Lauriston Sharp was a professor of Anthropology and Asian studies at Cornell University, and he wrote one of the most fascinating papers I’ve ever read.
It was published in 1952 in “Human Organization” and it’s about 11 pages long. (The whole thing is available via PDF by clicking here.)
The story unfolds quite dramatically, but the basic idea is this: Early missionaries to Australia had trouble getting people to show up to their Bible studies so they decided to “sweeten the deal” so to speak, and started handing out useful tools to the people who would show up.
Those tools were things like steel axe heads.
Here’s what they didn’t know.
Turns out that those folks were still in the stone-age. Literally. They were using hand-knapped stone implements like spearheads, axes, and so on.
Steel was eons ahead of their current level of available technology.
Secondly, stone tools were a fiercly defended symbol of social hierarchy.
Only men could own them. Women and children would have to ask to borrow them in a ritual, much like a teenager would have to ask to borrow the family car.
It was a big moment when a male child becomes a man; the day he owns an axe!
Further, the materials required to make axes weren’t always readily available. Certain kinds of stone came from hundreds of miles away, and this community was a node along a long path of commerce centered around making axes.
Cut scene to missionary gathering…
Now, who do you think showed up? Not the men. They didn’t have any need for this “god” stuff. There was real work to do!
The missionaries were handing out steel axe heads to women and children.
Consequently, it threw the whole social system into absolute chaos.
Women were coming home with what amounts to space-age technology and it was theirs.
To put it into perspective: Imagine if aliens came down to Earth and started handing out space ships to people. Teenagers wouldn’t have to ask for the keys to their family’s sedan; they have a new ride!
It completely upends the system of interpersonal accountability and social structure.
From my perspective, that shake-up is not obviously or inherently a net positive.
Second and third order effects are extremely difficult to predict, and there was significant disruption along the trade route beyond the villiage, too.
But this kind of effect can be good. When?
In a dynamic where this system of interpersonal control is being used to undermine individual autonomy and preventing them from making meaningful human connection.
Space Ships For Stone Age Servers
I see Urbit as the steel axe head of the 21st century internet user.
For too long we have been asking permission to borrow the servers of Father Facebook and Mother Google.
Our human connections are controlled by the whim of the “concerned” employee who isn’t a fan of all this conservative talk.
“Who knows, maybe they’re Nazis! Someone should do something!”
So you’re cut out of the community.
We have servers from outer space! With them we can completely opt out of the systems that have been used for decades to shape our beliefs and affect our very core values.
Our Urbit servers are the freedom we need to build our own future and leave the old ways behind.
Welcome to the future.
Join me on Urbit: ~minder-folden/antechamber