What just happened? The paradox

The twentieth century saw large countries devote themselves to a collective effort to advance in learning, to create and spread prosperity to all, and to organize themselves according to rational principles. All they have to show for it is mass graves, blighted lands, salty soil, and a dry sea. How could they have possibly failed?

Americans are no smarter than any other group of people in the world. We know and believe this. Americans also place a higher value on the individual than most of the world. We have no tribes or clans; our families are just our siblings, descendants, and ancestors. We have no holy mountains or rivers, no roots. We would just as soon live one place as another, depending on what we could grow and what it costs. How could an unorganized mob achieve a passable civilization, let alone a large and successful one?

We don’t really know. We just know what happened, not why, and we are not sure we care why. If an action had a good result, we’ll try that again. If it stops working, we’ll try something else. If you keep it up long enough, you get to an answer, just as a blind pig finds an acorn.

Think of the two ways to create a supercomputer. The first is a single, massive, and powerful processor. The second is a huge number of processors, operating in parallel. One attempts to solve the problem directly, the other eliminates all the wrong answers to find the right one, or works on only a part of the problem.

We are left with a paradox: leaving the important questions to a Great Leader, or central processor, limits the computing power to that of the one thinking unit. Leaving them to the millions of insignificant people, such as you and me, solves great problems as weather erodes great mountains — little by little. Thus the collective organization becomes the operation of a single individual, and the riot of idividuals resolves itself into a collective machine. Or, as was said two centuries ago:

He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.

Adam Smith

2 thoughts on “What just happened? The paradox”

  1. In Lexington Green’s post a few scrolls below, he notes:

    We Americans are pragmatists. One of our greatest enemies, Rommel, said the Americans knew less but learned faster than any enemy he ever faced. He also said the Americans had an admirable lack of respect for anything other than what worked.

    We Americans lack respect for institutions that do not deliver on their promises. Other cultures continue to defer to such institutions long after they’ve been revealed as farce. The first opportunity we had to duck out from beneath a top-down ordering of society, we took it. That we seem to be unique in this says more about the tenacity of the State than the deference of men for authority.

    Not at all surprising.

  2. I think your supercomputer analogy is pretty good, because it works on other levels as well.

    You made a statement “We have no tribes or clans”. Actually, i would like to follow Fukuyama here (see _Trust_). Americans, English and some others tend to build strong associations based on business and interest across family, regional and origin divisions. In a sense, we build our own tribes and clans based on what we are trying to accomplish. And in a massively parallel device resources get realigned to specific problems as the overall solution space is explored.

    You can’t push the analogy too far – massive parallelism is handled by a central scheduler, at least in current implementations.

    But our ability to constantly remake our “tribes and clans” is part of our strength.

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