The piece that Asimov built ‘The Foundation’ on: how close (and how far) we are from psychohistory being a real science
To speak of ‘psychohistory’ is to speak of Isaac Asimov. What’s more: it’s talking about one of the best Asimovs there was. Together with the “laws of robotics”, the possibility of combining history, psychology, social sciences and statistics to create a framework capable of predicting the behavior of large masses of people has been one of the ideas that have penetrated the imagination most deeply. popular.
So much so that, moving away from the books, the series spends a lot of time making psychohistory scientifically plausible. The long conversations between Hari Seldon and Gaal Dornick are a good example of this and, among critics, it is seen as one of the successes of the adaptation. I mean, it’s interesting, but are we talking about something even possible beyond fiction?
And I’m not talking about all that amalgam of researchers who, with the Freudian precedent of ‘The malaise in culture’, dedicated a good part of the 20th century to finding the psychological roots of history. No, I’m talking about the scientific search for a discipline capable of predicting our future and designing interventions on a macrosocial scale never seen before.
Individual unknowns and macrosocial responses
It is no mystery that Asimov was inspired by the behavior of gases and what we know about their internal dynamics. If we look at a specific molecule of a gas, we will discover that it is virtually impossible for us to know how it is going to behave. On the other hand, if we observe the system as a whole, we can know how a specific mass of gas will behave with a high level of precision.
In the same way, Hari Seldon’s equations would be unable to find out how a random person would behave, but they allowed us to glimpse 30,000 years of evolution of the human species without much problem. As I said before, it is such an attractive idea that it has dragged many researchers behind it. Nevertheless, the results have not been as promising as common sense presages usr.
A (polarized) debate that marked the 20th century
For much of the 20th century, economists debated the so-called “economic calculation problem” as if their lives depended on it. This “problem” (which was debated, above all, because it was part of the heart of the struggle between capitalism and socialism) is only one aspect of the same question: To what extent (and how) can a society’s needs be predicted? And, if possible, could we use those predictions to plan the productive (or other) development of it?
The debate on economic calculation was closed with the collapse of the USSR in 1989. In other words, it was taken for granted that an “uninterrupted price system” is needed to be able to extract economic information and, therefore, planning central was inefficient. However, the academic debate has continued to live on. There is no shortage of scholars (Jon Studwell may be the most popular right now) who argue that the development of Southeast Asia shows that there are ways to solve that problem.
And that will mark the future (near)
In fact, while the political economy debate was closed, climate change entered the scene. Do not be misled: to the extent that the anthropic origin of the changes in global trends was demonstrated, combating warming became a particular exercise in psychohistory. Said in Roman paladin: climate models have to have socio-economic models in their guts to have any sign of validity. And they do.
In the end, our capacity for quantification, computation and modeling has taken a giant leap in recent decades. It is not at all clear what the USSR (or a similar actor) could do today if it had the same amount of data that Amazon has, but (even assuming the loss of efficiency due to the problems of its price system) it is plausible to think that the results would be substantially better.
That is, for the first time in a long time, the sum of (very) big data, contemporary statistical models and machine learning algorithms make it possible to imagine predictive models that, although they would not rival Seldon’s, they would allow us (they are allowing us) ask us questions about what will happen tens of years from now and how we can change it.
Bad news and good news
However, even with this very promising scenario, the future of a psychohistory is rather dark and discouraging. Of course, today, we can predict, see trends and identify future scenarios. However, even with all our analytical arsenal, this capacity depends on the stability of the historical environment: on the ‘socio-technological balance’ in which we find ourselves. The discovery of a new technology can change everything.
No solo twe have historical examples like the ‘green revolution’ (the appearance of improved versions of corn, wheat and other grains in the middle of the 20th century) that turned the dire predictions of overpopulation and demographic hell into a dead letter; it is easy to imagine future examples. At the risk of falling into technological solutionism, if tomorrow we domesticate nuclear fusion safely and easily, it is very likely that all climate models will be out of date. We would see them as sensational as Paul Ehrlich’s on demographics.
That’s the bad new. Insofar as we cannot predict when truly disruptive innovations will appear (and we can’t), long-medium-term predictions become almost science fiction. This does not mean that they are not useful, but we must take them as “possibilities” and not as “manifest destinies”. As instruments to work for a better world without falling into a social, economic or climatic ‘sebastianism’.
That is to say, understanding psychohistory as something more than a science as part of an idea that is 100% Asimovian: the promise that science and technology could be used to face the most important problems of humanity. Because, as we said when speaking of the origin of the idea of psychohistory, “surrendering to ignorance is always premature and today more than ever.” This, without a doubt, is the good one.