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.

Let’s assume there are two ways we might determine to fix the world: centralized solutions or decentralized solutions.

1. Centralized solutions

Here’s how centralized solutions work. Identify a widespread problem and work toward a solution that solves the problem for everyone affected. Often this requires turning to large organizations like the government. Common problems that are being  worked on at a centralized level include:

  • Public education
  • Healthcare
  • Poverty
  • Individual rights

The centralized approach assumes a solution can be engineered and once “solved,” executed. It assumes complete accuracy with regard to theories of human behavior and no second order effects — I.e. policies aren’t gamed at the micro level, central forces perfectly execute the policy.

Centralized approaches do not have a successful historical record. Command economies fail. Public education is broken. Poverty has not been eliminated by the welfare state. Pick pretty much anything. And its not for lack of trying.

Possible exception: Centralized establishment of individual rights. So far as we can agree upon explicit individual rights, establishing those rights and then upholding them via the law has been a boon for society.

What’s going on here? I’d posit establishing individuals as the rightful owners of their own existence aligns agency and self-interest. The individual is responsible for their own survival and existence, requiring nothing of their fellow man other than non-aggression. But non-aggression has a consequence: a given individual’s rights cannot come at the expense of others.

Individual rights are an exception to other centralized solutions due to their elegant symmetry and decentralized, distributed execution.

2. Decentralized solutions 

The most widespread decentralized solution to making the world a better place is to let individuals own the outcomes of their decisions. I.e. individual, personal responsibility. Decentralized solutions follow naturally from individual rights.

Extend personal responsibility into large groups of people and you get an emergent second order effect: the “free market.”

Importantly and controversially, the free market turns a blind eye toward fixing (centrally) the playing field. Equality of outcome is ifnored (it’s opportunity and agency that matters). Differences in wealth and personal preferences are a feature, not a bug.

Okay, so what?

So when it comes to making the world a better place, which is more effective, decentralized or centralized solutions?

Long ago I concluded I had the most agency to make the world better through my individual decentralized actions. I can make the world better by educating my kids, being a good neighbor, making responsible decisions, being productive with my work, solving problems when I see them. There is symmetry in this approach. I reap the rewards of my actions but also suffer for my mistakes.

It’s imperfect but feels right. It both feels right locally—I can see the positive impact on my proximate world. But it also works globally. If every person individually determined to pursue small ways to make their world better. No omniscient central control mechanism is required. Eventually, small things sum up to significant macro change.

Don’t take my word for it.

It’s not perfect. A consequence is there will still be many big problems in the world. And for those, what? Centralized solutions? It depends. Can they be accomplished without downstream effects? Can they work without violating non-aggression? What is the cost of trying? What is impact of failing?

Perhaps the most important questions: What message does it send? What culture does it create?  Where  does it place the locus of control to fix the world?

Fix the world or bemoan it’s brokenness?

What’s better? To point out the manifold ways the world needs to be fixed and gnash your teeth, protest, and rage against the central powers to “do something!” Or enact through individual behavior small ways to make the world better, encouraging others you care about (and who care about you) to do the same in their own lives?

Like the Mote and the Beam, perhaps it’s better to fix locally first before attempting to tackle the global problems. Fixing your local world does not mean you don’t want the world to be a better place. It doesn’t mean you turn a blind eye to the pain of others. Support those around you as best you can given your limited resources.

Our resources are limited, so put your efforts where they’ll have the most impact. Fix your world.

The Mote and the Beam

From the Sermon on the Mount comes the story of the Mote and the Beam. A refresher:

1 Judge not, that ye be not judged.
2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. — Matthew 7:1-5 KJV 

I’m no Biblical scholar. That’s my dad. But what of the mote and the beam? Is it merely a store about being hesitant to judge others? Maybe. Or maybe it’s something more.

Our Virtuous Modern Landscape

Our society is slowly drowning in the rising tide of judgment. It is everywhere. Individuals are shouted down, damned as evil, monsters! Sometimes for simply having the gall to disagree.

Social media amplifies it all. A social connection shares a perspective. Likeminded individuals pile-on. Many might disagree (or have a question) but say nothing—just not worth it. And for the one who disagrees enough, they go for the jugular. The result isn’t pretty. And nothing changes. Nothing is learned.

The situation devolves.

Elsewhere, what about the the professionals? They’re as bad if not worse: Hop over to the latest news cycle and watch journalists twist words and facts into narratives that push an agenda, more fiction than fact. “Fake news?” Try any news.

Better yet: No news.

