Content warning: Amateur Sociology
From “Meditations On Moloch“:
There’s a passage in the Principia Discordia where Malaclypse complains to the Goddess about the evils of human society. “Everyone is hurting each other, the planet is rampant with injustices, whole societies plunder groups of their own people, mothers imprison sons, children perish while brothers war.”
The Goddess answers: “What is the matter with that, if it’s what you want to do?”
Malaclypse: “But nobody wants it! Everybody hates it!”
Goddess: “Oh. Well, then stop.”
Scott Alexander personifies the force preventing us from just stopping as the Sumerian god Moloch, using it as a symbol for discoordination and perverse incentives.
But I think there’s a better metaphor lurking in there, and it involves a tortured physics analogy.
One of the more surprising facts in physics is the equation . Everyone has heard of it, and most everyone reading this knows what it means. The energy contains in a piece of matter is equal to the mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light. The square of the speed of light is really really big. Hence the amount of energy in a random piece of matter is really really really big. Hence nuclear energy.
But for some reason, we don’t live in a paradise of abundance and (almost) perpetual motion. What gives?
Here it pays to differentiate between regular energy and free energy; one is what all around you, the other is what your computer is running off of.
(An even better way to conceive of this is to extend Hofstadter’s turn of phrase and say the energy is closer to the surface is some forms).
For me, at least, this metaphor throws some facts into sharp relief. Asking people to just come together and sing kumbaya is like asking atoms to just come together and make all their energy freely available in a form fit for human consumption.
It also allows one to think about social power in general. The base state of humanity is a disorganized, low entropy mess. The perfect, mechanical organisation typical of various sci-fi hiveminds are clarketech; hypothetical, perfectly efficient forms of technology that you’d imagine some bizarre hyper-advanced post-singularity society to employ.
Thinking of government as a social technology is nothing new, but I find this perspective novel. And since I’m one to torture analogies the breaking point, I’ll extend this even further.
There two salient forms of social coercion: economic incentives, and personal threat. And these are leveraged by the technology of the state to hold itself together and ensure stability; taxes, imprisonment, paychecks, laws, education, et cetera. They all are innovations existing to further the goals of the state, which align with the people more often than not.
Just as matter has more latent energy than is easily utilised, humanity, in general, has an organisation potential orders of magnitude greater than our status quo. Optimal education, legal structure, and accommodation to the needs of people could hypothetically produce such a technical utopia.
The main issue with this is that nothing guarantees such a technical maxima even exists, and if it does, would be secure against enough forms of stress and sabotage to even be worth implementing.
But a counter-counter-point would note that space of all possible governments is large — combinatorically large — and achieving ‘optimal’ means devising a metric of goodness (which could, should, include stability). Combinatoric spaces are huge, it’s statistically plausible that there would be a very simple possibility in there that would utterly blow our minds.
The only problem is to get there, we’d need an optimizing algorithm capable of realistically and intelligently traversing the culture-space containing every possible society. Cultural evolution is good, but not that good. Come to think of it, neither are human minds.