected the fragile chalice they were being handed—although they did not disdain to suck the last remaining dregs of wine out of it.
And it would be unfair to attach inordinate blame for this predicament to the Baby-boomers, who, for most of their watch, have not had the fully networked technology, nor the native adjustment to it, to properly envision a network-centric rather than Scientific Managerial global order.
But when one considers that all the levers of power that might have attenuated this crisis in its early days, well before its exponential explosion, are in the hands of a generation who did not effect a peaceable transition to a network-centric model of distributed, decentralized governance when that technology became functionally available during their watch, but have instead compounded this crisis by tackling it arithmetically, with a Scientific Managerial approach, rather than geometrically, in line with its true nature, you can see, as Alexander says, that the Baby-boomers do not have the leadership competencies necessary to tackle this and similar crises.
The weakness in the network-centric model which makes it vulnerable to viral attack, both literally, as regards human lives, and metaphorically, in the online space, is due to the fact that, as our global legacy systems are centralized, linear and hierarchical, it must perforce operate under the moribund and restrictive global governance architecture of Scientific Management.
As Heather Heying has noticed, if data about the Coronavirus were distributed transparently in a decentralized global network, much of the ‘hard reboot’ economic response to this crisis which Baby-boomer leaders are pressing for—and the probable recession it will entail—could be mitigated.
The strength of the network-centric model lies precisely in the fact that it decentralizes the computing power necessary to evolve a geometric solution, delegating data to knowledge workers within the network, rather than ‘silo-ing’ data within linear, centralized, pyramidal structures where population-level decision-making is restricted to an élite.
This is because the network has a better ‘situational awareness’ than the Scientific Managerial élite: it has more points of contact with the reality of the situation.
Neural nodes positioned closer to the field of action—such as doctors and medical researchers—have a better sense of what resources are required and how they can be most effectively deployed than the Minister of Health who, as a single neural node, is charged with compassing all the complexity of the problem, evolving a population-level strategy, and executing on it.
As Alexander says in his thesis, ‘In a Network-Centric organization, decision-making is decentralized to mid and junior-level leaders who are positioned along the outer organizational boundaries where information flows in a timely manner.’
These mid-level leaders are equivalent to System Three in Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model: in a network-centric response to Coronavirus, knowledge workers such as senior doctors and medical researchers would have a large degree of ‘autonomic discretion’ to regulate the negative feedback of the virus, as they have access to real-time input information.
The rôle of political and executive leaders in the network-centric landscape, according to Alexander, is to provide ‘visionary guidance’ rather than to micro-manage a macro-crisis which it is beyond the cognitive ability of a hierarchical élite to handle—particularly if those leaders are part of a generation which cannot properly envision the symbolic image of the problem.
The Baby-boomers cannot properly see that all the escalating problems we have been facing in this century—from global terrorism to global climate change—are, like the Coronavirus, merely particular examples of a general morphological problem which can be summarized as ‘the geometric interaction of exponentials with networked systems’.
To communicate the visionary guidance needed for a networked global society to take concerted, innovative action on common problems, the torch needs to be passed to the generation who has a native adjustment to the concept of networks.
Milton and Jacqueline Mayfield found that a leader’s communication ability had a direct impact on the capacity of workers to think innovatively. In Australia, we saw our Prime Minister signally fail to communicate to the network the dangers of taking a dip and a tan at Bondi Beach. This is a manifest example of how the Scientific Managerial approach of hierarchical ‘broadcast’ to a decentralized network which no longer has respect for hierarchies is an incompetent leadership strategy.
In some sense, it’s difficult not to intuit that the draconian, paternalistic measures that are being taken by governments around the world are in significant part due to Scientific Management’s distrust of the network to effectively organize itself—their distrust, in short, of people’s capacity to think for themselves and innovate horizontally-scalable solutions.
It appears, in fine, as though they don’t trust people to ‘do the right thing’.
The invisibility of the Coronavirus, and its latency of manifestation, gives every appearance of being exploited by governing élites as a convenient tool to instil fear into networked populations they can no longer control by a Scientific Managerial approach on the one hand, and as a convenient excuse to stage a ‘bloodless coup’, wresting wholesale liberties from them on the other.
This prima facie appearance of a Faustian gambit to derive and extract whatever remaining value is still on the board from people under the guise of paternalistic ‘care’ for their health will have to be monitored by national populations very closely in the coming days and weeks as the game-theoretic dynamics of our collapsing Faustian order play themselves out.
It’s clear, as M. Baudelaire divined as early as the mid-nineteenth century, that no guarantee underwrites the myth of ‘infinite progress’ along a linear trajectory.
If we survive the unfolding infinite impact crises, the image of the gracefully curving line disappearing into the horizon will no longer serve us as a model of reality.
It is in the symbolic image of the neural network that we will find our way not forward, but upward.