Umair Haque / Bubblegeneration
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Design principles for 21st century companies, markets, and economies. Foreword by Gary Hamel. Coming January 4th. Pre-order at Amazon.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A User's Guide to Idiocracy

Is America becoming an idiocracy? It's often asked--but perhaps it's the wrong question.

Here's a better one: is the anti-jackpot at the end of industrial age capitalism's rainbow an idiocracy? As China, India, and the rest of the world buy slowly but surely into it's institutions--will their destination be a society where basic facts, knowledge, are in doubt, where the apparatus of enlightened thinking is falling apart, where "debate" substitutes for discourse, where hyperpolarization points to cultural splitting, cracking, and forking, and where context is considered not to be deep, culturally ingrained, validated, historical knowledge--but merely the 3-5 words a search engine spits back at you? Probably.

Consider, for a moment, the following finding:

"In 2007, a 62%-majority of Republicans said there is solid evidence of global warming, while less than a third (31%) said there is no solid evidence. Currently, just 38% of Republicans say there is solid evidence the earth is warming, and only 16% say that warming is caused by human activity."

This isn't about political stances--and I suspect that whatever yours is, you might rightly look at that, and shake your head. Though climate change might be a contentious topic, for the percentage of already polarized people moving in the opposite direction--towards their a priori beliefs, is surprising--and disturbing. And if you don't buy the climate change evidence--just consider for a moment the growing percentage of people who don't admit the possibility of evolution, the scientific method, nonreligious epistemology in general, or even lack basic knowledge about their own history and heritage (not to mention the world).

Perhaps, then, industrial age institutions are idiocratizing. Those tired, toxic institutions treat people as "consumers", mostly--hence, what's built atop them is mostly "business models", which, in turn, rely mostly on clever (or incredibly facile) tricks to sabotage decision-making so it doesn't lead to authentically welfare-enhancing decisions--but to the transfer of value instead (think: Ponziconomy).

The result? I'd suggest it's, at the very least, an accelerator, rife with positive feedback. The dumber industrial age business as usual makes people--the more it invests in dumbening, in assets that subtract from one or more of the many kinds of intelligence, if you like--the less it's possible (for anyone) to earn returns by investing in anything else.

Think of it as a vicious circle of stupidity--the more we invest in stupid-making stuff, the dumber we get, and the more we invest in stupid-making stuff. Just as in the movie, pretty soon, you end up with an idiocracy.

In other words, idiocracy might just be a dynamic equilibrium. And if that's the case, then you can't fight against it--you have to deepen it and push it past the point of no return in the opposite direction to break it. If you invest in smart-making stuff, you go broke, because of the "gravity" of the positive feedback above, idiocracy itself--but it might, just might be that with enough stupid-making, you can ignite a cascading preference shift, to a new regime where people demand smarter stuff. Hence, you might have to explore the outer reaches of idiocratization to reboot the whole broken system.

Even if you don't buy that, whichever side of the debate you're on, you might still want to know: how does one recognize idiocratic strategy where one sees it? After all, you might want to become an idiocratist to chase the quick buck--or you might want to know how to recognize an idiocratist when you see one.

So here are the six textbook strategies of the idiocratists.
  • Take advantage of people's myopia. The ExxonMobil, the McDonalds.
  • Take advantage of people's fear. The Dubya, the Fox News.
  • Take advantage of peer pressure. The Vegas, the Urban Outfitters.
  • Take advantage of sheer gullibility. The Wall Street, the Big Pharma.
  • Take advantage of overweening greed and selfishness. The Madoff.
  • Take advantage of status seeking. The Escalade, the Coach.
The destination of industrial age capitalism? It sure looks like idiocracy to me: the price of "growth" might just be a loss of all the different kind of intelligence, whether emotional, creative, or quantitative. And if you want to grow--or, more deeply, if you want to reboot growth--you might just have to push each past the point of no return. Conversely, if you want to fight the good fight--and try and take on idiocracy head on--well, it might just pay to know the modus operandi of the idiocratists.

-- umair // 3:51 PM // 2 comments


There's a word to describe this strategy of going toward increasing dumbness in order to undo the idiocracy: enantiodromia. I believe it was actually coined by Carl Jung, though it is often attributed to Heraclitus who describes the principle of things becoming their opposite. I like John Perry Barlow's TEDx talk on this subject.

Barlow's main point is that there's a war going on between those who believe that information is power when it is withheld, and those who believe that information is power when it is shared and vetted. I also like Matt Ridley's TED talk (and blog) on "Ideas having sex" because I think he makes the case for the latter model quite persuasively.

I guess in the interests of increasing idiocracy in order to escape it, I ought to register as a Republican so that I can vote for Sarah Palin in the primaries.

There's a nice metaphor in rafting. Occasionally people fall out of their river rafts into rapids and get sucked into whirlpools. People who try swimming straight out will drown, but people who dive down into the center are often spit back out the side.
// Blogger Mike Lewinski // 7:15 PM

Groupon is the first thing I thought of when I read your post. I can't believe Groupon is one of the fastest-growing tech startups today, because it's a short-term marketing channel at best.

Have you written a takedown of Groupon's economics? If not, I'll write it.
// Anonymous Taylor Davidson // 4:36 PM
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