A Republic, If You Can Keep It

The interlocking achievements of Kurt Gödel, which revolutionized the rigorous understanding of logic, arithmetic, and time, are not of a nature that wins ready popular acclamation. There is nevertheless a broadly factual story about him that has attained some notable level of popularity, and it is one that connects suggestively with the core concerns of his work. At the website of the Institute for Advanced Study (where Gödel was based from 1940 until his death in 1978), Oskar Morgenstern’s recollection of the episode in question is recorded:

[Gödel] rather excitedly told me that in looking at the Constitution, to his distress, he had found some inner contradictions and that he could show how in a perfectly legal manner it would be possible for somebody to become a dictator and set up a Fascist regime never intended by those who drew up the Constitution. I told him that it was most unlikely that such events would ever occur, even assuming that he was right, which of course I doubted.

But he was persistent and so we had many talks about this particular point. I tried to persuade him that he should avoid bringing up such matters at the examination before the court in Trenton, and I also told Einstein about it: he was horrified that such an idea had occurred to Gödel, and he also told him he should not worry about these things nor discuss that matter.

Many months went by and finally the date for the examination in Trenton came. On that particular day, I picked up Gödel in my car. He sat in the back and then we went to pick up Einstein at his house on Mercer Street, and from there we drove to Trenton. While we were driving, Einstein turned around a little and said, “Now Gödel, are you really well prepared for this examination?” Of course, this remark upset Gödel tremendously, which was exactly what Einstein intended and he was greatly amused when he saw the worry on Gödel’s face.

When we came to Trenton, we were ushered into a big room, and while normally the witnesses are questioned separately from the candidate, because of Einstein’s appearance, an exception was made and all three of us were invited to sit down together, Gödel, in the center. The examiner first asked Einstein and then me whether we thought Gödel would make a good citizen. We assured him that this would certainly be the case, that he was a distinguished man, etc.

And then he turned to Gödel and said, Now, Mr. Gödel, where do you come from?

Gödel: Where I come from? Austria.

The examiner: What kind of government did you have in Austria?

Gödel: It was a republic, but the constitution was such that it finally was changed into a dictatorship.

The examiner: Oh! This is very bad. This could not happen in this country.

Gödel: Oh, yes, I can prove it.

To the great advantage of intelligence on earth, Gödel did not in the end disqualify himself from residence in the USA through this disastrously over-accurate understanding of its constitution. Evidently, despite everything that had happened by 1947, detailed attachment to the constitution had not yet become a thought-crime.

Today, emphatic attachment to the US Constitution is restricted to the decent i.e. lunatic fringe of the Outer Party, and even crankier outliers. Hardcore libertarians tend to dismiss it as a distraction, if not a malign incarnation of statist degeneracy (when compared to the less Leviathan-compatible Articles of Confederation). Reactionary realists of the Moldbug school (in all their vast multitudes) are at least as dismissive, seeing it as little more than a fetish object and evasion of the timeless practical question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? If constitutions are realistically indefensible, both in principle and as a matter of brutally demonstrated historical fact, what significance could they have to any cold-eyed analysis of power?

Since the overwhelmingly bulk of present USG activity is transparently unconstitutional, the skeptical case largely makes itself. Presidents mobilize congressional support to appoint Supreme Court justices whose principal qualification for office is willingness to conspire in the subversion of the constitution, to the deafening applause of a pork-ravening electorate and their intermediary lobbies. How could that plausibly be resisted? Perhaps that was Gödel’s point.

In fact, no one really knows what Gödel’s point was. Jeffrey Kegler, who has examined the topic carefully, leaves it open. “Apparently, the ‘inconsistency’ noted by Gödel is simply that the Constitution provides for its own amendment,” suggests a “gravely disappointed” Mark Dominus, who “had been hoping for something brilliant and subtle that only Gödel would have noticed.” Dominus draws this tentative conclusion from Peter Suber’s Paradox of Self-Amendment, where it is stated more boldly:

Kurt Gödel the Austrian logician understood that an omnipotent AC contained the risk of tyranny. Gödel studied the U.S. constitution in preparation for his oral citizenship examination in 1948. He noticed that the AC had procedural limitations but no substantive limitations; hence it could be used to overturn the democratic institutions described in the rest of the constitution.

Suber adds: “A desire to limit the amending power, or to make it more difficult — not the same thing — shows a distrust for democracy or a denial that in general the people deserve what they get.” (We’ll get back to that later.)

This is conceptually persuasive, because it harmonizes Gödel’s constitutional concerns with his central intellectual pre-occupation: the emergence of inconsistencies within self-referential formal systems. The Amending Clause (Article V, section 1) is the occasion for the constitution to talk about itself, and thus to encounter problems rigorously comparable to those familiar from Gödel’s incompleteness theorems in mathematical logic. Despite the neatness of this ‘solution’, however, there is no solid evidence to support it. Furthermore, self-referential structures can be identified at numerous other points. For instance, is not the authority of the Supreme Court respecting constitutional interpretation a similar point of reflexivity, with unlimited potential for circularity and paradox? This insight, highly-regarded among the neo-reactionaries, recognizes that the constitution allows – in principle – for a sufficiently corrupted Supreme Court to ‘interpret’ its way to absolute power (in conformity with a constitution that has sublimed into pure ‘life’). Insofar as a constitution allows for its own processing, it must – ultimately — allow anything.

Moldbug asks us to accelerate through this formal tangle, cutting the Gordian knot. “Sovereignty is conserved,” he repeats, insistently, so the occasions when power undertakes to bind itself are essentially risible. Of course the final custodian of the constitution is a constitutionally unrestrained dictator. That’s simple Schmittian sanity.

With all due contempt for argumentum ad hominem, it can probably still be agreed that Gödel was not a fool, so that his excited identification of a localized flaw in the US Constitution merits consideration as just that (rather than an excuse to bin the entire problematic). The formal resonances between his topically disparate arguments provide a further incentive to slow down.

Whether in number theory, or space-time cosmology, Gödel’s method was to advance the formalization of the system under consideration and then test it to destruction upon the ‘strange loops’ it generated (paradoxes of self-reference and time-travel). In each case, the system was shown to permit cases that it could not consistently absorb, opening it to an interminable process of revision, or technical improvement. It thus defined dynamic intelligence, or the logic of evolutionary imperfection, with an adequacy that was both sufficient and necessarily inconclusive. What it did not do was trash the very possibility of arithmetic, mathematical logic, or cosmic history — except insofar as these were falsely identified with idols of finality or closure.

