Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Frenetic Standstill: On Technological Change and Institutional Inertia

Alvin and Heidi Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock is a classic of the futurist genre. The book makes a simple but striking argument: our world is changing too quickly for humans to keep up. Whatever the reality was in 1970, this is a sentiment that seems to be widely shared today. The internet and digital technologies have radically altered our political, social and economic landscape. Jobs that were once stable, life-long sources of employment have been automated away, while new and unusual jobs have come onstream; forms of communication and interaction that were once the norm have now become the exception; and elections have turned into hyperpolarised propaganda wars fought not between human beings but by bots and algorithms (acting, for now, at the behest of humans). It’s all a little dizzying and disconcerting.

At the same time that all this change is underway, the institutions that govern our societies seem to be creeping to a standstill. Grand social reform projects seem be a thing of the past. Politicians are more concerned with advancing their careers, scoring points off one another, and enriching themselves and their cronies than in trying to get things done. So, in an era in which we need our governance institutions to be flexible, dynamic and adaptive, they are anything but. What explains this mismatch between institutional inertia and rapid technological change?

That’s a question that many social theorists have asked. In his article ‘Political Inertia and Social Acceleration’, Bart Zantvoort reviews the answers given by two prominent public intellectuals: Francis Fukuyama and Harmut Rosa. Both come at the problem from different theoretical perspectives. Fukuyama sees institutional inertia as a natural consequence of our evolved psychology; Rosa thinks it is something that is directly, and somewhat paradoxically, caused by technological change. Zantvoort thinks the true explanation may require some combination of both perspectives.
Let’s see why this might be the case by reviewing Fukuyama and Rosa’s explanations. Both of them are interesting in their own right, irrespective of whether you care about this issue or not.

1. Fukuyama’s Explanation: It’s evolution, stupid…
We’ll start with Fukuyama’s theory. In his two-volume treatise on political order and political decay, Fukuyama presents an elaborate (and historically detailed) theory of institutional decay. The theory is founded on two premises about our evolved psychology. The first is that we have a tendency to follow rules/norms without questioning - in other words, that we display ‘cognitive rigidity’ in rule following behaviour. The second is that we have natural tendency to prefer close family and friends over strangers — in other words, we are ‘patrimonialists’ in how we exercise power and privilege. The combination of both of these tendencies is what leads to institutional inertia.

To see how this works, let’s look into this idea of cognitive rigidity in more detail. Fukuyama argues that there is an evolutionary advantage to being able to follow group norms/rules. It allows for greater cooperation and coordination, and for the efficient allocation of resources within a society. It would be cognitively costly if we had to constantly re-evaluate the norms/rules every time we needed to decide whether to follow them or not. So instead we just default to following the norms/rules we have internalised. The problem is that we often embellish our default attachment to these rules with various myths about group and individual identity. We become emotionally invested in the rules. We see them as part of who we are and part of what makes our lives worthwhile. If this sounds abstract and airy-fairy, then think about how attached you are to certain ways of behaving and interacting with others. To use an example from my own experiences, I know many academics who are deeply invested in the hierarchical and deferential norms of higher education (e.g. forms of greeting and address and interaction with students), largely, I suspect, because they have internalised them over the course of their lives and don’t want to make the effort of calling them into question (I don’t exempt myself from this cognitive laziness).

While this default rule-following can be advantageous, it becomes a problem if a society has defaulted to a sub-optimal rule, or needs to adapt or change its way of doing things due to some external shock. The attachment to the old way of doing things is so deeply embedded in our way of thinking about the world that the institutions that emerge from (and perpetuate) this rule-following behaviour cannot respond quickly enough. There must be some revolution or social breakdown to shift to a new set of norms. Thus, for Fukuyama, our cognitive rigidity is directly responsible for the inertia of our institutions.

This inertia is exacerbated by the tendency toward patrimonialism. As Fukuyama puts it, all modern societies have to overcome the ‘tyranny of cousins’. Our evolved psychology is tuned to small scale forms of social organisation whose members we see as part of our extended family (even if they are not direct blood relatives). We have a natural tendency to prefer these people over others who we view as strangers Of course, modern societies are a long way from this traditional tribal form. We live in the era of megacities where tens of millions of people must find some way to live together in small urban spaces. To deal with this massive increase in the density and complexity of our social relations, we have developed a complex set of institutions (bureaucracies, laws, governments) and myths (national and religious identity) that shift us away from the tyranny of cousins.

The problem is that the tyranny of cousins is a natural attractor state. Even in the most complex of modern societies, there is often just a handful of elites who control the institutions of power and who use those institutions to benefit one another. These could include the party executive within some democratically elected government, and the wealthy business interests and lobbyists who fund their election campaigns. It could include small cadres of loyal henchmen in a more authoritarian state. Whatever the case may be, the voice and will of the masses is easily ignored in favour of this small group. We have to work hard to prevent society from being sucked back into this natural attractor state. We have to put in place lots of institutional safeguards: ethics watchdogs, fragmented branches of governments, mechanisms of accountability and transparency. And even then there is a tendency for those in power to revert to patrimonial style of governance. We see this everywhere today, even in so-called ‘mature democracies’ like the United States. If the patrimonial style becomes firmly embedded, we need some external shock or revolution to shake things up.

That’s Fukuyama’s theory in a nutshell: cognitive rigidity in rule following, combined with a tendency to repatrimonialisation, equals significant institutional inertia. It’s not something we can easily overcome without rewiring our minds (which, ironically, is something that Fukuyama is opposed to if his book Our Posthuman Future is anything to go by).

2. Rosa’s Explanation: It’s technology, stupid…
Where Fukuyama blames evolution for institutional inertia, Harmut Rosa blames technological modernity. Rosa is an accelerationist. He believes that a fundamental feature of modern life is the ever-quickening rate of social change. Somewhat paradoxically, he claims that this ever-quickening rate of social change is responsible for institutional inertia. Things are moving so fast that our social institutions cannot keep up. He has a nice term for describing this predicament. He calls it the ‘frenetic standstill’ which is a state of affairs in which there is “the sense that, while everything seems to change faster and faster, real or structural social change is no longer possible” (Zantvoort 2016, 9).

Rosa’s theory is quite interesting and worth unpacking. He claims that modern life is subject to three major accelerations: (i) technological acceleration, i.e. rapid changes in the technologies we use to manage our lives (particularly transport, communication and production technologies); (ii) social acceleration, i.e. changes in the institutions through which we bring order to our lives and (iii) acceleration in the pace of life, i.e. the general sense and experience of time and deadlines on a day-to-day basis. Zantvoort focuses on the first two and the relationship between them in his analysis.

The idea of technological acceleration is fairly straightforward. Humans are a technological species. We have lived in a techno-ecology for a very long time. We modern humans rarely interface directly with the natural world. Instead, we interact with a world of our own technological construction. Although this has always been true, there are obvious and dramatic changes in our technological ecology over the past 250 years, particularly since the dawn of the industrial revolution. The resultant growth in productivity and energy consumption per capital has been astounding, as have been the improvements in human well-being and lifespan.

This has knock-on repercussions for how we organise and manage our social lives. Human society depends on certain core institutions (work, family, education etc) for its own reproduction. These are stable institutions that provide us with values and norms, and add some narrative coherence to our lives. The problem is that these institutions are fraying as a result of techno-social acceleration. Once upon time the changes in attitudes, values and norms could be measured on an intergenerational timescale, often spanning many decades; then it started to get measured on a generational timescale (baby boomers vs generation X vs millenials); now it seems there are rapid changes within generations. One obvious manifestation of this is in the world of work. Where once upon a time people had stable jobs for life, and parents could easily imagine their children doing much the same kinds of work as they did themselves, we now see people change job multiple times in one life.

This has a number of interesting effects on individuals and societies. For the individual, there is a ‘contraction of the present’. The period of time during which an individual can take a certain way of doing things for granted, develop goals and priorities, and try to organise their lives in a way that can efficiently realise those goals and priorities, becomes shorter and shorter. The pace of change means we can no longer take a stable social order for granted. We become fragmented, situational selves, always reacting and responding to the changing demands of the world around us. To quote directly from Rosa’s work on this point:

The individual’s reaction to social acceleration…seems to result in a new, situational form of identity, in which the dynamism of classical modernity, characterized by a strong sense of direction (perceived as progress), is replaced by a sense of directionless, frantic motion that is in fact a form of inertia. 
(Rosa 2009, 101)

On a societal level we see the institutions that used to organise our lives grind to a halt. They can no longer reliably ’steer’ society. They become ‘desynchronised’ from the rapid social change taking place around them. This is what results in the ‘frenetic standstill’. There is a sense that everything is changing rapidly, but the basic organising principles and projects of society (liberal constitutionalism etc) remain the same. This desynchronisation may have significant negative repercussions for society. After all, a stable institutional order may very well have been one of the things that enabled the rapid technological and social progress we see. If that institutional order breaks down as a result of this progress, then this cycle of progress may also grind to a halt.

This may be the key conclusion of Rosa’s work: that the frenetic standstill in which we find ourselves is not a stable long-term equilibrium. Something has got to give.

3. Conclusion: The Ethics of Inertia
That, in a nutshell, is what both Fukuyama and Rosa have to say about institutional inertia and social change. The former sees inertia as a natural attractor state — an equilibrium that human societies tend to get sucked back into due to our evolved psychology. The latter sees inertia as a side effect of other forms of techno-social acceleration — an unstable state of affairs that may eventually undermine itself.

This, of course, raises an important question about the ethics of inertia. Is institutional inertia something we should worry about and seek to change? That seems to be implied in much of the foregoing analysis, but to some extent it all depends on how attached you are to the current ‘evaluative equilibrium’ of society. Zantvoort says that Rosa is worried about the frenetic standstill because it is undermining the Enlightenment ideal of the autonomous self and replacing it with this ‘frantic’ and ‘situational’ self. Fukuyama also seems to imply a critique of inertia in his work. He is a champion of liberal democratic order and worries about the ways in which political inertia and decay undermine that value system. Part of his motivation in writing his work on political order and decay seems to be to diagnose the problem that is currently afflicting the social order he wants to preserve. In short, both Rosa and Fukuyama seem to be evaluative conservatives, i.e. people who want to keep our institutional structure roughly the same as it is right now.

I have adopted a similar form of evaluative conservatism in my work on biomedical enhancement, arguing that enhancing ourselves may be the best way to preserve what we currently like about our social order, in the fact of rapid technological change elsewhere. But I adopted this largely for the sake of argument — in particular to show that even a conservative (of a certain flavour) could favour a kind of transhumanism. But I am not sure that evaluative conservatism is necessarily the correct approach to take to the frenetic standstill. But maybe we should be more open to change and the breakdown of the old world order? Social institutions and values have changed repeatedly over human history, oftentimes for the better. I suspect the ‘possibility landscape’ of desirable human societies is much wider than we appreciate because we are so wedded to the current way of doing things. In this respect, rapid technological change and the fraying of our institutions may be something to embrace, not to fear.

Admittedly, however, that’s only true if you don’t accept Fukuyama’s other point about patrimonialism being the natural resting state of society. If you accept that idea, then you have fight hard to stave off the slide back into an evolutionarily earlier form of social organisation. But even if you do accept that idea, it does not follow that you should be sceptical of social and technological change. On the contrary, those changes may well be the ‘external shocks’ we need to avoid stagnation and decline.

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