“He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” - Adam Smith

Cassandra was a priestess who was granted the gift of prophecy by Apollo. But after she rejected his advances, he changed it to a curse: although she would still be able to foresee the future, nobody would ever believe her.

Poor Cassandra, you think. And yet we are not so different from her. We have our own gods: the gods of straight lines. And they too grant us a gift and a curse: to know that we’re building the future according to plan—but to know that the plan is theirs, not ours.

I picture the gods of straight lines as innumerable hovering spirits, just in the corner of your vision, vanishing as you turn to look at them directly. It’s hard to tell if they’re still or in motion. But they’re always there, as the world glides forward on its trajectory. And when that trajectory shifts, or something disruptive happens, they slide in, and they gently push it back on track. They take joy in the work, I think. Or amusement, at least, at all the narratives that humans develop to explain why each thing happened. It’s not that those narratives are false—but they almost always miss the point.

A newspaper pushes out a vitriolic op-ed, shaking up a nation’s politics? But if it will get clicks, then another newspaper would have run it later anyway. A metropolis builds more housing to fill its desperate need? Then the opposition from homeowners just becomes stronger, and the city relaxes into the same stranglehold as almost every other. A philosopher finds a new way of viewing the world? But if it captures the spirit of the age, then someone else would have written it better in a year or ten; and if it doesn’t, then it will never gain traction anyway. A country delays industrialization for decades? Then when it starts it will simply catch up much faster, skipping all the burdensome prerequisites: straight from telegraphs to cell phones, no costly telephone wires in sight.

A global war, a global pandemic? They’re horrifically destructive and wasteful—but also invigorating and regenerative, disrupting the calcified old power structures. And the two effects cancel out. You can tell, because the lines remain straight: a few short years after the bombs stopped falling in 1945, the world economy returned to trend as if nothing had happened.

In 1776, America rebelled in the name of freedom and democracy: the origin myth of the modern world order. And yet, somehow, unrebellious Canada ended up just as free and democratic. An unrebellious America likely would have too.

For two decades, North Vietnam battled under the banner of communism, and won against all odds. And yet, somehow, Vietnam is now the most pro-capitalist country in the world. In every place, in every way, the gods of straight lines are constantly nudging everything back onto the trajectory which they have ordained.

Usually we are too wrapped up in our stories to catch even a glimpse of the gods. When we do, we can fight them, as Rachel Carson did after seeing disturbing trends in air and water pollution. Or we can ally with them, as Moore (and Kurzweil and Kaplan) did after seeing the exponential compute trends. But—ah, I hear the gods laughing again, in the face of these stories it’s always so tempting to tell. To the gods of straight lines, Carson and Moore did nothing, because the gods see (as we do not) the other timelines where the same insights came from other people, a month or a year or a decade delayed, but landing all the more powerfully because of it. The gods are intimately familiar with a fact that we can only hazily glimpse: that all great discoveries come in their natural time. If they are stumbled upon before that time, they are ridiculed, dismissed, or ignored. Yet when that time is reached, they are often discovered by multiple people near-simultaneously. So if a great innovator were erased from history it wouldn’t be long, in the scheme of things, before our trajectory returned to trend. The gods of straight lines see to that.

All of this seems ridiculous to humans, who live and die by stories of cause and effect. Yet which stories are they? Well, the ones that catch in our minds. Why do they catch in that way? If we didn’t have them, what other stories would catch instead? The gods of straight lines smile, and say nothing. So we decide on atheism: to believe in these gods would be an unconscionable surrender. We clench our teeth and push forward with our goals. Yet even in doing so we let the gods work through us—for each straight line is still driven by the strivings of thousands or millions of people.

Morris Chang started from nothing, but after working his way up the semiconductor industry he founded the only chip company that is still able to cling onto Moore’s law: a company so dominant that even their fiercest competitors gave in and became their customers. And yet- and yet- the demise of Moore’s law had been predicted again and again, with more and more forceful justifications, and every time the prediction fell flat. In this world, the god of Moore’s law kept things on track by working through Morris Chang. But if Morris hadn’t existed, who knows which other equally remarkable founders would have launched which other equally successful startups to fill the same niche and train the same talent and push the frontier just as far? The gods of straight lines do, and we don’t. All we know is that despite all common sense, the lines remain straight.

