Randall Eades: Culture and Chaos

Guest Post 2This guest post by Randall Eades follows an online conversation about Beta Culture. 


Okay, I’ve read enough of your Beta Culture to get an idea of where you’re going with it. It’s interesting. But before I get into that, I’d like to back up a bit to where we began — the end of the world as we know it— to fill in a little history of my point of view.

Twenty-five years ago I read a piece by some science fiction writer in which he described some predictions for the future he’d made years before, about our society, our lifestyles, our technology, and how they’d turned out. His point, based on his many failures, was that it is damned difficult to predict our future. On a whim, I thought I’d give it a shot, just to amuse myself for awhile. It wasn’t like I would ever tell anyone, so failure wouldn’t be an embarrassment.

I started with the proposition of prediction itself. Is it even possible? It occurred to me that, of course, it is. We do it all the time. We are designed for it. We take in sensory information from the world around us, predict the future based on that information, and modify our behavior accordingly. The whole game of baseball is based on our ability to accurately predict the ever-changing location of a small ball in space/time. Our transportation system is possible only because of our ability to simultaneously predict the trajectories of multiple masses moving at variable rates of speed in multiple directions. Our agriculture system is only possible because of our ability to predict weather. On and on, ad infinitum. No problem. I can do this.

Prediction is the projection of current trends from the past into the future. Accuracy depends on the length of the trend line and the number of variable forces affecting it. Since I wasn’t doing a scholarly dissertation, for my purposes I thought it best to make the timeline as long as possible and keep the number of variables small and rather broad.

I started out 200,000 years ago, give or take, back to our roots. At the time the only variable creating significant change in human society was population growth, and that wasn’t much. Resources were plentiful and renewable. Every individual could know everything necessary to survive. Indeed, if a small tribe wandered through a time portal and came out the other side 150,000 years in their future, they might not even notice the difference. The climate might be a bit different, but within the range of normal variability. The topography might have changed some, because of floods, earthquakes and such, but as wanderers they wouldn’t have noticed. The only thing they might notice, eventually, was that they seemed to be running into more people than they used to, and in larger groups. And the new people had slightly better tools and weapons, and more complex chatter. Still, the tribe could have continued their lives as they always had, if they so chose, or join the new people and quickly adapt to the new ways.

Eventually, over more thousands of years, those growing groups would have created another variable — resource exploitation. Herds of migrating animals were becoming smaller. Choice plants were becoming scarcer. Their wandering was curtailed as tribal territory was marked off. They had to start managing their resources. And I had to start tracking that variable.

As they settled down into communities and started domesticating their plants and animals, the rate of change was becoming noticeable from century to century. New variables were introduced — politics, religion and economics. Those had to be tracked. Then communities became cities, which became states, which became empires. As the complexity of the society grew, the knowledge an individual needed to survive became more specialized and incomplete, which created a new information variable. As the economic and political variables became more complex, a communication variable had to be tracked, how long it took to move an idea from one point to another. As we developed and became dependent on machines, a technology variable had to be tracked. And the length of time one passing through that time portal could jump into their future and still fit in became smaller and smaller.

I spent several weeks playing with this, plugging in real data where I could get it and filling in with general information I’d picked up here and there. I soon noticed that the rates of change for all my variables were tracking together and they were all accelerating. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but I knew it was important. Though I didn’t yet know I was autistic (I’d never even heard of it at the time), I knew I’d always had an affinity for systems. And I realized that human civilization was acting like a gigantic, complex system.

Along in there somewhere, about the time I was reaching the end of my timeline, I happened to read James Gleick’s book, “Chaos: Making a New Science.” At that point, my autism kicked in big time, with every analytical circuit in my “disordered” brain firing, and I “saw” what I was looking at. It all fell into place and it all made sense.

