On the Shoulders of Contemptible Giants

The metaphor of dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants sought to reconcile the magnitude of past greats with the ability of successors to move beyond their accomplishments. It had moderns bow gratefully before past prowess and meekly acknowledge their indebtedness. Yet it also had them boldly assert their usefulness and worth by standards shared with the ancients.

Today, we seem more inclined to perceive ourselves as wading through predecessors’ trash than as riding on their shoulders. We question the stature and agency of giants, doubt their ethics, and blame them for our ills.

We see ugliness, flaws, constraints. We see how they encourage draining, suboptimal, desperate, unethical behavior. We see how more care, thought, effort, or sacrifice by our predecessors could have avoided these problems. We conclude that instead of hoisting us on their shoulders, they pushed us into the muck.

We neglect that progress carries costs, action brings mistakes, choices have trade-offs, and hindsight arouses certitude. Being hoisted higher makes new costs, errors, imperfections, challenges, and possibilities easier to see while allowing old ones to fade from view.

Illusion of Free Lunch

Paradoxically, the more benefits we receive the more objectionable we find the newly apparent costs. The higher we rise above the swampy, thorny, muggy, dangerous reality the more we complain about mud splashes, branch whips, sunburn, motion sickness. Like overindulged children, we find ever-smaller imperfections ever-more upsetting. Like overprotected children, we underestimate the difficulties, pains, and problems that have been taken care of.

We don’t appreciate what we have because we don’t understand what it took to gain it, the challenges of life without it, or the difficulties of making it work. We don’t understand because we don’t need to: the most pressing, painful, and limiting problems of the past have been handled so well that we can disregard them. And since those problems used to be so consuming and constraining, we have more disposable time, energy, and resources to be dissatisfied with issues that remain. The higher we are hoisted the more flaws we see.

This dissatisfaction is not itself a problem: progress rests on it. Nor is criticism itself a problem: insight demands it.

The problem is with naivety of dissatisfaction and ingratitude of criticism. These engender a hubristic illusion of free lunch: the disregard of trade-offs and costs; the taking for granted of benefits and dependencies; the replacement of obligations and complexities with expectations and priceless values; the belief in improvement without limit or loss. Consequently, expertise is discounted, foundations dismantled, banal problems developed, and perfect worlds demanded.

These consequences – like spoiled children – are rarely sought explicitly. They emerge from well-intentioned, innocuous, often cute requests: each small or reasonable enough to make resistance seem disproportionately expensive, harsh, or petty – yet each building on the rest. Individual naivety and societal capacity ease acquiescence to requests while success reinforces requestors’ feelings of confidence and superiority inducing increasingly simplistic, yet stubborn, demands.

This illusion of competence doesn’t just fuel attacks on what is, but makes the instigators ill-prepared to handle the consequences or build replacements. Unaccustomed to requisite complexities, trade-offs, and hardships they are quick to overestimate the difficulty or singularity of circumstances, prone to disillusionment or extremism.

Illusions don’t need to be complete and denial of trade-offs doesn’t need to be total any more than belief in free lunch needs to be literal: trade-offs just need to be undervalued sufficiently to enable confident mistakes. The good life inadvertently facilitates and empowers this undervaluation.

The impact on priorities, skills, and values propels destruction of wealth within three generations, evolution of victorious barbarians into civilized weaklings, generational cycles, and general erosion of effective action hierarchies.

Contribution of Giants

The beginning of a giant’s journey is distinguished by a certain closeness to reality. Nascent giants may be naive idealists – as is common with inventors – or grizzled realists – like the signers of the Peace of Westphalia. They may rise out of inspiration, or necessity, or accident. But whatever else they are, they interact with something that is raw and true – even if only in part and by mistake.

They become giants by domesticating this raw reality. Insights reveal hidden patterns. Effort and exploration uncover simpler paths through complexity. Expertise produces systems. Mysterious, dangerous, difficult, and unpredictable reality becomes encapsulated into neater, tamer, simpler, and more compliant abstractions. These get built upon to breed still more docile successors.

Effectiveness and accessibility of abstractions skyrocket potential for productivity and delight. Life changes for the better. But as earlier challenges become less relevant, understanding of them fades and skills to deal with them atrophy. Difficulty and contingency of abstractions’ creation gets increasingly underestimated or forgotten. Assumptions on which ostensibly tamed abstractions depend cease to be widely understood or believed.

