Programmed for Failure

Every time I feel kind of optimistic about the future, I think back to the Roman Empire and realize that it could all end pretty quickly. It may be no accident that civilizations tend to have finite lives and our brains may be responsible. Jared Diamond(in his book Collapse) posits a framework for a society’s demise but he basically believes it is some combination of bad decision making and management that leads to failure. I’m proposing that it may actually be embedded in how our brains work and how it reacts to success. What allows us to build great civilizations may ultimately be responsible for our undoing.

As has been written in countless columns and blogs, manufacturing, software development, clerical work and so forth is being or will soon be outsourced to an offshore location where labour costs are so much lower. Many have argued that the US can retain world dominance by remaining a source of innovation and ideas. However, Thomas Friedman and others have been screaming lately that the US is losing it’s lead in technology and science and American students are falling behind the rest of the world in technical subjects.

The reason is not just that we’ve become lazy or stupid. The Flynn effect shows that average IQ’s have actually been rising every generation and in the recent book Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, Steven Johnson argues that video games and popular culture are actually making us smarter. So why is it that we are becoming less intellectual even though we are getting smarter?

I think it is related to the fact that it takes effort to concentrate on something. This effort is not because we’re using more energy. Although it may seem that thinking hard burns more calories, there is in fact little evidence for this. So if there is no metabolic cost then why is it so difficult to think? The reason may be that the brain is a novelty machine that constantly seeks new stimuli. Advertising and marketing people know that they need to change a scene every 10 or 15 seconds in a commercial or people’s attention will be lost. Our brains are designed to wander and seek new stimuli. This constant novelty seeking probably helps in the early stages of a civilization where things need to be built and everyone sees open opportunities for growth.

As a civilization matures, it takes longer and longer for the citizens to acquire and digest the accumulated knowledge required just to keep it running much less advance it. Years of training is necessary before anyone can make a contribution. Given our current comfortable circumstances, there is little incentive to undertake such an ordeal when there are so many other distractions to occupy us. In the past, scholastic learning might have been the most cognitively stimulating thing one could engage in. Now, our lives are filled with leisure activities that are much more interesting and entertaining than what we learn in school. For every high school kid with his nose stuck in an analysis textbook, there are hundreds or thousands of other kids who are playing video games, surfing the web, reading a Harry Potter novel or solving a Sudoku puzzle.

Is there a way out? I’m pessimistic. While it is true that those on the cutting edge are doing very interesting and stimulating things, the journey to get there is so long and arduous that fewer and fewer are likely to take it. No matter how appealing you may make calculus or organic chemistry, they just will never be able to compete with the endless variety of distractions in modern society. There will still be an educated elite but there won’t be enough of them to keep the engine going.

The decline of the US could be very rapid. Even now, much of science and technology is being driven by foreigners. However, as the balance of power starts to shift overseas and the US remains xenophobic, that spigot could be shut off quickly. The incentive to come here will diminish and people may return to their native countries as things decline here accelerating the process.

It may be that the only hope for humanity is to maintain uneven economic development. If the entire world became comfortable simultaneously, it might completely collapse all at once. However, if the decline of the US is accompanied by the rise of China and India then at least some order in the world could be maintained. After a century or so, the US could rise again in a perpetual cycle of localized growth and decay.

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