Sunday, November 25, 2012


There are two types of problems we face as a species: a) natural and b) control.

Natural problems are a competition between us and a rather unstable planet. Gradually we've have started small, but over time we have learned to tame larger and larger problems. This trend will continue.

Control is by far our most significant problem. Basically as a part of cooperation, we cede control of our actions to other. But as a result of competition, there is a never ending supply of people who want more control. And so, most problems can be framed in terms of who is trying to control whom, and why. Most conflicts result from a rejection of that controlling effort.

Because the duality of cooperation and competition define our relationships, we're perpetually fated to repeat the same struggles. We need cooperation to survive, but we rely on competition to excel. Without initial cooperation, there is no basis for competition (there must always be a game to play), but in order to increase the likelihood of wining, people often seek to bend or break the rules. To get away with this, they need to enough control to avoid being caught. Thus competition drives the need for controlling others.

If we could articulate the control necessary just for cooperation, but restrict the control desired by competition, I'm pretty sure the world would be a nicer place. Perhaps a bit boring for some people, but nicer anyways ...


  1. I think you've single-handedly put your finger on the dualing political forces in Western societies, particularly the U.S., though you seem to see it in Canada as well(?) Well done!

    What gets me sometimes is the desire for control among competitors is *marketed* to the electorate as controlling competition for the benefit of the workers, when in my estimation it is not. It's for the benefit of the entities that want to control other entities. On the other hand, the political opposition we have markets itself as promoting competition, when in fact they continue to restrict it, just less than the other faction wants.

    It seems to me the goal you set out of articulating enough control for cooperation, while restricting the tendency to increase control, is exactly one of the goals our Founders had when they created our Constitution. One of the modern complaints is they weren't specific enough, leaving too much open to interpretation, allowing those who want more control to abuse it. The common meanings of words change, too, so that an ahistorical interpretation allows for all sorts of things that the Constitution was not originally designed to allow, without the prescribed, consensus-driven modification process. I assume that it'll be up to another era, sometime in the distant future, for people to improve on this. We seem to have lost the ability.

  2. Hi Mark,

    Yes, I've often said that the left was group oriented (cooperation) and the right was oriented towards individuals (competition). What I seem to be finding out about our world is that intertwined dualities exist underneath a lot more than we'd guess. As such it makes it easy to sit on one side or the other and skew the perspectives. From either vantage point people can craft a "reasonable" argument, and in either vantage point they can ignore the other's "reasonable" arguments. It's a strange world where so many believe that they are right and the others wrong, but neither are correct.

    What we need is a way to step back, objectively. If you lift yourself out of the dualities and see them for their own inherent contradictions (if that's the right word) then you are no longer sucked in. If enough people break free then perhaps we can create a new era :-)


  3. Re. left (cooperation) and right (competition)

    What I think your insight points out is that the left is about cooperation from an "obvious" vantage point, but if you look deeper, they're about control. What they want is more cooperation between large institutions, following their tune, which they believe will drive more cooperation among smaller groups and individuals. Whereas the right has elements of controlling behavior, but they call more for cooperation, since as you said, you can't have competition without cooperation. It's at a different level, though. The cooperation comes into the rule making, not the actual relationships between entities.

    Both sides want to influence social behavior, but they go about it differently. The left does it by setting up and influencing social institutions and services. The right has historically done it more directly by imposing laws on individuals, though in the last 20 years they've taken up the left's tactic. They're still somewhat averse to have it all be run by the gov't. They try to partner up with private institutions.

    What we tend to see with the left is an effort to tinker with the "game," ostensibly to make it more "fair," but it's to give them and their political allies an advantage. At least that's the way they perceive it. It seems to me that's not how it really works out. I looks like that's what happens at first, but in the end I don't see what advantage they get out of it. The right plays favorites, too, but they tend to have more of a "subscriber" model. They say to institutions, "You have to play by our priorities, but we'll allow you some degrees of freedom in how you implement what we want you to do."

  4. I saw an interview with Rick Warren, and he said something interesting re. this, that the reason you see a desire for more controls in society is there is a loss of trust. The more trustworthy people are, the fewer rules you need. Further, he said that government can't create the conditions for this. It has to come from the ground up.

    I think one thing that some on the political right have been correct about is that conservatives can tend to get focused on the political problems they see, but miss the underlying cause, that it comes down to our moral, ethical base, how people great and small treat each other.

    On a depressing note, Warren said that what we're seeing now is the "cut flowers syndrome." If you cut some flowers and put them in a vase with some water, they'll look beautiful for a while, but they fade. He said that's what we're seeing now in the U.S., that people have become unmoored from their moral, ethical base, and we're seeing the "flowers fade." This can always be turned around, but it's going to take individuals making those decisions.

    I've come to a similar conclusion re. education. So often people blame the schools and the teachers for students' poor performance. They do deserve some blame, with the teachers union's intransigence, and that of their offshoot organizations, re. curriculum and pedagogy, but quite a bit of it should go to parents. Education is a two-way street. What we've discovered through the No Child Left Behind program is that students who come from economically poor, ethnic minority communities tend to not do well, even in our best schools. However, it doesn't follow that just because families are poor that their kids cannot do well. There have been many instances of people who are poor doing very well. The difference is in how education is valued by those families. If they value education, their children have a much better chance. If they don't, you can put them in the best schools, and they'll still not do well. Again, it comes down to something that our societal institutions can't control.

    I've gotten this sense lately that we've become more a society of cargo cults, the idea being that if we ape the behaviors we perceive of our ancestors, we'll be as successful as they were. Then we blame each other when that doesn't work.

  5. I suspect that it's driven by an increase in complexity. We're all limited in what we can cope with, so as society gets more complex, people likely tend towards becoming superficial. In a way, the more advanced our society becomes the more people will turn off their brains and adopt a "just do it" attitude. My guess is that this stems from a realization that since it's mostly too complex to understand, there is little point in trying.

    Ironically I think this takes place on a backdrop of us actually knowing more, understanding more and generally being able to be smarter (but perhaps for shorter periods of time). So we get these sprints of intelligence, but with more people just trying to keep pace with whatever trivial fad is in season. A culture of sleep deprivation and mass consumerism that is longing for a bigger piece of the pie, but with no interest in what it's stuffed with...


    1. I agree with your point about greater complexity. I had this sense several years ago, taking in a bunch of anecdotal evidence, that technology was outpacing people's understanding of it, and that people were feeling more threatened by it. Yes, we have limits in our ability to comprehend what's going on. Our brains do not scale, but humanity has developed ways to increase our capacity to understand complexity. A couple of them are mathematics and science. Another is computing, with the idea of creating a new medium (that is, if we'd focus more on reducing the complexity of the apparatus we use, without taking away degrees of freedom in it, and separately watering down information about the actual phenomenon which can be modeled through it). I think it is because we as a society have not cultivated these capacities within ourselves that we limit tremendously our understanding of what's going on, and so make pretty bad decisions in the face of circumstances. We have an elite that professes to understand it for us, and regulate it so we won't hurt ourselves. I doubt that's going to work. Carl Sagan warned about this. He asked the rhetorical question, "Who's making decisions about science and technology if nobody understands anything about science and technology, some members of Congress?" He went on to say that there were (and I contend, still are) "only a handful of members of Congress" who understand anything about science and technology; clearly not a majority. He warned that, "Sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and technology is going to blow up in our faces." I think this has been happening, but it hasn't been happening because we've tried to directly handle science and technology for ourselves, out of our ignorance (though there's been some of that). Rather, it's been happening because we've handed responsibility for it off to experts, who have had only limited checks on their activities. So what we have now is "dueling experts," rather than a public discourse on the matters at hand. Sagan went on to say that if people don't develop their sense of skeptical interrogation of authority, then they become prey for whatever, "charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along," and then, "We don't run the government. The government runs us."

      I think faced with lack of understanding, people resort to what they can understand, which is likely to make the problem worse. If an authority steps forward to handle a problem that the people feel they can't comprehend at all, people submit to their authority. It's a natural thing for us to do, though it's not a very good idea. Thomas Sowell wrote a book on this last year, called, "Intellectuals and Society." He said that intellectuals have a high concentration of knowledge per capita, but this does not translate into having all the knowledge that's needed for a society to function, though they often think they possess it, since they can demonstrate again and again that individually they possess far more knowledge, quantitatively, one-to-one, than a passerby on the street. The problem is this analysis is incomplete. He estimated that intellectuals possess 10% of all relevant knowledge in the world, and that the other 90% is dispersed in tiny pieces among the rest of us. I would contend this is the reason a dispersed power structure--federalism--is superior to a centralized power structure. The caveat is you need an educated populace to make this work. From what I've seen, despite our public education system, we have a pretty ignorant populace. I don't mean this in the sense of quantity of knowledge. I mean in the capacity to reason, to think, which is the basis for everything else I'm describing.

    2. Re. consumer culture

      This is very real, and I do worry about it sometimes. From my limited understanding of history, this came out of the Industrial Revolution, where industries worried they had gotten so efficient that they would outstrip demand, and collapse. So they figured they needed a way to control demand. Along came Edward Bernays, who figured out a way to use mass psychology to do this. From what I understand, he was wildly successful at it--controlling demand, that is, not preventing economic collapses. He almost single-handedly changed our culture, through advertising and manipulation of media, to one of consumerism, where people are more inclined to feel than to think.

      My sense of people's knowledge of what's going on around them is they are more aware, but it's a version of "knowing just enough to be dangerous." Their knowledge is very incomplete, and is supplied in a skewed, limited fashion by PR campaigns, which was the technique invented by Bernays, BTW. Another name he had for it is "propaganda during peacetime." IMO it turns masses of people into shallow "useful idiots," and we as a people would do ourselves a lot of good by understanding just what PR is. Even better would be to contrast knowledge generated from PR, from real knowledge, so that people could see the difference, and contemplate how outcomes would be different using one over the other.

  6. The incomplete view problem has always been one of the sources of my fondness for computers. They hold the potential to consolidate our knowledge. Individually we're only human, but our collect knowledge base, and our historic collective knowledge base are stunningly large. If we could get that all in one place then make it easy to learn from, we'd be behaving significantly more intelligently. The Internet shows the possibilities, but we're still held back by our rather crude technologies. Someday that will change :-)


    1. Meant to get back to this discussion. :)

      I really like Ted Nelson's ideas in relation to what you're talking about, here. He made some videos in the last couple years talking about digital content that's internally addressable; everything from text, to audio, to video. In fact he's been talking about this concept since the 1960s, with his concept of "hypermedia."

      His videos were interesting, though; one demonstrating a modern rendition of his "Xanadu" concept, where texts can be linked to, or excerpted with a hard link back to the original source, so that a researcher can drill down into it. He's talked about two-way linking as well. I'm not real sure what that is. It sounds like it's like a trackback on a blog, where if one entity links to a document, the document contains a reverse-link back to the referring entity.

      He also demonstrated this neat concept of a multi-dimensional database, where you can pivot on an entry, into other dimensional record sets that contain it. This is so that you can make each record set like a category of information about a subject. I'd liken it to having different POV's. So, for example, you could have one data set that talks about cities, their populations, their economies, their tax base, etc., and then on any one of those sub-topics, say we pick population, you can pivot into looking at the demographics of a city. Say you pick Asian descent, showing ancestral countries of origin, then you can pivot into education levels, incomes, etc., and then "slide" through the different demographic groups on those stats. What he showed is how you can focus in on particular kinds of information, keeping relationships to some subject intact during the search, so you don't lose your place as you explore different aspects of it.

      I talked about this new way of looking at digital information in a blog post here:

      Yes, if computer scientists would deepen their field, we could make progress on this on the technology front.

      One problem I realized is that in order for people to really take advantage of this, though, there would need to be a new literacy in some principles that come out of computer science. One of them being about slicing information up into pieces, and consciously building meaningful relationships between them, so they can be traversed with flexibility.

      Another problem I think is quality of education. You can have people go through school for years who don't understand the importance of understanding the world around them, and the society they live in, and how they can go about doing that. If the tools are there, but hardly anybody values them, they're not going to get used much.

  7. BTW, I've been mulling over this presentation by Evan Sayet at the Heritage Foundation for a while, called, "How The Modern Liberal Thinks." It's pretty partisan, but even so, I think he has some deep insights to impart that relates to your notion that people find our world too complex, so they "just do it" without trying to think about it much. Sayet has a book out now called "The KinderGarden of Eden" (that is the actual title. I think he's trying to make a point with it) that is based on what he talks about here.

    He comes at it from a different angle, not talking about complexity. He says it has a philosophical basis in indiscriminateness, and that modern liberals believe that indiscriminateness is a moral imperative; that to think rationally is to discriminate, and so is a form of bigotry. It explains a lot in my experience, though I can't shake the feeling that Sayet is missing some aspects of what's going on.

    I think what underlies the indiscriminateness he sees is license to indulge in one's feelings of happiness and goodness, no matter the circumstances, and to shun anything that doesn't promote those feelings. The only context that has validity in this philosophy is togetherness and sharing. Any rationale that might cause a sense of separateness or a lack of generosity towards anyone or any thing is shunned, no matter the circumstances. What matters is the sense of connectedness and "doing something about it."