Wednesday, December 21, 2005

From Interdependence to Independence: A Path Forward

This is a picture of an 'earthship'. It is designed to be completely self-sustaining.

The history of human society has been a history of greater and greater interdependence: From the birth of agriculture and urbanization through to the modern, digitally mediated, nation state. On the one hand this escalating evolution of interdependence has spawned new forms of technologies and corresponding economies that have drastically raised the quality of life. On the other hand this ever increasing interdependence has also given rise to ever greater and greater specialization of arts. The consequence of this specialization at this late date is that the average person often becomes trapped in an occupational field and is restricted by the expectations of society to the extent that freedom must seem a joke to many.

For instance how many people dare not speak their minds on important matters – not for fear that they will be arrested by some secret police – but merely from fear that they will lose their jobs? What I'm trying to say is that as society becomes increasingly interdependent the individual must necessarily lose independence and become subject to the will of the whole in order to just subsist. It was for this very reason that Theodore Kaczynski (AKA the unibomber) came to believe that all technology must be destroyed. So the question remains: How can ever increasing interdependence be squared with human freedom? The answer is that it cannot be.

So should we just throw in the towel and all become Luddites? Certainly not. The advance of technology could not be stopped even if it were desirable. The solution to this problem is technology it self.

I foresee a radical new state of affairs arising in which every individual is self-sustaining and independent and yet continues to enter into states of cooperation willingly and not because it is necessary. Let's take a look at what kind of technologies will make this possible and then I will flesh out the concept.

There are only two fundamental technologies in operation here: radically decentralized energy production and radically decentralized manufacturing.

I and many others have already discussed both of these technologies at length elsewhere. But the idea is fairly simple. Once energy can be created at home easily and for free, and once nano-manufacturing has developed to the extent that these machines are self-replicating and can replicate almost anything imaginable, then one will not need to rely on anyone else for any kind of subsistence.

This kind of radical independence will open up incredible new doors in relation to how society is organized. With the arrival of this kind of independence people can enter into forms of cooperation not necessarily based purely on economic incentive, but more on what interests them. This means that all kinds of mavericks out there, who presently must operate independently, or who are forced to hide their maverick ideas and conform to corporate policy, will be able to find one another and work together. They will be able to afford to do this precisely because they have become truly independent thanks to the technologies of independence.

I prognosticate that this new form of organization will evolve quite rapidly once the state of technology has reached this point (probably in the mid to late 20's), and that from out of this new organization a radical new economic and political order will arise.

I call this new order techno-anarchy: Anarchy because all hierarchies have been leveled down, and techno because this anarchy will be achieved through the application of technology.

This new order is the synthesis of Hegel's master-slave dialectic.

More on this later.


Those earthships are pretty amazing. Even on a cold winter day, if the sun is shining through those south facing glass walls, the residents are forced to open air vents to let the hot air out. The Rio Grande valley is dotted with those things.

The type of independence you refer to represents a critical turning point in society. A lot of productive people might choose to simply "opt out", a la "Atlas Shrugged." No one really knows what people will do, if the need to work for a comfortable living is removed. The problem is that the point of transition will not happen for everyone at the same time.

This is where egalitarianism breaks down pretty badly. More on this later.

By Blogger al fin, at 21/12/05 21:03  

I see a few roadblocks to this; established interests won't like being taken out of the picture and so on.

They also can't fight it off; a culture that closes itself off from the new production methods is doomed to be outperformed by those that dive headfirst into the abyss.

Ray of sunshine - independent energy production and manufacturing could make possible a way of life disconnected from the rest of society. Want a medieviel lifestyle without the drawbacks of dying young and bad sanitation? You can have that - and you don't have to drag the rest of the world into your little slice o' heaven.

This would accomodate both Muslims who long for the glory days of the caliphate and Ren Faire fanatics.

It also should allow far flung colonies across the solar system to thrive without dragging a long supply line to Earth.

By Blogger Brian Dunbar, at 22/12/05 15:10  

I too believe that the superior state of social independence will eventually exceed the inferior one of inter-dependency. However, I believe this condition will come about for reasons other than as a direct result of the development of nano-based manufacturing and independent energy.

The advent of a new order of Techno-Anarchy will come about in the same way that the enlightenment itself did--Eventually, the censors won’t be able to keep up with the present communications revolution.

Even with the looming advent of a real live Big Brother (via the Patriot Act and other such innovations), the proliferation of ideas, solutions and work-arounds is far outstripping anyone’s ability to keep up.

This said, we will always have some interdependency and that will take the form of energy, communications and commercial inter-dependence. This is not all bad. (What is bad is what Adam Smith pointed out was the result of over-specialization--Namely, the dumbing down and marginalization of wider and wider groups of people who are forced to serve as cogs in “the machine.” Even during the Scottish enlightenment, the writing was on the wall. Still, we can all engage in our personal quests “After hours.”) Man is a social animal and sociality is often constrained by necessity. We are forced to grow when we are occasionally thwarted—that is, if we are not thwarted too much. Life teases to life.

The Zen long ago answered the underlying issue of the constraining aspects of “inter-dependency.” It is the same underlying issue that faces all “mortals.” We, as individuals and as society are always confronted with both disjointedness and the longing for the better place that this longing creates. The Zen key is to feel the longing as a pleasant “ache of reminder” that we can make the world a better place by being ourselves. Everything is out of joint—there is no escaping that fact. The danger comes when we go searching for utopias anywhere other than within. The danger comes when we pin our hopes on anything too out of reach.

Posted by Bill Churchill

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 22/12/05 15:56  

Wow! Thanks for all the great comments. One of the reasons I set it so that the comments would be shown on the main body of the blog was so that any readers could contribute to the content of this blog and increase its usefullness. I think that this goal has been accomplished thanks to so many of my thinking readers.

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 23/12/05 01:24  

Here's a presently unanswerable question: once greater-than-human intelligence is achieved, will these people choose to be more or less interconnected?

Perhaps they will choose to be interconnected but maintain a greater ability to disconnect than we now have.

By Blogger Stephen Gordon, at 28/12/05 07:27  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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