An Exercise in Pessimism and Paranoia

When I consider the world at large, there are three interrelated futures which terrify me.

Fear #1 is the culture war. Per the law of cultural proximity and musical outgroups, I expect this conflict to get worse in the near future as battle lines are more firmly drawn, and neutrality becomes increasingly impossible (I gave a few possibilities at the end of Musical Outgroups, but I’m now leaning more firmly towards “the smaller tribes being squeezed out of existence between dominant Blue and Red cultural forces”). We can already see this happening in recent events like protesters threatening passersby they assume are neutral.

Fear #2 is The Second American Civil War. David Shor makes a compelling case that post-Biden, the Republican party will end up with a multi-term lock on the presidency and the senate. A government consistently elected by a violently-hated minority (see fear #1) seems like a recipe for disaster. We’ve only had one term of Trump so far, and already witness renewed talk of Californian secession, and protester-led self-governing zones springing up and then fading away.

Fear #3 is World War 3. (Huh; fear #2 is the second civil war and fear #3 is the third world war. That’s numerically convenient). With America in turmoil, and civil war as a possible future, the age of Pax Americana (general world peace through American military dominance) has started to draw to a close. China and Russia are already starting to flex their muscles by snipping off bits of territory. They’re currently relying more on American being distracted than on an actual power shift, but that could change very rapidly if America descends into a genuine constitutional crisis or civil war.

I sincerely hope this is just my imagination running away with me, and none of this comes true.

The Law of Cultural Proximity

[Not my area of expertise, but I would be surprised if the core thesis was wrong in a significant way. Probably not as original as I think it is. Based on a previous blog post of mine that went in a very different/weird direction.]

Introduction

Currently, different human cultures have different behavioural norms around all sorts of things. These norms cover all kinds of personal and interpersonal conduct, and extend into different legal systems in countries around the globe. In politics, this is often talked about in the form of the Overton window, which is the set of political positions that are sufficiently “mainstream” in a given culture to be considered electable. Unsurprisingly, different cultures have different Overton windows. For example, Norway and the United States currently have Overton windows that tend to overlap on some policies (the punishment of theft) but perhaps not on others (social welfare).

Shared norms and a stable, well-defined Overton window are important for the stable functioning of society, since they provide the implicit contract and social fabric on which everything else operates. But what exactly is the scope of a “society” for which that is true? We just talked about the differences between Norway and the U.S., but in a very real sense, Norway and the U.S. share “western culture” when placed in comparison with Iran or North Korea. In the other direction, there are many distinct cultures entirely within the U.S. with different norms around things like gun control. The categories were made for man, not man for the categories.

However blurry these lines are, it might be tempting to assume that they get drawn roughly according to geography; it’s certainly reflected in our language (note my use of “western culture” already in this post). But this isn’t quite right: the key factor is actually interactional proximity; it’s just that in a historical setting geographical and interactional proximity were the same thing. Time for an example.

Ooms and Looms

Back in the neolithic era, the tribe of Oom and the tribe of Loom occupied opposite banks of their local river. These two tribes were closely linked in every aspect: geographically, linguistically, economically, and of course, culturally. Because the Ooms and the Looms were forced into interaction on such a regular basis, it was functionally necessary that they shared the same cultural norms in broad strokes. There was still room for minor differences of course, but if one tribe started believing in ritual murder and the other didn’t, that was a short path to disagreement and conflict.

Of course, neolithic tribes sometimes migrated, which is what happened a short time later when the tribe of Pa moved into the region from a distant valley. Compared to the Ooms and the Looms, the Pas were practically alien: they had different customs, different beliefs, and spoke a different language altogether. Unsurprisingly, a great deal of conflict resulted. One day an amorous Oomite threw a walnut towards a Pa, which was of course a common courting ritual among both the Ooms and the Looms. Unfortunately, the Pa saw it as an act of aggression. War quickly followed.

Ultimately, the poor Pa were outnumbered and mostly wiped out. The remaining Pa were assimilated into the culture of their new neighbours, though a few Pa words stuck around in the local dialect. Neolithic life went on.

In this kind of setting, you could predict cultural similarity between two people or groups purely based on geographic proximity. It was possible to have two very different peoples living side by side, but this was ultimately unstable. In the long run, such things resulted in conflict, assimilation, or at best a gradual homogenization as memes were exchanged and selected. But imagine an only-slightly-different world where the river between the Ooms and the Looms was uncrossable; we would have no reason to believe that Oom culture and Loom culture would look anything alike in this case. The law that describes this is the law of cultural proximity:

In the long run, the similarity between two cultures is proportional to the frequency with which they interact.

