Monday, September 28, 2009

Distributed Manufacturing Beyond Trinkets

I've spent the last week swamped with work, out of town taking depositions, and preparing my presentation for the upcoming ASPO conference in Denver.  As a result, I haven't been making the hoped-for progress on my Diagonal Economy series.  However, I have been spending some spare time thinking about distributed economies, and specifically distributed manufacturing.  Ponoko seems to be the current leader in this area--they aren't especially distributed yet, but there's certainly promise.  However, as I've wondered before, how much are current distributed manufacturing efforts focused on the creation of "trinkets," and how much promise do they hold to provide what I'll call "primary" goods in the future?

First, two definitions.  "Trinkets"--I'm using this term to describe most everything that seems to be currently available on Ponoko.  Some of them are pretty nifty, but not exactly essential to sustaining our civilization and quality of life in a post-peak energy world.  "Primary" goods are, by this makeshift definition, the opposite of trinkets--things that can play an integral role in our future production of food, water, energy, shelter, communication, materials, etc. 

Now my question to ponder for the week:  Do you think that a system like Ponoko can currently, or will in the future, facilitate the distributed production of primary goods?  Let's take that 1 step beyond a simple yes/no answer--can you describe such a good that can presently be produced via Ponoko?  How about one that could be produced via Ponoko with minor modifications to their system and infrastructure?  My intent is not to promote Ponoko per se, but rather to use its very well defined parameters to facilitate this conversation on distributed production in general.

I'll start:

Primary good that can be presnetly produced via Ponoko:  a bat box.  Sounds simple, admittedly, but it's well suited to the current production capabilities of Ponoko.  Additionally, this qualifies as a "primary good" precisely because, by housing bats in one's yard, it's possible to 1) control insect populations, and 2) accumulate valuable fertilizer from the bats for use in localized food production.  Bee hives and relate systems are another good example, though the need for wire mesh is slightly beyond the current Ponoko capabilities.  Another:  cold frames.  Worm farm.  The list goes on.

Primary good that can be produced via Ponoko with modifications to its capabilities:  A hand pump.  This would probably require the ability to work with metal, in both sheet and tube form.  I recognize that this is well beyond the current capability of Ponoko, but it's not theoretically that big of a change.  Also, if you added the ability to work with sheet metal and pipes/tubing, the universe of potential "primary" goods would open quite quickly (e.g. solar water heaters, stoves, etc.).

Other ideas?  And a related question:  what primary goods are most important for future distributed manufacture (such that we can guide the evolution of distributed manufacturing systems in a direction, rather than hoping the needed capability arises)?

Final thought:  to what extent must distributed manufacturing networks also address local sources and production of the input mateirals?  Distributed wood milling?  Distributed bioplastics production?  Metallurgy?

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Diagonal Economy 3: Growth and Sustainability

I’ve written before about the Problem of Growth.  There, I suggested that our current civilization is structurally unsustainable because an excess of hierarchy requires that it seek perpetual growth.  There, I argued that we must build a non-hierarchal and locally self-sufficient alternative structure that I call Rhizome to replace our current economic and political structure if we are ever to achieve actual sustainability.  Of course, I’ve always recognized that Rhizome is not a practicable mass-transition strategy—it could exist at the peripheries, perhaps even creating a valuable symbiosis with “primary” society, but it’s plainly not realistic to suggest that we just abandon “hierarchy” and adopt “Rhizome.” 

Some readers may have wondered by now about the similarities and differences between the Diagonal Economy and Rhizome—are they the same, am I abandoning my previous theory and replacing it with a new one, etc.?  While there is some overlap, the simplest answer is that the Diagonal Economy and Rhizome are two separate concepts intended for two separate purposes. 

Rhizome was always intended as a theoretical counterposition to hierarchy—its purpose was to explore the problems with our current system by imagining its opposite and attempting to frame it in a way that would be viable.  But it is, in the end, a theoretical model.  I think it can provide useful guidance for people in the unusual position of building something from the ground up—usually very small or remote situations—and while I think it provides much practical guidance in design (as it influenced my development of the Diagonal Economy), it provides little guidance about implementation or transition amidst real-world challenges and constraints.

The Diagonal Economy was created with the express purpose of filling that gap left by Rhizome theory.  I’m less interested in articulating a pristine model for non-hierarchal and sustainable organization than I am in articulating a set of trends and principles that we can all use, at all levels, to guide the continuing evolution and emergence of human civilization.  The Diagonal Economy is expressly intended to adapt the theory developed as “Rhizome” to provide answers and guidance to the challenges that I predict we will face in the coming century.  As such (and as suggested by the title of this post), the Diagonal Economy is intended as a set of guidelines for growing a truly sustainable civilization—specifically, one that has a scale-free absence of the need to grow—within and only eventually replacing the Legacy economic and political structures.

I won’t repeat the argument that I’ve made at length before, but the Problem of Growth is at the core of our civilization’s problems.  Many people suggest that overpopulation is the core problem, but this, too, is but a symptom of our structural problem of growth.  While I think the Diagonal Economy provides many other advantages as a model for transition, most of these are ultimately subsumed under its ability to address the Problem of Growth.  Again, while details of this approach are discussed in the linked articles (and will be covered in more depth later), the keys to addressing the Problem of Growth are scale-free self-sufficiency, non-hierarchal political, economic, and social structures, and an ethic and aesthetic of elegant simplicity.  As I will explain in coming posts, these qualities can be infused into our current structure gradually, rather than attempting some kind of revolution of direct confrontation and sudden replacement.  And this can be done at all levels—not only does it not require action by “others,” but it also does not offer the excuse that we’re waiting on “them.”

In this sense, by attempting to provide a realistic and implementable approach to addressing our civilization’s structural Problem of Growth, the Diagonal Economy may be the only “program” that offers any real hope of achieving true sustainability, not just greenwashing or empty victories.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Diagonal Economy 2: The Impact of Energy Descent

I’ve wondered how to best explain the advantages of the Diagonal Economy in confronting energy descent.  I think that reference to an old post addressing “anti-economies ” is perhaps the best framework.   There, I discussed the classical sources of economic efficiency:  economy of scale and economy of place.
Both economies of place and scale will be impacted by the phenomenon of energy descent—the idea that there will be increasingly less surplus energy available to society going forward.  While I am very confident that this will be the case, it’s necessary to recognize that there are those who don’t think this will be true—or at least that this won’t be a significant force going forward because we’ll have plenty of energy available from renewable or other sources.  Some even think that technologies like thin-film-solar will make energy “too cheap to meter.”  While I think this is highly unlikely, it’s also important to accept that this is a possibility—to think otherwise (or to think that it’s an inevitability of technological innovation) is an inherently faith-based position. 
I’ve critiqued this “viridian vision” previously here and here .  This post operates on the assumption that society does undergo energy descent, and to the extent that assumption is mistaken then the conclusions reached in this post will be incorrect.  However, even if this assumption is faulty, the general concept of the Diagonal Economy is not necessarily flawed because there are several other forces supporting its adoption that I will address in coming posts.  Now, on to a discussion of the impact of energy descent:
Economy of place, the first of the two classical “economies,” is the concept that some things are more efficiently done in certain places--to use the classic example, it would be just plain silly for to try to grow grapes for Port in dreary England when they grow so nicely in Portugal. Lumber is more ripe for the logging in Oregon than it is in Kansas, etc. 
Of course, when it comes to physical products, economy of place is facilitated by affordability of transportation.  It still made sense to grow grapes in Portugal when the only way to get them to England was via sail.  This effect was less powerful, however, because of the comparatively higher cost of transport via sail (though wind is free, the overall cost of transport by sail was more than modern transport by containerized freighter).  Many items that are transported between continents on a routine basis today were produced locally in the past because of the then higher cost, or slower speed, of transport.  But the oil age, with its cheap and rapid transport options, has fundamentally re-shaped our economy around extreme economies of place.  This will change as oil and other sources of energy for transport (potentially even for the energy for transport of information over the internet) become increasingly expensive.  As economy of scale is less decisive a grantor of fitness in our ongoing economic evolution, we’ll see more localized industry gain on its centralized predecessors.  This won’t necessarily mean a return to the same look and feel of past localization—too much as changed to think we’ll simply revert to the 18th century.  As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
Economy of scale is the concept that it is more efficient to do lots of one thing rather than trying to do a little of everything. You can specialize and stratify and apply all kinds of economic terminology, but the bottom line is that if all you do all day is draw out wire into pins (to take Smith’s classic example), you're going to get pretty good at it. But if you only had to draw out wire into a pin when you need one (can't remember the last time that happened to me), you will probably be very slow and inefficient in their manufacture. This is economy of scale--and it applies, for obvious reasons, even better to things like microprocessors and flu vaccines than push pins.
As with economy of place, the leverage available through pursuit of economies of scale will change under energy descent.  To some extent, economy of scale is facilitated by cheap transportation fueled by cheap energy.  Of course, economy of scale also facilitates specialization, which can lead to economies of production under certain circumstances.  While not strictly a prerequisite to reaping economies of scale, centralization is a common symptom of such efforts.  It’s possible to leverage distributed networks of highly specialized functions to achieve economies of scale (something especially compatible with the Diagonal Economy, and that I will cover later), but this is not yet commonplace.  As a result, economies of scale tend to require cheap energy for transportation to meet three needs:  1) to get workers to a physically centralized location where they can perform specialized tasks, 2) to transport physical goods to this specialized location, and 3) to redistribute the resulting physical product to its end user.   It’s also worth addressing one more symptom of economies of scale:  the information-processing burden of hierarchy, or what Robert Anton Wilson called the SNAFU principle.  Economies of scale are usually (though, importantly, not necessarily) the result of hierarchal structures—corporations, governments, religions, etc.  Because control (both of process and output) is often a requirement of those who design such institutions,  hierarchal structure is a necessity.  However, with such hierarchal structure comes an increased information-processing burden as the top must communicate through several relays to the bottom, and vice versa.  This tendency, while individually important, is relevant here because it can exacerbate the importance of cheap energy/cheap transportation to economies of scale because hierarchies tend to require more people—and hence greater centralization and more transportation to and from—as a result of this information-processing burden.  The truism that hierarchy tends to result from a need or desire for control—of inputs, outputs, process, etc.—also suggest that hierarchies can be avoided by forfeiting control over these parts of an economic process.
Like economies of place, the result of energy descent will be that economies of scale provide less comparative advantage than it did in the past.  This will be particularly true where economies of scale require physical centralization and where it depends on hierarchal control structures.  Therefore, as a result of energy descent, we’ll see two trends:  away from physical centralization, and away from hierarchal control structures.  Here in particular, because of both available communications technology and the conscious understanding of modern communication possibilities like P2P and open-source, the future will not be a simple reversion to the past.  Instead, there will be great comparative opportunity to structures that develop a way to leverage economies of scale without depending on physical centralization or hierarchy.  The Diagonal Economy is specifically conceived with this possibility in mind—open-source information processing, the development of platform-based manufacturing, and other concepts that I will discuss in more detail later.
I think it might be useful to envision the spectrum of economic possibilities along two axes:  degree of hierarchy and degree of physical centralization.  The result of the declining importance of economy of place and economy of scale presents a potential bifurcation point on the resulting graph of our future economic path(s).  If you accept that, on one axis, the scale and centralization of our economy will recede due to energy descent, then I argue that the variable axis is the degree of hierarchy within our economy. 
Less centralization and scale but more hierarchy than present looks like a form of neo-feudalism to me.  I certainly don’t mean that this will be a regression to jousting and castles, but rather that we’ll see an increasing disparity in standard of living among an increasingly stratified local political and economic structure.  For matters of ontogeny and optimizing the median standard of living, this is the less desirable option.  However, as this option may prove the best option (both in absolutes and comparatively) for current elites, I would not be surprised if there is a significant push in this general direction.  I think that, absent active pursuit of the alternative outlined below, the natural tendency under energy descent will be for our current structure to “erode” into some kind of a neo-feudalism with less centralization but more hierarchal stratification.
The alternative—less centralization, less scale, and less hierarchy—is what I envision as the Diagonal Economy.  This is my preferred vision of the future, but not one in which I am especially confident.  While I think this option will be the most effective in maximizing the absolute median standard of living in an environment of energy descent, it will be a challenge to implement because, as I just pointed out, there will be little incentive for existing elites to choose this path.
Finally, the third option of less centralization and scale but about the same amount of hierarchy seems unlikely.  This option is the analog to the viridian vision of the future as a land of renewable plenty!  Considering that this framework accepts declining surplus energy due to energy descent, the existing economic structure will simply be untenable.  As pointed out above in the discussions of economies of place and scale, if energy for transportation is less available then we must reduce centralization.  Existing levels of hierarchy that made sense under existing levels of centralization will no longer be tenable—the overall economic product per person available will decline along side energy, requiring either more hierarchy to enforce a greater stratification or no providing enough economic incentive to those at the top of the hierarchy to justify its costs.  While I have argued that a flatter structure with much less information processing burden may also provide high quality of life to its constituents, it does so specifically because of the avoided cost of hierarchy.  Instead of the status quo, then, It is my guess that we will either see an intensified but localized hierarchy (neo-feudalism) or a dissipation of hierarchy itself (the Diagonal Economy).  Finally, for those who do not actively pursue the Diagonal Economy option, the existing political and economic terrain will all but mandate a neo-feudal future.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Tainter on Complexity and Sustainability

Joseph Tainter has published a new essay at The Oil Drum, a definite must read.  For those who are unfamiliar, Tainter's "Collapse of Complex Societies" is, in my opinion, one of the most important books available to explain the structural nature of our current predicament.  His new essay is not just a rehash of his previous work--it explores a new theory with startling implications.  In short, it turns common perceptions of sustainabilty on their heads. 

I think Tainter's thinking highlights the need for a specific type of solution that I have attempted to articulate in the past:  elegant simplicity, designed tecnics, vernacular zen, etc.  My problem is that I have not had a suitable framework to give structure to my ramblings.  Tainter's latest essay provides that structure--after I finish the Diagonal Economy series, I will turn to re-articulating these previous works as a solution specifically intended to address the issues raised by Prof. Tainter.

On the Diagonal Economy series, my work schedule has kept me from getting it published as quickly as I would like.  I have completed the next installment, and hope to finish up a few more this weekend, ensuring that the next few weeks will be a return to substantive postings...