Or: Questionable Efficiencies: Recursive Depth as an Anti-Capitalist Metric. Below is the text and slides of a presentation I gave at the Generative Justice Conference held at RPI on June 27 & 28, 2014.
Today I want to talk about an issue that is very abstract, and yet plays an integral and indeed very material role in just about every life on the planet. This presentation could be described as mostly theoretical, in that all of my examples are in service of a more general and abstract point, but I just want to make clear on the outset that what I’m proposing today is very specific and very concrete. Before I tell you exactly what that proposal is, I want to tell all of you about my favorite part of exorcism movies.
In just about every horror movie that has an exorcism scene, the priest has to “name the demon.” It is through a name that you can grasp something intangible –like a demon– and either simply bring attention to it or exorcise it. You can also invoke other names in order to compel the bad spirit to leave. Names and labels are powerful, and even if we don’t explicitly acknowledge their power on a daily basis, we implicitly experience the power of names when we read grant proposals or stand up in the face of bigotry. Speaking personally, this is what’s always drawn me to the work of writing and building theory: at its core, theory is about grabbing hold of previously intangible demons and casting them out through the invocation of new names.
Theory works at its best when it gives a name to something that was previously nothing more than an indescribable and complicated feeling or emotion. Sometimes that thing is undesirable and giving it a name makes it easier to cast out, other times –and far too infrequently– theory gives a name to a good thing that we want to popularize and see more of in our lives. Today I want to do the latter because we all know the demon I want to cast out of the body politic: efficiency.
Efficiency is a really common idea but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a complex idea. Sort of like “sustainability” or “justice” efficiency is one of those words that you could built a syllabus around. And yet, we talk about efficiency all the time as something that generally means using the least amount of inputs to gain the maximum amount of outputs. Efficiency means less gas for more miles in a car, or fitting more chores into a single weekend. Lots of us feel comfortable assessing whether or not something or someone is acting efficiently. We are all very literate in efficiency and are well equipped to seek it out, know when it is missing, and impose it on our various tasks and jobs.
I think it’s also safe to say that efficiency, like most demons, has bad and seductive qualities. And while I said I want to “cast it out” it’d be more accurate to say that I want to highlight the ways in which efficiency as a metric --as a way of assessing whether or not something or someone is working optimally-- systematically fails to offer solutions to long-standing problems. Efficiency, if we wanted to take a historical materialist approach to it, is good for achieving a state of abundance, but it always fails to distribute that abundance in a way that is fair, equitable, and sustainable. What I am proposing here is that engineers, scientists, and political actors start using a new term to measure optimization. Efficiency will always be good for some things but, if we do this right, efficiency will seem like a steam engine in a digital world.
This new term, instead of focusing on a ratio of inputs to outputs, will measure the capacity of a system to self-replicate under its own means. That is, an optimal system will no longer be defined by how much it can do with how little, but how well those interacting with the system can easily expand that system and create new capacity across multiple dimensions . This new term, at least for now, I want to call “recursive depth.”
Now, as someone that gets into a lot of arguments that begin with the other person saying, “Well if you don’t like capitalism, come up with a better system,” I know that change at the level I’m calling for doesn’t happen by me offering the solution and everyone going out and acting on it. Obviously change is much slower and much more messy. That is why instead of standing up here and giving you an infomercial about all of the features of recursive depth, I’d much rather spend the remainder of my time sketching a brief outline of what recursive depth is, and sharing what I identify as the moment in which recursivity and efficiency had an equal chance of being the ur metric for all systems.
People that participate in or are somehow reached by a recursively deep system are afforded, by virtue of their participation, more autonomy and freedom to pursue collective and individual desires. The most recursively deep systems are ones that contain within them all of the parts and practices for their maturation and expansion. This happens across multiple dimensions and I’ll get into the particulars of those dimensions later in examples and maybe in the Q&A but for now I’ll just name three that Ron Eglash and I identified in a paper we published earlier this year in The Information Society. They are: public/proprietary, virtual/material, and high/low social power. The anthropologist Chris Kelty gives us one of the best examples of a recursively deep system, by describing what he calls a recursive public. His case study is a community of free software developers who make software and maintain methods and practices that allow for the expansion of their software-making community. The systems they make are also the systems that bring them together so that they may continue to develop and mature those self same systems.
I don’t think free software is going to save humanity, but I do think there’s a lot to be learned from studying groups that are deeply committed to maintaining the material and digital prerequisites for their own existence. These sociotechnological relations are capable of developing parallel power structures that offer alternative modes of daily action. Recursively deep systems are also sustainable in a very fundamental way because the means by which they are sustained are also deeply intertwined with their political, cultural, ecological, and/or social ends. I am arguing then, that recursivity is much more capable of dealing with the big problems of today like extreme income inequalities and climate change, because it gives us a metric for examining both how self-sustaining, and how scalable a system can be.
Now for the history: Its not uncommon to hear the phrase “Tragedy of the Commons” when talking about access to what economics tellingly call “rival goods.” That is, goods that are used up such that my enjoyment of them means that you cannot enjoy them. Water, arable land, and coffee are all examples of rival goods. Tragedy of the Commons is invoked as a justification for making these goods private and ownable so that they may be used in the most efficient way possible. Without private ownership, the myth goes, we’d fall into some Hobbesian Mad Max-style fight over resources that would ultimately leave those resources ravaged and unusable for future generations. It is invoked as a parable, some abstract-yet-true story that we should all learn from when in fact it is much better described as an urban legend: something that never happened but sounds true enough that we heed the story’s prescriptive conclusion.
The origin of this urban legend (like so many others) can be found in the journal of Science. In 1968 the economist Garrett Hardin wrote an article titled “Tragedy of the Commons” in which he gives a historical account of the English enclosure laws that “saved” the commons which he characterizes as completely unregulated land. The entire paper is meant as a kind of thought experiment meant to justify the privatization of public goods, but he adds just enough historical allusions to make his hypothesis seem like a foregone conclusion. Susan Jane Buck Cox published an article-length debunking of Hardin in a 1985 issue of Environmental Ethics. Her article, titled “No Tragedy of the Commons” [PDF] uses historical document analysis to show not only that Hardin’s characterization of the commons was factually wrong, but that in fact the end of the commons was in large part due to illegal seizures of land by wealthy landowners. The enclosure acts he cited as the saving grace of the English countryside was in actuality a formalization and thus legalization of something that aristocrats had been doing illegally, and with increasing frequency, for several decades.
The real tragedy of the commons then, is that rich people will always try to take common property away and extract rents from whatever is left.
Of course the Enclosure Acts didn’t happen in a historical vacuum. They were occurring during the very beginning of the industrial revolution. Rather than subsistence farming that utilized a regulated and peer-supervised commons, people were expected to purchase their daily needs in a marketplace. Here, I argue, is where efficiency won out over recursivity. Instead of developing and improving the ability of people to access common property, capitalists restricted access to the basics of life and turned them into goods to be sold.
Efficiency helps us measure how completely and quickly things are turned into a good. Our present ideas of efficiency are largely wrapped up in the proletarization of the masses. That is: systems and processes that are identified as efficient are very good at standardizing quantities and maintaining private control over resources. Recursive depth requires that we develop alternative systems that stretch from raw materials to finished product. It measures things based on how well resources are effectively distributed, not how effectively they are turned into goods with attached prices. Recursive depth demands that we build a new commons.
Notice I did not say return to the commons. Recursive depth does not require that we become sharecroppers or goat herders, although it’d be nice if that was an option left open to some people. What I’m suggesting is a lot more incremental than any kind of back to the land movement. Instead, I’m trying to nurture a reversal of proletarization by developing a popular metric by which we can measure that reversal.
Now might be a good time for some examples.
Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly and its concomitant consensus process, hand signals, and people’s mic are excellent examples of a deeply recursive system. They are very easy to learn and once learned it gives the individual the ability to recreate that system elsewhere. It sacrifices some aspects of efficiency for the sake of portability, reproducibility, and accessibility. Efforts to bring this kind of decision making online are slow but promising. The best so far is a product in public beta right now called Loomio, created by a New Zealand-based development group. Troy has a similar home-grown system called Nexus. Both of these are intriguing not just because they are attempting to bring a somewhat messy process to the clean lines of a web browser, but because they represent an opportunity to take an already recursively deep system, deeper through the digitization of some very basic organization logics like hand signals.
Another example more in line with the rest of my panelists is food production. Agribusiness has been very efficient at producing massive amounts of food. Too efficient in fact, given that governments pay farmers to not grow things so as to keep prices at serviceable levels. Current farming practices require that seeds, equipment, fertilizer, and many other requisite aspects of farming be privately owned and purchased as goods. This not only ensure rents for capitalists, it also turns a farm in to a machine. It maximizes outputs and minimized inputs within a certain systematic logic. It keeps food relatively cheap but at the expense of some fairly important social, political, and economic concerns that fellow panelists have already articulated. A recursively deep farming system wouldn’t be a wholesale return of the English commons but it might look similar. Seeds would be shared, readily available, and come with a wealth of information so that anyone purchasing a new seed variety can be sure they’ll know how to make the most of it. It would sacrifice larger mechanical harvesters for much simpler tools that can be easily mastered, fixed, and shared. The management of farms would have to be bound up in or somehow deeply ingrained in the labor practices that sustain them. It would require that those that eat the food are also somehow part of the maintenance of agricultural practice and not solely either food buyers or sellers.
What I have outlined here is neither a path nor a model for generative justice. It is a potential metric for determining whether we have achieved generative justice. I think this is an essential mode of inquiry not just for the titular theory of this conference but for prescriptive academic projects in general. The metrics of success must be ours or we risk measuring our own work against the failed value systems of previous generations.