Key Points From This Episode:
• Samo describes his Great Founder Theory and how it is distinct from “great man history.”
• He weighs in on the natural endowments or geographical determinism arguments.
• How incremental cultural developments and traditions fit into Great Founder Theory.
• How Great Founder Theory differs from theories like Marxism.
• Hear why Samo believes that social and material technology build on one another.
• Some of the most underrated great founders in history; Confucius and King Ptolemy of Egypt.
• What characteristics the great founder of a city needs, including dogged determination.
• The importance of having an awareness of different cultures and how they co-exist.
• What Gobekli Tepe tells us about the correlation between agriculture and early civilization.
• Learn how Gobekli Tepe changes our view on the history of complex human societies.
• Why Samo believes we will continue to find sites that force us to revise our preconceptions.
• The reason for the inward-looking nature of many professions in the Western world.
• How this myopia became particularly apparent in the public health sector during COVID.
• How bureaucracies could benefit from working with talented and widely followed bloggers.
• Samo shares his predictions for the evolution of the American state and its institutions; how decayed institutions are a barrier to technology.
• Some of the reasons Samo has to be cautiously optimistic about the future of the US.
• The cultural innovation that follows forging a new middle-class, as Samo is seeing happening with software engineers in Silicon Valley.
• The bravery required to accelerate this change and engage political processes.
• Samo’s response to the entire world becoming ‘weird’ (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) in two generations.
• His reflection on recent alien observations discourse and the possibility of interstellar travel.
• Where to build new cities and how they engage with broader regional and cultural economies.
• Samo explains how he believes a city should be organized politically and otherwise to maximize its development and quality of life.
Mark: Hello, and welcome to The Charter Cities Podcast. I’m your host, Mark Lutter, the Founder and Executive Director of The Charter Cities Institute. On the Charter Cities Podcast, we illuminate the various aspects of building a charter city, from governance to urban planning, politics to finance. We hope listeners to The Charter Cities Podcast will come away with a deep understanding of charter cities, as well as the steps necessary to build them.
You can subscribe and learn more about charter cities at chartercitiesinstitute.org, follow us on social media, @cci.city on Twitter, and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. Thank you for listening.
My guest today is Samo Burja. He founded Bismarck Analysis, a consulting firm that investigates the political-institutional landscape of society. He is also a Research Fellow at the Long Now Foundation and a Senior Research Fellow in Political Science at the Foresight Institute.
Mark: Thanks for coming on the show, Samo.
Samo: It’s good to be here with you.
Mark: Great. To start, I think you’re probably best known for your Great Founder Theory. Can you describe what that is and why that might interest our listeners?
Samo: Yes. Great Founder Theory is an attempt at making a theory of history. That is a theory that explains, say, the macro-scale broad patterns of what drives historical development. There are many very good answers to this question. Some people, like Jared Diamond, focus on geographic determinism. Other popular thinkers, or popularizers, like Yuval Harari might try to take an information lens on these developments.
These lenses, always, they carry some truth, but they’re always simplifications and they’re always these claims as to which mechanisms of historical change take precedence over others. Now, Great Founder Theory, to summarize it, but also differentiate it from what’s been called great man history, that is the idea that exceptional individuals shape great events.
The distinction I would make between great man history and Great Founder Theory is that this is a theory focusing on institutions and institutional development. All of the arguments you might see in the history of economics, or political science, these debates about the relevance of 18th century checks and balances and political development, the emergence of free trade, or mercantilism, the development of organized religions, all of these arguments are ones that I deploy, that I used, can be used to model the historical world.
The one key distinction here is the idea that so much of our social world, so much of these social technologies, originates with individuals after all. Instead of just “a general has won a great battle, and this battle determines the course of history,” it’s more along the lines of “a great military reformer has set up an army that couldn’t help but win, even if the generals were bad.” Or perhaps, the industrial development of a country was notably accelerated, so then their generals tend to win the battles eventually, even if at first, they’re bad. This is something we can ground historically. You could make an argument that, say, in the American Civil War, one side had a strong industrial advantage and the other side started with good generals. We know how that went.
Mark: Sure. At least in the American Civil War, the industrial power obviously mattered. You could go for the natural endowment, that explanation where the south had natural endowments of, basically, high productivity, agriculture that was also relatively easy to measure in terms of surplus, that allow for it to be much more conducive to slavery. While the north had types of agriculture that were much less conducive to slavery, and then also the different settlement patterns of the south, where the south tended to be the English aristocracy, the second sons, as well as Scottish Highlanders in Appalachia, where the north was more the Puritans and the Quakers, which were a little bit more, I don’t know, culturally suited to industrialization. That culture combined with those natural endowments led to those different, I guess, outcomes.
Samo: I mean, the natural endowments argument is a very strong one, right? There’s a reason why, say, something like geographical determinism is worth taking very seriously. However, when it comes to geography, we sometimes take human population distributions as a given. If we dig a little bit into the question of culture, where, Mark, where does Puritan culture come from?
It’s not actually just a random set of folkways. It’s actually the result of an idealistic and, at times, strange, one could even say, possibly deranged attempt to alter human nature and reengineer social arrangements. There’s an interesting way when you start reading about the Puritan colonies, they have many things that are very admirable. Then, in addition to their well-known zealotry, you have this odd notion of, basically, a total surveillance society. The idea is that you are your brother’s keeper, and that everyone should be on the lookout for a vice spreading through society. The political organization is centered on the religious institutions in a way that’s much stronger than, say, what you would see in the mainline Anglican Church and so on and so on.
There, I would say that, okay, yeah, Puritan culture, real Cavalier culture is real, but both of these have definitive origins. Some of these origins can be traced to social reforms. The Kingdom of the Franks is organized very differently than Roman Gaul, and has very different emphasis and has very different military capacities. Even if, say, technologically, they weren’t that distinct and geographically, it’s the same North European plane.
Mark: How do you think about, like Hyatt, for example, is well-known for – or actually, he popularized the saying. Adam Ferguson, I think, originated it, the result of human action, but not human design. This is used to refer to institution. For example, if we look at the UK, at least that in this, I don’t know what to call it, Austrian emergent history of thought; it tends to place common law as there was nobody who came along and said, “All right, this is what common law is.” Obviously, you did have great jurists who helped develop frameworks and simplify things, and then were revered for that.
It was this long evolutionary process of people on the ground, realizing, “Okay, we have problems,” and then developing this body of law to solve those problems and, eventually, getting codified over time that happened to then be very useful once the Industrial Revolution and modernity started to occur. I mean, how does that, I guess, fit into Great Founder Theory?
Samo: Incremental cultural developments very much are a real force. I use the framework of traditions of knowledge, where I tend to operationalize. What is the active component of this cultural tradition? What is the component that carries with it, new mechanisms, new ways of doing, and what’s, in a way, not ephemeral, but maybe just flavoring? Stuff that doesn’t really change the way people coordinate, or the way material production is done.
The distinctions I make is between live traditions and dead traditions, where living traditions carry within them the possibility of regenerating or extending the core principles behind them. Meanwhile, dead traditions are just imitation of the forms and not what originated the forms. Having said this, I still believe that most of the big bodies of cultural inheritance have their origin with a few concrete individuals setting up the framework.
Now, once you set up the framework, it can be developed in very interesting directions. It can be kept. It can be evolved, it can evolve through 1,000 small steps, or five large reforms. There is definitely a strong founding moment. As a concrete example of this, perhaps controversially, institutions can, of course, not just be founded, but re-founded.
Let me take, for example, the decisions of the Emperor Constantine, with regards to Christian church politics in the third century AD. Isn’t it quite obvious that, were different decisions made, different political coalitions, the theology of both the Catholic and Orthodox churches might be quite different, or that the political influence of the later medieval church might have been quite different? Or that, maybe, it wouldn’t have even become the state religion of the Roman Empire. Maybe it would have been a failed attempt at producing a new state religion. We’d all be some variant of Zoroastrian, or something today.
I do feel that Christianity, obviously, massively changed in the 1,700 years since Constantine organized an aspect of it. I think that that pivotal role did define a lot of further development.
Mark: If we take a Great Founder Theory, what then are the implications that would differ from other major theories if we examined what the current role of the world is today?
Samo: Yeah. I think, one of the key differences would be that there would be a stronger focus on the introduction of various types of social reforms and economic reforms. There are some other theories that propose such focuses. Most famously, Marxism perhaps argued that the modes of production changing through history, that we can determine most of history almost scientifically by following these immutable set of changes.
Now, Marxism, of course, always had difficulty for modeling things that were not Europe. It had difficulty modeling Asian economies. In fact, even today, modern economists who are very much not Marxist still have difficulty explaining the so-called Great Divergence between, say, Europe and East Asia, and honestly, even Europe and the Middle East, and Europe and India. There were many points in the last 1,000 years where each of these regions had higher wealth, even higher wealth per capita than Europe, certainly more technologically developed, certainly more cultured along those standard routes, yet the Industrial Revolution did start in Europe, and it had reshaped the world.
The difference might then be the special focus on what are these levers of coordination and social change that we see individuals use through history? Stronger focus on, say, the tactics and the practicalities of being a prophet that convinces a society to adopt your religion, or the difficulties of reforming, say, a tribal society into a feudal society, or a feudal society into a bureaucratic society. These decisions, I think, and not just these decisions, these attempts, they can’t ever fully design the final structure.
I’m not proposing there are, out there in our history, full-on architects of civilization. What I am proposing is that there are very important builders of civilization; people that produce cornerstones. You start building a tower, and by the end of it, the tower might be quite different. A good example of this is the Tower of Galata in Istanbul. It starts its life – I recently visited it. It starts its life, as basically, a Roman lighthouse. Ends up being a prison tower, an astronomical observatory, a fort for Jesuits to hole up into, and so on. Just all sorts of different uses for this tower, yet it definitely has a determinant origin in that original Roman lighthouse.
Mark: Cool. You mentioned, I guess, the modes of production. One other, I guess, sometimes interesting thought I have to explain history is thinking about the impact of different offensive and defensive technologies in history. You can imagine, sometimes there is an advantage to offensive weaponry. This might be something like the Mongol, or generally, Steppe warriors, where the Mongols had horses, and then they had bows that they could shoot very quickly from. With their horses, they were basically able to decimate armies, create the world’s largest contiguous land empire.
Also, at some points in history, there are arguably, I don’t know, defensive technologies that end up dominating. If you think about, I guess, castles in the Middle Ages, they were a defensive technology that, until cannons, was pretty much a trump card. How do then, one, military technologies, but then two, this could also be applied to technology more broadly, in terms of I don’t know. I mean, you mentioned industrial capacity previously. How do those interrelate into your Great Founder Theory?
Samo: Yes. Military technologies are an important driver of history. Here, I would definitely recommend a book by the American historian, Carroll Quigley, titled Weapons Systems and Political Stability. It’s one of the better and deeper treatises on this topic. As so often, unfortunately, happens with the works of great historians, the author dies before he manages to write the book describing modern weapons. You often have these incompleted books series, because it just takes for so long to examine the evidence, let alone to synthesize it with any type of generative theory.
Now, with weapon systems in particular, I think we constantly have a severe disconnect between what is materially possible in warfare and what is actualized. This warfare is perhaps well-illustrated by the massive gap between technology on the one hand, and tactics, army organization, and strategy on the other. Arguably, trench warfare, of course, is somewhat the product of material technology, of cannon being at a particular stage of development, of the machine gun, of barbed wire being affordable and deployable, of logistics supply lines enabled by trains and so on, of national mobilization efforts, partially organized through novel communication technologies, like the telegraph, and so on. Certainly, profound role.
However, every time a new material possibility is introduced, there’s a whole long and, in the case of warfare, bloody learning process. Anyone who is capable of skipping some steps in this learning process can really shape the winners and losers of this technological transition. I would say, there’s not just material technology, there is social technology. Now, to give an example 100 years earlier, before the First World War, Napoleon and his use of cannon, very important innovation. That technical capability was already there. In some ways, there were elements of it that were already introduced earlier.
He brought it to an arch, to a completion of how they fit into that battlefield. This gave France a significant advantage, even though France was not the most technologically advanced country in Europe at the time. Already at the time, the British were quite ahead in a whole number of domains. When it came to, say, sheer army discipline or something like this, the Prussians were already the Prussians. Let alone, again, the geographic determinism. Perhaps, even Napoleon couldn’t quite overcome the vastness of Russia as one stereotype. The more accurate one is, I think, even Napoleon couldn’t prevent a whole continent from trading with his key enemy, the British. I think, that’s the more important one, almost. The more important geographic barrier.
You can always just ignore Russia and deter it. You don’t actually have to take it over. It’s much, much harder to try to control the trade regimes of unwilling allies. Still, to refocus why I explore this anecdote of Napoleon, why one can explore, say, how World War I era technology might have been, in fact, better served by the tactics we saw in World War II. This was the era where the armored vehicle was introduced, where the airplane was introduced, all of that. Nothing prevented you from doing some early version of mobile warfare with the technology of 1915.
Just the way the army is supposed to be organized, the way an offensive is supposed to work, all of these things were just not known. They required pairing advanced, not just – it required an advance of social technology to catch up with material technology. I think, in Great Founder Theory, the view would be that social and material technology build on each other. Not only do you need social technology to catch up to material technology, if you have a massive failure of social technology, such as, say, with the Bronze Age collapse, or something like this, you’re going to see a failure of material technology too. Technology can in fact, be lost, or mostly, falls out of disuse.
Mark: What is the most, or who is the most underrated great founder in history?
Samo: That’s a very good question. I mean, underrated, overrated. There are people who are appropriately rated. I actually think, I’ll be a little bit contrarian. I think, Confucius is quite a bit more important than people think he is. Everyone says he’s important because he has these principles to live by, this ethic. We, in the Western world, we struggled to find an equivalent to Jesus or Muhammad in Eastern civilizations, we arbitrarily picked Confucius, even though arguably, the Taoist tradition has better mystics who are, perhaps, more influential.
I think, the key aspect of his reform program is a particular way of educating bureaucrats, and a particular way bureaucrats should seize power, and a set of justifications for them to exercise power. I think, Confucius is, in a way, overrated for normal reasons and underrated as a political revolutionary. If you think of Confucius in the same breath, as we say, think of Lenin, I think that might be a more accurate description of his contribution.
