Re: Traditional China as a counterexample to "spikism"

From: Steve Davies (
Date: Fri May 11 2001 - 09:38:07 MDT

-----Original Message-----
From: Jim Fehlinger <>
To: <>
Date: 11 May 2001 12:57
Subject: Re: Traditional China as a counterexample to "spikism"

> wrote:
>> [China]s] long history of stasis stands as the most important
>> to the kind of self-sustaining social and technical progress that lies at
>> the heart of modern Western culture.
>Steve Davies wrote:
>> The real story of technology in China is .. chilling (and ... scary)...
>I wrote:
>> Robert Wright discusses this event in _Nonzero: The Logic of Human
>> (2000), in Chapter 12 "The Inscrutable Orient" (pp. 162-164)...
>Of course, the whole point of Wright's book is that, while events
>such as the Ming turn toward isolationism may have sucked for the Chinese,
>they don't make a dent in the envelope of cultural evolution -- in the
>case of China's abandonment of progress, it just meant that the locus of
>representing the leading edge of the envelope shifted elsewhere (to western
>Wright's position is, of course, an **extremely** controversial one.
>Most mainstream historians (so I've heard) still react to the idea that
>history has a "direction" the same way that Stephen Jay Gould reacts
>to the suggestion that evolution has a direction -- with an intimidating,
>loud, and dismissive snort. But the whole notion of exponential
>progress leading to the Singularity, of which Ray Kurzweil seems now to
>emerged as the most publicly-visible exponent and champion, is simply
>an intensification of this idea of "directed history" as described by
>in _Nonzero_.
>However, the notion that no one polity or government has the power
>to halt the global trend has also appeared in responses to Bill Joy's
>call for "relinquishment" -- if it doesn't happen here, or in the
>open, that just means it'll happen elsewhere, or in secret. This view
>appears, for example, in Eliezer's remark "Maybe refusing to develop AI
>sounds vaguely plausible, but are you really going to keep the moratorium
>going for a thousand years? For a million years? ... >
>Jim F.

This is very interesting for me. I haven't read Wright's book but I am
familiar with that line of thought. I am very sceptical of the strong
teleological model which sees History as the inevitable unfolding of an
inherent neccessity, both because I reject the philosophical basis for most
such models and because I think the empirical evidence contradicts it. So I
am not keen on the idea of History as leading inevitably up to
Singularity/Communism/the Second Coming/Liberal Democracy or whatever. I am
much more sympathetic to a weaker form which says that certain developments
are not inevitable but if they do occurr they become very difficult to stop
or reverse. So, human beings remained hunter-gatherers for a long time and
it was not inevitable that they would discover agriculture but once they had
the spread of agriculture and other institutions such as money, trade,
cities and government (and religion?) was inevitable and ultimately
unstoppable. This implies that the appearance of a technologically
innovative civilisation was a matter of chance but, now that it has
happened, it's unavoidable and irreversible.
 However I would make one caveat: My personal view is that historically,
after agriculture comes along, there a series of levels of social
organisation/technological development which we can think of as equilibrium
points. There are several examples of a society suddenly and
catastrophically collapsing from one equilibrium to a lower one. This
involves a marked diminution in division of labour, much less trade, more
local self sufficiency, reduced urbanisation, less literacy/numeracy and a
decline in the use of a whole range of technologies even when, as often
happens, the knowledge of the technology remains. The best known case is the
collapse of classical civilisation in the 5th/6th centuries but the most
spectacular is the sudden demise of Mayan civilisation. So I wouldn't assume
nothing can go wrong. I'm not worried by kooks like Zerzan as much as
selfish and short sighted elites - they are more dangerous because they have
the power!

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Mon May 28 2001 - 10:00:04 MDT