March 26, 2009

Let the engineers rule

For the last decade the people that have had success have primarily been bankers, brokers and othe money-pushers. I think the current crisis will mark a big shift in where money and power is centered. It will pass from financial engineers to real engineers.

Barack Obama has on The tonight show pinned the zeitgeist with this quote "What we need is young people instead of them wanting to be an investment banker we need them to decide they want to be an engineer"

In a free-market society the individuals that make the most wealth are the ones that should prosper and make the most money. Wealth isn't the same as money - money is an intermediary form of exchanging goods and services, wealth is, according to Paul Graham "stuff we want: food, clothes, houses, cars, gadgets, travel to interesting places, and so on" Creation of wealth is the innovation of goods and services that drive society forwards, and is what should be rewarded.

For the last decade society has mistaken the creation of money for the creation of wealth.

We believed that bankers and brokers must be innovationg and creating products that drives society forwards simply because they were so financially successful. Their money also made them something to aspire to. If you wanted to become rich and powerful finance was the way to go. But we were fooled - the financial industry didn't create wealth, they merely printed money and built ponzi schemes. And they kept most of the money themselves.

Money is power. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Douglas Adams has a great story about power in The restaurant at the end of the universe. The heroes of the book set out on a quest to find the true ruler of the universe, which is not as easy as it seems because of an insight the galactic rulers have had eons earlier: The man who most wants to rule the universe is the one that is least suited to do so. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. So a sneaky scheme has been devised: The ruler of the universe doesn't know, or care for that matter, that he happens to rule the universe. He lives in a small shed on a far-off planet and people in spaceships come to ask him questions every now and then. His answers are, unbeknownst to him, what rule the universe.

This is of course a comedy, but like all great comedies it holds some significant truths and insights. And this one may be the biggest of them all.

What Douglas Adams is pointing at is that the people who want money and power are the ones most likely to get it, qualifications play second fiddle to ambition. And the financial industry has been very ambitious indeed. And they ruled the universe until it all came crashing down because it was exposed that they didn't create wealth, but merely printed money for themselves.

So there is a vacuum in power. The financial industry has been broken, Wall Street humiliated and many of the players have gone bankrupt. Society must, of course, move forward and someone must carry the torch that has been taken from the bankers and brokers. And the ones that should carry the torch should be the ones that create wealth.

So who creates wealth? In short: People and companies that make stuff better than before. The innovators and the engineers. The Googles, the Xobnis, the reddits and the Linus Thorvalds of the world. The ones that make our life easier, better or more enjoyable. They are ultimately the ones you depend on for your car to run, your house to be heated and your Internet to work. And they are the ones that truly drive society forwards.

But many innovators and engineers suffer from one problem in relation to power: they aren't the ones who want it the most. Linus Thorvalds has no ambitions about building a global multimillion dollar powerhouse, in fact he gives his products away for free.

If we don't want to be caught in the same trap as we are now in ten years time the innovators and engineers should be the ones that hold the power, simply because they are the ones that truly drive society forwards.

I see two solutions.

Either the engineers will have to step up to the plate and start playing the powergame - people like Larry Ellison show us that engineering and powergames aren't exclusive.

Either that or the rulers of the universe should be engineers livĂ­ng in sheds on faraway planets where strange people come to ask them questions about life the universe and everything.

If you made it all the way to the end you must have found it interesting.

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Anonymous Jes hansson said...

Not enough people qoute Douglas Adams these days. Nice post.


12:51 AM  
Blogger Jim Gilliam said...

When you're not motivated by money, you have a huge advantage over those who are. It's hugely liberating to forget about making money and focus on what will change the world and make it better. The people still obsessed with making money simply can't compete.

1:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about we just stop holding power over one another? Bit less ruling, bit more freedom.

1:36 AM  
Blogger Max Tobiasen said...


I agree completely - Those who reach the highest goals are those who want them the most. This goes for both people that want money, fame, and to change the world.

I can only hope that the world is moving towards more people wanting to change the world in a good way than making money, thus moving power towards those with a cause other than money. Part of the problem for the last ten years has surely been that changing the world has taken a back seat to money.

Unrelated: I checked your bio, and just wanted to say I reallly enjoyed outfoxed, Iraq for sale and some of the other movies you have been involved in


2:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although "Thorvalds" arguably sounds a lot cooler, his name is actually "Torvalds"

8:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I commented here:

this remains me the Republic of Plato:

The ideal Republic of Plato is ruled by philosophers with no interests for the power itself.

12:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it interesting (and strange) that when you look for those who make our lives easier and more enjoyable, you settle on the engineers.

I probably would have picked the set of people who have appeared on "Dirty Jobs". Anybody can build a search engine, but who's willing to climbing into a sewer?

I've lived most of my life without Google, so going without that service would not be a huge hardship. I dare you to go even 2 weeks without a working sewer system, though!

4:45 PM  
OpenID rutgerprins said...

To paraphrase Churchill: Democracy is a horrible system, but it's the best we've got.

Democracy opens the way to power hungry people, it's also very sensitive to information manipulation.

I always thought it must be possible to create a government ruled by engineers. The main problem is ofcourse, how do you select the engineers?
I think, create an academic and psychological test, open to everybody, then select two groups randomly.
One group will propose changes with arguments. The other group will decide if they will be accepted.

Do this for a regular time interval, say 4 years.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Max Tobiasen said...

If you look at what moves our society forward it can very broadly be boiled down to innovation, without it we would still be living in caves trying to keep the fire going. The reason I picked engineers is that they are a large subset of innovators. The people that do the dirty jobs, while commendable, don't drive us forward.

It's an interesting proposition but I think it has two problems:
1) you would have to change thes system of governance - this only happens through revolution or corrupation.
2) Who will create the test, and what will a successful answer be? Many issues are emotional - which is why in a democracy we can vote for different people with different opinions on how to solve these problems. Pro-life or pro-choice for instance.

5:26 PM  

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