Practical prophecy

Inspired by Dave Logan’s keynote on tribal leadership at AgileCultureCon, I did a breakout session and then an open-space followup on “Practical Prophecy 101″.

Recall that in Logan’s terms a “prophet” is a person who moves the behavior of his tribe towards greater cooperation and creativity by (his words) “preaching the inevitability of values-based change”.

Venessa Miemis took notes on my talk. Here’s a lightly edited and expanded version of those notes. In each item I have replayed a quote of mine that she recorded; where appropriate I have expanded a little on the thinking behind it.

1. Right names are powerful

“Shaping the vocabulary and linguistic map of a culture (what postmodernists call its “discourse”) is a particularly effective way to re-engineer it.”

“One of the most effective ways to shape the discourse of a culture is to find a concept that is central to it but unarticulated, and give it a name.”

Christine Peterson and I did this in 1998 when she proposed the term “open source” in 1998 and I popularized it. I believe the reason the transition in majority usage from “free software” happened so rapidly (over about the following 4 months) is that the semantic field of “open source” was a better fit to what most hackers wanted from their effort than the pre-existing “free software”.

I guess the more general advice for would-be prophets is to look for terms of art in your culture that don’t quite fit, that lots of people have spoken or unspoken reservations about. If you can invent better terms, resolving that emotional tension and discomfort will become energy for your cause.

2. Find the Deepest Yearning

“Cultural engineering works best when you are nudging a culture in a direction it wants to go anyway, but hasn’t yet found the right terms to express. If you find what the people in your culture hunger for and articulate it, you will gain power to shape that culture.”

The other side of this coin is well expressed by a quote from Lao-Tzu: “The wicked leader is he who the people despise. The good leader is he who the people revere. When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘we did it ourselves!’” The true depth of that quote, I think, is that the people are not wrong to think that – the best leader unleashes the creative potential of his tribe, directing only to the minimum degree required to get the tribe’s mission done.

3. Use Cultural Capital

“Cultural engineering works best when it has a stratum of preexisting cultural capital to build on. Can you find or co-opt such a base?”

What I had in mind here as an example was the rather large stock of cultural capital that hackers own – the joke RFCs, the Jargon File, stories about famous hackers, other things of that sort.

The agile tribes don’t have nearly as rich a stratum to build on yet. Which is a problem for them, because it makes acculturating people a more difficult and chancy process. I was intending to suggest that they need to discover or create such capital.

“Technologies acquire meaning and transformative power through stories people tell themselves about their use cases.”

My favorite example of this is that the Maya had the wheel – but they only used it for children’s toys! They had no narratives or metaphors that connected the wheel with the idea of transportation or travel. This seems incomprehensible to Europeans because those narratives have been embedded in Old World cultures since our early Bronze Age, but the example of the Maya demonstrates that this is not an inevitable development.

4. Change behavior before theory

“Co-opting people is more effective than moralizing at them. Give people selfish reasons to behave the way you want them to; their beliefs will follow. Outside the tiny minority of people neurally wired to be intellectuals this works much better than trying to change beliefs first.”

5. Give people permission to be idealists.

(Venessa had this header attached to the next item.)

My gloss on Logan’s definition of a prophet as “preaching the inevitability of value-based change” is that a prophet gives people permission to be idealists – to believe and feel as though their work has a larger meaning than they have understood before, that it connects to history, that it’s part of a vast and wonderful story.

Humans have a strong need to belong – to form tribes, chase ideals, partially submerge their individual identies in something larger. Manipulating this need can lead to great evil (from mob violence up to totalitarian societies) so it’s something we need to be ethically very careful about. Still, a prophet who can harness this effect can achieve good outcomes.

When I’ve been troubled about whether I was using this effect ethically, the question I’ve always asked myself was “Am I increasing individuals’ options or decreasing them?” A prophet who uses this desire-to-belong to impose a narrowing vision of right conduct on others is doing wrong; a prophet who opens up possibilities, giving people more different ways to create meaning in their lives, is doing right.

6. Steer by your values

“Your ability to steer for specific results will be limited. When you don’t know where or how to aim, [speak and] act in accordance with your highest values. As a matter of self-protection, you must develop and maintain clarity about what those values are.”

Developing and maintaining this kind of clarity isn’t necessarily easy. A lot of people have trouble telling the difference between what they actually want and what social conditioning tells them they should want. If you want to be an effective prophet, you have to get shut of this sort of confusion.

And it’s not just self-protection. Because human beings are actually quite good at detecting deception and dissimulation, truth – speaking what one believes with honesty and passion – is the most powerful form of persuasion. The most effective prophets are those who wield overwhelming sincerity and pureness of purpose like a weapon. Pureness of purpose requires an exact consciousness of one’s goals and values.

Sincerity, alas, does not guarantee that the content of a prophet’s message is good or even sane. That problem, however, is beyond the scope of this essay.

81 thoughts on “Practical prophecy

  1. It would be very interesting in seeing some examples where a corporate culture was changed from within, and from the lower-to-middle levels, by an effective internal prophet. I am struggling to do this in my current workgroup.

    What’s happened so far is that all the middle-level managers are in alignment with myself as one of the leaders, but we have been unable to persuade the next two management levels to give us a fair hearing. The organization is unbelievably hierarchical, to the point that it seems leadership (by which I mean junior VP’s who are running our small functional team, not the C-levels running the whole company) literally cannot hear what we say, but overreact to what VP’s in other groups say. I see the problem in technical terms (“based on feedback from our stakeholders, here’s a process that will make us more efficient, and will provided the results that our stakeholders want and need”), but our team leadership persists in seeing it as political (“I am upset that VP’s of other groups are talking directly to my managers, and I hear this as personal criticism rather than constructive criticism”).

    The result is that the managers’ experience is wasted, and you have people with 5+ years experience doing the work of admins and being woefully ineffective. I have tried to be a change agent and leader, and so far I’ve failed utterly even though I’ve been careful to couch everything in terms of “let us help you so that your group will be more effective and you will benefit.”

  2. One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is singularities. The current conversations I see on that are focused on the narrow subset suggested by Vernor Vinge in “A Fire Upon the Deep” of “What happens when your machines are smarter than you are?” But the essence of a singularity is the event horizon – there is no way to determine what might be on the other side.

    I suspect we are currently *in* a singularity that has technological roots, and we *can’t* predict what will be on the other side. An example is the effects of increasingly smart manufacturing using robotics, with the prospect of returning a lot of manufacturing to US soil. But while it will benefit the overall economy and increase the nation’s productivity, it *won’t* bring back jobs in great numbers because the manufacturing of the future does what has been done since the Industrial Revolution – it replaces labor with capital. The factories of the future won’t need nearly as many people as the old ones, and the ones it will need will be an order of magnitude more sophisticated and better trained than the unskilled/low-skilled folks who used to work on the assembly lines. Those jobs *aren’t* coming back, because no one will pay a living US wage to have them done.

    We aren’t yet at the point of a “post-scarcity” economy, but we *are* a a point where whole classes of jobs are bring rendered obsolete. What happens when it only takes perhaps 20% or less of the population to actually produce what the nation needs in terms of physical goods? What do the other 80% do?

    So “Your ability to steer for specific results will be limited. When you don’t know where or how to aim, [speak and] act in accordance with your highest values. As a matter of self-protection, you must develop and maintain clarity about what those values are.” goes even deeper, because many of the things the various tribes are working on will be disruptive to existing institutions and practices in ways that probably *can’t* be foreseen. Not only can you not steer for specific results – you may not be able to steer at all.

    This makes “When I’ve been troubled about whether I was using this effect ethically, the question I’ve always asked myself was “Am I increasing individuals’ options or decreasing them?” A prophet who uses this desire-to-belong to impose a narrowing vision of right conduct on others is doing wrong; a prophet who opens up possibilities, giving people more different ways to create meaning in their lives, is doing right.” critical. You can’t predict the effects of what you are doing. All you can do is act from the best motives that you can manage, and seek to do things that empower others and increase their options. You can’t know where it will lead, but it’s more likely to be a place you can live in.

  3. Just a comment on the Maya, wheel, children’s toys and narratives: in the Old World, the wheel also was used for other functions before being used as part of vehicles (and in the creation of narratives?). The first wheels we find in the Old World are potter’s wheels.

    “Free” is widely used in English with some many different senses, and that makes the “free” of “free software” difficult to establish and difficult to disambiguate from other likely senses. This is reflected in search results: if you want to find non-proprietary computer games, searching for [free games] or even [free software games] is going to be an exercise in frustration, while [open source games] will turn up much more relevant results.

  4. @Cathy: “It would be very interesting in seeing some examples where a corporate culture was changed from within, and from the lower-to-middle levels, by an effective internal prophet. I am struggling to do this in my current workgroup.”

    I’m not aware of any offhand. Corporate cultures are outgrowths of the personalities and interactions of the founders. The culture selects for compatibility. New people come in, are comfortable with the culture, get with the program, and act like everyone else, or they leave. So you can have a 100% turnover in membership but the groups will still behave the same way.

    Unless $DIETY works a miracle to order, and you get a new CEO determined to reform the place, and impose change from the top, I don’t see relief on the horizon. The prophet you are hoping for would need to communicate your vision to the VPs (and to their bosses) in ways they *could* understand that they would see as a benefit to them, and such a person is unlikely to be at your level.

    One suggestion I’d make, since there seems to be agreement in your workgroup about how things should be done, is to simply *do* them they way you think they should be done within the constraints of the existing culture. Don’t even try to talk to the VPs, since it’s clear they won’t hear you. If you are right, your results will speak for themselves in terms of increased productivity, better quality of work, and (possibly) increased revenue and profit for the firm. You can then point at the results and say “Tell us what you think we’re doing wrong?”

    Another is to try to form ties at your level with other workgroups under other VPs. Your VP may not be listening to you, and the VPs may not be talking to each other, but the folks in the trenches can signal each other. If other workgroups see how you do things, decide it’s a good idea, and emulate you, the practices might spread more widely. Instead of trying to deal with the various VPs, ignore them as much as possible.

    If you get a chance and find a copy, I recommend Robert Townsend’s “Up the Organization”. Townsend was CEO at Avis rent-a-car during the “We Try Harder” days, and “Up the Organization” is his memoir of the period, and what he tried to do at Avis to build an agile and flexible company that could successfully compete with Hertz. I’m not sure how much of his advice will be applicable to your situation, but you should recognize a lot of what Townsend talks about.

  5. >It would be very interesting in seeing some examples where a corporate culture was changed from within, and from the lower-to-middle levels, by an effective internal prophet. I am struggling to do this in my current workgroup.

    Unfortunately bottom-up evangelism almost never works, because middle-management’s main job is to maintain organizational stability and they experience attempts at culture change as disruption. What does work is influencing C-level executives through the business media so they impose changes in practice on their middle management. I built an evangelism strategy that actually worked on this realization after 1998.

  6. ESR,

    “that the semantic field of “open source” was a better fit to what most hackers wanted from their effort ”

    I think it also must have been a clever language hack, because source not only means source code, but the programmer himself who is the source of his creation – an “open source software” can also be interpreted as one whose programmer is “open”.

    So basically you were telling people subconsciously “if you do this, you will be justified to feel that you are an open-minded person”.

  7. Cathy,

    >It would be very interesting in seeing some examples where a corporate culture was changed from within, and from the lower-to-middle levels, by an effective internal prophet. I am struggling to do this in my current workgroup.

    >What’s happened so far is that all the middle-level managers are in alignment with myself as one of the leaders, but we have been unable to persuade the next two management levels to give us a fair hearing.

