Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why the West Rules--for Now

Ian Morris draws on 50,000 years of history, archeology, and the methods of social science, to make sense of when, how, and why the paths of development differed in the East and West—and what this portends for the 21st century.

Stanford history professor Ian Morris put out a book this past October called Why the West Rules--for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future.

His answer to that question is not unlike Jared Diamond's excellent Guns Germs and Steel. The general trajectory of human societies is dictated by biology and sociology. The differences in their success is a matter of geography. But, the development of societies and technology periodically changes our relationship with geography.

Agriculture started in about 6 places around the world with favorable geography and climate. The invention of irrigation suddenly meant that you could grow crops in places where they formerly wouldn't grow. This theme repeats itself through the growth and decline of empires up to the invention of oceangoing ships and guns. Geography drives the development of societies and the development of societies then changes the meaning of geography.

Put together oceangoing ships and working guns and this is a very powerful package. The ships allow you to cross the oceans. The guns allow you to shoot the people you meet on the other side. This is great for everybody who's got them. ...it changes the meaning of geography once again.

The same process is still at work bringing about a shift of wealth and power from west to east. Whether that happens smoothly or not or whether it even matters by the time it's complete... those are open questions.

Morris sees the near future as "a giant race between, on the one hand, something like the singularity that Ray Kurzweil talks about, and on the other hand, some kind of nightfall scenario, where we trigger a set of changes that we simply can't control, and we are looking at a collapse of civilization on a scale that has never been seen before in history."

His factors of collapse are all too familiar:

  • migration
  • state failure
  • famine
  • epidemic
  • climate change

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Bruce Sterling: Network Society Isn’t Compatible With Democracy

The darkly euphoric Bruce Sterling at SXSW talking about his new book Gothic High Tech and Favella Chic, on why “hactivism” isn’t democracy and why he finds Sarah Palin “super interesting.”

Monday, March 7, 2011

Why the Dollar's Reign Is Near an End

For decades the dollar has served as the world's main reserve currency, but, argues Barry Eichengreen, it will soon have to share that role. Here's why—and what it will mean for international markets and companies.

"The greenback [...] is not just America's currency. It's the world's." The dollar's three pillars are:

  1. depth of markets
  2. safety, stability, liquidity
  3. lack of alternatives

Three things that are changing are:

  1. technology eases the problems of multiple currencies
  2. rivals: the Euro and the Chinese Yuan
  3. loss of confidence
The U.S. government has a history of honoring its obligations, and it has always had the fiscal capacity to do so. But now, mainly as a result of the financial crisis, [...] questions will be asked about whether the U.S. intends to maintain the value of its debts or might resort to inflating them away.

A political economy

A recent piece in the Economist ( A new anthology of essays reconsiders Thomas Piketty’s “Capital” , May 20, 2107) ends with these words: &q...