Trim Tabs

July 17, 2020

Inspired by Buckminster Fuller - ideas from “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”, “Integrities And Ideas”, “Critical Path” & “Grunch of Giants”

How much can an individual affect the world?

To paint the bleakest picture: corporations have systemically exploited the power structure of society over generations of regulatory capture by exchanging the profits they've maximized for rules and laws in their favor. We've granted corporations — which are non-human, abstract, invented, legal institutions — the same rights and protections as humans, but with unlimited power. We've naively used profit as an approximation for goodness and just outcomes.

Up against these capital-intensive, politically fortified giants, what influence can an individual have?


Individuals have leverage.

"Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary - the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there's a tiny thing on at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It's a miniature rudder. Just moving that little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it's going right by you, that it's left you altogether. But if you're doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go."

— Buckminster Fuller

Leverage is about transforming linear inputs into exponential outputs.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world. ”

― Archimedes

The trim tab confirms what is possible for individuals and offers insight into how individuals can affect change in the face of such enormous challenges and incomprehensibly large corporate forces out for themselves.

Trim tabs reveal two important points about leverage.

  1. It confirms that a small effort can have an outsized impact.

  2. It demonstrates the point of highest leverage on the vessel is trailing the very periphery of it at the back of the rudder - it doesn't come from a place where you'd expect to find to it.

Historically, leverage was limited to capital and labor and accessible to corporations, not individuals. However, software has driven the marginal cost of production and replication to zero, affording a new kind of technological leverage to individuals. What used to require millions, multitudes (organized into corporations), and years is now possible with thousands, individuals, and immediacy. The nature of work has changed. Individuals have a lever long enough and fulcrum on which to place it. Leverage is increasingly permissionless.

What then should the individual do, knowing individuals can do something?

Fuller was focused on making the world work for all of humanity in the shortest time possible without ecological consequence or the disadvantage of anyone.

He noticed society operates on a preindustrial assumption of zero-sum games, inspired by Malthus and the economic principle of scarcity — finite resources with haves and have-nots. Meanwhile, humans are losing significance as automation challenges jobs as the source of human dignity.

He also noticed that the true extent of wealth is unlimited — scientifically and incontrovertibly. There is enough to support all of humanity and to operate on an assumption of positive-sum games. We understand that the solar system is the source of all wealth when released by science through technology. We've laid the technological plumbing to harness and channel the solar system's infinite supply of wealth, but we continue to rely on the Federal Bank rather than the Sun.

There are unlimited problems - on the spectrum of boring to interesting, and simple to complex. There is also unlimited, but untapped wealth.

Do some of your own thinking and walk into the expansive and neglected reservoir of problems - there is a permissionless harvest awaiting.

Focus on building something positive over negatively lamenting the status of corporations and state of the world (of which there are many legitimate reasons to lament right now).

To change the world, you have to start positioning the trim tab to steer the ship, to affect those around you, to affect communities around them, to affect their towns and cities, to affect states, to affect countries, to affect the world.