Networks and Hierarchies

This is a review of British historian Niall Ferguson’s new book titled The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power. It’s interesting to take the long arc of history into account in this day and age of global communication networks, which might seem to herald the permanent dominance of networks over hierarchies. That history cautions us otherwise.

Ferguson notes two predominant ages of networks: the advent of the printing press in 1452 that led to an explosion of networks across the world until around 1800. This was the Enlightenment period that helped transform economics, politics, and social relations.

Today, the second age of networks consumes us, starting at about 1970 with microchip technology and continuing forward to the present. It is the age of telecommunications, digital technology, and global networks. Ours is an age where it seems “everything is connected.”

Ferguson notes that, beginning with the invention of written language,  all that has happened is that new technologies have facilitated our innate, ancient urge to network – in other words, to connect. This seems to affirm Aristotle’s observation that “man is a social animal,” as well as a large library of psychological behavioral studies over the past century. He also notes that most networks may reflect a power law distribution and be scale-free. In other words, large networks grow larger and become more valuable as they do so. This means the rich get richer and most social networks are profoundly inegalitarian. This implies that the GoogleAmazonFacebookApple (GAFA) oligarchy may be taking over the world, leaving the rest of us as powerless as feudal serfs.

But there is a fatal weakness inherent to this futuristic scenario, in that complex networks create interdependent relationships that can lead to catastrophic cascades, such as the global financial crisis of 2008. Or an explosion of “fake news” and misinformation spewed out by global gossip networks.

We are also seeing a gradual deconstruction of networks that compete with the power of nation-state sovereignty. This is reflected in the rise of nationalistic politics in democracies and authoritarian monopoly control over information in autocracies.

However, from the angle of hierarchical control, Ferguson notes that failures of democratic governance through the administrative state “represents the last iteration of political hierarchy: a system that spews out rules, generates complexity, and undermines both prosperity and stability.”

These historical paths imply that the conflict between distributed networks and concentrated hierarchies is likely a natural tension in search of an uneasy equilibrium.

Ferguson notes “if Facebook initially satisfied the human need to gossip, it was Twitter – founded in March 2006 – that satisfied the more specific need to exchange news, often (though not always) political.” But when I read Twitter feeds I’m thinking Twitter may be more of a tool for disruption rather than constructive dialogue. In other words, we can use these networking technologies to tear things down, but not so much to build them back up again.

As a Twitter co-founder confesses:

‘I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,’ said Evan Williams, one of the co-founders of Twitter in May 2017. ‘I was wrong about that.’

Rather, as Ferguson asserts, “The lesson of history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy: at best, power ends up in the hands of the Illuminati, but more likely it ends up in the hands of the Jacobins.”

Ferguson is quite pessimistic about today’s dominance of networks, with one slim ray of hope. As he writes,

“…how can an urbanized, technologically advanced society avoid disaster when its social consequences are profoundly inegalitarian?

“To put the question more simply: can a networked world have order? As we have seen, some say that it can. In the light of historical experience, I very much doubt it.”

That slim ray of hope? Blockchain technology!

A thought-provoking book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pondering National Governance

This is a recent article published in the NY Times. To make any sense of our answers to this question requires some ideological and historical clarity. [Blog comments]

Is the United States Too Big to Govern?

By Neil Gross

May 11, 2018

Last month the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that Americans are losing faith in their system of government. Only one-fifth of adults surveyed believe democracy is working “very well” in the United States, while two-thirds say “significant changes” are needed to governmental “design and structure.” [Because nobody really knows what these words mean, or they don’t agree among the many meanings, polling results are questionable indicators.]

The 2016 election is one explanation for these findings. Something is not right in a country where Donald Trump is able to win the presidency. [Well, that’s a selective value judgment – one could easily substitute in the names Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. The point of a democratic society is that the people get to make those decisions and the people agree to abide by them or revolt. Are the people revolting against themselves or against their political representatives?]  

But here’s another possibility: What if trust in American democracy is eroding because the nation has become too big to be effectively governed through traditional means? With a population of more than 325 million and an enormously complex society, perhaps this country has passed a point where — no matter whom we elect — it risks becoming permanently dissatisfied with legislative and governmental performance. [There’s an implicit assumption here that the original intent of the founders is that some central authority should “govern” the affairs of the population and manage the national interest (“traditional means”?). This is probably half true in that a national interest must be represented as the sum of its many parts. We have a Federal government. What was not intended was an all-powerful Federal government.]

Political thinkers, worried about the problem of size, have long advocated small republics. Plato and Aristotle admired the city-state because they thought reason and virtue could prevail only when a polis was small enough that citizens could be acquaintances. Montesquieu, the 18th-century French political philosopher, picked up where the ancient Greeks left off, arguing for the benefits of small territories. “In a large republic,” he wrote, “the common good is sacrificed to a thousand considerations,” whereas in a smaller one the common good “is more strongly felt, better known, and closer to each citizen.” [I suspect Dunbar’s number is at work here.]

The framers of the United States Constitution were keenly aware of these arguments. As the political scientists Robert Dahl and Edward Tufte noted in their 1973 book, “Size and Democracy,” the framers embraced federalism partly because they thought that states were closer in scale to the classical ideal. Ultimately, however, a counterargument advanced by James Madison won the day: Larger republics better protected democracy, he claimed, because their natural political diversity made it difficult for any supersized faction to form and dominate. [With Federalism and the separation of powers and overlapping jurisdictions, I think the founders split the difference here.]

