Category: society

Progress vs. Categories

As humans we like to put things into categories. It makes communicating and thinking easier. Scratch that. It makes communicating and thinking possible. Categories go hand in hand with words as providing us with crucial compression of reality. Just like a 1:1 map is completely useless (it is the terrain itself), so would be a need to describe every detail of every person or object before being able to make a point. We would never get anywhere.

Not surprisingly then, categories are everywhere. For instance in venture we tend to put things into boxes such as “B2C” or “enterprise software.” Or in academia people study a discipline like “physics” or “chemistry.” The government classifies workers as “contractors” or “employees.” But here’s the tricky part: the world isn’t static and progress undoes categories.

The admonition to “think out of the box” when it comes to innovation is apt. Such thinking is both a source of progress and necessitated by progress. Here are just some examples. As we have deepened our understanding of what matter consists of, some of the historic boundaries between chemistry, physics and biology have stopped making sense. With computers dispatching labor we have erased many of the distinctions between contractors and employees. Self-service consumer grade software is taking over the enterprise market with product-led growth companies outperforming sales-led companies.

If you are trying to invent the new (or fund it), it helps to let go of existing boxes, instead of trying to jam innovative ideas into them. One (Read more...)

Joseph Tainter: The Collapse of Complex Societies (Book Review)

Given the ongoing decay of our institutions and their utter failure to address the climate crisis it is not far fetched to ask whether we are headed for some kind of societal collapse. A highly relevant book is Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, published in 1988. I had two key takeaways from reading it.

First, there are way more examples of complex societies collapsing than I was aware of. I was of course familiar with the collapse of the Roman Empire and was also aware of Mayas in the Yucatan (having visited there) but Tainter provides at least a dozen examples, including several societies that I had never heard of before. He also rightfully points out that complexity so far is the historical exception and widespread complexity (meaning the world being dominated by complex societies is a particularly recent phenomenon). So the takeaway here is in part that we really aren’t very deep into the current complexity phase and that the past track record over longer time periods isn’t exactly encouraging.

Second, Tainter proposes a very simple and general mechanism leading to collapse: declining marginal returns to complexity. Over time the benefits of complexity diminish and its costs increase. When that happens societies become prone to collapse from (a) having not enough reserves to deal with shocks and/or (b) parts of society that are bearing a disproportionate share of the cost of complexity resisting. He then analyzes the role of this mechanism in three collapses in some (Read more...)

Humanism’s Twin Goals for Society: Freedom and Solidarity

Many leaders and also parents mistakenly believe that the only way to be demanding is to be a jerk. I had found myself trapped in this flawed thinking at times. What made a huge difference for me was understanding that there are actually two dimensions to leadership (parenting): the demanding and the caring dimension, as shown here in a graph from Angela Duckworth’s wonderful book Grit:


It has recently occurred to me that much of the debate about society is caught in a similar one-dimensionality trap. There appears to be a believe that all that matters is freedom versus oppression. And yes that is absolutely an important dimension. But it is not the only one. The other dimension that really matters to the functioning of a society is one of solidarity versus selfishness.

By pulling these two axes apart we get a two-by-two of societies. And yes of course this is a multi-dimensional problem with probably several other relevant axes but even just adding this second one significantly opens up the set of possibilities. I have taken a crack at filling in what the resulting quadrants may represent:

Much of my writing here on Continuations and also in my book The World After Capital, is about establishing a vision for what the top right quadrant might look like. I have started to take notes for a second book that will explore this further.

One obvious question is: where does solidarity come from, if it isn’t forced by (Read more...)

The Revolt of the Public by Martin Gurri (Book Review)

A recent event that caught many by surprise was a short squeeze in Gamestop. Several hedge funds, including Melvin Capital, had big short positions that came under intense pressure when a group of buyers emerged via a subreddit called Wallstreetbets. The stock shot up to crazy valuations and eventually plummeted back down. Along the way the hedge funds nearly went under and the popular trading app Robinhood suspended trading in Gamestop, which in turn fueled a narrative that Wall Street was bailing out their own at the expense of the everyday people who had bought the stock.

I am not going to try and sort out the details of what happened here as there are many wrinkles but simply want to point out that anyone who had read Martin Gurri’s excellent book The Revolt of the Public would not have been surprised. Gurri, who was an analyst at the CIA, presents a compelling thesis around the breakdown of authority and illustrates it with many events from around the world. The book was originally published in 2014 and anybody reading it then might still have thought that Gurri was overreaching, but the election of Trump to President is a perfect further illustration of Gurri’s thesis. I recommend buying the recent edition by Stripe Press, which includes additional material by Gurri, including commentary on Trump. Furthermore I suggest following Gurri on Twitter and checking out his blog The Fifth Wave.

In compressed form Gurri’s thesis can be stated as (Read more...)