    Do you really need to work for that monstrously large corporations? I work at one that that distributes electronics in 15 countries yet has no more than 100 employees (many operations outsourced) and I am in direct contact with the founder-CEO having basically no other level of management over me, not even the IT manager. (I am the ERP software guy, strategy, project management, programming, training, support, everything.) The whole concept of 4-5 layers of management over a hapless programmer is entirely alien to me. How huge operations require that?

  8. This is so New Age that I anticipated a Yani soundtrack to the blog.

  9. Ya baby! Great stuff Eric. I love how you are riffing upon Dave’s keynote with these posts … and bringing your gifts to the task at hand.

    I worked this weekend a bit on some stuff. You might enjoy:

    The Definitive List of CultureHacking Books (you appear in this list bro…)
    http://www.freestandingagility.com/resources/the-definitive-list-of-culture-hacking-books/

    The List of CultureEngineering Lingo (“How to Become a Hacker” is an entry…)
    http://www.freestandingagility.com/resources/culture-engineering-lingo/

  10. @Cathy: You actually have the advantage of being in a hierarchical organization; things could be worse. At least in a true hierarchy, the big boss can give a change order and see that it is carried out.

    There are other types. One popular one is what one author called an ‘Irish’ organization. (It has nothing to do with the ethnicity of its members; the name refers to the way Irish politicians took over the government of many large American cities back in the 19th century.) In an ‘Irish organization’, there’s a nice hierarchical who-reports-to-whom chart, but it’s utterly meaningless. If you want anything done, you ignore the chain of command, and instead, look for the guy that really does that, and who owes you a favor. You give him or her a call, and what you wanted gets done. Now you owe him or her a favor.

    Such organizations are very tough, and extremely resistant to change, as anyone brought in at the top has no idea who to fire, and if he did, the official chain of command would be useless, and the whole organization would collapse. What DMcCunney said about the structure of an organization being set by the attitudes and the actions of its founders is very true. The TV network that I worked for was as I described above. I suppose I’m revealing which one by noting that it was founded by the guy who diddled Col. Armstrong out of his radio patents and stole electronic television from Philo T. Farnsworth.

  11. >The List of CultureEngineering Lingo

    This needs some work – too many of the definitions are stubs. Is there some way we can wiki-ize it so you and I can edit it collaboratively?

  12. About pre-Columbian South Americans and wheels. That has nothing to do with naratives and everything with a lack of animals large enough to pull a wheeled vehicle or sled.

    Lamas are no substitudes for oxes, donkeys, and horses.

  13. >everything with a lack of animals large enough to pull a wheeled vehicle or sled.

    Humans can pull carts, especially in gangs.

  14. @Winter

    About pre-Columbian South Americans and wheels. That has nothing to do with naratives and everything with a lack of animals large enough to pull a wheeled vehicle or sled.

    Lamas are no substitudes for oxes, donkeys, and horses.

    I don’t believe it. Llamas were (and still are) extensively used as pack animals. I’m sure you could rig something like a light-weight sulky behind one.

  15. >I’m sure you could rig something like a light-weight sulky behind [a llama].

    Yup. Hang travoise poles off a shoulder collar and put wheels on the ends. Easy stuff, and a pretty natural evolution from pack rigs.

  16. Carrying capacity and pull capacity are different things.

    An ox can pull much more weight than you can economically load on their backs. Same for horses.

    A human is too light to pull more than carry. Especially when you add the weight and friction of early carts.

    The pyramids (and stonehenge) are a case in point. Altough they were build by humans pulling stones with sledges, the amount of stone transported was low compared to the time and effort expended. Carrying an equal weight of sand was much cheaper and quicker.

  17. This discussion has not dealt with false prophets, of which I can identify three kinds:
    • The anti-prophet, who uses the same cultural tools to deliberately move to a lower culture;
    • The failed prophet, whose vision is upwards but whose plan is so flawed it’s useless or regressive; and
    • The evil prophet, who successfully directs a culture upwards but via the Dark Side.

    The imams currently stoking riots seem at first blush to be examples of the first kind, but I’m not sure about that classification.

    Marx is of course the perfect type II: he promised a level 5 culture, but implementing it took Russia from level 2 to level 1.

    I can’t think of a perfect example of type III, but I do note that the transition to level 3 (“I’m great (but you’re not)!”) lends itself to very dangerous jingoism. (Hitler, perhaps?)

    Are there better examples or classifications than I’ve thought of?

  18. Winter,

    Native American tribes of the central plains used travois pulled by dogs or men, before European settlers brought horses. In all cases pulling rather than carrying significantly increased the weight that a single animal could move.

    It’s possible that terrain could have something to do with the lack of development of useful wheels in Meso- and South America; the Plains travois was more efficient than a wheeled carriage would have been at crossing rough terrain.

  19. >Are there better examples or classifications than I’ve thought of?

    That’s a decent first cut. Your second bullet point nicely generalizes the reasons I think of RMS as a partially failed prophet.

    Your “evil prophet” is what I’d call a successful one who operates by destroying options rather than creating them. That’s what I think Salafist/Wahabbist imams are – they’re aiming for a “We’re great!” Stage 4 religious communalism, but the effect is similar to the repressive prophecy of secular totalitarians.

  20. The Mayan wheel mystery deepens when you consider the really fine paved roads that they connected their cities with.

  21. >The Mayan wheel mystery deepens when you consider the really fine paved roads that they connected their cities with.

    Indeed. Those would have been quite suitable for wheeled vehicles.

  22. Reading this, I hit upon what I suspect is the main difference between you and RMS. You are manipulative, RMS is direct. RMS basically decided to skip the evangelizing phase (where you soft-peddle any aspects of your faith that are not immediately attractive to your target) and went straight to the “pope” phase (where only the correctness of the doctrine matters).

    I’m not saying RMS considers himself infallible. It just looks that way if you try to present an argument to him that does not make any sense under the axioms he accepts.

