Just because humans form part of this thing we generally call the ‘economy’, and may at times appear free to choose how to spend what income it affords them, we mustn’t simply assume they sit in the driving seat. Economies are complex objects, and the defining feature of complex things is that the whole is not simply the sum of its parts. So, yes, people are critical constituents of economies, and yes, the behaviour of the economy depends in part on the behaviour of its constituents, but that does not necessarily translate into people sitting in the driving seat. The real driver could still be hidden from view, lurking in the interactions.
But the global economy does behave as if something is driving it. For example, it has fought to maintain its own growth rate much like a bacterial colony, negotiating its way through technological, social, political and economic upheaval and disturbance. Or look at the arterial networks stretched over the Earth’s surface in the cover picture for this blog. Although no one took an overview in that design, designed it is, which is why it is so alluring. Some would argue these are simply the bi-products of interactions between a good number of the people desiring to grow their estate through profiting on investments. Others may point to the deliberate efforts of certain elites attempting to drive the global economy along particular pathways. If so, then people are in some sense at the wheel, and perhaps they can be persuaded to turn it to avoid some of the obstacles ahead, or at least to look in the foot well for pedals other than the accelerator. But the super-organism characteristics of the global economy, transcending any known human institution, suggest other possibilities.
What if no people are at the global wheel, en mass or otherwise? What if we have unwittingly helped construct an autonomous vehicle? Although that certainly wasn’t our intention, can such things emerge spontaneously? Didn’t we and our biological cohabitants? But if we believe the orthodoxy, the economy is different, imbued with subjective human magic and agency. But surely, like everything in this universe, isn’t the economy simply a blend of matter, energy and information? I say simply, the blends have become so rich in information their behaviours often confound and confuse us, appearing autonomous, even anticipatory.
What if in all its apparent unlikeliness, our planetary journey was simply the most likely one? What if, just like the biosphere, the economy is a structure: a low-probability, high-information configuration of matter. And the more sophisticated, information-rich the structure, the more degrees of freedom it can exert over the size, direction and usefulness of the flows coursing through its veins. These freedoms would feel like choice. And how are these configurations created? Through work done, and hence the dissipation of energy gradients. So where do people fit into this? They too are complex, ordered dissipative structures, self-similar in so many ways to the wider economic body they create and operate within. Like ants? Like ants. What, no agency? Perhaps we get to choose what refreshments are served and where to sit, and such choice feels like agency to many, but a thermodynamic hidden hand gets to drive the bus.
And now we have evolved such that we are afforded a glimpse over the planetary horizon. If we exploit this to chart a new course that protects the global super-organism, have we now become the drivers?D