There’s no stopping the swarm.
Thag and his tribesmen had taken down a mammoth that morning. The feast was still underway, but Thag was bored with the men grunt-bragging about their exploit and the women grunt-complaining about the tribulations of raising cave-kids. He retreated to his cave and sat outside it, absently rubbing two sticks together. His hand brushed against one of the sticks where he had rubbed it—hot. After rubbing some more he stuck a dried leaf on the hot spot, just to see what would happen. Smoke, a flame, fire! He dropped the burning leaf to the ground. How could this be? Fire came from the sky gods. The flame died out. He gathered leaves, put them in a pile, rubbed the sticks, ignited a leaf, and dropped it on the pile. Big fire! Warm—good on cold nights.
When Thag showed the tribe how he had tamed fire, they may have grunt-hailed him as a “genius,” although he had only stumbled on to something because he was bored. While cave living may appeal to certain sensibilities—Nature! No technology! Extended families living together! A sense of community! etc.!—it had to have been excruciatingly boring for any mentally active cave-person. Boredom is one of the most under-appreciated forces in human history, for both good and evil. Much of the change wrought through the centuries resulted from somebody trying, in either a beneficial or destructive way, to make life more interesting.
Couple boredom with a problem to be solved and sometimes the outcome is progress. It was a good thing Adam and Eve were kicked out of Eden, because paradise had to have been tedious. With no problems to constructively occupy their time, Adam and Eve were bound to get into trouble. It is no accident that the majority of human progress comes not from idyllic environments but from those in which the basics of survival—sustenance, shelter, warmth—are not readily available and must be obtained by the application of brain power to ostensibly unforgiving surroundings.
While the solitary genius figure exercises an attraction in both history and lore, the acquisition of most knowledge is more prosaic. It’s usually a numbers, trial-and-error, and networking game. With tribes dispersed around the globe, chances are that other Thags made the same discovery at around the same time. Given fire’s useful properties—heat, light, cooking, weaponry—once tamed the knowledge probably spread like, well, wildfire. It also prompted further discoveries. Heat up certain rocks and metal ores drip out that can be forged into arrowheads, blades, ornaments, ploughs, and so on. These new innovations allowed hunter-gatherers to become farmers, who generated surpluses that led to communications, trade, and eventually, writing and numbers.
The linchpin of discovery and innovation is dispersion of knowledge. While knowledge can be kept secret, mostly it’s a public good. Its spread in human communities can be likened to a beehive. The swarm seeks pollen and individual bees returns to the hive to let the other bees know what they did or did not find. It’s a numbers game: the more bees, the more trial and error, the bigger the network, and the greater the chance of success.
The exponential inflection point for the dispersion of human knowledge and hence, innovation, came with Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440. By dramatically decreasing the cost and increasing the scope of information dispersal, Gutenberg unlocked minds that had been trapped in dogma promulgated by the religious and political elite. Change was glacial during the Middle Ages, but in a comparatively short time the Reformation, Renaissance, and Enlightenment swept Europe. It was if a beehive went from 10 to 10,000 bees overnight: that many more questions, hypotheses, and trials and errors; that much more intellectual cross-pollination (pun intended), and a network that was no longer just those in one’s immediate vicinity, but which encompassed the entirety of Europe, and later, America.
This intellectual revolution was a direct threat to the Church and the state, bastions of unmerited privilege and inflexible, self-serving doctrine. While certain individuals were condemned and persecuted, it was the newly empowered swarm that posed the danger. Luther, Galileo, and others challenged the powers because their challenges were quickly and widely disseminated. What they planted required fertile soil—an audience. Given this intellectual upheaval, it was inevitable that someone would ask why, if individuals could think for themselves, they could also not govern themselves? It took a few centuries, but eventually the swarm overcame the elite.
The twentieth century marked both the resurgence of state-based elites and paradoxically, their inability to stop the swarm. Ironically, as defenders of orthodoxy, privilege, and the status quo, institutions of higher education and the legacy media supplanted the church. The swarm is questioning the steadily declining value of both, and eventually they will be rejected and either reconstituted or replaced entirely.
The swarm continues to expand and disseminate knowledge, notwithstanding governments’ best efforts to stop it. Despite two barbaric global wars and countless smaller ones, totalitarian regimes responsible for the suffering and deaths of hundreds of millions, welfare states that penalize the productive for the benefit of the unproductive, and the widespread intellectual and cultural embrace of statist doctrines, the swarm devises workarounds and progress proceeds.
Government began as a protection racket. Now it’s the chief threat to the physical, economic, and legal security of much of the world, and workarounds are popping up everywhere. Computerization and the internet, Gutenberg’s progeny, have dramatically lowered the cost, expanded the scope, and widened the availability of privately generated information. Cryptocurrencies and precious metals are viable alternatives to government scrip, and afford users far more privacy. There are huge global black markets in drugs, weapons, and many other goods and services (more enlightened jurisdictions are taking halting steps towards legalizing some of this commerce). Devolutionary politics are a response to the monstrously bloated, centralized governments that are impeding the swarm.
The question remains how far governments will go. Stopping the swarm is akin to standing outside a beehive and trying to shoot all the bees as they leave. The more stupidly retrograde governments, which may well include that of the United States, will take their positions, shotguns in hand. However, the power of any government is derivative and depends on the swarm. More enlightened governments will let the bees fly and enjoy the honey. The Eurasian political and economic alliance Russia and China are spearheading may prove a notable example.
Stupid, retrograde governments could destroy the world and end the planet’s most successful species. Short of that, substantial ructions that wreak havoc on present arrangements, the consequences of past stupidity, appear inevitable. However, while knowledge is not immutable, it has a tendency to survive, especially when widely dispersed among the swarm. Thus, there’s reason for optimism. The forces of ignorance, violence, destruction, and death have fought countless battles against the swarm, and while it has had its defeats, the swarm has always won—the world’s population is over seven billion—and knowledge has expanded. No matter how bleak things look, the betting odds again favor the swarm.
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