28 June 2020

It's All Made Up (but the consequences are very real)

There seems to be a dawning realization that our social inventions - institutions, norms, culture, processes - are invented just as our products are. At that point of realization, some people become a nihilist, believing that because it is all made up, none of it matters. I feel very differently.

777s are just made up. I was at Boeing in one of the rooms that had file cabinets with various designs for this jet that could carry 400 people 7,000 miles. The complexity is mind boggling. And they have to get it all right to make it successful. A jet is just made up, just invented, but it matters a great deal that designers, builders and operators get it right.

Churches, states, banks, schools, and corporations, even marriage is just made up. But it takes a lot to get them right. And they really do make us different people.

Polygamy and monogamy are completely made up. At different times and in different places, communities embrace one or the other. But the consequences are very real. The 10 most violent nations in the world practice polygamy. When swaths of young men can't get a partner, the community is more violent.

Theocracy and democracy are completely made up. Voice of God or voice of the people? It's all social invention. But the consequences are very real. The 10 most prosperous countries in the world are democracies. Better truths come out of debate and multiple perspectives than from dictates from a religious elite.

About 100, 150 years ago we got much better at product invention. (Edison may have "invented" the first R&D lab. He died with over 1,000 patents in his name partly because he was an inventive genius but more so because he was one of the first to hire people to turn out inventions the way that others hired people to turn out products.)

We are learning more about social invention. One of the things we are learning is that most progress is incremental. A gain of 2% a year in income will double incomes every 35 years. The American revolution that gave religious freedom went much better than the French revolution that outlawed religion. We experiment our way into the future and while we challenge everything we pause before we blow up institutions. (We blew up the monarchy. We did not blow up the nation-state.)

The most important thing we are learning about social invention is that social constructs are like products, like other tools. They make our lives better but they are our tools, we are not theirs. You can love the creative genius of Karl Benz and Henry Ford without wondering whether they would approve of cup holders in a car or marvel at the genius of Jefferson and Hamilton without wondering whether they'd approve of a law banning child labor.

Social invention is at least as hard as designing, building and operating a 777 and it is even more important. If you mess up on a 777, only 400 people die. Errors in social invention kill millions.

So yes, it's all made up. And that should make you take it all the more seriously rather than be more flippant, more nihilistic about it.

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