Progress and Meaning

Progress & Meaning

“A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens. For Harari, human evolution over the two million or so years that homo Sapiens has been a species and our cultural evolution during that same time do not seem to have made modern humans happier than ancient humans. In particular, Harari would argue that humans today may be more likely to feel a sense of meaningless in their lives relative to ancient humans. As the quote above testifies, a comfortable but meaningless life can be worse in some substantial ways than a brutal but meaningful life.
 
 
For Harari this is important to think about because as a collective humans have been engaged in vague questions of progress for thousands of years. But the progress humans have made hasn’t really been productive in terms of increasing human happiness. Sure we are better off in terms of wellness and comfort, but that isn’t quite the same thing as actual happiness or having a sense of meaning and purpose in ones life. It is quite possible that a tech worker who spends all day in a home office, watches TV, and only occasionally interacts with close friends is far more comfortable and better entertained than a forager 20,000 years ago, but they may feel like there is no real purpose for their life. They may feel that they don’t have any close connections or individuals who depend on them and whose lives they matter to. A forager from 20,000 years ago may have been stressed by a challenging and deadly environment and may not have had enough to eat, but they probably had a very close group of kin that they could rely on for support and and meaning.
 
 
“Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose,” Harari writes. Progress has not been undertaken with the goal of making people happier. Individual products and advancements are certainly marketed that way, but the end result doesn’t actually seem to be more happiness. Often, the end result is that we end up with more things we don’t really like or need. Things that take our time away from meaningful connections and engagements that make our lives actually worth living. Progress happens simply because we choose to allow it to happen, not because we are all looking around and consciously choosing progress with clear macro explanations for how progress makes lives for our species more meaningful, happier, and more worth living. Cars enabled faster transportation, but we ended up moving out to suburbs and adopted long soul crushing commutes. Social media promised to bring us closer together with friends, but left us isolated and jealous. Television promised to entertain us, but it took us away from real entertainment with actual people in the real world. Not all advances have this false profit characteristic, but many advances appear to make us happier, and for various reasons do the opposite.
 
 
To find meaning in the world is not the same as to find comfort and happiness. To find meaning is to engage with the world in pursuits that help improve the world for ourselves and others. It may be through our work, it may be through leisure activities with others, and it may be found through other means. No matter how we find meaning and pursue progress, it is clear that all progress doesn’t bring all humans meaning and happiness.
Are we Happy?

Are We Happy?

In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari asks a simple question that I had never paused to ask prior to reading his book. Are we happier than humans of the past? Are we happier than the humans who fought and lived through WWII or WWI? Are we happier than the humans alive when Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492? Are we happier than the ancient Romans? Are we happier than humans living 20,000 years ago? Are we happier than the first homo Sapiens?
“Historians seldom ask such questions,” Harari writes, “…yet these are the most important questions one can ask of history.” These questions are important, Harari argues, because most of the organization and progress of our lives is in one way or another geared around increasing human happiness. If history is not exploring the happiness of humans, than each step in human cultural evolution is a step that may not serve humans for the best. It also means that our ideas and views of how the world should be organized to help expand human happiness and flourishing may be based on incorrect judgements of happiness.
Happiness is difficult to measure and quantify. We are not actually all that good at thinking about our own happiness. Daniel Kahneman suggests that we have an experiencing self, which is our active conscious self, and a remembering self, which pauses to think back on our lives. Those two selves experience happiness differently. Getting beyond just ourselves and measuring the happiness of others is even more difficult, especially when those others lived 30,000 years ago.
So instead of measuring happiness we measure progress. We measure electrical devices, time spent in leisure activities, energy used to heat or cool homes, rates of sex, rates of violence, and other proxies for human happiness or unhappiness. These measures are probably a good way to estimate happiness, but we can see that they don’t tell the whole story. It is also possible for societies and collectives to become focused on a single measure, and drive toward that measure as if it were a goal that should be achieved to produce more happiness. Sometimes efforts to increase GDP, access to electricity, and other noble sounding efforts produce more of one thing at the expense of other things that contribute to human happiness. In the end, pursuing progress may not be an avenue for pursuing happiness
When we think about human progress, about our lives and where we want to head, and about what we think is best for society we should consider happiness. We should consider whether we are happier than humans in the past and think about whether the things we strive for are the things that are most likely to bring happiness to ourselves and others. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t have progress in our lives, that cultural evolution is bad, or that happiness is all that matters, but we shouldn’t assume we will always progress in ways that will make us happier just progress it increases our technological capabilities or brings us more resources.
Thoughts on Monogamy - Evolutionary Psychology & Becoming WEIRD

