• Phil Tanny
    In the 1969 book The Peter Principle Dr. Lawrence Peter and Raymond Hull offer the theory that employees in a company will typically be promoted up the corporate hierarchy until they reach a position for which they are unqualified.


    While this principle was intended to address the business environment, we might reasonably expand it's focus to describe society as a whole.

    The Peter Principle And Our Society

    Our modern civilization is a science driven culture dominated by an accelerating knowledge explosion which generates ever more, ever larger powers, at an ever faster pace. Each new emerging power has to be understood and managed so that the benefits provided by that power outweigh any negative effects.

    More importantly, the primary definition of successful management of a new power is that the power does not crash our society, because then the opportunity for fixing problems, learning the lessons, and continuing with progress is lost.

    In the 20th century we learned how to split the atom. This discovery gave us nuclear power, nuclear medicine, and nuclear weapons. So far at least, we haven't allowed the nuclear weapons to bring down the system, so the benefits of atom splitting have at this point outweighed the downside, thus meeting our definition of successful management. The computing revolution of the 20th century has been a success as well, though it has further accelerated the knowledge explosion, thus speeding up the pace at which new challenges will have to met.

    In this century we see the emergence of revolutionary technologies like artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. Like computing, these new tools will bring many benefits, and accelerate the knowledge explosion further.

    So far we've been able to harvest the benefits of the knowledge explosion without paying an unacceptable price. But...

    Promoted Beyond Our Ability

    What the Peter Principle can teach us is that if the knowledge explosion continues to proceed, and especially as it accelerates, sooner or later we will be promoted to our level of incompetence. No one can predict when or how, or what particular technology or combination of powers will bring down the civilization, we can only predict what the Peter Principle demonstrates, one way or another it will happen. Sooner or later we will unleash some combination of powers which exceed our ability to control.

    There is a very simple reason why an uncontrolled knowledge explosion would lead to a crash.

    We are not gods.


    Like every other creature ever invented by nature, there is a limit to our ability. Where that boundary is exactly is unknown, we can only know that there is some limit to the scale of power human beings can successfully manage.

    While the knowledge explosion can unfold at an ever accelerating rate, the same is not true of human wisdom, maturity and judgement, which advances incrementally at best. If we were to create a graph tracking the progression of knowledge development against maturity development we would see the two lines diverge over time, at an ever increasing pace.

    Will Hi-Tech Save Us?

    Will artificial intelligence and genetic engineering save us? These tools will likely extend our management abilities, but they will never erase our limits and turn us in to gods, because these technologies are being created by us, imperfect limited creatures.

    While these technologies can help us with management, they will also further accelerate the knowledge explosion, thus generating even more even larger powers that will have to be managed. This is the logic of the knowledge explosion, the better it works, the faster it generates new knowledge, the sooner we reach the moment of incompetence predicted by the Peter Principle.

    So What's The Solution?

    Well, at the least we should be focusing our attention on our relationship with knowledge, the driver of the knowledge explosion. There is at least some dim hope that we could reason our way to a more modern relationship with knowledge that is less simplistic, outdated and dangerous.

    However, I must admit, years of writing about this have largely persuaded me that editing our relationship with something as fundamental as knowledge with reason alone is unlikely. This is probably a case of us having already exceeded the limits of our ability. In my intellectual journeys on philosophy and science websites it's rare to find anyone who even wishes to discuss our relationship with knowledge.

    The Roman Empire dominated the ancient world for centuries. It is must have seemed eternal to the people of that time.


    But the Roman Empire crashed, a thousand years of darkness followed, and then the Enlightenment blossomed, giving birth to the modern world we enjoy.

    If we repeat this pattern another twenty times we may someday become wise enough to escape the fate the Peter Principle predicts. The solution to the Peter Principle may be time, and pain, lots of both.
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