Man's capacity to travel at speed
This series of graceful arcs, describing the overlapping half-lives of humanity’s various modes of transport since 1800, combine to form an exponential curve.  Taken from Stafford Beer’s The Brain of the Firm (1972).

You can download this free audio version of the article below here.

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.

As with my previous post on the Coronavirus, I am making the audio version of this article freely available via my Bandcamp profile, so if you find these insights and articulations valuable and you know someone else who you think would also derive value from them, I invite you to download it here and share it with your network.

Hawke street, West Melbourne, night, by Dean Kyte.
The view from quarantine: Hawke, Curzon and Miller streets, West Melbourne, night.

You can download this free audio version of the article below here.

In my last post on The Melbourne Flâneur, I introduced you to the concept of infinite impact risks: extremely low-probability events which have the potential to inflict incalculably devastating impacts upon human civilization.

In that post, I alerted you to the fact that global pandemics such as the Coronavirus represent one such infinite impact risk: if we define a civilizational collapse in this context as a dramatic decrease in human population, the Coronavirus, which compounds itself exponentially by means of a power law, certainly has the potential to inflict an incalculably devastating impact upon human civilization.

But the problem, which I alerted you to in the previous post, is that the Coronavirus is merely one of two or three infinite impact risks which have been triggered by the contagion.

The Coronavirus may be considered a ‘first-order’ infinite impact problem in that it unleashes a set of consequential issues which are directly health-based.

But, as I discussed at length in my previous post, all the consequential issues which have their locus of origin in the Coronavirus are not directly health-based.

The Coronavirus has triggered a ‘second-order’ infinite impact risk—the potential for a global systems collapse.  In my previous post, I explored how a directly health-based problem has had indirect consequences in the global financial system, leading to a sudden contraction in confidence which will doubtless have an impact on human civilization at least equal to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

Not all civilizational collapses through the actualization of infinite impact risks may be defined as a dramatic decrease in human population—although extremely high mortality is usually attendant upon infinite impact conditions.

With the second-order threat of a global systems collapse, we must necessarily consider the strain that the first-order threat of a global pandemic places upon our health-care systems, which in turn has consequential impacts upon mortality rates.

However, with systems such as the global financial system, the definition of ‘civilizational collapse’ would be more accurately stated as a dramatic decrease in the complexity of global systems extended across an extremely long timeframe—decades, generations, even centuries.

But there is at least a third order of infinite impact risks which may be triggered in the event of a second Great Recession—or even a second Great Depression.

In my previous post, I stated that much of the civil unrest we have seen growing and metastasizing in wealthy, developed, democratic western societies during the last decade has a significant locus of origin in the response (or lack thereof) of one complex system—the politico-regulatory—which largely abrogated its duty to reform another complex system—the financial—which was manifestly ailing.

Both systems, it ought to be stated, were—and are—in such dire need of reform that it is perhaps impossible to expect one terminally ill system to have the capacity to fix another.

But the net result of institutional inertia on the part of the politico-regulatory system which, in wealthy, developed, democratic western societies, is charged with representing ‘the people’ and the interests of ‘the people’, has been an obvious breakdown in trust of those mechanisms which, in a civilized society, underwrite the mutual exchange of value: intangible civility, politeness, and discourse, and tangible currency.

With regards to the financial system, if, under a policy of economic extraction of common wealth which leaves the majority of a nation’s population vulnerable to the predation of a well-heeled few, the people cannot depend upon the political system and the representatives it elects to defend them against such predations, it is reasonable to predict that trust in the system (which has already been significantly eroded over decades) will decline dramatically, and that other non-legal mechanisms of maintaining social order and cohesion in the populace (such as civility, politeness, and the intercourse of ideas through language) will similarly deteriorate.

The third-order ramifications which are implicit in the Coronavirus situation, therefore, are that not only is there the potential for a catastrophic loss of human life, due in part to the failure of global health-care systems, nor even that entangled global financial markets of value exchange will be completely shattered by the turbulence, but that civil societies, which are teetering in the most wealthy, developed and democratic nations, will become ‘ungovernable’, breaking down into widespread civil disorder—which in turn, as an indirect consequence, will compound the mortality unleashed by the virus.

If this extrapolation strikes you, dear readers, as rather far-fetched thinking, I beg you to return to the initial premiss: the Coronavirus is an extremely low-probability event, operating on an exponential curve, which has in fact actualized itself, and is compounding itself every few days.

We are now very much in train to experience first-order consequences of the Coronavirus—indeed, we are experiencing them—and we are even beginning to see, in the health-care, financial and political systems, second-order consequences which will themselves accelerate on an exponential curve if not checked early on.

Having laid out this preparatory line of reasoning, I now turn to the substance of my post.

As a writer, I have observed with obvious professional concern the escalating struggle over the issue of ‘free speech’ in our wealthy, developed, democratic western societies in the last few years.

Free speech has become one of the major eminences to be taken back—or bombed to oblivion—in the escalating skirmishes of anxiety which have possessed western people whose trust in the mechanisms of civil society were undermined completely by the Global Financial Crisis.

In the metastasis of popular thought, the debate over the relevance of free speech in civilized societies has been framed as really a debate over ‘kindness’: we ought to restrain ourselves, consider the effect of our words upon others before speaking, and certainly not say anything that is wilfully, maliciously unkind.

This is an admirable principle, and it is certainly a good rule of thumb to observe in the practical application of free speech.  Many of the objections which the advocates of ‘fair’ speech have to ‘free’ speech may in fact be resolved by the acknowledgment that speaking with wilful malice and not exercising as much discretion as possible (under the fluid circumstances of conversation) in tailoring one’s communication to the intended recipient is not, in fact, a legitimate exercise of free speech, but an abuse of the privilege which civil society generously affords us.

Understood in those terms, the in-principle objections to free speech which have lately arisen miss the mark of why we have the mechanism of free speech in civil societies in the first place.

The issue of ‘kindness’, of speaking ‘fairly’ rather than ‘freely’ to others, is only relevant as an operational courtesy—a kind of ‘Robert’s rule’ we all agree on as a procedural condition of entering into free discourse with one another.

There would be no incentive for you to speak freely with me if you knew I wasn’t going to make my absolute best effort to tailor my message fairly to you and to your personal circumstances, so as to achieve maximal comprehension on your side of the idea I am attempting to communicate to you.

And certainly we see communications between human beings regularly break down precisely because one or both parties choose to unsheathe the sword of unkindness which, previously, it had been taken as a unwritten rule that neither party would take out of their respective scabbards in discussing a given issue or topic.

The argument that has taken hold of the popular consciousness in western societies, viz.—that free speech is no longer ‘relevant’, that it is a mechanism and privilege—only patchily guaranteed by law in many western nations—which has largely been superseded by the mutual obligation to speak fairly and kindly to one another, has been predicated on examples which do not pose an existential threat to human life and civilization at scale.

The Coronavirus, as just such an existential risk with the potential for infinite impact, is an example of why free speech is, as a principle and mechanism of discourse, more important to human beings now than it has ever been.

And the escalation of the Coronavirus to the exponential level of a global pandemic which threatens at least three consequential orders of infinite impact upon human life and civilization is directly attributable to the repression of free speech.

The doctors in China who initially identified the novel virus utilized the mechanism of free speech to pool knowledge and share relevant information in the decentralized, distributed forum of a WeChat group.

This self-organizing collective intelligence was, in its vestigial form, what cybernetician Stafford Beer, in his book The Brain of the Firm (1972), describes as a ‘multinode’: a self-organizing neural network developed to solve a problem of considerable complexity which involves the inverse exponential reduction of that complexity until an actionable solution is reached;—in other words, until a vaccine for Coronavirus is developed.

But as we now know, the Chinese doctors who initially discovered Coronavirus, and who used their limited free speech to pool cognitive resources in the development of a solution to the problem, were stymied by the local and central government of China from communicating with each other.

Not only that, but they were prevented from doing their duty and communicating to the world the real and present danger of the virus at an early stage when it might have been contained on its exponential trajectory.

The WeChat multinode was banned, and the doctors were not merely disciplined by their institutions for communicating with each other, but they were arrested by the police for this exercise of free speech.

