Civilisation = existential risk


Global civilisation and technology have become deeply entangled.

“technology” is something that somebody wants you to submit to
Ted Nelson

We can attempt to measure the entanglement with a Civilisation/Technology Index:

CTI / (1 – CTI) = PG, where PG is the power gradient that operates in a society.

The CTI is not something we can measure directly, but as primates we are experts at coming up with guestimates for power gradients. After all we are the inventors of money and an endless variety of further imaginary status symbols, some with local currency and others with global reach and recognition across many cultures. For the purpose of studying civilisations CTI is the dependent variable in the equation above.

CTI = PG / (1 + PG)

An a[r|u]tistic journey on one breath

Around the planet (CTI = 0.0) into the Anthropocene (CTI ~ 0.5):

Anthropocentric bus[i|y]ness as usual

Towards quantification of the most liveable city and  CTI = 1.0:


Existential risk

The power gradient that shapes a particular society or civilisation could be defined as the slope of the Lorenz curve for the top 1 or top 0.1 percent of the population. Aggregate one-dimensional measures like PG or the Gini coefficient offer extreme oversimplifications that provide us with a rudimentary understanding of specific aspects of complex systems. Whilst the Gini coefficent provides a rough indication of power differentials in day to day interactions, the PG provides a rough indication of the level of centralisation of power towards the top of the primate dominance hierarchy.

Given the social learning disability induced by the dampening of feedback loops in hierarchical systems, given the global reach of capital, and given the extreme cognitive limits of all humans, we live in dangerous times. In the Anthropocene the PG measure can serve as a rough proxy (illustration) for the level of existential risk for Earth’s population.

Beyond one-dimensional metrics

We could formalise PG by attempting to quantify how much the set of decisions di of an agent ai are influenced by the sets of decisions by all other agents aj where (i≠j). The “perfect” civilisation with PG = 1 is one where there is a partial ordering of agents, such that there is one agent a0 (the most powerful agent) that influences (directly or indirectly) the decisions made by all agents ai with i≠0, and such that at the other end of the scale there is a set A of agents who do not have any influence over the decisions made by any other agent outside of A (the set of least powerful agents).

Civilisations can then be analysed rigorously. We can compare them, rank them, and visualise power structures with Hasse diagrams. Such a formalism may quickly be snapped up by the economics profession and by Smart Cities technologists, and the power gradient may be branded and sold to us as the future Living Standard Index (LSI).

Lifting people out of poverty can then be “explained” as lifting people out of set A (which includes most primates and all other forms of life), and giving people the opportunity to work their way up an infinite ladder of social strata A1, A2, … with the remote prospect of becoming the new a0 one day in the distant future, when by some cosmic cataclysm the old a0 ceases to exist.

The above may sound increasingly absurd, but it is where we are heading if we:

  1. insist on the continued belief in imaginary abstract social metrics,
  2. allow cities to be technocratically engineered from top to bottom,
  3. frame more and more of human life as quantifiable decision making problems that are ideally automated by smart technologies.

There is nothing like extrinsic motivation.

Interpretation depends on your perspective.

Recent history of social engineering

In this article on inequality Rutger C. Bregman refers to the Overton window as follows:

It seems like the window of what is politically possible is just opening up, or that what they call the Overton window is shifting. Ideas, according to theory that originated with political scientist Joseph Overton, are seen as somehow acceptable to discuss at a certain creative time, and the real political challenge is to move the window.

Bregman does not seem to mind / notice how the notion of a “window” implies the assumption that acceptable discourse must always fit within a small fixed frame – the mental metaphor of a window only allows for “shifts”, and is designed to prevent people from conceptualising a high-dimensional sphere of discourse that can not only shift, but can also contract or expand.

Note that the Overton window concept was named following the death of Joseph Overton, and young people like Rutger Bregman may not have come across any alternative concepts for describing the scope of acceptable discourse.

Overton played a key role in establishing the Center as a growing, productive and influential think tank through his direction of its research projects, staff operations and strategic planning.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a nonprofit institute that advances the principles of free markets and limited government. Through our research and education programs, we challenge government overreach and advocate for free-market approach to public policy that frees people to realize their potential and dreams.

The notion of “spheres” of discourse is older, and in the years before Overton, was used by Daniel Hallin for critical analysis of the Vietnam war etc.

Human primate power politics

In a primate world obsessed with social power it should not surprise that the concept of spheres was replaced with a window that can only shift. Each incremental shift can conveniently be presented as a compromise, yet via multiple increments the window can be sent onto a journey towards a destination that represents entirely new territory, especially if a powerful group of primates is determined to get there, and uses divide and conquer tactics to prevent any concerted effort to move in a different direction.

The window metaphor also provides safety for “investments” and status conscious investors, as it implies that it takes tremendous energy (and many increments) to move the window backwards or in some orthogonal direction. One of the hallmarks of cultural evolution is that it has the potential to move much faster than genetic evolution. Declaring any changes that require swift action to be a “revolution” – and therefore to be off-limits – is the same kind of mental manipulation as the replacement of spheres of discourse with a window of discourse.

This article in the New Zealand mainstream press is a good example of how slooow and gradual change has always been and will always be the perfect tool for investors.

… pave the way for New Zealand’s transition to a low emissions economy by 2050.

What a great way to be seen to be doing the right thing and to be rewarded for it. Only very few commentators understand what’s really going on.

“it’s increasingly clear that the movement has missed the bus by several decades”

Time is the one thing that investors are worried about most. They always want enough time to shift their assets into advantageous “positions” in the social paradigm that is emerging on the horizon. They are less worried about being overrun by an angry mob than being worried about transforming their assets into the next dominant abstract currency.

A world not ruled by abstract social status is completely outside the Overton window of investors.

We have convinced / deluded ourselves into believing that the window metaphor is a law of nature. The pathologisation of neurodiversity is a symptom of this social disease. The big question is whether there is a path for society to unlearn the window metaphor and to (re)learn the sphere metaphor.

In an expanding sphere we can keep all the existing discourse in one corner whilst creating a diverse multi-verse in other corners. The main barrier is the perceived loss of reach of the empire of capital. Just imagine the scenario of zones of human interaction and collaboration where capital can’t “buy” you anything, neither influence nor resources.

Can capital-free zones of social organisation co-exist with capitalism on this planet?

I am afraid this may be a question of peace vs war for one camp and a question of right vs wrong (= “who provoked the war?”) for the other camp.

The story of a local currency with negative interest rates in Wörgl is an interesting case in point.

The experiment resulted in a growth in employment and meant that local government projects such as new houses, a reservoir, a ski jump and a bridge could all be completed, seeming to defy the depression in the rest of the country. Inflation and deflation are also reputed to have been non-existent for the duration of the experiment.

Despite attracting great interest at the time, including from French Premier Edouard Daladier and the economist Irving Fisher, the “experiment” was terminated by Austria’s central bank Oesterreichische Nationalbank on September 1, 1933.

Local currencies with negative interest rates hold big potential, but they are fiercely opposed by the power elite in societies with high power gradients. Such currencies stimulate local collaboration and mutual aid, whilst dethroning money as the ultimate store of value. Money becomes a liquid like water, it can’t be magically shunted across the globe in abstract form, and unless it is put to good use locally it evaporates. A perceived nightmare for a few,  a welcome transformation for the many.

Onwards towards trusted collaboration at human scale

Join us for the next CIIC workshop on 2 March (Auckland) and 9 March (Melbourne)! CIIC provides a great opportunity for all participants to outline wicked problems they are wrestling with, and to obtain access to the perspectives and questions from others with complementary expertise and interests.

Dates and times


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