the [hero|startup|explorer] & the [king|giant|exploiter]

Looks like the permalink URL for this post is pretty hilarious. Oh well.

Anyway, I just finished reading THE HERO AND THE KING: AN EPIC THEME, by the late W. T. H. Jackson of Columbia, which basically talks about how most European epics involve a conflict between a king, who’s a powerful guy with a lot of responsibility for and influence over society, and a hero, who’s a powerful, mobile, ambitious guy who threatens the king’s power. Of course, the book immediately starts in on how the various epics complicate this dynamic, especially the ones that are influenced by romance and/or Christianity, and also the ODYSSEY, in which Odysseus is of course both hero and king — but, you know, I don’t know this field, and presumably it’s not ridiculous for the famous works to be the ones that are formally groundbreaking in ways that less enduring ones weren’t, and it’s hard for me to deny that the problems of succession and the trajectory of a king’s power are preoccupations of these works. In any case, it’s a nice way to organize all this important literature that I haven’t read, and there seems to be a sizable kernel of usefulness to it. And, you know, I keep up with Paul Graham, who’s a startup evangelist, and I read this Slate article about how trustbusting of tech companies is basically slower and less effective than Darwinian market forces. And one of the preoccupations of cognitive neuroscience and AI, just to keep the whiplash coming, is figuring out a mechanistic account of action selection — how an agent might allocate its actions to maximize resources. A standard tradeoff in this sort of work is between exploration and exploitation — once I find a source of resources, how long do I sit on it and mine it before I go looking for new ones?

So anyway, all this business about heroes and kings and startups and giant companies got me thinking that these succession dynamics might be a response to natural explore-exploit dynamics. A given king, or a given company, has a certain set of advantages, around which him/it adapts him/itself. That adaptation to exploitation, though, renders it inflexible (famously so in the case of big companies). At some point, the king or company will have mined all the advantage available — or, if not all of it, will have at least mined enough of it that there are greater efficiencies to be gained elsewhere. But the adaptation to exploitation has made the king or company unsuited to do new things. So in comes a usurping hero, or startup, with a new set of advantages tailored to the efficiencies currently available. The actual dynamics in business are presumably just as varied as they are in epic; sometimes the hero unseats the king, sometimes the king co-opts the hero, sometimes the hero screws up and flames out. But the basic dynamic of conflict between establishment and usurper determines succession is a constant.

Put that way, maybe it’s not all that interesting an idea. I guess the interesting part, if there is one, is the idea that it’s hyperspecialization that accounts for the king’s rise and fall, the company’s boom and bust. The weakest part of the analogy, at this point, is the idea that a given king arises because he has a set of advantages that he can mine, and that those advantages run out. You might be able to make the case for a bloodline (or, more easily, for a political party), but the problem with hereditary succession is regression to the mean — it’s unusual that a person is strong and smart and driven enough to usurp a kingship, and so it’s likely (though not certain) that his descendants won’t be as strong or smart or driven as the usurper was. And then you start thinking that, well, the skills necessary for usurpation probably aren’t the same as those necessary for a good kingship anyway, and does the ability to usurp bear any relation at all to the ability to rule…

Well, so the idea’s got some problems. But at least it’s off my chest and on yours now. Ha!


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