Environment / Society / Technology

Hacking Civilization

Courtesy flickr/woodleywonderworks

What’s the future of human civilization?

Cosmic Revolutions has looked at a lot of big questions, but this one’s as big as they come.  Indeed, everything I’ve posted so far has tried to fill in a piece of the answer.  But today, I want to step back, way back, and try to catch a glimpse of the forest rather than the trees.

I’m inspired to do this because I just read a mind-blowing article by the thinker Venkatesh Rao.  He has an idea about the way complex systems evolve over time, and it suggests a future where human intellect and inevitable disorder battle each other to a kind of deadlock.

Be warned, this is a pretty abstract idea, and it’ll take us a while to put all the pieces together.  But if you stick it out, you’ll come out with a whole new perspective on the future, and on what human civilization actually means.

Still with me?  Okay!  First of all, most of the futurist discussion I’ve seen focuses on one of two possibilities.  One, that civilization and technology will continue improving, until we achieve positive-feedback acceleration, sending us off into a glorious techno-utopia.  This type of future is sometimes called the Singularity.  The other common idea is that our civilization will succumb to the weight of climate change, oil depletion and/or human folly, and eventually collapse, plunging us into a new stone age (or perhaps into oblivion).  This is sometimes called “collapsonomics.”  I’ve touched on both before.

Unfortunately, we can’t test either of these hypotheses, since human civilization is an experiment with a sample size of only one.  But Rao’s suggestion is that there may be a middle ground he calls hackstability: keeping our civilization stable by constantly hacking it.

What does that mean?

What is hacking?

People of my generation probably picture someone sweating over a computer keyboard as they break into a bank account.  But in the last couple of years, the word hacking has expanded far beyond the programming world.  Consider LifeHacker, a website that gives you tips on how to make your life easier.  Or the organization Hacks/Hackers, who are “toying with the future of technology and journalism.”  Or the Cloud Robotics Hackathon, a competition to make something cool using robot parts and cloud computing.

Rao looks at this trend and puts together a more comprehensive definition of hacking.  Roughly speaking, it means using human intelligence to improve a system or to overcome unforeseen deficits or bugs.  In that sense, using the phrase “C U l8r” is a hack of the English language – it’s not an officially accepted construction, but it’s more efficient than what the rules allow.  Likewise, a shortcut through a back alley in the Bronx may not have been part of the city planner’s original design, but someone has figured out how to “hack” the city and derive additional functionality.

So why would we need to “hack” civilization?  Well, civilization is an example of a large, complex system.  The problem with large, complex systems is that they’re usually either emergent (the English language, for example, was not designed by anyone), or they’ve expanded beyond the scope of their original design (like New York City).

Either way, any major system, including civilization, is likely to have flaws or inefficiencies that we couldn’t have planned for.  What we do about it depends on what happens next, and Rao looks at three scenarios.

Three Possible Paths for a Flawed, Complex System

  1. We can fix all the flaws at once by throwing out the system and redesigning it from scratch.  Unfortunately this isn’t a practical solution for our most important systems – can you imagine dispensing with the English language or New York City just because you figured out a better way to do it?
  2. If the singularity happens, then we don’t have to worry about anything.  Artificial intelligence will be so smart that it can design a nearly flawless system for everything.  While I certainly believe this is possible, I’m not about to bet the farm on it.
  3. Under a collapse scenario, we don’t fix the bugs, or we don’t fix them fast enough.  Flaws continue to accumulate, adding stress to the system until it finally fails.  In thermodynamic terms, a closed system is bound by the law of increasing entropy.

Apply these 3 futures to human civilization:  Obviously, we can’t toss it out and start over. The singularity is more attractive, but we can’t count on it.  And if civilization follows the “collapse” route, we’re all in trouble.   So what’s left?

Why, hacking, of course.

courtesy flickr/puroticorico

Hacking the Future

In short, we may not ever see exponential systemic intelligence (the singularity) but we may not face total collapse, either: maybe we’ll just patch our way to a kind of muddled middle ground.  Seen this way, “hackstability” is hardly utopian, but nor is it especially pessimistic.  I can’t say it any better than cosmologist Adam Frank, who described it this way:

We are a resilient lot and the concept of hackstability does some justice to the reality of our tenaciousness. A hackstable culture might not be pretty but it might be able to last.

Rao himself actually does seem fairly pessimistic about such a future, describing it as “increasingly brittle” and suggesting that at best, hacks may only delay or soften a catastrophic collapse.  He seems to be saying that hacks themselves introduce additional entropy into the system, weighing it down and contributing to its eventual failure.  A constant uphill slog against the relentless demons of chaos does sound pretty bleak, I’ll admit.

Hacking Forever

My thinking on this hasn’t fully evolved, but at first blush I think Rao’s pessimism is unfounded.  It seems to me that hacks can sometimes be investments rather than patches, strengthening the system rather than weakening it.  In fact, hacks can eventually be incorporated into the system itself, a possibility he seems to dismiss.

