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Confessions of an Opinion-Haver
Vibes don't build civilizations. To create a good future we must reestablish a shared reality, and that means grappling with complexity and retooling our institutions.
Things are kind of bad, right? Almost everyone reflexively answers yes, and for a troubling diversity of reasons: social discord, economic uncertainty, a general sense of stagnation and decay. Despite the variety, the pessimism about our ability to solve them is the same, and this points to a more fundamental problem. Across the board, civilization is struggling to meet the challenges of the age. As a result, a nihilistic fog has settled over the US (and much of the world). This is particularly evident in our cities and institutions. The vivid failures of our cities are broadcast into the national consciousness, while we mostly watch with apathy as our governments flounder. San Francisco is emblematic of these problems. A jewel of American entrepreneurial spirit, cultural innovation, and financial might, yet utterly unable to house its residents, prevent crime, or end homelessness.
Well I have opinions about it, and I think I’m right. But so does everyone else, and so do they. Indeed, people are good at having opinions and they’re good at disagreeing. This is fine. In fact, in the US we’ve enshrined the value of having opinions and expressing them. We rely on our governance processes to synthesize these opinions into concrete actions and implement them via our institutions. We’ve gotten a lot of good (and bad) stuff done this way over the years. So if this is natural and mostly good, what’s the problem? Why aren’t our opinions turning into solutions?
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The Problem with Opinions
The problem with opinions is that they’re only as good as our model of reality. To be clear, if you want to make a change in the world, you need to have a reliable model of how the world works. This could be simple like an intuitive model of gravity when catching a ball, or more complex, like a model of the city government when trying to build more housing. Without this firm grip on reality, how could you anticipate where the ball will land? How could you diagnose which entities or ordinances prevent more construction? This is just the problem. The root of our current futility is the breakdown in the relationship between what we ought to do and how the world actually is.1 All of this is a nicer way of saying our opinions are wack and we don’t know what we’re talking about.
Humans vs. Complexity
But don’t take it too hard fellow opinion-havers, because reality has actually gotten harder to understand. This is fundamentally a problem with complexity.2 Civilization has gotten really complex really fast. In just a few decades, we stumbled into the Information Age and suddenly billions of humans have continuous, real-time access to everything everywhere all at once.3 There are many implications but two are clear and clearly a challenge:
1. “More” Reality
In a real sense, reality has gotten “bigger”; there’s more is. More people, more stuff, more data. Systems building upon systems at unbelievable scale. Practically, this means that if you want to know what is going on, you need to track more variables more often. This applies across all domains of civilization like society and the economy, but also to the institutions we’ve entrusted to steward these systems on our behalf. Consider the San Francisco City Charter which describes the structure of the city government. In 1932 it was 130 pages, and today it’s almost 3x that size. So the problems are more complex, but so is the machinery that might solve them.
2. Attention Deficit
In this new paradigm, human attention is a scarce resource. When there’s too much reality to pay attention to, we have to choose. We’re not used to this and we’re not good at it yet. Social media has proven that algorithms are powerful at directing our attention and has also revealed that it is surprisingly susceptible to hijacking. Not you, of course, but other people for sure. One result of this vulnerability is that we’re often captured by things that are ultimately irrelevant or even detrimental to our individual and collective well-being.4 Why attend a local Board of Supervisors meeting to comment on a proposed housing ordinance when you can rage against your least favorite opinion-havers on the bird app? Our wandering attention is further blunted by the nature of our information technologies. In the digital town square it’s easier to deal in abstractions. Disconnected from the sharp definition of the real world, we’re free to flail at nebulous problems from the comfort of the keyboard. And though the housing crisis has been solved in countless Twitter threads, the houses remain unbuilt. Alas, we float around in abstraction unable to affect reality.
Ultimately, we end up with everyone paying attention to different slices of reality with different degrees of depth and accuracy. This leaves our collective perception of reality fractured and our opinions untethered. It’s no surprise then that as our opinions drift away from reality, they also drift away from each other. We’ve become more extreme yet no more effective. This is reflected in the often discussed rise in polarization combined with the dismal approval ratings across governing institutions at every level from local to federal.
