Using difficulty

After appearing in 160 movies and winning countless prizes, including two Oscars, 90-year-old Sir Michael Caine announced this year that he is retiring from his distinguished acting career. I don’t know how algorithms work in this context, but these days, social media cannot seem to have enough of him. Or perhaps it is a mark of his popularity that people can’t forget him. Popularity, of course, isn’t everything. We recently saw another beloved actor suddenly dying. Matthew Perry’s memory is disappearing from the internet before our eyes. But then, everyone had given up on him a long time ago. Remarkable how quickly people abandon you when you are in crisis. Especially if they can find a way to blame you for your misery.

You might have seen many of Caine’s trending video clips. In a joyful recollection, he regales us with an episode in his life where his affluent hostess mistook him for a drug peddler because she thought people around him kept addressing him as ‘my cocaine’.

In a similar interview, Michael Parkinson asked him to explain one of his statements. The conversation goes like this: Parkinson: I came across a line which I just wanted you to sort of explain to me. You said that if you did have one philosophy of life, it was “use the difficulty.” What does that mean? Caine: Yes, use the difficulty. Well, yeah. I was rehearsing a play when I was a very young actor, and I had to come into this scene — it was a stage play — I’m behind the flats waiting to open the door. There was an improvised scene between a husband and wife going on inside, and they got carried away and started throwing things. And he threw a chair, and it lodged in the doorway. And I went to open the door, and I just got my head round and said, “I’m sorry, sir, I can’t get in.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “There’s a chair there.” He said, “Well, use the difficulty.” What do you mean?” ‘Well, if it’s a drama, pick it up and smash it. If it’s a comedy, fall over it.’ He said, “Use the difficulty.” Now, I took that into my own life. You ask my children; they would say directly if anything bad happens, they go, “Gotta use the difficulty. How can we work — what can we get out of this? Also, added philosophy is avoid them if you can!

Avoiding difficulty is often not a choice. Folk wisdom has been telling us for a long time what to do in a bad situation. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade and so on. What Michael Caine does here is to tell you how to apply your mind to such a situation — the mechanics of a solution.

In every bad situation, you come across four kinds of people. People who contribute only to panic and shrill. Those who offer solutions. Doers who implement those solutions. And those who actively try to pervert and sabotage those solutions. The last category has found a new lease on life in the internet and social media age. Some do it for ideological reasons, but most do it for fun, cheap thrills or a quick buck. And as tech billionaires have sought to maximise their profits and dodge taxes or accountability, they have invested heavily in hiring internet mercenaries we often call trolls. Every now and then, a billionaire becomes so desperate that they try to game and overwhelm the entire system. What Elon Musk, the wealthiest man on the planet, has done to Twitter is a notable example.

When it comes to solutions, one term that might have come to your attention is effective altruism. As is often the case with many good ideas, it rose to prominence through a scandal. If you pay attention to cryptocurrencies, you may know about Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF) and the FTX crypto exchange scandal. Since the scandal broke, the FTX company has been forced into bankruptcy, SBF was convicted on seven counts of felony fraud and conspiracy, has been sent to jail where he may languish for decades, and another trial for five new counts is scheduled for March 2024.

When the whole thing surfaced, pundits connected him to various donations he gave to political campaigns. He was the second highest donor to the Biden campaign. But while Republicans were trying to present him as the evidence of the rot within the Democratic party, it turned out that he had also contributed to their causes and campaigns as well. Later, we learned that he was part of the movement called effective altruism and something of an expert in investing in social causes.

As an idea, effective altruism (EA) is simple and beautiful. It advocates for using reliable data for targeted interventions to get optimum results from the use of charity. It was popularised by noted philosophers like Peter Singer, Toby Ord and William MacAskill. The term was coined in 2011, and MacAskill’s book, Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and How You Can Make a Difference, is the best introduction. He is only 36.

But like it often happens with good ideas, subcultures and elites, this movement got associated with, if not appropriated by, elite colleges and tech billionaires. And in case you haven’t noticed the children of privilege that most successful tech entrepreneurs are, they often convince themselves that nobody can do a job better than them. Bill Gates is already criticised because he allegedly believes he can handle philanthropic causes better than field experts. You can try to comprehend the arguments from both sides of the divide, but when such powerful subgroups are involved, accountability and course correction become a distant dream. The movement now includes 7,000 adherents, is associated with some of the elite schools in the US and the UK and has kinda sorta been appropriated by Silicon Valley.

Recently, we heard about EA again on the failed boardroom coup in ChatGPT’s OpenAI. The two members who were eventually booted from the board were associated with the movement.

But that is not my beef with the movement. Mine is with the grey material from this utilitarian meat grinder. When you plan things in a boardroom and you focus on results, you overlook one crucial aspect of the equation — people being people. They feel pain, have emotions and almost an infinite capacity to suffer. The problem with planning at the macro level is: if you cannot become part of the most widespread solution, you are left out and probably forgotten. Work with this chair, Michael Caine.

Published in Other View , December 2nd, 2023.

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