Episode 034: Systems Thinking in the Real World

Panelists:

Jessica Kerr | Coraline Ada Ehmke | Janelle Klein | Astrid Countee

Show Notes:

00:16 – Welcome to “Missives from the Future of Tech: Ladies’ Night Edition” …we mean, “Greater Than Code!”

01:20 – Where the Lines Cross; Social Responsibility of Engineers

Tragedy of the Commons

06:53 – Why We Do What We Do

09:03 – Surviving and Functioning For All Humans: Basic Social Support

For sponsorship inquiries: please contact mandy@greaterthancode.com

16:20 – Preventing Infrastructure Decay and Advancing the Whole

19:54 – “The Cycle of Safety”

The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

25:21 – Scarcity

30:15 – Where are we focusing?

33:25 – Reframing The Tragedy of the Commons; Gatekeeping

The Broken Promise of Open Source by Coraline Ada Ehmke

37:56 – Organizations as Business AND Schools

The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization by Peter M. Senge

40:25 – Abundance and Barter Systems

Reflections:

Coraline:  Access to technology as a human right.

Janelle: Where is all the knowledge in the world? Where does the knowledge flows? What are the gates that get in the way of knowledge flows?

Astrid: What would you do if money wasn’t a factor?

Jessica: Software has to hold the keys. It’s the closest thing to magic that we’ve ever had.

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Transcript:

ASTRID:  Welcome everybody back to our podcast ‘Missives from the Future of Tech: Ladies’ Night Edition’. I’m here today with my great friend, Coraline Ada Ehmke.

CORALINE:  Hey, everybody. Really happy to be here and to my left on Skype is the lovely and talented, Jessica Kerr.

JESSICA:  Good morning. I am super excited about the show today because we have Janelle Klein, as the guest again and this is because a few weeks ago, we had Janelle on the show and we were supposed to talk about when the lines cross between tech and life but we totally didn’t pay attention to that because we got so excited about her ideas around Idea Flow and measuring development that we peppered her the questions about that for an hour so we have to have Janelle back because it’s time to talk about what really matters.

Janelle is a software developer, system builder, speaker, and entrepreneur. She’s known for her willingness to question all the secret kinds of contemporary development methodology and indeed, the very underpinnings of modern society. Janelle, welcome.

JANELLE:  Hi. Thank you.

JESSICA:  What are some of these topics that we don’t talk about?

JANELLE:  Since we’ve been working on this AI project or emotional intelligence, I’ve been thinking a lot about this question of just where the lines cross and that our industry is about to go through a major scientific revolution and there’s all these questions about what’s going to happen to our social support infrastructure. The more I think about it, the more it looks like we’re heading for, essentially system collapse and given that our industry is introducing all these disruptions, does that make us socially responsible for stepping up and doing something about it? I’ve been thinking a lot about those type of questions.

CORALINE:  It seems to me that we’re seeing an increasing number of stories in the media over the past several years about how tech companies are not taking those responsibilities for ‘disruptions’ of the systems that we have in place today.

JANELLE:  It kind of feels like a major tragedy of the commons type of effect, where everyone feels entitled to do their own thing, make money their own way, run typical business and then as everybody in the system does that same thing, we end up with this destructive commons effect which eventually builds up but it’s like the code module that nobody owns. It’s everybody’s problem but it’s nobody’s problem and it affects all of us and now the system is spinning out of control.

JESSICA:  What’s spinning out of control?

JANELLE:  I guess I see, what I would describe as a number of negative feedback loops that are reinforcing in vicious cycle. When I think about how the dynamics of the system are shifting right now, those are the patterns that have me, I guess the most concerned that when I just predict where those patterns lead, it takes me to relatively scary predictions right now.

JESSICA:  Can you give some concrete examples?

JANELLE:  I looked at all of this from a lot of the perspective of software development and what’s happening in our industry because in software and connectivity and now, AI’s being put in everything. As we go and build more and more of our infrastructure off of our shared parts, we’ve got this buildup of software in the industry that we all use. It’s like 90% of our software is built from existing parts now. If there’s bugs in that software, if there’s security vulnerabilities and things that in that software, then those things make us vulnerable since we’re putting the stuff in our bodies, in our cars, in all of our infrastructure.

When I think about this from a risk perspective of public safety and human life and software being in everything, we used to have an open source culture that was very central around optimizing the whole and chipping in and helping each other for the good of the industry. It’s not that that is gone. It’s just there’s been this generational shift in what that means. The people that have built all this software are largely aging and can’t necessarily keep maintaining it anymore and then this new wave of engineers tends to see themselves more as users, as opposed to owners so the open source has largely depended on companies going in taking responsibility for those assets, for things to get funding and move forward.

Then companies start shifting their perspective of looking at open source as a means to get people in their funnel. Basically, as opposed to it being about the good of the whole, it becomes about how do we exploit this open source investment for our own gain. It’s perfectly reasonable to have that belief because these are sort of the social norms of business. But as soon as everyone starts doing that and nobody takes responsibility for the growing shared infrastructure, it all seems to fall apart and nobody thinks it’s their job to fix it.

I think about these problems kind of happening in our software industry as this negative feedback loop that’s enforced by this recoil and optimize for yourself effect that everybody simultaneously does and the collective owned things, sort of falling by the wayside and then becoming everybody’s problems. I look at that and it looks to me similarly like some of the problems that are happening with the structure of our socio-economic system and arguing over what we ought to do in those same kind of differences in belief systems that are largely around entitlement and dominance and control type of sentiments, like a difference of practices versus principles kind of tearing apart the world and the commons infrastructure that we all need, kind of going by the wayside in a similar way.

ASTRID:  Janelle, it kind of sounds to me like you’re talking about why we do the things that we’re doing, like there was a generation of people who were building open source projects for the good of everybody and then that started to shift when you had people who were thinking more so about their own particular uses and then how that could be maximized for their benefit. Is that right?

JANELLE:  Yeah.

CORALINE:  I’ve definitely seen that in terms of open source projects where companies are either hiring developers, who are gone open source to insert features that only that company needs or looking to contract with people in the same way or pressure the maintainers and adding features that really benefit only one consumer and that’s that company.

ASTRID:  I feel like this is a problem that we keep having, especially in science where you start out with the intention of maybe just curiosity or inquiry or trying to grow the knowledge base and you want to bring together the best minds and do something that’s going to be great for everybody. Then once it matures a bit, there’s always this financial incentive that comes in and then it starts to break off until smaller, little entities that are still working with others but they’re doing it more so from a different place. Then that can become really destructive and it seems like we don’t have a good answer.

JANELLE:  This is where I start looking at we’ve got all of the software engineers that have all these skills with respect to building and designing and maintaining complex systems and designing things for agility and figure out how to do all of this abstract complex systems level modeling and stuff. We’ve got the set of problems that we need to solve in the world that are very engineering-focused right now. It’s not a game anymore where it’s about who’s winning and losing in election. What we’re talking about is infrastructure collapse of the socio-economic system of our world, which in all likelihood will lead to war.

JESSICA:  One of the problems we need to fix.

JANELLE:  I think probably a big one is things like health care or just basic social support education kinds of things, like the basic needs of just being able to operate and have a fair shake at life. Like you grow up, can I go to school? Can I get educated such that I can participate in economy? I mean, what are the basic functions that we need to survive and thrive as a species and then how can we make that the baseline that we start on top of and provide that for all humans, essentially.

I guess, where I see another spinning out of control effect, I’d say is the wealth of the world concentrated in a very small population. We got four billion plus people in deep poverty and at least from my own experience, when I’m seeing humans suffering and in a lot of pain, they tend to do crazy stuff and come up with ways to survive. It’s like we’re creating all these problems with massive amounts of suffering in the world and then blaming the people that attack us.

I’m just thinking if I was growing up with that kind of suffering, how I might turn out and I can hardly blame someone for raging as a way to survive. Despite the effects that’s like our world is just filled with so much pain and it’s easy to shrug it off because it’s always way over there and we look at what’s happening in our own world bubble and our problem seems significant. I don’t know… It’s easy to see yourself as the victim and stay in a pattern of self-optimizing, whether it’s at the individual level or at the entity level or at a family level. But somehow, we have to shift as a global world, I think to that opposite reflex of generosity and abundance and create a social support infrastructure system that is capable supporting the people and at least to that base level of being able to participate in the world. I think that fundamental problem of basic social support needs to be solved and is largely an engineering problem, I think.

CORALINE:  And that social structure is being undermined in America by the current administration. The budget includes really deep cuts for social services and what I referred to as entitlements, a word that I take exception to. I think it has gone from this place of anti-science and anti-research and is being framed as a question between supporting the poor versus incurring more death, which really comes down to supporting the poor versus supporting the rich.

JESSICA:  As if we could make everyone’s lives better by smooshing down on half of us.

ASTRID:  Well, you know Janelle, I would argue with you that it may not be the engineering that is the problem because what I notice happens is that when you start with a problem that seems really clearly set that it doesn’t take long before you get to people, being part of the issue. I think for what you just described, one of the big problems is the belief structure that you have, like what you were saying about having it be possible to go to school and learn to participate in society, unfortunately is a believe and there are others who don’t believe that you are entitled to that because you’re human. They believe that you don’t deserve things only by being born that you have to have other things happen, that you somehow must create, no matter your circumstance, or else you aren’t entitled to it.

I think those types of clashes is part of the reason why we can’t even get to solving the engineering problem because you have to start with the foundation that’s universal about what you should be doing and there’s a lot of conflict about what you should be doing.

JESSICA:  It’s a circle because like Coraline said, you don’t have what you need to participate in the economy if you don’t have health care and education and it’s participating in the economy that people defined as the virtue, which ‘entitles’ you to health care and education.

ASTRID:  Yeah, it is a circle. I’m not arguing that but it’s still coming from that you have to believe that health care is a human right and there are people who don’t believe that. If they don’t believe that, they’re not going to participate in the solution from the same place as I am.

JANELLE:  As looking as though, I don’t think they necessarily have to participate. As long as they’re not like, “Because the people don’t deserve it, I will make sure and prevent the people that want to provide these services to them don’t.” As long as we don’t force that, the people that believe or see that as a human right have the power to go and build a system to potentially solve that problem.

ASTRID:  I agree. It’s just unfortunate that for some, when you say something like health care is a human right, for them that is an attack on their beliefs and they feel like they have to fight it and that’s what they do. Then it creates this war, which is we’re still not solving the problem. We’re still arguing about who’s right and in the meantime, there are people who are starving and dying who don’t have to. But I think it’s really hard to move forward when we don’t have the tools, it seems to even be able to deal with that type of ideological back and forth.

JANELLE:  I think we do have the tools. It’s just a matter of using the tools. One of the core principles that came out of lean is this idea of blame the system rather than the people and that the system is usually responsible for 94% of the systemic causes of the dynamics in effect we see. With this whole metaphorical lens that we can examine the system and revisit and view the dynamics of what’s going on without assigning leaning to the dynamics, we can just observe them and then maybe come up with our own meetings and we can leave all of our metaphorical baggage to the side and come up with a new vocabulary to describe the effects we see. This is the discipline of science which I know is political in itself but these are the tools that we can use to get out of the current situation that we’re in.

JESSICA:  As in, if our goal is to provide more wealth in the economy as a whole, maybe we can observe that provide more health care to people result in more wealth in the economy as a whole?

JANELLE:  One of the challenges is trying to run experiments in the context of the existing system as there are so many effects at play —

JESSICA:  Exactly. The scientific method does not work when you’re in the middle of a complex system.

JANELLE:  Yeah, and especially if you have a biased interest in a certain perspective, right?

JESSICA:  Janelle, is the parallel you’re making that our social infrastructure is decaying because of individual incentives? And also, our open source infrastructure is decaying that in order to exist and participate as software, you depend on run times and libraries and all of this open source stuff and if we don’t take care of that, then we’re hurting all of us?

JANELLE:  Yeah. I think these things are coupled in a variety of interesting ways and that metaphorically, they both are these sort of tragedy of the commons type effects that have to do with the same shift in mentality from this optimize the whole mindset of abundance, “Let’s all chip in and help each other out,” kind of mindset shifting to, “I’m going to focus on myself and optimize for myself and I don’t need to care for the good of the whole. Whatever, those people can fend for themselves.”

That same shift of mindset, I see it happening in our industry. It seems metaphorically parallel to some of the shifts, I think we’re seeing which I think is response of fear and pain, in response to a feeling of scarcity, like if we’re going to run out of resources and this feeling, we’re clearly in a lot of debt. There’s no disputing that and so it seems reasonable to the people that are recoiling in that way to do so because of the circumstances.

Likewise, shifting out of that mindset has these sort of out of control effects with it because that cycle feedback loop effect you were talking about, where the poor keep getting poorer kind of thing. It’s easy to go, it’s not really the problem and look at this as values thing but at the same time, there’s this overarching challenge with, in order to solve the scarcity problem, we have to figure out how to solve energy. There’s all these problems that we need to be able to solve, to actually stop being afraid.

If we can get rid of the reasons to be afraid with respect to scarcity and use our skills to create a world of abundance, then we can mitigate that fear, I think and counter those effects. Then I start thinking, if we could figure how to solve our software problems, we can probably figure out how to solve all these other problems too. At the end of the day, the only thing really holding us back is working together.

JESSICA:  Yup. When you’re in a place of scarcity, like if you’re hungry and you don’t know what you’re going to feed your kids, you cannot think about advancing the whole. That is not a thing. You have to think about right now and today. Fear and pain and all of those things can have an influence on you because you just have to look out for yourself when you personally are in a place of scarcity.

With software, if you’re a developer of open source and you need to feed your family, you’re going to take that corporate money to develop that particular feature that only helps that corporation and you’re not going to be spending all your time on vulnerabilities that would maximally help the community because you have to take care of yourself at that point. But if we ever move that scarcity and Lord knows we produced enough food for that, then we let people contribute to the whole.

JANELLE:  So basically, shift things into a virtuous cycle?

JESSICA:  Yes. What do you call it in your book, the Cycle of Safety?

JANELLE:  The Cycle of Safety, yeah. I think that’s how I’ve been looking at the world as looking at negative feedback loops, which is the cycle of chaos and positive feedback loops or the virtuous cycle or the cycle of safety. After I started looking at Idea Flow this way of looking at these patterns in communication and problem solving and developing this theory of mind, essentially based on all ideas in research, I started seeing these patterns of feedback loops everywhere.

Then mentally, I’ve been using biological metaphors to study organizations as an organism and imagining how I build a hive mind brain, imagining like an organization in software or looking at the socio-economic system as a biological organism and look at how it shifts in emotional energy from just emotional training of tribal effects and humanity and how those things affect the system and how I can think of like Idea Flow as an abstract construct for understanding information flow and energy flow and people trying to solve the problems of survival.

I mean, it gets down to that fundamental level of how are people surviving both physically and emotionally and coping with their suffering and what are the dynamics that result from that and what is the response that people are having as they’re shifting to a mindset of fear and scarcity even when they’re in a position of relative wealth by comparison. How that causes these major shifts in the overall system? I know it’s like everything is a metaphor but you start looking at the feedback loops and flows and I look around at the people who has the skills to be able to go and build abundance producing systems.

What I’m looking at doing is basically building such a support infrastructure into the economy. If we manage to conquer the generalized AI problem, which with our team now and where we are with our research so far, I have a reasonable level of confidence that we’ll be able to figure that out. Then you start thinking about, “If we have infinite power, essentially what are we going to do with it?” Now, we can do with emotional intelligence, we could build like mentorship AI to solve and automate education related problems.

There’s so much capability in potential that you start thinking, “If we could build a support system for an abundant world to make people not have a need to be afraid and not have a need to recoil in safety or in fear, then maybe we could shift the world from a cycle of chaos to a cycle of safety.”

CORALINE:  I’m curious, Janelle if you have ever read Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age?

JANELLE:  My husband was like, “You need to read this.” I am working through his Snow Crash right now.

ASTRID:  What is the Diamond Age?

CORALINE:  The Diamond Age is based on a premise that we are able to manufacture anything from raw carbon. Basically, the means of production that we know today is totally gone because we now have machines that can produce any goods or anything of value. It’s called a Diamond Age because diamonds are actually able to be manufactured and thus, they lose their value. It’s about the social fallout of no longer needing a centralized control of the means of production. It’s also a very empowering story with the strong feminist message. Janelle, I think it would be right up your alley so you should definitely read that.

JANELLE:  I will definitely add this to my list. My husband is like, “You need to read this.” It is on my list. I will bump it up a little further up on my list. A lot of people are like, “You have to read this book,” especially we’re in this realm where we’re talking about all this futurist sci-fi stuff that just turns into this fun conversations. One of the things we’ve been talking about is projected virtual reality. The tier of consciousness that relates to dreaming and simulations in our minds and what it will take code-wise to be able to reproduce that capability. As we’ve been talking about, essentially of VR projection system, we started thinking about we could do like software battle mages where you put helmet on and you’re in the office and you can throw fireballs at your coworkers. It’d be so much fun. We’ve been having a lot of fun dreaming about all these really fun stuff what we’ll be able to build too.

CORALINE:  I want to come back for a second to the topic of scarcity and point out that a lot of the resources that we, as a society treat as scarce, are actually artificially scarce. Someone mentioned food. We throw out enough food to feed everyone in America. I was recently in rural Virginia for a family funeral, unfortunately and in the area where my parents lived, the cable companies never ran cable. They have to rely on satellite for their television and also for their internet and their internet is capped at six gigabytes per month.

I try to go about my daily life with my Twitter and Slack and checking Facebook and checking email and I made us hit the cap. At the point where the cap is hit, they reduce your bandwidth to about 28k per second. The entire infrastructure of what’s on my laptop crumble and failed. Bandwidth is free. There’s no reason for me metering bandwidth and yet, we’re cutting people off in these rural areas where they’re already isolated. We’re cutting them off from everything that allows us and we take for granted digitally. Software is not designed for scarce bandwidth and yet, the majority of our country geographically has scarce bandwidth.

JANELLE:  Interesting and more things that it’s really easy to take for granted on a day-to-day basis like even being able to do what we’re doing right now.

CORALINE:  Yeah, there’s no way in hell that my parents could ever get on Skype. During the day, they don’t have a nearby cell tower so if I needed to make a call, I needed to drive about 15 minutes away to get closer to the cell tower and there’s no reason for that, except it’s not in the best interests of corporations to run the lines.

JANELLE:  It’s frustrating because at the same time, I’m sitting here and thinking about all this stuff and I realize what a bubble of privilege I live in at the same time. There’s always things that I could be out there doing that I’m not. I spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff and what we can do but at the same time, I live in a nice house, in a nice neighborhood and I have beautiful trees in my backyard and I’ve got internet. It’s so easy to take for granted all of these luxuries that in our lives that become transparent to us, like they’re all invisible.

Despite all these beautiful things around us in our lives that we can focus on the awesomest restaurants in town and live in the awesome experience and all that, that becomes our obsession of life and feeling entitled to that of how dare anybody take away my life of entitlement kind of thing, which at the same time, if we can figure out how to create enough social infrastructure support for just any human in the world, not necessarily as thinking that it is a right to be human, that you are entitled to these things but I think it should be a goal that we ought to work for because our species would thrive as a whole if we had these capabilities. I think it makes sense to have as a goal or a target vision for a better world.

JESSICA:  I’ve noticed I suffer from cognitive dissonance of there’s things about the world that are not okay like not everyone has enough food or that people are persecuted or afraid and yet, I’m not doing anything about them. I think that on one hand, when I read the news now, I try to just look at this as this is reality. In the Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge says that if you can’t see reality, then you can’t change it and that the creative tension of making something new in the world involves both having a vision and being able to see reality as it is and not get caught up emotionally in some sort of blame circle of how terrible it is. Because it’s been worse before, right? Surely, it’s been worse before and people somehow emotionally dealt with that so being able to see reality as valuable.

Also I think, it’s like with open source. As developers, we could work on any of these projects. We could do all the things except we can’t do all the things. We could do any one of the things and we just have to hope that randomly enough of us converged on the things that really need done and get super passionate about that. Even though, it’s not objectively that much more important than a thousand other things. There’s some value in the randomness of where we put our focus.

ASTRID:  So where are we putting our focus so that we would say in the future, this is probably going to happen versus something that we’re not focusing on that may not happen?

JANELLE:  I’ve been putting my focus pretty much on cracking the open master problem for years I’ve been working on, essentially on how do we make mastery level education free to the world? I’ve been working on building out a system infrastructure for how do we support this as a business model that is like an operating business within the economy, as opposed to tied into government in any kind of way, where essentially once we have the financial support for the thing, then it becomes the community run, open government type of organization to build that support so we’ve got business that brings in money and then we can traffic all that out to social support infrastructure type stuff, specifically around education. I’m focusing on education because I think it’s the linchpin for solving all the other problems.

JESSICA:  Really, how so?

JANELLE:  I think one of the main things that keeps people in a position of poverty is access to knowledge and we’ve talked about, even to something as simple as internet bandwidth has an effect on what you have access to as well. But in terms of software skills, say we’ve got software skills are interesting because we don’t have any raw materials that we use. We turn our ideas into tools. It’s not crafting things that are wood or bronze or whatever. We’ve got this full creative potential to dream up all these crazy things and an infinite supply of dreaming that we can potentially do. I don’t think we’re ever going to run out of software systems that we could potentially write.

I looked at brain power, essentially as the one unlimited resource that we have on our planet and if we could figure out how to support all these brains in terms of being able to contribute and create, that any problems that we have in terms of food or energy or these other kinds of things that we could potentially solve with lots of collaborative brainpower. Part of that is also being able to raise people skills. I realized there’s a number of constraints to break.

That said, if we can give people skills that are of value, that allow them to generate wealth within their environment, which I think software development skills definitely qualify as one of the best ways to make money right now, that if we could figure out how to get the skills that are in the brains of the software engineers, transferred to the masses like automating that problem, that sort of the knowledge flow challenge that shifts everything else.

JESSICA:  And to teach a computer to teach people computers?

JANELLE:  Essentially, yeah. It’s where I’m focusing on, on mentorship AI.

CORALINE:  I’ve noticed you talk about the tragedy of the commons a few times and in my talk, The Broken Promise of Open Source, I talked about reframing the tragedy of the commons because like the modern tragedy of the commons in my opinion is in about a scarcity of resources as you pointed out, knowledge is infinite and software is infinite. What the scarcity is access and I think that we have a real gatekeeping problem.

We have software bootcamps that require a $12,000, three-month investment and not working. We’re cutting people out of access to contribute to the internet economy, to contribute to improving their lives and their communities, simply by erecting these barriers to entry and acting as gatekeepers to what is essentially a vast population of people who know the problems that they and their communities face and maybe inspire to affect change in their community but they’re being hampered. They don’t have the access they need to start solving these problems.

The people that we’re letting into the system are the privileged people and the privileged people, whether due to lack of exposure or lack of empathy, are not going to be the one solving the social economic corporate problems that we’re facing as a society.

JANELLE:  And then [inaudible] an Idea Flow problem. It’s in the flow of ideas from one group of people to another. The other thing that I think is fundamentally interesting about this distinction is it’s not about money. If you think about this from a policy perspective and training perspective that you’re going to somehow, pay some people to train all these other people and put the ideas in their heads. But if you just look at every human perspective, forget about who is being paid and currency and money flow and all of that stuff because you’re never going to be able to hire enough of those that would actually do that because they’re in more valuable software jobs that are higher in demand.

We’ve got an Idea Flow problem, with respect to software skills specifically, between software engineers and the people that need to teach. Then the access points as you mentioned with these huge barriers of $12,000 per coding bootcamp just be able to cross that barrier, creates I guess a bottleneck in flow that reinforces those feedback loops. It’s really interesting.

ASTRID:  When you’re talking, Coraline it reminded me of that movie 2012 where they have those arks that have been created to withstand this apocalyptic stuff and there’s all these people who are trying to get on the arks but the arks have already been reserved. You have wealthy people who have a whole sections of the arks that have living rooms and all this other high tech stuff. Then you have people who are just trying to survive who can’t get on because they didn’t reserve a room. I feel like that’s a metaphor for what tends to happen a lot. There is a big problem and you get a lot of people together and they try to solve it and they do come up with a solution and that’s awesome.

Then when it’s time to implement it, there’s a few people who get access to it and then everybody else is still fighting. It seems like this cycle that keeps happening, like the same problem is still there even though you solve that and part of it is there is that idea of who deserves to have it and who doesn’t.

JANELLE:  Which I think is a broken question. I mean, if your question is coming down to who deserves it and who doesn’t, it’s incurred in the belief that that is a choice that has to be made.

ASTRID:  Yeah. You know, watching that movie is absurd because obviously these people want to live. That’s why the arks were created so the people could live. Why would you make it something that you can pay to have a suite? It shouldn’t even have been an option. But visualizing that reminded me of all the stuff that we’ve been talking that these things keep happening partly because there is this idea that you have to prove you’re worthy or have the ability to get to a particular gate in order to have access to something that you think would be much more universal.

CORALINE:  And that is the whole problem with meritocracy in a nutshell.

ASTRID:  Very true.

JANELLE:  I had a thought I wanted to run by you all. I’ve been thinking a lot about one of the ideas in the Fifth Discipline and I think I might have gotten us out of the Fifth Discipline field book. But one of the ideas that Peter Senge brings up is to think of a learning organization as this hybrid between a business and a school. If you imagine that you’re learning so much in the context of your job that it feels like you’re going to school and mastery is just baked into part of your job, the union of those two systems is what a learning organization is or characteristically would look like.

If you think about that system model, one of the interesting effects is there’s a fundamental shift in the direction of money flow. In the context of a business, a business pays employees and in the context of a school, the students pay tuition to get an education. If you put these systems in equilibrium so that currency flow is off the table and all of the transactions between people occur at a point of equilibrium or barter, such that this idea of open mastery came from is finding that point in equilibrium and you design a system around it, this is what originally gave me the idea of what if we built a software education support infrastructure into the industry.

JESSICA:  Oh, because every healthy software team is a learning organization in the sense you just described. If you don’t feel like you’re constantly learning stuff every day, you’re not going to be as happy and also, you’re not building and expanding the system the way it could be.

JANELLE:  This whole discussion about gates, specifically has been fascinating and looking at that as a different type of constraint, like a flow constraint, like a faucet turned off. It reminds me of a faucet.

JESSICA:  Yeah, totally and the obvious one is like medical schools, only they let in so many people per year. The supply of doctors is deliberately constrained so that they can continue to make a crap ton of money.

JANELLE:  Yeah. This is one of the reasons I’ve been thinking a lot about going back, like what would it mean to go back to barter systems. Money has developed this meaning of its own.

JESSICA:  Why do we even need barter? If we’re in a place of abundance, then we can give to people for the joy of giving because our needs are met. We don’t need anything from them.

JANELLE:  At least my belief is that abundance will occur at a collective level but transactional sharing will still need to occur because the stuff has to move. Goods will have to move and to be exchanged.

JESSICA:  Oh, like physical objects?

JANELLE:  Yeah. Let’s say we had a theory based on a brand new currency system that we had some kind of means of exchange that wasn’t money or wasn’t tied to any of the existing currencies. It give you a way to sort of redefine the meaning of money in a way. One way to zero out the meaning of money is to go back to a barter system. Perhaps, a barter system that operates on an internet scale, though so that we can still trade at a global level.

JESSICA:  That sounds like a pain.

JANELLE:  One of the challenges with social support infrastructure is to just keep all the people busy and preoccupied in doing something. The system right now, you basically have working associated with getting paid a wage, such that you will get enough to afford these basic things that you need. If we get to a place as a species that, let’s say we have enough overall abundance that we can support all of the people doing, at least basic level stuff for that would be supportive as our collective. But that would mean that not everybody has to work. Then you’ve got this other problem of how do we keep everybody busy and out of trouble and generally having fun so they’re not causing lots of problems for each other. It kind of feel like one of the things we’re going to do is like buy everyone a PS3, or PS4 I guess now or whatever. You’re getting what I was saying like get everybody playing video games together.

ASTRID:  Well, there were Native American cultures who were like that prior to the Europeans coming, where everybody didn’t work. There were certain people who did and they would go out, which was normally like hunting or something. They were just bring it back and everybody would share. Then once you got older and you didn’t have to do anymore, then you knew that there was going to be something for you because that was the nature of the way that they operate it.

It kind of helps to have a system, I think which is I know is part of what you’ve been talking about, that supports a certain value system. In their case, they valued community. Therefore, those who were able and capable, they went out and they did that hunting for everybody and then people who had a good cook into that, the other things so that everybody was taken care of. It would be nice if we could go back to something like that.

JANELLE:  One of the things that I think is interesting about video games which is one of the reason I bring it up is we’ve got a lot of fairly well-established helping out the guild type behavior in the context of video games. When we’re in the real life world, we operate under one set of social norms and contracts. Then we go into a game world and we can immediately adjust those behavioral characteristics that we interact with others with. Then suddenly these communal behaviors are part of the social norm in this alternative dream world culture.

It makes me think that one of the most powerful ways we can potentially adapt culture at scale is through augmented reality type video games, where you’re in a world that you can virtually decorate with… I don’t know, whatever your happy dreams are but that we can build sort of guild communal system on top of the real world by turning it into a video game.

ASTRID:  I think that definitely has potential. It kind of makes me think of how people can argue on all kind of things but if you both rooted for the same sports team, then you can do that and you’re all good when you’re talking sports.

JANELLE:  Yeah. Humans are capable of making complete context shifts like that and developing a new context, a new set of social norms in the context of this virtual world and then if we can spend some time thinking about how to engineer a global cooperative through a video game. The software industry already has a strong foundation of collaborative roots and it’s largely based on open source community but also just our jobs are really hard. We rely a lot on learning from each other to figure out how to do our ridiculously complex jobs. Because of that, it has created a lot of, I think the strength of community in the software industry that doesn’t necessarily exist to that same degree of other places. A lot of software folks play video games too.

I look at the software world and see all this potential in terms of both engineering capability, as well as people that care a lot. Our jobs are these creative scratch or essentially love on code all day. We’ve all been through this experience of being feeling stomped on by the business machine so we have that deep bond as well. I think metaphorically too, it becomes easier to see when other people are being stomped on because we know what it feels like ourselves. Even though, we are generally a privileged bunch, we know what it’s like to be controlled and dominated by others, I guess you could say.

CORALINE:  Well, that comes from the empathy and I think empathy is a scarce resource for some reason, especially in the tech industry.

JESSICA:  It takes brain power.

CORALINE:  It takes work. It’s a skill to develop. It’s not an innate ability.

JESSICA:  Yeah, I don’t mean it takes IQ. I mean it takes conscious rational thought, which we have limited amounts of thinking as individuals. I know my brain gets full.

ASTRID:  What’s exciting about software is it’s an opportunity to build a new world. But then in the same way, people can take advantage of it so that’s the fight that you have going on where you have those who just want their little corner and they want to build up their very expensive apartments and avenues so you when you land on it, you get to pay all these money. Then there are other people who are just trying to build a world for everybody who doesn’t have a place.

I think that can still happen. It just seems like, especially in the last maybe five or 10 years, it’s become inundated with all these money-grabbing, greedy intentions instead of what it was when it first started which was a place for people to communicate and a place for people to be able to put something new out there and see how people like it because that’s the beginning. It is, I think incumbent on those who want to continue that to make sure that they stand their ground and keep it that way, as much as possible and not allow too many of the negative influences to become the norm.

JESSICA:  So now, we are right back around to where we started with?

ASTRID:  Yay!

JESSICA:  It’s the deterioration of open source as it becomes the responsibility of companies, instead of the pure joy of creation and sharing.

ASTRID:  One thing I heard that was very encouraging to me was a lot of the modes that we have where we see or hear things like television and radio, those things were created in part to advertise to people and to put out a message. The internet is the first thing that is this pervasive that was not created for that reason. If we don’t give it up, then there’s a lot of potential for that to continue and to flourish into something good.

JANELLE:  Yeah. The internet I think is one of the main reasons I have hope right now. With respect to our ability to collaborate and work together and make things happen that we wouldn’t be able to do if we couldn’t organize it in the way that we are capable of now. We spend so much of our time blaming other people for the fails and things that are wrong. We worked so hard and feel like we deserve anything coming to us because we’ve been working really hard.

When I listen to the way people talk on what, from my perspective is like the other side of this wall, where it looks like greed. When I go to the other side of the wall, it’s like these people see themselves as victims and see this as an entitlement of ownership and property. I’m like, “Huh?” It’s almost like stepping into an alternative universe, almost. When I think back at a system level of what kind of things lead to change, part of it is learning how to take a step back and blame the system as opposed to blaming each other and rather than waiting for somebody else to somehow solve the problem and blame them for not solving the problems, what can we do to actually start collaborating and figure this stuff out. We’re smart people. We got mad skills.

JESSICA:  And specifically, we have system building skills.

JANELLE:  Yeah.

CORALINE:  I keep coming back to something that one of my partners has talked about. She’s from Sweden which has a really great social support network and a really great health care and a really great social services. She moved to San Francisco to work in a company and she talks about how sad it makes her that on her way to work, she literally has to step over homeless people in the street of San Francisco to get to her high-paying job. That is just so fucking tragic. We have no financial incentive to help these people out so she gives charitably. She takes advantage of that Silicon Valley salary to give to organization that are trying to make a difference but I think she’s in a minority of people who do that.

JANELLE:  Yeah, it’s easier to just push it out of your brain, you know? Because there’s so much stuff. There so much suffering. There’s so much tragedy that happened every single day and we all deserve to be happy and enjoy our lives. It’s like, “Why should I just sit here and be miserable when I could be doing something fun and enjoying my life.” You can’t really blame people at the same time for doing what they’re doing but at the same time, it’s so tragic. That’s the thing that just bugs me as I can see where people are coming from and yet, it feels so wrong to me at the same time.

JESSICA:  Everybody is happy when we are around other happy people so we totally benefit from other people’s happiness but yet, we can’t individually make everyone happy so we give up.

JANELLE:  It’s easier to feel helpless, right?

JESSICA:  Which is where the systems thinking comes in and I think we, as software developers have a unique opportunity to understand systems thinking because we build complex systems and we build complex systems that we can change and study on a short time scale. We have opportunities to learn about systems and if we zoom out, we can appreciate that we live in a system and realized that we do affect it, in small ways sometimes or in big ways if you spend a lot of time on it like activism. We’re not helpless. We also can’t do everything. Do something, not nothing but also don’t feel like it’s your job to save the whole world. Like contributing to open source.

JANELLE:  I think there’s definitely some of that but I guess the other thing of why I brought up the tragedy of the commons thing is I think the nature of the type of problems that face us as a country and as a world right now are the type of problems that we can only solve through collaboration. As all independently chipping in a little bit, it just not going to cut it right now and then if we want to fundamentally shift the trajectory of our world to a better place, it means shifting our mindset toward collaboration in a way that we’ve never really done before.

JESSICA:  That’s a really good point.

CORALINE:  We’ve talked about a lot and Janelle, you have an amazing perspective on issues that we’ve talked about and it’s has been a real conversation. One of the things that I keep coming back to is access and gatekeeping. I don’t know what good it would do honestly because we have this document that lots and lots and lots of countries signed called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On this human rights is access to health care and the uncharitable among us point to the fact that a person with no insurance can go to the emergency room and not be charged. But going to the emergency room is not a solution to being healthy. It’s crisis management.

Even though the United States is a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we don’t treat health care as a fundamental human right. But I do wonder if it would be worth having universal declaration of digital rights, which we talk about things like cell phone access and internet access and access to education, such that if you wanted to contribute to software solutions, to social problems, that you wouldn’t have the barrier to entry that we have today. I don’t know if that would be more of a gesture or something actionable but I think we should start thinking about access to technology as a human right, given the fact that so much of the information and resources and opportunities that are available in the modern world rely on access to technology.

JANELLE:  Interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot about the gates idea too. That was actually what I was going to say but one of the things I learned with systems thinking is to imagine flows as faucets that you can turn on and off and flows can fill in dream like a bath tub. When you brought up the creation of gates and how it shuts down the flow of ideas or the access to knowledge, you can sort of imagine the world as where is all the knowledge in the world? Where does the knowledge flow? What are the gates that get in the way of the various knowledge flows? And how can we solve that problem? If you erase the entire system and just focus on those handful of key constraints, I think the other stuff will get so much easier.

ASTRID:  I missed part of the conversation but I was thinking about the topic of money and how much it affects everything. What I got out of it was to start thinking a little bit differently about the things that make us scared. I know, oftentimes we talk about how to be inspired and how to try to find what you really want and how and where you want to contribute in the world by asking yourself questions like, “What would you do if you are afraid?” Or “If you had a billion dollars, what would you do?”

But in another context, I think we should also be asking, “What is it that money is not aiding or helping?” Like what would you do if money was not a factor in the sense of you don’t need it to do it, it’s not going to make money? What can actually be solved if it wasn’t about money?

JANELLE:  It’s really an interesting point. I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of money and how it developed a meaning in itself, in our minds and how that ends up having such a huge effect on how we reason about our experiences in the world? If you erase money, how everything would change?

JESSICA:  The framework of that thinking would be different.

ASTRID:  Yeah. It’s been something that has been in the back of my mind since the financial crisis because our money is not real. It’s not based on anything real but it can take the whole world down, which is very scary and it has so much power and everything we do seems to be so controlled by it.

JANELLE:  But if we look at the system of knowledge flow and we look at where the knowledge is in the world, the knowledge that has the most power. The software industry, the engineers of our industry have all the power in the world because we hold the knowledge that is capable of producing massive wealth for all the people that have the money. If you create a system that replaces money with a knowledge-based systems, as opposed to accumulating wealth in dollars and we’re accumulating value in humans, in our minds, in our capabilities, in our skills, in our knowledge and that becomes the currency if you will or capability of being able to do stuff and produce true value, then it gives us ultimately an opportunity to redefine the meaning of currency.

CORALINE:  We have to tear down capitalism for it to actual work.

[Laughter]

JESSICA:  We’re getting there. We’re getting there. This conversation has been really abstract and I still don’t understand a lot of it. I don’t understand all the parallels that Janelle sees nor the hope that she sees. But I also feel that software has to hold the keys. It’s the closest thing to magic we’ve ever had. Like Janelle said, it’s an infinite supply of dreaming that we can make real.

Personally, I live in a place of great abundance and my needs are met. I get to dream and turn some of those dreams into reality but I’m surrounded by a place of scarcity — a culture of scarcity — and I want this abundance for everyone. I’ve joined Janelle’s community at OpenMastery.org. I’m totally going to learn more about this and see how I can contribute. You can join too.

CORALINE:  Thank you Janelle for an amazing conversation. I want to do quick shout out to one of our Patreons, Ilan Shredni who pledged at the $10 level and I remind people that we are 100% listeners supported. If you enjoy the podcast and enjoy the conversations that we have and the guest that we have on, pledge on Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode. Pledge at any level to gain access to our Slack community which includes access to the panelists and guest to continue the conversations that we have on the podcast. We are also open the corporate sponsorship so you can get in touch with us through the website about that.

Astrid, Jessica, Janelle, thank you so much for the wonderful conversation today. I’m looking forward to hearing what people think about the conversation we had and what kinds of calls to action they’re going to take away from it and we’re going to conclude that conversation in our Slack. Thank you everyone for listening. It’s been Episode 34 and we will talk to you again next week.

This episode was brought to you by the panelists and Patrons of >Code. To pledge your support and to join our awesome Slack community, visit patreon.com/greaterthancode. Managed and produced by @therubyrep of DevReps, LLC.

 

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