Entropy and Information: Our Universe is Simultaneously Running Down and Running Up
Two of the most fundamental and important facts we have identified about our universe are that it is simultaneously running down, or increasing in entropy as a global system, and at the same time it is running up, or increasing in useful order, in evolutionary and developmental complexity, everywhere that adaptive structures have emerged. This running down, in our global energy potential, is somehow driving this running up, in our local adapted complexity.
This observation is quite interesting, but our universe is stranger still. Not only are we both running down and running up, our universe is accelerating in both directions, doing an ever-faster job of both global entropy creation and local order creation. Let’s review these two processes now, and ask what they seem to imply for humanity’s future.
We’ve known since William Thompson in 1852 that our universe is running down in its energy potential. It was psychologically traumatic for physicists, philosophers, and thinkers at the time to learn that our universe is inevitably heading toward “heat death,” the loss of sources of useful energy, via a process of ever-increasing entropy. This insight is called the second law of thermodynamics. This “second law” is one of the best-tested laws in all of science. Many scientists consider it the most fundamental law in physical theory. Unfortunately, everything must eventually die, in energetic terms, inside our universe. But fortunately, life is not going to die in informational (complexity) terms, as we will shortly discuss.
Since the discovery of dark energy in 1998, we’ve also known that our universe’s creation of entropy is accelerating. For the last few billion years, our universe has begun to take itself apart at an accelerating rate, making ever more space for its heat to “dump” into. So the end of our universe is not only obviously ahead, we now know that this ending is an accelerative process. One particularly accelerative model for end of our universe is the Big Rip. In that model, dark energy acceleration gets increasingly strong with time, and in a few billion years from now, even matter itself gets ripped apart and recycled. In that account, which I find particularly intuitive and evo-devo, we have already seen between a third and half of our universe’s total lifespan (figure right). Whether the Big Rip turns out to be true or not, since the end of the 20th century, our cosmic future has grown even shorter than we thought it was.
Given the eventual arrival of heat death, and the possible even faster arrival of the Big Rip, we know that if universal intelligence is to survive, it must eventually go somewhere else. In Answering the Fermi Paradox: Exploring the Mechanisms of Universal Transcension, Journal of Evolution and Technology, 2002, I proposed that “somewhere else” is inner space, increasingly physically dense, miniaturized, and informationally and computationally complex zones of our physical universe. I revisited this prediction in my paper The Transcension Hypothesis: Sufficiently advanced civilizations invariably leave our universe, and implications for METI and SETI, Acta Astronautica, 2011, which gave many specific reasons why black holes are ultimate attractors for cosmic intelligence. I also wrote a popular blog post, Key Assumptions of the Transcension Hypothesis, outlining the key speculative assumptions behind the hypothesis. We’ll discuss the transcension hypothesis and the multiverse later in this chapter.
For most of the last two decades, I was too far ahead of the curve on this speculative hypothesis. Fortunately, since the mid 2010’s, string theorist Leonard Susskind and a large grouop of colleagues in physics and computer science, have been developing a new model of quantum complexity to account for the interiors of black holes. See this lovely article, In New Paradox, Black Holes Appear to Evade Heat Death, Quanta, 2023, for the details of Susskind’s proposed Second Law of Quantum Complexity. This work is as revolutionary for understanding the informational nature of our universe, in my view, as thermodynamics was in the 19th century. It explores why physics and information theory are now telling us that black holes are developmental repositories for universal complexity. If this theory is proven true by future evidence and simulation, as I expect it will be, all the multilocal civilizations in our universe will become increasingly like seeds, packaging up all the local intelligence they have gained, even as the universe around them runs down. If intelligence is useful to the universe’s replication, as our evo-devo universe community expects it is, then all of those black holes will be topologically connected to each other somehow, so they can compare and contrast their finite and computationally limited and incomplete models of reality, prior to the next replication. In other words, intelligence must be a network, an ecosystem, in our universe if our universe is an evo-devo system, just as it is on Earth.
