How to really change the world

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August 18, 2013Thoughts2 Comments

Change the worldHow to really change the world.

A topic I’ve thought about an awful lot. Let’s face it. We’ve all at some point in our lives noticed something going in the world at large that we didn’t feel was right. And then after thinking through how we’d like it to be the vast majority of us decide that it’s just too difficult to change society as a whole and so we don’t really bother doing anything about it. A small minority of us decide otherwise and start doing what little we can to try and make an impact on the people in our immediate environment. An even smaller minority of us take the proverbial red pill and setup causes or movements to try and inspire the rest of society to join with us in our quest to change how things are.

To give you an example of this in action, let’s consider climate change and general environmental concern. Climate change and global warming campaigners having been beating on about it for years. It’s fact that the ice at the poles are melting faster than normal, that the global temperature is edging upwards, that weather systems across the planet are becoming more volatile, etc. Yet most of us don’t care enough to do anything substantial about it. And by substantial I mean reducing our CO2 footprint through ways which may inconvenience us. Some of us decide to use public transport more, to use our bicycles more, to prefer buy local produce rather than stuff that’s shipped in, even if it’s more expensive. Some of us go further and setup climate campaigns and other causes to get people, businesses and governments to commit to reducing their global warming emissions.

Why  don’t most of us care? because we don’t want to be inconvenienced. Unlike what the film Age of Stupid suggests, deciding not to go on a skiing holiday because it would involve taking an aeroplane (which would mean contributing to CO2 levels) isn’t the sort of decision most of us want to take. Most of us would consider that a regression in the functionality of our life.

Another example. Take the recent NSA spying scandal. Now almost everyone is aware of what’s going on. Furthermore, the vast vast majority of us would prefer to maintain our privacy and not be spied on, no matter what anyone says about the need to spy on our intimate conversations in order to catch terrorists. We need laws because they help codify our values and principles, but we all know that ultimately people can’t be trusted to always stay within the bounds of the law. But a person who doesn’t understand how encryption works will probably conclude that the only solution lies with better privacy laws and better enforcement of those laws. The person who does know how encryption works will realise that the real protection is going to come from building products that don’t provide the technical capability for spying in the first place. (Let me just say at this point that for a privacy-aware product to succeed and be trusted it must be open source, decentralised and encrypted).

But the people who don’t know how encryption works make up the majority of people who use the web, checking their email, checking Facebook, tweeting, buying things, watching videos. They don’t know how encryption works and don’t really care to know. They just want to be able to do their things and trust what the padlock in the browser address bar is telling them. The problem is that the current solutions for encryption are, with some exceptions, too difficult for a non-technical user to understand. PGP is great but a pain for non-techies to use. Most people don’t know and won’t care to know what public and private keys, why they’re important, and/or why they shouldn’t store their private keys on Google’s servers. (By the way, automatically encrypting data in the cloud is meaningless as a data privacy/security measure if your data provider also holds the encryptions keys).

So the problem with getting everyone to use more secure solutions is that there’s too much stuff they need to learn in order to make sure they’re doing it properly. Why? because a system is only as secure as its weakest link. Get one small thing wrong and you could invalidate your security completely. End result? most people just don’t care. They’ll keep using Gmail and Facebook and Twitter and Skype. The alternatives are too difficult to understand and use and require too much brainwork – again, inconvenience.

And there are more examples. Petrol vs electric cars, funding endless wars abroad rather than domestic welfare programs, to name just a couple. But the bottom line is that people in general are highly reluctant to inconvenience themselves in the short-term even if it will improve their long-term quality of life.

So how do we get people to change? By not inconveniencing them.

Tesla, makers of premium electric vehicles. Trying to make a care that’s car that won’t directly burn oil (and thus will help the environment). But trying to make it cheaper, more efficient and simply better than competing gasoline cars, so that even for someone who doesn’t care about the oil-burning aspect it will seem like a good buy. Are they telling people to buy their purely because it’s better for the environment? no, that’s just one of a multitude of reasons they’re giving and it’s not even pitched as their most important one.

SGB. Focussed on reducing the dependence on non-renewable fuel through the research and development of renewable fuels based on hybrids of the Jatropha crop. At $99 per barrel, it’s already competitive with crude oil. Instead of expecting people to pay more for renewable energy (and thus inconveniencing them) it’s better to simply beat the competition and convince people to switch via their own desire for convenience.

Taking our previous example of data privacy on the internet, how do we get people to change? we would build products which were user-friendly yet did all the necessary hard work of encryption under the hood. A user – nay, even a developer – shouldn’t have to think about how to secure data and keep it private. The infrastructure for doing this should be built and readily exist for use by everybody. TOR is an example of such a project which helps you browse the web anonymously without you having to chance your browsing habits that much. Good thing is that more developers are now aware of the need to build privacy and security aware products in ways which don’t require the user to undergo a steep learning curve.

Let’s tackle health care. In America there is enormous resistance to single-payer (i.e. fully government-funded) healthcare because it’s considered to be an ideologically unsound thing to do. Yet, in all other aspects, it would be a far more convenient choice for people as it would guarantee a minimum safety net whilst also preventing the need to even think about health insurance. Importantly, the long-term benefits to US society of removing the biggest cause of bankruptcies must indeed be substantial. Especially given that the inability to access or pay for healthcare and thus maintain one’s health has knock-on effects on almost every other aspect of a person’s life.

What about getting people to recycle? At the moment it’s such a pain. Because you have to consciously keep track of what items can and should be recycled; you have to be able to easily get to a recycling bin when you need one otherwise you’re likely to just chuck things in a normal trash can. Countries like Germany have good infrastructure for dealing with recyclable waste and have instilled good practice amongst their citizens. But that’s not going to work in every country. Can you imagine people in India consciously dealing with recycling given the numerous other quality of life factors (e.g. street cleanliness) they don’t care about? No. So what’s the solution that doesn’t inconvenience people? only using materials and packaging that are bio-degradable. So that even if you throw that chocolate bar into the woods you it will degrade over time into non-harmful elements and compounds which can be safely reabsorbed into the biosphere.

How about strengthening democracy. For democracy to work well people need to have the willingness and ability to vote on as many issues as possible. For that to happen they need to be educated enough about the issues they’re voting on in order to make considered decisions. For that to happen you need an effective education system which teaches people how to think (more so than what to think) combined with fairly objective and detailed media coverage of current affairs, all delivered to people in a conveniently digestible format. Yes, there are so many things we need to get right to make this work – which is why for the most part we don’t get it right. Combined with the fact we vote based on our gut feelings we end up cheering for whoever makes us feel the right way, i.e. whoever successfully advertises themselves to us. To be honest I’m not sure myself exactly what the full solution is to this problem of ineffective democracies in a totally convenient way. We can definitely make news easier to digest through better technology. How to make it more objective? If something like The Real News became more watched and shared than any other news show (by doing a better job than everybody else), eventually people would conclude that news that you don’t pay for directly cannot be as good and would thus be inconvenient because you wouldn’t be able to trust it when making decisions that affect your life. Getting people to vote more can be accomplished by giving people more power over how their taxes get spent, starting with oversight and the the ability to vote on issues affecting their local townships. Again accomplished through user-friendly and ubiquitously accessible technology interfaces – preferably open source, decentralised and encrypted. As for national issues, and especially one which don’t directly affect a person, the convenient solution would have to be a more effective education which instils the value of being an active citizen.

One thing to notice about solutions which don’t inconvenience people is that the onus is on the solution provider to do the hard work of solving all the inconveniencing problems. Take Tesla Motors. They’re building free-to-use supercharging stations all over the place so that driving long distances in a Tesla becomes as convenient as possible. Instead of placing the onus on customers to figure out how and where to recharge their cars they’re solving that hard problem and at the same introducing an innovative model (free fuel for life).

In some ways, convenience is why we vote for politicians to manage a country. Why we rely on security forces to protect our liberty and safety. Why emergency services exist. So that we can all get on with enjoying our lives without having to keep our fingers on all these different pulses. And so a large amount of trust is involved when ‘delegating’ such responsibilities to different groups of people. And if that trust gets broken, as much as we all then like to think that we need to be paying more attention to things, we really want a solution that maintains our conveniences. And this is really the crux of it. We do want to live in a better world, but we don’t want to give up our ‘progress’ in order to do so.

2 Responses to “How to really change the world”
  1. Suzy

    That’s one hell of a meaty post Sir! Nice to see you’re keeping yourself occupied :) One observation…do you think perhaps that a lot of the IT/techie guys make a lot of the technology difficult to understand/access as they wish to remain part of the elite few that know what’s going on and what it all means? On the encryption front I’ll be adding it to my list of recommendations as to what Maths kids should be learning at school or more accurately an example of how funky maths impacts/protects them day to day.

    • Ram

      No, I don’t think techies deliberately make things difficult to understand in order to exclude others. Everyone who makes things wants as many people as possible to benefit from what they make – at the very least it makes you feel that you’re doing something good that a lot of people want. Maybe there are some hackers and/or trojan authors who wouldn’t want the stuff they write to fall into too many hands lest their attack vectors end up becoming known about and then compromised, but that’s a totally different ball game and represents only a tiny minority of tech.

      And yes, encryption is a great example of the power of mathematics. No amount of violence is going to beat a maths problem.