Thoughts on Monogamy – Evolutionary Psychology & Becoming WEIRD

Monogamy doesn’t seem to be the natural way for humans to live. Very few species mate with a single partner for life, and while humans in most parts of the world do, it is often not done well. Romantic affairs are the driving plot device in more books and movies than any of us can count. In the real world, we know plenty of people who have cheated on spouses or significant others, or been on the other side of the cheating. Numerous TV show hosts have made a living  by revealing the results of paternity tests.
Yuval Noah Harari makes a suggestion in his book Sapiens that monogamy is so hard for humans today because most of human evolution was not focused on monogamous relationships. Nuclear families are a relatively recent invention. For most of human history, we lived in small social tribes, and raising a child wasn’t the responsibility of two parents who who married and stayed together for the rest of their lives. In some instances, tribes actively practiced fatherhood rituals that were the direct opposite of monogamy. Harari writes,
“The proponents of this ancient commune theory argue that frequent infidelities that characterize modern marriages, and the high rates of divorce, not to mention the cornucopia of psychological complexes from which both children and adults suffer, all result from forcing humans to live in nuclear families and monogamous relationships that are incompatible with our biological software.” Harari describes the ancient commune theory mentioned in the quote as a theory that people in small tribes didn’t understand that a single man’s sperm fertilized an egg. It was not clearly understood that only one person sired a child, and in some tribes women would actively haved sex with multiple men, even throughout a pregnancy, so that her child would gain the qualities of all the men.
When I first read this quote from Harari it made me question whether modern monogamous marriages were really the best thing for humans.  If it contradicted our biology so much, I wondered why we kept it around, especially if it caused so many psychological, social, and emotional problems for so many people.
Joseph Henrich’s book The WEIRDest People in the World, helped me understand why monogamous institutions have become so useful in our modern world, despite the costs that Harari mentions and the incompatibility of monogamy with our evolutionary psychology. When societies do not have a system of single pair bonding, the highest status men tend to accumulate more females to exclusively marry. Regardless as to whether the women want to have sex with many men and partner with them, they often find that it is best for them to stick with just the one highest status man (possibly the wealthiest, strongest, or most politically connected man) for the best chance to raise their children. Pairing with a high status man who already has two or three other wives can often be more advantageous for a woman than pairing with the fourth most high status man, especially as women are pushed toward men further down the status ladder – as happens in strict monogamous societies.
As high status men accumulate more women who exclusively partner with them, even though the man doesn’t exclusively partner with the women, then lower status men do not find a partner. Single men who cannot get a partner are more likely to take large risks and gambles to try to move up the social ladder. They have more testosterone, because married men have a decrease in  testosterone, and they have less reason to invest in the future. Henrich argues that policies which pushed monogamy and broke up polygamy were a driving factor in what made the West WEIRD – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Monogamous societies help ensure more men are able to find a partner, decreasing the number of single men without prospects for getting married or having children. This  gave more men a reason to invest in the future and improve their behavior and cooperation with others.
Our monogamous relationships may not be in line with our biology, but they have encouraged a more even distribution of male and female partners, and have helped create more stable societies. The relationships are hard, but at least recently have been a driving force toward WEIRD progress and development. The cost of monogamy that stem from a reproductive and sexual system mismatched to our evolution and biology don’t outweigh the benefits of a more stable, peaceful, and fruitful society.

Medical Progress

What does medical progress look like? To many, medical progress looks like new machines, artificial intelligence to read your medical reports and x-rays, or new pharmaceutical medications to solve all your ailments with a simple pill. However, much of medical progress might be improved communication, better management and operating procedures, and better understandings of statistics and risk. In the book Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer suggests that there is a huge opportunity for improving physician understanding of risk, improved communication around statistics, and better processes related to risk that would help spur real medical progress.

 

He writes, “Medical progress has become associated with better technologies, not with better doctors who understand these technologies.” Gigerenzer argues that there is currently an “unbelievable failure of medical schools to provide efficient training in risk literacy.” Much of the focus of medical schools and physician education is on memorizing facts about specific disease states, treatments, and how a healthy body should look. What is not focused on, in Gigerenzer’s 2014 argument, is how physicians understand the statistical results from empirical studies, how physicians interpret risk given a specific biological marker, and how physicians can communicate risk to patients in a way that adequately inform their healthcare decisions.

 

Our health is complex. We all have different genes, different family histories, different exposures to environmental hazards, and different lifestyles. These factors interact in many complex ways, and our health is often a downstream consequence of many fixed factors (like genetics) and many social determinants of health (like whether we have a safe park that we can walk, or whether we grew up in a house infested with mold). Understanding how all these factors interact and shape our current health is not easy.

 

Adding new technology to the mix can help us improve our treatments, our diagnoses, and our lifestyle or environment. However, simply layering new technology onto existing complexity is not enough to really improve our health. Medical progress requires better ways to use and understand the technology that we introduce, otherwise we are adding layers to the existing complexity. If physicians cannot understand, cannot communicate, and cannot help people make reasonable decisions based on technology and the data that feeds into it, then we won’t see the medical progress we all hope for. It is important that physicians be able to understand the complexity, the risk, and the statistics involved so that patients can learn how to actually improve their behaviors and lifestyles and so that societies can address social determinants of health to better everyone’s lives.
Take the Outside View

Take the Outside View

Taking the outside view is a shorthand and colloquial way to say, think of the base rate of the reference class to which something belongs, and make judgements and predictions from that starting point. Take the outside view is advice from Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow for anyone working on a group project, launching a start-up, or considering an investment with a particular company. It is easy to take the inside view, where everything seems predictable and success feels certain. However, it is often better for long-term success to take the outside view.

 

In his book, Kahneman writes, “people who have information about an individual case rarely feel the need to know the statistics of the class to which the case belongs.” He writes this after discussing a group project he worked on where he and others made an attempt to estimate the time necessary to complete the project and the obstacles and hurdles they should expect along the way. For everyone involved, the barriers and likelihood of being derailed and slowed down seemed minimal, but Kahneman asked the group what to expect based on the typical experience of similar projects. The outlook was much more grim when viewed from the outside perspective, and helped the group better anticipate challenges they could face and set more reasonable timelines and work processes.

 

Kahneman continues, “when forecasting the outcomes of risky projects, executives too easily fall victim to the planning fallacy. In its grip, they make decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on a rational weighting of gains, losses, and probabilities. They overestimate benefits and underestimate costs.”

 

Taking the outside view helps us get beyond delusional optimism. It helps us make better expectations about how long a project will take, what rate of return we should expect, and what the risks really look like. It is like getting a medical second opinion, to ensure that your doctor isn’t missing anything and to ensure they are following the most up-to-date practices. Taking the outside view shifts our base rate, anchors us to a reality that is more reflective of the world we live in, and helps us prepare for challenges that we would otherwise overlook.
Disruptive Innovation

The Basics of Disruptive Innovation

In his book Deep Work Cal Newport shares a story about Clay Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor who coined the term disruptive innovation. Its an idea I like quite a bit, especially since it is a big concept in healthcare right now, and I focused quite a bit on health policy and dabbled slightly in healthcare economics during my graduate studies.

 

Newport describes the basics of disruption like this, “entrenched companies are often unexpectedly dethroned by start-ups that begin with cheap offerings at the low end of the market, but then, over time, improve their cheap products just enough to begin to steal high-end market share.”

 

In this model, Uber wouldn’t be a disruptive innovation. Uber didn’t do anything to dramatically change the world of taxis. They sidestepped a lot of entrenched thinking and decided that laws and regulations didn’t apply to them while introducing badly needed technology to the world of taxis, but they didn’t offer a new cheap version of the service to gradually build upon and improve.

 

An example of disruptive innovations that I like, that I learned about in a healthcare economics class, is Bose headphones. Bose is producing headphones that have impressive noise cancelling, noise isolating, and noise amplifying technologies. They are certainly not cheap consumer products, but compared to highly technical, very expensive, and highly individualized hearing aids, they are. They don’t do everything that a hearing aid does now, and they don’t provide quite as good of a hearing experience for someone who relies on hearing aids, but they do seem to be able to compete at the lower end of the market. For people who are currently priced out of hearing aids and people who don’t have complete hearing loss but maybe should start considering hearing aids, Bose headphones seem like they can help. They can cancel competing sounds and provide just enough amplification and isolation to improve some people’s hearing…even if hearing aids would be a better long term solution.

 

The concept is important for several reasons. If you are a business executive, you need to know what is happening in your market space, and you need to know when someone is coming along to provide a cheaper service that might one day compete with you directly, or steal your market share. Also, from a regulatory standpoint, understanding disruptive innovations and where they may be occurring is important. If people are ditching their pricey hearing aids for less effective Bose headphones, are they putting themselves at risk while driving or navigating busy environments? What happens if a disruptive innovation guts an industry, and leaves people with disabilities who relied on the high priced product’s level of support and customization without a suitable product or service?

 

We should keep disruptive innovations in mind because they can unlock new potentials (we do a lot with our phones in ways that are quicker but not always as user friendly as old standard alternatives) but can also be dangerous for individuals and markets (should we really allow anyone to use a phone to scan their eyes to get a new glasses prescription?). Thinking about disruptive innovations helps us think about current social and economic trends, and it also forces us to be more considerate of others. We have to balance and weigh the interests of business, the interests of new consumers, and the interests of vulnerable populations when we think about where a disruptive innovation could push a market.

Stagnation

Tyler Cowen’s book The Complacent Class challenged my thinking on a moral level that I had not expected. He argues in the book that it is morally imperative that we make efforts to increase global GDP and encourage economic productivity and development because it will raise living standards and improve people’s lives at a level that individual interventions cannot. After reading his book and listening to him discuss his ideas, I think he is correct, and I think his concerns about a lack of innovation and a general stagnation in the United States has a solid foundation.

 

In the book, Cowen writes about his main area of focus and consideration regarding progress and development. He writes, “The ultimate measure of technological progress is not the number of gadgets we own, but rather how much better are lives are.” Complacency, in Cowen’s view, doesn’t care if our lives are getting any better. Complacency says that what we have satisfices. We are not really maximizing our lives along any particular dimension, but we are generally content with the status quo, and not pushing new frontiers. To Cowen, this is a dangerous place to find ourselves.

 

“The income of the median or typical American household is down since 2000, and unless wage gains are very strong in the next few years,” writes Cowen, “this country essentially will have gone twenty years with wage stagnation or near wage stagnation for median earners.”

 

Stagnation might not just be bad, it might be a moral failure. If we can improve the standards of living for people across the globe, free up time, increase productivity and efficiency, we can help lift more people out of destitute poverty. Increases in technology can bring increases in living standards that help people get away from indoor wood-fire cooking, access healthy drinking water, and generally avoid unsanitary conditions that lead to preventable health conditions. Increasing productivity and global GDP might just be the best way to help reduce suffering across the planet.

 

The statistics on stagnation suggest that we are not moving forward but instead sitting where we are in a state of complacency. Stagnation likely describes part of the opioid crisis and the anti-immigrant sentiment that fuels right-wing government coalitions across the globe. Stagnation projects a fixed pie that we all get a small share of. Each slice is just enough for us to be content, but any dreams of enlarging the pie are gone. This is Cowen’s fear, and the statistics on wage stagnation seem to suggest that it is the reality we are facing in our country today, and that complacency could have dramatic impacts for global development and the lives of billions of people beyond the borders of the United States.

Implementation Matters

One party in the United States seems to continually chide any public sector misstep and only seems to be able to complain about the problems and waste of public sector projects and programs when discussing what the government actually does. While there are undoubtedly challenges and problems in public administration, continually complaining about and criticizing any public agency operation can have further costs to society. Good implementation in public policy matters, and one fear that seems reasonable to me, is that the constant denigration of public service will drive out creative and hard-working individuals, and worsen the very situations being criticized.

 

In The New Localism, authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write about the importance of implementation, and how they view it differently in their system of New Localism. They write,

 

“At a Brookings Institution forum in 2000, [Richard] Shatten stated that, ‘being right is irrelevant to the growth of cities and metropolitan areas. Good ideas are critical, but they have impact only when they are implemented thoughtfully and effectively. And sound implementation only happens when a community develops a civic, corporate, and political culture that can translate good ideas into action and execute with discipline and imagination.'”

 

Two things really stand out from this quote to me. The first is that good implementation is everything. Public agencies need to think about and study what will make the implementation of a program successful and need to be thoughtful of how they do the things they have been tasked with doing. Poor implementation of the perfect solution can ruin public support for that solution and can create even worse problems and greater barriers to achieving the outcomes society wants to see.

