Friday, March 22, 2013

Questions I am frequently asked about… (Part IV) Prediction and the Future

Continuing this compilation of questions that I’m frequently asked by interviewers. This time about…


--Your writing touches on the impact of technology upon humanity, and its power to change our daily lives. Can you expand upon that? 

Let me ask you (and the reader) this: have you ever flown through the sky? Or walked into a dark room and made light happen, with the flick of your fingertip? Once upon a time, these were exactly the powers of gods! So why don’t you feel like one? 

Because we gave these powers to everyone, that’s why. Ironically, the moon landings seemed less marvelous because we all shared in the experience via TV. The fantastic images that our space probes have taken of solar system glories would seem magical and almost religiously marvelous if you and I had to sneak into the palace, risking arrest, in order to view them. Or if we had to crack open a wizard’s secret grimoire. 

lordoftherings_wideweb__430x244,1Take the palantir from Lord of the Rings, a crystal window on Gandalf’s desk through which he can explore ideas, gather information, view far-away events and communicate instantly across great distances…there are only three differences between the palantir and your laptop:

(1) The wizards and elfs kept such wonderful things for themselves,

(2) the result was calamity, horrible war and near-loss of everything, 

(3) it sure helped make a romantic story, captivating millions.  

If only you and a dozen other folks were on the internet, able to see far and access all knowledge, we’d all be in awe of you, too! But then.. it wuldn't work so gud.....

As for the future? Get ready to be even more godlike! If we’re lucky, future advances will also be shared with everybody and so you won’t notice! Too bad. But hopefully, we’ll be wise. 

--What is your record as a prognosticator? 

self-deceptionWhen prediction serves as polemic, it nearly always fails. Our prefrontal lobes can probe the future only when they aren’t leashed by dogma. The worst enemy of agile anticipation is our human propensity for comfy self-delusion. 

Peering ahead is mostly art. We all have tricks. One of mine is to look for “honey-pot ideas” drawing lots of fad attention. Whatever is fashionable, try to poke at it! Maybe 1 percent of the time you’ll find a trend or possibility that’s been missed. Another method is even simpler: Respect the masses. Nearly all futuristic movies and novels—even sober business forecasts—seem to wallow in the same smug assumption that most people are fools. 

This stereotype led content owners to envision the Internet as only a delivery conduit to sell movies to passive couch potatoes. Even today, many of the social-net and virtual-world companies treat their users like giggling 13-year-olds incapable of expressing more than a sentence at a time. Never gifted with the ability to engage in of actual discourse. All right, maybe that does describe most of our fellow citizens! (Especially the extremes of both right and left.) Still, people will surprise you.  And over the long run, their collective wisdom rises. And in small groups they can be positively brilliant.

A contrarian trick that has served me well is to ponder a coming technology and then imagine, What if everybody gets to use it? In really smart ways? Many of those imaginings have come true. (Readers maintain a Predictions Registry page that tracks hits and misses for my novel Earth.)

--Are you pessimistic or optimistic about the future – and why? 

tomorrowsworldI am known widely as an optimist. This is not quite true. What I am is a contrarian. And hence, when I see cynics and despair junkies all around me -- around all of us – screeching simpleminded whines and playground sneers, I am naturally drawn to poking at their lazy models of the world. 

Even if the pessimists and cynics were right... and they aren't... they are totally not being helpful. Their attitude is the quintessence of laziness and voluptuously smug self-indulgence.   A rationalization for indolence. 

Dig it. All hope in the world has been achieved by problem-solvers.  We need more of them. All the can-do pragmatic problem-solvers we can get. 

--In your opinion, are we headed for a dystopic or utopian future? 

Again, people tend to call me a propagandist for optimism, because I occasionally portray society as not totally stupid... or our fellow citizens as something slightly more evolved than sheep.  In fact, I am an optimist only by comparison to the reflexive contempt-for-the-masses that you see in most knee-jerk fiction these days. 

Actually, I’m kind of a gloomy guy. History shows how often and how easily bright beginnings failed, giving way to darkness once again. We have a genius for snatching failure from the jaws of success. It will not surprise me if our present renaissance collapses. If we betray our values for short-term expediency.  It has happened countless times before. 

on-beach-nevil-shute-paperback-cover-artBut Science Fiction fights that trend, even in (the best) dystopias! Our dark warnings poke the ground, finding pitfalls and quicksand just ahead. The topmost warnings - those that seem vivid and convincing - turn into self-preventing prophecies that deeply affect great numbers of people, ensuring that a particular mistake won't happen. Consider stories such as Dr. StrangeloveOn The BeachThe China SyndromeSilent SpringSoylent Green, and so on. These drew attention from millions of people toward possible doomsday scenarios. Millions who became active, fighting for a better future. Were those efforts futile? Or are we here today because of them? 

1984The greatest self-preventing prophecy was surely George Orwell's chilling Nineteen-Eighty Four. Who does not feel girded, inoculated by the metaphors of Big Brother and the Ministry of Truth? Determined to the cause of preventing them ever from coming true? If we manage to preserve freedom and hold all the big-time liars accountable, it will be in no small part thanks to science fiction. 

I just wish more authors would notice what they are a part of...a vast process of error-discover and error-detection that constitutes part of our society's immune system against terrible mistakes. So by all means write warning-dystopias! But try to be original and helpful. You did not invent black leather. Or mirrorshades. And the people may not all be fools. Who knows?  They might actually listen to you… heed your warnings… and thus make you a false prophet. 

Read the story of Jonah.  And then snap out of it!  Your job is to be credible. To help us notice and avert. It is not your task to prove right.

Scare folks with plausible failure modes. Make them worry… and help make it not happen.

 --Is there hope for the future? 

I foresee a 60% chance that we'll eke through the crises ahead and make it to an era when humans become mature and careful planet-managers, instead of frantic over-exploiters. One when we have found solutions to the critical choices before us and passed most of the harsh tests, raising new generations who are both mighty and wise. 

I don't view those odds as "optimistic" at all! Not when the alternatives are horrible. Such probabilities are barely good enough to justify having kids, then using every day to help them become joyful problem-solvers who will be net-benefits to the world. 

I think we’ll squeak by. Alas, the glorious civilization that may emerge after a century of hard times could be missing some fine treasures… manatees, blue whales, krill, the Amazon Rain Forest, privacy... and every human being who wasn’t immune to Virus X. 

UNIVERSEFAKEI had a thought, lately. Heaven and Hell may not be such bizarre thoughts, after all! Consider our godlike descendants, with power at their fingertips to compute and emulate any reality. They will be able to ‘call up’ simulated versions of people from times past, especially 20th century folk, what with all the data available about us, including photos, video, skin cells in all our old letters and scrap books, etc. What will they do with that power? (See my short story, Stones of Significance.)

Those who helped build the utopia of tomorrow will be remembered, immortalized, in software simulations by our descendants. Those who hindered progress, who obstructed or simply did nothing, will at best not be invited back. At worst, they might be assigned unpleasant roles in software scenarios. Might the old notion of Purgatory have some resurrected relevance, after all? I leave possible extrapolations of this idea to the reader. 

See more articles on: Creating the Future.

-What is humanity’s greatest flaw? 

Humans are essentially self-deluders. The mirror held up by other people helps us to perceive our own errors… though it hurts.  In his poem “To a Louse,” Robert Burns said: 

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us 
To see oursels as others see us! 
It wad frae monie a blunder free us, 
An’ foolish notion…” 

(“Oh would some power, the gift give us, to see ourselves as other see us. It would from many blunders free us, and foolish notions…”) 

CITOKATE3Or, my own aphorism:
CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote to Error. Too bad it tastes so awful, to be on the receiving end…  so that most of us never even thank our enemies for pointing out our mistakes for us.  Think about that. If criticism is the only way we catch our delusional errors, why do we resent those out there who willingly, eagerly, give us what we need, in order to do better and to be better?

It is a gift economy!  After your foe as heaped upon you a laundry list of things to fix, you should thank him or her... and then return the favor!  Purely (of course) out of the kindness of your heart.

(A side note: look at the end of every book I publish.  There are 50+ names. Pre-readers and critics who helped find errors or slow-patches or inconsistencies.  I don't mind praise, as well.  But it is a lower priority than quality control. Looking at criticism that way is a great tool for success.)

--Would you rather be living 100 years from now, when we’ll presumably have access to so many more answers? 

Is it better to sow than to reap? Jonas Salk said our top job is to be “good ancestors.” If we in this era meet the challenges of our time, then our heirs may have powers that would seem godlike to us — the way we take for granted miracles like flying through the sky or witnessing events far across the globe. If those descendants do turn out to be better, wiser people than us, will they marvel that primitive beings managed so well, the same way we’re awed by the best of our ancestors? I hope so. It’s poignant consolation for not getting to be a demigod. 

--What concerns do you have about the future? 

