Alberto Gaitan on Thu, 19 Jun 1997 02:54:55 +0200 (MET DST)

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Re: <nettime> Declaration of the Obsolescence of Cyberhy

> From: Mark Dery
> Re: <nettime> Barlow
> I give you...
> A Declaration of the Obsolescence of Cyberhype.
> Barlow writes:
> > What I meant to say is that nature is itself a free market
>> system. A rain forest is an unplanned economy, as is a coral reef. 
>>The difference between  an economy that sorts the information and 
>>energy in photons and one that  sorts the information and energy 
>>in dollars is a slight one in my mind.
>> Economy *is* ecology.

>Dery responds:
>      This is pure neo-biological cant, tediously familiar from
> Kevin Kelly's _Out of Control_, the fist-banging fulminations of
> Louis Rossetto, and a growing stampede of managerial gurus, among
> them Michael Rothschild, who argues in _Bionomics: The
> Inevitability of Capitalism_ that "what we call capitalism (or
> free-market economics) is not an ism at all but a naturally
> occurring phenomenon" (and therefore presumably beyond reproach). 
> The global marketplace is increasingly conceived of in Darwinian
> terms, with the social and environmental depredations of
> multinationals rationalized as corporate life forms' struggle for
> survival in an economic ecosystem.  In essence, it's a
> philosophical bait-and-switch that gives power relations the
> irrevocable force of natural law by casting them in metaphors drawn
> from nature (or, increasingly, Artificial Life or the sciences of
> chaos and complexity).  

You make it sound as though Kelly et al. invented this model.  The
roots of this paradigm go back at least to the 19th century starting
with the early models of ecological energetics by Podalinsky.  The
utility of the "natural" model in examining the economic model is
based on the fact that they both share features because they are both
locally open systems of feedback driven chaotic event chains, i.e.,
(brace yourself) self-organizing systems.  

Both are natural though neither are exclusively self-organizing 
in the romantic sense of being "irrevocable" or "beyond reproach." 
One can argue that what we create through cultural evolution becomes,
through our natural atributes (our force of will) nature, by
definition.  After all, there would be no economy without human
symbolic reasoning, a natural phenomenon.  Similarly, ecology would be
different without H. sapiens' mitigating influence; you say as much 
several times, of course.  The question of whether Capitalism is the 
ultimate optimum economic (or ecologic) strategy is a separate one 
and probably yields a different answer as one examines it through 

> Dery continues:
>      To begin, the analogy fails on logical grounds: What, in
> precise, literal terms, does it really mean to say that nature is
> "a free market system?"  This is the sort of glib McLuhanism that
> vaporizes on contact with serious scrutiny.  To the best of our
> knowledge, coral reefs aren't composed of conscious individuals
> with inalienable rights, among them a voice in their individual
> destinies and collective governance. 

On the question Does ecology function similarly to economy?:  At
their core, both these systems are governed by the laws of
thermodynamics (L. Boltzmann, The Second Law of Thermodynamics,
1905).  The currency of economy is money.  The currency of ecology
is energy.  Ecology, after all, is the economy of Nature.

Money is a form of energy.  A glimpse of the relationship between
the two systems can be found in an article by Howard T. Odum
"Self-Organization, Transformity, and Information" (Science
242:p1132).  In it he derives a unit of measure to distinguish
different kinds of energy: transformity (i.e., "energy of one type
required per unit of another"), measured in solar emjoules per joule.
He goes on to say, "Transformities may be used as an energy scaling
factor for the heirarchies of the universe including information."

If one accepts Dr. Odum's derivation, which he based partly on 
insights from the energetics of ecological food chains, then 
capitalism comes out looking an awful lot like some natural 
phenomena.  The ideas of economics inhabit a different trophic level 
than "protein foods, vegetable foods, consolidated fuels, mechanical 
energy, geopotential energy, chemical energy, or sunlight" (the 
watershed entity in this 3D chess game).  Yet money is a form of 
information is a form of energy.  Says Odum, "Since information is 
used to make more information, it is mathematically autocatalytic and 
acts as a pulsing consumer."  As do populations of fauna in coral 
reefs.  They *are* a form of market. You may only be 50% correct 
when you point out that "coral reefs aren't composed of conscious 
individuals with inalienable rights..." Reef inhabitants and other 
biosphere populations are very sensitive of their environment and the 
contingent forces under which they live their lives.  In economy as 
in ecology the game is to minimize entropy.

