For those of us old enough to remember life before the Internet, what’s often striking about the current era is how “twitchy” it is. In the former age of the world, news traveled far more slowly, and influences percolated only gradually through the culture. Ideas propagate by contact, and in the pre-Internet days the extra time it took for a notion to make its way around the culture had a cooling, moderating effect. By making contact easier and more immediate, technology, again and again over the centuries, has made the world a smaller and smaller place. The Internet and social media have now collapsed its size almost to zero.
For a long time now we have had a model for this sort of thing: the laws describing the behavior of gases in containers, and the differing properties of phases of matter. While no metaphor is perfect—and of course the human world is infinitely complex, and ultimately unpredictable—the behavior of simple physical systems often can provide fascinating clues to seemingly unrelated phenomena. I think that’s the case here.
The idea is simple enough:
Imagine a gas, consisting of a certain number of particles in a closed container. The particles are in constant motion, and they collide with each other, and with the walls of the container. The higher the temperature, the faster each particle moves—and because particles have mass and momentum, the faster they move the more energetically they collide. The pressure on the walls of the container is a function of how often the particles hit the wall, and how hard they hit it.
It’s easy to see that the more particles there are in the container, or the smaller the volume, the more often they will collide with each other, and with the container itself. Another way of looking at this is to say that the likelihood of collisions has to do with the average distance between particles, and how fast they’re moving. Shrink the container, and you shrink that average distance.
This model maps easily and naturally onto the human world. We can think of every person as a particle, and the world as the container. This gets interesting when we think about what it takes for one person to interact with another.
Thousands of years ago, the human world, effectively, was of infinite size. For a random person in Asia, someone in North America might just as well have been in another galaxy: the chance of a “collision” between these two “particles” was almost zero.
Technology began to change this, though. Through sea travel, and trade, and the printed word, regions of the world that had always been isolated began, slowly, to impinge on each other. This meant that a human “particle” on one side of the world could “collide” with someone on the other. To do so, centuries ago, was still slow and expensive—and quite out of the question for most people—but it had become possible. In this way, the average distance between human “particles” began to shrink—which, in our physical model, is the same as saying the container was getting smaller. And as volume decreases, pressure and temperature go up.
There’s more to this useful model. Consider, for example, the three forms, or phases, of water: ice, liquid, and vapor.
In its coldest, solid phase, water supports reactions poorly, and at a global level forms static “domains”: regions of local structure that may be oriented quite differently from domains elsewhere in the system, with clearly visible boundaries. (Anyone who has looked at frost on a window-pane knows what this looks like.) In a block of ice there is very little chance that molecules will interact with distant counterparts. Diffusion is so slow as to be almost nonexistent. Dissolved reagents are unlikely to react. In short, not much happens—and what does happen, happens locally.
Increase the temperature, and you get a “phase transition”: the ice melts. The domains and rigid structure vanish, and suddenly everything is in play. A drop of ink in one corner of the container will now diffuse through the entire volume of liquid—slowly if the water is cold, and more rapidly as it heats up. The water, instead of locking particles in position, becomes a solvent in which reactions happen. Because the particles are so much freer, the chances of collision are vastly increased; it’s as if the average distance between them had been vastly reduced. In such an environment, interesting things begin to happen. Complex structures form.
Raise the temperature further, and another phase change occurs: what was liquid is now gas. As the pressure and temperature go up, collisions get more frequent, and more energetic. As things get hotter and hotter, it becomes harder for stable structures to form: so constant is the impingement of other energetic particles that they are swiftly battered to pieces. This is why steam-cleaning is so effective: the solvent properties of water, and the high kinetic energy of the hot vapor, blast and disintegrate whatever they touch.
We see, then, that there is a “sweet spot” for the building-up of complex structures from chemical reactions and interactions. Ice is too cold, and too solid: nothing can move. Particles diffuse with glacial slowness, and distant particles interact rarely, or never. As far as the effective distance between individual particles is concerned, we might achieve the same effect by greatly increasing the volume of the container. A block of ice is, in effect, a big world.
From this perspective, a similar volume of cold, liquid water is a much “smaller” place. Gone are the confining crystal structure and sluggish motion of molecules locked in ice. Diffusion and reaction may be slow, but now they will happen.
