I seem to be doing a lot of hyperproductive things lately: explaining to people how to kill the foul beast of Empire, revolutionizing the way English literacy is taught to both native English speakers and the rest… Somebody just emailed me to tell me that I have become “one of those significant commentators.” Yikes! If I keep going this way, then I will run the risk of making a Significant Contribution to Society (SCS). And that would be a mistake; not just for me, but for anyone.
Plus I’d be spending most of my time deleting blog comments from imbeciles. It’s the blogging equivalent of scraping bugs off your windshield. (It’s about 1% thoughtful comments from actual readers, and 99% senseless blather from idiotic trolls. I am serious. Very sad. But I liked the one I got the other day from a Ukrainian who said that his people will drown all the Russians in their (Ukrainians’) own blood. That was cute, but I deleted it anyway because it’s hate speech.
But allow me to explain about SCS and what the title of this blog post means.
As Venkatesh Rao explains so well over at his Ribbonfarm, a person faces two opposing risks in grappling with the vicissitudes of earthly existence: the risk of achieving nothing, and the risk of achieving something that’s not on strategy. Let me summarize his argument.
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If you simply wander aimlessly through life, breathing oxygen and eating and excreting organic matter, then you will still get somewhere. Statistically, a blind-drunk sailor who walks out of a bar will, on average, while stumbling along on his way to nowhere in particular, cover the distance of √n steps for every n steps he takes. This is known as a random walk, or Brownian motion, which is fine for molecules at anything above 0ºK, and perhaps for drunken sailors too, but most of us sentient beings want our lives to have a bit of meaning. And if the progress of our lives starts looking too much like a random walk, then we tend to start asking ourselves difficult questions, like “What’s it all about?” and drinking too much. And that causes our walk to get even closer to random. And therein lies a great danger, because this sort of downward spiral inevitably ends with somebody else telling you “What’s it all about” and what it is you have to do, supposedly for your own good, though it hardly ever is.
There is also the opposite danger. If you keep your eyes fixed on your goal and make a concerted effort to make n steps of progress in its direction for every n steps you take, then you will quickly happen upon a wall with a gate in it, and a guard at that gate will demand to see your permit, degree, qualification or certificate before letting you pass through that gate. And the process of you getting that permit, degree, qualification or certificate will end with somebody else telling you what your goal ought to be. The goal is, universally, to accumulate things: dollars or stripes on your uniform or publications and citations, or earwax. Details don’t matter, but what matters is that these things never have much of anything at all to do with your original goal. And although many people rationalize that such things are necessities, or means to an end, it is very hard to convince yourself that expending all your energies in lifelong pursuit of earwax so that you can get back to your original goal—what was it again?—is at all reasonable. These, then, are your two options: march (almost) in place, or accept somebody else’s marching orders—and march off to spend your whole life collecting earwax.
But Venkatesh, being one smart cookie, offers us a third option. You see, there is some threshold for the amount of forward progress in any given direction you can make before you are likely to encounter a wall. If on average a random walk results in √n steps for every n steps taken, then you can experimentally discover some threshold δ such that for every n steps you can safely make √n+δ steps’ worth of progress in any direction you choose without getting on anyone’s radar. Venkatesh expresses these two constrains using the following simple formula:
where C is one’s Contribution to Society. Those who stay within the bounds expressed by this formula practice what he calls Minimum Viable Sociopathy (MVS). This is a tremendously powerful concept, because it shows how you can do pretty much whatever you want. You just have to do enough different things, and each one half-assedly enough, so that none of them runs the danger of making a Significant Contribution to Society (SCS), and getting noticed and potentially struck down by those who jealously guard their prerogatives to determine which contributions are valid and which are not. All you have to do is set your sights just a tiny bit lower than one would normally expect, and you should be safe.
What this means in practice, for me at least, is that as soon as it starts looking like I am heading in the direction of acquiring a specific job title or job description, or getting involved in something that might require registration, certification or licensing, then I need to backtrack or head in a different direction for a bit, until everybody loses interest. In doing so I sometimes forgo some opportunities for an increased income, but that is the price of freedom.
For example, you probably expect that I will next talk about collapse of the USSA, or Ukraine, or how the English language ought to be taught, or give you a bit of philosophy like I just did. That’s a good guess, but instead I will talk about something else entirely.
Dmitry Orlov is the author of the award-winning book Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects and numerous essays published on his blog, ClubOrlov.com. Born in Russia, he moved to the US while a teenager, and has traveled back repeatedly to observe the Soviet collapse during the late eighties and mid-nineties. He is an engineer who has worked in many fields, including high-energy Physics research, e-commerce and Internet security. Recently, he has been experimenting with off-grid living and renewable energy by giving up the house and the car. Instead, he has been living on a sailboat, sailing it up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and commuting by bicycle. Dmitry believes that, given appropriate technology, we can greatly reduce personal resource consumption while remaining perfectly civilized.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Oceania Saker.