Pluralistic: 11 Oct 2021

Today's links

Green tree ants on a leaf, Daintree rainforest, northern Australia (author’s photo)

Podcasting "Hope, Not Optimism" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, a reading of my latest Medium column, "Hope, not optimism," in which I describe a theory of change that distinguishes activism from novelism.

Plotting a novel is a process of radical simplification: a character goes through a linear progression of challenges of increasing difficulty and consequence, until the stakes are raised to their utmost when the tale reaches its climax.

That's nothing like the real world (perhaps that's why fiction is so satisfying!). Here in reality, the terrain we're trying to traverse is so complicated that we can't even know it, much less plot an efficient route through it.

Actually it's worse: the terrain isn't just complex, it's adversarial – our ideological opponents devote enormous energy to rearranging the terrain to put blocks in our way, suppressing human rights from the right to shelter and the right to vote to basic reproductive rights.

Trying to plot a course through terrain this complex isn't just a waste of time – it's counterproductive. By the time you've drawn a map, or even planned a map, the terrain will be so altered that you need to start over.

Figuring out the course from here to there is a trap that ensures you go nowhere.

Addressing this kind of complexity is routine in computer science: we frequently need to write programs to "solve" unsolvable problems – from weather prediction to route-planning.

Yes, weather predictions could be better if we let the computers run so long that the weather had already happened before the program delivered its guesses; we can shave seconds off complicated routes if we don't mind waiting for days to compute them.

But we can't. We need the answer right now – even if it's imperfect. In cases like these, we replace deterministic, perfect solutions with probabilistic, good-enough ones – instead of using rules, we use rules of thumb.

One important rule of thumb (a "heuristic" in computer science jargon) comes from a technique called "hill climbing."

Think of hill climbing in terms of how ants find high ground. The ant's forward facing eyes mean that it can't just look around and find an ascent.

Instead, the ant can poll its legs and determine which one is highest up – that is, which direction will take it most steeply up the gradient. The ant takes on step in that direction and reassesses: now which direction should I go?

Rather than mapping the terrain, the ant discovers it, one step at a time, knowing each step it takes will reveal new pathways.

That's how activists do it: from your current vantagepoint, assess which of the directions open to you makes the most progress towards your goal.

Once you've materially improved your circumstances, even in small ways, you discover new steps you can take – steps that were invisible before. One step at a time, you can move across the complex, adversarial world, towards a better one.

Ants have six legs – six directions they can move. Activists have four directions – four tactics – they can deploy, as articulated by Lawrence Lessig in 1999's CODE: Code, law, norms and markets.

That is, our world is shaped by the limits on social acceptability, legality, profitability and technological possibility. No one does things that are technologically impossible, things that are illegal or immoral get done less, and profitable things get done more.

These interrelate, of course. Normalizing cannabis use paved the way for legalization which made dispensaries more profitable and drove new growing and processing technology.

Code, law, norms and markets are the activist's cardinal directions – if you want to stop polluters, protests (norms) can drive regulation (law), which makes polluting unprofitable (markets) and drives alternatives to polluting processes (technology).

But also: the existence of nonpolluting technology (code) makes it easier to ban old polluting systems (law), and prompts people to reconsider which products and services they buy (norms), which spurs investment (markets).

Starting with law might be more efficient than norms, or maybe new tech is the spur that makes change – we can't know. Just trying to figure it out will take so much time that we'll get less done than if we just pick whatever seems most effective right now and run with it.

All this offers a new gloss on the critiques of "solutionism" and "consumerism" and "proceduralism" and "political correctness."

It's true that tech on its own can't solve problems (solutionism), but when you can't get a law passed (proceduralism), a new tech can change what people perceive as possible and therefore moral (political correctness) driving boycotts (consumerism) that finally spur change.

In other words, it's not that any of these tactics are useless – they're just incomplete.

This suggests a method: when you're losing hope because you've spent years pursuing a cause without progress, stop and assess whether a different course will open space for more.

If you're writing amazing free/open code but all your friends are stuck in walled gardens, maybe you need to talk to your local government or school board about procuring tech that is free and open (laws).

Or maybe you can offer workshops at the local library on using human-rights-respecting tools (norms). Or you can volunteer for a local refurbisher and install Ubuntu on the laptops they resell (markets).

Importantly, this method is grounded in hope, not optimism. Optimism – like pessimism – is a form of fatalism. The optimist thinks things will get better no matter what they do; the pessimist thinks things will get worse no matter what they do.

They both agree that what they do doesn't matter.

That's fatalism, and its opposite is hope: the belief that if you do things, you can make things better.

An optimist says the Titanic doesn't need lifeboats because it's unsinkable. A pessimist says that there's no point in trying to stay afloat because there's no hope of rescue.

To be hopeful is to tread water if that's all there is.

Not everyone who treads water gets rescued – but everyone who gets rescued treads water. Hope is the necessary but insufficient condition for survival – it's how you can overcome paralysis and discover which actions you can take.

Hill climbing won't always get you to the highest ground, either – if an ant starts climbing at the base of a foothill, then it won't get as high as if it had started at the base of the mountain next door. Sometimes, hill climbers have to descend and start over.

Likewise, sometimes nothing you do can fix your situation, because you can't get there from here. After all, the effective solutions to the Titanic problem isn't treading water – it's more lifeboats and fewer icebergs.

Some situations are unfixable – some activists are doomed to fail, because the terrain is impassible. When that happens, all the rest of us can do is learn from them – try to figure out what timing and context can help us find another approach up the hill.

It's messy and inefficient, and if it was the plot of a novel, no one would publish it. Life is messy and inefficient, too.

Here's a link to the podcast episode:

And a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive, they'll host your stuff for free, forever):

And here's the RSS feed for my podcast:

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Jihadis march with picture of Osama bin Laden and Bert from Sesame Street

#15yrsago TiVo’s “self-destruct button” destructs

#15yrsago Disney exec: Piracy is just a business model

#15yrsago TSA confiscates geologist’s rock,0,777555.column?coll=hc-headlines-oped

#15yrsago Eudora going open source, to be based on Thunderbird

#10yrsago Vernor Vinge’s Children of the Sky: bootstrapping high-tech civilization from hive-mind Machiavellis

#10yrsago Chaos Computer Club cracks Germany’s illegal government malware, a trojan that spies on your PC and lets anyone off the street hijack it

#10yrsago Pratchett’s Snuff: a rural/nautical tale of drawing-room gentility, racism, and justice

#10yrsago Iceweasel, a free-as-in-speech version of Firefox

#5yrsago When “reputation management” becomes perjury, forgery and fraud against America’s federal courts

#5yrsago Whistleblower docs: Wells Fargo was opening fake accounts in 2005

#5yrsaog Icelandic Supreme Court: all nine top bankers are guilty of market manipulation

#5yrsago If you bail on Yahoo Mail, forget about having your email forwarded

#5yrsago The clumsy, amateurish IoT botnet has now infected devices in virtually all of the world’s countries

#5yrsago Wells Fargo whistleblower: once I complained, they started denying me bathroom breaks

#1yrago Hong Kong's ghost protest posters

#5yrsago RBS deliberately crushed more than 1,000 healthy UK businesses to seize and sell their assets

#5yrsago Scotland Yard charge: teaching people to use crypto is an act of terrorism

#5yrsago Though crime happens everywhere, predictive policing tools send cops to poor/black neighborhoods

#1yrago MK-Ultra and the brainwashing grift

Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Friday's progress: 253 words (23503 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Yesterday's progress: 587 words (14776 words total).

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Breaking In
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla