What can we learn from Asimov’s Foundation trilogy?

The other weekend I reread Asimov‘s Foundation trilogy, one of the brilliant books that might have influenced me to work within the area of foresight. In these times it might be appropriate to use one of the major SF novels of all times to reframe the situation. I quote here from the first chapter when the scene is set and the famous Dr Seldon is questioned about his plans and has just mentioned the coming fall of the Empire:

Q. (theatrically) Do you realize, Dr Seldon, that you are speaking of an Empire that has stood for for twelve thousand years, through all the vicissitudes of the generations, and which has behind it the good wishes and love of a quadrillion human beings?

A. I am aware of the present status and the past history of the Empire. Without disrespect, I must claim a far better knowledge of it than any in this room.

Q. And you predict its ruin?

A. It is a prediction which is made by mathematics. I pass no moral judgements. Personally, I regret the prospect. Even if the Empire were admitted to be a bad thing (an admission I do not make), the state of anarchy which would follow its fall would be worse. It is that state of anarchy which my project is pledged to fight. The fall of Empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity – a hundred other factors. It has been going on, as I have said, for centuries, and it is too majestic and a movement to stop.

Q. It it not obvious to anyone that the Empire is as strong as it ever was?

A. The appearance of strength is all about you. It would seem to last for ever. However, Mr Advocate, the rotten tree-trunk, until the very moment when the storm-blast breaks it in two, has all the appearance of might that it ever had. The storm-blast whistles through the branches of the Empire even now. Listen with the ears of psychohistory, and you will hear the creaking.

Q. (uncertainly) We are not here, Dr Seldon, to lis–––

A. (firmly) The Empire will vanish and all its good with it. Its accumulated knowledge will decay and the order it has imposed will vanish. Interstellar wars will be endless; interstellar trade will decay; population will decline; worlds will lose touch with the main body of the Galaxy – and so matters will remain.

Q. (a small voice in the middle of a vast silence) For ever?

A. Psychohistory, which can predict the fall, can make statements concerning the succeeding dark ages. The Empire, gentlemen, as has just been said, has stood twelve thousand years. A Second Empire will rise, but between it and our civilization will be one thousand generations of suffering humanity. We must fight that.

Q. (recovering somewhat) You contradict yourself. You said earlier that you could not prevent the destruction of Trantor; hence, presumably, the fall – the so-called fall of the empire.

A. I do not say now that we can prevent the fall. But it is not yet too late to shorten the interregnum which will follow. It is possible, gentlemen, to reduce the duration of anarchy to a single millenium, if my group is allowed to act now. We are at a delicate moment in history. The huge, onrushing mass of events must be deflected just a little – just a little – It cannot be much, but it may be enough to remove twenty-nine thousand years of misery from human history.

Q. How do you propose to do this?

A. By saving the knowledge of the race. The sum of human knowing is beyond any man; and thousand men. With the destruction of our social fabric, science will be broken into a million pieces. Individuals will know much of the exceedingly tiny facets of which there is to know. They will be helpless and useless by themselves. The bits of lore, meaningless, will not be passed on. They will be lost through the generations. But, if we now prepare a giant summary of all knowledge, it will never be lost. Coming generations will build on it, and will not have to rediscover it for themselves. One millenium will do the work of thirty thousand.

Here it is worth noting that the main inspiration too this novel, which started as a series of short stories by a 22-year-old Asimov, published from 1942 and forward, came from Gibbon’s famous work “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“. When I see it in this perspective I can’t avoid thinking of the role of the monasteries which worked as knowledge capsules during the dark ages.

What does Dr Seldon say about what causes the fall of the Empire:

  • a rising bureaucracy
  • a receding initiative
  • freezing of caste
  • a damming of curiosity
  • …a hundred other factors

And the effects will be:

  • its accumulated knowledge will decay
  • the order it has imposed will vanish
  • interstellar wars will be endless
  • interstellar trade will decay
  • population will decline
  • worlds will lose touch with the main body of the Galaxy
  • …and so matters will remain

Do these bullets sound familiar?

Our thinking about what we have to do is most likely not in the same line as Dr Seldon – mainly because we don’t have the luxury of having developed the science of psychohistory – but realizing what stage we really are in, when it comes to societal and civilization development maturity cycle in combination with ecological and technological reality is crucial if we are going to meet the future in a way which doesn’t turn out to be a horrifying apocalypse.

So go back and read the quote again and come back with comments about differences and similarities between this stage of our society and maybe the roman empire, or Asimov’s Empire.

2 thoughts on “What can we learn from Asimov’s Foundation trilogy?

  1. According to Parag Khanna in his book “The Second Word” there are three empires competing to lead.

    He says, “The United States, the EU and China represent three distinct diplomatic styles–American coalition, Europe’s consensus, China’s consultation–competing to lead the twenty-first century.”

    While there might have been competing empires during Dr. Seldon’s time and during the Roman Empire, I am not sure the mechanics was the same. For one thing they are now connected to the same “wire” around the world and form, in my opinion, one global brain, to borrow from the title of Howard Bloom’s book.

    While they are all trying to lead, they seem to be also trying to maintain the system of empire. They are sort of validating each other’s worth in and by their competition. I am not even sure they are declining, but the leader of growth is just moving around a lot more. If you are at the center of this world growth, you would not even understand the question, “what decline?”

  2. It was my first reflection as well that a globally wired world would have a different mechanics than a non-wired world. In both Rome and Seldon’s Empire scientific knowledge, communication and trade were closely connected. When trade stopped, so did the cultural and scientific communication. That doesn’t seem to be the case now… Or? I think I see an emerging different view on truth and scientific knowledge which is much more relative and situated. I use to describe this kind of consistency and underdetermined truths for “truthiness” – a knowledge which you check by the gut feeling and not in a book. Could it be so that scientific knowledge and know-how will decline again, but this time for another reason?

    It is also true we are not talking about a single empire, which makes things at least a bit different….

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