Civilization: Institutions, Knowledge and the Future – Samo Burja



welcome everyone today's talk is a mouthful it's titled civilization institutions knowledge and the future basically we find ourselves in a world that is radically out of our depth we have not made most of the material or social artifacts that are so very vital to our continued existence we've inherited them or sometimes they have emerged seemingly almost undesigned but the fact is someone in the world has to know how various things work simply because you don't doesn't mean that someone isn't keeping the lights on and it is very interesting how it is possible for an entire society to have a view that this is someone else's problem one of the reasons I appreciate a more positive outlook on the world is because I think it's the people that believe they can build things that end up learning things and are the people that end up maintaining the systems that the more cynical rely on I feel that when it comes to human biases cynicism can be realism but cynicism can impede action and optimism can be blindness but you know you learn through work through building through creating propaganda has been with us for a good century but what happens when we believe our own propaganda what happens when one generations cynical ploy for power becomes the cherished ideals of the next generation or even the its intellectual inheritance that's when you have a severance of institutional memory and that is when you have a severance of traditions of knowledge but before I go too deeply into that I am going to talk about what is a civilization and what civilizations are I'm very unusual I'm still something of a humanist I sort of feel that human desires and goals matter for the shape of the future I have not given up on the human race and I've not given up on our current civilization so I tend to think that civilization is the harnessing of both social and material forces for human ends human ends are ultimately quite lofty quite heady we are aiming for things that are much beyond a single lifetime and that's why it's quite important that we build things that actually that actually hand off to the next generation what we have built so here we have now this guy's quite famous arguably he wrote a book or two and there's a very good quote by him the quote is we are by nature social animals anyone that can live alone is either a beast or a god I haven't met many gods fortunately I haven't met many beasts but because of this we always rely on other people for the knowledge that we have in institutional contexts we tend to trust the institutions we find ourselves in we find ourselves in things like prisons or hospitals or schools or cities or States or companies we also find ourselves in the company of our friends so the first thing hospitals prisons States these are institutions the second thing our friends our family this is our social layer these are other people we might trust institutions we might trust our friends but we are in fact deferring to them we're not thinking through everything from first principle we're taking in assumptions all the time but through our actions and through our beliefs and through where and who we choose to trust in Eastern Europe you know I originally from Slovenia you know my family you know we still I still spend three years under communism I'm not that old but in Eastern Europe it tended to be the case that people would trust their m'lee over what they read in the newspaper because the newspaper was controlled by the party modern Americans are perhaps now grappling with the idea that you know sometimes politicians are not honest and sometimes newspapers are not honest it's it strikes me as a little bit naive but then if you're a very successful society you can afford to be naive in even a way that less successful societies are often not and this leads to the great forgetting that we see in the wake of functionality in the wake of functionality it's possible to take things for granted and things are not to be taken for granted functional institutions are the exception when things are working very very well you will have churches you'll have companies you'll have cities that will outperform their mediocre competition by orders of magnitude these orders of magnitude are apparent when you look at something like the number of converts you know the technologies introduced the country's conquered we can look at functionality from a morally neutral perspective my moral perspective is fundamentally again human these common human aims these civilized aims that we aim for but functionality itself doesn't really doesn't really have morality baked into it it's more a neutral observation it's an observation that the gears and the springs in this particular machine in this particular hospital or prison or state function they work they fit together the alternative to this often is that you can have an institution that on the surface is a company on the surface is a church on the surface is an institute but the real story is that the humans involved are not coordinated and they don't know what they're doing however people are very good at imitating each other so what happens is they have a simple group narrative there's a simple group narrative that says we are in fact a hospital or we are a startup so we're gonna drink the startup coffee and buy the startup laptops and you know get the startup t-shirts and the startup is still not gonna work it's very easy to have a tribal costume it's very easy to say the right words it's very easy to be you know buddy-buddy with your friends and be like really enthusiastic about the thing but if no one put it together that's still not a functional institution now in an environment of Plenty environment of like a lot of capital or perhaps you know an overabundance an overabundance of a certain kind of naivety this sort of non functioning institution can still be passed off as a success but don't be for a second fooled fundamentally somewhere in society there are functional institutions making that non-viable organization viable institutions do function calls to the outside we can think of civilization as you know a complicated ecosystem where constantly as functions are being outsourced from one institution from one subculture to another it has to bottom out somewhere and in fact it does and when those are eroded we can have very serious problems so okay this is a nice building this is obviously some kind of government building we can recognize the visual language in this building right away like the origin is clearly greco-roman these are our