Monday, August 31, 2009

Directionality of Hierarchal System Evolution

Too busy to write anything new on the Diagonal Economy at the moment.  I am, however, having an interesting email exchange with a friend who is currently deployed to Iraq and is tasked with shoring up their hopelessly over-extended intelligence databases.  We've been discussing how to "fix" the problem, with me (predictably) recommending adopting a flatter, decentralized information processing system that removes the analyst from the loop and uses some form of blog ecosystem to unify operator and analyst into a single position.  While I never really expected this to be an implementable solution, over the course of the conversation it became increasingly clear to me that hierarchal structures can't "go back"--they can't easily and selectively implement decentralized, p2p approaches to information processing because to do so effectively would be fundamentally antithetical to their constitutional form.  A short excerpt:

The more I think about the issue, the more it seems that there's just a fundamental directionality of hierarchal systems such as the military.  It's not possible to move away from the centralized analysis model to a decentralized model because that would lead to a landslide of decentralization, and the whole structure would break down.  The "blogging intel ecosystem" works best when it's done exactly the way the "enemy" conducts business (US cathedral v. "enemy's" bazar):  it's unclassified, anyone can participate, and often your very funding and operational capability depend on not only your participation but your success in that ecosystem.  If analysts were paid only by the number of hits and links their intelink blogs received (e.g. their google ranking, for lack of a better term), then suddenly you'd have an amazingly well populated and up-to-date system (side note:  the current system is so bad that most intelipedia pages are still largely the same as when they were cut and pasted from wikipedia in the first place!).  For example, if the US military stopped paying people, and instead paid for operational success in some kind of market-system, and if the US military abandoned all rank/hierarchal structure and let people organize in whatever way worked best to get their piece of the pie (payment for operational success), then there would be real value in open and decentralized reporting and analysis being conducted by the very people who are also using that information to operate.  Of course, anything structured like that would never have gotten itself into the royal mess we're now in...

More to the point, minus the mumbo-jumbo, and my conclusion is that this entire set of solutions that I'm hinting at is fundamentally unavailable to the military because of its structure.  For the concept to work as a solution, the military would need to abandon its structure to such an extent that it would no longer be in need of the solution.  And this structure is also the source of the original problem.  

In all honesty, do you think that this problem will ever get better?  Which is more likely to happen:  1) "they" add another 300,000 hours of predator video first to your analytical load without considering the consequences to your processing/exploitation/dissemination system, or 2) "they" conduct a top-down re-evaluation (complete with the budgetary authority to make real changes) of how their system functions and begin to collect data with the efficiency of the overall process in mind.  What you're grappling with is a symptom of a structural problem that will only continue to get worse, not better, until the structure is addressed.  While I have no doubt that you'll be able to improve the system to some degree, that will work in a way like Jeavons' paradox, and make the overall situation worse:  by improving system capacity by some amount, the immediate need to address the underlying structural problem will recede and you'll get 500,000 hours more predator video, not 300,000 hours, because now you can handle it.  Which, of course, will only get you back into the same jam you're currently in, but with more invested in a flawed structure and less elasticity of that structure to respond to future demands because you've picked the low-hanging fruit improvements already...

Begs the question:  to what extent is this unique to Nation-State military structure, or, as suggested by Tainter and others, is it impossible to voluntarily contract the scale and scope of hierarchy, leaving collapse as the only possibility?

On a semi-Diagonal Economy-related note, does this support the argument that we must focus on building diagonal structures rather than adapting existing, hierarchal institutions, or is that overreaching?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Diagonal Economy 1: Overview