I am concerned about one thing, above all, understanding how and why humanity escaped (at last) from its old, vicious cycle of feudalism and began a tremendous enlightenment. One that included vital things like science, democracy, human rights and science fiction. I've come to see that openness – especially being receptive to free-flowing criticism -- has been key. Secrecy is the thing that makes every evil far worse than it would have been. It is especially pernicious when practiced by the mighty.

And that is what we'll talk about next time.

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David Brin
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Hans said...

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that what finally freed us from feudalism was true freedom of ideas, driven by the printed word. Mass produced books were the early enlightenment version of intellectual property piracy.

I can't wait to see what digital means will do in the late enlightenment.

Don Pauley said...

Perhaps the greatest danger is the delusion that someone has the ultimate answers. Religion, Science, Politics - it doesn't matter who. The belief in an ultimate solution is disastrous.

Tony Fisk said...

I take your point, David! Still, at the risk of being a pedantic 'Kate, the Palantir was on *Saruman's* desk, and its use was restricted due to Sauron having a monopoly on the viewing channels (a malignant fire-wall and filter which is what corrupted Saruman, and drove Denethor to madness and despair. Only Aragorn was able to do a Neo and wrest control*). Actually, using that interpretation, I think your point still stands (Sauron for CISPA!)

Hans, while I certainly think that ready access to the printed word was pivotal in the Enlightenment's success, something more was needed.

*Hmm! A Matrix LOTR cross-over... it could work!?

David Brin said...

Hans. Freedom is so general a term as to be almost useless in this context. Sure, freedom is both necessary and a desired outcome. But what really did it was a set of enlightenment PROCESSES that took advantage of the most creative force in the cosmos... competition, which made us and which propels markets and democracy and science, our productive cornucopias.

But all thru the past competition spoiled! It was ruined when one year's winners then KILLED the losers so that they could not come back and compete next year. Feudal lords and oligarchs established inherited ownership of everything by a few (name the exceptions!) This is the enemy of markets that Adam Smith most despised.

For 200 years we've had processes that ended this, dispersing power and money and influence so that competition does not stop and stays relatively fair. But every generation has to re-invent and renew the processes. And new lords are always waiting and trying to take over.

locumranch said...

Although I value fine words & ideals as much as the next man, it was cheap weaponry which freed us from feudalism, especially the democratizing influence of high speed lead therapy & firearms.

In the romanticized days of chivalry, it took the resources of an entire village to arm, feed, train & equip a single knight because metal was both rare & expensive. Once so equipped, these knightly 'protectors' inevitably became our natural leaders, lords and self-made tyrants.

The Knightly Class -- and the feudal social order which they dominated -- was only defeated by advances in military weaponry: Initially, by the skilled archers at Agincourt; and, later, by a relatively unskilled infantry that used mass-produced firearms & lead projectiles.

Some historians claim that firearms 'killed' Feudalism as early as the 1700's (IE. the French & American Revolutions). Others argue that the Feudal Aristocracies & their little lordlings perished on the battlefields of WW1, dying at a 20 to 1 ratio (upwards from there)when compared to casualty rates of commoners.

Firearms are the great political equalizer. They have given us the blessings of democracy but some times they work too well, killing and blessing us all everyone, regardless of merit, class or intellect.


PrTheodose said...

Mr. Brin, your idea of a simulated Hell is interestingly similar to the "Roko's Basilisk" initially developed on the transhumanist/rationalist website LessWrong :

Jumper said...

Freedom = power = money. I think this is not well understood in the West, especially the U.S.

On the theme of the article here, I think we cling to our sense of anonymity; invisibility. This recurs amidst the roar of the internet: who am I but a voice among millions? That can become a chosen stance, though subconsciously. As Jim Morrison put it, "There are no longer "dancers", the possessed. The cleavage of men into actors and spectators is the central fact of our time. We are obsessed with heroes who live for us and whom we punish.[...]We are content with the "given" in sensation's quest. We have been metamorphosed from a mad body dancing on hillsides to a pair of eyes staring in the dark."

Or put another way, "More or less, we're all afflicted with the psychology of the voyeur. Not in a strictly clinical or criminal sense, but in our whole physical and emotional stance before the world. Whenever we seek to break this spell of passivity, our actions are cruel and awkward and generally obscene, like an invalid who has forgotten to walk."

We officially have a creed where the individual is celebrated, but in a thousand other ways, we are told to not attempt to change the world.

Tacitus said...

This is not a particularly "nice" idea but there are those, Barbara Tuchman comes to mind, who feel that the Black Death played a key role in extending knowledge and social mobility. You lose 1/3 of your harvesters and manure shovelers and Feudal Lords had to actually start paying the survivors better. That pre and post digested food ain't gonna move itself!

Lose 1/3 of your merchants and a few of the more clever peasants will move up.

Lose 1/3 of the Feudal Lords and psychologically they start looking a lot less "Lordly".

Whether the future looks "u" or "dys" depends on your time frame. Long term I am about 90% positive. Short term I would not like to be a recent college grad looking for a job.

And sometimes the potholes in the road to progress can be deep, jarring and something you wish your society had not hit.

Lets hope we can swerve around the worst ones.


TheMadLibrarian said...

As I recall from my history classes (Art and other), the rise of the middle class was directly related to the Middle Age guilds. When the skilled laborers started organizing, making standards and apprenticeships and whatnot, they suddenly discovered a huge amount of power. At the time, the peasantry might have been mostly interchangeable and replaceable, but the trained man/guild who built your castle, smithied your weapons, wove your cloth and made your clothes? Not so much.

atcrism: anonymous criticism

Duca said...

Honestly, I agree 100% with what Hans said. Mass-produced books can be viewed as a massive increase in the bandwidth for ideas to spread. Without mass-produced books we would not have had a medium to spread enlightenment thinking. Remember that the availability of the translated and mass-produced Bibles broke the supremacy of the Catholic Church, causing the Protestant reformation. You couldn’t kill ideas by killing the person anymore. Mass produced books was to the market place of ideas as oxygen is to a fire.

One way or another people would have come across the good ideas we have now. Trial and error, with the results being broadcast to the rest of the world via the printing press.

Digital media is currently increasing the bandwidth of the market place of ideas to an unbelievable level, I'm very exited to see what it does to the enlightenment too.

Wouldn't it be cool to have a rationalitycheck, just like spellcheck, quickly identifying your bias and sending you to the relevant wiki pages?
Download apps that keep track of you empathy and stress causing ideas? Free medical info via cheap cellphones for the entire world?

I think that you would probably mentioned these in your book and no I haven't had time to read your books yet. I will once I graduate college in May. I'm only here because you keep popping up like a whack-a-mole on my favorite TransHumaist blogs… Also: I think you’re really cool and wanted to say hi.

Nyctotherion said...

I was reminded of the Roko's Basilisk too! Ran into the concept not on LessWrong but in a discussion at Charles Stross' blog.

It was the most hilarious thing I'd read all day, basically a prank designed to exploit cognitive weaknesses in self-styled 'complete rationalists'.

Ian said...

"Roko's basilisk is notable for being completely banned from discussion on LessWrong, where any mention of it is deleted.[4] Eliezer Yudkowsky, founder of LessWrong, considers the basilisk would not work, but will not explain why because [b]he does not consider open discussion of the notion of acausal trade with possible superintelligences to be provably safe. [/b]"

Just thinking here. you know when you play a simulation game for ages and get bored and start wrecking things just for the heck of it?

Any superintelligent being with the ability to run global level simulations is also likely to be extremely long-lived (if only because they can make back-up copies of themselves.)

So even if we start out with simulated-Jehovah we're probably going to end up with simulated Satan.

David Brin said...

Of course it was a case of "all of the above." Throw in also the fractured national nature of European society, making it technologically competitive. When Spain & Italy persecuted Jews and scientists and bourgeois protestants they moved to northern Europe and those realms prospered and conquered the world.

Ian said...

The Enlightenment was the result of a whole bunch of random factors.

For example, the Ottoman conquest of Egypt gave them a near-monopoly on the land trade with Asia. This let them massively increase tariffs and transit taxes - which in turn inspired the search for a sea route to Asia.

I tend to agree with Kim Stanley Robinson's thesis in Days of Rice and Salt that something similar to the Enlightenment was probably inevitable if only because once one society develops the empirical method, gun powder and a political ideology capable of mobilizing mass peasant armies, any society that doesn't emulate it is probably going to get eaten.

David tends to emphasize the positives of the enlightenment but it's also true that just as it lets its citizens live healthier, longer, happier lives, it makes them much more efficient killers.

There's a great book by Richard Overy called "Why the Allies won" in which he shows how the romantic militarism of German society actually worked against them.

A couple of examples:

1.Each branch of the German military got to dictate exactly what equipment they needed and cost was almost irrelevant. The equipment was made by German industry which had abotu the highest quality standards on the planet.

Let's look at how that played out in one specific area: trucks. German vehicle manufacturers made 50 different types of truck for different branches of the military, carefully designed to optimize utility and loveingly handcrafted.

The British and Americans standardized production on exactly two types of truck: one heavy and one light.

The result was that the Allies outproduced Germany in trucks by a factor of ten and the German army throughout the war had more draft horses than trucks.

2. The British and Russians recognizing that they were in a fight for survival enacted something close to total mobilization - including women.

Not only did the Germans not do that, 10% of the slave laborers deported to Germany ended up as domestic servants.

Ian said...

Even soviet Russia, the deformed monster baby the enlightenment doesn't like to talk about, displayed an ability ot innovate that the Germans lacked.

Germany started the war with a highly developed and very effective military doctrine based on speed and the careful co-ordination of large units. They stuck to it with little change throughout the the war - even when it was obviously no longer working.

Overy goes into great deal about how the Russian military's strategy evolved and improved throughout the war. At the start of the war, there was virtually no communication or co-ordination between Russian units about the regimental level - everything as run from Moscow.

By 1944, the Red Army was able to pull off the largest strategic manoeuvre in history at the Battle of Kursk, coordinating the movements of over a million troops spread out over hundreds of kilometres.

David Brin said...

PS... glad to see some of you come back! Discussions have languished a bit, lately.

David Brin said...

Slight quibbles with Ian. I totally agree that the Nazis are over-rated as both strategists and as weapons builders. They had innovated between the wars... and did very little new during the war... except jets and rockets, which turned out to drain more than help.

Still, Kursk was in 1943, And there were adaptable German commanders like Kesselring who specialized in defensive warfare wher even Hitler could not bully the staff into attacking.

locumranch said...

As evidenced by the WW2 commentary supplied by Ian & David and our earlier evolution discussions, it becomes increasing clear that 'competition' (human, non-human or biological) is not and has never been 'fair', nor is it inherently 'creative'.

After all, the term 'competition' is just another way of saying 'conflict', 'struggle', 'battle', 'engagement' or 'contest', all of which imply some sort of modified or unmodified violence.

Is it David's contention, then, that 'violence' is inherently 'creative'??

I think not, mainly because such a conclusion is just too cynical for many touchy-feely humanists to contemplate.

Maybe it's time, though, to stop singing praises to 'creative' competition, and give praise instead to the stultifying human capacity for peace, social organization and cooperation, no matter how stablizing, uninteresting and uncreative it may be.


locumranch said...

And, now, without sarcasm:

"No Contest: The Case against Competition," by Alfie Kohn, first published in 1986, shows that the term "healthy competition" is a contradiction in terms. Kohn argues that our struggle to defeat each other -- at work, at school, at play, and at home -- turns all of us into losers. He shows that competition does not motivate us to do our best or "build character" but tends to sabotage self-esteem, ruin relationships, interfere with the acquisition of knowledge and make us all stupider.

Rather than enhancing creativity, competition frustrates it.


David Brin said...

Sorry, Locumranch. While I am a fan of cooperation, it has been used as a cudgel word to mean "cooperate with the elites or the majority by submitting to the norms."

The left is not as dangerous as the right... TODAY! But I recall Leninism, in which "cooperation" was the state religion and fooled millions into thinking they were on the right side, because of hypocritical incantations that excused raw oppression. I know countless lefties who would be Red Guards if they could get away with it.

Finger-wagging and chiding have been the main methods to try and make a better world, and they failed.

COmpetition is the creative force of the universe. It made us! Thu evolution. But yes, it was not and is not inherently nice. It made us through lots and lots of suffering and death. So? Is there a way to get the benefits while minimizing the bad stuff?

That very Question is a product of positive sum thinking, the core of the Enlightenment, which managed to find ways to HARNESS competition to maximize output and minimize blood on the floor. And to SAVE competition from its worst enemy, the tendency of winners to then use their lofty status to cheat. Witness feudalism. Or the NY Yankees.

Ironies about. We had to COOPERATE in order to set up rules and regulations so that markets and democracy and science could remain both creatively competitive AND un-bloody and flat. And those competitions entail huge amounts of cooperation. And I went into this quite heavily (and fascinatingly!) in EARTH.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin,

The religion of the right--that competition is an unqualified good and cooperation unnatural and evil--is a sin of excess. To me, the obvious truth is that both cooperation AND competion are necessary, and that the trick of good social organization is to do each in its correct place.

This operates on so many levels. Societies need both conservatives to keep from running off the rails AND liberals to keep from being stuck in a rut. Species need both dominant AND recessive traits for much the same reason.

When I was a kid in the 1960s, my dad impressed upon me that the greatness of America was that we avoided the pitfalls of BOTH the extreme left and extreme right. Somehow, during the Reagan years, it became fashionable to think of America AS right-wing, and therefore, conservative excess as being "no vice". To me, this is where we went astray.

I'm not saying America should be leftist instead. I'm saying our great strength of character has been the ability to sail safely past BOTH Scylla and Charibdis, not to avoid one with such vigor that we fall easy victim to the other.

Ian said...

This reprot has many really surprising findings in it.
for example: the proportion of people living in poverty in Germany and Greece are quite similar and Germans really aren't that much richer (on average) than Greeks.

Also while on average (ie.e using the arithmetic mean) Americans are wealthier than most western Europeans, the median wealth of Americans no higher.

There's been no trickedown from having those billionaires living amongst you.

LarryHart said...


As an American, I don't find any of that particularly surprising. :)

Tim H. said...

From my unexalted perspective, wealth isn't the problem so much as wealth with no higher obligation.

Acacia H. said...

Dr. Brin, I think part of the reason you've seen a decline in commentary is you have been spending the last few posts rehashing old stuff. Why not start writing about something new instead? You'll see a greater amount of commentary in result. (In addition, I've noticed sometimes you quit on a topic before it has a chance to mature because you find something else to talk about. Several viable discussion threads have died an early death as a result.)

Rob H.

locumranch said...

I agree with David that competition "is not inherently nice", but its "creative" aspects are a matter of perspective.

Competition (with its inevitable 'winners and losers') is a form of violence: It is destructive in the sense that it causes (in DB's words) "lots and lots of suffering and death"; it leads to 'scorched earth' tactics as the 'winners' seek to increase their own fitness by destroying the fitness of their competitors; it can only be seen as a 'creative' positive from the retrospective perspective of the surviving "winners"; and it is an apocalyptic negation from the perspective of "the loser".

Finally, this competitive cultural obsession of ours is the antithesis of both creativity and science: It encourages the establishment of a calcified and unchallengeable intellectual, political & social hegemony; it justifies the active suppression of intellectual (or scientific) inquiry by the same self-annoited cultural authority; and it permits the dominant social class to "blame the victim(ized)" lower classes for their own apparent lack of personal, financial or social success despite institutionalized barriers.

Competition can only be said to be creative when we assume that the losers deserve ignomious defeat -- when we assume that OUR ends justify the use of any & all violent means -- and when we assume that a predetermined future counts a particular social, intellectual, religious or ethnic US among the winners.

Otherwise, we are little more that undeserving Dodos, deplorable, vile & bereft.


David Brin said...

Larryhart, I don't disagree with a word you said. Indeed, the central theme in EARTH was how cooperation and competition interplay, in complex ways.

But I speak to the under-exposed ideas. And too few moderns have absorbed the lesson of the 6000 years preceding the Enlightenment. We are delusional creatures who only see our mistakes (1) through hard work and discipline or (2) when they are shown to us by others. #2 only happens when competition is allowed, engendered, encouraged.

Recall my GAR versus FIBM riffs of a few years back? Those on the right preaching Faith in Blind Markets are hypocrites helping create an oligarchy of syndics who stifle competition. Meanwhile, leftists cultishly deride competition as vile when all art arises from the competitive drives of artists, who are fierce in their desire to show themselves to be the best.

Locumranch - I am sorry, you seem not to get the positive sum game that competition HAS accomplished, when properly and liberally regulated, though you are its beneficiary every minute of your life.

locumranch said...

We seem to be talking at cross-purposess here. A "positive sum game" -- a game wherein both parties win -- is NOT a contest or competiton by definition.

A 'Competition' is defined as "a contest in which a winner is selected from among two or more entrants" and/or "the struggle between individuals of the same or different species for food, space, light, etc., when these are inadequate to supply the needs of all".

To quote Alfie Kohn again:

"Children succed in spite of competition, not because of it. Most of us were raised to believe that we do our best work when we're in a race -- that without competion we would all become fat, lazy, and mediocre. It's a belief our society takes on faith. It's also false. There is good evidence that productivity in the workplace suffers as a result of competition. The research is even more compelling in classroom settings ..."

Could it be that we're both saying the same thing with different words?


Acacia H. said...

What of a competition where two children strive to get the highest grade in a class? They are competing. But if both children get high grades then, despite the fact one "lost" that "loser" still wins because he or she learned.

Marino said...

@Locumranch, re: firearms and feudalism.

You wrote:
it was cheap weaponry which freed us from feudalism, especially the democratizing influence of high speed lead therapy & firearms.

The Knightly Class was only defeated [...] by a relatively unskilled infantry that used mass-produced firearms & lead projectiles.

