Trying Again

I am still struggling to address this topic of knowability and technology, and much of this struggle is in fact internal- I’m not sure I have a handle on it myself. I will keep posting here until I feel that either I have explained what I’m thinking in clear enough language to distribute, or else that I have chewed it into unrecognizable shreds which no longer hold any interest. Suffice it to say I am probably out of my depth here, but I think this is something that isn’t being said widely elsewhere, so I’m going to keep giving it a shot.

This discussion began with Ran’s call for specific timed and falsifiable predictions of technological collapse, of the Kunstler-Greer model. Greer actually does make predictions that are somewhat falsifiable (Kunstler does too, though his tend to be hand-wavy and he’s a bit of a jackass) but they tend to be short-term and not directly connected to anything other than bad things happening. For instance, two of his core predictions for the coming year are that the current regime in Saudi Arabia will fall and Trump will be elected president. These are short-term, falsifiable, and I hope I’m not tipping my ideological hand by saying that either would lead to a pretty bad state of affairs, but the connection to the eponymous “technological collapse” is unclear. Larger, better armed countries than KSA have fallen into leadership crises in the past, and a Trump presidency would probably resolve itself in four or eight years with only a massive blot on world history- even a Cultural-Revolution-scale disruption of American social and economic continuity would be unlikely to actually end everything.1

My objection is primarily with the term “prediction.” Looking back at historical collapses, such as they were, it is difficult to see anyone “predicting” anything. In fact, nobody then, and often nobody now even understands the problem at its core, and all contemporary and most historical accounts tend heavily towards moral narratives indicative of the anxieties of the times, rather than factual descriptions of events.

For instance, its easy to mock medieval Europeans who saw the black death as evidence of god’s wrath, especially if you look into exactly what they thought god might be mad about. At best they’re the antecessors of modern doofuses who explain every hurricane or every terrorist attack as evidence that god is punishing America (or France, or whoever) for gay people, abortion, going off the gold standard, or what-have-you. At the time, though, medieval Europeans would have had no concept of bacterial disease, or of how it could be spread by fleas, or maintained in reservoirs of rats (or gerbils!), or how half a world away, the Yuan-dynasty Mongol endorsement of passports and long-distance credit had enabled trade routes that carried these vectors. Even this represents hubris on my part- the gerbil paper is actually about changes in rodent ecology following changes in climate, and it is definitely true that the bubonic plague was preceded by several decades of livestock and agricultural diseases, regional famines, mass movements of (European) people, and the medieval-warm-period-related settlement of previously uncultivated parts of Eurasia. There are almost certainly major contributing factors that haven’t yet been identified as such, and I’m only slightly less a fool than the flagellants for trying to explain what happened here.

That we are still studying the causes of the black death, seven centuries later, should be an indication that understanding collapses is a massively dimensional problem, even given a long period of time to collect and analyse evidence. This collection and analysis is neither easy nor cheap, either, nor is the training of historians, ecologists, microbiologists, geoscientists, statisticians, or any of the other bright sparks who have contributed over the years.

Put another way, understanding “what went wrong” is a massive undertaking, requiring enormous human resources, systems of measurement, ways of sharing and aggregating data, schema for organizing explanatory models, etc. Right now it sounds like I’m talking about computers, but this process goes back to the quaranta giorni– a term in Venetian because at the time, only the Venetians (in Europe) were organized and together enough to create it. Essentially, knowledge of anything outside the experience of a single person is a form of techne.

On the Origins of Collapse Memes

That said, many individuals survived the black death, and also the Cultural Revolution, the fall of the Mesoamerican empires, the inundation of Doggerland, and pretty much any other disaster you want to name. Their stories have been woven into our awareness of life and death because the vision of total apocalypse is emotionally so compelling. Its a theme that resurfaces constantly in myth and fiction and frankly it does quite well there. Future disasters do quite well in fiction too, for that matter.

The problem is that wars, famine, diseases, etc tend to be boring, distressing and impersonal, punctuated by moments of pathos and terror that are also impersonal. They make, in other words, bad stories. They are great settings for better stories, though, and this is the fashion in which they have generally been used. Often these stories make a point, like the medieval flagellants, about something that is meaningful to the teller and the listener, either directly or through the set-up of characters and their inclinations, actions, and ultimately their fates. I refer you, for instance, to the Decameron, or the godawful Divergent series. These are stories with heroes who “carry the light” in some form or another, and their travails with exciting high points and clear opponents who in some fashion carry darkness within them.

By the way, I did not enjoy The Road but I liked it. I read the book and never saw the movie, and I read it as a satire- the man’s claims to be “carrying the light” stand starkly in contrast with his actions as yet another asshole scrounging, killing, and dying his way across a world he doesn’t even try to understand. This is only clear at the very end when the final unnamed character shows up, clearly having it together in terms of surviving, having a family, and not being a jerk to strangers. Who has the light?


You can blame the Greeks for Hubris, or “pride offensive to the gods.” They wrote dramas and poems without end about the punishment meted out to mortals- and their children, their neighbors, their everybody- who thought they could get one over on the gods. They had an entire genre dedicated to tragedy, and no production was complete without a tragedy, and no tragedy was complete without a soliloquy by the tragic hero (or, as in Medea above, directed at him) explaining his hubris and showing the consequences of pride. Modern catastrophists love hubris too, at least as a plot element. The tale of a modern “collapse” is the tale of sudden understanding of error- “apocalypse” means “uncovering” or “revelation”- and collapse stories, both overtly fictional and… predictive… tend heavily towards tales of errors uncovered and ruefully exposed.

In fact, its something of a cliche- get the collapse predictor talking about whys and wherefores and they very quickly get up on whatever hobby horse they happen to favor at the moment. On the right this might be the loss of the gold standard or the number of brown-skinned humans sharing a planet with them; on the left it might be inequality or environmental catastrophe. Even when these are not the immediate causes of a “technological collapse” they tend to figure prominently in the telling of the distinction between who survives and who doesn’t.

But that’s not what this is about. This is about actual predictions.

Failure of Tech, Failure of Techne

If understanding massive catastrophes in retrospect requires an astonishing amount of tech, understanding them in the moment is simply unbelievable. I’ve written here about the incredible amount of global data resources dedicated to the recent ebola outbreak and what a difference it made in the course of the epidemic. Looking backwards, there were four major influenza pandemics in the 20th century. Should we be surprised that the largest and most deadly (1918) happened when the world’s governments weren’t talking to each other, when the young folks with a yen to understand things were off shooting each other in ditches, and when every misfortune was seen as a weapon of war? By contrast, SARS was completely novel (unlike the flu) and far more lethal and contagious, and yet was contained effectively through the prompt cooperative action of Chinese, Canadian, and international scientists.

Understanding a problem is a major step towards fixing it. HIV was killing people for seven decades before AIDS was recognized as a disease, including in the US since at least 1966. From the description of AIDS to the first semi-effective treatment (AZT in 1983) took two years. Lead was introduced into gasoline in 1921, the resulting fumes were linked by Needleman to poor child performance in schools in 1970, and unleaded gasoline was phased in beginning in 1976.

This introduces a paradox into apocalyptic predictions- essentially, these require a problem that stalls out during the brief comprehensible interlude- we know what’s wrong, but nobody fixes it. If it can be fixed, there’s no collapse. If it isn’t understood, there’s no prediction. There are crises that can fit into this strange interval- an asteroid headed for Earth, a spreading nuclear war- but these are highly selective. More likely is that something huge and catastrophic won’t really be understood for generations if not centuries, and then only assuming that enough of our techne lasts long enough to figure it out.

Don’t believe me? Why did the USSR fall apart? Its hard to remember that the Soviet Union did so very many things wrong, and yet none of these are clearly and unambiguously linked to the collapse of 1992. Masha Gessen is right that nobody really gets why so many Russians began dying young of disparate and preventable causes shortly thereafter either. There are people who will talk your ears off about Reagan, or alcoholism, or agricultural production, but if they’re honest they’re guessing- or substituting a good moral narrative for understanding. On a smaller scale the stock market is still plagued by “flash crashes,” and the symptoms I listed in the second try at this essay still seem suggestive and yet inexplicable:

an unexplained rise in maternal mortality, all-cause mortality among middle-aged white adults, alcohol-related deaths, suicides (ignore the graphics, veterans are only part of the toll), drug overdoses

When you start talking about predicting technological collapse in particular, you are predicting the complete insufficiency of the techne needed to understand- or predict- what you’re talking about. You are engaging in paradox.

