Four Visions of the World: Constrained, Unconstrained, Stasist, Dynamist

About half a dozen years ago, I read two books in succession that I did not expect to have much to do with each other.  They both proposed intriguing dichotomies.  These dichotomies cut up the world differently, but I began to see interesting ways they could be layered on top of each other.

The books were The Future and Its Enemies, by Virginia Postrel, and A Conflict of Visions, by Thomas Sowell.

Both books are phenomenal and I highly recommend them.  Let me briefly describe the central dichotomy presented in each.

Stasists vs. Dynamists

Postrel defines two outlooks on human life and society, static and dynamic.

The stasist fears and resists change.  They wish to preserve things as they are, or possibly even return to an imagined glorious past.  Every change, whether social, technological, or environmental, is bemoaned as the harbinger of all manner of moral and civil decay.

It’s an obvious mindset to spot in many conservatives, exemplified in William F. Buckley’s mission statement for National Review, to “[S]tand athwart history, yelling Stop”, but it doesn’t just describe conservatives.  A great many modern liberals fall into this category as well.  Environmentalists who fear invasive species or believe any changes to any ecosystems are always bad, unionists who want to set work arrangements and productions methods in stone, or social justice advocates who wish to maintain certain ratios in material wealth between people.

The dynamist embraces change and does not fear it.  This includes fans of free markets, free speech, and economic growth, techno optimists and pioneers.  Dynamists are, by nature, less organized but also more prone to have a big impact on the world individually.  Again, it cuts through simplistic left/right political paradigms and includes some liberals who want mores to evolve and some conservatives who want industry to do the same.

Constrained vs. Unconstrained

Sowell has a different dichotomy.  It’s a bit more subtle, but like Postrel’s, it does not fit into left/right political rhetoric neatly.  He defines two visions of the world and humanity, constrained and unconstrained.

Those with a constrained vision see certain physical, moral, or spiritual realities as unchangeable.  Scarcity, self-interest, human fallibility, and evil.  This doesn’t make the constrained vision a pessimistic one, but simply, to quote the great economist Peter Boettke, “Puts parameters on utopias.”  You can improve the world only by first understanding the fundamental laws of both material and human nature.  You can’t achieve flight by wishing away gravity or achieve human harmony by wishing away greed.  The constrained visionary realizes these parameters and innovates in ways consistent with them.  Smith’s Invisible Hand and Hayek’s Spontaneous Order are fundamentally constrained concepts, as they accept human avarice and limits to knowledge and describe social orders that turn all that imperfection into progress.

Those with an unconstrained vision see everything as perfectible.  We can eliminate scarcity (this is very different than simply “have an abundance of stuff”, as it assumes time and choice can also be eliminated), we can remake man into a perfect version, we can stop playing by old stuffy rules and simply rebuild a society without greed.  If humans are flawed we can remake humans, instead of forming social orders that work around the flaws.  We don’t need institutions that channel bad desires to good outcomes, we simply need to remove bad desires.

Both conservatives and liberals alike throughout history have had both visions.  Individualists and collectivists are not neatly plotted into one or the other.  Jefferson had a more unconstrained vision, along with the French Revolutionaries and many early anarchist and socialist revolutionaries.  Modern anarcho-capitalists and Burkean conservatives alike share a constrained vision.

Let’s add them together and see what we get…

Yay, time for a 2×2 matrix!  Don’t take this too seriously.  It’s been a while since I read these books and I’m playing around with this ideas rather loosely and humbly, so don’t get caught up on specific verbiage.  Instead, see if you can gain anything from the intersection of these two dichotomies.

In each quadrant I include a single phrase that I think defines the dominant desire, then list a few ideologies, groups, and types of action and orientation that I think fit it.

Why now?

I got to thinking a lot about this recently when reading the phenomenal series, Breaking Smart, by Venkatesh Rao. (If you read nothing else this year, read this!)

Rao describes the implications of the fact that ‘software is eating the world’.  Part of the analysis involves the inevitable backlash against software-enabled progress and disruption.  Rao calls the resistors Pastoralists, and provides a very compelling look at the two apparently opposite ways pastoralism manifests.

One is a resistance to all change.  The other is driven by agents of change themselves who adopt a single vision of change and wish to force it on the rest.  You can see how the first might fit into Postrel’s stasist category, but the second doesn’t quite.  That’s where combining Postrel and Sowell becomes so powerful.

I think the three great threats to human freedom and flourishing today are constrained stasists (resist all change), unconstrained stasists (remake the world in the image of the imagined past), and unconstrained dynamists (force the right kind of progress on all these hapless idiots).

I think all the promise and joy comes from the outlook of constrained dynamism.  One that understands failings in human knowledge and virtue and the physical reality of scarcity and wishes to allow change to emerge and evolve organically within unplanned orders to address them in ways no one can imagine ahead of time.

See if you can map yourself or others on the matrix!

You can also check out other fun 2×2 matrices I’ve played around with on various topics:

Obedience-Entitlement Matrix

Rules-Intelligence Matrix

Work-Happiness Matrix

How the Internet is Like Language

The power went out, and with it the WiFi, for four hours the other day while a pole was being replaced and again for an hour today while the A/C was being fixed.  It was almost overwhelming how lonely and isolating it felt.

Before you think me too dramatic let me say that we’re currently in a rental house in Ecuador, in a neighborhood that still consists primarily of empty lots or newly constructed but not yet occupied houses and we’re 45 minutes from the nearest city and without a car at the moment.  None of these things feel isolating when the internet is working.  (As an aside, the WiFi here is better than the best I can get back in South Carolina.)

It’s not that I spend all day on the web.  The bulk of my work requires internet and I do use it heavily, but there are many hours every day where I’m reading, exercising, playing with my kids, eating, preparing food, sleeping, or just relaxing when I do not use the internet.  One would think a few hours without WiFi would simply let me switch to one of these activities with no mental stress.  But it didn’t work that way.

The minute it went down I felt trapped in a desolate place, separated from the world.  Not because I wanted to do something specifically requiring the internet at that moment, but because I didn’t have the option.

WiFi provides a kind of invisible psychological ether that connects me to all of humanity.  Just knowing it’s there, at the tip of my fingers through my smartphone, gives me a profound spiritual sense of connection to all mankind and to great ideas and facts and images and more.  It is the subtle substrate that makes me always a part of a network or community, even when I’m quietly reading or sleeping.

In Ecuador we’ve had experiences where we were nearly incapable of communication with the other humans around us due to my deficiency in Spanish and some Ecuadorians rapid speech.  In our current neighborhood there are many French Canadian expats who speak not a word of anything but French.  At times a feeling of fear and disconnection can sweep over you when you realize you cannot share ideas with any of the people around you.  What if you need something?  What if you just want to chat and aren’t up to the exhausting task of sign-language and hackneyed Spenchglish?  You’re stuck on a (metaphorical) island, surrounded by people but without any connective tissue.

The parallels between these experiences are striking.  Geographic proximity and physical presence do not connect us with our world.  Information and a means of exchanging it do.  That is the task language performs.  The internet performs it even better.  It can instantly translate between languages, among its other wonders.  The web is like a performance enhancing drug for language.  It exponentially increases the idea sharing power of words.

This silly idea that the internet and social media have somehow severed human connections or weakened community is an absurdity espoused by those blind to the world around them.  It’s no less ridiculous than claiming, “People used to really connect before language was invented.  Now all they do is constantly stream ideas back and forth with sound waves.”

It’s not even the speaking or web browsing.  It’s knowing you can.  What a powerful connective web for the human race.

The Possibilities of Private Drones

I recently contributed to a Kickstarter campaign for a small quadcopter style drone.  I’m set to receive it sometime this fall and I can’t wait!  At this point, most of these drones only carry a camera, but as the payload capability increases, our lives could change in a lot of small but powerful ways.

  • You go for a long run or walk, but you go too far and won’t be able to turn around and make it back in time.  You pull out your phone and direct your drone to fly your bike to you.
  • You’ve got a small sedan but want to go paddleboarding, so you drive to the beach and meet your paddleboard there, dropped by your drone.
  • You arrive at the airport, park, and begin walking towards the terminal with just enough time to make it through security and board.  You forgot your bag.  No time to drive home and get it.  You call your spouse and ask them to send it to you ASAP on the drone.
  • Driving up for a weekend in a lake house in Canada, you realize at the border you forgot your passport.  You call a friend, ask for a favor, then find a Tim Horton’s, grab a cup of coffee, and track your drone on your phone as it brings you the document.

These are fun, rather mundane scenarios to imagine.  How many other search and rescue situations, or commercial transportation settings could drones change?

It seems the biggest impediment is likely to be old dinosaur-like regulatory bodies, but I suspect technological progress will eventually outpace them and make them irrelevant.  There are more efficient ways to ensure safe flight paths and coordination of airspace than a bureaucratic monopoly.  Pull out your flight-path app and schedule a safe, free time and place, or if you’re really in a hurry, pay property owners a fee for the ability to fly it directly over theirs.  The point is, our lack of imagination about how such conflicts might be solved ought not to lead us to lean on stodgy, coercive, ham-fisted government solutions.

The Amazing World In Which We Live

Not long ago I decided to give away an idea.  It was something I think is a truly awesome idea, with tremendous potential value.  If I wasn’t fully devoted to building Praxis, I’d probably pursue it.  But I am, and no one I could find was able to do it without me being significantly more involved than I realistically wanted to – raising money, finding programmers, etc.  So I considered penning a public post about it.  I figured best case, it prompts someone to do it and this cool new platform would exist that didn’t before.  Worst case, it would be ignored and nothing would happen, which would leave things as they already stood.  Either way, I liked the idea enough that I felt the need to do more than keep it in my brain, so I wrote about it and posted it to Medium.

Then something really cool happened.  It never went viral.  It didn’t get a lot of views.  In fact, of the twenty or so posts I’ve put up on Medium, it has the fewest views and shares by a long shot.  Still, it felt good to do something with this idea even if it was just to get it into words and put it into the internet ether.  But I digress.  That’s not the cool part.  The cool part is that among those few readers were some incredibly interesting people.

Executives (or at least people with executive sounding titles) of four separate companies emailed me in response to it.  One was a social media company that said, “Nice article.  We don’t do that, but you might like what we do anyway.”  Interesting.  Another said, “That’s exactly what we do!”  Turns out it wasn’t, and their app was good but not great.  A third emailed back and forth a few times asking me questions, and then told me they are launching something similar in coming months.  We’ll see.  The most interesting of all, however, was one of the companies I mentioned by name in the article.  I got a LinkedIn request, which moved to email, which set up a phone call.  I spent twenty minutes talking with the president of an awesome company about how I use their product, and how I could see my idea being used.

Maybe they’ll do nothing with it.  Maybe it was just a polite gesture.  Who knows.  Regardless, it was really fun.

The point of this post is not to brag.  I don’t think I have some amazing following or amazing writing ability that other people couldn’t match.  Far from it.  Nor do I think I’m the first person with an idea for an innovation on an existing product.  Lots of people do, and I’ve had many before myself.  But I never felt like I was qualified to write about them publicly, or pen something akin to an open letter to a successful company with my average Joe notions.  The thing is, now more than ever, no one cares about credentials and gatekeepers.  Anyone can share ideas.  Of course you’re not guaranteed a happy reception, or any reception at all, but the possibility exists.  People won’t really look down on you for openly sharing your thoughts.  If it’s interesting, it can immediately make its way to interesting and relevant parties.

This is not something that was possible a few decades ago.  And it goes both ways.  Not only can consumers communicate ideas to producers and execs without gatekeepers, but the other way around too.  Celebrities can communicate directly to their fans, as a group or individually, without journalistic gatekeepers.

This decentralized world has staggering implications.  Primarily it means that the future belongs to those who focus on product, rather than credentials or the imprimatur of powerful institutional gatekeepers.  Do your thing.  Openly, freely, and with abandon.  Keep doing it.  Don’t be afraid to let the world know.  Direct connections to your ideal collaborators, consumers, or investors can result if you keep producing your unique stuff and putting out there.

It’s Not About GDP

I’ve been thinking lately about GDP, and common ideas of economic progress more generally.

I just attended an event about the causes of and cures for poverty in the poorest countries.  So much of the discussion utilized comparisons between countries based on measures of GDP, GDP growth, and the like.  The more I thought about it, the less sense this made.  Not that GDP doesn’t decently correlate to overall wealth, opportunity, and progress – it does – but that it does less and less as technology and markets change.  GDP charts would fail to show, for example, the tremendous progress made in many poor countries by the fact that nearly everyone now has access to cell phones.  In fact, GDP does a bad job at measuring the progress of information/communication/data in general.

Consider MOOC’s and the abundance of free online learning.  Since the education industry is a chunk of GDP, putting it all out there for free can actually bring GDP numbers down, even as human well-being and human capital increase.

Think about other areas of misleading measures.  What you can do with a computer or smart phone in terms of sending data across the globe means fewer freight ships, the things easily measured in GDP calculations, but not less progress and opportunity.

Automation, information technology, decentralized networks, open-source…these make the world better and increase human flourishing, though they don’t do much for old-school metrics like employment and GDP.  Being listed as on the payroll of a company doesn’t always equal being better off (depending upon what else you might be doing of course), and having a larger number of physical objects to count doesn’t either.

For this reason, I don’t take much stock in those who lament slowed economic growth and fear it will bring an end to the complex market systems in countries like the US.  We used to consider farming the only thing that really mattered for economic well-being.  Then manufacturing.  As machines can do more of both of these, we humans can be redeployed in myriad ways previously unimagined.  Think about all the micro entrepreneurship going on today.  Think of crowdfunding for one-off projects.  I know authors who probably aren’t technically “employed” most of the time, if at all, and don’t produce GDP enhancing widgets, but they live wonderful lives by pitching book ideas on kickstarter, raising the money, travelling the world, doing the writing, and selling ebooks.  They may make aggregate data appear we’re economically worse off, but they’d rather not trade their life for one hoeing rows or assembling buggies.

The fact that no one quite knows how to calculate the value of the internet and other information age technologies probably causes us all to underestimate just how well-off we are today, and how bright the future is.  It’s the perfect time to seize the opportunity and do something new.  Carpe diem.

A Plea to Homeschool Parents: Get a Bit More Tech-Savvy

I like homeschoolers.  I was one of them, grew up around them, and spend a decent amount of time interacting with them now.  I have tremendous respect for homeschool parents.  They have work-ethic, courage, and deep and genuine care for their children’s well-being.  But they leave something to be desired when it comes to digital engagement.  They seem to assume learning Latin is more valuable than navigating today’s tech.

It is in the spirit of respect that I offer this plea to all the good homeschool parents out there: Learn to use technology!

It’s easier than most things you try to impart to your kids because you don’t even have to teach it to them.  They’ll pick it up in no time if they’re around it and allowed to explore it.  But if they never see you use try to or get the most out of it they may fail to realize its power and potential.  If they sense an abiding fear of newfangled things in their parents they might pick it up too.  Here are some ways to get started…

Homeschool dads: If you’re still rocking a pager, give it to your kids.  Let them dismantle it and play with the innards.  Call it science class.  Or history.  Time to upgrade to a smart phone.  Get a protective case so that when your kids drop it you won’t stress too much.  Use it a lot.  Test out some cool new apps to enhance your personal productivity and have fun with some games.  They’ve got chess and Scrabble and other wholesome stuff.  You might bond with your kids when you need them to help you figure out how to use it too. (Oh, while I’m talking to you, you might also reconsider the whole socks with sandals thing.  Your kids will thank me later.)

Homeschool moms: Get your own email address (Gmail please).  Same goes for Facebook.  You and your husband are a well-oiled team, I get it.  But if your online communiques always come from, chances are you’re not getting the most out of the digital world.  And no one knows how to comment on posts from two people combined into a single “Blessings from Deb and Harry Jones” profile on Facebook.  Set yourself up with a few basic accounts, keep your inbox clean, and meaningfully engage the wonderful world of the internet.

