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Thu, 26 Aug 2004
Dark Age Ahead
I've been reading Jane Jacobs' Dark Age Ahead. I can't remember which blog it was that recommended this book. Jacobs is a Canadian urban planner, a very different point of view than I'm used to. She's looking for the factors that lead to dark ages -- times of cultural obliteration, with an occasional comment on the possibility that North American culture might be headed for such a time.

Her thesis is that dark ages ensue "When stabilizing forces become ruined and irrelevant". She goes on to write about 5 stabilizing forces that she feels are weakening:

  1. Community and family
  2. She makes a distinction between families (biological units) and households (economic units), and focuses mostly in the financial difficulties of families, particularly the difficulty of affordable housing and its subsequent impact on family life. The family cannot stand as a unit by itself, and needs the influence and support of a broader community. She goes on to note that real communities are rapidly disappearing. In order to have community, people must encounter one another in person, something made increasingly difficult in automobile centric America.
  3. Higher education
  4. Here the argument is that higher (and other) education has moved away from education, and into the business of issueing credentials. Here in Washington, it's easy to see that emphasis in the rush to comply with the WASL tests that are the legacy of "No Child Left Behind"
  5. Effective practice of science and science based technology
  6. Jacobs claims (as I and others have) that science is worshiped, and then uses an interesting example from traffic engineering to show how the scientific mindset is disappearing.

    Coincidentally, I also recently saw a graph in Wired (7/2004) p.52 (not on the web) showing the number of engineering graduates produced by various countries in 2001:

    I thought that those statistics went well with this quote:
    Try to imagine how demoralizing that deterioration will be for a culture that almost worships science, and that proudly connects its identity and prowess with scientific and technological superiority. How will such a culture and its people deal with becoming incompetent and backward in science and science based technology?
    Wholesale outsourcing of technical jobs will likely have the same effect, numerical production of graduates aside.
  7. Taxes and governmental powers directly in touch with needs and possibilities
  8. Jacobs usese two terms in this chapter Subsidiarity is the principle that government works best -- most responsibly and responsively -- when it is closes to the people it serves and the needs it addresses. Fiscal accountability is the principle that institutions collecting and disbursing taxes work most responsibly when they are transparent to those providing the money. Her example is taken from the Canadian federal government's intervention in Toronto's previously successful public housing program.
    Central planning, whether by leftists or conservatives, draws too little on local knowledge and creativity, stifles innovations, and is inefficient and costly because it is circuitous. It bypasses intimate and varied knowledge directly fed back into the system.
    Subsidiarity indeed. There are so many times when I've wanted a concise way of saying what subsidiarity means. Now I've found a word.
  9. Self policing by the learned professions
  10. Think of the failure of CPA's in the Enron scandal, the recent scandals in the Catholic church and extrapolate those into the rest of the learned professions.
There were lots of interesting examples in the book (mostly because of a different point of view). In spite of that, if the goal was to make the case that we are drifting in the direction of a Dark Age, the book falls short. Even though the examples were engaging, I didn't feel that they did a good job of really supporting the idea that there is a Dark Age Ahead. On the other hand, the book is a short read at 176 pages, and I definitely felt that there was reason to go on to the next chapter. And you'll probably be hearing the word subsidiarity coming out of my mouth and appearing on these pages.
[00:26] | [books] | # | TB | F | G | 3 Comments | Other blogs commenting on this post
While many critiques of our society are well deserved, I think it's a mistake to be quick to turn it into something apocalyptic.  In many ways, we raise the bars for ourselves, then say we are falling short.  Which is probably the right thing to do -- except when we say that this indicates a trend, that we are further from our expectations than we once were, and this will continue until we are lost.

For instance, science.  People complain widely of the common person's ignorance of science.  And it is unfortunate that it is not better, because science literacy is a good thing.  But it's probably better than it was at one time.  People may still believe in UFOs, but they are wary of medical hucksterism.  Right now most of the population has a pretty decent understanding of germ theory, something which was a mystery two hundred years ago.  Students regularly learn advanced algebra in high school, while students 75 years ago took geometry only when they got to college.

Even relatively, I think we may be better than some statistics indicate.  I saw a report about five years ago which showed the US having a higher proportion of scientific literacy compared to Europe or Japan.  Something like twenty, twelve, and seven percent respectively (but obviously I am not an authoritative source).  Sadly, I can never find statistics -- supporting or otherwise -- when I look for them later.  But unlike the statistics people so often quote, which are based on school testing, this was a survey of adults.

Anyway, if the US doesn't maintain its position of dominance, that would not be a Dark Age.  That's just melodramatic and silly.

I think trends are suspicious.  Societal critique is valid, but too often it tries to justify itself with tales of doom.  Humans are conscious beings, we react to our circumstances, and the feedback cycle makes prediction extremely difficult.  Principled critique may more justified than empirical critique.
Posted by
Ian Bicking at Thu Aug 26 09:41:30 2004

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