That said…

That doesn’t mean that being unable to predict or understand a catastrophe means there’s nothing reasonable you can say in advance. For instance, if you know the middle ages you know that plague, crop failure, solar eclipse, a dead pope… pretty much whatever happened the Jews were going to be blamed for it. Nassim Taleb has made a career talking about “black swans”- events so unlikely they can’t be predicted, which is not the same as events too unthinkable to understand- and how organizations can be prepared for them without knowing what they might look like. There are also basic sociological realities about what happens when humans are thrown from routine into improvisational living- I highly recommend Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, and my prior statement about the surprising relative decency of refugee camps fits in here. It may not be possible to predict a collapse, but it seems reasonable to predict what happens next. Ran did that in 2006.

All this time you’re working with other groups to help people get food and water and medical care, to transform the infrastructure, and to deter violent crime, or clean up after it. There are drug gangs, right wing death squads, and the occasional marauding horde of government troops and/or bandits. There are giant storms and hard summers and winters. But the vast majority of your friends are not killed, and people go about their lives less fearful than they did at the peak of the Empire.

If you don’t have kids, you help raise other people’s kids. They don’t go to school, but jump right in doing what adults do, and spend a few weeks learning to read and write when they’re ready. By 2030, the city is full of gardens and orchards. You don’t know anyone with a car, but a few techies are still using old computers and surviving satellites and fiber optic lines to connect to a patchy internet. You hear strange stories of distant lands, and wonder where it’s all heading. At the end of a long and very interesting life, like all your ancestors (except the most recent), you die at home surrounded by people you love.

I’m not sure I can improve much on that.

But the Monsters?

Yes, and the monsters. I think the monsters were a bad metaphor on my part, but I was equating monsters with disasters and this is what I was trying to say: if there are monsters lurking, they are Lovecraftian, not Stephen-Kingian. They aren’t in the locked crypt with the warning on the door, ready to burst out with a roar and chase after the bad people who ignored the ancient injunctions. They’re part of the universe- they’re a part of the universe we haven’t imagined- and their hunger and ferocity are indifferent to the values and laws you want a monster to enforce for you. They won’t fulfill your prophecies of cosmic justice, they’ll just kind of suck, and you probably won’t ever get a good look at any of them. They are nouveau monsters, existential monsters for existential threats, they are the new scary, and we might as well realize that there are some fears you can neither face nor embrace and get used to that. Okay? Sorry about the confusion.
1. yes, I know, nukes.

10 thoughts on “Trying Again

  1. “My objection is primarily with the term “prediction.” Looking back at historical collapses, such as they were, it is difficult to see anyone “predicting” anything. In fact, nobody then, and often nobody now even understands the problem at its core, and all contemporary and most historical accounts tend heavily towards moral narratives indicative of the anxieties of the times, rather than factual descriptions of events.”

    if we could study human population cycles, under various, repeatable, conditions, then we could make various “predictions” about them. part of the problem in this is that humans have thrived in so many different “one off” conditions. they, unavoidably, drastically change (destroy) those conditions as a result. This is a fish discovering water type of problem, in that we thrive in conditions of our own creation, almost.

    in any event, those studying “active matter”, “mepp” “mpp”, etc., are coming closest to making “predictions” based on system energetics. However, seeing that our current industrial system is a real big “one off” occurrence, we’ll have to be satisfied with various forecasts of (system) failure.


