Edward Miller is guest blogging this month.
There is a long list of crises that we need to face and I wont 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.
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 incentivize patent-less 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 this topic. 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.
So I guess that rules out big plans like space exploration, huh? I mean, I'm all for artisan production, self-sustainability, and generally rolling back our needs and wants to pre-industrial levels, but it all seems a bit non-transhumanist-y to me.
Why does any of this have to be rolling back? The point of progress is to promote happiness, leisure, and creativity, not to just promote an increase in the quantity of stuff.
Furthermore, I strongly believe the pace of innovation would actually quicken with open collaboration made possible by the internet rather than competition in secret.
There is no reason we need state-sponsored or corporate-sponsored space colonization, we could just as easily see open source space colonization.
On this topic, a fellow chicago transhumanist made a funny blog post
Seriously though, we need to learn how to live on Spaceship Earth before we start colonizing elsewhere. Sustainability is a prerequisite.
@Edward Miller: you say you understand economies of scale and specialization, but then you talk about people producing everything they need locally. Am I missing something?
If every little local community tries to produce everything it needs locally, then you have abandoned the idea of a global economy of scale (LARGE scale). This will make us much poorer.
Even trying to produce most things locally will make us much poorer.
@Edward Miller: "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. "
Localizing production would make us very poor. Making ourselves poor because we abandon one of the best strategies for making us rich is not the way to make the visions of transhumanism come true; quite the opposite, in fact.
Edward, this stuff seems utterly obvious to me, and I am not even an economist. Am I missing something, because you seem like a clever guy?
@Roko: What is your definition of poor?
Everyone is equipped with the means to produce a living for themselves, then people become freer. They are freed from the necessity of wage labor. They have passed the first rung on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and are then able to rise higher.
One of the problems with current aid programs around the world is that we just give people food, water, etc, as opposed to giving them the means to grow food, purify water, etc.
Give a man a fish...
It isn't rocket science ;)
What I am saying is that Adam Smith worked out that specialization and economy of scale allows society as a whole to produce more goods per unit effort. If a person has to rely on themselves to feed and shelter themselves, they have to live as a cave-man or hunter-gatherer.
In a society with a huge amount of specialization, such as our society, I can go into the shop and pick food up off the shelf, so that I can spend my "working" hours procrastinating by commenting on a blog.
This luxury is afforded to me by specialization and division of labour - that is non-local production.
For example, The rea
I don't mean to say that international trade be impeded. In fact, I argued against it in the post.
We can have global trade, but only when it makes sense. State subsidization of transportation networks subsidizes economies of scale and centralization. It also enables very irrational behavior from an ecological standpoint. Like shipping garbage miles away to landfills... or even recycling centers. Why not re-use it on the spot?
We have lots of projects like RepRap, Factor e Farm, the Multimachine, Hackerspaces, and so forth, which aim to do just that.
@roko: One of the main points here is to foster civilizational resilience.
Our lifespan as a species doesn't look too good if we are dependent upon global supply chains which are susceptible to any number of shocks... ecological catstrophe, market failure, epidemics, terrorism, you name it.
We become resilient if we aren't dependent upon others for the necessities of life. Did computer printers make you poorer even though Kinko's makes less money than they otherwise would? Why would 3D printers be any different?
here is a great example of what I'm talking about, very handily on the front page of IEET today:
Regarding recycling, see
Penn and Teller debunk recycling
and see this academic paper debunk recycling.
Shipping garbage to landfill sites is not irrational behaviour! It is perfectly rational, because the market generally makes rational decisions. If it were rational to recycle things, the market would do it, because you would be able to make money out of it.
I am, of course, in favour of 3D printers, as well as computer printers. But I don;t know what Kinko's is ;-0
If 3D printers can make stuff more cheaply than mass-manufacturing, then they will take over in time. The current generation obviously isn't good enough, but over time they may well take over.
"One of the main points here is to foster civilizational resilience.
Our lifespan as a species doesn't look too good if we are dependent upon global supply chains which are susceptible to any number of shocks... ecological catstrophe,
It is not clear that localized production or recycling would reduce environmental impact. Anything that costs more - such as recycling - is generally bad news for the environment. The case of recycling is a particular pet hate of mine at the moment, because people have been brainwashed into thinking that it is good for the environment.
Markets that occasionally go wrong are better than no markets at all. See Adam Smith, etc.
would be lessened if people stopped travelling. But I like travelling! If it got really bad, I suppose we will have to initiate country or region-level quarantine. But goods can still travel. I guess if you said that preventing people from travelling was good for stopping epidemics, I would agree.
It is true that there wouldn't be large, centralized targets like power plants to hit. Also if you made everyone stay in their local "village" there would be less public transport - a favourite target for terrorists. Any plan to spread people out more (eliminate large cities and dense congregations of people) will make terrorism less of a threat.
But terrorism is currently quite low on the threat agenda as far as I see. It has just been overblown by the media.
@Edward: The link you posted:
Ends with this quote:
"A complex, distributed, specialized economy is, despite its larger requirements for coordination and management, immensely more effective than any collection of isolated or semi-isolated households and small communities could be, and whatever challenges we will have to face in the coming decades, we stand a better chance with more resources at our disposal, not less. "
@Roko: Terrorism is probably the biggest threat, to be honest. Bioterrorism especially. The means to cheaply produce superbugs is already here, and is only becoming more accessible.
The only response is resilience. No security measures can ever eliminate the threat.
Terrorism, by its nature is resilient and decentralized. We can only become safe from nation-wide or civilization-wide crises by becoming resourceful on a local level.
John Robb is the best on this topic:
@Roko: regarding your quote from IEET
here are quotes from my article:
"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."
When I say Life-support systems, I am talking about the essentials for life. Not smartphones and paintings.
Global trade can and should still exist in a resilient world. In a resilient world self-sufficient actors benefit from participation in the larger world and economy, but can also survive just fine on its own... much like how trees are fine on their own, but thrive even better in a forest.
I explicitly argued against impediments to international trade
""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."
When I say Life-support systems, I am talking about the essentials for life. Not smartphones and paintings.
By this do you mean food, fresh water, clothing? You want us to all become farmers?
@Roko: "You want us to all become farmers?"
In a sense. I would like to see the technologies for food production to be as decentralized as possible. Whether that means vertical farms, community gardens, or single family gardens.
I think what would make the most sense is to have cheap, mostly automated greenhouses with drip irrigation built into homes as standard practice.
I remember seeing some documentary on futuristic houses where there was a vegetable garden above the kitchen table that lowers down whenever you want to pick something to eat. I have also seen concept indoor gardens which hang on your wall, indoor hydroponics, and lots of other innovative ideas.
Considering that gardens can produce thousands of dollars in food per year, creating robotic gardening technologies on the scale of the Roomba vacuum cleaner would make economic sense.
@Edward: I think what would make the most sense is to have cheap, mostly automated greenhouses with drip irrigation built into homes as standard practice.
this sounds like it would be massively expensive, and would not provide much help in the case of a major disaster. Producing enough food to feed a family - based on subsistence agriculture - for a year requires acres of land and lots of hard work.
I am not a farmer, but I can tell you straight off that a greenhouse outside the kitchen window is a nice hobby, but in the case of a disaster it will not produce enough food all year round to feed you and your family.
Just how much land do you need to support one person by farming? I just spent about half an hour searching and have found this reference which states
"Depending on climate, soil conditions, agricultural practices and the crop grown, it generally requires between 1,000 and 40,000 m² (0.25 and 10 acres) per person"
Taking the arithmetic mean indicates 5 acres or 20,000 square meters of land per person.
For the united Kingdom, with about 60 million inhabitants, feeding everyone by subsistence agriculture would thus require something like 1,200,000 square kilometers of arable land. The area of all the land in the UK is 244,820 square kilometers. I would estimate that only half of the land in the UK could actually be used for farming in any case - cities, roads, mountains, national parks, etc cover a lot of the UK. This leaves 122,000 square km of land available for subsistence agriculture - or 1/10th of what would be required. Thus the UK can probably support a population of 6 million if we all do nothing but farm in our own little farmsteads. Surprisingly, according the the UK Census of 1801, the UK population was about 8.5 million, and according to another source it was about 4 million in 1600. So, before we developed modern agriculture, we were limited that figure of 20,000 square meters of land per person.
The conclusion: forget your plan of locally grown food as an emergency plan. We are too densely populated.
Of course one could consider a house with a 50 acre farm attached to it, a 10kW class wind turbine, a 5kW class solar panel, energy storage technology, a water purification plant and some other basic facilities, such as medicine, sanitation, a simple workshop, a sewing machine to repair clothes etc. Such a household would be much more survivable than most modern households. In fact, I suspect that it would be basically self-sufficient. But also basically a hobby, as indicated above, we just don't have enough land to make that work for everyone.
I don't think local food production has to produce 100% of our food for it to be helpful. Don't let perfect be the enemy of the good.
Solar power can't produce 100% of everyone's power off-grid with current technology, but that doesn't mean that in a disaster scenario that solar power wouldn't be a lifesaver.
Disasters are often the result of feedback loops. When people run out of food and power, people resort to acts of desperation, worsening the situation. If everyone has enough to tide them over for even a few weeks before they turn to desperation, that could be enough time to put in place new infrastructure.
The odds of a year-long crisis are thus far reduced.
Of course over time we could implement DIY bio to increase crop yields and nanotech to increase solar efficiency, and try to approach the goal of 100% resiliency. Also, other tech like geothermal and wind power could add redundancy to the power sources.
We could also use the innovations of vertical farming on a very small scale, to minimize acreage.
Of course I might prefer community gardens, but as an American, I know how opposed some people can be to this sort of thing. Luckily, I don't think everyone has to participate in community gardening to achieve resiliency.
People here are talking about homesteading in space, but if we can't learn to live here on earth without massive infrastructure, why is anyone even considering doing this in outer space where the price of failure is much higher?
Also we're transhumanists here... we could also look into redesigning human bodies to simply need less food, energy, etc.
I don't see any use in dwelling on how hard it is to do things, considering the types of radical technological innovations we are expecting. I would like to see that innovation focused towards this type of stuff rather than the same-ol same-ol
@Edward: If everyone has enough to tide them over for even a few weeks before they turn to desperation, that could be enough time to put in place new infrastructure.
It would be much more efficient to stockpile a few weeks' worth of food than to build an entire farm in your back yard if you're only after that small an amount of resilience.
Even a year's worth of food for a family would certainly fit in a basement or attic, in the form of concentrated dried carbs like pasta plus some tinned veg and fruit.
I have expanded this critique into a blog post.
Books indicate roughly how much decentralising production makes sense - because there we have the capability already. Nobody worries about the "resiliance" of book production - and nor should they.
To be fair to Edward, he is arguing exclusively in favour of decentralizing essentials.
But we can instead look at decentralized electricity generation or water purification, which are already feasible.
Would having decentralized electricity generation or water purification have helped you if you had been in New Orleans when the levees broke?
In the USA, a lot of people have their own Guns, which counts as a decentralized police/army.
Personally I think that everyone having a Gun is inferior to having a centralized police force. That seems to work well in the UK.
Also, we can ask, would having a decentralized something have helped victims of 9/11? Each office member having their own gun would have made no difference, because the terrorists used a weapon which was immune to small arms.
Not having cities would obviously have helped. But as I said in the article, that would open us up to other forms of attack.
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