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December 21st, 2013 by Edward Miller

I haven’t made a post in a long time, and I apologize for that. This one will be more personal than usual, and subject to future revisions.

I think of myself as someone who likes to provide clarity. To show people ways of transcending false dichotomies, limitations, and zero sum games. I try to give reality checks whenever the need arises, to whomever is in need of one. I believe ideas must be discussed without regard to their ideological origin, cultural prejudices, or the status of the position. Most importantly, I want to achieve the most possible good in the world, and alleviate the most amount of suffering, and this requires large changes to the way our civilization behaves.

This puts me in a very small minority of the population, given that normal, healthy, and well-adjusted individuals don’t typically spend their time thinking of how to fundamentally alter human civilization, nor are they likely to actually care about methodically constructing a consistent view of the world.

Indeed, it is said that it is rational to be ignorant, given that the amount of time and effort that must be spent to make even the most minor alterations in society is daunting, and quite uncertain.

This leads us to a very unhappy conclusion. That I am not a very rational person. I implicitly assume that there must be an escape route. There must be some sort of Hail Mary pass that can be made. And, a further necessary supporting assumption behind that, is that the effects of that change won’t be so nonlinear as to be totally unpredictable. That I can use some sort of dead reckoning to navigate the murky waters, despite having no real picture of the geography.

Nevertheless, I find it especially important to be humble about the extent of our knowledge, the limitations of our perceptions, and the fallibility of our biology. We are loaded with layers of overlapping biases, emotions, intuitions, revulsions, instincts, sexual drives, and overactive pattern recognition systems. Indeed, these things define us.

“Picture all experts as if they were mammals.” – Christopher Hitchens

Given this, I find it very difficult to assess my own competence on almost anything, and I am skeptical of others who think they are competent. It seems like a miracle that anything functions at all, given a sober recognition of these facts. Yet, high level selection effects allow systems like the market or the scientific method to produce adequate outcomes that improve over time, even if most individual efforts are failures.

I mention these two systems, the market and science, because they function in the way described, not because I wish to ignore all the other rich aspects of human experience. In looking to achieve the wide ambitions I stated, I can place hope in certain systems which can be depended on to weed out failures. Ideally, the systems would do so without any need for top-down corrections. Experimentation is something that is done in the scientific community, and in a sense it is done in markets. Both depend on an overarching political system to provide the stability necessary for these experiments.

Yet, the political systems themselves conduct very little experimentation. There’s hardly a square inch of land which is not claimed by some flag, and revolution is very infrequent. The revolutions that do happen seem universally to result in very unoriginal constitutions which look very much like the messy compromises that all the other countries have… and usually modeled directly off one another. Some people have called this process Globalization or The End of History.

My goal, consistent with my need for transcending limitations, is to find ways to open up experimentation, and direct the creation of new systems which seem likely to be of significant improvement. Political and economic systems are prior to scientific advancement and wealth production. They are meta-level institutions which determine the boundaries on the rate of change, and its trajectory.

I think of constitutions as replicators, like genes or memes. Not only do they have different phenotypes, but they have differing rates of fecundity and fidelity. If we can begin to re-conceive of them in this way, we can construct new ones in a self-conscious manner. Just as the GNU Public License was specifically crafted to achieve rapid replication, and automatically enforce the values that it wished to express.

Yet, political experiments are extremely dangerous. No such enterprise should be taken lightly, and as we know from studying natural selection, virtually all mutations are maladaptive. It is only those rare few that are beneficial. We don’t want to be cannon fodder for natural selection. Thus, we must make an in-depth study of politico-economic simulations, and help to advance that science. I think that by using modern techniques of software development, major progress could be made. It is crucial to create a DSL and an API for such simulations.

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July 2nd, 2009 by Edward Miller

Cross-posted at Sentient Developments

The Internet by Sebastian Prooth
The Internet by Sebastian Prooth

There is a long list of crises that we need to face and I won’t waste time boring you by listing them. As our brightest minds admit they were wrong, I hope that I can say, without qualification, that big changes in our thinking are required. Unfortunately, we haven’t made that “Change” even though we now have some new faces in power, and a bunch of old faces out of business or in prison.

There is still an unquestioned belief in the need for major public transportation projects, global supply chains, large scale social programs, and economies of scale. These have become so integral to our way of life, that they are hardly ever questioned. Granted, Wal-Mart is often used as a public target for venting our frustrations at these things, but virtually all business nowadays is conducted using global supply chains, economies of scale, and so forth.

Thus, our political discourse usually revolves around ways to prop up these very systems, since these are the only ones we know. We believe we require trillions in “infrastructure” funding. We believe that we must “create jobs.” We believe we must become “competitive” in the international marketplace. All of these assumptions are echoed in academia, merely using fancy jargon as a substitute for insight.

Let me first say that I accept the logic of comparative advantage and economies of scale as it applies to the capitalist mode of production, and it can truly be the most “efficient” allocation of resources in a quantitative sense, though not always. Yet, as Peter Drucker once said, there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all. I do not accept that the inevitable centralization of power from this sort of production is a good thing. Centralized powers are able to create artificial scarcities, in order to inflate profits at the expense of everyone else. This invariably requires things like corporatism, regulatory capture, secrecy, and rent seeking.

None of these things are very amenable to true progress, which requires openness, peer review, constructive criticism, and creativity. The types of innovations that occur under these centralized systems, even if they take on a bourgeois bohemian quality and aren’t bland and soul-crushing, are incredibly stifling of progress. Open standards are shucked in favor of closed proprietary ones whenever a corporation can get away with it. Parts are never interchangeable. The production processes are so far removed from our daily lives that we have no idea about the processes involved in the creation of the product, and indeed breaking open the gizmo more likely than not voids the warranty… though I’m not sure you’d even want to open it up considering the high density of toxic crap trapped inside.

