Monday, May 19, 2008

Changing Behavior

I saw this mildly interesting bit on TV the other day where a group of almost-influential people were discussing how to bring environmental reporting to corporations. At least that's what I think they were talking about. I had jumped in the middle, and was only partially paying attention. They seemed to think that with enough effort the world could be changed and made a better place. That if there was dialogue and everybody was honest, it would all work out somehow.

When I stopped laughing, I figured I might as well dedicate a bit of thinking to trying to deal with the same underlying issue. From my quick glance at the tube, I figured they weren't going to get too far. So, it can't hurt. And I get some satisfaction for at least for trying to be a wee bit positive about the circumstances. My bet is still that we are tumbling towards the abyss, but just in case it's not a done deal yet, I can toss in my 2 cents.

My first observation is easy: you can't get people to do things that don't make sense. If you're some successful evil-capitalist, you're focus is on amassing the largest treasure, and nothing but.

We set the game around money, we can't just expect to change it midstream. Capitalism works because at its crudest level it promotes competition. Competition keeps every one trying, but it also keeps them trying to cheat. Winning at all costs is the essence of the game.

The world is headed for a major disaster, aided by this fierce competition and people are only just beginning to figure out that there are some undesirable side-effects of this approach. Sure it moves us forward, but does it do it too quickly? Progress at all costs. Quite the motto. Maybe if we open up enough boxes, the last one won't the one that wipes us all out?

The next observation is that the thing we need to do -- change our behavior -- is the thing we will not do on our own. Capitalism is about selfishness, greed and competition, all great qualities that were instilled into us by evolution. To win in the market, a nasty capitalist needs to take in account the irrational nature, and find some point to maximize the profits. It is an incredibly complex thing that has no easy answers. That's why there are more losers at business, than there are winners. It takes a peculiar sense of balance to manipulate the people around you, and make off with the riches. Exploiting is hard work.

If all the world understands is money, then the problem itself needs to be framed in terms of money. I.e. it needs some type of "value" to actually be a consideration. That is so much harder than it sounds. If you go in search of finding the "real" cost of environmental impact for example, you need to take everything into account, whether or not you understand the full long-termramifications. Lots of effort has been sunk into trying to value stuff correctly. It's not an easy problem.

But hey, if we are currently not valuing the real costs, then the current numbers we are using are incomplete and probably irrational, aren't they? And if they are, then putting a value on the environment can probably be irrational too, can't it?

That little leap is worth everything in that you don't actually have to solve the problem, you just don't have to value everything properly. There is no point. It doesn't really matter. All that matters is how things are valued relative to each other. Pricing is, and always will be irrational. Money is just a relative placeholder. It is meaningless by definition.

So the core observation is that if you want to change people's behavior, you simply need to add in an arbitrary cost into the mix. But as always we need to note that people being evil and greedy tend to rebel if you change their world too swiftly, so that any change must be gradual to be accepted, but it needn't be rational.

So the advice is simple: add an environmental tax, small at first but then growing over time. Give discounts to people who can prove that something they are doing has a 'positive' impact. Assume everyone else is lying. Place the onus on the companies for proof. Make it harder to prove each year.

If they do nothing they pay 100%, otherwise they can get discounted down to 100%, or even better if countries want to add subsidies. And we should allow that, if one location wants to artificially support an aspect of their community, we should just let them. Forget trying for a level playing field, it can never work, so why even try? Regions should be able to reapply their taxes in whatever way suits them best, it's really just a collected form of a discount after all.

If the tax starts out initially as trivial and increases gradually over the next twenty years, by the time its near its full height, its ability to influence behavior will be tremendous. As more and more people become motivated to avoid paying it, more and more will be done to improve environmental impact. Most of the revenue will fall into the hands of localgovernments, so there will always be incentive to collect more; so long as the two sides don't collude, behavior will change gradually.

Now I realize that this is far too simple for today's influential people. We live in a period where absolutely everything has to be made into a super-complex nightmare. I think that is a failing in our understanding, after all you can only simplify things if you really understand them. If you're just partially getting it, you'll only complicate it. That's the way it usually works.

In the end, however it never needs to be complex. Nothing does. Complex is stupid and ugly, and it never works right. Complex is the beginning of the end for all of us. Complex, in the twenty first century is the biggest threat to humanity, unmatched by natural, biological or external phenomenon. But still, it is extremely hard to convince the ruling masses that a simple idea could ever be effective.

My final observation: if you really want to save the world, keeping it from it's latest obvious impending doom, all you need to do is give it a simple push in the right direction. If your lucky it will shift. From there is will just go to the next great threat.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Collective Intelligence

Yikes. The first principle of a really gifted conspiracy theorist is always that there is some type of 'super' intelligence at work in the background -- ruthlessly plotting and scheming to bring about some great master plan. Hmmm. Given the state of our world, my only comeback is "we should be so lucky".

Lucky? Yes, for if you're really objective about our current state of affairs you'll see that it is only by sheer luck that we haven't managed to blow ourselves into space, or crack the planet in half, or some other major species-ending calamity. Mankind, you see, having just recently found its way out of the trees, still acts with a pretty low collective intelligence. Pretty low indeed.

If you've ever seen the TV drama West Wing -- a great show about what it is like to be running the USA from the Whitehouse -- you may well be impressed by the intelligence and understanding shown by the various characters. They come together frequently in various episodes to solve some pretty major problems, usually quite successfully.

Now, consider the fact that those 'characters' had the 'hindsight' of the writers knowing which way their script was going to go. In a sense, there were probably operating 10% to 100% more effectively at their jobs then their real counterparts. Possibly even more. OK, you think "no too bad". Well, if you watch them -- these unreal, yet excellent examples of modern political play -- most often, they're barely hanging on. Yes. Even with 'editorial' hindsight, they still get dragged along and barely managed to come out in one piece at the end.

If the fictional people are so disorderly, and disorderly is not what they are trying to be, then you could only imagine how much of a mess the real people are having. Makes you worried? Given some of the actions of late, we often left wondering if many of the current administrations are even self-aware. It reminds me of those accused on Judge Judy, blankly staring away, wondering how they ended up in this awkward position. Hardly omnipresent, or even present.

On our own we all have some degree of intelligence, but put a horde of us together and collectively we drop like a rock. Several feet, if you can imagine. You look out at the world around us and see all sorts of the crazy things going on, and you keep wanting to think "someone" has to be keeping this place from blowing up, but there is nothing. Sadly, most conspiracies aren't true 'only' because our collective intelligence isn't high enough to pull off even half of what people think might have happened. We just ain't that sophisticated.

Consider the terrorists. Any of them. Usually they are lead by bright rich well-educated guys with lots of time on their hands, but the very best they usually come up is to take something really large and smash it into something else really large. Not exactly rocket science is it? The best of the worst of humanity can't even come up with a decent evil plan. The scary part is imaging how they managed to sell this to their other co-conspirators. "You want us to what?!" they were probably thinking. Crazy.

So if the guys running the show aren't too clever, and the guys trying to bring down the show aren't too clever either, one has to be totally amazed at how we've managed to avoid a serious catastrophe so far. I mean, really, the CIA probably aren't involved because they are too busy with paper-work and getting their computer system's up and running. The great 'masters' of business are always too busy seeking out new and exciting ways to rip off their own shareholders. Politicians by their very nature are just along for the ride, were surviving for them means not getting too attached to people or their issues. They're not much help. In fact, most heads of most organizations of any shape or type are too busy trying to keep their underlings from stealing their crown. That's not leaving too many people left to do smart things is it?

All and all the odds of any type of super-intelligent organization doing something super-intelligent seems distant. Really, the only people who could even afford to join some secret organization are those latter-generation rich kids with too much money and no drive. That just doesn't sound like a great base for any type organization, let alone on that would hope to function on a much level higher than Enron. I'd hate to see the internal squabbling about office decorations in a place like that, it must be ugly.

That's why, mostly when people go on about conspiracies, I keep hoping that one day a really good one comes to light; that it actually turns out to be true or even mostly true. It would be a positive sign for humanity -- even if it was a really evil organization -- because it would show that finally we've reached a point where we are no longer operating at such a low collective level that there might actually be some potential for our species. Until then we just have to hope that we're too stupid to find our selves half-way there, since that's the sort of thing the bad guys tend to use first, long before the good guys get around to figuring it out. Anyways, these days, with us rapidly destroying our own bedrooms, it's hard to even know who's right or wrong anymore, isn't it?