On presuming competence

A few weeks ago, while our car honked its way through dense traffic in Delhi, I imagined an Onion headline: American Visitor Seeks To Explain What He’ll Never Understand About India.

By the norms of traffic laws in countries where people tend to obey them, vehicular and pedestrian traffic in the dense parts of Indian cities appears to lawless. People do seem to go where they want, individually and collectively, in oblivity to danger.

Yet there is clearly a system here, in the sense that one’s body has a circulatory system. Or a nervous system. Meaning it’s full of almost random stuff at the cellular traffic level, but also organic in a literal way. It actually works. Somehow. Some way. Or ways. Many of them. Alone and together. So yes, I don’t understand it and probably never will, but it does work.

For example, a four-lane divided highway will have traffic moving constantly, occasionally in both directions on both sides. It will include humans, dogs, cattle, rickshaws and bikes, some laden with bags of cargo that look like they belong in a truck, in addition to cars, trucks and motorcycles, all packed together and honking constantly.

Keeping me from explaining, or even describing, any more than I just did, are the opening sentences of Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet:

Shortly after dawn, on what would have been drawn in a normal sky, Mr. Artur Sammler with his bushy eye took in the books and papers of his West Side bedroom and suspected strongly that they were the wrong books, the wrong papers. In a way it did not matter to a man of seventy-plus, and at leisure. You had to be a crank to insist on being right. Being right was largely a matter of explanations. Intellectual man had become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, experts to laymen, colleagues to colleagues, doctors to patients, man to his own soul, explained. The roots of this, the causes of the other, the source of events, the history, the structure, the reasons why. For the most part it went in one ear out the other. The soul wanted what it wanted. It has its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.

So I will disclaim being right about a damn thing here. But I will share some links from some brilliant people, each worthy of respect, who think they are right about some stuff we maybe ought to care about; and each of whom have, in their own very separate ways, advice and warnings for us. Here ya go:

Each author weaves a different handbasket we might travel to hell, but all make interesting reading. All are also downbeat as hell too.

My caution with readings that veer toward conspiracy (notably Martin’s) is one of the smartest things my smart wife ever said: “The problem with conspiracy theories is that they presume competence.”

So here’s what I’m thinking about every explanation of what’s going on in our still-new Digital Age: None of us has the whole story of what’s going on—and what’s going on may not be a story at all.

Likewise (or dislike-wise), I also think all generalizations, whatever they are, fail in the particulars, and that’s a feature of them. We best generalize when we know we risk being wrong in the details.  Reality wants wackiness in particulars. If you don’t find what’s wacky there, maybe you aren’t looking hard enough. Or believe too much in veracities.

Ed McCabe: “I have no use for rules. They only rule out the possibility of brilliant exceptions.”

We need to laugh. That means we need our ironies, our multiple meanings, our attentions misdirected, for the magic of life to work.

And life is magic. Pure misdirection, away from the facticity of non-existence.

Every laugh, every smile, is an ironic argument against the one non-ironic fact of life—and of everything—which is death. We all die. We all end. To “be” dead is not to be in a state of existence. It is not to be at all. Shakespeare was unimprovable on that point.

To some of us older people*, death isn’t a presence. It’s just the future absence of our selves in a world designed to discard everything with a noun, proper or not, eventually. Including the world itself. This is a feature, not a bug.

It’s also a feature among some of us to, as Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever”: always interested, always open to possibilities, always willing to vet what we at least think we know, always leaving the rest of existence to those better equipped to persist on the same mission. So I guess that’s my point here.

Basically it’s the same point as Bill Hicks’ “It’s just a ride.”

*I’m not old. I’ve just been young a long time. To obey Gandhi, you have to stay young. It’s the best way to learn. And perhaps to die as well.


  1. Paul Grange’s avatar

    Are dancing around the monopoly moves to deplatform those with whom they disagree or do you real, oh Searls of the Net, really have no opinion of this throttling?

  2. kurt westphal’s avatar

    fictitious people operate by different sets of incentives, rules and best practices, freedom of speech is a government and real citizen property/domain, the big 4 are transnational and don’t have any of these constraints other than maintaining the fiction that they aren’t monopolies. Until then and regs, they will continue, operating as is… never mind the man behind the curtain

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Good points, kurt.


    Not long ago there was a transnational monopoly so dominant that a chorus of voices rose demanding it be broken up. That monopoly was Microsoft. Is it today among the Big Four?

    Trees don’t grow to the sky. With size comes insensitivity as well as power. Flywheels spin with inertia as their only control. Incumbencies invite attack and (as they love to laud in Silicon Valley) disruption. CEOs, C-suites and boards can, and often do, dumb things.

    I see few if any signs that Apple, Amazon, Facebook or Google are more than partially clueful. Particulars…

    APPLE — I’m writing this on a new Apple laptop that cost more than my last car and it is thick with bad ideas and gone features that no customer would ever have demanded: 1) clackety keyboard in place of the old near-silent one, 2) oversized and oversensitive trackpad, 3) the brilliant and handy MagSafe power connector replaced by a USB-C one and a cord that not only fails to protect itself and the laptop when one trips over it, but has no charge indicator light, 4) gone USB-A, Thunderbolt and SD card port, 5) useful function keys replaced by the mostly-useless and fully annoying TouchBar and 6) shipped with no dongles to make up for lost ports, and not even a power cord from the adapter to the wall. To put it mildly, I really really really fucking hate the thing. Not what you want from a customer who’s been with you for decades and just spent a big pile of money expecting to be delighted. Add that to Apple’s discontinuing its easier-than-everybody’s wi-fi hot spots and networked storage (while offering no good alternative to networked storage at all, at the same time as it ships mobile devices that invite people to produce massive amounts of personal data in the form of 4K videos), and one wonders if Apple is fully or only partially detached from the market’s reality.

    AMAZON — In one word, advertising. Right now Amazon is making its biggest profits by horning in on Google’s and Facebook’s morally compromised and possibly doomed (because people hate it, and the market is people) online advertising business. I wrote about this here, so I won’t repeat it.

    FACEBOOK — IMHO, doomed. Don’t trust me on this. Trust nature to take its course with an overweight giant that has been clueless for years. More here and here.

    GOOGLE — Ditto to the Facebook story, but safer mostly because it is diversifying through Alphabet and it can survive on search advertising if everything else fails.

    My point: the man behind the curtain may not be any more powerful than the Wizard in Oz.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Paul, are you speaking of some platforms evicting Alex Jones?

    My opinion on this is about platforms themselves. The Internet requires platforms no more than geology requires castles or the ocean requires cruise ships. Giant platforms such as Apple, Facebook and Google are little different than the industrial monopolies of JP Morgan and JD Rockefeller. The Internet was just as designed for us to rid ourselves of platforms as it was for us to build industrial monopolies on them. What platforms do wrong is a red herring for everyone who wants to build something better and even more Net-native.

  5. Mark Morris’s avatar

    I would not have thought you were a Trump supporter. This “Q” thing smacks of going off the deep end.
    Although I would not be surprised if we have a military coup in this country in the next 20 years.

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    You think I’m a Trump supporter?

    To be clear, I’m not. I also think he’ll go down as the worst President in history, owing to even more awful shit than the world already knows, or should. But all of that is beside the points I’ve tried to make here.

Comments are now closed.