Turning and turning in the widening gyreThe falcon cannot hear the falconer;Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhereThe ceremony of innocence is drowned;The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.— W.B. Yeats,“The Second Coming”
Your Melbourne Flâneur has been conspicuously quiet the past few weeks, despite events in Melbourne which demand urgent comment and analysis.
The reason for the buttoned-up bouche is very simple: I’ve been trying to keep the little barque of my small business afloat—in spite of the unconscionable economic vandalism being visited upon Victoria from week to week by Daniel Andrews and his government.
So I may as well throw in a plug for myself at the start. If you’ve been following my critiques of the Coronavirus situation with interest, you might also be interested in the personal services I can provide to you. If you’re a creative writer and you’re seeking to self-publish a thoroughly bespoke book, my Artisanal Desktop Publishing service is probably the ticket for you. I can bring the same critical scrutiny to editing your work as I’ve brought to analysing the Coronavirus crisis.
And while I aim to be unfailingly courteous and considerate of my clients’ feelings in framing my criticisms, as you know by now if you have followed me this far in my critique, I don’t pull any punches, so if there are weaknesses in your writing, you can trust me to tell you so, and I will also suggest some strategies, techniques and approaches to strengthen your message so it lands well with your intended audience.
My special skill is providing what I call ‘content strategy’ to my clients: I can counsel you on how to logically organize your writing at its deepest level so as to ensure maximal comprehension on the part of your readers.
Of course, it would be a much more pleasant experience for both of us to work together face-to-face, but that’s not an option at the moment. Nevertheless, we can get a good rap going over Zoom, so if you’re further afield than Melbourne—parbleu! if you happen to be overseas, even—there’s no obstacle to us working together remotely as we edit, design and lay out your book.
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All right, enough with the word from our sponsors. Let’s unbottle the tough talk.
So in my last post on the Coronavirus, I made some predictions that rapidly proved to be prescient. Principally, I said that the next frontier in the battle about the deadly reality of this invisible belief would be fought over masks, and I noted that Victorian premier Daniel Andrews—while not making the wearing of face coverings compulsory in Melbourne at that time—had strongly lent the colour of his support to them, which suggested an imminent move towards mandating masks.
A week later, the Premier announced that you could not put your snoot outside your door in Melbourne without a muzzle over it, under pain of a $200 fine.
There are times I hate being right, particularly when it comes to my occupational talent for reading the characters of people and predicting what they will do.
Mr. Andrews couldn’t win a hand in a poker game: he telegraphs his tells a week in advance of his play.
I was sincerely hoping he would not prove me right because I knew what it would mean for his character, and for the consequential state of play of this crisis in Victoria.
It would mean that the Premier was not capable of strategic thinking, merely tactical, and that he was prepared to risk plunging not just Melbourne or Victoria but the whole country into a Hobbesian state of nature for the sake of one ill-defined goal on the health dimension.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was a political philosopher who lived through the English Civil War. He observed to what a spectacular extent civil society can break down into a naked competition for individual power and resources. Hobbes defined this condition as ‘the state of nature’—a multi-polar environment of mutual fear and distrust in which individuals leverage whatever tools, tactics and strategies of violence they have at their disposal to extractively centralize power and resources to themselves in a zero-sum game.
In his book Leviathan (1651), Hobbes described this state of nature as a ‘war of every man against every man’, and he said that the life of the individual in the state of nature would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’
The zero-sum dynamics which underwrite our Faustian civilization in decline tend necessarily to drive us towards a Hobbesian state of nature: the fallacy of infinite derivatives in a world of finite resources must eventually lead to a societal collapse as our civilizational Ponzi scheme folds under its own unsustainable exponent.
You can’t keep Hoovering resources up to the top of the pyramid without the foundations collapsing under the weight. And when that happens, alienated individuals start taking resources for themselves.
If you want to see what a state of nature might look like, take a glance across the pond at Portland and Seattle: the looting and rioting in those cities should be read as a cautionary tale of the civilizational collapse humanity is courting.
