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Things tend to get worse as they scale. As startups turn to large corporations, they empty of meaning. The tight social bonds of a village fail in the big city. What goes wrong?

Common theories are about coordination failure, trust breaking down, lack of reputation enforcement, etc**.**

Here, I'll explain these dystopian aspects of scale in a new way. I believe we systematically measure the wrong things at large scales, and we get what we measure.

The systems that need to scale up can be broken into parts—parts I'll call funnels, tubes, and spaces. As systems scale, we fail to monitor the health of one part: the spaces. This leads to space decay.

The dystopian aspects of scale are well-explained by space decay. This means, by measuring space health, we could make big things less dystopian. That's the good news.

I'll discuss how to measure space health. I'll also look into why we don't measure it now. The upshot is that we don't realize how important spaces are. We measure what we respect, and we don't respect spaces enough. Luckily, there's a great deal to be gained, even in our personal lives, by respecting spaces more, and become more articulate about their success.

Funnels, Tubes, and Spaces

Almost anything can be classified as space, funnel, or tube—personal relationships, products, social activities, or even physical places like offices and living rooms.


Funnels are when you're part of a goal someone else invented. Note: It's a funnel even if you like the goal! So: when you find yourself pulled in by the smell of french fries outside McDonald's—that's a funnel. If you work for an org that gets malaria bed nets to as many people as possible, that's a funnel too. Were you part of a cult that tried to turn you into Elon Musk? Funnel!

What ties these things together is that someone (not you) designed something to push people towards a goal or vision.


Tubes are things which accelerate each person towards their own goal. When you look something up on Google Maps, catch a taxi, or negotiate a win-win contract, that's a tube. Online examples are Google search, Amazon, and various APIs.

Tubes get you to your own goal quickly.


Spaces aren't about getting a clear goal accomplished. A space is a place for non-goal directed, exploratory activity. Like jazz jam sessions, art studios, or conversations with friends. At larger scale, research labs, festivals, and universities count as spaces. Online games like Roblox and Minecraft are spaces.

What do I mean by non-goal directed activity? In spaces, instead of looking for actions that advance a goal, we follow paths of attention that lead somewhere interesting. In a conversation with friends, you might attend to what you could reveal about yourself. At a jazz jam, you might attend to dynamics contrasts. While dancing, you might explore being slightly off balance. You combine these paths of attention like a painter combines colors, to uncover possibilities.

A good sign something's a space is if you don't want it over quickly.

The Effects of Space Decay

Spaces are great. It'd be a damn shame, if something bad happened to them.


Here's some (admittedly indirect) evidence that something bad has happened to spaces.

If we imagine a society without spaces, only tubes and funnels, such a society would have problems. Are these problems familiar? Are our spaces are disappearing?


Ambitious goals—like curing all diseases or mapping the brain—require exploratory spaces. So, a society without spaces would be incapable of ambition.

More broadly, institutions like science and democracy would break down. Their funnels (for winning political campaigns, riling up voters, ramping citation counts, etc) would hypertrophy, taking up a ton of our attention, while the relevant spaces (where scientists and citizens explore values like civic responsibility, epistemic humility, and the passionate pursuit of the truth) would atrophy. We'd have degenerate, funnel-only versions of democracy and science. These would be terrible places: without values to keep them in check, perverse incentives would compound.


Social connections would unravel without spaces. Funnels and tubes tend towards relationships that are transactional, rather than deep or exploratory, because people want to achieve their goals quickly and without risk. Transactions (short-lived, predictable, and simple) are the most minimal kind of relationship, where both parties stay atomized, and there's no possibility of surprise. [fnTransaction]

Those limited, transactional relationships aren't enough. So a society without spaces would have less trust, less social cohesion. There would be spikes in drug addiction, suicide, etc.


There's another consequence of people's desire to achieve goals quickly and without risk: the elimination of surprise. Funnels and tubes emphasize efficacy and predictability, and these take precedence over other values like creativity, boldness, vulnerability, embodiment, etc.

We use a blanket word for these values: meaning. In a good space, we explore what's meaningful to us—not what's efficacious. Spaces are where you can live expressively, and treat yourself as a source of surprise. fnMeaning

So, without spaces, there'd be a "meaning crisis". People would grab at sources of promised meaning, like radical politics and get rich quick schemes, and they'd try to fill the holes, but that wouldn't work out.


Finally, a life without spaces would be exhausting. Every encounter would be about getting something done and moving on to the next thing to get done. Sometimes it's your own goals; sometimes, other people's. Completing one checkbox just brings you to the next, never to a space for relaxation or open-ended exploration.

People would race around, looking for spaces, but not finding them. This would make them exploitable: funnels would dangle the vague promise of a space in front of them: "buy this beer and be loved by friends", "take this online course, get rich, then you'll be able to relax and explore". But these would never deliver, because even the drunk, rich people would lack spaces. It'd all be a tremendous waste.

Measurement Error

In the rest of this post, I'll claim that space decay is happening, and that it's mostly due to measurement error, and I'll show a way to address it.

I'll begin by looking at a space I was in recently, and show why might it decay.

With my girlfriend, I went to the farmers market for wild mushrooms. We found an array of mushrooms there we’d never tried, and asked the seller about them. A 15 minute conversation ensued: about mushrooms, seasonality, local forests, taste profiles, and how the weather this year is different from last. Recipes and forest locations were shared in both directions. We were all energized.

While we talked, the seller didn't focus on completing the sale, and neither did we. She might even have lost business by having a long conversation. At the end, we did purchase some mushrooms, and the vendor bagged them up.