Category Archives: History

Civilizational Memory and Resilient Knowledge

[Update: this is a subconscious paraphrase, or at least extension, of Jonathan Blow’s excellent talk Preventing the Collapse of Civilization which I watched a few months ago. Thanks JP for the reminder.]

The US government used to make a substance called Fogbank, a critical component in fusion bombs. Then we stopped making it for a while, and “forgot” how to make it.

Actually, it turns out we never really understood how to make it at all. When we wanted to make more of it, we created a new facility based on the historical records of the first time around. That plan didn’t work. It turns out that what made Fogbank work were certain impurities in the final product, traceable to chemical impurities in the input. The modern inputs were purified better than the historical inputs, so the impurities disappeared, and Fogbank 2 didn’t work until this was all tracked down and figured out. No one knew this the first time around. (See page 20 here, via a comment on MR.)

This is story is both terrifying and comforting. It’s good that we were able to eventually figure out the problem. But fusion bombs are one of the most technically sophisticated artifacts of modern civilization, produced by the wealthiest country in world history. Massive resources have been put into their research, engineering, and the institutions responsible for them. What else could fail similarly? What would it cost to fix? What would the ramifications of temporary failure be?

Most of our modern technosphere relies on extreme specialization in complex engineering disciplines. However, much of this knowledge is implicit, rather than explicit.1 A very short version might say: explicit knowledge is what you can write down, implicit knowledge is what you can’t. “Carbon has 6 protons” is explicit knowledge, “how to evaluate a novel” is implicit. Of course you could write a guide to evaluating a novel, but reading that guide would not lead people to perform the same evaluation that you do. Another example: most recipes are actually a blend of explicit and implicit knowledge. The amount of the ingredients and the order of adding them is usually explicit, but knowing when something is done, or when it has been suitably mixed, or small adjustments based on variable ingredients, are all implicit.

Worse, often these processes are highly context-dependent, and the people performing them don’t know what elements of the context really matter. This is the case for Fogbank – the nuclear physicists didn’t know that the impurity was relevant.

This implicit/explicit divide isn’t just on the level of individuals, but also institutions. Codifying process is virtually impossible, and any system with humans in it is organic and adaptive, so defined processes become obsolete immediately. If an institution (a research lab, a company, a division) dies, that knowledge doesn’t live on in any one individual: it dies as well. Even explicit knowledge is often under-documented in organizations. Most broadly, there is an intelligence in systems, and we often don’t know how to recreate it.

Markets can probably ameliorate some of these concerns. If components are truly critical, there should be strong incentives for firms to maintain these systems of knowledge. And one would hope that for critical components, the market incentives are such that things could be rediscovered quickly. But firms can go out of business for unrelated reasons, and much of our critical infrastructure is highly concentrated or actually quasi-governmental, so markets cannot be the only solution.

I’d like to read more about this – is there a good literature out there? What would the field be called – knowledge resilience?

Some related links and ideas:

  1. I don’t have a good citation for this – I really only know this dichotomy in an informal sense. Some googling suggests that it traces back to the work of Michael Polanyi but please chime in if you know more! []

Oh, is that all?

How did the ancient Egyptians build those giant pyramids? Did they have access to some secret technique that we don’t know about? Well, yes and no.

We have some hints about the process, and in 1997 a team of researchers tried to replicate this as best they could. They failed. In How To Build a Pyramid, Jimmy Maher quotes team leader Mark Lehner:

Although we failed to match the best efforts of the ancient builders it was abundantly clear that their expertise was the result not of some mysterious technology or secret sophistication, but generations of practice and experience.

Oh, just generations of practice.

There is a fundamental confusion here [1] What could be more mysterious and secret than a technique that takes hundreds of years of experience to develop, and that afterwards cannot be adequately communicated? Or a level of sophistication which can barely be sketched out before achieving it? To think otherwise is to fetishize knowledge while holding contempt for the process of acquiring it.

The process itself is the amazing thing. Amazing that humans are so good at it by default (it may be the secret to our success) and also that we have developed in the scientific method a version that is in some ways many times more powerful. Can you imagine Galileo seeing a space shuttle and thinking “I don’t know how they did it, but I’m sure that if I did this for several hundred years, I’d be as good as them.” It’s true, of course, but it really misses the point. If this is your mindset, what sort of technology or sophistication would impress you? What method of acquiring that knowledge would have looked like anything other than “generations of practice and experience”.

James Scott’s Seeing Like A State makes the forceful point that this buildup of tradition often creates implicit knowledge (metis) that cannot be gained in other ways (as far as we know) and we dismiss it at our peril.

  1. I don’t know if Lehner himself is confused, or if he’s imagining his audience confused. []

Surveillance Valley

Just read Yasha Levine’s Surveillance Valley. There was a lot more new information than I was expecting but also a lot of “guilt by association” arguments and some interpretations I found a bit sketchy. Curious if anyone else has read it and what they thought. The book has two main sections.

First: the proto-history of the internet in ARPA was tied closely to concrete surveillance usecases. We usually tell the ARPANET story as an independent research arm within ARPA, but he shows that this is something of a myth – from the very beginning the intelligence community was using it to build linked databases of domestic surveillance (eg their dossiers on Vietnam War protestors). This surveillance use was recognized by the anti-war left at the time – there were large protests at MIT and Harvard against these projects. This has largely dropped out of our collective memory.

Second, and more interesting: the recent wave of anti-surveillance feeling, and the way it has centralized around Tor and Signal. The ultimate puzzle he is trying to unravel is: “privacy activists claim that Tor and Signal break the surveillance power of governments and large internet corporations. So why do those institutions support those tools and advocate their widespread use?” Specifically, the US government is a major funder of both, through a variety of entities such as OTF and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. He spends much less time discussing the large tech companies, but treats them by-and-large as collaborators with government surveillance, and makes that case pretty strongly and well.

(He also spends a lot of time in this section detailing how his previous investigations into these issues led to him being harassed online by privacy activists.)

His answer has three main components.

Answer 1: technical reasons. Tor was created as a DARPA project for spy communication – but the developers quickly realized that they would need lots of non-spy activity on Tor for the spy activity to blend into the background, which is why they opened it up and continue to fund it and advocate for it.

Answer 2: influence. The funding relationship allows the government to exert influence on these organizations, get advance notice of vulnerabilities and roadmaps, shape the direction and steer them away from things that are actively dangerous to the handlers. Somewhere in here is the possbility of backdoors, which I can’t really assess the evidence for. Part of this explanation is that by supporting a highly visible but secretly defanged privacy movement, they reduce the pressure that might otherwise cause trouble for them.

Answer 3: use of these systems as a tool to destabilize enemy regimes – the USG funds privacy training for political activists across the world, and advises them to use Tor and Signal. This is not exactly hidden – the OTF’s Wiki page cites its mission statement as wanting to “support projects that develop open and accessible technologies to circumvent censorship and surveillance, and thus promote human rights and open societies”. The extent of the activities that we’re supporting likely go deeper – we’re not above a little violent regime change – but this goal is out in the open.

There are a lot of interesting issues raised here, and the facts in this book are painstakingly documented. But ultimately I wonder if he’s seeking too consistent an explanation, in the vein of conspiracy theorists who need a simple causal pattern to explain a wide variety of events. He seems to think that “Google” and “the US government” are monolithic entities with a single volition, whose actions must be somehow consistent – this is of course not the way these institutions work, especially when it comes to the intelligence community. The story he tells (especially Answer 2) complicates and punctures the self-aggrandizing, radical-aesthetic narrative in the privacy community. But I don’t think this is as big a puzzle as he makes it out to be.

But It’s Also a Sex Manual

I was flipping through the Kama Sutra yesterday and turns out to be much more than a sex manual! It’s a guide to etiquette and custom in many areas of life and offers really interesting glimpses into a culture very different from ours. Though some of it is practically timeless, for example:

The following are the kinds of friends:

  • One who has played with you in the dust, i.e. in the childhood
  • One who is bound by an obligation
  • One who is of the same disposition and fond of the same things
  • One who is a fellow student
  • One who is acquainted with your secrets and faults and who’s faults and secrets are also known to you
  • One who is a child of your nurse
  • One who’s brought up with you
  • One who is a hereditary friend

I hadn’t realized, but it’s also very Talmudic in its approach.

