The Principle of Generative Pluralism

Prometheans understand technological evolution in terms of increasing diversity of lived values, in the form of more varied actual lifestyles. From any given pastoral perspective, such increasing pluralism is a sign of moral decline, but from a Promethean perspective, it is a sign of moral progress catalyzed by new technological capabilities.

Emerging lifestyles introduce new lived values into societies. Hamilton did not just suggest a way out of the rural squalor1 that was the reality of the Jeffersonian pastoral. His way also led to the dismantlement of slavery, the rise of modern feminism and the gradual retreat of colonial oppression and racism. Today, we are not just leaving the World Fairs pastoral behind for a richer technological future. We are also leaving behind its paternalistic institutions, narrow “resource” view of nature, narrow national identities and intolerance of non-normative sexual identities.

Promethean attitudes begin with an acknowledgment of the primacy of lived values over abstract doctrines. This does not mean that lived values must be uncritically accepted or left unexamined. It just means that lived values must be judged on their own merit, rather than through the lens of a prejudiced pastoral vision.

The shift from car-centric to smartphone-centric priorities in urban transportation is just one aspect of a broader shift from hardware-centric to software-centric lifestyles. Rideshare driver, carless urban professional and low-income-high-mobility are just the tip of an iceberg that includes many other emerging lifestyles, such as eBay or Etsy merchant, blogger, indie musician and search-engine marketer. Each new software-enabled lifestyle adds a new set of lived values and more apparent profanity to society. Some, like rent-over-own values, are shared across many emerging lifestyles and threaten pastorals like the “American Dream,” built around home ownership. Others, such as dietary preferences, are becoming increasingly individualized and weaken the very idea of a single “official food pyramid” pastoral script for all.

Such broad shifts have historically triggered change all the way up to the global political order. Whether or not emerging marginal ideologies2 achieve mainstream prominence, their sense of proportions and priorities, driven by emerging lifestyles and lived values, inevitably does.

These observations are not new among historians of technology, and have led to endless debates about whether societal values drive technological change (social determinism) or whether technological change drives societal values (technological determinism). In practice, the fact that people change and disrupt the dominant prevailing ideal of “human values” renders the question moot. New lived values and new technologies simultaneously irrupt into society in the form of new lifestyles. Old lifestyles do not necessarily vanish: there are still Jeffersonian small farmers and traditional blacksmiths around the world for instance. Rather, they occupy a gradually diminishing role in the social order. As a result, new and old technologies and an increasing number of value systems coexist.

In other words, human pluralism eventually expands to accommodate the full potential of technological capabilities.3

We call this the principle of generative pluralism. Generative pluralism is what allows the virtuous cycle of surplus and spillover to operate. Ephemeralization — the ability to gradually do more with less — creates room for the pluralistic expansion of lifestyle possibilities and individual values, without constraining the future to a specific path.

The inherent unpredictability in the principle implies that both technological and social determinism are incomplete models driven by zero-sum thinking. The past cannot “determine” the future at all, because the future is more complex and diverse. It embodies new knowledge about the world and new moral wisdom, in the form of a more pluralistic and technologically sophisticated society.

Thanks to a particularly fertile kind of generative pluralism that we know as network effects, soft technologies like language and money have historically caused the greatest broad increases in complexity and pluralism. When more people speak a language or accept a currency, the potential of that language or currency increases in a non-zero-sum way. Shared languages and currencies allow more people to harmoniously co-exist, despite conflicting values, by allowing disputes to be settled through words or trade4 rather than violence. We should therefore expect software eating the world to cause an explosion in the variety of possible lifestyles, and society as a whole becoming vastly more pluralistic.

And this is in fact what we are experiencing today.

The principle also resolves the apparent conflict between human agency and “what technology wants”: Far from limiting human agency, technological evolution in fact serves as the most complete expression of it. Technology evolution takes on its unstoppable and inevitable character only after it breaks smart from authoritarian control and becomes part of unpredictable and unscripted collective invention culture. The existence of thousands of individuals and firms working relatively independently on the same frontier means that every possibility will not only be uncovered, it will be uncovered by multiple individuals, operating with different value systems, at different times and places. Even if one inventor chooses not to pursue a possibility, chances are, others will. As a result, all pastoralist forms of resistance are eventually overwhelmed. But the process retains rational resistance to paths that carry risk of ending the infinite game for all, in proportion to their severity. As global success in limiting the spread of nuclear and biological weapons shows, generative pluralism is not the same as mad scientists and James Bond villains running amok.

Prometheans who discover high-leverage unexpected possibilities enter a zone of serendipity. The universe seems to conspire to magnify their agency to superhuman levels. Pastoralists who reject change altogether as profanity turn lack of agency into a self-fulfilling prophecy, and enter a zone of zemblanity. The universe seems to conspire to diminish whatever agency they do have, resulting in the perception that technology diminishes agency.

Power, unlike capability, is zero-sum, since it is defined in terms of control over other human beings. Generative pluralism implies that on average, pastoralists are constantly ceding power to Prometheans. In the long term, however, the loss of power is primarily a psychological rather than material loss. To the extent that ephemeralization frees us of the need for power, we have less use for a disproportionate share.

As a simple example, consider a common twentieth-century battleground: public signage. Today, different languages contend for signaling power in public spaces. In highly multilingual countries, this contention can turn violent. But automated translation and augmented reality technologies5 can make it unnecessary to decide, for instance, whether public signage in the United States ought to be in English, Spanish or both. An arbitrary number of languages can share the same public spaces, and there is much less need for linguistic authoritarianism. Like physical sports in an earlier era, soft technologies such as online communities, video games and augmented reality are all slowly sublimating our most violent tendencies. The 2014 protests in Ferguson, MO, are a powerful example. Compared to the very similar civil rights riots in the 1960s, information in the form of social media coverage, rather than violence, was the primary medium of influence.

The broader lesson of the principle of generative pluralism is this: through technology, societies become intellectually capable of handling progressively more complex value-based conflicts. As societies gradually awaken to resolution mechanisms that do not require authoritarian control over the lives of others, they gradually substitute intelligence and information for power and coercion.

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[1] See Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues, 2007 for one treatment of the modern urban tendency to romanticize the realities of pre-modern agrarian life.

[2] Many are thriving today, such as Liberal-tarianism, and Crypto-anarchism, that reflect a better sense of proportions relative to emerging technologies.

[3] The similarity to Parkinson’s Law, “work expands to occupy the resources available,” is not an accident.

[4] McCloskey views this idea as the mark of bourgeois virtues (see footnote 1), which are similar to Jane Jacobs’ commerce syndrome of values. Both, however, are not value systems or ideologies per se, but expressions of pluralistic tolerance and non-conflict among ideologies.

[5] Apps like Google Translate can already do this, though the technology has not yet become pervasive in public infrastructure. With the rise of Augmented Reality technologies, such approaches will likely become more prominent.