Beg to disagree. It looks a little like 2. Am. as interpretation of history...
What defeated the Knightly Class was the bureaucracy of the absolutist nation state, which was able to collect taxes and pay for large armies either mercenary or conscript(and not just firearms: pikeman squares worked fine)and also to pay for (very expensive) siege and field artillery.

The cheap individual firearm with real power as such is a later product of Industrial revolution, progresses in metallurgy, machining and chemistry included, think the assault rifle, or at least the repeating rifle.
Smoothbore muzzleloading muskets were effective only when used by firing mass volleys. Requiring large armies, therefore bureaucracy etc. etc.

TheMadLibrarian said...

As a personal anecdote, I play a MMORPG (Massively multiplayer online role playing game, for those of you who are not geeks :). We were given the opportunity to create fleets and work together towards common goals. Our relatively small fleet was started from friends who already knew each other. The idea was that we were primarily in this to have fun and enjoy playing together, and the fleet should not become so big that we didn't recognize other people in our fleet. We have grown very slowly, mainly because we found players who shared our goals.

Consequently, although we have had a couple of minor disagreements, our fleet has stayed together longer and advanced farther than larger fleets with more resources. Our main 'competition' is who is at the top of the leaderboard for resource donation. Minor, not cutthroat, competition seems to be beneficial.

rytocm: new exotic poison

Ian said...

If people want to see the roots of human co-operation take a look at the recent report of a power struggle in a chimpanzee troop.

The second-ranking male challenged the alpha male - and when the fight was almost over the four lower-ranking males rushed them both and killed killed.

Humans form groups and coalitions to compete against other groups - and our evolution is the evolution of larger and larger groups.

LarryHart said...

Tim H:

From my unexalted perspective, wealth isn't the problem so much as wealth with no higher obligation.

The problem as I see it is wealth without production.

The Ayn Rand folks would have a point if the rich and powerful corporations got to be rich and powerful by producing great social value and fairly trading that value for money. In such a reality, it really WOULD be counter-productive to tax the rich.

What the Randroids fail to appreciate is that much of our wealthy individuals and corporations get rich not by producing value, but by hoarding treasure. Mitt Romney and Bain Capital are examples of this--their business model is to squeeze all of the value OUT of existing institutions, wall off that value as thier own, and let the institutions die and rot.

In a depressed economy such as we have now, it makes a whole lot of sense to me to tax the hoarders of capital in order to put that value to high-velocity use. This is neither "envy" nor an attempt to "punish" success. It's just a recognition that all personal wealth has been extracted from the commons. You're free to use that wealth for selfish purposes as long as you use it (circulate it), but if you're going to wall it off and make everyone else poorer for it, don't be surprised if we make up the difference by taxation.

Tim H. said...

LarryHart, nice point. It's speculation, but I think fear of inflation had something to do with Carter and Reagan dismantling new deal barriers against vast wealth, for them, slowing the velocity of money was a feature, not a bug. I think it's gone too far, but we humans aren't well known for moderation.

David Brin said...

Locumranch, please do not assume that because you do not understand something, it must be wrong. That is what the right wing does, incessantly. And the Far Left. You clearly do not understand the concept of the positive sum game, which is the very essence of designing competitive systems so that competition benefits all. The positive sum means that all boats rise together. it does NOT mean that all of those boats remain equal. One can become a yacht, but that does not matters so long as

1) All the booats get better, too, and

2) the yacht-owning winner does not become an oligarch who stops the process of positive sum competition. Example, Steve Jobs got rich making us all richer. Taxes (especially inheritance) should be high enough and public health/education for the poor should be vigorous enough that his kids will never own our kids.

Ian do you have a link to that story about the two top chimps being killed by lower ones? Wow!!!

Ian said...

I got the details slightly wrong - the second-ranking male fled, he wasn't killed.

"ET TU, chimp? The leader of a wild chimpanzee troupe was recently attacked by four of his underlings, who banded together to beat him to death. It's unusual for chimps to kill their alpha male – and this event gives rare insight into group structure in our closest relatives.

From 2007, Pimu was the alpha male of a chimp group living near Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. His rule came to a violent end in October 2011 – and the moment was captured on video. Stefano Kaburu of the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK, and colleagues investigated the incident and conducted an autopsy on Pimu's body (American Journal of Primatology,

The attack happened one morning after Pimu had started a fight with the second-ranking male. This male fled, while four others charged and beat Pimu, biting his hands and feet."

LarryHart said...

Tim H:

but I think fear of inflation had something to do with Carter and Reagan dismantling new deal barriers against vast wealth, for them, slowing the velocity of money was a feature, not a bug

The big economic fear in the 1970s was inflation. So yeah, I can see where slowing the velocity of money might have been a desired thing in those circumstances.

I don't argue that speeding up the velocity of money is ALWAYS a good thing. I argue that it is a good thing in the recession/depression we find ourselves in now.

Paul Krugman makes the point that the Grover Norquist "no government" crowd thinks that "we" are for everything "they" are against, so since they always want government to shrink, we must alawys want government to grow. But it's a false equivalency. What "we" want is recognition that there are indeed TIMES when govennment spending has a role to play. And this time, like the 1930s, is one of those times.

paintedjaguar said...

Dear Brin,
If I may, I'll intercept some of the condescension you directed at Locumranch. Please do not assume that because some of us take issue with your pronouncements, that we don't understand what you are saying. Sometimes we just don't agree with your analysis.

For instance, you still seem to be of the opinion you have expressed in the past that there is nothing wrong with letting an individual "make" as much money as he can contrive to. But our recent history gives some indication that even after-the-fact progressive taxation and estate taxes such as we had in the U.S. several decades ago, may not be sufficient to deflect the damage that such concentrations of wealth (power) can do to our society. As long as your vaunted competition is primarily measured and rewarded by monetary accumulation, that will be a dilemma. Personally, I don't think "equal opportunity" is an adequate answer to the problem and I don't believe your competitive positive-sum game is anything of the sort in reality.

Or, to use your metaphor, when the size differential between the yacht and the surrounding dinghies becomes too great, there is an increasing probability that some or all of the small boats will be capsized by the yacht's wake. Note that this outcome has nothing to do with whether the yacht's owner is a good or bad guy. It's just an artifact of the system.

Lastly, regarding competition vs cooperation - I unfortunately can't remember where I saw this, but for what it's worth - someone mentioned in passing a study that purported to find physiologically unhealthy levels of stress in almost all the members of a heirarchical troupe of primates. That is to say, in all but a couple of the top-ranking individuals. Not evidence so much, but this account certainly jibes with my life experience, although yours may differ, of course. (You may be aware that Behaviourists of a certain stripe have been wont to use baboons as their subjects precisely because they are so prone to heirarchy, even though in other ways they are one of our more distant cousins.)

Tim H. said...

LarryHart, I keep a tab open to Paul Krugman's blog, so I pretty much agree with you. One interesting thing about 70s inflation, mostly wages kept up, so perhaps 2/3s of the nation got along okay, but we took a hit for the third that wasn't, a harder hit than the third was getting from inflation. Now, it would be useful to the majority if a minority would accept higher taxes to fund stimulus, a lower rate than their grandfathers paid, but they're unwilling to take the hit for us, even though it would be in their long term interest. And I could respect the desire for smaller government more if the proponents didn't spend so much time adoring business bureaucracy.

David Brin said...

Paintedjaguar, I find your response delightful in its illustration of irony. You show in every way the impulse to deride others based upon what can only be (in this case) an absolutely knowing eagerness to misrepresent the other person, in ways diametrically opposite to their meaning.

You know damned well that I have been at the forefront in denouncing the attempted oligarchic putsch, both in the US and around the world, calling it by far the worst threat to freedom... and destroyer of openly competitive markets... in our world today.

The fact that you express such smugness, while blatantly incapable of separating creative competition in your mind from the oligarchal conspiracy that is always fair competition's worst enemy, is truly remarkable. As is your eagerness to slot me into one of the categories in your mind, instead of exercising our greatest human gift...


David Brin said...

BTW... please go off and try to grasp the subject of the Positive Sum Game before lecturing us about it.

Alfred Differ said...

We escaped through the fortuitous combination of a weak government in England during the mid-17th century coupled to a Protestant (Puritan) belief that Creation was a form of Scripture they could read themselves without the help of the priests. Over the years they worked at this, they managed to pull off some VERY visible successes and the ranks of imitators swelled. A century later the industrial revolution was under way.

Good fortune, a useful idea, and an unruly bunch of people who in any other era would have been butchered by stronger leaders is what freed us. Successful ideas propagate and that is what has kept us free... so far. 8)

paintedjaguar said...

@David Brin

Deride? Nonsense. Unless that is a synonym for "disagree". You might re-read my post - I think you'll find that to start, I merely echoed your own tone and phrasing. Yes, I meant for it to bite - but that isn't derision, it's simply holding up a mirror.

Second, I paraphrased a specific position which you have taken more than once on this site in the past. I don't happen to think it's a good fit with your self-proclaimed war on oligarchy and, as I said, I'm somewhat dubious about the long-term effectiveness of your preferred mitigation (taxes). It's easier to prevent a concentration of power than to diminish it after the fact - in a competitive environment, such a power base will defend and extend itself. However, I said nothing to imply that you were guilty of the sort of dishonesty and disingenuity you've accused me of. Of course I am implying that your thinking on this may not be as clear as you believe. You are not the only one who thinks in terms of workable systems.

Now, do I think that you (and many others) vastly over-emphasize the value of competition vs cooperation? Yep. I've been a frequent reader here, I've read your books, that's my opinion. No, I didn't just claim that you are anti-cooperation - just so we're clear. On my part, I'll admit that my annoyance at the usual pro forma whacks at "lefty" straw men might have lent me a bit more hostile tone than was intended. It's one reason I usually don't bother posting here. And to be fair, we may not have exactly the same conception of what "the left" means, either. A lot of people who think of themselves as on the left annoy the hell out of me.

As for smugness, well I have my share, but I don't think I'm even in the same league as you and I don't mean that as a dig, just an observation. Your other readers can judge for themselves. Anyway, if you didn't have some worthwhile things to say, none of us would be here, and it's your living room, you can do as you please.

Acacia H. said...

Once upon a time there was this magical realm where the leaders declared all property belonged to everyone and would be distributed equally. But even allowing for the problems with political corruption (and all-too-human foibles), this delusional state failed due to one fundamental factor: when farmers noticed their less productive associates were getting the same share they were with all their hard work, they decided to "slack off" as it were. Agricultural productivity fell because no one owned anything because everything was co-owned. Thus the magical realm was forced to turn to its evil corruptive neighbors for food to feed its people to prevent further widespread starvation (and a war that would have destroyed everything).

At the end, the Soviet Union chose to allow farmers to farm private lots for their personal use and capitalism was reintroduced into the communist dream. And yes, I'm simplifying things.

You can't keep all boats equally small by force and hope that they will float upward when no one bothers to work on any of the boats. By accepting some boats will be larger than others but that all will rise as the waters increase... then all are lifted above poverty even as some have a greater share. And if some boats are swamped by the wake of the large? That's what social safety nets are for, and our neighbors helping one another.

Besides. Sometimes the owner of the large boat stops and helps, apologetic that his boat caused that bit of destruction.

Rob H.

Jumper said...

Above, Robert said "What of a competition where two children strive to get the highest grade in a class?" which has struck me as one of the best defenses of "competition" I have seen here.

In this case, the word means a game. A game played for "fun," a word and concept I fear is so steeped in cultural nuances as to be near-useless, but we can call it "entertainment."

How does that model fit with our concepts of economic competition? Is it simply that it means I get dessert, and someone else gets to go hungry, so I win? Or is it just the canard that the rich "keep score" with wealth?

LarryHart said...

Tim H:

And I could respect the desire for smaller government more if the proponents didn't spend so much time adoring business bureaucracy.


They rail against the POSSIBILITY of government bureaucrats "standing between you and your doctor", while essentially worshipping the reality of INSURANCE COMPANY bureaucrats doing the same. They imply that GOVERNMENT would somehow have an incentive to cut costs while limiting care, while being just fine with the fact that insurance companies have a FIDUCIARY RESPONSIBILITY to do so.

LarryHart said...

Robert, I'm one of the most unabasedly liberal commentators on Dr Brin's blog, and I certainly don't advocate pure communism or hold it us as "magical". What makes you think anyone here does that?

All work is not equal. If someone digs a well by the sweat of his brow, yes, the water from that well should be his, not his neighbor's or his country's. BUT, if someone digs underground pipes to everyone else's wells thereby acquiring ALL of the water? I see nothing wrong with government stepping in to protect everyone else from him in that case. It's not a case of discouraging productive work, but of discouraging quasi-legal theft.

You have a right to all the food, water, land (etc) that you can earn, yet everyone else has a right to SOME food, water, land, etc necessary to support life. At some point, those two rights are incompatible. Trying to mediate a fair and just resolution is not the same thing as communism.

David Brin said...

Fact is, the oligarchs/Fox have one top priority... to portray FDR as satan. The world & nation that FDR helped us build resulted in the fastest rise of a middle class ever, the flattest social order in history, without elimination of competition in the most vibrant creative-market economy ever, with more startups per year than any other time... all at high marginal tax rates.

The notion that we could achieve all that... while providing the planet with its best peace or "pax" in 6000 years, under a trading system that spurred spectacular growth till 3/4 of all children grow up with food/electricity/school... and yet see half our citizens cheer wildly over the demolition of the social compact that brought it about?

That proves our parents in the Greatest Generation truly were better than us.

Having said that, my occasional counter-strokes at the Left are not pro-forma or for polemical balance. Dogmatic over simplification and sanctimonious-indignant nostrum shouting are plagues, no matter which oversimplification happens to be your side's banner. The right is not more dangerous today because their nostrums are worse than the left's...

...only because they are currently a far better organized and powerful force in today's America, backed by floods of money from a determined set of neo-feudalists. But I remember when communists used the cant of "cooperation" to make themselves lords with life-death power over anyone who tried to argue. I lived on college campuses where lefty bullies ran amok, trying to emulate China's Red Guards.

Pure cooperation, pure competition, they are idols to worship! They are used to proclaim "I know the answer!" and divert us from human complexity. They serve as cudgels to browbeat pragmatic men and women who are fine tuning the enlightenment's positive sum games.

Acacia H. said...

Actually, Jumper, it may not be a game. While I don't remember much of my childhood and teenagerhood (psychological self-defense mechanism), I do remember striving with two other members of my High School Physics class over who would get the high grade. Now, admittedly the grades were scaled; I don't know if any of us ever got a 100 naturally. And there was no actual system set up. But two of us at least were working hard to ensure we would be the top grade. (We kinda broke the curve too. ^^;; There'd be a break, and then a bunch of others... and then another break and the third group and finally the stragglers on the far end of the curve - I can't help but think that without we three outliers that those on the far end of the curve would have been graded higher.)

There were no rewards, other than getting a high grade. I don't know if there were acknowledgments (outside of grumbling from those outside the skewed curve because of three students who normally outperformed everyone else - I do recall once in a while someone else would bounce into that high range and beat us three) or anything. It was just a natural competition over who got the best grades in that one class.

So if I were to assign EbscoHOST headings, it would likely be Competition (Psychology) for it. ;) But it is a natural progression toward competitive economic aspects as well. It's just the venue has changed.

Rob H.

Acacia H. said...

Larry, I wasn't deriding current social policy or the like. I was referencing paintedjaguar's comments about boats and his analogy of a yacht swamping other boats. But forceably keeping all boats small is not good. In short, my story about the Soviet Union was to show that both ends of the equation are unbalanced and that you need equilibrium between the two. I mean, I may not be a bleeding heart liberal (though my conservative friend who has abandoned the Republican Party now and considers them not to be conservatives) but I'm not an Ayn Rand apologist either. In short, I'm nearly as contrary as our esteemed author, and far more tangential. ;)

Rob H.

Jumper said...

LarryHart, not to quibble but water belongs to everyone. However, if you dig some gold out of your yard, (and you retain mineral rights) it belongs to you.

Jumper said...

I remember when I beat out the "smart guy" for top score on the state placement exam - by one answer. He was a bit miffed, but it could have gone either way. Beating him had nothing to do with my score, though.

If competition is just a game, and games encourage people to perform better, I will concede that benefit to competition.

LarryHart said...


water belongs to everyone.

The Ayn Rand folks would beg to differ that water (or anything) "belongs to everyone". Certainly, it is not self-evident truth. It's a statement of policy, and requires eternal vigilance to keep righ-wing lawmakers from un-doing it.

However, if you dig some gold out of your yard, (and you retain mineral rights) it belongs to you

OTOH, if you finagle the law so that you have the mineral rights to EVERYONE'S gold, then don't be surprised if "everyone" taxes your gold in return.

LarryHart said...


I was referencing paintedjaguar's comments about boats and his analogy of a yacht swamping other boats. But forceably keeping all boats small is not good. In short, my story about the Soviet Union was to show that both ends of the equation are unbalanced and that you need equilibrium between the two.

Well, all right then. But the point of that yacht analogy WAS for a balanced approach. He wasn't saying that all boats must be kept the same size, but he was saying there is such thing as TOO big, beyond which a boat becomes a danger to others and to its own environment.

To me, you responded to someone saying "Free enterprise is good up to a point, but needs to be constrained by some rules for its own good" by making a snarky reference that, while navigating between Scylla and Charibdis, be especially sure to avoid Scylla, which "some say" is wonderful and magical.

Thus my response.

Acacia H. said...

Actually, he said this: It's easier to prevent a concentration of power than to diminish it after the fact - in a competitive environment, such a power base will defend and extend itself.

To me, that suggests breaking apart businesses and the like - or to put it in boating terms, ensuring no one has a yacht. But if someone isn't allowed to build their business beyond a certain point (so long as it does not violate antitrust laws) then why bother building at all?