Susskind’s new model helps us recogonize that while our universe’s energy potential is running down at an accelerating rate, its information potential is exponentially “running up” at the same time. Locally, we are creating adaptive order, intelligence, or “negentropy” to use physicist Erwin Schrodinger’s classic term, at ever faster rates. Here is a lovely quote by Schrodinger on the nature of the mind, and how it seems intrinsically holistic, relational, and different from “granular” physical reality. The negentropic growth of mind is clearly happening on Earth, and there may be millions or billions of other Earthlike planets, in our galaxy or in our universe, where intelligence, mind, feelings, and consciousness are also growing, in a predictable developmental process.
In Why Think About the Future? in Chapter 1, we said that the most universal way to understand foresight is that it is the production of useful information, which is the opposite of entropy. At the technical level, information is anything that allows us to reduce our uncertainty, and thus make better predictions, about systems whose futures we do not already know. So it is neat to realize that those of us who are consciously practicing foresight for ourselves and our organizations are doing what life, in its most universal sense, is driven to do. For an academic intro to information, and its role in structuring the future, see Walker et al. (eds.) From Matter to Life (2017). For a technical article, see Chris Adami’s What is information? (2017).
Our STEMIC Universe: Our Physical (STEM) Universe Creates Information and Complexity (IC) in Ever Faster and More Local Ways
Let’s take a broader view now, to better understand this running down and running up. Below is what I wrote starting around 2000, prior to Susskind’s work. I think it remains a good general introduction to why physical models of reality, as useful as they have been, are seriously incomplete as long as they don’t incorporate information, complexity, and meaning. Physics today tells us a lot about Space, Time, Energy, and Matter (STEM), but it is a lot less predictive and explanatory when it comes to things like Information, Intelligence, Computation, and Complexity, a set of related systems and processes that we can more simply call Information and Computation (IC). The IC term is simply the hypothesis that all intelligent and complex systems are generating information, and doing some kind of computation (modeling) of their world. Our current inability to use physics to explain all the aspects of emergent complexity, including such major puzzles as accelerating change, the formation of galaxies, black holes, dark matter and energy, the origin of life, and the nature of consciousness may be permanent, because physics alone may never be enough to explain our world. Some future theory theories of adapted information, intelligence, computation and complexity may turn out to be just as important as physics to understanding reality. We need a better synthesis of the physical and the virtual, and the way they evolve and develop to create intelligence and complexity.
When we talk about our universe running down (increasing entropy), we are mainly talking about the physical universe, and the expansion and degradation of STEM, or what Descartes called “matter.” Conversely, when we talk about the universe running up (increasing useful complexity), we are mainly talking about the virtual universe, and the growth of I2C2 (more simply, IC), or what Descartes called “mind.” These two complex systems, matter and mind, are our universe’s physical and virtual nature. These two special systems work together, in some ways we understand today and in other ways we can only guess at, to generate accelerating change.
We can use these six concepts to represent our universe in a simple “conceptual equation”, as follows:
U = STEM+IC
Our Universe = Physics (“Body”) + Information and Computation (“Mind”)
This simple but not very scientific equation describes the “Great Race” to Physical and Virtual Inner Space that we’ve just discussed. The key takeaway it offers us is that the things and processes that we care about in our universe are both physical (STEM) and virtual (IC) in nature. Either view alone is insufficient to understand complexity.
The theoretical biologist and ecologist Stan Salthe calls physical processes dynamics, and virtual processes infodynamics. Salthe is a founding member of our Evo Devo Universe research community, which I co-founded with philosopher Clement Vidal in 2008. Salthe is one of a small group of scholars who sees the world through the dual lens of both physics and information, and a scholar who uses both developmental and evolutionary models to explore change in complex systems. As Salthe would say, there are both more dynamics and more infodynamics waiting to be discovered and characterized by science.
We think these two systems operate by at least somewhat different rules. Physics operates in all real systems, but it does so quite differently at different scales of space-time, such that we have discrete bodies of physics, like high-energy physics, quantum mechanics, chemistry, biophysics, sociophysics, relativity, and cosmology, that often don’t talk well to each other. If these can all be unified, as string theory is attempting, that still won’t change the fact that each operates via very different rules at different scales. Information has an equally universal nature. It passes readily between all physical structures. It’s communication can be measured in all of them by one common value, the bit, but as we’ll see, that measure is too low-level to be useful for many of our more complex forms of information. Like physics, information operates very differently at different levels of complexity. The kinds of information being passed around in a community of self-replicating and varying molecules differs from the kind of information being passed inside and between replicating bacteria, inside the bodies of human beings, and between their brains. Yet all of this information has a real, causal effect on the complex systems that pass it.
Scholars like the philosopher of chemistry Eric Scerri argue that at each new level of complexity emergence, the new laws of the complex system aren’t fully describable in terms of the physics of the system below them, and he sees this problem even in describing inorganic (nonliving) chemistry. This concept is called the physical incompleteness of reductionism. We apparently need some kind of emergent informational dynamics in our models too.
Breaking things into their component parts has been mainly how science has progressed over the last 500 years, but it isn’t always enough to describe everything. We can think of many informational processes, laws and constraints that emerge once you have complex systems, and we have to account for those as well to understand reality. As we’ll see, we need to include concepts like Collective Intelligence, Computation, and Complexity (each stands for the “C” in STEMIC) in our infodynamics models, to see where the world is going, and why.
Simpler systems are bound by simpler rules, and complex systems, like human beings, are bound by a whole set of new emergent informational rules and processes that don’t apply to the simpler systems of which we are made. All complex systems seem impelled to create informational models of reality, and those models lead us to think about puzzling words like meaning, as we will discuss in the next section.
In complexity research, the idea that emergent information has an effect on physical dynamics is called, among other terms, top-down causation. It is the idea that certain kinds of complexity create new informational environments and rules that have causal effect on the systems around them. Some researchers in areas like the origin of life think that we won’t solve that fascinating problem until we understand how emergent complex information constrains the actions of physical systems. Using physics alone won’t be enough. We’ll need a better infodynamics as well. See Walker et al.’s edited volume From Matter to Life: Information and Causality (2017), for a number of scholars who take this perspective.
In the 20th century, theoretical biologist Robert Rosen was an innovative and unorthodox thinker on the origin of life. In Life Itself, 1991, he argued that until we develop a better information theory, an understanding of organized matter and its relationships, we won’t be able to crack the mystery. Rosen argued that the laws of physics and chemistry alone, without information theory, would never be sufficient to tell us why life emerges, with causal dependability, all across our universe. He proposed that we need to understand, from a universal perspective, information’s key emergences, and its own drives, for its own survival and adaptive purposes. We need to understand, I believe, information’s evolutionary development.
EDU scholar and biologist James Coffman also takes this view, saying that life’s origin is a challenge to understand certain forms of “algorithmic information processing that are independent of physicochemical causation.” In this view, both physical and informational structures have some of their own futures written inside of them, in different languages, creating different dynamics.
Consider biosemiotics, the emerging study of how life uses coded information, or signs, to adapt and survive. Signs are communicated simultaneously at multiple levels in living systems, and they have different degrees of freedom, and of meaning. DNA, proteins, cells, hormones, neurons, and language are just some of the more noticeable ways life passes and processes signs, and all of these occur in parallel, using different rules, in an evolved organism. Consider how these signs both enable and constrain the future action of information processing systems receiving them, just as strongly as the laws of physics and chemistry.
Consider the way I can whisper just one word or phrase (sign) within earshot of you, and if that information is particularly meaningful to you, in the right context, that word will predictably change what you do for the rest of that day, and the information that you generate in turn. In other words, those few bits of information have deep meaning, they exert significant top-down causality, on your near or far future activities. As we see in our more dramatic movie scripts, that word, or brief phrase, might even change your whole life. In other words, information itself evolves and develops just as readily as the physical structures through which it flows.
Some of our leading physicists and information theorists are also trying to better unify these two domains. Since 2009, string theorist Erik Verlinde has proposed a model called entropic gravity, in which both gravity and spacetime, which we typically think of as physical processes, are emergent from the creation of information itself. He thinks his models go a long way to explaining two additional mysteries, dark energy and dark matter as well. Science has typically modeled information and entropy as emerging from physical (or mathematical) processes, but in Verlinde’s view, the reverse may true.
Alternatively, it may turn out that both the informational and physical perspectives on our universe are equally fundamental. That is the perspective I take in my paper, Evo Devo Universe (2008), and how we will think about evolution and development in this Guide. One thing I believe we can say with reasonable confidence today is that both the physical and virtual (informational) perspectives seem equally necessary to understanding complexity and change. Like body and mind, each appears to be dependent on the other. They seem to be two equally valuable and complementary perspectives on the same thing, the universe itself.
The division between STEM and IC is at least as old as Greek philosophy, 600 BCE. Aristotle was a physicalist, believing all knowledge must derive from nature. Plato was what we can call an “informationalist”, believing there is some perfect or ideal form, or set of relations, underlying reality. Francis Bacon and Renes Descartes offered us more sophisticated forms of Platonism in their works. Philosophically, the division between physics and information is as old as the qualitative dichotomy we observe between our (STEM or physical) brain and (informational or complex) mind, explored by Descartes in 1641. So if we are going to try to create a very simple conceptual equation to describe the important features of our universe, I think we have a good start in this STEM+IC formulation. Let’s see how well it holds up in coming years.
A Brief History of STEMIC Science, at the Smallest Scales We Can Presently Probe
In the history of STEM physics, a scientific understanding of Matter emerged first. Newton’s laws of motion revealed a world where matter was describable by universal forces, and by a new mathematics, the calculus, of incremental change through Space and Time. This atomistic way of looking at the world dominated until the 19th century, when the laws of thermodynamics helped us understand another physical fundamental, Energy, and its many forms. As we’ve said, we learned that useable energy is always running down (entropy is increasing) as the universe changes. This powerful insight gave us an “arrow” of Time, pointing to the future, and told us that the universe has a finite amount of usable energy with which to do useful work.
Then in the 20th century, Einstein showed us Energy and Matter equivalency (E=mc^2), and that 3D Space and Time can also be understood as a 4D continuum, like the electromagnetic spectrum. Then the quantum theory told us that at atomic and subatomic scales, Energy-Matter is quantized (comes in discrete units), and can be “in two places at once” (be entangled through Space-Time), and can also be represented Informationally as a probability function (the Schrodinger wave equation) which can be “collapsed”, when any physical structure “observes” (interacts) with it, in ways that allow it to look like either Energy (waves) or Matter (particles), depending on how it is observed (Computed).
Quantum processes, the realm of the very small processes of STEM physics, are quite strange and amazing. We’ll discuss them in more depth later in this chapter. They seem to be even more informational in many ways than they are physical. Amazingly, they even appear to transcend physicality (spacetime) at times, in very dramatic ways.
For example, entangled quantum events affect each other nonlocally apparently instantaneously, regardless of how far apart they are in spacetime. We’ve created entangled pairs of photons that instantaneously affect each other through many miles of fiber optic cable, for example. Consider also quantum tunneling, where electrons can jump instantly from one spatial location to another through atomic barriers. Strange as it sounds, subatomic particles don’t even have a fixed position in space. As Heisenberg and Schrodinger showed, electrons are particles whose probable position can be plotted as a wave function. Electrons are also waves that become particles when the universe, or you, observes them. Their physical interaction with other particles creates information. In the double slit experiment, a single photon can go through two slits, can be in two physical places, at once. Pretty strange!
So electrons, and perhaps other things and processes that operate at the quantum scale, are both information probabilities and physical entities, and the former may be their most important quality. The physical-informational duality of quantum processes is quite strange. We don’t fully know how to interpret this duality yet. We just live with it.
The fun sci-fi movie The Thirteenth Floor (1999) posited that the universe was a simulation, and that if you went to the right place, you could see its “edges” and discover both its informational nature and its limitations. Some physicists and information theorists think that the emergence of quantum physics, and more recently, quantum information theory, are humanity’s discovery of the informational “edge”, the simulation-generating level, of our particular universe.
Quantum processes are places where we can flip our perspective back and forth between the informational and the physical, and see the apparent dual nature of the world, and the limitations of each single view. When we uncovered wave-particle duality in the 20th century, and as we now build models like string theory, the holographic principle, and quantum gravity, which seeks to unify quantum theory with relativity, we are making progress in this dual view.
If we live in a STEMIC (a two-syllable shorthand for STEM+IC) universe, our reality must always be both a physical thing and a virtual thing (a simulation). In that view, philosophical ideas like the Simulation Hypothesis, the idea that our universe is a simulation being run by some “other” thing, are both true and yet at the same time, must be much more constrained, and as we will see, evo devo, than we might think, at first glance.
To sum up, our universe appears to be both an informational and physical system that has both evo and devo processes and purposes, a universe with finite limits on its internal complexity and lifespan. We live in universe where time is as real as the other three STEM resources. Time matters, and we don’t have an unlimited amount of it. We have lots to do before we, and our universe, dies, and we can hope, starts over again.
Societal Backsliding (Adam’s Paradox, Kuznet’s Curves): Some Things Must Fall Backward as Others Leap Forward
Let’s close this section by looking at a common societal problem, Backsliding (Kuznets Curves, Adam’s Paradox) that appears to be a consequence of the way societies are affected by universal processes of running down and running up. We’ll say more about this problem later in this chapter, as Pain to Gain: Kuznets Curves and Catalytic Catastrophes, and in our section on Kuznets curves in Chapter 4. Futurists need to understand how backsliding works, indindividand why it will never go away. The better we understand it, the better we can get at fighting and reducing it, and moving beyond it to social progress.
In 1900, the historian Henry Adams was perhaps the first scholar to seriously propose that accelerating change may be a universal process, as predictable as Newton’s universal law of gravitation. His autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, first self-published in 1907, shows his fascination with understanding humanity’s past and future. Like all good futurists today, Adams was perennially of two minds about the future.
He was one of the early thinkers who recognized our universe is both running down (growing in entropy) and running up (growing in knowledge, intelligence, and abilities). In one mind, he saw growing entropy and decline in certain aspects of individual and social conduct and culture. Many of his works Adams charted examples of what he referred to as individual and social “degradation” relative to previous historical eras. He was always noticing ways that the next generation was less adapted than the last. In noting this degradation, Adams was paying attention only to the biological and mental aspects of humanity. He wasn’t including their technology in their collective intelligence. I think that was a mistake. Specialization, relaxation, and civilization, rather than degradation, are perhaps better word for what was happening to society as technology progressed. The older generation is always lamenting the more relaxed personal standards, and the less general and more specialized knowledge, and the changing morality, of the youth, versus themselves. Such is the nature of civilization. It involves a step backward, in certain ways, for the collective intelligence of the species to go forward.
At the same time, Adams also saw astounding signs of social progress and technological acceleration, beginning with his visit to the Paris World’s Fair in 1900. In his essay The Dynamo and the Virgin (1900) Adams contrasted the demands and drives of the “dynamo” of modern technology, with the “virgin” of our religious and traditional human values, and considered the futures of both. He saw great potential for social progress, and cited philosophers of evolution and society, such as Herbert Spencer, who saw the world’s finer features continually improving and progressing.
What we can call Adam’s paradox is the tension between these two equally predictable outcomes in human futures. From one view, we can always see signs of societal, organizational and individual decline (running down), when we focus on our biology, and don’t include technology in our definitions of collective intelligence. From another, we can see signs of societal advance (running up). Which process we see at any time depends on our perspective and our inclination, whether we are young (looking at opportunities) or old (looking at constraints), whether we are radicals or conservatives, whether we are being strategically optimistic or defensively pessimistic. Good foresight professionals always strive to see both views. It’s easy for us to look at some things, often including traditions or systems that we feel most attached to, and claim the world is running down. But such a selective view usually misses many of the processes of progress, all those things that are running up.
Adam’s observation is well captured in the popular phrase “Progress is usually three steps forward and one step back.” We can call this particular dance the evolutionary four step. Some folks may notice that I have changed this phrase to three steps rather than the conventional two, because the latter formulation is incorrect. Two steps forward and one back would be linear growth, but as we will see in this chapter, many important progress-related processes in our universe are not linear, but exponential. Backsliding always hurts and disrupts some individuals and groups during our forward leaps, and the better we get at identifying and mitigating that hurt, the better we all are for it.