Dehumanized

Have you ever noticed how you behave differently when you’re in a public space, face-to-face with other human beings? You extend your fellow man a basic courtesy. You don’t just cut people off at the pass. It’d take an incredible affront to bow out your chest, curse your fellow man, or flip someone the bird.

Yet all of these things are natural outcomes of doing one simple thing: hopping behind the wheel of a car. Why are human being so quick to damn their fellow man when sitting comfortably behind steel and glass?

Or behind the screen of a phone?

Perhaps it’s because technology robs of us nuance, eliminates the threat of facing the raw consequences of our rage, makes us feel bigger than we are, more perfect, less flawed.

Perhaps the more technological we become, the less human we are.

The Mote

A simple glance around is all it takes to see that “something is wrong” with the world. It’s all going to hell. There’s so much to enrage us. Whether it’s the President, the politics, the hubristic opinions of “the other side,” whatever. And it must be pointed out! Rage on!

It’s  Cunningham’s Law:

the best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question; it’s to post the wrong answer.

Except no one wants to get the right answer—we just want to point and shout “You’re wrong!” Forgotten in our rage is the person on the other end of our spirited, breathy opinion. The target of our rage—the actual human being—becomes a caricature.

The Beam

But what if, instead of pointing out how egregiously wrong the other side is, we took a minute to assess our own position. What if, just for the sake of understanding our own position, we steelmanned the other side. Go a step further: imagine the other side may know something you don’t. Remember their humanity and try to empathize with their position. How else can you hope to understand the ideas you hope to defeat?

So put on their shoes. It won’t kill you.

Yes, it is scary. And it does require courage. What if you are wrong? Cognitive dissonance exists because it’s a shield to protect, but that shield can blind us. Wouldn’t you rather dismantle your misguide beliefs now rather than become more entrenched—and all at the cost of further dehumanizing other people?

But it takes work. It’s a process. But the reward is this: When we remove the beam in our own eye we can finally begin to see.

Rehumanizing

I’m an optimist, but these days it’s becoming harder and harder. So many people I respect adamantly refuse to entertain the possibility they are wrong.

(And I, too, fear my own certainty, my own cognitive dissonance.)

So what if we began to engage with others across our screens as though the individuals we’re addressing were physically in the same space as us? What if we were to see them as human beings with similar struggles?

Perhaps the antidote to our enraged modern existence is in the remembering: none of us is a group. And each of us is human.

The only meaningful minority is the individual.

FullStory—I am here!

If you’ve been reading along lately, you picked up on the fact that last week was my last at Google.

And this week was my first at FullStory.

What is FullStory? How you answer that really depends on your job and how you use the tool. I’m not trying to be obtuse; it’s just that FullStory is an analytics (SaaS) platform that captures everything your users do on your website. Understood in its most basic form, FullStory allows you to watch (Literally! Like a DVR) how a user engaged with your site down to the mouse movements, clicks, pauses, everything.

You can mine user sessions for all sorts of reasons, whether they’re for product marketing managers, customer support, design, user experience (UX), user interface (UI), development (finding errors, fixing bugs), etc.

It’s pretty rad—e.g. see this FullStory review from a long-time customer.

I began paying attention to FullStory way back in 2014. A couple Xooglers from Atlanta I’d kept up with were two of the three founders and I was enthusiastically watching to see what they were cooking up.

Fast forward to late 2015 and I started seriously inquiring about roles at FullStory, had a few conversations, and started imagining the possibilities. The timing wasn’t quite right then but all was kept on the backburner. Things quieted down for a bit though I think it stayed on the backburner until late 2016 when things started getting “serious.”

Now here I am.

I’m going to be handling content marketing. You could say my job title is FullStory-teller. I hope to do for FullStory a lot of what I did for a certain minimalist footwear site. I’m just getting started, but you’ll be able to follow along at blog.fullstory.com; also, if you’re not already there, add me on instagram and twitter (these are my personal accounts).

Very excited about the future here. There is just so much potential, excitement, and opportunities.

And if you have a website and care about making it better for whatever reason or whatever function, yeah, you should totally check out FullStory.

The Canary in the Coal Mine and Leaving Dysfunctional Groups

The expression “canary in a coal mine” originates from coal miners using canaries as a kind of early warning system. The miners would take the birds into the mine and periodically check-in on their status. The delicate canaries were more susceptible to gases like carbon monoxide, so if they suddenly stopped moving, miners would be alerted of dangerous air conditions.

Hence, the expression “canary in a coal mine” is an idiomatic way of talking about events that portend negative things to come.

Continue reading “The Canary in the Coal Mine and Leaving Dysfunctional Groups”

Casey Neistat and Success by Doing (Plus Stochasticity)

If you aren’t familiar with Casey Neistat, allow me to remedy the situation.

Casey Neistat is likely the most burgeoning YouTube star of 2016. Here’s his channel. I’m approaching a year having subscribed to his daily vlog videos and to my eye what Neistat is doing on YouTube is a testament to the democraticization of video content.

Continue reading “Casey Neistat and Success by Doing (Plus Stochasticity)”

Clayton Christensen’s Jobs-to-be-done Theory

I have written much more about Clayton Christensen’s Jobs-to-be-done framework over at the FullStory blog:


Clayton Christensen (along with a few other co-authors) is soon releasing a book called Competing Against Luck that will go more in-depth on Christensen’s “Jobs-to-be-done theory,” which is a way to reframe product design and product selling away from fallacious, post ergo hoc propter hoc data and towards first principles.

Continue reading “Clayton Christensen’s Jobs-to-be-done Theory”

Digitally Isolated.

iPhone_PrisonBIG
A poignant depiction of the iPhone as a prison via Felipe Luchi for Go Outside Brazil.

I keep thinking about being digitally isolated.  What is “digital isolation?” In a nutshell: today we are more connected to anyone/everyone than at any point in history yet (paradoxically) we feel ever more alone. Stranger still, it seems we have chosen this as our preferred mode of existence.  There’s even a joke about it: there are nine ways to reach me on my phone without talking to me; pick one of those.

Connected.

It’s incredible that we can find people like us all over the world with whom we can connect in a meaningful way about a certain idea, topic, or shared interest. The Internet has made that kind of deep, direct communication a reality and it’s helping people find others who are like them.  With such fantastic connectivity, you’d think people would feel less alone.

On any given random, unusual, defining personality trait or unique(-ish) personal interest, this may be true. However, some data indicates that when it comes to topics of great importance (e.g. how we feel about ourselves, about others, about family, about sex, etc. versus what we think about politics, morals, religion, or our favorite TV show/sports team), it seems we’ve got fewer people to talk to than ever.

Take, for instance, a study published by the American Sociological Review that indicates that from 1985 to 2004, 43.6% of the population reports that they only discuss important matters with either no one or with only one other person. From the study, “The Modal number of discussion partners has gone from three to zero.”  And that was as of 2004!

That’s not good. You see, while the Internet functions fantastically at satisfying our highest level needs — think: our convictions about politics, morals, religion, or just our favorite music, sports team, or TV show — it’s not so great when our human needs become more basic (See: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Here I’m talking about our sense of place in a community, our effectiveness at connecting to friends and family, and our more basic sense of satisfaction with day-to-day life.

Where is the breakdown?  From what I can tell, it stems from our ability to be too surgical in our interactions with other human beings.  Imagine needing to tell someone you care about (a friend, a boss, a spouse) something that may upset them.  You can tell them over the phone, in person, or over email.  Which method gives you the most control?  I think for most it’d be the email:  we can be very precise in crafting the message, we can shield our emotions, and we can save ourselves from seeing the reaction (one we anticipate will be negative) of the recipient.

Or think about how we interact on social networks like Facebook.  There, we are able to blast out what we’re doing through text, photos, or even video.  While the common complaint about Facebook posts is that the stuff shared is overly mundane (e.g. photos of what we’re eating), the truth of these communications is that they are all overly filtered.

One of the most popular services on Facebook of recent note is Instagram.  Instagram empowers us to apply filters to our photos to make them look better, which given how most camera phone photos look, is a much needed service.  So Instagram’ed photos are hugely popular–so much so that they are cliche.

Instagram is just a more specific version of what Facebook is generally.  On Facebook (or any digital platform), we get to be the editors of who we are to the world.  The result?  What we share about ourselves amounts to being an “Instagram’ed” version of who we are.  It’s polished.  Selective.  Distilled.  And perhaps a little cliche.

It’s not that we never “dress to impress” or filter ourselves to others in “meat space.”  Clearly we do.  It’s just that doing so is so much harder when we’re sharing physical space with someone else.  When we spend time physically with other people, we don’t even have to say anything at all.  An agenda isn’t required.

Being there.

Today, it’s easy to think of the quiet time spent with another person as time we could be spending reading email, checking favorite websites, playing games on our digital devices, or engaging in some other activity (something to fill the voice).  We do think of these micro-instances this way.  More and more we never need to waste time without engaging something or someone somewhere.

When we trade this (ostensibly unused) time with others for distraction, what do we lose?

Whenever something bad happens to a friend or loved one, I often struggle to find something meaningful to say to express my condolences and concern.  I often just say, “I’m here for you if you need anything.”  I want to “be there” for my friends or family.  But what does “being there” mean?

Rather than being some vacuous statement, I think “being there” for someone else is a hugely important part of having a meaningful relationship.  “Being there” is being available–physically and mentally–to embrace the people I care about but it usually only happens if the other party sees me as being available.

Being there  is giving them my time and attention and letting them waste it in silence if they choose.  It’s being vulnerable to them–the power  to spend my time however they choose (and it goes both ways). If they need to burn some time around me in silence that’s fine.  If they need to get something out then being present to that person gives them the chance to scrounge up the courage to have it out.

To date, I don’t know of any way to “be there” for someone else digitally.  Being reachable by 10 ways via 5 computers/tablets/mobile devices is not the same as being available.

(Come to think of it, the nearest technology that gets at availability may be instant messaging where you appear “available” to chat … but that’s still not the same as physically being available to others.

Being alone.

So there are two things at play.  We increasingly choose filtered communications over unfiltered communications thanks to ever-more ways to digitally relate to other people (or distract ourselves) and there’s less and less time spent being present to those we are physically near.

The result?  We feel more alone.  Our digital world isolates us.

And when the going gets tough, we don’t know where to turn or who to talk to because there’s no status update on Facebook for needing a shoulder to cry on right now nor are we comfortable unloading our personal fears and anxieties or even our simple joys to our digital friends–the ones we’ve never met in person who happen to share a fancy for Medieval cooking or hilarious Internet memes on reddit.

This is how it is today in a world where we are ever-more connected to others, we lack the sort of connection that matters most: simply being present to the relationships that matter, even when those interactions are nothing more than wasted time in another’s presence.

The time spent actually being present to the people we care about is never wasted: it’s the opportunity to be real.  To be there.  How do we get back to that?  That’s the kind of connectivity that lasts.

What’s Lost in Outsourcing your Life?

David D. Friedman had a thought-provoking post over over the weekend — Middlemen, Specialization and Birthday Parties. Therein he talks about how specialization and division of labor have allowed for us to cheaply outsource various aspects of our lives that were formerly almost necessarily DIY. Below is an example I can relate to now that I’m living as a parent in my own era of kid’s birthday parties — and note Friedman’s reaction (second paragraph):

This afternoon I attended my grandson’s birthday party. It was held at a facility obviously designed for holding children’s parties. The entertainment, preceded by a safety video, consisted of playing on and in large inflatable structures—slides, a bouncy room, an obstacle course. That was followed by cake and pizza, after which everyone went home, the birthday boy accompanied by a bag of unopened presents.

Looking at it as an economist, it is clear that the change from then to now represents an increased use of the division of labor, something that, as an economist, it is hard for me to object to. And yet I do, and I do not think the reason is entirely a conservative preference for the way things used to be. For somewhat similar reasons, I find having guests over for dinner a different, and better, practice than taking them out to a restaurant. Homes have an emotional dimension to them. To invite someone into your home, whether an adult colleague or a child’s friend, is to some small degree to treat him as part of your family.

I tend to agree. I also can’t help but think there’s a tie-in here to buying a friend a gift card rather than a gift. Sure, giving a friend cash or a gift card is like saying, “Hey, I know that no one knows what you want better than you do, so you make the choice and get what you want!” The reality, for me anyway, is that gift cards make the gift, on some level anyway, work. Now I have to remember to allocate the cash to buying something. I have to remember I have the gift card. Whereas getting a gift in hand is more of a risk on the gifter, it also is more personal. I learn something about the giver in the process. I also recognize that the giver sacrificed their time to pick the gift out. These little things somehow add a lot of depth to the experience — at least they do for me.

I like Friedman’s mention of having friends over to your house in lieu of going out to eat. While we haven’t intentionally engaged in a preference of eating-in with friends over eating-out with them, we probably do it about 50% of the time. Going to have to try to bump that up, if possible. Recently, we’ve done a lot more takeout for these meals with friends, which helps some with the work, but still keeps the gathering more personal and relaxed. I’d never really thought about how you lose some of the emotional dimension by eating out at restaurants instead of in your house. It’s a great point.

Overall, I feel like friendships and family-friendships are incredibly hard to build these days. Everything seems over-formalized, requiring lots of advance planning to get together with other couples and couples with kids. “Playdates” are a normal thing now, which just strikes me as a little bizarre.

Anyway, I’m digressing from Friedman, so I’ll stop. Anyone else feel like he does? Like I do?