Book Club: The Code Economy pt 1

I don’t think the publishers got their money’s worth on cover design

Welcome to EvX’s Book Club. Today we begin our exciting tour of Philip E. Auerswald’s The Code Eoconomy: A Forty-Thousand-Year History. with the introduction, Technology = Recipes, and Chapter one, Jobs: Divide and Coordinate if we get that far.

I’m not sure exactly how to run a book club, so just grab some coffee and let’s dive right in.

First, let’s note that Auerswald doesn’t mean code in the narrow sense of “commands fed into a computer” but in a much broader sense of all encoded processes humans have come up with. His go-to example is the cooking recipe.

The Code Economy describes the evolution of human productive activity from simplicity to complexity over the span of more than 40,000 years. I call this evolutionary process the advance of code.

I find the cooking example a bit cutesy, but otherwise it gets the job done.

How… have we humans managed to get where we are today despite our abundant failings, including wars, famine, and a demonstrably meager capacity for society-wide planning and coordination? … by developing productive activities that evolve into regular routines and standardized platforms–which is to say that we have survived, and thrived, by creating and advancing code.

There’s so much in this book that almost every sentence bears discussion. First, as I’ve noted before, social organization appears to be a spontaneous emergent feature of every human group. Without even really meaning to, humans just naturally seem compelled organize themselves. One day you’re hanging out with your friends, riding motorcycles, living like an outlaw, and the next thing you know you’re using the formal legal system to sue a toy store for infringement of your intellectual property.

Alexander Wienberger, Holodomor

At the same time, our ability to organize society at the national level is completely lacking. As one of my professors once put it, “God must hate communists, because every time a country goes communist, an “act of god” occurs and everyone dies.”

It’s a mystery why God hates communists so much, but hate ’em He does. Massive-scale social engineering is a total fail and we’ll still be suffering the results for a long time.

This creates a kind of conflict, because people can look at the small-scale organizing they do, and they look at large-scale disorganization, and struggle to understand why the small stuff can’t simply be scaled up.

And yet… society still kind of works. I can go to the grocery store and be reasonably certain that by some magical process, fresh produce has made its way from fields in California to the shelf in front of me. By some magical process, I can wave a piece of plastic around and use it to exchange enough other, unseen goods to pay for my groceries. I can climb into a car I didn’t build and cruise down a network of streets and intersections, reasonably confident that everyone else driving their own two-ton behemoth at 60 miles an hour a few feet away from me has internalized the same rules necessary for not crashing into me. Most of the time. And I can go to the gas station and pour a miracle liquid into my car and the whole system works, whether or not I have any clue how all of the parts manage to come together and do so.

The result is a miracle. Modern society is a miracle. If you don’t believe me, try using an outhouse for a few months. Try carrying all of your drinking water by hand from the local stream and chopping down all of the wood you need to boil it to make it potable. Try fighting off parasites, smallpox, or malaria without medicine or vaccinations. For all my complaints (and I know I complain a lot,) I love civilization. I love not worrying about cholera, crop failure, or dying from cavities. I love air conditioning, refrigerators, and flush toilets. I love books and the internet and domesticated strawberries. All of these are things I didn’t create and can’t take credit for, but get to enjoy nonetheless. I have been blessed.

But at the same time, “civilization” isn’t equally distributed. Millions (billions?) of the world’s peoples don’t have toilets, electricity, refrigerators, or even a decent road from their village to the next.

GDP per capita by country

Auerswald is a passionate champion of code. His answer to unemployment problems is probably “learn to code,” but in such a broad, metaphorical way that encompasses so many human activities that we can probably forgive him for it. One thing he doesn’t examine is why code takes off in some places but not others. Why is civilization more complex in Hong Kong than in Somalia? Why does France boast more Fields Medalists than the DRC?

In our next book (Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration,) we’ll discuss whether specific structures like legal and tax codes can affect how well societies grow and thrive (spoiler alert: they do, just see communism,) and of course you are already familiar with the Jared Diamond environmentalist theory that folks in some parts of the world just had better natural resources to work than in other parts (also true, at least in some cases. I’m not expecting some great industry to get up and running on its own in the arctic.)

IQ by country

But laying these concerns aside, there are obviously other broad factors at work. A map of GDP per capita looks an awful lot like a map of average IQs, with obvious caveats about the accidentally oil-rich Saudis and economically depressed ex-communists.

Auerswald believes that the past 40,000 years of code have not been disasters for the human race, but rather a cascade of successes, as each new invention and expansion to our repertoir of “recipes” or “codes” has enabled a whole host of new developments. For example, the development of copper tools didn’t just put flint knappers out of business, it also opened up whole new industries because you can make more varieties of tools out of copper than flint. Now we had copper miners, copper smelters (a  new profession), copper workers. Copper tools could be sharpened and, unlike stone, resharpened, making copper tools more durable. Artists made jewelry; spools of copper wires became trade goods, traveling long distances and stimulating the prehistoric “economy.” New code bequeaths complexity and even more code, not mass flint-knapper unemployment.

Likewise, the increase in reliable food supply created by farming didn’t create mass hunter-gatherer unemployment, but stimulated the growth of cities and differentiation of humans into even more professions, like weavers, cobblers, haberdashers, writers, wheelwrights, and mathematicians.

It’s a hopeful view, and I appreciate it in these anxious times.

But it’s very easy to say that the advent of copper or bronze or agriculture was a success because we are descended from the people who succeeded. We’re not descended from the hunter-gatherers who got displaced or wiped out by agriculturalists. In recent cases where hunter-gatherer or herding societies were brought into the agriculturalist fold, the process has been rather painful.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Harmless People, about the Bushmen of the Kalahari, might overplay the romance and downplay the violence, but the epilogue’s description of how the arrival of “civilization” resulted in the deaths and degradation of the Bushmen brought tears to my eyes. First they died of dehydration because new fences erected to protect “private property” cut them off from the only water. No longer free to pursue the lives they had lived for centuries, they were moved onto what are essentially reservations and taught to farm and herd. Alcoholism and violence became rampant.

Among the book’s many characters was a man who had lost most of his leg to snakebite. He suffered terribly as his leg rotted away, cared for by his wife and family who brought him food. Eventually, with help, he healed and obtained a pair of crutches, learned to walk again, and resumed hunting: providing for his family.

And then in “civilization” he was murdered by one of his fellow Bushmen.

It’s a sad story and there are no easy answers. Bushman life is hard. Most people, when given the choice, seem to pick civilization. But usually we aren’t given a choice. The Bushmen weren’t. Neither were factory workers who saw their jobs automated and outsourced. Some Bushmen will adapt and thrive. Nelson Mandela was part Bushman, and he did quite well for himself. But many will suffer.

What to do about the suffering of those left behind–those who cannot cope with change, who do not have the mental or physical capacity to “learn to code” or otherwise adapt remains an unanswered question. Humanity might move on without them, ignoring their suffering because we find them undeserving of compassion–or we might get bogged down trying to save them all. Perhaps we can find a third route: sympathy for the unfortunate without encouraging obsolete behavior?

In The Great Degeneration, Ferguson wonders why the systems (“code”) that supports our society appears to be degenerating. I have a crude but answer: people are getting stupider. It takes a certain amount of intelligence to run a piece of code. Even a simple task like transcribing numbers is better performed by a smarter person than a dumber person, who is more likely to accidentally write down the wrong number. Human systems are built and executed by humans, and if the humans in them are less intelligent than the ones who made them, then they will do a bad job of running the systems.

Unfortunately for those of us over in civilization, dysgenics is a real thing:

Source: Audacious Epigone

Whether you blame IQ itself or the number of years smart people spend in school, dumb people have more kids (especially the parents of the Baby Boomers.) Epigone here only looks at white data (I believe Jayman has the black data and it’s just as bad, if not worse.)

Of course we can debate about the Flynn effect and all that, but I suspect there two competing things going on: First, a rising 50’s economic tide lifted all boats, making everyone healthier and thus smarter and better at taking IQ tests and making babies, and second, declining infant mortality since the late 1800s and possibly the Welfare state made it easier for the children of the poorest and least capable parents to survive.

The effects of these two trends probably cancel out at first, but after a while you run out of Flynn effect (maybe) and then the other starts to show up. Eventually you get Greece: once the shining light of Civilization, now defaulting on its loans.

Well, we have made it a page in!

Termite City

What do you think of the book? Have you finished it yet? What do you think of the way Auersbach conceptualizes of “code” and its basis as the building block of pretty much all human activity? Do you think Auersbach is essentially correct to be hopeful about our increasingly code-driven future, or should we beware of the tradeoffs to individual autonomy and freedom inherent in becoming a glorified colony of ants?