For a few examples of backsliding in human culture, think of human self-domestication. As anthropologist Richard Wrangham observes, we appear to have lost something like 10% of our cranial volume when we self-domesticated into tribes. Becoming larger tribes required us to reduce what Wrangham calls our reactive aggression toward each other, banishing or killing people with too much hostility, asociality, and independence from the growing and ever more profitable and dominant tribal groups, which employed much more regulated and coordinated forms of violence, in warfare. See Wrangham’s YouTube talk, Did Homo sapiens Self-Domesticate? (2014) for this story.
This process of self-domestication slightly shrunk our brains, reducing our individual self-reliance ability, and at the same time, causing us to become a far more cooperative and interactive species. This process of individual backsliding gave us great new social benefits however. Humans began spending a lot more time together, in larger and more complex tribes, and that increasing cooperation and social densification may have led directly to the greatest single dematerialization that humans ever invented: language. In Globularization and Domestication, Topoi (2016), Antonio Benitez-Burraco notes that when songbirds are domesticated, they create syntactically more complex songs than their wild counterparts. Such a process may have been true for humans as well, pushing us out of primitive forms of sign language and behavior imitation, into complex vocal grammars. Our self-selection for cooperativity may have been just the selection pressure we needed to generate complex behavioral and gestural language, then speech, then writing.
For another example, consider the invention of writing. it was criticized by both Socrates and Plato as an invention that would cause philosophers to think less carefully versus learning by conversation (dialog), and would reduce people’s memory for long oral stories. That was a valid critique at the individual level, since memorizing and telling stories was one of the ways we entertained each other at the time. But this individual backsliding was offset by far greater gains in social complexity. As Michael Malone argues in The Guardian of All Things: The Epic Story of Human Memory (2012), every major advance in our personal, cultural and technological memory has allowed major leaps forward in human civilization.
For another example, consider that human civilization has always advanced through the environmentally damaging combustion of the most easily-accessible energy sources. During the Paleolithic era, we hunted most species of megafauna to extinction, using their bodies for fuel. We also denuded all our forests, overfarmed our soils, and saltified the ground around all of our great early cities. That’s why we had to move every so often, and it’s why cities situated at the mouths of great rivers, were particularly resistant to this degradation, and became the key developmental portal for our first great empires, in the hydraulic empire hypothesis.
Taking the Big Picture view, it is easy to predict that humanity will never replenish all the fossil fuels we’ve burned to date. We are always energetically degrading, creating entropy, in order to progress. We are now moving out of coal and oil to other marginally environmentally better and easier to access fossil fuels like natural gas, and increasingly, to renewable solar and wind and electrification. We’ll likely transition our highest energy activities to fusion energy later.
A big insight from a Big Picture look at our energy history is to see that humans always waste resources (must run certain things down) in order to progress (run other things up). It is not the perfect conservation of our existing planetary resources that matters, as many environmentalists propose. What matters most, to social progress, is we have enough of the right resources now, and can use them responsibly to get us to the next great transition in densification and dematerialization. We also need to be smart enough to see what that next great transition will be, and steer toward it, rather than just flailing about.
If we just focus on the damage we’ve done, the running down, we will think that we must move as fast as possible to a sustainable, slower world. That’s the green fantasy, sold to us by folks like Lester Thurow, in The Zero-Sum Society (1980) and by Bill McKibben, in Eaarth (2011). But if we focus instead on both the run down and the run up, we see that we really want to know whether we’re charting the most dynamically sustainable path we can, in a world of continuous accelerating innovation.
In other words, it is not sustainability, but sustainable innovation (SI) that is the essence of the human journey. We’ll return to this evo devo SI perspective several times in this Guide. Smarter than human AIs are coming soon, whether the environmentalists want them or not. In fact, as we’ll see, it’s better to call them NIs, natural intelligences, than AIs, because their emergence appears to be baked into the way matter and mind interact in our particular amazing, accelerating universe.
The challenge we have, as leaders is to make all this progress as empowering, equitable, empathetic, and evidence-based as we can. We need to minimize our backsliding in the evolutionary dance, where it matters, and not minimize it in areas where it doesn’t. We need to see the true nature of progress, in all its forms, at all its systems levels.
