Mohandas Gandhi once observed that there were many causes for which he was willing to die, but no cause for which he was willing to kill. George R. R. Martin, on the other hand, wants to kill you for a good cause. The “Song of Ice and Fire” novelist, whose fiction has reached a very large audience as the HBO series Game of Thrones, has generated a great deal of publicity — and is on his way to generating a half-million dollars — by offering fans of his work a few interesting experiences in exchange for donations benefiting two charities dear to him, a wolf sanctuary and a food bank, both in New Mexico, where the New Jersey native has lived since the 1970s. The pièce de résistance, currently bid up to $20,000, is having Mr. Martin name a character for you in an upcoming “Song of Ice and Fire” installment — a character that the author promises will face one of the spectacularly gruesome deaths for which he is famous.
Mr. Martin is making his offer through Prizeo, an Internet-based philanthropy platform that has executed similar projects with such celebrities as Paul McCartney, Celine Dion, and Paris Hilton. If you would like to attend the next photo shoot for the Sports Illustrated
swimsuit issue, bidding is open, and the proceeds will benefit the Happy Hearts Fund, which is not a cardiac concern but rather is occupied rebuilding schools around the world that have been damaged by natural disasters. Just as the modern for-profit economy is characterized by an ever-more-precise division of labor, so is the modern philanthropic enterprise characterized by an ever-more-precise application of generosity. Thus the fame of Paris Hilton is alchemically transmuted into something useful, in this case a new animal-rescue bus for the American Humane Association.
Technology and the radical, wonderfully unpredictable exercises in innovation and labor specialization associated with it are only partly economic phenomena. While the relative material abundance of our time, which far exceeds both popular and expert expectations prevalent as recently as the 1970s, is not to be held in low regard, affluence is only the beginning, a necessary but not sufficient condition for social change. As F. A. Hayek argued at some length, a robustly realized liberty consists not only of political liberalism but also of putting some distance between one’s self and conditions of real material privation. There was a great deal of political experimentation before the Industrial Revolution, but it had relatively little effect on how the vast majority of humanity lived, because the great majority of the world’s people were occupied in subsistence agriculture, or in low-level commercial agriculture, for much of that time. There is relatively little social experimentation in subsistence-agriculture societies in part because there is little leisure time or capital to enable it, but mostly because the potential price of such experimentation is very high: Without the cushion of a highly productive modern capitalist economy, a wrong step could prove catastrophic. Change, for those societies, has not historically been something to be welcomed, because change generally consisted of war, plague, or famine.
Technology drives social change, but social change drives technology, too: Human groups in relatively dense areas and coming into regular contact with other groups — which entails everything from trade to war — have generally developed technologically more quickly than other groups, while isolated groups have stagnated or even declined. While there is some academic argument over the subject, it appears to be the case that once indigenous Tasmanians became separated from the Australian mainland, their material culture declined: Fishing disappeared from their economic repertoire, and certain tools vanished as well, along with some of the ends to which those tools were put. It is probable that trade preceded human beings’ settlement into fixed locations and dwellings — that permanent communities grew up around trading posts, not the other way around. Thousands of years passed between the development of the first hand-ax and some prehistoric Steve Jobs’s design-savvy decision to put a handle on that ax, but once the innovation was established, hafting spread relatively quickly through societies that were in regular contact with one another. Some isolated societies seem to have reverted to hand-axes even after having experience with hafting.