The Pace Layers of Civilization

Derived from an idea of Freeman Dyson’s, Stewart Brand expands on the idea of the pace layers of civilization in The Clock of the Long Now:

“The fast parts learn, propose, and absorb shocks; the slow parts remember, integrate, and constrain. The fast parts get all the attention. The slow parts have all the power.

We can examine the array layer by layer, working down from fast and attention-getting to slow and powerful. Note that as people get older, their interests tend to migrate to the slower parts of the continuum. Culture is invisible to adolescents but a matter of great concern to elders. Adolescents are obsessed by fashion, elders bored by it.

The job of fashion and art is to be froth: quick, irrelevant, engaging, self-preoccupied, and cruel. Try this! No, no, try this! Culture is cut free to experiment as creatively and irresponsibly as society can bear. From all this variety comes driving energy for commerce…and the occasional good idea or practice that sifts down to improve deeper levels, such as governance becoming responsive to opinion polls, or culture gradually accepting multiculturalism as structure instead of grist for entertainment.

If commerce is completely unfettered and unsupported by watchful governance and culture, it easily becomes crime…Likewise, commerce may instruct but must not control the levels below it, because commerce alone is too shortsighted.

Infrastructure, essential as it is, cannot be justified in strictly commercial terms. The payback period for such things as transportation and communication systems is too long for standard investment, so you get government-guaranteed instruments such as bonds or government-guaranteed monopolies. Governance and culture must be willing to take on the huge costs and prolonged disruptions of constructing sewer systems, roads, and communication systems, all the while bearing in mind the health of even slower “natural” infrastructure, such as water, climate and so on.
Education is intellectual infrastructure; so is science. Very high yield, but delayed payback.

Culture’s vast slow-motion dance keeps century and millennium time. Slower than political and economic history, it moves at the pace of language and religion. Culture is the work of whole peoples.

As for nature, its vast power, inexorable and implacable, continues to surprise us….When we disturb nature at its own scale, as with our “extinction engine” and greenhouse gases of recent times — we risk triggering apocalyptic forces. Like it or not, we now have to comprehend and engage the still Longer Now of nature.
The division of powers among the layers of civilization allows us to relax about a few of our worries. We should not deplore rapidly changing technology and business while government controls, cultural mores, and so-called wisdom change slowly; that’s their job….The total effect of the pace layers is that they provide many-leveled corrective, stabilizing negative feedback throughout the system. It is precisely in the apparent contradictions of pace that civilization finds its surest health.”

You don’t have to be pretty

You Don’t Have to Be Pretty. You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”.

Erin McKean

Parenting, Communities and Crime

I came across a 1995 article by David T. Lykken attempting to make the case – both sensible and crazy – that society should require parents to be licensed before they can have children, an argument propounded by a libertarian, not a totalitarian, if I am understanding the last paragraph. John Stuart Mill is utilized for choice quotes, and a lot of interesting statistics about criminality are bandied about. Blame for the rise in the number of delinquents, punks and desperadoes is put on the shoulders of absent dads, single moms, and incompetent parents, as you would expect. Lykken is known for his work in twin studies, and lie detection.

1995 is the middle of a precipitous decline of crime in America, rather than an explosion of rape and murder, but such things are difficult to see as they are occurring.

crime rates falling 1990s

This graph is from Steven Levitt’s famous article, later developed into the bestseller “Freakonomics”, linking legalized abortion and the drop in crime. With Levitt, the bad-parents-create-bad-children argument is implied.

This is all interesting stuff. However, I found the most interesting part of the Lykken article to be a paragraph in the middle, about the role of community in shoring up poor parenting. It takes a village, after all:

Good parents, who are able to maintain the affection and respect of their children and whose offspring admire them and value their good opinion, can be reasonably certain that their values and ways of socialized behaving will be adopted by the next generation. The children of less effective, less competent parents will be more likely to adopt the customs and values of the peer group. [Small, close-knit] communities will achieve the same result. In urban or suburban communities, the offspring…will be somewhat more at risk…as the community grows in size and in mutual estrangement, the likelihood increases that there will be a few neglected, undisciplined or feral children in the peer group-faux-adult role models to whom a child not closely tied to home and parents may be drawn, and by whom that child will be influenced….we can reasonably conjecture that the relative importance of the peer group in shaping the values and behaviors of a given child is inversely proportional to the competence of that child’s parents.

I am interested in this because I am wondering how a community can grow to be “small and close knit” in an urban setting, since, the future is urban:

urbanization by continent

And it is not only urban, but peer-oriented and media-oriented, rather than family- or community-oriented. I think that Lykken was right about a lot of things – we seem to have created a veritable garden of sociopathy – but wrong about the solution. Licensing parents implies an Orwellian state. Lykken suggests parents who parent without a license would be implanted with antifertility drugs, sent to institutions to learn parenting…No, no.

A less fraught, more effective and scalable way to help society raise healthy, sane children would be to figure out how to support the creation and maintenance of communities.

Changing “the only game that exists”

Gloria Steinem was asked by Yahoo whether she thought Miley Cyrus’ recent risqué performance and video were setting the feminist movement back, and she replied, “I don’t think so.”

I wish we didn’t have to be nude to be noticed … But given the game as it exists, women make decisions. For instance, the Miss America contest is in all of its states … the single greatest source of scholarship money for women in the United States. If a contest based only on appearance was the single greatest source of scholarship money for men, we would be saying, “This is why China wins.” You know? It’s ridiculous. But that’s the way the culture is. I think that we need to change the culture, not blame the people that are playing the only game that exists.

Another, complementary game that exists for young men is the sports game, addressed in this week’s issue of The Atlantic, in the cover story How Sports are ruining High School.

(Via HuffPo)