For the Parents Funding the System#

In 1967, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber wrote a best selling book called, “The American Challenge”. He wrote how American civilization was rocketing past that of Europe:

“All of Western Europe”, says Servan-Schreiber, 43, “is being taken over by American industry, which is better organized, more computerized and far more imaginative than anything the Europeans, including France, can produce. Already, the Americans control 50% of European transistor production, 80% of computer production and large percentages of the Continent’s heavy industry and oil. In France, U.S. firms produce 65% of agricultural products and telecommunication equipment, 45% of synthetic rubber. Unless Europe wakes up soon”, says Servan-Schreiber, “the third industrial power in the world in 15 years, after the U.S. and Russia, could well be not Europe, but American industry in Europe.”


Even more alarming to Servan-Schreiber is the fact that 90% of the capital needed to finance this American invasion was raised from European investors eager to take part in U.S. ventures. “What threatens us,” he writes, “is not a torrent of riches. The war is being fought against us not with dollars, oil, tons of steel or even modern machines, but with creative imagination and a talent for organization.

What America has done is to change the entire concept of culture, the values of civilization. The new American culture is not Chartres or Versailles, but the organization of talent. The Americans organize intelligence so that it creates. They have an industrial and scientific strategy. That’s real culture.1

Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber was worried that the United States would become a magical civilization from the future, co-existing with and dominating the France of his time.

But this American cultural engine broke down in the early 1970s. Something happened that stole the American vigour; only the computer and software revolutions continued. Nobody knows why this happened.

I have personally experienced the medieval side of French civilization that Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber criticized. A large French firm, backed by the French government, took over a renewable engineering company where I worked. They immediately raised my pay, but then they blocked the light corridors of our building with offices. They hired more and more managers and turned our flat and nimble organization into a steep hierarchy. Our development cycle slowed to a crawl, and what a neo-feudal process squelched little innovative fire we had. It felt like we were all back in grade 7. We didn’t know what we had until it was gone.

I quit and began an education startup. I wrote an “automatic tutor,” which used a Bayesian statistical inference engine for gamifying the instruction of speed arithmetic. I would use the kid’s feedback to tune their games so they would fall into the psychological state of flow. It worked! Then I ran out of money.

To pay the rent, I became an engineering consultant, and my professional projects took up a lot of my creative energy. But I never stopped working on education systems. The most important thing I learned was that I had to sit side by side with my customers and try my best to listen to them, and kids have a hard time explaining things to adults. Kids just tell you what they think you want to hear; they are trying to make you happy. John Holt wrote about this in his famous book, “How Children Fail”.

John Holt#

I learned to listen to kids, and they told me that I had to adapt to them, to their culture, to let them play and learn in a way that is natural for them. I learned that they are typically very intelligent, the things blocking them from “outward success” are poor technique, a incorrect belief about their abilities and the same things that I was struggling with as an adult: management of frustration, how to design my work so that it isn’t boring. How to remain focused on a project in the age of distraction, and so on.

When I re-engaged with large engineering companies, I saw that they didn’t care about customer feedback. They were mostly focused on the internal political problems that arise in large organizations. This phenomenon is written about in a book titled “Loonshots” by Safi Bahcall, its great.

We can all experience the sense of wonder that Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber wrote in 1967 when we look at Tesla, Solar City, Neuralink, SpaceX, even the Boring Company. All of these Elon Musk-backed firms seem like they are from the future; they don’t squander feedback, they don’t waste their lessons. You can watch videos of their engineers jumping up and down after a victory. I have never seen anything like this in a Canadian firm.

Musk runs his companies on what he calls the “silicon valley operating system”. There was nothing special about the technology being driven by Tesla or Solar City, but these ideas weren’t being funded within our risk-averse neo-feudal system. Had they been funded, our engineers were too spiritually exhausted to build them: they were deflated from being in meetings staring at spreadsheets or from watching people of high rank slowly misspell things on large screens for hours at a time.

So how do we build a better future? Our kids already know how to do it. They watch and learn from each other on video-sharing platforms. They use twitch to communicate with each other. They are already part of an extensive distributed learning system, and they get feedback; they don’t hang around if something is boring. They like to grow, and they want to make things. But who can we learn from to build a better education system?

Alan Kay and Joseph Henrich have a lot to teach us. They are both anthropologist engineers, and they have a lot to say. They describe how we live in memetic networks, that most of what we do to survive and thrive within our society is just copied from others. This is mostly an invisible process, and it is easy to imagine that we are self-made, when in fact, we would quickly starve if we had to figure out how to survive in the world on our own.

Joseph Henrich wrote a book about this called The Secret to Our Success in 2015. The book described an experiment that compared two different educational systems in an evolutionary race. One approach was comprised of people who learn from a master of the subject, then the best student of the first generation became the teacher for the next generation. The best student of the next generation would become the teacher of the next next generation. This was a guru education system.

The other system was started the same way, but then the generations after the first generation were taught by 6 students from the previous generation. These “new teachers” had a wide variance in ability. This was a peer-to-peer education system.

The two educational systems were run for 6 generations, and when the race was completed, the researcher tested the kids of the final cohorts from each group.

The kids from the peer-to-peer educational system completely dominated over the guru education in their understanding of the material. There are many reasons why this is the case, the most uncomfortable to think about is that people like to learn from people who are like them. This creates a system of preferential attachment, where one of the sub-groups gains more authority and prestige, they become the teachers and they are good at teaching to the people who are like them, leaving the other sub-groups behind. A peer-to-peer training system circumvents this phenomenon.

Let’s say this is all true; why don’t we change our educational system, so it’s peer-to-peer? But is that a good idea? I don’t think so; we can’t just change what we have, nobody understands how it works, and that’s why it is called an institution. Even if I had the authority and power to do so, I wouldn’t touch it. The Canadian system is one of the best in the world. We have great professional instructors and administrators. Someone has to do the double duty of child care while teaching. Our teachers manage huge classrooms, don’t have a lot of control over their curriculum, teach all of the kids, even those who don’t speak English or who come from broken homes, and have emotional problems and need support. The Canadian educations system is safe and stable, and it’s a good foundation.

But can we go beyond this? Could we teach children to work together in a chaotic, non-institutional group? Oh yeah, they already do that on their own.

How about this then: Could we build a context in which they can run the Joseph Henrich distributed memetic learning model? Could we introduce them to market signals, money, negotiation, self-governance and show them how to get better at their trade quickly? Can we teach them that they can walk away and do something else? If they don’t like where they are not to feel trapped in a lousy institution as an adult. We could have the kids learn from one another; moreover, we could pay them to teach to show that they don’t have to wait 13 years to participate in our economy.

So, I don’t think we have to compete with our public school system or take any resources away. We can build something orthogonal, something self-funded.

Imagine a short program build-up of 12 prizes or trials; very, very high bars. I would come up beside you as a parent and say, “I can get your kid over that bar, and I won’t accept any money until I do.” This will keep me from blaming the kid if my business thesis is wrong. It will also mean that I won’t keep kids who have no interest in participating in our group. If they don’t want to be there, they don’t have to be. But if a kid who wants to stay tells me he has dyslexia, I’ll say, “Ok, let’s get you a good text-to-speech system.” If a kid can’t hear very well, we will set them up with a microphone and some headphones. If the kid likes to compete, we will make a game. We will adapt to our kids. You don’t need superstars in a Heinrich system, just normal people who want to cultivate some grit. Worthwhile projects aren’t made up of one-off exams, and they are things you have to work at and grow against.

So my requirements are simple, I want kids who want to work together to do something really hard, and I would like them to invite their friends who want to do it too.

But how do I sell even more work to a kid? Alan Kay says it has to be a part of their culture, it has to make sense to them. I’m writing this during the 2020-2021 pandemic. When I talk to my young relatives, they are drowning in homework and are feeling deflated from video learning.

Well, how about this kids, “I’ll teach you how to write a cheat sheet and carry it into an exam with you without getting caught?” That should be an easy enough sell. But where would you keep this sheet? ” In your memory of course, that way, we won’t break the rules.” I will teach mnemonic techniques used by “intellectual athletes” who compete against each other. I can teach you how to count cards, but more importantly, I will teach you how to integrate what is on the cheat sheet into your long-term memory if you want to remember it. This would be the first trial. With this skill advantage over other kids in your class, the school workload will feel a lot lighter. This should give you some mental energy to take on the next trial.

A Good memory can lead to impaired thinking. I could create a crutch and end up limiting the kids over the long term. So the next trial will be about numeracy, the basic stuff you would need in business or in a board room while talking to investors. Think about the 50’s engineer who could do huge calculations in his head. I will teach your kid how to do that too. The trial will be based on speed arithmetic and DSP techniques created to make computer processors do math with less energy. This is hard work, so what is my pitch? We will do it as a game, so it’s fun, and you will gamble, and the risk will give it meaning. While working on more math, I will pay you to teach the previous generation about your mnemonic techniques. Each of you will talk to every kid in the new generation. The money you make will be determined by how helpful you were in their training, and we are trying to teach that money is feedback. The kids will remember what it is like not to know something, and in teaching, they will gain an even more in-depth understanding of the material. Since they only get paid if they uplift one another, they will learn how to mentor rather than just compete.

They will do more than this though; they will innovate. They may come up with songs or rhymes or games. These techniques will be adopted into the technology and culture of our learning systems. As we can get kids over the bars faster, we will all make more money. The parents and sponsors of the system should be happy for a speed-up in production, but we will have to make sure we don’t end up gaming our own system.

But the real thing I am trying to cultivate in this culture isn’t something I can get paid for. The kids will establish long-term networks of trust. They will feel a sense of self-confidence, vigour, and pride from being a part of such a group. I will encourage them to tend to these networks-of-trust as they would with a garden since it’s one of the most valuable things we have. Moreover, it will be a network-of-trust of people who have grit; imagine what that would mean for their lives and our society as they get older.

The staff of will do as much as they can to stay out of the way of the growing culture. But we will work with the kids to design better games, we will write software to help track progress and who is training who, and provide the means of giving feedback. We might hire outside consultants on how to teach kids how to teach better. We will run A/B testing to use statistical methods to mine the techniques that work from those that don’t, and then we will show them how to do this. We will research codes-of-conduct from the open-source community and let the kids pick and choose the parts they want to use to run their organization. The kids will have some skilled people ready with a network of professionals to help them build a better, faster system with an internal set of norms that make sense to them. In short, we will innovate too. The kid’s culture and the business’s technology will co-evolve.

If the trials become too expensive, we will find outside sponsors to feed money to cover the costs incurred by the new kids. The staff will also try to find ways to scale the system if it works in our starting city, Vancouver, Canada.

Other trials, would be about “tactical and strategic thinking and the scientific method”, “how to be creative” using the work of Edward de Bono, “Network theory, social media, prestige, information cascades and marketing” based on Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and Duncan Watts, “listening and negotiation” and “local tourism, blogging, branding and networking”, “the means of production, 3d printing, CNC and the future of local manufacturing”, and ultimately I would like to teach them out to access networks of finance through local incubators and personal introductions. If there is a demand for it and it isn’t taught in school, I’ll teach a programming course. Eventually, we would move the whole operation into a factory with computers and equipment for the kids to learn on and play with.

Kids are already over-scheduled, though. So, our facility will be more of a nexus point than a place of focused practice. The kids will meet one another, explain things, then schedule times to meet and talk online. Maybe they will use the facility to just hang out with their friends. The training materials will be generated as a mentor works with their mentee, and it will be sent out digitally. The details of how to do this effectively, will be learned as we go.

Our members, your kids, would become the creators and leaders of tomorrow, building a system that would terrify the likes of Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber.


Time Magazine, Friday, Nov. 24, 1967