[Due to time constraints, the next post in The Arab Mind will be delayed; this post is related but much more speculative and imagines how the Arab Mind will deal with the coming technological changes, which has been called the Singularity.]
In the first eleven posts in my series on The Arab Mind, I have tried to describe some of the child rearing practices and cultural trends that contribute to the development of a personality style and culture that are particularly poorly adapted to tolerate and facilitate change. Arab culture has been relatively static for a thousand years and the Arab world has reacted to the threat of change engendered by contact with the West and other non-Muslims, by attacking and forcing the offending peoples to submit to Islam. This worked for the Arab world as long as change could be easily kept at a distance. The modern world is making this traditional manner of cultural self-defense unworkable.
This post is a much more speculative discussion of the impact of our rapidly changing technology on Arab culture and the Arab mind, and especially the impact of some of the projected changes that are fairly close in historical terms, on the order of 10-25 years.
From time to time I have written about the evolving clash between Islam and the modern world, especially the accelerating rate of technological change leading to the Singularity, which will, in time, cause an implosion in the Islamic world. I would like to add some detail to the scenario and explore why Islam as it is currently promulgated in its fundamentalist versions (whether Wahhabi/Salafi or Shia Khomeniist) cannot survive the clash.
Arab societies are all essentially Prime Divider societies:
These societies are based on the political axiom “rule or be ruled” and permit even require the use of violence to defend one’s honor. They contain following main features.
legal privilege for the elites (including exemption from taxation, lighter sentences for their misdeeds and heavier penalties for offenses against them).
- self-help justice in which clans defend their members regardless of legal issues like intent (blood revenge, vendetta, feud, duel)
- mystery surrounding political authority (e.g., monarchy above the law)
- commoner populations illiterate, controlled by intimidation (Machiavelli’s: a ruler should be feared not loved)
- manual labor stigmatized, vast majority (masses) excluded from public sphere except on choreographed occasions
- elites with a monopoly on literacy, weaponry, rapid transportation, and political power
Prime Divider societies are societies built upon scarcity. In Prime Divide societies, wealth, status and privilege are considered zero-sum quantities. If one person's wealth, status, or privilege increases, it must come at the expense of someone else whose wealth, status, or privilege diminishes commensurately. This is the type of system that typically arises and is maintained when material wealth is highly constrained.
Modern capitalist societies have succeeded in breaking that paradigm; wealth is increasingly becoming a positive-sum gain, with one person's wealth (capital) enhancing the wealth of all. (While this has been denigrated as trickle down economics, in point of fact, capitalism has brought great wealth to even the poorest members of Western society, who now have their own cell phones, color TVs, multiple video game systems, and many more calories than they need for nutrition.) Status and privilege are democratizing but remain much more limited, but material wealth has done more than any other development to create a middle class which then forms a large enough cohort to eventually create more egalitarian societies. This is the basis of Tom Barnett's thesis that greater connectivity will inevitably lead to greater moderation.
In zero-sum cultures, and most specifically in Arab cultures, wealth, status, and privilege translates for young men into access to women and sex. For non-privileged Arab men, the combination of sexual pre-occupation and frustration leads to a combustible situation. Young Arab men have traditionally had no access to women and sex and this has been a significant part of the appeal of radical Islam; martyrs are promised 72 virgins in heaven, an irresistible promise to young men who can never hope to actually see a woman in the flesh until their 30s, if then.
This is rapidly changing. A tribal society organized around scarcity is disequilibrated by wealth. Wealthy people no longer have to work until exhaustion in order to survive. They have time and energy for other pursuits, including the vigorous pursuit of status and privilege, especially sexual privilege. The Arab states that have the greatest oil wealth have partially addressed this by offering a violent outlet for young men who lack status, while attempting to keep the sexual component isolated and unavailable. Cell phones and the Internet have begun to shake the foundations of fundamentalist cultures; young Arab men are among the world's greatest consumers of pornography on the Internet (as indicated by Google search results.) Islamic fundamentalists can either cut themselves off from these options, as the Amish do, or suffer a continuing erosion in the authority of the Imams and religious police.
But for the fundamentalists, the situation gets worse. Abundance is on its way for all:
The Industrial Revolution is essentially when the modern world began. For the first time, the production of food and many basic goods was partially automated. The impact was huge: whereas most of history up to that point had been a zero-sum exercise in fighting over a fixed pie, the Industrial Revolution increased the size of the pie itself many times over. This laid the groundwork for positive sum thinking, the notion that we can all have better lives if we just cooperate instead of trying to edge out the next guy.
Today, we have the luxury of pointing out some of the downsides of industrialization, but if we could experience pre-industrial life firsthand (or observe it by visiting those few areas of the planet untouched by industrialization), we recognize what we are blessed with. Usually we reserve our gratitude for other humans, but the machines that drive industrial civilization deserve our thanks as well. Without them, there would be no mass-produced clothes, or toilets, or plumbing, or medicine, or books, or computers, or pretty much anything except for what we or people we hire could build on a manual, one-by-one basis.
Many of the “superlative” visions of transhumanists, and some other futurists and tech-savvy folk, introduce the notion of a world where the Industrial Revolution is completed, and literally any production we desire can be automated. In the words of the RepRap project, this would give us “wealth without money”. To me, and many others, this is a question of when, not if. I see modern skepticism over the possibility of self-replicating machines to be analogous to pre-Industrial skepticism over the notion of a huge array of products without excessive labor input.
Michael Anissimov just skims the surface in this post and his time line is longer than mine (50 yeasr before the advent of true reprogrammable self-replicating machines, the basis of the Fianl Industrial Revolution, but his comments are germane to this discussion of the future of Islamic fundamentalism. We are already becoming fantastically wealthy by any measure of human wealth. Although the economy is in a slump and alarmists would have us believe the Apocalypse is upon us, all indications are that the global economy will weather this storm (unless the political class insists on making things exponentially worse as is their wont) and will emerge form the doldrums closer to sustainable and renewable energy and abundance for all.
That will leave the problem of status and privilege. Marx may have derided religion as the opiate of the masses but in reality, it is sex that sells. Once virtual reality or robotic sex is nearly as good as the real thing, the pressure for sexual privilege among the Arab male population will inevitably decrease.
[Most evidence suggest that once pornography became widely available in the West, crimes of rage and sex, ie rape, decreased markedly. The fear that available porn would drive men wild, similar to the fear that the view of an unveiled woman would turn Arab men into rapists, was proven to be wildly exaggerated; if anything, porn has had an ameliorating effect on male sexual agressioin, even as it has also damaged male-female intimacy.]
Islamic fundamentalism depends on the scarcity of material wealth and sexual outlets. A comfortable, sexually satisfied man is much less likely to desire martyrdom than an impoverished man with no hope of ever attaining wealth, status, or privilege, or sex.
This is not to say that greater wealth and material abundance will end terrorism. Angry, nihilistic young people will still be drawn to destruction, yet the vast majority of Muslims, inculcated with hatred and envy of those who have what they can only dream about, will be much less inclined to support an ascetic religion that restricts their freedoms while surrounded with treats they are forbidden to taste.