Four Problem-Solving Methods in the History of Humanity

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Jordan Hall:

"The timing of this moment is fortunate as we (humanity as a whole) are currently beset by a pantheon of “wicked problems.” Problems like ecosystem collapse, the accelerating breakdown of social and political coherence, and the event horizon of exponential technology. These are “wicked” both because they represent world-historical risk (i.e., they are very important) and because they are strictly insoluble using our current “problem solving” toolkit (i.e., are very bad news).

Historically, humanity has made use of three different tools (and their various admixtures) to solve problems. The first, oldest and primary, is our indigenous form of collaboration. We might call it the group, tribal or “team” mode. It involves a relatively small group of people working together closely, combining their different perspectives, knowledge and capacities to become capable of solving problems much greater than any could have individually. This tool is powerful and forms the foundation of all human problem solving. However, thus far it has been limited in its ability to scale. As anyone who has built a team knows, as you add more people, things get more and more complex. Keeping five people coherent is much harder than keeping two in real collaboration. And even world class teams tend to break down somewhere between forty and one hundred and fifty people.

The other two tools more or less emerge to help us scale coordination: institutions and markets. Institutions are formal, hierarchical and bureaucratic. They can (usefully) scale to tens of thousands of people and have tremendous capacities for solving and managing many different kinds of “complicated” problems like sending a man to the moon and back and extracting, refining and distributing gasoline around the world. They also have a set of known limitations, most notably that they become bloated and corrupt as they age and that they cannot perceive or address “complexity” (and, therefore, invariably produce many “externalities” in their operation). [Samo Burja has been thinking and writing lucidly about institutions.]

Markets make use of simple signaling mechanisms (i.e., money) to scale enormously (perhaps without limit) and unlock the vast “computational” capacity of whole populations. This allows them to solve problems far beyond the scope of institutions, most famously steering the economic activities of national populations. They are equally subject to a number of known failure conditions, some of which have been very well tagged by ‘Slatestarcodex’ as “Moloch.”

These three tools have been combined and refined over the centuries to help humans address our problems (and, of course, to create entirely new ones). But we are now reaching the limit of their possibility. Try as we might, we cannot take responsibility for ourselves, come into right relationship with our technology and occupy our proper position as “custodial species” of the whole of the natural world using teams/tribes, institutions or markets. If we are to navigate the 21st Century in any orderly fashion, we need to find a new tool. It is possible that DAOs are the solution."