symbols of power these are symbols of knowledge these are symbols of authority and is ones we've inherited from people we barely understand we find ourselves in soulless machines we also don't understand we don't know why we're sitting at that cubicle someone knows presumably someone presumably designed the highly intricate bureaucracy but we as individuals don't have this knowledge and if we ask the institution itself the institution itself might lie to us and if we ask our co-workers they don't know and they don't care and they just want to go home I talked about traditions of knowledge that was an environment where people were in a machine and this machine might have been functional or non-functional but they didn't know how it was built if there is no one in the entire corporation or the entire you know government bureaucracy honestly at scale both tend to look very similar that knows how it works that organization is then dealing with at the very least a dead tradition a living tradition of knowledge or perhaps in an academic context people might be familiar with the concept of a lineage in mathematics there's a very strong effect where the most excellent mathematicians will train disproportionately very excellent mathematicians in turn if you look at say 19th 20th century mathematicians often the most talented are the students of the most talented what's happening there is not that you know the student is learning to imitate the master what's happening is a transfer of human development a transfer of the generators of knowledge the constant replenishing of knowledge because ultimately knowledge rests in human heads it is only human minds that operationalize it without human minds to operationalize them at least for now at least in the absence of artificial intelligence what we are doing is performing actions a bird can fly a bird does not understand aerodynamics our organizations our hospitals our states they are not birds they are constructed they are machines so soon as the bird forgets to fly that's not going to happen but the bird might have learned a theory of flight which is doubtful it could still fly but if a pilot forgets how to pilot a plane the plane crashes or maybe the autopilot kicks in and it works for a while but what what about when it comes time to land or what about when lightning hits the cockpit and the autopilot goes away so living tradition of knowledge is a pilot that knows how to fly a plane or even better an engineer that knows how to design a plane a mathematician that knows how to prove new and interesting theorems and come up with breakthroughs a philosopher that understands you know maybe understands Aristotle right or maybe understands their particular school and contributes to it dynamically rather than simply aping or imitating or wearing the tribal costume the tribal costume is very easy to wear even in academia the replication crisis is interesting some people think it's a sign of the weakness of psychology I'm almost curious whether it represents a strength of psychology maybe psychology is healthier because in psychology someone did the replication experiments and found that they learn not replicating maybe in sociology no one's even trying to do the replication what about the other social sciences how do we know the replication crisis isn't hitting the most honest rather than the least honest of Sciences now this is me playing around with skepticism I'm certainly not a big fan of academic psychology though I do think that when it comes to you know there are some useful breakthroughs in that in that area we have learned things about how humans reason and what the sort of flaws of human reasoning are a dead tradition would then be a tradition where the books are still around you might have a book written by your teacher by the relevant mathematician but you have no idea how to improve on the teachers proofs you have no idea how to design a new plane even if you can maintain the old one and then a lost tradition is something even worse it's when we even lose the book and that's certainly something that shows up in human history we can imagine the course of human civilization as institutions held up by the practical knowledge of their renewal the renewal has to come every generation and I do mean like accompany generation not necessarily a biological generation monasteries have an easy time reproducing even though they have no offspring they recruit they recruit that's how such a tradition can preserve itself but imagine civilization as a vast field of highly localized knowledge that is difficult to communicate it's difficult to because there are adversarial games and also because humans have a hard time talking to each other remember the tribal costume problem the tribal costume problem means that it's very easy to trick other people to believe that you understand what they're saying and it feels very good for everyone involved so you don't really feel the urge to question and the question that is not socially rewarded the gadfly who questions whether you know do you know what beauty is shut up Socrates right it's a social attack and that's our problem our information transfer is tied to our social accounting and the social accounting is not actually deep enough and is not running sufficiently deep checks so we're left with some few exceptional cases of information transfer a few of these towers of knowledge rise higher than the other ones and these towers of knowledge then represent functional institutions that have solved the succession problem that then subsidize all the shallower towers of knowledge right now I'm sure each of us can think of at least three failing American institutions and we can also still acknowledge that this is one of the best countries in the world to live if you're relatively well-off right first world countries nothing to sneeze at but it's not being it is being subsidized by something functional dark-matter we talked about lost knowledge most of our universe is invisible not literally we know that galaxies have far more that mass than the stars that emit light and we know this because the galaxies are spinning so fast that they would fly apart unless there's more mass present than what we see and because there is more mass we can infer from the gravitational effects that there must be something invisible there now maybe there's something invisible holding our society together in the exact same way a spinning galaxy intellectual dark matter I think I think we are standing on a large Tower of intellectual dark matter and some of the dark matter has been lost for good