Embrace the Chaos

Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire is a great read, and highly recommended for those interested in taking a closer listen to the human motivations that underlie our economy.  I’ve never thought too much about what potatoes can tell us about the modern global economy, but apparently they can tell us a lot!  If you haven’t come across it yet, Pollan takes “A Plant’s Eye View of the World” to examine the human notions of sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control.  In the final chapter focusing on control, and in particular as applies to our relationship with the environment and our food, Pollan takes a look at America’s favorite tuberous crop, the potato, as a window into the agriculture industry.

Pollan writes about three farmers who between them represent two different philosophies of modern farming.  The first two are Danny Forsyth and Steve Young, who both buy into the centralized agricultural industry controlled by big corporations such as Monsanto to varying degrees of success.  The third farmer is Mike Heath, who doesn’t.  Mike Heath is an organic farmer who farms according to what Pollan labels a “biological paradigm”.  Mike Heath employs a farming system that “relies on a long and complex crop rotation to avoid a buildup of crop-specific pests”.  Where Forsyth and Young prescribe to a monocultural approach of growing a single, in demand variety of potato that must be genetically engineered to resist certain pests, Mike Heath cultivates a biodiverse field of multiple varieties of potatoes to ensure no one pest or natural event is likely to wipe out his entire crop.  In doing so, Mike Heath doesn’t need Monsanto, while Forsyth and Young find themselves in an endless cycle of upgrading their crop’s genetic software with Monsanto’s newest releases.  But Mike Heath is the rarity here.

Why?  My first reaction was perhaps the scarcity of Mike Heaths is a result of a free market expression of his value.  Simply put, maybe there aren’t more of him simply because it is more profitable to be Steve Young or Danny Forsyth.  No moral judgments, just market realities.   But wait a minute.  Despite all my business schooling and every economic theory I’ve ever been taught that promotes the notion that the market economy is a stable system in which we all operate solely in our best rational self-interest, I never really believed that.  As a purely personal philosophical choice, I like to believe human beings aren’t reducible to a finite set of inputs and outputs.  This is precisely why econ classes are so hard for me.  There’s gotta be something else driving the scarcity of Mike Heaths.

Pollan points out that while being Steve Young is indeed the most profitable way to go, Forysth is barely getting by.  Young runs a farming business where through efficiencies and scale he is able to maximize profit by way of volume, all by producing one variety of potato.  Forsyth it seems is being squeezed by the high costs of continual software upgrades and is seeing his profit per pound continually decreasing.  On the other hand Mike Heath isn’t doing too badly for himself.  According to Pollan, “organic farmers buy remarkably little—some seed, a few tons of manure, maybe a few gallons of ladybugs.”  Making the assumption that if a healthy market exists for organic goods, Mike Heath is making a healthy living by controlling his input costs.  If he bags as many potatoes per acre as Forsyth (and he does), and his margins are higher by not cutting in the Monsantos of the world by using their chemical/engineered products, Mike Heath is probably doing better than Forsyth.  So why be Danny Forsyth?

Pollan posits a troubling reason.  It’s not that it’s necessarily less profitable to be Mike Heath, it’s that being Mike Heath is the demonstrably harder road to hoe.  (get it?).  The Monsanto/Industrial complex is at the core a system.  Being a farmer is a role to fill in a market that is defined, where prices are set and distribution channels and suppliers roles institutionalized.  Plug and play.  Whereas “most of the intelligence and local knowledge needed to run Mike Heath’s farm resides in the head of Mike Heath.”  And so the centralization of agriculture in Pollan’s view is “not likely to be reversed any time soon, if only because there’s so much money in it and, in the short run at least, it’s so much easier for the farmer to buy prepackaged solutions from big companies.”

But I don’t think Pollan is arguing so much that Danny Forsyths exist because they are lazier that Mike Heaths.  What Pollan is getting at is akin to Adam Curtis’ warnings about the dominant paradigm of machine thinking, which I previously wrote about here.  If everything is a machine, and we all components of a system, then we can exert control over that system.  Danny Forsyths exist because Monoculture exists, and Monoculture is a result of our desire to control nature, “the key move in reconfiguring nature as a machine”.  Doing so allows us to systematize industrial growth and continually solve “problems” such as the evolution of pesticide resistant bugs by continually innovating genetically engineered crops. 

