Efficiency is Dead

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.

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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.

generative justice.003In 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.

generative justice.004Efficiency 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.”

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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.

generative justice.007People 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.

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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.

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.

generative justice.012Efficiency 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.

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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.

generative justice.014Another 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. generative justice.015Seeds 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.

 

Banking in the Shell of the Old

Last week I came across an announcement on Facebook that said, “Introducing: The Occupy Money Cooperative.‪ #‎LetsCooperate‬.” At first, I’ll admit, I thought it was a poorly executed joke. Perhaps I’m projecting a little bit, since I’m one of those terrible people that still think occupy jokes puns are funny. (“Occupy toilets!”) Still thinking the link was from Occupy Lulz I clicked on it (maybe it would be funny…?) and was brought to a page that could have been mistaken for the Chase website. The cool blues and abstract shapes scream “financial institution” and the video still looks like it might come from a credit card company. All the distinguishing aesthetic features of finance are there. But this is definitely an Occupy venture, and a serious one at that. Why would a radical leftist movement try to make a bank?

Read more on Cyborgology.

The Cost of Opting Out

About this time last year I asked our readers, “why we don’t criticize other things like we criticize the internet?” It seemed like a fitting topic for the season; we utilize some of the most resource-intensive technologies at our disposal so that we may enjoy egg nog with old friends or taste grandma’s famous Thanksgiving day turkey. Everyone wants to be near their loved ones for the holidays, and so begins a massive effort to transport ourselves in cars, trains and planes until we arrive at our optimal holiday season arrangements. It is a wonder, then, why we spend so much of our lives outside of this optimal arrangement. What kind of relationship do we have with our immediate surroundings? Not just the people, but the technologies and the patterns. There is a lot of excellent work on carbon footprintslocal food movements, and walkable communities but I hear comparatively little about who is capable of making this transition. What does opting out of the status quo truly entail?

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Damnit, I Want to Talk About #OWS (But I Don’t Want it to Come Back)

I was gonna write something about how I appreciate Procatinator more than everyone else, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Not today anyway. Remember when the United States had this popular uprising and everyone was talking about it and the political establishment was actually afraid of what it could accomplish?  When hundreds of thousands of Americans were exposed to political organizing and direct action for the first time? That started a year ago today, and while the summer did not see massive protests, the Fall promises a new start. A resurgence built upon… arbitrary calendar dates, I suppose. Truthfully, I see no reason why Zuccotti park should be re-occupied, nor should anyone feel the need to act out of a fear of “losing momentum.” Momentum is important for steering large ships, but direct action is all about swimming against the tide. Anarchist movements (and Occupy undeniably fits this category) are by their very definition: voluntary, small, functional, and temporary. We don’t need another occupation of Zuccotti Park. We need something new.

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Augmented Activism: A Tactical Survey (Parts 1 & 2)

Image c/o Nathan JurgensonAcademics usually do not talk about “tactics.” There are theories, methods, critiques, but we -as professionals-rarely feel comfortable advocating for something as unstable or open to interpretation as a tactic. In the latest edition of the Science, Technology, and Human Values (The flagship journal for Society for Social Studies of Science) three authors threw caution to the wind and published the paper “Postcolonial Computing: A Tactical Survey“ [over-priced subscription required]. While the content of the paper is excellent, what excited me the most was their decision to describe their new “bag of tools” as a set of tactics. Kavita Philip, Lilly Irani, and Paul Dourish take a moment in their conclusion to reflect on their decision:

We call our results tactics, rather than methodologies, strategies, or universal guarantors of truth. Tactics lead not to the true or final design solution but to the contingent and collaborative construction of other narratives. These other narratives remain partial and approximate, but they are irrevocably opened up to problematization.

I will employ the language and approach of the “tactical survey” to offer a new set of conceptual tools for understanding augmented protest and revolution. It is my aim that they prove useful for activists as well as academics and journalists following Occupy Wall Street and similar movements. This first part focuses on the intersections of transparency, social media, privilege, and public depictions of protest. Part 2 will cover the utilization of corporate technological systems (e.g. Apple productsTwitter) and building alternatives to those systems (e.g. Vibe, Diaspora). These tactics are forged from observations (first hand and otherwise) of the #OWS movement. They are intentionally abstract, because they are menat to apply to a wide range of instances and scenarios. 

Read Part 1 Here

Read Part 2 Here

Self-Organizing Systems and the Hierarchy of Institutions

Americans have gotten so good at being consumers that it almost seems hackneyed to acknowledge such a thing. I say “almost” because there are still wonderfully interesting things being said in some literary and academic circles that continually find deeper levels of meaning in the seemingly shallow end of the societal pool. Our near-perfect systems of consumption not only make it technically possible to exchange beautifully designed plastic gift cards,but  it makes it socially acceptable as well. A gift-giver can reliably assume that the recipient a thousand miles away has access to the same stores, with almost the exact same products. The gift-giver can also assume a certain level of homogeneity about gift-giving practices. Most of us share a set of common beliefs about what constitutes a good gift: It should, relate to our interests, be useful, carry sentimental value, reflect the nature of a relationship, provide entertainment, and/or fill a need. When you give a gift card, you are acknowledging the need or want, but allowing the receiver to specify its final material (or digital) form. This system relies on stability and uniformity to function smoothly. There must be a common culture, as well as a reliable stream of goods and services. But such stability is becoming less, and less likely. Whether it is peak energyfinancial collapse, or a little bit of both- our world is becoming less predictable and the systems that rely on steady streams of capital and petroleum are breaking down. In their place, we might begin to find self-organizing systems that are not only more efficient, but also much more just forms of resource distribution.

Read more at Cyborgology

A Brief Summary of Actor Network Theory

Bruno Latour. French Theorist and Main Architect of Actor Network Theory Photo Credit: Denis Rouvre on TheHindu.comThere are many theories that seek to clarify the relationship between our offline existence and whatever it is we are doing online. I say "whatever" not to be flippant, but because there is a great deal of debate about the ontological, conceptual,and hermeneutic ramifications of online activity. How much of ourselves is represented in our Skyrim characters? Is retweeting an #ows rally location a political act? How is access to the Internet related to free speech? These are questions that some of the greatest minds of our day are contemplating. I know some equally smart people that would throw up their hands in frustration at even considering these topics as worthy of research and critical analysis. Regardless of whether or not you think it is worth pondering these questions, people all over the world are engaging in something when they post a Facebook status or check in to a coffee shop on Foursquare. In his Defending and Clarifying the Term Augmented Reality, Nathan described how our relationship to these sorts of digital Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) fits in with our historial relationship to technology: "technology has always augmented reality, be it in pre-electronic times (e.g., architecture or language as technologies) or how those offline are still impacted by the online (e.g., third-world victims of our e-waste or the fact that your Facebook presence influences your behavior even when logged off)." I have argued elsewhere that, even if ICTs mark a fundamental shift in our relationship to technology, it is only another wave in a constantly evolving relationship to our own understanding of technological progress. I am going through this (hyperlinked) summary of many of this blog's larger arguments because 1) we have been growing in readership, and 2) we are embarking on a new, ongoing, project to situate Augmented Reality (AR) amongst other theories of society's relationship to technology. Today I want to introduce Actor Network Theory (ANT).

 

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The Media: Still Not Getting #OWS

The problem is a persistant one. There is a grand symmetry to all of our politics. Any action falls onto one side, and given enough time and interest, there will be a mirror equivalent on the other side. These last few weeks, the main stream media has been trying very hard to wedge the Occupy Wall Street movement into this false narrative. There has to be a "right wing" equivalent of the Occupy Wall Street movement, right?! The obvious candidate is the Fox News/Koch Brothers/Glenn Beck creation called the Tea Party. This small, angry, well-funded kernel of misplaced anger has been held up by countless news outlets as the obvious point of comparison to the much less wealthy, but hugely popular, #OWS movement. Now they look very similar on the news, but that has more to do with how they're covered than what the actual participants have to say about their own politics.