Sunday, February 22, 2009

Kurt Vonnegut Saw This Coming

. . . or something like it, anyway, in his 1985 novel, Galápagos:

The thing was, though: When James Wait got there, a worldwide financial crisis, a sudden revision of human opinions as to the value of money and stocks and bonds and mortgages and so on, bits of paper, had ruined the tourist business not only in Ecuador but practically everywhere.
* * *
Mexico and Chile and Brazil and Argentina were likewise bankrupt — and Indonesia and the Philippines and Pakistan and India and Thailand and Italy and Ireland and Belgium and Turkey. Whole nations were suddenly . . . unable to buy with their paper money and coins, or their written promises to pay later, even the barest essentials. Persons with anything life sustaining to sell, fellow citizens as well as foreigners, were refusing to exchange their goods for money. They were suddenly saying to people with nothing but paper representations of wealth, "Wake up, you idiots! Whatever made you think paper was so valuable?"
* * *
The financial crisis, which could never happen today, was simply the latest in a series of murderous twentieth century catastrophes which had originated entirely in human brains.

As it plays out in Galápagos, rioting, civil war, starvation and disease follow, and in the end (or rather, the beginning, as Vonnegut's ghost-of-a-narrator, Leon Trotsky Trout, tells the tale from a million years into the future) the last humans left alive are a gang of tourists, Ecuadoran refugees, and a ship's crew who find themselves shipwrecked on the island of Santa Rosalia in the Galápagos archipelago (say that five times fast). A million years later, these humans' descendants have evolved flippers and substantially smaller brains — advancements that, in the narrator-ghost's view, leave them much improved on their twentieth-century progenitors.

Did Vonnegut have it right? The last year has shown us Homo sapiens sapiens's capacity to outwit itself — and we find the fallout right where Vonnegut placed it two dozen years ago — in the delusional world of high finance. Could it be that our brains really are too big for our own good?

I think Kurt oversimplifies things a bit. If there's a big evolutionary flaw in the species, it's not that our brains are too big. It's that certain areas of our brains are overdeveloped, at the expense of others. The Ancient Greeks had two words for knowledge: tekne and sophia; these terms roughly correspond to "know-how" and "wisdom." It seems to me our tekne tends to get out ahead of our sophia, usually by about a decade or two. It's the tekne in us that enables us to develop intricate, destructive works of artifice like the atomic bomb and the collateralized debt obligation, and only years later does our sophia show us how our celebrated tekne has worked us into a corner. If only the sophia side of our big brains were more advanced, we might find ourselves in better stead.

It ought to be a sign unto us that the world's foremost economic minds (our vaunted "technocrats") crapped out in predicting the present state of affairs, but a wicked Juvenalian satirist like Vonnegut (a "philosopher?") saw it all coming as far back as the 1980s. Somewhere Vonnegut's own ghost is narrating today's events to a chuckling audience — and my guess is that he's taking no prisoners in the telling.

Love ya, Kurt.


Mithridates said...

Of course, a "sophisticate" like you is convinced that the technological advances of the past decades have been net destructive. But information (and other) technology has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, unlike the marxist philosophies that had crippled them for so long. And what if the Europeans who had out-philosophized us by coming up with fascism first, had also beaten us to the atom-bomb technology?

Your contempt for the excesses and arrogance of the financial services industry (present company excluded) is justified. Your admiration for the philosophers is misguided.

Phutatorius said...

I'm not arguing for technology (conventional meaning) over philosophy (conventional meaning). I'm arguing for wisdom to keep page with know-how. The Germans had some pretty terrific tanks (strong on teknos) but had some lousy ideas (weak on sophia).

The country that doesn't come up with fascism is the country with more sophia. Duh. Jihadists have a philosophy, to be sure. They're just lacking in wisdom. And the better their know-how gets, the more dangerous they are. The danger lies in the gap. Just because you have a philosophy doesn't mean you have wisdom. When I described Vonnegut as a "philosopher," I didn't say so because he was an "ideas man" — I said so because on occasion (and specifically here) he has come off as wise.

You're putting too much weight on the wordplay in my parentheticals.

Mithridates said...

Oh, fair enough. Stop killing my buzz. I was having fun putting italics in my comments.

So Vonnegut is wise because he predicted what exactly? That at some point in the future there might be a shake-up of the finance industry? That at some point in the future there might be a big bust? What exactly is the great wisdom he demonstrates?

Because he didn't get it right, at all. We're in a big recession (at least comparable to the 1982 one) and there's a shake-up (and hopefully permanent shrinking) of the financial services industry, but it's just a correction. A big one, sure, but we'll refocus our investment and energy on better things and come out better and stronger. We need the occasional shake-up like this to refocus our priorities. But your boy is wrong on the main point. Certain things were over-valued. Now they're not. Life moves on. That's all.

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