Monday 26 November 2012

The pyramid of technology, and of intellectual functions


[Following on from ]

There seems to be a pyramid of technology which corresponds to a pyramid of intellectual functions in large complex modern societies.

The peak of the pyramid is the high level of general intelligence (g) needed to make qualitative improvements in social functioning: breakthroughs.


This is the pyramid:

Breakthrough (qualitative)
Improvement (incremental)


What I am talking-about are those key factors which could be termed 'technology' in the broadest sense:

these would include forms of social organization (government, religion), food production - including agriculture, warfare and defence, and so on.

Whatever are the key functions upon which society depends.


The pyramid is most obvious for those complex technologies which led to the emergence of modern societies (the technologies of the linked agricultural and industrial revolutions) and upon which modern societies depend.

Modernity arose due to frequent breakthroughs and improvements - these breakthroughs in 'technology' enabling production to outgrow population growth for many generations.

But underneath it all was the breakthroughs.


So the breakthrough is the invention of something qualitatively new - some piece of machinery, some concept, a form of organization... This (as a rule) requires genius - a combination of very high intelligence and creativity.

This breakthrough is then incrementally improved - this does not require such high intelligence, nor does it require creativity - but can be done by 'trial and error'.

Sooner or later the entity (the piece of technology, the social institution) will wear-out, get broken or dissipate entropically, and need to be replaced - this may require workshops, factories, systems of apprenticeship, colleges - these need to be generated and made to work.

And, as it is being used or operating, from time to time the entity needs to be repaired. This is easier than replacing it, and the repair process may be broken down into specific checks and tasks.

But simply operating the entity, working the technology or working-in an institution, requires less capability than repair.

Nonetheless, there are people who cannot operate; they lack the requisite ability - they are sub-functional with respect to that specific 'technology' (although they may be functional for other technologies).


So, if we think of a gun; there was the breakthrough of the concept of a gun, what it could do and how; there was the incremental (trial and error) improvement of this basic breakthrough until there were functional guns - and the continued incremental improvement (and specialization) of these guns.

Then there is the matter of manufacturing and replacing guns; then below that there is the function of maintaining a gun (regular cleaning, oiling etc).

Then below that there is the function of shooting guns (so the hit the target, and so they do not kill the operator).

Below that again are sub-functional people - e.g. who cannot shoot the guns accurately, or who shoot them on impulse or for a joke; and these people are a liability because they may shoot themselves of the people on their side. Indeed, they are 'more trouble than they are worth' because they require such a high degree of supervision in order to prevent them inflicting damage.


If we think of an abstract field like science; there are the creative geniuses who make breakthroughs in theories or discoveries; and there are the non-creative intelligent people who may incrementally improve and refine these breakthroughs.

Then below that are the structures of education and apprenticeship which create the environment within which this can occur, and from which the higher level people may be generated - for example the people who work in (properly functioning) colleges and research institutions.

Below that are the people who use the products of science to make and do things (applied scientists, engineers, doctors, technologists);

and below that are the people who use what these makers and doers generate (e.g. skilled craftsmen);

and below that are the users;

and below them are people who cannot use science safely or appropriately - and must have it done for them, or not at all (e.g. children, and other people who lack the intellectual requisites).


This pyramid is also a hierarchy of general intelligence (g).

Intelligence is not the only important factor (personality - for instance - is very important) but intelligence is a vital and constraining factor in the above hierarchy.

If the required level of intelligence for the required function is not met - then the function will not be done.


So if we cannot repair and replace a piece of technology or a social institution (like medicine, or engineering); then when it breaks (due to wear and tear, or sabotage) it cannot be mended or re-made, and is lost.  

And as a society's average intelligence declines, as has happened in Western Europe, then it has a major impact on the above pyramid.

What happens initially is the over-promoted society; where the lack of intelligence means that people end-up at a level one (or two) categories too high for their cognitive abilities.


Those whose job is to make breakthroughs can now only make incremental improvements - they cannot do their core job. Therefore breakthroughs dry-up - and the whole basis of modern societies is lost.

But because breakthroughs are needed there there is a pretence of breakthroughs - and ideas that are just random variations and inversions and recombinations of what already exists (mere novelties)  are spun as breakthroughs.


Those whose role is to make incremental improvements are unable to function above the level of replacements and repair of already existing entities - so established things don't improve gradually as they used to.

They change but don't improve - therefore they get worse.

Perhaps this contributes to the fact that so many able people have given-up on trying to improve functionality, and lapsed into fashionability and careerism.


Those who are supposed to repair and maintain stuff cannot really understand how it works - so repair becomes reduced to maintenance, and the following of predecided procedures.

And the fact that so many people are over-promoted (for lack of anyone better) can lead to a deficiency of mere operatives - who may be inadequate either intellectually, or in terms of personality.

These are, in fact, sub-functional individuals who are being used for lack of anyone else.

And still there is a large and expanding 'underclass' of those unable or unwilling to perform any of the functions required by modern society.


All this is due to complexity.

If the technology is less complex, if the institutions are less complex, then people can perform at their proper level.

Except for breakthroughs which are necessary to modernity, but now very rare or absent - as those of the highest level of intelligence have all but disappeared.

So, what will happen is that things will get less complex - technology, society will simplify - because things cannot be sustained at the current level of complexity.



Anonymous said...

A big part of the whole dysfunction is applying a technology to a purpose for which is was not designed and is not suited, which falls under failure to operate I suppose.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dl - I agree.

Here is an example of a misused technology I wrote about, a decade ago - 'quality assurance' management being applied to medicine and education.

I think my argument is watertight - but the people involved in QM cannot understand its logic (leave aside agree or disagree) - I now realize that it is beyond their ability.

TGS said...

Even the mainstream is starting to grasp this. See marginal revolution and its "The Great Stagnation".

I think we still retain the capability of breakthroughs if we had better systems, but the breakdown of systems is itself related to the loss of intelligence. I think social systems go before hard science (social systems degrade before hard systems). It is harder to notice because decline in hard breakthroughs can be quantified while declines in social systems can't (or at least can't be argued in a way that can overcome disagreement).

George Goerlich said...

Have you seen the movie "Idiocracy"? Much of the content is purely for mass entertainment, but the world portrayed is exactly this same future you write about here. Nobody is capable of maintaining society anymore.

I love how even your article on "Auditing" references profound implications for the whole of society. The complexity of society, the dependency on growth, and implicitly why it is unsustainable and will collapse when growth hits limits (and breakthroughs can not keep up).

It seems that when we hit one of these limits it may not be a simple slowing or regress. We are already on an edge and do not handle well even minor disruptions. It appears there are high odds of it being a very painful and dramatic collapse due to something as simple as major draught or supply chain disruptions to oil or food. Every year we take the same gamble on "all or nothing" with no plans to ever stop betting it all.

AlexT said...

I think people, even stupid people, instinctively realise this. All those intentional communites, eco farms, homesteading christians, voluntary simplicity people, know that this system is looking doomed. They are at least bright enough to understand this, and honest enough with themselves to live accordingly.
The Mormons, however, seem to be proof that if you have discipline and a work ethic, it will still result in a decent modern society, even without the genius. I think this is the point Sylvie Rousseau was making in another post. A moral society will make it easier for genius to operate, even when such genius is rare.

Toddy Cat said...

Years ago, the American philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote about leftist intellectual's disdain for maintainance, and how this would bring down Western Civilization. He saw this back in the 1950's. Pretty prescient. in my opinion. What do you guys think of Hoffer?

Bruce Charlton said...

@GG - Yes, I've seen Idiocracy - I liked the set-up but lost patience with the plot.

@TC - I bought and looked through True Believer - but on the whole I felt that other (Christian) things I have read superseded it.

Chuckles said...

As Jerry Pournelle often notes -

'Dark Ages fall when we no longer remember that we were once able to do things.'

Cantillonblog said...

Periods of decline are self-similar, but not every period of substantial decline need be a dark age.

Also, most people are terrible at recognizing a change in trend early. Only the mystics can recognize a change in trend at the moment of it occurring, and a few early perceptive old hands can identify that a change in trend has occurred shortly afterwards.

In the past, when people have expected an utter societal disaster, it hasn't proven to be quite as bad in the longer term. It's constantly hoping something will change and things will turn up that destroys you.

The mood today is pretty grim, but there are some early signs of a real change. Bruce says that no change can take place until people repent - but by the time this kind of thing takes place the new trend is likely to be well advanced.

One doesn't need to speak of an end to the Kali Yuga to think things can get a lot better from our perspective for quite a while from here.

I do agree with Bruce that people are of genotypically lower quality, and yet one must also recognize that this is not the entire cause of decline - addiction to mass media, diet, and concealment of the truth have prevented talented and honest people from being effective. It might be needlessly gloomy to expect recent conditions on this front to persist, and indeed there are some signs of change for the better. Over and beyond this, one might hope that more adverse conditions ahead would go some way to slowing, and perhaps Godwilling even to reversing the trend of genotypic decline.

Cantillonblog said...

By the way, if one wants to understand dark ages as well as large but less important periods of decline then I highly commend the work of Marc Widdowson - "The Coming Dark Age".

Toddy Cat said...

I have no doubt that there are better books out there than Hoffer's "The True Believer", but it had a real impact on me when I read it, back in the 1970's when I was still a liberal. It was the right book at the right time, from my standpoint. I'm not sure how I would feel about it today, but when I read it, it was a revelation. Hoffer was definitely a theist of some sort (he expressed disdain for atheists) but there are no explicitly Christian references in his work. Jewish, perhaps?