Monday, May 26, 2008

We are in a new transition, part 1

(also read the article in Chinese, translated by the author himself)

By two parts, I response to the Harmonious Age suggested by Adam Lindemann. In the first part, I describe its philosophy by civilization evolution. In the second part, I explain the impact of this theory to Web industry. This is the first part of my response.

We are experiencing a new transition of civilization in human history. This is the first time since the last industrial revolution from late 18th to early 20th. I do not distinguish the first industrial revolution from the second industrial revolution because the two individual ones are consecutive phases of the same transitional event. After the industrial revolution, human society finished the transition from feudalism to capitalism. At present we are experiencing the next transitional movement from capitalism forward. The destination of this transition is unknown yet, though it seems unlikely to be either socialism or communism. Adam Lindemann prefers the term Harmonious Age to describe the coming new age. Or we may just simply name it the new Web age. If someone is from ivory tower, a likewise academic name may be the mindlist society.

From feudal society to capitalist society

A transitional period of civilization has its symptoms. To understand the symptoms happening at present, however, we need to first understand the symptoms happened before. By comparing the symptoms in last transition to the symptoms at present, we may have better understanding of the present status.

Feudal society was typically known for its overwhelmingly agrarian economy with limited money exchange. Due to the agrarian economy, land was the key asset in feudal society. By tightening people to land, landlords were the ruling class in feudal society. Kings or emperors, normally known to be the biggest landlords, were the society leaders. Feudal nations were ruled by these kings and emperors. In general, every feudal nation simply self-supported itself by its own agrarian economy and there were few economical communication among these feudal nations. The fundamental infrastructure of feudal society is a set of independent kingdoms.

At late 18th, feudal society was coming to its end at global wide. The invention of mass-production machines such as Watt steam engine was the trigger. These inventions appealed liberating humans from land for the sake of the emerging modern industry. Capital gradually replaced land to be the key asset of society. At the same time, it appeared a new class of people---capitalists.

After more than a century of wars and revolutions, capitalists finally defeated landlords to be the ruling class of a newly formed society, which we all know now to be the capitalist society. The owners of industrial corporations (the capitalists) became the leaders of the new society. The leaders of capitalist nations are either capitalists themselves or (more often) the representatives of certain groups of capitalists. There is, however, generally no place for kings or emperors in capitalist society.

Unlike the old-time agrarian economy, modern industrial economy demands close cooperation among varied corporations since no single corporation can just complete support itself without help from other companies. Hence the fundamental infrastructure of capitalist society is a network of mutual-dependent corporations. Unlike the territory of a feudal nation is measured by the size of land, the territory of a capitalist nation is measured by the strength and influence of its capital. For example, Japan is more influential than Brazil and Israel is more influential than Egypt in capitalist economy though the land of the former nations is much smaller than the land of the latter ones.

Ordinary people in capitalist society are tightened to capital instead of land. Every working-class people is first bound to his/her trained profession. The fate of a profession is, however, decided by capital. The professions that help produce more capital are encouraged by the society and thus more people run to take these majors. On the contrary, the professions that do not or no longer help improve capital generation are diminished and thus less people become willing to learn them. By Adam Smith, the flow of capital is the invisible hand which controls all aspects of capitalist society.

The following table summarizes what we have discussed so far.

feudal societycapitalist society
most valuable assetlandcapital
society organizationindependent kingdomsmutual-dependent corporations
society leaderking/emperorcorporation owner

Capital, the wonder and the problems

The rise of capital was a fascinating wonder in history. Capital frees human from the fastening of land. Capitalists demand people to be free of moving from one land to another so that they can have enough opportunities to hire people with certain skill for capital production. In feudal society, this request meant a great deal of freedom to ordinary people. Even until now, this demand is still a crucial piece of the foundation that supports the freedom in capitalist nations. The continuous increase of capital production cannot be promised without this freedom. (US people may need to think more of it with respect to the current immigration debate.)

On the other hand, however, capital is near-sighted and selfish.

Short-term payback is crucial to the flow of capital. The lack of short-term profits can easily kill a long-sighted visionary capitalist without a question. An analogy is probably the best way to explain the reason behind.

If land is solid, capital is liquid. A business oppotunity is a hole on ground. Unless the size of the hole is at least equal to or the better be greater than the size of the solid, we cannot push the solid into the hole (even though there is indeed a hole on ground). By contrast, liquid can easily flow into any hole disregarding of the size and depth of the hole. This difference explains why capitalist society is better than feudal society on producing wealth.

At the same time, however, liquid flow is near-sighted. Liquid immediately flows into the nearest hole. Even if there is another hole that is bigger and deeper but a little bit farther in distance, liquid will not flow into the farther one before it has filled the nearest one. Furthermore, it is not easy for liquid to get out of a filled hole and flow to another. This near-sighted problem of capital has caused many economic disasters in the history of capitalism such as the Great Depression.

Capital is also selfish. In general capitalists only look for the professionals (be note, not necessarily the humans, for example, if robots can do a profession better than humans, capitalists will definitely hire robots but fire humans) that can produce more capital. Except of incremental capital generation, nothing else is more important. Capital serves only itself.

In the job market of capitalist society, ordinary people are always in a passive position comparing to the interest of capital. A job oppotunity in capitalist society is rarely about what an ordinary person want to do. By contrast, it is solely about which profession helps produce more capital. What ordinary people can and should do is to study the skills that are demanded by capital. The value of an employee is determined by how much he can produce capital through his profession. Essentially, capitalism turns humans to be various standard screws that can be flexibly assembled in various assembly lines at anytime and at anywhere. Some screws are expensive to be made (and thus these people can get high salary) while some others are cheap to be made (and thus their salary is low). This is the only difference among all the screws. Capital does not serve for the interest of screws.

In compatible to this capitalism, the modern education system mainly focuses on training scientists and engineers but not thinkers. Scientists and engineers are the various standard screws we have just discussed. Capitalists do not need thinkers who have their own ideas because screws do not need to think beyond their own function.

After the flourishing time of great thinkers from late 18th to early 20th, capitalist society is engaged by plenty of scientists and engineers but fewer thinkers. Moreover, the specialty realm of a particular scientist or engineer becomes narrower and narrower in time. Using our analogue, screws are made more and more for special purpose.

With the advance of technologies, we also start to invent new machines that can replace the function of some special-purpose screws. Hence we start to lose many job opportunities for human employees. For instance, the invention of automatic assembly line has significantly reduced the number of manufacture workers in factories. To the end, if one day machines can satisfactorily take all the job professions, why do we still need human in this world? Or to the least, we only need to have the capitalists live in this world and all the other people become meaningless to this capitalist society.

The advance of a human society is to reduce the meaning of humanity in the society. This is an ironical dilemma in capitalist society. This dilemma is caused by the overlooking of a central issue of human society. The issue is human itself.

Human, the missed issue

Humans are not screws. Although this statement is so simple that even first-grade elementary school students can understand it well, it is so hard in civilization evolution to truly make humanity be the key asset of a society. In fact, we have never succeeded in this goal before.

At feudal society, humans were subordinated to land. Kings obtained people by occupying land. Kings generally did not care individuals but only the total number of people in their land. If a king lost an ordinary John but be replaced by an ordinary Peter. It often did not count a loss (neither a gain) for the king because the humanity of neither John nor Peter was critical. The size of land and how much fertile land they own were more critical issues to the kings.

At capitalist society, humans become subordinated to capital. Capitalists obtain people by occupying capital. Individual professions have become an important criteria to evaluate the value of a person. But still the issue of humanity is not critical. Capitalists would rather to replace a human with a machine immediately only if the machine can do the same profession the human does. The actual willingness of an ordinary John is not a consideration of capital. If one screw no longer fits, just throw it away and replace it with another screw which fits. This is the fundamental philosophy of capitalism.

Isn't it a pity that a human society does not really care of humanity as a first-class asset?

Mind, the asset of humanity

So what is the asset of humanity? To answer this question, let's start with examples.

I am a computer science professional, so I know computers. If I write a program that executes in my computer, I know that it will execute the same way and produce the same answer in the other computers. It is not just computers that have this property. All machines are the same. If we have "educated" (i.e. programmed) a machine to do a function, we can be sure that this machine will do the same thing, no less and no more, all of its life.

Now let's switch to a similar scenario but with different participants. We have a class of students and there is a teacher educates them. Ideally, if the students were machines, after the class we would have a group of students with the same knowledge who could use the knowledge to do the same thing and produce the same answers (since they are taught by the same teacher at the same time in the same place). But we know this is not the case. If the class have 30 students, you can expect 29 (the last one was sleeping at class so he does not count) different ways of using the learned knowledge and having produced varied or even contradictory results.

What is the difference between these students and machines? Humanity. Creativity of human makes everything difference. By pushing identical knowledge into the brains of many people and teaching the same skills to the bodies of these people, we are not producing identical professional workers. By contrast, we can expect countless ways of combining knowledge with skills so that the production could be different from one person to another only because these people are humans. This is the asset of humanity, and thanks to this asset we have our diverse world.

If we are allowed to use only one term to describe this asset of humanity, I choose mind. It is mind that represents the real value of each person. Different people can have the same knowledge and with the same skill. But they still bring the world different production because they are distinct persons. John is not Peter, Peter is not John, and neither of them is a screw. If we allow them freedom, they can produce varied fascinating products for us even if they have the same "profession". This is the value of mind asset.

Unlike capital, the mind asset is long-sighted and generous.

Let's apply our analogy again to explain the long-sighted. If land is solid and capital is liquid, mind is gas. Because it is gas, it can fill everywhere simultaneously disregarding the distance of a hole. A little liquid may fill only one small hole. But a little gas can fill all holes no matter how big they are. This is the power and value of humanity.

Mind is also generous. Land is to produce more land, so we have wars. Capital is to produce more capital, so we have the diminishing of humanity. But mind is to produce more mind. Since mind is the value of humanity, we will have a better harmonious age---which is what Adam Lindemann declares.

Harmonious Age, the future?

If the Harmonious Age is the future, the following table describes the change we will see.

feudal societycapitalist societyharmonious society
most valuable assetlandcapitalmind
society organizationindependent kingdomsmutual-dependent corporationsinteractional mind groups
society leaderking/emperorcorporation ownerthinker

Mind is going to replace capital becoming the key asset in the new society. This replacement does not mean that capital is going to be valueless. Land is still a very much valuable asset in capitalist society. The only difference from feudal society is that land is no longer the key asset. In similar, capital will continue to be very much valuable asset in the coming harmonious society. But capital will no longer be the key asset. In feudal society, people who had land owned capital and mind. In capitalist society, people who have capital own land and mind. In harmonious society, however, people who have mind asset will own capital and land. So the change is the sequence. But everything still has its own value.

Because mind becomes the key asset, the fundamental infrastructure of human society is going to change respectively. Corporations that serve for capital is going to gradually retreated to the secondary place, as in the previous transition nations that serve for land were retreated to be behind corporations. At the same time, new organization forms such as mind groups will start to rise.

A mind group will be a group of people leading by the new-age thinkers. Thinkers at the new age are the ones who know the art of composing various mind to produce. (For example, they are the ones like Adam Lindemann that is simultaneously capable of thinking and practicing.) These mind groups will become the new and most powerful productive forces (term used by Karl Marx and it has an alternative presentation "productive powers of labour" used by Adam Smith) in human society.

In this new society, the role of corporations will change in the similar way as the role of nations has been changed since feudal society.

In capitalist society, corporations belong to nations but at the same time they are independent to nations. Large corporations have their interest cross the border of many nations. The leaders of large corporations have at least the same influential as nation leaders, and they are often even more influential than the leaders of many small countries.

In similar, in harmonious society the mind groups may be bound to corporations but they are also independent to corporations. The memebers in mind groups will be able to decide their own fate but no longer allow corporations to decide their fate alone. Large mind groups can have their interest over varied corporations simultaneously. Great thinkers who are the leaders of large mind groups will be the true society leaders. In capitalist society, nation leaders must get support from capital, and hence the support from capitalists. In harmonious society, both nation leaders and corporation leaders must get support from the leaders of mind groups. Corporation leaders will be elected by the support from mind groups as well as the nation leaders in capitalist country must be elected by the support from companies. Since mind groups represent more free willingness of people, we can see that the control of society is gradually moving back to the hand of normal people.

Is this Harmonious Age indeed the future? Where are the mind groups? More important, how is the mind asset presented? Land is physical (so it is solid) that everybody can see and touch. Capital is not exactly physical but it can be measured by money in our hand (so it is liquid). But what the presentation of mind asset is and how we may use it for production. These are the crucial questions and I am going to address them in Part 2.

However, I will make a few hints here when concluding this Part 1. Commonly agreed, the start of the last society transition was the invention of Watt steam engine by James Watt. This invention made the foundation of the modern industry, which became the platform of the flow of capital. Hence we should expect a similar invention happened if the vision of Harmonious Age is really sound. Indeed, we have one. The new-time Watt steam engine is called World Wide Web, and the new James Watt is named Tim Berners-Lee. We are going to discuss more in Part 2.


gregory said...

i discovered your thinking and writing only today, and i haven't read enough to know all of your dimensions, but, enough to know you have insight and intelligence ...

and this new transition post maybe needs tightening ...

i will offer that you are going to have to take this all the way, from mind, to consciousness ...

some definitions needed at this point to have a coherent conversation, and that can be boring

maybe i will wait until part ii, then tell you what i think ... whether you are interested or not!

Yihong Ding said...


Thank you for all the comments you made. I would be grateful to watch your detailed critics on any opinions I have authored.

Thinking Space is a place let thinking be free and be productive. We are human because we think. The world itself will become different if everybody has the freedom of thinking and may have the ability to embody their mind to productive forces.

Thinkings is the fundamental wealth for each human. The slogan of Harmonious Age, with my belief, is to allow this intrinsic wealth of humans to be a type of explicit asset of human society. Why do we can do this transformation now? Because we now have World Wide Web.


Anonymous said...

I'm also a computer science professional, and I think your examples are ridiculous. Sending the same input to different programs will produce vastly different results, while teaching a class to molecule-by-molecule identical cloned humans will presumably lead them to learn and do identical things. The difference has nothing to do with "humanity" or "creativity".

Yihong Ding said...


Glad to watch different opinions. I do not say that all of my words are correct. In fact, thinking always takes great risk of making mistakes. So I am more than happy to watch critics.

But please continue your thoughts. I am happy to listening to that since you disagree with my conclusion, what is your conclusion then?

If it is not "humanity" or the ability of creating that distinguishes human and machine such as computers, what else is the key difference? Or you may say that there is indeed no difference since humans are machines. Well, I must confess that it is a fair argument though I am kind of disagree with this viewpoint.


Anonymous said...

Well, as far as I can tell, humans are messy, hugely complicated nanotechnological machines. I don't see any reason why future artificial intelligences wouldn't be able to do everything humans can do, but faster and better.

Gene Weng said...

Great post, Yihong!

As we know, capitalist society has lots of problems and is one stage of the long human being history. Most likely, it will not be the final stage. Harmonious society could be the next stage, though only history can tell. "Harmonious" is an attractive name, but I doubt it is a proper name. There will be some force to change a harmonious state to a inharmonious state. By the way, who is Adam Lindemann?

Yihong Ding said...


Thank you. I am glad that you like the post.

As you said, "harmonious" might not be a good name because it is too perfect. Real human society is, however, always imperfect. In person, I have the similar thought too. Hence, just as I wrote at the beginning of this post, I may just simply name it the new Web age, a fairly neutral name. But this name is given by Adam Lindemann. Since I am extending his thought in more details, I adopt his presentation.

About Adam Lindemann. He is both of a thinker and an entrepreneur. In particular, he is planning to build a company called "Imindi". This is his long-term dream that is going to produce a product called Thought Engine that helps Web users organize their mind. He has compelling thoughts about his product. After discussing with me, we found that his thoughts well matched to my vision of Web evolution. Moreover, we have a similar thought about the future, not only the future of the Web, but also the future of our society. (to the end, Web evolution is very closely related to our civilization evolution)

My articles on the topic of Harmonious Age are thus partial of our discussion.


Anonymous said...

Hi Yihong. I think that it might be safer to use the phrase "Mind Age" to refer to the next stage of evolution.

The states of matter to states of society analogy is fundamentally concerned with the manner in which wealth is produced distributed and stored as assets.

The analogy takes us from Solid/Feudal Age through Liquid/Capitalistic Age and we are now in a transition that will lead to Solid/Mind Age.

That said, it is my hope that the Mind Age, for the reasons that I have stated previously, will lead to a more "Harmonious" society.

Anonymous said...

Sorry - I made a confusing typo.

I wrote "we are now in a transition that will lead to Solid/Mind Age"

I obviously meant to write:-

"we are now in a transition that will lead to a Gas/Mind Age"

Yihong Ding said...

Thank you, Adam.

I like your suggestion of naming the new age to be the mind age. As I commented earlier to Gene, "harmonious" might be too perfect to describe a human society since we know that human society has never been and probably will never ever be as perfect as harmony. But to our best wish, we expect that the coming new age would be at least a more harmonious society than any of the previous ones.

Actually mind is an asset in human society with long history. But mind has never been the key asset of society before. In Part 2 I am planning extending my discussion on mind asset and I am looking for discussing more about it with you too.

But anyway, I greatly appreciate your analogy about from Solid/Feudal to Gas/Mind. Great analogy always brings people more originality. I think this analogy indeed solves many puzzles originally in my mind. Suddenly many previous unrelated thoughts become connected together through this brilliant analogy.

I will post the second part of my response soon (I am busy in writing it now). Probably I will make a brief introduction of Imindi in the post too. Hopefully it may help bring a few momentum for the company to move forward.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Yihong. I look forward to part two.


What a coincidence is this. Last week I wrote the similar subject in my personal diary.
I think the similar thought waves are spreading and transforming our planet

Yihong Ding said...

thank you, PADMANABHAN. I am glad that we have the same view of the future. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Do you think that Syria spying on dissidents?