Category Archives: Social Organisms

Gardenbrain — @EricPLiu and @NickHanauer in the NYT

“WE are prisoners of the metaphors we use, even when they are wildly misleading.”

Nick Hanauer

An economy is not a machine; it is a garden. Fruitful if well tended, overrun by noxious weeds if not.

Markets are not perfectly efficient but can be effective if well managed. Where Machinebrain posits that it’s every man for himself, Gardenbrain recognizes that we’re all better off when we’re all better off.

The new analogy changes the way we see regulation, taxes, government spending, etc.

See also this interview at NCOC.

Mutual responsibility, a willingness to put to the long term over the short term, and an ethic of contribution before consumption: these are some of the foundational values of great citizenship.

And buy the book.

The Gardens of Democracy, now in print


Amanda Palmer– a modern Thoreau

Photo by Kyle Cassidy

they don’t play the song on the radio
they don’t show the tits in the video
they don’t know that we are the media
they don’t know that we start the mania

What does it take to create a new society?

Thoreau went to the woods in 1845, supported by friends and family. The result was Walden, published in 1854, and ever since a monument to free living, spiritual discovery, and social experimentation.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. …reduce [life] to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

And what of Amanda? She has gone, not into the woods, but into the internet. Like Thoreau, she finances the operation by direct support from friends and family. Leverged, of course, but she does offer to cook dinner for close supporters.

Oh, and Palmer lives in Boston.

Deviant Globalization and moral arbitrage — Nils Gilman

Deviant globalization is the vast world of grey and black market businesses whose main source of profit is moral arbitrage.

Example: 15-30% of all cigarettes sold in Europe are smuggled in, tax-free, via the Balkans, to take advantage of the high tax rates on licit purchase options.

Deviant globalization is a confluence of inequality, moral lumpiness, and globalization. Often these businesses are run by criminals.

Drugs, yes, and also sex, weapons, human organs, exotic animals/woods, toxic waste disposal, … a long list of goods and services which the “global north” considers immoral.

Money laundering accounts for 4-12% of world GDP—$1.5 to 5 trillion dollars a year.

Deviant businesses flourish in the so-called failed states. In these cases, the state might have failed, but it is wrong to assume that the society necessarily organizes itself around the state. In many of these territories, the deviant businesses supply necessary social services.

Politically, the deviant entrepreneurs don’t want to take over the state, just undermine it. For their own communities they often provide state-like services of infrastructure, health care, and even education. They are “post-modern, post-revolutionary, and post-progressive.” They resort to violence against the state only when the state suddenly attacks them—as is playing out in Mexico now.

Listen to the talk at the Long Now.

Mark Pagel — Infinite Stupidity (how the internet makes us dumb)

MARK D. PAGEL is a Fellow of the Royal Society and Professor of Evolutionary Biology; Head of the Evolution Laboratory at the University of Reading; Author Oxford Encyclopaedia of Evolution; co-author of The Comparative Method in Evolutionary Biology. His forthcoming book is Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind.

Mark Pagel discusses the evolution of ideas as part of the Edge Conversations series. This series includes a full transcript of the talk.

Professor Pagel begins with a review of evolution/life on earth, leading to the concept that social evolution (as opposed to genetic or epigenetic evolution) is unique to homo sapiens. Note that earlier hominoids never changed their toolkit, even over hundreds of thousands of years. Counterpoint: The Australian Aborigines, if we are to believe Wade Davis, also did not change their toolkit. Their culture was built upon preserving the traditional ways. Yet the aborigines are H. Sapiens.

So, he argues, humans are the only animals that show social learning. You might find counterexamples, which he dismisses as imitating behavior. Social learning requires understanding the purpose of the action. Counterpoint: octopus have shown some social learning, with a clear understanding of the purpose. But they are not social creatures, nor do they raise their young. This may be their limit on developing culture.

The downside, of course, is that social learning can also be called copying. And copying is much easier than innovating. This would give us an evolutionary bias towards copying over innovating.

If cultural evolution is seen as creating even larger groups, then this trend would accelerate. The number of innovators needed scales sublinearly with group size, simply because innovation is so rapidly spread via copying. The internet makes sharing trivial. Remember life before Google? Before Facebook let you see what all your connections were doing?

This sets up a duality. Nothing is more precious than an innovative idea; these are rare and difficult to bring into the world. Yet the ease with which they can be accessed makes them seem trivial, cheap.

It also means that the rewards of copying now far outweigh the rewards of innovation, just because copying is so fast and convenient compared to innovation.

Pagel supposes that the internet is domesticating us.

I disagree with Pagel’s comment that the internet is reducing innovation. Rather it speeds it. Innovation is the combining of old elements in new ways, and only very rarely creating a completely new element. By giving us such easy and rapid access to such a broad pool of ideas, it is easier to innovate since we don’t have to re-invent all of the pieces of the idea we ourselves are assembling.

He also notes that evolution requires both a sorting and a generative process. In biology, the sorting is natural selection, and the generative process is random errors in DNA copying. In sociology, the sorting is popularity, but the generative process is unknown. He asks if perhaps it also is only random. Some people only get lucky. Einstein claiming not to be smarter, only more curious. In other words, E. tried many more random ideas before hitting on the ones that worked.

And here again I wonder. How do you explain the creative leap, the “eureka” moment, the flash of intuition which marks the birth of a new idea? It still does not seem like a random combination of stuff that just by chance hit the jackpot.

See also my earlier posts:

Pagel’s presentation of Wired for Culture at the RSA, in which he argues that we evolved to protect our culture (not our self/clan/gene pool), and that we are slowly learning that cooperation achieves this better than competition.

And his article  Phylogenies reveal new interpretation of speciation and the red queen hypothesis, in which he argues that the observed exponential distribution of branch lengths in phylogenies suggests the causes of speciation are many and rare. It is not the cumulation of many small changes, but rather the one small change which comes at the right time in the right place.

The rise of the gay superhero

Northstyle and Karl

Jeet Heer writes in the Globe and Mail argues that all superheros have a strong homosexual component. For many of them, this was intentional at their creation.

I buy some of it. Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin, ok, for those it is pretty clear. But the incredible Hulk? The Submariner? The (early) Captain America?

Survival for lifestyle businesses

Some reflections on Adam Davidson’s article in the NYT magazine, Can Mom-and-Pop Shops Survive Extreme Gentrification?

The background is the gentrification of Greenwich Village. For more than a century, he writes, it was the perfect urban environment. Dense, walkable, cheap: a low barrier to entry if you had an idea, free exposure via walk-bys, and plentiful and diverse customers. Now it is gentrified: high barrier to entry, exposure matters less, and potential customers are more monophyletic.

So who has survived from the old regime? The mom-and-pops whose product prices rose with the gentrification. Coffeeshop which used to sell cheap beans now selling $26/pound PRY Selecto, a liquor store selling $2,000 bottles of Ch^ateau P’etrus.

Perhaps these small business survivors weren’t the smartest or fittest. They were run by unusually risk-averse businesspeople who sold a product whose value just happened to grow in lock step with the neighborhood.

The store exists to allow the proprietor to live, not to get rich. It isn’t maximizing revenue, but allowing the owner to do what they love.

Tricky way to make a living. Because if your business does not grow with the change in the neighborhood, you are out of luck.

Social Collapse best practices — Dmitry Orlov

Orlov advocates seasteading, and many other things on his blog

Dmitry Orlov explains why the USSR was better prepared for societal collapse than the US is, in a talk at the Long Now. The talk was reminiscent of an earlier talk of his, the slides of which are available here.

The SU collapsed in circa 1990. The US will too, someday, for many of the same reasons:

  1. unwinnable wars/out of control military budgets
  2. declining oil
  3. unsustainable deficit/foreign debt
  4. balky, corrupt political system
  5. Delusions of grandeur

The recent article on speciation seems fundamental here, as does v.d. Leews’s talk. We don’t know when the shocks will come, but they will.

The key things which need to be managed are

  • food
  • shelter
  • transportation
  • security

Dmitri argues that our system is very brittle (so do others, including the GAO, according to Pollan).

So, what comes out of the mess? Subsistenence/barter economy, asset stripping, new power structures.

The US’s success makes it especially vulnerable. Running a huge inventory is regarded as not smart when times are good (since you must pay to obtain and warehouse it), but critical when times are bad (since you cannot replentish it). Tons of other examples, which I leave to your imagination.

What happens when transport breaks down? How do you get to the grocery store? How do the groceries get to the grocery store? How do people handle the psychological shock, especially given a mindset of entitlement?

Sanders van der Leeuw on local scale impacts

Sander van der Leeuw, dean of the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University
Photo by: Dave Tevis/Arizona State University

This article is also relevant in that it is about the flow of information in networks.

vdLeeuw looked at what happened when roads were built (post WWII) into Epirus, an extremely rural region between Greece and Albania.

“What happened is that initially, the information network in those very close-knit communities was centered on the village, leading to a very homogeneous ‘information pool.’ Once there were roads, little by little new connections were made between people in the villages and people in the nearby larger town

“There was a long-term stable equilibrium in the villages. But once the roads were built each village was confronted by a choice: ‘Do I go the urban way or do I stay rural?’ and that had an impact on the choices people made in how the inhabitants managed the landscape.”

The result was the villagers stopped spending so much time in the hilltops, which soon became too overgrown for them to herd goats, plus the kids moved away and did not want to herd goats. The farms changed to pigs, and trees began to grow on the hills.

“What you see here is how tiny things, and in particular the opening up of a rural isolated community to the world’s system, completely changes the society, the subsistence, the vegetation, other aspects of the environment. You can see how a whole system completely shifts simply by tying it into the world system,”

Quotes, and photo, are from the Arizona State University newspaper. vdLeeuw teaches at ASU.

I believe the publication is: Dearing, J.A., A.K. Braimoh, A. Reenberg, B.L. Turner II, S.E. van der Leeuw. “Complex land systems: the need for long time perspectives in order to assess their future”. Ecology and Society (2010).

Sander van der Leeuw — The Archaeology of Innovation

Sander van der Leeuw at the Long Now on using archeology to trace the history of innovation.

I took more pages of notes on this talk than any previous. Even Stewart Brand was a bit in awe.

vdLeeuw likes to invert things. Examples: he does his digs from the bottom up. When asked why ancience kept records for so long, he asks why we throw records out so soon. He sees writing not as a way to increase communication, but rather as a way to communicate which allows one to not say what one does not want to say (by filtering out all the non-verbal cues).

Question: What is the change of change? What explains the hockey stick graph of human innovation?

Look at the limits of short term working memory. For chimps, it is 2 +/- 1 (evidence: only 75% can learn how to crack nuts using a rock and anvil). They reach this limit at age 2.

Modern humans are limited to 7 +/- 2. At age 5, the limit is 3, and it is maxed at age 14.

It took 1.5 million years to go from chimp-level to 7pm2, and has not moved from there in the 150K yrs since. Partly because biology is no longer a constraint, and the combinatorial explosion of possibilities when one can work w 7 objects.

Every society is an information society. Innovation is no longer biological but social.

One can observe the evolution in complexity in the archeological record. We start with stone tools, where we chip off flakes to form the tool. Next step: the chips are the tool, and the core is discarded. Then comes shaping objects: baskets, pottery. We develop agriculture, writing, then laws and administration, then empire.

This progression is summarized more eloquently here

… STWM increasing in step with mastery over 2D and 3D concepts (e.g., blade lines and spear heads) and eventually composition and staged manufactoring, i.e., the 4th dimension of time. … we arrived at our current biological evolutionary state around 10,000 years ago…

Innovation cycles can [now] be understood in the context of villages forming cities, and clusters of cities forming empires. … Cities require energy and in turn support innovation; Innovation allows growth, which increases energy demand…. Yet innovation leads to a cascade of new challenges …

The major innovations thus far have been our mastery over spatial and temporal dimensions (tools, writing, agriculture, etc) and our mastery of energy (Industrial Revolution). We are now in the beginning of an Information Revolution, which must provide new solutions to the problems generated by past innovations

— Alexander Pico @xanderpico

vdLeeuw now switches tack and talks about how civilizations fall. In hunter-gatherer society humans exerted no control over their environment. Risk was ever present, BUT known, understood, and non-cumulative. Some choose teutonically active regions as this actually preserved stability– the frequent disruptions prevented long-term changes as the system was frequently reset.

From the neolithic revolution (farming, 10K BC), we exert more control over the environment. This reduces the immediate risks but creates new long-term risks which are not known or even knowable until it is too late.

quotable: reducing frequent risks increases the probability of infrequent risk (by making non-cumulative events cumulative in effect ?)

To quore SB’s summary:

Around 1800, in Europe, energy constraints were finally conquered by the harvesting of fossil fuels. Humans only need 100 watts to survive, but every human now commands 10,000 watts. With that leverage we built a global civilization. The innovative power of urbanity has multiplied yet further with the coming of the Internet.

But we have become “disturbance dependent.” As our cities and density of communications grow, they create ever more difficult problems, for which we have to innovate ever more sophisticated solutions. Technology is “the biggest Ponzi scheme of all.”

As we become ever more adept at solving short-term problems, we shift the risk to long-term problems—such as climate change—which do not match the skills we have developed and know how to reward. We are headed into a trap of our own devising. To get out of it, if we can, will require a “battle with ourselves” to wholly redefine our social structures and institutions to master the long term

Thoughts inspired by the talk. He wonders what drove us from mobile bands to fixed settlement. My thought– WOMEN. They want to stay put.

More important, an analogy to my recent thoughts on the causes of speciation.
I want to model things in terms of cycles, but perhaps it isn’t a cycle, but exponential distributions with low variance?? The same process that drives speciation should also drive evolution of human culture. Can we create cultural phylogenies (allowing, of course, for HGT).

A long-time limit for world subway networks

Paper is paywalled, and I don’t want to ask the library to dig through it.  So I cut and paste the abstract, and highlight interesting bits.

Roth C, Kang SM, Batty M, Barthelemy M. A long-time limit for world subway
networks. J R Soc Interface. 2012 May 16. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID:

“We study the temporal evolution of the structure of the world’s largest subway networks in an exploratory manner. We show that, remarkably, all these networks converge to a shape that shares similar generic features despite their geographical and economic differences. This limiting shape is made of a core with branches radiating from it. For most of these networks, the average degree of a node (station) within the core has a value of order 2.5 and the proportion of k = 2 nodes in the core is larger than 60 per cent. The number of branches scales roughly as the square root of the number of stations, the current proportion of branches represents about half of the total number of stations, and the average diameter of branches is about twice the average radial extension of the core. Spatial measures such as the number of stations at a given distance to the barycentre display a first regime which grows as r2 followed by another regime with different exponents, and eventually saturates. These results—difficult to interpret in the framework of fractal geometry—confirm and yield a natural explanation in the geometric picture of this core and their branches: the first regime corresponds to a uniform core, while the second regime is controlled by the interstation spacing on branches. The apparent convergence towards a unique network shape in the temporal limit suggests the existence of dominant, universal mechanisms governing the evolution of these structures.”