DRMacIver's Notebook

When come back bring pie(s)

When come back bring pie(s)

There’s a metaphor people use: Some people fight for a larger slice of the pie, others see that it’s better to enlarge the pie.

I’ve seen this metaphor used for everything from intersectional feminism to the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork’s extremely libertarian brand despotism. Broadly the point is this: It’s better to build a positive sum game where everyone benefits than it is to compete in a zero or negative sum game.

The relationship between this point and the metaphor is interesting. I agree with the thing that I am claiming to be the underlying point (but then I would), but I think what the actual metaphor demonstrates is also interesting: People don’t understand how pies work.

What happens when you build a bigger pie?

  1. You run into scaling issues, limited both by the size of your oven and also (if you build a better oven) the square-cube law (actually I’m not sure if this is the square-cube law at work, as pies tend to be scaled horizontally faster than they are scaled vertically, but either way once your pie gets big enough it’s very hard to ensure it’s cooked all the way through - you end up with overdone outsides and and underdone middle).
  2. The same people who couldn’t eat your smaller pie still can’t eat your larger one.6

The correct solution is not to enlarge the pie. It’s to bake more pies, and also the provide tasty food that is not pie because not everyone likes pie.

If you’ve ever tried catering to a diverse group of dietary requirements, at some point you hit the point where you realise that it’s much much easier to make multiple dishes than it is to try to create a single dish that can feed everyone. A vegan gluten free nut free diabetic friendly pie is certainly possible, but it is a pie that basically nobody is going to want to eat. In contrast, a wide variety of desserts that can cater to each particular restriction that your group encounters, without attempting to shoehorn everyone into a one size fits all badly model.

The Unit of Caring has a notion she uses a lot of competing access needs. She explains it well here, but the important quote (to save you from Tumblr’s giant GDPR screen) is:

Competing access needs is the idea that some people, in order to be able to participate in a community, need one thing, and other people need a conflicting thing, and instead of figuring out which need is ‘real’ we have to acknowledge that we can’t accommodate all valid needs. I originally encountered it in disability community conversations: for example, one person might need a space where they can verbally stim, and another person might need a space where there’s never multiple people talking at once. Both of these are valid, but you can’t accommodate them both in the same space.

Trying to build a space that works for everyone is more or less impossible, and what you will end up with is a space that works badly for everyone. Instead we need the ability to have multiple spaces which we acknowledge as valid and allow people to freely move between these spaces as long as they are prepared to accept the local rules.

In an interesting coincidence, this came up in a completely different context recently. A while back I sketched out a way of using randomization to improve the design of Lean Coffee meetups. This morning a friend reported:

I used to organize David-Style lean coffees at my previous job. (…) The interesting limitation we ran into is that toward the end, the attendence was two groups with mostly disjoint interests.

The nice thing about small-scale democratic processes like this is that splitting the union is a completely legitimate move. If you have two groups with disjoint interests, why not run them as two groups? Ideally at different times so that people who really are interested in both can attend both.

How to do this sort of thing at a larger scale seems to be one of the great unsolved problems of society.