Like many who read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, as well as his other works, thoughts on the topic of Psychohistory came to mind in watching Apple’s new TV series called Foundation. To call the series a “reimagining” would be far too polite a way to put it, but it is only a footnote in this. The interesting thing isn’t really about Asimov or Apple, but rather how the concept of “Psychohistory” (which desperately needs renaming) isn’t so far-fetched when placed within the context of a metaorganism’s internal operation.
Evolutionary history shows a long and repeating pattern of increasing scale and complexity, with each increase requiring new levels of cooperation, producing new metaorganisms from what were once separate organisms, like the first mitochondria becoming part of the first eukaryotic cells, forming the basis for much of the life on Earth. A metaorganism from the human perspective is much the same, forming a symbiotic relationship with something larger than oneself, endosymbiosis.
The difference for humanity right now is that the next leap forward can produce not only one new level of metaorganism, but several, each nested within the others, all the way up to a global scale. Thanks to many technological leaps taking place across the past century humanity is now equipped to reach this new stage of evolution.
The world today already has many of the connections required of a metaorganism, sufficient complexity, and scale to make this possible, but there is one fundamental problem. Humanity is focused on competition, rather than cooperation, which makes it more like a very diseased metaorganism today. Absent reaching those new levels of cooperation humanity’s extinction remains a virtual certainty, but fortunately, reality isn’t one of Asimov’s books, so I’m not planning for extinction or 1,000 years of barbarism.
Let us say that humanity decides to survive, learns to cooperate in new ways and at scale, forming a metaorganism. Metaorganisms function because they cooperate, with individual parts specializing over time, increasing in their performance, reliability, and health. This process is inherently predictable, at least to the degree of understanding what the near future is likely to look like. Though some have mistakenly feared stagnation, this form of predictability is one of continuous growth and increasing understanding.
Sounds a lot like the concept of Psychohistory doesn’t it?
The difference is that this process doesn’t work very well in a diseased system, as was the case in Asimov’s Foundation series. Perhaps at the scale of tens of thousands of star systems and with a largely stagnant recorded history spanning thousands of years, you could produce some broad strokes predictions, but in practice, such a primitive form of society couldn’t accomplish the formation of such civilization, let alone maintain it for thousands of years. Of course, Asimov eventually reached a form of the same conclusion, that the formation of a metaorganism was the path to securing humanity’s future in the universe. Humanity doesn’t scale well, but it can form metaorganisms that do.
A metaorganism has to develop a very good model of itself, continuing to improve and evolve, adjusting to changes in the environment, and even adapting the environment much like a beaver builds a dam or a human builds a home. Such a metaorganism must by necessity develop predictive capacities worthy of the term Psychohistory in relation to its own internal function. Much as I know when I’m likely to be sleepy, or hungry, or when I need to take a break, such a metaorganism may understand when and where new technologies need to be deployed, how financial markets will react, when staff may need to relocate, and how best to repair and update existing systems.
The best way to know the future is to design it, and the best way to know the global future is to be a part of the metaorganism designing it.
Disclaimer: I approach this topic knowing full well that I’ll be teasing David in using the term Psychohistory, which I don’t recommend for the general population. Unless you can deliver, use this term at your own peril.