Conspiracy Is a System

”Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

This expression, known as Hanlon’s Razor, proves a useful refrain, but it does not go far enough. Why? Because it suggests that it’s mere stupidity that leads to seemingly malicious outcomes.

Consider, for example, COVID-19. Could it have been created intentionally and released on purpose? Sure. Or could it have been stupidity — or incompetence — in a lab, leading to its accidental release?

Hanlon’s Razor might call to mind Occam’s Razor. That’s not a coincidence. Stupidity leads to all kinds of bad outcomes by its very nature. Consider Cippola’s The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity — that stupidity is definitionally where someone acts in a way that is harmful to both self and to others. Applied to organizations — in our example bio-labs — “stupid” outcomes may just be stupidity at scale, where scale comes from a system (as opposed to an individual) doing something harmful.

So what does this have to do with conspiracies and systems?

Start with systems

Systems are all around us. And to be clear, in this context (and for the purpose of this discussion), this is a discussion about systems created by people. In this context and defined simply, systems are meta-structures created by and run by people. Examples: organizations, corporations, institutions, legal structures, etc. Critically, systems have something analogous to a life of their own. Yes, they depend on people, people who give them agency. People offer up their agency in exchange for the fruits of maintaining the system. Wealth, status, healthcare benefits … you name it, and systems will offer it to people in exchange for their agency. Systems also know how to use sticks. If they can, they will punish.

At their simplest, systems demand tending. Otherwise they create problems (See: John Gall’s Systemantics).

Consider a legal entity established to run a business. Once you create it, you must file reports, taxes, and if you don’t, you have problems.

Any remotely complex system soon starts to exhibit unexpected behaviors. The agency and actions of those tending to the system combines in unexpected ways, bringing scale and creating incentive structures. The combination, despite being made up of people, is fundamentally inhuman. It plays by its own rules.

A system does not love. It does not need food. It simply needs people — your agency and the agency of others, too — and that’s all. Grow a system to thousands or tens of thousands of people, and you have an organism that’s alive in every sense. Those who refuse to do the systems bidding, care not for the trade of agency for _____ … those people can and will be replaced by others who will.

Nothing personal. Nothing human.

End with conspiracy

Critically, any system like this — call them “behemoths” if you will — will inevitably do things that are definitionally stupid. They will also do things that are fundamentally malicious.

Systems will be stupid. Systems will be evil. They will still be run by people.

This last part is key. Because when you see systems acting in ways that seem fundamentally inhuman, evil, and harmful to mankind, it’s people that everyone sees. It’s Koch Brothers and Bill Gates and George Soros that people see. People do not see the organizations — that is, the millions and billions of funds deployed, all underwriting the paychecks of thousands of anonymous systems-operators.

So it is that conspiracy theories tend to ground themselves on actual individuals. Scapegoating an individual — like Gates (who assuredly is a busybody, even if one with good intentions) — is a convenient way to scapegoat a system. Evil needs to have a name, and it’s much easier to name Google, Phillip-Morris, Exxon, _______ than it is to name the fundamental structure that distances individual human agency from the meta-organism, the parasite, of a system that draws its lifeblood from many people.

Just-so stories …

Bring it back to Hanlon’s Razor. Why do people end up creating these complex narratives to villify Gates, Soros, etc.?

Sure, these people may have qualities that are disagreeable if not outright dangerous, but are they really the devil incarnate?

Or are they just systems doing systems stuff — at scale and to massive, dangerous effect?

I believe it’s the latter. And I believe it’s critical that you and I see the nature of what’s going on — it’s not about some cabal pulling the strings in the shadows, orchestrating impossibly complex schemes.

Mankind is in the systems business. And rather than Frankenstein piecing together some monster from inanimate lifeforms, people create monsters from individuals. You and me, we are the lifeblood of these systems, yet we’re so distanced from the evil they do, we have no accountability for it. We don’t realize they couldn’t exist but for our subservency to them.

Conspiracies are about systems.


Managing Uncertainty (or Being Managed by It)

Uncertainty is all around me. Not only do I not know what the day will bring, what the weather will be, or what surprises await behind every corner, but even the people I engage with! They are all unpredictable.

This is the nature of life. And while some level of unpredictability brings novelty, surprise, and excitement, too much uncertainty terrifies.

Modern life exposes me to a never ending stream of information bringing with it more uncertainty. Like the theoretical “butterfly effect,” events occurring around the world insist on proclaiming themselves to my world — whether it’s through social media, the news, or through the rapid proliferation of a novel virus literally crossing oceans in to infect my community …

Drowning in so much information paradoxically makes it harder to know what to do, what to think, how to live. What do I do about a novel virus? What do I think about the events in ________? How do I cope with knowing the suffering of human beings a world away? How do I quiet my uncertainty about the climate? About population growth? About the food that I eat?

On and on the uncertainty goes.

Today easy answers to all this uncertainty are available on demand. But there’s a problem. A decade ago I wondered about the problem of “confirmation bias” — that Google offered a way to confirm whatever strange idea I had. Today, I need not wonder. You can find any answer to life’s most uncertain questions. The right diet? Find an army of people who proclaim “_____ is the way, the truth, the light!”

Answers to uncertainty are everywhere and everywhere they contradict. See the people who are vehemently pro-[______], and see their enemies who are as dogmatically anti-[______]. Both sides, all sides, believe they know the truth. They believe with absolute certainty.

And so much certainty leads to more uncertainty.

And the dogmatism is not to be trusted. It is a sign of uncertainty. You need not rage about what’s right. What’s known as true is not up for passionate debate.

And the dogmatism is a sign. It’s a sign many are now controlled by a dependency. They need to be certain.

So it is that desiring certainty goes from a natural, useful tendency to something more pathological.

And the pathology is now cultural. Modern man believes he can solve the riddles of reality. What can’t science tell us about the world? The universe?

Don’t adhere to a scientific world? That’s okay: What does your preferred God tell you is the answer?

Priests, experts, research, religion, answers, dogmatism … as far as the eye can see. If you want answers, you will find them.

What will make you happy? You do not know. But if you insist, someone, some product, some way to know will present itself, and you will accept it. Because you need to know.

How do we manage uncertainty? At the core, living in a world where we don’t have the answers, where we can’t know the answers, where the answers we so strongly believe are probably — certainly — not the right answers even if they are not exactly wrong …

Can you live that way?

And if you opt for certainty, the certainty of some system, are you choosing to relinquish control in the process?


Going Cyborg

I’m afraid we’re all going cyborg.

That might make you think of Luke Skywalker with his bionic arm, or Darth Vader. Maybe it’s The Six Million Dollar Man (well before my time) or some blend of The Terminator. A cyborg is just a mix of man and machine where the machine—the technology—extends the man.

Man and machine.

Do you see it? That screen you’re staring at, the one you’re holding in your hands, the one sending information directly to your brain through your eyes, the one doing your bidding through taps, scrolls, and swipes …

That’s your extended mind.

  • When was the last time you went anywhere you’ve never been before without using an app to tell you how to get there?
  • How do you get information?
  • How do you order products?
  • How do you broadcast your life, your thoughts?

And the more we rely on our phones to extend ourselves into the world, the more like cyborgs we become. Yes, the interface between our extended selves is clunky—synapses mediated through glass, WiFi, camera sensors, speakers and screens. Yet it’s your extended self all the same.

Reflect on that for a moment. How does that make you feel? And what what does it mean for you, for me, everyone?

Analog to digital

Real life is messy. You take in the world through your eyes, your feet, your smell, your skin. “Real life” is analog. It’s full bandwidth and continuous, all cylinders firing. You take in more information than you can process and your focus directs your mind. You send out more information through your body, your face, your actions and inactions. To the extent that you can “escape” from real life, it’s done by physically separating yourself from others. You can’t really shut it off. Though you try.

Digital is clean. You open an app. You scroll. You click. Your eyes take the information in through words and pictures. Digital is binary. 0s and 1s. So clean. You can only take in what’s there. Low dimensionality. Only what you want.

You want to engage with the world? Send out information, edited however you want. You want to escape? Close that app. (Or open another one.)

That space between

What about all that space between? What fills in the gaps between all the zeroes and ones?

That’s the question before us all. Because the more we engage through those extended pocketable and oh-so-pampered rechargable and inexhaustible brains, the more we reach out and touch a virtual world through the smooth touch of glass, the more we run from the real world, the more our minds must fill in the gaps.

And boy do they. Using whatever decompression algorithms we have, within the context of whatever mood holds us, under the pressure of news, anxiety, social feeds, personal philosophy, politics, whatever … we decompress all that’s presented to us. We bring that digital into our analog space. And though it’s as lossy, pixelated, and full of artefacts, because it’s the only information we have, we take it as truth.

This is life today. Zeros and ones served out and served up to us, held up as truth like so many filtered selfies, not real yet reality.

We’re going cyborg. And we need to face this and try to understand it. Because at some point the machine takes over.

Why does that happen? And what’s lost along the way …


Improving the World by Staying Silent

With attention the signal to rule them all, everyone has something to say.

It’s too much talk. Too many opinions. Too many thoughts and feelings. It’s time we shut up. And not just to listen, either. It’s time to remain silent so that we can let possibility have a chance. To have action speak louder than words. To refrain from letting our words define us — or define how we see others.

In this moment when news and social media and politics and opinions are all we can think about, perhaps we should embrace quiet, instead. Because it’s in the silence that we are open and undefined. Be quiet and let the truth unfold. Let it emerge.

Maybe we can make the world a better place when we stop trying to define it — and everyone with words.


Frontier, Stagnation, Cycle

The Frontier and Freedom

There’s a wonderful thing about the frontier. It’s a place where the rules don’t exist. Anything is possible … so long as it sustains existence on the frontier.

America was a frontier—”The New World”—a place where humanity was able to experiment with new ways to exist as a society—ways forbidden by the prevailing powers in the Old World. Perhaps more than anything, frontiers lack structure and reigning institutions, regulations, and norms. It’s within this vacuum that novelty has a chance.

The Internet, too, has been a frontier. A digital plane where new business models, new ways to engage and communicate, and more could all be tried.

Freedom is found on the frontier.

The Tyranny of the Status Quo

And what’s the opposite of the frontier but the rules, norms, and prevailing powers of the status quo? Ruling states, businesses, wealth, and more exert monopolistic constraints that choke out the possibility of alternatives. The chance for novel ideas.

It is the established order of things—the status quo—that makes it hard to think differently. So what do you do?

All is Not Lost

Thankfully, the status quo is stagnant … systems wound up like a mechanical watch that can only work in a very calculated way. Rigid.

Over time, systems start opposing their proper purpose. They grow so large—or even so specialized—as to be inefficient, brittle, and unable to adapt to changing conditions.

This stagnation results in opportunity because the status quo can’t adapt to changing conditions. And it’s innate inefficiency means some are under-served. Before long, there emerges a possibility of new frontiers.

This is a Cycle

It’s this ebb and flow between the frontier and the status quo that we cycle back-and-forth, iterating and evolving over time. It’s the way of evolution. It’s the way of systems. It’s the way of life. And it’s been this way for millions of years.


Creativity and Constraints

You probably remember a handful people in your elementary, middle, and high school who were known as the “artists.” They were the ones who turned in the beautiful drawings, won the contests, got tapped for t-shirt designs, etc.

I was one of them. With the reputation of an artist came two common refrains. The first? “You’re so talented.” And the second: “You’re so creative.”

But both statements aren’t quite accurate.

Talent? My proficiency as an artist came from paying attention to detail and being a perfectionist. It wasn’t talent; it was focused practice.

And I’ve never felt creative. In my mind, to be creative is to be able to imagine new things from nothing, which has never been easy for me.

Only, after awhile, I realized something. I am creative so long as I have constraints. Constraints create a problem to be solved. And by attempting to solve intractable problems I could be creative.

This realization made sense of it.

For me, constraints strip away possibility and introduce challenges to overcome: The creative person—the artist, the inventor, the entrepreneur—finds a novel way.

Sometimes we’re stuck because we’re not stuck enough.


The Age of Too Much

Have you noticed you have an attention problem?

There are only so many TV shows we can binge watch on Netflix, photos we can scroll, books we can read, games we can play, and on and on.

Our attention problem is due to an exponential growth in things to do, content to consume, and things to distract ourselves with. On YouTube alone, some 300 minutes of new video content are uploaded every minute.

That’s one type of content on one platform.

Outside of content like video, news, opinions, and social media, there are millions of apps, each promising to do some job better, provide an ever more delightful distraction, whatever.

It’s on this infinite supply of distractions that we spend our attention. But it’s never enough. So we busy ourselves in our boredom.

Active boredom.

And we have no choice but to limit what content we consume, directing our attention to whatever’s most satisfying or worse, what’s most engagingly distracting—ignoring all else.

Welcome to the Age of Too Much.


How Normal People Are Turned Into True Believers

Could You Join a Cult?

You’ve likely never worried about inadvertently joining a cult. “Only whack-o’s join cults,” and, “I could never be like that …”

Of course, to be sure, who could be like that? The notion you might abandon your sense of self, adopt a doctrine of unquestionable beliefs, and in the course, cut ties with friends and family to become a card-carrying, kool-aid drinking cultist … It makes no sense. Cults are for crazy people.

Except that doesn’t seem quite right—the math doesn’t check out. So what’s going on?

What if cults take normal people—that is, as normal as any of us are—and upend how we understand the world. What if they do it slowly, methodically—and without any magic, voodoo, or overt conspiracy? And in so doing, they change how individuals process reality, ultimately converting well-adjusted individuals into glossy-eyed true believers.

Maybe this could happen to you.

And maybe this is what makes cults so terrifying.


To Exist is to Aggress

Is it even possible to be pacifist?

Pacifism is defined by Google as the belief that any violence, including war, is unjustifiable under any circumstances, and that all disputes should be settled by peaceful means.

What does that mean in practice?

To start, violence is to be avoided if at all possible. Here’s the problem: How do you avoid violence? How do you prevent it? How do you stop it?

And ultimately, can you have peace without violence?


How to Fix the World

The world’s got problems. Poverty, sickness, violence, crime, exploitation, and countless other bad things exist. They are not good. What more, their very existence is a red flag that something must be done. But what?

No matter your politics or philosophy, most of us would agree making the world a better place is a desireable goal. Where we all differ is in deciding what should be done to accomplish that goal.

So let’s break it down.