From this perspective, it does seem kind of weird to be so mad about things we don’t really even understand, right? It’s easy to say we should build more housing in San Francisco, and while it might be directionally correct, it’s functionally unhelpful. Why specifically can’t we build more housing? Is it a regulatory issue? Okay, which regulation(s) specifically and at which level of government? Or is it a ballot proposition? Or is it the Board of Supervisors? Okay, which supervisors specifically?5
Well until recently I didn’t know, but even if that didn’t cure my righteous indignation toward wrong opinion-havers, it left me with a simmering frustration about the disconnect between my abstract ideas about what we ought to do, and the reality that this didn’t really change minds or put shovels in the ground. But why would it? Vibes don’t pour concrete, they don’t prevent crimes, and they certainly don’t get people off the street. With this, I confess that I, an opinion-haver, did not understand enough about my government to explain clearly why things were bad. As a consequence, I could not explain specifically what we ought to do about it or discern who we could trust to do it for us. I was just out here vibing. And as we agreed, if you’re not certain your ideas can survive contact with reality then that’s just, like, your opinion, man.6
But we really need to start getting a handle on these things, so that’s not going to cut it. Perusing a voter guide for an hour every couple of years does not produce a flourishing civilization. Free society will always be a delicate balance and maintaining it requires a vigilant and informed electorate.7 This challenge will only increase as the world around us and the governance systems which steward it become more complex and dynamic.
If we’re already failing and it’s only going to get harder, do we even have a chance? Of course we do; don’t let the nihilism get you. There is always a way forward. The good news is that problems are solvable.8 It begins by converging on a shared reality, and that requires addressing the problems of complexity and attention.
Thanks largely to our digital platforms, we are already well aware of our many problems, even if only superficially. The worst manifestations of these platforms have also made us painfully aware of how valuable our attention is, and how easily it can be misplaced. Fortunately, smart people are already working on technologies to help us channel our attention toward things we actually find meaningful. I believe this is indicative of a broader latent desire to focus more on solving our problems, if only we knew how.
For this reason, I’d argue that grappling with complexity is the highest leverage point in the battle against the overwhelming volume of reality and the stagnation of our institutions. Because people want to care. People want to care about their governments and institutions; and with the right tools they can. The same technologies that currently overwhelm can also empower. Imagine a world in which the full fidelity of your government was plainly legible and at your fingertips. And because of this you knew exactly what your government ought to do and why specifically you want them to do it. Your fellow citizens do too. Together, you are invested in concrete actions, directed by ideas anchored solidly to reality. This is achievable.
Intro to the Civilization Lab
There is great work to be done, and it’s up to us. So welcome to the Civilization Lab. We are building the infrastructure to make reality legible and to power a society which deserves and preserves its freedom. For the Civ Lab, this begins by building a robust systems model of the San Francisco city government. With it, we will shine a light into this black box and begin to untangle the root causes of our dysfunction. From this shared understanding of how the government is, we can unlock fruitful discussions about what we ought to do about it.
With these tools and a bit of wisdom, we believe the best days for San Francisco, for America, and for the world are ahead of us. We are already at work. There is much more coming soon, so stay tuned. In the meantime, remember that civilization could be excellent. Let’s make it so.
The is-ought frame provides a useful distinction here, but because we’re explicitly placing value judgements on reality by identifying problems we wish to solve, we can sidestep the philosophical is-ought problem described by Hume.
As stated, I believe that adapting to complexity is the fundamental problem of our time and that systems science is the tool to help us grapple with it. Humans are intuitive systems thinkers and we must do more to cultivate this ability if we want to broadly improve civilization.
This is just one thread in the broader transition into abundance/post-scarcity. Our biology was shaped by scarce environments and, as expected, this transition will not be easy. At least we get fun movies along the way.
The dislocation between agency and attention is a key driver of nihilism at all levels of society. It produces a sort of learned helplessness which leaves people unhappy with themselves and disconnected from their local communities.
A potential argument: Do we really have to know? We elect people to know how to actually do that stuff anyways. Rebuttal: As argued, free society is unnatural and takes effort to maintain. So long as the people choose their government, we will need to understand how we are governed. Otherwise we can’t make informed decisions or maintain accountability. This is especially true in places like California where we vote on legislation (ballot propositions) directly.
Free society does not occur in nature. Without effective governance processes (coordination mechanisms) it is unsustainable and we would soon return to the simpler forms of social organization which do occur naturally. For us, this means domination or collapse. Once again, I think this can be compellingly argued on the grounds of complexity and systems science.