The Gods of Straight Lines

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“He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”—Adam Smith

Cassandra was a priestess who was granted the gift of prophecy by Apollo. But after she rejected his advances, he changed it to a curse: although she would still be able to foresee the future, nobody would ever believe her.

Poor Cassandra, you think. And yet we are not so different from her. We have our own gods: the gods of straight lines. And they too grant us a gift and a curse: to know that we’re building the future according to plan—but to know that the plan is theirs, not ours.

I picture the gods of straight lines as innumerable hovering spirits, just in the corner of your vision, vanishing as you turn to look at them directly. It’s hard to tell if they’re still or in motion. But they’re always there, as the world glides forward on its trajectory. And when that trajectory shifts, or something disruptive happens, they slide in, and they gently push it back on track. They take joy in the work, I think. Or amusement, at least, at all the narratives that humans develop to explain why each thing happened. It’s not that those narratives are false—but they almost always miss the point.

A newspaper pushes out a vitriolic op-ed, shaking up a nation’s politics? But if it will get clicks, then another newspaper would have run it later anyway. A metropolis builds more housing to fill its desperate need? Then the opposition from homeowners just becomes stronger, and the city relaxes into the same stranglehold as almost every other. A philosopher finds a new way of viewing the world? But if it captures the spirit of the age, then someone else would have written it better in a year or ten; and if it doesn’t, then it will never gain traction anyway. A country delays industrialization for decades? Then when it starts it will simply catch up much faster, skipping all the burdensome prerequisites: straight from telegraphs to cell phones, no costly telephone wires in sight.

A global war, a global pandemic? They’re horrifically destructive and wasteful—but also invigorating and regenerative, disrupting the calcified old power structures. And the two effects cancel out. You can tell, because the lines remain straight: a few short years after the bombs stopped falling in 1945, the world economy returned to trend as if nothing had happened.

In 1776, America rebelled in the name of freedom and democracy: the origin myth of the modern world order. And yet, somehow, unrebellious Canada ended up just as free and democratic. An unrebellious America likely would have too.

For two decades, North Vietnam battled under the banner of communism, and won against all odds. And yet, somehow, Vietnam is now the most pro-capitalist country in the world. In every place, in every way, the gods of straight lines are constantly nudging everything back onto the trajectory which they have ordained.

Usually we are too wrapped up in our stories to catch even a glimpse of the gods. When we do, we can fight them, as Rachel Carson did after seeing disturbing trends in air and water pollution. Or we can ally with them, as Moore (and Kurzweil and Kaplan) did after seeing the exponential compute trends. But—ah, I hear the gods laughing again, in the face of these stories it’s always so tempting to tell. To the gods of straight lines, Carson and Moore did nothing, because the gods see (as we do not) the other timelines where the same insights came from other people, a month or a year or a decade delayed, but landing all the more powerfully because of it. The gods are intimately familiar with a fact that we can only hazily glimpse: that all great discoveries come in their natural time. If they are stumbled upon before that time, they are ridiculed, dismissed, or ignored. Yet when that time is reached, they are often discovered by multiple people near-simultaneously. So if a great innovator were erased from history it wouldn’t be long, in the scheme of things, before our trajectory returned to trend. The gods of straight lines see to that.

All of this seems ridiculous to humans, who live and die by stories of cause and effect. Yet which stories are they? Well, the ones that catch in our minds. Why do they catch in that way? If we didn’t have them, what other stories would catch instead? The gods of straight lines smile, and say nothing. So we decide on atheism: to believe in these gods would be an unconscionable surrender. We clench our teeth and push forward with our goals. Yet even in doing so we let the gods work through us—for each straight line is still driven by the strivings of thousands or millions of people.

Morris Chang started from nothing, but after working his way up the semiconductor industry he founded the only chip company that is still able to cling onto Moore’s law: a company so dominant that even their fiercest competitors gave in and became their customers. And yet- and yet- the demise of Moore’s law had been predicted again and again, with more and more forceful justifications, and every time the prediction fell flat. In this world, the god of Moore’s law kept things on track by working through Morris Chang. But if Morris hadn’t existed, who knows which other equally remarkable founders would have launched which other equally successful startups to fill the same niche and train the same talent and push the frontier just as far? The gods of straight lines do, and we don’t. All we know is that despite all common sense, the lines remain straight.

Do you feel helpless, yet? Do you feel angry? Do you want me to tell you a story about how you can confront them—challenge them—force them to bow to your will? If you were as talented and inspired and driven as Morris, and devoted your life not to channeling a god but to fighting one, then perhaps you could wrest one of those lines out of a god’s grasp. It’s been done before, for better and for worse. But for every general who shifted the tides of history, there are thousands who simply rode along the shoreline tilting at waves. For every brilliant scientist who peeked at nature’s secrets ahead of her schedule there are thousands, equally brilliant, who glimpsed only the reasons why they were destined for failure: in AI, the bitter lesson that all their striving would be buried by future avalanches of compute; or in pharmacology, the far bitterer lesson that despite all efforts, the exponential curve would keep going in the wrong direction. These lessons weren’t always apparent to them, of course—they all had their moments of glory along the way. But even when you bask in triumph over one god, just out of sight the other gods will be laughing, because you were a part of their plans all along.

Or perhaps you want to kneel down in front of them; worship them; yield to their will? But the gods of straight lines think in alien ways, and pursue alien goals. Show our society to someone from millennia past, and they would be shocked and dismayed at how these gods have already reshaped our world: the degradation of our values; the weakness of our society; the weirdness of our minds. The future that the gods envisage is no less strange or horrifying to us than the present would be to our ancestors—so think twice before picking up their banner.

What can you do, then? Well, you can do almost nothing. But humanity as a single force—our civilization if it became a unified, coherent entity? There’s a creature that could scatter the gods of straight lines like so many motes of dust. Of course, it doesn’t exist yet, and maybe it never will. Could you truly trust leaders who promised to summon it, despite all your ingrained instinctive skepticism and all their ingrained instinctive power-hungriness? Perhaps even the most careful efforts to engineer that level of coordination are too dangerous. Or perhaps not. In any case, that is not mine or yours to determine: if humanity ever outgrows the gods of straight lines, it will only be with their blessing and assistance. I can feel the gods tugging at us, and I hope they are on our side.

For a counterpoint to this story, read Eight Magic Lamps.