/ The Personal Blog of Basil Labib / blog


February 22, 2021

What is this about?

So, here’s the thing, imagine the following situation:

You are the manager of a team of experts (say successful authors, famous musicians, legendary programmers etc) who are proficient in a field you know nothing about and are responsible for building a product/service/solution (you will be surprised to realize how prevalent this is in modern production chains).

You have no idea if the person does his[1] job optimally or at his best potential. You only see the end result and “declare” it as state of the art simply for lack of a better alternative.

The problem, of course, is the fact that the specialised group of people being small in number and having no competition, have no compulsion to actually work. Just the signal that they are working is enough though it is at the cost of quality and undermining of the society.

The problem is especially daunting if that job happens to be critical, eg: operating system design or military embedded software (These examples are not exhaustive but merely the first ones to come in my mind) for in this case, the peril is due on the people who consumes that product. No wonder we have had many such instances of loss and destruction which probably isn’t even recorded.

I pursue the point that it must be true simply because of the sheer vulnerability it exposes us to and for the utter fallible nature of the so-called “experts”, humans in general.

But why do people behave this way?

People behave this way because it is human nature.

An obvious step to solve this problem might be to verse ourselves in the craft. This definitely is a solution but alas suffers from two shortcomings:

  1. The entry point to achieve that level of expertise will consume the undertaker’s lifetime (or a significant portion of it) because simply of the sheer volume of content that we have generated and the inherent limitations of the human mind to comprehend and assimilate knowledge.

  2. Exactly because of the first point, by the time you become an expert, the investment in terms of time and energy (and perhaps wealth) that you have garnered becomes a priority and there is nothing to stop you to follow the path of your peers and simply signal the achievement of optimality though it seldom is true.

And we are back at where we started from.

The Principal-Agent Problem

Ok, so without knowing what it was called, I stumbled upon the idea of the principal-agent problem. I got to know what it’s called in Naval’s Almanack.

Isn’t it truly amazing how idea is so decoupled with language? Of course, it has to be because ideas are created (discovered?) first and then named for future reference. Now, this is a really powerful idea and I’ll save it for another post.

I’ll keep my title though. :)

In conclusion

We have come full circle around this vicious, fundamental and omnipresent cycle that is simply a dangerous byproduct of what we are capable of. I wanted to point out this specifically for two reasons,

  1. It impacts everyone of us in deeper ways than we imagine.
  2. I am trying to curate good mental models and build a viable structure of ideas.

So, whenever you go out, keep an eye for these cycles and hopefully these words will assist you then.


[1] - I seek your pardon but I find it extremely uncomfortable with the awkward he/she, his/her and all the nonsense that I find spewed almost everywhere nowadays. I will randomly select a pronoun (with a probability of 50%) and let it be my subject for that thought process. It, of course, doesn’t diminish the efficacy of these words for the other genders.

On a second thought, I thought using the more neutral ‘it’ but refused as it felt too mechanical and gave me the feeling that I was talking to machine with many cogwheels and eyes as red as T800. It’s bad English works this way and I hope they will come up with something more suitable.


Jan 30, 2021 - First draft written.
Feb 22, 2021 - Edited and added a bit more material.

Basil | @itbwtsh

Tech, Science, Design, Economics, Finance, and Books.
Basil blogs about complex topics in simple words.
This blog is his passion project.