and some of it is still with us and sometimes unfortunately I think we're living on the fumes of institutions that remain on autopilot but the knowledge has been lost intellectual dark matter is a concept that as far as I can tell I've only come up with its the observation that even if we cannot investigate the knowledge directly we can ascertain the knowledge exists just as the invisible mass can be detected through its gravitational effects a very simple example of this is basically ancient Greek literature I said you know 15% of matter in the universe is visible and detectable or so currently physics says 13% of known Greek authors this is ancient Greek authors who we have a name for whose name is referenced we only have 13% of those works so out of 2,000 known ancient Greek writers we have 13% what about the ones we don't know and you might be thinking 13% is pretty good but actually we only have a smaller fragment of complete works and by the way this number would count Aristotle and we've lost Aristotle's book on economics we only had his book on politics one you know the one at the start and remember our symbol of authority intellectual and political the one with the pillars and the American flags the American flags are new the pillars are old and the pillars will are held up by something we just don't understand civilization will collapse well I've been intimating that with vivid imagery such as you know lightning hitting a cockpit but I think we should also consider the cost of something more subtle an intellectual Dark Age civilization will collapse we'll have a failure of critical systems as a notable negative symptom what is a critical system today it might be our large stockpiles of nuclear weapons in a breakdown of political order in a breakdown of global economic conditions the machines will still work when we press the button and the reason we don't press the button is because there are a bunch of very well functioning institutions things like the international order things like the American executive branch things like strategic command and so on it's a low bar I admit but there have been ancient equivalents when the Mongols you know made a giant pyramid of skulls nected Baghdad they also destroyed the irrigation system that had been maintained for hundreds if not thousands of years the result was famine and the Mongols even though they might want a taxable population that can grow did not have the right engineers to rebuild those systems and also for a lot of this it was permanent ecological damage so even if you rebuilt the irrigation system because of the disaster of the thing going away desertification kicked in right the area turned into desert which was previously artificially maintained this is similar in an intellectual Dark Age so the failure mode would be different it might be instead of someone pressing the button it might be that there's a bug in the code the new code that's written by the way we use floppy disks in the ICBM silos right so that's that's some legacy code that's some well-tested code so I feel safer with the floppy disks than I would have they were using something newer but eventually we're going to have to go to something newer so what if the codes bad so that would be the intellectual Dark Age version of a critical systems failure in the future we might imagine more exotic ones we might imagine a society where AI is outlawed and then you have overall societal decline but a local area where knowledge continues to progress so you could have a situation where AI is essentially banned and there are institutions enforcing this ban until the alignment problem is solved and then those institutions break up however the researchers are now free to do their thing that would also be a critical systems failure assuming the hypothesis about the danger of such technologies accurate then point number two the loss of traditions of knowledge I think I've talked about this extensively but still because something like Oxford University or something like the Royal Society is embedded into institutions that surround it it does not necessarily have the ability to sustain itself the remarkable thing about Christian monasteries in the early Middle Ages was that they sustain themselves completely independently from the surrounding society their libraries were not very impressive compared to the libraries held by the senatorial class even in the fourth century AD Roman senators were highly literate and practiced classical Latin and they would occasionally write letters complaining about you know the roads are awfully dangerous this year they did not have a perception that their society was one that's in decline the Christians were a little bit crazy at that time but they went into the hills and they set up these autarkic systems and in these systems they copied religious texts and as a side effect also some of the classical texts now of course we do have to credit Arab civilization in the seventh and eighth century for bringing us some of those poor 13% but what people forget is that the Arab Empire was a multi-faith Empire there were copies made in Baghdad which was not yet burned by the Mongols as was centuries later but a large chunk of the Arab literature was copied in Middle Eastern Christian monasteries okay so a monastic tradition preserves probably 80 to 90% of the stuff we have because it had a functional institution that did not depend on the other institutions around it does academia today seem robust to social disruption if we assume academia is the holder of this what if it's Silicon Valley what if Silicon Valley is the holder of technical knowledge and life innovation is that for bus to the political climate to the social climate and then number three we have the destruction of capital I think human ends are cream but I think we should agree that all else equal it's good for humans to have tools it's good for humans to have homes and so on and so on so whenever there's a destruction of wealth this is a tragedy wealth is not bad you know people some people believe in decadence and some people believe you can only create wealth by taking it away from someone else I think neither is the case I think all else equal you can make wealth you can raise all boats and all else equal wealth is not the thing that causes civilizational decadence and basically the difference here is that with civilizational collapse there's a sudden massive destruction of capital and with an intellectual Dark Age there is a slow ongoing rising opportunity cost if you want a mental image of the fall of the Roman Empire you should