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An incredible example of societal collapse

Update: commenters have pointed out some issues with the research of Colin Turnbull, who studied the Ik in the 1960s after a famine. Criticism of his work is summarised here.


For what seems like obvious reasons, my thoughts have turned towards civilizational collapse recently. As a result, I picked up a copy of a book entitled The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter. It’s in the same vein, although slightly more academic, than Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

As a self-identified left-libertarian, I’m sympathetic towards anarchist philosophy and the right of people to be free from state interference. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, so I’ll not get into it in too much depth now, but suffice to say that it makes this book an interesting read!

In the first chapter of the book, Tainter gives numerous examples of societal collapse, which he defines as happening when a society “displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity”. As such, it encompasses not only the Roman and Mayan empires, which we’ve all heard of, but also many that we (or at least I) have not.

I wanted to share one example in full, because it blew my mind that people could live in this way, without the normal social bonds. What I find particularly interesting are the hints that things have not always been this way, due to clan names and the choice to live in villages.

The Ik are a people of northern Uganda who live at what must surely be the extreme of deprivation and disaster. A largely hunting and gathering people who have in recent times practiced some crop planting, the Ik are not classifiable as a complex society in the sense of Chapter 2. They are, nonetheless, a morbidly fascinating case of collapse in which a former, low level of social complexity has essentially disappeared.

Due to drought and disruption by national boundaries of the traditional cycle of movement, the Ik live in such a food- and water-scarce environment that there is absolutely no advantage to reciprocity and social sharing. The Ik, in consequence, display almost nothing of what could be considered societal organization. They are so highly fragmented that most activities, especially subsistence, are pursued individually. Each Ik will spend days or weeks on his or her own, searching for food and water. Sharing is virtually nonexistent. Two siblings or other kin can live side-by-side, one dying of starvation and the other well nourished, without the latter giving the slightest assistance to the other. The family as a social unit has become dysfunctional. Even conjugal pairs don’t form a cooperative unit except for a few specific purposes. Their motivation for marriage or cohabitation is that one person can’t build a house alone. The members of a conjugal pair forage alone, and do not share food. Indeed, their foraging is so independent that if both members happen to be at their residence together it is by accident.

Each conjugal compound is stockaded against the others. Several compounds together form a village, but this is a largely meaningless occurrence. Villages have no political functions or organization, not even a central meeting place.

Children are minimally cared for by their mothers until age three, and then are put out to fend for themselves. This separation is absolute. By age three they are expected to find their own food and shelter, and those that survive do provide for themselves. Children band into age-sets for protection, since adults will steal a child’s food whenever possible. No food sharing occurs within an age-set. Groups of children will forage in agricultural fields, which scares off birds and baboons. This is often given as the reason for having children.

Although little is known about how the Ik got to their present situation, there are some indications of former organizational patterns. They possess clan names, although today these have no structural significance. They live in villages, but these no longer have any political meaning. The traditional authority structure of family, lineage, and clan leaders has been progressively weakened. It appears that a Although little is known about how the Ik got to their present situation, there are some indications of former organizational patterns. They possess clan names, although today these have no structural significance. They live in villages, but these no longer have any political meaning. The traditional authority structure of family, lineage, and clan leaders has been progressively weakened. It appears that a former level of organization has simply been abandoned by the Ik as unprofitable and unsuitable in their present distress (Turnbull 1978).

Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies

One of my reasons for sharing this is that what’s portrayed here is often how ‘anarchy’ is painted by those who have a vested in the status quo; as the utter breakdown in political, economic, and social relations.

I don’t think this is the case, and in fact I have a feeling that Tainter is likely to argue that one of the reasons for societal collapse is over-centralisation. After all, decentralisation is always more resilient. We’ll see.


This post is Day 43 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Deleting my Patreon account

After building up 50+ supporters via Patreon over the past couple of years, I’ve decided to delete my account. While it’s been a nice way to have a fund of money to then pay out to some of my favourite creators, that’s no longer enough reason to keep open my account.

What does this mean for Thought Shrapnel? I’m not sure. I want to keep something there, perhaps in a similar format to Aaron Davis’ Read Write Collect, or Tom Armitage’s Infovore. We’ll see.

I think I’ll continue sending out the newsletter, but probably in a slightly different format. Readership hasn’t been growing of late, which is usually a sign that either I haven’t been putting enough effort in, it’s not quite good enough for people to share, or both.


This post is Day 40 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Changing desktop environment in Pop!_OS

I’ve used many different distributions of GNU/Linux over the last (gosh!) 23 years, from Red Hat Linux as a 16 year-old through Mandrake, Fedora, Ubuntu, elementaryOS, and now Pop!_OS.

No matter which distribution you use, there are an infinite number of ways to customise Linux. One of the easiest ways to do this is to change desktop environment. The gallery at the Wikipedia page on desktop environments shows the sheer diversity of approaches in offer.

Not only do desktop environments change the look and feel of operating systems, they also affect the amount of resources being used, and therefore how responsive your system feels in practice.

I like the default desktop environment in Pop!_OS but I’m always experimenting with my setup to improve it. So when I stumbled across this page on the System76 website (the people behind Pop!_OS) I decided to give other desktop environments a try.

It’s important to inform those who have never tried this that all that’s happening here is a change in the final layer between you and the operating system. As such, your files remain untouched, and all of your browser settings (for example) remain the same. In fact, you could change desktop environments every time you logged on, should you wish.

I tried KDE Plasma again and Cinnamon, the latter being the default desktop environment from Linux Mint. I followed the instructions from System76 and everything was very straightforward. Next time I logged in the options were there at the bottom-right.

I’m sticking with Cinnamon for now, as it feels snappy and is aesthetically pleasing. The great thing is that, should I change my mind, I can just switch to another one without having to reinstall the whole operating system!


This post is Day 39 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Strengths and schooling

In a recent short post Seth Godin talks about amplifying your strengths rather than focusing on your weaknesses:

People don’t hire you, buy from you or recommend you because you’re indifferently average and well rounded.

Seth Godin

He’s talking about things from a business standpoint, but as a parent and former teacher, I can’t help but think about developing strengths from a learning and developmental point of view.

These things seem obvious to me:

  1. There is a baseline that societies can and should expect most people to achieve.
  2. People are born with different innate interests and tendencies.
  3. The context and environment in which people are raised affects what they find interesting.

As a result, it appears to me that following a broad and balanced curriculum up to a certain baseline would seem like the best approach for educational institutions. Beyond that, it makes sense for people to specialise based on their interests.

People develop at varying rates in different areas due to the three points listed above. That’s why I think we should allow young people to mix between year groups for different subjects, using an approach some people call “stage, not age”.

Imagine if we truly allowed people to follow their interests? Wouldn’t the ability to do so motivate young people more than the current system? Right now, educational authorities’ focus on exam results leads to the narrowing of curricula and the limiting of options.

It’s fashionable to say that we have a industrial education system for a post-industrial economy. That’s confusing means with ends. My argument would instead be that we have an education system focused mainly on the priorities of politicians and employers. What would a more community-centered vision for education look like?

Writing in 1971, Ivan Illich discussed in Deschooling Society the importance of learners finding others who share their interests so they can learn together and solve problems:

Creative, exploratory learning requires peers currently puzzled about the same terms or problems. Large universities make the futile attempt to match them by multiplying their courses, and they generally fail since they are bound to curriculum, course structure, and bureaucratic administration. In schools, including universities, most resources are spent to purchase the time and motivation of a limited number of people to take up predetermined problems in a ritually defined setting. The most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern.

Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society

Now that we have the internet, of course, the ability to find like-minded people is easier than ever before. Nevertheless, there is something immensely powerful about working within a shared geographical context.

This is why I return time and again to Chapter 8 of Keri Facer’s 2011 book Learning Futures, where she outlines what the ‘future-building school’ of the future might look like. I love the way that it manages to respect the specialist pedagogical skills available through schools, with the latent knowledge and talent available through communities:

Although half of the children’s time is scheduled in advance with master classes, tutorials or group learning programmes, one-fifth of their time, even from the youngest age, is dedicated to working on their own projects. The remainder is dedicated to collaborative and community projects where children seek out areas they want to work on together – whether this is exploring a new form of material that has just been developed in one of the labs upstairs, or in solving the problems of a particular group of local residents. Conversations with mentors at the beginning of each week allow the children to discuss their progress and their plans and to manage the different demands of projects and learning programmes. In these conversations, each child’s resource map comes into play. This rich map of their experiences, progress, interests and aspirations, as well as the resources that they have to draw upon at home, in the community and in their family, acts as a basis for identifying both where additional support might be needed and where the child and their family may have particular strengths and interests to share with collaborators or the wider school.