Now, when it comes to the Western world, its history is a little bit – it’s filled with these figures that we know and we admire. I think, I would say that, I think, Ptolemy, the first Ptolemy, King Ptolemy of Egypt is greatly underrated. We credit the Library of Alexandria to the philosophers, not to the royal family that set it up. We credit, say the many inventions of the Greek and Roman era – we perhaps, even underrate those inventions. We forget that the Renaissance is following the inspiration of them. We just think that they naturally emerged.
We don’t think of this set of successor states to Alexander the Great’s empire, and how they relate to siege warfare, irrigation, machinery, and knowledge in a completely different way than previous states in antiquity. I could say that Ptolemy’s state was perhaps the first real state with an R&D program, a serious one. When Ptolemy banned the export of papyrus to the kingdom of Pergamon, he wasn’t being a jealous book collector. No matter how jealous a book collector you are, you don’t need millions of scrolls. What he was doing was banning the export of a strategic material to a rival state. It’s more comparable to today, say banning Huawei from developing your information infrastructure than it is to the jealousy of a overly keen book collector.
Mark: Cool. If you’re looking for a great founder to build a city, what characteristics would you look for in them? Then, I guess, what great founders in history would be good at building cities and which ones would not?
Samo: I honestly think that cities are these remarkable organisms that almost an edge case to my theories. All the most important cities we can name, usually have more of a mythical founder or an obscure founder than an easily defined one. Now, obviously, the city of Istanbul with the Emperor Constantine, or the city of St. Petersburg, these are counter examples. A city like Rome has mostly a mythical founder. Still, with that caveat that it can be difficult to say exactly.
I think, if you truly wanted to see a city that shapes global history, and I think it’s fair to say, many cities really do shape global history. Cities are the centers of intellectual production and decision-making and economic production, of course, is an easy one. Yeah, changing the future history of the world by building a new city is a pretty good bet, often much easier than creating a new country. In a great founder of a city, I will seek for something like a rootedness in a particular place, a dogged determination to make this particular plot of land the center of the world. That’s honestly completely delusional, when you’re looking at an empty plot of land. It’s, of course, completely delusional until it’s true.
He’s a bit of a stereotype. I’m sure he’s been discussed too much, but there’s a way in which Lee Kuan Yew has that characteristic, fairly straightforwardly. There’s also a way in which other city founders have had this characteristic. The second one is a awareness of different cultures and how they co-exist. The person has to understand more than just one culture. Even if we’re talking about a city that’s mostly populated from a single country, be it Germany, the United States, China, presumably, everyone’s coming in with the same language or about the same language. Even in those homogenous contexts, the differences between city life; multi-generational city dwellers, versus the people who have recently been pulled from the countryside and hinterland are absolutely massive.
A lot of what we see in modern China, in modern Chinese internal politics, is a conflict between the people who’ve lived in cities since 1980 and the people who lived in the city, as long before, all of these arrivals from the western provinces and the countryside poured in. Even in a context like China that’s seemingly homogenous, you, in fact, need someone that is literate emotionally, socially, and intellectually, ideally, also just can speak multiple languages. He has to be literate in all of these senses in several different cultures, and has to bridge them. A city is always a multi-cultural project, even if these different cultures are just different sub-cultures.
Then, another important one is, I think, coalition building, and the ability to find and retain long-term collaborators. If I don’t see a city founder that hasn’t had 10 really solid long-term collaborators who’ve been through some conflict, I worry that perhaps, he’s going to lose control of city hall much too early, or will not be able to navigate some of the economic challenges that are inherent in creating a city in the first place. Might not be able to organize something of that type.
Then, one more thing, I think the founder of a city has to, to some extent, embody something that becomes a self-identity or a virtue of a city. Almost every city has this type of stereotype of what the typical inhabitant is like. Let’s talk, say, New York culture, or San Francisco culture, or Vienna culture, or something like this. The person has to have one standout characteristic that most of the residents of the city say, “Oh, he’s a true New Yorker.” They have to have that characteristic. If the person doesn’t, they’ll be vaguely resented by people.
Now, the fun part is if you’re building a new city, maybe you can define the virtues of the city, so that one of your virtues is also the virtue of the city. You can stack the deck in your favor. You have to know to do that. There’s a particular paternalistic element of PR at play there.
Mark: Cool. Let’s move on. You’ve recently published an essay about – I’m going to butcher this pronunciation, ‘Gobekli Tepe’, which is this, I guess, Turkish archaeological site that is somewhat unique in that it predates agriculture, where the common human story is people developed agriculture in river valleys, typically grain. That provided a surplus that was relatively easy to identify and to extract. Where, for example, with tubers, they’re underground, so they’re difficult to extract. With grain, because it’s quite easy to extract, that surplus then provided the foundation for states, which then created civilization, social structure, buildings, all of these good things, along with all the terrible things that are also associated with early modern states, or early states in terms of slavery, in terms of hierarchy, in terms of a lot of this brutalism.
Your argument suggests that this narrative is, in fact, incorrect. We are typically thinking of civilization-making in a different manner. Is that a fair summary? If not, what’s wrong with it? If so, can you go a little bit more into, I guess, what Gobekli Tepe is and how that relates to this hypothesis?
Samo: Yeah. Gobekli Tepe is unique because it is, as you said, a site in southeastern Turkey, that was only dug up in 1995. This is quite recent, and it was still being actively excavated until I think, 2016, something like this. The site consists of these several large concentric stone circles, each of them made up of these tall pillars, each of the pillars weighing from about 10 to 20 tons. You have everything from carvings of animals, to some debatable depictions of people. It’s really just should not be there. It is about a 1,000 years older than the consensus origin of agriculture.
Yet, when archaeologists produced estimates for the human labor needed to assemble these large and honestly, pretty impressive structures, they came to the number of 500 laborers, while these laborers indeed had to be organized, and they had to be fed. Now we could debate how they were fed. Perhaps, the climatological models are wrong, though the best climatological models we have suggest that the area was just as dry then as it is today. This is at the very edge of the Fertile Crescent, up in these hilly mountainous terrain. These are like, this is a harsh landscape. It’s a landscape where some farming happens, but it happens because of irrigation. Yes, pretty much growing grain today.
How exactly were these people fed back then? You could perhaps think that the wildlife was much more abundant and plentiful. While there is evidence for this in places like the Siberian Steppe, there’s no evidence of it in the Gobekli Tepe site. There’s no evidence that these dry hills had that much game. It really starts to be an interesting puzzle, an interesting question as to how these people were fed.
It’s debatable, however I think the circumstantial evidence is strong that we simply found the temple first, and possibly, there was some agriculture beforehand. However, even if that’s all incorrect, we still have the feat of organizing 500 people. This is a significant achievement. This temple is built on top of a hill. This hill is visible from the entire surrounding landscape. It was something of a landmark. It would have been something that would have been well-known to people hundreds of miles away.
I already said temple. It’s an interesting question. Whenever we find something and we don’t know what it’s for, it’s very easy to say, “Oh, it’s for ceremonial purposes.” It’s assumed to be a temple. In fact, the discoverer of the site, Klaus Schmidt, thought it was a temple. He made the argument that possibly, organized religion came first. Then, the needs of organized religion led to this process of domestication of grain, the introduction of large-scale irrigation, and yes, also things like the collection of taxes, and eventually, these different labor arrangements.