Or to put it another way, Microsoft created the Windows Operating System and Windows Office productivity suites. There were attempts to break Microsoft apart as a "monopoly" which ultimately failed. While Microsoft remains in a position of power, however, innovation has resulted in new products that don't use Microsoft's OS or MS Office. They are now losing market share but not through government action. This is capitalism at work.

If Microsoft had not been in a position of strength, would Apple have created the iPad tablet computer? Mind you, Microsoft had created tablet computers prior to that and they never went anywhere. The iPad is a competitor platform designed to take market share away from Microsoft. If Microsoft wants to sell Microsoft Office on the iPad it has to sacrifice profits to do so and empower Apple further. If it does not have Microsoft Office on the iPad then it loses market share.

Government action breaking up Microsoft would end up stifling innovation because the innovation would not be needed. Companies would have put out inferior products to compete because Microsoft did not exist in its larger form. And no company would truly want to stand out because if they start growing at the expense of other companies, they would then be ripped apart by do-gooders in the government.

Yes, this is sometimes needed. But care must be taken not to stifle innovation. You can't rip apart all yachts because of a fear of a yacht knocking over a dingy. You just ensure that the smaller boat owners are compensated for damages.

Rob H.

Jumper said...

Big yachts also fear other big yachts more than small dinghies.

paintedjaguar said...

If I had the energy for a long, redundant post, I might say something about antitrust enforcement, the need for governing devices in complex mechanisms, natural monopolies and neo-Georgism (that's a reference to Henry George, once said to be the third most famous man in America - you should know who he was). I'm old enough to remember when it was common sense that government or non-profit utilities were the most effective way to regulate and safeguard much of the nation's common-wealth and necessary services. Amazing what a half-century of intense, well financed propaganda can do.

Instead, here's a thought for the day: Enterprise and Capitalism are NOT synonymous. Equating the two is just a failure of imagination.

I'd like to say that I've often admired your cool head and clear rhetoric in this neighborhood. Also, reading comprehension. Diplomacy is a rare skill these days.

Acacia H. said...

They are not synonymous. However, Enterprise is much more difficult to have in a non-Capitalist society. If you have to get government approval to form a company (ie, a planned economy) or risk having your company seized by the government, then why bother to innovate? And if you need connections in order to establish a business, then you have no real social movement. In short, you have an oligarchy. Capitalism is flawed, mind you. But the alternatives are also flawed... and many far more so. About the only true threat is when capitalism is constrained through oligarchy. If monopolies or duopolies are able to control government to constrain competition, then what you have is not genuine capitalism.

Of course, unfettered capitalism is not necessarily better. Instead you need some level of government controls. Especially when companies can achieve unfair business practices (such as the use of supercomputers to do high frequency trading to steal pennies from other people's transactions).

Rob H.

Ian said...

"Or to put it another way, Microsoft created the Windows Operating System ..."

Actually they didn't.

Ian said...

"They are now losing market share but not through government action."

Well, sure.

Apart from all the anti-trust lawsuits.

Ian said...

As for the idea that Microsoft fostered and encouraged innovation: Go! corporation would disagree.

So would Alcatel:

David Brin said...

I despair of getting folks to actually read Adam Smith and realizing that competitive capitalism is not the same thing as narrow corporate oligarchy. It is a VICTIM of oligarchy, as Smith pointed out.

Read Heinlein's BEYOND THIS HORIZON. Past the silly 1st half. His "utopia" asserts that all creative arts are (as they have always been and should be) extremely competitive. But "of course food is free!"

Seriously. tuning where and when competitio or cooperation should be emphasized, that is the duty of smart, non-dogmatic citizens to negotiate. Not morons marching to simplistic "left-right" slogans.

paintedjaguar said...

Microsoft's best trick was always buying out, copying or suppressing smaller, more innovative outfits. I wish they would spend less effort reinventing and more refining, but that isn't how our disposable economy works.

What, you think playing musical chairs with the upper class roster makes our system less of an oligarchy? That's the meritocratic elephant in the room, to be sure. Leaving aside how much social movement actually takes place (a large question, actually), Bill Clinton and Obama both came from relatively modest beginnings, along with many congressmen. Would you seriously argue that they haven't since joined the oligarchs? Junior grade, I grant you, but still...

And are you saying that the core value of "genuine capitalism" is something other than concentrated wealth (necessary and sufficient to the definition)? Sounds a lot like No True Scotsman to me, but you make an attractive argument in some spots.

Mind you, I'm not claiming to have worked out a comprehensive better plan, although I have various ideas that have no chance of happening in my lifetime. Maybe just that we need to keep on groping and thinking.

paintedjaguar said...

@David Brin

You should know by now that you can't herd cats. Have to fool 'em with a laser pointer.

About BEYOND THIS HORIZON. Isn't the first half where Heinlein describes the future society and the second a quest to prove an afterlife? It's been a while since I read it. In any case, it's certainly true that once basic needs are met, people have been known to work very hard for non-monetary rewards. Not necessariy status alone, though. As someone who has done both performing and recreational dancing, I can tell you that some of the most rewarding times had nothing much to do with competition as such. Often quite the opposite.

locumranch said...

Being too literal for my own good, I was merely pointing out that we often take great liberties with word meaning:

We say 'pacification' when we mean 'aggression'; we say 'liberate' when we mean 'enslave'; we say 'competition' when we mean 'cooperation'; we say 'cooperation' when we when we mean 'compulsion'; and we even say 'create' when we mean 'destroy'. This is an old problem -- this desire to 'spin' the truth -- which predates Orwell's 'Newspeak' label by thousands of years.

David uses this type of 'Newspeak' when he defines the "positive sum (win-win) game" as an enlightened form of non-competitive competition because this is how the 'win-win' term 'cooperation' is traditionally defined (whereas our dictionaries define the term 'competition' in terms of 'win-loss').

That said, I understand his reasons for do this: Truth-telling has become political suicide; plain talk has become social anathema; and 'spinning the truth' represents our next best way of winning friends and influencing people.

[See second paragraph]

Unfortunately, this PC desire to spin the truth also signals the end of meaningful societal communication and/or effective interpersonal dialogue.

Our financial institutions, especially the Stock Market, are Ponzi schemes that require constantly increasing investment (aka 'growth) just to maintain their current value. The 'real wealth' that we accumulate in our retirement, savings & bank accounts are unreal IOU's that can never be redeemed for real resources because those resources have not yet been created. One could even say that the human population explosion, including the climate-changing 'Green Revolution', are just more Ponzi schemes.

This is how our society will end:
Not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a half-truth and an invalid handful of IOUs.


LarryHart said...


To me, "positive-sum game" doesn't imply lack of competition. Rather, it implies a system where competion is channeled in such a way as to increase the overall value of the system. As opposed to a zero-sum game, in which everything that I gain through my own effort is at your expense (and vice versa). In a positive-sum game, I can work for my own gain AND also provide new value to the commons.

One problem with the modern economy is that the owners of wealth are not satisfied with gaining profit for themselves AND providing value to the commons. They believe that any positive-sum value produced belongs EXCLUSIVELY to themselves. They completely miss the point OF a positive-sum game.

LarryHart said...


Over 20 years ago now, I read a book about entropy in social systems which stuck with me all this time. The author (whose name I unfortunately don't recall) described two markedly different phases of an economic system which he referred to as "colonial" and "climactic" phases.

The colonial phase is when new resources are discovered in virtually-unlimited quantities, such as the discovery of a virgin continent. In this phase, no one is concerned with conservation, because resources are almost-literally there for the taking. This phase also lacks established procedures for exploiting those resources. In this phase, new ground is being broken with no clear rules. Therefore, innovation is valued, resources are cheap, and no individual's success is at the expense of others, since resources are avialable for all.

The climactic phase is when there are well-tested, establised procedures for running the system, and resources are becoming exhausted and scarce. Conservation becomes more important because it is now important not to use up all of your fuel (or whatever your system depends on). Innovation is required not so much in ways to exploit resources as in ways to conserve them. And one person's success can prevent others from succeeding because they're gobbling up resources which are then unavailable to anyone else.

Platitudes such as "If you're poor, it's because you're unwilling to work" come out of the colonial phase, but they are disingenuous and cruel in a climactic phase, when the reason I might be poor is not that I'm unwilling to work for value, but that all the value is already owned by someone else.

During a colonail phase, it makes sense to insitutionalize the concept that whoever most efficiently extracts value from raw materials deserves more wealth. In a climactic phase, the opposite is true. Whoever uses up more raw materials is in effect stealing from the commons.

I'm not sure I'm adequately explaining, but my point is, the rules that self-evidently apply in a colonial phase are unsuited to the climactic phase, in which we 2013 Americans surely find ourselves.

WB Reeves said...

I've been away for awhile, going to and fro within the internet, trying to do my bit to raise the level of collective discourse. It can be a wearying and depressing effort.

So I'm happy to tell you that this piece has revived my spirits. I can't fault your take at all, it is essentially my own, albeit subject to periodic fits of melancholy.

