Dan Gillmor is guest blogging over on BoingBoing. He posted something here about civilization failing, which has an interesting comment thread… this line of thinking and the ensuing debate are becoming more and more frequent on Boing Boing… and really, who doesn’t like a little apocalypse fantasy meme now and then?
People get all up in arms about this stuff, and when they do, here’s something I’m noticing:
The people who are most passionate about society not failing are usually the ones who are most screwed if it does. (EG they tend to be city-folk, bankers, etc). The ones who keep saying it WILL happen are the ones who at least think that they are least screwed if it does. (These people are sometimes well ready, other times they are kidding themselves. Some wouldn’t last a second, they probably can’t even walk very far on their own.)
Both sides love to argue about whether or not it’s going to happen. It being TEOTWAWKI, of course. (short hand for The End Of The World As We Know It)
Societies are poorly understood complex man-made systems, and if there’s one thing we know about those kinds of structures, it’s that eventually they fail.
Denying the possibility of TEOTWAWKI happening is, quite simply, dumb. OF COURSE IT CAN HAPPEN. No math in the world that anyone should rely on can prove that it can’t happen, because it can. If there’s one thing we know about societies, it’s that they crumble. ALWAYS.
Der. It’s just a question of when, not if. JUST ASK THE MAYANS.
Now, do I think society will collapse tomorrow? Next month? This summer? No. Seriously, predicting when society will fail is just straight up crazy talk. Apocalyptic fantasies. End of Days BS! Fear mongering! Profiteering? It’s not science.
This brings us to my next rule of trust: Complex man-made systems can fail and they will fail eventually, but we don’t know when.
You really shouldn’t trust anyone who says that they know exactly when a complex system will fail, and equally you shouldn’t trust anyone who says that a complex system can’t fail.
No one actually knows when we will crash. NO ONE.
Okay, there may be one person out there right now who does, but he looks, acts and sounds like every other compelling nutter who was wrong before him. You can’t tell the difference until it’s too late, there’s no way to tell the difference, between now and TEOTWAWKI, between the one right guy and everyone other crazy whack job.
Every prediction of total societal failure we’ve heard in our lifetimes has been wrong. If someone says we should do or don’t do something because they know WHEN society will crash, they are crazy or wrong. Don’t listen to these people!
But conversely, if someone says do or don’t do something because they know society WON’T crash, they are also crazy, or wrong.
So we must assume two things: Society will evenutally fail (because they always do), and we won’t know before it fails when it will. It could happen next month, it could happen in 200 years…
So us practical folks should take the middle road… Be ready, but not TOO ready. You should have a plan, think through the scenarios, have the knowledge you need.
Don’t plan for it to happen, just plan that it can happen.
If it were to happen today, right now, somehow we’ve gone from my typing this to looters in the streets and no electricity, I have a plan, both specific and general. I know who I’m getting, I have a place to go. I’ve had some skills that will come in handy since I was a lad (I grew up in the country, I’m no farmer but I’ve eaten food I’ve grown and animals I’ve killed) and I’ve picked up lots since then that are also potentially handy. I like to be better at stuff, it’s fun, so I do things, like get my HAM radio license, or learn to build houses, or wire electricity, or run plumbing. It’s fun and geeky, and it might turn out to be really handy… but really I do it all mostly because I think it’s fun and lots if it is useful here and now, not just there and then.
Sometimes I say it’s for the zombie apocalypse, but that’s just me being dramatic. Do I really think it is going to happen, like, tomorrow? Zombies? This summer? Next year? No! We both know that’s total crazy talk. I have no idea when our society will crash, it probably won’t happen in my lifetime, and I hope it doesn’t! I like TV and my car and the interwebz and cel phones and modern medicine and all those stuphs.
But all complex systems will eventually fail, so will I be shocked to find that this one has failed? No, I don’t think I will.