Two and a half centuries later, the accumulated social science suggests that Madison’s optimism was misplaced. Smaller, it seems, is better. [This is a false and impossible choice. When complex networks grow too large, they break-up into smaller, more manageable pieces, but these smaller entities are vulnerable to competitive pressures. This is true in industrial organization, economic and financial markets, and digital and social networks. It also applies to social choice and governance. The founders’ idea was to create a coordinated network of states, counties, and municipalities to manage affairs at the appropriate jurisdictional level. National issues are the sole responsibility of a Federal government balanced by parochial interests. This would secure the strongest union to guarantee citizens’ rights and freedoms. As that task grows in complexity, the need for decentralization and coordination reasserts itself.] 

There are clear economic and military advantages to being a large country. But when it comes to democracy, the benefits of largeness — defined by population or geographic area — are hard to find. Examining data on the world’s nations from the 19th century until today, the political scientists John Gerring and Wouter Veenendaal recently discovered that although size is correlated with electoral competition (in line with the Madisonian argument), there is no association between size and many other standard measures of democratic functioning, such as limits on executive power or the provision of human rights. [Another question raised here is what exactly we mean by democracy. Strictly democracy means government by the people, but popular democracy is a narrow offshoot of that definition. IT also begs the question of what a government by the people is trying to accomplish. Our founders made it clear they thought it was life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Note: the pursuit of happiness, not its guarantee.]

In fact, large nations turn out to have what the political scientist Pippa Norris has called “democratic deficits”: They don’t fully satisfy their citizens’ demands for democracy. [Again, what is that demand? Is it coherent?] For one thing, citizens in large nations are generally less involved in politics and feel they have less of a voice. [Are they unable to secure life, liberty and pursue happiness or do they just not like the results?] Voter turnout is lower. [Low voter turnout could mean that voters are happy with the status quo, or don’t believe voting matters to their individual fates.] According to the political scientist Karen Remmer, smaller-scale political entities encourage voting in ways large ones can’t by “creating a sense of community” and “enforcing norms of citizenship responsibility.” [Perhaps because they enjoy more intrinsic rewards to participation. This would suggest more localized control over politics.] In addition, small countries promote political involvement by leaning heavily on forms of direct democracy, like referendums or citizen assemblies. [This is a feature of scale. Direct democracy on a large scale can empower the tyranny of the popular majority because the effects are so far removed from that majority.]

A second problem is political responsiveness: The policies of large nations can be slow to change, even if change is needed and desired. In a book published last year, the sociologists John Campbell and John Hall compared the reactions to the 2007-2008 financial crisis in Denmark, Ireland, and Switzerland. These three small countries didn’t cause the crisis; a homegrown Irish housing bubble notwithstanding, the shock wave they dealt with came from America. But though the countries were economically vulnerable, Mr. Campbell and Mr. Hall observed, this vulnerability fostered unexpected resilience and creativity, generating in each nation “a sense of solidarity or ‘we-ness’” that brought together politicians, regulators, and bankers eager to do whatever was necessary to calm markets. [Again, a sense of “we-ness” is one of scale. Cultural homogeneity helps.] 

With the United States lacking the same sense of shared fate and vulnerability, American policymakers could organize only a tepid response, which helps explain why the recovery here was so slow. This theory sheds light as well on developments in environmental and social welfare policy, where it is increasingly common to find a complacent America lagging behind its smaller, more innovative peers. [Complexity plus centralization leads to sclerosis, which is why centralizing authority in a large, diverse, pluralist society make be unworkable.] 

Finally, largeness can take a toll on citizen trust. The presence of a wide variety of social groups and cultures is the primary reason for this. Nearly all scholars who study country size recognize, as Madison did, that large nations are more socially heterogeneous, whether because they represent an amalgamation of different regions, each with its own ethnolinguistic, religious or cultural heritage; or because their economic vitality encourages immigration; or because population size and geographic spread promote the growth of distinctive subcultures; or because they have more differentiated class structures. [Agreed, which is why encouraging a large diverse population of the virtues of multiculturalism may actually be a detriment. I believe the original idea, or at least the one that prevailed in past influxes of cultural groups, was the melting pot of gradual, voluntary assimilation.]

It isn’t inevitable that a large amount of social variation would undermine trust. Well-governed societies like Canada address the issue by stitching diversity and multiculturalism into their national identities. Yet in the absence of cultural and institutional supports, heterogeneity and trust are frequently in tension, as different ways of life give rise to suspicion and animosity. Without at least a veneer of trust among diverse social groups, politics spirals downward. [This characterization of Canada seems counter-intuitive. Stitching ethnic diversity and multiculturalism into a national identity means that national identity must be based not on ethnicity, race, or diverse cultures but in a national identity based on universal principles and social contracts. In other words, on something called patriotism and fealty to the larger community, subsuming ethnic, racial, and cultural differences.]

