This entry is part 15 of 15 in the series Psychohistory

A counter-intuitive feature of wind power is that it is usable regardless of the direction the wind is blowing, so long as it is sufficiently steady and you have the right technology. A windmill that can pivot, or a sailboat, can make use of any kind of steady wind. A sailboat can sail in any direction relative to the wind, though it may have to to tack or jibe to do so. But if there’s no wind, the sails are useless. You have to row or burn fuel.

The metaphor of a steady wind is more expressive than that of a rising tide. A rising tide floats all boats, but all go in only one direction: up. By contrast, a steady wind eases all journeys, regardless of direction. Imagine a cluster of sailboats huddled together in a windless doldrums. Once a wind starts blowing, all can start moving. And if they’re all headed to different places, they will start moving apart. The little boat cluster will experience expansion.

Imagine a steady wind blowing across an infinite two-dimensional ocean, a worldwind. The little boat universe on it will experience expansion.

There are two reasons it is counterintuitive to think of expansion rather than directional drift as the effect of a steady wind on a set of objects.

The first is the naive expectation that if the wind is blowing from the north, everything should be blown southwards. This is only true for passive objects (or more subtly, bounded-rational objects) being blown about by the wind.

The second is that humans often want to go in the same direction (though this need not be in the direction of the wind, so the metaphor is still more expressive than that of a rising tide). This may be for a variety of reasons: something valuable to all lies in a single direction (think tea clippers driven by market competition racing towards China); there is unimaginative imitation going on; there is coercion driving people in a certain direction labeled Progress by somebody powerful. Whatever the reason, when a steady wind is blowing, we intuitively expect everything and everyone to go in a single direction — downwind.

But where there is widespread abundance of some sort, and reasons to go in many directions, even modest imagination is sufficient to overcome uninspired competition, imitation, and even fear of dictators demanding Progress.

So when the wind blows, people scatter to the winds.


We can summarize this as follows: A steady wind yoked to a technology of self-determination in a target-rich environment drives divergence. Which I am beginning to suspect is the same thing as progress, unironic lower-case edition. Or at least an interesting measure of it.

All three elements are necessary. Without winds you get no movement. Without the right technology, you cannot scatter, only get driven downwind. And finally, there have to be reasons to go in many different directions that don’t require genius to spot, only talent (cf: “talent hits the target others can’t hit; genius hits the target others can’t see.”)

Is the direction of the wind significant at all?

Yes, it affects the efficiency with which you can go after different goals. But the specific relationship to goals depends on the technology of harnessing. A windmill that can pivot with the wind generates electricity, which can be used for any application equally well. But a sailboat will sail much faster on a beam reach (orthogonal to the wind) than upwind or downwind (look up points of sail). More to the point, it will be much easier to sail in some directions than others, in terms of the cognitive burden involved. Sailing directly upwind overall requires frequent and efficient tacking across the wind. Sailing roughly orthogonal to the wind (beam reach) requires much less attention and active control. You can kick back and enjoy an easy, fast ride. This is where bounded rationality becomes significant: if you’re not smart enough to tack, you cannot sail against the wind.


A metaphoric wind is what we call a trend. A systematic tendency in the events unfolding in a particular domain, appropriately conceptualized. Whether we’re talking fashions, interest rates, or AI, all trends are wind-like phenomena in event space. We call them out when they persist in strength and direction for long enough to take note of and exploit.

People often casually use “headwind” and “tailwind” in talking about market and technology trends, but do so in a way that is only slightly better than “rising tide.” As though they have a fixed sail and can only benefit from a wind blowing precisely the way they want to go — a tailwind. While not all market trends can benefit everybody, let alone benefit everybody equally, as with wind, the limiting factor is not the natural phenomenon but the sophistication of the technology of harnessing it, and the intelligence used to operate it.

If you have better “sailing” technology in your business model, you can make use of winds in more directions. You could measure the “range” of a business model in degrees. A dumb business model is one with a zero-degree range. Like a cart on rails, with a fixed sail set square to the tracks, and with a ratchet allowing it to only go in one direction. A truly intelligent one has a high-efficiency 360 degree range, like a modern sailboat. When people brag about counter-cyclic or business-cycle-agnostic businesses, they’re bragging about this kind of intelligence.

The valuable characteristic of both winds and trends is their steadiness (of both direction and speed). With wind, the steadiness makes for a low-entropy energy source for those equipped to harness it. With market trends, the steadiness makes for a systematic information advantage persisting for a while, for those equipped to harness it, which is mathematically similar to a low-entropy energy source.


Both winds and trends fail you in two regimes. One is a doldrums, where they go to zero. There’s not much to say about that regime other than that it is a grind. There are no unfair advantages or free lunches in the environment, so you have to row (labor), or burn fuel (capital).

But the other failure regime is chaotic turbulence. Where the wind is strong, but shifts so often in direction and intensity in both space and time that it becomes almost impossible to make use of it. It is too high-entropy. As you get close to perfect turbulence, you have to put in more effort to control the sailboat, and reorient frequently to take advantage of the wind. Errors are costly and benefits are only accrued for short periods in small regions. If the wind is too strong, there is also the danger of the boat being overwhelmed. You have to furl, or reef, the sails. This is the sailing equivalent of heat death.

Pandemics, wars and other chaos-inducing disruptions cause doldrums in some areas, and storms in other areas. They are, in a sense, anti-trends.

This is why bounded rationality is approximately equivalent to dumb passivity. The more chaotic the wind, the smarter you have to be to pursue a systematic objective in relation to it. Even a perfectly steady wind will cause a net downwind drift in a cluster of sailboats if none of them are capable of sailing against the wind.

Conversely, the intelligence of an ensemble can be measured by rate of divergence in all regimes of wind. Variations in intelligence can be measured by differences in the speed of divergence. Something like this seems to be the intuition behind the Wisner-Gross model of intelligence, though the specifics don’t seem particularly useful, as Gary Marcus points out in a critique. John Boyd gestures at something similar as well, in Destruction and Creation.

I personally find the un-mathematized metaphor of divergence in wind good enough for my needs, but perhaps there is a more useful mathematization to be developed.

Of course in either perfectly calm or perfectly stormy conditions, intelligence is no use. Bounded intelligence can be measured by the degree of chaos required to render it statistically indistinguishable from passivity.


Let’s return to the headline concept. A worldwind is a steady wind pattern across an entire world. In our thought experiment, an infinite 2d ocean. A metaphoric worldwind is more than a merely global trend. It reaches not just across national or sectoral boundaries, but across every imaginable societal boundary. Class, culture, language… everything.

Steam power and Moore’s Law were historical worldwinds. So was the spread of liberal democracy.

A metaphoric worldwind must be harnessable with median amounts of intelligence, and also coincide with, or open up, an abundance of goals. Everybody could make use of steam power. Everybody can do something interesting with a sufficiently cheap computer in their pocket. Assurance of minimal democratic freedom is useful to all.

Worldwinds drive divergence. When they die down, you get a sort of collapse. People use what little grinding energy they have to cluster together in fear rather than diverge along idiosyncratic vectors.

When a new worldwind starts up, people start to diverge again. History is merely the story of all the worldwinds we’ve enjoyed so far. When we begin to suspect that there are no worldwinds in our future, we declare history to be at an end. Whether such an end is marked by a doldrums or a perfectly chaotic turbulence, the result is the same: everything and everybody being rendered passive. A freeze or a heat death.

Series Navigation<< Narrative Slipstream Effects

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Thank you. You made this concept easy to understand.

  2. Venkatesh, great explaination and metaphor. Your writing helps me imagine, so what follows is an excersize in imagining winds, boats, sails and perceptions. 

    I’d play a game of it… yet, I play it everyday to survive. The un-mathamatized version. Satisficing as Herbert Simon says. (#1.)

    And I have been in as you say; “Pandemics, wars and other chaos-inducing disruptions cause doldrums in some areas, and storms in other areas” both real and metaphorical. 

    Also like you I “personally find the un-mathematized metaphor of divergence in wind good enough for my needs”, even though I know with “plenty of burn fuel (capital)” I may choose to elevate my heuristics to math & model. #3. below outlines a “a pursuit-evasion game between two vehicles in a stochastic wind field”.

    Q1. But are we ants on the sand or boats in the water? (#2.Ant) …
    “To face this two-fold problem, Simon came up with the celebrated example of an ant making “his laborious way across a wind- and wave-molded beach” (#2.Ant.)”

    Q2. How come it seems some of the wind as you say “is too strong, there is also the danger of the boat being overwhelmed. You have to furl, or reef, the sails. This is the sailing equivalent of heat death.” … but this wind seems to be both counter to the worldwind (proprietary monopoly winds) and I therefore need to spend energy rowing to get proprietary  (branded eosystem) sails to catch this counterintuitive proprietary monopoly wind? Apple / Android, investor / labourer, owner / renter. Maybe this is describing some type of gravity or “burn fuel (capital)” which confers a perceived or real advantage. Or an umbrella? 

    Q3. Relative Omniscience 
    Considering Herbert Simon said “… if we assume that the decision maker’s computational powers are unlimited, then …
    – First, … he or she perceives the world as it really is.
    – Second, we can predict the choices that will be made by a rational decision maker entirely from our knowledge of the real world and without a knowledge of the decision maker’s perceptions or modes of calculation.”
    H.A. Simon (1986), “Rationality in psychology and economics,” Journal of Business, p. 210-11”

    ….How do we cope with the knowledge of some worldwinds being relatively Omniscient about of vectors, goals and rewards? We do know about this relative omniscience and choose to mostly ignore it as long as we are satisficed. Think regulatory capture, politics, property, monopoly / monsopony and equity vs democracy, agency and ability to alter climate & Rosby waves, causing worldwind changes.

    As I said, an excersize in imagining worlds, winds, boats, sails and perceptions. 

    Are we in “satisficing” (#1.)  mode? … VR: “I personally find the un-mathematized metaphor of divergence in wind good enough for my needs,”…

    [Herbert] “Simon used satisficing to explain the behavior of decision makers under circumstances in which an optimal solution cannot be determined. He maintained that many natural problems are characterized by computational intractability or a lack of information, both of which preclude the use of mathematical optimization procedures. He observed in his Nobel Prize in Economics speech that “decision makers can satisfice either by finding optimum solutions for a simplified world, or by finding satisfactory solutions for a more realistic world. Neither approach, in general, dominates the other, and both have continued to co-exist in the world of management science”.

    “3.2.1 Bounded vs. Omniscient Rationality

    “To face this two-fold problem, Simon came up with the celebrated example of an ant making “his laborious way across a wind- and wave-molded beach” (Simon 1996b, p. 51), whose path from point A to point B is represented in Fig. 3.2.”

    “Bounded-Rational Pursuit-Evasion Games

    Yue Guan, Dipankar Maity, Christopher M. Kroninger, Panagiotis Tsiotras

    …”In this paper, the agents are modeled as bounded rational entities having limited computational resources.

    “We illustrate the framework by applying it to a pursuit-evasion game between two vehicles in a stochastic wind field, where both the pursuer and the evader are bounded rational. We show how such a game may be analyzed by properly casting it as an iterative sequence of finite-state Markov Decision Processes (MDPs).

    “Leveraging tools and algorithms from cognitive hierarchy theory (“level-k thinking”) we compute the solution of the ensuing discrete game, while taking into consideration the rationality level of each agent.

    “We also present an online algorithm for each agent to infer its opponent rationality level.”

    VR, I hope you extend this WorldWind metaphor and incorporate as a series of it’s own. 

    Do you have other specific articles you have written to recommend to us, applicable to worldwind?


  3. Ok. Got it. Lexicon.

  4. I like this model. I wonder if it can be expanded to land sailing, so we can discuss the effect of landscape on the wind, and the ease/ability to go in other directions.
    Would you say Wardley maps are based on such a wind (blowing towards commoditization)? or is that a “meta-wind” of some kind?