You’re an Agent With Autonomy, Not an Autonomous Agent

The takeaway: incentives are important, we should be conscious of how we want to live and grow, and incentivize accordingly.

Crypto

The Crypto-Fever of late 2017 is long gone, and the related philosophical discussions are now debated only by the True Believers. Is Bitcoin is the new gold? Can intrinsic value be defined outside of inter-subjective reality? When will the internet will be replaced by a thousand blooming Dapps? I’d like to revisit the core reason why crypto was exciting to me, and illustrate a framework for thinking about the interplay between systems and their constituent actors.

Bitcoin is interesting because it defined a system in which many individual actors (miners, traders, etc.) acting “rationally” in their self-interest resulted in the emergence of a market, and growth of the network. As a meme, Bitcoin is hugely successful. It had the right properties to lodge itself in the human brain, and create a system that resulted in massive resources being deployed in service of its replication. Hashing algorithms are uninteresting to the average person. But when they became aligned with individuals’ self-interest, suddenly this operation is done on an unbelievable scale.

Capitalism

Capitalism is a system with similar characteristics. It is the most successful economic system because it provides the greatest incentive for its participants to move things forward. The direction might be unclear - nobody has a grand design for where we’re going as a society, we just do what the market tells us is valuable. Fortunately, what is “valuable” is influenced by the values of those within the market (e.g. an increase in demand for ethical seafood will incentivize responsible fishing practices) and the government itself (e.g. carbon credits, or subsidies for electric vehicles), but these are more course corrections on the way to an unknown destination.

Fortunately, this system has created more good than harm. More people than ever before have food, basic healthcare, education, transportation, and technology like washing machines and smartphones (read Factfulness for more, highly recommend). To be fair, the harm has also been significant, and we need to move beyond the model of infinite growth before it’s too late. But that’s beyond the scope of this particular post.

So the direction happens to be generally good for the world, and the velocity at which we move in that direction is extremely high.

Where rubber meets the road, this is pretty magical. Think of the set of all possible jobs, including those that are ‘pointless’. There's such an immense number of possibilities it's unfathomable. Now imagine ranking these by their potential impact on the market. This list is spontaneously discovered by the agents within the system, and they will generally select the job that's as close to the top of the list as their abilities allow. Organizing the chaos of life and an economy is done by an objective function whose definition none of us understand. And the jobs demanded by that objective function are generally done without complaint.

What’s involved in each of these jobs? Anything from fishing to farming to typing things on computers, the demands of these jobs are agnostic to things we humans inherently ‘like’ or evolved to do. So why do we do them? Maybe because it simply feels good to perform a task well, and to be challenged in some general sense. Maybe doing them is a means to an end, and since our brain desires the end, it learns to love the means.

Incentives

With the right incentives, almost any action can be wholeheartedly embraced. This is limited only by considerations for one's mental or physical health, or moral compass.

With the right incentives, almost any action can be wholeheartedly embraced.

What are these incentives? The most obvious is getting rich - as the path to achieving almost anything, more money seems like an inherently good idea. Money is a means to an end, like security, ego, sensory pleasure, or self actualization. One level deeper, perhaps at base these are all just mechanisms for feeling good.

The Agent's Perspective (You)

While the above might apply in the general case, we should all hold ourselves to a higher standard than just picking the most lucrative job we can. We have morals to uphold! We want to create a particular better world, not blindly trust that capitalism will take us there automatically! We have passions, preferences, and things that make us feel alive! But how can we square achieving these goals within the cold demands of the market?

We all exist within a much smaller context than the market as a whole. The incentive structure is fractal, which helps ensure that progress can be assessed with more focus and sensitivity. The barista focuses on providing good service and quality drinks, the software engineer on delivering her feature on time, and the student on acing the upcoming exam. There’s no time to worry about grand market forces when there’s work in front of you. Our society contains myriad ‘local’ systems, which directly incentivize achieving proficiency in specific skills.

Our society contains myriad ‘local’ systems, which directly incentivize achieving proficiency in specific skills.

Indeed, there are instances of these systems that don't serve market forces at all! A cyclist on a group ride is motivated to go farther or faster. A piano student with the right teacher is motivated to practice more than they would have on their own. It actually doesn’t matter which meta-goal your local objective is associated with; as long as success provides some extrinsic contribution to your self interest (e.g. approval from a mentor, status, money, positive impact on the world, etc.), it will push you to achieve more than you would have otherwise.

I believe that embedding yourself in such a system is crucial to maximize growth. Want to learn to code? Don’t rely on your intrinsic motivation to do it whenever you feel like it - become a software engineer, where your job success relies on you learning and performing this skill well. Want to learn to meditate? Find a community of meditators and a teacher, and participate regularly. Want to become a fast cyclist? Find a fast group ride, and try to keep up.

It’s a two step process: first, define what you think is a valuable skill or outcome, then find the system that incentivizes achieving that goal.

It’s a two step process: first, define what you think is a valuable skill or outcome, then find the system that incentivizes achieving that goal. Likely you’ll arrive at some combination of “x skills and y outcomes”. Hopefully it’s not something as soulless as “any skills and as much money as possible.” Think of what makes you feel alive, and what the world needs.

Magic happens when intrinsic and extrinsic motivation align, and both go in a direction that’s deliberately chosen to maximize human flourishing.

Reclaiming our Extrinsic Objective Function

This gives me hope for a future in which jobs are irrelevant. We will need to find extrinsic motivation to get out of bed in the morning, but fortunately “making money” isn’t the only option. We can create structures in which we can grow and achieve recognition, without being pulled so strongly by the demands of the market. The next “promotion” can be a result of increasing human flourishing, rather than creating the greatest economic output. We can define a “fake” economy, that allocates rewards based on achieving outcomes that are good for people and our environment.

Updating our Intrinsic Objective Function

At the most basic level, we do things because they feel good. We do all sorts of things that aren’t directly satisfying because they can result in feeling good in the future. This is why extrinsic motivation is important to light the fire under our asses and ensure we’re making progress instead of just hanging around watching Netflix all day.

What if distractions like browsing Facebook didn’t give us a dopamine hit, and thus we never even had the temptation to do so?

What if this tension didn’t exist? What if we could decide on a certain skill or goal, and making progress towards that goal would make us feel better than eating a slice of chocolate cake? What if distractions like browsing Facebook didn’t give us a dopamine hit, and thus we never even had the temptation to do so? We shouldn’t have to struggle against our evolutionary baggage to achieve the highest form of ourselves, and I’m optimistic that within a few decades we’ll have the tools to ‘fix’ this. Yes, this would have important ethical implications, and that’s a topic for a future post.

Prompt

Which of your past or current environments have led to the most growth? Have you been deliberate about what skills or outcomes the structures you’re currently embedded in are incentivizing?

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