"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."
- Terence McKenna
Apocalypsopolis, book one
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February 11. Loose end on yesterday's post: Anne informs me that Jared Diamond's story about how the Vikings in Greenland starved rather than eat fish is too simple. If I get a good link I'll post it, but the general idea is that it would have been really hard, not only mentally but technologically, for them to switch their whole way of life to seafood. This is good news, because it keeps open the possibility that they could have made the switch if it was a little easier. So maybe Americans will not fight too hard against an economic revolution, in their own interests, to decouple labor from money.
February 10. A week ago I argued that Bernie Sanders voters will get older and continue supporting left-wing policies because they'll still be poor. This analysis by fivethirtyeight has changed my mind: Why Young Democrats Love Bernie Sanders. Of course it's not for economic reasons, and I should have known that, because people always care more deeply about cultural identity than economics. The extreme example would be the Vikings in Greenland, who died of starvation rather than change their cultural identity from beef and grain eaters to fish eaters.
Young Americans, even if they're smart and poor, still accept the American-Calvinist framing story, where your income shows how good a person you are, or money is the phlebotinum of meritocracy. In this context wealth redistribution feels unfair, and young Americans oppose it almost as much as old Americans. They support Bernie Sanders for the same reason they supported Ron Paul: they feel left out of the dominant system, and helping an outsider break into that system is the only way they feel like they're participating.
In normal politics this is temporary, and by the time a new generation is in their 30's, the clunky political establishment will figure out how to make them feel included -- even if it doesn't serve their interests. If this doesn't happen, and older and older people remain radical, then some new factor is at work.
February 8. Today, two loooong articles with some optimism. Why America Is Moving Left argues that the whole political landscape is shifting, as shown by the willingness of both parties to take ideas from the left seriously. I still don't like Hillary but I'm impressed with how much she's changing her position toward Bernie Sanders. I remember back in 2000, when Ralph Nader was drawing much larger audiences than Al Gore, and Gore did not move one inch toward Nader's platform. The article also mentions the paradox of Obama: that by running on the promise of change from within, and not delivering it, he energized people to try more radical strategies.
Complexity Rising (thanks Gannon) is a detailed look at complexity in human systems, and the big idea is that our challenges are growing in complexity, and soon they will be too complex to be solved by hierarchy. Then the old systems will either collapse, or adapt by gradually shifting power from top-down control to lateral connections.
February 5. Oh no -- 2016 is already ten percent over! Today I want to write about personal stuff, partly inspired by some emails. Last month my restless legs syndrome was really acting up. It's like an itch in my leg muscles that I can "scratch" by vigorously moving them, and if there were a pill that cured it, you couldn't pay me to take it. Leg strength is correlated with brain fitness, and I can spend a half hour a night doing one-legged squats and heel lifts, not because of self-discipline, but because I have an overwhelming urge to do so.
If only I had an overwhelming urge to write novels or play music. We imagine that highly successful people have some kind of magical virtue, when really they have various restless syndromes that compel them to do things that other people happen to find valuable.
As I get older, motivation is the only psychological skill that doesn't get easier. It feels like I'm in a room with a bunch of locked doors, which represent different activities and how hard it is to force myself to do them. Every night I have to push through a tiny wall of pain to floss my teeth, and the one reason I look forward to death (so far) is that I'll never have to floss again. For stuff I don't have to do every day, I watch the doors, and when one of them partially opens I dash through. "Oh, I sort of feel like cleaning the floors or going to the store, so I'd better do it right now or it will be much more painful later."
Other doors lead to long-term projects, but if it's just a hallway with one locked door after another, inevitably I wear out and have to stop. So far the only open hallway I've found -- the only activity that I continue to feel like doing, and that seems valuable, is this blog. But how do we know what's really valuable? It's an impossible question, but we still have to try to answer it. I try to find a compromise between what I feel like doing now, and what I think I'll look back later and be glad I did.
February 3. Some quick notes on the Iowa caucus. Trump's weak second place finish shows that it is possible to underestimate the American people, and if he really wants to be president, he has to do fewer PR stunts and act more like a serious candidate. For the Democrats, Bernie's virtual tie is a symbolic win, but in terms of delegate math, Iowa is the kind of young, white, educated state that he needs to win 2-1 to be on track for the nomination. To have any chance to overcome Hillary's superdelegates, he has to do much better than expected among black people.
Bernie's performance among young people is great news for the future: he got eight out of ten voters under 30, and six out of ten aged 30-45. You might say, in 20 years when those voters are older they'll switch to establishment candidates because they'll be better off financially. But they won't! That's age of growth thinking: "a rising tide lifts all boats." There will never be a rising tide again, in 20 years most of those voters will still be poor, and their grandparents will replaced by more young people who want cancellation of debts, an unconditional basic income, and a financial transaction tax.
More about the new economy (thanks Andy): Economics might be very wrong about growth. Experts are gradually noticing that growth is no longer exponential but linear, but the whole financial industry is still based on exponential growth, which is why it keeps collapsing.
And The Fed wants to test how banks would handle negative interest rates. I think the whole economy should be built on a foundation where concentrations of wealth tend to shrink over time instead of growing, and Charles Eisenstein wrote a good chapter on this a while back: The Currency of Cooperation.
February 1. I've put off writing about presidential politics because it's easy to get swept up and say dumb things. A few months ago I thought Hillary Clinton would crush Bernie Sanders, because I remember how in 2008 Obama barely beat Hillary despite being an establishment candidate with an all-time great campaign organization. Bernie has almost no superdelegates, his organization is nothing special, and Hillary has learned from the blunders she made in 2008, and yet Bernie is running strong. This makes me think the whole framework has changed, and candidates who can brand themselves as outsiders now have a big advantage with voters.
A few months ago I thought Donald Trump was a joke, and now I see him as an unstoppable juggernaut. Read this month old reddit comment about Trump's mastery of the media. I would go farther and say he has an intuitive understanding of mass psychology, and he's been laying the foundation for this run since the the 1990's. Because he has established a persona where people already expect him to say ridiculous things, he's gaffe-proof. Other candidates have to walk a tightrope between boring the voters and alienating them, while Trump is walking a highway where he can be popular and offensive at the same time. Somehow he can play the strong leader and play the clown. You can read more about Trump's powers in several smart posts on Scott Adams' blog.
Assuming it's Trump against Clinton in November, I see this as a repeat of 1996, where Trump is Bill Clinton, polarizing but charismatic, and Hillary is Bob Dole: unlikeable, boring, and unlucky. And Trump can easily rebrand himself as a moderate, because he has a long history of being a moderate before he talked like an extremist to win the primaries.
I don't think President Trump would ruin America, or save it. I would expect him to propose a bunch of simple-minded reforms, let congress rework them to fit the system, and where the reforms work he'll take credit, and where they fail he'll blame congress. Bernie Sanders could do the same thing, but because of Trump's pre-existing alpha businessman persona, and his myth manipulation skill, he would be more likely to get away with it and win a second term. The big doom scenario is if there's some disaster that shuts down congress, Trump takes temporary unchecked power, it goes to his head, and he doesn't give it up.
If I'm wrong, and Hillary wins, it will be with the votes of sensible old people, or because an independent candidate splits the Republican vote. The establishment Republicans would never admit it but they'd rather have Hillary be president than Trump.
If Sanders is the nominee, Republicans will unite against him, and Trump over Sanders could destroy the Democratic party, if they react to the loss by fearing voter passion exactly when they should embrace it.
January 30. Update on the feed: thanks Patrick for writing a new script! I'll wait until after my first post of February to upload it, because otherwise all January posts will show up as new.
January 29. Last week I went through the Official /r/ListenToThis Best Of 2015 list. It has never been easier to record music and put it out for an audience, and that's a good thing, but it has also led to an explosion of mediocrity. In many hours of listening, I did not find a single thing that really excited me, but I did find some stuff I still recognize as high quality. I'll post a few albums now and more another time.
Ezra Furman - Perpetual Motion People is creative, spirited, super-cool indie rock, and one of Leigh Ann's favorites of 2015. It reminds me of the Violent Femmes.
Ott - Fairchildren is complex, ambitious, well-mixed psychedelic pop. For me the vocals and rhythm section are too pop, and I don't hear any good songs.
Stara Rzeka is Jakub Ziolek, a dude in Poland who records impressive sound textures in his apartment. Here's a 2013 Stara Rzeka interview where he says cool stuff about both music and philosophy. His long 2015 album is called Zamknely sie oczy ziemi, and I love his sound, which is somewhere between psych folk and black metal, but I don't like his voice, and again I don't hear compelling songwriting. My favorite track is the instrumental Mapa.
Here's how I distinguish songwriting from style: if you strip a piece of music down to one acoustic instrument and one voice (or two instruments) played by average people, then that's the pure song, and everything you took out is style. Great songwriting means anyone can learn to play your songs and sound good, while great style means you can cover other people's songs and sound better.
I also distinguish between style that can be duplicated at will by skilled musicians, and something deeper that comes from somewhere more mysterious. For example, a bunch of artists have covered I Put A Spell On You, but what's great about that song is the energy that came through Screamin' Jay Hawkins and his band that one time. It's like people think they can play the same song and summon the same magic, but that's not how it works.
January 28. Quick note: a reader tells me that the feed for this page has stopped working. I assume it's because my web host upgraded their PHP interpreter from 5.3 to 5.5. I don't know PHP, but if someone does and wants to try to fix this, email me at ranprieur at gmail and I'll send you the script that Patrick wrote a few years ago.
Update: another reader says the feed still works for him, but "as long as I can remember, every post shows up twice", and today there's an image in the feed for the first time. I haven't touched the script in years, and I wouldn't know how, so maybe these changes are all being caused by changes in individual computers or browsers.
Second update: another reader, on a recent version of Firefox, says his feed is working with no double posting.
January 27. Today, some unrelated stuff from reddit. All of these are long pages with lots of comments. First, continuing the subject of money being a bad way to measure value, a comment about how flash games from the last decade were better than mobile games today, because the game designers used to be motivated by passion, and now they're trying to make money by getting people addicted.
From the meditation subreddit, a comment about the value of mindfulness in the context of Buddhism. I would say it like this: Objects, including the self, are like waves on the ocean; their separateness is an illusion, and suffering comes from trying to hold onto them. By moving your attention to subtle causes and effects at the edge of the self, the line between self and other disappears, and you become an infinitely small point of consciousness surfing the waves.
If you read enough about near-death experiences, occasionally you'll see an incredible report of someone living years in seconds. This guy lived another life for ten years. There are some comments from people who had similar experiences, and also some people trying to explain it in terms of our primitive clockwork model of reality. If we ever understand this phenomenon well enough to duplicate it, and to choose the content of the experiences, imagine how the world would change...
Back to (almost) conventional reality, What's something your parents did when you were a kid that you didn't realize was weird until you grew up? Some of this stuff is really troubling, like the father who forced the family to use only one bath towel in order of decreasing status, and some of it is awesome, like the family that would have a battle with wrapping paper rolls every Christmas.
January 25. Going back to wealth inequality, last week I accidentally drew a line between minimum wage and "real money", but I don't think that's a good place to draw a line. The most useful line is where money stops being about buying luxuries, and starts being about shaping society -- typically to make it easier for wealth to feed back into more wealth.
I don't think wealth inequality or rich people are morally wrong, because I'm not a moral thinker. I don't think the rich deserve their money or the poor deserve to get it. What does "deserve" mean? Try to think of a non-circular definition and you'll end up a long way from what people imagine it means. The way I think is more like this: What kind of society would we like to live in, and what customs and laws will create it? If a better society has laws that seem unfair, then our idea of fairness is obsolete.
It might seem fair that we should all be free to spend money to influence politics. I love freedom so much that I think they should bring back lawn darts, but I think every political campaign should have a low cap on spending, and all that money should come from the government. That would restore our freedom to influence our own society, which we have lost because multibillion dollar interests pull all the strings.
It might seem fair that we have to work for food, but if the penalty for not working is starvation, then work environments will tend to get almost as painful as starvation.
I don't want everyone to have equal wealth. The world is more interesting if some people live in mansions while other people live in shacks -- as long as the people in mansions have no more real power, and the people in shacks don't have to obey the holders of money to be permitted to live.
If you're a gamer, you're familiar with subgames or minigames. You can go into the shooting gallery in Zelda, or the casino in Grand Theft Auto, and have some fun getting money to buy some perks in the larger game world, but you can't get any really important powers, because then the minigame would take over the main game. Our society is a bad game because the money-based minigames have taken it over. Financial investment is a minigame that has gone so far out of balance that the best players think they're playing the Big Game, that they're at the heart of the creation of value.
Now we're getting into metaphysics, because what is the big game anyway? If the world is intrinsically meaningless, then we can just declare that financial investment is the whole meaning of life. Jesus said "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God," and there are different interpretations, where "camel" means rope, or "the eye of a needle" was a narrow city gate, or Jesus was a mushroom. In any case, the idea is that life does have an intrinsic meaning, and wealth makes us bigger in a way that blocks us from finding it. I would say poverty is even worse, if lack of money forces you to think about money all the time. To sense deeper values, we need to clear our minds of money, and we can redesign society to make this easier.
My favorite utopian economy is Rick Webb's interpretation of Star Trek. Of course we don't have fabricators, but we can get close to that culture with two reforms that are physically and economically possible right now (but not yet politically). One is to take money out of politics, and the other is an unconditional basic income.
January 22. This blog is like my job: it seems to be contributing something to the world, and I still enjoy it enough to keep doing it. But lately what I really love is writing about music. It's more rewarding than writing about ideas because ideas are made of words in the first place, while music has to be translated from a nonverbal world in which value is mostly subjective.
Typically I'll spend the week finding new stuff or picking out stuff I already know, then on the weekend I'll get really high and listen for four or five hours. Then the next day I might spend hours rewriting my music pages to reflect what I just heard. I rarely mention my Big Blood page because they don't sound nearly as good to you as they sound to me, but if you're interested, 90% of the current text was not there six months ago.
Last Saturday I really indulged myself, listening to my top 50 non-Big Blood songs on a good dose of cannabutter and a microdose of mushrooms. I first arranged them worst to best in three playlists, which were not quite right but got me close enough to hear some categories where they really fit. Then Sunday I edited my favorite songs page so that, instead of the songs being in decreasing order of quality, the top 32 are in a series of five connected playlists.
Apart from Big Blood, I still have only one and a half top-tier songs from 2015. The half song is the angelic jam at the end of Beach House - PPP. And the one is Sheer Mag - Fan The Flames. It's like there's some primal force that rises up every few years and takes over one song.
January 20. This NY Times article raises important questions, but not very well: America's Best Days May Be Behind It. My comment on Hacker News:
This whole debate seems philosophically sloppy. The rate of return on capital investments, the pace of technological change, the disposable income of ordinary people, and subjective quality of life are all different things that are only loosely related. But if we throw around the word "progress" without carefully defining it, we might imagine they're all the same thing.
Ultimately it comes down to the hardest question: What is the meaning of life? And one reason society is fragmenting is that we disagree more than ever about the answer.
New subject, sort of. This reddit comment argues that Jihadism is National Socialist, Not Fascist. I didn't know there was a difference, but the author explains it as the difference between violent gangs run by the state, like in Putin's Russia, and social groups run by the party, like the Hitler Youth. From the key paragraph:
Jihadism and Nazi Germany are the respective symptoms of the same problem, which is the local collapse of society, the lack of economic development, the end of competitive capitalism and the replacement of it with a monopolistic, stagnated capitalism and all the misery it creates. They are both the result of a fetishistic view of how to save the world, both focused on the destruction of the enemy on which the percieved problems are focused. And they both achieve the realization of the uniform people's community.
Again from today's Hacker News, commenting on ISIS cutting its fighters' salaries by 50%, someone makes a fascinating comparison between ISIS and startup companies:
They saw initial success and had fast growth. They wanted to keep growing so they recruited heavily. To recruit a lot of soldiers they promised generous pay and benefits and even offered to support the families of soldiers so dads could go fight. Their burn rate was astronomical, but was okay because they were staying ahead of it through growth. But the growth ended up being unsustainable, because competition arrived and contained them. They kept it up for a long time because they had a lot of funding, but their burn rate finally caught up to them since they haven't been able to keep growing as before. Leadership did not/have not made the transition from wild startup CEOs that give pitch talks and sell to investors into the sensible, sustainable CEOs that manage a company in a saturated market with an eye toward creating a mature company. Remaining in the mode of a wild growth startup company is not an option for these guys. There is no viable strategy for a terrorist group that says "we'll grow like crazy and then sell out to Apple/Facebook/Google/Microsoft while we are popular and they'll handle the maturity stages." Terrorists have to make the maturity transition themselves because they can't be bought out.
I said this was sort of related to the decline of America, because any amount of exponential growth is unsustainable. The whole global economy is just a slow-burn version of Nazis and startups. But where Google had to transition from fast to slow growth, the world has to transition from slow growth to zero, something that has never been done smoothly.
January 18. Two long, smart articles about how corporations veer off into doing bad things. Thanks Jef for What Was Volkswagen Thinking? Through examples from several companies, it shows how any human system can fall into a feedback loop of increasing distortion of reality. It starts with small distortions, "I'll gloss over this tiny flaw to prevent a big hassle," and can build up to an edifice of lies where any individual person is rewarded for going along with it and fired if they try to stop it.
This article, Normalization of Deviance in Software, is less about ethics and more about effective internal practices, but the veering-off process is the same: little shortcuts turn into entrenched dysfunction that's very difficult to reverse.
Google didn't go from adding z to the end of names to having the world's best security because someone gave a rousing speech or wrote a convincing essay. They did it after getting embarrassed a few times, which gave people who wanted to do things "right" the leverage to fix fundamental process issues. It's the same story at almost every company I know of that has good practices. Microsoft was a joke in the security world for years, until multiple disastrously bad exploits forced them to get serious about security. Which makes it sound simple: but if you talk to people who were there at the time, the change was brutal. Despite a mandate from the top, there was vicious political pushback...
People push back if the change threatens their job, or even if it threatens their comfortable beliefs or routines. And what if the people pushing back have more power than the people who want the change? I think this has happened to the whole global economy, and it comes back to the subject of economic inequality.
Any defense of wealth inequality must start with the assumption that wealth is earned: that how much money a person or product makes is a reflection of its value to society. Paul Graham made an airtight defense of inequality by never seriously questioning that assumption, but it's so far wrong that the truth is often the opposite. You can make minimum wage by serving society, but you make real money by following bullshit scripts, by valuing surface flashiness over deep integrity, by pandering to fools, by taking advantage of human inattention instead of trying to fix it.
This becomes more true as wealth becomes more unequal, because wealth is not just the freedom to buy luxuries -- it's the power to make other people go along with your bullshit. Being rich in a capitalist economy is a milder version of being dictator of North Korea. Why are Whole Foods customers terrible people? That article doesn't try to explain it, but it's because Whole Foods prices are so high that their regular shoppers are people who don't even notice the price of groceries, so they probably have enough money to go through life being selfish without being seriously challenged.
It's tempting to imagine this trend driving us to total collapse, but I think the first world will find equilibrium, where the rich don't completely abuse the political system, and the poor don't overthrow it, because there are just enough reforms to keep life tolerable.
January 15. Because I already posted music this week, I'll post social philosophy today. For the new year, tech startup funder Paul Graham wrote this embarrassing defense of economic inequality, in which he accidentally showed why economic inequality is bad, because it makes people like him so out of touch.
Here's a great critique, Paul Graham is Still Asking to be Eaten. Condensed excerpt:
What the market deems valuable is not necessarily aligned with what is ultimately good for us as a society or even what we want. Because under conditions of extreme inequality, the market is biased towards people who have lots of money, at the expense of virtually everyone else.
Most of us outside of Palo Alto have no idea how a product as fucking stupid as Peeple gets valued at $7.6 million while a 4th grade teacher can't pay off her student loans and pay rent at the same time. But according to Paul Graham, those creepy Peeple women created value where that school teacher is just a stupid loser.
Ask a nurse who saved, like, three lives today what her salary is and then go ask the guy who made Candy Crush Saga what he got paid for it. Candy Crush Saga was valorized at over $7 billion. According to that same market, a human life is only valorized at $129,000. Meaning Candy Crush Saga is worth more to society than the combined value of 54,264 human lives.
Because that's where this stupid game gets you. You end up going to absurd lengths to rationalize mediocre ideas because they happen to make tons of money instead of questioning the legitimacy of a system that confers so much value on to stupid things.
A reader sends this article with more details about the beliefs of Silicon Valley elites, and I'm skeptical of the idea that a few smart people are doing more for the good of the world than everyone else, because it's based on dumb ideas about what's good for the world.
On basically the same subject, Anne has another new post, Entrepreneurship Means I Give Up, or Entrepreneurship is Hopium for the Economy: with the 20th century economy dying, and real wages steadily falling, we can still believe in capitalism and economic growth by focusing on a few people who strike it rich in the small business lottery.
The first "job" today's kids have to answer is, what the hell am I going to do that anyone is willing to pay me for? And each kid, increasingly, is expected to answer this alone as an individual. When poor or less-educated people do this, it's called "hustling" but when it trickles upwards to the children of the 1%, it's our national economic plan.
January 13. So I could write a tribute to David Bowie, last night I vaped some strong weed and listened closely to his early stuff, and it's shocking how influential he was. From 1969, Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed sounds like edgy folk rock, then at two minutes it starts to sounds like Bob Dylan (and way better than what Dylan was doing in 1969), and then it sounds like Led Zeppelin! Of course they were both copying blues, but the jam in "Unwashed" sounds more like "When The Levee Breaks" than either sounds like anything else, so Led Zeppelin learned from Bowie how to do that. From the same album, Janine is basically Gordon Lightfoot, but the crazy thing is that it integrates electric guitar into folk music in a way that Lightfoot hadn't done yet. Listen to Lightfoot's I'm Not Sayin', then "Janine", then Lightfoot's number one hit from 1974, Sundown.
His next album, The Man Who Sold The World, by the standards of 1970, was full-on heavy metal, and this was probably the only time a former folk singer made a landmark metal album. Check out the guitar solo at the 2:10 mark in The Width of a Circle. Other parts of that song are glam prog rock, or proto-Queen. At 3:10 of All The Madmen you can hear Brian May's future guitar sound. And She Shook Me Cold is the bridge from Black Sabbath to grunge -- especially in the verses, you can tell that Seattle musicians had this album on their turntables in the late 1980's. (Nirvana's cover of "The Man Who Sold The World" was not an attempt to improve the original, merely a tribute.) Skipping ahead to Ziggy Stardust, Hang On To Yourself is where the Ramones got most of their sound -- even counting "one, two" at the beginning!
There are at least two kinds of great art, like branches and flowers. The above are examples of new ideas that other artists took and did better. But sometimes a song is too good to be influential, because nothing that tries to sound like it can touch it. (A non-Bowie example would be Led Zeppelin's "The Battle Of Evermore".) Going back to Bowie's 1969 album (titled both David Bowie and Space Oddity), Cygnet Committee starts out lame, but around the five minute mark it launches into scalp-tingling epic vocals that rise and crash like nothing before or since, although Bowie himself would do it nearly as well in other songs like Five Years.
And I've been taking it for granted all these years, but David Bowie's masterpiece is Space Oddity. Not only is it one of the best written songs of all time, but every sonic texture is raw and beautiful, the mix is airtight, and the high keyboard and electric guitar, at 2:30 and again at 4:00, are brighter than the sun. Notice the similarity between the end of Space Oddity and the end of his farewell song, Lazarus.
January 11. Sort of continuing the subject of technological collapse, a new reddit thread, What are some examples of older technology being better than its newer counterparts?
And a few days ago on Hacker News there was comment thread about Super 8 video and whether it's better or worse than digital. Because it's more expensive and has worse resolution, the arguments that it's better have to be subtle.
Four years ago I toured the country without a laptop, and in place of browser bookmarks, I sent an email to myself with all the links I check. A few weeks ago I cleaned out my inbox and noticed how much my daily links had changed. Out of maybe 50, there were only three that I still look at now: my own website, reddit (but different subreddits), and No Tech Magazine.
The same people do a very similar site called Low Tech Magazine, and the reason I still read them is they're not simple-minded. If something is worth my attention, it has to understand something better than me, and in that case I will not be able to predict what it's going to say. I would not expect something called No Tech Magazine to support something called Solarpunk. And while I would expect it to argue that self-driving cars will be a congestion disaster, I hadn't thought of the particular reason: with downtown parking expensive and scarce, people will tell their cars to circle the block.
January 8. I want to continue Wednesday's subject while it's still fresh. Anne has written a follow-up post about the knowability of doom. Rather than summarize it I'm going to "cover" it: write an argument that's based on it, but with starker lines. This argument is speculative, and I think it's useful even if it's not strictly true:
A well-functioning human society that understands a threat to its existence will be able to deal with it. It follows that the really big disasters are not understood in their own time. Medieval Europe could see the symptoms of the black death, but they couldn't see the causes because they lacked the microbe model of disease. Because the modern world understands microbes, we have managed to control new epidemics like SARS and AIDS.
A collapse process that we don't understand might be blamed on something we do understand. My example would be the fall of Rome, which might be blamed on the Visigoths, but was really a long and complex process, largely about something we still don't understand: the difficulty of keeping big systems healthy without growth.
Looking at our own near future, climate change and the decline of nonrenewable resources are threats that we understand, so we should be able to muddle through them. If we don't, if we get such a big collapse that phones stop working and you don't have to pay taxes, it might be blamed on climate change and peak oil, but it will really be caused by our whole society being weakened by factors we do not understand.
But who is "we"? Because of the internet, human understanding is in a shape that has never existed before. You could call it long tail understanding: where a university only has room for a few idea factions, now we have an idea space with room for a million crackpots. There was probably a peasant girl in the 1300's who guessed that plagues are caused by very tiny animals, and she told two people and they thought she was crazy. Now she could put it on a blog where someone receptive to the idea could find it. I think, whatever history shows as the deep cause of 21st century collapse, someone already has the basic idea.
My wild guess is that person is mathematician Steven Strogatz and the deep threat is too much coupling in complex systems. That link goes to a three year old Edge.org question where he mentions an exact symptom that Anne mentioned yesterday: flash crashes.
January 6. Anne's new post, On the Theology of Monsters, Take Two, is partly responding to stuff I've been writing lately about collapse.
I see stories about the future as a series of levels, where each level has more imagination than the one below it. (I covered this in depth back in 2003 in my essay 21 Stories About Civilization.) Level Zero is that the way we're living now is just going to continue. Level One is optimist science fiction: the way we're living now is going to continue plus space colonies and flying cars and computers that are like really smart humans. Level Two goes to the other extreme, and you can see the boundary in the belief among science intellectuals that humans have to get into space soon or we'll go extinct.
I distinguish the higher levels by how much imagination they require. Level Three requires none, because the future will be basically the same as some world we have already seen: tribal hunter-gatherers, or medieval feudalism, or 19th century small town America. Anne references an email where I call this the "Kunstler-Greer collapse".
Level Four requires all our imagination, because the future will be like nothing we've ever seen. That's where I am when I predict a steampunky collage of preindustrial, contemporary, and sci-fi tools and cultures. But Anne is on Level Five, which requires more imagination than we have, because the changes will be completely outside our present way of thinking:
...the surest sign of an actual technological collapse would be the inability to encompass and interpret what was happening; if a collapse is to be irremediable, it would also have to be permanently inexplicable. This is beyond the radio station going down and you can't figure out why the internet has been out for a week - this would place the root causes beyond the technology of human knowledge and understanding for the meaningful future.