The Practice of Theory
This book developed as a loose synthesis of essays I worked on and posted online for the past couple of years. The essays have all come out of a way of thinking I carefully developed a few years ago.
It may resemble an attempt to construct a kind of grand or unified theory, but I prefer to think of it as only a set of rough sketches to keep track of what I’m doing — and to let you keep track of what I’m doing — rather than an end in itself. It’s a general background for thinking more effectively about real challenges we face in this complex and dynamic age.
The problems I earnestly (and naively) started trying to solve a decade ago are the ones we read about in the paper every day: institutional dysfunction, economic volatility and inequality, environmental sustainability, demographic and geopolitical shifts, terrorism and asymmetric warfare, tensions between science and religious extremism — with consumerism in the mix — and that’s just a start.
Above all I wanted to figure out why we know so little, and whether there’s a better way to deal with what we don’t know. Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned in this century so far, it’s that there’s a lot we don’t know.
One aspect of the book very roughly describes our place in history — especially the history of ideas — and suggests a specific way to understand human motivation and creativity that is more appropriate to our time. I’m trying to make some of the previous century’s science somewhat more intuitive, while pragmatically addressing the challenges we face towards the future.
The second aspect of this book is an attempt to reconceive those already-existing challenges in light of this new appreciation of human nature. It isn’t enough to look at the challenges themselves; I insist on also looking at how we look at them.
Counterintuitively, this isn’t necessarily a step away from real challenges. Sometimes our old ways of looking at the world act as barriers; by stepping back to reconceive them we can find opportunities to move closer, faster towards more effective solutions.
My evidence for this is simply that I’ve already been applying this way of thinking to the very significant events that have occurred since 2007 and it has worked well for me. It helps me see complex challenges more clearly, which helps me communicate more effectively. The evidence is here and in the rest of my writing for you to evaluate for yourself.
That highlights the third aspect of this book: it’s a demonstration, not simply an explanation or description of the practice of theory. The book is it’s own metaphor.
As I wrote in the earlier chapter, this process of discovering and creating new ideas and conceptual frameworks is gratifying in itself. Solving problems and sharing knowledge is just something we’re born to do. Like cooking, sex, competition, and music, philosophy is simply a function of human nature and there’s no way to fully rationalize it. Let’s just do it. Let’s just enjoy thinking and make the most of it.
This way of approaching the world works for me, but it may not work for you, and that’s fine. Other people are better suited for doing things other ways, and they’re welcome to them — as long as we’re nonrivalrous about it. There are a lot of opportunities to complement each other’s different competencies and styles. We can’t expect to be master or enjoy everything.1
Inclusiveness and equality of opportunity don’t mean everybody can do everything they want; it means everybody has an opportunity to flourish — not just arbitrarily, but in a way that’s appropriate to each individual’s unique qualities and circumstances — yet a way that’s also very richly, socially connected.
The web makes such a society more possible than ever. It was intended, and it continues to develop primarily as a framework for cultivating complex networks of relationships and defining one’s own place within them.
Beyond whatever else it might be good for — and above all the complaints people have about it — social media facilitates a greater range of complementarity with a richer variety of people. There’s a wide, complex range of ways to compare ourselves and interact with others. We don’t have to (and shouldn’t) frame our relationships in simple terms of competition or cooperation.
The web makes us more articulate — not just in the sense of being eloquent, but in the sense of clearly defining our aims, limitations, identities, and where we each fit in the narrative of our age. It compels us to cultivate a set of personal qualities that distinguish us from everyone else. As these personal impressions and brands are designed for optimizing relevance, inevitably we get better at finding ways to make ourselves desirable and useful to others, thereby adding value to society in unique ways for which we’re each individually suited.
Or at least that’s the hope. Of course there are valid concerns (e.g. that the Internet might also encourage social isolation, or monoculture, or both) but I think it all depends on how we use it. By merely lamenting what might be lost and fretting about the hazards, we miss opportunities to generate better outcomes. We need to focus on the benefits and ensure we’re doing whatever we can to bring them to fruition.
This feeling — this hope for using the web to foster cognitive diversity — grew out of my own frustration with not sharing the same values, aims, and natural assumptions as most other people. A lot of people’s skills and passions are marginalized by old social conventions and technical limitations.2 This somewhat accounts for why I developed these ideas independently.
