the sovereign individual

I enjoy using the imagery of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception line describing every human group as a “society of island universes”. that image strikes at the root of my conception of the individual. in a very real sense, we all have a unique window on the universe from our individual perspective which can never be shared and no other person can cause our body to act. I refer to this as absolute individual sovereignty. sovereignty because we have the power to act in whatever way occurs to us to act, and absolute in that no other entity can ever come between us and our actions. there may well be consequences to our actions, and other entities can use threats, violence, or other tactics in an attempt to influence us, but ultimately it is our will that determines our actions. I made a similar point when describing my thoughts on attention:

…attention can never be taken. there can be dire consequences, threats, violence, etc., but in the end every individual has the ultimate and final veto on what to focus their attention on. this implies that all attention is voluntarily given…

this perspective can be jarring. I am not making normative claims about how individuals should act or what individuals should value, but about what I believe the our situation is. I believe that humans evolved as a uniquely social animal and that our future survival depends on navigating our interactions with other people as well as possible. by analogy, just as molecules have their own properties, and can be changed by chemical reactions, there is a level below which the paradigm changes, and we are talking about atoms, and changes cannot be made to them without nuclear reactions. in this case, groups of people are molecules and individuals are atoms. there’s even some strong symmetry in the wording there, as individual comes from the latin, that which cannot be divided, while atom comes from the greek (a-tomos) for that which cannot be divided.

I realize that my thoughts on this matter are not original. I am synthesizing points of view that have been transmitted to me by means of culture over my lifetime. I absorb them, process them, and they emerge here. it is my goal to deliberately expose myself to sources of ideas that challenge my assumptions, or at the very least understand what previous thinkers have thought along these lines. so let this be an explicit call to help to the reader: if you think I’m missing a key connection, one which confirms, disconfirms, turns sideways, makes irrelevant, my views, please let me know.

this connection of idiosyncratic thoughts to artifacts of culture is a way of forming a durable pattern language. to that end, I came across the book "the sovereign individual" by James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg and have set about reading it. it was written in 1997 or there-abouts, with a new preface written by Peter Thiel in January of 2020. so this particular version of the book has no roots in the world of covid. the late 90’s feels like an eternity ago when considering our current situation, but I think this will end up being a useful feature. it’s hard to notice changes that come in small doses over a long period of time. those changes become more obvious once we have different vantage point.

the authors lay out the concept of four stages of economic life:

  1. hunting and gathering
  2. agricultural
  3. industrial
  4. information

the transition from one stage to the next is marked by a revolution. the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and the … information revolution? the name of that last transition does not yet feel like a term in common use, probably because it’s still in progress. the stage transitions result in an upheaval of the previous social order, with the next seeming strange and new to the previous. there is a key progression though, that of duration. the agricultural revolution took place over millennia. farming gradually spread out from the fertile crescent, the far east, central america, etc to europe, north africa, north america, etc from ~10 kya to 2kya. then the industrial revolution took centuries to spread from northern europe and north america to the rest of the world. the information revolution is currently underway and will be completed within a lifetime. the transitions don’t eliminate the previous economic modes, but they are a phase change, an emergent order that coalesces from the bottom up. while some hunting and gathering societies exist to this day, the majority of the world is current caught up in the process of the completion of the industrial revolution or passing the threshold of the information revolution.

Davidson and Rees-Mogg use the book to outline their expectations for the information revolution and its impact on society, the changes to culture that will result as the mode of production shifts to information-based. one specific prediction they made is the downsizing of the role of politics, or at least the role of the state. it would be easy from the vantage point of Q1 2021 to say they are way off on that one. and history may conclude as much, but I suspect there is something worth recovering from this outlook. they describe politics as similar to religion in the late 15th century, as a paradigm which had reached its apogee, and has since started a decline due to reduced effectiveness. they don’t use the term, but I would call increasing cost associated with decreasing output enforced by one’s position in society a form of rent-seeking or grift. religion hasn’t gone away, but it is less influential than it was in the late 15th century, and the authors suggest this to be an analogy to politics in our time. while it’s clear that politics gets a lot of attention, it’s not as clear how seriously people take it. I get the impression that people treat it more as a form of entertainment, a sort of reality-tv show, than they do as a set of events to be seriously understood and dealt with.

Davidson and Rees-Mogg also suggest a trend of “declining returns to violence”, implying that the role of the state as a protector, either from other states or from individuals, is less important. this point I’m less charitable on, but still see a lot of value in the discussion. it seems like violence has returned in the form of terrorism, riots, and state-to-state warfare. whether or not this is profitable for the entities engaged in the violence remains to be seen. the value I see in this discussion then comes from understanding the causes of this increase in violence and the likely routes we might take to mitigate it or situate ourselves to suffer less from it. it may turn out that politics is itself responsible for creating this violence, and that people will recognize this and reject the notion that the state can be the cause of and solution to this greatest of concerns. as the information revolution plays out, this question will draw factions to provide various answers.

another prediction of the authors is the formation of “cognitive elites” and increasing returns to merit. each stage has some defining characteristics, one of those being the dominant mode of selection of elites. in the hunting and gathering phase, physical strength and ability was it, might makes right. in the agricultural phase it shifted to a hereditary mode, with the control of land transmitting down bloodlines being the means of transmission. the industrial age being dominated by access to capital. the cognitive elites of the information stage are said to represent a unit of merit, that they can produce an output that society values, and will be able to distribute and reap the benefits of that production without the intervention of the state or other middle-men.

there will be more to come from my reading of this book, but so far I find it a valuable use of my time.