Toward a Grand Narrative of Civilization

History is a curious thing. We are irrevocably tied to the consequences of events in the past, but are also walled off from it completely. The complexity of reality is so great that with our meager tools the best we can often hope for is to construct some workable model of what has happened, so that we may make better choices in the present. However, as a model tries to look at the entirety of human existence, it becomes a complete fantasy. Models aren’t our only choice.

The narrative approach is a dangerous tool, often associated with biased tales meant to draw the listener into a stupor where he will believe anything. For all its biases and flaws, it is the only approach suited for the deep questions we are asking here. While the laws of the universe are what they are, models are human tools. Calculative-rational models only exist within a grander human story; they are a product of temporarily stable relationships in an ever shifting web of complexity. A complete perspective of what we call civilization is only possible when we zoom out beyond these stable walls of social convention, and tap into deep streams of primal thought. Continue reading

The Damming of the Mind

We are not so much defined by what we do think about, but what we don’t think about.

Sometimes, when a friend is telling you a story, or when the news anchor on the television is spouting off about a topic you particularly dread, you desperately reach for the mute button, change channels, tune out, or otherwise do a bit of mental judo so you can quickly get back to thinking about something else.

You’ve just brushed up against mental dam of your own creation.

Now, try to focus on any singular point, letter, or number. Do this for sixty seconds without letting a single other thought invade that space, without feeling a voice in the back of your head complaining about how boring or ridiculous this task is. As simple as it sounds, most people will find this extremely difficult.

Our consciousness is a wild river that resists every attempt to tame it, and trying to focus our attention like a laser beam for any extended period of time shows us how quickly we can be submerged in a fast moving stream of thoughts. While it’s difficult to discern where someone’s thoughts might be at any given time, you quickly learn what things they refuse to think about. Continue reading

Space for Perspective

With the space shuttle now returning from its final mission, and the Hubble Space Telescope breaking one million observations, my thoughts have been turning once again toward that infinite frontier. This end of an era highlights a necessary coming of age in the way we perceive the exploration of our universe.

The first book I remember becoming completely absorbed in at a very early age was the aptly named My First Book of Space. Since then, learning about the cosmos has been one of my most enduring interests.

Investing in the space program has resulted in marvelous gifts raining down from the heavens upon mankind. Pens that write upside down, memory foam, weather satellites, GPS, and ICBMs. Yet, the most important bounty to be harvested from all this hard earned knowledge is perspective. Continue reading

Faster is Different

We have all explored our own corners of the “real time web” for varying amounts of time. Entrepreneurs plug into it and extract value with a new addition, developers and IT types cope with challenges in resource and data management, politicians worry about how it might influence their campaigns or public opinion, marketers compete viciously for precious attention, and bloggers try to find meaning in it all. Despite our best efforts though, it seems that keeping up is becoming less feasible or palatable.

This article is not about the internet per se, it’s about speed and scale. This is not only about “More is Different” but “Faster is Different”.
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Why I Still Believe in Privacy

Unless you’re attached to a belief that we are headed toward some sort of collectivist utopia, where a social network fueled hive mind results in the best outcomes for us all, then you should care about privacy.

Lively discussions of this topic are too often relegated to back rooms, where misanthropes and sociopaths might nod their head in agreement that (their) privacy is important. What’s lost is a necessary conversation about why privacy is vital to society as a whole, not just to those who fear being judged as deviants. Ambivalence and progress continue to lead us down a road where privacy is evaporated but not missed, since its perceived value has been drastically reduced as well.

Privacy is essential to individuality and identity, two concepts at the cornerstone of western civilization. To some degree, it is what lets people define themselves as individuals. A total lack of privacy creates an unyielding pressure for conformity, and thus promotes group think, which in turn leads to the slow death of creativity and daring explorations. Privacy makes it easier for people to reinvent themselves and get a second chance, something that has been linked to the positive entrepreneurial dynamic in America. It also protects against the inevitable excesses of the powerful within a society, thus acting as a stabilizing force.

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Currency Gardening and the Arrogance of Design

Design, build, engineer. These words are inappropriate for a complete discussion of currency. Currencies grow, and like all growing things, the most useful dimension in which to look at them is time. Growing things take energy from their environment to expand themselves, but cannot escape being shaped, layer upon layer, by their surroundings.

A mature currency cannot, and does not exist in a void. Its roots are intertwined with the surrounding life, rocks, and detritus; its shape has been gnarled by fires, twisted by wind, and shaken by floods. Currencies are fastidious saplings, needing constant attention and pruning, but can grow to be towering giants that shape the surrounding landscape by dictating where the light falls on the forest floor. And like a majestic hemlock, a currency can come under attack from nearly invisible parasites that eat it from within and topple it unceremoniously. Continue reading