In reply to a question on “on Moonshots and Slingshots”
Jelle, I have a very conservative vision for global change. My vision, really, goes as far as six or maybe eight machines which everybody on earth has access to: a smokeless cooking stove, a water filter, a solar powered light, a tablet computer, shelter/clothing of some kind, a toilet, maybe a mesh network and a bicycle. That’s pretty much all I want for humanity.
That, and food.
But I don’t think there is any deterministic way of knowing what is best, and I’m also fairly sure that if everybody was trying to achieve these goals, other (equally vital, or more vital) goals like vaccine development would never happen. If we had all been focussing on perfecting agriculture, we would never have invented steam trains or aeroplanes. So much of the best of our work, our fundamental progress, comes from doing seemingly irrelevant things.
I distrust reason’s ability to navigate a path forwards to the future. I distrust central planning, because the Unknown is unknown times bigger than the known. And that applies to Change The World projects even more than regular economies. We need a lot of diversity, a lot of randomness, a lot of inspiration and craziness and irrationality to get up-and-over the “local minima” that confine us to lower efficiency parts of the landscape.
A good example is the Safe Water Trust filter: designed by a retired textile engineer. New principle: an air spring to backflush the filter on every stroke, a principle taken from textile machines which self-clean on every stroke to stop lint building up. See what I’m saying?
Once we embrace this non-deterministic, diverse, stochastic model of progress, it becomes a lot easier to say “well, I’m going to do what seems right now, and I’m going to hope that it’s part of a bigger process.” And that’s NOT false hippie hope, but it’s an admission that our ability to plan is a lot less developed than we’d like it to be.
What I do think counts is doing what we do well, and remaining alert to opportunities to help. Right now the stuff you are doing has no obvious humanitarian application. It would be better FOSS, but the patent schemes are all wrong. Maybe in this time you put your desire to help people into other vehicles. 20 years from now, you’ll be consulting on the Mars Base electronics factory, and they don’t have any IP concerns because Mars Hates Patents. But that experience is suddenly critical-path.
Or maybe it’ll never turn into anything: the hexayurt never gets deployed because inflatable structures made of graphene were cheaper, easier and smaller. I sometimes wonder if I should have pushed it much harder and much faster, at the cost of centralization, control and financialization… am I burning people’s lives for a “bigger impact, much later” strategy that might not ever deliver?
All I can do is say: if we were smart enough to evolve our culture deterministically, WE WOULD BE DESIGNING LIFE ITSELF.
We’re not smart enough to do that. The process of human life is an extension of evolution. Evolution is all about uncertainty, failure, competitive pressure, and mutants who mostly die, and sometimes change everything. It’s within that framework that I find meaning and endurance.
Maybe what I’m doing will not work. Maybe it will not matter. Maybe I’ve made critical errors. But I’ve kept my eyes open for places to apply what I can do to real problems, and the process as a whole is “with enough eyes, all bugs are shallow.”
Within the basic idea that life is stochastic and solutions are uncertain, what we can do is have honest conversations about the risks, the problems, the real way the world works. Even if we’re trapped inside of a seemingly fixed path, we can tell the truth about how things are, and look for opportunities to change things.
If enough people do that, “with enough eyes” kicks in. We start finding solutions on a larger scale, and applying them.
Finally, the biggest change in human affairs since the invention of agriculture is about to begin: the poor in their villages and slums are about to get internet access. Let’s wait a little while and see just what they do with it and figure out how to help that process as it really gets started.
So that’s my take: more uncertainty == more contentment, but don’t lose sight of the goal!