I often have a difficult time articulating my vision of the future.  Some people think that I’m a “doom and gloom” type—that there will be small, fortified islands of farming communities trying to fend off the starving masses after civilization collapses due to energy shortages.  Others, of course, think that I’m either hopelessly optimistic or a hopeless romantic, and that I’m suggesting we can replace modern society wholesale with some fantasy-world of cooperative networks of suburban homesteads.  While I understand how these misperceptions have come about, I haven’t done a very good job (yet) of articulating how I do, in fact, see the future of civilization unfolding.  That’s my hope for this Diagonal Economy series:  to outline the major forces and systems driving the evolution of our civilization and economy, including in-depth analysis of major forces and thoughts on how we can help, or gain from, the resulting trends.  This first post in this series will provide an overview of my vision of the Diagonal Economy--you can keep track of the larger series at the Table of Contents .
This civilizational and economic evolution will, under my theory, give rise to what I’m calling the “Diagonal Economy.”  I initially planned to use the phrase “Parallel Economy,” but that sounds too much like a mere shift to black and gray markets, instead of addressing the more fundamental, structural shift that I predict away from hierarchal organization to a flatter, peer-to-peer form of organization that I have called “Rhizome ” elsewhere.  Perhaps “envision” is a better word than "predict"—I advocate for this shift, and think that it makes sense from several perspectives (fulfilled ontogeny and true sustainability in particular), but what I am not doing is suggesting, like some Marxist prophecy, that this shift is somehow our civilization’s destiny.  I think this shift will occur on some level, but that it will meet powerful resistance.  In the end, it is primarily a set of tools that will become increasingly available to those who wish to shape their own future.
Here, I think that “diagonal” best captures this shift—movement along one axis (energy consumed and scale) and along a second (degree of hierarchal order of organization).  The term also draws from a discussion (using the same label) in the Intermezzo section of Antonio Negri’s and Michael Hardt’s “Empire.”
So what is the Diagonal Economy?  Ultimately, I see it as a structural response to the various forces that will increasingly shape the coming century and beyond.  A limited list includes energy descent; other resource constraints; imminent ecological and climatic pressures; the limits of human ontogeny; information processing burdens; and the breakdown of the nation-state system.  I use the term “structural” quite a bit, yet I rarely define what I mean by it.  Each of these forces, for reasons that I will explore in individual posts in this series, have particular impacts on hierarchal structures.  Likewise, each force interacts differently with what I’ve called “Rhizome ” --topologically flatter, peer-to-peer networked structures that exhibit scale-free self-sufficiency.  While I don’t suggest that we will—or could—abandon hierarchy entirely in favor of rhizome, I do think that each of these forces will more negatively affect hierarchal patterns of organization than they will affect rhizomatic patters.  For that reason, while I actually predict a reactionary response by hierarchy, when confronted by these patterns, to enhance the hierarchal nature of existing structures, I think that there will be the opportunity to instead confront these forces with increasingly rhizomatic solutions.  So, in that sense, the Diagonal Economy is my proposed solution to humanity’s current and dawning challenges.
That may work as a statement for the intent of this notion of “Diagonal Economy,” but it isn’t much of a description.  I hesitate to articulate a vision for the Diagonal Economy, not because I’m worried about being proven wrong (I’m quite confident that will happen often enough), but because I don’t want to limit the modes of expression of the basic principles that I will articulate.  That said, I think it’s worth describing one possible manifestation:
The diagonal economy might rise amidst the decline of our current system—the “Legacy System.”  Using America as an example (but certainly translatable to other regions and cultures), more and more people will gradually realize that there the “plausible promise” once offered by the American nation-state is no longer plausible.  A decent education and the willingness to work 40 hours a week will no longer provide the “Leave it to Beaver” quid pro quo of a comfortable suburban existence and a secure future for one's children.  As a result, our collective willingness to agree to the conditions set by this Legacy System (willing participation in the system in exchange for this once "plausible promise") will wane.  Pioneers—and this is certainly already happening—will reject these conditions in favor of a form of networked civilizational entrepreneurship.  While this is initially composed of professionals, independent sales people, internet-businesses, and a few market gardeners, it will gradually transition to take on a decidedly “third world” flavor of local self-sufficiency and import-replacement (leveraging developments in distributed, open-source, and peer-to-peer manufacturing) in the face of growing ecological and resource pressures.  People will, to varying degrees, recognize that they cannot rely on the cradle-to-cradle promise of lifetime employment by their nation state.  Instead, they will realize that they are all entrepreneurs in at least three—and possibly many more—separate enterprises:  one’s personal brand in interaction with the Legacy System (e.g. your conventional job), one’s localized self-sufficiency business (ranging from a back yard tomato plant to suburban homesteads and garage workshops), and one’s community entrepreneurship and network development.  As the constitutional basis of our already illusory Nation-State system (.pdf) erode further, the focus on #2 (localized self-sufficiency) and #3 (community/networking) will gradually spread and increase in importance, though it may take much more than my lifetime to see them rise to general prominence in replacement of the Nation-State system.  Ultimately, the conceptual “map” of the American Nation-State will re-open, and those pockets that best develop a Diagonal Economy to fill that gap will enjoy the most success in what will otherwise be a time of substantial—though I think largely subconscious—transition.
That might be unsatisfactory as a description of the Diagonal Economy in action—I’m happy to elaborate in comments.  In upcoming posts, I will articulate this vision in more detail by focusing on component forces and phenomena within this shift to the Diagonal Economy.  Hopefully a coherent picture will emerge, and a set of principles and tools will be clearly defined.  But, if this vision is only clear in my own head, please let me know.  My goal here is to figure out how to translate something that is half intuition and half foggy notions into a comprehensible essay . . .

