The First Law of Psychohistory

Let me let you in on a secret. This whole consulting, blogging, and technology analysis schtick I have going on is really just a way to pay the bills while I pursue my real life mission: inventing psychohistory. Not some tedious general equilibrium macroeconomics simulator that merely predicts boring commodity price movements one nanosecond out, but real, Asimovian psychohistory. Predicting and shaping the long arc of history, across the rise and fall of civilizations, through golden eras and dark ages, through possible futures of space exploration and mutant Mules (Space Trump?) and future four-eyed green-skinned transhuman neoreactionaries trying to enslave all the inferior non-four-eyed, non-green-skinned types. Chaos theory and flapping butterflies be damned. This stuff is just fun to think about, which is why so many of us enjoy science fiction, all the absurdities and impossibilities notwithstanding. At least in my own head, Breaking Smart is the First Foundation, Ribbonfarm is the Second Foundation, and my book Tempo was my first stab at a theory of psychohistory.

In the unlikely event that I fail to invent psychohistory, I'll settle for writing a space opera that mashes up Asimov and Douglas Adams in an interesting new post-cyberpunk comedy-sci-fi history of the future (first trial chapter here). But that's Plan B. Let's talk about Plan A: the possibilities for psychohistory. The good news is, I believe we have already figured out the First Law of Psychohistory. (You may not know this, but in the Asimov canon, psychohistory begins not with Hari Seldon, but with a robot (R. Giskard) trying to figure out the 'Laws of Humanics' corresponding to the well-known 3 laws of robotics.)

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Map of the galaxy, a few millennia from now

1/ Kurt Vonnegut said: "History is merely a list of surprises, it can only prepare us to be surprised yet again."

2/ This sense of history seems deceptively fatalistic and deterministic, but it actually offers a possibility for a particular kind of control: choosing the texture of future surprises.

3/ Psychohistory can be defined as the study of the art of choosing futures that are indefinite streams of good surprises over futures with bad surprises. Serendipity over zemblanity.

4/ In Asimov's Foundation saga, the premise is that with the right nudges, the Galaxy would endure a Dark Age of only 1000 years, instead of 30,000, after the fall of the Trantorian empire.

5/ Hari Seldon, the inventor of psychohistory, uses advanced statistical mechanics, techniques to finesse chaos, and the existence of telepathy and mind control to achieve control over the future.

6/ Real psychohistory may seem like an exercise in unfalsifiability: Even if you can get consensus on 'good surprises', how do you know you aren't just letting bad surprises accumulate under the rug?

7/ In Why Nations Fail, for instance, the authors offer a model for good versus bad surprises in national development: pluralist versus extractive governance systems.

8/ They offer strong evidence that pluralist polities create good surprises, and extractive polities bad ones. But by definition, we can't be certain pluralism doesn't breed black swans somewhere.

9/ Still, I'm personally willing to make a leap of faith: for the basic design of societies, infinite games -- systems designed to allow play to continue -- are better than finite games -- systems designed to achieve "final" victories.

10/ We can't be 100% sure that nuking the planet in an act of species-suicide isn't better than possibly signing countless future generations up for millennia of torture for example.

11/ The reason for choosing indefinite life at both individual and societal level is that it's the more interesting thing to do, so long as you can tolerate current levels of ooga-booga.

12/ We already have technologies, such as the approximate free market, that kinda resemble psychohistory: they keep the game going and generate what many consider good surprises.

13/ Karl Polyani once noted that "laissez faire was planned, planning was not." Infinite games aren't necessarily "natural". Worse: finite games like a command economy can emerge organically.

14/ Many people have this exactly backwards. Finite games don't need protection: they emerge naturally and die of their own fatal limitations. It is infinite games that need protection.

15/ Besides the economy, other infinite games include cultural production, science and yes, democracy. There is no end state. No winning. Just structures to keep play going.

16/ The test of an infinite game is that players continue to opt-in to play it at a faster rate than they opt-out or leave the game. Ie, people simply choosing a definition of "good surprise".

17/ This means an infinite game cannot "end" in the normal sense with an outcome, but it can get starved of players if it produces too long a string of events that seem like bad surprises.

18/ The global democratic recession is exactly this. Supposed analytical "proofs" that democracy is "failing" because it is "bad" are nonsensical, but the potential for player starvation is real.

19/ The temptation is to retreat to a finite game that can produce a few "good surprises" in the short term by suspending the mechanisms that make the game infinite: killing the golden goose.

20/ The risk is that the there may be no way to restart those mechanisms; no way to unkill the golden goose. Which is how democratically elected Trump can be a threat to democracy.

21/ The mechanism for this golden-goose killing is coercion at boundaries. The more coercion you use to keep people in/out of games, the more finite the game gets.

22/ This brings us to the question of boundaries. Should you draw them, and if so, where, and how strongly? And how should you maintain their integrity if not with guns and racial profiling?

23/ Even the original infinite game, evolution, has a boundary around its core alphabet: ATCG. For practical purposes, almost all evolution happens within the boundary of DNA.

24/ In the primordial soup, evolution was not confined to the boundaries of DNA. And perhaps there are non-DNA aliens out there or non-DNA descendants in our future.

25/ Evolution does not mean no boundaries, but it also does not mean permanent, absolute boundaries. It means expedient boundaries that work to keep the game going at a given time.

26/ The question is: what kind of boundaries make for good surprises? Drawn around what sorts of things, at what abstraction levels? A good primer is this Sarah Perry article, Gardens Need Walls.

27/ Contrary to what contemporary critics think, for instance, neoliberalism isn't a global anarchocapitalist open-borders nightmare where anything goes and 1%ers run amok.

28/ It relies on boundaries between states and markets, limits on what central bankers do, legitimate and illegitimate uses of military power, and so forth. 
 
29/ Every infinite game is what I like to think of as "flavored evolution." Defined by a set of generativity-protecting boundaries that evolve as conditions and patterns of play change.

30/ As a general rule, boundaries are best drawn around the lowest level of abstraction possible, around the "alphabet" of the game, rather than the playing field or allowable states of play.

31/ A boundary around the alphabet (English) beats one around the grammar (official French?). Grammar boundaries in turn, are better than vocabulary boundaries (Orwell's 1984 newspeak).

32/ Here, "better" means "creates a bigger canvas in space and time for the infinite game." You can keep a game going longer by defining a lower-level boundary than a higher-level one.

33/ Currently, we're breaking the boundary around the Latin alphabet with emoji, and this will either kill English, the most powerful contemporary linguistic infinite game, or make it stronger.

34/ Another example: currencies are instruments based on future hopes used to sustain present-day  transactions. This is a fascinatingly strange past/future boundary at the heart of capitalism.

35/ When you buy a $5 sandwich, you're in fact handing over a small slice of hope in the future in order to eat right now. The future that slice is part of is represented by the US dollar.

36/ The US dollar is a very powerful boundary drawn around the idea of America. While it is protected from threats like sovereign default it offers more protection than physical borders.

37/ This is why it is worrying that Donald Trump believes in literal walls, but apparently doesn't know whom to ask about whether a strong or weak dollar is better for the idea of America.

38/ I don't know either. It is a question for economists, but the point is, that's a better boundary to focus on for protecting the infinite game that is America than the Mexican border.

39/ I happen to think Trump doesn't actually care one way or another about protecting the infinite game of America, but for many people, borders are a source of sincere confusion.

40/ A common mistake is to lock down boundaries around playing fields, freezing a cast of players rather than directly protecting underlying infinite game engines.

41/ More generally, this is a case of trying to constrict allowable state of play, defined for instance, in terms of the racial makeup of the nation or the competitive structure of an industry.

42/ For the latter, in Silicon Valley terms, industrial protectionism is a case of trying to "contain" spillover and surplus effects through economic protectionism, lowering value creation.

43/ This is a bit like saying a pendulum is allowed to swing 60 degrees in one direction, but only 5 degrees in another. Newtonian mechanics -- the infinite game engine there -- doesn't work that way.

44/ When people do this, it is usually because they are attached to a particular identity and wishfully hope that that identity is causally central to the prevailing infinite game and its rewards.

45/ This is effectively anthropocentrism -- the belief that something about you, your tribe, or your species, such as machining skill, white-skin genes, or opposable thumbs -- defines the infinite game.

46/ Steve Bannon, for example claimed (incorrectly) that 2/3 to 3/4 of Silicon Valley CEOs are from Asia (the real number is less than 14% of executives), which he thought was a problem.

47/ But it is Bannon's follow-on remark that is revealing: "A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society." By which he seems to mean a Norman Rockwell painting rather than rule of law.

48/ This isn't just a white nationalist idea. Ethnonationalists everywhere believe something like this. Fortunately for us non-chosen-one types, societal evolution is not anthropocentric anymore than the universe itself.

49/ The idea of a nation is the infinite game that keeps it going indefinitely, not the aesthetic gestalt of a particular state of play, where people on the field happen to look a certain way.

50/ The problem with the idea is not that it is "racist", but that it cargo cults an infinite game via a preferred explanation, like explaining the swing of a pendulum based on the color of the bob.

51/ Which brings us to psychohistory. Once you think in terms of the long arc of history, and infinite games spanning millennia, you have to deal with boundaries less anthropocentrically.

52/ Nations, languages, "races", particular mental images of "civic society," DNA, all become too limiting. Those things haven't been meaningfully stable even in our brief history as a species.

53/ Here's the amazing thing though: we have brains capable of imagining futures that transcend every boundary we know of, even if we have no idea what infinite games might get us there.

54/ Even better, the mere imagining of an exciting future is enough to create a currency of meaning for the present. We don't even need an obvious way to write ourselves into that future.

55/ Asimov's Foundation saga itself is an example. As an imagined future, it is protected not by boundaries, but by the opt-in allure of its ideas: psychohistory, positronic brains, hyperspatial travel.

56/ We don't have the science to create that future, but that actually doesn't matter. The currency from an imaginary, impossible future can sustain the economy of a real present and create real futures.

57/ When we take such futures too literally, to be actually realized in literal ways rather than as a basis for a currency of meaning (a superset of economic currencies), we get uncritical religion.

58/ When we take imagined futures seriously, but not literally, we get a meaning economy: a human condition that is based on people having a future they can believe in.

59/ Ironically, the phrase "seriously, but not literally," was coined by Peter Thiel to describe what Trump voters supposedly thought of his promises. Turns out, he did mean them literally.

60/ This brings us to the First Law of Psychohistory: Humans need a future they can believe in. It doesn't have to be literal, only serious enough to sustain a meaning currency for today.

61/ So long as the actual consequences of such belief is continuation of the infinite game for the believers, the specifics turning out differently, via good surprises, is enough for the belief to pay for itself.

62/ Why is this a "law" of psychohistory? Because, as Alan Kay said, it is easier to invent the future than to predict it. The First Law is the law of self-fulfilling prophecies, basically.

63/ In Asimov's Foundation saga, the critical period is the early centuries. Once the Foundation gets going and word of its manifest destiny gets around, self-fulfilling prophecy dynamics kick in.

64/ Predicting and shaping the future when anything is possible is intractable. But predicting and shaping the future when people believe in a specific source of meaning, that seems within reach.

65/ This is why I have been fascinated by narrative thinking and the ways in which stories shape reality, for years: stories are how we gain control of the future, by creating meaning currencies.

66/ For decades narrative thinking has endured a hostile intellectual climate that treats stories as just another kind of cognitive bias. That period is ending.

67/ Democracy may be in recession, but the market for meaning-making is growing. There's never been a better time to create and offer people a future they can believe in: that's what an Asimovian "Foundation" is.

68/ As more people opt-in to the meaning currencies defined by the best of such futures, self-fulfilling prophecy dynamics start to kick in, and narrative natural selection works its magic.

69/ While fear-mongerers are gleefully counting their short-term gains in the finite games they've temporarily sold, the actual future begins to be created in the Foundations of meaning-making.

70/ And once precarious "Foundations" grow roots (heh!), history miraculously goes from butterfly-flapping, chaos-theoretic intractability to a state where we have agency despite unpredictability.

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Check out the 20 Breaking Smart Season 1 essays for the deeper context behind this newsletter. If you're interested in bringing the Season 1 workshop to your organization, get in touch. You can follow me on Twitter @vgr

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