The coordination problem, or what it takes to change the world

Excavator 288 is the biggest digger in the world. It can move 240,000 tons of dirt a day. How much dirt could you dig by hand in a day? More if you used a stick. Even more if you added some better technology such as a spade and wheelbarrow, but if you really want to move a lot of dirt you need an Excavator 288.

Technology multiples human’s efforts and endeavors. Excavation machinery multiplies our ability to dig. The printing press and publishing on the web multiplies our ability to learn. Bikes, cars and aeroplanes multiply our ability to move at speed. Technology is a multiplier.

And yet the big human problem that technology has yet to solve, and so multiply our ability for, is how to coordinate ourselves to achieve goals bigger than we can achieve on our own.

Some might say that we human’s have done pretty well coordinating ourselves to achieve big things like eradicating small pox or landing a man on the moon, or driving on the same side of the street, but there is still so much more for us to achieve. Technology played no small part in achieving those things, but perhaps technology can also help us solve our coordination challenges in new and better ways to achieve even more.

Humanity has always required some means of coordinating ourselves. It was that ability to plan and distribute tasks among a group that allowed prehistoric humans to hunt much larger animals. A small tribe of people would have regularly and routinely coordinated around achieving the shared goal of getting dinner. But of course, each individual would have also had their own goal of not getting hurt or killed in the process. So, if everyone helped then everyone benefited, but if one person did less, then they were safer but the chances of achieving the group goal were lessened.

This same thinking is still applied to the coordination problem today by economists and game theorists. It draws a distinction between the goals of the individual and the shared goal of the group, and it assumes that people are rational agents who make choices based on what is best for them, which often puts them in competition with the group goal. Game theory has lots of models to explain how choices play out in different scenarios, and from this perspective the coordination problem is an information asymmetry problem. If everyone all knew the same information and all knew what each other knew, then this transparency would drive vastly different choices. If all of the hunters knew that one intended to play safe, would that cause him to change his mind or would it cause other hunters to also play safe even at the risk of not having any dinner?

A posthumanist perspective would say that we aren’t really rational, intentional agents making informed decisions and that the systems we are part of affect our choices and behaviours far more than we realise or would care to admit. Although our morals and our legal system still centre around the responsibility of the individual for their actions, we are increasingly understanding how poverty affects crime, how commercial incentives affect business decisions, and how company culture affects behaviour within organisations, all things that aren’t the result of individual choice and behaviour.

Typically, our mechanisms for systemic change across society have been state-managed regulations and laws, often put in place because of market failures. If car manufacturers made cars that couldn’t break the speed limit, there would be no need for laws that set speed limits and punish drivers for breaking them. But they do, so there are. It’s expensive for water companies to have measures in place that prevent sewerage from entering streams and rivers, so they don’t do it well enough. Environmental conscious people don’t like it when waterways are polluted and so they pressure the government to introduce regulations. The regulations incentivize water companies to put protections in place by making the fines larger than the cost of the protections. And having put the protections in place, the water company increases the costs to it’s customers. These are the kinds of systems we are all part of. One where we’d usually blame the individual for driving too fast and one where we’d blame the organisation for choosing profit over protecting the environment, but all exist within systems that greatly affect behaviours.

Understanding how change happens in complex systems is essential for solving the coordination problem. It tells us that a single shared goal that everyone agrees with is probably the wrong starting point. We can’t say that ‘reducing inequality in society’ is everyone’s goal because it means something different to every single person who thinks about it, and not everyone agrees that it is the right goal, or how to go about achieving it. So we have to accept that everyone has a different goal in mind, that some of those goals will appear selfish, and we have to allow people to work towards a goal in their own way, even if it isn’t a way we’d choose or agree with. Without these kinds of freedoms built into the system coordination looks very much like centralised control.

The coordination technology of the future will operate within these most complex of complex systems. They’ll balance all of those players; governments, companies, individuals, and all of their actions; regulatory, commercial, moral, and they’ll achieve big goals. But what might the technology look like? Well, it already exists. It’s in it’s infancy, but it’s there. We are all already being coordinated by it.

Advertisers spent over seven hundred billion dollars in 2021 to get us all to buy things. That’s a lot of coordination. Social media platforms have 4.6 billion users. That’s a lot of coordination. Google processes more than 20 petabytes of data every day. That’s a lot of coordination. These technologies might not look like they are being used to make the world a better place, but they are most definitely coordinating huge numbers of people to behave in ways that further someone’s goals.

The challenges for the future of coordination technologies are who controls them, how they use them, and to what ends.