Over the last few years, I’ve seen several instances of (and reactions against) an intellectual denial of service attack that I’ll call “The Number One Priority”. Maybe you’ve seen it, too.
We cannot do anything until someone’s Number One Priority is satisfied. Exploring Mars? What about the starving Earth children? Developing a decentralized alternative to the current global monetary system? Fix this one first! Building a mobile scooter company to facilitate easy travel in big cities? NOT EVERYONE LIVES IN CITIES!
Searching Wikipedia’s extensive list of logical fallacies yielded the “fallacy of relative privation”:
Fallacy of relative privation (also known as “appeal to worse problems” or “not as bad as”) – dismissing an argument or complaint due to the existence of more important problems in the world, regardless of whether those problems bear relevance to the initial argument.Wikipedia
This impulse seems to combine with tall poppy syndrome to conspire against any sufficiently bold or popular new idea, particularly of the capitalist variety. A shame that we haven’t found a way to do something useful with this negative but often constructive feedback. We certainly have enough of it.
The general form, as expressed in countless Twitter threads, YouTube comments, and other outlets, is to decry someone who has announced a new thing they are working on as “not the right thing to care about”. Setting aside whether any given project or idea is valuable, the freedom to follow such divergent pursuits surely must be worth preserving.
The Number One Priority
Before you fret about whether I’m a soulless husk of a human who cares nothing about the suffering of others, let me preface this by saying that many of the priorities cited in this form are extremely important! Millions of people around the world lack adequate food, clean water, housing, and many other things taken for granted in the relatively comfortable Western world. We absolutely should do what we can to alleviate this suffering.
Imagine how odd it would be to suggest that, say, the Guinea worm should be eradicated, only to have someone grab the mic and tell you that REALLY the problem is Malaria. Well, aren’t they both problems? Shouldn’t we devote resources to both? We can’t leave those afflicted by one problem to fend for themselves while we all run off to focus on something else.
Extra-nerdy tangent: the NOP code in assembly stands for "NO OP", or "NO OPERATION" - it tells the computer to do nothing. If someone makes a problem or cause their NOP (Number One Priority), the state of neglect they find it in likely results from many other humans looking at the problem and NO-OPing. They've done nothing, because it's unclear what they could or should do. It's too big for them to even fathom a solution they could contribute to meaningfully.
In computing, sequential and parallel processing are two ways of operating on data. Sequential processing executes one operation after another. No matter how many instructions could execute at once, everything happens one event at a time. Parallel processing can perform multiple operations at once on different processor cores. This can allow you to get a significant performance boost, and more effectively utilizes the resources at your disposal.
The entire idea of comparative advantage in economics is that we all possess different relative strengths and weaknesses. I’m sure you’ve heard David Ricardo’s famous idea before (which I may write about in more depth later): I make wine, you make cheese, and we’re each efficient enough at our specialty that maximizing output requires that we each focus on our strengths and trade with each other. Those operating in a “sequential processing or bust” mentality appear to ignore all of this. There is no alternative priority worthy of consideration, no comparative advantage sufficient to extricate you from the duty of executing on the Number One Priority. No joy, no frivolity. Nothing can relieve you of your obligation except total and complete victory.
Of course, this leads to absurdity. If everyone actually stopped what they were doing right now to focus exclusively on cleaning the plastic out of the oceans, saving the Amazon, or a million other important and necessary things, we’d all starve. Someone has to grow the crops, drive the trucks that bring them to market, work in the grocery store, and on and on. People who demand acquiescence to their Number One Priority don’t actually believe that we should all call in sick to work for the foreseeable future. But they see no problem with attacking anything less than “required” – space exploration, seasteading, writing frivolous blog posts, whatever. Yet, such speculative tinkering is one of the great joys (and necessities!) of life.
The primary asymmetric power of this attack is in the emotional reaction generally elicited by the speaker’s Number One Priority. Usually, they point to a real problem for which a solution would massively benefit humanity. But the flip side is that it is deeply paralyzing. “I just wanted to build a mobile app. I don’t know how to fix poverty or starvation or infectious disease… I’d rather do nothing than be attacked for not doing the right thing.”
This is reminiscent of Buridan’s ass – a donkey equally hungry and thirsty who stands equally far from a bale of hay and a watering hole, and dies of thirst and hunger. We should both try to solve poverty and do what we can to mitigate the effects of climate change. Inequality and a lack of competitive dynamism in the economy deserve our attention. We must both eat and drink!
We can’t see how the zillions of innovations happening all over the globe might later, perhaps several steps removed, help us solve the problem we’re concerned with. The point isn’t to draw elaborate chains of causation leading up to a solution to your Number One Priority. That’s just another form of sequential processing! The point is, if we all do our best to make the world a better place, in the best way we know how, we will do so in ways no single person could imagine.
Perhaps I’m being slightly unfair. This phenomenon mostly affects people who can fend for themselves and don’t need me to stand up for them. Meanwhile, the people criticizing them or their projects often lack that power. Still, I think the critics will have greater success looking for opportunities to collaborate rather than exploiting a vulnerability to criticism. I’m sure someone will comment to let me know that I’m wrong.