We need to take a more engineering approach to enabling more awesome shit

Everybody is running around theorizing about why things seem to have stagnated (Disambiguating stagnation arguments) a few people have general ideas “we need to shift culture!” Perhaps a few people have even laid out designs (the first level of engineering) for what could be done. But I see almost nobody going and actually doing the work to implement those ideas to enable more awesome shit. It is imperative on optimistic stagnationists to spell out how it could be better

This criticism is especially pointed at people with power and platforms who go on podcasts and write op-eds and generally try to make people aware of the problems and propose broad solutions that “somebody” should go implement.

Everybody seems to want “bottom-up innovation” but at some point someone has to be the bottom. The people who ultimately are the bottom are some combination of under-resourced (in some fungible money-power sense) and have no idea how to actually plan and execute on change. So they start a website or slack channel. These modes of change are most conducive to arguing whether there is a problem and theorizing about the root causes than actually changing anything.

“Starting a community” (ie. Creating Yet another slack channel) is itself passing the buck: “maybe if I start a community, some other people will figure out the actionable ideas.” Everybody is waiting until someone else pushes a clear idea to a point where it actually seems feasible. It’s like penguins crowding to the edge of an iceberg but none of them jump in because they’re not sure if there’s a seal in the water. The fact that nobody seems to have good ideas about how to get more good ideas is one of the clearest signs that we don’t have a lot of good ideas.

What would taking an engineering approach entail? First, doing actual design work. Good design guides what should and should not be part of the specification. It acts like a discriminator. It says why the idea isn’t impossible, where its failure modes might be, and the different options that could be used to implement it. It isn’t just throwing out vague ideas. Frankly, most ideas I’ve seen are not even at this point. “We should reduce regulation” is not a design. “We should invest in more crazy ideas” is not a design. Once you have a real design, and this part is clutch, you need to either create a concrete specification of clear actions or hand the design off to someone who will. Handing off a design to someone also takes work. It’s more than tossing a white paper on the internet and saying “someone should go do this.”

Creating a good specification is really fucking hard. It involves figuring out which pieces need to be implemented, what order they need to be implemented in, the dependencies between them, and the resources each one needs. It involves figuring out who is going to be responsible for those pieces, and more. It involves creating a PLAN. The value of planning is inversely proportional to the cost of experimenting and the lines of causality in this situation are so tangled that non-proxy feedback from experiments will be almost useless.

Finally, once you have the spec you need to implement it. THIS IS THE HARDEST PART - and it seems like nobody is even there.

Another hard part of engineering at every level is that at some point it involves deferring to the group. In the currently dominant scientific/narrative approach, it’s reasonable for everybody to have their own take. I am all for thinking for yourself, but at some point it needs to be collective action. “So Ben, why aren’t you deferring to someone else?” Because the people I would defer to are not creating deferrable designs or specs!

People with platforms and power should either actually do the work or publicly delegate power to other people as their legates. It would literally be as simple as “I appreciate your support - I think X has some great ideas about area Y - you should help them as you would help me.” If the personality happens to have money, they could even sponsor X to do the design work. None of this seems to be happening. Maybe they are secretly sponsoring many projects, but if so they are sacrificing a lot of leverage in exchange for optionality. By not delegating power, you are implicitly perpetuating a system where only old and accomplished people run institutions.

One of the big lamentations I hear is around coordination problems. People with power and platforms should actually coordinate people instead of just calling for them to coordinate with each other. Coordinating people is also hard! It involves actually saying “everybody, do X” “everybody listen to Y” “everybody don’t do Z.” It involves actually having opinions that might piss off your own in-group.

For those of us without platforms and power, we should push conversations away from abstract ideas and diagnoses (which are easy to have and make us feel intellectual and good) and towards precise actionable scheming (which are hard to have and involve telling friends ‘that sounds like a bad idea to me.’)


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