a tour of ‘here’
Afika Nyati (him/his)
Tour Guide (TG): Welcome. I hope your travels here went smoothly. I will be your guide on today’s tour of here. Before we commence with our tour, I’d like to take the opportunity to address any burning questions on anyone’s mind.
Ida: I have one. Where’s here exactly?
TG: Tough question. To give you a suitable description of here, I’d probably need a suitable account of there to make an adequate contrast. But I — like yourself I suspect — struggle to recall any memory of there, or any sort of before for that matter. Don’t be alarmed. This is common. The important thing is that you’re here now. And on behalf of everyone else here, I couldn’t be more excited that you’ll be joining us in calling this place your home for the foreseeable future.
TG: Please excuse the mess. You arrived at quite an unusual time; we’ve been hard at work putting everything into place. There’s still a lot left to be desired. That said, much of what you see here is very new in fact.
But isn’t it breathtaking? How much we’ve explored. How high our structures tower. The grandeur of the achievements of those that visited before us. What’s most astounding to me, however, is how most of what you see here was dreamt up by people no different from you and me. It’s all a manifestation of their collective imaginations.
When the times are good, they need not remain so forever.
TG [solemnly]: As stunning as it is here, what if I were to tell you that there’s a hidden obstacle for those that visit here during good times that if left unaddressed, could significantly impact the quality of the times ahead for them and future visitors? It’s hard to spot over short time horizons, but when you zoom out far enough, it’s difficult to escape the civilizational patterns — loops.
A former civilization here called the Roman Empire, through unified and coordinated efforts towards empire-building driven by technological and social advancements, escaped a centuries-long period of discord and corruption and progressed towards times of peace, geographical expansion and cultural flourishment. However, these positive developments did not last forever. Excess decadence during the late period of the empire’s reign led to a decline in military strength, and a halt in geographical expansion that led to crippling resource insecurity. These military and economic issues paired with weakened political cohesion that grew from institutional distrust and divergent cultural values negatively impacted the empire’s ability to sustain good times. And so the once prosperous empire eventually fell victim to gradual decline.
When the times are good, they need not remain so forever.
Ida [perturbed]: In general, what catalyzes these declines?
TG: Collective complacency. When the times are good, it’s easy to be drawn away from proactivity towards decadence. Isolated to a single individual — very harmless. But diffused across an entire population through cultural mimesis, a turn towards the bad becomes ever more likely.
To be clear, the mimetic tendency of people here can be very constructive, particularly when used as a vehicle for circulating useful ideas and behaviors. The issue, however, is that this vehicle cannot tell good passengers from the bad, so all are granted a ride. And when the bad passenger is a collective inability or disinterest towards addressing new challenges induced here by a changing environment, the consequences can be existential. Why? A sum of enough minor challenges eventually commands enough force to displace the pendulum of the times away from the good towards the bad.
Fortunately for us, the bad times, much like the good ones, are reversible. During bad times people here, often motivated by visions of a better future, have fought to displace the pendulum towards good again. But a return to complacency would mean a reversal. And this is how we get ourselves caught in loops.
My question to the group: by the look of things here, how likely is it that we’re currently in a loop? And if so, which part of it?
Ida: Okay, so we need to reject complacency and embrace proactivity. Where I’m somewhat at a loss is in knowing what proactivity looks like here...
TG: I’ll start by describing a profession. We have many here and each profession carries core sets of knowledge and practices that its professionals use to reason about and perform work here.
Ida: Where do requests for work come from? And more importantly, why should professionals even bother accepting work to begin with?
TG: Work requests come from other people here. If you had the need for medical assistance, but lacked the expertise to practice medicine on yourself, you’d seek the help of a medical professional. Because we all have limited time here, we’ve found specialized groups of professionals to be more efficient than a population of generalists. It leads to a system with greater breadth and depth of expertise. Having said that, the trade-off is that specialization increases our reliance on having an effective system for trading professional expertise.
As for what motivates professionals to accept work? The desire for goods and services from other professionals. Through trading expertise, any person is able to “practice” another profession vicariously. What complicates matters, however, is that distinct forms of expertise are not valued equally, making professional work non-interchangeable. Because the gross supply and demand of a given profession’s expertise at any given moment in time are often unequal, their difference influences the profession’s value here. And because it takes effort and time to learn a profession, it’s impossible to instantly adjust supply when demand fluctuates. To address this interchangeability dilemma we invented a technology called money.
Money is a medium of exchange — much like how paper is a medium of communication. While paper intermediates a transfer of understanding between people, money intermediates a transfer of value between them. Money makes trade easier because it can be divided into smaller units, resolving the interchangeability dilemma we’d run into beforehand. It’s been very useful thus far.
That said, an unanticipated consequence of using money here has been a widespread amnesia of its original role as a medium; most view it now as a target rather than a proxy for the underlying value it's meant to quantify and mediate. As for how this happened? That’s anyone’s guess. The allegory of the cave seems like a reasonable explanation. People now see its accumulation as an end unto itself, rather than a means to an end. This is no different from aspiring to acquire all the paper here in order to have the greatest capacity to document ideas. But what use is all that paper if you lack ideas to document? Intention should be present, otherwise that’s value that could otherwise be leveraged by others to make improvements here.
TG: When you take a step back to survey the entire library of professions, you start to notice that professions can be grouped into three distinct families.
The first distinct family helps address known needs of people here by creating goods or providing services in the most efficient way possible by leveraging the most sophisticated knowledge, tools, and processes of that time. We call this family industry.
One of the best lenses with which to examine industry comes from physics: industry is an “energy transfer system” where professionals act as “energy converters” that mediate the conversion of chemical energy in their bodies — sourced from the food they eat — into physical work that is used to disturb or transform material objects away from a state of higher disorder — called Entropy — towards one of greater order, giving rise to products that meet needs of people here. This conversion process is not perfect, however; energy is lost to inefficiencies inherent to how a professional performs their work. Hence the incentive for professionals to adopt the most sophisticated knowledge, tools, and processes to minimize energy lost.
This lens ties in neatly with our perspective of money. By definition, energy is the capacity to do work. We can conceive of work as value. Thus, energy can be redefined as the capacity to realize value — which is also called money.
Ida: Money as a proxy for energy. That’ll take a bit to digest. Where does the lost energy go, though?
TG: In general, energy here broadly is conserved. That said, not all this energy can be used to do work; a portion of it exists in an unusable form. This is the Entropy we spoke of, and with every energy transfer, energy lost to inefficiency becomes unusable energy. Left to its own devices, total energy here drifts towards greater Entropy, where it exists in a more stable form. Those new challenges induced by a changing environment I’d mentioned earlier are a direct consequence of Entropy. This is a physicist’s response to why we shouldn’t choose complacency.
Ida: Let me get this straight: the total energy here is finite? And one portion of it’s useful, while the other’s unusable? And the useful portion decreases over time while the unusable portion increases with each energy conversion?
Ida: If you’re correct, surely we’d run out of energy eventually?
TG: In theory, yes. In practice, no. There’s so much usable energy here that we can treat it as infinite. The real issue lies not in the total amount of usable energy here, but in our ability to capture it. Although useful energy is abundant, we are only able to use energy we’ve actually captured. That energy can and certainly will run out if industry demands more energy than we have at our disposal. Thus, our energy management obligations are two-fold: to work against entropy and to keep energy expenditure within the bounds of what is accessible. Ignoring either would pull us into bad times.
Ida: Two more loops...
TG: As you rightly pointed out, we could run out of captured energy. That’s why it's so important that we continue to find new and more efficient ways to capture usable energy. Recent studies have revealed our primary energy source — fuels — to be loop-inducing … and while we’ve discovered other forms of energy since, politics and technological constraints have slowed their adoption. We’re kind of desperate for more options. That’s actually where the last two professional families — researchers and technologists — become useful.
Explore / Exploit —
TG: Researchers pose questions, which they then set about answering, to expand our understanding of here. I like to imagine them as explorers navigating a boundless conceptual terrain in search of promising regions to excavate for valuable findings. A collection of these regions, each representing a distinct question, is called a field. Each field studies a related set of questions that weave a complex tapestry of knowledge that characterizes a particular subject here.
When our kind first arrived here, it was fairly reasonable for a single person to dig a hole in a field and return successfully with findings we could add to our growing tapestry of knowledge. But we’re at a point now where we’ve excavated most of the easy ground, which leaves us the herculean task of digging deeper to encounter more exotic findings. This shift in effort has called for larger research teams in place of individuals to perform coordinated digging within established fields. At the individual level, this has meant a shift towards research specialization, mirroring what we see in industry
Ida [skeptically]: Specialization in research can’t be all good right? In industry it came at the cost of self-sufficiency.
TG: Indeed. A significant consequence has been a decline in the establishment of new fields and the excavation of new regions in existing fields. Less researchers are being set free to break new ground in existing fields or venture out into the abyss in search of new fields. Another consequence of research specialization has been a lack of excavation near the boundaries of existing fields — a lost opportunity to unify the tapestries into one comprehensive quilt.
Ida: And technologists, where do they fit in?
TG: They act as interpreters between research and industry who translate research insights into new tools and processes that positively impact industry by:
- Saving professionals time and/or energy by reducing inefficiency in their work.
- Providing industry with access to new forms of energy that had been previously beyond reach.
I like to think of technologists as energy capturers. Technologists might create automated tools that expend less net energy than their predecessors, such as manufacturing robots, or might develop ways to capture and store new forms of energy, such as nuclear fusion reactors. In both cases, the end outcome is to increase total energy at our disposal — one by capturing energy previously lost to entropy and another by gaining access to latent pockets of energy.
And much like researchers, technologists come in two different flavors: innovators — those who leverage research findings to iterate or improve on the efficiency of existing tools and processes — and trailblazers — those who leverage research findings to create whole new categories of tools and processes. Like in research, the former is less risky to pursue than the latter, for many of the same reasons.
Taken as a whole, industry professionals, researchers, and technologists work together to maintain and improve living conditions here. Remove one and you have yourself a loop.
Ida: Another loop. So we have energy converters, conceptual terrain explorers, and energy capturers. How exactly does someone new here like myself go about choosing which to pursue?
TG: You’re not the first to ponder this question. Many frameworks exist for this exact purpose. One that I’ve found particularly useful is called ikigai — a reason for being. It has applications across many spheres of activity, but is particularly useful during profession selection.
Select what you love. We’re here for a short time. And for that reason, it makes sense to spend that time involved in activities that bring you joy. This has the side effect of turning “work” into play. The deliberation here lies not in whether to include it in one’s decision-making criteria, but in where one prioritizes it when all things are considered.
Select what you can be paid for. Finite lifetimes induce specialization, which induces trade, which in turn induces money. Money satisfies needs. No further substantiation needed. All energy converters, by definition, meet this consideration. The deliberation here has to do with the degree to which you prioritize money accumulation.
Relative differences between supply-demand disequilibria induce value inequalities between professions, which in turn induce a value ordering of professions. For many, this ordering informs their choice of profession. But they accept a risk: pursuing a presently highly-sought profession that could be on course to becoming a less relevant, and thus less valued, profession tomorrow following the completion of their training. During training, changes to the professional landscape — such as the introduction of new technology — could render their chosen profession irrelevant. And without foresight there’s no way for them to account for these changes in advance.
Select what you’re good at. Competency is taken into deep consideration when work requests are allocated. Customers keep an internalized ordering of a profession’s professionals that informs who they ultimately approach for help. You want to rank among the more capable in your profession to evade job insecurity.
Select what here needs. Finally there are those professionals whose work does not consistently generate value, and hence is compensated less. This is despite the outsized value they do create when it is generated. Conceptual terrain explorers and energy capturers meet this consideration. Only technologists successfully able to translate research insights into tools and processes industry values stand a chance of seeing a sizable payday. In some ways, selecting what here needs is prioritizing loop prevention over money accumulation.
Ida: Useful considerations to keep in mind.
TG: We’re nearing the end of our tour. I’ll let you be on your way very soon, but before doing so, I’d like to give you all an opportunity to ask any outstanding questions you might have.
Ida: Throughout this whole tour, you’ve vaguely teased a set of improvements still to be made here. I’d hoped you would share some by the end of the tour. But here we are, without any idea on what's needed here.
What should we be working towards?
The future is a manifestation of our collective imaginations — and we can continue to add to it
TG: You’d be surprised how few people ask this question — fewer attempt to answer it. Some time before you arrived here we used to have a healthy and diverse marketplace of visions for the future. From this marketplace each person would pick their choice of fruit — by investing their energy towards it — and the vision with the greatest investment was brought to life. Most recently, it had been twentieth-century science fiction writers that illustrated these visions. A century later though, we’re still picking fruits from their marketplace. But many fruits have spoiled. So the pick is grim. It’s no wonder the general temperament here seems to have taken a pessimistic turn lately.
At what point did we forget to dream? It’s clear we need choice again. The future is a manifestation of our collective imaginations — and we can continue to add to it, so long as we have the desire. I don’t know about you, but my desire is intense.
What visions for the future occupy your dreams? We’re seeking vendors for a new marketplace.
TG: And with that, our tour of here concludes. As my parting words, I’ll leave you with this: aspire to be a part of the light that illuminates the way forward.