The challenges of American largeness are here to stay. The task now is for individuals, civic organizations and institutions to commit themselves to building stronger communities and a renewed sense of shared responsibility and trust among different groups. Within the constraints of our nation’s size, we can create conditions for as much democracy as possible. [So, we converge on the idea that it is inevitable we decentralize power and assume the responsibility of self-governance? What then is the real political conflict of interest?]

Neil Gross is a professor of sociology at Colby College.

How the Enlightenment Ends

Order vs. Chaos: How We Choose

(The Towers of San Gimignano)

Below is a thought-provoking essay by historian Niall Ferguson examining the fluid structure of societies that swing from hierarchies to decentralized networks.

Anyway, this is a subject dear to my heart, as it is the overriding theme of several of my fiction books. See interjections below…

In Praise of Hierarchy – The Wall Street Journal
https://apple.news/A3UEyEvI-SnuHNdt8fLLjzg (paywall)

The Saturday Essay
Established, traditional order is under assault from freewheeling, networked disrupters as never before. But society craves centralized leadership, too.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we now live in a networked world, where everyone and everything are connected. The corollary is that traditional hierarchical structures—not only states, but also churches, parties, and corporations—are in various states of crisis and decline. Disruption, disintermediation, and decentralization are the orders of the day. Hierarchy is at a discount, if not despised.

Networks rule not only in the realm of business. In politics, too, party establishments and their machines have been displaced by crowdfunded campaigns and viral messaging. Money, once a monopoly of the state, is being challenged by Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which require no central banks to manage them, only consensus algorithms.

But is all this wise? In all the excitement of the age of hyper-connection, have we perhaps forgotten why hierarchies came into existence in the first place? Do we perhaps overestimate what can be achieved by ungoverned networks—and underestimate the perils of a world without any legitimate hierarchical structure?

True, few dare shed tears for yesterday’s hierarchies. Some Anglophile viewers of “The Crown” may thrill at the quaint stratification of Elizabeth II’s England, but the nearest approximations to royalty in America have lately been shorn of their gilt and glamour. Political dynasties of the recent past have been effaced, if not humiliated, by the upstart Donald Trump, while Hollywood’s elite of exploitative men is in disarray. The spirit of the age is revolutionary; the networked crowd yearns to “smack down” or “shame” each and every authority figure.

Nevertheless, recent events have called into question the notion that all will be for the best in the most networked of all possible worlds. “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, told the New York Times last May. “I was wrong about that.”

Far from being a utopia in which we all become equally empowered “netizens,” free to tweet truth to power, cyberspace has mutated into a nightmare realm of ideological polarization, extreme views and fake news. The year 2016 was the annus horribilis of the liberal internet, the year when the network platforms built in Silicon Valley were used not only by Donald Trump’s election campaign but also by the proponents of “Brexit” in the United Kingdom to ends that appalled their creators. In 2017, research (including some by Facebook itself) revealed the psychological harm inflicted by social media on young people, who become addicted to the network platforms’ incessant, targeted stimuli.

Most alarming was the morphing of cyberspace into Cyberia, not to mention the Cyber-caliphate: a dark and lawless realm where malevolent actors ranging from Russian trolls to pro-ISIS Twitter users could work with impunity to subvert the institutional foundations of democracy. As Henry Kissinger has rightly observed, the internet has re-created the human state of nature depicted by 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, where there rages a war “of every man against every man” and life (like so many political tweets) is “nasty, brutish, and short.”

We should not be surprised. Neither history nor science predicted that everything would be awesome in a world of giant, online networks—quite the contrary. And now that it becomes clear that a networked world may be an anarchic world, we begin to see—as previous generations saw—the benefits of hierarchy.

The word hierarchy derives from ancient Greek (hierarchia, literally the “rule of a high priest”) and was first used to describe the heavenly orders of angels and, more generally, to characterize a stratified order of spiritual or temporal governance. Up until the 16th century, by contrast, the word “network” signified nothing more than a woven mesh made of interlaced thread.

For most of history, hierarchies dominated social networks, a relationship exemplified by the looming Gothic tower that overshadows the Tuscan town of Siena’s central piazza.

DSC_1483_2

Siena’s torre

This is roughly how most people think about hierarchies: as vertically structured organizations characterized by centralized and top-down command, control and communication. Historically, they began with family-based clans and tribes, out of which more complicated and stratified institutions evolved: states, churches, corporations, empires.

The crucial incentive that favored hierarchical order was that it made the exercise of power more efficient. Centralizing control in the hands of the “big man” eliminated or at least reduced time-consuming arguments about what to do, which might at any time escalate into internecine conflict. The obvious defect of hierarchy—in the mid-19th century words of Lord Acton, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”—was not by itself sufficient to turn humanity away from the rule of “big men.”

There have been only two eras of enhanced connectedness, when new technology helped social networks gain the upper hand. The second is our own age. The first began almost exactly half a millennium ago, in 1517, and lasted for the better part of three centuries.

COM2014-tiny FB cover

The epic story of chaos vs. order during the Savonarola-Machiavelli era, foreshadowing Martin Luther.

When the printing press empowered Martin Luther’s heresy, a network was born. Luther’s dream was of a “priesthood of all believers.” The actual result of the Reformation he inspired was not harmony, but 130 years of polarization and conflict. But it proved impossible to kill Protestant networks, even with mass executions. Hierarchy had to be restored in the form of the princely states whose power the Peace of Westphalia affirmed, but this restoration was fleeting.

Like the Reformation, the 18th-century Enlightenment was a network-driven phenomenon that challenged established authority. The amazing thing was how much further the tendrils of the Enlightenment extended: as far afield as Voltaire’s global network of correspondents, and into the depths of Bavaria, where the secret network known as the Illuminati was founded in 1776.

In Britain’s American colonies, Freemasonry was a key network that connected many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and the crucial “node” in the New England revolutionary network, Paul Revere.

IGWT Cover12 6x9 large 2017

Freemasons in today’s Washington, D.C.?

At the same time, the American revolutionaries—Franklin, Jefferson, Lafayette—had all kinds of connections to France, land of the philosophes. The problem in France was that the ideas that went viral were not just “liberty, equality and fraternity,” but also the principle that terror was justifiable against enemies of the people. The result was a descent into bloody anarchy.

 

Those who lived through the wars of the 1790s and early 1800s learned an important lesson that we would do well to relearn: unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy. At the Congress of Vienna, the five great powers who defeated Napoleon agreed to establish such an order, and the “pentarchy” they formed provided a remarkable stability over the century that followed.

Just over 200 years later, we confront a similar dilemma. Those who favor a revolutionary world run by networks will end up not with the interconnected utopia of their dreams but with Hobbes’s state of nature, in which malign actors exploit opportunities to spread virus-like memes and mendacities. Worse, they may end up entrenching a new but unaccountable hierarchy. For here is a truth that is too often glossed over by the proponents of networked governance: Many networks are hierarchically structured.

Nothing illustrates this better than the way the internet has evolved from being an authentically distributed, decentralized network into one dominated by a few giant technology companies: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet’s Google—the so-called FANGs. This new hierarchy is motivated primarily by the desire to sell—above all, to sell the data that their users provide. Dominance of online advertising by Alphabet and Facebook, coupled with immunity from civil liability under legislation dating back to the 1990s, have create an extraordinary state of affairs. The biggest content publishers in history are regulated as if they are mere technology startups; they are a new hierarchy extracting rent from the network.

The effects are pernicious. According to the Pew Research Center, close to half of Americans now get their news from Facebook, whose incentive is to promote news that holds the attention of users, regardless of whether it is true or false, researched by professional journalists or cooked up by Russian trolls. Established publishers—and parties—were too powerful for too long, but is it really a better world if there are no authorities to separate real news from fake, or decent political candidates from rogues? The old public sphere had its defects, but the new one has no effective gatekeepers, so the advantage now lies not with leaders but with misleaders.

The alternative is that another pentarchy of great powers recognizes their common interest in resisting the threat posed by Cyberia, where jihadism and criminality flourish alongside cyberwarfare, to say nothing of nuclear proliferation. Conveniently, the architects of the post-1945 order created the institutional basis for such a new pentarchy in the form of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, an institution that retains the all-important ingredient of legitimacy, despite its gridlocked condition throughout the Cold War.

It is easy to be dismissive of the UNSC. Nevertheless, whether or not these five great powers can make common cause once again, as their predecessors did in the 19th century, is a great geopolitical question of our time. The hierarchical Chinese leader Xi Jinping likes to talk about a “new model of great power relations,” and it may be that the North Korean missile crisis will bring forth this new model. But the crucial point is that the North Korean threat cannot be removed by the action of networks. A Facebook group can no more solve it than a tweet storm or a hashtag.

Our age may venerate online networks, to the extent of making a company such as Facebook one of the most valuable in the world. Yet there is a reason why armies have commanding officers. There is a reason why orchestras have conductors. There is a reason why, at great universities, the lecturers are not howled down by social justice warriors. And there is a reason why the last great experiment in networked organization—the one that began with the Reformation—ended, eventually, with a restoration of hierarchy.

There is hope for hierarchies yet. “The Crown” is not mere fiction; the hierarchy of the monarchy has continued to elevate the head of the British state above party politics. In a similar way, the papacy remains an object of authority and veneration, despite the tribulations of the Roman Catholic Church. Revolutions repeatedly sweep the countries of the Middle East, yet the monarchies of the region have been the most stable regimes.

Even in the U.S., ground zero for disruptive networks, there still is respect for hierarchical institutions. True, just 32% of Americans still have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the presidency and 12% feel that way about Congress. But for the military the equivalent percentage is 72% (up from 50% in 1981), for the police it is 57%, for churches 41%, and for the Supreme Court 40%. By comparison, just 16% of Americans have confidence in news on the internet.

We humans have been designed by evolution to network—man is a social animal, of course—but history has taught us to revere hierarchy as preferable to anarchy, and to prefer time-honored hierarchs to upstart usurpers.

Mr. Ferguson’s new book, “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook,” will be published by Penguin Press on Jan. 16.

 

G–gle Culture

DO NO EVIL

 

These excerpts are from a recent online interview by Stefan Molyneux of the fired Google employee James Damore explaining himself:

Generally, I just really like understanding things,” he said about his reasons for compiling his argument. “And recently, through interactions with people, I have noticed how different political ideologies divide us in many ways. I wanted to understand what was behind all that.”

“I read a lot into Jonathan Haidt’s work, a lot about what exactly is the philosophy behind all of these things. And that led me to the beginning of the document,” he explained. 

He described his crystallizing moment as: “I could see that all of us are really blind to the other side, so in these environments where everyone is in these echo chambers just talking to themselves, they are totally blind to so many things.We really need both sides to be talk to each other about these things and trying to understand each other.” 

He critiques both the left and right for not working together: “The easiest way of understanding the left is: It is very open, it is looking for changes. While the right is more closed, and wants more stability. There are definitely advantages to both of those. Sometimes there are things that need to change, but you actually need a vision for what you want. There is value in tradition, but not all traditions should be how they are.”

“We create biases for ourselves. This is particularly interesting, when we talk about how it relates to reality,” he said.

“Both sides are biased in a way, they have motivated reasoning to see what they want out of a lot of things,” he continued. 

This happens a lot in social science, where it is 95% leaning to the left. And so they only study what they want, and they only see the types of things that they want, and they really aren’t as critical of their own research as much as they should. The popular conception is that the right doesn’t understand science at all, that the right is anti-science. It is true that they often deny evolution and climate science, climate change, but the left also has its own things that it denies. Biological differences between people — in this case, sex differences,” he explained. 

He described the experience of diversity training at Google, which inspired him to write: “I heard things I definitely disagreed with in some of the programs. I had some discussions with people there, but there was a lot of just shaming. ‘No you can’t say that, that’s sexist, you can’t do this.’ There is so much hypocrisy in a lot things they are saying. I decided to just create the document just to clarify my thoughts.

I have often recommended Jon Haidt’s research presented in his book, The Righteous Mind. It’s worth a read because much of what is happening in social and political discourse these days reflects a psychological pathology that should be completely unnecessary. But getting out of our own way in politics is a difficult challenge.

I find nothing particularly mendacious about Mr. Damore’s document or his intentions to clarify what is basically an empirical puzzle concerning gender differences. Of course, this was all blown way out of proportion because it challenges some unscientific political agenda.

As a scientist, I assume that all empirical phenomena should be open to skepticism and challenges. I’m not sure how we progress intellectually any other way. The attack on Mr. Damore is an attack on science and for me can only reveal an indefensible political agenda. This is sad, if not dangerous, to say the least.

My own approach in this blog has been to suggest analytical frameworks to help understand how human behavior aggregates up into social behavior that defines our civilization; past, present and future (see Common Cent$). The universe is constantly changing, and survival depends on successful adaptation. Unsuccessful adaptation leads to extinction. Thus, the problem for all species is how to successfully adapt.

It seems to me our knowledge-base in the biological and social sciences, and in the arts and humanities can help us humans out here and I can’t understand why anyone who wants to survive would ignore or discount anything we can learn from that wealth of knowledge. Yet, some would choose to ignore anything that might challenge their world-view, even when they know it is false. G–gle seems to have succumbed to that pressure. That’s a shame, but not a path any of us have to accept.

What’s G–gle’s motto again?

 

 

 

 

Finite and Infinite Games: the Internet and Politics

About two decades ago James Carse, a religious scholar and historian, wrote a philosophical text titled Finite and Infinite Games. As he explained, there are two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

This simple distinction invites some profound thought. War is a finite game, as is the Superbowl. Peace is an infinite game, as is the game of love. Finite games end with a winner(s) and loser(s), while infinite games seek perpetual play. Politics is a finite game; democracy, liberty, and justice are infinite games.

Life itself, then, could be considered a finite or infinite game depending on which perspective one takes. If ‘he who dies with the most toys wins,’ one is living in a finite game that ends with death. If one chooses to create an entity that lives beyond the grave, a legacy that perpetuates through time, then one is playing an infinite game.

One can imagine that we often play a number of finite games within an infinite game. This supports the idea of waging war in order to attain peace (though I wouldn’t go so far as saying it validates destroying the village in order to save it). The taxonomy also relates to the time horizon of one’s perspective in engaging in the game. In other words, are we playing for the short term gain or the long term payoff?

I find Carse’s arguments compelling when I relate them to the new digital economy and how the digital world is transforming how we play certain games, especially those of social interaction and the monetization of value. That sounds a bit hard to follow, but what I’m referring to is the value of the information network (the Internet) as an infinite game.

I would value the internet according to its power to help people connect and share ideas. (I recently wrote a short book on this power called The Ultimate Killer App: The Power to Create and Connect.) The more an idea is shared, the more powerful and valuable it can be. In this sense, the internet is far more valuable than the sum of its various parts, and for it to end as the victim of a finite game would be a tragedy for all. So, I see playing on the information network as an infinite game.

The paradox is that most of the big players on the internet – the Googles, Facebooks, Amazons, etc – are playing finite games on and with the network. In fact, they are using the natural monopoly of network dynamics to win finite games for themselves, reaping enormous value in the process. But while they are winning, many others are losing. Yes, we do gain in certain ways, but the redistribution of information data power is leading to the redistribution of monetary gains and losses across the population of users. In many cases those gains and losses are redistributed quite arbitrarily.

For instance, let us take the disruption of the music industry, or the travel industry, or the publishing industry. One need not lament the fate of obsolete business models to recognize that for play to continue, players must have the possibility of adapting to change in order to keep the infinite game on course. Most musicians and authors believe their professions are DOA. What does that say for the future of culture?

Unfortunately, this disruption across the global economy wrought by digitization is being reflected in the chaotic politics of our times, mostly across previously stable developed democracies.

These economic and political developments don’t seem particularly farsighted and one can only speculate how the game plays out. But to relate it to current events, many of us are playing electoral politics in a finite game that has profound implications for the more important infinite game we should be playing.

 

Science: In the Battle Between Faith and Reason

science

I recently was engaged in some interesting discussions about science and reason in tension with religious doctrine and faith, probably inspired by the publicity generated by the Catholic Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. As a social scientist cautioned by skepticism when it comes to scientific or spiritual truths, I easily agree with the quote by Simone Weil above.

For me, the discussion resonated with the major theme of my first book, The City of Man: A Trilogy, that explored the dramatic story of an epic battle waged in 15th century Italy between these very forces that marked the transition of the Age of Faith into the Age of Reason. The clash of ideas lent itself readily to personification through the historical characters of the fundamentalist preacher Girolamo Savonarola and the first political modernist Niccolo Machiavelli. Yet, their story is far more nuanced and complex than a simple progression of man’s reasoning intellect.

I have excerpted my Author’s Note from the book to reprint here.

Author’s Note

Girolamo Savonarola can hardly be considered an obscure figure in European history. Many people are readily familiar with his infamous Bonfire of the Vanities and have a vague understanding of his relation to the art and politics of his day. I have always been astounded, however, by the way in which this friar’s tale, set within its particular historical circumstances, so closely approximates the great myths and legends that transcend both time and place. To borrow the words of one scholar, the life of Savonarola in Florence approximates “the battle between good and evil, played out against a background of order and chaos, fought for the redemption of fallen and painfully self-conscious man.”[1] In this sense we may appreciate its universalism and relevance. My interpretation is presented along three important dimensions of historical literature: context, character, and theme.

Context: Most of us have a basic knowledge of the Italian Renaissance, primarily within the context of art history and the genius of such figures as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Standard reference texts characterize this remarkable cultural period as one in which new conceptions of the individual in relation to the universe contributed to a great flourishing of scholarly, literary, philosophical, scientific, and artistic achievement. This novel arose from my desire to comprehend the richness of the Renaissance and the causality of historical events. How did such a great flowering of human achievement come about? Was it a historical accident? An unfathomable mystery? Cultural or religious destiny? Plain dumb luck?

The most helpful view in understanding the conceptual framework for this novel is the classic one that characterizes the Renaissance as a transition, a bridge between the Middle Ages and the early modern world. It was a rapid period of change between the Age of Faith and the Enlightenment, brought forth by an upheaval of social, economic, and political institutions. Such periods of transition and change are not unique in history. We may look to the Age of Pericles in Athens, the Age of Rome under Julius Caesar, the nineteenth century’s Industrial Revolution, and our own technological information age for parallels ancient and modern.

History, of course, is littered with winners and losers and every remarkable period of human advancement has been accompanied by rather less appealing characteristics and events. The great flowering of ideas and creativity during the Renaissance occurred on a continent beset with low life expectancy and high death rates due to famine, plague, and frequent wars. Medical and sanitary conditions were abysmal and the Black Death still haunted the urban landscape. Great disparities in wealth, combined with the tyranny of ruthless despots and oligarchs, resulted in constant economic and political instability. The imperialist nations of France, Spain and the Ottoman Turks were in their initial phases of expansionary conquest. The Roman Catholic Church engaged in corrupt practices, such as selling indulgences, and the Popes themselves were hardly paragons of virtue with their large retinues of mistresses and bastard children. The entire European countryside was largely mired in poverty, brutalized by war and famine, and ruled by despots and superstitions.

The two sides of the Renaissance—its glory and brutality—bring many important issues into sharp relief. Periods of social and cultural upheaval have motivated mankind to ponder deeper philosophical and religious questions concerning the purpose and meaning of existence. As the Renaissance bridged two periods classified as the Ages of Faith and Reason, such questions were particularly momentous because of the immediate conflict between the worldviews that defined these two eras. Prior to the Renaissance, the West was gradually becoming aware of new ways of relating to the universe. In fathoming the mysteries of the unknown, the intellect, employing reason and scientific inquiry, seemed to hold more promise than the traditional touchstones of spiritual faith and superstition. God and the universe became centered in Man, and the experience of man became paramount for understanding the world. As coincidence would have it, self-serving church leaders ensured that Faith was being corrupted just as Science and Reason were emerging as powerful cornerstones of a new philosophical humanism. Existing structures of power were challenged by the new usurpers to that power and the ensuing clash was violent.

The highest ethical objective of the new philosophical humanism became the salvation of the soul through the earthly good of humanity and the perfectibility of man. Such a philosophy justified the mass accumulation of wealth and power—ostensibly for the ultimate glory of God—and represented a significant shift away from the church’s moral teachings of poverty, humility, and penance. The result was an explosion of new expression through art, poetry, architecture and philosophy that overwhelmed the piety and reverent morality of Christian doctrine. Savonarola was acutely aware of the conflict in which he was engaged as his program of reform was symbolically represented by the transformation of the sinful, earthly city of Man (Babylon or Rome) into the heavenly city of God (the “New Jerusalem”).

These issues remain sharply delineated in our own societal distinctions between Church and State. Whereas we, in the modern West, presume a separation between religious and secular institutions, the concept of a unified religious state has been widely pursued in both western and non-western societies. The most obvious recent example is the rise of the Islamic fundamentalist state, but one must also consider the Victorian Age of morality, Puritanism, and modern Christian fundamentalism. From the perspective of the dramatist, these philosophical positions are often manifested in the attitudes and characters of real persons. Girolamo Savonarola can be viewed as the last vestige of the medieval age of faith while Niccolo Machiavelli can be celebrated (or vilified) as the harbinger of a new, enlightened age of science and reason. In my interpretation of the Renaissance I explore these two archetypal historical characters in depth.

Character: The character of Savonarola is particularly intriguing within the aforementioned historical context. Here was an obscure, ascetic monk who rose to the height of power and influence in the richest and most sophisticated city of his day. Under Savonarola’s guidance, Florence developed new institutions of government, economic justice and religious charity. Evidence suggests that many of Florence’s cultural icons—Michelangelo, Botticelli, Pico della Mirandola, to name only a few—were quite taken with the charismatic preacher’s message and became his devout followers. Ultimately, however, Savonarola became a victim to his own overreaching ambitions and emotional weaknesses. His story is a classic, earthly Greek tragedy. In posterity, Savonarola has been immortalized by history and his message has inspired religious reformers from Martin Luther to our present day.

Most modern characterizations of Savonarola appear to reflect a contemporary bias that finds horrifying any assault on the primacy of reason and scientific inquiry. Many studies portray him as a fanatic and a reactionary, a religious fundamentalist who resisted science and reason by burning books and art and condemning the enlightened views of his day. But if he were a madman, how are we to judge Michelangelo, Botticelli, Lorenzo de’Medici and thousands of other Florentines who were deeply impressed by him? Were they all mad as well?

Niccolo Machiavelli is another figure who holds a significant place in our cultural imagination and, like Savonarola, is in some need of reevaluation. Like Marx and ‘Marxist’, Machiavelli and ‘Machiavellian’ suffer a strained, uneasy relationship warped by time. Machiavelli was blessed with an analytical mind and is often cited as the first political scientist. He studied the human drive for power and sought to devise a strategy to harness that drive to the greater good. His reputation, however, has been hijacked throughout history in the service of those who pursue power as the means to any ends. In this he is certainly misunderstood—perhaps not wrongly, but surely not fully.

We have no writings and little knowledge of Machiavelli that predate a letter he wrote near the end of the Savonarolan episode. We can conjecture that many of Machiavelli’s early ideas derived from his experiences in Florence in the 1490s at which time he was a young man in his twenties. I have tried to employ his eyes to view the Savonarolan phenomenon from a modern perspective. I use Machiavelli’s The Prince, The Discourses and History of Florence from which to extrapolate back to those youthful experiences when he must have struggled to make sense of a rapidly changing world. In my interpretation Machiavelli seeks to impose order and restrain chaos by the most efficient means he can imagine. In this respect he is no different from Savonarola, who seeks the same through faith in God.

Theme: The Age of Reason that commenced more than five hundred years ago is the age in which we still reside. In this age, the immense and vast capability of man and his intellect is expected to solve all puzzles and answer all questions that plague existence. From such a perspective, Savonarola is inevitably dismissed as a reactionary who resisted a new world that he could not understand. But perhaps he understood it all too well. At the turn of the twenty-first century we have discovered that science overpromises, at least in the sense of immediate gratification, and that we need to recognize the limits imposed on reason. For Savonarola, the salvation of the soul was paramount, but certainly not to the exclusion of the development of the mind. The preacher was a man of considerable intellectual talents and was an avid proponent of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (and, by implication, Aristotle) on the reconciliation of philosophy and Christian theology. The conflicts and tensions within the heart and mind of this one individual cannot be dismissed by caricaturing him as a zealot.

The story of Savonarola and Machiavelli is, above all, a story of the conflicts within the human spirit—what we might refer to as the soul of mankind. As the human soul is a prisoner of the body, the struggle of mankind, like that of Savonarola, is the struggle to free the soul from the body, or the flesh. The material world imposes itself on our sense of the spiritual world of the soul and, indeed, to reconcile the demands of the material with the needs of the spiritual has been the struggle of Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike. This struggle has profound dimensions, such as the search for a higher being or the experience of love, and also mundane ones, such as how to function within the world of industrial employment in order to secure a living. A long literary tradition addresses this struggle and includes works by such renowned and celebrated authors as Dostoyevsky, Hesse, Hugo, Kafka, Kazantzakis, Mann, Conrad, Camus, and Kundera.

I believe this eternal struggle of the soul is why the life of Girolamo Savonarola is so compelling. Today, more than five hundred years after his death, his story seems as relevant as ever to the universals of human experience. More Ancient Greek than modern Western hero, Savonarola is a man of shining virtues and tragic flaws, and in this he is all too human.

