Robert Wright’s book “Nonzero” isn’t exactly new (2001), but it deserves a place here as it raises a parallel discussion to this Blog’s primary focus: the effects of the organizing patterns of hierarchy and rhizome. Wright’s basic premise is that there is a basic trend towards an increase in non-zero-sum interaction in humanity, and that this leads to directionality in history. As a foundation, a zero-sum interaction is one where one party wins, and by default the other loses. A non-zero-sum interaction, or a positive-sum interaction, is one where both parties win. International trade is generally given as an example of positive-sum interaction: both parties exchange goods that are locally available to the benefit of all (A note of caution: one of the main themes of “open source), economic or cultural swarming (i.e. productive flash mobs) and localized energy capture (cooperative, localized passive solar or gardening). The ultimate effect of non-zero-sum activities may actually be the localization of sovereignty.
In fact, Wright’s concept of a positive-sum driven directionality in history is nothing new. Anthropologists have long used the term “intensification” to describe the tendency of human society to grow increasingly large, complex, centralized and hierarchal as a result of the accumulation of non-zero-sums in leadership, warfare, agriculture and industry. What Wright’s “Nonzero” fails to acknowledge is that this intensification (or to use his more benign term, “directionality”) results in the increase of phenomena that are increasingly incompatible with human genetic ontogeny—what our fixed genetic code requires for us to lead healthy, happy, productive lives. “Non-zero” does create more wealth to spread around, but it tends to increase hierarchy and stratification in the process, resulting in less wealth for most, and a dramatic increase for a few. Non-zero also creates entities that require increasingly large investments in information processing—acting as a brake on efficiency that further compounds the incompatibility of hierarchy and stratification with our ontogeny. Finally, non-zero is one in a long line of historical trends that continue for a long time as long as certain underlying supports remain in place—namely the ongoing availability and increase in high-surplus energy supplies. How much of non-zero-sum increases have been driven by the external evolution from wood power to coal power to oil power, or from the ability to derive an increasing number of calories from an acre of land through use of petroleum based fertilizers? In my opinion, the “miracle” of non-zero-sum interaction is more a mirage of increasing hierarchy driven by trends in energy and communication. Even if these trends continue forever, they will increasingly run in to the brick wall of a fixed human ontogeny. But non-zero is not a failed concept—far from it, it is fundamentally valid. We must simply recognize that it has potential—perhaps greater potential—to facilitate the growth of a human compatible rhizome structure.