2013-04-10

The Future Is Increasing Heterogeneity

In my previous post, I had some things to say regarding hanging one's whole philosophy on a single axiom. I also touched briefly on Simon Grey's prediction that the age of American dominance is coming to a close. (For that matter, I have seen this claim made on other blogs, such as Anti-Gnostic and Chateau Heartiste.)

It seems to me that there is a relation between these two concepts, and also to something I recently read about property rights on Jonathan Finegold Catalan's blog:
Differentiating rivalry and conflict may overcome a major hurdle in the IP debate. If we look at property as an outcome of spontaneous order, then we acknowledge that there’s no such thing as property “rights” that exist outside of social convention. A better way of stating something similar is that property rights are defined institutionally. Since institutions can change, so can property rights. This is a good thing, because it allows people to resolve conflicts between each other by parceling property and trading it with each other. This applies equally to intellectual property. The best thing that can happen to the production of ideas isn’t to completely dissolve intellectual property rights by fiat, but to allow the market to spontaneously arrive at solutions over time.
Everything I see in the world today points in a single direction: Heterogeneity. What I mean is that as technology improves and entrenched institutions (political and otherwise) are over-thrown, they seem to be increasingly replaced by personal, local, individualized alternatives.

First Example: Movies
It used to be that a single town had a very small number of relatively large, single-screen movie theaters. These theaters would show one major motion picture at a time, to large audiences. There wasn't a lot of choice or flexibility involved. As the movie industry progressed, the "cineplex" was born, followed by the "megaplex" and all other movie-related "plexes." The trend was to increase the number of theaters and films shown. This trend continued until new 3-D technology brought new meaning to the meaning of the phrase "big screen experience." But as the market became saturated with 3-D movies, the theaters again started to shrink to accommodate both more showings of a single film and a greater number of films shown. Technology again paved the way for on-demand movies. Now people can easily afford large-screen TVs for their own home theaters, complete with fancy sound systems that provide a very pleasant movie experience - even in 3-D - at home. The film industry has accommodated this need by providing movies on demand either through telecommunications or bulk mail. Either way you shake it, what was once a large and rare "community event" is now a very small, individualized affair.

Second Example: Music
If you think of today's music industry as basically being a continuation of the orchestral music of the Baroque composers, then the trend is simply this: Music used to be something only accessible by the aristocracy in large theaters, and now anyone can hear anything they want to, at any possible moment, no matter where they happen to be in the world, on a personal electronic device that fits in their smallest pocket. Further commentary here is virtually irrelevant, but I will add one more aspect to the story.

It used to be that the popularity of music was determined by taste makers. The kings chose which composers they would hire, originally. Twenty years ago, the biggest hits were determined by a complex payola conspiracy between the radio station operators and the record labels. Today, there is no such thing as "popular music" in the sense that we used to understand it. Music that happens to be popular is music that has been purchased by movies, television programs, and advertisers to be included in the backdrop of a visual experience. It is there that we become aware of a new song, but we are not really the paying customers of that music. For the most part, the corporations advertising their products are the primary consumers. We're more like secondary consumers of the most popular music. The other side of this is that the most popular music is actually the music we all listen to with the least frequency. Instead, we amass a list of small, unpopular musical artists whose unique sound appeals to us individually.

But again, the punchline here is a trend away from large institutions and toward a more individualized experience.

Now Back To Those Other Bloggers
So let's return to what I started out trying to say. If we fully grasp the implication of what Catalan is getting at, then what we're looking at is the fact that social institutions - even the sacrosanct ones like private property - have no concrete meaning other than the spontaneous, de facto enforcement of them in the environment that currently exists right this minute. What is true today - even what is true of institutions today - is not necessarily true tomorrow, and in fact a free society will be highly flexible in that regard. It could be that intellectual property in the form of patent laws served a viable purpose for a short period of time, and must now be divorced from the institution of the state and enforced on a more individual basis.

Thus, we see the possibility that even property rights may be following a trend of decreasing instiutionalization and increasing individualization.

Similarly, the Non-Aggression Principle (while perfectly adequate as an ethical guidelines) may have out-lived its purpose as some sort of institutional axiom upon which to base an entire world view. As philosophy migrates out of the ivory towers of academia, down into the dirty blogosphere and into the individual minds of ordinary people, the viability of a logical system that encapsulates "what libertarianism is" will certainly falter. Instead, people will arrive at a functional idea of liberty based on the diversity of opinion that exists in a social system comprised of billions of individuals.

Lastly, the idea of American dominance is certainly obsolete, but this is not the travesty that some might perceive it to be. The reason is that American dominance will not be replaced by Someone Else's Dominance. Rather, it will be replaced by the dominance of the individual, in nebulous abstract. If the trend I am identifying continues, then what lies ahead is a period in which no country is particularly dominant, and power and fortunes will be made by ambitious individuals and multi-national groups.

All of this is an argument in favor of the Rothbardians, by the way, and I am not exactly sympathetic to their point of view. The last bastion against this kind of progress is Rothbard's own critique of the Whig view of history. That is, Rothbard thought the Whigs were fools to believe that the trend they were observing would extend to perpetuity. Trends can and do reverse.

Epilogue
I would like to think a bit more about this in light of my ideas about The Individual. If the trend is away from social institutions and toward individual experiences, then this would signify (at least, according to my previous posts on the topic) a shift toward existential sentiments and away from moral ones. I would expect such a shift to involve a broadly waning sense of social morality and the dissolution of time-honored social institutions. I would expect these things to be replaced by greater concerns with a person's sense of identity and place in the world.

Is this indeed what we in today's society? I am tempted to say yes, aren't you? But I shall have to explore this in a future blog post.