Through the struggle of the friar and the observations of Machiavelli, this novel also examines the question of mankind’s capacity for both extreme good and evil. The Florentines glorified Savonarola, and ultimately crucified him when he became an inconvenience. The guilt of this contradiction lives on today as humble citizens honor him with the memorial marking the site of his hanging and burning on May 23, 1498 in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. (Every May 23 flowers appear in the morning to cover the brass plaque in the Piazza.) The trials of history reveal that the barbarism of men extends well into our own time. Our collective experience defies our faith in both God and reason to fathom the depths of the human heart and soul. And this is, perhaps, how it should be. We are, and will remain, a mystery.

In addressing “The Modern Spiritual Problem,” Carl Jung captures the dilemma from the perspective of the psychoanalyst:

The modern man has lost all the metaphysical certainties of his medieval brother, and set up in their place the ideals of material security, general welfare and humaneness. But it takes more than an ordinary dose of optimism to make it appear that these ideals are still unshaken. Material security, even, has gone by the board, for the modern man begins to see that every step in material progress adds just so much force to the threat of a more stupendous catastrophe. The very picture terrorizes the imagination. What are we to imagine when cities today perfect measures of defense against poison-gas attacks, and practice them in “dress rehearsals”? We cannot but suppose that such attacks have been planned and provided for—again on the principle ‘in time of peace prepare for war.’ Let man accumulate his materials of destruction and the devil within him will soon be unable to resist putting them to their fated use.

…if [modern man] turns away from the terrifying prospect of a blind world in which building and destroying successively tip the scale, and if he then turns his gaze inward upon the recesses of his own mind, he will discover a chaos and darkness there which he would gladly ignore. Science has destroyed even the refuge of the inner life. What was once a sheltering haven has become a place of terror.[2]

Jung, writing in the 1930s before the conflagration of the Second World War, was eerily prescient of future experiences with terrorism and genocide. The evidence continues to accumulate that mankind is both good and evil, light and dark. One particular hypothesis explored in this book is that change, which we often label progress, can have corrupting influences on society, well apart from its positive effects. When it is the harbinger of chaos and crisis, change incites fear and lays bare the most base and cruel of human instincts. Only by understanding this dimension of ourselves, either consciously or intuitively, can we hope to resist the temptation to evil. Faith, whether it is in God or science, fellow man or self, is the only antidote to fear. Faith props up efforts to reestablish order and maintain control of human destiny. Savonarola put his faith in God and the Bible while Machiavelli put his in Cicero, the Republic and Realpolitik.

Background texts:

To tease out the thematic elements of the story, I have drawn heavily upon three principal texts: the Bible, Augustine’s City of God, and Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The Bible, especially the Old Testament, was the primary reference from which Savonarola drew his sermons and developed his prophesies. His particular gift was to draw parallels between the Old Testament and events of his day and in so doing, reiterate the teachings of the Gospels. His intellectual sources for the ideal organization of earthly society, along religious guidelines, were Augustine and Aquinas. Savonarola liberally used the Old Testament and Augustine’s City of God to delineate a clear moral distinction between the earthly and heavenly cities. He employed Aquinas’ writings on politics for practical implementation. His mission was to transform the earthly city of Florence into the heavenly City of God.

Dante’s The Divine Comedy can be viewed as a mythical, Christian text delivered from a more secular, historical perspective. Dante’s pilgrim takes us on a journey that first plunges into the depths of sin in Hell, finds redemption in Purgatory, and ultimately ascends to salvation in Heaven. On this journey Dante takes us through the Florence and Italy of his day, exposing the factionalism, conflict, and corruption that impedes the good and the just. In so doing he, much like Savonarola, provided a framework for common Florentine citizens to comprehend their everyday world. Dante is Florence’s most famous son and all Florentines were intimately familiar with his verse. Furthermore, his three-stage pilgrimage through condemnation, redemption, and salvation parallels Savonarola’s own brief journey across Florence’s stage.

This interpretation of the events of Savonarola’s life is uniquely my own and is intended to adhere closely to the historical record of Renaissance Florence, and to the words attributed to Savonarola, Machiavelli, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Pope Alexander VI and others. (The only purely fictional character is Chiara Corbinelli and those created by her circumstances, such as the Prioress. The relationships between Tommaso Soderini and Machiavelli, as well as those between Tommaso and the Compagnacci are inferred from historical evidence, but there is no indication that Tommaso and Niccolo were close friends. I have assumed they were because they were neighbors, close in age, and because a close mentor relationship did exist between Niccolo and Piero Soderini, Tommaso’s uncle.) Certain plot elements have been created to tie the characters together but do not, to the best of my historical research, contradict any historical evidence. The historical background is gleaned from the professional research of respected scholars and historians. Artistic license, though kept to a minimum, and mistakes, hopefully minimized as well, are my sole responsibility.

The Renaissance city of Florence was a moment of promise—a promise of the mind, body, and spirit of man; a sensual awakening, the puberty of modern civilization; the birth of l’uomo universale; the blossoming of intellectual discipline and humanistic interpretation. We have embraced its ideals and continue to uphold the myth. But we should always question how well it serves us and never forget that every man is modern to his times.

[1] Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: the Architecture of Belief.

[2] Carl G. Jung, from “The Modern Spiritual Problem,” in Modern Man in Search of a Soul [p. 204].

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