We’ve been slowly sliding towards the abyss of an all-out war of all against all for a very long time. But it took the Coronavirus to expose just how weak the veneer of civility—and civilization—is in Western society.
Way back in March I raised the alarm with you in my first post on the Coronavirus, stating unequivocally that a global systems collapse had been triggered by the pandemic which would cascade through the economic system, through the political system, and ultimately through the geopolitical system.
I would propose that the more a civilization in its late period of senescent decadence tends towards a Hobbesian state of nature, the more one sees a quality I would call ‘mediocrity’ emerge—not only in the macro-character of its social and political institutions, but in the micro-character of the people who comprise them.
More specifically, in the descent towards a Hobbesian state of nature, we begin to more conspicuously notice in failing institutions such as governments the progressive emergence of individuals who are adept at playing the Hobbesian zero-sum power game of resource centralization and extraction from the commons.
Indeed, in the Hobbesian state of nature, I would argue, these mediocre individuals are naturally selected for by the mediocre conditions of the system.
In other words, mediocre individuals whose only genius is the tactical animal cunning which enables an organism to more or less optimally negotiate a salience landscape of risks and rewards in a state of nature begin to populate social and political institutions with increasing conspicuousness.
In the Western Anglosphere, for instance, it is hardly controversial to notice that the leaders of the four major English-speaking democracies—Mr. Trump in the United States, Mr. Johnson in Great Britain, Mr. Trudeau in Canada, and Mr. Morrison here in Australia—are all men who, prior to entering political life, had careers in the public sphere involving pretence, mendacity, deception or dissimulation—qualities which, if we were not living in conditions of an escalating state of nature, would have disqualified them for public office.
As an entrepreneur, Mr. Trump was an unashamed con man. Mr. Johnson debased the profession of journalism with his lies. Mr. Morrison had a career in ‘marketing’, and Mr. Trudeau was, of all things, a drama teacher.
In the Hobbesian state of nature, a capacity to pretend, to deceive, to dissemble, dissimulate or outright lie with bravura is not a political liability but a positive asset—for in a multi-polar environment of mutual distrust, in order to maximize one’s personal resources, one must be able to forge alliances of a temporary and contingent nature with other actors.
There are some resources which cannot be extracted from powerful rivals by main force but which require the subtle dissimulation of allyship in order for one to gain access to them. These men at the apices of the pyramids of power in their respective countries are currently the most adept exemplars of the socially pathological phenomenon I call ‘mediocrity’.
Daniel Andrews is also a mediocre person.
But as, when I apply the word ‘mediocre’ to somebody, I mean it as a term of art which describes the integral quality of their character, its capacity under pressure, not as an insulting epithet, it would be as well to provide a technical definition of mediocrity, of the maladaptive, pathological traits which I believe the mediocre person typically possesses in the state of nature where he or she thrives—for the state of nature is the ‘ecological niche’ of the mediocre person.
In essence, my definition of the mediocre person is a conflation of Spengler’s Megalopolitan man and Flaubert’s bourgeois. Spengler describes the pathology of this human phenomenon in The Decline of the West, while Flaubert, in Madame Bovary and in Bouvard et Pécuchet, illustrates the character of the mediocre person in action.
The mediocre person is a creature of the city in a civilization’s senescent period of decline, and as, in our Faustian Western civilization, the Megalopolis of ‘the City’ is now the World Wide Web, a global caliphate that is everywhere, we are all creatures of the city, and therefore more or less mediocre.
I’ll leave it to Spengler to describe the mediocre late-City man: ‘They are the market-place loungers of Alexandria and Rome, the newspaper-readers of our own corresponding time; the “educated” man who then and now makes a cult of intellectual mediocrity and a church of advertisement; the man of the theatres and places of amusement, of sport and “best-sellers”.’
It’s perhaps worth noticing that in that short sentence, Spengler identifies all the métiers practiced by the four conspicuous examples of political mediocrity I identified above—journalism (Mr. Johnson), advertising (Mr. Morrison), theatre (Mr. Trudeau) and sport and other places of amusement, such as casinos, wrestling and television (Mr. Trump).
In its feminine manifestation, the mediocre person is Emma Bovary, indefatigably fatigued with ennui, and hence the constant victim of fashion. And in its masculine form, the mediocre person is la Bovary’s nemesis, the progressive, pragmatically materialist pharmacist M. Homais, whom Flaubert later reprised as his two hapless copy-clerks, Bouvard and Pécuchet.
Flaubert, in his pathological hatred for his own class, the bourgeoisie, delineates the essential qualities of the mediocre person, whom Spengler defines as ‘small and shrewd’, amply possessed of the animal cunning of the trading class. Let us not forget that the etymology of the word ‘mediocre’ stems in part from the Latin medius—‘of middle degree, quality or rank.’
The mediocre person, by Flaubert’s lights, is eminently ‘middle-class’.
And the thing about the mediocre person is that he is not unintelligent. You don’t get very far in the game of mercantile resource centralization and extraction if you don’t have an edge of intelligence over your competitors. But I consider this form of ‘tactical’ intelligence to be ‘mere animal cunning’, the application of the predatory instinct to the social realm which is the human equivalent to the pure state of nature.
This form of predatory intelligence is purely middle of the range. The life of the bourgeois, citified person is entirely geared towards the goal of maximal personal resource centralization and extraction from the commons, and his education system is necessarily geared towards facilitating this practical end.
But intelligence is really an index of one’s problem-solving faculties. It’s true that ‘making a living’ in the social realm, extracting the resources from it that supports one’s life, is as much a demonstration of the human capacity to solve problems as the tactics and techniques that other organisms have evolved to extract resources from their environments.
But at the human level of intelligence, there are higher order problems to be solved than merely extracting the resources that one needs to make a living—particularly when the problems are of a species-wide, existential nature.
The most conspicuous aspect of the mediocre person is what Spengler calls his ‘intellectual mediocrity’, his relatively modest cognitive capacity to perform these higher order mental operations of abstract problem solving.
The mediocre person is narrowly educated to be ‘fit for purpose’ in the economic domain of resource extraction, but he is conspicuously poor in his capacity to perform sovereign sensemaking. Thus, he is the continual prey of ideological possession: the mediocre person doesn’t have ideas of his own; ideas have him. He is their spokesperson.
This is the ‘deindividuated memetic possession’ I spoke of in an earlier post on the Coronavirus as being a characteristic of low internal individualism, the deprecation of individual freedom of thought in favour of individual freedom of action.
And it was this characterological flaw of the bourgeoisie that Flaubert mercilessly satirized at the end of his life with his Dictionnaire des idées reçues, recognizing that mediocre people imbibe their ideas from the air exhaled by those around them.
I would submit that, en revanche, genuine intelligence is a capacity to handle complexity at a sufficiently high level of resolution; to tease all the relevant variables of a problem apart, like the strands of a great tapestry; to hold them separate yet relative in their dynamic relations with one another for as long as possible as one negotiates a solution which strategically balances these variables.
Except in the STEM fields, where we have scientists working tirelessly to discover a vaccine for the Coronavirus, that kind of intelligence, that kind of strategic thinking does not appear to be in very great supply to us in negotiating the aspects of this crisis which touch most directly on people—on the social, political and economic variables of this problem.
The short-term, tactical response of mediocre leaders such as Daniel Andrews is more to throw oneself bodily on the brake of one dimension—the health aspect of this crisis—and say, ‘Well, we will sort out all the long-term damage done on the other dimensions after we have got numbers under control.’
Yet it’s precisely that approach of looking to tactically solve one salient variable in the short term by ignoring, delaying or commuting the long-term strategic solution of tangential variables which has weakened our entangled global systems to the point of civilizational collapse.
