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The Long Run is Getting Shorter

Technology  ✺  Religion

On technological acceleration and St. Augustine's City of God

St. Augustine says there are two cities: The City of God and the City of Man.

The distinction is not abstract. These are different groups of people hurdling in different directions, and their divergence is accelerating due to digital technology.

Consider, for instance, how you would respond to a media scandal that involved a false allegation against you.

If you are a member of the Earthly City, then media slander would have a profound effect on your well-being, your sense of self-worth, your sense of identity and so forth. It's a massive problem. It will make you sad, discouraged, you'll feel as if your worth or value is suddenly decreasing.

In the Earthly City, all that matters is the order of institutionalized appearances. There is nothing outside the social hierarchies.

Whereas those who live in the City of God will find media slander only briefly annoying. If it's false, then it simply won't matter in the long run. The long run is the only real run. If it doesn't matter sub specie aeternitatis, it doesn't matter at all.

The City of God is composed of those who believe that no amount of earthly power can override the order of reality beneath all appearances.

It would be a mistake to call this an article of faith, which is what one is inclined to call it from the vantage point of the Earthly City. "Perhaps those in the City of God believe that media slander does not matter in the long run because they have faith in God, but that doesn't mean, necessarily, that media slander does not matter." This viewpoint fails to comprehend the radical fact of the matter.

Exponential Satanism: Girard and Digital Technology
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It is not that the City of God has faith that the objective truth ultimately overwrites human lies, this is a self-flattering mistake popular in the City of Man. It is rather that, objectively, the truth always, necessarily—almost mathematically—overwrites human lies in the long run; the City of God has faith that the long run will eventually run. The City of Man has faith that its own earthly power is capable of maintaining whatever short-term imbalances it prefers, forever. Both cities operate in the same universe, and both operate on faith.

The City of God is the group who thinks, speaks, and acts as if the long-run equilibrium is more real than whatever short-term fluctuation happens to characterize the present.

If the two cities seem abstract and metaphysical, it is only necessary to look around, to see an increasingly observable bifurcation in Western society. Citizens of the two cities respond in profoundly different ways to identical events, so their lives and communities will enjoy increasingly different results.

Digital technology renders St. Augustine’s model more observable because it speeds up the consequences of technological innovations (including innovations in social technologies, i.e. any community-wide behavioral change). In St. Augustine’s time, the long-run tendency of a particular technological or social innovation might take hundreds of years to show up. In our epoch, the same change might take a decade to show up.

Internet tribes function as so many laboratory experiments. Not only is there acceleration in time-to-consequence, but we have many different communities introducing novel attitudinal and behavioral manipulations and publishing the results over time. No doubt these are highly imperfect laboratories, but much more so than ever in history, we can watch what happens to a group when they all suddenly decide think, act, and live in some unique direction. Temporal acceleration and differentiated, public community experimentation together mean that the practical logic of human flourishing and withering has never been more amenable to rational comprehension—it has never been more revealed.

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If correct, this perspective would shed light on some other puzzles as well.

For instance, this is one way to understand prophetic and millenarian language in historical Christianity, as a natural, pre-modern way to model and convey long-term theoretical expectations that are valid but hard to quantify and hard to prove, especially when the long-term implications might take longer than a lifespan to show up.

Another example. It is hard to think of any other explanation for why Christians are significantly overrepresented among early adopters of Bitcoin and Urbit. As sound money and sound computing, respectively, Bitcoin and Urbit were intrinsically attractive to those who live in the City of God, well before they accrued economic value in the eyes of man. Christians therefore flocked early, and only incidentally have they been handsomely rewarded, in the ever-shortening duration between technological shocks and their equilibrations.

You can bend the fabric of reality, but it will snap back faster than ever.

Similarly, you can move early toward the long-run destination of reality, before others realize it (before it pays to do so), but you’ll reap the benefits sooner than ever.

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