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Synopsis of Chapter IX – Capitalism and Information Freedom

September 24th, 2010


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In which we test the patters developed in the previous chapter by looking at the impact of the printing press.

With the information revolution following the introduction of the printing press we begin to have much better records and therefore we can “zoom in” on how information worked after its introduction.

History Pattern from Chapter VII
The information revolution lasted approximately 250 years, roughly from 1450 to 1700. There are two phases to the economic impact of the press: Timing Phased Behavior
First Phase During this phase, only the elites have increased information access. They innovate making existing organization more centralized and efficient. Across Europe there was a universal consolidation and centralization made possible by better ways of tracking, made possible by the press. Universities and schools were established for the training of ministers to administer a growing government and church.

Improved maps made exploration and conquest profitable. All the major European powers gained New World colonies. Spain and Portugal especially made fortunes based on New World gold and conquest.

Synchronisity, Information Access, Unit Size
During this phase the attitudes and actions of the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant reformers set the stage for how the press was received in various countries. Spain and other Catholic countries suppressed the press out of fear of heresy (especially Lutheran and Calvinist heresy spread by the press) whereas the Protestant countries did not suppress the press. However the differences between the various countries are not apparent until the next phase. Fear and Repressive Reaction
Second Phase Where common people have increased information access, they innovate creating new forms of production and hence wealth. Where common people did not have increased information access this kind of development did not take place. Thus the way the press was received in various countries determined whether common people had information access and this determined how they developed economically.

For example:

Phased Behavior, Information Access
  • Spain – acting out of fear of heresy – was repressive. It limited the products of the press to those approved of by the Roman Catholic Church. The common people did not have information access and thus they failed to develop and were eventually economically ruined. Instead Spain continued to try to increase their wealth through conquest which only served to further destroy their economy. They were in a competitive context without a viable economy and the elites spent their wealth buying the products of high information access countries – Holland and England – further eroding their tax base. Thus they were addicted to war and conquest as the way to increase wealth.
Fear and Repressive Reaction, Success is Conservative
  • Holland and England did not control the press and as a consequence common people learned to read, write and understand double entry bookkeeping they innovated and eventually invented capitalism – mercantile capitalism in Holland and industrial capitalism in England.
  • France exerted intermediate control of the press and their economic development was also intermediate.
Information Access
East and West: In Europe the press was introduced into a competitive context. However, even though China and Korea had the press before Europe, in the East there was little competition therefore the printing press in East did not have the same impact as it did in the West e.g. the press was used to serve the emperor and members of the elite and did not promote literacy of the common people or lead to the development of capitalism. Competition
Gender Relations: Changes in production, related to innovation based on literacy and numeracy of the crafts producing classes changed relations between men, women and children. Before the press women were an essential part of production, after the press they became identified with the interior, and with children.
Before the press literacy was a function of class after the press boys were preferentially taught to read and so men were perceived as educable whereas women were perceived as uneducable.
Information Access
The crisis of the 17th century was a period of general instability and economic downturn that marks the end of the information revolution following the press. Limits, Synchronisity

This chapter shows us how to observe an information revolution with greater resolution and understand the dynamics that govern economic change in response to differential information access.

We can see how well the model predicts the dynamics of this information revolution.

Synopsis of Chapter VIII – Identifying Patterns in Information Revolutions

August 6th, 2010

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In which we identify patterns based on what we have learned thus far and build a model we can use in the future.

The chapter will examine what we have observed about information revolutions thus far in a more formal manner. Then we will think slowly about how those things might be seen in future information revolutions so as to, “call our shots”.

The patterns we have already seen in the information revolutions we have examined are:

Timing – Each has been shorter and shorter – timing: hunting and gathering to agriculture – 5-6 thousand years; agriculture to writing – 2 – 3 thousand of years; the Fall of Rome – 700 years; liberation of information to the press – 400 years (all times are approximate).

Unit Size – Each has seen a change in the size of the unit that people see as relevant to their everyday lives – unit size: hunting and gathering band – 20 people; kinship (agriculture pre writing) – 100 people; kingships to empires (writing) – thousands; fall of Rome – manor, village, small Episcopal cities.

Limits – Each has shown that there are limits to how big a system can grow with a given information technology – limits: hunter/gatherers through agriculture before writing were limited by peoples’ memories; writing allowed groups to grow as large as the Roman Empire before it reached its information limit.

Moving forward to more modern information revolutions, we can achieve a finer focus than we have thus far, because more written records are available. Reasoning slowly suggests that we should see:

Information Access – That where there is more access to information there will be more innovation. For example, assuming that 1% of any given population is innovative, and assuming access to information increases information access and then in a population where 10% of the population has information access will be relatively disadvantaged compared with a population where 50% of the population has information access.

Competition – Where there is competition those with better information access will always be advantaged over those who have less information access. This will be less important in contexts where there is no competition.

Synchronisity – Since information technology or information change impacts all sectors of an economy similarly we can contrast how innovation in standard technology differs from innovation in information technology. For example if a new weaving technique is invented, first it improves the production of cloth, then the manufacture of clothing, then the sale of soap to clean the clothing. On the other hand, if double entry bookkeeping is introduced it brings savings in transaction costs to weavers, tailors and soap makers at the same time. This synchronisity should result in noticeable periods of economic downturn, perhaps accompanied by other evidence of instability.

Success is Conservative – Success makes people and institutions conservative, “Why interfere with what works?” so new innovation should come from the non-elite. For example, we saw during the fall of Rome that people did not perceive that wealth could be gained from improvements in production. Wealth was obtained through war and taxation. They had all the ingredients to invent capitalism except the perception Therefore, it could be said that they were addicted to war as a generator of wealth.

Phased Behavior – Putting the above together we can reason that there should be observable phases of development.  Thus, for the most part, the elites of any group will have first access to the benefits of any new information technology they will innovate to make current practices more efficient and streamlined. It will allow for a growth in the unit size. This will be roughly similar in all contexts where the elite have information access.

Phased Behavior, Information Access, and Limits – In contexts where other non-elite groups benefit from the information technology there will be innovation in what they do and the same pattern will be repeated.  If there are many new groups, or new technological improvements (as we will see in the electric and computer revolutions) there will be many phases as new innovations cause growth, run their course and those innovators become conservative in turn. Each of these will be ‘punctuated’ with economic downturns.

Impact of Fear – When these downturns are closely spaced – because information revolutions are becoming faster and faster – it stand to reason that there will be a sense of dislocation from changes in perception and from actual economic hardship during the downturns, this, in turn, may lead to  repressive reaction due to fear. Where that reaction negatively impacts the adoption and development of the information technology economic development will slow, and in competitive contexts, lead to economic ruin.

We should bear in mind the following questions as we move forward to more modern information revolutions:

  1. All things being equal do we see greater growth where there is more information access?  Where the context is competitive are contexts with high information access better off (do they grow more) than those with low information access?
  2. Do unit sizes increase because of new information technology? Are businesses, and/or government sizes increased in a positive information revolution or decreased in a negative information revolution? Do people identify with a larger social, economic, or political group?
  3. Do we see synchronisity – similar kinds of growth across contexts where information access is similar?
  4. Can we identify ways in which success is conservative – people do what has worked? and/or,
    its obverse do we see innovation fueled growth arising from the “out group” (people who are not members of the existing elite) who have information access, which out strips the growth from the old elite?
  5. Can we identify the effect of growth limits? For example, do we see social and economic instability as a result of rapid, innovation fueled, growth that overshoots the unseen limit and results in a sudden downturn?
  6. Does this lead to fear and repressive reaction?
  7. Is there phased behavior? Is it associated with elite and non-elite information access or is it associated with improvements in information technology?

In the chapters that follow we will be able to add to these patterns and elaborate and refine those we have identified here.

Synopsis of Chapter VI – The Early Middle Ages – The Church and Information

July 5th, 2010

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In which we see the liberation of information from the tripartite elite.

Initially after the fall of Rome, people governed themselves locally in much the same way as they had before its fall. The church, the lord of the manor and his retainers were like the tripartite elite writ small. The few cities that retained prominence did so because they were the seat of a Bishop.

As the former Roman Empire became more and more ‘barbarian’ and more and more local, literacy declined amongst the elite classes, the use of money declined in favor of barter, and payment in goods and labor and by the eighth century there was little trace of Rome.

Only the church retained its administrative structure and its control over information. The Church had a monopoly on religion, the right of direct taxation – the tithe, and a monopoly on literacy and learning. It did not need the support of any of the petty rulers or of the military.

This set up a new condition where the wealth of the common people benefited the Church. It began to teach that labor was a form of worship and mechanical innovation to save labor, and increase wealth, was good because then more good could be done in the world through larger contributions to the Church.

Before 800 CE labor was still depicted as a burden but over time it became worship fostered by St. Benedict and the church as a whole. Evidence of this is found in the agricultural revolution of the ninth century which was spread through the monasteries and the illuminations and paintings of saints and virtues pictured with technological innovations. They are shown with clocks, astrolabes, compasses, and maps. The clear message is that technology is good and use of technology can help people to do good works and gain heaven.

By comparison where the tripartite elite remained the organizational form – Islam, Byzantium and China – there was distrust of technology and the attitude of work being ignoble continued. Common people were not encouraged to innovate or to learn and prosper. Obedience and respect is the prime virtue rather than innovation, work, and good works.

The new Western attitude toward information was one which had not existed since the invention of agriculture. It was, perhaps, the most important information revolution in eight thousand years. It was the information revolution that liberated information from elite control and thus was truly radical (going back to first principles– the principles of hunter/gatherers) and it was, surprisingly, fostered by the Roman Church.

Synopsis of Chapter V – Rome – Hitting the Information Limit

June 17th, 2010

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In which we examine the crisis of the third century both in terms of what was done (the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine) and what was not done (Rome didn’t invent capitalism so couldn’t pull itself out of its economic crisis) and The former was to address the information overload problem confronting the Empire the latter was a failure of vision that is inherent in the tripartite elite organizational form.

In the last chapter we said that Rome was the culmination of the tripartite elite world view and organization. The way wealth was generated was through conquest of other groups for more land to put under cultivation, slaves, and for tribute. Writing was integral for the administration of Empires and Rome was the apex.

But by the third century CE the administration of the Empire had become too diverse, its’ legal system unmanageable and its’ administration unwieldly. Rome was suffering what we might call information overload and what a cybernetician would call variety overload – the thing to be controlled (the Empire) had become more complex than the controller (the Emperor) could manage.

The reforms of Diocletian and Constantine were attempts to make the empire more manageable – uniformity in religion (leading to persecution), autocracy (streamlining law and decisions), and reorganization (decentralization). Their reforms bought the Western Empire another 200 years and the Eastern Empire more than a thousand years.

For the West, the reforms also held the seeds of the destruction of the Empire Decentralization led, of necessity, to more local control. The Empire was unable to assure the Pax Romana, the roads deteriorated and were unsafe soon people began to wonder why they were paying taxes to Rome when they received no benefits. When the last western Roman emperor, was overthrown in 476 CE, all control passed to the local authorities and the Church.

Constantine’s religious reforms were successful insofar as they made Christianity the religion of the Empire but they changed the nature of the Church which we will look at more fully in the next chapter.

In addition to information overload, Rome was in a financial crisis. The tripartite elite form of organization validates certain perceptions of how wealth is acquired and how it is used. Those perceptions kept them from solving their financial crisis.

From our perspective it would seem normal for wealthy people – aristocrats, wealthy merchants – to invest in ways to make money like production of goods, and innovation in labor saving devices to increase production, but they did not. They had many of the pieces that might have led to capitalism – wealth, good transportation, and innovative people who had invented some wonderful things.

