Saturday, February 26, 2005

Anglosphere Singularity

I am in the middle of a book called the Anglosphere Challenge - which I have found to be provocative thusfar. This book should be read by many - it has a lot to say.

Bennett (the author) argues that Civil (and civic) society creates conditions where both technological advancement is most likely to flourish. There are five new ideas that I liked in the book so far.

First, he makes a distinction between bounded and unbounded issues. This is an idea originally from Hayek, through Charles Lindblom and a lot of others but it seems appropriate here. Bounded issues are those with a relatively understandable set of constraints and variables. He argues that NASA was adept at going to the moon because of its bounded nature and less capable of exploring space because of its unbounded nature. He goes on to argue that government tends to do better in bounded arenas. I think that is generally true. The war on poverty was a disaster because it was so unbounded. But then why are we so lousy at running prisons in California? Presumably a prison system is the ultimate in bounded organizations.

Second, he seems to think that civil society is the grounding that makes things go. Mancur Olson, the University of Maryland economist, argued in one of his last books before his untimely death, that as civil societies mature they become bogged down with increasingly important transaction costs. Civil organizations tend to form agendas and points of intersection that cost time just to meet. I think that is a correct notion. But Bennett seems to disagree with this premise. The evidence of the transaction costs in mature democratic institutions is pretty well established. In higher education politics there are tons of organizations in Washington that take a lot of time and effort to maintain. In the states, those "coordinative" organizations are less clear. So what are the break points which would reduce the propensity for Olsonesque thickets?

Third, he discusses the role of Robert McNamara and his systems engineers and their attempt to apply those concepts to unbounded problems like Vietnam. I grew up in that era, was in college then and beginning my career, and thought the LBJ/McNamara view of the world was looney, costly and destructive. McNamara and his generals including Westmorland, thought that if they just got the right data they could be successful. One of the alternatives at the time was Goldwater's which looked at the issues of the insurgency in a much more bounded sense. Goldwater's approach to Vietnam was to focus on a narrow sense of principles. The hubris of the systems engineers at the time looked at these issues as so many queueing algorithms. But was the alternative view any more reliable?

Fourth, he makes a distinction between the era of empire and the era of connected networks. He argues that this era is less about empires and domination and more about networks of like minded people and organizations. What that ultimately suggests is that things like Kyoto and the Crimminal Court are even more out of touch than they seem on first glance. The errors of treaties like that is that impose rather than coordinate. That is an interesting point.

Fifth, he makes a distinction between civil and crony society. Hernando DeSoto has an interesting point in the Mystery of Capital about why he thinks some societies rely so heavily on family ties. Hayek, always back to Hayek, makes the distinction in the Use of Knowledge in Society that the ultimate goal of societal transactions is to simplify. The more decisions one can make without thinking the better. For example, when you buy an apple in a US market you never worry about the safety of the food. Crony society is a defensive society. Civil society is not. The risks in the US is that many of our civil institutions have been degraded a bit and we are moving to crony society in many areas. That is a big risk. Especially, if the model for transactions in society are becoming more Olson-like.

Finally, he talks about the concept of singularity - which he describes as a condition where data begins to become discontinuous - vertical, like a hockey stick. He argues that several forces are combining in technology and economic integation that move us into an era when the inevitablity of the civil society model will prevail. That sounds a lot like some of the discussions in Wired at the turn of the century for example Kevin Kelly in New Rules for the New Economy - if you go back and look at Kelly closely and turn it down a bit the rules still seem to be quite appropriate.

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