Do you feel helpless, yet? Do you feel angry? Do you want me to tell you a story about how you can confront them—challenge them—force them to bow to your will? If you were as talented and inspired and driven as Morris, and devoted your life not to channeling a god but to fighting one, then perhaps you could wrest one of those lines out of a god’s grasp. It’s been done before, for better and for worse. But for every general who shifted the tides of history, there are thousands who simply rode along the shoreline tilting at waves. For every brilliant scientist who peeked at nature’s secrets ahead of her schedule there are thousands, equally brilliant, who glimpsed only the reasons why they were destined for failure: in AI, the bitter lesson that all their striving would be buried by future avalanches of compute; or in pharmacology, the far bitterer lesson that despite all efforts, the exponential curve would keep going in the wrong direction. These lessons weren’t always apparent to them, of course—they all had their moments of glory along the way. But even when you bask in triumph over one god, just out of sight the other gods will be laughing, because you were a part of their plans all along.

Or perhaps you want to kneel down in front of them; worship them; yield to their will? But the gods of straight lines think in alien ways, and pursue alien goals. Show our society to someone from millennia past, and they would be shocked and dismayed at how these gods have already reshaped our world: the degradation of our values; the weakness of our society; the weirdness of our minds. The future that the gods envisage is no less strange or horrifying to us than the present would be to our ancestors—so think twice before picking up their banner.

What can you do, then? Well, you can do almost nothing. But humanity as a single force—our civilization if it became a unified, coherent entity? There’s a creature that could scatter the gods of straight lines like so many motes of dust. Of course, it doesn’t exist yet, and maybe it never will. Could you truly trust leaders who promised to summon it, despite all your ingrained instinctive skepticism and all their ingrained instinctive power-hungriness? Perhaps even the most careful efforts to engineer that level of coordination are too dangerous. Or perhaps not. In any case, that is not mine or yours to determine: if humanity ever outgrows the gods of straight lines, it will only be with their blessing and assistance. I can feel the gods tugging at us, and I hope they are on our side.
 

For a counterpoint to this story, read Eight Magic Lamps.

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13 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:42 PM
[-]MikkW6mo165

In 1776, America rebelled in the name of freedom and democracy: the origin myth of the modern world order. And yet, somehow, unrebellious Canada ended up just as free and democratic. An unrebellious America likely would have too.

I'm dubious of this. I think it's highly likely that Canada and other British dominions becoming independent was a result of knock-on effects from the American Revolution, e.g. America setting an example for what independance can look like and enable prosperity; American independence causing other colonies to desire independence; Pro-dependence British officials being demoralized in the long term; America itself having a strong effect in the late 1800s and/or 1900s pushing other countries (British and non-British alike) to become independent democracies.

I think it's highly likely that Canada and other British dominions becoming independent was a result of knock-on effects from the American Revolution, e.g. America setting an example for what independance can look like and enable prosperity

This seems unlikely to me. Britain was already on track towards becoming more democratic; given Britain's example, it seems like a very natural step for other dominions to form parliaments of their own (especially the very distant ones like New Zealand and Australia); and the cultural ties between Britain and those dominions made strong oppression implausible. Actually, formal independence was a very late step in many places (e.g. apparently it took until 1982 in Canada?!).

I think the point the author is trying to make is that even if America hadn't become democratic, another country would have soon after, and that country would have had the strong/knock-on effect you refer to.

[-]MikkW6mo169

Thought 1: Yeah, that's fair

Thought 2: Though I also feel like a different country being the first to establish independence, could have made a difference in the long-term trajectory of things. Many of the revolutions that followed the American Revolution (including the French Revolution, which some people view as an even bigger deal than the American) went quite off the rails and were quite unpleasant, and generally soured many people on the idea, while the United States ended up going fairly smoothly after the constitution was implemented. If the French Revolution had happened without the American Revolution, I imagine that could have discredited the ideas behind them, without leaving a successful state built on them.

