Cities define the modern world. They characterize the human era and its impacts on our planet. By bringing us together, these "social reactors" amplify the best in us: our creativity, efficiency, wealth, and communal ethos. But they also amplify our worst: the incidence of social crimes, the span of inequality, our vulnerability to epidemics. And built into the physics of the city is an accelerating cycle of crisis and innovation that now drives our global economy and ecosystems closer to the edge of existential peril.
Many economists believe that open-ended growth and technological advances can save us from destruction, but the scaling laws that describe the evolution of the city seem to suggest the opposite: that we are on an ever-faster treadmill and can only jump to even faster treadmills, until our unchecked growth precipitates collapse. Are we on a super-exponential runway to abundance, or are we trapped in a kind of test of our ability to understand our constraints and steward our limited resources?
Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and each week we’ll bring you with us for far-ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe.
This week’s episode is part two of a two-part conversation with Geoffrey West, a physicist, Distinguished Shannan Professor and former President of the Santa Fe Institute.
In part one we set the stage for a deep, difficult examination of our current complex crises by reviewing some key revelations from his book, Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies. In this week’s episode, we tackle the question of open-ended growth and whether complex systems science offers any insight into the design of a sustainable economy.
Note that these episodes were taped before the murder of George Floyd, and now seem both strangely out-of-date and uncannily prophetic. Stay tuned in the weeks to come for conversations more directly touching on race, bias, inequality, polarization, counterspeech, and trauma, and follow us on social media for timely coverage of the science helping guide society toward fairer and saner outcomes.
If you value our research and communication efforts, please consider making a recurring monthly donation at santafe.edu/podcastgive, or joining our Applied Complexity Network at santafe.edu/action. Also, please consider rating and reviewing us at Apple Podcasts. Thank you for listening!
Further Listening & Reading:
Geoffrey West’s Wikipedia & Google Scholar Pages
Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies by Geoffrey West
COMPLEXITY 04: Luis Bettencourt on The Science of Cities
COMPLEXITY 10: Melanie Moses on Metabolic Scaling in Biology & Computation
COMPLEXITY 17: Chris Kempes on The Physical Constraints on Life & Evolution
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Geoffrey West (continuing from Episode 35): I would argue that the vast majority of our meaningful social interactions are in what I call four-dimensional space, namely, the real space of being able to be near, have up, down, and sideways, so to speak, but also be able to smell you and touch you and feel you, I mean, metaphorically, maybe, but to be there with you, you know, and see the nuances of what's happening and what's happening around you. And this is the very essence of and the soul of human interaction. We need that.
And of course that is one reason cities have been so successful, is it engenders that. So, going to this question, that what we need to keep acting and, in fact, to enhance social interaction, but how do we do it by social distancing? And of course we've learned how to do it. We have Zoom and Skype and all the other mechanisms and they serve a purpose. And they've done remarkably well, I must say, I'm amazed how well they've done, but they are two-dimensional. They’re soulless, they're not four-dimensional, and unless we invent — which we may well — much more sophisticated versions, we're kind of stuck with having to agglomerate together in physical, three-dimensional space and be with one another. And there's nothing more satisfying then having an exciting get-together, have a group of people creating new ideas, having discussions, watching a football game together, watching a film together, going to the theater, having sex together, and so on.
This is what life is, and I speak with no expertise, but I feel that's in our DNA. That is who we are. And so it's very hard for me to see that, despite, you know, an aversion at the moment by some to urban living because of the pandemic, but when the new, better, stable configuration evolves in the next year or two, cities will gradually go back to the same trajectory they were on. I mean, there may be changes. I'm not denying that there certainly will be changes. You know, there may be some very positive changes. There may be limitations on transport and limitations on transport, you know, in this picture I saw this morning, I think in The New York Times, pictures of cities where, you know, they're closing roads and the restaurants bring more tables out onto the sidewalk and onto the road. Fantastic. And of course, actually in some ways that increases social conduct. That's why you're in the city — you want that!
So I must say I don't — you know, after all, it's kind of weird. I don't live in a big city, but I recognize the criticality of having big cities. And, as I said earlier, more importantly, really, perhaps more importantly is, that the future of the planet is completely dependent upon the future of our cities.
(Beginning of new dialogue for Episode 36:)
Michael Garfield: So you raise an interesting point, which is that our social networks now have become somewhat decoupled from geography. The, that the people that you’re talking with most frequently are not necessarily the people in your neighborhood. So that seems like it adds a complicating dimension to all of this. Because if we’re referring to a city as precipitating within a social network, as that engenders, we now have what I love this term that historian William Irwin Thompson uses the noetic polity rather than the geographic polity. And there’s another axis across which all of this is happening that seems to complicate coordination at scale in certain ways.
