[FoRK] WTF?

J. Andrew Rogers <andrew at ceruleansystems.com> on Wed May 23 23:31:12 PDT 2007

On May 23, 2007, at 9:42 PM, Jeff Bone wrote:
> I'm hoping to follow this up w/ a list of some of the things I want  
> to do but can't find the time, a list of causes, and a couple of  
> "paradigm shifting" ideas that I've been knocking around.


Without making any direct point, I would make the observation that  
almost every "cause" I've every heard of is really a grievance about  
a symptom of a handful of very deep problems that have no trivial  
solutions and about which even public acknowledgment is socially  
frowned upon.  If the 20th century has taught us anything, it is that  
rearranging the deck chairs has little effect on outcomes.


One of the mistakes I see activists make over and over is that they  
try to fight a war of attrition against a system that is essentially  
in equilibrium.  That is an endothermic process, and doomed to  
failure.  I would even go as far as to say that most apparent changes  
in society that have occurred that had coincidental activism were  
foregone conclusions because the equilibrium of the system had  
changed and that all the activism was little more than noise or at  
best the straw that broke the camel's back.  Effectively altering  
surface symptoms is rare enough, altering the landscape of some of  
the really deep issues almost never happens in human history.

The only plausible way to alter a system as large as global society  
is to subtly alter the environment such that the old equilibrium  
position no longer is, which requires being thoughtful enough to make  
sure that the new equilibrium position is more desirable than the old  
one, something which is often not the case.  Unintended consequences  
run rampant.  Oddly, I rarely see anyone talking about changing the  
world by way of carefully engineered equilibrium shifts by tweaking  
the environment and letting the system move under its own weight.   
Everyone wants to fight the system, which is glamorous but foolish,  
vain, and ultimately wasteful.  As a result, many of the shifts that  
do happen follow the economy, which does not concern itself much with  
political activism and such since it has its own kind of  
inevitability.  (As a contrary example, one could argue that Ghandi  
grokked the nature of the system very well and carefully exploited  
its nature, though others would argue the outcome was inevitable on a  
longer time scale.)


> Just to season the pot a bit before stirring:  Charlie Stross has  
> an interesting phrase --- evocative if only semi- and somewhat non- 
> sensically defined in his books:  venture philanthropist.  I'm also  
> interesting in figuring out how to cross the gap between open  
> source, limited time to focus on the things one might really be  
> interested in, and need to get paid for *lots* of talented  
> developers (or writers, or artists, or anybody who might be  
> interested in contributing to the IP commons...)  Second evocative  
> phrase:  swarm of angels.


I am not sure what "swarm of angels" would mean that does not exist  
today.

One of the reasons open source works, a reason that does not get  
mentioned much, is that software does not really matter.  Relatively  
little power resides in public software.  Data and what you can do  
with it, on the other hand, matters a lot.  Open source activism is  
all well and good, but it is basically the bull chasing a red cape  
oblivious to its ultimate demise; software is an important but minor  
element in the freedom puzzle.

Of course, most philanthropy is poorly focused insofar as it deals  
with short-term surface issues rather than deep foundational  
problems.  Monkeys want approval for going through the motions of  
being altruists and philanthropists, not the unrewarding task of  
actually solving real problems.  Mother Teresa is a canonical example  
of bullshit pointless altruism that was ultimately an utter waste of  
resources.  Damn hippies.

When most people pick a problem to "solve", they bring with them a  
rather large number of assumptions about what a solution looks like.   
To hell with what you want to *do* (otherwise that will become the  
end itself), tell us what, specifically, you want the end state to be  
and cleanroom the implementation bringing the full weight of human  
knowledge to bear.  Most of the things you mention above are really  
meant to be means rather than ends and therefore irrelevant to  
whatever it is you want to achieve.


> Ironically I haven't had the time since the other night to write  
> any of this up in detail because, well, I'm too busy fighting "the  
> money problem."  (I'm rather fortunate in that what I'm doing day- 
> to-day on that front is right smack in the middle of what I'd be  
> doing anyway to solve some of the other interesting problems.  But  
> for a large part of my career, even when building my own companies,  
> there was inevitable conflict between the need to focus on the  
> commercial task, very constrained, and putting the effort into more  
> leveraged and forward-looking efforts...)  So a first-order  
> question is:  how to build the fulcrum to place the lever to move  
> the world without getting distracted by "the money problem?"


This seems easy enough.  Study the "money problem" and solve it;  
there is nothing hard about money, but most people are too distracted  
by other things (myself included) to actually address that problem in  
a fruitful manner.  Sometimes looking for a shortcut wastes a lot  
more time and resources than attacking the problem head on,  
particularly when it is a well-defined task with non-controversial  
endpoints.

Most genuinely interesting things you can do require planning 20  
moves out and then having the patience and discipline to actually  
execute that in a rational order.  If there is a "money problem",  
then the first step is to do nothing but aggressively solve it;  
everything else you can do is largely pointless otherwise.  The  
universe does not care if you would rather save the whales; if  
economics says you need money to do it then nothing will be gained  
over the long-term by not focusing on the money in the short-term to  
the nominal exclusion of the longer term goals.  It is matter of  
coldly rational pragmatism that sometimes runs contrary to the purity  
of ideological motivations.  I am not saying that you actually need  
money in any particular case, just that in most cases there is no  
direct road to solving the epic problem that does not require solving  
several other less interesting problems along the way.  Most activism  
oriented people do not seem to be interested in those lesser  
problems, even when you can get them to recognize the importance of  
dealing with them.


There is no shortage of people with a desire to change the world --  
that kind of monkey is a dime a dozen.  The reason these people never  
accomplish anything is because almost no one has the combination of  
intelligence and discipline to play the game long enough and well  
enough to actually win, usually because some combination of ideology,  
vanity, and lack of discipline will not allow them to make the  
necessary strategic detours.  I figured that out the hard way.

I know it is a bit preachy, but if this was easy every retard  
activist out there would actually be accomplishing something.   
Clearly whatever it is your run-of-the-mill activist is doing is  
irrelevant to the process of achieving an end, so we can safely skip  
most of that.  The question is then, what is left?

Cheers,

J. Andrew Rogers







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