Category Archives: Science as world-making

Scenarios and population biology

The possibilities are infinite; the single course of events that will be realized is unguessable. We can, however, look at a a few possibilities, using a device known as a “scenario”. Scenarios are hypothetical sequences of events used as an aid in think about the future, especially in identifying possible decision points. I’d like to offer three scenarios, giving three possible projections of what the next fifteen years or so could be like. On is in the form of a short story, one a sequence of hypothetical news items, and one a condensed history written in the future.

–Paul Ehrlich, *The Population Bomb* (1971 Revised Ballantine edition, p.48)


Problems of coordination create diseconomies of scale for complex systems

PLATT. I should like to mention one aspect of this— the overlapping governmental units involved in big complexes of this sort. Richard Meir has made a study of this. He finds that there are some 465 semi-independent government organizations in the San Francisco Bay area for a population of about four million people. Roughly one governmental unit per 10,000; although, of course, some of them actually cover the whole area. This includes school districts, garbage units, councils of various sorts, economic units. The problem is to get these semi-independent government bodies interrelated so that initiating any new project does not require an almost infinite number of signatures, or so that one of these bodies isn’t doing something that another one is negating. This is a fantastic problem already at the four-million level; to extend this to the 100-million level is going to require new levels of organization and management.

WADDINGTON. At this ratio of governing bodies to people a megalopolis of 100-million would be run by something like 10,000 different agencies. The possibility of an administrative jam-up occurring, so that some essential service just doesn’t operate, would be enormous.

PLATT: The complexity probably goes up as the square of the number of units of organization or management.

WADDINGTON: Is anybody seriously studying this as a problem in organizing a management structure? How far do our universities deal with this? Presumably the legal profession, the management profession, and people of this kind have got to work out how it is to be done. This is going to happen within one generation. There is not much time.

From “Biology and the History of the Future” (an IUBS/UNESCO symposium, 1972)

Thou Shalt Worship Spontaneous Order

From Philip Mirowski, The Thirteen Commandments of Neoliberalism, 2013.

Even though there has not existed full consensus on just what sort of animal the market “really” is, the neoliberals did agree that, for purposes of public understanding and sloganeering, neoliberal market society must be treated as a “natural” and inexorable state of mankind. Neoliberal thought therefore spawns a strange hybrid of the “constructed” and the “natural,” where the market can be made manifest in many guises.  What this meant in practice was that there grew to be a mandate that natural science metaphors must be integrated into the neoliberal narrative. It is noteworthy that MPS [Mont Pelerin Society] members began to explore the portrayal of the market as an evolutionary phenomenon long before biology displaced physics as the premier science in the modern world-picture.  If the market was just an elaborate information processor, so too was the gene in its ecological niche. Poor, unwitting animals turn out to maximize everything under the sun just like neoclassical economic agents, and cognitive science “neuroeconomics” models treat neurons as market participants. “Biopower” is deployed to render nature and our bodies more responsive to market signals. Because of this early commitment, neoliberalism was able to make appreciable inroads into such areas as “evolutionary psychology,” network sociology, ecology, animal ethology, linguistics, cybernetics, and even science studies. Neoliberalism has therefore expanded to become a comprehensive worldview, and has not been just a doctrine solely confined to economists.

Remake Harvard Business School, remake the United States. (Remake the world.)

“…So to the questions of “Where were you, Charlie, when all these storm clouds were gathering?” and “What did you do? What peace marches and protest movements did you join to bring peace and justice to this troubled land?” my answer has to be I was on no firing line but on some ivory-colored cloud— believe it or not— of all places at the B-school, trying to understand who, if anyone, was going to administer all these changes and revolutions that were going on. I shall try hard not to justify this position, but neither do I want it to be discounted. I felt that in my experience there might be some clues, if not solutions, for the future. That is why I continued to write while all hell seemed to be breaking loose around me and when on many occasions I was ready to take the hemlock.”

Fritz Roethlisberger, Hawthorne Studies investigator. 1977.