Keri Facer, Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change

Given that the pandemic has put the lie to parents needing to travel to work every day, I think mass remote working in future could lead to this kind of situation happening in the next decade. We just need the will to change the system.


This post is Day 32 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Climate ch-ch-ch-changes

I can remember as a child my mother picking blackberries while waiting to pick me up from school. They’d appear just before ‘blackberry week’ which was literally the name people gave to October half-term.

Now, 30 years later, blackberries appear around 10 weeks earlier here, ready to be picked in mid-August. That makes for tasty summer holiday desserts, but leaves me slightly concerned about the pace of climate change.

In the last week, we’ve had scorching hot weather in the UK, followed by intense thunderstorms which led to flooding that derailed a train.

Of course, things are worse on many fronts elsewhere; there are plenty of people, especially refugees, who are desperate to seek asylum in our country. Yet, instead of thinking in a joined-up way about the global climate emergency and the effect it will have on migration over the next 30 years, the inept UK government sends in the Royal Navy.

Within my lifetime, those in charge have missed so many opportunities to steer us of disaster, meaning that now we haven’t got long to avert climate catastrophe. I just hope that elections over the next few years replace the emotional toddlers we’ve got running the show with some grown-ups committed to action.


This post is Day 31 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Moving Mastodon instance

This is a short post to say that today I’ve migrated my Mastodon account to Fosstodon. This is an instance of the Fediverse which describes itself in the following way:

Fosstodon is an English speaking Mastodon instance that is open to anyone who is interested in technology; particularly free & open source software.

At the time of writing, there are 11.7k accounts on Fosstodon, compared with 529k on Mastodon.social which I’m migrating away from after a couple of years. Before that I was a member of Social.coop.

The great thing about the Fediverse is that it’s never a binary decision; you can move between the instances that comprise it when either you change or the something changes with the instance. The wonderful thing about moving between Mastodon instances is that there’s an automated account migration procedure, so you don’t lose followers.

I’ve been considering moving for a while, but someone shared a video today which tipped me over the edge. Watch it, even if you have no idea what I’ve been talking about so far. It reminded me of how much I missed having a ‘local timeline’ of like-minded people and feeling part of a community.

I’ll be settling into my new Fediverse account over the coming days and weeks. Thanks to those who I’ve already been interacting with on Fosstodon via the #100DaysToUnload challenge, I already feel at home!


This post is Day 30 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Herd immunity for privacy

Self-hosting is the holy grail for privacy advocates. And I don’t mean having a VPS hosted for you somewhere; I mean having your server physically located on your own premises.

Messaging, including email, is particularly important when it comes to privacy. Now, there are three reasons I choose not to run my own email server:

  1. I have no desire to be a sysadmin, and these things can be fiddly to set up and subject to downtime.
  2. Due to the preponderance of spam, the big players have developed procedures and policies making it difficult for self-hosters to get their emails delivered.
  3. If my focus is privacy, well almost everyone else I will contact uses Google, Microsoft or Apple, meaning Big Tech will get my data anyway.

The third point is an important one to dwell upon, and is the reason why I continue to argue for privacy even in the midst of a pandemic. I can take all the defensive actions I like, but if my family and friends don’t change their practices, then I’m going to get diminishing returns.

In addition to the email example above, consider the following scenarios:

  • Images — you have to be part of a social network to stop people being able to tag you, which is a bit of a dilemma if someone tags me in a photograph on Facebook or Instagram (where I don’t have an account)
  • Location — when I travel, I’m often with family or friends so if they’re sharing their location, my location is also being shared.
  • Tracking — when using shared computers it’s not difficult for Big Tech to associate accounts coming from the same residential IP address to make inferences .

This all might sound a bit tinfoil hat, but privacy is the reason we have curtains on our windows and why we don’t tell everyone what we’re doing all of the time.

I realise that we can’t turn the clock back, and goodness know privacy advocates have made some missteps along the way. But now we live in a world where both governments and Big Tech have a vested interest in the general public lacking what I’d call ‘herd immunity for privacy’.

So although it seems like somewhat of a futile task at times, I’ll continue to pragmatically protect my own privacy, and encourage those around me to do likewise.


This post is Day 26 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Identity, obedience, and social media

One of the things I find invidious about social media is the ‘norming’ that happens at scale. People are simultaneously performing for others and conforming to their status as member of a particular group.