Doing this kind of work just feels necessary. It’s just the way I am. Classifying and defining everything is just what I do. It’s one of the basic rhythms of my life — like breathing. It just happens. It isn’t something I have to go out and find or fabricate or fight for. I’m not driven by it or towards it; it’s just one of the basic givens in my life.
While I write a lot about why intellectual stuff is so important, explaining how our society could accommodate and benefit more from it, I’m not actually advocating this for everyone. I understand (all too well) that most people aren’t and won’t ever be interested. I’m not trying to convince everybody. I just want to reach out to those who share my inclinations and hopefully a few others who may not exactly share this attitude but see opportunities to learn from it and teach me something in return.
It’s an interesting opportunity we have now. Society has changed but we have yet to appreciate exactly how. Of course there’s a lot that doesn’t change — nobody doubts that — but the challenge is to figure out what that is so we can reorient our thinking back around it. To that end we find ourselves standing not just on the shoulders of giants, but also on top of mountains of data and forgotten ideas that may have been too early for their time.
The immensity of our intellectual inheritance would be impossible to fathom if we didn’t also find ourselves with powerful technology for dealing with it all. The internet makes this immensity an opportunity to mine rather than a burden to carry.
That doesn’t mean it will be easy. The process is going to require a lot of imagination and discipline to decouple our thinking from old assumptions.
For centuries moral philosophy was absolute. That assumption grew from religion and carried over into the scientific age. God was gradually overtaken by secular institutions, but the habit of absolutism was not.
Then society traded a spiritual religion for a mechanical one. Society itself came to be conceived as a kind of machine, in which everything could be measured, calibrated, and virtue increasingly meant maximizing efficiency.
Then through early 20th century, philosophers developed ways of thinking in morally relative terms. A lot of people started thinking and talking as if every group should be left alone to entertain their own habits and whims.
Now psychology and neuroscience are giving us better, more accountable information about what we can change and what we can’t. We can use this knowledge more effectively to orient and define for ourselves what kind of person we each can and should be, to get a sense of our natural opportunities and limits.
The process of orientation goes on day-by-day as we interact with people and find where we ought to be in relation to them (and not just on one-dimensional scales like “above and below” or “ahead and behind” either). It isn’t about beating others or telling them how to live; it’s about understanding each other and working out ways to cultivate mutual benefits (or at least stay out of each other’s way, temporarily). Life is a process of constantly growing, shaping, and integrating one’s self into the most appropriate niche.
Some individuals may occupy a niche we identify as a position of leadership or control. Those are over-rated terms. Decisions are affected, and in many cases determined, by the aggregate effects in complex and dynamic networks. We could say nobody controls these networks, but we could also say everybody controls them. Responsibility is distributed in different degrees throughout.
Mainstream media is an especially salient demonstration of this. People complain that only a few companies control “The Media,” but ultimately those companies provide what people consume and signal desire for.
However, there’s also a process of conditioning, by which people learn to want specific kinds of entertainment because it’s what they’re familiar with.
Then again if people hadn’t consented to consuming the initial offering, the decision-makers at the top would have offered something else.
And consider what some people call the obesity epidemic. The responsibility for nutrition is shared by producers and consumers alike. Of course when it comes to food we need to recognize there are chemical, biological, and psychological qualities of ingredients and advertising that producers have exploited to make consumers less able to make informed, rational decisions.
We might look to government regulation to address these problems — but I’m not sure we aren’t also at risk of a regulatory epidemic as well. At some point our systems of rules could become so complicated that nobody understands the aggregate effect well enough to adapt rules to emerging circumstances. There are cases when regulation becomes a problem itself, so we need ways to address those potential challenges as well.
The best solution I can come up with — which certainly isn’t a magic bullet, but I’m confident is the only way to move forward — is to regulate, but conceive regulations not as rigid boundaries, but rather as benchmarks for ongoing, open, objective, generative experiments and conversations. Everything we conceive, we should conceive as an prototype or an exercise to make our sense of judgement more effective and accountable.
This process starts with the spirit of openness — which includes an appreciation for the merits of transparency — and aspires towards the love of learning and gratification in the process itself. Culture is what matters most; if we condition appropriate attitudes and values, it will be easier to improve our regulations because more people will be willing to ask questions, manage uncertainty (rather than pretend it doesn’t exist), experiment, listen, and reach out for new ideas.
As long as we perpetuate the assumption that we’re trying to build the perfect system (or alternatively, that it’s good enough as it already is) then we’ll keep going through these crisis cycles, and that isn’t good enough for me. At least this is the direction we need to move in. We’ll get there eventually but we also need time to develop new skills, practices, and tools for managing it.
That’s the key that a lot of people seem to neglect. For generation after generation, people’s behaviour has been conditioned in economies of scarcity — often extreme scarcity, with very few day-to-day choices. Most decisions were made by authority, necessity, or habit.
Now things are different in some very important ways. We have more autonomy but we haven’t learned how to manage it effectively.
Arguments that openness can’t work often presume ideas about motivation based on behaviours that occurred in past conditions, which aren’t necessarily valid for understanding motivation in the 21st century. It’s going to take time to develop the appropriate ideas and practices for working, learning, and living in a world characterized by abundance and autonomy rather than scarcity and authority.
The big intuitive adjustment we need to make is to appreciate what really motivates people. Contrary to the assumptions that are ingrained in most of our institutions, good work (i.e. the process) is often its own reward. The notion that people will only respond to incentives may do as much harm as it does good. The examples set by open source projects like Linux, Firefox, and Wikipedia show that motivation is more nuanced than traditional economists have assumed.3
Looking at the big picture, society itself is a kind of open source project requiring an incomprehensible variety of skills and knowledge: planners, developers, designers, content experts, communicators, etc. Now that knowledge, information, and ideas are becoming more prominent and routine, I expect new divisions of labour will form for people who have knowledge- and idea-related skills. This is why I’ve invested so much time and energy in the “practice of theory” I’m demonstrating here.
There seems to be deeply ingrained skepticism than anyone can start to make sense of the big picture. It might be because it’s almost as difficult to trust someone who claims to have a sense of the big picture as it is for people to appreciate it themselves.
It may also have a lot to do with the way our old institutions act as barriers to information. If all of the most important knowledge and data is owned and guarded by specific parties, then generalists and synthesizers never have a chance to demonstrate the potential for new uses. Fortunately the Internet is creating both the opportunity and the need for us to demonstrate these new practices and prove it’s possible to something out of everything.
Society needs thinkers to conduct ongoing conversations about the relative merits and risks of various ideas and practices without going so far as to presume we’re smart enough to know the right answers (or even wrap our heads around the whole picture at once). The role of rational intellect isn’t to judge and decide; it’s rather to point out similarities and differences among things, to ask questions, to challenge assumptions, to outline new possibilities that might be investigated — in short, to criticize and keep the learning process alive.
These open, conceptual practices are especially important for appreciating the most general aspects of society, for which nobody with a specific job title is technically accountable for. Think this way about the big, general categories of enterprise: science, business, art, media, technology, and civics. We need to make the aims and methods in each of these domains open and articulate so we have the means to gradually tie (and untie) their narratives in relation to each other.
We need to engage both of life’s two essential aspects — hard and soft, spatial and temporal, static and dynamic — through these processes. The purpose of what’s persistent is to direct what flows, while the purpose of what flows is to form and flex what’s persistent.
Conversations ensue about how we should live according to our various natures, what kind of values and rules and norms we ought to follow — and maybe for the sake of discussion, some of it presumes to be absolute and universal. It isn’t exactly wrong to make that presumption, as long as we understand it’s just a provisional heuristic — something that will have to do for now — while staying open to better alternatives.
Maybe most people will never participate directly in this aspect of the conversation, and we’ll probably never settle on a set of ideas that are suitable for all. But agreement on a single set of rules isn’t the point. The point is that by thinking and talking about them — while other people live and work in their own unique ways — we’re already doing what makes our lives meaningful, productive, and fun. Reconciling, enriching, and perpetuating our personal stories is the purpose of life.
The conversation we have about ideas, moral values, and social aims is analogous to what life is all about on a more general level: interacting with others, figuring out where to place each other in the most effective, meaningful, and relevant ways.
1Digitization generates very fine divisions of labour, and new metaphors for describing the networks these divisions create. I’m fond of the saying, “Do what you do best and link to the rest,” by Jeff Jarvis in What Would Google Do? (2009): p. 26.
2See Tyler Cowen’s Create Your Own Economy (2009), especially his case for the “hidden creativity” of people with an autistic cognitive style.
3I’ll get into the psychology in a later chapter. From an organizational perspective I’d recommend starting with Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert Sutton’s Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense (2006).