The Commons is a weblog for concerned citizens of southeast Iowa and their friends around the world. It was created to encourage grassroots networking and to share information and ideas which have either been suppressed or drowned out in the mainstream media.

"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection." (Henry V, Act V, Scene 4)

Monday, August 22, 2005

Stirling Newberry - The Four Great Solutions

"The Four Great Solutions
by Stirling Newberry

In the previous posts, on the Challenges and Realizations I presented a simple theme: the end of extraction, and with it the death of "information" as being the sure road to wealth. Information is going to be transmitted, not just by governments, the market and the press, but by everyone, all the time. Much of it transmitted because that information helps individuals live in the world they wan to live in.

The coming century is going to be devoted to one important concept - understanding the collision between the small, reductionist and systematizable micro world, and the large, statistical macro world. That collision produces non-linear results, and forces us to ask and answer questions for which we did not even have the means of solution. Many, many, many people have talked about non-linearity and other abstract concepts, but the reality is, that until recently, very few people lived on the boundary between the top and bottom of society, between the large forces and the individual connections.

To take every bit of abstract out of it, if you want to know what the non-linear future looks like, you are connected to a piece of it. The audience for this site isn't composed of homogenous people all receiving the same information - but people of different kinds, different levels of activity, and different purposes. People are not reduced to an "audience", but remain individuals. Those connections on any given day can have the future skittering in any different direction, even though the whole shape is recognizable.

The great smothering reality of the late 20th century is that it preached revolution, but was very stingy about allowing people to change anything. This is because the post-modern industrialized, mechanized and commoditized economy is very, very, very complex, and the results of allowing people a chance at using that economy without being sure to make proper use of it is very, very, very bad. Consider that 9/11 was an example of a few people taking control of an almost infinitesimal percentage of that economy for under two hours.

The four great challenges: the end of extraction, the end of corporate socialism, the death of information and the labor arbitrage ocean are - on their flip side - the breaking of chains. No longer will human prosperity be chained to what we can dig out of the ground. No longer will human beings be drones of corporations in return for protection from risk. No longer will people spend their lives filling and sorting mostly meaningless bits of data. No longer will most of the effort of most of the world be spent twiddling coins and bits.

However, if we fail to meet these challenges, more dismal results await - a world that is hellishly hot, and poor of easy access to energy, where, instead of most people being tied to farming the way the world was in 1800, most people will spend their lives gathering a subsistence level of energy to feed the industrial economy. It will be a return to an almost medieval society. Top heavy with armies and lords. This goes beyond current temporary problems with the economy.

The important realizations are non-partisan - they can drive society in any direction, depending on which world view or world views understand how to apply them first. Since I am a progressive, and believe in a progressive society - one run by education, culture, deliberation of the body politic, free enterprise, personal liberty and ever improving standards of living, I am going to propose the broad outline of how to attack the challenges we face with the tools that we are now forging.

If you had been taken back to 1900, and were asked how the world was going to meet its problems in the 20th century, you would explain that everything would be mechanized - don't do by hand what you can do with a motor, that everything would be commoditized, and that the information and energy to accomplish these two steps would be the vast social project of the 20th century, how to bring everything under the rule of numbers, particularly statistics. You would explain that massive wars would be fought over which models of numericization, mechanization and commoditization would prevail, but in the end a complex mixture of several different strands of thought would be brought together.

To have a different future is to replace mechanization, numericization, commoditization and pyramid forms of organization that they both foster, and which, in turn fosters them.

1. The Sphere replaces the Pyramid

This is a repeated theme in my writing, but I will underline it again, replacing pyramids of control oriented thinking - which are linear in their thinking, hierarchical in their structure, extractive in their objectives, and mechanical in their social workings - with spheres - is the first important step.

What this means is that in the future, the question will almost always be "how do we let the community loose on this?" In the 20th century vast amounts of information were simply lost, and had to be painfully recreated by approximation. Everyone who read an article knew what they thought of it, but since there was no way for them to quickly rate it, that information vanished, and had to be recreated by surveys and various forms of ratings calculation.

The iterative capture of data allows almost any question of filtering or selecting to be put into the hands of a community. That doesn't mean blindly, since non-linear communities can freep a bad capture mechanism with ease. But unleashing community will be the default solution to almost any problem - just as creating a hierarchy was in the 20th century. The great skill will be to figure out how can we get people to incrementally eliminate the negative with their simple daily actions, as reflexively as you troll rate a "If you don't agree with our President you are a fucking traitor!"

The hall mark of a sphere is that, on any given day, any person can be the center of organization. In the future, people won't be famous for 15 minutes only, but on any given day, anyone can be mayor of America.

Spheres organize by channels of communication which are two way, and not by pipes. They have centers - groups that are more often more important, and which act as cinosures for contact - but these centers are not "tops" which attempt to control and impose endless copies of the same model.

2. Universalization

If individuals are to take risks, then loading more of the risk of the economy on to them is counter productive. People in China live in a high risk environment, and while that means their economy can grow quickly, it also means that millions of them aren't going to live to see it. As I outlined in Me, Inc., the way to get people to be more aggressive, is to spread the risk pool out over the whole of a country. This means national health care, national pension systems and national policy aimed at encouraging production over consumption.

But universalization is a standard unto itself. Just as the New Deal found it had to bring people in - into the banking system, into the work force, into the education system, into the electrical grid, into the phone network, into the political system, into the union movement - so too will universalization be the solution for most of the problems we face.

This follows directly from the first. If the means to attacking a problem is letting the community within a sphere loose on it, then bringing people into the sphere is the way of scaling the power of a community. This means not only better health care for Americans - but also ending poverty around the world. Starving people produce no force inside a sphere, they are too busy starving.

Universalization replaces mere "Globalism", which has become another word for fire the autoworker, hire someone who lives half as well, and employ him to mow some rich guy's lawn. GDP is higher, but net happiness is lower. Universalization applies to education, access to civil institutions, and all of the necessities for a person to be a functioning member of the sphere. Any capital - human or otherwise - not attached to the universal web is dead capital.

There are those that will flock to protectionism in the short run. It won't work. Instead, the economic path in the future will be to promote universalization by taxing protectionism out of existence. This will requiring facing certain addictions that the west has - to Saudi Arabia's cheap oil and to China's cheap labor. But these are going to come to an end one day anyway - they are both extraction economics.

It is the sphere that is the democratic form, as Emerson wrote so many decades ago, when America was just searching for the philosophy of a democratic society and way of being. It is finally time to put vision into action. Emerson himself was a visionary - in the 1840's he foresaw the day when electrical motors would replace most human labor - it would be over a century before this would be true. Our time must stake out a faith in the future which is as broad and will take as long to fulfill.

3. Live against Dead

The third step follows from the first two - if people are organized in spheres, and those spheres are universal, then everything must be made insertable into a sphere. Information must be live, available, and applicable.

Google, blogs and wikipedia are three first passes in making things "live". Live media are constantly changing, being cross linked and indexed, and bear the marks of a sphere in action. A sphere is as hallmark as a pyramid. One can easily find boiler plate Letters to the Editor, just as one can see a blog burst that is not mandated from above, but organized from within.

Making social organization live - and that includes party politics, regulation making in government and all other forms of decision making by the public or market - is the next step in attacking a particular challenge.

Live means making the source open, which requires a base to test (universalization) and the ability to collate contributions (a sphere). It requires was Lessig calls "Free Culture" and what Jenkins calls "Participatory" society. The living metaphor means getting people to see how their actions can cascade the way the release of a new organism can - but also how to apply that power to accomplish objectives.

But these three steps, while in operation, are not the final keys. They are tools, but their must be a goal or a standard. A vision.

It might seem odd to assert that a vision is a solution, but it is the vision that keeps people going. Few of the people reading this are going to see 2100 - the 22nd century. But many of us are going to see more and more of the 22nd Century unfold, that is, if we can sense the objective.

4. The Infinite Economy

The extractive economy is, by definition, limited. Either there is a limited amount of what is extracted, or, conversely, like information, it is valuable for a limited period of time. In the extractive world, rushing in time is important, because it is by being first in time that one nails down the ability to rent to the future. Capitalism - in its original form - was hostile to landlords and others who charged rent. Just read Smith on suspicious tradesmen, untrustworthy kings and the dangers of a society that allows the market to be bought out. Ricardo, who created the idea of "comparative advantage" called landlords "parasites".

The purpose of rent is to maintain and transmit economic information. As the sphere transmits more and more of this information, the margin for rent will go down. Corporations will be able to charge less for being first, simply because the social value of being first is going to drop.

The goal, by 2100, is an infinite economy - one that can sustain human society, and a continuous pace of improvement in our standard of living, indefinitely. The infinite economy requires a surplus society -a society that seeks to generate more of the goods that it prefers. If you think about it, human beings in the extractive economy live by generating entropy - they scatter pollutants into the environment, and take the energy that is gained from increasing general entropy, to increase information in small spheres. But entropy is a tax that is paid every step of the way, and the cost of that entropy is both an ever shrinking pool of energy to extract, and an ever growing pool of pollution that goes beyond what the environment can sink. This sink supply trap dooms any attempt to hold on to the extractive economy. Greedy people with heart conditions who hate their kids will push for it, but everyone else is better off in an economy that is sustainable and scaleable.

To generate the infinite economy means harnessing the power of the interface between the earth and the huge energy pouring in from the sun - not in merely the crass way of solving our energy problems, but also the problems of growing food, creating goods that we use, building our social networks, exploring the globe, and, ultimately, the worlds beyond.


I promised that there was one ur-idea, the meso-scale. And each of the above solutions are, in fact, a different aspect of this one idea - harnessing the non-linear power that lies on the boundary between the micro and macro worlds. The 20th century saw this boundary as a drag - a thing to be eliminated, stomped out or avoided. Unfortunately for the spiritual and political health of our society - all individuality is non-linear, that is the definition of it - the result is incalculable.

The sphere is the structure that creates a meso-scale, universalization the method that extends that boundary as far as possible, live source knowledge the way to harness that boundaries energy - and the infinite economy the natural objective of an infinitely complex and non-linear society.

This may seem metaphysical, and to some extent it is, it is a metaphysics which places its faith, however, not in simplifying assumptions, not in the mass or the mob, or a world flattened to regularity and regimentation - because that is what will be used to fight against progress at every step of the way. Instead in places its faith in the very forces which the 20th century feared.

To reach for these solutions requires only a simple change in perspective. In the 20th century, particularly in the post modern, people were told to be consumers. It wasn't just soda that was commoditized, it was politics as well. People became consumers of the economy, with a popular veto that reared up and shouted no. People paid a grievous tax of their time to a society, so they could then get out of it. Amusing yourself was life, the rest was details.

The future belongs to the group that can see themselves as producers. The reactionary forces see themselves as producers of a pyramid of theocracy and extraction - that's why we are in Iraq. The progressive forces have to stop seeing themselves as protecting the small consumer against the big producer, and instead see their mission as dismantling the very large producer system itself. Not in the sense of dismantling economies of scale, nor in decentralizing to the point of entropy - but in creating a matrix which binds production to the necessity of a surplus society and an infinite economy.

This process, of realigning what "profit" means, so that those who want to do well must do at least a minimum of good - is periodic. That time is nearly upon us now, and within 20 years it will be obvious to anyone who can look at a gas pump and count to 10, or perhaps 11.

I'm again going to emphasize that this is not in the visionary future. The future is here, now, and it works in demonstration form. The future lies, in its essence, in expanding to a forest the world that people here have seen as a seed."


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