The Liquid Pyramid Theory


The Liquid Pyramid Theory

I believe we are quickly approaching a future where the world will start to resemble the picture below. This is intentionally meant to be controversial, but once you understand what I mean by it, you might just agree with it.


I will explain the picture in a bit, but first, let me quickly talk about what inspired me to come up with it. This picture (and the theory behind it) was actually inspired by the “company hierarchy” picture that gained some notoriety a few years ago. I have included it below for convenience:

In that picture, the (tongue in cheek, but quite realistic) terms “Sociopaths”, “Clueless”, and “Losers” are used to describe the three classes of people in a large organization. Anyone who has inhabited a large enough organization for a while can probably relate to the picture, so I will not go into describing it in more detail. Suffices to say that upper management corresponds to “Sociopaths” (upper management types, please remember: tongue-in-cheek), middle management corresponds to “Clueless” (with apologies), and lower level employees correspond to “Losers” (well, you knew that, didn’t you?)

Just to clarify once again, these terms aren’t necessarily meant to be taken literally. Someone who is at the highest level in a large organization need not necessarily meet the clinical definition of a sociopath, (though I am sure some do), but they do end up sharing many attributes with them. It may not be practical for upper management to treat each of the employees as individuals (in spite of their proclamations, and may be even intentions, to the contrary). It may be a lot more effective for them to treat them as amorphous blobs instead. Also, they may have to deal with other sociopaths, such as the upper management at their competitors, or their board of directors / investors, or the press, and so on.

Similarly, the middle management is “Clueless” in the sense that they spend most of their time dealing with either the upper layer or the lower layer, not the external world. Their life is full of memos, reports, policies, ratings, and email forwarding. And the “Losers” at the bottom are losers in the sense that they are definitely providing a lot more value to the company than what they are getting paid – otherwise the company wouldn’t exist.

Still, if someone is still uncomfortable with this way of thinking, try to realize that the real culprit here isn’t the layers and their characteristics, but the fact that we are describing really large organizations, and it is really their largeness that ends up forcing such characteristics on them.

Anyway, getting back to my point then, what I am doing here is trying to extend that picture from large organizations to the entire society. And also moving the society into the fast-emerging future, which changes the shape of the picture and adds some very interesting nuances. And then I will end up with a silver lining at the end followed by a fun little prize for your time.

The Class Hierarchy of the Future

Let me include the picture again for easy reference:

Here are the main characteristics of this class hierarchy:

– At first glance, I still have a pyramid with the same three categories as the “company hierarchy” pyramid: the “Sociopaths”, the “Clueless”, and the “Losers”. But this is where the similarity ends.

– My pyramid is “stretched” (depicted by the curved rather than straight lines). Kind of like how it would be if it was made of rubber and was stretched from the top. This indicates a much wider disparity between the mega-rich upper classes and the poor. This is pretty much how many societies look these days.

– Not just that, but the absolute top of the pyramid appears to be actually separating from the rest of the pyramid, forming a “bubble”. (I am using the word “bubble” deliberately since it demonstrates many of the characteristics of bubbles – disconnection from reality, the lack of rules that apply to others, the flimsy basis that formed it, the euphoria as well as anxiety experienced by people inside the bubble, how unreachable it looks for the people below etc.)

– Thus, I am showing the “Sociopath” zone splitting into two: those who managed to achieve sufficient velocity to become airborne and get into the bubble, and those who just missed it. The ones who missed it are still at the top of the rest of the pyramid. And the do occasionally get invited to parties where they get to rub shoulders with the real bubble people. More importantly, they get to take selfies with them, which they can then use to impress the “Clueless” and “Losers” below them in an awkward attempt for demonstrating their high-class status.

– As software and other technologies slowly eat the world, the “Clueless” zone will consist mostly of techies (engineers and some related people like designers, salespeople, etc). These won’t necessarily be middle managers as in the company hierarchy picture. In fact, most of them will be individual contributors, but still able to command a higher status than the “Losers” due to their higher and more marketable skill level.

– To account for all that, I have split the “Clueless” zone into three sections: the “10X” techies at the top, the “1X” techies at the bottom, and AI (or more generally, automation) in the middle. These people are clueless in the sense that they spend all their day dealing with technologies, software, data, and processes. Not the realities of the external world. (Needless to say that, at least for a long while, AI will continue to be really clueless!)

– Even then, AI / automation will constantly keep pushing in both directions, pushing a very small number of the “10X” people into the “Sociopath” category (the poor genius forced to become an evil genius), and forcing many of the others into the “1X” category. And of course, some of the “1X” people will fall down into the “Losers” zone as a result.

– “Losers” will basically be the people who did not manage to acquire the requisite technical chops to get into the “Clueless” category (or, the sociopathy and incredible luck it would have taken them to get into the “Sociopath” category.) In the future, they will probably have to sustain themselves with either scraps or some form of Universal Basic Income. One hopes though that the basic necessities of life will be cheap enough (due to the automation) that they will still be able reasonably (and hopefully even comfortably) sustain themselves.

The Silver Lining

Ok, if all this sounds quite dismal, let me tell you that there is some very good news.

Note that the pyramid almost looks like the shape water takes when you drop a stone into it. Here is a picture of that:

Ok, why is that a good news? The analogy actually goes a lot further than just physical appearance. The class hierarchy pyramid will display the same characteristics of fluidity and short-lived nature as the shape of the water. In both cases, the pyramid-like structure is not stable at all. Soon after it forms, the droplet at the top will fall down and the rest of the pyramid will collapse. And even that does not last very long. The collapsed pyramid is immediately followed by a new (though smaller) pyramid. This can continue for a while before things settle down. But even that calm state does not necessarily last very long. If a new stone is dropped into the water, a totally new cycle of pyramids will begin. And so on ad infinitum. (Note that in case of the class hierarchy, the role of the stone is performed by a new and powerful “shock” to the system, such as a new major discovery or a powerful social or natural phenomena of some sort.)

Not only that, but it is likely that each time a new pyramid forms, some of the people from the “Losers” class will manage to get into the “Sociopath” class or the “Clueless” class. And vice versa. The class hierarchy will be a lot more fluid and class mobility will be high as a result.

Fluidity and Empathy

Another important way that the class hierarchy pyramid resembles a pyramid made out of water is in terms of its fluidity. As I described above, both types of pyramids don’t last very long and new ones can form as easily. Why does that happen?

This is a natural consequence of the fluidity of the society (or water). If society is rigid (as it used to be in the past – resembling molasses rather than water) the pyramid would form very slowly and last much longer. This would mean that most people would probably be born in one class and die in the same one. But as the modern society becomes more and more fluid, it would be possible for more and more people to go up (or down) the class hierarchy during their lifetimes. Many may even get to experience the whole cycle of going all the way up and then down. Some may even get to experience it multiple times.

This leads me to another type of silver lining: a more empathetic society. Since a much larger percentage of the population will be able to experience class transitions, they might actually start to understand how it feels to be at those levels. Not only that, but they won’t be able to set those experiences aside once they get into the higher levels as they do today. This is because they will be quite aware of the ephemeral nature of the pyramid and the possibility that they will be at the bottom of the pyramid next time around. This will force them to not just become more empathetic but actually act politically and socially in accordance with that. Maybe not all of them, but in sufficiently larger numbers than today to make a real impact.

Belly-Flopping Into the Future

Bottom line, one shouldn’t necessarily get scared of this emerging future. It might turn out to be a very interesting ride. Just jump in, the water is going to be fine!

And now here is your reward for reading all the way until the end. Belly-flopping sounds like a great way to enter the water! 😉