But if the system is not sustainable, which Pollan seems to indicate and which I believe, then how do we break from it.  Pollan does not posit a solution, perhaps because it seems so big, but I believe we need to break not just from Monsanto and Monocultural thinking but from the whole of Machine Thinking.  Which I guess is also not an answer either.  But what’s clear is that buying organic goods is not enough if we recognize that organic goods exist as a reaction to the greater belief that man can control nature because nature is just another (eco)system to stabilize.  This, Pollan and Curtis agrue, is how we have grown to perceive our relationship with our environment.  Mike Heath’s way of thinking seems to me an all too rare way of looking at the world – that we are not in control.  Mike Heath embraces the chaos, how do we as a society do the same?  Perhaps the first step is to acknowledge the chaos is the way the world works, and we have far less control than we’d like to believe.

What the 99% Needs is a Michele Bachmann

Ok ok, that title is a little baiting. 

Though OWS is a hard thing to look at and write about without getting political, I’m going to try my best.  What I mean by that title is, in my opinion the way for the 99% community to strengthen (and I’m taking that to mean in some way progressing towards achieving its goals) is to not view itself as a totally egalitarian community.  In fact as history shows, and I fully admit to getting much of my history summary from Adam Curtis’ documentary which I spoke briefly about in my last post, operating exclusively as a non-heirarchical network of individuals, though passionate and believing in the same ideals will only ensure that the 99% community is toothless to affect systematic change. 

In his film, Curtis draws a straight line from the commune movement of the 60’s and 70’s to the use of social networks in organizing political revolutions.  The people who built communes viewed themselves as nodes in a network, without hierarchy, and applied feedback to try to control and stabilize their societies.  How much power do our communities have to affect political change if we entangle ourselves exclusively in social networking tools and analytics, and build these communities around the egalitarian ideals of nodes and networks?  As Curtis states in his film:

The failure of the commune movement and the fate of the revolutions [Kyrgyzstan & Georgia & Ukraine for example], show the limitations of the self regulating model. It cannot deal with the central dynamic forces of human society, power and politics. The hippies took up the idea of the networked society because they were disillusioned with politics.  They believed that this alternative way of ordering the world was good, because it was based on the underlying order of nature.  But this was a fantasy.  In reality what they adopted was an idea taken from the cold and logical world of the machines.  Now in our age, we are all disillusioned with poitics and this machine organizing principal has risen up to be the ideology of our age.  But what we are discovering is if we see ourselves as components of a system it is very difficult to change the world.  It is a very good way of organizing things, even rebellions, but it offers NO IDEAS ABOUT WHAT COMES NEXT.  And just like in the communes it leaves us helpless in the face of those already in power in the world.

-Adam Curtis All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace part 2, The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts

As much as we’d like to, we can not ignore the human constants of power and politics.  Hoping to ‘free’ ourselves from those constants through social networks built on faceless tweets and votes and likes will only ensure that we fail to change anything.  What the 99% needs now is good old fashioned hierarchy and leadership.

That is all to say, twitter has been an amazing tool to spread the word.  The social flow article does a great job of analyzing how topics trend on twitter, concluding that the algorithm rewards velocity around a topic over volume.  So it’s OK, there is no conspiracy of censorship, #OccupyWallStreet is simply experiencing a slow and sustained growth in volume.  The Movement is growing, and word is spreading. 

The danger is to only focus our efforts on that.  Here’s a Mashable post on OccupyWallStreet hackathons, which on the surface seems like a great use of online tools to harness decentralized knowledge and resources to build tools to progress the movement.  But what are they building?  I’d say some good stuff and some dangerous stuff. 

