Daily Balajisms – Helical theory of history
Progress happens on the z-axis
Balaji Srinivasan has a unique view of history, combining the theories of linear progress and cyclical theories of history. He says, that all noble ideas and ideals have been with us since the dawn of humanity, what makes them feasible is technology.
Balaji mentions the Chinese proverb “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide” to illustrate the cyclical theory of history. There are right-wing, left-wing and libertarian versions of these cycles.
The meme of “hard times create good men, good men create good times, good times create weak men, weak men create hard times” is the Right’s example of cyclical history. The Left’s version is “zealous revolutionaries spark a revolution, that is later corrupted and stolen by bureaucrats or despots like Stalin, and so people have to rise again to fight oppression”.
The libertarian version, according to Balaji, is – “a libertarian founder ends up rebuilding the state”. By creating a successful startup, that later scales to millions of customers, the bureaucratic structures are rebuilt, the company gets ossified and pushes the creative and entrepreneurial employees away – to create new startups.
Balaji gives a metaphor of a clock – the dials go in circles, but there is a new day, a new startup, a new country eventually. His helical theory of history unites both cyclical and linear theories of history – it goes in circles indeed, but the progress happens on the z-axis.
The “great man theory” and “the arch of history theory” of how inventions and innovations are born can be reconciled in the concept of tech trees, says Balaji. Sometimes inventors stand on the shoulders of giants and the time is ripe for a certain invention and a few people arrive at it independently (Newton/Leibniz). And sometimes radical innovations come out of blue, like Satoshi Nakamoto’s bitcoin.
Alexander Bard, a Swedish philosopher of the internet, has a similar view of “process vs event” (his upcoming book is titled Process and Event), uniting cyclical/gradual processes with unique and radical events/step functions. He also says, people are constants, what changes is technology.
My good friend Silvo’s mom used to tell him to eat his food when he was a kid, because “kids in Africa are hungry”. He replied, “why don’t you pack the meal then, and send it to Africa”? It still takes days to do a bank wire to Africa. But only minutes, if you use Wise and M-Pesa. And seconds with BTC Lightning.
My friend Allan, who is in his seventies, heard the same story when he was growing up in Canada, but at that time his mom told him about hungry kids in South Korea. Back then, the country was poorer than Kenya, now it’s richer than my home country of Slovakia. Rule of law, industrialization policies and education transformed South Korea to one of the Asian Tigers.
Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew created a successful model of going from third world to first, later copied by China’s Deng Xiaoping. Balaji often mentions, how the moral innovation of “profit is good” transformed China. The country now builds half of world’s ships, has built 38,000km of high-speed rail since 2008, and plans to build 150 nuclear reactors in 15 years. The US & EU seem to go from first world to third.
Moral innovations are important, but often what makes them feasible is technological progress. Balaji explains how in the past the moral progress and tech progress went hand in hand. Public sanitation buildout was coupled with public education campaigns and mottos like “cleanliness is next to godliness”.
God is tech and art, in the sense that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.