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I'm done here

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I've been an observer of politics and people for the last thirty years or so.

Ever since I was a teenager, I've been interested in how groups of people get together, make decisions, and make progress. What structures work better than others? How is it that some small number of people effectively control much larger groups? How do groups change their mind from one position to another?

It's all very fascinating to me, whether its politics or technology. Five person technology teams work drastically different than 50-person technology teams. Something very interesting happens in that initial growth phase.

It's been a good run. Looking at how people develop relationships among each other has helped me become a decent project team leader and eventually a strategic technology consultant. It's also helped me sharpen my libertarian leanings. What is the state entitled to? What do the people need in order for the state to work?

I haven't come up with any super-insights, but I have decided that you can tell the health of any system of people by the ease in which it can completely change course. If it can change too quickly, the mob rules and individuals are trampled. If it changes too slowly, it stagnates and there is a general feeling of malaise. The system fizzles and collapses on itself.

I believe these observations to be true both in technology teams and in governments - in fact anywhere there are people coming together.

Over the last decade, I've watched several very interesting developments at the macro scale. First of all, I think its clear that national parties are giving way to world-wide parties. People are sharing their prejudices forming collective opinions regardless of locality. As promised, it's becoming a global village. Pretty neat.

I've also seen vast sections of the internet turn into echo chambers. Instead of the internet providing challenges to the way we live and think, it seems to be validating whatever we already believe and keeping us from reality. Internet consumption seems to be equal parts self-reassurance and digital narcotic. My facebook page and blog and tweets mean that I am an important person. My games tell me I am a level 60 Druid. I am important. I am special. I am powerful. I am correct. I have insight that others do not have. Why change?

Not so neat.

It disturbs me to come to the conclusion that our system of governing in the west has become so broken as to be a danger to myself and other law-abiding citizens.

I use the term "law-abiding" in a very reserved way: with so many laws on the books it's impossible that anybody is truly law-abiding. In fact, since we are all lawbreakers to some degree or another, we are each subject to removal and/or imprisonment if we get on the right people's nerves. This was true when I was a kid, but its even more true today. The only reason most loudmouth political protesters aren't in jail is because being annoying really doesn't bother the folks in power too much.

When 9-11 happened it was clear to me that my country was at war: it is impossible to have so many civilian deaths and not have an immense military response. For any politician to suggest otherwise would be ludicrous. So something was going to change. I imagined freedoms would be restricted, people would die, and the left would be up in arms.

All of those things happened. What did not happen is that the war came to an end.

I'm perfectly fine with temporary restrictions on my freedoms in time of war. You want to monitor my phone calls, do a strip search -- whatever it takes -- these are reasonable sacrifices for a war. After all, folks are dying and its not like somebody groping your crotch is ever going to come close to that kind of sacrifice.

At the time, I realized that this war would never "end", but I thought that, as usual with these things, support would die out over time and people would come to their senses. Things would return to normal. Specifically that a new bunch of folks would take power and we would change.

Instead what has happened is that the billions of dollars Congress has allocated for fighting this war has morphed the defense industry into a "Homeland Security" industry. And the defense industry was always good at finding threats and building large complex and expensive things to meet those threats.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Looking to the left end of the political spectrum, I was very happy to see president Obama elected. Here is a top student from a prestigious university, political activist, and great speaker who looks pretty sharp. He and I didn't agree on much, but I felt that he was smart enough to learn as he went along. Plus, by bringing in all the opposing viewpoint guys, the country had a chance to blow off steam and the pendulum could swing back towards the center.

None of that happened. We're still in the same state of war we were 9 years ago. Perhaps more so.

What I'm seeing on the left is a tremendous tendency to blame corporations for any ill that effects the country. BP is bad. Enron is bad. Haliburon is bad. Corporations are out to get us, and we need a strong government to protect us. Central to the healthcare debate was that insurance companies were evil and it has high time government helped us deal with them.

I don't agree with such black-and-white painting -- I've been in enough corporations to know that 99% of people in corporations are good folks who only want to help other people. Just like I've been around the defense industry to know that 99% of folks in the Homeland Security business really just want us all to be safe.

But things aren't working for the left. The healthcare bill, while perhaps great, is also having all sorts of fallout. BP didn't turn out to be the evil empire that was promised (or if so, I haven't heard about it). Those evil insurance companies? They're the ones writing the bills to help save us from insurance companies. The labor unions own the car companies.

When people point out that things aren't looking so good, the left responds by finding somebody to throw in jail. I am reminded of Hugo Chavez, who is able to take entire office buildings during a TV interview by simply pointing at the building and saying "Who works there?" "We will take that building and use it for another purpose" It's one guy who really cares for the little people -- versus evil foreign rich corporate overlords.

We're not there yet, but this is the gist of where things are going.

Of course, the same can be said of the right and the "long war". Both sides -- in fact all sides -- have plans that are not working. They have political philosophies that are not suited for the realities of today. But instead of acknowledging that they are not working, they are just doing the same thing, only harder. This is not good.

Making it worse is the fact that some special interests have bought off both parties, effectively running the game no matter who is in power. No matter how logical your argument that performed music is part of your brain that just happens to exist on disk, no matter what the natural state of things are, they are going to come after you if you share songs. No matter how much you argue that your server in Britain that is selling Indonesian rugs to people in Tibet to move by camel to Saudi Arabia, somebody is going to come after you personally for a tax -- for their "cut"

I know people who write columns like this are sometimes ranting, going on about how it's the end of civilization as we know it. But I'm not especially angry or upset. I'm more sad than anything else. Now I know how it felt to be a Roman citizen sometime in the 3rd or 4th century: things are generally awesomely great, but the overall structure isn't good at all. There are storm clouds on the horizon.

I also know that folks who make these analyses generally have some sort of call for action. Go out and protest! Take up arms! Elect a new guy!

I will do none of that.

It's convenient to label somebody who writes an essay like this as morose, or just a sad sack. But heck, I'm a pretty happy guy. My startup ideas are doing very well, I'm healthy, my kids all seem to be doing fine in life, and I have wonderful friends and am part of some great social networks. I couldn't ask for more. Things are rocking, and we live in an incredible time.

I've just made a hobby of studying systems of people, and this is what I see. Aside from a general feeling of sadness for the country I love, I have no more feeling about this than the doctor does when he tells you that you are going to die of cancer. Yep, it's a pretty bad situation, but this conversation is part of the doctor's job. It's his role. It's his job. I see this. Now I've told you.

Continuing to speak from experience, bad structures are not made better with the addition of good people. Instead, bad systems make good people bad. Organizations reach a point where there is so much structure and rules that they cannot change at all: they just grow more complex and rigid. No amount of secret sauce is going to change that.

In the business world, these organizations lose market share and eventually get replaced by younger, more nimble organizations. Or a recession comes along and drastic cuts are made and the business is drastically re-engineered from the ground-up.

Governments don't do that. Governments don't have periods of recessions where everything is redesigned and minimal viable products are identified and markets addressed. Instead they start looking for enemies and throwing people in jail.

None of this is new. In fact, things like the "war on drugs" have been going on for decades. What's new is that pace of change is changing for the worse.

I see an adaptive feedback loop in all of these areas I have mentioned above, but let me specifically mention file-sharing. I have to pick one topic as an example, and file-sharing looks as good as any. Whatever your position on file-sharing it doesn't matter. The same situation holds true for healthcare reform, or for the TSA, or whatever.

People act independently to meet market needs. Want a song? Here. I have one. I'll put it on my server so you can listen to it. Costs to me? Nothing. So it's free to you.

Special interests see that things are changing and use the government to force compliance. Servers are shut down. People fined heavy amounts. Criminal law is used to prosecute the threat to the special interest.

People naturally adapt. I start to use BitTorrent. Here -- I have all the songs Garth Brooks ever made. They cost me a hundred bucks, but I'm happy to share them with anybody. I put it on a torrent and it's super easy for people to enjoy.

So new laws are enacted, DRM is added, it becomes acceptable for the recording industry to purposely put viruses on your computer to prevent your freedom to act.

So people adapt some more. Here -- I'll make a site that gives you links to places you might find a spot to download a file in thousands of pieces from all over the world. See how complicated we've made this? And we've just started. Both sides still have a lot more complexity that we can add. The insanity just continues.

So governments start shutting down servers, grabbing DNS entries without prior notification.

So we move to a new technology. This continues ad infinitum. From the consumer's side, each new round seeks the natural state, from the government's side each new round adds thousands of new rules and regulations, giving more and more power to more and more functionaries. Eventually we'll just reach a point where people in the government will pull down servers as they choose without much of a court order at all. The more complicated the system, the easier it is to abuse people legally.

And even then the system will still continue to get complex. This has all happened not over centuries, but in the past ten years or so.

Same situation goes for healthcare. It won't work as advertised, so we'll add more laws. It still won't work, so we'll add even more. Eventually we'll just drop the pretense and start announcing everything about how healthcare is run in a dictatorial fashion. Here's your one guy who cares about you. He will be enforcing the rules to make sure you are protected.

Same situation goes for homeland security. Guy tries to set his underwear on fire, so we have naked scanners. So some guy will put explosives up his anus, and we'll have soft x-rays. Each time people naturally adapt, government makes a huge set of rules, and people adapt again. The system becomes more and more unable to support its own weight. We'll eventually reach the point where you can be detained administratively at the airport simply by fiat. Here's the one guy who cares about your safety. He will be enforcing the rules to make sure you are protected.

This means that the default thing that will happen to folks is some sort of criminal trouble. Not for being politically active: I imagine folks will continue to have feel-good protests and rant and rave for a long time to come without ill effects. Nope, you'll get in trouble with the law because some law written somewhere for some situation that you didn't know about will be applied to you through the magic of computer technology. I doubt there will be even much thought in it.

The tyrant of the future won't be a king, or a dictator. Hell, he won't even be a faceless bureaucrat. The tyrant of the future will be the automated application of this structure we're throwing together in an effort to pound square pegs into round holes.

Everybody will get screwed over.

The most rational response seems to be: hide.

if I had my druthers, I'd find a nice spot on the beach and live a completely boring life and not be on the radar for anybody's future database dragnet. Because the database dragnets are coming, boys and girls. What we've seen so far is only the beginning.

But in lieu of being a rich anonymous hermit, I'd recommend complaining a lot. By complaining -- by describing the same problem in various formats -- we gain a common insight into exactly what's wrong. Might not be able to fix it, but the first step is always understanding.

But protest? Get angry? Call for change?


I'm done here.

Note I am not taking any position on any of these issues specifically, simply commenting on the pattern of behavior I see as we try to solve very real problems. The "rightness" of whether something is broken or not and needs fixing has nothing to do with whether or not the system itself is capable of fixing it or only making matters worse.

1 Comment

It's very sad that the worst fears that we had in the 90's about how technologies would be (a)bused have basically come true. The idealists thought that the internet would make us more free, due to the relative freedom we enjoyed online.
But no, in the name of 'protecting us', and even such moot thing as copyright protection, the surveillance state seems to be upon us.
One thing is sure, this will become worse before it will become better. If it ever will become better, that is.
And, alas, disappearing is not an option for the most of us.

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on November 27, 2010 2:03 PM.

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