For examples of backsliding that are worth the forward progress, think of this self-domestication process. Think also of the way our gene pool and biological immunity cause “backsliding”, at the individual and biological societal level, when we use modern medicine to keep people alive who would have otherwise died from disease, or help infertile couples to have children. We’d never give up that backsliding, because it allows us to make progress in our empathy and ethics (interdependence), to treat people with more dignity, and to increase the social value of life. We’re also countering our “weakening” genetic intelligence and immunity by creating even more powerful forms of technological innovation, intelligence, interdependence, immunity, and sustainability (I4S). So its very important to see all the systems that are improving. If we focus just on biology, we get divisive and dangerous eugenics arguments about the “backsliding” of our species. But when see all the complex systems presently accelerating in I4S ability, we see the true nature of social progress, and we know whether the tradeoffs are worthwhile, in each case.
Every generation has observed aspects of running down in the next generation. Such observations are always partly true, but they often miss the larger picture. They don’t see the progress of the system as a whole. Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, 2001, is an homage to the contributions of those born between 1914 and the mid 1920’s, who came of age in the Great Depression and fought in WW II. This book and others in its class, such as Robert Putnam’s excellent Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000) chronicle things that we’ve lost in our much easier and much more digital modern times.
But I wouldn’t go back to the post-WWII world compared to what we have today for a minute. We’ve had massive net progress, even though we’ve seen social backsliding in several specific examples in our STEEPS systems. The progress we’ve made has been amazing, and we are now on the edge of some vastly better and more intelligent future still.
Some social and religious conservatives, taken aback by all the rapid social change around them, find it easy to argue the world is getting worse, particularly as they age. This world view fits their biases. Older folks who listen to Fox news and other opportunistic fear-based media, ever more loudly and continually as they age, will often move away from a charitable and optimistic to a zero-sum and running down world view. Some religions, including Christianity, even prophecy in their scripture that this “running down” will occur. A small minority of folks in this faith, generally older and/or more fundamentalist types, actually see social running down as a good thing. They falsely believe that it will hasten the arrival of “end times.” This is an example where scriptural literalism has blinded them to the general progress that is occurring. It prevents them from an objective analysis of the costs and tradeoffs of that progress. Fortunately the vast majority of Christians do not harbor this view. They rightly believe it is their moral responsibility to try to leave the world a better place for their children, and for all children.
For morally repugnant examples of running down, where we don’t get any social benefits in return, think of the regression in average lifespan in post-Soviet countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the afflictions we’ve been seeing in many smaller American towns that have lost their manufacturing base and are fighting addiction, poverty and ignorance. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016) is a passionate look at the plight of poor, white America in the 21st century, and the social backsliding in the US for the last sixty years that has allowed the Trump presidency.
Think also of all the milder forms of addiction, distractions and dumbing down we see in our youth as our digital technologies improve at ever-faster rates. Today’s kids have a hard time reading maps, doing arithmetic, writing, and some other critical skills that we adults can make a case are still useful in the world. Folks like Mark Bauerlein write popular books like The Dumbest Generation, 2009, chronicling various ways today’s primitive, first-gen digital technology makes our current generation less self- and socially-aware and responsible than their parents. We should fight the backsliding in physical world social skills, focus, critical thinking, world awareness, and self-responsibility that can come with our digital tools, but we also need to recognize all the ways that these tools make today’s generation and their technologies more innovative, intelligent, interdependent, immune, and sustainable than ever before.
Accelerating technologies also usually have differential impacts on each of six STEEPS systems. Some of these systems get better as others get worse. Recall our discussion of the plutocracy which always gets worse at first, as new science and technology are used to create great new wealth, with the lion’s share going first to the holders of capital. It takes a while to restore a growing plutocracy to a more democratic state, and to spread all that new wealth around. We need to see the whole picture, and recognize the tradeoffs we are making.
Most important, for our future, are the processes of accelerating change. Where they go, and why, determines our leading futures, and our greatest marginal rates of societal change. That change can be positive or negative. As leaders, we need to better anticipate, create, and manage all this change. We need to see the direction of progress, and help everyone get to a better world.