More First Contact

Hopefully the law of cultural proximity was fairly self-evident in the original world of neolithic tribes. But over time, trade and technology started playing an increasing role in people’s lives. The neolithic world was simple because interactions between cultures were heavily mediated by geographic proximity, but the advent of long-distance trade started to wear away at that principle. Ooms would travel to distant lands, and they wouldn’t just carry home goods; they would carry snippets of culture too. Suddenly cultures separated by great distances could interact more directly, even if only infrequently. Innovations in transportation (roads, ship design, etc) made travel easier and further increased the level of interaction.

This gradual connecting of the world led to a substantial number of conflicts between distant cultures that wouldn’t have even know about each other in a previous age. The Ooms and the Looms eventually ran into their neighbour the Dooms, who conquered and assimilated them both in order to control their supply of cocoa. The victor of successive conflicts, the Dooms formed an empire, developed new technologies, and expanded their reach even farther afield. On the other side of a once-uncrossable sea, the Dooms met the Petys; they interacted infrequently at first, but over time their cultures homogenized until they were basically indistinguishable from each other.

The Great Connecting

Now fast-forward to modern day and take note of the technical innovations of the last two centuries: the telegraph, the airplane, the radio, the television, the internet. While the prior millennia saw a gradual connecting of the world’s cultures, the last two hundred years have seen a massive step change: the great connecting. On any computer or phone today, I can easily interact with people from one hundred different countries around the globe. Past technologies metaphorically shrank the physical distance between cultures; the internet eliminates that distance entirely.

But now remember the law of cultural proximity: the similarity between two cultures is proportional to the frequency with which they interact. This law still holds, over the long run. However the internet is new, and the long run is long. We are currently living in a world where wildly different cultures are interacting on an incredibly regular basis via the internet. The result should not be a surprise.

The Future

[This section is much more speculative and less confident than the rest.]

The implications for the future are… interesting. It seems inevitable that in a couple of generations the world will have a much smaller range of cultures than it does today. The process of getting there will be difficult, and sometimes violent, but the result will be a more peaceful planet with fewer international disagreements or “culture wars”. A unified world culture also seems likely to make a unified world government possible. Whether the UN or some other body takes on this role, I expect something in that space to grow increasingly powerful.

While a stable world government seems like it would be nice, homogeneity has its pitfalls. There’s a reason we care about ecological diversity so much.

Of course in the farther future, human culture will fragment again as it spreads into space. The speed of light is a hard limit, and while our first Martian colony will likely stay fairly connected to Earth, our first extra-solar colony will be isolated by sheer distance and will be able to forge its own cultural path. Beyond that, only time will tell.

Milk as a Metaphor for Existential Risk

[I don’t believe this nearly as strongly as I argue for it, but I started to pull on the thread and wanted to see how far I could take it]

The majority of milk sold in North America is advertised as both “homogenized” and “filtered“. This is actually a metaphor created by the dairy industry to spread awareness of existential risk.

There has been a lot of chatter over the last few years on the topic of political polarization, and how the western political system is becoming more fragile as opinions drift farther apart and people become more content to simply demonize their enemies. A lot of causes have been thrown around to explain the situation, including millennials, boomers, free trade, protectionism, liberals, conservatives, economic inequality, and the internet… There’s a smorgasbord to choose from. I’ve come to believe that the primary root cause is, in fact, the internet, but the corollary to this is far more frightening than simple cultural collapse. Like milk, humanity’s current trend toward homogenization will eventually result in our filtration.

The Law of Cultural Proximity

Currently, different human cultures have different behavioural norms around all sorts of things. These norms cover all kinds of personal and interpersonal conduct, and extend into different legal systems in countries around the globe. In politics, this is often talked about in the form of the Overton window, which is the set of political positions that are sufficiently “mainstream” in a given culture to be considered electable. Unsurprisingly, different cultures have different Overton windows. For example, Norway and the United States have Overton windows that tend to overlap on some policies (the punishment of theft) but not on others (social welfare).

Shared norms and a stable, well-defined Overton window are important for the stable functioning of society, since they provide the implicit contract and social fabric on which everything else operates. But what exactly is the scope of a “society” for which that is true? We just talked about the differences between Norway and the U.S., but in a fairly real sense, Norway and the U.S. share “western culture” when placed in comparison with Iran, China, or North Korea. In the other direction, there are distinct cultures with different norms around things like gun control, entirely within the U.S. Like all categorizations, the lines are blurry at times.

