Saturday, February 09, 2008

Nonzero

If one replaces Rome with America in this line from Robert Wright's Nonzero, history seems to have fast forwared to the present :

When a civilization such as Rome dominates its neighbors, it typically possesses some sort of cultural edge: better weapons, say, or better economic organization. Yet this dominance is hard to maintain precisely because these valuable memes [ideas] tend naturally to spread beyond its borders, empowering its rivals

Except for the conventional weapons, the neigbors across the pond must not find it too hard to catch up with everything that made America the formidable forerunner. If history is any indicator, the fall of America from its position of preeminence may not deal a deathly blow to progress in the rest of the world. Wright says :

No one [world] culture is in charge, so no one culture controls the memes (though some try in vain). This decentralization makes epic social setbacks of reliably limited duration; the system is 'fault-tolerant' as computer engineers say. While Europe fell into its slough of despond, Byzantium and southern China stayed standing, India had ups and downs, and the newborn Islamic civilization flourished.

These cultures performed two key services: inventing neat new things that would eventually spread to Europe (the spinning wheel probably arose somewhere in the Orient); and conserving useful old things that were now scarce in Europe (the astrolabe, a Greek invention, came to Europe via Islam, as did [navigational] astronomy.) To an observer in Italy or France in AD 650, it might have seemed as if there was a ... 'total system failure'-but from a global perspective, there was no cause for alarm.

This seems to be the case for socio-cultural de-coupling theory

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