ROTW: Is Society Caught in a Death Spiral? Modeling societal demise and its reversal

Interesting overview of how complex systems can get caught in self reinforcing dysfunctional behavior that causes harm or even the demise of the system. Goes into research done on organisms and businesses, and to some point past societies, and in the hopes of determining if there are indicators of when a society has succumbed to such behaviors.

What’s interesting to me is not the doom and gloom of the of whether or not we are currently in a downward spiral, but the metrics and indicators to observe the phenomenon, and the strategies to reverse it’s effects, which the article does go into in some detail. There are a good deal of sited papers throughout the article that I personally wasn’t able to delve into, which is why a group study may be interesting. Not to mention any protocols that may come of putting it’s strategies into use.

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My friend Ian has a hypothesis around innovation / economic success of a region that seems similar, which he has written up for our province of BC:

Basically, a region is successful if it has smart young people staying or moving there.

I think looking for indicators like this rather than far downstream stats like GDP is super important if we hope to experiment, learn, and improve things.

Goes well with gamifying everything, but in a way that acknowledges that there are active “loops” that underly much of society, and leaning into understanding the impacts of those loops.

There are obviously many ways to slice this topic.

For general trust issues – I am interested in how high-trust societies have emerged, not just how they decline.

Decline in my view is structural to all societies where the majority of social services provided in a society are done so as a commons, and the society either grows past a certain population unit of scaling – beyond a natural scaling factor for federal, provincial, municipal governance – or the diversity of preferences to be satisfied against a resource commons increases.

In these conditions, the opportunity cost of altruism and cooperation increases in inverse proportion to the perceived share of a public service received. This increases the need for coercion by the governing unit to increase participation or decrease defections – Unions need to canvas for votes and the Coast Guard polices shores to prevent over-fishing.

But if the number or diversity of preference-holding agents increases, so will the cost of coercion, which past a certain point of expansion brings too high of an administrative burden on the governing institution, and hinders its ability to grow, innovate or adapt to new circumstances. Then it declines. This is the position forwarded by economist Mancur Olson in his books “The Logic of Collective Action” and “The Rise and Fall of Nations”.

This formulation suggests solutions: an increase of state capacity, an increase of regulation, a homogenizing of preferences, or a decomposition of the commons to segregated units where individuals feel like their cooperation allows them a proportional stake of the commons in return.

When observing a society go from high-trust (more spontaneously altruistic norms) into low-trust (defecting more when interacting with social commons), I expect it to be due to an increase in the size and diversity of a polity and its preferences. I expect altruism to be more common, absent of government regulation, when the social fabric has had a history of establishing norms which were critically passed over generations through cultural identity and family practice.

This means that neoliberal globalism with the free economic exchange of peoples has put most societies into new territory. Nomadic groups, modern and historic, or large diasporas such as Filipinos, Bengalis, the Jewish peoples and others, are possible exemplars on how culture can be sustained in a nation- and geography-independent manner.

As Olson observes, there is no such thing as a perfect altruist, thus no avoiding the requirement for coercion. But some solutions increase the role of the state in everyday lives; others don’t. The trap comes: low-trust societies want to retain the commons while not necessarily increasing social capital through building common interest, or self-regulating behavioural norms, or socially-regulating cultures and ideologies. What’s left is policing, an expansion of bureaucracy, and perhaps even social credit.

To me, the role of protocols should be in lieu of a state, and towards the minimization of states. Protocols-as-government is implicit in the views of the WEF and Big Corporation that it should be actively resisted when exploring the design space of protocolization. Pushing regulation into the protocol layer solves global coordination problems, but it bites bullets that I’m unwilling to, which are, the suppression of self-determination and the implicit long-term censoring of diverse ways of living.

The counter-intuitive thing is that when preferences aren’t homogenized (by empire, religion, or consumer behaviour), some amount of segregation into smaller more coherent groups might facilitate peace better than attempting coherence under a single blanket of governing units. This notion of power-sharing plus social mediation by nomadic peoples that straddle within cultural boundaries being the balance that keeps a functioning global society at-the-edge-of-chaos is why I oriented my original PIG RFC towards multi-polarity.

There were nomadic empires. Could trust increase in nomadic democracies?

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Interesting article @boris, definitely an enthusiastic take on how to invigorate a region. I’d push back a bit on Ian’s choice of metric as it felt a little myopic. There is something there though, especially as an indicator of a societies health. Almost by definition, society should invest it’s resources in it’s future if it wants to forego stagnation.

What feels myopic to me would be a society focusing on one generation alone, instead of taking a holistic view, where the resources you provide could attract (and keep) productive individuals from all walks of life and age groups. What use would a society be if it focuses on only one generation, specially one full of naivety. I wouldn’t want to live in a region that did not also value it’s older individuals, their wisdom and resources. Instead, one could encourage the young smart individuals, along with folks in later stages, by providing support and resources for any innovation and cultural output. From my experience, entrepreneurs tend to all age brackets, and often times only come about later in life once a lifelong “itch” becomes too great. Those same people will hire young talent, but also provide hard earned experience and technical prowess. Individuals are attracted to regions with vibrant culture and resources. Culture requires access to like minded peers, from a network that thrives off of mentoring, with learning on both sides of the exchange. It cannot be created in a vacuum.

But back to your point, looking for indicators such as these for the health of a society is definitely better than gdp. I think we can learn a lot from Chaos theory and other studies of dynamic systems. By discovering the strange attractors that stabilize, guide, or have a greater effect on a system we can get a greater feel for the multidimensional ways a society moving.


@kenb Have you looked into the ways in which Rojava has been creating more high trust supportive communities? There is a great deal of redistributing power structures along with a focus on municipalities instead of the nation-state (the Kurds and other groups involved in Rojava movement are without a nation of their own and at times have preferred to remain that way). By focusing on the municipal level, one can ensure that those making decisions have skin in the game, and are familiar with the problems and regional dynamics themselves. By sharing power (women and the old are taught to use firearms and partake in policing and defensive patrols) no one group maintains the ability to coerce others, as they know the power will be rotated into the hands of others.

Anyways, my knowledge isn’t first hand, but it sounds similar to what you are talking about.

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Thank you! I’ll look into it, it sounds relevant.

What I’m learning is that there are many pre-colonial and post-colonial governments with flatter hierarchies and greater distribution of enforcement and self-management capabilities. I’m currently (with help) investigating forms of lateralized power and federalism in Africa.

As everyone here likely knows, the U.S. was also founded on a system of checks and balances but as it scaled into empire-size and incorporated more interests it adopted more trappings of coercion, and created a bureaucratic base of power that exists beyond that Madisonian government, between administrations. I like reading Michael J. Glennon for this topic.

The missing piece for me is in industry.

Deep tech appears to require a division of labour due to the specialized expertise involved in its creation.

How will space industries and massive power generation work without the state apparatuses that have traditionally set up large-scale industrial growth in nuclear, digital communication, rocketry, and so on?

Can P2P production make up the difference?