Mark: Assume that is true, how does this change our view of history? How does this affect how we think about, I guess, human civilization organizing?
Samo: I think, one of the key big things that the site does demonstrate is that complex society, so complex human society, in all of those senses, in the sense of large-scale community life, in the sense of large-scale organized labor, in the sense of even long-distance trade, because we see more and more evidence from other sites of basically, long-distance trade in the Neolithic and the Mesolithic. The Paleolithic stuff is more debatable. As always, society has just been around for much longer than previously assumed, and complex human social behavior and coordination is much older as well.
We really probably did not spend most of our evolutionary history as 10 people hiding in a cave. Even if 10 people were living in a cave, these people probably attended festivals, where they would see a few 100 people, or they would join war bands of 50 people, or a 100 people. We have areas where we’ve excavated full-on battles, where you have 50 people killed by stone axe, with clear evidence of wounds on their bodies. These are all adult men. Some of them are even carrying weaponry.
What is this, if not the remnants of a battle site? Now, you have stuff like this found in Europe. You have stuff like this found in Asia. Really, the full spectrum of human social behavior might have in fact been there, even this large-scale coordination, long before we usually assume it was. Perhaps, the material tools that we build, such as boats for trading, roads so armies can march back and forth, irrigation so that we can feed larger labor forces, aqueducts so we can bring water to people in the cities, far away from any natural source of water. These are perhaps, material technologies that assist, are already desired or already shown, revealed preference, this demonstrated pattern of social behavior. Possibly, this puts human social behavior in the center and technology as assisting this large-scale macro-human social behavior.
Mark: If this is true, are we going to discover more Gobekli Tepes? What is the likelihood that we will? What should we look for in terms of where to potentially find them? Is a, I guess, a radical rethinking of the origins of human civilization, archaeology likely in the next 20 years?
Samo: I basically, am happy to make this bet with any qualified challenger. As I said, at the end of my article, this was the Palladium magazine article, ‘Why Civilization is Much Older Than We Think’. I think we will find many new sites that force us to revise, step after step, our current preconceptions. One example of this is the Ahalo site in Israel, which is near the lake of Galilee, where there is evidence of small-scale cultivation of grains over 20,000 years ago. That site, to me, suggests that small-scale agriculture has been a part of our behavioral packet, modern Homosapien’s behavioral set, as deeply as hunting and gathering or fishing. I think that, yes, it’s very natural that we will find such sites.
I do have to caution, however, archaeology is not that hypothesis a driven science. It’s not the case that people first think, “Ah, okay, we need to find – We think humanity is of – has this type of characteristics, so we’re going to go dig in all of the sites that fit that description.” It’s very random. There are places where construction happens, and then you run across some new ruins. Then maybe the ruins are explored by archaeologists, maybe they’re not. Archaeologists have a limited budget. They have some time to work through.
Honestly, you might have a situation where there is a revolutionary site that was already found, but has not been fully explored or was misstated. Gobekli Tepe itself as an example of this, because in the 1960s, it was actually discovered for the first time by a team from the University of Chicago and the University of Istanbul. They found all of these marvelous Neolithic tools. They thought to themselves, “Well, those structures, these remnants of these structures, that’s probably a medieval Byzantine cemetery that was built over this Neolithic site,” and got all the tools mixed up. They saw what they expected to see. It took Klaus Schmidt in 1994-1995, revisiting a site that he actually found in the archives. He was searching for sites that deserved a second look. He was struck by this and he was like, “Well, look. This is obviously ancient construction. Our theories did not predict construction at this scale.”
So much for the theories. So much worse for the theories. We should adopt new theories and try to find new explanations. I’d be very bullish on re-examining sites, particularly trying to date more of them, and trying to extend our imagination of how old some of these sites might be.
Mark: You mentioned that archaeology is not a hypothesis-driven science. This is something that I think about and we sometimes discuss in the office, is how a lot of, I think, professions have become a little bit, I guess, sclerotic and inward-looking. Archeology is, I guess, one potential example – I don’t know enough about archaeology to have a particularly strong opinion on that, but it fits with my priors. I’m an economist and I find the economist profession a little bit sclerotic and inward-looking.
If you look, most of the interesting debate is happening on Twitter. In terms of academic journals, what they are meaningfully contributing to our understanding of economics, it’s very low, if you define economics in this broad Smithian sense. One, I guess, do you agree that this, I don’t know, inward focus, is this descriptive of many professions in the Western world? Then, two, assuming it is descriptive, how do we understand how this came to be, that so many of our professions have, I guess, developed this rent-seeking nature?
Samo: Yeah. It’s a very good observation. I think it holds. There are many professions that are deeply inward-looking. Now, part of the reason is sometimes that’s just part of their mandate. If you think about it, at the end of the day, what we truly expect from archaeologists is to correctly interpret finds and correctly preserve them. Should they be the people deeply rethinking what ancient humans must have been like? Well, possibly no. Possibly, that is someone else’s job. Maybe it should be someone’s job and there’s a institutional gap. Someone should be making hypotheses of history, and then archaeologists should be giving thumbs up or thumbs down on whether evidence has yet been found for this view of history, and this view of human nature.
Sometimes, it’s a question of what is in whose authority. The broader Smithian sense is such an example, too. Adam Smith is doing what he calls political economy. At times, he also dabbles in ethics, philosophy. He’s a much wider thinker than we usually take him to be in the intro economics textbook. Over time, the mandate, the legitimate area of inquiry for economics actually shrunk. What we think of as modern economics has already been shorn of so much of political theory, anthropological theory, ethical theory, that it’s really a very narrow construct.
Now, maintaining the literal discipline of a discipline that’s a narrow construct, that’s not wrong, per se. We have a big problem if all our disciplines are defined conceptually as super narrow. These are just two small – one is a social barrier, who has socially perceived the right to think about something, who should be listened to, who is tolerated to think about something. Secondly, then what is the inner logic of a field as set up?
Then finally, we get to the perhaps, more interesting ones, the ones that are unique in modern Western society, the features that are unique. I think we live in a super bureaucratized society, where specialization has run amok. We gained fabulous economies of all sorts through a deep specialization of our economies. I worry that the consequence of this has been a deep specialization of intellectual production. The problem with a bureaucratized system, where people are competing on filling tiny, tiny niches, is a what Eric Weinstein calls the victory of sharp elbows over sharp minds.
Not saying that the winners of these office politics fights, when they’re fighting for this tiny, tiny intellectual turf, like a tiny plot of land. Imagine 10 grad students boxing to the death, and the winner becomes a professor. Well, maybe the winner is, since this is intellectual boxing, social boxing, maybe the winner is the most original thinker. Maybe. Whoever the winner is, they’re probably pretty smart. I would actually say that there is a selection against original thinking. There is a selection against anyone who tries to defend too many plots of land simultaneously.
Instead of people that survey the great landscape of nature and man, and come to some observations, such as the theory of plate tectonics, or whatever, if we are running with the geology metaphor. You have people who have very strong opinions on the exact concentration of earthworms and this little plot of land that they’ve been focused on for the last 40 years of their career.
Mark: Yeah. I mean, it seems as though this has become particularly apparent with COVID as the public health establishment has failed on almost every margin, from first refusing to ban travel. You had, I think, believe the New York Commissioner of Health in February of last year tweeting like, “Come on. Let’s celebrate Chinese New Year and prove those racists wrong.” It’s like, okay, there’s a pandemic. It wasn’t really fully on the shores yet, but there’s a pandemic. You had the FDA shutting down Dr. Helen Chu, who was the first person to identify positive COVID case in the US, because she had got approval for testing, you had the CDC bungle their initial testing rollout. You had them being against mass, not adopting first doses first. Then bungling the, I think, it was the Johnson & Johnson pause and creating a lot of distrust.
I mean, to me, I think your analysis is correct. What I would also add is that there is a, I guess, degree of infantilization of the American public, combined with the culture war, where they are trying to predict responses, where the American public is assumed to be a bumbling, massive idiots that has to be managed, rather than defaulting to just being very straightforward with what is happening, how severe it is going to be, and what the recommendations are for how to react and the lack of initial knowledge with the hope that, in the near to intermediate future, there will be additional information as we are able to run more studies, do more tests, figure out a little bit more about this virus and how it spreads.
I guess, my worry is just that those problems that became very apparent in the American public health sector are probably in basically, almost every other – or not every other, but many of the other major professions in the US in terms of just their ability to deal with an exogenous shock.
Samo: The question of public health is an interesting one, because the same technologies, the same social technologies of marketing and propaganda that were once used to get the American public to smoke, such as the introduction of the concept of “torches for liberty” as a way to get women to start smoking in the 1920s. These were the same methods that were deployed 60, 70 years later, to try to get the public to stop smoking.
It’s certainly not the case that a purely rational appeal to the public is the only way to influence the public’s behavior. What is at stake, and what is an issue is the belief that the public epistemic sphere, that is the public space where ideas can be aired, where things can be thought out, where the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas is sometimes used, where we discover truth together. That is completely then replaced just with a layer of “what behavioral changes can we induce in the population?”
The problem with abolishing the public epistemic sphere in favor of essentially, pure propaganda, right? Even if it’s economic or public health propaganda, that’s what the word is. That’s the word that best describes what, in fact, we’re seeing. Well, then you have the problem of you don’t yourself know what’s going on. I think, most public health officials did not know what’s going on. In fact, they personally were in a worse epistemic state than random corners of Twitter, in say, March of 2020, May of 2020. Heck, even March of 2021.
In March of 2021, I believe, if you believe the lab-leak hypothesis, you might have heard it on Twitter or on YouTube before whoever told you was censored. If you were working in an establishment institutions, well maybe there were backroom whispers. You could plausibly actually believe that the lab-leak hypothesis was completely debunked, rather than a completely valid possible origin of the virus. It was ultimately a political decision that made it something that was acceptable to discuss right now. What if it wasn’t?
The public health officials, the people who would appoint themselves Plato’s guardians in this Plato’s sense that the guardians of the perfect society who know the truth, but engage in the noble lie, that’s a lie that is supposed to bring the rest of the populace of the city closer to truth, or at least closer to virtue. These guardians just – they don’t know what’s happening either. They relied on the same epistemic infrastructure that their work undermines.
Mark: Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, what’s disconcerting to me is, one, I find it much more difficult to evaluate truth and fiction today, where I trust random bloggers on the internet more than I do the CDC. The challenge is, one, the bloggers have themselves a somewhat limited time and attention span. As this topic falls off their intellectual radar, it’s likely to fall off mine as well. Then, second, is that while the internet is a relatively good, I guess, epistemic sorting mechanism, at least within certain circles, it does take time and energy to stay abreast of the most recent updates of the things that are occurring.
If there is a exogenous shock in a new sphere, the question is, all right, let’s say there’s war with Taiwan. I assumed similar corners of Twitter will update accordingly. Again, if there is this, I guess, discovery process going on that does take time, and it’s just a little bit, yeah, I guess, frustrated thinking. Okay, if let’s say that there is the possibility that we need to get a Delta booster variant this fall, I won’t believe the CDC when they tell me. It’s like, this is a major health issue. I literally can’t trust any of the public health institutions to actually do a reasonable job of evaluating the relevant risks and benefits.
Samo: I mean, part of it is I wish these public health institutions and not just public health institutions, let’s broaden it to a whole set of bureaucracies, were much more willing to, at least occasionally, ingest the talent that can be found online. There’s a precious few bloggers, who have made a real name for themselves, not just under a pseudonym, but as a well-known, in some cases, almost household names.
Obviously, there’s Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex, and so on. These people have wide readerships. They’ve often shown themselves to be quite prescient in a whole number of things. I think institutions should go out of their way to try to work with such individuals in some capacity. Either through commissioning them for various public-facing reports, or heck, even hiring them. At a different part of, say, American or Western history, this would have been a no brainer, right? Hiring someone on the basis of their output, rather than on the basis of their credentials. Right now, this seems supremely difficult.
Mark: What does America look like in 20 years, right? We’re at this point where technology is very good. We rolled out the mRNA vaccine very quickly, but many of our social institutions are severely decayed. Is this continued decay likely? What would it take to reverse this? How should we think about the next 20 to 30-year evolution of the American state and our institutions?
Samo: Yeah. I think it’s interesting how you can continue to pursue some of these advantages. I wouldn’t underestimate to what extent the very decayed institutions are a barrier to technology. The fast vaccine rollout; there was overwhelming political mandate to produce a vaccine quickly. There really was. The political barriers for producing something like that were minimal.
This is not true when you start thinking about many other technologies. There was an acute crisis and an acute need, and the technological capacity existed, and we still have the capacity for innovation. There are all sorts of permissionless innovation routes that could be taken still, things that don’t really destroy or disrupt a key political interest. Actually, it actually seems to me that say, on something like energy, the barriers are worse; the more dysfunctional the social institutions are. These aren’t technical barriers.
Innovation in, say, nuclear energy or something like this, that is politically bottlenecked. That only gets worse the less flexible those institutions are. I’m not even that optimistic. I feel like, we didn’t have – hypothetically, we have massive technological capacity. There’s only going to be tiny strands where this massive technological capacity bursts through the dysfunctional institutional landscape and the vast majority of it is going to be held back.
Mark: Yeah. That’s, I guess, my worry. If you think about what a long-term slow civilizational collapse would look like, it would be technologies that we have becoming – us lacking the ability to maintain and service them, where you would see increasing electric shortages, like we’re seeing in California. You would see some of our cities fail to provide clean water to people, like we’re seeing in Flint.
I mean, if you look at the average rail time from DC to New York, I believe it’s slower than it was 50 or 80 years ago. These existing technologies, we are unable to maintain and upkeep them as we once would. We’ve managed to continue to create new technology in several areas, but the broader institutional failures seem to be pretty severe. While there are some, I guess, green shoots, just seeing the dominant discourse and see what’s happening, those green shoots are, I guess, just a little bit minimal.
To me, the most promising intellectual trend in the US today is the GMU to former Vox pipeline, where you have people like Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein have become productive, better way to put it, GMU-pilled, where they are starting to buy into this idea of progress, this idea of sclerosis and institutional change has reclined, for example has been – was Alex right about everything? Previously, he wrote about a lot of the institutional bureaucracies that were a reaction to the Robert Moses, I don’t know, strong man city developer and how they’ve really prevented a lot of new buildings from going up.