Identity is important. It’s the way we understand the world around us and our place in it. It’s also a fluid construct that changes over time. That’s why groups have a vested interest in ensuring that either their members change to conform to a shared group identity (usually) or the shared group identity changes to reflect the times (rarely).

One way of thinking about group formation is in terms of customs and habits of that group, but also, as Michel de Montaigne’s best friend pointed out, voluntary servitude:

Nevertheless it is clear enough that the powerful influence of custom is in no respect more compelling than in this, namely, habituation to subjection.

Etienne de La Boétie, The Politics of Obedience

We are all born into groups which define our reality, becoming habituated to the subjection imposed by them. Sometimes by accident, often due to some form of crisis, we find our way out of them and discover a world we didn’t previously know existed.

Let us therefore admit that all those things to which he is trained and accustomed seem natural to man and that only that is truly native to him which he receives with his primitive, untrained individuality. Thus custom becomes the first reason for voluntary servitude. Men are like handsome race horses who first bite the bit and later like it, and rearing under the saddle a while soon learn to enjoy displaying their harness and prance proudly beneath their trappings. Similarly men will grow accustomed to the idea that they have always been in subjection, that their fathers lived in the same way; they will think they are obliged to suffer this evil, and will persuade themselves by example and imitation of others, finally investing those who order them around with proprietary rights, based on the idea that it has always been that way.

Etienne de La Boétie, The Politics of Obedience

As I approach 40, I’m determined to check ways in which I’m acting in ways that could be considered servile. And remove them from my life.


This post is Day 23 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Lies and misinformation

[L]et us also notice something: the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New Republic, New York, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, and the London Times all have paywalls. Breitbart, Fox News, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, InfoWars: free!

[…]

Possibly even worse is the fact that so much academic writing is kept behind vastly more costly paywalls. A white supremacist on YouTube will tell you all about race and IQ but if you want to read a careful scholarly refutation, obtaining a legal PDF from the journal publisher would cost you $14.95, a price nobody in their right mind would pay for one article if they can’t get institutional access.

Nathan J. Robinson, The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free (Current Affairs)

I pay monthly for access to The Guardian on my smartphone. I could access it for free, but the advertising annoys me, and I want to support their journalism.

Now that I’ve deactivated my Twitter account, it’s the main place I get access to political news. I don’t use Facebook or Instagram, and I’m well aware of the radical left-wing stance of most people I follow on Mastodon.

For me, the problem is not lies per se, but misinformation. There’s certainly a subset of the population either gullible enough or brainwashed enough to believe untruths. What’s more pernicious is the misinformation spread via social networks, often around the intent of various political actors. I can do without this.

For the last decade or so, I’ve taken at least a month off every year from blogging and social media. What I tend to find is that I revert to a more centrist position after this period, and that I replace a lot of the time I usually spend on social media reading history and non-fiction instead.

The answer to our epidemic of misinformation is not 20th century-style ‘information literacy’ resources. Instead, what we need to give people is a real grounding in Humanities, a range of subjects that at their core contain a critical stance to information that circulates in society.

While the technologies we use are new, our desire to manipulate and misinform one another to suit particular agendas is as old as the hills. Let’s remind ourselves that every problem isn’t caused by technology, nor can it be solved by more technology.


This post is Day 22 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Things could be worse

I’m reading A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman at the moment. It’s an amazing read, and perfectly suited to our pandemic present.

It’s a long book, so I feel justified in skipping over the occasionally-lengthy descriptions of battles and campaigns, in favour of the much more interesting economic, social, and cultural history.

As a former History teacher (and someone with an MA in the subject) I’ve always found the undue focus on political and military history a bit boring, which is why I appreciate Tuchman’s comment on how it’s the extremes of time periods that tend to be recounted by historians.

In individuals as in nations, contentment is silent, which tends to unbalance the historical record.

Barbara Tuchman, ‘A Distant Mirror’

Tuchman throws in all kinds of interesting tidbits of information, such as two-thirds of the population of Europe being under the age of 21 throughout the 14th century. Half were under 14! She uses this to explain the general lack of maturity in everyone from peasants to nobles.

Some might wonder why I’d want to read something so ‘depressing’ as the population of Europe being reduced by a third during the Black Death. After all, isn’t that a bit close to home right now? I’ve actually found the opposite is true: reading things like this make you realise that we live in much more pleasant, civilised, and reasonable times, and that things could be far, far worse


This post is Day 21 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

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