imagine something like 200 years of GDP shrinking by about 1% a year that's a more accurate picture than the barbarians burning everything down and then the last point here is civilizational collapse has the problem of mass death I'm gonna give an example a little bit later some people have questioned that some people have said oh you know Rome never really fell what happened was a social transformation well yeah yeah it's a transformation but and when an intellectual Dark Age it's the cost of lives never lived exceptional lives incredible lives the cost of the Roman Dark Age is that there were never Romans visiting and sailing around the world that there was never a lively discussion between Greek philosophers and Confucian scholars the cost of our civilization of lives never lived might be that we can't actually take a vacation on the moon my dad when he was something like nine years old and living in a very you know an optimistic country people forget this communism was optimistic in the 1970s wrote a simple essay about how well you know extending current trends in economic growth and technological progress by the time he's a dad he'll be able to take his kid on a field trip to the moon right he didn't take me to the moon it's it's very disappointing so the Bronze Age collapse this brings us to mass death destruction of capital and loss of knowledge so just as a raise of hands who here has heard of the Late Late Bronze Age collapse okay that's recently popularized when I talked about this about ten years ago about five years ago I got like maybe one two hands you know in a full room even so the Situationists likes this in about 1200 BC we have the my scenes the Minoans the Hittites the Assyrians and some other minor tribes here and the famous Egyptians there's a string of civilizations that are very different culturally that are interlocked in a massive network of trade in particular the economies of bronze production are such that you have to have both 10 and copper cheap and in abundant quantities and for various geological reasons they tend to not be found in the same sediments so nature necessitated trade and they also developed a sophisticated international community of their own era it's very Game of Thrones like you have like Egyptians writing today Hittites and the Hittites writing back and they're like you should marry my son but I haven't heard from my daughter if she's still alive oh yeah she's totally alive and so on if anyone wants to if any wants to read this I recommend the book the Amarna letters Amarna is a place in Egypt where they found diplomatic correspondences some of the intellectual dark matter was an earth right and it turned out they had sophisticated things such as peace treaties loans and you know the hostage technology so the little red x's here are destroyed cities these are cities that have a layer of charred burned remains between again 1200 and 1150 BC so there was a massive wave of destruction through these civilizations these nominally politically independent kingdoms with their independent culture and their own language that were engaged in this fruitful exchange that you know was bigger than any one country and they went away in a 50-year period this should remind us of our own fragility what happened was as soon as international trade was disrupted copper 10 could not be mixed and the result was the price of bronze skyrocketed imperial Treasuries were emptied and it didn't make sense to build new ships it was better to scrap the ships for local use or repurpose them for defensive measures as both local rebellions and barbarian invasions seep them we don't even know what actually caused the systemic collapse of the late bronze age but the important point is that today we are hyper centralized we are dependent for energy and we're dependent for our CPUs CPU production currently can only be economical because of the massive economies of scale if global trade was notably disrupted with a catastrophic event similar to the late bronze age collapse would have to go back to older computing technology things that can be economical it I don't know 50 million people then the question is what would be economical at five hundred thousand people maybe we even just lose all the CPUs this is Agamemnon's mask who here knows who Agamemnon is and personally it's probably not his mask it's about two hundred years older but a very fanciful 19th century archaeologists thought that it was Agamemnon this is from my ciencia for about 200 years after products like this were produced there were no city-states no cities and no product like this in mainland Greece the Greek Dark Age was a period where they lost writing there was just no continuity the writing system that we know of as classical Greek is very different from linear a and Linear B which were the Minoan and machine writing systems before then we have the Roman example as well the room and example is nearly one and a half thousand year later and it's not a straightforward collapse case though people talk about the fall of the Roman Empire here we have a technological artifact that could not be replicated until the 20th century this is the Lake Ergas cup Pervis was the lawgiver of Sparta and like kyrgyz wanted the spartans to be tough and so he banned wine and here is the god Pan punishing him by having vines attack Lycurgus for his sin of outline you know the sacred liquid but the interesting part here is that this is a single cup it's a de chromic Cup which means that if you shine light from the front it's gonna be green and if you shine light from the back it's going to be red this is achieved through very finely ground particles of silver and gold at the nanometer scale mixed in precise quantities into the glass itself when this cup before this cup was found in the 18th century and those 13 percent of remaining writing there were references to cups like this and 18th and 19th century scholars said oh the Romans are being fanciful of course they don't have cups that change color that's ridiculous we don't have cups to change color and then they found one of these in a monastery and I think France late 19th century and they had no idea how it worked and then a lab in 1970s Britain figured out how it worked and the lab is very insistent that this must have been some kind of fluke that they definitely didn't know what they were doing and you know think about how many cups are produced where are the odds that we would have a fluke preserved rather than something that was mass-produced mass-produced items are things we find if today our civilization ends we would not have the future archaeologists would not find the Saturn 5 they would not find the Apollo rocket they would find jet airplanes but that's because they're mass-produced there are many copies and because of the large quantity probabilistically even a few centuries or thousands of years later one of them is preserved and may be found they would find the lunar module that's a good point but then they would have to go to the moon and you know when the ancients say that they went to the moon they're being fanciful we all know the Americans have a wonderful so the Likert this cup was an example of a technology that was lost for over a thousand years note it was also produced in the fourth century AD the fourth century AD is already pretty far along this to Kranti decline trendline so it's a very small economy compared to its peak we can measure part of the economic output of the Roman Empire through atmospheric led lead goes into the atmosphere the winds blow it over the ocean in the Atlantic and it settles on the ice of Greenland and over this layer new ice is formed in the small air bubbles trapped in Greenland ice there is a sample of the atmosphere including its lead content which is basically pollution 409 thousands of years into the past and when we analyze these we find a massive decline in Roman production and as you can see it's an ongoing decline rather than a southern crash and the internal story of the Roman Empire was that yeah we've had some bad times but everything is great now like over and over again the political propaganda insists that things are looking up that the economic outputs are going to improve that political stability is around the corner now this brings us to mass death the Han Dynasty is the Golden Age of age of China it's contemporary to the Roman Empire so the 2nd and 3rd century AD however the Yellow Turban rebellion ends this and starts off a series of catastrophic wars where over the course of the century the population of Han China is reduced by two-thirds this is a population of 200 million people there is starvation and there's killing that's pretty sudden that is a hit tight gate we don't even know or understand the Hittite language the percentage is not 13 the percentage is 0 I have two posts online that describe what I call Empire theory Empire theory is not strictly about empires in the political sense or civilizations it's more a general theory of organization so it's a technical term I use for areas of coordination and one of the theses I have is that there are two fundamental architectures for both growth and decline there is the centralized expanding Empire when the central institutions of society are the ones that are functional and they're highly centralized and have a lot of capital available and make large investments that pay off that allow the system to continue to grow and renew itself then there is the decentralized expanding Empire where the central power might in fact even be dysfunctional so for example you could imagine a system where a government is dysfunctional but companies are functional by the way that's the normal story about the American system but I don't think that's how the American system actually works I think a better example would be say 19th century Britain where arguably the British government is not that competent but many many individuals are very competent though again their ethics we can question that at times and then on the decline side the Roman Empire the Western Roman Empire is a centralized declining Empire the central power is strong but does not know how to renew the foundations of society so what it does is cannibalizes political opposition over and over again the Romans are busy fighting each other in civil wars over and over again until their ability to maintain the western Mediterranean is gone and a decentralized declining Empire is more of the usual decentralization fragmentation thing people imagine you have the collapse of central authority like that in the later Han Dynasty with lots of local fiefdom is breaking off and lots of small not very well built institutions springing up that are worse than the original what about the future this is a very history oriented talk but that's because I see no fundamental difference between the past the present and the future these are divisions yesterday today tomorrow there are a consequence of the human experience and of the limits of human knowledge there are not features of reality itself if you have a theory of society sure the inputs into the theory change today tomorrow or yesterday but it should be the same theory wouldn't it be strange if different laws of physics applied in the eighth century or the 20th century or the 25th century we would need an explanation for why that is the case and whenever people flip between theories of society you're gonna have one theory of society for the past or a part of the past they really like another theory for the present and a completely fantastical theory for the future I think that looking at the past the present and the future we learn things for all of them good futurists should in fact be good historians good sociologists of today should end up being good futurists but few people make that mental leap I think we will have to because I believe that we need to recover the intellectual dark-matter of our own contemporary society there are a number of crucial traditions that have in fact been broken let me rephrase I'm gonna use the term lineage right there are a number of crucial intellectual lineages that have been broken that mean that several institutions in our society are now incapable of renewing themselves or rebuilding themselves and this does not mean that automatically people outside of those institutions know how to build replacements so even if you have an adversarial frame of mind where you're like oh it's good that the government is failing doesn't mean you know what to do what you should do or even if someone is like oh yeah I'm glad the company screwed up the government's gonna step in no no looks like it's it's not gonna do a good job I fundamentally just want someone to do a good job I want the institutions to be functional and whether it's a centralized or decentralized architecture that's a programmatically thank you [Applause]

5 thoughts on “Civilization: Institutions, Knowledge and the Future – Samo Burja”

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacit_knowledge
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_apprenticeship
    https://www.kysq.org/docs/Hayek_45.pdf

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