Barbarian intelligence (and the meaning of life)

Throughout most of history, there has been a tension between civilizations and their sedentary societies and the barbarians that lived nomadically. History was written by the settled societies, so obviously they portrayed themselves as more advanced and superior. They were right, but only on one level.

Any individual barbarian is on average more powerful, intelligent, creative and skilled than the average civilized individual. But because barbarians do not work together in a coordinated fashion, they cannot perform feats that require a sustained effort from many individuals. On the rare occasions when they do, they whip the settled societies and take them for all they are worth (See: Genghis Khan’s Mongols).

The individuals from the settled societies are less skilled as individuals, but because they work together as one organism, they can defeat the nomadic barbarians. In civilized societies, most of the knowledge and intelligence is embedded into their systems or artifacts. When an individual dies, some of his knowledge and skill is retained.

When the more highly skilled barbarians die, everything that they have not taught others is lost and the barbarian child has to start from almost from scratch. Inventions that come as a result of previously unconnected pieces of knowledge is much less likely to happen. If something is not of immediate use it will not be transferred to the next generation. Ideas take much longer to spread between different tribes than between people living in big cities.

I propose that there is a similar dynamic at play within individuals and that it has implications for personal productivity.

If you have procrastinated and as a result have to produce on a very tight deadline, you probably get a lot done. You do more in a short space of time than if you were unrushed. Work expands to fill all available time. When you rush you do not have nearly enough time so the work that you do is of a poor quality. You do not have enough time to do things properly and to put the finishing touches and edits to it.

By working with a good system, you take more time in total, but you end up with a superior result. You are less efficient but more effective.

If you could somehow civilize your barbarian skills of working under tight deadlines and with insufficient time without losing its efficiency, then you could produce work that is very effective and also use little energy because of your efficiency.

Programming also has a good metaphor. Everybody knows that it is harder to fix a bug than it is to write good code in the first place. But writing good code uses less total time and is a lot more efficient. To write good code requires less skill, but yields better results. You have to do a trade-off between the knowledge embedded in the system or tool and skills owned by agents.

It is a spectrum of optimization. At one pole you have the local maximum and global minimum where you use all of your energy to achieve your current task, at the other you have global maximum and local minimum where you never get anything done because you are always trying to be more efficient. I think that this is a universal property that applies to all living organisms and information.

Then you get the paradox of exercise:

The paradox of exercise is that if you overwork yourself you cannot do anything for a few days. Yet by never reaching pushing your limits and overcoming them you will become weaker and weaker until you can do nothing at all. To optimize for the long term you also have to sometimes optimize for the short term by going all out. Local and global maximums align.

For people, for cities, for companies, and for technological systems: life is what happens while you were making other plans. That is why is all always about the journey.

Achievements are the maximums for whatever aspect you are looking at. For an individual, a great achievement is reaching the peak of your local maximum for a specific field. A local maximum, because what is the best for your career might not be the best for your relationships. Your global maximum (your life) may not coincide you’re your maximum of your career. A global maximum for you would be a local maximum for your company.

When a company accomplishes a great achievement that is the company’s local maximum for a division. When a company reaches its peak as an entity then it is at its global maximum. The global maximum for a company is the local maximum for a city. The global maximum for a city is the local maximum for a country. etc.

Up and down the ladder of holons, local and global maximums are everywhere. When the local and global maximums align, you get synergy and cooperation. Where they are in opposition, you get rivalry and competition. Parasitism is a form of slight divergence in the alignment of global and local maximums. The global maximum of the parasite is not completely opposed to that of the host, so it is not outright competition. The parasite still wants the host to keep living and feeding it. If the host dies the parasite dies as well. Yet if the parasite dies, the host is not negatively affected.

It’s turtles all the way down. Or as Venkatesh Rao would say, it’s hacks all the way down.

That is why change is so important in this balancing act between diverse and opposing global and local maximums. External changes are constantly accumulating, so if internal alignments do not change to match then it will move into a collapse (a violent re-alignment). Good alignment is also hard to predict, so one of the most effective strategies is to sample many and then solidify or double down on those that work.

By initiating change yourself you increase the likelihood that you can prevent some of the negative results of a collapse.

Sometimes a collapse followed by rebuilding is the best way when the current system cannot adjust sufficiently to fit the new circumstances. That is when you deliberately let something collapse in your own life such as ending a relationship. For a company, it might be closing a division. For a city, it would be declaring bankruptcy on a company. For a country, it would a revolution or civil war.

If there is a trend towards endless progress, and endlessly improving the alignment of global and local maximums, then you might ask what happens when everything is aligned? When everything works together and there is a universal peace (universal cooperation)? I myself wonder.

Or it might be that there is no ultimate direction and life is merely an exploration of different combinations. Endless universes, differing by few details or by many. An endless dance of creation and destruction that twirls around unto infinity. A song sung by many voices and with immensely complex harmonies and clashes. Where the roster of singers is always changing but the song never ends. A loop that has no beginning and no end.

And one day all of our songs will end and we will fade from memory until we are only an imperceptible eddy on the river of eternity.

To happiness, and beyond!


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