Psychological implications of taxonomic efforts by 16th to 19th century European colonial trading missions in Asia / by Bryce Hidysmith

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The East India Companies and other colonial mercantile missions attempted to catalogue the world for the purposes of commercial exploitation. Surveys—linguistic, botanical, geographical, industrial—were the norm. The obviousness of this fact—that a trading company might want to learn of the varieties of natural and artificial products salable in the motherland—belies a substantial difference between the mentality of the European Imperial period and the mentality of our age.

The present post-informational age is one where it is assumed that the maximal generatively is in the mind, and that the greatest inventions will arise, ex nihilo, from the minds of the creative class. Innovation is assumed to need no feedstocks and may be done as well in an an office in Dubai as San Francisco, the design of said offices differing only based on their locations. (I’m thinking now of the coworking spaces I saw at the WEF a few months ago, used entirely for performative purposes.) Under globalism, the local optimization of any specific part of material reality is assumed to be outcompeted by any economy of scale that is able to (at least theoretically) affect the entirety of the globe. The top level of competition is global, and as such is limited to a small abstraction of the world that is graspable to individual knowledge workers. These workers compete far less for control of the material world, and far more for attention, which is used as a proxy for FOMO, which is used as a proxy for legitimacy. The managerial corporation is the instrument that this class of mental generatives is supposed to wield in order to capture more of the economy. This is often accomplished by acquiring individual, smaller firms that are engaged in the direct material optimization of the world, or larger firms that industrially produce replicable physical locations or digitally enabled scenarios (the reference class that includes ridesharing or fast food companies.)

The contemporary ideology is contrary to the assumption of the British and the Dutch companies, which assumed that it was the world that was generative, and not their individual workers’ minds. The world, as it must have been seen by the operators of the East India Companies is one of almost unmeasurable untapped wealth that had simply aggregated over time. The world existed to be arbitraged. Naturally, one must have a catalogue of the products of God’s bounty, their points of origin, and their relative scarcity in territories where they are foreign.

Britain and the Netherlands in the early days of their colonial operations were—at least in absolute production per village/urban unit if not per capita—inferior in industrial production capacity to China, India, and likely many of the states of the Indonesian archipelago. These states had also, of course, perfected the production of a wide variety of commodities—tea, silk, porcelain, etc.—which Europe had nothing comparable, along with the botanical and mineral arbitrage opportunities that access to novel ecosystems always presents.

However, because the industrial capacity of these Asian regions during this era was primarily derived from agricultural production and artisanal production integrated into agricultural production, the idea that the artistry of the individual was the determinant factor in production did not arise. Instead, if I am to try and simulate the perspective of these Colonial traders, production was likely assumed to be a trait of the substrate, where a combination of cultural and mineral/biological forces combined to make a section of geographic territory more effective than another.

I anticipate this was the same reasoning that was applied by the English industrialists who established the first factories in Manchester. This, I think, implies but does not fully substantiate a rather substantially different idea of what entrepreneurial and artistic creativity was assumed to be during the 15th-20th centuries. I will go as far as to speculate that the idea of creativity during this period was the recognition of a phenomena, rather than the generation of one. The realistic art styles of the time such as Dutch Golden Age painting—their techniques largely derived during the Renaissance from the iconic art styles of sacred art in the middle ages—accentuate the visualization of that which exists or had existed in history/mythology and comment upon it, rather than an attempt to wrest entirely new content by applying the mind to matter.

The recognition of a potential arbitrage opportunity, a law of nature, a depiction of a landscape, all of these are expressions of the latent potential of matter. The potential already exists in a sense, even before it is realized. Newton is not thought to have created the law of gravitation, but rather discovered it, just as James Watt is not assumed to have created steam power, rather he is assumed to have discovered it. Yet, Steve Jobs is assumed to have invented the iPhone, rather than having discovered the latent potential in the substrate of Cupertino, California and Shenzhen, China that allowed the iPhone to come into being. The artificial and the human is no longer seen as an extension of the natural and the divinely created, rather it is a discrete break from it. Given that humanity is created out of the material substrate of the natural world, and assuming that there is no injection to the mind of non-local material external to the knowable universe*, this seems like a complete misassessment of intellectual experience in order to allow hero worship and ego claims to eclipse material effect, something not entirely surprising for a post-nuclear society such as ours, deeply skeptical of technology.

*Admittedly, how could there ever be non-local communication in a strong sense? That would just imply a larger universe, containing the regions that import content to the mind. Potentially, the regions accessible to humanity could be partitioned from areas that are able to transmit information to the areas humanity is able to access, but even though the connection is monodirectional the substrate is still unified.