14 thoughts on “Book Club: The Code Economy pt 1

  1. All this talk of code, I’m not sure this guy has come up with any new theories here. It just seems to be his way of describing processes we already knew about. Or maybe I’m totally missing the mark and talking out of my ass, it could be that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are few new ideas in the world, and I doubt he invented the idea himself–I remember talking about “technos”, a shorthand for cultural-technology, a similar concept, a decade and a half ago. But I like the way the author approaches the topic.

      At the start of Guns, Germs, and Steel, a Melanesian politician asks Jared Diamond why Western societies have so much “cargo.” (Cargo=stuff.) Cargo comes from code. A country’s level of develop doesn’t depend on just the raw stuff you have (Africa has plenty of raw materials) nor individual IQs (plenty of very smart people lived during the Renaissance, but Europe was still very poor back then compared to today,) but on the levels of code it has developed and can easily, routinely perform.

      Code=solved problems.

      London burned down in 1666; Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nuked; large swathes of Vietnam were flattened, yet all of these places bounced back and rebuilt quite quickly. (Vietnam didn’t just “rebuild” but built a great deal.) These places aren’t just physical accumulations of buildings; they’re all of the systems humans have created that nexus in that point.


  2. looking at Epigone’s graph, it struck me that the fertility of “Really Smarts” has remained largely unaltered (a little less stable for the “Pretty Smarts”), while that of the Real Dumbs and Pretty Dumbs decreased, in the former sharply

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There are two major problems with increasing dysgenics. One is that there are fewer high ability people around to sustain civilization, ie run and/or write code. I’m not specifically talking about those 4-5 sd folks who are responsible for so much of our technology but those 1-2 sd people who can manage and sustain the structure.The other problem with an increasing percentage of low ability members in a society is that some not insignificant percentage of the capable have to devote their resources to protecting from the de-civilizing behavior of the underclass. When the elites go all in on non-productive behavior (ie, all sorts of once deviant behavior, now mainstream) the problem is compounded. Before you know it, you’re Rome, with no one left to run things or protect you from the (barbarian) protectors; welcome to another dark Ages, interspersed here and there with islands of modernity. To use Auerswald’s terminology, Code neither writes itself nor runs itself.


    • Rome was once the biggest city in the world; then its population collapsed so much, there were rumors it had at times been entirely abandoned. Rome didn’t reach its former height again until, IIRC, the 20th century.


    • “When the elites go all in on non-productive behavior (ie, all sorts of once deviant behavior, now mainstream) the problem is compounded.”
      I often wonder if the elites are, in essence, trying to trick their own up-and-coming competitors into taking themselves out of the competition. “Oh yes, go ahead, dress inappropriately, waste your time doing social activism instead of studying, dye your hair strange colors, pad your resume with everything but actual work experience, great plan!”

      Most of the really successful folks (outside of the entertainment industries) are pretty competent; they don’t practice what they preach.


  4. It might be recency bias, but the introduction had me thinking of Snowcrash (which I recently re-read). Simple code can be run on simple machines, but there needs to be some measure of recursion to scale code up in complexity; substrate/hardware matters. It seems plausible that our code has been iterating too fast for the hardware to keep up of late.


    • If the hardware is humans, I’ve been thinking lately that there may be a kind of “learning curve” where at first the hardware has to really understand the code it is implementing, and is really in the process of creating and improving the code, and then the code gets to a certain point where it is good enough to stabilize and optimize (at least local optima) and can be run by less competent hardware (that is, people who don’t need to really know the code, just run it.) At this point, the code can just settle in and become widespread and not change anymore, or you can get lucky and get a bifurcation in which instead of further refining the old code, radically new code is introduced.

      For example, the development of arithmetic likely took brilliant people, but the abacus made arithmetic a widespread skill; the first computers were run by skilled programmers, but by the 60s running punch cards through computers was seen as part of secretarial work. Then the PC was invented, along with whole new levels of programs and code by folks like Gates and Wozniak.


  5. Some possible facts about Bushman.

    I read early Afrikaners said that you needed to clear a 100 yard space of brush around your property or Bushman would shoot you with poison arrows.

    James LaFond said that Bushman used to be a much larger population of Africa with their poison arrow tech but the Bantus acquired iron and the sweet potato and pushed them all down into the desert in South Africa.

    When the Afrikaners came to South Africa there was next to no one there.

    The Blacks are now trying to take the farms of the Whites. Some have said, and I don’t know if this is true, that there’s a LOT of land that can be farmed in South Africa now but it would take a lot of work to make it productive. Work the Whites have conveniently done already on the land they want to take. There’s no doubt at all if they take the Whites land that the break down of machinery and irrigation will in less than five years time have the South African Blacks starving like everywhere else in Africa.


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