Making a difference

re-published from 1/22/2003

Is there any urge more basic than for your life to be of consequence? No matter how we define consequence, most of our instincts and actions seem aimed towards it.

Forging a Confederation

I used to live in Philadelphia and I’d walk around Old Town and I got it that the Founding Brothers were technologists in many ways. They too were dealing with an interesting bandwidth accident exhibiting unintended outcomes. England’s purpose for the Colonies, of course, was to get more stuff as cheaply as possible and to tax the colonists as much as possible. But bandwidth got in the way.

This was such a wild land that, for the better part of a century, the colonies were more isolated from each other than from Mother England. Gradually though, wagon trails were built and it became more convenient for the Carolinas to deal with Pennsylvania than with England. The other virtue was that the colonists, though profoundly different north-to-south, related to each other far better than to the Court of St. James and the East India Company. By the 1770’s, the differences could no longer be ignored. Like any network, the colonies paid closest attention to the highest fidelity signal.

What’s interesting is how few people set the direction for the American Experiment. Only the 56 white guys in Carpenter’s Hall understood what a leap they were taking with the Declaration of Independence. It’s not like they were being closely controlled by their state legislatures which were several days’ ride away. It was never a certainty that Tom Jefferson’s stirring Enlightenment-era declarations of individual freedom would set the stage for their conclusions. He did it because he could and he wanted to be of consequence.

Eleven years later, the 39 signers of the Constitution acted just as independently in setting down the rules of engagement for the people and their rulers. No one paid much attention to their secret work until they were surprised by the many changes the Constitution proposed. The fight over the document was fierce and the debate thoughtful, but they didn’t revise what the standards body had hammered out. So the twig was bent and that was the direction our nation inclined. In October 1788, the old Congress disbanded quietly to make way for an entirely new form of governance.

That was some serious standard-setting. Today, we’re the delegates setting the standards for the world that will follow us. Relatively speaking, we’re even fewer than the four score or so men who did the real work of putting symbols on parchment. Some of the symbols we’re using are pretty arcane, but they set standards anyway, which will mold society as surely as did the Federalist papers.

Writing the Human Code

“Humanity [is on] a personal quest to enlarge the soul, liberate the spirit, and light up the brain. On that quest, politics is simply a roadblock of stentorian baboons” Tom Robbins

So a few will debate nuances no one else comprehends. Even fewer will lay down the words that free our progeny. What works will grow and the rest will wither, as it always has. Someday we’ll see that the Toms, Jefferson and Robbins, were right in seeing that as long as there are willing followers there will be exploitive leaders.

We’re learning how to follow our collective gut, add what we can, use what works and leave something better behind. Maybe this isn’t an apocalypse but a parenthesis and the age of hierarchy is an interruption in organic evolution as it’s always gone on.

Doing sensible things is what makes us consequential.

One thought on “Making a difference”

  1. That’s an interesting point about bandwidth– that there was more bandwidth from the colonies to England than among each other. Perhaps a similar transition is happening now in that there is more bandwidth among citizens than between citizens and institutions. Who knows what that will bring?


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