Newcomers do not need such knowledge or skills – or even the capacity or interest to develop them – to act confidently and effectively. Democratization of capabilities has lowered the requisite sophistication and diminished the necessity of experts. Powers that took centuries of exploration and innovation to develop and significant insight, finesse, and toil to use have become accessible with scarcely a thought.

Most continue to recognize how good they have it. Many still want to be good citizens: to trust in rules and traditions even if they don’t understand them. Giants and their disciples retain a towering presence. Things seem to only improve.

But as gains grow ubiquitous, gratitude to predecessors and connection to the past begins to fade. Awareness of risks and sense of obligation declines. Ferocious wilderness increasingly feels exaggerated. Perception of capabilities shifts from luxury towards necessity; from privilege towards entitlement.

The voice of the community becomes increasingly overwhelmed by those who take the capabilities for granted. Focus changes from how wonderful and accessible these capabilities are to how they are flawed, underutilized, or insufficiently widespread. Some motivated individuals attempt to fix flaws; others build on the capabilities or expand their applicability; still others work to increase accessibility and decrease inequity or abuse.

Such efforts have always existed, but were constrained by the small number of participants, lackluster availability of resources and recognition, influence of giants, and understanding of complexity. Popularity has added the resources and rewards while removing the shackles of tradition, caution, and knowledge.

Contempt for Giants

New efforts intimately depend on the underlying capabilities. They appear doable only because those capabilities work well. They appear important only because those foundations can be taken for granted. But since the foundations work well enough to be taken for granted, their dependencies and trade-offs are no longer taken seriously. The foundations appear as progress gained with no possibility of permanent retreat: as products of time more than of effort or ingenuity.

Improvements, extensions, and accessibility take precedence over the capabilities themselves. Adverse effects of these efforts on the foundations are downplayed or considered to be worth the benefits. Since such consequences rarely manifest with clarity and immediacy, they only get taken less seriously with time. Those who point out such dangers and connections get increasingly dismissed as old-fashioned or risk averse – and, in any case, as holders of just another opinion. New efforts are what matters now.

Proposals appear to rebuild the capabilities on modern foundations, to stop worrying about abstract risks and focus on real suffering they can alleviate today. The illusion of free lunch makes better worlds – even perfect worlds – seem more accessible than ever. Since it seems inexcusable to prevent or delay progress towards them, those who object become more likely to be seen as ignorant or immoral.

Re-examination of giants from the vantage point of modern norms and powers reveals contributions that seem unimpressive; beliefs that seem crude, unethical, or mistaken; and trade-offs that seem unnecessary and cruel. This cements the suspicion that past considerations should be disregarded: that their creators confused fortune for wisdom and are, in fact, more worthy of contempt for the carelessness of their mistakes and the depth of their ethical transgressions than of revelry for their accomplishments.

Understanding becomes completely unhinged from the past: not merely naive ignorance, but proud disregard. Don’t trust anyone over 30.

Cycle of Trade-Offs

Unfortunately, solutions rarely provide generic, permanent progress. Instead, they make trade-offs to achieve specific results under specific conditions. Many of the conditions appear too obvious to mention and many of the trade-offs seem like no-brainers at the time. Some are consciously considered and chosen. But whether implicit or explicit, they constitute the reality within which each solution functions. It is the impact of changes on this reality that concerns those who concretely understand how the solution works.

Reformers are abstracted from this reality, thanks to the solution itself. As a result, they are quick to misdiagnose manifestations of solution’s costs and dependencies as problems of paramount importance. Because they see independent problems instead of trade-offs, they seek one-sided optimizations and find simple, even obvious, solutions.

They secure quick gains that validate the approach as somewhere between genuine wisdom and necessary expedience. Concurrently, expedience gains in stature and influence due to rapid progress and lack of obvious costs. But despite appearances, these gains come less from correctness or cleverness and more from risk-taking and free-riding. They use up goodwill, add debt, increase fragility, decohere systems, and resurrect previously conquered costs, but such downsides emerge slowly and sporadically. By the time they hit in earnest, the connection to expedience becomes just one nebulous explanation among many.

With time, it is the gains of reformers that become increasingly taken for granted, while costs and dependencies grow salient. Reformers notice that these issues cannot be solved without undermining the solutions they fought for; they may even glimpse their resemblance to benefits they earlier took for granted. This recognition of complexity and necessity of trade-offs drives most reformers to denial, disillusionment, or desperation – and a few to wisdom. But newcomers are already confidently treating new problems as independent, paramount issues of the age.

This cycle of flipping priorities, driven by the illusion of free lunch, underlies the rise and fall of groups, the tension between generations, the conflict between upstarts and establishment, and the evolution of winners’ priorities to resemble those they replaced. It is visible in history of politics, economics, and ideas; in sources of competitiveness and goodness; in models of individuals, technologies, organizations, and nations.

It is everywhere because giants aren’t just individuals. Values, groups, systems, discoveries, tools, peace, prosperity – anything that abstracts away complexity – has the stature of giants, even when closer inspection reveals a tower of dwarfs. They grant us powerful capabilities, but only as part of a system with dependencies and trade-offs.

But as soon as we get comfortable on giant’s shoulders, we begin to forget that we ride atop abstractions optimized around specific assumptions, goals, and constraints. And the better the system works, the less these abstractions leak and the more we take them for granted. Or empower those who undervalue their good fortune. Or find ourselves unable to thwart their advance.

This is natural and understandable. We cannot viscerally appreciate the entire pyramid of improvements in perpetuity: we must treat parts of it as magic and thus be increasingly defined by most tangible concerns.

The concrete challenges and rewards we encounter drive development of our individual models, values, skills, and goals which in turn affect communal visions, expectations, capabilities, and projects which then influence individual challenges and incentives.

Adopting magic exposes us to mistakes, but we cannot eschew it without giving up action. Nor can we sacralize magic to avoid errors: we’d merely cement earlier mistakes or be invalidated by the changing world.

Although the cycle of trade-offs destroys and reinvents, it also corrects and rejuvenates. It takes steps back, but enables leaps forward by energizing passions, growing our toolkit, and forcing re-evaluations that – akin to simulated annealing – help us out of local minima. Zooming out from cyclical booms and busts we may find impressive progress – though our joy must remain tempered by eerie uncertainty about its costs, dependencies, and trade-offs.

We may even wish to accelerate the cycle to speed up innovation. Naivety and hubris encourage nascent giants to experiment and create. Engagement with readily observable problems grows opportunities and understanding. Innovation compounds to provide options that weren’t possible in the past – and thus validates itself by giving hope for options that aren’t available in the present. We could reasonably gamble that this type of greedy exploratory strategy will yield solutions faster than it creates problems.

Or we can try to slow down the cycle by working harder to understand before we act, by giving tradition more weight in times of uncertainty, by assuming that there is always a cost.

We can’t hope to eliminate the cycle: to stamp out the momentum of systems or the influence of forgetfulness and hubris. But conscious attempts to accelerate or moderate it are possible and defensible. Greater appreciation of giants is appropriate. Better understanding of context is desirable. The viability of such goals depends, in part, on awareness of the cycle itself.

Visibility of Complexity

For most of history individuals were only exposed to large shifts in expectations or perspective a few times in their lives. The past was distant and inaccessible enough that we were doomed to repeat it. But modern technology has made such shifts increasingly common.

Today’s customers are more likely to also own, found, or run organizations. Today’s buyers are more likely to also sell. Today’s audiences are more likely to also perform, opine, create, or share publicly. Today’s users are more likely to also build. Today’s preachers are more likely to also be judged.

Meanwhile, life cycles of standards, technologies, projects, and ideas have shrunk to years and have become numerous and easy to follow. They seem to have a predictable path: accomplishments and their creators progress from being considered irrelevant or delusional to extraordinary to expected to faulty to lucky or wicked. Their fates showcase the fickle nature of entitled forgetfulness and its consequences.

Whether by experiencing the conflicting priorities of both sides; by riding the roller-coaster of endeavors from dream to disillusionment; by helplessly watching our world be disrupted; by having our certainties challenged in the pluralistic arena; or by seeing our words and deeds rapidly reinterpreted and propagated we are continuously exposed to the illusion of free lunch, the contributions and dismissal of giants, the cycles of flipping trade-offs.

This growing exposure to change, complexity, diversity and to consequent oversimplifications leading to flipping priorities gives us the opportunity and imperative to appreciate what we have and recognize what we owe; to be less inclined to find doers contemptible and be weary of visions of free lunch; to elevate our understanding and adjust our expectations; to choose our trade-offs and engage the cycle more deliberately.

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