‘The police will investigate and punish with zero tolerance those illegal acts that fabricate and spread rumours and disrupt social order,’ a statement by the Chinese police read.

It is easy, therefore, to see in this non-abstract example which has had practical and material consequences for us all, what the ‘cost’ is for human life and civilization when we repress free speech.

The reason we have free speech as a mechanism of civil discourse is not, fundamentally, so that everyone can express his or her opinion.  The expression of opinion is a function of free speech.

The fundamental purpose of the mechanism is to pool cognitive resources by means of the most effective vector human beings have for the communication of complex ideas to one another: human language.

When we limit the ability of human beings to express their contingent intuitions—call them ‘opinions’, if you will—about the state of complex existential situations which are changing exponentially, we limit our ability to think collectively and develop solutions which may narrowly avert the rising certainty of infinite impact risks.

Obviously, extended the privilege to express what he knows and sees, an obligation is upon each individual in the multinode network to state his perceptions to the collective in as clear and mindful a way as possible, tailoring his speech in as far as he can to his listeners so that the greatest number of recipients of his message can accurately share his vision of events.  This is the unwritten responsibility of ‘fair speech’ which is attached to the right of ‘free speech’.

And I hope, as a writer, that you begin to intuit from the foregoing the concerns I perceive for us all in the diminishment of this fundamental value as exponential curves of existential crisis now begin to sharply rise.

I said in my last post that leadership in this situation will come from individuals who are experts in their respective disciplines giving their fullest gift of value to the collective, making an earnest effort in their relations to recouple the value they ask of others with the actual value they provide to them.

In other words, they will attempt, in peer-to-peer relationships, to reinstitute the fundamental value of ‘trust’ which institutions had gradually eroded prior to 2008, and have completely undermined since.

For a writer whose vocation and avocation is the vector along which free thought travels to other minds, the vector of human language, the existential seriousness of the situation we collectively face demands that I no longer keep my own counsel but say what I have been perceiving in the world for a very long time.

A careful, artful articulation of where the exponential trends in our human systems seem to be heading—and where they could go much faster under the infinite impact risk posed by Coronavirus alone—needs to be respectfully tendered for the consideration of the collective.

Free speech is the ‘checksum’ of human reasoning: just as you might submit mathematical calculations you have made to another person in order to check that you haven’t dropped a carry-over somewhere, we submit carefully articulated perceptions of what really appears to be going on to our peers via free speech in order to see if there is some communal agreement about the accuracy of the perceptions.

And if a critical mass of thinkers who are able to extrapolate far enough along the line all agree that something is awry in the global organization of systems and infrastructure we all depend upon for a civilized life, something which makes us existentially vulnerable to the threat posed by Coronavirus, it is time for the multinodal network to utilize the mechanism of free speech to fast-track solutions to these complex problems.

But the complexity of this ‘complex of problems’ is itself problematic in the rapid development of workable solutions.  The ‘simplicity’ of a visceral, existential crisis to a population of people appears to me to be proportionate to the ability of that population to co-operatively respond in an action which circumvents it.

It has been my observation that where a problem is simple, concrete, definable and defined, where sensual perceptions of what the problem actually ‘is’ can be effectively verified by a collective population via the checksum of free speech, then concerted, co-operative, collaborative action can rapidly be taken en masse.

The ability to perceive the event with one’s physical senses—and to perceive it with a degree of accuracy—is checked against communal, peer-to-peer perceptions, and where individual perceptions of the nature of the event are communally validated, then effective action to combat the existential crisis tends to rapidly occur.

Conversely, where, as in this instance, the problem is complex and abstract; where at least three orders of existential risk are involved; where the exponential has not yet grown to the perilous point where it is viscerally inescapable to all our senses; and where consensual meaning of the nature of the existential crisis cannot easily be arrived at, the ability for us to fast-track global solutions which might contain the existential problem before its exponential path makes it manifestly visible to us is difficult.

There’s a reason why we use viruses so frequently as a metaphor for the exponential way that information travels around the globe in our current way of life.

It is because viruses are symptomatic of the vulnerabilities endemic in this new, ‘network-centric’ mode of life—particularly as it operates under the fragile, ailing dynamics of our inherited, hierarchical global legacy systems.

The exponential nature of the virus is itself not merely symptomatic of, but eminently symbolic of the exponential nature of all of our declining Faustian systems, based on infinite derivatives of finite resources.

In 2008, we saw how purely imaginary ‘derivatives’, numbers completely decoupled from redeemable material currency, brought us to the edge of an abyss where total social breakdown and civilizational collapse may have rapidly ensued.  Our highly entangled network of global finance, being managed on a linear, hierarchical model, proved itself eminently vulnerable to the cascading effects of virality.

If free speech is currently a contested ground, it is because we are not ‘inoculated’ in this new, network-centric environment to the slings and arrows of poor ratiocination and wilfully malicious comment which can be hurled at us with exponential speed and exponential growth by people on the other side of the world whom we have never heard of.

These are the ‘externalities’ of social media discourse which arise from the same infinite derivative approach to the finite resources of human beings—their intelligence and capabilities for goodwill and good faith in each other.  Just as, in the environmental context, extractive actors have displaced and deferred externalities to the commons, actors who abuse the privilege of free speech on the Internet displace and defer intellectual and emotional externalities into the collective intelligence ecology, poisoning collective sensemaking by their ‘unkindness’.

But that is no reason to get rid of the mechanism of free speech.  On the contrary, the same exponential power laws which are currently driving a crisis in meaning that have imminent mortal and existential consequences for human civilization are the same exponential power laws which can be leveraged to pool our collective intelligence in a distributed, decentralized global systems network capable of finding consensual meaning to our common challenges.

So I’m submitting my reasoning to you, dear readers.  I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.  That’s what comments at the bottom of blog posts are for—nice substantive exchanges of perspective.  In case you haven’t recognized the fact, blogs are multinodal networks of collective sensemaking too which are premised on an assumption of free speech, and if my concern seems out of order to you, I’d like to hear an alternative argument from you.

On the other hand, if you think the reasoning I’ve taken care to set forth in this article is sound, I invite you to share it with others in your multinodal networks who you believe will find value in these articulations.

I am also making the audio version of this article freely available via my Bandcamp profile, so if you know someone who would prefer to hear these thoughts expressed rather than read these words, I invite you to download it here and share it with your network.

Charles_Ponzi
The talented Mr. Ponzi: Charles Ponzi (1882-1949), dapper dandy and absolute scoundrel.

In 2017, I worked with my good friend Paul Forest on a submission he was preparing for the Global Challenges Foundation.  Through their New Shape Prize, the foundation was seeking ideas to reform global governance in order to ameliorate potential future threats to humanity.

You can read the paper that we wrote together here.

A document that we referenced significantly in framing our response was the Global Challenges Foundation’s own white paper, 12 Risks that threaten human civilisation: The case for a new risk category (2015).  The paper is the first report to explore a class of risks to human civilization ‘that for all practical purposes can be called infinite.’

The twelve risks which the authors explore in the report include the usual suspects, such as climate change, nuclear war, bad global governance and financial systems collapse.  They also include such ‘sci-fi’ scenarios as asteroid impacts, supervolcanic eruptions, and the threats to humanity posed by artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.

And then there is the threat posed by global pandemics such as Coronavirus.

The authors found that in most financial assessments of risk, these twelve infinite-impact scenarios were rarely considered for two reasons.  On the one hand, they are so low in probability that their inclusion in forecasting would unduly unbalance calculations of risk.  On the other hand, if any one of these low-probability risks were to eventuate, their ultimate impact on human society would be incalculable.

But the problem is, that in many circumstances, if any one of these twelve infinite-impact risks were triggered, it would likely have a ‘knock-on’ effect, triggering other infinite-impact risks which would further compound an incalculably devastating scenario.

I think we begin to see this knock-on effect taking place with Coronavirus.  What began as a health crisis is now metastasizing into a financial crisis which could easily trigger a global systems collapse—in addition to killing significant swathes of the global population.

I do not think it is at all controversial to posit the view that the systems we currently rely upon as a global population—political, economic, educational, environmental—are not fit to withstand the common challenges we face.  These are ‘legacy systems’ which are not adapted to withstand the conditions of novel complexity and rapid rates of change that are now our ‘new normal’.

In the case of our global financial system, it is clear that, in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, a necessary opportunity to reform a legacy system which had demonstrated the limits of turbulence it could withstand was lost.

It is also clear that much of the political and civil unrest which has metastasized in western democracies post-2008 may be traced to the institutional inertia inherent in one complex system—the politico-regulatory—making insufficient efforts to reform another complex system—the financial—with its own institutional inertia.

The mounting civil unrest manifesting in the body-politic of western democracies is the consequence, in large part, of an inchoate sense in ordinary people that the currency which lubricates civil exchange in society, decoupled from a material standard, is fundamentally bankrupt, and that the political and financial systems have conspired in a thoroughly extractive fiscal policy to vacuum out all remaining value.

Whatever the truth of this popular intuition, the politico-regulatory system which governs us finds itself in an uncomfortable position: having thoroughly eroded the trust of the populace it governs through its institutional inertia, its inability, and even unwillingness, to effect reform in the financial system, it now demands the people’s trust when another infinite-impact risk threatens in the public health system—one which will likely spill over into the financial system with more globally devastating results than we experienced in 2008.

Indeed, at the most immediately visible financial level, that of the everyday civil exchange of currency for goods, we begin to see how the public incivility which has progressively mounted since 2008, being accepted by the body-politic more or less as a ‘new behavioural normal’ in a world where all our systems are revealing their unfitness for present conditions, has begun to manifest itself as a breakdown in social order.

The instances of ‘panic buying’ in supermarkets and online profiteering reveal the fear of missing out—and the greed it rapidly metastasizes into—which underwrites the zero-sum dynamic of competition in capitalism.  In 2008, this zero-sum dynamic saw all the chips on the table accrue to the crooks of the financial system, while the little man was left bereft, feeling betrayed by the political regulators who were elected to defend his interests.

It’s easy to feel some measure of sympathy for these ordinary people, whose civility has been so eroded by the betrayal of civilized systems meant to safeguard the social order, and who act barbarically in supermarket aisles, possessed by a financial ‘panic’.

The last time this happened to these ordinary people, twelve years ago, their fear of missing out was justified.  One can understand why they would want to buy up all the stock of quotidian things it is in their financial power to acquire when the ‘Masters of the Universe’, who have exponentially more means at their disposal, could easily stockpile and profiteer for themselves, sucking the last penny out of these ordinary people.  Again.

For some years I’ve had an interest in the con game.  If you’re a student of human psychology (and of course, if you’re a writer, you ought to be), few fields of study reveal the immutable laws of social dynamics in more pronounced relief than the confidence game.

Having intuited that we now live in the fraudulent world of the ‘long con’, a world of ‘fakeness’ and kayfabery, of screens and surfaces upon which the counterfeit of life doesn’t even have to be good, it just has to be ‘believable’ by some sucker somewhere, I should have been less shocked to recently hear economist Eric Weinstein give the elegant articulation to what I had sensed and ought, with my interest in the classic con game, to have been able to define for myself: our global financial system is a global Ponzi scheme.

When the currency of civil exchange is decoupled from a material standard for which it can be redeemed, you introduce nice conditions for a Ponzi (or pyramid) scheme to take root.  I do not necessarily mean to suggest a return to the gold standard; rather, more abstractly, I am suggesting that the numerical, monetary value I demand of you must be attached to a commensurate value, whether in the form of a tangible good or intangible service, which you agree is exactly equivalent.

In wealthy western democracies, where a trend towards an ‘imaginary mathematics’ of value demanded decoupled from actual value provided began to take root in the 1970’s, the conditions for a society-wide pyramid scheme of extractive value-taking was established.  And with less and less new entrants (read: marks) into the pyramid available at the national level, the scheme had to be exported and globalized in order to remain viable.

Hence the blowback, in 2008, of ‘toxic derivatives’ and other insane feats of financial imagination based on a principle of extracting real monetary value from fictitious values decoupled from a material standard for which they could be redeemed.

I am sure I am not alone in noticing that in our extractive western ‘service economies’ (which are conspicuous in their lack, for the most part, of producing goods to which a real material value is equivalently attached) that the price demanded for common goods like bread and milk is far above the actual value which the consumer gets out of them.

Moreover, at the other end of the spectrum, in the service sector, we have institutions of higher education which extract monetary value from students in exchange for worthless credentials, ‘mortgaging’ future earnings which these institutions know are impossible for students to realize under the zero-sum dynamics of a mature pyramid scheme, and landlords who charge exorbitant rents for four walls and a roof simply because a desperate market will bear the value demanded.

Whether in the case of small goods or large services, the value of what is actually being provided is significantly less than the extractive value being demanded.

When you consider that the policy of extractive value under a competitive, zero-sum dynamic extends equally to small things in our society as to large, you can see how, under infinite-impact conditions, trivial items like hand sanitiser can easily command prices of ten or twenty times the real value which the consumer can obtain from them.

The infinite-impact risk of Coronavirus has exposed the infinite-impact risk of a global systems collapse which is immanently embedded in the competitive, zero-sum dynamic of our global financial system, based as it is on a principle of extractive value-taking radically decoupled from equivalent value-giving.

In my own life, the panic and sudden contraction of the market has immediately exposed me to risk on both the health and the financial fronts.

As some of you know, I housesit as a means of lowering my personal overhead.  Under the extractive conditions of our economy, I simply can’t afford to pay rent.  In exchange for a place to stay, I look after people’s homes and pets while they are away.

While I rarely get anything out of it in the way of money, I like housesitting because the value proposition is equivalent on both sides: I render a valuable service to homeowners for a given period of time, and for that given period I can live in some comfort.

Although, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, I’m technically a homeless person, housesitting is usually a pretty nice way to be homeless—when Coronavirus doesn’t create a double panic, causing people to cancel their travel plans at the last minute and the market for available housesits to suddenly contract.

So at the moment, I really am homeless, with no safe-haven where I can sequester myself in order to preserve my health.  Instead, I’m spinning my wheels at the dingy hostel I usually only bunk down at for a night or two between sits.

But (as you may infer from the extensiveness of the economic argument I have made in the foregoing) I am almost less concerned about my health than the immediate economic impact that Coronavirus is having upon my circumstances.

The non-financial value-exchange market of housesitting is a nice analogue for the sudden contraction we are beginning to see in our global financial markets.  When you’re aware of the number, gravity and cumulative likelihood of infinite-impact risks which threaten human civilization, you are prepared to accept that this global pandemic will, in all probability, trigger a global financial downturn at least equal to, but probably greater than the one we experienced in 2008.

Our global pyramid scheme of extractive value-taking barely withstood that turbulence, without the presence of a second infinite-impact risk to compound it.

It’s clear that a competitive, zero-sum dynamic of extractive value-taking radically decoupled from value-giving is not serving humanity well in the face of a class of risks which can cause both the total extinction of our species and our planet, and completely collapse the social order and infrastructure we depend upon for a civilized life.

Under such circumstances of crisis, it becomes clear that, in order to restore confidence in a marketplace where trust has been thoroughly eroded by the extractive assumptions of zero-sum competition, the risks we collectively face become an opportunity to reform our global financial system by recoupling the value that we ask of others to the value we are prepared to offer them.

Lately, in these times of crisis and panic, I’ve been re-reading David Deida’s The Way of the Superior Man (1997).  It’s not a well-written book by any means, but it’s one of the few I carry everywhere in my suitcase.  Sometimes I need to be reminded of what it is to be ‘a man’—which is almost more a vocation, an ideal standard of conduct to aspire to, than a biological condition of what you’re packing in your pocket.

Truth-telling, the integral alignment of thoughts, words and deeds, firmness of will, determination in purpose, decisiveness in action—these are just some of the virtues which Deida attributes to the ‘superior man’, the person who embodies the ideal standard of the masculine principle.

A superior man does not withdraw or close in upon himself in times of crisis such as those we are experiencing, says Deida.  He maintains an open heart in the face of grave challenge and continues to offer his fullest gift—the unique value which only he can provide—to others, living at what Deida calls his ‘real edge—his place of fear.

‘Your edge,’ Deida says, ‘is where you stop short, or where you compromise your fullest gift, and, instead, cater to your fears.’

I know I haven’t been playing my real edge lately, giving fully of the unique value I can provide to others with my gift for words.  The double risk to health and wealth which Coronavirus poses is an existential opportunity to do my small part in the reform of how we do business with each other, providing commensurate value of service in exchange for monetary value.

For confidence to be restored in a market where extractive value-taking has thoroughly eroded public confidence, leadership—the masculine virtue sine qua non—needs to be shown by individuals who don’t buy into the fraudulent zero-sum assumptions of our legacy economic system.

These individuals will demonstrate leadership in their own small fields of expertise—the places where they can give their fullest gifts to others—and they will, in their personal economic conduct, make earnest efforts to recouple the value they demand in trade to the actual value they provide to others.

In one of his homilies, Deida invites you to describe your edge with respect to your career, and if I’m honest with you, at the moment, my edge of fear is this:

Finding myself temporarily homeless and with no immediate way to protect my health, my small business based on providing my gifts as a writer, editor and desktop publisher to other small businesspeople, to academics, and to other writers and creatives is so fragile that it could easily fold up under present economic conditions by the end of the month, and I would be on the street and without a cent.

Equally, I fear that, if I offer my true gift in the open-hearted way that Deida prescribes, what I offer, under the prevailing extractive economic assumptions, won’t be valued by others—that I will meet a wall of silent indifference which leads to the street.

That’s my edge right now, and as Deida says, there’s nothing dishonourable about admitting your fear as a man—provided you’re prepared to lean into your edge of fear and play it.  ‘… [A] fearful man who still leans into his fear, living at his edge and putting his gift out there, is more trustworthy and more inspirational than a fearful man who hangs back in the comfort zone….’

If I learned anything from my days of doing Daygame, the golden lesson is this:  When things are not are not going well for you in life, your first order of business should be to see where and how you can offer value to others.  Nourish your existing relationships by pre-emptively offering value, and seek to form new relationships by pre-emptively offering value.

So this is my offer of value to you, dear readers:  I’m in pretty desperate need for ready cash to get myself into a safe environment and stabilize my business during this contraction of confidence.  And I’m prepared to offer you value for value.

Times are going to be tough for us all during this downturn, but narratives will still need to be skilfully told, and images will still need to be manicured and managed.

Do you require bespoke writing, editing, graphic design and desktop publishing services?  Do you know somebody who does?  I would sincerely appreciate any introductions and recommendations you can offer, either in the comments below, or via my Contact form.

During this period of financial contraction, I’m going to be lowering my rates to take better account of the real financial circumstances in which clients—old and new—find themselves.  So if you’re new to my Bespoke Document Tailoring and Artisanal Desktop Publishing services, this is an opportunity for you to experience the genuine value I seek to provide businesspeople, academics, and other writers and creatives by giving my fullest gifts to them, with some absorption of the risk on my side.

In any event, if you are genuinely sincere in wanting to work with me and provide value for value on your side, you will find me very willing to negotiate an appropriate service which is optimal to your budget, no matter how modest.

If you would like to experience the difference of working intimately with a wordsmith who is determined to provide you with equivalent value in service to the price we ultimately negotiate, one who will take on your concerns as his own, I invite you to contact me directly by calling (+61) 0423 296 927, or by filling in this Contact form.

And yes, I’m very open to working with overseas clients.  One of the few advantages of the Coronavirus situation is that it facilitates remote collaboration, and with the decline in the Australian dollar, if you’re based in the States, Canada, Britain, Europe or New Zealand, it’s a very advantageous time for you to explore how I can bring value to your business, academic, or creative writing via online collaboration.

This has been a long and very different post from the ones you usually expect of me, dear readers.  I obviously felt some trepidation about speaking so baldly about my own situation, but I felt even more trepidation about setting forth a long and complex intuition about the political and economic state of the world at the moment.

You’ve seen a very different side of me from your ebullient Melbourne Flâneur who waxes lyrical on flânerie and art.  l hope this very different kind of post has brought value to you in your own evolving perspectives on the crises we are facing, and I look forward to engaging with your thoughts and intuitions in the comments below.