Failing Narratives

I threw my back out Friday night at Milo’s football game, playing football with Lucy on the sideline. I spent that night and all of Saturday in moderate pain. I took Advil and used Aspercreme, used a massager, a heating pad, took a long, hot shower, and in general was feeling a lot better by mid-day Sunday. I even went on a bike ride. Then, while putting on my socks Sunday afternoon, I threw it out way worse. Excruciating pain. That night I called the over-the-phone doctor and got a prescription for Meloxicam and switched to Tylenol since one shouldn’t take Meloxicam and Advil together. It is now over 24 hours later and I’m just now getting back to where I was before the nearly fatal socks pulling-on.

This all on a day of Covid-19 pandemic global freak-out, the markets crashing, oil falling to almost $30 a barrel…

So, I was grateful for a few thinkers today…

First, Cory Doctorow, in an interview at the Kelowna Public Library with the CBC’s Sarah Penton:

This is a story about…people who fear the end of the world and rather than confronting it by saying, “When things go wrong, how can I help,” they say, “When things go wrong, where can I site my luxury bunker that I can cower in, wetting the bed, while people better than me get society started again…”

…you can’t shoot germs. We have a shared microbial destiny…giant piles of corpses produce terrible pandemic diseases…unless someone is figuring out sanitation, it really doesn’t matter how great your bunker is…and the heroes of the apocalypse are not the people who cower they’re the people who help.

…The way [Covid-19] is disrupting our supply chain is a very neat example of how things that work well fail badly. If you only think about how things work and not how things fail you end up building the Titanic. If all you’re thinking about is the hull and not the lifeboats, you are not a hero of history.

We are now living through a moment in which a lot of the policies and procedures we put in place are hamstringing us because we built these long, attenuated, complex supply chains chasing things like lower wages…

We are now living through a moment that illustrates a lot of the failure modes that we’ve papered over and insisted could be dealt with when the moment came. This is the moment, and it appears the way we deal with them is by dismantling those old systems…

Here’s Cory’s original post on with has a link to the entire interview.

Second, Venkatesh Rao of the incredible blog Ribbonfarm, with Plot Economics. This one is hard to summarize.

Right now, the perception of agency at all levels is falling. Individuals, corporations, governments, heads of state, stock traders, the UN, everybody feels they’re losing the plot, but they don’t see anybody else finding it. Even ambitious grifters who want to profiteer off the narrative collapse struggle with what to do. Low-level grifters might hoard toilet paper, sell fake N95 masks, or peddle fake cures, but bigger, Bond-villain level moves are hard to script. The profiteering imagination fails at scale. Even disaster capitalism is hard to do in the immediate aftermath of true narrative collapse events…

The first kind is serendipitous plot economics (serendipity: surprisingly lucky conditions), where total agency seems to be increasing in unreasonably lucky ways. A magically benevolent tide is floating all boats and driving irrational exuberance.

We tend not to question this particular regime of weirdness, or even call it weird. We assume self-serving positive boundary conditions such as “god must have benevolent plans for us” or “perhaps we are collectively wiser than we consciously realize.” These effectively restore the conservation principle by adding a fictitious benevolent agent to the party (god or our own idealized collective unconscious intelligence), who is assumed to be graciously bestowing more agency upon us from a (possibly limitless) reserve of it.

The second kind is zemblanitous plot economics (zemblanity: unsurprisingly unlucky conditions), where agency seems to be draining away everywhere, sucking us towards predictable doom, with everybody increasingly helpless to do anything about it. A condition where there is no steering wheel. There are of course eschatological/fatalistic religious narratives on the market for this condition too, based on doctrines of sin/judgment or karma. But outside of cults and the reborn religious, they are not popular as guides for action in modern times, even among those who in principle believe them. We’d rather wear masks that don’t work than actually navigate by Judgment-Day or karmic-balance calculi.

Under conditions of zemblanity, a few people here and there may be perceived as having band-aid levels of residual agency (in this case, first responders and fake-cure phishing scammers) but overall, there is a sense that humanity is bleeding (rather than losing) agency to forces that don’t know they’re even competing, and are hard to see as agents at all. If they’re agents, they are agents of entropy…

…the most significant actionable information circulating right now appears to be the log-level heuristic, “wash your hands more.” If you want guidance on anything more abstract: when to buy or sell what stocks, whether to cancel or keep travel plans, how this might affect the election, or whom to blame for this whole situation, you’re on your own.

Lastly, Illusion Of Control by my cousin Thomas Hill:

The way the world around us works is also complex and, in many (or most) cases, hidden from our view. One of the character qualities we emphasize is humility, which is simply acknowledging that other people have a significant, even if unseen, impact on my success. Humility is like an antidote to the illusion of control bias. Additionally, since much of what happens to us is influenced by other people, humility increases the likelihood that people will use their influence for our benefit.

Interestingly, we are often the humblest when we are in crisis. Times of crisis are the best opportunities we have to break through the veil of our bias and understand how out of control we really are. Crisis is also where we are most likely to learn the value of community. We tend to not realize how much we need each other, until we do. While crisis is difficult and can be costly in many ways, it is also valuable as a grounding event.

Crisis can be healthy for us individually, as well as for the community, if we acknowledge it and participate in it. Someone is in crisis every day, but we often only think about it when we are the one in trouble. As a caring community, we should engage with people when they are in crisis, both to help them and to help ourselves.

There is very little about the world around us that we can control. Thinking that we are causing our successes (or sometimes our failures) is arrogant at best and can be very dangerous. The illusion of control can cause us to unnecessarily put ourselves and others at risk.

…As leaders, we find it difficult to remain humble and aware of the lack of control we have when our job is literally to “be in control.” Great leaders realize that they cannot force the universe to comply, but rather must find the path through the variability. Great leaders realize that remaining humble opens the door for the people around them to add their influence and increase the momentum towards a common goal.

As a postscript, I’ll end with this Poorly Drawn Lines cartoon.