For example, a shortcut through the city starts as a hack.  But if it becomes popular, then gets streetlights and signs, and is finally added to a map, it’s no longer a hack but part of the system.  We didn’t have to throw the system out, and we didn’t introduce any entropy (locally, anyway).  But we did get a more effective system.

In fact, most of the complex systems we have are already more hack than deliberate design.  Consider the agricultural revolution, which was the very first planet hack, if you will.  It laid the foundation for the first human settlements, and life continued to improve thereafter thanks to applied human intelligence.  In other words, the very civilization we’ve been discussing all this time is itself nothing but layers and layers of accumulated hacks.

So if anything can keep our civilization going, it’s more hacking.   To be clear, the fact that it’s worked so far doesn’t guarantee our future one way or another.  Civilization could still collapse, or coalesce into a singularity.  What it does mean is that a future of endless hacking actually looks a lot like our past.

So look at the hackstable future this way:  We’re about as prepared as we can be – we’ve got thousands of years experience at hacking civilization.  And it’s brought us this far!  Think of all we’ve accomplished since the very first hacker thought to press a plant seed into the soil, and wonder how much further we could go.

I, for one, have faith in the future.

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5 thoughts on “Hacking Civilization

  1. Hackstability seems to me to be nothing more than the affirmation of how societies work as a broad concept (both animal and human). It comes off as someone trying develop a philosophy of the pre-existing concepts of inovation and changing social systems. I think the need to assert this sort of idea come from the fact that we often forget that societies not only grow (technologically and in scale) but also often decline. Societies often decline in an uneven ways, have done so in our own societies numerous times, and likely will again. On the hole, there is fluxation between “advancement” and “decline”, but innovation and change (“hacking” for those who did not previously know the English vocabulary for these concepts) are fundamental attributes in social constructs regardless.

    I also feel that the Singularity concept is fundamentally flawed. Any future paradigm would likely find humans themselves as enormously inefficient, and thus design, or attempt to design, us out of the system. Effectively the extreme case of Singularity is likely to be equivalent to social collapse from the perspective of human beings.

    But that’s all just opinion. :P

    • I think you must be right that “hacking,” as described, is a fundamental feature of social constructs. Which makes it all the more interesting that the generalized use of the hacking concept appears to be so new. Certainly, you’re right that we’ve seen “innovation” discussed with respect to various particular societies. But the concept of hacking feels deeper than that, to me. The word seems to encompass not just the change but its context; it forces consideration of the larger structure in which the innovation takes place, and the large-scale patterns that emerge. But I’m just thinking out loud now.

      As for your suggestion that a hyper-efficient singularity might, by definition, exclude humans entirely: You just blew my mind all over again! Now I’ll have to go and write a post about that, too.

      Thanks for reading, and for contributing!

  2. I am still trying to wrap my mind around some of the concepts here so I might be entering into this discourse with highly simplistic approaches.

    If we recognize that human civilizations on this planet have not existed for very long, from a geologic perspective, then it is possible to envision that there will be a time when human civilizations will no longer be. And within the relatively brief window of time when there have been humans, there have been numerous civilizations: some co-existing in parallel; some picking up after others have faltered. Nothing stays still; all is in flux–either growing or dying, or both.

    Each civilization has had its tools, its technology. Some writers trace the collapse of civilizations to a fatal over-dependence on assumptions and tools that no longer suit the changing contexts. The inability to re-imagine and redirect because of a constancy of focus and dedication to a singular toolkit leads to endings. New civilizations arise from that.

    Feels very organic. And easier to understand and accept if viewed from very highly detached altitudes. Much harder to engage when we think we might be living in a civilization that is becoming one of the many that has declined and collapsed in the relatively brief history of human existence.

    • I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this stuff too… I’m actually not convinced I have any idea what I’m talking about! But these concepts are so interesting I can’t help but discuss them.

      The idea you mentioned, of being able to re-engineer our underlying assumptions, sounds like the key piece. We’re a pretty creative species, and I do have confidence that we can cobble together solutions to the obvious problems. But when the context has shifted so much that the very foundation of our tools and ideas needs to change… that seems very difficult to even realize, let alone address.

      It’s dizzying to consider consider how small and temporary our civilization could be in the grand scheme of things. As you say, it makes sense from a great distance, but up close, being that we’re the people living in it… it almost defies understanding.

      Very interesting thoughts – as always, thanks for sharing them!

      • That’s a very good point you both brought up. It also raises a challenge to what “civilization” is. If you boil our definition down to human society acting as… well… a society, then you might argue that there has only been one since we got going. Growning, shrinking, changing, yes. But one. Which is encouraging, because in that light we are doing quite well.

        We typically define civilizations as entities separated by (it seems) culture. In which case Mary’s picture of a continuous rize and fall of related but separate entities seems more accurate, and in itself quite beautiful.

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