28 July 2018

Increased communication speed breaks moral systems

I feel very stupid.

It's really that simple; it had to be simple to be so darn pervasive, but it also explains why you get cults around news organizations.  The cult is a defense of the stability of a moral universe.

Every time -- I think television is a historical example now; printing and radio and mass literacy sure are -- you get an increase in communications speed, you get a massive social crisis.  This makes no sense in some respects, because those things tend to come in with improving economies and standards of living.  What's the problem?

The problem is that moral systems do not and cannot scale; they're driven by feelings, and the feelings are established in childhood in a fixed context.  (Nuance is not a capacity of infants.) Communications speed drives the rate of change in the context.  If you have to walk a few hundred miles, work some place for six years, and walk back to bring mechanical improvements you then have to convince locals to fund or adopt, it takes close to a generation to change anything.  If you can download instructions from the internet, everything speeds up, and the context shifts faster than the rate at which people can emotionally reconcile themselves.  Especially if the change is viewed as disadvantageous, this becomes intolerable.  If you have everybody convinced that they'll suffer for eternity if they're bad -- remember that good and bad are inescapably contextual judgements -- you get the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the wars of religion; a lost century, rather than a lost decade.

It explains the intense loathing of public education; public education came in as a means to generalize concepts like "submission to authority", but as soon as it turns into "here are the ways to get along with strangers" it's a problem to any  moral system.  (Anything that says "your feelings aren't always important" is a threat to any moral system.  That moral system needs to get itself copied into the future.  Moral systems are all fundamentally "if the king is upset, everybody is upset; don't upset the king".)

It explains why ostensibly moral systems collapse throughout history to "I am right" on the part of some autocrat; it was always like that, it just usually had the justification of a functioning social system.

Since moral systems aren't required to organize society -- boundary-driven social organization, rather than prescriptive rules, works fine -- this is not in principle a problem.  Severing the chain of cultural transmission for the existing moral systems, in a time when we're guaranteed a millenium of instability (no agriculture, awful weather events) and a century or so of migration (because those places aren't inhabitable anymore) is likely a challenge.


Unknown said...

"moral systems aren't required to organize society -- boundary-driven social organization, rather than prescriptive rules, works fine". I'm in theoretical agreement, but, empirically... Can you adduce examples?

Graydon said...

I really need to figure out where my comment notifications went!

Well, at a very personal level, consider all the stuff about "normal"; it's prescriptive. The "boys wear pink/girls wear blue" switch during the 20th century is an example, but generally, "boys do" and "girls do" are prescriptive rules. Removing those rules does no harm. (The fire department stops hiring men and starts hiring anyone who can pass the physical test, et multi cetera.) Every available evidence is that, even as imperfectly as such things have been implemented, the overall access to choice in society has gone up; more people can do something more like what they want to be doing more of the time.

At a very broad level, consider the Portuguese drug legalization experiment. They stopped with prescriptive rules which reduce to "don't get high with this stuff but that stuff is OK" and went with "we don't want there to be bad consequences from people getting high". (It worked really well.)

In the middle, you can have a building code that states what materials your roof has to be made from, or you can have rules about where in the "doesn't readily leak/doesn't readily burn/doesn't shed ice on to the public thoroughfare/etc." space a roof must be. Consider that the first can prevent solar panels, turf roofing, aluminium tile (wasn't around when the law got written...) and so on; it's a barrier to improvement.

Peter T said...

Most sensible systems are a mix, with migration to one pole or the other and then re-sets. An architect friend remarked that he had seen contracts go from "fit for purpose" to compendia of details and back to "fit for purpose". Both could be gamed, both generated excessive overheads in litigation as gamers moved in/technology moved on/understandings morphed... (ie things changed as they do).

The US fixation on the "rule of laws, not men" leads it, in my observation, to much more complex laws and regulations (barriers to change) on the one hand, and more autocracy on the other ("if it's not expressly forbidden, I can do it - and I will make sure it's not expressly forbidden"). Many other places do it better.