Civilization is a non-linear, chaotic system. But it isn’t just “a” system. It is a fractal, with systems within systems within systems, way too complex for any human mind to comprehend. A set of conditions, a system, is set in motion, changes over time until the rate of change hits infinity, it goes chaotic, the conditions are shuffled and the whole thing starts over. The little systems are accelerating up and going chaotic all around us, every day. All these mass shootings are chaotic systems, building up over time, then exploding. Every war is a major system popping, taking years or decades to develop, each one setting up the conditions for the next. But the system I had been tracking, the one that really began with the first hominid, was a humongous mother of a system that has never reached the moment of chaos, and every variable I was following indicated that the rate of change was likely to reach the point of infinity within my lifetime, if I was careful. And when it explodes, it is going to be big. Everything is going to change. Life as we know it is going to end.

Once upon a time, I could have time jumped thousands of years with minimal adaptation to my skill set and the stuff I surrounded myself with. If I had jumped from the date of my birth to today in one jump, only 67 years, I would be totally lost and likely go insane. I have had to make major adaptations to my lifestyle several times in one life span. I look around my home and I am amazed by how much of the stuff I have collected, that defines my life on this planet, not only did not exist, but the very materials it is made of did not exist in the wildest dreams of anyone on the day I was born. I am stuck inside the time portal, with changes coming faster than I can understand or adapt to them. I look around the world and I’m reminded of the old saying: Everyone is crazy expect me and thee, and I’m not so sure about thee. Frankly, I’m not even sure about me.

I had set out to predict the future, and I did. It was not what I expected. It is not a guess that I might chuckle about in a few years, when it is proven wrong. I am as certain of our future as an all-star center-fielder plucking a lazy fly ball out of the air at precisely the right time. It’s a system. It works how it works. It does not have an OFF button. It does not have a rheostat that can be dialed back. It has been chugging along for more than a million years, doing its thing. The only variable of any importance is the accelerating rate of change, and it’s right there for everyone to see. Plotted on a graph, it is the hockey-stick curve familiar to everyone who deals with non-linear systems, and we are clearly well up the short end of the stick.

Chaos is coming. That is certain. What is not certain is when or how. Chaos is, by definition, absolutely unpredictable. From here on out, we can only guess.

The first thing to really hit me was that, when humans get involved with chaos, somebody usually dies. With a system of this magnitude, with this level of complexity, best guess is that a lot of people are going to die very quickly. Possibly everyone I know. Possibly everyone. That threw me into a bout of depression for months. But in this case, the hope and the fear are the same thing — unpredictability. Playing the probability game, there is an equal chance that everyone will survive and no one will survive, but the most likely outcome is somewhere in the middle. When the system goes down, a lot of people are going to die. We have no way of guessing how many until we have some idea of the how. And in the nature of chaos systems, the how is likely within the system itself. In other words, getting wiped out by an asteroid or attacked by aliens, while remotely possible, would not have anything to do with the system. We are going to do it to ourselves.

Chaos is coming. Then what? Can we prepare for survival and affect the starting conditions of the next iteration of the system? My guess is probably not. Preparing for the future requires predicting it to some degree; you can’t prepare for the unpredictable. We can’t train hand-picked survival groups, because we don’t know who will survive or what they will need to know. At any rate, such groups would become targets for every nut who resents being left behind.

One thing we might be able to do. All around the world, we could build knowledge repositories, structures that might survive every conceivable possibility of chaos. Fill them with books made of plastic or ceramic, something that could last for millennia, that contain what we have learned over our long trek, including lots of pictures. We could also throw in some seeds and basic tools.

But even at that, a good portion of the knowledge we pass on will be useless to them. One thing we can be sure about, whatever comes next, it will not be anything like our world. Even with all our knowledge, they can’t rebuild our infrastructure and technology. We didn’t leave them enough resources in the ground to do that. For example, they will never have oil, because what we have left is so hard to get to, they will never be able to build the equipment to reach it. All the metals they will have will be what they can salvage from our dead civilization. We’ve dug up most of what was in the ground, and again, what is left will be impossible from them to get to. Their world will have to be based on renewable resources. And in the end, they, like us, will have to adapt and evolve to fit the conditions they find themselves in. The best we can do is to make the best of the days remaining to us, and wish them well with theirs.