(Note that the wave of Revolution really took off not after the first French Revolution in the late 1700's, but in the 1830's and 1840's. If the US wasn't there as an example of things going right, I can easily imagine that the appetite in Europe and France for revolution could have been spoiled enough to overcome the forces that otherwise would have made it inevitable)

I think the failure of the Soviet Union could be a similar reference for what the other side can look like. The particular form of the ideas there were destined to fail in any case, but they also did a lot to discredit adjacent ideas that otherwise might have "had their time", and now won't.

That's a really insightful historical analysis. However, I don't think that quite addresses the point the author is trying to make. Perhaps I'm overstepping the mark slightly, but I think the author would claim that it doesn't matter if it takes another 100 years or a 1000 years more for democratic societies to form. What does matter (for the author) is that they would form, and that when they did, that story would be the history we have today.

However, I do think the points you make about the history are interesting, and perhaps an engrossing thought exercise is to contemplate how the world might look in the 21st century without the American Revolution taking place when it did. Apologies if I've misinterpreted your or the author's points.

I appreciate your reply. The point I was trying to make is, the contingency of ⌞there being an instance of democratic revolution going smoothly⌝ potentially makes the difference between that straight line happening or not happening. (And if the occurrence took 1000 years - but even that isn't a given - I would consider that an example of "a god of straight lines" successfully being overpowered.)

I think that if there was sufficient backlash against democratic revolution (unclear if the American Revolution not happening would be enough cause), the then-existing status quo in the West (monarchy / feudalism) would not have gone on- that particular "god of straight lines" dooming feudalism would have been very hard to stop, but the resulting system need not have looked like democracy, and >50% would have been substantially worse by ⌞metrics most westerners care about⌝, though with small probability even better than the form of institutions which we ended up receiving, but largely different from modern notions of democracy.

Even if I grant all of this, it doesn't mean that individual reactions don't matter, it means they all add up in ways that constrain the future along certain axes. Who and where and when can definitely alter the details, which might or might not make a longer-term difference along other axes. Sure it's historically contingent that the industrial revolution happened in Britain, and the IR didn't shift the long-term economic growth hyperbola, but that it happened changed human life a lot. If it had happened in China instead then that would have had global downstream effects on language, food, art, culture, religion, and politics, and our lives would be different in ways we find meaningful. 

There's also the deeper question of which straight lines get gods, and for how long. Humans lived at or near the Malthusian population limit for millennia despite rising productivity... until we didn't, after the IR really got going. And if we limit ourselves just to looking at Moore's law, we do have to note that the doubling time has increased, it isn't actually constant over the last 60 years. The line isn't totally straight. We can look and see when and why it bent, but it did and does bend.

For two decades, North Vietnam battled under the banner of communism, and won against all odds. And yet, somehow, Vietnam is now the most pro-capitalist country in the world. In every place, in every way, the gods of straight lines are constantly nudging everything back onto the trajectory which they have ordained.

Vietnam still gets ruled by a Communist party with five-year plans. What exactly do you mean with it being the "most pro-capitalist country"?

If you follow the link, under the section "Free Market Seen as Best, Despite Inequality", Vietnam is the country with the highest agreement by far with the statement "Most people are better off in a free market economy, even though some people are rich and some are poor" (95%!)

That being said, while it is the most pro-capitalism country, it is clearly not the most capitalist country (although it's not that bad, 72nd out of 176 countries ranked: https://www.heritage.org/index/ranking), and it would likely be more capitalist today if South Vietnam had won.

It is always possible to say in retrospect that whatever happened was inevitable. The problem is, a world where individual actions don't matter that much should be a predictable world. And ours very much isn't.

…a world where individual actions don't matter that much should be a predictable world. And ours very much isn't.

Can you say more? My first reaction is "Huh, I didn't think of that, that's interesting." My second thought is "Wait, what about turbulence the weather?"

RE the latter: the action of individual air molecules doesn't really matter that much, but the net effect is still very hard to predict with much precision. We can say some things about the overall general net effect, but we miss a lot of important details.

(I'm thinking of how my family and I had a plane flight scheduled to Florida last year, and surprise! there was a hurricane that might or might not be about to hit Orlando at the time. The predictions weren't clear even a day before the event. It wasn't clear whether we'd be able to go at all, or when.)

Am I missing your meaning?

As I understand, topicstarters claim is that civilization is not a chaotic system, and any temporary disturbances don't affect long-term trajectory. Weather is a chaotic system.