Saturday, October 14, 2017

Large scale strangers

Anything on a large scale requires strangers to work together effectively. No strangers? Probably not really a large scale.

And so how does this work? I've always said: strangers don't trust each other. Why? There's no common basis for trust -- "I believe in you; you believe in me." is missing

Nonetheless, here we are with complex projects -- some on a global scale -- with all manner of strangers cooperating effectively. We don't necessarily trust each other so what is the trust mechanism?
  • Trust in money for one thing. We can exchange products and services with complex and large scale projects because we trust the value of those efforts when "monetized".(*) Which, if you've never really thought about it, is trust in the full faith and credit of governments to protect the value of money -- monetary policy is you will. Right now, that's pretty much the dollar, pound sterling, euro, yen, and the yuan -- the world's reserve currencies
  • Trust in the portability, perpetual storage, convertibility in and out of transactions, and no requirement to be physical give money its prominence in society(**). No matter how long you keep it, or where, it never wears out or spoils.
  • Trust in the rule of law insofar as it applies to terms and conditions for employment, contracting, purchasing, accounting, etc. In other words, trust in the value of anti-corruption
  • Trust in the general acceptance of a global morality -- stealing and assault are illegal everywhere
  • Trust in certain standards, like time for one thing, Newtonian physics if you're working in the not-quantum world, and Euclidean geometry if Einstein's relativity is not bothersome to  you. One second is one second everywhere (atomic clock arguments set aside -- we're not talking space station stuff here)
Now, here's another one, perhaps off the center stripe, so I offer it separately:
  • The power of bureaucracy (yuk!). No, it's true. Bureaucracy is what makes it possible to organize large number of strangers effectively; pass instructions around; receive and integrate product into a product baseline. We would never have advanced from the 18th century cottage industries without effective bureaucracies to put thousands of strangers together
  • The ability to translate or transliterate languages, both written and spoken. Though there are curiosities: Chinese has never spread beyond China even after being around for thousands of years; English is a global language after only a few centuries
  • And, of course, the separator between humans and animals is imagination; language facilities imagination among strangers.
(*) What about barter you ask -- or what about favors? Small ball stuff. Barter and favors don't scale.
(**) Only about 10% of the money in the world is physical  
Some of the ideas in this posting are derived from "Sapiens" by Harari, and "Empires of the Word" by Ostler

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