I often say during my presentations that the peer to peer logic of distributed networks, is a way out of the present crisis, a re-integration to a higher level of complexity. The alternative, since infinite material growth systems are untenable, would be a regress to a lower form of complexity, i.e. a dis-organisation of society followed by a stabilisation at a lower level.
I must admit however, that I rarely think about this in a thorough manner, finding it more fruitful to work on a solution, rather than admit defeat.
However, one site has done this work extensively. It describes dark ages in the past, why and how they occur, and why a new one is inevitable. But there is also good news is this scenario, nl. that the author argues that they are actually a necessary occurence for the overall growth of humankind, a kind of socially necessary collective regression, much like the same principle of regression in the service of the ego used in psycho-analysis.
Anyway, this seems like a must read.
Here an excerpt of this large online book.
“In speaking of low aspirations, low achievements and general cultural degradation, we have painted a very negative picture of dark ages. However, nothing is all bad, and it is time to consider a more upbeat view. In the words of the proverb, you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs. Creativity and innovation are in some ways inherently destructive.
Thus, a dark age is also an optimistic time. The old certainties are broken down, but this provides an opportunity for new ideas to emerge. As cohesion gives way to discohesion, conservatism is replaced with radical inventiveness. Furthermore, discohesion ensures that there will be many, diverse ideas. The testing time of the dark age ensures that only the most successful will persist and be developed. Hence, the dark age produces not only new ideas, but also better ideas.
Similarly, while integration provides for law and order, these are such as to favour those who already have power. The political structure becomes to some extent ossified. It does not necessarily reflect true capabilities. Those at the top may have lost all vigour and managerial talent, while people who possess such qualities are held back by the hierarchy. The disorder of a dark age levels the field once again. It causes perceptions to return to the fundamentals, and forces all the members of a social group to arrive at a more realistic picture of the world.
Thus, a dark age is a time of great creativity and progress. The English language and our dominant institutions, for instance, were forged during the two hundred years of almost total obscurity that followed the Roman collapse. The classical flowering of Chines culture took place after the collapse of the Western Chou civilisation. Later, after the break up of the Han empire, Chinese arts were reinvigorated. Around the Mediterranean, totally new ideas emerged out of the two to three centuries of dark age at the beginning of the first millennium bc. In pre-Inca Peru, a period of upheaval at the end of the 4th century saw enormous advances in pottery and metalwork. The fact that the western Roman empire and not the eastern collapsed was surely responsible for allowing Europe eventually to surpass the near east and become the world’s leading centre of human advancement. In a similar way, defeat in war helped to give Japan and German a fresh start in 1945. It allowed them to reinvent themselves for a new era of world history, and surpass some of the nations that had defeated them. The latter’s success in the war meant that they clung on to their centuries-old cultural and ideological baggage. It made it harder for them to take advantage of the new opportunities that were taking shape.
Thesis 5: A dark age is a time of creativity, when old institutions and ideas are replaced with new ones.
We can envision a dark age as a time when society is thrown back into the melting pot. Worn-out institutions are destroyed as their legitimacy dissolves. Once that process of destruction is complete, fantastic opportunities emerge as people begin to re-build integration, organisation and cohesion. Thus, a dark age is not a sombre time for everybody. For those who have talent and initiative to seize the opportunities that present themselves, the dark age offers many rewards.
Indeed, we can put this more strongly. The economist Joseph Schumpeter suggested that depressions are periods of creative destruction that are absolutely necessary for economic progress. Sweeping away outmoded firms and industries is painful but makes way for the next major advance. In the same way, we can say that a dark age is necessary to achieve long run benefits on the broader cultural and political as well as economic fronts.
In the last few decades, forestry managers have come to appreciate that traditional policies of preventing forest fires are counterproductive. The longer forest fires are prevented, the more undergrowth and dead wood clogs the forest. This not only harms the ecology of the forest, it also creates a growing supply of combustible material that makes the forest ever more vulnerable to fire. When the fire comes – as it eventually will, for they are set by lightning and not just by humans – the effects will be more devastating. Thus, periodic forest fires are essential to the health of the forest. This is not surprising really, since forests have been surviving for a long time before humans began to worry about them; some species of conifer even require a fire so that their cones will open and they can complete their lifecycle.
A dark age operates like a forest fire. It clears out dead wood. These are old institutions, more harmful than helpful, but so ingrained that they are virtually impossible to change any other way. Dark ages play an essential role in a process of renewal and growth.
Thus, after a dark age, the old civilisation is never simply revived. There is a qualitatively new configuration. Unsurprisingly, the longer and deeper the dark age, the more radical the new configuration. A significant dark age is needed in order to inaugurate significant change.
On the other hand, the old society seldom dies completely either. There is continuity of some cultural elements. Roman language, law and other institutions survived in barbarian Europe, albeit transformed. Furthermore, on the broadest view, world history shows obvious progress despite the many setbacks. There has been overall growth in technology and in economic and political institutions. The world’s largest empire has always tended to be larger than the previous holder of that title. And few major technologies died out when Rome collapsed, for example. Or otherwise they were easily re-invented.
Furthermore, decline is in some respects a relative phenomenon. Besides producing dark ages, the ferment of integration, organisation and cohesion may cause some parts of the world to advance dramatically. This will make other regions seem to decline even without them undergoing any major destruction of old cultural elements. At any rate, decline may appear more significant than it really is.
Thesis 6: On a global scale and over long time scales, cultural and technological development shows overall progress despite setbacks.
Nevertheless, the retrenchment of a dark age is real. There is genuine destruction. And, by the same logic, there is genuine creation of a new order.”
For more thinking about how change does and can occur, see our tag on Change Dynamics.