Fulcrums and Frameworks

2004-10-29

Dizzy and I had another interesting talk today while strolling around downtown Denver and environs. One topic that came up was what he calls frameworks -- what others might call mind-sets or paradigms (hey, we're geeks, and 'frameworks' is a good geeky word). In software, a framework might be an operating system like Linux, a programming language like Perl, or a platform like Twisted. People get religious about these things, and they tend not to switch very often. Once you've sunk a great deal of time, energy, and synapses into working a certain way, you don't like to switch. So your existing framework has to get really bad (or the alternatives have to become seriously superior) for you to consider making a change.

There is a similiar phenomenon in societal organization. For instance, life in the former Communist Bloc had to get really bad before people rose up and changed the framework (some argue that evidence began to trickle behind the Iron Curtain that life in the West was much better; either way, the benefits began to seriously outweigh the switching costs). Will we ever get to such a point in the West? Will things ever get really bad here, especially in this age of abundance? Perhaps not soon within the generalized framework of politics, but people might start switching out of certain sub-frameworks, such as the government education system. We already see this happening with the move to charter schools, vouchers, and especially parent-directed learning (I don't call it homeschooling because there is by definition no school involved). Parents are voting with their feet, and the sum of those individual decisions may eventually change the very framework of education in America.

It strikes me that this is where real change happens: at the fulcrum-points where old frameworks are discarded and new frameworks are adopted. One can work one's whole life within a framework but never change things much, yet a seemingly momentous but in fact quite simple change in outlook or behavior (say, teaching one's children at home) can lead to fundamental improvements in society when adopted by enough people. To date, Western civilization has been better at framework-switching than other civilizations, which is why it has reformed itself in the past rather than ossifying into stagnation. And the big changes have occurred despite "the system" of religious, political, military, and corporate power. So I think that working within the system is almost never the right way to bring about progress and change. The Internet was not developed by the telcos; long-haul trucking was not developed by the railroads; guns were not developed by knights; printing presses were not developed by scribes; jazz was not developed by classical composers; personal computers were not developed by mainframe manufacturers; the World Wide Web was not developed by publishing companies; Wikipedia was not developed by Encyclopedia Britannica. Similarly, deep educational reform will not come from the public schools; medical reform will not come from pharmaceutical companies and the NIH; copyright reform will not come from Disney and the record companies; legal reform will not come from trial lawyers and legislatures; monetary reform will not come from central banks; political reform will not come from the Democrats and Republicans.

I happen to think that real reform in all of these areas will be the result of introducing markets and other forms of voluntary interaction from the bottom up: parents teaching their kids at home or contracting with other providers of alternative education services, patients paying doctors and nurses directly rather than through government- or company-provided insurance, creative types selling (or giving) to their audiences directly rather than depending on publishers and record companies, people settling disputes through mediation rather than the courts, folks using gold or local currencies rather than government-issued fiat money, and eventually perhaps even many people seeking consistently voluntary solutions rather than vote-mongering, regulating, legislating, and other forms of forcing their views and desires on others through the instruments of government power.

Call me a utopian, call me an idealist, but I see evidence that already some of these trends are in full force and others are beginning to gain steam; granted, some may never take off, but then again it once seemed as if the Iron Curtain would never be parted, either. Hope springs eternal, even in the midst of yet another acrimonious political season.


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