The Coordination Problem
We become what we put our resources to. This is true at the level of our individual lives, as at the level of civilisation. The first question, in both cases, is what do we actually want to become? Once we’re agreed on what we want to become, we can then turn our minds to how we ought to get there — how to actualise the becoming. In the individual case, the process then becomes one of cultivating ever greater control over our capacity to coordinate our behaviour towards this particular end — or set thereof. Once we know what we’re chasing, we intentionally struggle — more or less — to put our time, energy, and money into that thing/s, so that we might create the kind of future we hope to inhabit.
As you might’ve noticed, this isn’t the easiest thing on the best of days. Even when we know, if only in some abstract sense, what we want to make of ourselves, doing the thing/s that are most aligned with this interest — and not those things which are misaligned — is curiously difficult. We might want to become great artists, for instance, but yet can’t manage to tear ourselves away from Netflix or TikTok. We might want to lose some weight, perhaps, but yet can’t — for the life of us — stop shovelling our faces with food. Our will-power, evidently, is rarely powerful enough to overcome the inertia of circumstance. And yet overcome circumstance is precisely what we must do in order to realise our envisaged futures. Herein lies the hero’s journey.
Now imagine the same dilemma but compounded approximately 7.5 billion fold — now that’s the deal civilisation’s been stuck with. Not only do we need to try and coordinate agreement — amongst so many billions of us — as to the ultimate end-game here, we also need to figure out how to coordinate our actions accordingly. Enter, organisations.
Organisations get a bad wrap. Indeed the word itself has become somewhat dirty — synonymous with stodgy bureaucracy, corporate double-speak and fluorescent lighting. Admittedly, this is probably fair, too, because most of them, it’s true, kinda suck. But they don’t have to — at least not in principle. See, conceptually, organisations are simply collectives of people working towards a common aim. Ideally, they exist to help optimise the allocation of human resources — to assist in putting our minds and bodies towards the most worthwhile endeavours. The variety of innovations at the core of modern organisations — technical, social, economic and otherwise — enable the effective coordination — indeed organisation — of larger groups of humans than at any other point in history. This is a positively noteworthy thing, for not only are there certain efficiencies to be had by such large groups working together, there’s also certain classes of thing that large groups of people can do that individuals or small groups simply cannot. For this reason, organisations are essential to the prosperity of our planet.
See, many of the things that make the most sense for us to care about as a civilisation — climate change, pandemics, AI etc. — make very little sense to care about — as in really give a shit about — at the level of our own personal lives. Our most psychologically salient concerns, individually, have to do with those things that most impact our immediate-to-near-term best interest. Algorithmically, we balance our energy across the things that we most enjoy, for their own sake, and those things which either enable us economically or socially. Saving the planet or ensuring the prosperity of future humanity, against these much more tangible considerations, are relatively weak causal factors — in terms of the dynamics of human behaviour. Simply, for all our lip service, we really don’t give a fuck about the big things — we just post about them. What we really care about, when push comes to shove, is blowjobs and bonuses. Tragic, sure, yet true nevertheless.
This, of course, is a real issue — balancing the best interests of civilisation, and the planet writ large, with our own personal agendas; reconciling our individual monkey minds — with their predilection for proverbial bananas — with the fate of our entire species. It’s the ol’ tragedy of the commons story (though it’s now more fashionably referred to as “collective action problems”).
Think about it this way: we all want to use our local park, yet noone wants to manage the park themselves. And critically, it actually makes no sense — from a self-interest theory standpoint — for any given individual to look after their local park — if, as in all likelihood, someone else is just going to go and trash it, in the end. And even if noone quite trashes the park, in the best case, it would still require an unjustifiable amount of time to manage any given park, as an individual. You would really have to enjoy the park, in other words, for it to make anything close to sense. Hence why we have municipal services, why the government looks after certain things that none of us are individually incentivised to do. In exchange, we get taxed — problem solved.
More or less, we’ve solved many of these collective action problems at a regional, state, and to some extent, national level. At the planetary scale, however, we’re barely mowing the grass. We are yet to figure out how to coordinate ourselves efficiently, as a civilisation, around the most consequential vectors of the present human project. And yet we must.
When you cut at the thing from this angle, human civilisation amounts to something like a ‘coordination problem’ — one giant collective action dilemma, an issue of organisation. Accordingly, the solution, it would seem, is to leverage the value of organisations — organise is what they do, after all.
While the best interests of the planet are not always — and indeed generally aren’t — aligned with our individual incentives, we can make it such that they don’t have to be. So long as the interests of the organisations that coordinate the majority of human resources are well aligned with our planetary interests, things should be gravy. Of course, most organisations today aren’t perfectly aligned with our long-term, civilisational interests. But they could be, or close enough to.
