Friday, March 2, 2012

A conversation about dematerialization

I'd like to thank my friends Denis Poussart and Amanda Parr for the conversations that I've embedded in this post. Conversation is surely the act of social thinking.

In a recent post by the Rational Optimist - Dematerialising and deflating the future

In the blog Matt Ridley states:
Dematerialization is occurring with all sorts of products. Banking has shrunk to a handful of electrons moving on a cellphone, as have maps, encyclopedias, cameras, books, card games, music, records and letters—none of which now need to occupy physical space of their own. And it's happening to food, too. In recent decades, wheat straw has shrunk as grain production has grown, because breeders have persuaded the plant to devote more of its energy to making the thing that we value most. Future dematerialization includes the possibility of synthetic meat—produced in a lab without brains, legs or guts.

But he concludes with:
No matter how many prizes we offer, certain growing problems—such as caring for children and the elderly, or policing, or repairing freeways—won't experience much dematerialization or deflation. And as dematerialized goods and services like communication get cheaper, these problems will increasingly dominate budgets, damping the acceleration. So the future may be bright, but not dazzlingly so.

As my friend Denis noted, dematerialization is the complement of virtualization. A great example is the progressive transformation of what we call money - from the exchange of tangible goods (barter) to digital information as the medium of exchange (including the bitcoin). Both Denis and Matt make clear that some 'work' still needs physicality - human brawn and embodied knowledge &skills. Furthermore as the Limits to Growth first suggested, humanity is coming to a brink of what we can access related to the production of our material necessities. Looking at the modern excesses of dematerialization it is obvious that bits fed on hope and greed easily self-multiply but it is also patent that they do not feed or shelter. Yes virtualization has brought and is bringing huge contributions to civilization and mankind. But in the end it is not sufficient for survival. Hard stuff matters, too.
I believe that Denis is absolutely right, that the 'hard stuff' matters - in the morning I need coffee - not a virtual representation. ;)

But on the other hand - even the hard stuff is experiencing (and if the nano-bio tech keeps progressing this will accelerate), a human made and manipulated dematerialization phase, in the way material goods become manifest. For example, the domestication of bacteria such that they can become purpose built organisms that manufacture energy, materials, medicine. They are real matter but are also the product of a dematerialization in the process of their design - a type of SPIME. This refers to Bruce Sterlings concept.

Spime is a neologism for a currently-theoretical object that can be tracked through space and time throughout the lifetime of the object. These future manufactured objects with informational support so extensive and rich that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system.

Nano promises the capability to build the hard stuff one atom at a time and therefore represents an informational dematerialization of manufacturing. The new physics may even enable an 'alchemy' that dematerializes one element into another element.

It could be argued that the nano-bio technology convergences are opening a new vista onto an infinite dimension of matter - where we can create the hard stuff in new ways (including an eternal capacity to recycle the old into the new). Looking at it in another way, life already does this when it transforms sunlight into new hard stuff - matter that did not exist on the earth before hand. As long as sunlight continues to hit the earth one could argue that there is an infinite source of new matter (for all practical purposes). So as we learn to capture this energy (and other forms of ubiquitous energy) with more and more efficiency/effectiveness - the important question becomes "What is the 'limit to the growth of our ability to capture and transform energy?' Is this only the limit 100% of the sunlight that hits earth or are there even more forms of energy (e.g. dark energy)? And how far away is that? And once there, what new forms of dematerialization will become revealed?
I think the view of a finite world is reasonable in a practical way. But if we really accept this, it implies the earth as a closed system with only what is given. While the oil in the ground is certainly finite presently it was not here originally - it is the product of sunlight and the ingenuity of living systems - in some ways oil is the materialization of a previously dematerialized situation. This means the earth is not a 'closed system' with a pre-given finitude. The process of complex 'bubbling forth is one where 'virtual' unmaterialized adjacent possibles were made manifest into matter.

Perhaps this is thinking to far ahead - but the Santa Fe Institute did produce a study which looked at at least four major technology areas - and the rate of progress was not exponential - rather it was super-exponential. So the far off future may make it's appearance sooner than can be imagined.

Having said all this - I of course agree that we must continue to become more vigilant in how we use our resources so that we don't use what is currently available faster than we can sustainably generate more hard stuff. :)
So my friend Amanda suggest that this is what Einstein meant when he said we honour the servant and forget the gift. Wigner said simlar things when he explained that there was no algorithm for finding principles: "The irrelevancy of so many circumstances which could play a role in the phenomenon observed has also been called an invariance. However, this invariance...cannot be formulated as a general principle. The exploration of the conditions which do, and which do not, influence a phenomenon is part of the early experimental exploration of a field. It is the skill and ingenuity of the experimenter which show him phenomena which depend on a relatively narrow set of relatively easily realizable and reproducible conditions." Kauffmanesque ;)
Amanda concludes saying that the phenomena existing depending on such conditions would have their dynamism in the plane of mechanism and everything else we would, today, call "complexity."

I think this is e
xcellent. Mathematics no more explains reality than the grammar of English language explains human behavior.

The sentence "That person walked to the chair and sat down" describes the behavior just as mathematics can describe the behavior of an apple falling from the tree. Both descriptions seems to be very accurate. But neither 'explains' the real underlying complex of causal logic by which both behaviors happen. In this way the map is not the territory and the menu is not the meal.