  • Here is the rule or custom.
  • The followers of X add an interpretation.
  • The followers of Y disagree.
  • [a digression about the theory and history of the legal principle used by the followers of Y.]

Highly recommended. The edition linked above is especially nice and uses the Richard Burton translation — I’ve also enjoyed Burton’s translation of the Arabian Nights which is a book you can dip into again and again as you please, all through your life. John Barth is a big fan of the Arabian Nights as well.

A Little Navel-Gazing

Just a brief trip five years down memory lane to revisit one of the better sentences written about me to date:

Potok’s sophomoric personal attacks against outgoing liaison Hollie Gilman may be gratuitous, but they do not detract substantively from his ideas or campaign.

I took this as a compliment, because I was only a freshman at the time! It pairs well with my recent letter to the same newspaper:

When I majored in economics at the University of Chicago, the coursework was taught with an eye towards the complexity of the outside world and an understanding that “models”­­­—a word Golovashkina uses as an epithet—are the scientific way to best understand that complexity. A simple map does not imply a simple territory; I’d recommend Jorge Luis Borges’ “On Exactitude in Science” to anyone still confused about the usefulness of a life-sized map.

Finally, someone named Louis Potok was buying real estate in Chicago in 1922.

Two More Tidbits About African History

From my notes about John Reader’s Africa, two fascinating and poetic tidbits to go along with my two previous posts (here and here).

  1. Vasco da Gama, famous Portuguese explorer, would never have finished his voyage were it not for the helpful intercession of Ahmad Ibn-Madjid, “the most famous Arab pilot of his day”. However, Da Gama’s “arrival inaugurated an age of European maritime power in the [Indian Ocean] region…fellow-countrymen and co-religionists [of Ibn-Madjid] cursed his memory; and in his old age, Ibn-Madjid himself bitterly regretted what he had done.” (359)
  2. An earlier Portuguese voyage led by Bartolomeu Dias brought along six previously-captured African slaves to be dropped along the coastline as scouts for the location of raw materials. However, “the fate of the Africans who had been set ashore, dressed in European fashion, and bearing samples of gold, silver, and spices, is not known.” (347)

Annals of Comparative Advantage

In my last post I talked about two interesting things I learned from John Reader’s Africa: A Biography of a Continent. I also mentioned that the book is sometimes infuriatingly superficial or wrongheaded in its treatment of science or economics. Let’s look at an example:

During the 16th century the Portuguese expanded their empire to include territories spread around the globe from South America to the Spice Islands of the Far East. Best estimates suggest that up to 10,000 Portuguese were working abroad at any one time. Ten thousand, when the population of Portugal was only around 1 million, and large numbers were continuously leaving to replace those who died abroad. The empire imposed a drain on manpower and resources that Portugal could not sustain–and the empire collapsed. The wonder is not that it collapsed, a history concluded, “but that it flourished for exactly a century and lasted as long as it did.” (383)

First, is ten thousand out of a million (1% of the population) really so high? For comparison, today about 10% of the population of the Philippines are working overseas. But more importantly, you should do the activity with the highest return! Reader described the Portuguese Empire as largely a series of trading missions that paid taxes on their return.

Trade flourished and the merchants prospered. It has been estimated that returns were hardly ever less than 50 per cent and sometimes as high as 800 per cent….between 1450 and 1458…the traffic yielded from five to seven times the invested capital. (339)

In an economic sense you don’t need to worry about “manpower” for other activities. What exactly was Reader worried about? If 1% of Americans went to work in Silicon Valley, the result wouldn’t be a dangerous draining of “manpower and resources” (= Labor and Capital) away from other activities. When you have prices, resources tend towards their highest-valued allocations. Saying “lots of resources went to this really high-valued activity” does not explain the collapse of an empire.