Josh Haas's Web Log

Instability and the unknown

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What if you’re a good cancer cell?

Selfless, considerate, hard-working, supportive of your friends and neighbors. Good. But, your friends and neighbors are also cancer cells, and while you may be doing your part to make your community grow and prosper, your community is slowly killing the larger world that you’re a part of?

I just read this talk on how Silicon Valley is creating a dystopic internet. It’s a disturbing read. Some parts of it I viscerally agree with (the venture-capital ecosystem being toxic, and big tech companies having too much power) and other parts I viscerally disagree with (that data collection is a bad thing, and that governments should play a role in deciding which data companies can keep). My biggest take-away, though, is uncertainty. I don’t think I have the information nor the wisdom to know how all these forces will play out in the long term, and I don’t trust people who think that they do.

The scary thing is this is my industry. This is a subject-matter that I’ve spent thousands of hours thinking about and working on, and I still don’t know what “good” for the system is. I don’t think anyone really knows.

I think at some point, the human race crossed a certain magic threshold. Call it the interdependence-to-brain-size ratio. That point at which the complexity of the system that each individual is a part of exceeds the individual’s mind’s ability to comprehend and predict.

I’m not sure when this happened. Ralph Waldo Emerson published Self-Reliance in 1841, which suggests that he may have seen this situation developing but it was still nascent. The transcontinental railroad, which arguably marked the end of the American frontier, was completed in 1869. Certainly, the degree to which people are independent vs interdependent varies by geography and lifestyle. I live in NYC, which is an interdependence hub; how many of us would survive if the electric and transportation grid shut down for more than a few weeks?

The human brain being what it is, we still form theories about how the world works and what’s good and what’s bad for the overall system. I do this all the time. I suspect, though, that we neither can nor should trust such intuitions. If you live in a thousand-person self-sufficient community, an experienced adult can say with some degree of certainty what “good” is. If you live in a billion-person cross-continental techno-capitalist organism, whose decisions are made by the combined actions of everyone from corporate CEOs to religious radicals to twitter activists, not so much.

Most people don’t publicly acknowledge this state of affairs (since our culture rewards pretending to know what you’re doing and penalizes expressing doubt), but I think we feel it. It feels unstable. Uncertain. Scary and precarious and grey. I think our national politics are polarized and ugly precisely because when no one really knows how to solve the problems, the easiest thing to do is blame someone else… “if those damn [republicans / democrats / tea partiers / lobbyists / billionaires / poor people] just got out of the way, all our problems would disappear!”

It’s a lot easier to blame a group of people we don’t like than it is to admit that even the best of our economists, politicians, technologists, researchers, activists, religious leaders, talk show hosts, and science fiction writers really don’t have a fucking clue how the hell our world works any more.

I was hoping by the time I finished writing this, some ideas would pop to mind about how to solve it. I do have some glimmerings. It might be the case, for instance, that there are emergent ways of seeing the world to make it simple again. I wrote about that possibility here and here. Or maybe what isn’t comprehensible by our limited individual brains will be tractable to our combined intelligence as it organizes itself through new networks of collective decision-making. (Yes, that’s a link to Kickstarter.)

But honestly I have no idea right now.

So I’m doing what I do when I don’t know what to do, which is to acknowledge the problem, make peace with it, and accept the situation as it is. On an individual level, there are still some no-brainer activities… hone my own skills and confidence, connect with my community, detach myself from toxic patterns that limit my ability to adapt. Learn how to operate in a world of shifting networks and instabilities, where hustling, executing, and connecting are the skills that matter.

Be a good cell. But a good cell that’s ready to start swimming as soon as it sees where the cancer is.

Written by jphaas

May 27th, 2014 at 2:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized