Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Thursday, October 21, 2004day link 

 The Winner takes it All
picture Selfishness is an intriguing thing. I do believe that all humans, and all lifeforms for that matter, have built-in instincts to try to make their situation better. I.e. they instinctively make choices to improve things for themselves and maybe their companions. When there's a choice, of course you pick the better food source or the better territory, and if there's a way available of arranging things to better accomplish what you're doing, of course you take it. And, surprisingly or not, a well-functioning natural order emerges amongst many diverse individuals who go around trying to make things better for themselves, without any of them having to think much about the overall whole, if at all. In the plant and animal world, that drive helps form self-adjusting and evolving ecosystems. In the human world it becomes the basis for free market economics. If many life units continuously make choices of what they prefer, many things get balanced out, good choices get validated, and resources get distributed by supply and demand.

But there's an additional human quality, which at first glance appears to be just the same thing, but which isn't, and which instead tends towards destroying all such self-organizing checks and balances systems. I'm talking about limitless amplified selfishness, disconnected from personal needs. It is when somebody wants it all, without a regard to what they need, and it is when their will can be amplified by economic or economic machines so that potentially vast resources might be applied to carrying them out.

You know, there's the negotiation technique that starts off with the assumption that you will get 100% of whatever is available. And only if the other parties can make a sufficiently good case, or are able to coerce you by force, will you accept less. Sounds just like a little convenient technique at first, but it also represents a certain principle. What you're asking for, and what you will take, unless hindered, is not directly related to what you need. You want it all of course, just because. Because that's what that particular game is about. Or maybe because you'll then be powerful. Or because you're worried about not getting anything at all. Regardless, that is a new and different principle, different from how the rest of nature works.

If a lion is hungry it will go and hunt down a gazelle or something, and kill it and eat it. If it wasn't all that hungry, it might eat just half of it. But no way is it going to go and kill the whole herd just because it is able to. It is hungry, it eats if it can, and then it lies around in the sun until it gets hungry again. Yes, it is very selfish, but only in relation to covering its needs.

It is when it gets abstract that the game starts changing. I want it all. Not just that I want the biggest house or the biggest steak that I can get. No, I want it all, whatever it might be.

Even if the lion happened to be a little crazy, as far as lions go, and it actually went out and killed a bunch of gazelles just because it was bored, the damage would be relatively slight. It would only be able to manage so many. And somebody else would probably get their dinner based on that, so it isn't entirely wasted.

In our society, structured according to more abstract principles, often hierarchically, very different things are possible. One of us can decide we want something, and we can organize a big organization, like a company, which will have as its sole purpose to do just that. Oh, that isn't easy. Takes various kinds of skill and good connections to put it together. But somebody can do it. You can have a 100 thousand people doing what you want done. If you aim for becoming the head of a nation, like as a government leader, you can aim even higher. You could have a million people doing what you want done.

Now, that is very different from the self-adjusting natural balance free market thing. 100 thousand people trying to fill various needs based on their own choices will form all sorts of checks and balances and self-adjusting mechanisms. But 100 thousand people working for one cause, which isn't their own, and who only receive their rewards to the degree that they carry it out, that's very different. We have not much more than one choice, at the top, and the choices of the individuals making up the lower rungs of the hiearchy are primarily involved just in how best to carry out that choice, setting aside their own instincts and needs to a large extent.

That's a bit like the sorcerer's apprentice. You remember Mickey Mouse making the broom go and get water for him. And the broom splinters, and soon there are hundreds of brooms only filled with one purpose: getting water. You can do a lot of damage when your wish gets amplified many times over, without any self-adjusting mechanism, and when it turns out you didn't quite think it through well enough. If you're just operating by your own power, your mistakes are relatively harmless. If your choices are multiplied thousands or millions of times over, your mistakes can be devastatingly destructive.

Now, put these things together. You can decide what you want, based on purely abstract reasoning, and you can decide you want it all, 100%. And you can line up colossal resources in that direction. Vast amounts of materiel. Huge numbers of people. Communication channels that broadcast and magnify your message, your wish. Economic engines that amplify your resources many times over, and makes many more people contribute to them, whether they're aware of it or not.

And when you then get what you're asking for, or most of it, another major departure from nature's order is apparent. You don't really have to share it. It is yours. And if you actually don't need it, you can just leave it around, applying some of the previously mentioned resources on making sure nobody else uses it for anything they need. Take it out of circulation and put a fence around it. It is yours, after all.

And it is not just that somebody cleverly managed to do so. It goes further than that. Another level. People who wanted to do that have actually managed to make it THE system on most of the planet. They've made it the law. You'll be prosecuted, penalized or jailed if you resist in any other way than through the same system they're using. And they've made it THE economic system. The whole economic machinery and the printing and generation of money is designed to make just that happen, and to make alternatives unviable.

What makes it seem less horrific at first glance is that there are many people who try to play that game. A small percentage of the Earth's population, but quite a few nevertheless. And a very small percentage of them seriously succeed. But there are still several of them, so we don't see their wishes quite carried to their final conclusion. Unless in those cases where those guys work together towards unified aims. Then, if you find yourself able to look, you might suddenly realize that a very small number of people own and control most of what's worth owning and controlling on the planet, and they've already long ago set it up so that resistance is futile, and it is both illegal and immoral and unprofitable to object.