> Dery continues:
> Moreover, coral reefs,
> untouched by human meddling, are homeostatic entities that will
> not, under any circumstances, knowingly engage in self-destructive
> behavior.  (Again, to the best of my knowledge---marine biology
> isn't my bailiwick.)  

Romance.  Coral reefs, like many habitats, are periodically 
beset by plagues which are fully as natural as they are toxic.  
Coral reefs, like markets, may tend toward homeostasis but can 
swiftly be thrown out of equilibrium by qualitative and 
quantitative changes in environment, predator:prey and/or 
parasite:host ratios or composition.  Coral reefs don't do anything 
knowingly because they have no force of will and because they are not 
entities in the same sense as a fish or a human is (but you know 

> Dery continues:
>By contrast, the postwar history of America's
> "free"-market economy---which as Byfield helpfully reminds us is
> far from "free," having been engineered by government intervention
> and underwritten by a "permanent war economy" (Seymour Melman) that
> only recently downsized from World War II levels---is not pretty to
> look at; GE is only one of many corporations that has widened its
> individual profit margin at the expense of flagrant environmental
> violations and worker abuses---suicidal behavior in a coral reef,

Not sound facetious but, The Great Barrier Reef was plagued for years 
by coral killing star fish who "widened their individual profit 
margin" (population) "at the expense of flagrant environmental 
violations" (de-stabilizing the ecosystem) "and worker abuses" 
(killing lots of coral).

> Dery continues:
> but the Hobbesian order of the day under a multinational capitalism
> unrestrained by even the flimsy environmental and labor laws
> erected, in a more progressive moment, by that much-reviled relic
> of bygone times, the nation-state.     

As egregious as I find the short-sighted exploitation of the
environment and of labor, I know that corrective measures will be
taken only when it becomes counter-productive to persist along those
lines.  These corrections can happen gradually or in punctuated jumps.
 But they will happen eventually (which may not be soon enough for you
and me or the McVeighs of the world).  The theories of economics 
seek out the parameters that govern these systems in order to be able 
to mitigate the sudden corrections (which are almost always the cause 
of civil strife) and optimize for the whole; a dynamic and daunting 

> Dery continues:
>      More importantly, as mentioned above, neo-biological 
> draw a picturesque scrim---who can argue with a rain forest or a
> coral reef?---across the ugly face of raw power and brute force. 
> But somewhere, up in the attic, the portrait of Dorian Gray waits
> to be exposed, in all its grisly glory.  As I argued in my essay
> for Ars Electronica's _Memetics_ anthology, "the costs of turning
> culture into Nature, transforming it from social construction into
> elemental force, are merely hidden, buried in Western history.  A

To recognize the part of culture that is Nature is the beginning of
the domination of its "elemental force."  It does not mean that
public or economic policy should be swept off its feet by it 
propelling the world headlong to doom.  Today's elements will be 
milled into tomorrow's architectures.

> little spadework reveals that the indisputable authority of natural
> "law" has been invoked, throughout European history, to legitimate
> the subjugation or extermination of women, non-whites, and other
> lesser ethers, as well the exploitation of nature itself.  A single

These naive (or ignorant) tyrannies have not gone unopposed and many 
are debunked today.  This does not mean that we're not living under 
new naive tyrannies which should be challenged as well.

> ...
>      The free-market ecology of the digerati is only the latest
> example of nature used as a ventriloquist's dummy in the service of
> social agendas, few if any of which are pretty to look at: Herbert
> Spencer's Social Darwinism (as popular in its day with monopoly-
> builders like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie as Kevin
> Kelly's neo-biological capitalism is with Tom Peters and his
> corporate flock); the American eugenics movement of the 1920s,
> which resulted in the passage of laws that legalized the forced
> sterilization, in more than two dozen states, of anyone deemed
> "socially defective"; and, more recently, the voodoo sociology of
> Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray's _The Bell Curve:
> Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life_.  

All excellent negative examples, which we should all learn from.

>      Andrew Ross contends that we are witnessing "a wholesale
> revival of appeals to the authority of nature and
> biology...nature's laws are invoked once again as the ground of
> judgement and the basis of policy...biologism and Social Darwinism
> have returned with a vengeance, and are a driving force behind the
> sweeping new world view engineered by biotechnology and genetic
> medicine."  Roland Barthes warned us about this nearly 40 years ago
> when he argued, in _Mythologies_, that one of ideology's most
> insidious aspects was that it converts constructed social reality,
> and the power relations embedded in it, into innocent, immutable
> "nature."  Ideology, he noted, "has the task of giving an
> historical intention a natural justification, and making
> contingency appear eternal."  Neo-biological metaphors are
> pernicious because they do just that, forestalling debate by
> camouflaging the man-made as the god-given.   

I have no qualm with either man's quote.  Ross' describes a stage of
succession in a society's growth.  The use of the latest scientific
paradigm to justify the grossly misguided as well as the only
slightly misguided is nothing new.

Says Odum, "Ecosystems and other self-organizing systems develop
system designs and mathematics that reinforce energy use,
characteristically with alternate pulsing of production and
consumption, increasingly recognized as the new paradigm."  Human
culture defines itself using the paradigm of the day.  Until all
hidden variables are uncovered (an unlikely event if one is to believe
Goedel) any economic system will remain an approximation to the ideal,
at best. But, I don't think it's wise to throw the baby out with the
bath water because one theory has some disturbing applications.  Just
as Hitler and a thousand others have justified atrocities based on
dunces' interpretations of scientific theory, anyone who uses 
biological metaphor as justification for the abuse of power deserves 
our contempt and resistance.

Barthes' quote deals with ideology, which is fleeting.  Yes,
biologism is currently a prevailing ideology.  It'll probably lead
to some horrors (hopefully none of them catastrophic) and some
blessings.  It will also mature and shed some of its hubris. But
whatever follows it, will retain some of biologism's useful insights. 
 One of these is likely that economics is more like physics (and, by 
extension, like biology) than once believed.  Entropy sucks but we 
have to live with it.  Metaphors are limited but we need them as 
well.  As for "forestalling debate by camouflaging the man-made as 
the god-given:" never.  Not me.

> Barlow writes:
> > I'm not sure that anything humans do is unnatural.In a sense,
> it's all nature. But some our efforts are so mechanistic as to be
> counter-productive. I would assert that planned economies have been
> about as successful as many planned ecologies: tree farms, drained
> wetlands, etc.
>> Mother Nature is cruel, but she can be far kinder than the
> unintended results of our best intentions.

> Dery replies: 
>      Again, the invocation of a slippery term like "nature" should
> trip alarms everywhere.  Nature, for naked apes, is an object of
> knowledge, mediated by language.  There's a Heisenbergian logic at
> work, here: no sooner do we encounter nature than we alter it,
> often irreversibly; science has revealed that more than a few of
> the plants and animals that we take to be untainted nature are in
> fact the product of meddlesome human engineering.  Tribal
> societies, far from being poster children for some Rousseau-ian
> idyll, pollute and exterminate whole species (though obviously on
> a vastly less devastating scale than industrial or post-industrial
> societies).  In short, the term "nature" is fraught with cracks; if
> we're going to use it legitimate economic systems that affect
> millions, it would behoove us to take a philosophical hammer to it
> and see what sense we can make of the fragments.  

I agree with most all of the above, especially the last sentence.  
But, you also invoke the term "Nature" when it suits you, as do the 
authors whose work you cite. You are right that it is a slippery 
term.  It is all inclusive of something whose edges we have not yet 

>      Frankly, I think any _democratic_ argument founded on an
> appeal to "Nature" is built on quicksand, since nothing could be
> more _unnatural_, to my mind, than an ethics whose cornerstone is
> the concept of "inalienable rights," a mystical vision for which
> there's no correlative in the natural world, where might makes
> right and survival is the only game in town---a state of affairs,
> come to think of it, not unlike the prevailing conditions among
> multinational corporations, red in tooth and claw and seemingly
> unburdened by concern for human rights or the environment (nature,
> by any other name).

Semantic squabling, perhaps, but the idea of "inalienable rights" is 
natural by virtue of its emergence from human culture.  That it has 
"no correlative in the natural world" we cannot know until we fully 
understand ecosystems. Indeed, a tacit understanding of this idea 
appears present in the instinctive behavior among conspecifics of 
many species.  Also, in a system where qualitative fitness varies 
within "an Nth-dimensional hyper-volume" (Hutchinson), it is 
antiquated to sum Nature up as "might makes right" or "red in tooth 
and claw."

In summary, the cross-disciplinary application of scientific models 
has yielded many beneficial insights.  Though the application of 
physical/biological models to economics can lead to abuses, the 
correlations between the two systems are too numerous to ignore.  It 
behooves us to study them carefully in order to more fully understand 
the differences between them and, achieving that, to use them in the 
service of the planet.

A. Gaitan
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