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Chapter Fourteen


Web to weave, and corn to grind; Things are in the saddle,                   And ride mankind.                              —Ralph Waldo Emerson


The philosopher Karl Popper felt that "the belief in historical destiny is sheer superstition." Besides, he added, even if there were a destiny, it would be unknowable. "There can be no prediction of the course of human history by scientific or any other rational methods."

Popper's basic argument was simple. History is heavily influenced by the growth of knowledge. And we can't predict the future growth of knowledge. After all, if we could say today what new things we'll know tomorrow, then we'd already know them today, and they wouldn't be new tomorrow. Right?

Right. If we knew today how to build an affordable desktop computer that is fifty times more powerful than current desktop computers, we'd already have it on our desks. On the other hand, does anyone doubt that eventually we will have such computers on our desks? For purposes of prediction, isn't the fact that we'll have them more important than the question of exactly how we'll make them?

But wait. There's always a chance, according to Popper, that science and technology will come to a halt. This could be arranged "by closing down or controlling laboratories for research, by suppressing or controlling scientific periodicals and other means of discussion . . . by suppressing books, the printing press, writing, and, in the end, speaking." Well, maybe. But, even assuming that a government had the power to do that, it would soon find itself governing a not very powerful nation. To stop technical progress is to reserve a place in the dustbin of history.

That helps explain why several trends span all of human history: improvement in the transport and processing of matter, improvement in the transport and processing of energy, improvement in the transport and processing of information. We know that these trends will continue, even though we don't know the technical details that will sustain them. Or, at least, we know with, say, 99.99 percent confidence that these trends will continue. That's good enough for me.

Of course, predicting the persistence of technical trends is a long way from predicting their social consequences. When we move from the former to the latter, our confidence drops below 99.99 percent. Still, it doesn't get anywhere near zero. There are trends in social and political structure that more or less follow from trends in technology.

Finding predictive value in trends makes me guilty of "historicism." According to Popper, historicism involves the belief that insight into the future can be had by discovering "the 'rhythms' or the 'patterns,' the 'laws' or the 'trends' that underlie the evolution of history." Popper considered historicism not just misguided, but dangerous. For example, people persecuted under Hitler were victims "of the historicist superstitions of the Third Reich." Popper failed to note that by his definition the Enlightenment-era thinkers who founded American democracy, with their progressivist view of history and their attendant sense of mission, harbored "historicist superstitions" as well.

Whether the world of tomorrow will indeed be a logical outgrowth of today's trends is, of course, a question we can't settle today. The (fleeting) beauty of any predictions made in the next two chapters is their temporary unfalsifiability. But one thing we can do today is see whether the world of today is a logical outgrowth of yesterday's trends. If it is, then maybe extrapolating from trends isn't quite the muddled and heinous endeavor that Popper alleged it to be.

Consider seven basic features of the contemporary world that have gotten much attention from social and political analysts. All of these features are genuinely important—even, in some cases, as important as the analysts claim. But none of these features is new. All, indeed, are grounded in very old, very basic dynamics of cultural evolution. Their past stubbornness is valid reason to expect their future persistence...



An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright.