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.

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 with.

 

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 politics. 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.

Connecting with Technology

It is easy to become wrapped up in the criticisms and shortcoming of technology, especially when criticizing technology also allows us to criticize younger generations and place our age cohort on a shining pedestal, but we should also consider how technology is at times neither good nor bad, but just different. Author Colin Wright provides a unique view into the use of technology for connection and communication in his book, Come Back Frayed.  He writes about the freedom that technology provides him and how it allows him to live a life that previously was not possible.

 

“I can be whomever I want because there’s no one to regulate me, to passively or intentionally box me in, to pressure me into becoming an archetype of myself.
    In real life, the line is not so clear.”

 

His quote comes after he explains the freedom granted to him by technology and his life style. The technology allows him to produce content from anywhere on the planet and to sell his work across the globe. It allows him to get away from typical work schedules, and allows him to have any office anywhere he has decent internet connections. His life is no longer dictated by demands that many people face like mortgages, regular job hours, or a commute. Without a family Wright is also able to explore and live without expectations from others allowing his work to take the shape that he wants wherever on the globe he lives.

 

On its own, the above paragraph is not very insightful. After having read much of Wrights work however, additional possibilities  provided to Wright by technology begin to jump out. He describes himself as a major introvert, preferring time to himself over time with others. Before technology he probably could have managed his time on his own well, but he certainly could not have had the same experiences and freedoms. When we criticize technology for allowing people to communicate and interact without ever truly meeting and knowing each other, we are ultimately just criticizing people for not communicating the way we want them to or expect ourselves to communicate. For those who would struggle without technology, there is a real power in the communicative possibilities provided. Perhaps these individuals would have adjusted and still found success in the pre-internet communication world, but we should recognize the new opportunities it provides to interact in the world and be active and engaged human beings despite shy tendencies.

Technological Change

Colin Wright reflects on his place in the world in his book Come Back Frayed, which is about his time living in the Philippines at the requests of his fans and readers. During his time outside the United States, he commented on the technology he used to document his experiences, the changes he has seen in information technology over his life time, and the uneven distribution of technology between places like the United States and the Philippines. Regarding technical change, Wright writes, “The internet revolution happened when a technology was made common, cheap, and widely available to people of the world.”

 

Wright focuses on the last part of his quote and highlights the fact that not everyone is operating with equal tools, “Which brings me back to the smartphone,” continued Wright, “Science fiction author William Gibson famously said, “The future is here already, it’s just not evenly distributed.” So what happens when it is?”

 

I really enjoy the way that Wright introduces technology, technological change, society, and social change. In the United States we tend to be so focused on our technology that we forget how much of the world goes without the basic necessities we take for granted. Much has been written and many have made better comments than I can on the inequalities that exist between countries, but Wright brings up a point not often considered. When the rest of the world is in possession of game changing technology, what will we think of the technology? How will societies react? What will it mean for political regimes in rich  countries? The United States has seen debates about how information is handled on public versus private email servers over the last two years, and currently has a president who often has a questionable use of direct social media platforms. How could these same technologies impact less developed and less wealthy countries?

 

Wright’s thoughts aline with a passage I recently read in a public administration class at the University of Nevada. Joseph Nye Jr. in 2002 wrote for the Brookings Institute a piece titled Information Technology and Democratic Governance and he highlighted the role of technology as an agent of social and political change. Nye wrote that social and political change often lag behind the technological change, with political change falling in behind social changes. Combining his thoughts with Wright’s, we get a sense that the large changes that seem to dominate American life, are still building toward their greater impact. Once the technology we enjoy in the United States has become more commonplace around the world, we will begin to see more social change, which will be slowly followed by political change.

The Gulf

Joel Achenbach explained the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in great detail in his book, A hole at the Bottom of the Sea. He explored what went wrong on the oil platform that exploded and what was done to seal the well at the bottom of the ocean.  Achenbach also explored why we have so much oil off the coast of the United States and Mexico in the Gulf and he wrote, “The gulf has always lacked the deepwater circulation of open ocean. Bad circulation means lots of anoxic layers, dead zones, places where there’s so little oxygen that organic matter doesn’t decay.  That’s great for the eventual creation of oil and gas fields.”

 

His quote is explaining the long history of the Gulf of Mexico and hinting at the dangers that lie in the future for the gulf.  We are currently doing a lot of damage to the gulf, and not just from our oil explorations. Every day we send large amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen into the gulf via the Mississippi river.  Run off from farms and farm communities all along the river lead to a high level of nutrients in the water of the Mississippi river. Our fertilizer intended for our farms and produce eventually washes into the river and all the way down past New Orlean’s into the Gulf of Mexico.  When the large amounts of nutrients reach the gulf we see massive algal and phytoplankton blooms that can be visible from space.  When the blooms die off after absorbing all the nutrients they fall as a giant mat to the bottom of the ocean where they are slowly decomposed in a process that is very oxygen intensive.  The process continues until the water has become depleted of free oxygen, meaning that shellfish, fish, marine mammals, and life in the affected areas of the gulf cannot exist.  Life is smothered by the algal blooms the way that a fire is smothered by a large blanket.  Oxygen is denied from the fire preventing it from continuing to burn, and oxygen is deprived from life inhibiting cellular metabolic functions.

 

This process in the past created situations where lots of carbon based life forms coagulated along the sea floor and became covered over by marine snow, dirt, and debris.  Millions of years after the blooms first appeared on the ocean they are miles and miles below the sea floor in the forms of various hydrocarbon molecules.  We have the ability through complex machinery to drill out the hydrocarbon shells of these million year old algal blooms, but our actions in the United States that feed into the gulf, and our actions in the gulf, put the region in a new type of danger.
Achenbach raises the question in his book of whether we should be pursuing oil in more remote and hard to reach places. We may have the technology, and we may develop the means to reach oil quickly and safely, but it is also possible that our actions and missteps along the way could be incredibly threatening to not just the survival of animals and ecosystems, but also to ourselves. Ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico is a complex ecosystem that we have come to dominate through new technology and ever advancing engineering. At a certain point it is worth recognizing the power we wield over the land, and asking ourselves if we should progress unchecked in our battle against nature to further develop the fuel for our relentless engineering and technological progress.