Friday, April 02, 2010

Collapse Competitively

[En français]

We are heading toward economic, political and social collapse, and every day that passes brings it closer. But we just don't know when to stop, do we? Which part of "the harder we try, the harder we fail" can't we understand? Why can't we understand that each additional dollar of debt will drive us into national bankruptcy faster, harder and deeper? Why can't we grasp the concept that each additional dollar of military spending further undermines our security? Is there some sort of cognitive impairment that prevents us from understanding that each additional dollar sunk into the medical industry will only make us sicker? Why can't we see that each incremental child we bear into this untenable situation will make life harder for all children? In short, what on earth is our problem?

Why can't we stop? We can blame evolution, which has produced in us instincts that compel us to gorge ourselves when food is abundant, to build up fat reserves for the lean months. These instincts are not helpful to us when there is an all-you-can-eat buffet nearby that's open year-round. These instincts are not even specifically ours: other animals don't know when to stop either. Butterflies will feast on fermented fruit until they are too drunk to fly. Pigs will eat acorns until they are too fat to stand up and have to resort to crawling about on their bellies in order to, yes of course, eat more acorns. Americans who are too fat to walk are considered disabled and the government issues them with little motorized scooters so that they don't have to suffer the indignity of crawling to the all-you-can-eat buffet on their bellies. This is considered progress.

Or we can blame our education, which puts mathematical reasoning ahead of our common sense. Mathematics uses induction—the idea that if 1 + 1 is 2 then 2 + 1 must be 3, and so on up to an arbitrarily large quantity. In the real world, if you are counting acorns, then 1 + 1 acorns is not the same as 1,000,000 + 1 acorns—not if there are squirrels running around, which there will be once they find out that you are the one who's been stealing their acorns. A million acorns is just too many for you to keep track of, and your concerted effort to keep adding one more to the pile while fighting off squirrels may cause small children to start calling you silly names. The bigger the pile grows, the more likely you are to have to take inventory, and in the process you are increasingly likely to make a mistake, so that it turns out that 1,000,000 + 1 is in fact 1,000,001 - δ, where δ is the number of acorns you have lost track of, somehow. Once δ > 0, you have achieved diminishing returns, and once  δ > 1, you have achieved negative returns. In the real world, the bigger you think a number should be, the smaller it actually turns out to be. At some point, trying to add one more to the pile becomes a particularly wasteful way of making the pile smaller. This result is not intellectually pleasing, and there is no theory to back it up, but it is observable anywhere you care to look. The fact that we are unable to adequately explain any given phenomenon by using our feeble primate brains does not make it any less real.

The concept of diminishing returns is quite simple for most people to understand and to observe, but notoriously difficult to detect for the person who is at the point of achieving them. The point of negative returns is even harder to detect, because by that point we tend to be too far gone to detect much of anything. If you already had N drinks, can you tell if you are at the point of diminishing returns yet? Will another drink make you happier and more sociable, or will it not make much of a difference? Or will it cause you to embarrass yourself and spend the next day nursing a debilitating hangover? Or will it send you to the emergency room to be treated for vomit inhalation? As a general rule, the more you imbibe, the more difficult it becomes for you to draw such fine distinctions. This rule does not seem to be limited to drinking, but applies to almost all behaviors that produce a feeling of euphoria rather than the simple satisfaction of needs. Most of us can stop ourselves from drinking too much water, or eating too much porridge, or stacking too many bales of hay. Where we do tend to run into trouble with self-control is when it comes to things that are particularly pleasurable or addictive, such as drugs, tobacco, alcohol, and rich and delicious food. And we tend to lose it completely when it comes to euphoria-inducing social semi-intangibles: satisfaction of greed, status-seeking, and power over others.

Is this the best we can do? Certainly not! Human culture is full of examples where people stood up and successfully opposed such primitive tendencies within themselves. The ancient Greeks made a virtue of moderation: the temple of Apollo at Delphi bore the inscription MHΔEN AΓAN—"Nothing in excess." Taoist philosophy focuses on the idea of balance between yin and yang (阴 阳)—seemingly contrary natural forces that in fact work together and must be kept in balance. Even in contemporary engineering culture one sometimes hears the motto "Better is the enemy of good enough." Sadly, though, engineers who are good enough to abide by it are something of a rarity. At the micro level of solving specific problems most engineers do strive to achieve the clever optimum rather then the stupid maximum, but at the macro level the surrounding business culture forces them to always go for the stupid maximum (maximum growth, revenue and profits) or the stupid minimum (minimum cost, product cycle time and maintainability). They are forced to do so by the influence of a truly pernicious concept that has insinuated itself into most aspects of our culture: the concept of competition.

The concept of competition seems to have first been elevated to cult status by games that were played as a form of sacrifice before gods, in cultures as different as ancient Greece and the Mayan civilization, where competitive events were held to please their various deities. I much prefer the Olympic version, where the object of the games was to express the ideal of human perfection in both form and function, rather than the Mayan version, where the outcome of the game was used to decide who would be sacrificed on the altar of some peculiar cultural archetype, but being open-minded I am ready to accept either as valid, because both are competitions in defense of principle. It was Aristotle who pointed out that pursuit of principle is the one area where moderation is not helpful, and who am I to refute Aristotle? But when moving from defending an ideal or a principle to performing mundane, practical, utilitarian functions it is the idea of competition itself that should be offered up as a nice, sizzling-fat burnt offering on the altar of our common sense.

If the goal is to achieve an adequate result with a minimum of effort, then why would two people want to compete to do the job of one? And if there is in fact work enough for two, then why wouldn't they want to cooperate instead of wasting their precious energies in competition? Well, they may have been brainwashed into thinking that they must compete in order to succeed, but that's beside the point. The point is that there is a major difference between competing for the sake of a principle—such as the perfection of divine creation—and competing for mere money. There is nothing divine about a big pile of money, and, just as with a big pile of acorns, the bigger the pile, the more "squirrels" it tends to attract. In fact, those who are sitting on some of the bigger piles of acorns often seem rather squirrely themselves. To mix metaphors, they also tend to be chicken-like, roosting on their acorns and expecting them to hatch into more acorns. But be they squirrels or be they chickens, or be they drug-addled mutant chicken-squirrels on steroids, they are certainly not gods, and their acorns are not worthy of our sacrifice.

Once we dispense with the idea that competition is in any sense necessary, or even desirable, new avenues of thought open up. How much is enough? Probably much less than we have now. How hard do we need to work for it? Probably a lot less hard than we are working now. What happens if we don't have enough? Well, perhaps then it's time to try working just a tiny bit harder, or, better yet, perhaps it is time to take a few acorns from those who still have too many. Since having too much is such hard work (mind the damn squirrels!) we'd only be helping them. We certainly don't want to keep up with them, because we know where they are headed—a quaint, exclusive little place called collapse. What we should probably be trying to do instead is to establish some sort of balance, where enough is, in fact, enough.


Andrew MacDonald said...

Competition used to drive human success but now as Dmitri's saying it's driving us nuts, and not the kind that squirrel's love.

Now, it's got to be "conscious evolution," a high-minded principle we probably can't have too much of. Compete to consciously evolve!

Evolution's not just for instinct anymore.


Tom Crowl said...

Well laid out!

You're likely familiar with it but Joseph Tainter's work "Collapse of Complex Societies" makes a good case of why collapse actually becomes the default optimal solution for a civilization. In their early development each layer of complexity adds net value beyond the cost of that complexity.

But the net benefit with each additional layer of complexity becomes smaller until it becomes a net cost.

At this point one would hope that the civilization would start to simplify. However it doesn't!

Increasing layers of complexity are added by an entrenched elite which gained its position due to network effects which allowed it to develop in the first place.

However complex systems aren't static. The elite (who are no brighter than anyone else) don't like change... and they keep adding complexity to address the problems they face.

But by this point complexity is added not to change and improve society... but rather in an attempt to preserve an untenable (and fictional) stability.

Until the inevitable happens.


(for a complex/chaotic system to persist its optimal state is a precarious balance between stasis and chaos called 'criticality'... an excessive drive to stability actually promotes collapse)

I believe solution is possible. But it requires dealing with some realities that we don't often consider.

This may be a bit obscure but it's really a key...

The reason elites can develop and persist from a biological perspective... is inherent in each and every one of us:

It directly related to why it hits you much harder when your dog dies, than when 100,000 people
die in an earthquake...

Don't beat yourself over the head or try to deny it. I'm the same, we're all the same. That doesn't mean we don't care... it's just recognizing biology.

This has larger effects for the decision process in a scaled civilization than may at first be apparent.

P.S. My endeavor is (I believe) part of an approach to solution. The Individually-controlled/Commons-dedicated Account concept and business plan is much broader in impact and implication than may first be apparent.

It actually establishes the elements for empowered association via a distributed network ultimately outside of government's ability to control. And does it via an innocuous, stealthy approach which then can also serve as a launchpad for new mechanisms for the allocations of social energy*.

*Social Energy = Individual & Group Decisions operating within the physical environment(decision=idea + an action).

Anyway, this is the stuff I'm playing around with.

Some Background:

On Social Energy, Enterprise & Expanding the Technology of Money

The Foundations of Authoritarianism

How would hunter-gatherers run the world? (pssst... They Do!)

Paul said...

An absolutely brilliant piece Dmitry, all the more so for the dark, side-splitting humour.

'Another basic Deming rule is that "good quality does not necessarily mean perfect." The proper goal should be a consistent, predictable range of quality throughout the production cycle so that goods can be produced at the lowest cost that will result in quality that is acceptable to the consumer. It would make no sense, that is, for a family to invest $5,000 in a toaster guaranteed to burn no more than one in a million slices. A failure rate of one in 500--that is, one burned piece of toast every three months–would be much less expensive to achieve but acceptable in most homes.'

Those were the word of W Edwards Deming, the brilliant management guru who contributed enormously towards setting Japanese industry on the path to fame and fortune, after WWII. I expect You and other readers of your blog are familiar with Deming's story, Dmitry.

It's true that MacArthur's prescriptions (such as a very low multiple of the entry-level employee's income should be applied to the income of a corporation's CEO), must also have helped enormously.

The quotation is from the Fourteen Points in Brief in the article linked here:

I first read about him in another article, in which he was reported to have observed that the ethos of 'cooperation' he was promoting in lieu of competition in Japan would not have been politically- acceptable in his own country. And how right his words were to prove, evidently.

Bilbo said...

I remember reading once that there are still Mayans living today even hundreds of years after the collapse of their pyramidal culture. They have retained much of their traditional culture except for one thing, they ditched the pyramid. The biggest taboo now for the Mayans is that no one can appear now to have more than everyone else.

I think it took them centuries of painful struggle to get to this point. How long will it take for Americans to reach the same place?

Collapse Boom said...

Great post, Dmitry. You speak of the concept of "enough" -- and that concept is lacking in American culture, as it is in others. Schumacher used to speak of "adequatio", or what's adequate, a broader concept which includes "enough".

In a culture where enough is not even thought about, nothing can be enough. It is hard for people bred on propaganda of forever improving living conditions and increasing consumption to think of "enough".

If you don't know what "enough" means for you, you will be subject to envy and/or to feelings of failure. After all, you "should" be able to do better, to have more and better things, and, perhaps, you come to think you "deserve" it!

In this call for adequatio, you may be facing a lost cause. The conditioning seems too strong. I hope I am wrong.

Michael Dawson said...

But, of course, this is yet another area in which the USA is especially hopeless. Capitalism is the antithesis of a system that can ever possibly say "enough." And its primary beneficiaries aren't going to admit this on their own.

kaimiddleton said...

Thanks for the comments about a million and one acorns.

I grew up as a mathematician. Well, to be more honest, I grew up enjoying math, got a bachelor's degree in math education, then got a master's degree in math at the University of Idaho. Towards the end I was pretty much at the bottom of my class, though I did graduate; so really I'm more of a math dabbler.

Simultaneous with that life story, my father was an English teacher at a local community college. And he was a really good teacher. What I learned from my dad was how to be a political activist, how to question the system, how to question my own assumptions, how to be aware of the environment, how to look at culture and various cultures, etc.

I just studied math because I liked it and because I liked computer work (and thought it would be profitable).

So I was fascinated to read your discussion about the million acorns. Because I have always tried to think: what is the real efficacy of the mathematics that I study or enjoy? Even as a programmer I've asked myself: what math have I really ever used in my job (answer: very little). The IT director at a contact lens company once told me that among the programmers he'd known, the best tended to have degrees in computer science, math, or music (!). Maybe math gave me some thinking skills in regard to computers, but not much directly applicable method.

Now you are taking the discussion to a whole other level. If I go try to live on a farm in Nicaragua (a very strong possibility in my case), and have some money to bring, what can I offer in terms of skills? I'm tall, skinny; I have not a horrible body due to yoga, but not a great one either due to too much sitting. I'm not young anymore. I can introduce ideas in regard to no-till farming (see for instance Masanobu Fukuoka of Japan), organic farming: Nicaragua has about five kinds of bacterial cultures that they can use in conjunction with cow dung to produce organic pesticide and organic fertilizer (note that Cuba has about 30 different bacterial cultures that they employ).

I think your discussion of the million acorns is kind of like the discussion about how many words eskimos have for snow vs. my few words. A specific vocabulary or approach to thinking leads to different solutions. So to look at possible consequences different peoples approaches to thinking, I notice how quick Nicaraguans are to come up with practical solutions to problems.

Now to be comprehensive, perhaps I should try to defend "my" position. Perhaps you've heard of the book "Innumeracy" by John Allen Paulos. He makes the case that an inability to grasp orders of magnitude, and other mathematical concepts, is as bad as an inability to read. Since reading his book I've been keen to understand how big numbers can relate to each other. What does it mean to have 100 billion neurons in the brain or 100 billion stars in a galaxy? One night when I was on a beach in Nicaragua I asked a young man there: which do you think is closer - the sun or the moon? He didn't know. Does that knowledge matter? I'm not sure; I like to leave it as an open question. I once heard it said of Aristotle (or one of those Greeks), and this may be apocryphal, that he had a somewhat detached sense of the importance of certain kinds of knowledge. He wouldn't look down on someone who couldn't calculate the area of his field by multiplication of the lengths of its sides, though Aristotle knew. He wouldn't look down on someone who couldn't make an accurate right angle by constructing a 3-4-5 triangle, though he knew, and could even prove the general theorem. After all, how hard is it to eyeball a 90 degree angle? How important is it? When is a back-of-the-envelope calculation sufficient, and when do you need to whip out a laptop and let some modeling program chunk away for 30 seconds? Perhaps these are good open questions.

Meanwhile, thanks your questions and analogies.

--Kai Middleton

Alex P said...

This is very well written. Thank you Dmitry!

DeVaul said...

This is hilarious!

Especially the analogy of acorns to piles of worthless paper money being sat upon by the would-be Masters of the Universe. The squirrels have been slandered terribly though, as they are without doubt stand-ins for the endless throngs of mindless sycophants, lawyers, accountants, bankers, wheeler-dealers, and assorted con men who flock to the rich like moths to a flame. (The squirrels in my back yard are already organizing a protest scamper across the phone lines.)

As for math, it is most useful in its simplest forms, but beyond that it becomes somewhat absurd. An example I like is the student who was presented with the question of how many minutes it would take for 30 cows to leave a corral assuming two cows passed through the gate every thirty seconds.

The first reaction is, of course, "who cares"? The polite response, given by the student, is "about two minutes", to which the teacher said "incorrect". The student, a boy who grew up on a farm, then took the teacher to his farm and opened the gate to the corral. Of course, all the cows stampeded out in less than two minutes. (Apparently, cows have still not learned how to march two by two, but our teachers don't know that.)

Thanks for another amusing article on our dire situation. Also, a very worthy reconsideration of the American "spirit competition!".

(The Americanized phrase, which I heard at college, attempts to imitate French phrases such as "esprit d'corps" by just leaving out the preposition entirely. When spoken, however, there is a slight pause that lets you know that it really is there. Sort of.)

Med Dog said...

The issue isn't math it seems, but Dialectics. Dimitri describes the inability of seeing the transformation of quantity into quality - the notion of a tipping point - the non-linearity of the world. Indeed this is a great problem!

fritz said...

way zen.

brings to mind nature's examples.

found out last year most insects have no leader. beetles moving through a building more or less exercise democracy (or mob rule) in decision making. Similar for how deer, wild horses, or all grazing herd animals decide when it's time to move to a new area. it's a gradual vote. one animal moves away to find better - forage, water, safety,... - then another follows, eventually more until the remaining are in minority and feel less safe for fewer numbers and move on to with early adopters.

read a few years ago about cooperation in predator/prey relationships.
6.2.3 Advertising unprofitability gazelle's jump or stot to display their speed and power in plain view of cheetahs. It saves the predator's and the prey's energy and time.

The alternative is the cheetah has to give chase every time using far more energy up to gain diminishing returns for the effort. Gazelle cooperates by showing off and giving speed and power previews and profits by being allowed more time to eat and using less energy to run away.

since society imitates (or is) nature, what prospects does this give us (the former middle class) in dealing with the vampire classes.

By the way, anyone notice the analogies drawn about squirrels to various members of the vampire class? and how squirrels are rats with cute fur?


The Greeks not only gave us Apollo and moderation, they also gave us Dionysus and excess.

If the rational Apollonian could have saved us we would have never ended up in the mess in which we find ourselves today.

"We have passed beyond the Absurd: our position is absolutely preposterous." -Ronald Tavel

Apathy Begone said...

Sorry to say that we can't all be touchy-feely friends but by association we can feel the closeness of community. It is for this reason that I invite you to become part of the Facebook group “Apathy Begone: Activating Minds and Voices.”!/?sk=2361831622

If you believe like I do, that the future belongs to you and the next generation, then it's up to you to take part in shaping it. If you concur with this line of thinking, please take a few minutes to pass this message along to your friends.

Be safe—be smart
David Boese

Dmitry Orlov said...

[Posted on behalf of Ann P. - via email]

Another fun post. You are actually wallowing into one of my favorite
concepts in mathematics: scalar change. It relates:

1) To turbulence. A great example from a numerical methods is: x [at n
+1] = * (x [at n] - x squared [at n]. Solve for many iterations and
graph using *=2; *=2.5; *=3.1; *=3.5; *=3.56; *=3.57.

2) To metallurgy, where charts and graphs are used instead of formulas
[that's still mathematics]. There are sudden state changes in metals at
certain temperatures and cooling rates.

Some mathematicians hate the above problems because they are messy.
But, as you implied, reality doesn't often fit into short, elegant formulas.

Anonymous said...

Excellent writing, Dmitry! It is indeed time to take a lot of acorns from those who have vast piles of them, and distribute them to those who don't have enough.

Unknown said...

I would recommend Alfie Kohn's book called "No Contest: The case against competition" for a look at the destructive nature of competition in all aspects of our contemporary culture.

Anonymous said...

What is success by competition?

I reject the idea that competition is what brought us even this level of technology or success.

If we look at the truth, cooperation brought humans the success, not cut throat competition.

The idea that competition brings about good things for humans is completely false and has been proven throughout history and competition only brings about separation and destruction and exploitation.

The real truth is that competition, along with power based relationships need to be evolved away for humans to become something more than the petty and miserable and anxious and deeply unfulfilled beings they are.

Power by definition is corruption and exploitation and 99% of all human relations are based on power and that is the true source of misery in this world.

Only once we recognize that no human being is above or below another can we evolve past power based relationships and the completely useless and destructive thing called competition.

Unknown said...

At last - somebody prepared to attack one of the last taboos - the sanctity of competition!

Todd the Toad said...

Excellent post, and I like the first two paragraphs the best. ClubOrlov is my favorite blog. -- Todd

JP Green House said...

We are taught that nothing is enough, and we should despise and deride failure. Then every one of us faces illness, old age and death. Everyone fails (except maybe Cher--but we'll see).

Elise said...

I value your commentary on "modern" life. I would greatly appreciate in the context of your article, your views on the current fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico.

Jerry said...

Thank goodness for your sense of humor!

Pav said...

hello, I took the liberty to translate this texte in french. If you don't mind, I'll put the translation here .