The key factor in drawing cultural lines is interactional proximity. This is easiest to see in a historical setting because it becomes effectively identical to geographic proximity. Two neolithic tribes on opposite ends of a continent are clearly and unambiguously distinct, where-as two tribes that inhabit opposite banks of a local river are much more closely linked in every aspect: geographically, economically, and of course culturally. Because the two local tribes interact so much on a regular basis, it is functionally necessary that they share the same cultural norms in broad strokes. There is still room for minor differences, but if one tribe believes in ritual murder and the other does not, that’s a short path to disagreement and conflict.

Of course, neolithic tribes sometimes migrated, and so you could very well end up with an actual case of two tribes coming into close contact while holding very different cultural norms. This would invariably result in conflict until one of the tribes either migrated far enough away that contact became infrequent, became absorbed into the culture of the other tribe, or was wiped out entirely. You can invent additional scenarios with different tribes and different cultures in different geographies and economic situations, but the general rule that pops out of this is as follows: in the long run, the similarity between two cultures is proportional to the frequency with which they interact.

The Great Connecting

Hopefully the law of cultural proximity is fairly self-evident in the simplified world of neolithic tribes. But now consider how it applies to the rise of trade, and technology over the last several millennia. The neolithic world was simple because interactions between cultures were heavily mediated by simple geographic proximity, but the advent of long-distance trade started to wear away at that principle. Traders would travel to distant lands, and wouldn’t just carry goods back and forth; they would carry snippets of culture too. Suddenly cultures separated by great distances could interact more directly, even if only infrequently. Innovations in transportation (roads, ship design, etc) made travel easier and further increased the level of interaction.

This gradual connecting of the world led to a substantial number of conflicts between distant cultures that wouldn’t have even know about each other in a previous age. The victors of these conflicts formed empires, developed new technologies, and expanded their reach even farther afield.

Now fast-forward to modern day and take note of the technical innovations of the last two centuries: the telegraph, the airplane, the radio, the television, the internet. While the prior millennia had seen a gradual connecting of the world’s cultures, the last two hundred years have seen a massive step change: the great connecting. On my computer today, I could easily interact with people from thirty different countries around the globe. Past technologies metaphorically shrank the physical distance between cultures; the internet eliminates that distance entirely.

But now remember the law of cultural proximity: the similarity between two cultures is proportional to the frequency with which they interact. This law still holds, over the long run. However the internet is new, and the long run is long. We are currently living in a world where wildly different cultures are interacting on an incredibly regular basis via the internet. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a lot of cultural conflict. One might even call it cultural war.

Existential Risk

In modern times, the “culture war” has come to refer to the conflict between the left/liberal/urban and right/conservative/rural in North American politics. But this is just the most locally obvious example of different cultures with different norms being forced into regular interaction through the combination of technology and the economic realities that technology creates. The current tensions between the U.S. and China around trade and intellectual property are another aspect of the same beast. So are the tensions within Europe around immigration, and within Britain around Brexit. So was the Arab Spring. The world is being squished together into a cultural dimension that really only has room for one set of norms. All wars are culture wars.

So far, this doesn’t seem obviously bad. It’s weird, maybe, to think of a world with a single unified culture (unless you’re used to sci-fi stories where the unit of “culture” is in fact the planet or even the solar system – the law of cultural proximity strikes again!) but it doesn’t seem actively harmful as long as we can reach that unified state without undue armed conflict. But if we reframe the problem in biological and evolutionary terms then it becomes much more alarming. Species with no genetic diversity can’t adapt to changing conditions, and tend to go extinct. Species with no cultural diversity…

Granted, the simplest story of “conditions change, our one global culture is not a fit, game over humanity” does seem overly pessimistic. Unlike genetics, culture can change incredibly rapidly, and the internet does have an advantage in that it can propagate new memes quite quickly. However, there are other issues. A single global culture only works as long as that culture is suitable for all the geographic and economic realities in which people are living. If the internet forces us into a unified global culture, but the resulting culture is only adaptive for people living far from the equator… at best that creates a permanent underclass. At worst it results in humanity abandoning large swaths of the planet, which again looks a lot like putting all our eggs in one basket.

Now that I’ve gotten this far, I do conclude that the existential risk angle was maybe a bit overblown, but I am still suspicious that our eventual cultural homogeneity is going to cause us a lot more problems than we suspect. I don’t know how to stop it, but if there were a way to maintain cultural diversity within a realm of instant worldwide communication, that seems like a goal worth pursuing.


Bonus: I struggled to come up with a way to work yogurt (it’s just milk with extra “culture”!) into the metaphor joke, but couldn’t. Five internet points to anybody who figures out how to make that one work.