Shades of Hari Seldon!

You may remember that Hari Seldon was the fictional psychohistorian in Isaac Asimov’s famous science fiction work, the Foundation series. Hari’s life was situated about twelve thousand years in our future, near the end of the Galactic Empire. By virtue of his mathematical theory of society and history, Hari was able to predict the coming end of the Empire and even make arrangements for a new society to rise in its wake.

I have been put in mind of Hari by two works that have passed under my view in the last few months.

One of these goes by the forbidding title of

Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY):

Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the

Collapse or Sustainability of Societies

and can be found here.

The paper is a very straightforward effort to model how societies interact with their resources and how this might lead to collapse or to a sustainable situation. The technique is to use predator-prey differential equations where a society’s resources (food, minerals, water, etc.) are treated as the prey and the members of society, the consumers of those resources, are treated as the predators.

An important wrinkle in the model is that society is divided into Elites and Commoners with the Elites consuming a larger proportion of resources than the Commoners. As one might expect, the amount that Elites consume has tremendous influence over whether or not the model collapses or evolves to a stable state.

The second paper (actually, a book in the making) has the slightly less forbidding title

A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History.

It’s by a fellow named Peter Turchin at the University of Connecticut who is involved in the study of cliodynamics, the multidisciplinary study of history with an emphasis on mathematical modelling of historical dynamics. You can learn more about cliodynamics at this site.

Cliodynamics apparently leads to the perception of cycles in history, sometimes cycles that last a century or two, sometimes shorter ones of about fifty years. The sorts of quantifiable facts that can be discerned in historical records and statistics are such things as wealth, inequality of wealth, proportions of different classes of society, trade, turbulence versus stability, and so forth.

Not surprisingly, Turchin in his structural-demographic models of historical dynamics finds that Elites again play a very important role; in this case, the overproduction of Elites is a strong indicator of political instability in the offing.

After a little reflection, this is not such an odd thought.

From the scraps I recall of imperial Chinese history, the empire was governed by a mandarin class, and the way one got to be a mandarin was by passing an official examination. These examinations were brutal; they required the investment of a great deal of money and years and years of one’s life. Imperial dynasties, as I recall, got into trouble when there were too many people taking the exams and either not passing or not getting jobs when they did. The result was that you had a large group of bright, highly educated, unemployed, and unhappy people; and then it was usually time for an imperial collapse and a totally new start.

Come to think of it, there’s something similar today. In the last few years, there have been articles about M.B.A.’s having trouble finding jobs. And it’s not limited to M.B.A.’s. I’ve heard lawyers lamenting that law school graduates are having a hard time finding a starting position, at least one that permits them to pay off their education loans. That reminds me that Turchin’s work indicates a strong possibility of American peak political instability somewhere around 2020. As the old Chinese saying has it, we may be about to live in interesting times.

Let us note a few things about the work of the HANDY team and Turchin:

There is an established tradition of trying to find models or patterns of history; think of Oswald Spengler or Arnold J. Toynbee. Such models are built, excite interest, become the topic of the day, and then pass from fashion. One of the things that makes the HANDY and Turchin models particularly interesting is that they are mathematical models. They have knobs and switches on them so that one can play with the parameters and see if some variations yield “better” results than others. And the answers that come out of them are numbers and statistics so that it is easier to judge if they “worked” or not.

Notice that the HANDY and Turchin models are not specifically predictive in the sense of telling us that Caesar will be assassinated on the Ides of March. Rather they tell us about the tendencies of societies, of the things that are more likely to happen under given circumstances. It’s knowledge akin to the realization that if you drive ninety miles-per-hour on a winding dirt road, then the wheels are more likely to come off.

We don’t really know how good the HANDY and Turchin models are. This is a characteristic of much exploratory scientific work; it is a leap in the dark. Or we may, as time goes on, find evidence to support them. (2020, here we come! ) And, of course, there are other people building such mathematical models, trying to get something that matches historical records and then gives decent predictions. For example, if I recall correctly, the HANDY model was preceded by a simpler one that was applied to Easter Island in an attempt to understand the collapse of that island’s culture. The field of cliodynamics is a young one. We are still waiting for a real Hari Seldon to come along.

Now this brings up a particularly crazy thought, and what fun is madness if you don’t share it?

The two cliodynamical models discussed here are mathematically quite straightforward and reasonably simple. The real difficulties associated with them are collecting and interpreting the historical data. The actual mathematics is probably no worse than that associated with building a good computer game. Certainly there are precedents. Games about building civilizations or worlds or conducting military campaigns. This means that such models could be built by people who are not academics. College undergraduates—even bright high school students—might put one together or run experiments with it. Think SimHistory. Indeed they might even be able to collaborate with the academics and feed results and ideas back and forth.

What’s that? We already have all these world- and city-building games?

Maybe we do. But it seems to me that these games are given to the unfettered exercise of imagination. This is a lot of fun, but I wonder if there might not be something a little different and worthwhile to be uncovered here.

I remember decades ago when one of the first popular games that simulated actual warfare came out. It was, if I recall correctly, Tactics II, and it was not a computer game. (At that time, personal computers didn’t even exist in science fiction.) It was played on an actual board with little cardboard pieces, and it took about eight hours for a game. The reason it comes to mind now is that I learned something interesting in the process of mastering the game. There were varied and complicated rules about how different pieces moved and fought, but tucked unobtrusively toward the end there was also a rule that if fighting pieces could not trace a supply line back to a friendly city, their strength went down drastically. I was the first player in the game to notice that rule—and to realize its implications. This made me unpopular with the other players, but I didn’t care—I was happy with the results.

The thing I learned that day was something about the importance of logistics in warfare. Not that I became an expert, but ever since that time, when I have read military history or news articles about fighting, I’ve had a bit more understanding of the role of logistics in any sort of real world conflict. And my understanding is more vivid because I did not simply read about it; I worked my way through it.

So I wonder if models of historical dynamics might not carry with them similar lessons about which forces, trends, and policies are likely to bring about what changes in society. Would such models help us to understand why given policies and attitudes produced good or bad results?

What would it mean if we had a number of bright Young Minds running models of historical dynamics in their bedrooms or apartments—and using them to come to conclusions about public policy issues such as income inequality, resource scarcity, and public debt? What would it mean if those conclusions did not agree with the Sacred Truths of public debate?

It might make life uncomfortable for a number of politicians and Important People who would say, You don’t understand! You’re all wrong!

And the Young Minds would answer back, But we can run all these models, and we can change the parameters, and we still get the same answers! And looking at the models, we can follow the logic of the situation!

But I have to pause and recognize that my readers—who are doubtless far more sane than I am—are, at this point, most likely reeling in horror from the vision conjured here.

Please, calm yourselves. I’m sure there’s no need to worry.

In the course of time, the politicians would raise up Recognized Authorities who agreed with them, and conspiracy theorists would appear who questioned what those Young Minds are-really-up-to. The politicians, Recognized Authorities, and conspiracy theorists would corral these unruly Young Minds. They would discredit and bury the use of mathematical models under a blizzard of denunciations, scholarly refutations that employed far more impressive terms and notation, and white-hot exposés of plots to undermine American values and liberties. And the hubbub would die down.

Alas, I feel the slow trickle of sanity back into my mind. After all, in the final analysis, ordinary people cannot be trusted to understand these things for themselves. Can they?

5 thoughts on “Shades of Hari Seldon!

  1. You posit a challenge Mike! As Hedges and others have said, “Politicians are those who when a parade goes by, grabs a flag, trots to the front and says, ‘this is my parade!’.” Young Americans operate today through their social networks, I have a hard time seriously imagining many taking to the streets to protest anything, unless of course the internet is seriously taken down, and locally this is possible so who knows? For now all we can do is continue to develop critical mass and hope the disappearings don’t head off whichever coming to our senses occur, at the pass. And for that we thank you!

    • Rammy,
      I suspect that the solution of large social problems depends on how well the problem is understood and how widely spread that understanding is. My experience with teaching makes me think that understanding — real understanding — only comes when people dig it out themselves, not when someone tells the “answer.” So digging is to be encouraged.

    • Alan,
      That was an interesting article. The work done by Turchin is, in a certain sense, broader since the people in cliodynamics want to understand historical dynamics. Of course the ecological side is always important, and in our current circumstances, it is likely to be extermely important.
      Let me know what happens with Cooperation LLC. If you can get a school started or even interest gamers in these sorts of models — and the implications for society — that strikes me as excellent work.

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