Because they represent the center left that is the dominant discourse in this country, but the reasonable center left, not the socialist somewhat hysteric center left, my hope is that that can hopefully, form, I don’t know, part of the consensus for a new governing vision to emerge. One, realistically, it takes 20 years for that to emerge. Then, two, given all of the other trends that we are working within, and given the general dysfunction of a lot of American institutions. If you look at polling data from millennials, in terms of their interest in socialism versus capitalism, it’s just not particularly promising. I don’t know, that’s a long ramble to say, I’m not very – I want to be more optimistic about the future, but we’ll see.
Samo: Well, some points of optimism. I would say that I’m short-term pessimistic on the United States and long-term optimistic. We talked at the start of today’s show about how many different lenses on history produce sometimes different answers. I think, on at least the geographic determinism angle, the US has a lot going for it. In terms of acceptance and facilitating exceptional individuals, making their organizational contributions to society, so people coming in out of nowhere and building entire new branches of government, or entire new companies, or entire new cities, the US actually has a remarkably good track record over the last 200 years. Arguably, even the last 50 years, if we grade America on a curve.
Name a single western country that does better on that metric. I think none of them do. China say, has an advantage in some ways. As we saw recently with the humbling of Jack Ma, eccentric individuals can only go so far in the Chinese system, which means that while Xi might have interesting ideas about how to reform the Communist Party, they might even be correct ideas. If he’s wrong, he’s just deeply wrong, and he’s not going to be corrected anytime soon.
I think, these are reasons to be cautiously optimistic that the correction mechanisms will kick in. Now, the reasons to be pessimistic is, again, this big, old forest. Maybe the right way to think about it is that we can hope this big, old, dry forest filled with these giant trees of these big, dead institutions, that there is enough new growth and undergrowth that, as these trees fall, each of them, in turn, will open new space for new institutions to grow.
If we’re very unlucky, then we might actually have to face something like a forest fire. After that forest fire, I think it will be still a remarkably fertile society, or remarkably fertile culture.
Mark: Yeah. I mean, my hope, I think we’re probably about halfway through the tech boom. If you look at new major industries, for example, electricity, cars, they typically take 60 to 80 years to become widely adopted by society. Depending on how you want to start, if you say, like 1994, the beginning of internet as a public industry, then we’re 30 years in. We’ve got another 30 years. Maybe the adoption’s a little bit quicker these days. Silicon Valley is the only, I don’t know, still healthy part of the innovation landscape and this can, to my mind, be approximately modeled on the fact that they were the only part of the country that responded really quickly and effectively to the Coronavirus.
Almost all of their offices shut down before government, or before other institutions. They were worrying about it much more early. Part of this has to do with paying a lot of attention to China, because the tech industry in China is relatively strong. My mental model is that because there is a startup ethos and because startup founders actually do face a almost infinite variety of potential decisions, they are forced to be able to integrate new information very quickly and make decisions.
While, if you look at, for example, New York banking culture, the CEO of JPMorgan, probably went up from an analyst at JP Morgan, eventually progressing the ranks, and obviously, a very smart guy, but always had decision-making that was substantially more constrained than the decision-making of a founder in SF. Those differences in decision making options, there’s two different analytic frameworks, and SF analytic framework was better able to adapt to COVID.
Anyway, to square a long story, my maybe naive optimism is, with another 20 to 30 years of tech boom, tech means about entrepreneurship will penetrate society much more deeply. That hopefully, will lead to some of these institutional restructurings that are necessary to really create a much more healthy national environment again.
Samo: I think that the means, yes, but also the individuals. Where my hope is that this is the only part. If we think about it, Silicon Valley is the only part of America forging more of a middle-class. Software engineers, in particular, are the only people right now who are keeping pace in this Red Queen race of a downward mobility, and hyper credentialization. It’s still possible to be a software engineer, earn good money, and basically, not have a college degree, and the terrible burden of college debt, and so on.
It’s possible quite easily to retire in your 30s and so on and so on, as long as you’re well-situated. In any other society, in any other time, when a new class enters this threshold, when they’re no longer just servants but become a leisure class, there usually follows a period of big cultural innovation, because the people who previously applied their talents making these startups, making these companies, or working in them, they sometimes need to find new outlets, new places to deploy their energy.
1900 San Francisco, since we’ve talked about San Francisco as a modern example, is a city that was profoundly beautiful, partially because all of the entrepreneurs, people like Stanford and so on, these people wanted the city to be beautiful. They invested in city government. They built buildings, donated matters. An intense culture of civic pride was formed out of almost nothing.
I don’t know exactly what the broad base of software engineers, who are the only people with a rising economic and social standard, what they’re going to be into. I think that the founders themselves at the very top of this stack, I think they are going to look around and they’re going to look at cities like San Francisco and cities like New York and cities like Seattle, and yes, even cities like Austin, they’re going to be like, “Well, this is ridiculous. I spent the past 20 years laboring here. So many of the fruits of my efforts are basically being completely wasted. They’re not improving in anything beneficial to the lives of people. Let’s fix the broken cities,” they might say.
Or they might say, “Let’s fix the national conversation.” Or they might say, “Let’s fix government. I already made my money. Let’s try to fix government now.” I’m very hopeful as to the fruit of that effort two or three decades afterwards.
Mark: One of the, I think, ways that I sometimes frame it is, every new administration, New York sends two to three bankers to be cabinet level positions. Silicon Valley is at least as important to the American economy as New York banking. Who are the technologists who end up in administrations and it basically, never happens? There will be a good indication of change in power, once that does start happening. You have a saying that I’ve bought a little bit. San Francisco likes to think they’re above politics. Instead, they’re below it. Do you see that changing? What will, I guess, help accelerate that change and formulate a coherent plan to actually engage the political process?
Samo: I think, part of it is to understand that the correct way to deal with the critique of techie scum, and all of that, this irrational, significant hatred, is to realize that you are never going to be able to pretend that you’re not economically privileged. What you can do is, yes, say, “I’m not just economically privileged, I’m economically productive. Not only am I economically productive, I’m productive in all of these other ways.”
They will realize that if they full-on engage with politics, with culture, with speech, with all of this, they won’t be more hated. No. The hate will subside. They might even be loved. I think, this requires some, basically, bravery. That will be a big culture shock to people that are honestly, used to very individual work. In a way, we’re often very sheltered. If you’ve been a software engineer for the last 10 or 15 years, you might have no idea how bad things are for the typical American, even the typical white collar American.
This culture shock of re-entering the world at of almost cryostasis, I think that might be enough to give them that jolt of bravery. The reason this more cultural explanation matters, this more cultural framing, is that I think people mostly imitate their peers. As soon as, in a certain social circle, there’s one wedding, you can almost time the time to the next wedding. After that, it feels like an avalanche. Suddenly, everyone’s inviting everyone to weddings.
It crawls through the social graph, this one example. I think, something very similar is going to happen with political activity, and various creative forms of philanthropy and civic engagement.
