Minimum Viable Superorganism

Of all the remarkable things about our species — and there are many — perhaps the most striking of all is our ability to band together and act as a united, coherent superorganism. E pluribus unum. From many, one.

A few superorganisms in action. (Top: human towers of Tarragona, fire department, NASA. Bottom: Amish community, rowing team, ISIS.)

A few superorganisms in action. (Top: human towers of Tarragona, fire department, NASA. Bottom: Amish community, rowing team, ISIS.)

I don’t mean anything particularly high-minded by “superorganism.” It’s just a fun way to refer to a cooperative enterprise. Co-, together + operari, work. Acting in concert. Coordinating individual behavior in pursuit of shared goals.

Superorganisms, in this sense, include such mundane arrangements as law firms, soccer teams, city governments, and party planning committees. In fact, most of the groups we care about are superorganisms. A mere crowd, on the other hand, isn’t a superorganism. It’s just every man for himself — all pluribus, no unum.

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We Are All Architects Now

When I had my first mid-life crisis at age 17, I really didn’t know how to handle it. I went from sociable and friendly to morose and uncommunicative overnight, and stayed that way for a year. Now, 24 years later, I am getting really good at navigating them. I predicted 11 of my last 5 mid-life crises. I’m now skilled enough that I can provide expert consulting support to people who are too busy to have mid-life crises frequently enough to get good at it.

The key is to freak out early and freak out often (FEFO) in an agile way, and work towards a lifestyle that (ideally) feels like one continuously integrated and deployed mid-life crisis. There is actually good intellectual justification for approaching life this way. It’s called the Lindy effect, which says you’ll live as long again as you already have, until you don’t.

Which means you’re always at mid-life. Until you’re not.

This can be a difficult idea to grasp, so as Matt Damon said recently about poop-grown potatoes on Mars, we’re going to have to discourse the shit out of this thing.

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Climate Change Op-Ed

No long essay this week on ribbonfarm, but I just had an op-ed appear on The Atlantic site, a piece on climate change that’s a response to the (excellent) Bill Gates interview in the print issue.

Why Solving Climate Change Will Be Like Mobilizing for War

What Gates and others are advocating for is not so much a technological revolution as a technocratic one. One for which there is no successful peacetime precedent. Which is not to say, of course, that it cannot work. There is always a first time for every new level of complexity and scale in human cooperation. But it’s sobering to look back at the (partial) precedents we do have.

Go read the whole thing.

I have to thank Sam Penrose and Jim McDermott for helping me think this piece through.

I also strongly recommend the writing of David Roberts on Vox (also this piece on Grist) if you want to dive deeper into the climate change rabbit-hole. Given the length constraint (it’s a ~2000 word piece), I couldn’t fit in all the interesting things I learned research this article.

Some of my recent off-ribbonfarm writing has been a new kind of fun because I’ve taken legible political positions, which I rarely do here. In Breaking Smart, I took a fairly standard libertarian position. Here, I’m taking a left-of-center liberal position. I suppose one of these days, I’ll argue a classic conservative position. Very un-American to pick a side (or not) depending on the specifics of an issue rather than fixed tribal loyalties, but what can I say. I prefer my politics a la carte. 

One learning from doing this off-ribbonfarm stuff is that when political positions are so obviously telegraphed, 80% of readers react very quickly (either negatively or positively) based on the first few dogwhistle phrases they spot. So all nuance is lost. But it’s a good way to filter for people who are worth talking with, since they tend to read more fully and attentively.

Alice and Bob Discover Capitalism

Capitalism has historically been defined by its opponents rather than its proponents, and in terms of its consequences rather than its mechanisms. Specifically, it tends to get defined primarily in terms of its intended malicious effects and unintended/unaccounted damaging effects: oppression and social costs.

To navigate by such definitions is to deeply misunderstand the nature of the beast, so I want to propose a definition of capitalism (or if you prefer a less loaded term, commerce) in terms what I will argue is its essential mechanism:

Capitalism is the indirect manipulation of illegible human relationships, through the peaceful manipulation of decision contexts.

In practice, capitalism often operates with directness and violence, but the point of this definition is to get at the sine qua non that distinguishes it from other societal mechanisms. The role of “capital” is actually peripheral, since capital plays a role in defining the mechanisms of politics, kinship and war too.

The central fact about the mechanism of capitalism is that it needs neither capacity for direct action on a system, nor violent means, to influence it. This is not just a claim about an idealized model of capitalism: it is a claim about the real thing. Capitalism in our world has arguably gotten less direct and less violent over time. Today the visible motif that best captures the spirit of capitalism is not the East India Company warship, but advertising: messaging mechanisms that work to shape the background context of decisions.

Let me attempt an exegesis of my definition with a parable about the It Couple of geekdom, Alice and Bob.

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What is the Largest Collective Action, Ever?

I’ve lately become interested in the question of climate change from the perspective of the scale of organizational capabilities that are emerging globally to tackle it (a question that exists and matters whether or not you believe climate change is real). I came up with this conceptual graph to think about it. I’ll explain my capability measure in a minute.

Screenshot 2015-09-29 14.02.54


In some ways, “dealing with climate change” is the largest, most complex collective action ever contemplated by humans. Here I don’t mean collective action in the leftist sense of a political coalition based on egalitarianism and solidarity. I mean any kind of large-scale action involving coordination (not getting in each other’s way), cooperation (not working at cross-purposes), collaboration (combining efforts intelligently) and conflict (structured adversarial interactions encompassed by the system  to allow net action to emerge from a set of warring ideologies), in a politically neutral sense. Everything from weaponized sacredness (think the Pope’s statements on climate change) to war and unmanaged refugee crises can fit into this broad definition, but as I’ll argue, it’s not so broad as to be useless.

So the definition includes everything from the pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China to the Normandy landings in WW II, the building of Standard Oil, the modern bond market, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Historically, the “peak-load capabilities” of our biggest collective action systems have been expanding steadily, modulo some ups and downs in the interstices of imperial ages, since the Neolithic revolution and the first pot-sized granary.

The interesting question is, what are those “some ways” in which a response to climate change futures is unprecedented, and what does that imply for the likelihood of it succeeding?

A useful way to focus this question is to ask what is the largest collective action, ever, and how much of a stretch are we talking to respond to (say) a speculative 2-degree rise scenario?

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How to be a Precious Snowflake

Every few months, one of my much more successful friends will get frustrated by my apparent lack of aggressive hustle in service of my own work, and declare that I could be 10x better known and make 10x as much money if only I did x. The unstated assumption is that I am perversely being a precious snowflake by not doing x.


Every few weeks, I also have a different kind of conversation, usually sparked by a particularly poignant email from a youngish reader who has been persuaded by something I wrote to “go sociopath” (a la Butters going Professor Chaos). Typically, my new best friend will express a desire (and seek my help) to pursue some creative mission of personal, soul-enriching significance, without getting eaten alive by some species of shark in their waters. These emails often strike me as precious (as in snowflake, as well as in every other sense of the term).

We need a term for an anti-snowflake. I propose clod. 


If you view someone as a precious snowflake, they necessarily view you as a clod. This post is about the clod-snowflake dynamic.  All culture arises out of it.

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Breaking Smart

Today, I am launching a new site: Breaking Smart. It is a seasonal binge-reading site (think Netflix binge-watching, but for blogs) devoted to big-picture analysis of technology trends. Starting with this first season, I plan to publish a complete season of essays once every 2 years. The inaugural season has 20 essays, amounting to a total of about 30,000 words. For those of you planning a lazy, slow August of vacationing, staycationing and catching up on reading, I hope Season 1 of Breaking Smart makes it onto your shortlist and propels you back to work in September with a fresh set of ideas about how the world works. I am also launching a new weekly email newsletter (in illustrated tweetstorm format!) that you can subscribe to on the site.

Season 1 explores the theme of “software eating the world.” Marc Andreessen, who coined the phrase in a 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed, and also helped me explore it through several in-depth discussions last year, has been kind enough to write an introduction.


