what kind of world we hope to create


“In a world with abundant computational resources where nothing is forgotten and where we are connected in pervasive, unexpected ways beyond our choice, it is reasonable to stop and ask ourselves just what kind of world we hope to create.”

Grady Booch


Generally speaking, how we ask ourselves what kind of world we hope to create will inevitably find that ‘how’ battling between two conflicting views. One view is that human beings are inherently altruistic and that greed and selfishness is not actually part of human nature, but rather constructed from the norms, and what is valued, of society. The other view is that human beings are centered on self and that the pursuit of self-interest is absolute. Unfortunately, this binary thinking creates some flawed structural thinking impeding how we can actually create the kind of world we hope to create. The flawed “how” creates a flawed foundation from which to build upon. What would help would be to understand people are neither inherently altruistic nor selfish. We are actually what researchers call conditional cooperators and altruistic punishers. I believe this is called ‘social reciprocity’ and is defined as a predisposition to cooperate with others and to punish, even at a personal cost, if necessary, those who violate the norms of that cooperation. Reciprocity behavior is grounded in an inherent understanding that teamwork and cooperation and working with others will always create “more” than what one individual can create alone. I also believe that this binary framing conflicts against a general understanding that the most extreme, or purist, implementation of any ideology, model or belief system is not effective, i.e., effectiveness is not achieved through simplicity. For example. State run systems turn into bureaucratic nightmares and free market constructs lead to dysfunctional societies.

Which leads me to suggest, generally speaking, most people have reached a pragmatic consensus that markets and governments each have a role to play in society.

Despite this understanding the vacuum between is wretched. And it is within this vacuum within which society and humans and humanity continue to evolve typically at a snail’s pace – despite popular belief everything is rapidly changing. And even within this slow evolution there is conflict because humans get trapped in-between the fact we slowly evolve endosomatically, through our genes, and the fact there is a more rapid evolution exosomatically – through our culture. This conflict means that we will constantly drift from order to disorder, entropy and energy, self and collective, all wrapped up in an uncomfortable blanket of uncertainty.

Circling back to my opening, within this wretched inbetween we ask ourselves not only what world we want to create, but actually how to build it. Within this ‘how’ we enter into the next conflict: closed system versus open system. Closed systems always have a predictable end state. Humans like that. To be clear there will always be some unpredictable things occurring in the closed system. Regardless. All closed systems eventually find their future resides in entropy. Open systems are significantly more complicated and complex. They oscillate between stable equilibrium states and complex and unpredictable patterns far from any equilibrium (or anything that would be comfortable to greater society and people). Open systems are uncomfortable to people because if an open system continues to be fed energy and resources, it is impossible to predict its ultimate end state (or whether it will ever even reach an end state). People hate that kind of shit especially if they are thinking about how to create the world we hope to create. Unfortunately, the world, itself, is an open complex adaptive system – a system of interacting parts and pieces that adapt to each other and their environment over time.

Which leads me to what should we hope to create.

Let me begin with some economics. Ultimately, economically, the objective should always be helping poor people to get richer rather than economically punishing the rich This is easier said than done because it is never as simple as rich and non-rich. A bunch of things, and how people think, get bundled up in this discussion (individual power versus environment systemic issues being the main framing). That said. If we focus on non-punishment, then we just focus on a positive vision of growth which gets fairly distributed. And that conversation, in today’s world, gets warped in a confusion between value creation and value extraction. As Mariana Mazzucato said this has serious economic and social consequences. The main consequence is we would need to dismantle, in some form or fashion, how the existing economic system incentivizes, and rewards, those with power who thrive on extraction versus creation to offer value. Now I am going to get nerdy (but this is about what kind of world we hope to create, so …). At the core of this confusion is a misunderstanding of marginal utility. The marginal utility theory of value states that ‘all income is reward for a productive undertaking.’ Without saying anything else, I believe it is obvious that that is not the way our current economic system works. Well. Certainly for the majority of the working people. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Marx becomes essential reading on this. His labor theory of value was not simply an abstract idea, but an act of critique of the system. He asked, if labor produced value, why was labor continuing to live in poverty and misery? He asked, conversely if a group of people did not create value, how did they become so rich? I point that out because all of a sudden, a positive vision of growth then becomes a little bit more complex. What I mean by that is that there can be produced value growth and, separately, there can be individual wealth growth. I say that because we often look at GDP as tied to production growth in how we view whether the system is economically healthy (referring back to Mariana Mazzucato; it is not). The problem gets compounded by the fact that the outcome of production growth (as defined by today), and the growth and distribution of wealth – indirect & direct – created from that production, may actually be quite unhealthy for society. This isn’t to say that I don’t understand that everything must come from somewhere (extraction) and once something has been created it must actually go somewhere (distribution), but what we hope to create will need to be shaped from a reshaped system.

Which leads me to shaping.

If we seek to shape the world we want to create, we need to shape the extraction and distribution. By “shape” I only mean constraints, parameters and nudges; not direct activity. And, yes, shaping often refers to government. And therein lies the next conflict we need to resolve in order to create the world we hope. Does government enhance productivity and add value or does it hold back the economy because it is actually unproductive and can even destroy value? Once again, just as I stated at the beginning of this piece, the truth resides somewhere betwixt. Government, in and of itself, is not bad. Regardless of how you specifically define the role of government, I believe most of us can agree the future will always reside in some combination of reducing activities which inhibit the society and economy and increasing activities which more closely create a truly productive activity and a productive healthy society. Government has a role.

Which leads me to the mindset necessary in the kind of world we hope to create.

We need an adaptive mindset. An adaptive mindset is pragmatic while still embracing possibilities. It values doing shit over doing nothing and values tangible facts about today more than guesses about tomorrow. This mindset doesn’t expect that everything will work out as planned and prefers lots of smaller failures to big ones even while embracing “going big” over “going home.” This paradoxical thinking is willing to say we learned something new and now we need to change course. Basically, we learn by doing and to end up doing what is necessary to make progress. But maybe one of the unsaid things within an adaptive mindset is the fact that it embraces a belief energy potential is the key to pragmatism, possibilities, the present, and the future, i.e., energy is abundant and accessible – if you choose access it. This leverages an idea physicist James Prescott Joel: “nature, itself, is stingy with its energy and energy is neither created nor destroyed, but converted from one form into another.” I bring that to the forefront because what this suggests is that the energy within a system is one of the few guaranteed resources available. Energy always exists and if we want to create a world, we need to control and employ the existing energy. Which leads me back to an adaptive mindset (rather than talk about encouraging massive change). An adaptive mindset recognizes the pragmatic innovations in the present which can be leveraged to do the things to create the world we desire. This is helpful because it is always easier to create something from something rather than create from scratch. To be clear. This is not to suggest we should not challenge ‘the past imaginations.’ I would argue imagination is iterative thereby naturally inventing the future rather than resurrect the past. And from there we need to acknowledge that in the past almost all innovations, and imagination, were limited by their dependence upon nature in some form or fashion. Today’s innovations often strip the limits of nature often optimizing the potential of nature. Solar energy is the prime example of this. Anyway. With that we can begin to envision a world in which machines and technology result in an economy that “potentially unlimited output can be achieved by systems of machines which will require little cooperation from human beings.” (Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution, 1964). While this offers some possibilities, it also creates additional issues because machines produce, but do not consume (that’s the job of humans). And the warning here resides in Vonnegut’s Player Piano where we see a dystopian future of an automated economy in which an industrialized business world is managed by few technological elite who do the work while everyone else in society faces a meaningless existence and hopeless future. It is easy to pursue this dystopian thinking especially because advancing technology is clearly pushing us toward making business, and the economy, significantly less labor intensive. It is here I posit: but what would help is if we designed a world to which we purposefully shifted to. It seems like that is the path to make things work out for people rather than simply offer theories.

“but in the end, it did matter.”

In the end, let me remind everyone it was Marx who reminds us that capitalism inevitably creates its own grave diggers. Yeah. If we seek to find the kind of world we want to create, we will have to wrestle with capitalism. Why? Capitalism will always seek to innovate, but those innovations will almost always surround a more efficient productivity and production process. Neither of those things guarantee a more effective society or a better world for people nor create a world we hope for. And maybe that is where I will end. What world do we wanna create? I would suggest if we can imagine it, we can create it, but, uhm, we may need to destroy some things to do so. Ponder.

  • ** postscript: “hoping to create” is a big idea, in a typically little idea world. What I mean by that is often the future is envisioned by ‘fixing’ the existing system or iterating from what exists. That’s, well, little idea thinking. A ‘bigger’ idea is thinking about what kind of world we want to create – and then go about creating it. But you gotta believe you can do something like that or, well, you get stuck in the little idea world.
Written by Bruce