 

Second, good implementation relies on a strong political culture that accepts government action and helps align non-governmental actors to make implementation successful. It is not enough for private sector organizations and thought leaders to say that a policy needs to be put in place or run a certain way, they actually need to use their resources, skills, and expertise to be part of implementation. Good ideas require community efforts to become successful policy, and if a group simply stands apart, refuses to help, and cries foul at every opportunity, then implementation will of course fail, as if it were a self-fulfilling prophecy of ineptitude. There is room for criticism of government and the failures of implementation should be discussed, but we should not hinder the implementation of a program out of a prejudice against public action. Ultimately, the public action on its own, as the quote suggests, is not enough. We can’t just criticize from the sidelines, we actually need to find ways for more organizations and groups to be involved in the implementation of new programs, specifically tailored to meet the local needs of populations, businesses, and environments. Standing apart and criticizing only snowballs problems. Collaboration and cooperation among civic, private, and public organizations is the only way governance and development will be possible in the future.

Institutional Vehicles

In a public policy class, I had a professor once ask, “What is an institution?” One student responded that another professor once answered that question by stating that an institution was something you could kick. That’s true for some institutions (you can kick the supreme court, the city hall, and the local police department), but not all. We recognize marriage as an institution but you can’t kick it, and you certainly can’t kick equal protection under the law even though you theoretically could kick the actual paper on which the 14th amendment was written. Our institutions are sometimes physical buildings (or housed in them), but they are often processes, ideas, and systemic structures that guide our interactions, thoughts, and societies.

 

Our institutions only exist and function because we chose to place both trust and authority in our institutions. They can only operate when those within them and those who recognize them from the outside are aligned and coordinated together to recognize and legitimize action and outcomes from our institutions. In the book The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak explain what this means as problem-solving and initiative-taking move from Federal levels of governance to local levels of governance. They write, “New Localism refers to multi-sectoral networks that work together to solve problems, as well as the institutional vehicles they invent to get things done.”

 

Coalition building is an important part of politics, but it is also just an important part of life in general. If you want your family to go to Tahiti for the holidays instead of Grandma’s house, then you need to build the right family coalition to get everyone to agree. If you want to work on a specific project in the office, if you want to do a job a certain way, and if you want to reorganize the workplace, you need to build coalitions to get people on board to follow your direction. Coalition building is super complex at the national level, but at the local level where a smaller handful of actors can generate a bigger (relative) push, then coalition building is possible and creating or inventing institutional vehicles to move policy can be a powerful tool.

 

Networks are key in new localism because they open the possible avenues for movement via new institutional vehicles. Connections and shared goals behind key stakeholders make new localism possible with coalitions created through networks of like-minded community leaders. Those who have an interest in seeing reinvention, seeing successful policy development, and seeing adaptable and resilient communities can come together to form new coalitions, pulling people from varying public, civic, and private sector organizations. These groups can then think about the structures shaping our lives, our decisions, and our interactions, and how new institutions can alter the status quo to solve problems in new ways that are unique to a given city, metro, or region.

The Challenge of Trying to Enlarge the Pie

I often feel that we are moving so fast toward the future that we are advancing beyond our means. I think we are in some ways exceeding the capacity that we have evolved to fit, and this is creating great challenges for humans across the globe. We have new technologies, new social structures, and new understandings of our places in the world and in the universe more broadly that exceed the type of living that we evolved to succeed within.

 

A passage from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain highlighted this for me. They write, “Despite the fact that it’s possible to cooperate, politically, in ways that “enlarge the pie” for everyone, this is the exception rather than the rule – especially for our distant ancestors. In most contexts, for one coalition to succeed, others must fail. Importantly, however, members within a coalition can earn themselves a larger slice of the pie by cooperating – a fact that makes politics such an intoxicating game.”

 

The line about our ancestors being incapable of expanding the pie for everyone is important. Without much technology, without shared languages and translation, and in a state of constant threat from nature, it is easy to see why our early ancestors were limited to a state of competition with each other for social status, sex, and resources. There simply were too few humans, too few easily accessible resources, and too few scalable technologies for everyone to be sufficiently comfortable and connected.

 

We now live in a new world, where literally 7.5 million people in the San Francisco metropolitan statistical area are constantly thinking about ways to build new technology to scale to improve the lives of all people, not just the people they are connected with. We understand that our actions can have global manifestations, and that we need global solutions to address climate change and other existential threats. Our technology and ways of thinking have surpassed the world our ancestors lived in, and have created a new game for us to play, however, we are still stuck in the zero-sum mindset of our ancestors, asking what we can do to get a bigger share of the pie for our narrow coalition.

 

Understanding why we fall into thinking about narrow coalitions is important. Recognizing the way our brains work and why they are limited helps us see new potentials. Understanding how we can change our thoughts and how we and others will react in a world that offers so much more is key to actually living up to our new potential as a global species.