Welcome back.

Have you thought about subscribing? It's free.
seths.blog/subscribe

Self restaint vs systemic restraint

It’s not hypocritical to help yourself at a buffet at the same time you counsel the owner of the restaurant to limit the number of trips that people take so that the restaurant can become sustainable.

It’s possible to argue for systemic changes to cultural systems while also doing what classical economics posits that people do–which is focus on self-interest.

In fact, it’s this very conflict that requires us to argue for systemic change.

And then that happened

The world changes and we have a choice:

• Fight hard to keep it the way it was.

• Notice what happened and then decide to do something with that insight.

Thirty years ago, AOL was my company’s biggest client. They charged users $3 an hour to use their precursor to the internet, and paid content providers a royalty based on time spent on their ‘site.’

We invented a breakthrough game that was played in a chat room. Our testing showed that people (millions of people, probably) would play it for hours at a time. We developed a series of games with AOL that were fun and engaging, and were a few weeks from launch. It was certainly the most profitable project I had worked on to date.

And then AOL changed to flat rate monthly pricing. And the royalties went to zero.

“Well, that happened.”

The sunk costs were real, but the sunk costs didn’t matter. What mattered was that our project was built on a foundation that had disappeared. In less than an hour, we walked away from all of it, which enabled us to build the tools and products we needed.

The world is changing faster than ever. Sometimes for the better. Always giving us a choice to react or respond.

“What’s next?”

The way we think about our priorities makes a huge difference.

Leaders of every stripe make one thing more than any other: decisions.

In any environment with constraints (which is, actually, any environment), the decisions about time and resources–about what to do next–change everything.

How do we decide what’s next? Is it based on urgency, proximity or values? First in/first out is not a strategy, it’s an excuse. Even worse is the one about the squeaky wheels.

“No photos”

That’s what it said at the florist shop.

I’m guessing because ‘taking’ a photo sometimes feels like a taking. The creativity, skill and effort that goes into making a distinctive arrangement might feel uncompensated when someone simply takes the work and posts it.

This misses the real point, though.

Once you’ve made something worth photographing, having the idea captured and spread helps you, it doesn’t hurt. More than ever, people are paying for famous, even if it’s as prosaic as a famous bouquet, produced by the originator of the design.

The hard part is making something worthy, not protecting it from cameras.

Confusion about performance

The thing that your product or service delivers could be called performance, and it’s made of two components:

–The story and expectations and cultural impact of what you do (the story).

–The deliverables that are objectively measured (the spec).

It helps to have both.

Many hard-working freelancers are confused about their story. Either they insist that their work is even better than it is, and they’re frustrated when others don’t embrace it, or they undersell the value of their presence, professionalism and effort.

And many institutions, particularly those that measure the wrong things, put an enormous effort into what the lab specs show, but forget to invest in a narrative that encourages consumers to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Reimagining cities in a few simple questions

What would happen if public transportation were free?

What if it were paid for by congestion pricing, digitally implemented?

What if public toilets were safe, beautiful, well-appointed and consistently maintained?

What if there were a tax on empty storefronts, payable after three months of vacancy?

Shortly after the invention of the car, society made many decisions about how cities should work. These choices led to parking lots, suburbs and a definition of what a normal city was supposed to be like. Robert Moses and others pushed for a specific sort of urban environment.

It’s surprising how quickly and inexpensively that could begin to change.

Doing the same thing since the dawn of the expressway, year after year, without seeing the pattern, is a little Groundhog’s Dayish.

It helps to see it and then to talk about it.

Don’t know, don’t care

Clients and customers can be frustrating.

Perhaps they don’t know what you know.

Perhaps they don’t care.

It’s possible to educate and inspire.

It might be more productive to find the few that want to go where you do.

Get/Want/Have To

Get to, want to and have to are an endless braid.

How much of our time do we spend on each?

Have to is often up to someone else. The things we’re required to do by the system or the people in it.

Get to is a matter of perspective. Trust and health and leverage and privilege allow us to do certain things that others might not.

And want to is a choice, and is often squandered. When our day is drawing to a close and we’ve done everything we have to, the choice of how to spend/invest/waste the next few minutes often ends up with mindless stalling or entertainment.

The magic trick begins with realizing that the get to tasks are priceless want to moments if we choose. And, if we’re careful and plan ahead, we can get to the point where the have to agenda is something we can eagerly look forward to.

When all three are in sync, things get better.

Population and big innovations

It’s tempting to embrace the meme that the best way for humans to solve the big problems in front of us is to increase the population, perhaps dramatically. The thinking goes that people are the ones who can solve problems, and more people give us more problem-solvers.

This doesn’t hold up to a reductio ad absurdum analysis: clearly, a population of 10 people isn’t as good at solving problems as one with a billion, but at the same time, if there were a trillion people on Earth, that wouldn’t last long. There must be a number that’s optimal, but it’s probably not the biggest number we can possibly create.

And reviewing the data on Nobel prizes per capita, or patents per capita, we see that there isn’t a correlation between population density and productive breakthrough innovation. It looks like innovations are more likely the result of a civil society, sufficient resources, enough productivity to enable spending on R&D and a culture of research and engineering.

We also see geographic hotbeds of innovation over time (physics in Germany a hundred years ago, or network innovations in Silicon Valley a decade ago) that are the result of information exchange and cultural expectations, not population density.

We don’t get these results by stretching the carrying capacity of our one and only planet. We can’t shrink our way to possibility, but we probably can’t get there via exponential expansion either.

The coming ubiquity

The fuss about AI might be mis-focused.

It’s easy to point to a computer-created essay, song or illustration and find the defects or errors. Given hard work by 1,000 trained people, it’s likely that a human could make something more useful or inspired than a computer could.

But the real impact of AI isn’t going to be that it regularly and consistently does far better than the best human effort.

The impact will be that it is widespread, cheap and always there.

Search for anything and the Wikipedia page will ‘write itself’ just for you.

Brainstorm 12 variations of a solution to any problem you’re thinking about. Have a Rogerian therapist and idea coach on call at all times.

Press a button on your fridge and see a dozen recipes that use what’s in the produce drawer, and just that.

Everywhere, all the time.

Ubiquity is the quiet change we rarely see coming.