Most everyone reading this is familiar with graph paper. That’s the paper with the little boxes on it. Now, imagine yourself in a world like that graph paper. You are in a room that has four walls and each wall has either a door, a window, or nothing at all. The plain walls range from impenetrable to fairly easy to bust through. You can go through the doors and windows or try to bust through the walls, but you just end up in another room that is a square on the grid. You don’t know what is in each room until you enter it.
Presented with such a puzzle. you could go exploring, looking for the route out of the maze. Let’s make the game more fun and added some dangers in rooms. You will be a lot more cautious about seeing the other rooms. You might take a peek through the door before charging into the next room. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Even without me adding life threatening dangers to the puzzle, your way out of the maze would be trial and error with lots of backtracking. If in your first room you have two doors and those connecting rooms each have two doors, there are four possible outcomes. It is not hard to see how the possible outcomes can multiply quickly.
Now, imagine instead of a simple grid, the maze is like the gaming paper from the 70’s version of Dungeons and Dragons. That’s the hexagonal stuff. Instead of having four choices you now have six options at the start. That means your first decision has thirty possible outcomes. Multiply this out of a few moves and you see how quickly this puzzle becomes very complex. Even after a few moves, you would struggle to retrace your steps without some sort of map.
That last bit is important to understand. Each decision you face is the result of previous decisions. If you make a bad move on step three, but only discover it at step nine, you have an accumulation of bad decisions to contend with before you can get back to the original error. That could be daunting enough to make going backward unrealistic.
The point of this thought experiment is to illustrate how complicated even simple decision trees can become after a few steps. Imagine that each move is decided by a committee that represents the interests of different groups. It’s not just deciding on which box to enter. It is how to decide if that choice was a good choice and then deciding where to go from there.
This is how societies evolve and develop. Even the most autocratic societies make decisions that depend on previous decisions. Kim Jung-un can only choose from the options available to him and those options are the result of decisions made long before he was born. It’s why reductionism should always be dismissed. There’s no great design or plan from which the current actors are working. Every society is playing the hand it is dealt.
This may seem obvious, but analysts are often prone to reductionism, assuming groups are working like individuals. The most obvious example of methodological reductionism is the mythological Zionist conspiracy. Jews are often described as if they are working collectively from a game plan worked out at annual retreats. The reality is that Jews, like everyone else, are working within the constraints placed on them by history. Jews just happen to be smarter than everyone else, on average.
Going back to our puzzle analogy, imagine that instead of a puzzle you can transcend, the hexagon in which you and your tribe exist is where you have always lived, at least in your lifetime. Maybe some of the elders remember a time when your people lived in an adjacent hex. Perhaps your mythology and creation myths talk about some hex at the beginning that lies well beyond anyone’s ability to reach.
In other words, instead of a puzzle into which you were dropped, it is where you have always lived. To you and your people it is not a puzzle. You have no idea it is a puzzle because you lack the perspective to see it that way. Instead, it is your world in the same way the tank is the world as far as the goldfish knows. Leaving the hex, you are in for the adjacent hex is not in pursuit of the way out, because there is no way out.
Now, necessity from time to time will require you and maybe some others to pick up and explore an adjacent square. You have to try something new because the status quo becomes untenable or there is some hope that greater opportunity lies beyond the hex you currently occupy. Again, the options available to you and your clan are the result of similar decisions made in previous generations. History is a nightmare from which you can never awake
Societal evolution may be accretive, but it also happens in fits and starts. If you and everyone you knew were suddenly under some pressure to think about moving to the next hex, some of you could decide to go even further. The need for change opens up a range of choices that were previously off limits. If you’re going to make a change, why not a big change?
We see this in our own lives. When I was a boy, television was a box in the living room and my father cursing on the roof, adjusting the antennae. I recall going with him to the hardware store so he could use the tester to determine which vacuum tubes were dead. In the blink of an eye, I can now watch TV on my mobile phone that has the processing power of the space shuttle.
The thing is my experience with TV as a boy was not all that different from the previous generation’s experience. Kids in the decades after World War II had a consistent material life up into the 80’s and then things started to change rapidly with the microprocessor. The kids of today can’t imagine a world in the old hex of console television, rabbit ears and rooftop antennae.
Think about it. In the 1980’s the fax machine was a whizzbang invention. By the last decade it was obsolete. A decade ago, tapping on a monochrome screen was cutting edge. Today no one remembers the Palm. At the same time, the telephone of 1950 was still in use in most homes in the 1980’s. We think the pace of change today will continue, but history says it will slow to a crawl for a while and then another period of rapid advance, long after we are dead.
The journey of a person, a tribe or a nation is just feeling around in the dark, mostly out of necessity, looking for a solution to current problems. There is no grand plan. The story of humanity in the aggregate and the particular is a random walk. Assigning motives beyond temporary necessity and accident, is reductionism, a structural error in thinking.