It is what sometimes would be called black witchcraft, black magick. It is when somebody selfishly establishes what THEY want, their will, and they have the knowledge and the skill to activate the forces that will make it happen, and they do so, without regard to what is is good, needed, harmonious or sustainable. That's the part that makes it black. White magick would be that you bring forces into motion that makes things better for everybody concerned. The black variety is that one agent puts every available weapon in the arsenal into play to accomplish their will, with no regard as to what everybody else might need or want or like. Everybody else is but a piece in the play, and will only be consulted or informed to the degree that their willful cooperation accomplishes the selfish will faster.

The puzzling thing, and the part that is difficult to overcome, is that this approach quite easily wins over the competition. I.e. a few willful individuals who will stop at nothing to take what they want, and who have the skill to engage multiple levels of amplification and manipulation to get there, will easily outcompete much larger numbers of individuals who just are bumbling around, going around their business, trying to fill their own needs, trying to be nice to the people around them, trying to acquire the best means of survival.

This principle of selfish single-minded anti-social organization has for a while out-competed the alternatives. When it meets societies organized in older ways, it wins. The American Indians didn't have a chance. Made no sense to them that somebody wanted to own the earth and that their solemnly given word meant nothing. Not that they themselves were angels. However fierce warriors they were, they were no match for detached, organized, hierarchical, leveraged selfishness.

The pyramids wouldn't have been built by small cooperative tribes. Stonehenge maybe, but not gigantic structures requiring 10s of thousands of people to work for many years to create burial places for a few people. Could only have happened by anti-social rulers forcing large numbers of people to do things that have nothing to do with their own needs or wishes or choices.

It is an evolutionary development, really. It is a new principle which is more efficient, more able to win and outcompete the old approaches. It operates at a higher order, leveraging energies to greater advantage. It is a directed scheme that outguns lower level self-organization. Doesn't meant it is good and right. Just that it wins against small groups that are based on meeting needs, and that adhere to principles such as honor and the value of good work. They don't have a chance.

But that is also the way forward. The principle can be outcompeted by something better. Not by complaining about the moral faults in the scheme. No, it would be outrun by a system that would be even better at making things happen.

It is not very hard to figure out that widespread sufficiently well-connected and well-organized cooperation could outcompete leveraged corporate ventures. It doesn't yet, but it is obvious that it could. And that it very well might, some time rather soon.

A handful of people making plans and tricking and coercing large numbers of people to follow them, against their own best interests - that might win over small cooperative groups, just by the sheer magnitude and resources involved and the cleverness of the scheme. But it is bureaucratic and inefficient, and the true capabilities of most of the people involved are badly utilized. Enormous amounts of resources are wasted. Compare that with large nubers of people who are well networked, well informed, who are cooperating. Who all are doing the things they want to do, and who're free to act appropriately on the information they have. Potentially much vaster collective intelligence and combined power than the hierarchical corporate entity.

Sofar only potentially, though. Lots of people can see it, and smell it coming. But it isn't there yet. Putting millions of people in potential contact with each other isn't enough. Loads and loads of information isn't enough either. The neural network between them needs to be woven tightly enough. Systems need to be in place that are tuned well enough. There needs to be sufficient bandwidth between these people. There needs to be sufficiently sofisticated tools to show them what is going on, what is needed, what do we know, who's here, who wants to do what.

But once it really happens, the battle will be over quickly. The old dinosaurs will be slow and dumb and nobody will feel like feeding them anymore. Millions of minds thinking together will be so much smarter than a few hundred. Millions of people doing what they see needs to be done will accomplish much more than a few hundred doing what serves themselves. A fast moving, coordinated, pragmatic network will be orders of magnitude more effective than a slow moving ideological hierarchy.

When given the chance, most people will choose the options that do what they think is needed, that fulfill their needs, that improve their environment, as far as they pratically can see it, and that are fulfilling to be part of. Of course. So, if lots of people can SEE more clearly, they can make different choices. And if it is practical and obvious that one can cooperate effectively with as many people as necessary, scaled to any level, and that one can leverage one's own activities with the combined power of all these people, it is a no-brainer. Goodbye to wasting your life supporting anti-socials doing things that nobody really wants. Hello to doing what you're really here for.

The means are still missing. But once enough of them become available, there's no going back.

The imperialistic, corporate, capitalist, industrial approach outcompeted the tribal, territorial, earth-bound approach based on math. It used to be a linear progression. You have twice as much land, you can get twice as much food. Twice as many wives, you can have twice as many children. Do twice as much work and you get twice as much benefit. Twice as many members of the tribe, and you can beat a twice as big enemy.

That got out-competed by an exponential progression of returns. Like compounding interest. You not only get more back than you put out, if you're the guy in the right place, you get more and more back, the more loops you can add to the game. And the more you get, and the more cycles you go through, the more you'll be able to get.

Now, if my math doesn't fail me, a well-functioning cooperative network also adds up to an exponential rate of return. But in a different way, which doesn't depend on repeated cycles over time. The more people participate, the more possible connections and opportunities there are. Not linearly, not quadratically, but the number of participants will be in the exponent. Right away. Capabilities and change to the Nth degree. Without a need for time to make it work.

So, say there's something you see that ought to happen. You could just start working hard on it yourself. Or you could leverage your saved energy by investing it and getting others to work, and tapping the result down the line, after a number of cycles. Or you could right now connect up with the collective resources of everybody else on the planet, and instantly engage in effective cooperative action with anybody else who is willing to make that happen. What do think will be most effective?

Global cooperation of the informed and connected many will win over global exploitation by the informed and connected few of the uninformed and unconnected many, which won over local cooperation by small connected communities, which earlier won over unconnected individuals working alone.

Sometime soon. Because it will get me what I need and want, better. And I will have a choice. Better yet, I will have many choices.
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