Homeschool family budget-setters: Splurge a little on tech.  Your frugality is one of your great qualities.  I’m not telling you to stop buying 50lb boxes of mail-order organic bread with Bible verses on it so the savings can be applied to classes or sports.  That’s good stuff.  But if there’s one area worth spending into the slight discomfort zone, it’s technology.  To connect it to an old school medium you already dig, put it this way: I don’t have a budget for books.  If my kids really want one, we buy it.  You’d probably agree it’s worth it.  I think the latest tech is a close second in this regard.  Upgrade your laptop every few years.  Hand the old ones down to the kids, but make sure somewhere in the house is a pretty new machine.  Get a tablet at least within a generation of the newest.  Upgrade the smartphone before it needs duck tape.

I know it’s hard.  You’re busy making meals and running errands and sewing dresses and milking goats all while trying to convince your neighbors you’re perfectly normal.  But if you can lead by example and show your kids you’ve got an unrelenting spirit of adventure and a curiosity and tenacity to grab the new world by the horns and learn from it, it just might rub off.

A Book That Will Help You Understand Why Bitcoin is Amazing

My friend Steve Patterson – a brilliant and clear thinker, excellent writer, radical, tech enthusiast, and scholar – has written what I think is the best intro to bitcoin you can find.  It’s sufficiently basic, so even a tech noob like me can grasp it, but it doesn’t shy away from delving into the details of how the technology works.

downloadWhat’s the Big Deal About Bitcoin is the kind of book that, as you read it and immediately after, make you feel like you completely grasp the intricacies of bitcoin.  After a few days you can’t really explain or recall exactly what had you so excited.  That is a sign of a book that does a great job boiling down really complex ideas.  Big ideas take a while to understand, longer to be able to explain to others, and longest to become second-nature.  A book this small that can give you the complete intellectual understanding of the concept immediately is rare.  One encounter will convince you of the power of bitcoin.  Another will help you be able to explain it.  I’m reading it for a third time as I try to gain a level of understanding sufficient to convey it to others!

Prior to reading Steve’s book I was excited about bitcoin as currency from primarily a theoretical standpoint.  I know the dangers and limitations of government issued currency and the power and beauty of competitive, market-based currencies.  I was also very interested in bitcoin as method of payment as a practical solution to the archaic, costly, time-consuming methods currently available to individuals and businesses.  Transferring money is ridiculously cumbersome, and the fact that I’ve had to physically enter a bank branch twice in the last month – with several paper documents in hand – is absurd and annoying.  I knew bitcoin had potential as both a currency and method of payment, and I loved buying and transferring small amounts to play around with it.  What I did not understand was the real source of bitcoin’s value and power, the blockchain itself.

The blockchain is nothing more than a public ledger, but one that is completely decentralized and essentially eliminates fraud and most of the biggest problems that have long plagued both physical and digital financial transactions.  But the blockchain is more than just a financial innovation.  It’s a unique distributed software process that can be applied to anything where proof of ownership is incredibly valuable and forging such proof is low cost. (Copying paper money, or paper titles, for example).  It makes units of digital information, which by nature are infinitely copy-able, into unique, scarce pieces of data.  That single innovation has the power to transform the world, and the number of applications and technologies than can be built on top of it are endless.

Don’t get too bogged down trying to understand my explanation – I’m reading the book again to get better at explaining it, but I’m not there yet!  Pick up a copy and read it for yourself.  I’ll be surprised if you don’t walk away thinking bitcoin is the biggest innovation since the internet.



Why I Love Voxer

I don’t spend a lot of time looking for or experimenting with new apps.  I assume I’ll eventually hear about anything that really helps me.  It takes a lot to change my systems of getting things done.  When a friend told me to download Voxer so we could connect easier than via phone or text, I was almost annoyed.  But I did it anyway.  It changed everything!

Voxer is a simple messaging tool that allows for audio, text, and images.  It’s much easier to use than the audio option native to the iPhone, and I find it incredibly natural to use it as the primary form of communication with friends and colleagues.  It combines the passive communication form of email and text – where you don’t need a coincidence of mutual availability like a phone call – with the personalization and ease of voice.  You can’t text while driving, and you don’t get to convey as much emotion and nuance.

The most valuable part is the ability to have threads with multiple people.  At Praxis, the team has two seperate Voxer threads that are ongoing.  One is for action items, and one is for big picture stuff.  We all travel a lot and are rarely together in one place, so when one of us has an idea we want to bounce around, we can have a conversation about it right away but still work around our schedules.  I’m a part of NBA and NFL threads with friends who are into sports where we debate what greatness is and trash-talk.  My kids use it to leave me messages when I’m travelling.  There is also a notes feature where you can leave notes to yourself, but without having to take up storage space on your local device like the native voice recorder app.

