The world is changing. Current institutions, including governments, universities, media, are ill suited to the changes, creating opportunities for new organizational patterns to emerge. The change is chaotic, but not random.
The last time of comparable institutional change in America was the progressive era. Government was ‘rationalized’, an independent bureaucracy was created, research universities were founded, and more. The progressive era was a reaction to industrialization, the rise of modern corporations, and the increasing wealth and complexity of the world.
Institutions serve an important coordinating function. Institutional stability allows for individuals and smaller organizational units, e.g. families, companies, etc, to develop and execute on long term plans. For example, monetary instability, i.e. inflation, changes savings patterns, increased violence changes where people live, etc. During times of institutional instability, people are less able to plan as they are not sure the rules under which they live will similarly apply in the future.
Governments, universities, companies, and even more fundamental social structures like families, are all changing. On one hand, this makes it harder to plan for the future. However, on the other hand, institutional change creates opportunities to have a larger impact than in times of institutional stability.
That legacy institutions are struggling means that: (1) old institutions need to be restructured; and (2) new institutions must be built. This is, with the important exception of existential risk (which itself is arguably downstream from improving institutions), the most important challenge facing the world today.
Silicon Valley focuses on building new things. Balaji Srinivasan is perhaps the most well-known spokesperson for building replacement institutions, Bitcoin for the Fed, Network States for the United States. The other extreme is to ignore examples of institutional decay and instead argue that everything is fine. The exaltation of Fauci is an example of this.
There is a middle ground. We need better institutions. Some of these institutions will be new, though others will be reformed existing institutions. In some ways this is a conservative argument, that existing institutions matter, and even to the extent they are poorly performing or performing against our interests, burning them down could lead to worse outcomes. On the other hand, it is a liberal argument. We should embrace the coming changes. The world will be different, and in many ways better. We should build our institutions to improve human flourishing.
My argument has three parts. First, I outline four frameworks to understand institutional change, including media, institutional sclerosis, the great acceleration, and demographics. Second, I develop coordinating frameworks that are increasingly important given institutional change, including events, communities, leadership, and ideology. Lastly, I examine major institutions to consider how they might be updated to the 21st century, asking if they require wholesale replacement, minor modification, or something in between.
The purpose of this essay is not to answer all these questions, but instead lay out a framework for thinking about the changing world. I focus on America because it is the future. Europe is rapidly aging and technophobic. China is facing a massive demographic challenge, as well as an enormous property bubble. America, for all its flaws, is still the most important country and economy in the world by a significant margin.
Each of these frameworks I lay out below are at best a rough sketch. Books could be written about each of them, and even many of the sub-categories, including AI and immigration. My purpose is not to offer a comprehensive understanding of these changes, but instead create a framework that points in a general direction.
This is best explained by Martin Gurri’s book, The Revolt of the Public. Social media has opened up communication channels which existing institutions are not designed nor prepared for. The result is a public increasingly frustrated with the state of affairs and governments unable to respond effectively.
Media influences organizational structures. The printing press brought down old organizational structures as it increased access to information. The result was the 30 Years War, one of the most destructive European wars. Mass communication, including the radio and television, brought further centralization following the First World War.
The internet is arguably the largest media change since the printing press. We are likely in the middle phase of these changes. The internet has been around for decades and many social media companies were formed in the 2000s. If media innovation stopped now, the full implications of the internet would still take decades to be understood.
However, innovation in media is still occurring. TikTok has become the dominant social media platform. AI is likely to further change the media landscape, both in production, repackaging, and consumption. We are in the early days of wars about AI content, censorship, and copyright.
The impact of media changes is a revolt of the public. The curtain has been pulled back and people do not like what they see. Further, the internet and social media have lowered the costs of coordination. Flash mobs didn’t exist until social media. What are revolutions but flash mobs an order of magnitude or two larger?
Having reached peak wokeness, we are seeing the lack of a meta-narrative for the first time in decades, and with it the splintering of narratives and realities. The New York Times and NBC are no longer the primary sources of truth in America. Instead, we have numerous competing narratives, including conservatives with Fox News, Silicon Valley with Twitter, blogs, and podcasts, and what might be described as popular dissonance with figures like Joe Rogan. It is possible this is a permanent change, as different groups live in their perceived reality. It is also possible this is a temporary phenomena as humanity develops a new sense-making apparatus.
Fifty years ago, with far inferior technology, NASA put a man on the moon. Now NASA is almost entirely dependent on SpaceX and other private contractors for spaceflight. The Afghanistan withdrawal illustrated a failure of military planning and the lack of accountability of generals afterwards demonstrated that accountability mechanisms are broken. Covid demonstrated a complete inability of the government to respond effectively to an external shock. Our universities have shown an increasing hostility towards truth and more recently demonstrated cowardly leadership.
In 216 BC, Rome was able to continue fighting and eventually defeat Carthage despite the catastrophe at Cannae that destroyed their leadership class and a large percentage of fighting age males. In 410 AD, despite a much stronger position on paper, larger population, better technology, etc, Alaric was able to sack Rome because the social bonds of Rome decayed to the point of collapse.
While it is impossible to know where in the timeline of decline America is, it is clear that the analogy is directionally accurate. America in 1924 with a comparable population and equivalent technology would wipe the floor in a war with today’s America. Refitting Ford factories to produce tanks in a matter of weeks feels like a foreign country when America today struggles to produce arms for Ukraine, a conflict orders of magnitude smaller than World War II.
The men and women who built our institutions are dead. The culture that animated them has decayed. The current class of managers, “leaders” is too strong a word, have at best a weak feel for our institutions. While there are some bright spots, and revitalization is possible, the likely scenario is continued sclerosis and decay.
In practice this means increasingly aggressive fights to control our institutions. We are seeing an accelerating culture war where left and right aim to use the institutions of government and beyond against each other.
The Great Stagnation is over. We are entering the Great Acceleration. New technologies, including AI, biotech, drones, aeronautics, and blockchains are transforming the world. Many of these technologies are still in their early phases, meaning the societal disruption they cause is only increasing.
These new technologies will change status hierarchies, companies, and even governments. The current social order was built for a stable industrial age. As the pace of innovation slowed, humanity focused on improving efficiency. Products would get slightly better and less expensive every year, but the product would otherwise be basically the same. A car today is analogous to a car from the 1970s, so is a plane, so is a house.
Corporations were built to squeeze out the additional efficiency gains. Research universities focused on increasingly narrow sub-fields. Talent emphasized the ability to grind over a long time on a single activity. The Great Acceleration is changing that.
What started in Silicon Valley will increasingly spill over into the broader world. Innovation gains, building something fundamentally new, is beginning to outweigh the efficiency gains of improving existing processes. Society will start to reorient itself around this emerging dynamic.
Bitcoin, for example, has created the first pseudonanymous billionaire, Satoshi. AI is being led by a weird non-profit, corporate hybrid, OpenAI. mRNA vaccines were discovered in large part by someone who toiled for years in academic obscurity. The electric car revolution is being led by a new car company, and the race to Mars by a private company. New institutional forms will emerge to reflect the increasing importance of innovation gains.
AI is likely to be especially disruptive. It is the most important technology since the internet, and arguably the most important technology ever. It is already disrupting white collar jobs like translation and art and is further disrupting historically high prestige fields , including law and medicine.
America is undergoing substantial demographic changes, including aging, becoming more diverse, and having more women in positions of leadership. This is having a substantive impact on the culture and our institutions.
In 1980 America’s median age was 30, in 2000 it was 35, today it's 38. The aging of America, combined with the Baby Boomer domination of major institutions, contributes to the brittleness of our culture. People change as they age. Older people age more complacent, risk averse, and less interested in change. This complacency and conservatism is reflected in our institutions more broadly.
Since the 1970s women have climbed the corporate ranks and become more involved in leadership positions across America. Women are different from men and female dominated institutions have different norms than male dominated ones.
America is attracting huge numbers of immigrants. The percentage of our population that is foreign born is close to an all time high. Further, our labor and housing markets are less flexible than earlier periods of heavy migration, increasing the difficulty of integration. Municipal services are strained by the influx of migration as cities and states struggle to accommodate them.
Age, gender, and culture all impact behavior. As America gets older, women rise to positions of authority, and immigration brings new cultures, the discourse and our institutions will change. The aging of America will lower the tolerance for risk and increase complacency. The feminization of our culture will increase caring, decrease aggressiveness, but also weaken free speech norms. As our immigration is disproportionately from Mexico and Latin America, American culture will become slightly latinized.
‘Chaos is a ladder’
Perhaps the most telling fact of institutional change is the tearing down of statues. What began as a tearing down of confederate statues has since morphed into a broader attack on symbols of American institutions. Old idols are being torn down and replaced with new ones.
This institutional instability creates the opportunity for change and hopefully improvement. The chaos that results from the instability is a vacuum that wants to be filled. Those capable and well-organized will fill it.
For a concrete example, some people might remember the libertarian moment in 2008 and 2012. Ron Paul’s presidential runs generated lots of excitement, media attention, popular attention (filling 10,000 person stadiums), though ultimately few votes. Gary Johnson carried the torch for the Libertarians getting their highest vote total ever in 2016.
Many people, particularly libertarians, interpreted the excitement and votes to mean people were finally becoming libertarians. The flaws of the two party system were apparent and change was fast approaching. In reality, it was just the beginning of the chaos. Libertarians were successful because they were the only semi-organized political force outside Republicans and Democrats. People flocked to libertarians not because they were libertarian, but because they were different.
While libertarians weren’t able to capture that energy, Trump, to a certain extent, was. He understood the power of social media and the frustration and anger of many Americans against the political elite. He harnessed existing institutions and had success in molding them in his image, primarily the Republican Party.
Chaos increases the importance of coordinating mechanisms. Some of these mechanisms already exist, e.g. the New York Times, Twitter, the Republican and Democratic Parties. Some of them need to be created. The future belongs to those who organize, including leadership, narrative creation, community building, and hosting events.
Functionally, coordinating means getting groups of people to act in a predictable manner. Sometimes this manner can be directed towards a goal, though sometimes the direction of the people is more of an emergent phenomena. In some sense these coordinating tools can be viewed as a return to Tocqueville's voluntary associations.
The failure of existing institutions creates opportunities for leadership. Leaders arise during times of uncertainty. The most revered American figures are from critical points in history, the Revolution, Civil War, and World War II. In stable times people manage, in chaos people lead.
Leadership means coordinating human behavior. It means painting a vision, getting buy-in from stakeholders, and getting people to work together towards a common cause. The current uncertainty puts a premium on leadership.
The leaders of tomorrow will be difficult to recognize. They won’t fall into existing patterns, instead bringing together different groups under new narratives. Like many startups, they will be dismissed, ignored, and sometimes reviled until their impact is impossible to ignore.
The last few years have seen existing narratives collapse. Cancel culture is only possible when there is a unified culture. Now trust in sense-making institutions is nearly gone. The result is that the importance of narrative is increasing. Those able to create narratives gain power.
New media sources are increasingly disrupting existing institutions. The early examples were conservative talk shows, e.g. Rush Limbaugh. Recent years have seen many additional sources, e,g. Joe Rogan and The Free Press emerge. These sources are pushing alternate narratives. The dominant narratives in 2030 are likely to be substantially different from the narratives today. Those who can shape the narrative wield power over the future.
The current narrative is largely among liberals. Bari Weiss was a New York Times columnist reacting to the excesses of the left. Implicit in this battle is an attempt to control existing institutions. The emerging ‘tech’ narrative, perhaps best characterized by Peter Thiel or Balaji Srinivasan, is more revolutionary. They do not seek to control existing power structures, but instead to build alternatives.
Ideology is a coordinating mechanism. Ideology is a shared vision of how society should be structured. In times of stability and growth, ideology is marginalized. There is no need to think of visions of how society should be organized because people are generally happy with the current organization.
The past decade has seen a proliferation of ideologies, including Effective Altruism, YIMBYs, Progress Studies, e/acc, and the DSA. These ideologies claim something is wrong with society and offer a solution. Expect increasing ideological fractionalization as different groups position themselves for influence.
We have already seen these ideologies have an impact. Effective Altruism, for example, is playing a major role in AI regulations. Four congresspeople are members of the DSA. YIMBYs have had an outsized success liberalizing housing policy. .
The result of leadership, narratives, and ideology is the formation of new communities. The excitement around network states is one indication of this. Vibecamp, Zuzalu, the rationalists, and more are the result of communities forming around shared values and interests.
The internet is a sorting mechanism. Most people are familiar with the chart showing how people meeting their partners online has increased exponentially over the last decade. However, this is hardly the only sorting effect the internet has had, it is perhaps just the easiest to measure. As people move more of their lives and personalities online, the physical world and its governing institutions will increasingly reflect those emerging identities.
In practice the emergence of these communities is the result of increased ideological sorting. Democrats no longer date Republicans and vice versa. However, the bleeding edge of community is more niche, the sorting is no longer on larger categories like left or right, but instead along podcasts, blogs, and internet forums. The successful communities will grow, attracting additional adherents and producing output, blogs, podcasts, etc, that influence the broader dialogue.
Part of the institutional crisis is a failure of our training mechanisms for the next generation of leaders. For example, thirty three Harvard student groups placed the entire blame of the Oct 7th Hamas attack on Israel. Many of these groups later walked back their endorsement, with several acknowledging they hadn’t even read the statement. Our elite institutions are training the next generation that leadership means signing on to the current fashionable cause.
Designing alternate training programs for the next generation of leaders and administrators is important. San Francisco, for example, is very successful at teaching people how to start and scale companies. Hollywood is adept at recruiting the next generation of actors and directors. Our society-wide mechanisms for leadership are broken.
Events are a coordinating tool. Being able to bring people together, particularly from different backgrounds, is more important than ever. The uncertainty of the current world means a very large possibility space. Events, by creating a format for relationships building, building shared world models, and creating a framework for action, serve as the glue for the mechanisms I’ve outlined above.
With a framework of the causes of the changes, as well as the increased importance of coordination, it’s possible to think through American institutions, and how to improve or replace them. As usual, there is a balance. We must improve our institutions, at the same time, we are not in Year 0. The question is where to focus and how to focus institutional improvements. What institutions are worth reforming and which should be replaced?
There are several considerations for how and when to engage existing institutions.
Most businesses, for example, face strong competitive pressure and therefore should not be the focus on institutional reforms. There are several, e.g. Twitter, Google, etc that have network monopolies that could imply a concerted effort is worthwhile to change them. Twitter’s discourse under Musk, for example, has been more open than previously.
Some institutions, e.g. the United States government and Harvard are lindy. They have been around for a long time. They face little competitive pressure and are therefore ripe targets for reform, though attempting to replace them seems quite misplaced. However, on a longer time horizon it might be possible to unbundle specific parts of the institution.
Other institutions are likely to be replaced, sometimes explicitly by technology. Blockchain is developing a sometimes complement, sometimes substitute for the financial system. AI could replace large bureaucracies and parts of the professional managerial class.
Metascience is arguably the most successful attempt at institutional re-engineering over the last decade. Inspired in part by the Great Stagnation, people working on metascience claim that scientific innovation has slowed in part due to the structure of scientific production. A variety of institutions working on metascience have sprung up.
The approach of various institutions depend on what the principals believe are the causes of the scientific slowdown. There is broad consensus that the current approach of grants is flawed. Principal Investigators spend too much time writing grants. The grants are often too narrow. Scientists often feel they are not pursuing their most productive line of research because of financial constraints. The Arc Institute, for example, seeks to change that.
Beyond that consensus, there are additional questions being explored. Is the university system the best talent attraction and training mechanism of scientists? Katalin Karikó, a major contributor to mRNA vaccines, was forced out of the University of Pennsylvania. Are peer reviewed academic journals the best way to communicate knowledge and advance careers? What should be the relationship between universities, industry, and innovation?
These conversations have resulted in substantial initial success, including an emerging consensus of the problem, multiple organizations working on various areas of the problem, and some acknowledgement by existing institutions of areas for improvement. While it will take years, if not decades, to fully improve scientific organization, there are already substantial learnings.
The structural constraints facing institutions play an important role in determining whether to improve them or build alternatives.
As I’m writing this out, I’m realizing that the general conclusion I’m reaching is that unbundling is important. Trying to recreate identical institutions isn’t going to work, nor is a full takeover attempt realistic. I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to offer more specific recommendations on reforming the American government, beyond broad suggestions like civil service reform. Instead, it’s critical to have context and develop a careful strategic plan for engagement and influence.
The Progressive era is the only time in American history that saw comparable changes to American institutions. The modern research university, inspired by German universities, was built. Government was reshaped, expanded, and made more ‘rational’, with a professional bureaucracy created. For instance, the first annual budget of New York City was passed in 1881. Appropriations were previously done on an ad hoc basis!
The Progressive era was inspired by the changes wrought by the industrial revolution. Modern corporations were formed, urbanization accelerated, huge numbers of people became wage laborers instead of farmers or independent artisans. Progressives saw these changes and re-oriented government and other social institutions along similar lines.
The full impact of technological, media, and demographic changes have yet to be felt. We can say that these changes will have a substantial impact on American institutions. Ensuring our existing institutions can respond effectively and new institutions be built requires careful thought, planning and coordination.
Our current institutions were built by people thinking carefully about the problems facing them. It’s up to us to build a better future for ourselves and our ancestors.
Thanks to Kurtis Lockhart, Jeff Mason, and Carl Peterson for comments