The Pain of Progress

During my teens, I believed that for the past three, four thousand years humans and their general cognitive abilities did not evolve much. As I am listening to Iain McGilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary,” however, I am moved to reconsider.

His exposé of how human thought writ large—most prominently described across the ages in Western cultures—has changed suggests to me that the generations who came before us really did not necessarily think the way we do.

And I believe that the progression of thinking style, in many instances, occurred in a two-step fashion. In each of these cases, an influential driver was not so much an intentional decision, but happened more or less accidentally: a technological advancement created a new environment, an opportunity for those with a specific genetic makeup to benefit more than others from this advancement, selecting for and solidifying the grasp of those genes on the gene pool.

The first step of progress was one in which people who could benefit from the increase in “explicit information bandwidth” as well as “signal quality” would rise to relatively more power. This would inevitably lead to an increase in technocratic (top-down) rather than intuitive (bottom-up) style of collective decision making (governance), a shift that Iain McGilchrist describes as “left-hemisphere-dominant.”

Here are some examples I can think of that I would call bandwidth increasing and signal quality enhancing:

  • written language, allowing faithful communication (orders) across much larger distances
  • introduction of papyrus, making written communication easier to reproduce
  • printing press, allowing for verbatim mass communication (especially in religious and governance matters)
  • discovery of electro-magnetic signal propagation (telegraph, telephone, radio), making communication much faster and harder to intercept/censor (e.g. British radio in Russia)
  • multiplexing of signals across a frequency spectrum (“channels”)
  • digitization of signals, allowing information-theoretic compression and further increase of density
  • networked communication culminating in the “internet”, which allows full and immediate bi-directional communication using a “routing protocol” (finding an arbitrary end-point by a name resolved to numeric addresses for hosts and email)
  • Web 2.0 progression with platforms offering a mass-unidirectional sending capability for everyone (poorly described as “social media marketplace of ideas”, in which the most attention grabbing content “wins”)
  • Web 3.0 progression in which content can be verified, allowing democratized (non-centralized) “deals” (verification of contracts), as well as non-centralized currency (trust shifts from fiat money to non-government-backed inter-user trust)

In each case, the people who felt that their view of the world no longer mattered as much—i.e., their opinions had less weight on the overall decision making process—would rebel. A painful conflict would ensue, which ultimately required a resolution which incorporates the concerns of those people into the thinking concepts of the then dominant, and more explicit-information-savvy, and thus successful, part of the population.

So, the pattern I’m describing works something like this: a population is characterized by a mix of cognitive abilities, in which some people are relatively more capable of abstract thinking, which in turn is more amenable to symbolic representation and, ultimately, digitization. Others are relatively more oriented towards intuitive, holistic, and embodied cognition, which is far less transmissible via explicit communication. Whenever a technology appears that both favors explicit symbolic communication and, overall, improves species success—writing down laws might prevent quibbles over “who’s right” for instance—humanity would go through this two-step cycle.

My intuition, rather than something I could logically prove, suggests to me that humanity has seen a lot these technological advances in just the past three, four generations. And the big conflict we are experiencing, particularly in Western cultures, is one in which the “explicit thinkers”, a technocratically minded elite, finds itself opposite a group of people who—as much as they are capable of reading, writing, and using all modern technologies—still prefer an overall cognitive experience of “embodied authenticity”, where things feel “real” rather than “fake” and completely abstract.

How far this conflict will develop, whether for instance we will experience a new Civil War in many Western nations, will then mostly depend on how soon this group of highly educated people “at the helm” recognize that their style of thinking and governance does not represent everyone’s preferences for how to approach life in general.

The response to COVID promulgated by many Western—and mostly democratically governed—nations is highly instructive. Many countries are seeing a significant (albeit non-majority) fraction of their citizenry rebel against a governance style that tells people in essence, “we, the highly qualified, have determined the best course of action, and now everyone must do as we say.”

And herein lies the inherent danger of a technological advancement, described in Iain McGilchrist’s terms: through an improvement of status of people highly skilled in left-hemispheric cognitive abilities, such as abstract propositional thinking, an imbalance is created which, ultimately, leads the leaders of an entire society into an ever narrower perspective of the world, in which fewer and fewer people—in other words, experts—set the agenda for the masses, which may not have the means to disagree on the same abstract and symbolic level, despite knowing “deep in their bones” that something is rotten, and not only in the state of Denmark.

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