Promethean > Pastoralist

One way to understand the shift from credentialist to hacker modes of social organization, via young people acquiring technological leverage, is through the mythological tale of Prometheus stealing fire from the heavens for human use.

The legend of Prometheus has been used as a metaphor for technological progress at least since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus. Technologies capable of eating the world typically have a Promethean character: they emerge within a mature social order (a metaphoric “heaven” that is the preserve of older elites), but their true potential is unleashed by an emerging one (a metaphoric “earth” comprising creative marginal cultures, in particular youth cultures), which gains relative power as a result. Software as a Promethean technology emerged in the heart of the industrial social order, at companies such as AT&T, IBM and Xerox, universities such as MIT and Stanford, and government agencies such as DARPA and CERN. But its Promethean character was unleashed, starting with the early hacker movement, on the open Internet and through Silicon-Valley style startups.

As a result of a Promethean technology being unleashed, younger and older face a similar dilemma: should I abandon some of my investments in the industrial social order and join the dynamic new social order, or hold on to the status quo as long as possible?

Source: Breaking Smart: Getting Reoriented

A basic divide in the world of technology is between those who believe humans are capable of significant change, and those who believe they are not. Prometheanism is the philosophy of technology that follows from the idea that humans can, do and should change. Pastoralism, on the other hand is the philosophy that change is profane. The tension between these two philosophies leads to a technology diffusion process characterized by a colloquial phrase popular in the startup world: first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

A thriving frontier of constant tinkering and diverse value systems must exist somewhere in the world.

The result is a virtuous cycle of increasing serendipity, driven by widespread lifestyle adaptation and cascades of self-improving innovation. Surplus and spillover creating more surplus and spillover. Brad deLong’s slouching towards utopia for consumers and Edmund Phelps’ mass flourishing for producers. And when the virtuous cycle is powered by a soft, world-eating technology, the steady, cumulative impact is immense.

Like purist software visions, pastoralist visions too are marked by an obsessive desire to permanently win a specific, zero-sum finite game rather than to keep playing the non-zero-sum infinite game.

When the allure of pastoralist visions is resisted, and the virtuous cycle is allowed to work, we get Promethean progress. This is unpredictable evolution in the direction of maximal societal impact, unencumbered by limiting deterministic visions. Just as the principle of rough consensus and running code creates great software, consumer surplus and spillover effects create great societies.  Just as pragmatic and purist development models lead to serendipity and zemblanity in engineering respectively, Promethean and pastoral models lead to serendipity and zemblanity at the level of entire societies.

Source: Breaking Smart: Prometheans and Pastoralists

At the center of any pastoral we find essentialized notions of what it means to be human, like Adam and Eve or William Whyte’s Organization Man, arranged in a particular social order (patriarchal in this case). From these archetypes we get to pure and virtuous idealized lifestyles. Lifestyles that deviate from these understandings seem corrupt and vice-driven. The belief that “people don’t change” is at once an approximation and a prescription: people should not change except to better conform to the ideal they are assumed to already approximate. The belief justifies building technology to serve the predictable and changeless ideal and labeling unexpected uses of technology degenerate.

We get attached to pastorals because they offer a present condition of certainty and stability and a utopian future promise of absolutely perfected certainty and stability. Arrival at the utopia seems like a well-deserved reward for hard-won Promethean victories. Pastoral utopias are where the victors of particular historical finite games hope to secure their gains and rest indefinitely on their laurels. The dark side, of course, is that pastorals also represent fantasies of absolute and eternal power over the fate of society: absolute utopias for believers that necessarily represent dystopias for disbelievers. Totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century, such as communism and fascism, are the product of pastoral mindsets in their most toxic forms. The Jeffersonian pastoral was a nightmare for black Americans.

When pastoral fantasies start to collapse under the weight of their own internal contradictions, long-repressed energies are unleashed. The result is a societal condition marked by widespread lifestyle experimentation based on previously repressed values. To those faced with a collapse of the World Fairs pastoral project today, this seems like an irreversible slide towards corruption and moral decay.

Source: Breaking Smart: The Allure of Pastoralism

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