The good stuff are the tools that serve the very practical purpose of building membership or reaching more people: a video-editing platform that doubles as an advertising platform / an app that can use multiple cellphones in a small area to amplify one person’s voice.  The dangerous stuff?  Well I’d argue that the dangerous tools are the ones like a decentralized decision-making platform called OccupyVotes, which simply asks users to cast votes for one of two movement goals with the hope being that eventually this approach will sort out what the decentralized group as a whole finds important.

The Cybernetic Dream, according to Curtis, is that computer networks can create order in society without central control.  The irony is that ideology is what lead to the new economy and the global financial system and directly to the financial crisis the 99% are rallying against. 

Slavoj Zizek said that what we are witnessing in Zucotti Park and around the world is the end of the marriage between democracy and capitalism.  But I would say that the more toxic marriage is the one between the global economy and machine thinking.  Unless we remove ourselves from the machine thinking that gave rise to the new economy, and re-humanize the movement, aren’t we just forever pieces of the machine of global economics.

If we crowd source our capacity for thinking and conceptualizing a new world order, aren’t we just going beyond the extremely useful application of social networking tools to build and organize a movement and heading straight back into the paradigm of human beings as only nodes in a network.  The 99% should not manage itself as a commune with better smartphones. The hard part now, in sustaining this community that was built in no small part with the help of social networks, is to enable those tools to help build a hierarchy and leadership structure and not fall into the trap of egalitarian ideals.

After all, what’s the difference between being pieces of twitter volume and being pieces of a housing bubble?

Black Swans and the Machine Age

I found the BLDGBLOG post on artist Ilona Gaynor fascinating, and not just for the hypnotic beauty of her Everything Ends in Chaos piece.  Her highlighted work is an exploration of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's “Black Swan Events” and this was my first exposure to the philosophical concept born out of economic analysis.  As I have come to understand them, Black Swan Events describe the unpredictable nature and unknowability of large, world changing events and society's reactive reflex to explain away these events in hindsight.  Taleb lists three criteria for his Black Swan Events:

1) It is rare, an outlier that lies outside the realm of regular expectations because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility.

2) It carries an extreme impact on world events.

3) In spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, imposing on it explain-ability and predictability in hindsight.

If you’re still with me, I’m going to attempt to do a roundabout and connect these thoughts to #OWS, but first some legwork. 

Gaynor’s work attempts to reverse engineer a Black Swan Event through mixed media, which strikes me as a comment on that third point, that human need to dissect, re-contextualize, and make sense of the Black Swan.  What Taleb points to is something he calls the Ludic Fallacy, the (mis)application of game theory or rules to explain real life.  One of the examples Taleb provides in his book to illustrate this tendency is the Suspicious Coin thought experiment. 

Allow me to paraphrase: You have Doctor John, a man of science and logic, and Fat Tony, a street smart kind of guy, hanging out in an alley flipping coins.  In fact, they’ve flipped a coin 99 times in a row, and each time it has come up heads.  Now you go up to them and ask, what are the chances the next flip is going to be heads.  Doctor John, somewhat condescendingly tells you it’s a scientific fact that the next event is statistically unrelated to the prior events, and so quite obviously the odds of flipping another heads remains 50/50.  Fat Tony says, what are you kidding me, the coin is rigged.

The Ludic Fallacy.  Using models to explain life, seems pretty endemic of the modern ideology of the information age.  Is it a stretch to see us seeing ourselves as all pieces of data and thus algorithmically explainable and predictable?  Adam Curtis would trace the Ludic Fallacy to the rise of the science of ecology and the dawn of the machine age, rooted in a belief that nature tends towards stability (ecosystems!) — a belief that is contrary to the observable chaos of natural life and is actually an extension of machine logic.  It’s the machines that tend toward a state of stability, but we have come to think of nature as ecosystems and ourselves as pieces of data, nodes, feeding the self-stabilizing machine of our networks.

All this windingly leads me to some thoughts on #OccupyWallStreet, which I’ll attempt cover and connect in my next post, but for now I leave you with this link to Adam Curtis’ work that can explain Black Swans and the Machine Age far more beautifully than can I.  If you have the time, I highly recommend watching the entire 3 hr piece.  I plead for you to click, but hopefully the amazing title will do much more than I can to pique your curiosity:

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace