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One singular concept from science fiction has always intrigued me, more so than robots or faster than light travel, and that is the concept of Psychohistory, as described in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. This is a science that treats individual humans like individual molecules in a fluid dynamics problem. Just like you can calculate how an ideal gas will flow around an airplane in aerodynamics, Psychohistory can predict how a sufficiently large sample of humanity will “flow around” circumstances such as the collapse of a galactic empire.

But we’ve already come upon one of the major limiting factors of Psychohistory: it has to be employed on a population that is large enough to minimize the ability of one regular individual to radically alter a statistically significant quantity of others. It also requires clinical-style blindness: the people it’s being used on must be largely unaware of its use, and especially unaware of the corrective actions made under the advice of a Psychohistorian.

I’ve also enjoyed the study of economics, especially on the macro side. I imagine it’s for much the same reason, because it allows the treatment of intelligent humans as a mathematical system that can be tweaked and poked. I never really made the connection before last week, when I realized it while driving to class from work (resulting in “Psych Hist as Econ”) on the back of my hand to remind me. Of course, Wikipedia made the connection ages ago, and links to the macroeconomics article from the Psychohistory (fictional) article.

Now, I’m sure Asimov didn’t have this in mind when he wrote it, but the two are actually strikingly similar, especially when the Seldon Plan is considered. In macroeconomics, and especially laissez-faire economics, certain things escape the effects of market forces: things such as roads, and utilities, which are called “natural monopolies” because it’s not practical to have three different companies all build parallel roads and compete for your business.

But in the Foundation books, something similar happened, with the eponymous Foundation. Through Psychohistory, Hari Seldon found that the collapse of the Galactic Empire was inevitable, so he set aside a backwater world and began building on it a Foundation to act as a repository to all the knowledge that would be lost with the fall of the Empire. Once this was collected, it could be more easily redistributed, shortening the length of the chaotic interregnum by orders of magnitude. Although humanity would eventually piece together the knowledge to return to the stars without the Foundation, it would involve many more years of barbarism and feudalism. Just as the government steps in, outside of market forces, so did the Foundation act to regulate human existence by trusting a great deal of power in it.

There’s also an analogy to be made between, say, the trusts of the nineteenth century and the Mule. See, some time after the retreat of the Empire from the edges of the galaxy here the Foundation was built, a power rose in the sector that was known as the Mule. He was a great conqueror who was forming a new empire by quickly and ruthlessly conquering entire planetary systems in days. But just as McKinley stepped in to break the trusts that were gaining too much power and hurting consumers, so did the Foundation have to step in and stop this threat.

I’d like to think that someone will one day develop something resembling Psychohistory, and use it to better mankind, but I know that I certainly won’t live to see it. Trying to apply the science to a population in the three-bit billions is like trying to apply market forces to a hunter-gatherer community.

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