For example Romans had invented concrete, plumbing facilities, cranes, wagon technology, mechanized harvesting machines, domes, roman arches, wine and oil presses, and glass blowing. They even had a steam engine used to open temple doors, and an odometer to measure how far a vessel had sailed.

This leads us to ask why? The answer lies in how they saw themselves and their world:

    People valued wealth primarily as a way to buy themselves into the elite, it did not occur to them to use the money they made to invest in production.

    When productive work is done by slaves, people see labor and anything that has to do with production of real goods as contemptible.

    Production was done by slaves and the perception of a slaveholder is that labor costs are fixed whereas the wage payer has the perception that labor costs are flexible. Therefore slavery inhibits innovation to save labor costs whereas wage labor encourages innovation to save labor costs.

    When governed by a tri-part elite, people’s perceptions don’t connect innovation with production. Innovative people give their innovations to members of the elite and are rewarded by them. They don’t bring their innovations to the market. In Rome innovations for agriculture, war and architecture were encouraged and rewarded by the government but innovation for production was not.

These perceptions kept Rome in an addictive loop that made it impossible for its people to find any way to wealth other than on conquest. As the financial crisis became deeper they needed more tribute and more slaves so they waged war on more people. The cost of administering diverse people increased the variety overload and the cost of the military making the financial worsening the financial crisis, leading to even more wars of conquest etc. etc.

Thus the fall of Rome was due to a combination of factors that can be roughly broken down into two broad categories: those relating to information overload and those relating to the production of wealth.

Synopsis of Chapter IV The Impact of Symbol Systems

May 16th, 2010

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In which we see how the development of writing, increased unit size, hierarchy, class and gender differences (including slavery) and war all go together.

After the invention of scarcity but before writing the size the “free rider” problem kept a unit (village, city, group, or tribe) from growing beyond the ability of human memory to keep track – an information limit. Symbol systems and proto-writing extended human memory until it met a new information limit.

Some people (like those of ‘Ain Ghazal) begin to have specialization and class distinctions. Proto-writing aids in the development of hierarchy by re-enforcing the seeming “natural” right of those who can use symbols to power.

As populations expand people begin to practice war as a way to gain new land to support their group’s population. Once war enters the picture other forms of group organization disappear as per Shmookler[i]. The invention of writing made war for both territory and tribute more practical.

Over time, symbol systems or proto-writing becomes writing and is expanded from keeping track to laws, history, poetry, stories, etc. but the ownership of writing remains in the hands of the now entrenched elites who can use it to their own ends.

With the aid of writing and organized force, a tripartite elite develops consisting of the priesthood, the military and the king. This new organizational form – the tripartite elite – let people expand the size of the organizational unit – from village to city from city to state from state to empire.

During this social transition from kin groups in small villages to kingships in city-states women loose power and class hierarchy, and slavery* are established.

The members of the tripartite elite used their ability to keep track and administer to control other members of the society and to wage war. (War amongst the various cultures – immediate and delayed return hunter/gatherers, agriculturalists, city-states – is examined in appendix B)

The tripartite elite form of organization was part of the transition from kinship to kingship it is based on class distinctions. Class distinctions imply:

  • Members of one class to keep information private from members of other classes,
  • Information is used to maintain class, gender, and individual dominance, and
  • Implied or actual use of organized force internally and externally

Sumer and Israel are taken as examples of:

  • The evolution from kinship groups to the tripartite elite
  • Women’s loss of power

With the use of writing and organized war, the universal form of political organization became the tripartite elite.

* This may take the form of serfdom, villienage, and wage or economic slavery

[i] Shmookler, Andrew Bard.
    1995. The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution NY, State University of New York Press.

Synopsis of Chapter III – Thinking about Symbols and Symbol Systems: Agriculture before Writing

April 15th, 2010

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In which we see the “preconditions” for writing in early agriculture sites developing along with a social hierarchy and none at an egalitarian early agriculture site

Argument of the chapter:

The people of both ‘Ain Ghazal and Çatalhöyük started as egalitarian hunter/gatherers and became agricultural over time in the way we talked about in the previous chapter.