Mark: Yeah. You can already see that in terms of philanthropy, where the Thiel Fellowship, for example, now everybody realizes how great of an idea it was. You see a bunch of, I don’t want to call them knock offs, but similar types of engagement. Eric Schmidt announced Rise, where he’s trying to find the next generation of superstar, still the more political of the Thiel Fellowships, but it’s aiming to identify 15 to 20-year-olds, and plug them into a network, empower them.
I’m a Schmidt international fellow and one of the questions was basically, one of Thiel questions, like what big opinion do you have that nobody else agrees with? I met up with some of the other fellows and none of them really realizes that that question was from Peter. They’re always like, “Oh, that’s a very interesting question. It’s very different from the typical fellowship question.” You’re starting to get this broader engagement.
Let’s, I guess, shift gears a little bit. There is a recent interview Marc Andreessen did with the what, 6’3” Balkan war criminal, which always sounds funny to say out loud but I literally don’t know how else to identify him. He makes the point that he believes, in two generations, the entire world is going to be weird, WEIRD in the Joe Heinrich sense; Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. Where Joe Heinrich argues that this unique constellation of cultural attributes contributed substantially to Western economic development and influence.
Because of the internet, it is substantially lowering channels of transmission of cultural values. Therefore, in 50 years, in two generations, everybody is, for lack of a better way to put it, going to be “indoctrinated” by these values, because America still largely has global, I don’t know, media domination. This was one of these ideas where I never particularly thought about it. Once I heard it, it struck me as, I guess, a little bit obvious. I was wondering how you reacted to that if you saw it, or if you’re hearing now, what your reaction is?
Samo: Well, I’m looking forward to more interviews by Marc Andreessen. I think, he should be interviewed by all sorts of internet weirdos. We were just speaking about the virtues, the epistemic and possible moral virtues of internet weirdos a few minutes ago, I would say that there are certain common features and common responses that happen in humans once they have achieved some amount of material prosperity.
Further, there are some changes that come about socially due to being integrated into a new type of economic organization. That’s where the disagreement starts. If you imagine the effect of corporate culture on Japanese society, and the effect of corporate culture on German society, and the effect of corporate culture on American society, these are very, very different corporate cultures. These are very, very different societies. In fact, the very modes of economic organization partially reflect this.
These are, in a way, all WEIRD countries in the wealthy, educated, industrialized sense, but they’re quite different. Lifelong loyalty to a company is still sometimes a thing you see in Japan. It’s not a thing you really see in the United States. In Germany, the credentialing system and the credentialing moats, and bailies, and walls, and fortifications between different economic activities are very different, where they have very excellent education for all sorts of technical roles. They also have a different culture of where managers come from and how managers are educated, compared to the US.
Finally, also, the barrier between technocratic government and technocratic economy is much less felt in Germany than in the United States. An interesting way, there’s a functional integration there, where both sides are just moderately technocratic stewards of the German economy. They’re, of course, also much more conservative than their American or Japanese counterparts. That’s perhaps the downside.
My disagreement there would be, yes, there are common things that industrialization brings about, but different societies do industrialization in different ways. Yes, there are common modes of modern education. Again, different societies do education differently. I do think wealthy and democratic is perhaps the most interesting one. The political differences between parts of the world are still significant, but they’re all going to be democratic in the sense that mass online political participation of the population seems inevitable.
That type of democracy, yes. I think wealth. Well, unless things go catastrophically wrong, we’re going to be much wealthier. I think, a lot of the values that we consider as to be inevitable products of Western wealth, are actually products of much weirder things. They’re products of things such as the Protestant work ethic, or a particular vision of human salvation and human nature that was only contingently tied to the Industrial Revolution.
Japan surprised many Western observers in the 1930s and 40s, because they industrialized without being Christian. Japan, again, surprised Western observers in the 1990s, 1970s and 1960s, where they were no longer surprised that the Japanese didn’t become Christian as they developed, etcetera, etcetera, but they were surprised that the Japanese retained all these unique ways of doing things. They expected a carbon copy of America, but instead, something very different happened. In a way, China today is surprising us. China is becoming rich, obviously. Secondly, I would claim, China’s becoming more democratic in the sense that almost all of the Chinese citizenry has gotten used to commenting online.
Now, they’ve also gotten used to getting fined and getting censored and all of that stuff, but they are used to commenting about politics online. In fact, there are many forums for them to do so within the narrow window that is allowed by the Chinese system. We have a window too, it just happens to be a little bit wider, or at least it was a little bit wider before 2021. China has surprised us and continues to surprise us.
I think, in a very real sense, China might become ‘weird’ in 30 years, but their democracy is going to be very different than our democracy. It might not even call itself a democracy. Their way of organizing education and industry, that might continue to stay divergent and uniquely Chinese.
Mark: Yeah. What do you think about aliens?
Samo: I mean, I don’t know. I don’t think about them at all, but maybe I should. Maybe they’ll be offended if I don’t.
Mark: Well, I had lunch with Tyler Cowen a few weeks ago and he said, with all the recent alien observations discourse, he put a five percent chance that they were, what is it? Von Neumann probes, which struck me as substantially high. I had not thought about it explicitly. I had, even with all of the evidence that they haven’t picked up on multiple sensors, with multiple very credible witnesses. I had still, I don’t know, dismissed the possibility, but a five percent chance of von Neumann probes strikes me as substantial and that we should, I guess, rethink some of our assumptions about, I guess, interplanetary travel, as well as just other, I don’t know, create filter type things.
Samo: Well, let me be first provocative and say a little bit that I basically think these are probably not aliens. These are probably not conscious phenomena. I feel five percent is a substantially high probability. Still, it’s a reasonable estimate. As long as we’re caveating this entire discussion and say, on the five percent, or the 10 percent, or the four percent chance that these are not just these relatively boring atmospheric phenomena, then what is this?
I think that the von Neumann argument is actually a better one than interstellar travel. We have a well-known limit in physics; the speed of light. It’s considered a – from known physics, we believe this is just the limit of how fast things can go. It’s actually super inefficient to travel at this speed, because it requires so much energy, like a huge vast amount of energy to even start approaching the speed of light. There’s a real hard-known physics barrier there.
On the other hand, I think we haven’t really looked at the possibility of, well, how long lasting might technology be? If these are von Neumann probes as Tyler proposes, then these are probes that are traveling at very slow, sub-light speeds. They reach a solar system, they build more of themselves, they send a few out, and it takes thousands, millions of years to reach other stars. These are basically, very ancient, very old processes.
They probably visited the earth before. In fact, maybe they’ve been around all along, mildly dormant, maybe awoken by some particular human technology. If we’re positing they’ve been dormant and they’ve been around here for a very long time, that it’s not just a coincidence that we’re starting to spot them now, it’s just that we got the technology to spot them. Actually, people probably have been seeing strange things in the sky for a long time. Maybe had stories of ghosts, demons, gods, what have you.
I think, if we start assuming that, why do we even need them to have traveled from a different solar system? My fun, very unlikely, out there hypothesis is, well, what if an ancient civilization arose on earth hundreds of millions of years ago, possibly by species that’s completely unrelated to humans? They went through their own little technological singularity, or their own little collapse, and what they left behind was these automated systems and recently, we’ve been activating them. A bunch of ancient drones flying around, following our battleships or or aircraft carriers, not because our aircraft carriers are that good or that interesting, but just because they happen to match the programming of what they were supposed to follow around.