Readers may also find my litigation checklist of interest.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Simplicity, Resiliency, and Artifacts

I won't begin the promised "Diagonal Economy" series quite yet.  The main reason is that I don't want to start down that path without putting full effort into it.  So, in the interim, I've wanted to write a bit about lifestyle design and philosophy.  While this may seem like a major departure from my general themes, I think it's actually complementary:  by approaching our individual and community patterns as something to be consciously designed, rather than merely followed, we have the opportunity to make our lives more resilient, more energy efficient, more environmentally sustainable, and more pleasurable.  That can't be all bad?

First, two blog recommendations on this topic:

Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work Week.  This has been on my sidebar for some time.  Superficially, his book is about figuring out how to make quick money off the internet and then take long vacations.  At its core, however, he is working to design a set of tools and principles for living that can be used to adapt to rapid change, build a more resilient lifestyle, become healthier, solve problems--a host of useful things.

Leo Babauta, and his blog Zen Habits.  Leo has build a very successful career for himself by applying one simple principle:  examine and simplify everything you do.  Will be added to my sidebar soon (along with several other blogs I've been meaning to add for some time).

While it's relatively easy to dismiss these two as self-help gurus, I think they offer something more.  More than the actual tips they offer, they serve as examples of the kind of lifestyle and process design that I think will be increasingly important (at least if individuals or communities want to succeed) in a post-peak oil, post-Nation-State, post-caretaker-economy world.

The notion that we should look at everything we do, deconstruct it, and design it to better meet our needs, is one that will become increasingly important as old assumptions no longer remain valid.  A complement to this is the notion that we should simplify as much as possible.  While it's not exactly sexy advice, the continuous application of these two principles will serve us well in the coming years--no matter what they hold.

Personally, my life is far from simple.  I'm not sure my life is really any more complex than most people--kid(s), demanding job, interests and hobbies, etc.--but I know these principles have been useful to me.  I'm healthier, fitter, better informed, more successful, and happier as a result, and I still have a long, long ways to go.

So, take a moment and check out the two links above if you're so inclined.  But, if they don't immediately appeal to you, perhaps because you initially find them irrelevant to the reason you read this blog, as an exercise try to figure out how they offer tools that ARE helpful to the reasons you are reading this right now.  Perhaps in future posts I'll get into the details ("diagonal lifestyle design"?), but I think readers will find these ideas readily applicable to issues of energy, geopolitics, and societal transition.

Monday, August 10, 2009

EROEI Uncertainty

No new post on the Diagonal Economy--I've been working on re-writing this post, on EROEI Uncertainty , for publication today at The Oil Drum.  Should be controversial...

Back to the Diagonal Economy series next week.

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Rise of the Diagonal Economy and the Transition to Decentralization

Below is an outline of the general chapter structure of my next series of posts—these on the notion of a “Diagonal Economy” (drawing from the use of the term by Hardt and Negri ).  I hope to 1) outline my positive vision for a post-peak-everything world, 2) outline a set of principles and forces for use in decision making and strategic planning, and 3) spur further discussion on the topic.  I’ve linked this Table of Contents on my side bar—I won’t necessarily proceed through these chapters uninterrupted over the next 13 weeks, so this TOC may be useful in pulling the overall process together into one coherent piece:
1.  Overview of the Diagonal Economy - (Lay out vision, discuss the similarities and differences between the Diagonal Economy and existing gray and black market economies, the meaning of “diagonal” compared to parallel overlapping systems)
2.  The Diagonal Economy and Energy Descent – (Why declining energy and net energy will lead to reduction in the ability of hierarchal and centralized systems to function, and why as a result we’ll need to revert to more localized and smaller scales production systems, at least for most physical goods.  Hierarchal and centralized systems don’t voluntarily downsize well, and may not be able to adapt effectively to lower energy environments, resulting in both a growing need/demand for the Diagonal Economy and a growing low-competition space for it to flourish)
3.  The Diagonal Economy and Sustainability – (Why the legacy hierarchal economy is fundamentally unsustainable; the opportunity to build an economic system compatible with true sustainability)
4.  The Diagonal Economy and Human Ontogeny – (Why the legacy hierarchal economy is fundamentally incompatible with human ontogeny; why that won’t be resolved by merely allowing current institutions to collapse and reconstitute on smaller scales; why the Diagonal Economy shows promise in being able to overcome these issues and provide a high quality of life when measured by a human-ontogeny-relevant metric while simultaneously dealing well with energy descent and sustainability issues.  Propose new metric based on fulfillment of humanity’s genetic ontogeny while providing opportunity or spiritual growth)
5.  The Diagonal Economy and The Power of Networks – (The Diagonal Economy is not a regression to a less sophisticated form of organization—on the contrary it is arguably a more sophisticated form of organization that combines some elements of historical economics with new understanding of network and information theory that is only now widely understood.  This allows the Diagonal Economy to significantly fulfill human ontogeny while simultaneously maintaining its own in direct competition with the legacy hierarchal economy merely on “sales pitch” items of material consumption—discussion on legacy-economy-sponsored states and use of force later…)
6.  The Diagonal Economy and the New Map – (Gray markets, non-Cartesian and uneven conceptual terrain, and the re-opening of the map.  While all politicians maintain that we live in “Nation-States,” this is already a shallow statement, and energy descent will further the minimal extent to which the state fulfills its constitutional promise to its theoretical “nation.”  In reality, we’re slipping in to a market state system (some places faster than others, or in different ways than others) but on universal constant is the increasing ability for the Diagonal Economy to gain ground)
7.  The Diagonal Economy:  A Society of Entrepreneurs - (and Entrepreneurial Communities)—and why this will be necessary as we transition from Nation-State to Market-State.  Sharon Astyk (sp?) has written a book called “A Nation of Farmers.”  I think we must take this a step further—“A Society of Entrepreneurs.”  It goes unstated that farmers are entrepreneurs, but all of us are ultimately entrepreneurs—it’s just that for most of us, the business we choose to engage in is the sale of our time and services to (usually) one customer in a specific job market, otherwise known as a “job.” 
8.  The Diagonal Economy and Localized Diversification – (People who work a standard job don’t tend to think of themselves as entrepreneurs—and that’s a poor entrepreneurial business plan. Family/Community Systems Design, and the Resiliency of Multiple “Careers.  We all do several things, but we need to start designing these systems of activities to most resiliently provide for the goals of our families and communities, rather than assume that the State will do so for us.)
9.  The Diagonal Economy:  Surge Capacity as a Measure of Brittleness – (Surge Economics and why working under capacity is beneficial)
10.  The Diagonal Economy:  Resilient Quality of Life Metrics and the Resurgence of Vernacular Technology - (how, when we begin to focus on maximizing the resiliency of our quality of life, we will simultaneously begin to shift toward the use of “vernacular” technologies that require fewer concessions to unsustainable and hierarchal “other”)
11.  The Diagonal Economy:  Localized and Peer-to-Peer Design and Manufacturing – (Localized manufacturing, collaborative and open-source design, and the potential boundary layer between the Diagonal Economy and the Legacy Economy)
12.  The Diagonal Economy:  Interface, Parasitism, and Boundary Layers with the Legacy System – (Economic, Political, Legal, and Military interface and relationships between the Diagonal Economy and the legacy hierarchal global Nation-State/Corporate economic system)
13.  The Diagonal Economy:  Overlaps and localization in law, sovereignty, and the use of force in a post-peak-Nation-State World – (Lessons from Mexico, the breakdown of exclusive legal systems, and the potential for adaptation and resiliency by the emergent Diagonal Economy)
One possible complement to this series is my plan to gradually go through several strategic principles, systems thinking principles, game theory concepts, and show their application to the ideas discussed on this site.  I may intersperse these chapters with such strategic commentary where appropriate, or I may integrate them into these posts.