Talking About Hard Problems Without Demonizing Each Other

Adam Smith and Karl Marx

In studying cults and influence, I’ve learned about the concepts of “loaded language” and “thought-stopping clichés.” Terms like climate change, cancel culture, anti-vax, pro-life, liberal, and conservative are shortcuts: they signify a connection to a tribe and once they are invoked, we stop thinking with our reasoning brain and shift into our tribal brain. Hence the term “thought-stopping cliché” — we literally stop thinking once these loaded terms are used.

And they are used everywhere. It’s usually easier to write using these shorthand terms than to make an original argument. These terms, because they invoke tribalism, also tend to amplify the kind of emotional responses that drive clicks on the internet, or keep people glued to cable news.

Thinking about hard problems is difficult enough, but talking about them is even harder. If you accidentally step into loaded language or a thought-stopping cliché, readers will immediately classify you into a tribal category and write you off. So the challenge for anyone who wants to engage with hard problems is to avoid loaded language wherever possible.

For example, current discussions around “-isms” are nearly impossible to have because they devolve into food fights rooted in labels like “leftist” and “fascist.” (Nevermind that people have few clear ideas about what those things might mean, it’s really just a shorthand for them.)

Dropping into a new, perhaps unfamiliar conceptual framework is a useful way to disarm readers and to get them to think differently. For example, I’ve been thinking a lot about our current challenges and how to use the language of physics, networks, and influence to formulate new ways to frame problems. I’ll offer one example here.

It’s almost impossible to talk about capitalism, socialism, communism, or libertarianism now because these notions (as originally formulated by Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, or anyone else you want to name) have become hopelessly attached to tribal affiliations. What if we simply throw out these not very good, dated, and ill-informed frameworks and talk about things using lower-order, unattached concepts?

First, we can acknowledge the existence of flow systems. To sustain life, there must be flows that allow people to eat. Local flow systems, such as a home garden or a small farm, can help feed a few people. Bigger flow systems can achieve economies of scale and feed more people. Connective flow systems that enable trade of these products for money allow for distribution of these products.

We can also acknowledge the existence of influence. Every flow system, large or small, seeks easier access to resources and to improve efficiency where possible. To the extent humans can be influenced to achieve these goals, flow systems will seek ways to enlist their help. Sometimes, people are brought in to solve some specific problem; other times influence is used to impose or limit regulations that give a certain flow system an advantage. Larger flow systems can allocate more resources towards influence than small ones.

Note that flow systems exist apart from ideology. People need to eat, regardless of their ideological tribe.

The existence of influence as an unavoidable byproduct of flow systems suggests that we cannot rely on ideology alone to constrain them. However, if we recognize that influence is a factor, we can potentially counter it in other ways. State power can usually be brought to bear, as can preferences of people who are choosing which flow systems to engage with.

The most effective way to counter the influence of a flow system is to render the system obsolete. Whale oil lamps went away with the introduction of petrofuels. Cars replaced horses. Child labor went away because of changing social norms that shaped state power. Transistors and integrated circuits swiftly replaced vacuum tubes. Flatscreen displays replaced cathode ray tubes. These are all flow systems that were unable to sustain themselves either through influence or through continued social preferences.

Today we know that carbon fuel flow systems have negative effects and have capacity to purchase massive influence. If we want to replace these systems, we need to find solutions that work better, and also recognize that existing systems are slowing that effort by purchasing influence.

I don’t know how to characterize this framework ideologically—and that’s the point. It doesn’t bear much resemblance to Adam Smith’s weird voodoo (note: no talk of ‘prices’ or ‘invisible hands’) nor does it touch on Marx’s fetishes about workers and revolution. Yet we managed to talk about the physical systems that govern life on earth, some of their negative effects, and how we might consider countering them — all without calling each other names.

The Logistics Curve describes how flow systems work. (Wikipedia)

The most useful lens I’ve found for thinking about this set of problems is the logistics function, which turns up everywhere in nature and physics. As it turns out, this is the curve that defines how flow systems work. (They start out slow, tend towards a near-linear ‘middle’ period, then steady out unless more resource flow becomes available.) And in general, we might all be better off meditating on that set of problems.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with reading Smith and Marx and anyone else, if only to know what they were actually thinking. But an over-reliance on the explanatory value of these rickety frameworks, especially when they short-circuit original thinking and cause us to collapse into tribal conflict, is counter-productive.

It’s high time we move beyond facile, familiar frames that push us into a “team sports” mentality (where the only desired solution is the domination of the opponent) and instead use new, descriptive frameworks that enable fresh insights and ways of thinking.

Philosophers of the 18th and 19th century were able to sit down and formulate what were then fresh frameworks for trying to understand the world. But they mustn’t have the last word.

We can rise to the same challenge. We now understand networks, flow systems, and influence much better — and so it is our duty to develop new thinking, accommodating all we know today.

If we shirk this responsibility, we will become victims of influence campaigns that seek to use our inclination towards tribalism to divide us. This serves only to sustain existing flow systems, and they will continue on — unchallenged by either regulation or innovation—because they can purchase all the influence they need to be left undisturbed.

Disinformation researcher, thinker, writer, entrepreneur, TED speaker, and data visualization geek. Twitter: @davetroy Email: