The Sailboat Metaphor

Consider a sailboat, floating on the surface of the ocean, pushed about by ocean currents and by the wind. Suppose there is a slow but steady current from the east at 1 knot, and an equally steady wind from the east at 10 knots.

It would seem that an object of any kind, sailboat or otherwise, is bound to be pushed by these natural forces in a westerly direction. If ever there is a deterministic situation, this must be one, with both of these powerful forces pushing in the same direction, and nothing to oppose them.

To the uninitiated, at least, it seems as if the sailor has few choices, if any.

But this is not so. She can sail in any direction she wants! If she wants to go west she just puts out a large genoa jibsail and lets the wind push her. Going north or south is almost equally easy, (and rather more satisfying.)

And in fact, the most satisfying sailing of all is "beating up wind", in this case travelling east. This is not quite so easy, and requires a certain amount of activity on the part of the sailor, but it is the best part of sailing. To travel east, all she has to do is synthesize an easterly path out of a series of short tacks in a north-east and south-east direction, zig-zagging into the wind.

So, you see, it does not matter what direction the wind is blowing from, as long as it is blowing. And it does not matter what direction the ocean current is flowing, as long as there is enough wind. As I see it there are at least three profound lessons here. The most important one to me is that strong forces pushing you in a particular direction can be useful even if the direction you want to go is the opposite one -- indeed in the absence of strong forces we may be unable to move in any direction.

This is important to remember when you suddenly feel a strong force pushing you. One possible reaction to this situation is to "go with the flow". Another is to "dig in your feet" and refuse to be pushed.

But there is one more reaction, the best of all: shout "Aha! Wind's up. Let's be off!" and then set off in whatever direction you choose.

I think a concrete example is in order. My favourite is sex-drive and education: it's been a long winter, and let us say you have spent it trying to learn something you want to know, like a foreign language, higher mathematics, or watercolour painting. Suddenly it is spring and couples are walking hand in hand by the lakeshore.

One reaction is to resign yourself to the inevitable -- put away your books, spend a little time hanging out where there are attractive people of the appropriate gender, and let it happen.

Another reaction is to resist the urge -- go home straight after work, draw the curtains, and just concentrate on your studies.

On the other hand, sex is a powerful motivating force, and can be used to push you in whatever direction you want to go. Nothing makes those old French texts so interesting as the attentions of an attractive French-speaking person.

Once spring is in the air and the inevitable seems inevitable, instead of letting it happen wherever and whenever it does, there is always the option of seeking out an attractive person who knows and cares about whatever it is you have been trying so hard to learn.

There are a couple of other obvious conclusions to be drawn from the sailboat metaphor. One concerns compromises -- when they are necessary, and when not.

Over a wide range of directions you can manage to sail straight towards your goal: you can sail straight towards your goal if it happens to lie in the north, the west, or the south.

But if it happens to lie in the east, you have to make a series of compromises, going first north east, then south east, then north east again, and so on.

In the long run you can get to your goal, but you cannot get there without heading in other directions and changing your heading from time to time.

I think some people know this instinctively, and do make periodic changes in their life. To others this may seem like vacillation, but it's not (necessarily) so: the zigzag track of a sailboat beating up wind is not the result of indecision -- when the goal lies in one direction and the wind is blowing in the other, that's the only way to get there.

Copyright © 1998 Douglas P. Wilson    

Copyright © 2009   Douglas Pardoe Wilson

Other relevant content:

New: Social Technology through Diagrams

New: Social Techs novel online

New: Social Technology Blog

New: Social Technology Wiki

Please see these web pages:

The main Social Technology page.

Find Compatibles , the key page, with the real solution to all other problems explained

Technological Fantasies , a page about future technology

Social Tech a page about Social Technology, technology for social purposes.  I think I was the first person to use this phrase on the Internet, quite a long time ago.

Roughly corresponding to these web pages are the following blogs :

Social Technology the main blog, hosted on this site, with posts imported from the following blogs, which still exist and are useable.

Find Compatibles devoted to matching people with friends, lovers, jobs, places to live and so on, but doing so in ways that will actually work, using good math, good algorithms, good analysis.

Technological Fantasies devoted to future stuff, new ideas, things that might be invented or might happen, such as what is listed above and below.

Sex-Politics-Religion is a blog about these important topics, which I have been told should never be mentioned in polite conversation.  Alright that advice does seem a bit dated, but many people are still told not to bring up these subjects around the dinner table.

I believe I was the first person on the Internet to use the phrase Social Technology -- years before the Web existed.

Those were the good old days, when the number of people using the net exceeed the amount of content on it, so that it was easy to start a discussion about such an upopular topic.  Now things are different.  There are so many web pages that the chances of anyone finding this page are low, even with good search engines like Google.   Oh, well.

By Social Technology I mean the technology for organizing and maintaining human society.  The example I had most firmly in mind is the subject of  Find Compatibles , what I consider to be the key page, the one with the real solution to all other problems explained.

As I explained on my early mailing lists and later webpages, I find that social technology has hardly improved at all over the years.   We still use representative democracy, exactly the same as it was used in the 18th century.  By contrast, horse and buggy transporation has been replaced by automobiles and airplanes, enormous changes.

In the picture below you will see some 18th century technology, such as the ox-plow in the middle of the picture.  How things have changed since then in agricultural technology.  But we still use chance encounters, engagements and marriages to organize our home life and the raising of children.  

I claim that great advances in social technology are not only possible but inevitable.  I have written three novels about this, one preposterously long, 5000 pages, another merely very very long, 1500 pages.  The third is short enough at 340 pages to be published some day.  Maybe.  The topic is still not interesting to most people.   I will excerpt small parts of these novels on the web sometime, maybe even post the raw text for the larger two.

This site includes many pages dating from 1997 to 2008 which are quite out of date.  They are included here partly to show the development of these ideas and partly to cover things the newer pages do not.  There will be broken links where these pages referenced external sites.  I've tried to fix up or maiintain all internal links, but some will probably have been missed.   One may wish to look at an earlier version of this page , rather longer, and at an overview of most parts of what can be called a bigger project.

Type in this address to e-mail me.  The image is interesting.  See Status of Social Technology

Copyright © 2007, 2008, 2009, Douglas Pardoe Wilson

I have used a series of e-mail address over the years, each of which eventually became out of date because of a change of Internet services or became almost useless because of spam.  Eventually I stuck with a Yahoo address, but my inbox still fills up with spam and their spam filter still removes messages I wanted to see.  So I have switched to a new e-mail service.  Web spiders should not be able to find it, since it is hidden in a jpeg picture.   I have also made it difficult to reach me.  The picture is not a clickable link.  To send me e-mail you must want to do so badly enough to type this address in.  That is a nuisance, for which I do apologize, but I just don't want a lot of mail from people who do not care about what I have to say.


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