Like yourself, I'm no Pollyanna. I don't think anyone who grew up in the shadow of WWII and the threat of imminent nuclear holocaust could be. The danger of a new dark age/global suicide is ever present.

Nevertheless, we are not entitled to indulge in despair. Not when we have been bequeathed a world of potentials and possibilities by previous generations who could only dream of such.

Besides despair, like suicide, merely insures that that there will be no improvement. It is a self fulfilling nihilism. A pseudo-sophisticated pose popular with those who have no intention of following such logic to it's ultimate conclusion.

That's a bit severe but I've lost patience with the smug complacency of doom and gloom hipsters.

Thanks for the recharge.

WB Reeves said...

Whew! Just read through the comments. Glad to report that the lively, not to say heated, disagreements haven't killed my earlier buzz.

Without getting into sterile ideological debate, I can only say that nothing I've ever achieved in my life was motivated by "competition" in the sense of a desire to outdo someone else. What has motivated me are my own expectations and those of others whose opinions I respected.

I don't think I'm such an outlier in this regard. Not everyone wants to rule the world. If fact, I'd venture that the vast majority of the human race have no such ambition or anything like it.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

Most of the competition vs. cooperation discussion here seems to me to be missing the point.

The basis of the positive sum game is that free markets make possible mutually-profitable exchanges. Those mutually-profitable exchanges can occur even between individuals of greatly differing levels of ability.

Ongoing mutually-profitable exchanges within a civilization make possible ever-increasing general levels of wealth and well-being.

Competition comes from the desire of the individual to maximize his gain from those mutually-profitable exchanges. In a system of freely chosen mutually-profitable exchanges, there are no losers; but those who do best at competing will make greater gains from each of the mutually-profitable exchanges.

Jumper said...

I have about decided the whole definition of "competition" is so squishy as to be useless to me. (I wonder if it's telling that I am not a sports fan, yet I am the sort who is angry when the Olympics shuttle the track and field events to the wee hours or don't show them at all. I have a fair suspicion the pole vaulters are self-competing as much as anything else.)

I can't fall back exclusively on the word "efficiency" because of certain mutations of the ideal leading towards sweat-shop Orwellianism, Fascism, etc. I guess if "competition" is a stand-in for the combination of freedom and efficiency, then I had best just say those very things.

Jumper said...

Off topic, neat article about helpful bacteria competing in our guts (okay, I couldn't help myself) which could lead to some fun science fiction scenarios. For example, what if "intelligence" is caused not by our genes or mental environment but simply by a transplantable gut bacterium?

Doris said...

WB Reeves: When you mentioned despair, I thought about it for a while. It may be entertaining in a work of art, but it real life, it gets boring. There is way too much to do in life to waste time on despair.

paintedjaguar said...

@Jerry Emanuelson
"In a system of freely chosen mutually-profitable exchanges, there are no losers"

Sorry, no. This sounds nice, but the real world doesn't work that way. Here's why (well, one reason), and also why the "rising boats" model doesn't work and positive-sum games don't actually mean win-win for everyone under our current system. It's about thresholds.

Think about rolling a rock to the top of a hill, or achieving lift-off velocity. Anything short of that threshold point doesn't actually get you anywhere.

Down on the lower part of the income scale is where this matters most. In simplified terms, let's say you're trying to find housing. You have $300. The minimum rent on apartments is $400. Not so good. But wait - there's an uptick in the economy and boats are rising. You now find yourself with $350. Well.. it's an improvement, can't say otherwise, but you are still below the threshold. Which means you're still sleeping in your car tonight (if you even have one). In addition there's this: the guys at the top got a much bigger payday. That money has to go somewhere, and a lot of it went into real estate speculation. Rents are now $500. And so it goes.

Obviously I'm just pulling numbers out of my hat, but the principle is real, not just something that looks good on paper. It's something you could see work itself out in the real world, in all sorts of ways, especially in the past several decades. A lot of people are never forced to think in these terms. Even if they run into barriers, they are high enough up the food chain that they can shift resources to compensate. That leaves them free to indulge in libertarian fantasies, among other luxuries.

I won't get into whether there's any such thing as "freely chosen exchanges". Not now, anyway.

Jerry Emanuelson said...


My post didn't say anything about "our current system."

Obviously, it is possible for both individuals and groups to erect barriers to mutually-profitable exchanges. They do it all the time. Some people do very little else.

In the past several decades, "our current system" has built ever-larger barriers against ordinary people engaging in mutually-profitable exchanges.

The largest of such barriers generally come from organized groups both in an out of government (although the groups outside of government nearly always have some level of government assistance for their mischief).

I have no objection to safety nets to keep people out of extreme poverty nor even to barriers to amassing large amounts of inherited wealth. The important thing is to keep the bulk of a civilization free to engage in mutually-profitable exchanges of their own choosing.

Jerry Emanuelson

Tony Fisk said...

re: those physics competitions.

You did help out your friends when they asked you a question, didn't you?

paintedjaguar said...

@Jerry Emanuelson

Hard not to like a guy who's so polite and well spoken, and I think we could have a fun, though lengthy, discussion. However, when you start throwing around terms like "free market" I'm tempted to drag in unicorns.

I myself don't have much affection for safety nets. I'd rather we tried some form of economic freedom rather than just economic liberty, extending full citizenship to everyone. Perhaps it wouldn't work out, but it would be an interesting experiment. If you like SF, Mack Reynolds wrote a few novels back in the 60's that touched on possible problems with schemes like a Guaranteed Income.

“Necessitous men are not free men.”
- Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jan 11, 1944 State of the Union Address (Second Bill of Rights)

David Brin said...

paintedj… Usually the 1st 1/2 od a Heinlein novel is fun and adventurous and the second hald is blah-blah talk n' blather. The same pattern held in Beyond this Horizon (BoH) only the 1st half was code duello gun malarkey and boring because RAH clearly was doing it to please JW Campbell. But the 2nd half -- while all-blather -- was fascinating! The "afterlife" part is a tiny aside. Look at the society and the genetics.

I have come to realize that explaining to you about competition as the source of reciprocal accountability and creativity is like explaining spacecraft to a fish. You don't have a clue, and hence assume there's nothing there, despite being a beneficiary of a society that gave you godlike powers compared to any other generation… and provided them through a blending of competition and cooperation called the techno-enlightenment.

locumranch, alas, has no "fish" excuse. He is being obdurate and insulting on purpose.

Fact is, if oligarchy had only to proceed on momentum to win… why are they fighting so hard? They are frantic, using expensive processes like Fox News to hypnotize millions, because they are terrified of the Rooseveltean social bargain coming back, under which competitive enterprise was both encouraged and kept under careful regulation SO THAT it would not turn into oligarchy.

The dismantling of all FDR's processes is the top agenda of the right… but according to lefty flakes, there was never anything there in the first place. Nothing to defend. No carefully designed middle ground. Fall back upon cynical snarks.

I told you guys that the left contained folks just as dogmatic-foolish as the right. The difference is how MANY follow stupid leftist mantras.

LarryHart gets it. We must regulate commerce so that it is positive sum… AND so that each generation of wealthy leaves heirs who are MERELY wealthy and not lords.

Jerry Emanuelson you are correct about the best-case of market positive sum interaction. But you neglect to consider that competition always devolves into blood-letting, cheating, usurpation and more cheating… unless (as Adam Smith recommended) society reaches democratic consensus to set in place regulatory measures to ensure that cheaters do not prosper. 6000 years shows that inherited owner oligarchy is the greatest enemy of the process you just described. Socialism is a much smaller threat.

Paintedjaguar, your answer to Jerry was more fish commenting on vacuum. Please. I completely get the point you were making about Threhholds. And it has almost nothing to do with what he said. You really really really do not understand the topic. Tragically, you actually think you do.

Edit_XYZ said...

"David Brin "(...) You really really really do not understand the topic. Tragically, you actually think you do."

It's not so complicated: every competition will have winners; and these winners will manipulate the rules of the game to win the next time (cheat); even if they don't cheat, their larger resources give them essential advantages over poorer competitors (aka at the same level of competency, the player with more resources wins).

Pretty soon, the rich players will easily outcompete poorer players (regardless of the poorer ones having much better ideas/innovations); and, of course, it does not matter for the poorer players how cool/useful an innovative product is if their income dropped at a steeper rate than the price of this product (due to their inability to compete for lack of resources). Not to mention - the emergence of these rich players is always accompanied by political measures for keeping the prices up/etc AKA cheating.

What I find ironic is that you come with passages such as the one I quoted when, on this blog, your recurring themes are:
- how oligarchs are running a world-conquering conspiracy;
- how every side in USA just blindly repeats its dictums (plus a few ad personamns) instead of even considering that he/she may be wrong in parts. I guess practice is harder than theory.

Acacia H. said...

There is a board game called Munchkin Quest, based off of the Munchkin card game. The basic plot is you go through a dungeon (building it as you go from drawn tiles), fighting monsters and gathering treasure. Your competitors also are in the dungeon and have cards with items and spells which they can use to help you... or hinder you.

The end of the game happens when someone reaches level 10 and tries to flee to the exit... where one last big bad is lurking. Often other players try to sabotage the level 10. However, one scenario that exists is for TWO level 10 players to work together and escape together. The end result? You have two winners.

Competition is not about one person prevailing over the rest. Sometimes, competition can bring people together to succeed. And lest you brush this off as an exercise in oligarchy, in fantasy roleplaying games, groups of people work together to defeat foes and make the world a safer place (more often than not). While these groups compete among themselves, they also work together to achieve an end. This sounds very much like the multiple boats floating up together scenario.

In short, competition is not about one entity defeating the rest. It is about the creation of products... and then either using your resources to purchase new companies and innovate their creations, or watching competitors grow and creating new products to retain or grow marketshare. Who wins? The consumers. If you don't believe me, look at your smartphone and think of what the smartphone market looked like ten years ago.

Rob H.

paintedjaguar said...

@David Brin

You're absolutely right about one thing. I made no attempt to address most of what Jerry Emanuelson said. Why would I, it was mostly unexceptionable other than representing a somewhat restricted field of view. Which you have, in part, just pointed out. Same goes for his following post. I seized upon one statement that was just flat out wrong as a platform for something I wanted to get across. Perhaps you believe it to be a trivial point or less than relevant to previous posts (I disagree) but it's hard to derive much from a sneering "fish/vacuum" and I don't fancy myself a telepath. You must believe you have the talent though, judging from your heated responses to statements I didn't, and wouldn't make ("there's nothing there", "nothing to defend", etc.) You do that a lot, you know.

It's a fact that the "Rooseveltean social bargain" was never completely fulfilled, due in no small part to the post-WW2 purge of the Left that you think so highly of (Miracle of 1948, anybody?) Like Taft-Hartley, seeds planted during that time helped prepare the way for the resurgence of the oligarchs that you now rail against. Oh, some of the Left was foolish enough to think well of Stalin at the time? Yes, and not a few mainstream businessmen thought Hitler was peachy too, for a while at least. So? And it wasn't a bunch of lefties who planned a coup against Roosevelt during his first term.

Saying that is a far cry though, from "assum[ing] there's nothing there", as you would have it. Furthermore, this is the first time I've mentioned such in this venue - or is your telepathy accompanied by precognition? (That's derision -- see the difference? Still not the eagerness to offer insult that you're practicing, but again - your playhouse.)

You persist in believing that no one with a different viewpoint could possibly comprehend your notions about "competition as the source of reciprocal accountability and creativity". Why? There's nothing obscure or mysterious about your thesis. I understand the mechanisms you're talking about and I'd agree that competition can work in the way you describe. Sometimes. You believe that's the mainspring of all the progress we've made. Perhaps, but it still strikes me as a pretty reductive view of creativity.

By the way, I might be flippant in lieu of a book-length argument, but I wouldn't snark at Jerry. I see "free enterprise" as an oxymoron - the usage reflects some assumptions about the nature of markets that I don't share. If that makes no sense to you, maybe it isn't my understanding that's less than perfect here. Well, never mind. I suppose we've wasted enough energy at cross puposes.

Jumper said...

I'm unconvinced still. Rob H. is using a definition which does not much even require the word "competition." It's innovation succeeding.

Here's a thought experiment going through my mind: John invents a better type of pliers. People start to buy them, leaving Harry, who makes standard pliers, wondering what to do next. He can now do several things: demand protectionism, do something else until John's patent runs out, or lose sales. Or cheat and steal John's patent and hope to not get caught. In any case, Harry has no inventions of his own in the pipeline, and he and his kids are going to suffer. How much safety net do we offer him?

This also has me thinking about patents and protectionism, and how there may be differences working inside a set, as opposed to across different sets. National boundaries. I'm not sure the solution to that is to pretend that the set boundaries are immaterial and to be ignored in the name of freedom.

The Japanese pearl industry is dead. And I'm tempted to think like the Chinese emperor who just destroyed all his navy as a bad idea!

I guess I will get over it.

Acacia H. said...

Or he could create his OWN new set of pliers that, while not as good as the competition, are still better than his old ones... and then work the Brand Loyalty angle to try and keep some of his market share. What's more, he could even find a design that is the equal or superior to the new pliers out there.

Rob H.

locumranch said...

A lot of equivocation going on.

Arguing that Competition = Positive Sum Game, now David adds that both Commerce AND Competition = Positive Sum Games ... assuming proper "regulation", that is.

Jerry argues that Competition = "the desire of the individual to maximize his gain from those mutually-profitable exchanges".

Citing "Munchkin Quest, Rob H argues that Competition = "groups of people (who creatively) work together to defeat foes and make the world a safer place".

Doesn't anyone own a dictionary?

Although I respect the intelligence of everyone on this site, these individuals are obviously describing Collaboration AND Cooperation rather than Competition because collaboration presupposes regulation, working together & mutually-beneficial "exchanges" while 'competition' does not.

As others besides myself have pointed out, Free Markets aren't 'free' and the language use of terms like 'competition' have become so "squishy" and debased as to become functionally meaningless.

Furthermore, the critics & detractors on this site are not merely obdurate, insulting or ignorant "fish". We are not even "competitors" in any true sense of the word. We are your partners and 'collaborators' in this rather cooperative endeavour, offering and exchanging opinion in a mutually-beneficial CITOKATE fashion.

But, there I go again, committing the sin of criticizing my allies.


Nyctotherion said...

I for one am finding the competition debate useful and interesting. I got the same book locum did - haven't quite finished it or agree with its central thesis, but:

While I can recognize much of the innovation and improvements to civilization contributed by limited competition, I have an innate distaste which amounts to a cognitive bias against such, worrying that such exercises eventually devolve into the war of all against all.

Not all of us are cut out to be competitors -- to have any chance at all, you need to be in a state where 'losing' (ie, going bankrupt, etc.) is not such a crushing blow that you can never recover.

More late -- I'm typing this in a rushed state because I have a bus...

Ian said...

Instead of pliers, let's talk about forceps.

David Brin said...

I guess it is a difference in personality. When I am told by someone who has clearly studied a field well that I show signs of nurturing persistent misconceotions based on poor or simplistic understanding of the issue, I do get irritated (I am human) but I also am provoked to curiosity. That there might be aspects I actually did not understand.

Paintedjoaguar's response is to double down and simply declare his understanding to be perfect.

He waves away the fantastic productivity and all-boats-rising effects of the FDR-ian renaissance as "incomplete" and therefore (the wisdom of purists) of no significance as a producer of actual, profoundly transforming outcomes. The irony that he does this while wallowing in comforts and miracles produced by that renaissance, in a world where 3/4 of children live in homes with food, electricity, sanitation and education. beggars the imagination.

Commentary finished here. Onward to next posting.

locumranch said...

Interesting non sequitur, Ian.

I've actually used forceps to deliver babies and I can use them to illustrate the differences between competition and cooperation.

OB Forceps were originally developed as proprietary hardware. To quote wiki, "the instrument was kept secret for 150 years by the Chamberlen family". This is an example of "competition". The owner & client 'won'; society 'lost'; and the advancement of medicine was frustrated.

Around the 1800's, the secret of forceps became public. Other doctors expanded, collaborated, cooperated & improved this design, sharing the benefit of this life-saving device with society, allowing medical science to 'march on'.

From a scientific perspective: Cooperation good; Competition bad.


paintedjaguar said...

Unreal. All right then, just one addendum, although I have no expectation it will do any good. No doubt David Brin is much too busy to do more than skim the comments here, but it's almost beyond belief that a published writer could show such extreme lack of reading comprehension. It's as if there is some sort of mental filter at work that flips the meaning of one's words 180 degrees or just picks up on key words out of context, allowing him to attack the imagined positions of anyone who gets on his bad side while completely ignoring what they actually said. And it's a pattern that is both consistent and pervasive in dealing with multiple commenters. This must be how Alice felt trying to converse with Humpty Dumpty.

I have to admit, if it's a conscious debate strategy, it's brilliant, although dishonest. Who has the time or energy to formulate an argument when one is constantly correcting misattributions and outright fabrications? It wears one down in a hurry. Actually, it's much like trying to debate with a bot of some sort.

Unfortunately, this seems more like some combination of self-delusion and projection. Certainly, it makes it hard to take seriously anything he has to say. Speaking as someone who's enjoyed some of Brin's writing, I'm just saddened.

gregory byshenk said...

Locumranch, I don't think that anyone is arguing that 'competition' is equivalent to "positive sum game"; rather, what people (and certainly David, as I read him) are saying is that 'competition' includes positive sum games. Of course some competition is zero sum, and can even be negative sum (the result is that everyone is worse off than before).

On the other hand, I think that surely you don't want to claim that anything that involves collaboration cannot be competition, for this makes 'competition' far too limited. Even something like the stock market, which I think everyone would agree is competitive, involves collaboration among participants that enables the market to function.