However, from that starting place the people of ‘Ain Ghazal developed a class hierarchy and used clay tokens for keeping track, whereas, the people of Çatalhöyük remained egalitarian and did not use tokens for keeping track.

From this we can infer:

  • First, the development of proto-writing is associated with developing hierarchy
  • Second, the development of proto-writing was not universal amongst all early agricultural people, and
  • Third, that people presumably made choices based on what they thought was most valuable in their tradition – egalitarianism and autonomy for the people of Çatalhöyük, worship in common and differentiation of social class for the people of ‘Ain Ghazal.


We trace the development of the two sites by comparing them with respect to the following.


‘Ain Ghazal and Çatalhöyük seem to have had similar subsistence patterns – hunting and gathering that gradually became agriculture as per the previous chapter

However, ‘Ain Ghazal shows evidence of specialization and concern with the “free rider” problem in the use of tokens to signify quantities of goods that were traded – oil for meat, grain for oil etc.

Çatalhöyük evidently did have some long distance trade but it was not tracked using tokens.

The treatment of houses:

‘Ain Ghazal developed ritual structures

Çatalhöyük focused on individual family houses

The way each treated the dead:

‘Ain Ghazal shows social differentiation burying some people in the house floor (a place of honor) some outside, and some were thrown out in the trash (unburied)

Çatalhöyük all people are equally well nourished, women, men and children were all buried with honors

How each viewed animals, gods and religion:

‘Ain Ghazal animal figurines that have been “killed”, pregnant female figurines associated with agriculture, public worship and large statuary used to bring people together and build community during religious or celebratory rites.

Çatalhöyük female figurines associated with agriculture but they are not pregnant, murals depicting wild animals and hunting on the walls of houses, animal remains embedded in walls and benches, division of the house into clean (ritual?) areas and dirty areas with no ritual buildings or large statuary suggesting that all ritual was centered on the family in the house.

The chapter establishes that:

  • Economy and/or ecology are not the sole determiners of what choices are made by a culture.
  • When the existing village system is shocked (economically, demographically, or ecologically) it chooses its response based on the history and perception of the people.
  • Different choices lead to different social and religious organization and practices suggested by the organization of buildings and the treatment of the dead.

Synopsis of Chapter II: – The First Information Revolution: The Invention of Scarcity

March 11th, 2010

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    In which it is shown that agriculture was not the result of a great intellectual breakthrough but rather the result a switch from I-adaptation to M-adaptation leading to sedentism. Resulting in a positive feed back loop:
      Increase in population -> Depletion of local wild plants and animals –> Increased perception of scarcity–>Increase in agriculture/domestication ->Increase in population ->

    Continuing until all resources are domesticated plants and animals.

From the work of the last chapter we know that hunting and gathering is a good way of life – an Eden.

In addition, paleo-pathologists tell us, from examining skeletons of early agriculturalists and hunter/gatherers, of various times and places, that agriculture produced a decline in health and quality of life.

This generates the question of, why people suddenly, between eight and nine thousand years ago, changed their life ways from hunting and gathering to agriculture. The following seems most probable:

  • The extinctions at end of the ice age changed people’s perceptions of the world from plenty to scarcity
  • People changed their survival strategy from immediate return hunting and gathering to delayed return hunting and gathering – they felt the need to store material goods
  • Storage needs led to sedentism so sedentism is a response to scarcity
  • Sedentism generally results in the depauperization of the ecosystem so there are fewer animals to hunt and fewer wild plants to gather
  • Lack of mobility combined with softer foods reduces birth spacing which increases birth rates even while the quality of food is decreasing.
  • Higher birth rates means more people, necessitating more food, leading to more scarcity, leading to agriculture as a supplement to hunting and gathering
  • Continued population pressure combined with decreasing wild resources makes agriculture more and more necessary until hunting and gathering is abandoned

These dynamics are the same in different parts of the Mid-East.
The relationship is as follows:

    Extinctions –> Perception of scarcity–> Storing material goods–> Sedentism –>

This sets up a positive feedback loop:

    Increase in population -> Depletion of local wild plants and animals –> Increased perception of scarcity–>Increase in agriculture/domestication ->Increase in population ->

Until all resources are domesticated plants and animals.

These dynamics are illustrated in the archeological remains of three sites in the mid east Abu Hureyra, ‘Ain Ghazal and Çatalhöyük.


  • First, scarcity thinking, not scarcity per se, eventually leads to agriculture.
  • Second, scarcity is a novelty – even though we are almost incapable of conceiving of a world of where everyone thinks they have everything they need – it is an effect of the extinctions rather than a “natural instinct” and
  • Third, that people started using their existing knowledge to plant and husband – agriculture was not a great intellectual breakthrough but rather a consequence of the switch from I-adaptation to M-adaptation.

Synopsis of Chapter I: – Naming and Networks: Hunter/Gatherers – The Beginning

February 11th, 2010

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We start our story of information revolutions by looking at the earliest societies – the hunter/gatherers of the ice age. Unfortunately, there is little we can say about their use of information because we cannot see or question them directly.

However, since modern hunter/gatherers get their living in a similar way, by hunting and gathering, we can look at their life ways and then modify that view by what we know about the hunter/gatherers of the last ice age.

Modern immediate return hunter/gatherers:

  • Get their living through what they know rather than by what they own
  • Perceive the world to be plentiful rather than scarce
  • Work little and live well
  • Share material goods yet have no “free rider” problem
  • Are non-violent for the most part
  • Are gender, class, and age egalitarian
  • Support individual autonomy
  • Are highly mobile
  • See no reason for storing or preserving food or other goods
  • Know about agriculture but do not practice it unless forced by Western or Western inspired governments

If we want to project backwards we have to modify this picture. Today’s hunter/gatherers live separated from other hunter/gatherer cultures, in secluded pockets of the globe, that are generally considered useless by modern M-adapted peoples whereas ice age hunter/gatherers:

Lived in prime ecological conditions rather than in small secluded pockets

Followed the animals they hunted over long distances

Had global or continental egalitarian networked cultures coming together when the animals came together

This shows that both original or Ur hunter/gatherers and modern immediate return hunter/gatherers live in pure I-adapted cultures because they get their living based on what they know rather than on what they own. Status as well as welfare is based on sharing goods and information.

This all suggests an Eden that few would leave for the drudgery of agriculture, which makes us question why it was started in the first place.


January 8th, 2010

We have been here before. People have lived through numerous information revolutions. The personal computer and the internet are only the most recent. I invite you to come on a brief walk through the last 10,000 years to see what those information revolutions did to change the way people lived.

Hallmarks of Information Revolutions

January 6th, 2010

Do you wonder why our economy is in such a mess? Do you wonder why the world you grew up with and thought you knew doesn’t seem to be the world you live in? Do you feel less safe today than you did 10 years ago? Do you wonder why the most powerful nation in the world still feels unsafe? Do you sometimes wonder if the nation will survive and wonder how it will survive? Are you concerned about how much foreign ownership of business there is?

These are all hallmarks of information revolutions. For example, when the printing press was introduced, Spain was the most powerful nation with a cosmopolitan outlook, support for science and exploration and unheard of wealth. Yet as that information revolution worked its way through Europe, it became economically out competed; a political, cultural, and scientific backwater. They were bested by their former colony, Holland (The Spanish Netherlands) and the little no-account island upstart country – England. Trade was almost entirely taken over by foreigners. Their gifted and brilliant finance minister Gonzalez de Cellorigo lamented,

    “… there are rich who loll at ease or poor who beg, and we lack people of the middle sort, whom neither wealth nor poverty prevents from pursuing the rightful kind of business enjoined by Natural Law[i]

[i] Elliott, John H.
1967. “The Decline of Spain” in The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century. Geoffrey Parker and Lesley M. Smith. (eds) London, Routledge & Degan Paul, p.196