To take an interesting example, consider space travel. Having a robust space industry might, in the end, prove an existentially important thing . If something happens on earth and we’re compelled to leave, for whatever reason, we’ll obviously require enormous aerospace infrastructure to make it happen. Developing such infrastructure, therefore, is in our civilisational best interests — if for no other reason to save our asses one day. However, developing such infrastructure makes absolutely no sense at the individual level; it’s in no given individual’s best interest — nor is it possible for any single individual to do anything about. This appears to pose a dilemma. Thankfully, however, there is an alignment between the incentives of a certain kind of organisation— that is, one that builds space infrastructure — and this broader civilisational concern. If one can muster the necessary human resources, there is a financial interest inherent to building rockets and stuff and doing things with them; a financial interest that might, one day, save our species. To be clear, I don’t put this out there to emphasise the civilisational importance of a healthy space industry, but rather to illuminate how the incentives of organisations can align with the best interests of the planet, even when our individual incentives fail to do so. We can do things, as collectives, that we can’t do as individuals.
So why, if organisations are such wonderful things, do they not do better than they currently do? While there’s no doubt something inherent to the profit motive that skews organisations away from purely positive ends, I think the issue’s at once much more fundamental, and far more amenable to fixing. Above all, most organisations don’t do a helluva lot of good because they don’t explicitly set out to do a helluva lot of good. This might sound trite, yet I can’t help but feel it’s true all the same. As I see it, the problem with most organisations is that they never really pay any mind to what their ultimate goal is — beyond making a few bucks. Most organisations simply take on the desires and interests and worldviews of their founders and scarcely ever evolve beyond them. And unless the founder’s aims extend beyond making a few bucks, rarely do they ever do anything more profound.
Despite how it might sound, I don’t intend this as a knock on founders. On the contrary, I take my hat off to anyone willing to have a dig at something, to take the world into their hands. That’s a bold move, and, if it’s well contained, a commendable one. However, we at least ought to be aware of how our desires and value systems — as founders and people who do things in the world — are invariably imbued in the companies and objects we create. And if we’re lucky enough to be successful in our endeavours, all of our minds — the most noble and most afflicted parts, too— are amplified beyond appreciation. They become, as it were, institutionalised.
While the mechanics of organisations are inordinately complex — we’re talking about a many-bodied problem, here — at the highest level, they boil down to conceptual structures — containers for our humanity. They’re rich manifolds of memes; living, breathing, topological spaces of ideas. The nature of these memes, the quality of ideas, above everything, determines the quality of an organisation — the degree to which it works in service of the greater, civilisational good. Or doesn’t.
Of course, organisations are also embedded in context — legal, social, economic, technological and otherwise. Thus they’re not only manifolds of ideas, but rather manifolds within manifolds. A vital part of the program here, then, is to improve the quality of the contextual space in which organisations operate — to create better law, better financial instruments, better technologies. That being said, the most leveraged point of emphasis remains at the point of inception, that moment when an organisation is first materialising.
Zuckerberg gets a lot of heat for hijacking our attention with cat videos and eroding the fabric of democracy, among other things. But is it really fair to expect him to have considered all the implications of a centralised social network from the outset? Of course not. It is fair, however, to expect founders — and their organisations — to earnestly commit themselves to doing good from the outset, to bake social and environmental concerns into the fabric of their yet-to-be institutions. While it’s unreasonable to demand clairvoyance from those that do and make things, it’s not unreasonable to demand that they establish a conceptual frame — an organisational constitution — that orients them towards the good.
All we can do, as individuals and organisations, is make the best decisions we can in the moment. We can’t foresee all possible happenings. We can’t divine the future. But what we can do is develop a set of operating principles — an internal culture — such that when the unforeseeable arises, we act in a manner that becomes our humanity, that dignifies our existence. Critically, however, an optimal set of operating principles doesn’t just stumble into existence — it requires conscious, deliberate work. Unless we intentionally instantiate specific ideas and values in our ways of Being — individually and collectively— our actions in the world will always regress to the mean. And the mean is always average.
Creating interesting and positively impactful organisations is as much a philosophical exercise as it is an entrepreneurial one. It is akin to founding a new world. The more we come to appreciate, as founders, the responsibility of our role, the more enlightened our organisations/institutions will inevitably become. As people who coordinate other people, we’re directing the flow of civilisational traffic — affecting the trajectory of our kind. It is, in the end, a cosmically significant thing we’re partaking in — and it’s about time we recognised.