On the slender evidence available, Gödel’s ‘reading’ of the US Constitution was strictly analogous. Far from excusing the abandonment of constitutionalism, it identified constitutional design as the only intellectually serious response to the problem of politics (i.e. untrammeled power). It is a subtle logical necessity that constitutions, like any formal systems of comparable complexity, cannot be perfected or consistently completed. In other words, as Benjamin Franklyn fully recognized, any republic is precarious. Nothing necessarily follows from this, but a number of things might.

Most abruptly, one might contemplate the sickly child with sadness, before abandoning it on the hillside for the wolves. Almost every interesting voice on the right seems to be heading this way. Constitutions are a grim joke.

Alternatively, constitutionalism could be elevated to a new level of cultural dignity, in keeping with its status as the sole model of republican government, or truly logical politics. This would require, first of all, that the necessity for constitutional modification was recognized only when such modification made the constitution stronger, in purely formal, or systemic terms. In the US case, the first indication of such an approach would be an amendment of Article Five itself, in order to specify that constitutional amendments are tolerated only when they satisfy criteria of formal improvement, legitimated in exact, mathematical terms, in accordance with standards of proof no different than those applicable to absolutely uncontroversial arguments (theorems). Constitutional design would be subsumed within applied mathematics as a subsection of nonlinear control theory.

Under these (unlikely) circumstances, the purpose of the constitution is to sustain itself, and thus the Republic. As a mathematical object, the constitution is maximally simple, consistent, necessarily incomplete, and interpretable as a model of natural law. Political authority is allocated solely to serve the constitution. There are no authorities which are not overseen, within nonlinear structures. Constitutional language is formally constructed to eliminate all ambiguity and to be processed algorithmically. Democratic elements, along with official discretion, and legal judgment, is incorporated reluctantly, minimized in principle, and gradually eliminated through incremental formal improvement. Argument defers to mathematical expertise. Politics is a disease that the constitution is designed to cure.

Extreme skepticism is to be anticipated not only from the Moldbuggian royalists, but from all of those educated by Public Choice theory to analyze ‘politics without romance’. How could defending the constitution become an absolute, categorical or unconditional imperative, when the only feasible defenders are people, guided by multiple incentives, few of which align neatly with objective constitutional order? Yet, how is this different from the question of mathematical or natural scientific progress? Are not mathematicians equally people, with appetites, egos, sex-driven status motivations, and deeply defective capabilities for realistic introspection? How does maths advance? (No one can seriously deny that it does.) The answer surely lies in its autonomous or impersonal criteria of excellence, combined with pluralistic institutions that facilitate Darwinian convergence. The Gödelian equivalence between mathematical logic and constitutional government indicates that such principles and mechanisms are absent from the public domain only due to defective (democratic-bureaucratic) design.

When it comes to deep realism, and to guns, is there any reason to think the military is resistant by nature to constitutional subordination? Between the sublime office of Commander in Chief, and the mere man, is it not obvious that authority should tend to gravitate to the former? It might be argued that civilization is nothing else, that is to say: the tendency of personal authority to decline towards zero. Ape-men will reject this of course. It’s what they do.

Between democracy, monarchy, anarchy, or republican government, the arguments will not end soon. They are truly ancient, and illustrated in the Odyssey, by the strategy of binding oneself against the call of the Sirens. Can Odysseus bind himself? Only republicans defend the attempt, as Gödel did. All of the others let the Sirens win. Perhaps they will.

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Suspended Animation (Part 5)

Engines of Devastation

Does Postmodernism still seem cool to anybody? — Probably not. Having sold whatever simulacrum of a soul it might have had to the fickle gods of fashion, it has learnt more about the reign of Chronos than it might have expected to – the kids get devoured, and it’s on to something new. What was accepted for no good reason gets discarded for no good reason. In political science it’s called democracy (but that’s another discussion).

Clearly, there’s something profoundly just about the disappearance of postmodernism into the trashcan of random difference (what’s ‘in’ has to be new, preferably meaninglessly so). It’s even ‘poetically just’, whatever that means. But it also destroys information. Although Postmodernism was certainly a fad, it was also a zeitgeist, or spirit of the times. It meant something, despite its own best efforts, at least as a symptom. The disappearance of reality that it announced was itself real, as was the realm of simulation that replaced it. At least in its death, it might have amounted to something.

Consider its greatest mystagogue, Jacques Derrida, and his once widely celebrated ‘concept’ of differance (yes, with an ‘a’), a term within a series of magical words that mark the undecidable, ungraspable, unpresentable, and ultimately inconceivable ontological non-stuff that supplants real events, through an endless succession of displacements and postponements. We can’t really say anything about it, so we have to talk about it endlessly, and entire university departments are required to do so. It’s ridiculous (and so it’s over). But it’s also, quite exactly, the globally hegemonic culture of Keynesianized, macroeconomic, programmatic stagnationism, and that isn’t over yet, although its morbidity is already highly conspicuous. Unlike faddish academic Postmodernism, its death is going to be really interesting.

Long before the Derridoids got started, Keynes had taught governments that differance was something they could do. Procrastination – the strategic suspension of economic reality through a popularly ungraspable series of displacements and postponements – quickly came to define the art of politics. Why suffer today what can be put off until tomorrow, or suffer yourself something that could be somebody else’s problem? Postpone! Displace! In the long run we are all dead. Reality is for losers.

Differance as it really works is a lot cruder than its reflection in Postmodern philosophy (and what could be philosophically cruder than an appeal to the notion of ‘reflection’?). For instance, it is fished out of the ontological abgrund and processed by specific public policy mechanisms, sustained by concrete institutions in ways that are to a considerable extent economically measurable, within elastic but most certainly finite geographical and historical limits. Crudest of all, and ultimately decisive, is the circumscription of derealization, by the real, and the return of the apocalyptic, no longer as a phantasmatic avatar of the ‘metaphysics of presence’ (or false promise of a real event), but as an impending real event, and one whose process of historical construction is in large measure intelligible. Real differance didn’t ‘deconstruct’ the apocalypse, it built it. It’s not even that difficult to see how.

At EconLog, David Henderson has posted his notes from John H. Cochrane’s December 3 talk at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution conference on ‘Restoring Robust Economic Growth in America’. There’s no mention of differance, but there doesn’t need to be.