All of this has had corrosive effects on our culture, as well as our environment. Our hyper-consumerist culture encourages us to get the latest and greatest stuff. We follow a sequence of fads specialized to our exact niche market (hipster, redneck, emo, rock, punk, goth, anime, whatever). We indulge in enormous quantities of unsustainable, non-renewable, and disposable products. Even more discouragingly, many companies use engineered obsolescence to artificially increase output at the expense of the environment.

We are now lamenting the fact that none of us have a clue about what it actually takes to produce tangible, concrete things which improve our lives. We are too busy answering phones, producing ad campaigns, and writing paperwork. Thus, instead of becoming active participants in the production of our culture and economy, or even informed consumers, we have become totally and completely dependent upon forces far beyond our control. As the market swings out of control, so do our jobs, our homes, and our very lives.

Yet, a revolution has occurred right under our noses whose effects have yet to be fully explored, and most of us are completely unaware. Digital communications technologies, especially the Internet, have enabled new modes of production and organization, such as Open Source and P2P, which have never before been possible. If we can learn to harness the power of these systems, we can escape the path our current world is on where each labor-saving device seems only to cause us to work longer hours. Where social programs seem only to foster dependence. Instead of innovating in accordance with the logic of centralized power and artificial scarcity, we can innovate in accordance with human needs and wants.

Open Source Ecology
Open Source Ecology
We can collaboratively build all the necessary life support systems needed, but have it be on a self-contained and local scale. It cannot be known whether the shape this takes will favor truly scale invariant systems, like the hyper-local RepRap project which is allowing production right in your living room, or whether it ends up fostering a new urbanism where production takes place in vertical farms, factories, and community hackerspaces. Talk about vertical integration! It also cannot be known how it will reshape our communities, since each community would be redesigned in a participatory fashion by the members of the community itself. Some may opt for small scale pedestrian-friendly towns in harmony with nature, while others may opt for sustainable urban metropolises, and others may ditch both for self-sufficient mobile homes and yachts.

In each of these cases, the means of production will likely have been placed in the hands of individuals, and drudgery will be automated away much like how open source software projects collaboratively eliminate bugs and expose flaws in wiki articles. Considering all of this, it may be useful to begin talking again about incentivizing local production. “Import substitution,” has long been a naughty word among economists. It is the process of breaking free of foreign dependence by incentivizing local production. Usually via tariffs and other measures. However, this would be a misguided way of going about this.

We don’t need to incentivize local production of just any type. We need to incentivize open and collaborative production. For example, creating prizes for contributing to the Commons. In 2007 there was a proposed bill called the Medical Innovation Prize Act which sought to spur patent-free medical inventions. If only it was this sort of mentality that guided us for the past few decades, then we wouldn’t have ever had such a monstrosity of a healthcare system. The same mentality could guide any industry. A useful exercise would be to think how it could guide the industry you are currently involved in. Finally, the creation of new local credit systems could also incentivize collaborative local production. There are lots of new concepts along these lines.

I also suggest you check out some of my previous work on decentralization. It is this sort of thinking which is required for a peaceful transition to a new era for our civilization. It will allow us to become resilient to the converging threats which face us from ecological destruction to market failure to terrorism. Global supply chains have shown themselves to be exceedingly vulnerable to these shocks. I hope we can overcome these by localizing production by utilizing global knowledge sharing so we can all enjoy the type of future some of the previous guest bloggers have been talking about.

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February 3rd, 2009 by Edward Miller

Decentralization is the key to the survival of humanity. This should be common sense. We all know that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. There are many examples one could point to. With industrial farming we are now beginning to realize that monocultures are especially susceptible to disease or changes in the environment. Fitness is a fluid concept because environmental conditions are not static. This is true on a civilizational level as well.

Fractal Blues | Fábio Pinheiro
Fractal Blues | Fábio Pinheiro
Perhaps just as important as the objective structure of our communities is our subjective experience. As Descartes proved, the existence of subjective experience is the one philosophical certainty. Cogito Ergo Sum, “I think therefore I am.” This is the rational basis for the scientific method and epistemology, and is thus the integral feature of the human condition. When we begin to take control of subjective experience, we will shake the very core of our world(s), and we will experience virtually unlimited types of consciousness. As we enter into a post-scarcity era, increasingly the universe will be at the mercy of our aesthetic preferences.

By “taking control of our subjective experience,” I mean implementing a wide variety of enhancements to our minds and bodies. On the simplest of levels, we will gain manual control of the senses we already have. We will be able to play back, turn off, or magnify our senses as we see fit. We will also gain new senses: Infrared, Heat vision, Echolocation, Magnetic, you name it. Furthermore, we will be able to induce synaesthesia between both our original senses and these new senses. We are already able to induce autistic states, giving us similar capabilities to autistic savants, but on demand.  We will likely gain control over our perception of time, and as our intelligence and working memories are upgraded, new possibilities open up.

We could gain new aesthetic intuitions. Imagine if in addition to a supercharged working memory, we were able to grok computer programming syntax and parse millions of lines with ease. This could allow computer code to be judged by its aesthetic quality, much like a poem is. It has been said Ruby programming is much like haiku. What if all the programming rules of thumb regarding such things as top-down design, parallelism, and avoiding premature optimization became as instinctive as our appreciation of rhyming or symmetrical artwork? Of course those who prefer prematurely optimized, bottom-up, serial programming can go the Jack Kerouac route if they so choose.

There are enormous ethical implications of customized realities. As discussed in an earlier post, the functions of our tools can deductively impact our value systems in ways we may have difficulty predicting beforehand.  When the mechanical clock was invented by Benedictine monks, they thought it would be a tool to help them regulate their prayer schedules, but they ended up enabling modern capitalism with its regular production cycles, hourly wages, and meticulous concern with efficiency. Perhaps people with an overabundance of appreciation for vibrations will end up enabling some sort of social structure which creates injustices that could not possibly be forseen. Nevertheless, humanity has always trudged onward to new uncertain horizons. We couldn’t ban new technology even if we wanted to, but we can take our time to critically reflect on potential consequences.

Also as discussed earlier, as our level of customization of reality grows, so does our ability to filter the information we see. When we begin to radically alter our subjective experience, we risk cyberbalkanization on a more fundamental level than ever before. With our current mental architectures we already have great difficulty communicating with one another, and often come to the conclusion that those we are debating with must be from another planet. In the famous debate between Noam Chomsky and Alan Dershowitz, Dershowitz proclaimed that Noam must be from “Planet Chomsky.” Now, imagine what the disagreements may be like when we don’t even share the same perception of time, or if one person is harmonizing with cosmic vibrations while another is transfixed with stability. What will the outcome of such a situation look like? I believe I have a rough idea.

The forces of natural selection will work upon the different modes of consciousness, just as they do now with ideas in the form of memes. Those modes of consciousness which are good at crowding out others will become the dominant ones. Surely some of the most effective at replicating would be like the Borg, and demand assimilation. Yet, like our current world, the dominant type might not be totalitarian in nature, but merely demanding a standardized framework of communication. Tolerant empire-systems tend to fare better. The Roman Empire realized the futility of getting everyone to accept their one religion, and thus many religions thrived during most centuries of their reign. Even Ghengis Khan was noted for his tolerance of religious freedom. The modern capitalist world-system is exceedingly tolerant, and even the theocratic Saudi Arabia is now a member of the World Trade Organization. As long as one plays by the rules of the game of the dominant system, that system has no qualm, no matter what your beliefs.

In the case of Ghengis Khan, as long as you pay your taxes to the empire, you will be fine. In the case of the modern world-system, as long as your markets are open to foreign capital, you are fine. As Frederic Bastiat once remarked, “When goods do not cross borders, soldiers will.” In the case of the consciousnesses of the future, I am assuming that the dominant mode of consciousness will just demand some minimal framework by which to interact with others. I am not saying that it is good that any particular consciousness framework will likely dominate, I’m just extrapolating what will likely be the case considering the law of natural selection.

Now, I would argue that in the interests of civilizational resiliency it is actually much better to allow a good deal of freedom in the modes of consciousness. This will keep us from becoming a homogeneous and vulnerable culture. While it makes the prospect for a universal utopia improbable, it also makes a universal dystopia improbable. What we will likely end up with is a multitude of weirdtopias. I look forward to the infinite variety of consciousnesses which await our species. It is the key to our long term survival, and these issues are likely more urgent than you think.

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February 3rd, 2009 by Edward Miller

Social Ecology is a philosophy which states that environmental, social, and economic problems all have the same root: namely, the way people treat each other. By this same logic, if we can establish new structures and norms by which to operate, we can alleviate many of these problems.

There are a few different ways to apply this in the real world. One way is to build communities which seek harmonious relationships between people and the environment. Based on similar thinking, thousands of “intentional communities” have sprung up. These include everything from eco-villages to religious communes to survivalist enclaves. There are even some more tech-based communities such as CyborgSociety.

Ecology of Freedom
Ecology of Freedom

Now, each of these communities believes that their mode of interacting with one another is the most sustainable and desirable, and perhaps there is room for all of these communities. Live and let live. Decentralized communities have a distinct advantage when it comes to resiliency. Much less information is needed to govern a small community than a large one, and having multiple models functioning simultaneously ensures all of our eggs aren’t in one basket. Nevertheless, it would be instructive to examine what a truly sustainable community would look like.

In the name of resiliency, clearly there must be some attention to self-sufficiency. Now, insular autarkies are notoriously unstable, but so are economies that are completely dependent upon foreign trade for basic necessities. The ideal situation is clearly somewhere in the middle between those extremes. What we need is largely self-sufficient communities which are at harmony with nature and engage in voluntary trade with neighbors.

This same way of living could be applied by individuals or families operating within the community, to further decentralize production. If individuals, including urbanites, were given the tools for automated growing of food and simple manufacturing, imagine the potential for automatic wealth generation. Not to mention the environmental benefits of local production.

RepRap is dedicated to building open source desktop fabrication machines which can make the majority of its own parts using local materials such as fermented organic matter. Their version 1.0, codenamed “Darwin,” is a working proof-of-concept, and version 2.0 is already in the works. As such machines become more mature and more efficient at self-replication, it could soon eliminate the necessity of wage labor for survival.

Using such techniques, communities are already forming. Factor e Farm is dedicated to building such communities for all sorts of productive purposes. They have already set up one self-sufficient community using alternative energy and processed rainwater, and they are interested in building many more decentralized communities with a high quality of life. On their website, they claim, “This quality of life is based on efficient operation, plus 100% voluntary lifestyle, based on transcendence of material constraints. When resource constraints become a non-issue through wise choice of technology, skill, and open source knowledge-enabled flexible production systems for self-sufficiency – then freedom and human creativity are unleashed.”

What is especially inspiring is the potential this has for eliminating poverty. As they say, give a man a fish and he can eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he can eat for the rest of his life. As the tools for local production continue to drop in price, we can likely enter into a post-scarcity world. As we speak, there is already more than enough food being produced to feed everyone on the planet. The problem is the logistics of distributing it to everyone. Capitalism as it is currently practiced distributes in an unequal fashion, and no matter how much philanthropy we do, it is not feasible to ship resources to remote regions. What we can do is provide the tools for people to produce locally.

We are just now witnessing the beginning of what is surely going to be a huge wave of self-sufficient communities, enabled by the new modes of production made possible by the Internet and communications technologies. The prospects for this are enormous for everyone, but especially those in poorest and most dependent places on Earth.

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February 21st, 2008 by Joseph Carpenter

One of the main – and one of the most criticized – features of a state is that it claims a monopoly on power. For a democratic state, this isn’t an incredible problem as it is controlled by its people, ensuring it is a public good and not one based on the interests of a few. In an autocratic state, this means that the tyrant is the only one with a legal means of self-defense – and often the power extends well beyond defense.

However, the United States has a lot of work to do until it can truly call itself a democracy. Its current system has been rightly criticized as empowering the few at the expense of the good of the many. And, with organizations(recently euphemised as “private military corporations” or similar names), largely outside of US law, elite interests certainly are more protected.