The sensemaking capacities of our socio-political institutions—including governments—are found wanting in this crisis, and in Victoria, from day to day new evidence emerges—despite the Government’s efforts to keep mum—that both the institutions responsible for the state’s response to the Coronavirus and the individuals who comprise them are mediocre thinkers—tacticians whose short-term problem-solving skills backfired in the long term.
One of the major problems for collective sensemaking in negotiating the incomputable number of variables associated with our existential crises lies in the realization that democratized universal education—the Western model of mercantile education for narrow economic purpose—has failed our civilization.
We have three generations of the most educated human beings in history currently alive, and their pieces of parchment ostensibly credential these people as the most intelligent cohort of human beings who have ever lived at any one time in history.
But education is a Hobbesian resource extraction game too. In the civilizational Ponzi scheme of infinite derivatives extracted from finite resources, democratized education is another numbers game: You’ve got to get a lot of suckers through the doors of the universities; soak the value out of them; pass them (since that is what they’re paying you for in exchange for the exorbitant debt you’re saddling them with); and credential them—no matter how mediocre the quality of their thought.
And because, in the Western model of mercantile education for narrow economic purpose, universities are the gateways to the professions, you don’t have to follow this Ponzi logic many steps along the chain before you realize the dire consequences for collective sensemaking in all the institutions we depend upon for a civilized life—from law, to banking, to media, to education, and to public policy.
But in this competitive landscape of personal advancement, the capability to rise to an ultimate position of hierarchical eminence which is beyond one’s sensemaking capacity to properly serve in represents one’s optimal capacity to fraudulently extract resources from the economy and centralize them to oneself.
And when all our institutions are populated by people who are not well-placed to serve our collective sensemaking and problem-solving needs, but are excellently placed to serve their own private interests, we are primed for a Hobbesian state of nature to ensue under conditions of common existential crisis and civilizational collapse.
Public life in these periods when the cultural paradigm is in decline attracts only mediocre people—short-term tactical thinkers like Mr. Andrews in Victoria, and Messrs. Trump, Johnson, Trudeau, Morrison et al. on the world stage. It doesn’t attract the long-term strategic thinkers, for ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’
Spengler, co-opting the name given to that sanguinary epoch of ancient Chinese history, calls the Hobbesian state of nature in which mediocre individuals vie for political power ‘the Period of Contending States’. He says: ‘In the degree in which the nations cease to be politically in “condition,” in that degree possibilities open up for the energetic private person who means to be politically creative, who will have power at any price, and who as a phenomenon of force becomes the Destiny of an entire people…. [W]e have now the accident of great fact-men. The accident of their rise brings a weak people … to the peak of events overnight, and the accident of their death … can immediately plunge a world from personally secured order into chaos.’
Tactical thinking is about maximizing short-term benefits by negotiating a salience landscape of long-term costs. Like a pinball glancing off an array of scoring targets, you negotiate a chancy path through this valley of consequential hazards which involves trying to maximize your current resources in the hopes that you will have enough of them at your disposal to eventually deal with the long-terms costs you are ignoring, delaying, or commuting.
The worst leaders are those who are the most brilliant at tactics, for, as Mr. Trump demonstrates, their agile, impulsive responsiveness to the random windfalls of chance in a rapidly evolving situation is often in temperamental contrast to the skill of predictively calculating long-term consequences and orienting micro-actions towards macro-goals.
It’s the difference between playing checkers and go.
Like all the so-called ‘leaders’ of our time, Daniel Andrews, by the evidence of his decisions, amply demonstrates that he is not capable of strategic thinking, the balanced negotiation of short-term costs to ensure the achievement of a long-term goal, because he is, like all the so-called ‘leaders’ of our time, a mediocre person.
The evidence of his decisions demonstrates that he has risen to a position beyond the level of his sensemaking competence, but not beyond the level of his capacity to play the Hobbesian social game for fun and profit.
The quality of Mr. Andrews’ thought is mediocre. His manipulation of the ‘algebra of thought’—human language—to express his tactical calculations is mediocre.
Strategic leadership, the capacity to inspire social coherence by virally communicating a vivid, memetic sense of the situation which can be shared by a population, cannot emerge from tactical mediocrity in conditions of existential crisis.
Statesmen are poets in their thinking and speech: they communicate ‘the big picture’ so that the population can share their strategic vision and get behind it.
In the late period of civilizational decline, however, the politicians who emerge to seize power are small and mean prosateurs—eminently bourgeois in their mediocre thinking and speech.
Mr. Andrews cannot bring the Victorian people together behind a shared sense of what the Coronavirus situation is and what it means because, in his own mediocrity of thought and expression, he himself lacks the strategic capacity to visualize the landscape of salient hazards thrown up by the lurgy at a sufficiently high level of resolution and predictively calculate alternate pathways through it.
The aim of strategy in this situation is to find a pathway which balances the endurance of acceptable costs by the population on all relevant dimensions—not merely the health variable—so as to maximize the long-term benefits for the society from the short-term costs of their temporary distress.
The decisions that the Premier has made on the social, political and economic dimensions of this problem have the hollow, panicky ring of tactics about them rather the solid, reassuring ring of strategy.
Mr. Andrews’ government has lost its legitimacy as a prescriptive authority. The authoritarian, Scientific Managerial approach the Premier has taken to this networkcentric problem—the dictates on mandatory masks, the escalation of repressive restrictions, the imposition of draconian curfews—is evidence that, due to his mediocrity as thinker, speaker, and leader, Mr. Andrews’ has, as I predicted at the end of my last post, lost the capacity to inspire endogenous compliance by Melburnians.
When you take an authoritarian, hierarchical Scientific Management approach to a networkcentric problem, you only attempt to impose more overt control on the problem when it is already clear that you have lost it.
Take, for instance, the issue of masks.
It’s well-known that transmission of the Coronavirus is not principally a function of whether one’s face is uncovered or not: transmission is principally a function of human mobility. Hence the justification for repressive stay-at-home measures and social distancing.
So to anyone studying the science, when the Premier mandated the wearing of masks in Melbourne on 22 July, three weeks into the Stage 3 lockdown when everyone ought properly to have been at home, he was making the tacit admission that the Government had lost control of social distancing, had lost its monopoly on violence to restrict the movement of its citizens, and had therefore lost its legitimacy as a prescriptive authority.
Melburnians were refusing to keep apart from one another by staying at home. In effect, when he mandated the compulsory wearing of masks in public, the Premier, having lost control of the people, was throwing up his hands and saying: ‘If you insist on breaking the rules by going outside and mingling, at least wear a mask while you’re doing it.’
There are calls for Mr. Andrews to resign, but in my view, that too is an example of short-term tactical thinking.
There is nothing to be strategically gained, as far as I can tell, from removing Mr. Andrews now: Despite the revelations of his thoroughgoing incompetence, no challenger has stepped forward who demonstrates that he has a better familiarity with this crisis as it is relevant to Victoria at the macro-level than the Premier has acquired in the past five months, so it makes no sense to change horses mid-race.
The Premier must seek to undo the damage he has done.
Moreover, in the Hobbesian state of nature into which we are entering, you have more to fear in the long term from the person who demonstrates a more exquisite degree of mediocrity by dispatching the present incumbent in a coup than from the incumbent himself.
But if our democracy endures to another election, Mr. Andrews will have to step aside from the leadership of his party. Unless he can tactically capitalize upon some extraordinary and inconceivable stroke of good fortune which entirely cancels out the record of his incompetence in this crisis and puts his reputation with the electorate into surplus, he is unsalvageably tainted and a political liability to his party.
They can’t retain political hold of resources with Lurch at the helm.
But whoever follows Daniel Andrews as premier, from whatever side of politics he or she comes, the odds are six, two and even that his successor will be of even more mediocre character than the Chairman of the Hoard himself.
Better put your seatbelt on. There’s turbulence up ahead.
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.