For nearly 100 years we have tried to stop runs with government guarantees — deposit insurance, generous lender of last resort, and bailouts. That patch leads to huge moral hazard. Giving a banker a bailout guarantee is like giving a teenager keys to the car and a case of whisky. So, we appoint regulators who are supposed to stop the banks from taking risks, in a hopeless arms race against smart MBAs, lawyers and lobbyists who try to get around the regulation, and though we allow — nay, we encourage and subsidize — expansion of run-prone assets.

In Dodd-Frank, the US simply doubled down our bets on this regime. … 

Bailouts delay a painful economic event (postponement) whilst transferring financial liability (displacement). Risk is restored to virtuality, as disaster is turned back into a threat, but it isn’t the same threat. By any remotely sane method of accountancy, it’s now worse. Significant virtual deterioration is substituted for actual discomfort. That’s the cost of derealization.

How do things get worse, exactly? — In plenty of ways. Start with ‘moral hazard’, which is a polite way of saying ‘insanity’. Actions are decoupled from their consequences, removing the disincentive for craziness. The result, utterly predictably, is more craziness. In fact, anything that systematically enhances moral hazard is simply manufacturing craziness. It’s dumping LSD in the water supply, although actually probably worse. So bailouts drive us insane and destroy civilization (no one really disputes that, although they may try to avoid the topic).

Oh, but there’s more! — Much more, because all these displacements don’t just move things around, they move them up. Risk is centralized, concentrated, systematized, politicized – and that’s in the (entirely unrealistic) best case, when it isn’t also expanded and degraded by the corruption and inefficiency of weakly- or cynically-incentivized public institutions. This is trickle up – really flood up – economics, in which everything bad that ever happens to anybody gets stripped of any residual sanity (or realistic estimation of consequences), pooled, re-coded, complicated by compensatory regulation, and shifted to ever more ethereal heights of populist democratic irresponsibility, where the only thing that matters is what people want to hear, and that really isn’t ever going to be the truth.

“Mess up enough, and you probably suffer or die” – that’s the truth. It’s a message that doesn’t translate into the language of Keynesian kick-the-can politics, which is folk Postmodernism. The nearest we get, as the jaws begin to close on the bail-out bucket chain, is “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” After innumerable episodes of that, we’re all huddled together on the Titanic, and things are kinda, sorta, looking OK. At least the band’s still playing …

When abstracted from its squalid psychosis, the pattern is mathematically quite neat. It’s called the Martingale system, better known to Americans as ‘double or nothing’ (and to Brits as ‘double or quits’). Cochrane already touched upon it (“the US simply doubled down our bets”). Wager on red, and it comes up black. No problem, just double the bet and repeat. You can’t lose. (If you like this logic, Paul Krugman has an economic recovery to sell you.)

What appears as disaster postponed is, in virtual reality, disaster expanded. The Wikipedia entry on the Martingale system helpfully connects it to the Taleb Distribution, otherwise known as scrounging pennies in front of a steam roller. The persistence of small gains makes this business model seem like a sure thing — until it doesn’t.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Blyth expand on the idea in Foreign Affairs, with application to various aspects of the current (or impending) crisis. Asking why “surprise [is] the permanent condition of the U.S. political and economic elite” they trace the problem to “the artificial suppression of volatility — the ups and downs of life — in the name of stability.”

Complex systems that have artificially suppressed volatility tend to become extremely fragile, while at the same time exhibiting no visible risks. In fact, they tend to be too calm and exhibit minimal variability as silent risks accumulate beneath the surface. Although the stated intention of political leaders and economic policymakers is to stabilize the system by inhibiting fluctuations, the result tends to be the opposite. These artificially constrained systems become prone to “Black Swans” — that is, they become extremely vulnerable to large-scale events that lie far from the statistical norm and were largely unpredictable to a given set of observers.

Discussing this article at PJMedia, Richard Fernandez glosses and sharpens its conclusion:

Part of the problem is the consequence of [the elites’] own damping. By attempting to centrally manage systems according to some predetermined scheme they actually store up volatility rather than dispersing it. By kicking the can down the road they eventually condemn themselves to bumping into a giant pile of cans when they run out of road. … But the elites cannot admit to surprise; nor can they admit to bad things starting on their watch. Therefore they keep sweeping things under the carpet until, as in some horror movie, it spawns a zombie. To make systems robust, says Taleb, you’ve got to admit that you can make mistakes and pay the price. You will have to in the end anyway.

We aren’t in Postmodernism anymore, Toto. We’re nearer to this:

The wavelike movement affecting the economic system, the recurrence of periods of boom which are followed by periods of depression, is the unavoidable outcome of the attempts, repeated again and again, to lower the gross market rate of interest by means of credit expansion. There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved. (Ludwig von Mises, Human Action)

Or even this:

Great is Bankruptcy: the great bottomless gulf into which all Falsehoods, public and private, do sink, disappearing; whither, from the first origin of them, they were all doomed. For Nature is true and not a lie. No lie you can speak or act but it will come, after longer or shorter circulation, like a Bill drawn on Nature’s Reality, and be presented there for payment,- -with the answer, No effects. Pity only that it often had so long a circulation: that the original forger were so seldom he who bore the final smart of it! Lies, and the burden of evil they bring, are passed on; shifted from back to back, and from rank to rank; and so land ultimately on the dumb lowest rank, who with spade and mattock, with sore heart and empty wallet, daily come in contact with reality, and can pass the cheat no further.

Observe nevertheless how, by a just compensating law, if the lie with its burden (in this confused whirlpool of Society) sinks and is shifted ever downwards, then in return the distress of it rises ever upwards and upwards. Whereby, after the long pining and demi-starvation of those Twenty Millions, a Duke de Coigny and his Majesty come also to have their ‘real quarrel.’ Such is the law of just Nature; bringing, though at long intervals, and were it only by Bankruptcy, matters round again to the mark.

But with a Fortunatus’ Purse in his pocket, through what length of time might not almost any Falsehood last! Your Society, your Household, practical or spiritual Arrangement, is untrue, unjust, offensive to the eye of God and man. Nevertheless its hearth is warm, its larder well replenished: the innumerable Swiss of Heaven, with a kind of Natural loyalty, gather round it; will prove, by pamphleteering, musketeering, that it is a truth; or if not an unmixed (unearthly, impossible) Truth, then better, a wholesomely attempered one, (as wind is to the shorn lamb), and works well. Changed outlook, however, when purse and larder grow empty! Was your Arrangement so true, so accordant to Nature’s ways, then how, in the name of wonder, has Nature, with her infinite bounty, come to leave it famishing there? To all men, to all women and all children, it is now indutiable that your Arrangement was false. Honour to Bankruptcy; ever righteous on the great scale, though in detail it is so cruel! Under all Falsehoods it works, unweariedly mining. No Falsehood, did it rise heaven- high and cover the world, but Bankruptcy, one day, will sweep it down, and make us free of it. (Thomas Carlyle, via Mencius Moldbug, but cited all over the place recently)

Here it comes.

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Calendric Dominion (Part 2)

Caesar with the soul of Christ

Political Correctness has tacitly legislated against the still-prevailing acronyms that define the hegemonic international calendar (BC-AD), and proposed clear alternatives (BCE-CE). Both the criticism and the suggestion are entirely consistent with its principles. In accordance with the tenets of multiculturalism (a more recent and also more active hegemony), it extends the liberal assumption of formal equality from individuals to ‘cultures’, allocating group rights, and identifying – whilst immediately denouncing – discrimination and privilege. As might be expected from an ideology that is exceptionally concentrated among intellectual elites, the proposed remedy is purely symbolic, taking the form of a rectification of signs. The ‘problem’ is diagnosed as a failure of consciousness, or sensitivity, requiring only a raising of awareness (to be effected, one can safely assume, by properly credentialed and compensated professionals).

Even considered in its own terms, however, the rectification that is suggested amounts to nothing more than an empty gesture of refusal, accompanying fundamental compliance. Whilst the symbolic ‘left’ draw comfort from the insistence upon inconsequential change, with its intrinsic offense against conservative presumptions, reinforced by an implied moral critique of tradition, the counter-balancing indignation of the ‘right’ fixes the entire dispute within the immobilized trenches of the Anglo-American ‘culture war’. The deep structure of calendric signs persists unaffected. Between Christian dominion (invoking ‘Our Lord’) and a ‘common era’ that is obediently framed by the dating of Christian revelation, there is no difference that matters. It is the count that counts.

Political Correctness fails here in the same way it always does, due to its disconnection of ‘correctness’ from any rigorous principle of calculation, and its disengagement of ‘sensitivity’ from realistic perception. A calendar is a profound cultural edifice, orchestrating the apprehension of historical time. As such, it is invulnerable to the gnat-bites of ideological irritability (and dominance is not reducible to impoliteness).

The problem of Western Calendric Dominion is not one of supremacism (etiquette) but of supremacy (historical fatality). It might be posed: How did modernistic globalization come to be expressed as Christian Oecumenon? In large measure, this is Max Weber’s question, and Walter Russell Mead’s, but it overflows the investigations of both, in the direction of European and Middle Eastern antiquity. Initial stimulation for this inquiry is provided by a strange – even fantastic — coincidence.

In his notebooks, Friedrich Nietzsche imagined the overman (Übermensch) as a “Caesar with the soul of Christ,” a chimerical being whose tensions echo those of the Church of Rome, Latinized Christian liturgy, and the Western calendar. This hybridity is expressed by a multitude of calendric features, following a broad division of labor between a Roman structuring of the year (within which with superficially-Christianized pagan festivals are scattered unsystematically), and a Christian year count, but it also points towards a cryptic — even radically unintelligible — plane of fusion.

In the Year Zero, which never took place, a mysterious synchronization occurred, imperceptibly and unremarked, founding the new theopolitical calendric order. For the Christians, who would not assimilate the Empire until the reign of Constantine in the early-4th century AD, God was incarnated as man, in the embryo of Jesus Christ. Simultaneously, in a Rome that was perfectly oblivious to the conception of the Messiah, the Julian calendar became operational. Julius Caesar’s calendric reform had begun 45 years earlier, following the Years of Confusion, but incompetent execution in subsequent decades had systematically mis-timed the leap year, intercalating a day every three years, rather than every four. The anomalous triennial cycle was abandoned and “the Roman calendar was finally aligned to the Julian calendar in 1 BC (with AD 1 the first full year of alignment),” although no special significance would be assigned to these years until Dionysius Exiguus integrated Christian history in AD 525.

Given the astounding neglect of this twin event, some additional emphasis is appropriate: The Julian calendar, which would persist, unmodified, for almost 1,600 years, and which still dominates colloquial understanding of the year’s length (at 365.25 days), was born – by sheer and outrageous ‘chance’ – at the precise origin of the Christian Era, as registered by the Western, and now international, numbering of historical time. The year count thus exactly simulates a commemoration of the calendar itself – or at least of its prototype – even though the birth of this calendar, whether understood in the terms of secular reason or divine providence, has absolutely no connection to the counted beginning. This is a coincidence – which is to say, a destiny perceived without comprehension – that neither Roman authority nor Christian revelation has been able to account for, even as it surreptitiously shapes Western (and then Global) history. As the world’s dominant calendar counts the years under what appears to be a particular religious inspiration, it refers secretly to its own initiation, alluding to mysteries of time that are alien to any faith. That much is simple fact.

Unlike the Julian calendar, the Gregorian calendar was determined under Christian auspices, or at least formal Christian authority (that of Pope Gregory XIII), and promulgated by papal bull in 1582. Yet a glance suffices to reveal the continuation of Julian calendric dominion, since the Gregorian reform effects transformations that remain strictly compliant with the Julian pattern, modified only by elementary operations of decimal re-scaling and inversion. Where the Julian calendar took four years as its base cyclical unit, the Gregorian takes four centuries, and where the Julian adds one leap day in four years, the Gregorian leaves one and subtracts three in 400. The result was an improved approximation to the tropical year (averaging ~365.24219 days), from the Julian 365.25 year, to the Gregorian 365.2425, a better than 20-fold reduction in discrepancy from an average ~0.00781 days per year (drifting off the seasons by one day every 128 years) to ~0.00031 (drifting one day every 3,226 years).

The combination of architectonic fidelity with technical adjustment defines conservative reform. It is clearly evident in this case. A neo-Julian calendar, structured in its essentials at its origin in AD 1 minus 1, but technically modified at the margin in the interest of improved accuracy, armed the West with the world’s most efficient large-scale time-keeping system by the early modern period. In China, where the Confucian literati staged competitions to test various calendars from around the world against the prediction of eclipses, Jesuits equipped with the Gregorian calendar prevailed against all alternatives, ensuring the inexorable trend towards Western calendric conventions, or, at least, the firm identification of Western methods with modernistic efficiency. Given only an edge, in China and elsewhere, the dynamics of complex systems took over, as ‘network effects’ locked-in the predominant standard, whilst systematically marginalizing its competitors. Even though Year Zero was still missing, it was, ever increasingly, missing at the same time for everyone. “Caeser with the soul of Christ” – the master of Quadrennium and eclipse — had installed itself as the implicit meaning of world history.

 

(Still to come – in Part 4? – Counter-Calendars, but we probably need an excursion through zero first)

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Kinds of Killing

How bad is genocide, really?

Like ‘fascism’ – with which it is closely connected in the popular imagination – ‘genocide’ is a word carrying such exorbitant emotional charge that it tends to blow the fuses of any attempt at dispassionate analysis. We can thank the political black magic of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi accomplices for that.

Prior to the Third Reich and its systematic, industrialized attempts to eradicate entire ethno-racial populations (Jews, Roma, and perhaps Slavs) along with other numerous other groups (mental and physical ‘defectives’ or ‘useless eaters’, homosexuals, communists, Jehova’s Witnesses …) international law restricted its attention to the actions and grievances of states and individuals, with the latter subdivided into combatants and noncombatants. The National Socialist trauma changed that fundamentally.

On December 9, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (as Resolution 260), defining a new category of internationally recognized crimes as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Since 1948, defending genocide has been the surest way to ruin a dinner party. That doesn’t mean, however, that the topic deserves to be immunized from controversy. There is one question in particular that merits intense and prolonged scrutiny: Is genocide really worse than killing a lot of people?

Posed slightly more technically: Is there a crime of genocide that stands above and beyond mass murder (of equivalent scale)? Or (a rough equivalent): Can groups be the specific victims of crime? This is to ask whether groups exist – and have value — as anything more than a nominal or strictly formal set, whose reality is exhausted by its constituent individual members. The existence of genocide as a legal category presumes a (positive) answer to this question, and in doing so it closes down a problem of great and very general importance.

The classical liberal presumption is quite different, as summarized (a little bluntly) by the provocative remark made by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1987 “… there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Harshly extrapolating from this position, a certain irony might be found in the fact that a horrified response to National Socialist crimes has taken the form of a legal codification of racial collectivism. At the very least, it is puzzling that suspicions directed at legal references to ‘group rights’ and ‘hate crimes’ among those of a libertarian bent has not been extended to the category of genocide.

In the opposite camp, the most fully articulated defense of collectives as real entities is found, as might be expected, in the foundation of sociology as an academic discipline, and more particularly in Émile Durkheim’s argument for ‘social facts’. Larry May looks back further, to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, or social being, in which human individuals are absorbed as organic parts.

Whilst the distinction of ‘society’ and ‘individual’ has colloquial (and political) meaning, those inclined to the analysis of complex systems are more likely to ask which groups or societies are real individuals, exhibiting functional or behavioral integrity, as self-reproducing wholes. In pursuing this line of investigation, it is far more relevant to discriminate between types of groups than between groups and individuals, or even wholes and parts. It is especially helpful to distinguish feature groups from unit groups.

A feature group is determined by logical classification. This might be expressed as a self-identification or sense of ‘belonging’, an external political or academic categorization, or some combination of these, but the essentials remain the same in each case. Certain features of the individual are isolated and emphasized (such as genitalia, sexual orientation, skin-color, income, or religious belief), and then employed as the leading clue in a process of formal grouping, which conforms theoretically to the mathematics of sets.

A unit group, in contrast, is defined as an assemblage, or functional whole. Its members belong to the group insofar as they work together, even if they are entirely devoid of common identity features. Membership is decided by role, rather than traits, since one becomes part of such a group through functional involvement, rather than classification of characteristics. Social instances of such groups include primitive tribes (determined by functional unities rather than the categories of modern ‘identity politics’), cities, states, and companies. The most obvious instance in socialist theory is the ‘soviet’ or ‘danwei’ work unit (whilst social classes are feature groups).

To take a non-anthropomorphic example, consider a skin cell. Its feature group is that of skin cells in general, as distinguished from nerve cells, liver cells, muscle cells, or others. Any two skin cells share the same feature group, even if they belong to different organisms, or even species, exist on different continents, and never functionally interact. The natural unit group of the same skin cell, in contrast, would be the organism it belongs to. It shares this unit group with all the other cells involved in the reproduction of that organism through time, including those (such as intestinal bacteria) of quite separate genetic lineages. Considered as a unit group member, a skin cell has greater integral connection with the non-biological tools and other ‘environmental’ elements involved in the life of the organism than it does with other skin cells – even perfect clones – with which it is not functionally entangled.

Clearly, both feature groups and unit groups are ‘fuzzy sets’, and the distinction itself – whilst theoretically precise – is empirically hazy. An urban American street gang, for instance, will in most cases be vague in its features and unity, perhaps ‘ethnic’ to some degree of definition, with a determinable age-range, and with ambiguous functional connections to groupings on a larger scale, or to peripheral members whose status of ‘belonging’ is not strictly decidable. Tattoos and other membership markings are likely to involve both identity and integrity aspects – traits and roles. Rituals of belonging (ordeals, oaths, rites of passage) are designed to disambiguate membership.

Despite such haziness, the distinction between these two types of groups strikes directly at the core problematic of genocide (as a legal category). When a unit group is destroyed, a real individual is ‘killed’ above and beyond whatever human losses are incurred. The destruction of a feature group, in contrast, whatever the cultural loss, is not any kind of killing beyond the mass murder of human individuals. If this is worse than murder, we should know why.

This conclusion seems relevant when weighing, for instance, the 1937 Massacre of Nanjing on the scale of historical atrocity. It suggests, at least, that an act of violence directed against a city – or integrated population unit — is no less worthy of specific legal attention than a quantitatively equivalent offense against an ethnicity, or determined population type. It seems to be no more than an accident of history that, in order to appropriate the category of genocide, massive crimes of the former variety need to be recoded as if they more properly belonged to the latter.

Complex systems ontology aside, these matters resolve ultimately into obscure social values. Orthodox conceptions of ‘genocide’ assume that ethnic identity simply and unquestionably means more than active citizenship, or participation in the life of a city. Perhaps this assumption is even arguable. But has it been argued?

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Time in Transition

There has to be a hexagram for this

Isaac Newton’s Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica abstracted time from events, establishing its tractability to scientific calculation. Conceived as pure, absolute duration, without qualities, it conforms perfectly to its mathematical idealization (as the real number line). Since time is already pure, its reality indistinguishable from its formalization, a pure mathematics of change – the calculus – can be applied to physical reality without obstruction. The calculus can exactly describe things as they occur in themselves, without straying, even infinitesimally, from the rigorous dictates of formal intelligence. In this way natural philosophy becomes modern science.

(It is perhaps ironic that the Newtonian formulation of non-qualitative time coincides with a revolutionary break – or qualitative transition – that is perhaps unmatched in history. That, however, is a matter for another time.)

Modern science did not end with Newton. Time has since been relativized to velocity (Einstein) and punctured with catastrophes (Thom). Yet the qualities of time, once evacuated, cannot readily be restored.

Clock technology suffices to tell this story, on its own. Time ‘keeping’ devices produce a measure of duration, according to general principles of standardized mechanical production, so that a clock-marked minute is stripped of qualitative distinctness automatically. Chronometrically, any difference between one minute and another is a mechanical discrepancy, strictly analogous to a production line malfunction.

Time modernization culminates in an inversion of definition, eventually standardizing from a precisely reproducible building block (the atomic second), rather than accommodating itself to a large-scale natural cycle – qualified by variations of luminosity – which generates sub-units through division. Once the second has becomes entirely synthetic, all reference to a qualitative ‘when’ has been effaced. All that remains is quantitative comparison, timing, and synchronization, as if the time-piece was modeled upon the stop-watch. Calendars have become an anachronism.

Modern time intuitions would find plenty of support, even in the absence of mechanical chronometry. Every quantifiable trend, from a stock movement or an unemployment problem to a demographic pattern or an ecological disaster, can be communicated through charts that assume a popular facility at graphic intuition, and thus, implicitly, at algebraic geometry and even calculus. Time is so widely and easily identified with the x-axis of such charts that the principle of representation can be left unexplained, however strange this might have seemed to pre-moderns. Clearly, if time can be read-off from an axis – quickly and intuitively — it is being conceived, generally, as if it were a number line (‘Newtonian’).

Qualitative time, by now, is a scarcely-accessible exoticism. Nowhere is this more obvious that in the case of China’s ancient Classic of Change, the Yijing, a work that is today no less hermetic to Chinese than it is to foreigners.

The Yijing is a book of numbers as much as a book on time, but its numbers are combinatorial rather than metric, exhausting a space of possibilities, and constructing a typology of times. The Yijing speaks often of quantities, but it does not measure them. Instead, it typologizes them, as processes of increase or decrease, rise and fall, lassitude and acceleration, typical of qualitative phases of recurrent cycles, with identifiable character and reliable practical implication.

The point of all this (just in case you were wondering)?

The current time is a period of transition, with a distinctive quality, characterizing the end of an epoch. Something – some age – is coming quite rapidly to an end.

This is not a situation that the modern mentality is well-adapted to, since it violates certain essential structures of our time-consciousness. It eludes our intuitions and our clocks. Our charts register it only as a break-down, as they terminate the x-axis at a point of senseless infinity (hyperinflation, bubble stock p/e ratios, global derivatives exposure, urban intensity, technological intelligence explosion) or in a collapse to zero (marginal productivity of debt, fiat currency credibility, unit costs of self-replicating capital goods). The can clatters off the end of the road. Things cannot go on as they have, and they won’t.

Given the heated political climate surrounding the impending transition of the global economic system, a non-controversial diagnosis is almost certainly unobtainable. Niall Ferguson describes an Age of Global Indignation, or Global Temper Tantrum, in which the objectively unsustainable nature of the established order, whilst widely if vaguely perceived, still eludes sober recognition. Riots, Molotov cocktails, and fabulous conspiracy theorizing are the result.

“What all the Indignant have in common is the refusal to address squarely the problem that nearly all Western countries face. That problem is that the welfare systems that evolved in the mid-20th century are unaffordable under the demographic and economic circumstances of the 21st century. The financial crisis has merely exacerbated what was already a severe structural crisis of public finance, boosting deficits while slowing growth.”

In all probability, Ferguson’s blunt analysis will provoke further paroxysms of indignation. Yet, as the world’s most pampered societies slide ever further into insolvency, such undiplomatic assessments will become ever more common, and the rage they inspire will become ever more unhinged.

John B Taylor emphasizes the senescence and death of Keynesian macroeconomics (drawing on the earlier work of Robert E Lucas and Thomas J Sargent). His research concludes that “the Keynsian multiplier for transfer payments or temporary tax rebates was not significantly different from zero for the kind of stimulus programs enacted in the 2000s.” In other words, stimulus is ceasing to stimulate, and gargantuan public debts have been accumulated for no rational purpose. This is the ‘debt saturation’ that Joe Weisenthal describes as “a phase transition with our debt relationship” graphically portrayed in “the scariest [chart] of all time.”

Between financial stimulus and chemical stimulus, there is no distinction of practical significance. Keynesianism and cocaine are both initially invigorating, before stabilizing into expensive habits that steadily lose effectiveness as addiction deepens. By the time bankruptcy and mortality beckons, getting off the stimulus seems to be near-impossible. Better to crash and burn – or hope that something ‘turns up’ — than to suffer the agonies of withdrawal, which will feel like hell, and promises nothing more seductive than bare normality at the end of a dark road. Character decays into chronic deceit, intermittent rage, and maudlin self-pity. Nobody likes a junky, still less a junky civilization.

Keynesianism was born in deception – the deliberate exploitation of ‘money illusion’ for the purposes of economic management. Its effect on a political culture is deeply corrosive. Illusionism spreads throughout the social body, until the very ideas of hard currency (honest money) or balanced budgets (honest spending) are marginalized to a ‘crankish’ fringe and being ‘politically realistic’ has become synonymous with a more-or-less total denial of reality. To expect a Keynesian economic establishment to honestly confront its own failings is to laughably misunderstand the syndrome under discussion. A reign of lies is structurally incapable of ‘coming clean’ before it goes over the cliff (someone needs to do another Downfall-parody, on macroeconomics in the Fuehrer Bunker).

The long Keynesian coke-binge was what the West did with its side of globalization, and as it all comes apart — amidst political procrastination and furious street protests – a planetary reset of some kind is inevitable. The ‘Chimerican’ engine of post-colonial globalization requires a fundamental overhaul, if not a complete replacement. The immense dynamism of the Chimerican Age, as well as its enduring achievements, have depended on systematic imbalances that have become patently unsustainable, and it is highly unlikely that all the negative consequences will have been confined to just one side of the world ledger.

For instance, China’s soaring investment rate, estimated to have reached 70% of GDP, seems to have disconnected from any prospect of reasonable economic returns. Pivot Capital Management concludes: “credit growth in China has reached critical levels and its effectiveness at boosting growth is falling.” For the PRC’s fifth-generation leadership, scheduled to adopt responsibility for China’s political management from 2012, inertia will not be an option. By then, a half-decade of global stimulus saturation, cascading macroeconomic malfunction and serial ‘black swans’ (the new millennium ‘clusterflock’) will have reshaped the world’s financial architecture, trade patterns, and policy debates. Whatever comes next has to be something new, accompanied – at least momentarily – by genuine apprehension of economic reality.

For post-Expo Shanghai, a city stunningly rebuilt in the age of Chimerica, the time of transition is a matter of especially acute concern. This is a metropolis that waxes and wanes to the pulse of the world, rigidly tide-locked to the great surges and recessions of globalization. Will the next phase of world history treat it as well as the last?

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Statistical Mentality

Things are very probably weirder than they seem

As the natural sciences have developed to encompass increasingly complex systems, scientific rationality has become ever more statistical, or probabilistic. The deterministic classical mechanics of the enlightenment was revolutionized by the near-equilibrium statistical mechanics of late 19th century atomists, by quantum mechanics in the early 20th century, and by the far-from-equilibrium complexity theorists of the later 20th century. Mathematical neo-Darwinism, information theory, and quantitative social sciences compounded the trend. Forces, objects, and natural types were progressively dissolved into statistical distributions: heterogeneous clouds, entropy deviations, wave functions, gene frequencies, noise-signal ratios and redundancies, dissipative structures, and complex systems at the edge of chaos.

By the final decades of the 20th century, an unbounded probabilism was expanding into hitherto unimagined territories, testing deeply unfamiliar and counter-intuitive arguments in statistical metaphysics, or statistical ontology. It no longer sufficed for realism to attend to multiplicities, because reality was itself subject to multiplication.

In his declaration cogito ergo sum, Descartes concluded (perhaps optimistically) that the existence of the self could be safely concluded from the fact of thinking. The statistical ontologists inverted this formula, asking: given my existence (which is to say, an existence that seems like this to me), what kind of reality is probable? Which reality is this likely to be?

MIT Roboticist Hans Moravec, in his 1988 book Mind Children, seems to have initiated the genre. Extrapolating Moore’s Law into the not-too-distant future, he anticipated computational capacities that exceeded those of all biological brains by many orders of magnitude. Since each human brain runs its own more-or-less competent simulation of the world in order to function, it seemed natural to expect the coming technospheric intelligences to do the same, but with vastly greater scope, resolution, and variety. The mass replication of robot brains, each billions or trillions of times more powerful than those of its human progenitors, would provide a substrate for innumerable, immense, and minutely detailed historical simulations, within which human intelligences could be reconstructed to an effectively-perfect level of fidelity.

This vision feeds into a burgeoning literature on non-biological mental substrates, consciousness uploading, mind clones, whole-brain emulations (‘ems’), and Matrix-style artificial realities. Since the realities we presently know are already simulated (let us momentarily assume) on biological signal-processing systems with highly-finite quantitative specifications, there is no reason to confidently anticipate that an ‘artificial’ reality simulation would be in any way distinguishable.

Is ‘this’ history or its simulation? More precisely: is ‘this’ a contemporary biological (brain-based) simulation, or a reconstructed, artificial memory, run on a technological substrate ‘in the future’? That is a question without classical solution, Moravec argues. It can only be approached, rigorously, with statistics, and since the number of fine-grained simulated histories (unknown but probably vast), overwhelmingly exceeds the number of actual or original histories (for the sake of this argument, one), then the probabilistic calculus points unswervingly towards a definite conclusion: we can be near-certain that we are inhabitants of a simulation run by artificial (or post-biological) intelligences at some point in ‘our future’. At least – since many alternatives present themselves – we can be extremely confident, on grounds of statistical ontology, that our existence is non-original (if not historical reconstruction, it might be a game or fiction).

Nick Bostrom formalizes the simulation argument in his article ‘The Simulation Argument: Why the Probability that You are Living in the Matrix is Quite High’ (found here):

Now we get to the core of the simulation argument. This does not purport to demonstrate that you are in a simulation. Instead, it shows that we should accept as true at least one of the following three propositions:

(1) The chances that a species at our current level of development can avoid going extinct before becoming technologically mature is negligibly small
(2) Almost no technologically mature civilisations are interested in running computer simulations of minds like ours
(3) You are almost certainly in a simulation.

Each of these three propositions may be prima facie implausible; yet, if the simulation argument is correct, at least one is true (it does not tell us which).

If obstacles to the existence of high-level simulations (1 and 2) are removed, then statistical reasoning takes over, following the exact track laid down by Moravec. We are “almost certainly” inhabiting a “computer simulation that was created by some advanced civilization” because these saturate to near-exhaustion the probability space for realities ‘like this’. If such simulations exist, original lives would be as unlikely as winning lottery tickets, at best.

Bostrom concludes with an intriguing and influential twist:

If we are in a simulation, is it possible that we could know that for certain? If the simulators don’t want us to find out, we probably never will. But if they choose to reveal themselves, they could certainly do so. Maybe a window informing you of the fact would pop up in front of you, or maybe they would “upload” you into their world. Another event that would let us conclude with a very high degree of confidence that we are in a simulation is if we ever reach the point where we are about to switch on our own simulations. If we start running simulations, that would be very strong evidence against (1) and (2). That would leave us with only (3).

If we create fine-grained reality simulations, we demonstrate – to a high level of statistical confidence – that we already inhabit one, and that the history leading up to this moment of creation was fake. Paul Almond, an enthusiastic statistical ontologist, draws out the radical implication – reverse causation – asking: Can you retroactively put yourself in a computer simulation.

Such statistical ontology, or Bayesian existentialism, is not restricted to the simulation argument. It increasingly subsumes discussions of the Anthropic Principle, of the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, and exotic modes of prediction from the Doomsday Argument to Quantum Suicide (and Immortality).

Whatever is really happening, we probably have to chance it.

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Eternal Return, and After

If occult knowledge is unavailable, futurology must rely upon historical patterns. Ultimately, some variant of extrapolation is its only resource.

The hazards of extrapolation are manifold, and frequently discussed. A seemingly robust trend can be illusory, the shape of its curve can be misrecognized, and coincidental processes can disrupt it. Even more insidiously, the recognition of a trend can lead to responses that transform or nullify it.

Yet, since governments, businesses, and individuals necessarily act in accordance with models of the future, forecasting is an incessant, inevitable, and often automatic feature of social existence. Whatever the complexities of prediction, survival depends upon future-adapted decision-making. A base-level futurism is simply unavoidable. Radical skepticism – irrespective of its intellectual merits — does not offer a practical alternative.

There are only four fundamental ways things can go: they can remain the same, they can cycle, they can shrink, or they can grow. In reality these trend-lines are usually inter-tangled. Among complex systems, stability is typically meta-stability, which is preserved through cycling, whilst growth and shrinkage are often components of a larger-scale, cyclic wave.

The historical imagination of all ancient cultures was dominated by great cycles. In the Vedic culture of India, time unfolded as regular, degenerative epochs (yugas) that subdivided each ‘Day of Brahma’ (4.1 billion years in length). Chinese time was shaped by the metabolism of Imperial dynasties. “Long united, the empire must divide. Long divided, it must unite,” begins the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Mesoamerican civilizations envisaged world history as a succession of creations and destructions. In the West, Plato described the history of the city as a great cycle, degenerating through phases of Timocracy (or rule by the virtuous), Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny.

The ages of mankind described by Hesiod, and later Ovid, are less obviously cyclical, as is the eschatological time inherited from ancient Judaism by the Abrahamic faiths. In these cases too, however, the course of history is understood as fundamentally degenerative, and guided to the restoration of a sacred origin (as described by Mircea Eliade in his analysis of the myth of Eternal Return).

Even Karl Marx remains captivated by this mythic historical pattern, in its Abrahamic variant. His epic of human social development begins with an Edenic ‘primitive communism’ that falls into the alienated degeneracy of class society, subdivided into a series of ages. The eschatological culmination of history in communist revolution thus completes a great cycle, sealed by a moment of sacred restoration (of authentic ‘species being’). It is no coincidence that this mytho-religious ‘big-picture’ aspect of Marxism has impinged far more deeply upon popular consciousness than its intricate mathematical model of techno-economic dynamics within ‘the capitalist mode of production’, despite the fact that Marx’s writings are overwhelmingly focused upon the latter. A great cycle feels like home.

In modern times, the clearest example of history in the ancient, great cycle mode, is found in the work of another German socialist philosopher: Oswald Spengler. Modeling civilizations on the life-cycles of organic beings, he plotted their rise and inevitable decay through predictable phases. For the West, firmly locked into the downside of the wave, relentless, accelerating degeneration can be confidently anticipated. Spengler’s withering pessimism seems not to have detracted significantly from the cultural comfort derived from his archetypal historical scheme.

Eliade describes the myth of Eternal Return as a refuge from the “terror of history.” Firmly rooted in familiar organic patterns and the cycle of the seasons, it sets the basic template for traditional cultures. By identifying what is yet to come with what has already been timelessly commemorated, it promises the pre-adaptation of existing social arrangements and patterns of behavior to unencountered things, psychologically neutralizing the threat of radically unprecedented eventualities. We have been here before, and somehow we survived. Winter does not last forever.

It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that the conception of progressive historical time has been so slow to consolidate itself. John M. Smart, summarizes the conclusions reached by historian J. D. Bury in his The Idea of Progress (1920), noting: “… the idea of progress in the material realm was missed, amazingly, even for most of the European Renaissance (…14th-17th century). Only by the 1650s, near the end of this cultural explosion, did the idea of an unstoppable force of progress finally begin to emerge as a possibility to the average literate mind.” The idea of progress, as continuous, innovative growth, is unique to modernity, and provides its defining cultural characteristic.

Moderns found themselves, for the first time, cast outside the cosmic nursery of Eternal Return. A strange new world awaited them.

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Introducing Urban Future

What can readers expect from this blog? Since it promises to be oriented towards the future, it makes sense to begin with some preliminary forecasting about itself.

Most basically and predictably, Urban Future has been programmed by its name. Its principal topic is the intersection of cities with the future. It aims to foster discussion about cities as engines of the future, and about futurism as a dynamic influence on the shape, character, and development of cities. More particularly, it scavenges for clues, and floats speculations, about the Shanghai of tomorrow. It anticipates a global urban future in which Shanghai features prominently, and a coming Shanghai that expresses, both starkly and subtly, the transformative forces of global futurism. This is to get quite far ahead of ourselves, which is where we shall typically be.

For some readers, ‘futurism’ will invoke the early 20th century avant garde cultural movement crystallized by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s 1909 Futurist Manifesto. Futurism, they might reasonably object, has been defined and even closed by the passage of time. Like modernism, it now belongs to the archive of concluded history. What exists today, and in the days to come, can only be a neo-futurism (and a neo-modernism): no less retrospective than prospective, as much a repetition as a speculation. Such considerations, corrections, and recollections, with all their attendant perplexities, are extremely welcome. The time to address them will soon come.

Since Shanghai is cross-hatched with the time-fractured indices of historico-futuristic ambiguity, from paleo-modernism to neo-traditionalism, the blog will have every opportunity to discuss such things. For the moment, casual reference to the strangely-twinned architectural icons of such time-tangles, the Park Hotel and the Jinmao Tower – each a retro-futurist or cybergothic masterpiece – has to substitute as a mnemonic and promissory note.

Also, in time, the obstacles to forecasting need to be thoroughly addressed: such topics as historical catastrophism, the efficient-market hypothesis (EMH), Karl Popper’s critique of historicism, Knightian uncertainty (or Rumsfeldian “unknown unknowns”) and the Black Swan theory of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In order to get up and running, all these complicating thoughts have been temporarily bracketed, like cunning and ferocious beasts, but they will not remain caged forever, or even very long.

Because there’s something irresistibly twisted about starting with the future, the first flurry of posts will head straight into tomorrow, with topics becoming increasingly city- and Shanghai-focused as things progress. An initial series of interconnected posts will outline futuristic thinking in broad terms, including preliminary sketches of principal way-stations on the mainline techno-scientific tradition that supports it.

Ultimately, nothing relevant to the future of Shanghai is alien to this blog’s purpose. It will draw upon Shanghai history, geography, and culture, traditional Chinese philosophies of time (Yijing and Daoism), theories of modernity and urbanism, evolutionary biology, science fiction, techno-scientific discussions of complex systems and emergence, the economics of spontaneous order, long waves, technological trends, robotics research and developments, models of accelerating change, and anticipations of Technological Singularity. Things should get continuously weirder.

Tomorrow, it begins.

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