Thursday, January 15, 2009


Bruce Sterling quotes a study into state failure which - counter-intuitively - puts Iceland and Canada at the top of the list of stable polities. It's worse than that, though; they reckon Hungary is superstable , and they're in the middle of an epic bank-currency-credit-mortgage crisis which has metastatised into a panic call to the IMF.

But perhaps it makes more sense than that. Despite Iceland's spectacular financial panic and sovereign bankruptcy, despite Canada's critical segmentation fault on the distributed queenship node, nothing very terrible has happened. The social fabric holds. Rival mortar teams do not exchange fire over Parliament Hill, the citizens of Reyjavik are not fighting with sharpened CDs over the last can of dog meat.

Perhaps that phrase, the social fabric, ought to be thought of differently. It implies threads straining over some sort of appalling national gut, bulging with the blows of irreconcilable interests, or rotting in the depths of a public crotch out of pure sin. What if it was the wind that tries the social fabric? When it's just on the point of flapping you know you're sailing to windward at optimal efficiency, thrashing forward under the gusts.

After all, what does the word stability mean? Stability isn't immobility or size or mass; it's an active, agile thing. A stable ship is one that rolls back onto an even keel after being knocked down; a stable aircraft will tend to trim correctly if you take your hands off the stick. A stable operating system will catch and handle errors rather than crash. A stable personality is someone who is capable of recovery from trauma, not someone who is incapable of emotion.

And usually, stability is actually in opposition to authority; try to design a ship that never rolls, and you usually have one that will be a floating hell in a real storm. Try to design such an OS, and you have... Everyone who thought that the best army would be the most obedient has lost since the Napoleonic wars.

Upshot; we need fewer Stability Pacts and more stable control loops.


Graydon said...

I think the cold really does have something to do with it. Everybody knows in their bones that if civilization fails they can just die of the lack.

I think -- cannot begin to prove, but think -- that this encourages the notion of ownership, in the "this is my country and I'm responsible for it" sense.

Note that neoconservatives hate that one. They want to make ownership strictly a matter of tangible property; no general obligation to the common weal. (Which is, typically, not any more difficult than being polite, picking up bits of dry trash on the subway, and rarely asking people if they're OK when they're sitting on a bench in the park looking peaked. We're generally lucky enough these days that we don't have to stand in the shield wall very often.)

On control loops, have you read any Stafford Beer? He was deeply fascinated with this problem.

Anonymous said...

Graydon, I was about to advise Alex to add a Stafford Beer tag to this, when you beat me to it.

As for cold and stability, Iceland was just as cold in the ninth century, and socially cohesive it wasn't.

The Netherlands, with the immense power of the waterstaat, might be a similar point of comparison.

Chris Williams

Alex said...

Graydon: try these posts!

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