Even Tom Friedman Can be on to Something.

Matt Taibbi has been mocking a graph that supposedly shows up in Tom Friedman’s new book.

The graph is shown below.  friedman-graph

Several people have been commenting that, intuitively, the basic idea makes a lot of sense.  There are times when the state of technology is such that humans can’t make sense of what’s going.  Of course, it doesn’t have to be technology and the organisms don’t have to be “humans.”  It’s really the idea behind the concept of punctuated equilibrium, or perhaps, in a sense, a state where an existing equilibrium is being knocked off the course. The bottom line, really, is that technology has outpaced humans in some sense, and that we are a bit lost.  I think that is a perfectly legitimate point to make.

The real problem with the graph is that we have no idea whether the rest of the graph represents anything that’s even close to reality.  We don’t know if “technology” is either one dimensional or always changing at an increasing pace as time passes.  We don’t know what exactly “human adaptability” is, whether it is unidimensional, or if it is always moving unidirectionally.  As a historical example, one might look at the way humans adapted to the crossbow or gunpowder, technological inventions that revolutionized warfare by making use of mechanical (for crossbow) or chemical (for gunpowder) means to strike at adversaries instead of physical strength and skill.  The adaptation came in more in form of tactics and organization, rather than how one fights one on one.  Technological changes often force adaptation at societal scale and that can be completely unpredictable and hugely disruptive, and in many cases, things can and do move backwards.  (with the decline of the longbow, the people with immense upper body strength, required for drawing a powerful bow, are less in demand, and as such, the number of potential trainees as bowmen are smaller–when the Duke of Wellington wanted to raise a force of archers to fight Napoleon (muskets are, in some ways, much inferior to bows in the hands of good bowmen), the scheme came to naught because there were so few prospective bowmen because the English peasantry had declined in their physical attributes–at least when it came to qualifying as archers.

So in a sense, this is the real lesson.  It’s not that Friedman has a ridiculous idea.  The problem is that Friedman puts idea in a context that makes no sense, a fantasy world of his making that adds more than there is to the story.  This is something that wonks, incidentally, are very commonly guilty of:  when complex concepts are being distilled to pictures and other simple presentations, new ideas and insinuations not part of the original concepts can slip in, often willingly but sometimes unconsciously, reflecting the bias of the presenter.  Rationality, in game theory, for example, simply meant that preferences had to obey certain mathematical properties–so that one could use math to analyze strategies and stabilities properties of equilibria.  But “rationality,” meaning something rather different, slipped in in popular discourses of game theory.  Patterns that do not make easy mathematical sense but not illogical in their own terms are declared “irrational” by commentators ignorant of the underpinnings of game theory.  The word “evolution” has the connotation of a unidirectional movement, towards things getting “better” (whatever that means) so “evolution” has been used by political social ideologues to justify “progress” as they saw it, sometimes with horrifying results.

Sometimes, a single word provides far more information that is actually valuable than a thousand pictures by virtue of their simplicity.  We think the opposite all too often, and are sold a bill of goods that we don’t care for because we were sold misleading, irrelevant, and deceptive information that has nothing to do with the big point, i.e. we saw too many damn pictures.


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