Unlike my writing on ribbonfarm, which has an unabashedly insider tone (you either get what refactoring is or you don’t), I have consciously tried to make Breaking Smart accessible to a broad audience. Among the most fun parts of achieving a more accessible tone was working with artist Grace Witherell to come up with a bunch of great illustrations to accompany the text. The montage above, composed from a selection of the individual illustrations from this season, should give you a sense of the essays.

So head on over to to start reading. Or read the rest of this post first, for the backstory of how this site came to be, and details on how you can help it boldly go where no website has gone before.

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The Amazing, Shrinking Org Chart

About a year ago, an 1855 org chart of the New York and Erie railroad was cascaded worldwide by the VP of the Infographics Department of the Internet. There was a good deal of admiration as well as lamentation. Apparently we no longer care enough about our corporations to create beautiful depictions of their anatomy, ars gratia artis. Whatever else the shortcomings of mid-nineteenth century corporate management (they had a tendency to start wars and gun down workers in pursuit of their Missions and Visions among other things, and you had to be a quick-draw gunfighter to earn a Harvard MBA in those days), they clearly cared. 


Library of Congress (via McKinsey)

By contrast, a modern set of org charts is usually a showcase of apathetic PowerPoint banality. In fact, you rarely ever see a big global view anymore. Just little local views that could, in principle, be patched together into a global view, but in practice never are. Often, even CEOs only have a coarse, low-resolution view of the whole, with blocks representing entire huge divisions of thousands of humans and billions in capital assets. There is usually no operational capability for drilling down into finer points where the situation demands it (Proctor and Gamble, apparently, is an exception). Most senior executives — VP and above in organizations of 1500 or more people say — are in the position of surgeons operating on the basis of having played the kids’ game Operation rather than on the basis of medical training and tools like MRI machines.

There’s a very good excuse for this though: the pace of organizational and environmental change today turns static maps into garbage very quickly. The part of the organization that is both possible and useful to represent using an org chart has been rapidly shrinking.

What, if anything, should be done about it?

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The Capitalist’s Zombie

I’ve been in Chile for a few days, preparing to lead some sessions over the next week or so at a startup bootcamp put together by Exosphere. Naturally, my mind has been wandering to other matters Chilean.

Chile, as an acquaintance remarked recently, has an economy based on two things: copper and astronomy. It’s also an economy that is to economists what Southwest Airlines is to management consultants: a very significant case study. It was the site of neoliberal experimentation by the Chicago School in the 1980s. More recently, it has been the site of the hilariously adolescent Ayn-Randian-Libertarian experiment that was Galt’s Gulch.

I was pondering these matters as I was shopping for, among other things, an interesting local beer to fuel my time here. After some fumbling with my near-non-existent Spanish (with some help from my Italian host who fumbles less), I ended up with a sixpack of something called Baltica Dry.


It is apparently the pretty-decent-and-cheap local Löbrau. It does not really appear to be “local” in any sense other than the brand name. As best as I have been able to discover, it appears to be brewed and canned for the Chilean market by Anheuser-Busch in the US (the particular sixpack I bought appears to have been canned in Uruguay though). So now, I basically have no clue about the provenance of my beer.

Baltica Dry is an example of what I call a capitalist’s zombie.

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The Art of Gig II

Read Part I first.

I shut the door of the conference room gently behind us. We could still hear Khan and Isabella out in the reception area, but their voices were now muted. Saul seemed to be in some sort of philosophical reverie as he made his way to his chair. Guanxi looked at me with narrowed eyes and nodded significantly. I narrowed my eyes as well, and nodded significantly in turn. A look of mutual understanding passed between us.

It’s a consultant thing. We call it the Significant Look Protocol.

Scientists have tried to figure out precisely what information is exchanged and  during these narrowed-eye-nod exchanges, and have come up with nothing. What is known though, is that about 1% of the time, a Significant Look results in a subtle, but unmistakable situational change known as Going Meta. Nobody knows what that is either, but it is a documented fact that when things Go Meta, cartels form and billables increase by a factor of 10.

This means a great many Significant Looks are exchanged at management conferences, but most lead to nothing. Some lead to sexual harrassment lawsuits.

This was one of those 1% of times. We had just gone meta. We both knew it, and knew the other did too.

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