    An analogy: Some religious types argue that it is wrong for atheists to preach that there is no evidence for heaven and hell, on the grounds that many people think they are capable of committing evil without detection in this life yet are restrained because they fear supernatural consequences. Weakening faith in afterlife consequences would turn them loose.

    But to most philosophers “{Horrible things will happen if most people believe X is false} therefore {X is true}” is simply a non sequitur. The argument will be ignored no matter how cogent the sub-argument for it’s “premise”. But the same philosophers would bend, if, say some means of communicating with the deceased were invented and witness accounts of hell appeared.

    Likewise, for RMS, “{People will desert (or fail to join) your cause if you say X is false} therefore {X is true}” is logically invalid, and he feels perfectly comfortable refusing to deal with people who attempt it.

  23. @winter:
    “About pre-Columbian South Americans and wheels. That has nothing to do with narratives and everything with a lack of animals large enough to pull a wheeled vehicle or sled.”

    One word: wheelbarrow.

  24. “One suggestion I’d make, since there seems to be agreement in your workgroup about how things should be done, is to simply *do* them they way you think they should be done within the constraints of the existing culture. Don’t even try to talk to the VPs, since it’s clear they won’t hear you.”

    That would involve actively disobeying instructions on how the leadership has told us to do the tasks in question, and doing so in a way that is blatantly obvious to anyone reading the final report. It’s possible, but very high-risk, best done when you’ve already decided to quit if this last-ditch effort doesn’t work. And since the whole manager-level part of the organization would have to cooperate at violating the rules, I can’t see getting that agreement.

    Your idea would work much better if it only affected the underlying process without changing the contents of the final work product, but the key issue here is what the actual deliverable should look like.

  25. @esr:
    “Unfortunately bottom-up evangelism almost never works, because middle-management’s main job is to maintain organizational stability and they experience attempts at culture change as disruption.”

    Wow. You sound as though you were in the room with us, watching, at key points; you couldn’t be any more accurate if you had been.

    But at least reading your comment and those of others here (notably DMcCunney) has convinced me that I will never be a cultural fit in that organization, and that the only thing to do is move on to another firm that is more flexible and, well, agile.

  26. Cultural engineering can be overt, covert, or accidental. It can be a positive influence on the population (i.e. reinforce robustness and advancement) or negative (reinforce cultural decay and decline). The toolkit of this evolving science includes memetics and the use of habitual communication (texts, tweets, and viral videos). One byproduct of this trend is that succeeding generations are becoming increasingly group-think oriented.

  27. >You are manipulative, RMS is direct,

    Not exactly. Or, at least, here’s what I think the difference is.

    It really, really matters to RMS that people believe the same things he does – he wants not just right action but right thought.

    I, on the other hand, consider right thought a nice bonus, but not necessary if I can induce the behavior I want.

  28. > I, on the other hand, consider right thought a nice bonus, but not necessary if I can induce the behavior I want.

    And here the snake eats itself, and we circle back to, “You are manipulative, RMS is direct,”

  29. >Wow. You sound as though you were in the room with us, watching, at key points; you couldn’t be any more accurate if you had been.

    Learned this in ’98 from observing what happened at Netscape. Have never forgotten it.

  30. >And here the snake eats itself, and we circle back to, “You are manipulative, RMS is direct,”

    Only in the trivial sense that all communication is manipulative. I never dissimulate about what I want, and I never lie about facts or my intentions. I think these are minimum requirements for any stronger or pejorative sense of “manipulative”.

    Admittedly, there are two things I do that might be considered “manipulation” by someone determined to find it. First, I exercise care about speaking truths that my audience is not yet ready to hear. Second, I consider that the three most powerful emotional handles on human beings are fear, greed, and vanity (or, almost equivalently, desire for status), and I unblushingly appeal to all three when I think it’s required to get the behavior change I want.

    The thing is, I’m honest with my audiences about doing this. I sometimes say, in effect though not quite so bluntly, “I’m giving you all the rational-minimaxing reasons to open source. I’m also appealing to your fear of competitors and systemic risk, your greed for profits and productivity, and your desire to look smart and with it. Because we’re all barely-domesticated apes here, including me, and that’s how motivation works.”

    You can call this manipulation if you want. I think I’m just being realistic about what really makes decisions happen. My business audiences generally seem to like it – I think it’s because they’re so used to being bullshitted that someone who actually refuses to lie to them comes as a refreshing shock.

    Refusal to lie may actually be the most powerful propaganda weapon I’ve ever found. Most people, unfortunately, can’t use it – too many of the lies they tell others begin with lies they told themselves first.

  31. Reading this thread has made me realize why ESR has not applied his culture-hacking skills to fixing U.S. political issues. The job of a prophet is to show people what they already believe so that they can go there. But in U.S. politics, it’s not enough to show people what they already believe, because most of it is wrong (and this is not a partisan problem).

    There must be a different kind of leader, not a Logan prophet, who educates a culture and convinces it that what it believes is wrong, and what it wants cannot be found. This makes me think of Old Testament prophets, but I am trying to think of a modern example of such a prophet and a name to use that differentiates this role from a Logan prophet.

  32. >Reading this thread has made me realize why ESR has not applied his culture-hacking skills to fixing U.S. political issues.

    Also because I’ve mostly given up on the idea that politics can be fixed from within politics.

    I’ve decided that the most effective thing I can do is push technology in a direction that changes the objective conditions within which politics operates – in particular, by helping markets clear faster and helping individuals become more powerful relative to collectives of all sorts.

  33. >The job of a prophet is to show people what they already believe so that they can go there.

    Separately, I wish to note that this is an excellent one-sentence summary of what a (Logan) prophet does.

  34. QUOTE: “The agile tribes don’t have nearly as rich a stratum to build on yet. Which is a problem for them, because it makes acculturating people a more difficult and chancy process. I was intending to suggest that they need to discover or create such capital.”

    (throat clearing sound here…)
    …..see http://center-for-nonverbal-studies.org/throat.htm)

    Man, is this fun Eric !

    Agile used to be distinctive and different. It had legs and meant something. In the modern day, “coaches” engage 5 days a week for months, in effect acting as highly paid foreign authorities who tell the native folks what they “should” do. This amounts to a prohibitive tax on any attempts at legitimate organizational learning by the indigenous people populating the organization. See? As I have stated in my book http://www.TheCultureGame.com, organizations must take absolute responsibility for their own learning. That’s the only way it can happen. This is effectively impossible when “Mr. Authority-Coach” is prescribing the “shoulds” while always occupying the pivotal-point authoritative roles (SM, PO) best occupied by the people themselves.

    In short, ‘agile’ now fails in any attempt to mean anything, because literally anything goes. Practices that are very obviously contrary to the Agile Manifesto principles are perfectly OK in the new, easy, “mainstream” version of Agile. As a result, Agile has lost its saltiness. And if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot.

    By contrast, our emergent “culture nation” is a new …and distinctive ….and different …and emerging and WIDER federation of tribes. It’s a tribe-of-tribes. Yes, some agile folk are coming in. The difference is that this emerging culture movement is very salty in comparison to the agile of today. Culture gaming and design and hacking is a much bigger game, with a much bigger story to tell. Agile itself was a mere instance of a culture hack aimed at a relatively narrow (software) audience. It worked. Then it went mainstream. And it is no longer salty. We are now scaling genuine agile (the distilled and genuine essence, or spirit of agile, which is organizational learning) up and out…from teams, to tribes.

    Eric, you are familiar with my book so you know I do explain this is some detail in there. Thanks for these posts, they are very thought-provoking. I’m loving the level of engagement here!

  35. Eric, what do you think of Kickstarter and such? They look to me like a good method for individuals and small groups to get around at least some of the gatekeepers.

  36. @Cathy
    The wheelbarrow is a recent invention of the Chinese (~100 AD). It presupposes a good technical understanding of wheel friction and balancing.

    @esr and others on lack of wheels in pre-Colombian Americas

    Efficiency drops considerably if you try to transfer energy to something that is heavier than the animal that pulls or pushes. And you need external brakes if the load is a lot heavier. Above that there is the problem of high friction in primitive wheels and roads.

    Most animals (humans included) can carry on the order of their body weight. The net weight they can pull efficiently will not be much larger. An ox or horse weights hundreds of kilograms. In terms of agricultural proceeds, that is much more than you can easily load on their back. Hence a cart makes sense. Even though the weight and friction of the cart will reduce the effective load that can be transported.

    Humans (of the time) would have weighted on the order of 50 kg. That would be the weight of a wooden cart on its own. Hence, it would be more efficient to carry the weight than to pull the cart.

    A lama might be heavier (not that much heavier). But lamas live in the mountains. I can think of other objections to expecting a lama to pull a cart over the Andes beyond energy efficiency.

    In short, humans pulling carts is not efficient. It is only used when efficiency is secondary, like short distance transport (a wheelbarrow), or other humans (wheel chairs and rickshaws).

    You can calculate it yourself (think impedance matching). And ask yourself why all the societies that did use wheels still used people to carry loads instead of pull them. That is, why do almost all classical and medieval cultures have sedan chairs where humans carry the load, but human pulled rickshaws were only widely introduced in the late 19th century?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pulled_rickshaw#History

  37. Awesome post, very enlightening. I’ve subconsciously grasped bits and pieces of it (and even applied it small-scale) before but you just laid it all out on a silver platter.

  38. [quote] “Eric, what do you think of Kickstarter and such? They look to me like a good method for individuals and small groups to get around at least some of the gatekeepers.”

    I second this question.

  39. >Eric, what do you think of Kickstarter and such? They look to me like a good method for individuals and small groups to get around at least some of the gatekeepers.

    I think they are, but they have some drawbacks I’m currently wrestling with. One is that they require you to generate schwag, which is not natural for all projects.

  40. >That is, why do almost all classical and medieval cultures have sedan chairs where humans carry the load, but human pulled rickshaws were only widely introduced in the late 19th century?

    That one is easy. Sedan bearers are a smoother ride unless you have very good roads.

  41. @esr
    “That one is easy. Sedan bearers are a smoother ride unless you have very good roads.”

    But you need 2-4 carriers for a sedan chair, and only 1 for a rickshaw. That would leave a lot of market to be exploited between a sedan chair for the very rich and your own feet for the poor. Mind you, rickshaw type carts did exist. But they never were “competitive”.

    In addition, there are human carriers for all kinds of luggage, but no carts for longer distances pulled by humans.

    But your argument simply does not compute. Your argument holds equally for horse and ox carriages. But such carriages have been around from the domestication of horses in 3000 BC. They have always been “popular”.

  42. It really, really matters to RMS that people believe the same things he does – he wants not just right action but right thought.

    I, on the other hand, consider right thought a nice bonus, but not necessary if I can induce the behavior I want.

    But it matters how you get there.

    If people happen to act under the current conditions the way you’d like them to, but do so based on a brittle algorithm that will fail when any of the unstated assumptions of that algorithm change, they won’t act correctly any more. And you’ll be on record as having endorsed the actions they took under their brittle algorithm.

    So I think it’s important to be able to tell people that they got the right answer this time by the wrong method, and encourage them to examine the flaw in reasoning that will lead that method to give them wrong answers in the future. It’s a very difficult argument to make, because there is a strong tendency for people’s thinking to be stuck on specific concretes, and learning to distinguish between the essentials and the window-dressing.

  43. @cathy

    But at least reading your comment and those of others here (notably DMcCunney) has convinced me that I will never be a cultural fit in that organization, and that the only thing to do is move on to another firm that is more flexible and, well, agile.

    If you have the luxury of quitting then my opinion is that life is too short to work for dysfunctional organizations.

  44. > Only in the trivial sense that all communication is manipulative.

    Speaking of manipulative communication, the USSD code to factory data reset a Galaxy S3 is *2767*3855# can be triggered from browser like this:

  45. >And you’ll be on record as having endorsed the actions they took under their brittle algorithm.

    How is this a problem? It was the actions I desired, and the actions I want them to repeat.

    One of the most important things I’ve learned in my career as a propagandist is that theory (or “algorithm”) is much less important in driving human behavior than usually assumed by the 7% of theory-driven geeks (Keirsey-Bates NT types) who predominate in programming and other STEM disciplines.

  46. >Speaking of manipulative communication, the USSD code to factory data reset a Galaxy S3 [...] can be triggered from browser like this:

    That was ineffective, but very nasty in intention. Anyone who tries to pull a stunt like this in the future will be instantly and permanently banned from this blog. No warning, no appeal.

  47. How is this a problem? It was the actions I desired, and the actions I want them to repeat.

    Because when their unstated assumptions are no longer true, either their brittle algorithm will lead them to repeat actions you do not want them to repeat (because the changed conditions don’t justify those actions) or they’ll choose different actions that you do want them to repeat, and they’ll interpret your prior endorsement as applying to their application of the brittle algorithm in the new context.

  48. >>Because when their unstated assumptions are no longer true, either their brittle algorithm will lead them to repeat actions you do not want them to repeat (because the changed conditions don’t justify those actions) or they’ll choose different actions that you do want them to repeat, and they’ll interpret your prior endorsement as applying to their application of the brittle algorithm in the new context.

    Your problem is that you are into the trap of ‘It’s not perfect, therefore it’s useless’
    Sure, it’s possible to come up with a scenario where getting people to do something *now* that won’t be a good thing some time in the future is worse than doing nothing *now*.

    On the other hand, it looks like ESR (and I) believe that doing the best you can figure out *now*, not expecting it to be perfect, nor a solution for all time, averages much better in the long run than waiting for certainty on a perfect solution to the problem. Which, in the long run is seldom all that perfect anyway.

  49. That was ineffective, but very nasty in intention. Anyone who tries to pull a stunt like this in the future will be instantly and permanently banned from this blog. No warning, no appeal.

    I don’t think LeRoy was trying to make visiting this comment thread trigger the exploit code. I think he was expecting it to get rendered as quoted HTML source code.

  50. @Daniel Franke
    Posting “attack vector” HTML code on blog comments is a well known malware strategy.

    As it is difficult to predict how the blog software will render an example, it is utterly irresponsible to post quoted functional malware code.

  51. Winter, agreed on both counts. I’m just reminding Eric of Hanlon’s razor.

  52. > That was ineffective, but very nasty in intention.

    My intentions were far above your label. I intended only to point out that Android still has a few holes. A bit of a rub your nose in it.

    I thought you had a Nexus, not a Galaxy S3.

  53. Embedding that code in a simple frame will automatically trigger a non-user initiated factory reset of the device. There is no way I can create a frame on your site (if I can, you have larger problems that you suspect.)

    However, simply browsing a website with the code embedded will not trigger the reset. Opening a message via QR, NFC or WAP Push SMS will.

    When the link opens, it starts the wipe.

    If you have ChromeToPhone or FoxToPhone installed, you could wipe your phone by just visiting a site containing the code on your PC.

    Source: http://www.zdnet.com/samsung-galaxy-s3-vulnerable-to-remote-malicious-reset-7000004771/

  54. Your problem is that you are into the trap of ‘It’s not perfect, therefore it’s useless’
    Sure, it’s possible to come up with a scenario where getting people to do something *now* that won’t be a good thing some time in the future is worse than doing nothing *now*.

    No, I’m saying you tell them “I’m glad you came to the right conclusion BUT you got there via faulty reasoning…” then you go on to explain the problem so they might get it right next time.

    Otherwise, people learn the long lesson.

  55. >Otherwise, people learn the long lesson.

    I think this is only a concern over a period of about a generation. It seems to me that after that, the lesson learned is lost, regardless of whether it was the right lesson or not. So if you can maintain the “right behavior” over the first generation, after that the “right behavior” is done because its tradition, rather than because of any particular lesson. Incidentally, this is mostly how rights are eroded. Laws only need to punish the first generation for exercising their rights, all the following generations will have learned by example. See also the experiment (or was it a contrived example) of shocking all monkeys in a box whenever one climbs a ladder.

  56. I think this is only a concern over a period of about a generation. It seems to me that after that, the lesson learned is lost,

    No, it’s not. If they didn’t learn the right lesson in the first place, but they’re rewarded for having taken the right action, then the next time they have to make a decision using their brittle algorithm (which might be tomorrow) they can be boldly wrong.

    I can’t believe I’m having so much trouble getting people here, of all places, to see why it matters how you get there. How many times has ESR pointed out that “conservatives” often make the same decisions about whether certain things are right or wrong, but because of how they got there, he knows he’ll just be fighting them tomorrow when the same thought process puts them on the opposite side.

  57. @tmoney:
    “See also the experiment (or was it a contrived example) of shocking all monkeys in a box whenever one climbs a ladder.”

    Nope, it was apparently real (using ice water instead of shocks). Here’s a link with cites to the original journal article.

    http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Did_the_monkey_banana_and_water_spray_experiment_ever_take_place

    Sources:
    Stephenson, G. R. (1967). Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. In: Starek, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (eds.), Progress in Primatology, Stuttgart: Fischer, pp. 279-288.

  58. Oops, garbled that — should have said that the experiment did NOT use shocks or ice water but tested a very similar experience. Let me reiterate the need for editing tools on ibiblio.org…

  59. >the next time they have to make a decision using their brittle algorithm (which might be tomorrow) they can be boldly wrong.

    On this level, all algorithms – including putatively correct ones – are brittle. Individual habit and institutional inertia are much more reliable.

    Mind you, I do try to reach decision-makers to replicate my thinking. But I don’t regard failure to do so as a serious problem as long as it looks like they’re forming the right sort of habits.

  60. >No, it’s not. If they didn’t learn the right lesson in the first place, but they’re rewarded for
    >having taken the right action, then the next time they have to make a decision using their
    >brittle algorithm (which might be tomorrow) they can be boldly wrong.

    Which is why I said it’s only a problem for the first generation. After that, the “brittle algorithm” amounts to “Thats just how its done around these parts”.

  61. >>Which is why I said it’s only a problem for the first generation. After that, the “brittle algorithm” amounts to “Thats just how its done around these parts”.

    Which gives the prophets/iconoclasts of the next generation something to do.
    Most *customary behaviors* were a good thing for the tribe at the time. That some of them are now somewhere between annoying and activly harmful is just a fact of human existence.

    Yes, some of the established customs should be changed. The fact that it is usually slow and difficult is not, in my experience, always a bad thing — even though it has sometimes been quite annoying to me personally.

    Having reached the status of ‘old fart’, it’s easier to see that the young firebrands are sometimes right — and not infrequently worse than the disease they are trying to cure. Having a bit of friction in the system is frequently a good thing, it slows down the oscillation in the system, and having ridden through a few of those, a bit of damping is a good thing.

  62. Addendum: The young firebrands are just as necessary as the heel dragging old farts. Many of the *Thats the way that it’s always been done* issues do need to be changed. Just not always *right now*, or *that far*. A very large fraction of the changes the youngns want to make are things that the old farts already tried, failed, healed up from, and would rather not try again. Most of the time they are correct in saying “This is a bad idea”

    We still need the young fools to try them occasionally to see if conditions have changed, or a slightly different approach will work this time — a few of them do, and a few of those pay off well enough to pay for all the wrecks and carnage created by the failures of the most.

  63. Regarding the wheel adoption thing, I heard somewhere recently that coming up with the idea of wheel transport is in fact not the crucial thing. What most ancient cultures lacked was good bearings, in other words a way to attach the wheel’s axle to the cart so that the wheel will turn smoothly and with little friction. That requires much more from materials than making a wheel.

  64. >>That requires much more from materials than making a wheel.

    Not all that much. Hardwood against hardwood with tallow for grease would be a fairly good bearing. I could make one with a tapered axle, lower part of the taper parallel to the ground, wheel coned to match the taper so the lower spokes were vertical I would wind up with a fairly low friction setup. Service life and load capacity would be less than cast iron against steel — the setup for the last end of the wooden wheel wagons, but friction would be roughly the same.
    For a wheel barrow, or light cart, building and maintaining roads would be far more of an issue than building carts and wagons to run on them. Then a few orders of magnitude for roads for heavy wagons,

    One of the big problems with a heavy load on a wheel is the pressure on the road surface. It gets real high real quick and a soft surface cuts up pretty bad. So, you need governments to build the roads, and enough surplus to the economy to make that work.. and pretty soon you have the traffic cop there watching the roads. Overloaded wagons for the wheel size, young men racing down the road in their light sulkys… Revenue for the local magistrates purse.

  65. >Hardwood against hardwood with tallow for grease would be a fairly good bearing.

    And is pretty much exactly what was normal for about six thousand years after the invention of the wheel, up until the Industrial Revolution.

  66. My favorite example of this is that the Maya had the wheel – but they only used it for children’s toys! They had no narratives or metaphors that connected the wheel with the idea of transportation or travel. This seems incomprehensible to Europeans because those narratives have been embedded in Old World cultures since our early Bronze Age, but the example of the Maya demonstrates that this is not an inevitable development.

    ISTR Jared Diamond’s explanation of this being that without good-sized domesticated animals to pull them there wasn’t much point in having wheeled carts, and the only thing left to domesticate in the Americas after the Clovis hunters’ thousand-year north-to-south barbecue was the llama.

  67. @Adrian Smith:
    “ISTR Jared Diamond’s explanation of this being that without good-sized domesticated animals to pull them there wasn’t much point in having wheeled carts, and the only thing left to domesticate in the Americas after the Clovis hunters’ thousand-year north-to-south barbecue was the llama.”

    Dogs can pull carts. Llamas can pull carts. As I mentioned earlier, a wheelbarrow is an example of a highly practical wheeled vehicle that does not require good roads or large draft animals to be useful. I don’t think you can blame this one on anything but failure of imagination.

    That said, this past weekend I visited a very interesting museum exhibit on the history of the horse. I don’t think there’s any question that if horses had gone extinct before humans came on the scene, history would have been very different. There is no other creature that could have substituted for the large war horse of the Middle Ages, or the Mongols’ horse troops, or been so readily used for herding other animals on horseback.
    The idea of raiding the settled civilizations and then running away on horseback would have been a much more marginal niche.

  68. Llamas can clearly pull light carts, but according to Diamond the Mayans didn’t have them.

    “But other crops and domestic animals failed to spread between Mesoamerica
    and South America. The cool highlands of Mexico would have provided ideal conditions for raising llamas, guinea pigs, and potatoes, all domesticated in the cool highlands of the South American Andes. Yet the northward spread of those Andean specialties was stopped completely by the hot intervening lowlands of Central America. Five thousand years after llamas had been domesticated in the Andes, the Olmecs, Maya, Aztecs, and all other native societies of Mexico remained without pack animals and without any edible domestic mammals except for dogs.”

    I think we have to blame the Incas for not noticing a potential export market there.

    I suppose dog teams could pull carts like they pull sleds, but the logistics of feeding them on long journeys might have been tricky.

  69. Jesus, DMcCunney, don’t be such a dumb fucking idiot. “These jobs are not coming back.” Imagine that you had a resource. Now imagine that you had a problem which was amenable to using that resource. That resource is people. Those jobs ARE coming back.

    OH, OOPS, WAIT! There’s a government telling you that you can’t use that resource unless you’re willing to pay a minimum amount for it. Oh, dang. As always, when the government forces minimums and maximums, you can surplusses and shortages.

    Fuckers.

  70. @Adam Smith
    “I suppose dog teams could pull carts like they pull sleds, but the logistics of feeding them on long journeys might have been tricky.”

    Look at dog sleds in the snow. Low friction and low vehicle weight. Then look at how many dogs are needed to pull a sledge with one human and luggage. Furthermore, dogs are nominal carnivorous. Think about the fuel efficiency. Dog-drawn vehicles have never been more than a very, very small niche. Maybe even smaller than packing stuff on their backs. More in line with using children for transport.

    The fact that Llamas can pull light carts says nothing about whether that is more efficient than just loading the goods on their back. I guess that the gain from using a cart would be minimal, if their was an increase at all. Even now, Llamas seem to be used only rarely for drawing carts.

  71. Hey, I’m not standing up for dogs here. You’d have to train them not to stop and sniff everything, as well. The snow must be relatively free from fascinating distractions. A road, not so much.

    And thinking about wheelbarrows, that’s something which is going to be an obvious invention if you’ve already got a thriving cart-manufacturing industry, but probably isn’t if you haven’t.

  72. “One of the most important things I’ve learned in my career as a propagandist is that theory (or “algorithm”) is much less important in driving human behavior than usually assumed by the 7% of theory-driven geeks (Keirsey-Bates NY types) who predominate in programming and other STEM disciplines.”

    I think you meant NT, but yes, absolutely. Sensors, who make up the vast majority, could care less unless money, status or excitement is involved.

  73. On the FS vs. OS thing again, it’s not so much about flawed reasoning as limited reasoning. OS agrees to axioms (only arguing in terms of the enlightened self-interest of the people copyright law attempts to bless) that make it impossible for FS/OS to win completely.

    Consider the following four propositions:
    A1 – It is usually unethical to deny users the Four Freedoms
    A2 – It is always unethical to deny users the Four Freedoms
    B1 – It is usually against enlightened self-interest to deny users the Four Freedoms
    B2 – It is always against enlightened self-interest to deny users the Four Freedoms

    The FSF is all about A2, while the open source movement is about B1.

    RMS refuses to move from A2 to B1 for more or less the same reason he won’t consider moving to A1.

    In theory he might accept a move from A2 to B2, losing nothing while gaining the advantage that B arguments can reach people who have no pretension to the ethical high ground. But there’s a little problem there — Proposition B2 happens to be demonstrably false. So RMS sticks with the proposition he knows how to defend and aims at what he wants.

    ESR knows B2 is false — in Magic Cauldron he even cites examples (DOOM and an obscure industrial optimization program). I’d personally cite Minecraft as a more dramatic proof of B2′s falsity. Because Minecraft is published as Java bytecode, which is not as inscrutable as i386 machine code, it has developed a thriving mod community. That’s the usual selfish payoff for going open, but Mojang has managed to obtain it without giving up the ability to charge admission.

  74. hi, i’m a bit of a newbie and found your website here. My dream is to become just like you. I think this world is lacking a lot of female hackers right? :-) I wish I could sit right next to you and learn new things every day. When you were 16, do you remember how you started to become interested in this type of thing? What would you suggest to me to start? Progamming? Etc? I’m looking forward to your answer. Thanks. :-)

  75. @Russell Nelson: “Jesus, DMcCunney, don’t be such a dumb fucking idiot. “These jobs are not coming back.” Imagine that you had a resource. Now imagine that you had a problem which was amenable to using that resource. That resource is people. Those jobs ARE coming back.

    OH, OOPS, WAIT! There’s a government telling you that you can’t use that resource unless you’re willing to pay a minimum amount for it. Oh, dang. As always, when the government forces minimums and maximums, you can surplusses and shortages.

    Fuckers.”

    No, they aren’t coming back. Work flows to where it can be done cheapest. Unskilled/low skilled jobs progressively migrated offshore because they could be done cheaper elsewhere, and government intervention in the form of things like minimum wage laws was a contributing factor but not really the proximate cause. The cause was a desire by producers to reduce costs, and that sort of cost pressure has been true in economics for almost as far back as I’ve looked.

    The process of industrial development has been the progressive replacement of labor by capital, and the advance of technology has accelerated that process.

    You can pay unskilled labor less than statutory minimum wage “off the books”, if you are willing to assume the legal risk. Many do. There are a fairly large number of Hispanic immigrants where I am serving as nannies, groundskeepers and the like, off the books and undocumented, who get work because they will accept the lower than minimum wage, and because employers will to pay that much, but not minimum wage.

    But you still have a limiting factor in the minimum amount one of those workers needs to *survive*, and have a place to sleep, clothes on their back, and enough food to keep them going. You’d get nowhere offering wages even lower, even if you legally *could*.

    Workers in factories in places like China get paid *less* than that, because it’s a lot cheaper to *live* there. Living costs here simply don’t permit payment of wages that low.

    You won’t see large scale manual assembly line manufacturing like the Hon Hai plants in China returning to the US because now one will pay the wage bills involved. You could not *get* the wage bills low enough to be cost effective.

    We are approaching the point where a majority of the population simply won’t be *needed* to do the vast majority of the actual work that needs to be done. The question is what those folks do instead.

  76. It’s not just minimum wage. It’s all the associated paperwork. It costs as much in paperwork to hire a dishwasher for a week as a skilled technician for a year.

    The NY Times had a series of articles on why Apple doesn’t make their products in the USA. One article described Foxconn as hiring 15,000 engineers “overnight”. You can’t do that in the USA. You can’t hire *one* engineer overnight, unless you’re a very small company with almost no management chain.

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