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The Foolproof Recipe for Stealing the Power of the People

Charlotte Ashlock Posted by Charlotte Ashlock, Executive Editor, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Charlotte Ashlock is a crazy idealist trying to make the world a better place! 

The Foolproof Recipe for Stealing the Power of the People

Wikimedia Commons

It’s a clumsy villain that needs an army of jackbooted thugs to break down doors for him. The villains who control our world, have no need to resort to such crudities.   They don’t need money or guns or threats, when they have something way more powerful going for them: the power of boredom. 

Are you an aspiring supervillain?  Here's your three step recipe for taking control.

Step One: Make it boring.

It’s ingenious, really. 

  • Want to control other people’s money?  Invent a bunch of jargon that makes finance seem boring and impossible to understand.  
  • Want to limit access to justice?  Make sure the laws are so boring to read, that their brains will just melt if they try to understand.
  • Want people to give up their privacy?  Make the app's user agreement too long and boring for people to read.

Every type of power that people naturally have in a free society and democracy, we can steal in this way easily enough.  

Step Two: Overwhelm them with information.

My coworkers today were talking about publishing a shareholder activism book. It came up: why don’t more shareholders use their rights?  Because the companies just send shareholders 70-page booklets of bewildering legal language--  and the shareholders have no idea what to do with that information.

The modern-day Game of Thrones is not played with blood and swords and sex, but with paperwork and bureaucracy.   The more boring it is to understand you, the more outrageous banditry you can get away with.   And when people complain about your outrageous behavior, you can just tell them it’s their fault for not understanding the rules by which the game was played.   Why didn't they simply read the three hundred page document your lawyers wrote?

Step Three: Convince them they’re too dumb to understand.

Women were the first computer programmers, yet society has convinced so many women they’re too dumb to understand code.  (As someone who works with code, trust me: working with code is far easier and more relaxing than working with humans!) 

And yet, as long as coding has this mystique of being "hard to understand," developers can continue charging very high prices for their skills.   Law, finance, technology... no matter what the field, you can stay in power by telling other people they can't hack the complex, boring stuff like you can.

…. And How to Fight Back

In case there are any non-supervillains in the audience: If you want to fight on the side of justice, if you want to give power back to the people, do your best to make things exciting and simple to understand.   Some writers and educators are real heroes in this struggle.

One anti-boredom warrior is my father, blogging about math and making it fun and easy to understand.  He calls his website Occupy Math, because understanding math and not being afraid of it is one of the most empowering things you can do for yourself.  

The book publisher I work for has done many interesting exposes which rip away the veil of boredom.   Confessions of an Economic Hit Man shows how boring international trade agreements are tools the US uses to swindle and pillage other countries.   The 3 Simple Rules of Investing explains how financial professionals have tricked you into thinking you need their complex, boring expertise to manage your investments.    

Do I sound like a conspiracy theorist?  Once you start looking for it, villains that simply bore their victims into submission are everywhere.  

My Wish for You

Next time someone tells you, “It’s a little technical.  You wouldn’t understand,” don’t leave that unquestioned. Don’t let them snow you under with a tide of bafflegab.  Demand a simple explanation.  There is one.  Trust me.  Do not give into the forces of boredom.  Claim the interesting truth that lies beneath the smoke and mirrors. It is yours to grab. 


Daniel Ashlock

I was trying to think what the comic-book name for the mastermind of these supervllains you describe is.  The ones I came up with all sound too interesting.  Then it hit me - when an education professor attempts to actualize modalities for the structuring of a learning experience he is standing right there with the other members of the league of very boring appropriators.  Good blog - and I think the phenomenon you decry is pervasive.  Applause.

November 4, 2015