Michael W. Lodato, Ph.D.
A while ago I read Zero to One by Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal and a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. It got me to thinking about the problems in our country’s present and future and why there is very little likelihood that they will be solved.
Thiel describes two approaches to the future:
Horizontal or extensive progress means copying things that work – going from 1 to n. It’s easy to imagine the result because we already know what it looks like. If you take one typewriter and build 100, you have made horizontal progress. Globalization is horizontal progress because you take things that work somewhere and make them work everywhere. Today’s best practices, while helpful, lead to dead ends. It is copying what works elsewhere. California’s bullet train from Bakersfield (nowhere) to Fresno (nowhere) would result in horizontal progress if it is ever completed. It’ll move people and things on trains but only a little faster. 1 to n.
Vertical or intensive progress means doing new things – going from 0 to 1. It is harder to imagine because it requires doing something nobody else has ever done. If you have a typewriter and build a word processor, you have made vertical progress.
Thiel says that most people think that the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more. Our challenge is to both imagine and create new technologies that can make this century more peaceful and prosperous than the last.
A lot of recent progress has been made using management processes. My own career has benefitted from it, but looking back I guess I was a good 1 to n guy. There are a lot of consulting firms and web sites making money by expressing different views on management processes. Thiel says that arguing over process has become a way to endlessly defer making concrete plans for a better future. Today, process trumps substance: when people lack concrete plans to carry out, they use formal rules to assemble a portfolio of various options. Just look at the political landscape during the 2020 election cycle for proof of what I mean. Politics has trumped policy.
The government has had some 0 to 1 moments, but, except for the Pluto flyby and similar space feats, not lately. In the 1940s it was able to coordinate complex solutions to build atomic weaponry and in the 1960s it applied high technology to send astronauts to the moon and back. But today, Thiel says, after 40 years of indefinite creep, the government mainly just provides insurance; our solutions to big problems are Medicare, Social Security and a dizzying array of other transfer payment programs. According to the indefinite logic of entitlement spending, we can make things better by sending out more checks.
On the other hand there are many examples of 0 to 1 progress in the non-government world. Look at how easy it is to communicate with others now. Billions of people have smart phones and every one of them has thousands of times more processing power than the computers that guided astronauts to the moon and back. (I know; I was in the Houston Mission Control Center during some of those Gemini missions.) They can easily reach one another from across continents and from sitting next to each other. Using voice recognition and texting, two hard-of-hearing people in the same room can communicate by speaking comments into their smartphones to create a text message and then sending it to be read by the other party. I call this smartphone closed captioning. (So far as I know, this is my invention. It is my own 0 to 1 thing.)
Consider also the 0 to 1 offerings by Google, Apple, Tesla, SpaceX and others.
Our country and the world have many, many very serious problems – from out-of-control spending – to unsustainable debt – to terrorism – to poverty – to serious civil rioting – to hunger – to disease – to homelessness. It has become evident, that we can’t solve these by following the polls or listening to focus group feedback or copying others’ successes. I am convinced that we might be able to solve them through careful planning, technology, and intelligence. But in our system the people in office or who get elected, on both sides of the aisle, show no evidence of planning ability or intelligence and seem to be suspicious of technology. There may be an intellectual or two but I see no evidence of elected officials with intelligence and motivation to solve any of our problems. (You can refute that statement by providing some evidence.)
We tend to confuse the terms “intellectual” and “intelligent.” For me there is a big difference between people with intelligence and intellectuals. Intellectuals are people who make their living dealing in ideas such as hope, change, universal healthcare, global warming. Their jobs are not necessarily to get things done. They don’t go after occupations where you actually have to solve problems and exploit opportunities. They are known for their books, articles, speeches and other communications, but not necessarily for the problems and opportunities they faced and what they did about them.
Don’t get me wrong, intellectuals do a lot of good things and we need them. Think of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Founding Fathers.
Intelligent people, on the other hand, when faced with problems or opportunities, come up with actual solutions. There is no guarantee that an intellectual is intelligent. At the same time, there are people who are enormously intelligent, but not at all intellectual. They do not make their living working with ideas. They may not even be learned. Yet their unencumbered intelligence can sometimes see the future more clearly than someone who is encumbered by complex ideas that their intelligence can’t sort through.
Here is the way intelligent people address problems or opportunities:
- Describe the problem or opportunity clearly. Definition includes what exists or doesn’t, to what extent, when, where. Often you will find a timeline in the description, or a process flow, or an input-output diagram
- Identify potential causes
- Set measurable objectives. (What are we trying to accomplish by solving the problem or exploiting the opportunity?)
- Define the measures to be used to gauge that objectives have been achieved.
- List alternative solutions. Include determination of potential corrective actions.
- Define criteria to be applied in choosing from among the alternatives.
- Collect, Organize and Analyze Existing Data
- Analyze each alternative and apply the criteria to each and choose one that achieves the objectives. That is, make a decision.
- Then they follow a management process that insures successful implementation of the chosen alternative.
The essence of a formal decision process is critical thinking. (see my Think Piece on Critical Thinking.) It’s the difference between a cognitive leap and jumping to conclusions. So someone who brings a strong political ideology to a problem or opportunity is not likely to make a contribution to effective decision making.
Note that this discussion does not address the concepts of liberal and conservative. There are intelligent people and intellectuals in both camps.
My concern is that the problems facing our country are
- systemic,e. they are embedded within and spread throughout and affect the whole society and country. Any one of the problems can, by itself, bring the whole country down. Our elections have become a never-ending process of auctions, in which politicians outbid each other with promises.
- malignant, i.e. they are very serious and dangerous, tending or likely to grow in a rapid and uncontrollable way that can cause the fall of our society and democracy. They may be incurable if the problems continue to be ignored or addressed in a horizontal fashion and
- growing, i.e. they are getting worse every day.
It may be too late, (I’m pessimistic about this. I think it is too late.), but if we can elect people with big, bold ideas and the intelligence to implement them maybe there’s a chance. People who have a 0 to 1 vision rather than a 1 to n vision. People who are intelligent, unafraid of technology, and respect planning. People who intend to invent the future rather than try to improve it.
Inventing the future starts with planning for it. But a good definite plan will always be underrated in a world where people see the future as random. Progress without planning is what we call evolution. Why would you expect our country to succeed when it doesn’t have a plan to make it happen? Darwinism may be fine in theory in other contexts, but to make our country better, intelligent design works best.
Perhaps a breakthrough technology can be created and applied instead of incremental improvements. But we have to have the right people.