    • This is actually something that I’ve been bothered about for a while. Its very hard to determine the appropriate “training data”- to use the machine-learning term of art- for sociological prediction, and essentially whatever geographic and time domain people select tends to reflect their political orientation and (over)determine the outcome. For instance, among my smart numbers-and-systems friends, the logical time domain for predicting the future is the last two hundred years or so, to correspond with the industrial revolution which, as you say, is one hell of a “one off” condition. By that logic, we can expect the US to face primarily internal challenges to stability, while the rest of the world struggles with international disputes over third-party resource extraction and the domestic chaos that ensues when a local extractive/settler power leaves. Or, you can take the twentieth century as your model, and now the overdetermining factors are nuclear-armed superpowers jockeying for influence in a new “great game” that is partially ideological (unlike, say, the original great game) and partly capable of exterminating complex life on Earth. I assume this is where the “clash of civilizations” meme finds its supposed empirical support- if there isn’t a “communism” that internationally inspires a destructive enemy, maybe a religion will stand in and make a model work?

      On the other hand, if you take all of agricultural civilization you get a very different picture of what happens to major world powers (not nearly enough attention paid to the Mongols, IMHO) but you lose the weird specificity of a globalized world with near-frictionless information transfer. I honestly think this is why so many writers who dabble in fiction (JMG and JHK among them) lean heavily on the “collapse to status quo ante,” because the persistence of an internet (which was designed, after all, to withstand nuclear war) puts a post-postmodern resource-collapse world right out of the realm of the historically thinkable.


  2. in regards to jhk’s and jmg’s predictions (trump winning, etc.), these are predictions in the truest sense. they predict events within the confines of our current system. their forecasts of a 19’th century future are just that.


  3. while recognizing that it’s all a narrative of one sort or another, the more you are able to lay the human value judgement narrative, or the historical narrative, etc., aside, the clearer things become. without getting into a lot of the details (which you’re free to do on your own, if you’d like. or, i’d be happy to share what i think. but i don’t like to foist anything on anybody.) we are part and parcel of a dissipative structure or system. we’re just along for the ride as the system does it’s thing.

    basically, such systems exist within a certain set of conditions and exist to maximize the entropy production of those conditions. truly lovecraftian…


  4. I’ve been struggling with what you describe here and I think I see what you’re driving at.

    As the most cognitively complex society that’s ever existed on earth, we’re in the habit of looking back at disasters and catastrophes of the past and understanding the causes and evolution of those disasters and catastrophes better than those who suffered through them directly. We have language and theoretical apparata powerful enough to account for the causes of past catastrophes, or at least provide plausible explanations for them.

    But our society, to support the body of theory we use to understand the world, has to be even more complex than that theory. We don’t really understand how our society works; moreover, we probably cannot understand how our society works. (This is similar to saying a computer with finite memory cannot simulate itself without some loss of resolution.)

    In addition to that, it seems inevitable that our society will become less cognitively complex assuming e.g. Tverberg’s peak oil analysis has some teeth. Our society or its successors will have a body of theory with less explanatory power than what we currently have.

    So if our society declines, whatever the cause, we won’t really be able to explain it because: a) we don’t know what is fundamental to the functioning of our society in the first place and b) as the functioning of society degrades, we become even less able to know.

    We can imagine some future society hundreds of years hence struggling to understand the downfall of our society. Unless their society is even more cognitively complex than ours, it is difficult to see how they could even begin to understand our society, let alone understand the whole society well enough to explain our downfall. After all, we struggle to explain the downfall of, say, the ancient Mayans even with all the resources at our disposal.

    I’m curious whether this is consistent with what you’re trying to convey with this post and the previous, or whether the point you’re making is really completely eluding me…


    • Yes, this is it. Sorry about the approval delay; even though we were only tapped by the tail end of the storm I’ve been snowed in since Friday. Yes, this is mostly what I’m saying- some of the difficulty understanding past collapses that appear social (the Maya, say, or the Roman empire) is a lack of data, a problem from which our digital age clearly does not suffer. I’ve often wondered whether we attribute these large-scale catastrophes to climate or disease simply because the evidence of same is much easier to recover. The “black death” may have started thirty years earlier than the plague, for instance, with what wikipedia calls the Great Famine – this theory says that had Europe not been knocked on its heels by an agricultural catastrophe, with all the resulting forced urbanization, subsequent recolonization of the hinterlands, and social upheaval that goes with it, that the plague would have had little more effect than it did in, say China, where it pushed over a toppling dynasty but left the institutions of civil society largely intact.


  5. Pingback: Donald Trump is NOT Hitler | More Crows than Eagles

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