ACtioN Network member Kasey Klimes wanted to ask about how you understand the relationship between the scaling of social networks and the mechanics of it, cooperation and competition, which seems related if you’ll indulge this to another question from Moritz Wolowitz on information flow and how this is connected to — you brought up earlier that it’s sort of limited by the ability of a network to distribute information or nutrients to its terminal units, individuals involved. So, no, I think of the problems of our recent attempts at this digital transformation to scale human social interaction to the size of the planet. And you look at something like Facebook, which seems almost like it’s running on waste heat generated by outrage. You know, it’s like it’s actually built on harvesting the dissipation of effort that is created by faulty networks. And, you know, at least with the electrical grid we came up with a way of, you know, this AC/DC solution for this. And this question of the city as a sort of model organism here is not just about people connecting to each other in the city. It’s about people connecting to each other outside of the city. It’s people connecting across and isolating themselves within affinity groups. So, I’m curious how you see this internet layer affecting the way that the city as social reactor actually evolves and how that is fundamentally different from a city of the nineteenth century.
Geoffrey West: Yeah, well, cities of course have changed or evolved tremendously from medieval times — and earlier, of course — all the way through the nineteenth century. Big changes in the nineteenth century because of the Industrial Revolution, and the big growth of cities. That was the beginning, so to speak, of the Anthropocene and the growth of huge urban centers and a fruit of the twentieth century. And one of the things that changed, of course, was mobility in the cities. And that relates directly to your question, because — let me just go back a little bit. A city, as I said earlier, is this integration of, on the one hand, information networks, social networks, exchanging ideas, information, and so on . . . the intertwining and integration of that with the physical networks, because, whoever you are, it doesn’t matter what medium you use, whether you were back in medieval times and you could only walk or whether you’re in the twenty-first century and you can, if you’ve got a car or your private plane or use your internet, you have to be somewhere. I mean, that’s the constraint. Drawing wonderful pictures of networks sort of up there in the cloud, yes, there is, topologically, that’s what they are. You know, there’s nodes, nodes connect by links to other nodes and so on and so forth, and we get these wonderful networks. Yes, but that’s a metaphor, actually, for what’s going on, because every node has to be someplace. You have to be, you know, in your kitchen, in your bathroom, in your office, on the train — you have to be somewhere. It doesn’t matter how you’re communicating. And that is the hegemony of the infrastructure. What it really is, is the hegemony of Newton’s law of gravitation, and that infrastructure has to house you and support you.
So, it’s inevitable that these are intertwined no matter what the stage of evolution of the city is. Now, the change has been, of course, going back to what I said a moment ago, the increased flexibility of mobility. That has changed tremendously. It’s gone from being purely walking and occasional use of the horse, to more use of the horse, to carriages and, ultimately, the invention of the automobile. And now, of course, we’ve relieved ourselves of that with both the airplane, taking us between cities, between continents and, even more so, to the internet, which superficially relieves us of this constraint. But of course it still doesn’t, as I mentioned a moment ago. It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated your IT connections are. You gotta be somewhere, you know, so that’s it. And one of the things that comes out of simple models of trying to put that into mathematics, actually, is going back to something you brought up earlier — that 15 percent gain that is arising from the positive feedback of social interactions, social networks, either in your local environment or across boundaries, across countries, by whatever means, but they’re still social networks that have this positive feedback. That 15 percent gain is related directly to the 15 percent savings on infrastructure of a city.
So those two, by intertwining the networks mathematically in models, one sees that those two 15 percents are not independent. That one drives the other, and can’t be disconnected from the other, that still leaves open the question: To what extent, ultimately, as we develop more sophisticated ways of communication, despite having to be tied to a place, does the place matter less and less? I think that’s the issue. Does it matter? And this exercise that we’ve been going through during the pandemic is an extremely good example of that, of course. We can still be the Santa Fe Institute, even though the place is closed, and still carry on our seminars and still communicate with one another and still feel some connection to the collective, so to speak. And the Institute still functions. But does it? that’s the great question. Does it actually function, really, when we don’t actually see each other, we’re not actually at the blackboard together, writing down equations and saying, “No, that’s obviously wrong. What about this idea?” and so on and so forth. Or sitting around in the morning saying, “Did you see that stupid film last week?” Or “Did you see that football game?” And say, “You watch football?” The whole stuff of human interaction is very hard to duplicate, and I talked about that earlier.
So, I don’t know the answer. Let me tell you my intuition, which is not based on science. It’s just based on intuition. My intuition is that, yes, we will become a little freer, but fundamentally very little will change qualitatively. There may be some quantitative changes, but qualitatively, qualitatively, we still need to have institutions. We need to have universities. We need to have offices. I’m intrigued, by the way, by the announcement of Facebook, in particular, since you mentioned it, that people don’t have to come to the office anymore. I mean, not just in this interim period, but possibly into the foreseeable future.
I sincerely doubt that that will happen. I think it might for maybe six months, a year after things become sort of normalized. But I think eventually people will return to be in a place together. However, having said that, the phenomenon of being able to work at home, to have free, more flexible hours, to not be clogged down by the kinds of traffic and mobility problems we have — that will have a positive, lasting effect. To what degree, I don’t know, but it will. I think that will be, and indeed it was already beginning to happen, as we know, in a small way prior to it. And, indeed, one of the outcomes of a discontinuity in the social fabric that the pandemic has caused, which other previous things have caused, which may not be necessarily negative, like the Industrial Revolution is that, what it does, it speeds up things that were already beginning to happen in some nascent way. And I think that’s a fascinating dynamic. So, it will speed up things that were already happening, which ones when the dust settles become sort of part of the social fabric long term – hard to say. But I do suspect this idea of working remotely and having flexible hours and living a more flexible life in general would evolve.
By the way, I just was thinking, one of the things I wrote about in my book was, I mentioned that after the Second World War, things changed, there was a big boom, all kinds of things that were already happening before the war were accelerated. And it was an extraordinary period, I think, and there was great innovation and great technological progress. And one of the things that some of what we would now call futurists were thinking about is, my God, what’s going to happen to the workweek? We won’t need to work 40 — then 48 — hours a week. And what are we going to do? And two people that I quote in the book, one was Sir Charles Dickens, the grandson of the Charles Dickens, and the other was John Maynard Keynes, the great economist. Both suggested that this will be a big crisis, social crisis, and we will have to go to at most a 20-hour working week. And the big crisis is, what in the hell are people going to do with all their free time? Which is amazing. Of course, the work week did decrease to 44, then 40, roughly, but it stayed pretty much the same.
And, in fact, I would argue that people, especially in the United States, work harder than they ever did in some ways. People have this obsession, and compulsion, and anxiety to be working outside at the office. And so one of the curious things that I think is going to happen is how we reconcile this expansion of the workweek. I mean informal expansion; it’s still technically supposed to be 40 hours a week — with this extraordinary freedom, which is the kind of thing that Keynes and Dickens thought would happen. That you’d be free and you could work at home and so on, but in the way that is relaxed. You’d be reading lots of books and relaxing for most of your time, and then for these few 10 to 20 hours, you’re doing something that was productive.
By the way, the only people they thought would work more than 40 hours — in fact, they thought it might have to go up to over 50 hours — were scientists and technicians because of the increase in technology. So it’s sort of interesting.
So, this is also a lesson in why it’s very dangerous to speculate too much about the future. It’s good to think about it. It’s fun. But when you have people like Keynes, an extraordinary man, you know, getting it all wrong, you know that you’re on dangerous ground, trying to think through carefully what might be the case in the future.
Michael Garfield: Like you just said, the way that we measure the work has everything to do with it. You know, you give this beautiful history of the development of the concept of fractals in this book. And, you know, specifically talking about the measurement of the coastline of Britain. And I think it’s just one of those areas where perhaps the way that we consider, the way that we actually model the workweek, the ruler is just too long. The more granularity we bring to that investigation, the more we find people answering emails on their phone in bed, and it changes everything. And so we’re back to — like you said, this is an anxiety-driven phenomenon that people, in the U.S., anyway, feel that they have to work all the time. And it seems linked to — can you talk about the stress costs of benefiting from a social reactor and the superlinear scaling of innovation?
So, like, here we are at the meat, finally, the question I’ve been really eager to raise with you, which is a question you don’t dare answer in the book, but I think very wisely raise and leave us all hanging to contemplate, which is how innovation can continue to accelerate in an open-ended way when, as you say, ideas and innovations, they inspire and require energy and lots of it, you know. So it’s one thing to talk about whether the 12-lane highways within Los Angeles can accommodate all the traffic, and it’s another thing to talk about whether the veins, the pseudopods reaching out from LA into the surrounding areas, are going to find enough to eat.
And so we’re finally at the place in your book where you raise the issue of, you know, can we come up with a principled way of understanding a complexity science for sustainability, and part of that issue, to loop this into the issue of anxiety and the need to or that the way that the momentum of the economy seems to be to push work into smaller and smaller capillaries within one’s life. You know, you talk about how a typical human being now lives significantly longer than the time between major innovations. So, there’s the one thing, which is energy capture. Do we actually have the resources on this planet to sustain this growth? And then the other links to the question about balkanization and polarization in these social networks as they scale beyond a sustainable threshold, and this issue of the crisis of growing so fast that we collapse seems to be, again, partly informational and partly metabolic. And I’ve gotten a little bit ahead of it, but I’d love for you to unpack the finite time singularity in the growth of cities and explain why you think this in particular is up against the assumption of infinite growth and the paradigm that we can just innovate our way out of everything.
Geoffrey West: Yeah. Okay. Good. Very good. Yeah. So, you’re right. I mean, the last part of my book or last chapter or so of my book, I got into this and I was taking, what was this whole structure been developed for understanding scaling laws and move structure of organisms, and then cities and companies, and so on, and growth, and some questions about evolution, and so forth.
I sort of took it to its “logical conclusion,” and it led to some very disturbing questions and potentially disturbing conclusions. And I sort of left it up in the air because partly I didn’t have the answer, but I’m happy to speculate about it. And partly because it was a little different in character to the rest of the book. So, let me just go back to what we were saying. We said earlier that in biology, we have this sublinear scaling, this economy of scale — the bigger you are, the less you need per capita per cell. And that leads to finite growth. That is, organisms typically stop growing after a rapid growth in childhood, and they remain stable till they die, roughly. And that is in contrast to cities in particular, but also would-be economies, okay, they have this superlinear scaling: the bigger you are, the more per capita, more ideas, more innovation, more wealth, blah, blah, blah, per capita.
And that gives rise to open-ended growth when you put it in the same equations, which is great, because you have a lovely kind of consistent package. You have these, these networks that have positive feedback in them, social networks giving rise to, because of that positive feedback building on each other gives rise to superlinear behaviors. The more we get together, the more we interact, the more ideas, and the more we sort of get out of that in terms of socioeconomic activity per capita, and that leads to open-ended growth, all of which we see and all of which agrees both qualitatively and quantitatively with the data. So, it’s very nice.
However, it has a disturbing consequence. One I’ve already mentioned. One is, life gets faster the bigger you are and you feel it. I mean, you feel that, you know, viscerally in terms of social interactions, life gets faster. And so you already have that problem. Okay. So life gets faster. We’ll come back to that, because it can have dire consequences. And one of them, by the way — you mentioned that I mentioned in the book is that, in the past, typically in a human being’s lifespan, which of course was significantly less than it is now, things didn’t change dramatically typically. And I grew up in such a situation. I mean, that is, the expectation was that life wouldn’t be that different, you know, 50, 60 years later — which it is, of course, considerably different. Now people’s lifespan encompasses at least one and probably two major innovations, paradigm shifts.
So, that has all kinds of social and psychological implications in terms of producing a sense of anxiety, a sense of the floor shifting under your feet, and a sense of insecurity generally. So, one of the things this open-ended growth gives rise to also is that, if you follow the equations through, it gives rise to the possibility of something that is mathematically called a finite time singularity. A finite time singularity simply means that, as the system grows bigger and bigger, it reaches an infinite size in a finite time. Which is ridiculous; you can’t be infinitely big in a finite time. It means that, you know, that would imply that 10, 20, 50, 100, even 500 years, I don’t know, the economy will be infinite. The number of AIDS cases will be infinite. The amount of wages – obviously crazy. And indeed, that is crazy. And the equations sort of tell you what happens. Before you get there, the system stagnates and collapses.
Well, we’ve seen arguments like that before, like the Malthusian argument, but this is different. This is different because one of the things it says here is yes, you can avoid that collapse by doing, the critics of Malthus said, namely, you didn’t take into account that we’re going to innovate, that we do innovate. And in fact, that was the criticism of the Club of Rome, of Ehrlich and The Population Bomb, and so on. They made, you know, especially in Ehrlich’s case, basically outrageous predictions that were wrong because you just assumed everything was stayed the same. And of course it doesn’t. And that’s the hub of the counter-argument, which is not only a powerful one, but is in fact what’s happened — we innovate. We make major paradigm shifts that lead to effectively starting the clock all over again. We basically reinvent ourselves. The Industrial Revolution being of course the major one, but, you know, we discover oil, we invent the automobile, we invent the telephone, we invented IT, we invented the computer . . . all these things are paradigm shifts, effectively. And they sort of reset the clock.
So, this reinvention is critical and it happens, but, according to this theoretical framework, yes, that’s the way you avoid collapse. You can sort of almost state it as a theorem: if you want to have open-ended growth indefinitely, you have to reinvent yourself systematically in some periodic fashion so that you effectively set the clock back to zero and start over again. That’s sort of the image. However, built into that mathematics is not a terrible consequence. That is, yes, you could do that, but you have to do it faster and faster. Yes, you can innovate, but next time you got to do it even quicker, and the time after that, even quicker in a systematic way. So it’s like being on a treadmill that’s accelerating, and at some stage you’ve got to jump off the treadmill onto another treadmill that’s accelerating even faster, and you have to keep jumping faster and faster, and so on. Of course, that leads to socioeconomic heart attack, is the idea. And the image that I presented in the book was a Sisyphean image. That is one of Sisyphus, who — you remember who Sisyphus was? He was a king. He was sort of like Trump. Who thought he was infallible, didn’t give a shit about anything. He’s the king of the universe, screw everybody else. And the gods punished him as they will Mr. Trump, by condemning him to roll this big ball, this big block ball, up the mountain to the top. And then it would roll down again and he would have to go down and roll it back up again, and he had to do that for eternity.
So, we’re like that, but we’re much worse. Because Sisyphus was fortunate. The rock and the mountain remained the same every time. So he had to roll, so it was fine. Ours, unfortunately, every time you get to the top and it rolls down, the ball gets bigger and the mountain higher. So, you have to roll it up higher and you have to do it faster and faster. That’s the problem. So the idea is that, yes, you can avoid collapse by innovation and shifting paradigms, but you have to do it faster and faster, and a paradigm shift or a major innovation is only a stop gap measure. That is, it is not a permanent solution. You are condemned like Sisyphus to keep doing it ad infinitum. But then you can make the kind of reductio ad absurdum argument that, of course, then we would have to do something like invent something analogous to the internet eventually sort of every eight months, then every six. It would be nuts. So obviously you can’t do that.
So, the question is, is that avoidable, or are we condemned to complete collapse eventually? Because we’re getting close. Because already, you know, we went from the computer, to laptops in, I don’t know, 40 years. I don’t know — whatever it was. We went from mainframe computers to laptops in 20 years. I don’t know; I’m making up these numbers, actually. And then from laptops to IT in maybe 15 years, and it’s going to get shorter and shorter. Who knows what the next one — there will be ones. It may be driverless cars may have, you know, a paradigm shift. Who in the hell knows. So I got very despondent after this because it’s hard for me to see a way out. Until I realized that I was confounding something. And I was confounding something that we have all started to do in the last 20 to 30 years. And that is confounding the idea of innovation with technology.
When you think of the word “innovation,” at least I, anyway — and I think most people think of, oh, a new technology, some do widget or gadget, some super-duper iPhone, Alexa, driverless automobile, or something. Something, anyway, but you always think of technology these days. But, of course, innovation is fortunately much broader than that. And innovation, of course, there’s been innovations that are not necessarily technological. They might be cultural. They might be . . . I mean, you could — I just made this up. You could argue that Marxism and communism was a major innovation. It was for part of the world and still plays a crucial role, you know, on the planet, actually. But it wasn’t innovation. It was cultural.
Michael Garfield: Pardon for interrupting, but this really links quite strongly to two other pieces from SFI. That one was Luís Bettencourt’s work on introducing new alleys and streets into a slum, you know, to multiply the capital areas in there to get the resources. That’s linked to a presentation that Sam Bowles and Wendy Carlin just gave on the return of this mesoscopic piece of the economy that is not the market or the state, but it is . . . like, neighborhood, a sense of solidarity and community and virtue. And there’s a link between the kind of cultural innovation that you’re talking about and the ways that it assists in the distribution of resources, and the efficiency of a hypothetical future economy, by making it less an issue of a single giant heart pumping into all of these little areas and then doing something kind of like the octopus nervous system where you have your little smaller pumps throughout it, or the Stegosaurus brain with the ganglion in the hips. Anyway, that’s just . . .
Geoffrey West: Absolutely. No, the point is there might be cultural revolutions, potential shifts that need to do this. And of course one of the — what you want to do with that is to get away from the hegemony of open-ended growth being the only way we can keep society the way it is. So one of the fundamental questions is, can we have the kind of vibrant high standards and quality of living that we have with innovation and new ideas without growth? No one knows the answer to that. Maybe, but I think going along with that would have to be some kind of social or cultural revolution. And I say that, especially, I used the word social because in the work that we did, this superlinear behavior, which is sort of underneath it all, all comes from the dynamics of social networks, and the question is, is that so much in our DNA, that built into social networks is if you sort of took the causal connections, open-ended growth. Is that sort of inevitable, or can we still do the kinds of things we do and still do it without having this obsession with open-ended growth and sort of have our cake and eat it, too?
And the two new game changers — the one we’ve already talked about, and that is, we still don’t know the long-term effects of the internet and its connectivity and what it does. I’m dubious about that as the origin of a solution, but it will play a part in the solution. But the other curious thing is to do with the election of Donald Trump. And here I’m going way out there — I’ll probably be thrown out, probably be fired by the Institute after this — is the election of Donald Trump, which, in this context, gives me hope. Because it’s a very interesting example of something that most people thought could not happen.
And that is that, up until Donald Trump came on the scene, I think it was taken for granted throughout society, the complete spectrum of society, that it relied on rational discourse, exposing the truth, we agree on the facts. I mean, of course, there’s greyness around all of these, but, you know, there’s a certain discourse, the rule of law, we obey laws. We have respect for others. We treat people equally and with some sensitivity — those are sort of the fabric of society and what has been engendered in societies across the world, no matter what their size and origins, some form of those phenomena are part of what being a human being is and what being a social human being in a collective is, whether it’s a village, a city or a state.
And suddenly along comes someone who basically says actually, you know, you don’t have to believe any of that. You can tell lies, you can just ignore the facts. You can treat people like shit and so on. It’s okay. Appealing to what many of us feel is the dark side of a human being — and which we all have, by the way. I mean, we all have pieces of those in us. And Donald Trump in some extraordinary way was a catalyst for opening up a piece of the collective that is quite dark and potentially, I believe, quite dangerous and counter to the long forces of social progress across the globe. It’s not necessarily Western or Eastern. I think it’s been part of social progress informing sort of the urban planet. And it happened, and here’s what’s extraordinary. What’s truly extraordinary is it happened in less than a year. Now had someone proposed that, had some fancy-schmancy social scientist or economist with Nobel prizes and all the rest proposed that two years earlier, he would have been totally, you know, people would have thought he was a complete idiot. You know, okay, maybe something like that could happen, kind of 1984-ish, yes, but it would take 100 years or 50 years because that’s a whole social progress, but it’s there. The point is it’s potentially always there and Trump found the key to open it. I mean, he’s a cad; it’s not him. It’s there.
So, that’s my framework for having hope, because you could imagine an anti-Trump — could be Jesus Christ, could be Mahatma Gandhi, could be Nelson Mandela, who in the hell knows. Buddha. One of these people that have enormous charisma like Mr. Trump, enormous appeal that. instead of appealing to the forces of evil and darkness, appeals to the forces of good, of humanity, of love, appeals to the forces of love, which is in everybody, just as the forces of evil are, and he or she might have the key to ignite that and get us all to realize that, for the collective good, something has to change, and that’s something is to do with no growth, or limited growth, and changing our relationship to our environment. So, that’s my kind of flaky piece of . . . because I lived in California during the ‘60s and ‘70s and I believed all that stuff.
Michael Garfield: Well, now, if we’re going to propose that a similar phase transition into the politically possible could happen in the opposite direction, it seems like it would run — and here, again, we’re in this, the rat king or the perfect storm or whatever of this issue, which is that, to the extent that part of scaling was about minimizing the transaction costs in energy and information exchange than we know that — you know, there was a 2014 study outside of SFI. I think it was a Harvard study said that online fake news travels six times faster, than the actual debunking can occur. And, you know, we think about this in brains and it’s like, yeah, you have different layers. You know, like the Daniel Kahneman thing, there’s the reflexive and the instinctive or intuitive. And then there’s the kind of thought that you have to sit and chew on and analyze, and it would seem that a brain or a society needs both. But it seems like the reason that this surprised us, that we were able to transition to a quote-unquote post-truth society fast as we were, was because post-truth media environments don’t — they’re able to move so much faster up to a point, right? Which is the point at which a society that is coordinated on a post-truth narrative that doesn’t empirically align with its actual environment, like, for example, that we can just say, we can innovate our way out of this super exponentially and have infinite economic growth, you know, with finite resources, it’s going to out-compete truth in the short term because it’s more frictionless, right? So we’re back to, I think, when people start asking through the lens of your work questions about, is it even possible to institute a kind of de-growth paradigm on the planet? And it would seem not because we’re cutting against the grain of these economies of scale that provide us the savings that allow for this kind of growth in the first place. Right?
Geoffrey West: No, I agree. No, that’s what got me despondent about the whole thing. It goes to what I said earlier; the very dynamic that has given us this extraordinary success, and led us to this place, and that we continue to feed and continue to benefit from, is also the source of our greatest weakness. And it’s hard to see a way out. That’s why I shed my scientific hat and went into a science-fiction-y kind of mode, because you need something dramatic that’s outside of this framework in order for the system to make a dramatic change. And, you know, I hope I’m wrong. I hope this is not the case, but it’s very hard. At the moment it is very hard to see and we feel like lemmings at the moment, running over the edge of a cliff. And the forces, unfortunately, the forces that are trying to counteract it, even within the system, even those that, you know, that we see in terms leadership roles in the system, it’s hard for them to move out of this. I mean, we’re all in it. We all benefit from it. We’re part of it. We engender in some way or another. So it is extremely difficult to see.
And, by the way, you’ve reminded me of something else that I didn’t say along the way that is related to this. And that is, one of the things that is very hard for people contemplate, and only during the pandemic, has it begun to sort of penetrate a little bit into social consciousness, is what an exponential means. And I’ve sort of railed about this in the past, but it’s sad that the word exponential, like many words in science, took on a colloquial meaning that only connotes one little bit of it, mainly exponential has come to mean “very fast” in the colloquial language and fine. I mean, the irony is that exponential at the beginnings can be quite slow. It only becomes dangerously fast much later, but, you know, people don’t understand that. And what they usually think exponential means — the system is still sort of linear, basically, but it’s going just very fast linearly. No, this has been an argument since Malthus, that built into an exponential is often collapse. You have to intervene in some way to stop it collapsing. Actually, exponential is a borderline case. It’s super exponential, which is what we’ve been doing, which is the real danger. That is, something that’s even faster than exponential is the real danger, but exponential will do for these purposes. And I do rail against that because people do not understand.
One of the things that I was going to write, a short little thing that I was going to try to get published in The New York Times when the pandemic began was that people were using doubling times, which is good. And they were trying to say, look, doubling, it’ll double today. It will be twice as big in five days or whatever. What they should have said is at the beginning, there isn’t a word for it, unfortunately, but going up by a factor of 10, deciling, I don’t know what the word — there isn’t a word. I looked it up. There is no word for increasing by factors of 10. The deciling in the pandemic at the beginning was seven days, which means actually it was about eight days, about a week, which means if it’s a hundred now, in a week’s time, it’s a thousand. A week later, it’s 10,000, a week after that it’s a hundred thousand, in a month it’s a million, and so on. Ten has much more punch than a shitty little doubling. So I was very annoyed that we were still doing it. I still, if I write something, I want to write about that. Because people did not realize, and that’s exponential growth — within, of course, an extremely short time, you have every single person in the country has this bloody thing. And that is part of the problem we’re facing.
And one of the problems that is not appreciated, it is, it was, I must say, despite our very poor beginnings to this. And that was because the president and administration took a dim view of the whole thing, and it was part of this lack of belief and lack of belief in science and truth and so on. Eventually, you know, the country got moving and, remarkably, we have saved huge numbers of lives. I mean, obviously had no one intervened and we’d just gone on with our normal business, you know, bodies lying in the street, basically. So we have done it and it’s been a remarkable achievement and we should not poo-poo that, actually, because people in some semi-conscious way sort of got it.
What that doubling did mean, what that exponential did mean, was the first inkling. What would be fantastic is if they could realize that, actually — forget about pandemics. That is the world we live in anyway. That’s what’s happening socioeconomically and in terms of the economy anyway. If there’s a doubling time just like that, and it’s going to have the same bloody problem that that pandemic would have had had you not intervened. Everybody would be dead. I mean, actually not everybody. Everybody would have had the disease, I should say. And so it will be, if we don’t do something, that everybody will have the disease of collapse if we don’t do something in the near future. That’s sort of what conclusion I came to.
Michael Garfield: Hmm. So, to wrap this, something I talked about with Brian Arthur, again, was the notion of how there’s a link between an economic model and an organism as a kind of hypothesis generated about an environment. And so there’s always something that’s left out of the model. You know, there’s always externalities. So the question that all of this raises for me, and you gesture towards it with this idea of a social or cultural revolution, you know, a paradigm shift, is, what has to be — I’m really setting you up for a fall here. I’m sorry. The question is, what is the current externality? What is not encoded by our cultural quote-unquote genome here that is going to make itself obvious and have to be integrated, and have to be drawn into our understanding of the world, in order for this to not be us trying to move off of a local optimum and go downhill? Like, what is the shift in our perception that’s going to happen for us to realize that endless open growth is not a long-term viability strategy? It seems like it would have to be maybe that we start integrating over longer timespans in our understanding or what?
Geoffrey West: Well, I don’t know the answer to that. I mean, I don’t know. The fact is, just to make sure we’re all on the same page here, you know, the work that I’ve been involved in with this, it leaves out obviously lots of stuff. It’s a theory. It’s a model. It has the great advantage that it explains a huge amount of data, enormous amount of data on a very coarse-grained scale. And it predicts various things have been measured, which have been confirmed. So, that’s the way we do science, and what I have been talking about is extrapolating that into the future and saying that, look, the dominant variables in the past are going to continue in the future, such as the structure of our social networks, for example. But, you know, things may change.
I don’t put in there, and I don’t know how one would go around modeling it, things I did allude to, like the long-term influence of the internet. Now, as I say, I don’t think it’s going to qualitatively change things. Or the intervention of, you know, some social movement that arises unexpectedly, or an asteroid strikes the planet or whatever. You know, there’s all kinds of things that might be externalities that are outside of everything I’d been talking about, and the purpose of doing this kind of research is, of course, (a) to get a deep mechanistic understanding of the way the world appears. Why is it the way it is? Why are things the way they are? In order for us to avoid problems and mitigate present problems in the future, and to provide a framework and point of departure for thinking about planning for the future. That’s the way science works, I think, in terms of in these areas. It’s very different, by the way, than the the kind of science I spent much of my career doing, which was not coarse-grained, was exactly the opposite — very highly fine-grained, where, you know, you predict things to in some cases many decimal points and do very precise predictions of very precise phenomena. Here we’re making coarse-grained predictions of imprecise phenomena, and that’s the challenge. But two things I want to reemphasize and bring forth — one is it agrees with enormous amounts of data tested in certain various situations, and, most importantly, it’s analytic and it’s quantitative. And I think that’s important.
So, I didn’t really answer the question because I don’t know. Because that’s like, you know, the nearest I came to it was my fantasy about the anti-Trump, but you know, that’s going off, that’s not being a scientist. That’s just me reverting to something I may like to think I’d like to be. Fantasize — I don’t do that much. I tend to stay very close to the science.
Michael Garfield: Yeah, this this whole book. It’s hilarious how much shade you throw on biologists for not being as rigorous as you would like.
Geoffrey West: It’s funny. By the way, I wrote that book with the intention of writing a “popular” book that would have no mathematics, but would try not to bullshit, would really try to explain everything as best I could in English. You know, that was the idea, which was very hard. And I think in some places I felt quite happy and I felt I was successful, but in other places, I’m sure I failed and left things just as obscure.
But the point is that I believe passionately in science and in the scientific methodology, and it’s the most powerful way of thinking about the universe man has invented. It has huge areas where it doesn’t apply, probably, that relates to this, actually, you know? What you might call a spiritual life, what you might call our, you know, aspects of irrationality and so forth, and those may play a crucial role in saving us.
Michael Garfield: Yeah. So, there are two things that we didn’t get through in this conversation, and I hope that we can, we can get you back soon to get into these other two things. One of which is the detail that you get it to in the afterward about the kind of science that SFI practices and how we hold that in contrast to the kind of science that Chris Anderson famously championed and celebrated with respect to model-free, theory-free machine learning.
The other is about the quest for immortality, which is related to finite time singularities and open growth, but links to this beautiful passage that you have about how, for an animal of this size, consuming about 2000 food calories a day, 90 watts, but we’re actually burning 11,000 watts because we’re plugged into these cities. So what is a human being now? Anyway, I know that you’ve got to go!
Geoffrey West: I will be back, and I love chatting with you, Michael. I appreciate it. And your patience and tolerance. It was good fun.
Michael Garfield: Likewise.
Geoffrey West: Good fun. So enjoy the rest of the day.
Michael Garfield: Thank you. Thank you, Geoffrey.