Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Outside

This is a conceptual post. I attempt to explain "the Outside", an abstract concept that I find useful in modeling the world. The Outside is not a single thing, but rather Inside/Outside is a pattern that frequently appears in human society.

The world of human values is a tiny island in an ocean of darkness. That darkness is The Outside. It is a place of complexity, illegibility, and indifference. It is not actively hostile to humans, but it is a wild and dangerous place. Humans build institutions to keep the Outside out. But somebody has to man the walls. And sometimes the Outside leaks in.

Service on the walls makes a person cold and hard. The defender learns objective reasoning, logic, effective violence, tolerance for ambiguity, toughness, and competence. These are the virtues needed to wring human values from a world of chaos.

The oldest human institution is probably the family. Within a family, parents create an illusion of safety for children. Food, shelter, and material goods appear for the children as if by magic. This is a bubble of Insideness. Inside, there is plenty, comfort, and play. It is a world where every human is cared for, where every person is gifted what they need to thrive with nothing asked in return.

The inside is less real than the outside. The maintenance of the bubble requires constant work and risk-taking. The breadwinners of the family interact with an outside world more hostile to the fulfillment of human desires, whether it be a farm, capitalist labor market, or jungle. If a breadwinner gets sick or injured, the outside leaks in, and the children know want and hunger.
In a modern society, nested institutions serve to buffer the people inside from some of the hardship of the outside. Human families ban together for mutual support in church groups. State welfare takes over for injured breadwinners. Police keep citizens safe from domestic predators and warriors keep countries safe from conquest.

Law, property, rights - these are not features of the natural world. These are fictions of the Inside that are maintained through constant effort. The presumption of safety is an artifact of this illusion. In the natural world, a person is always at risk of arbitrary accident or capricious attack.

Capitalism is a curious human institution that mirrors some aspects of the outside. We have heard of “the corporate jungle” and “social darwinism”. The ideal free market allows corporations to live and die, to suffer real consequences of risk, in a way that society has decided is inappropriate for individuals humans. This has benefits for society - it makes corporations more productive and effective.

Different roles in a corporation have different levels of exposure to the outside. Executives are in touch with the fragility of the company. They know that it must profit or die. There is no instruction manual for their jobs, they search through an infinite possibility space to find a solution for the company to survive. Each successful company's solution is unique.

Lower-level workers are shielded from this reality. They are given artificial quotas, rules, and goals in a framework created by management. For them, job performance is legible. They know which goals they need to make in what time frame in order to produce satisfactory performance.

The closer a worker is to the market, the more uncertain their job performance becomes. Salespeople are closer to the outside. Their performance is objectively measurable and highly variable. They have to deal with the complicated world of human emotion where there is no rulebook. It is possible for a good salesperson to have a bad quarter based on sheer luck. On the other end of the spectrum, a person working in HR faces almost no risk or variability at all. HR is nestled far on the inside of the organization.

Engineering is somewhere in between. The objective nature of the engineer's job is a whiff of outside air. The engineer’s product either works or it doesn’t, and it’s the engineer’s job to figure it out how to make it work. There are no A’s for effort. But the engineer bears no responsibility for the success or failure of a product after it is built. That responsibility falls on executives. In the work world, there is a correlation between responsibility, risk-taking, and the degree of outsideness of a particular role.

Startup founders bear a lot of risk and are constantly aware of the outside. Employees get free lunches, founders know exactly how many days of runway those lunches cost.

The cultural differences between people closer to the outside and the inside lead to a survive-thrive conflict. Outsiders have survival-based values, and they see Insiders as weak. Insiders have values based around self-fulfillment, and they see Outsiders as brutish.

Scientists and technologists fulfill a role in society with substantial exposure to the outside. They wrestle with raw nature, to make it legible to human minds malleable to human efforts. People who work in science and technology are often seen as cold and blunt by people in softer fields.

Superintelligent A.I. will be a powerful incarnation of the Outside or of the Inside. Intelligence is humanity’s greatest weapon in taming the outside. A friendly A.I. is a champion which will build a stronger wall than any human civilization could conceive of.

Ultimately, the outside wins. An implacable cold death creeps upon us. Physics dictates that the last particle of love will fade into the background radiation of the universe. Whatever bubbles of human values we create are destined to be temporary.