What Does It Take to Control History Itself? Research Time, 11/10/2017

When I come up with titles like that, you can tell I grew up watching a lot of Doctor Who. But I’m actually going there by the end of this few hundred words, I think.

I noticed a curious passage in The Human Condition, where Hannah Arendt – in her abstract conceptual approach and her historian’s style of evocative writing – starts talking about network effects.

Even something as ordinary as a timely trip to the bathroom can have
amazing consequences that are impossible to predict.
Not in any technical sense, of course. The Human Condition came long before Bruno Latour and his sociological actor-network theory, or the popular knowledge of neural networks in artificial intelligence research, or any of the networked communications infrastructure our civilization depends on today.

Arendt is talking about the capacity for a small act in any human society to have outsized effects. Consequences spiral outwards from any action, always expanding their power well beyond an actor’s intention.

What do we think of before we make any relatively significant action in our lives? I don’t necessarily mean only the obvious decisions about whether I should marry this person or bomb this country. Those are events with clear meaning and many unintended consequences.

She’s talking about events like conversations about important topics with a friend. Politics, love, business, family – anything that you’d share with someone you trust.

She's even talking about utterly trivial events like picking up a package from the post office, bumming a ride home from work with a friend, going to the bathroom.

Any event can have unintended consequences because we can’t perceive – in the moment of our action – all the indirect and systematic affects that can flow from it. We can’t see the entire web of causality – forward and backward, molecular and molar – at once.

That’s the power and gravity of human action, according to Arendt. Any one of our actions could occur at what turns out to be a critical juncture of causes and processes. Even our most trivial action can have knock-on consequences that transform the world.

That would be a fantastic novel to write, actually. Also reminds me of what I’ve read about Laozi.

What would it take to grab hold of chaos? To bend chaos to your will and make sure that only what you planned would happen.

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