Hot water is a smaller world still. Diffusion is rapid—ink dropped into a glass of hot water will very quickly spread evenly throughout the glass—and particles suspended or dissolved will soon encounter one another. Things happen fast.
If we continue to heat our volume of water, it will pass through another phase transition, and boil off into vapor. Its constituent particles have taken on so much energy, and now move so swiftly, and collide so energetically, that they can no longer maintain the cohesion and relative stability of the liquid state, and distribute themselves evenly, and chaotically, throughout the entire volume of the container.
This is a very small, and very disorderly, world. It is hard for orderly arrangements of matter to form; they’re battered to pieces as soon as they do.
Gradually, but at an accelerating pace, the human world “warmed up,” too, in much the same way—and as it did, it got smaller and smaller. After sailing vessels and the printing press came steamships, telegraphs, radio, air travel, and then a global telephone network, built first on wires, and later on satellites. The latest global innovations—the advent of the Internet, which ushered in effectively cost-free communication between any two people on Earth, and the arrival on the scene of Internet-connected cell phones in the hands of billions of people—have now, in the space of just a few years, suddenly diminished the average distance between any two people.
For the first time in human history, every single person on Earth, in principle at least, is connected in real time to every other. Because of its scale and its swiftness, this revolution in communications has been a historically disruptive transformation, with effects we have not yet begun to grasp. The size of the human world has collapsed almost to zero.
Likewise, we can see parallels with the human world in the domains formed by ice crystals because it is in the nature of human societies, too, to “crystallize” in different ways.
One example is language. All normal humans are born with the capacity to create, learn, and use language, and we have learned that the structures these languages can take is not infinitely variable, but is constrained by certain grammatical patterns. Within these constraints, though, there is no intrinsic bias toward any “orientation.” As humans dispersed and differentiated around the world, coherent “domains”—regions of shared culture, language, religion, etc.—began to form. In a large, cool world, where communication and transportation were slow and costly, and diffusion between widely separated regions was difficult, these domains persisted, often for a very long time.
As the world grew smaller and hotter, though, collisions and diffusion increased—and many of these previously stable structures began to dissolve. For example, languages long spoken by well-insulated ethnic groups around the world are now winking out of existence at an accelerating pace, battered into extinction by collision with regions of higher “temperature.”
These, then, are the characteristic changes that occur in a system as it gets smaller, hotter, and more crowded: collisions occur more often, reaction and diffusion proceed more rapidly, and domain boundaries melt.
The History of Shrinking
With this in mind, as we look at the history of the world we see the same changes—from colder to hotter, larger to smaller, “ice” to “water” to “steam”—occurring in nearly every aspect of human affairs. (Steam is not, technically, the same thing as water vapor, but the word feels apt here.)
Look at money: in a cold, “ice” world, economic transactions are almost exclusively local, and involve the direct exchange of physical goods, such as livestock, tools, jewels, weapons, and furs. In a warmer, more liquid world, where value diffuses across broader areas, we begin to see lightweight tokens of no intrinsic value—currency and instruments of credit—that are far more easily moved from point to point than the hard goods they can purchase. In a “hot water” world, these in turn give way to completely massless instruments: electronic transactions that can travel around the world in an eye-blink.
Look at business: the first billion-dollar company, United States Steel, grew slowly, over a span of decades. It deals in a commodity that, by its nature, is heavy, local, and slow. To consume what USS produces takes time, physical transportation, and physical storage.
For contrast, consider Facebook, which made a billionaire out of its founder in a day. Their product is pure information: massless and instantly available from anywhere on earth.
Human societies have seen the biggest changes of all. In the vast “ice” world covering most of human history, societies were mostly local social structures, with relatively stable demographics, in which external interaction was limited to physically adjacent groups.
Advances in transportation made the world smaller and warmer. Trade and political influence began to diffuse across domain boundaries. In this more reactive environment, larger and more complex social structures—nations, empires—began to form.
In today’s small, “hot water” world, movement, collision, structure, and reaction are everywhere. We have globally connected markets and economies, and worldwide diffusion of populations. Formerly stable, ethnically and culturally defined nations deliquesce as domain boundaries melt away, replaced by global trait-group associations like corporations, transnational elites, and scientific and artistic communities.
National identities based on shared ethnicity, culture, and history have begun to disintegrate, replaced by abstract structures with less binding power than ancient human instincts of association, with the result that social cohesion has begun to crumble throughout the developed world. As the energy and frequency of collisions increase, ethnicities and cultures are no longer able to buffer and isolate themselves against continuous impingement.
As we consider the idea of a “hotter” world, some of you may at this point be wondering what just what it is we mean, in this model, by “temperature.” What corresponds to the energy of a “particle” in our new human world? Perhaps the best candidate is what energizes a node in the social network: attention. Attention is a precious commodity, and it is highly fungible. Advertising, for example, monetizes attention, and the metric used by online advertisers gives us what we’re looking for: the energization of a node on the network corresponds to the number of other nodes that link to it. Bringing a particular node into the glare of public attention can heat it up very rapidly, these days—and just as with a hot object, that energy diffuses into the human “particles” around it. This corresponds surprisingly well with physical temperature.
As the temperature and pressure continue to rise, then, it seems likely that there will be increasing chaos in the human world, as systems and structures designed for a larger, cooler, slower world can no longer keep up with the pace of change. In universities, students in technical fields find that much of what they’ve been taught is out of date even before they graduate. Governments struggle to control and regulate technology that is already obsolete by the time new laws come into effect.
In short, the smaller and hotter the world is—in other words, the more likely it becomes that any two “particles” will impinge on each other in a given time, and the more energetically they do so—the more volatile, reactive, unstable, and “twitchy” it becomes. And as the rate of change itself increases, it becomes more and more difficult for systems and institutions that operate at an inherently limited pace—the cumbersome legislative processes of large democracies, for example—to respond effectively to innovations and crises.
Controlling What is Seen
At the same time, however, the vanishing distance between any two points in the world-network makes it possible for governments to monitor people and events, and to exert sovereign power, with an immediacy and granularity that is without historical precedent. The more a government can see, the more it wants to control, and modern governments are able to supervise their subjects far more closely, and extend their power over them far more directly and individually, than any absolute despot could have done a hundred years ago. Our smaller world may well provide increasingly fertile ground for technological tyrannies of the sort foreseen by George Orwell (although access to advanced communication networks may also make it easier to organize an effective resistance).
As we move away, then, from the cooler, larger “ice” world toward a smaller, hotter one, we see governments expanding and centralizing power, due to the exponentially increasing coverage and immediacy of all forms of monitoring and communication. As this happens, the scale and scope of government, and the depth and breadth of the administrative and legislative tasks that government must perform, grow rapidly as well. But the capacity of a finite number of human legislators, administrators, and civil servants to operate this expanding hierarchical apparatus, across all its parts in real time, does not “scale up” at the same rate, and so the ability of these increasingly vast hierarchies to respond flexibly and effectively to accelerating change—that is, the increasing battering of energetic collisions from every direction—falls farther and farther behind.
Something, sooner or later, has to give. What might happen?
One possibility is that our large-scale structures of social organization and control may simply collapse under the rising heat and pressure. Already we see signs of increasing tension and strain in both the United States and the European Union; this may lead to peaceful disaggregation, or something far less agreeable. The large nation-states of the early 21st century might not be sustainable much longer, except under increasingly totalitarian control.
Another possibility is a functional disaggregation, a reversal of the centralizing tendency of the last century or so. In such a scenario, administration of local affairs would be redistributed to local governments, and the responsibilities of the central authority would be pared down once more to only those organizational tasks that are necessary for the integration of the parts: primarily the maintenance of communication and transportation infrastructure, regulation of currency and interstate commerce, and the management of external relations and the common defense. The reallocation of other governmental functions to smaller, more flexible, and loosely coupled local structures would make the higher-level organization far less brittle.
A third possibility is a wholesale reaction against the technology itself—something like the “Butlerian Jihad” described by Frank Herbert in his classic fantasy novel Dune. This seems unlikely: people seldom give up technology on which they have grown dependent. Invention is the mother of necessity.
What will mankind’s next “phase transition” look like? We really have no idea—and if history is any guide, what will come of all this will most likely be something that we haven’t yet imagined. By collapsing the volume of the human world almost to zero in the space of just a few years, we have created a dense and highly reactive state unprecedented in the history of our species.
A final thought: in many ways, what we are bringing into being today is not unlike the “critical mass” that we achieved at Los Alamos 75 years ago. Make of that what you will.