Armstrong Consulting
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Date: Thu, 21 Dec 2000 18:29:44 -0800

From:   Eric Armstrong



Subject:   Is "bootstrapping" part of the problem?


I'm glad to see a discussion centered around values, because I suspect that a statement of values has important implications for selecting a direction.

At yesterday's well-attended reception for Doug's National Medal of Technology, this thread came up over and over again. In discussing it with Rod Welch and one other fellow, we identified several salient points:

  1. Given a wide range of options from which to choose, a statement of values may well narrow the selection.

  2. It would be good to know for sure that the direction we are choosing is within the set of "desirable" directions, according to those values.

  3. On the other hand, even a tool as simple as an ax can be used for good or for bad. So its not totally clear that a statement of values is much help when it comes to making tools.

  4. On the other other hand, there may well be tools which are hard to use for bad ends, and others which are hard to use for good ends.


I was recently reminded of the dictum of unintended consequences. Basically, a drought-likely environment will only support so many people, and every time a drought occurs, some percentage dies off. This keeps the herd small that attempts to live there.

When well-meaning attempts to avoid that consequence prevent the natural thinning, the herd grows large. At the next drought, the number of potential deaths is many times greater than it was, raising the sense of urgency and the importance of "doing the right thing" to prevent the consequences, because now, thousands are affected, rather than hundreds.

As a result, the herd grows dramatically. The land now holds many times more people than it can comfortably support. Come the next drought, millions will die. Now the situation is truly desparate, and something simply has to be done.

But during the NEXT drought...

You see where this is heading. We're caught between our natural impulse to help individuals, and the counter-intutitive affects of our intervention. We reach a point where only by keeping up a constant stream of aid can the population continue to be supported. And sooner or later, we reach a point where we can't continue that level of assistance. What happens then?


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