It’s hard to explain why Voxer adds so much value beyond the existing forms of communication, but I’m telling you if you and a few people with whom you regularly text, call, or email try it out, you’ll get it.  It’s amazing.

Stay in Touch with the Future

There was a great Super Bowl ad that showed a now famous clip of two newscasters discussing the internet and email in 1994.  It was only 21 years ago, and already the thing they were so helpless to define or understand has completely redefined our world in a way all of us tacitly understand from birth. (You should see my kids with an iPad).

I’m an optimist and a big believer in the possibilities of tech and progress, yet too often this belief is just theoretical.  It’s easy to get a little impatient.  Yes, I know what’s possible in theory, but why don’t I see marvelous advances in practice?  Looking to the recent past is a great reminder of how much radical progress has happened in my lifetime alone.  Looking to the cutting edge of the present is even more exciting.

I try to read or watch something at least every few weeks about some area of science or technology that is a new frontier.  Whether checking on the latest in 3D printing, taking a peek at what’s going on at the Large Hadron Collider, or reading up on Bitcoin and its implications, I’ve discovered my sense of wonder is stirred by frequent updates from the fringes.  Every time I poke around new research and discoveries I wonder why I don’t do it more often.

If you’re looking for some crazy new stuff, here’s one I watched yesterday.  In addition to discussing some specific new technologies, Jose Cordeiro mentions four ways to deal with the future: Passive (bury your head like an Ostrich), Reactive (respond to it like a fire-fighter), Preactive (hedge against it like an insurer), and Proactive (create it like a builder).

What the News Could Never Do

I love Facebook.  It’s a great way to connect to people I enjoy communicating with, see new ideas and articles, enjoy social diversions during the day (when you work from home it can replace the water cooler), and of course keep up on memes and videos of cats.  But there is another function of Facebook I didn’t foresee that has become increasingly valuable.  It does something news outlets can’t do – respond to exactly what I’m interested in at the moment and give me stories about it.

A few weeks back I realized it had been some time since I read or watched anything about new advances in science and technology.  I remembered the excitement I got as a kid looking at Popular Mechanics magazine, and wanted to get that thrill again by hearing the coolest stuff now within the realm of possibility.  I could have gone to any number of news outlets and browsed the technology section.  I could have gone to tech specific magazines or websites.  But these don’t always have articles on the most cutting edge stuff, and if I picked the wrong day, I might get a story about a new app instead.  It would require some browsing.  I could use Google, but Google is best when you know what you want to find, and I was looking for something I didn’t know existed.  In short, I needed to be inspired by the creative power of mankind, and I had no where to turn for a quick overview.

I posted an open-ended question on Facebook: What are the coolest things going on in science and technology? Within a few hours I had dozens of amazing articles, video clips, pictures and stories of everything from 3D burrito printers, to graphene smart phones, to particle accelerators, etc. ad nauseam.  Not only that, the responses were from people who knew something about me and could add some humor, flavor, or insight no other outlet could.  There was even some friendly competition over what was truly the best innovation going.  I’ve only read through half of the things posted thus far, but I still go back to the thread from time to time to be further amazed.

News outlets and periodicals can produce great stories.  The problem is, they have no way of knowing when I’m going to be in the mood for the latest trend in herb gardening or the latest adventure sport.  They publish such pieces, but most of the time my interests don’t intersect with their schedule.  Sure, they archive them, but there’s no good way for me to access the info unless I already know exactly what I want to read.  Enter Facebook.  Now it’s like every one of my digital acquaintances work for me.  I can outsource the article reading, categorizing and rating to a few thousand people I find interesting.  They enjoy the chance to share their interests, and I get the benefit of good stories without wading through all the other fluff.  I do the same for them.

I’ve got a lot more to say about Facebook, but I’ll save it for another post.  I am of the opinion that we haven’t fully internalized how radical is the shift in social order wrought by Facebook.  We have yet to appreciate the tremendous impact on every facet of social and commercial life.  The layers are many.