I read A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History by Manuel DeLanda earlier this year. I’d worried that it might not hold up 20 years after its initial publication. The idea of applying systems theory to social science is no longer novel, and I’ve read DeLanda’s markets and antimarkets essays, so I wondered whether it was worth reading or if I’d be better served plodding through Fernand Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism (one of DeLanda’s primary sources). It was, and not just because Civilization and Capitalism is nearly 2,000 pages.

To oversimplify, DeLanda sketches a model of societal behavior that involves meshworks, which generate innovations, and hierarchies, which standardize those innovations, apply apply them to particular goals, and, crucially, reproduce themselves.

For example, the French language emerged from a meshwork of people living just far enough outside of Rome’s sphere of influence that it deviated from Latin, but were in close enough communication to necessitate a more or less common language. Eventually, it was adopted and standardized by the hierarchies of the regional church and state, and subsequently replicated by schools. It then spread internationally as the state reproduced itself through colonization. Newspapers and national and international broadcasters further standardized the language, while selectively allowing colloquialisms into the lexicon.

That process continues today, with internet communities creating new jargon and slang that is assimilated into culture largely through news sites.

But what to make of this framework today? Certainly systems theory seems like a helpful way of thinking about the multi-causal Present Situation, though I haven’t really thought through any particular applications. It surely seems like a good way to analyze state and corporate power, but it can be hard to decide how to classify something. Is Google, for example, a hierarchy of meshworks, or simply a hierarchy? What is the tech industry itself? This requires more thought on my part, but writing this up helps keep it all fresh in memory.

I’ll leave you with the concluding sentences of the section on language:

[Computer networks] future worth will depend entirely on the quality of the communities that develop within them. Moreover, these communal meshworks will embrace people with diverse political backgrounds (including fascistic communities), so the mere existence of ‘virtual communities’ will not guarantee social change in the direction of a fairer, less oppressive society. To paraphrase Deleuze and Guatari, never believe that a meshwork will suffice to save us.

Adapted from my e-mail newsletter