The problem with these organizations as well as the conventional police and military is that they often are shielded from public scrutiny. Steve Mann in 2002 wrote in 2002 that “secrecy, rather than privacy,” is what the true cause of state-sponsored violence, or terrorism.

Because the general public is underrepresented in this monopoly of power, something must be done to ensure it can defend itself from these largely secretive organizations. Enter sousveillance. People, equipped with cameras and other recording devices, can adequately protect themselves from threats from above – those that operate surveillance. Edward told me that a police officer recently spoke to one of his classes and said phones equipped with cameras are making police behave more ethically. Without a camera, it is often the police’s word vs. yours, and it is obvious whose word is worth more. Without documentation, actions like this could easily have been covered up:

However, not all police officers are like the one in this video. In fact, a large majority of them are good people. But if this was the only documented case of police brutality, it would be one too many. But sousveillance will also offer protection for more common harms to the individual.

If personal wearable cameras become widespread, street violence such as muggings would likely be drastically reduced. With the act nearly always caught on film, many would-be-criminals would be safely and ethically deterred from committing crime. This is the nonviolent solution to the question of personal security – there is no need for concealed weapons.

It should be imperative that each citizen carries with him some form of device whose contents can be uploaded to decentralized websites like Youtube, Flickr, Facebook, or Myspace. The information will be essential in legal cases against the odd police officer getting carried away with his baton or taser, or the mugger or pickpocket. When there is objective and undeniable evidence of wrongdoing, only then will these actions be deterred – and much more strongly than simply eliminating the immediate threat with violence.

Also paramount is the fact that this technology should be afforded to everyone. A person that cannot pay for some type of camera is no less important than one that can. Indeed, the people that cannot afford cameras are disproportionately the targets of attack. This is a matter of public security, and the government ought to hear this argument. If you meet with local politicians, please, bring this idea up.

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December 26th, 2007 by Edward Miller

I. Introduction

Knowledge is power, or so the old axiom goes. There is a great deal of truth in that statement. While they are not the same thing, they are mutually dependent. Power determines the types of knowledge which can be produced and reproduced, and vice versa.

Consequently, feedback loops are created which promote certain types of knowledge and practices of power based on reproductive fitness. Just as with natural selection, dominance is achieved by those with the highest reproductive fitness. In human history, the result of this process has been a highly routinized transnational system of power relations characterized by the perpetual consolidation of wealth.

A primary reason why the transnational capitalist system has become routinized is that those with centralized power have long controlled the means of knowledge production, such as the news media, the publishing industry, and the educational system. Individuals who are assimilated into this system are conditioned to engage in actions, communications, and transactions on a day-to-day basis which recursively reinforce the structure of the system. This is what Anthony Giddens calls the duality of structure.

Oppression and warfare have overwhelmingly developed in the context of centralized power, whether that power is political, religious, corporate, or otherwise. These problems not only manifest themselves in obvious examples like global superpowers but can be seen even in the smallest of communities and families. The current situation is an especially dangerous one, since technological progress has amplified our power to destroy. Yet, reversing technological progress would be both foolish and futile. To avert crises, socio-political change is necessary.

Since centralization of power continues to plague human civilization with numerous crises, some form of decentralization is needed. Those who engage in second-order analysis, and understand how the process of power-knowledge reproduction functions, recognize that they must play by the rules of the system. The methods of decentralization must be constructed to have high reproductive fitness, and yet, by their structure, impossible to be co-opted as centralizing forces.

II. A Brief History of Centralization

Since the dawn of civilization, certain people have amassed more wealth and power than those around them. There are all sorts of reasons for this, such as differences in luck, talent, inheritance, unscrupulousness, etc. From these imbalances arise unequal power relationships and hierarchies form.

As is usually the case, that power is used to further enhance and maintain the power of those who wield it. Throughout most of history, a popular method has been direct coercion, such as the establishment of empires and institutionalized aristocracies. In modern times, indirect actions such as investment, marketing, and lobbying are preferred, and the methods are continually being refined over time.

In just this past century, humanity has suffered through two World Wars and stood on the brink of nuclear annihilation. Since power is still highly centralized, the potential for future cataclysms has by no means disappeared.

III. What is Decentralization?

Decentralization is a process whereby the distribution of power becomes more diffuse. Since power is so fundamental, this can affect every aspect of society from the inside out. Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist intellectual, defined decentralization as the true measure of progress:

“True progress lies in the direction of decentralization, both territorial and functional, in the development of the spirit of local and personal initiative, and of free federation from the simple to the compound, in lieu of the present hierarchy from the centre to the periphery.” (1911, Encyclopaedia Britannica)

By this, Kropotkin meant we should be working towards decentralizing all aspects of life, with the ideal being a society without hierarchy where all relationships are based on the free association of equals. This is a profound challenge, and may be a never-ending one. Moreover, our opinions may not always align on how to best achieve this goal. Yet, it is a goal worth striving for.

The virtues of decentralization have been recognized from all corners of the political compass. In the West, at least since the time of Ancient Greece, it has been accepted that some degree of decentralization is desirable. A more formalized understanding of it has been around since at least the 1800s. Marx is widely credited for being among the first to study this, and he saw the transition from older systems like feudalism to capitalism as a long trend of decentralization. Though society is still highly centralized, there has been gradual progress toward decentralization made possible by advances in technology, especially communications technology.

Critical thinking, our internal defense mechanism against harmful ideas and the true currency of any healthy democracy, is actually a decentralized force. Accordingly, it is bound up with our access to information. Without the printing press, democracy might not currently exist. Democracy is a decentralized mode of governance that requires the distribution of a tremendous amount of information. It is understandable that the Enlightenment and modern democracy came only after its invention, and rather quickly after. The more widely available books are, the more relative power every individual has. One cannot reflexively defend one’s human rights unless one is aware that those rights are being trampled upon. Knowledge truly is power.

By that same token, without mass printed bibles, people had no other choice but to learn religion from authority figures. Thus, it makes perfect sense that Luther and Calvin sprung up shortly after the printing press. The Protestant Reformation challenged the need for clergy to interpret the religious texts which were becoming widely available. Even more radical theological criticism soon followed as philosophers began printing books of their own and further debating the logic behind their positions.

Democratization has even been taking place within families and sexual relationships. The ideal of equal respect between individuals, virtually an explicit goal of democracy, may never be completely attained, but there is a higher degree of equality now than ever before. Since the Women’s Rights movement and Sexual Revolution, both women and men are less confined to predetermined roles, and there is a higher expectation of communication and mutual agreement between family members.

It must be noted that in certain contexts, some centralization can be necessary given certain practical realities. Parenting would be an obvious example, since young children are unable to care for themselves. Other justifiable contexts for centralization could include defense against threats to world peace. President Eisenhower informed us in his farewell address that, as a result of involvement in the World Wars, the United States has created a highly centralized Military-Industrial Complex. However, he warns us that even though it was created out of necessity, we must remain critical toward it.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.” (1961, Farewell Address to the Nation)

Thus, even in cases where some degree of centralization seems wholly justified, people should remain deeply skeptical toward it. What is just in one moment in history is not necessarily just in another.

IV. Is Capitalism a Decentralized System?

When the laissez-faire economist Friedrich von Hayek spoke of decentralization, he used it like a synonym for capitalism, and characterized socialism as merely centralized economic planning.

“If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them. We cannot expect that this problem will be solved by first communicating all this knowledge to a central board which, after integrating all knowledge, issues its orders. We must solve it by some form of decentralization.” (1945, The Use of Knowledge in Society)

A number of contemporary economists have myopically begun to think of capitalism as the final, natural, and most decentralized state of affairs. Surely capitalism was more decentralized than the systems it evolved from; however, contrary to the claims of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, capitalism and democracy do not always reinforce each other. Capitalism has existed, and continues to exist, under a number of political systems, including theocracies like Saudi Arabia.

Furthermore, capitalism will always encourage some degree of market interventions because it is in the interests of those who have accumulated wealth to further bolster their power through lobbying for favorable subsidies, regulations, and so forth.

Even the most progressive policies like environmental regulations and anti-trust laws have been lobbied for by enormous sectors of business. The reason is these interventions change the distribution of wealth in such a way that some will profit more than others. This sort of rent seeking behavior is inevitable within capitalism, and always creates some degree of corporatism, or state-sponsored artificial imbalances in the market.

Therefore, all things considered, mixed economies are actually more natural than so-called free market capitalism, especially considering only the former has ever existed. In any event, just because something is natural does not mean it is correct or desirable. That is a prime example of an Appeal to Nature, an all-too-common logical fallacy.

V. Social Ecology vs Tragedy of the Commons

Capitalism, including its mixed economy form, has far-reaching consequences, and is predicated on certain conditions. This is where Social Ecology, a concept formulated by Murray Bookchin, becomes relevant.

Social Ecology argues that the root cause of our environmental problems is the same as the our social problems: the way people treat each other (greed, power centralization, etc). There is a old notion which has been coined, “the Tragedy of the Commons.” Commons are any public goods, such as uninhabited lands, which are not formally owned by any one person.

Unfortunately, instead of rationing, it is perceived to be in the interest of people to use up as much of a public good as possible, as quickly as possible. This can lead to complete devastation of the common resource. As any game theorist would know, while it may be better for everyone to cooperate and not engage in wanton destruction, people have a tendency to take more than their share. This leads to a breakdown of trust and the new rule becomes “all against all.” While this isn’t always the case, nor must it be a permanent feature of human civilization, it is nevertheless a feature of our present reality that must be addressed.

Some have decided, based on a narrow view of this tendency, that greed is the quintessential trait of human beings. The being they envision is not Homo sapien, but Homo economicus, a fictitious species interested purely in maximizing self-interest. Humans are much more dynamic and multifaceted, and we are also more biased and illogical, than the mythical Homo economicus. The reason our society is so obsessed with consolidation of wealth is because of the way power and knowledge are reproduced in society, not because it is our defining characteristic.

As Immanuel Wallerstein points out, capitalism, by its structure, necessitates the “endless accumulation of capital.” From a sociobiological perspective, this feature gives it incredible reproductive fitness, which is why modern liberalism and capitalism is the only system to ever form an integrated “world-system.“ Although we are in a more decentralized age, and emperors, kings, and warlords are more rare, capitalism still promotes massive centralization of power. “Endless accumulation” is a recipe for disaster, or rather tragedy (of the commons). Except, the commons we are talking about right now could be the entire Earth, considering trends like global warming, nuclear proliferation, the militarization of outer space, and new weapons of mass destruction.

We must overcome this endless centralization by creating more rational modes of production that can coexist with, and eventually supplant, the capitalist world-system. Any such new mode of production must be structured in such a way as to be non-hostile toward capitalists, and even profitable, but also impossible to be co-opted to the point where its decentralized principles are compromised. The remainder of this treatise deals with such practical solutions.

VI. Scarcity

Murray Bookchin also created a concept of “Post-Scarcity Anarchism.” Thus far, all economic systems, by definition, have had to deal with the problem of scarcity. There has only been a limited amount of resources, and it must be allocated somehow.

The gradual reduction of economic scarcity has been a great factor in society’s decentralization. It is possible to envision a society in which scarcity has been eliminated to such an extent that there is little need for economic systems like capitalism or socialism. Considering the virtually exponential advancement in technology and the seemingly limitless amount of matter, space, and energy in the universe, it seems silly to think that we will be forever confined by scarcity.

Only an infinitesimal fraction of the Sun’s energy hits the Earth (about one hundredth of a millionth of a percent). Yet, every minute, enough energy travels to Earth to meet the current needs of the world population (6.6 billion people) for a whole year. The reason solar power is not yet ubiquitous is that the technology is not presently efficient enough or cheap enough to be justifiable from a cost/benefit standpoint; however, progress is happening quite rapidly. Nanotechnology has already begun to boost efficiency and holds great promise for future improvement. Eventually, as progress continues, energy could become as abundant as air.

Decentralized manufacturing has been going on for as long as humans have walked the Earth. For ages people have been able to be somewhat self-reliant by growing their own food, sewing their own clothing, and being generally handy with things. The reason it cannot be used in every circumstance is that it is so labor intensive and not always practical, especially with regard to capital-intensive industries. Technologies does make these things easier, such as plows or sewing machines, but a good deal of labor is still required. The key to changing this is automation. The Fab@home project is a great start. The designs for their “desktop manufacturing” device are completely open source and allow for the automatic construction of simple items right from home. RepRap takes this a step further and prints out most of its own parts, and is able to use plastic that has been recycled or fermented out of local organic matter. The concept of a self-replicating device takes this to a completely new level, and could allow for an exponentially higher amount of productivity.

As nanotechnology advances, molecular manufacturing comes closer to reality. This would be an order of magnitude more efficient and versatile than something like RepRap. Using molecular manufacturing, even production of goods that are currently capital-intensive, such as microprocessors, could be decentralized. It could theoretically reduce economic scarcity to the point where nobody will be forced to work for sustenance and people will be free to follow their creative instincts.

New developments in technology have already virtually eliminated scarcity in certain areas. Knowledge has, until now, always been extremely scarce in the sense that a majority of the population usually is unable to access certain information based on a number of factors such as illiteracy, inability to afford information, geographic and logistical issues, and so forth.

The Internet has allowed for information to no longer be anywhere near as scarce, at least among those with access to the Internet. It is important to note that there is a digital divide. 90% of the world still lacks internet access, but at least now with the ever increasing speed of technological advancement and programs like the One Laptop Per Child initiative, extreme inequalities in access to information may one day be a distant memory.

Knowledge, and the power that comes with it, can now be transmitted instantaneously across the world and copied endlessly. This has allowed for not only a more abundance of knowledge, but new modes of production. Wikipedia is a prime example of decentralized information sharing. The content is no longer provided by large centralized institutions, but by you and me. Sites like YouTube or Digg are also decentralized in this way, but Wikipedia is decentralized on two levels.

VII. The Copyleft Meme

Wikipedia, and its offshoots like Wiktionary, use Open Source principles. That means that the creators of the MediaWiki software have placed the code online for free for everyone to download, modify, tweak, redistribute, or repackage in any way they see fit, with one important exception. This has allowed many private websites to freely use the wiki format for their own purposes. However, the MediaWiki software isn’t merely public domain, it uses a particular open source license called the General Public License (GPL).

The GPL is the most popular and philosophically superior Open Source license. While there is a great deal of freedom provided for, there is a very important stipulation that those who modify a GPL work must also place their modifications under the General Public License. At first glance, this idea may seem mundane, but upon further inspection it is astoundingly revolutionary. This is what makes Open Source possible. It is structured in such a way that it cannot be co-opted by centralizing forces, since those who want to add value to the work must, in turn, share their additions. This idea is known as “Copyleft.”

If this were not the case, and the GPL were more permissive, it would be possible for a company to simply fork the software, add lots of modifications, put it all under copyright and close the source. This is one of the dangers of the Apache license.

Additionally, the nature of the GPL has allowed Open Source projects to become effective in a memetic sense. According to Richard Dawkins, memes are ideas that reproduce similarly to microorganisms, with human minds as the hosts. Memes which are most effective are ones that have high reproductive fitness.

Memetics implicitly recognizes the duality of structure and the nature of the relationship between knowledge and power. Yet, it provides a fascinating reductionist perspective since it argues that it might be more productive to think of memes as the true guiding forces of this new natural selection, and human minds as mere hosts.

Religions are often given as examples of the most efficient memes. Many of the major religions are so highly tuned that their hosts are willing to evangelize in the most remote regions of Earth. Some religious memes have been known to even override basic survival instincts and compel the host to commit suicide for spiritual reasons.

Democracy seems to have a similar quality. Representative democracy is by far the most common form of governance in the world. According to most estimates, there are over 120 representative democracies and much of this can surely be attributed to its reproductive fitness as a meme. Some criticize Open Source as having an almost religious-like quality that compels people to evangelize its virtues. This is not too far from the truth, considering that openness an decentralization coupled with Copyleft principles has very high reproductive fitness. An important difference is that most democracies are not structured in ways that prevent abuse by centralized powers, such as regulatory capture and outright corruption, whereas copyleft is less vulnerable in this respect.

Knowing this, it would make sense to keep this in mind and domesticate our memes in order to further enhance their reproductive fitness, yet ensure their incorruptibility. By recognizing that people are constantly tweaking their ideas to become highly infectious, one is engaging in second-order cybernetics. This allows for a modicum of freedom insofar as one then possesses the capability to consciously engineer memes. Using this power, one could choose to promote long-term sustainability rather than leaving it up to evolutionary roulette, which has so far favored a narrow and destructive form of self-interest. Just as we are beginning to take our genetic fate into our own hands through genetic engineering, we need to pay equal, if not more, attention to memetic engineering.

VIII. The Many Faces of Open Source

This idea of Open Source started with two projects: GNU and Linux. These projects were attempts by hobbyists to make homebrew operating systems. They published their code online for free and without many restrictions on use. This attracted huge followings from programmers all over the world, and eventually the corporate world became interested and it grew to a multi-billion dollar industry.

It was a completely new and revolutionary way to produce a product. Never before could production involve the collaboration of thousands of people from across the globe, let alone result in free products. Of course the principles of decentralization are not lost because of corporate involvement because of the nature of the GPL.

It is promising that all of this can grow with our current socio-economic structure, and no violent revolution is necessary. Surely Wikipedia is not throwing molotovs at the headquarters of Encyclopaedia Britannica!

Currently, there are a host of open source software projects. Some of my favorites are Ubuntu, Firefox, OpenOffice, and KDE. There are many many technical reasons why these products are superior to proprietary alternatives, including cross-platform portability, customizability, security, and the ability for peer review by thousands of computer programmers. Closed source is simply less flexible in all these respects. Software is much like a cooking recipe with step-by-step instructions for a computer to follow. Ever try to customize a recipe that is kept secret? It can get pretty messy.

Software is not the only thing that can be produced in a decentralized way. Art, music (Creative Commons), movies (Elephant’s Dream), architecture, hardware (OpenSPARC), and even beverages (OpenCola) can all be open sourced. This sort of thing is a boon to artists of all types who love to remix old works to create novel juxtapositions in a hassle-free manner.

The content of Wikipedia, in addition to the software, is under a copyleft license called the GNU Free Documentation License, since the terms of the website require all contributors to follow this license. Although, because of the flexible nature of Open Source, the content of independent wikis can have restrictions about who is allowed to post, and they can place the information created by those people under copyright.

Of course it must be realized that these tools can be used by centralized authorities to make their own operations more effective. Even the US intelligence services have set up their own classified wikis, known collectively as Intellipedia, to coordinate intelligence data. Thus, although the MediaWiki software is incorruptible by centralized forces, its uses are not.

However, this is nothing surprising since all technologies give users, whoever they may be, more power. This includes those who believe in freedom of information and government transparency, such as those who provide access to leaked government documents. A website called Wikileaks has been set up for just that purpose.

IX. P2P

A related concept is P2P, which is a decentralized mode of data distribution. The best examples of P2P are file sharing networks. Napster was the first big one, but there quickly arose a variety of others. GNUtella is an open source and fully decentralized P2P network. Recently, the open source BitTorrent protocol has become immensely popular. In 2004 it was reported that Bittorrent alone accounts for a startling 35% of all web traffic. Each of these networks and protocols can be connected to using client software, such as the open source program FrostWire.

Piracy and intellectual property issues aside, what is great about these sorts of systems is that if independent artists, filmmakers, musicians, or programmers want to share their creations they don’t need to invest in multi-million dollar server computers, nor rent such servers, in order to make their content available to people. This is also great for those who are downloading, since they get incredibly fast download speeds.

X. Distributed Computing

Another development in the world of decentralization is distributed computing. Grid computing has long been common practice. Using lots of smaller processors in unison to create larger computers or even supercomputers has been standard practice for those with large computing needs, typically governments and large corporations or institutions. Unfortunately, it is incredibly costly and cannot be afforded by just anyone.

Distributed computing is a way to make use of numerous computers over the internet to split up tasks and have them all work together to solve a single problem. Thus, if many people donate their spare processing power, especially when their computers are idle such as in screensaver mode, a project could have a functional supercomputer without the cost.

There is an open source software program called BOINC that facilitates the majority of these type of projects. One of the most famous distributed computing projects was SETI@home which was sponsored by NASA to look for signs of intelligent life. There are many other uses of this technology though, such as Rosetta@home and Folding@home which are studying the structure and folding mechanisms of proteins, which can lead to new cures for diseases and anti-aging therapies.

Of course, as with any other technology, this idea has also been used for malicious purposes. Cyber-criminals have employed this concept to create “botnets.” By exploiting holes in software, it is possible to upload malware to a computer undetected, including distributed computing software. Some modern botnets can have the combined power of millions of PCs, which is enough to bring down virtually any website it wishes to target.

While security will always be an issue, at least it has been proven that open source development models are generally more efficient at discovering and patching security vulnerabilities.

XI. Enhancing Profitability via Open Source

Most of the examples I have given so far are non-profit examples. However, Open Source is big business. Billions of dollars are made through it. Companies like Red Hat (Fedora), Novell (OpenSuse), Google (OpenSocial), and Sun (OpenSolaris, Java, OpenSPARC) all make enormous amounts of money indirectly through open source. Whether it is by providing technical support services or by improving brand recognition. In fact, most of the bigger open source projects, such as the Linux kernel, are funded by corporations such as these, and the programmers are often employees of these companies.

If a company decides to open source a product, this tends to attract a community of developers. Thus, software development costs can shrink since individual coders or other organizations are free to make improvements that can be peer reviewed and merged into the software. Even just open-sourcing the specifications of hardware can have this effect with regard to driver development. Since Intel and AMD have open-sourced their graphics drivers, the free software community has embraced them.

Furthermore, the fact that Open Source software is often free in price provides huge incentive for businesses to use it to cut costs. That is why Apache is the most popular webserver software in the world, and runs many of the largest corporate websites. (Unfortunately, Apache does not use a copyleft license, so it is a corruptible form of open source).

In addition to cutting overhead costs, Open Source can also cut the cost of products. Wal-Mart realized this and is now selling $200 computers like hotcakes that run a version of Ubuntu linux. Thus, this stuff doesn’t merely co-exist with capitalism, but the profit motive can actually become a major driving force toward decentralization.

It is also a benefit for governments, which is why so many have decided to use open source software, including: Brazil, South Africa, Argentina, Venezuela, etc. It is even widely used in the government of the United States, including the US Department of Defense.

Openness also has subtler, yet more profound, benefits than pure cost-cutting. Whenever there is any new conceivable space, virtual or real, that can be owned, there is usually a frenzied rat race to own it. People love to copyright or patent everything under the sun (see: Amazon.com’s 1-click court case). To maintain this ownership, the owners require strong enforcement. Often, governments acts as a proxy for that enforcement. This inevitably results in restrictions for users.

Companies are beginning to realize the futility of placing restrictions on users with schemes like DRM. These restrictions are always reverse engineered and bypassed. Thus, the companies that use them do not prevent piracy, and the companies that do not use them are applauded by their customers for a hassle-free experience.

The same was true when IBM created some of the first affordable personal computers. Companies such as Compaq reverse engineered the computing architecture and created IBM “clones.” Realizing the advantage this could give them over closed competitors like Apple, IBM finally woke up to the futility of keeping their designs secret. They opened up their computer hardware architecture to allow for “IBM Compatible” PCs, and only then did the personal computing revolution really get started, allowing for massive profits for all involved.

Thus, decentralization of industry reduces the number of areas in which any sort of economic force is necessary, be it private corporations or public institutions. Yet, this generates vast amounts of prosperity for most other industrial sectors and society as a whole.

It is actually possible, via dual licensing, to make money directly off of open source software. According to this business model, anyone is allowed to use the software for non-profit or personal uses under the terms of the GPL, but corporations must pay licensing fees. MySQL and Trolltech are some of the classic examples of the effectiveness of this model. It is precisely because there are such large numbers of users who do not pay anything that a community is formed upon which the business can grow. This provides interesting ways to make profit in which both the corporation and the users receive all the benefits of open source discussed previously, such as peer review, portability, lower development costs, etc.

This dual licensing model also limits the scope of the consolidation of wealth in society, because it only draws revenue from other centralized entities and provides a public service for all non-profit uses. Yet, it is precisely by providing this public service that they gain an edge over their competitors and increase profitability. It is very likely that dual licensing, or similar models, could have applications beyond the software industry, especially as other industries learn the value of sharing intellectual property.

XII. The Necessity of Open Biotechnology

Many of the new opportunities for decentralization are thanks to the greatest information-sharing explosion since the printing press, the Internet. After the Internet, the only foreseeable communications revolution will be through the enhancement of human beings themselves. Two ways to go about this are biotechnology and brain-computer interfacing. It is imperative that these new technologies, which will so radically reshape the human condition, become open source.

As we speak, corporations are gobbling up patents on all sorts of biotechnologies. In fact, they are beginning to patent the entire genomes of natural and genetically modified species. Most outrageously, they have even begun patenting the human genome, which by any definition should be part of the commons.

Considering the dangers of all this, we must start open-sourcing and decentralizing biotechnology as quickly as possible. Luckily, there are some “biopunks” working toward this goal, such as CAMBIA, but for the most part these industries are highly centralized. It is vitally important that the business world quickly wakes up to the increased profitability of decentralized biotechnology, and begin to support such efforts.

It is in the interest of every corporation that does not own biotechnology patents and not directly profiting from biotechnological knowledge to fight for open source biotechnology. Indeed, all of these corporations should band together and form organizations to promote open source biotechnology. The same process should be used for nanotechnology and virtually any other industry that hampers progress via patents, especially emerging technologies that could have huge impacts on the human condition.

XIII. Sousveillance

Centralized powers have always had far more ability to monitor others and, simultaneously, maintain their own privacy. For most of the age of electronic surveillance technology, this has remained true. Governments and corporations had access to this technology, but nobody could monitor the monitors.

The growing amount of surveillance is inevitable, and so is the resulting reduction in privacy. The only way to prevent abuses is to create decentralized surveillance systems where everyone, not just the government or large corporations, can monitor public spaces.

Cameras have become much cheaper, smaller, and ubiquitous. In particular, cell phone cameras have allowed some of this potential to be seen. Many criminal acts and incidences of police brutality have been captured with cell phone cameras and posted on the Internet for all the world to see. Thus, ordinary people become better at policing themselves and are less subject to the whims of those who would cause them injustice.

Our privacy is decreased in virtually any realistic scenario of the future, but at least with decentralized surveillance, aka sousveillance, ordinary people have power to monitor as well. Open source camera technology would be a logical next step toward furthering this goal of equal access.

With the development of satellite imaging systems, we have the same old story. At first it was only accessible by elites. Recently there has emerged websites and software, such as Google Earth and GPS systems, which allow for just about anyone to access satellite surveillance. Though one is still reliant upon corporations to provide this imagery, and there is a great deal of censorship with regard to places on Earth that governments don’t want displayed. These potential problems must be kept in check.

XIV. Direct Democracy through Technology

Despite how commonly some deride the intelligence of the general public, there is actually an amazing amount of collective intelligence and creativity that has only begun to be tapped.

Technology is already being employed in not-so-radical ways in current US elections to allow for electronic voting and ballot counting. The problem is that these electronic voting machines are closed-source. This has led to allegations that the results from these machines are inaccurate. Disturbingly, there are few options to verify the results since the designs machines are shrouded in secrecy by the corporations who manufacture them.

As with capitalism, the current predominant form of democracy is not the final, natural, or most decentralized state of affairs. It is important to understand the opportunities for more direct systems of democratic governance that are becoming possible because of new technologies.

Part of the reason representative democracy has been so appealing is the fact that implementations of direct democracy have had lots of technical and logistical difficulties. Now with better communication technologies, such problems could be a thing of the past. This opens up new possibilities for grassroots organizing, “crowdsourcing,” workplace democracy, and even direct democratic political governance.

It is even possible to democratize science through the use of these new technologies. One idea that has been proposed is dubbed “Wikiscience.” Using the methodology of Wikipedia, it is possible to allow hundreds of scientists to work together in ways that were never before possible, and create a more transparent scientific process with peer review along every step of the way.

XV. Conclusion

Technological progress undoubtedly has stemmed primarily from the capitalist system, yet that system is by no means perfect and should not be seen as the End of History. As the World Social Forum claims, “Another World is Possible.”

Throughout history, as new technologies have been created, there has usually been a mad rush to conquer and own them. When the printing press was invented, the manufacture of consent was born. At the same time, people began using this technology to print literature on radical topics like democracy.

With the advent of new technologies like the Internet and biotechnology, we have the same old story rehashed for the 21stcentury. Those of us who are using Open Source principles to decentralize industry, information, and politics are on the front lines of this age-old battle. We are the modern day revolutionaries.

In this era of user-generated content it is becoming increasingly apparent that the public is far more critical and reflexive than it is given credit for. By utilizing this stored up power-knowledge via decentralization, there is great potential for creating positive, transformative feedback loops in society.

It is imperative that the methods of decentralization used are structured to be as incorruptible as possible, much like the model of Copyleft, with high reproductive fitness. That is the only way to ensure their success.

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