I think, that hypothesis is one I’ve not heard of. It doesn’t require anything crazy. It just requires the idea that maybe other intelligent life from Earth, from a very, very long time ago, and I will note, Earth is the one place in the universe where we do know life exists, built technology, versus ancient aliens from a very different solar system sent probes here, and these probes have been waiting for a few thousand, or millions of years.
Mark: Yeah. There was a really interesting article in The Atlantic a few years ago, who is by, I don’t know if this is the right term, but an exoplanet researcher. Whereas, okay, you find exoplanets. How do you identify if there is industrial life, either for certain percentages of different types of gases in the atmosphere? You can’t look for changes over long periods of time, because our satellites only have data for a few decades. The data probably 20, 30 years ago is just not very good. They asked the question of all right, let’s say there was an industrial civilization that didn’t exist on earth a 100 million years ago, how would you actually identify that it did exist? All the cities are going to be grounded to dust a long time ago. Even the ice caps are said to have melted and re-melted and are re-frozen hundreds of times over.
You basically look in rock formation, so how we found dinosaurs. Potentially, you could find evidence of cities and settlements, or you could find evidence of very rapid changes in climate, or in fauna that would likely have been caused by the rapid expansion of an industrial civilization.
Samo: In fact, our history does record several mass extinction events. Often, you have people propose that humans, this is the Anthropocene, and we’re causing a mass extinction comparable to the ones caused by super volcanoes and asteroids. If you took the hypothesis that maybe there were ancient industrial civilizations on Earth, long predating humanity, well, maybe some of those mass extinctions were caused by this intelligent life.
Mark: Cool. I got a few more questions, I guess, just about cities. If you’re thinking about, one, I guess, where to locate a new urban center, with I guess, coming – one, we can think about changes in technology in terms of remote work, potentially supersonic travel. Two, in terms of changing trade patterns, what, I guess, analytic framework would you look at to identify where to build new cities and how to think about how they would engage in the broader regional and cultural economies?
Samo: I would try to find the part of the world that has the most coastline that remains high in population density and under-developed in a significant sense. What is the ocean or the sea where trade is going to increase in the future? If we look at the Pacific Ocean, it feels to me sure, there’s more trade to be had even between China and the United States, or China and the United States and Japan, if we take that system. It’s maxed out.
Most of the growth in international shipping in the next 50, or 60 years is probably going to be over the Indian Ocean. Already, there’s a significant amount of shipping between, obviously, Europe and China. Consider India, consider East Africa, consider some parts of the Middle East and Southeast Asia. These are all areas – possibly East Africa is the most behind with maybe India being a little behind too – these are areas with the semi-developing economies.
Most of these areas are still increasing in population, How much shipping is there going to go through the Indian Ocean? Well, now having said that, what are relevant parts of it? The old, boring answers persist. I think, Singapore is going to continue to do very well with this position near the Straits of Malacca. Honestly, a city on the southern tip of India, or near Sri Lanka, or a city in the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, or the Horn of Africa would have many of the same advantages.
Also, the Egyptians have tried to build a new capital many, many times over. If we model an increase in Indian Ocean trade, and assume the continued relevance of Suez, then their city of the – I think, they’re calling it the new administrative city, or maybe new Cairo, or something like this, that city might actually be quite viable; if you imagine it just sitting there right next to the Suez Canal. Its main problem is that it’s out there in the desert. That doesn’t stop American cities like Las Vegas.
If you assume some advances in desalination technology, or at least a willingness to re-divert the precious water from the Nile to different locations, I think there’s all sorts of reasons to be optimistic about the prospects of such a city. Heck, even Neom was not that bad an idea, right? It’s close to Israel, it’s by the Red Sea, and so on and so on. Execution, of course. matters. Looking at pure geography, I think this is the most promising part of the world. Anything that is close to the Indian Ocean, and especially anything that is close to a choke point for ocean shipping.
When it comes to supersonic flight. I think that it will shorten distances immensely between all of the big coastal areas of the world. We’ll see how the regulatory environment changes. I suspect, once we have regular supersonic flight over the oceans, countries are going to change their minds about how much they worry about sonic booms.
Eventually then, also, this just means the planet is once more smaller. If the economics of it work out as well as they seem to be working out, the result is going to be much greater social interconnection between people living in hub cities, which I think accelerates a winner-takes-all dynamic. I think, this is one of the contradictions of transport technology. People assume that better transport technology means that it matters less where you are. I would say that better transport technology means that it matters even more where you are. If it’s easier to go to Rome, everyone that matters at least occasionally goes to Rome. Cities like London and New York have long benefited from such effects.
My prediction would be, mass supersonic travel will result in a winner-takes-all dynamic. Importantly, you’ll want to be one of the winner cities. Being in the Top 10 cities in the world is going to matter much more than being in the Top 100.
Mark: Yup. I agree with that. I think it will have the effect of accelerating the superstar city dynamic. Anyway, well, I guess, maybe before we end, are there any questions that I should have asked you that I didn’t?
Samo: Well, I think a very good question would have been how should a city be organized politically and otherwise to maximize its development and quality of life? I know this is a topic you thought of a lot. However, this seems like a good standard question to ask experts on your show.
Mark: Well, then, answer it. I’m asking you now.
Samo: Well, I think it’s a very hard one. I honestly think that we should have more appreciation for the political machine model. That is a system that basically looks corrupt, with a relatively strong man guy on top, someone that’s boisterous, that has some laborers behind him, possibly even organized crime. However, is deeply invested in the success of the many businesses and construction projects in the city.
Such a patronage network radiating outwards, can at times be very friendly to development, to building. People don’t discuss the political organization of Kowloon Walled City. There certainly was no central structure that was in charge there, but there were certainly many organizing aspects of that city, including organized crime and so on.
I’m not saying this to say favorable things about organized crime per se. I’m just saying that a lot of our intuitions for what makes for clean, efficient, publicly pro-social oriented government results in these weird gridlocked oligarchies. Anti-oligarchy, pro relatively central power, especially central power that has an economic benefit in the city growing. Don’t make a powerful city council, make a powerful mayor. Don’t make it purely incumbent on the personal virtue of the leader, but make it in their economic interest to build. If, say, you think nimbyism is the biggest problem your city faces.
There are other problems that aren’t as easy to face with simple prescriptions. How do you deal with ethnic, religious, and other conflict? And different cities have different solutions from the cities, from Beirut to Constantinople, or rather, Istanbul, Singapore, New York, they each have their own model, their own answer. I think, part of the answer is you in fact, want to have some organization of key communities. You want there to be someone you can talk to in Chinatown to understand how China challenges things.
Okay, cool. That’s the two-minute version. Woefully insufficient, but hopefully a good teaser.
Mark: All right. Great. Thanks for coming on.
Samo: Yeah. Thank you for having me.
Mark: Thank you for listening to The Charter Cities Podcast. For more information about this episode and our guest, to subscribe to the show, or to connect with the Charter Cities Institute, please visit chartercitiesinstitute.org. Follow us on social media, @cci.city on Twitter and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. I’m your host, Mark Lutter, and thank you for listening to The Charter Cities Podcast.
Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode: