We assign value to proxies. Initially, this is always for the sake of convenience. It is far easier to exchange the value of a cow than to exchange the physical cow itself. In a similar vein, it is far easier to use the proxy of grades and certifications to simulate learning to express accomplishment. As time goes on, however, these value proxies become increasingly separated from the realities that they are supposed to represent and create their own economies that operate under a self-contained logic of exchange. When you divorce currency from what it is supposed to represent, transactions become its highest expression of vitality. The purpose of those transactions becomes increasingly irrelevant to the act of the transaction itself. Growth itself becomes the highest calling and what the transactions themselves represent becomes mere ciphers or inputs to the system, subject to speculation and manipulation.
So what is real in this world? Is the true purpose of this transactional activity acquisition or human augmentation? These are not the same thing. If you are struggling for survival in a world of scarce resources, acquisition can easily turn into a matter of physical survival. Even in the prosperous parts of the world, the memory of this is well within living memory. Indeed, countries like the United States still struggle with issues of food security even today.
However, the problems are often ones of distribution and equity rather than true scarcity in many societies around the world. Looking at just food supply, it is clear that we produce enough food to feed every person in the world (arguably overfeed them). This is clearly illustrated that there is still localized hunger even in countries such the United States that produce over 4000 calories per day per person.
I argued last week that our chief scarcity in the world was one of imagination but economies depend on scarcity to sustain their logic. This is particularly true where the good is intangible and difficult to measure objectively like educational achievement (“I’ll take a ¼ pound of European Economic History 322, please.”) Scarcity is a truism. There must always be more consumers to chase goods than there are goods to chase or prices will collapse. Sure, at a certain level having a surplus of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial console games is a localized catastrophe but this can never be allowed to happen to globalized requirements such as food and energy. We can’t bury those mistakes in the New Mexico desert.
Acquisitional thinking leads to all kinds of distortions. For instance, economists have been worried about leveling or declining populations for decades now because there are no recorded examples in history of economies in demographically-declining populations growing. The theory is that a steady stream of consumers and producers is necessary to maintain the acquisitional paradigm that drives measures like GDP. As discussed in my blog from last week , however, this kind of thinking is merely a paradigm that assigns worth to the fiction of money based on its power to acquire tangible (and sometimes intangible) products. However strongly based this is on the flow of human history, it is still a paradigm that drives behavior and behavior shapes reality.
In The Ministry for the Future, Bryan Alexander’s book club reading, Kim Stanley Robinson seems to be suggesting that economics has become more of a religion than offering any sort of explanatory value. “Macroeconomics had thus long ago entered a zone of confusion, either early in the century or perhaps from the moment of its birth, and now was revealed for the pseudoscience it had always been.” (Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Ministry for the Future (p. 344). Orbit. Kindle Edition). The central thesis underlying the book is that since this is all a fiction anyway, the trick to creating sustainable economic systems is to change the goals of the incentive structures that drive it.
This is an intriguing proposition when viewed through the lens of systems theory. Systems reinforce behaviors that are internally logical (like rent-seeking, grade-seeking, and success metrics, to cite just a few examples). All of these things trickle down to individual behavior and are, in turn, reinforced by the behavior of individuals operating within the system. These kinds of interactions create strong circular behavioral patterns that sustain the systemic paradigm.
As Robinson describes in The Ministry for the Future, however, current economic incentives are incredibly destructive to the sustainability of the natural systems of human growth (of the individual, not the population kind) and planetary ecology. He envisions the reorientation of systemic acquisitional impulses toward something that is actually scarce: the future of the planetary ecosystem. Robinson does not discard the growth paradigm, he merely reorients it toward the goal of augmenting the planet rather than depleting it. This is perhaps the most interesting idea in the book.
As I alluded to earlier, there are other economies that have become divorced from their original purposes. In my own world of education, the acquisition paradigm has filtered into systems of learning across a wide range of activities. Chris Newfield points out that, “Academia’s senior managers have helped two generations of policymakers to overvalue the private benefits of higher education, which has given an artificial, unmerited advantage to the forces of privatization over those of the public good.” (Newfield, Christopher. The Great Mistake, Johns Hopkins University Press) In this formulation, a focus on individual economic gain is the private good. This demonstrates an abdication to the acquisition paradigm. College is there to turn students into employees. Certification becomes more important than actual achievement. The basis for certification is grades and/or high stakes testing to make sure you “earned” the certification because that is closely tied to individual economic gain. Individual economic acquisition is the point of the system.
Like global economics, these goals are also divorced from their intent. Employers complain that students emerge from this certification process lacking the key thinking skills that they expect from college graduates. Students are just going through the motions. And this is where Robinson’s book and higher education intersect (despite his book’s lack of discussion of the issue): it is the products of our acquisitional educational systems that construct the disciplinary silos and blinders that impede paradigmatic change. If you are interested in economics, why are you studying biology or ecology? It’s not going to help you get a job at a hedge fund or even a university appointment. Yet, it is precisely these kinds of nonconformist ideas that we need to solve the world’s challenges today. As Newfield writes:
Today’s problems—climate change, overgrown financialization, and continuous warfare, to name three—require interdisciplinary expertise, hybrid methods, and continuous creativity on the part of the whole population. Universities are the only social institutions devoted to helping the rising generation master coherent parts of the vastness of human knowledge and acquire personal capabilities that will renew themselves throughout their lives. (Newfield, 2018)
In order to meet the planetary challenges of climate change, we are going to need thinkers that are able to move between ideas and disciplines effortlessly. In The Ministry for the Future, Robinson seems to throw ideas against the wall with wild abandon just to see what will stick. This is also central to the concept of “emergent design” advocated for by Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown in their 2018 books Design Unbound (MIT Press, 2018). We need economies of the mind that are geared toward augmenting us as individuals, not enriching us by some false paradigm of economy. This is the only way we will save our species.
We will never get there if the vast majority of our thinkers are products of systems of certification that emphasize certification over true learning. Universities store vast quantities of collective information but all too often these are segmented and never intersect into creating holistic knowledge paradigms. There are strong systemic forces (tenure, publications, grades, majors, funding, programs, etc.) that work against that. As a first order of business, we need to figure out how to more equitably distribute information if we hope to create the knowledge that can save our children. Before we can do that we need to take a hard look at the transactions that inhibit its growth. Without that, we will never augment human intellect and without a massive augmentation of human intellect we will never be able to think our way out of our current crises.