Practicality vs. Idealism

Written on September 15, 2008. Written by .

Castle Sunset
The roots of pragmatism.
Photo courtesy of wabberjocky

Have you ever thought of what it would be like if you could travel back in time and expose ancient people to our modern technology? Consider what would happen if you found yourself in medieval Europe with your graphing calculator in your pocket. You are in possession of the most powerful numerical computer in the world. Its use could unlock amazing new engineering technologies that were not accessible without it. In real terms, it is probably the most valuable object on the planet. Does that mean that you are now the richest man alive? Maybe if you use an objective definition of wealth, but it is doubtful that you are going to feel very wealthy. The problem is that you aren’t going to get any land or food or power unless you can convince someone else of the calculator’s value (and most people in medieval Europe didn’t need to do that much math). The issue at hand is that an economy judges the value of your property and work not by its objective value, but by its value to others.

Today we see basketball players making orders of magnitude more than engineers, despite the ephemeral value of the player’s performance and the potentially timeless value of the engineer’s creation. It seems unfortunate that the economy works this way. Why is it like that? There are two components to the issue. One is that people’s interests are inherently biased toward pragmatism because their genes want to do what helps them survive and reproduce, which doesn’t require understanding general relativity. The other factor is that economics is all about interactions between people. The reason we benefit so much from trade is that it allows us to take advantage of the productivity of others. If we had to make everything from scratch by ourselves, we definitely wouldn’t be enjoying the standard of living that we have now. Just imagine trying to design and build a laptop from natural resources. The only way we can get a laptop is to convince others to give one to us, and they are going to want something of value to them in return.

Due to the fact that the economy reinforces an external valuation system, people tend to focus their efforts towards what is valuable to others. This makes them less interested in idealistic things than they would be otherwise, further decreasing the demand for idealistic things. This creates a positive feedback mechanism for the growth of pragmatism.

It was interesting to me when one of my professors was asked why he hadn’t written a textbook on his subject of expertise and he said it was because there was no demand for it. I used to think that professors did what they enjoyed because of their interest in the subject. But it definitely seems that they are inspired more by the external rewards that come from others, whether it be due to financial or social recognition. Regardless of the mechanism, it is clear that a lot of people are driven by practicality.

While I do wish there was more support for idealism in the world, I also think that too much idealism is dangerous. Scarcity is a fact of life and it usually prevents highly idealistic plans from succeeding. You run out of time or funding or there isn’t any interest in your idealistic vision. Idealism needs to be moderated. A better strategy is to iteratively apply practical strategies on the way towards an ideal. This is the bootstapper’s methodology – start with a highly practical project and with each success, steer your endeavor closer to your ideal.

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