Overlay – Rory Miller



Working on a model. A lot of things have puzzled me for the last several years, especially things that look, to me, like people fighting against their own self-interest; people blind to the disconnect between their own peaceful words and violent actions; people arguing and even rioting against their own civil rights (WTF, people?); demands to add power to already failed initiatives and institutions…

The people that see the problems I see tend to have certain things in common. And the people who don’t see the disconnects also tend to have things in common. I think the disconnects fall on a common fault line, though. So let’s see if I can dig this out here.

There is a natural world. In that natural world, things follow the laws of physics and the laws of biology. If you want a rock on top of a hill, energy must be expended to get it there. Most things you eat comes from the destruction of another living creature. Want a burger? A sweet, docile, brown-eyed cow must be killed, chopped up into it’s constituent parts and some of the nose parts ground into piles of once-living flesh. Want a beer to grow with that? Barley must be chopped and carefully rotted.

There is an economics to the laws of biology/ecology. It’s not exactly a zero-sum game, but energy must be exerted to get benefits. You must expend the energy to move to shelter. To get food. To not be killed by creatures that want you for food.

This reality underlies everything. Bellies need to be fed, in order to feed bellies, something must be destroyed and some person must initiate that destruction. Meat doesn’t come from grocery stores, it comes from ranchers and slaughterhouses.

That reality is stark, and people are very uncomfortable with it. Extremely darwinian. There will be winners and losers and extinctions.

Nobody likes extinctions and they dislike people losing (in an abstract way) and hate being losers themselves, and so they set up or empower someone else to set up a system that overlays and attempts to control the natural world. You can’t control the natural world, but you can influence the effects.

But by creating this second ecosystem that overlays the natural one, you create a second way to play the game. If I can’t feed my family, I can invoke the rules and someone else will feed them. If I’m not a good enough businessman to prosper, I can apply for grants or get a bailout or donate to a congressman who might write rules that hamper my competitor.

Technology has out paced population. We don’t live in a scarcity economy and almost no one has any direct connection to something as primal as procuring food. We have machines powerful enough that it takes a remarkably small number of people to deal with the real world– to butcher the animals and move the heavy rocks and build the roads and…

So for most people, the artificial overlay of rules (written and unwritten; intended and unintended…) have always been more powerful than the real world. And the people who manipulate the artificial world (politicians and bankers, for instance) have always been more powerful than the ones who work in the real world (industrialists, for instance*). Thus, the artificial world feels more real, and in day-to-day life, has more impact than the real world of hunger, cold and injury.

That’s background. Here’s the deal.
No matter how detailed, intense, powerful or all-controlling the artificial world becomes, the natural world never goes away. And every so often, in a natural disaster or a spree shooting, the natural world intrudes. For people who see the artificial world as the real world, the answer is obvious: We need more rules. In modern society, the response to fear has become micromanagement. Which works so well in the business world, right? Sigh.

But hurricanes and spree-shooters don’t follow human rules, that’s what makes them what they are. They follow physics or the laws of biology. Society’s rules are just magical incantations and they only work on believers.

Universally (so far, I’m sure there are exceptions) the people that see the problems I see have lived close to the edge. They have been hungry with no one there to help, they have had people try to hurt or kill them and been profoundly alone. Which means they come overwhelmingly from the poor and rural demographics. Conversely, the ones who believe you can create a written answer to a physical problem have spent their lives in a rich, privileged and artificial world.

Both the worlds exist. Both affect our future. We need to recognize them both and recognize when a problem is beyond the reach of the artificial world’s tools. IME, the people who have been exposed to the real world have no problem recognizing the artificial. They may get significantly self-righteous that their world view is the real or good one (long look in mirror here… I’m back) but unless they are completely off the grid, they know damn well about the overlay. Does anyone truly believe  that hard work and reliability is the fast-track to promotion in a big organization? Or that brilliantly arguing your professor into a corner will improve your grade?

But it is possible to live entirely in the artificial world and to believe that it is the only world. That writing rules somehow, magically, controls events. And for the most part, this isn’t only a safe bet but a good one. The artificial overlay is the most powerful of the two worlds right now in day-to-day life. Right up until it fails.

*When you reflexively think about “evil corporations” are you thinking about the ones who provide your laptop, phone, car and food? Or the ones who exist just to manipulate interest and debt? I’d argue that they are very different.

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