A twisted villain who kills half of human life with the snap of his fingers. All in the name of justice and mercy and inevitability.
Most of us know this guy.
In that moment when he snapped his fingers, Thanos played god. When making his decision for this horrific act, Thanos had stepped out of the complex system of life itself and determined (what he believed) to be a core problem with the system itself.
Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex discusses this type of outside-the-system-thinking recognition in his Meditations on Moloch. He calls this thinking “god’s-eye-view.”
From a god’s-eye-view, we can optimize the system to “everyone agrees to stop doing this at once”, but no one within the system is able to effect the transition without great risk to themselves.
Essentially: people oftentimes all agree to change a system, but inertia, perverse incentives, and the pure fact of being within the system prevent any changes at all. More on this later.
For now, back to Thanos killing half of human life.
From where we as an audience sit, we clearly recognize a moral wrong and have long ago determined that a Thanos-led society (i.e. a society run by a powerful dictator) is not one that we want to live in.
This got me thinking, though: what if Thanos was right, in some weird roundabout and indirect sense? What, if any, merits does this action have, with a god-like figure (or figures?) disrupting a stagnant, complex system?
Before we get to Thanos, let’s first understand what systems we’re talking about and their limitations.
In one of my favorite essays on Slate Star Codex, Scott discusses the futility of assigning blame to a specific agent within a system, and why some systems perpetuate even if everyone hates the system.
“The implicit question is – if everyone hates the current system, who perpetuates it?”
The key answer here from Scott: “Lack of good coordination mechanism.” The idea here being that system incentives and dynamics don’t allow a large group of people to bring about a change they all want.
He gives some interesting examples in the essay around education, the Malthusian trap, arms races, and Congress itself. Another excellent example of this idea around being trapped in a system everyone wants out of can be seen through climate change.
Think about it: you and most other people want to curb carbon emissions immediately and transition to a more sustainable relationship between civilization and the Earth. This could be done at an individual level. You stop driving your car, pay high prices for hyper-local food, and give up your air conditioning in the summer to reduce electricity consumption. You can make all of these changes to actually live in a sustainable way. But if you cannot coordinate everyone else in the US, let alone globally, to change their behavior in a similar way, you end up suffering individually without creating any tangible, positive changes to the environment. Under this system, why would you ever give up the luxuries of modern life? Here lies the crux of the problem.
Donella Meadows, in her excellent book Thinking in Systems, describes this exact problem; namely, no one “thing” causes the behavior in a system, writing:
You’ll stop looking for who’s to blame; instead you’ll start asking, “What’s the system?” The concept of feedback opens up the idea that a system can cause its own behavior.
Meadows gives us a simple example of a system causing its own behavior through the eyes of a fisherman:
If you are now a fisherman with a mortgage on your boat, a family to support, and imperfect knowledge of the state of the fish population, you will overfish.
Sounds almost identical to the climate change example we gave above. Why should I suffer if I cannot coordinate everyone else to act in the same way as me, even if we all mutually identify the problem and desire the same outcome?
Meadows even goes a step further than Scott when identifying system perpetuating behavior. Emerging from basic poor coordination, she brings us to our institutional level.
Despite efforts to invent technological or policy “fixes,” the system seems to be intractably stuck, producing the same behavior every year. This is the systemic trap of “fixes that fail” or “policy resistance.” In a policy-resistant system with actors pulling in different directions, everyone has to put great effort into keeping the system where no one wants it to be. If any single actor lets up, the others will drag the system closer to their goals, and farther from the goal of the one who let go. In fact, this system structure can operate in a ratchet mode: Intensification of anyone’s effort leads to intensification of everyone else’s.
Now we have a better understanding of the type of systems all around us. We cannot blame a single agent for our problems. We are a product of our systems; the systems themselves perpetuate the behavior we so desperately want to change. Perhaps because of the fact that we exist inside these systems, we face an insurmountable challenge of making the changes we desire. What do we do?
Now, back to Thanos.
As I mentioned earlier, Thanos had the power to change the system however he liked. For a moment he existed outside of the system. Meaning: he did not have to coordinate or fight against anyone. He took time to build his power. Then, he simply made a decision (that he thought was right) and executed on it.
Obviously we do NOT want Thanos-like individuals ruling our societies with unlimited power and zero repercussions. But: we could learn from his philosophy and use creative ways to figure out how to either change the rules of our system (responsibly) to drive towards outcomes we want or give back more power to the institutions we trust to implement smart choices for the people and places they represent. The point is to find ways to see and act on the system from the “god’s-eye-view” perspective.
Think of the climate change example above. Imagine if we changed the rules of the current system to incentivize people to coordinate? Some potential micro-examples: build more reliable public transportation infrastructure, lower healthcare premiums for eating hyper-local, or receiving a tax credit for not running your air conditioner all summer.
Unfortunately, the Thanos-esque philosophy faces staunch adversaries in our society. This excellent piece by Marc Dunkleman for Politco highlights the absolute insanity of trying to improve and rebuild a decrepit train station in Manhattan, which also just happens to be the busiest transport hub in the Western Hemisphere: Penn Station. The institutions that govern the city simply do not have enough power to change the rules of the system they preside over. Dunkleman argues that ever since the Power Broker “bulldozed” his way through New York City to build new infrastructure, people have sworn to never allow one such person to wield that much power again. He says,
“Far from running the risk that another Robert Moses might haphazardly destroy a vibrant neighborhood, New York has emerged as a place where even the most worthy projects are left for dead.”
This is a system, where everyone agrees they want to move forward with a public project, yet the incentives, coordination issues, and lack of institutional power retains the status quo. The system has been molded to fail, with all fingers pointing only at ephemeral “agents” within the system itself.
Thinking of the (partially) Thanos model, here we could address point #2: relinquish back some power to the institutions we trust to implement smart choices for the people and places they represent, allowing us to almost circumvent the coordination issue.
So was Thanos right in killing half of the universe’s population? No.
But, he did give us a glimpse into how we could fix our own stagnant systems. He understood, maybe implicitly, that meaningful change within a system also requires sufficient power and perspective to come from outside the system.
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