Both descriptions also frame the perceptions of only some dimensions of all the inter-depending aspects of the many causal chains, including temporal scales. In this framing we demarcate patterns/outlines of some aspects as static/solid and others as dynamic/fluid. 
Amanda building on this replies "Thus with respect to mathematical modelling of nature, the plane to which it applies has been defined and cordoned off by the boundary conditions, which Kauffman says are ingeniously "placed by hand" in both experiments and machine design. Whether that makes the effectiveness of mathematics less uncanny, I don't know. It does mean that this method does not apply that well to a broader world where things slip, slither and slide into the adjacent possible."
I love this vision that we too can slip, slither and slide into a differently perhaps even infinitely (for all practical purposes) resourced world as we exceed the boundaries that seem solid in the mathematical calculus of trajectories and harness those energic-material unknowns of manifest-abilities. :) 

Denis is 
familiar with this Santa Fe study Superexponential Long-term Trends in Information Technology. But argues that the world is far from just IT, and even in IT, the parameters that have been tracked, while important, are far from telling the story. Big IT projects have a horrendous failure rate that increases sharply with size. It is never because of these parameters but projects crash for being unable / not taking the time to understand/deal with the plexus of reality.
He notes that "It is critically important, I think, to realize than civilization is now engaged in a **race** (positive feed-back) condition, between, on the one hand, vastly improving technologies (at least from first order observations) and on the other hand from the exploding complexity that such advances are themselves inducing."
However as he continues there is no hard, applicable metrics for complexity (it is a wicked problem). But assuming there was, I would be surprised if if was not on a similar climb as to that of technology. Also exponential, super-exponential perhaps in certains facets. So here we are, focusing on the hard, happy, measures but very much unable to assess (and largely ignoring) the other side of the mountain (this would be a great topic to dig up).
Now, let's envision the future dynamics of this racing process, I strongly beleive that it is appropriate to invoque a concept very much akin to Blackman's Law of limiting factors). The limiting factor here is man's impotence in understanding / making sense of complexity: being unable to steer through the maelstrom with good sense. So, yes, technologies, taken one at at time, are accelerating. But the net societal result does not necessarily follows. In reality, there are studies that suggest that the
pace of innovation change is stagnating certainly not on a "double exponential".
In many ways I am feeling increasingly "entangled" in the quantum sense with a number my Noospheric friends. I very much agree with Denin and have been conceiving our human-in-this-world situation very much as a race. In some ways this is why I argue that the proper types of investment we should be making, related to climate change is in carbon capture technologies rather than solely or primarily in carbon reduction technologies (carbon capture would involve domesticated bacteria to capture carbon to produce fuel and oil among many other things).

I also agree with Denis' observations of the domains of  IT, but my point about it is that the increasing power of IT represents the increasing power of the tools we apply to other domains - which means these other domains also increase in the type of enablement that computational & network capacity is able to produce.

I too agree on the limiting factor being our impotence to comprehend the complex whole. But one can argue that the lack of comprehension is much less of a limiting factor than we might assume. After all - evolution itself is not (or at least one can argue that it isn't) conscious, that it doesn't and needn't understand/make sense of its own unfolding. The brilliance of the technology of evolution (technology as mechanism of selection), is it capacity to continue to adapt. The inability - the impotence of comprehension could be seen as an implicit position of the need to control (rather than an evolutionary capacity to improvise). I would think that all of human existence is a demonstration of how we learn to flourish without understanding the whole.

This is why I believe that the 'cautionary principle' is completely inadequate to our problems. This principle is fundamentally biases against the new - the novel and is blind to the risk of doing nothing by assuming the status quo is safer than change/experiment.

I think the best principle for this race we are in is the 'Vigilance Principle' (noted by Steward Brand in his latest book as well as in Kevin Kelly's new book). The Vigilance Principle is essential to agility focusing on continueal experiment and the capacity to act, respond, adjust, adapt, learn, improve, etc.

As far as our current human limit on understanding/making sense? I think the mind is exterior to the brain, that our tools are the mind's prosthetic extensions. The emerging 'Noosphere' is such an enhancement to the collective human mind. We became cyborgs the moment we created language, (perhaps the moment we created tools), but with the creation of language and culture we became programmable and thus cybernetic. Our reach always exceeds our grasp (else what is a Meta-phor) :) Because as Kauffman has recently made very clear - evolution - at least is future movement, is beyond 'reason's grasp'. It has and will always be so - we can only be vigilant and adaptively agile. :)

Denis also has 
misgivings about the Cautionary Principle - especially as it is often envisioned with an attitude that borders on ideology. As he notes, I am very much in tune with being a vigilant pragmatist, a blend of ultimate optimism with residual skepticism. There is no steady-state in Life and there are possibilities like there has never been before. But.... I observe that for a increasing fraction of the world, there is a growing bandwidth mismatch between the (accelerating) pace of change (much of it from technology) and the traditional dynamics of human adaptation. These are closely linked to culture and education, and evolve slowly. Ashby's Law is getting less satisfied, to the point that we are beginning to see evidence that the mismatch is inducing cases of break-down / backlash.

I completely agree with Denis' observations. The rise of fundamentalism is a backlash against accelerating change that represents ever increasing 'encounters-with-unknown-others'. Not just technologies, but ideas and actual people as urbanization also accelerates. We are becoming a global village, but it is not the village of yore. It is more like the global metropolis - full of unknown peoples, things, values, situations, choices, liberties.... and technologies.

Cultural change is very much the great barrier to the embrace of requisite diversity in all of its splendor and multifarious forms.

However, I like to think of optimism  as the most pragmatic stance a human can take - simply because of what we know about the placebo. Pragmatic optimism - through the power of the placebo optimizes our chances of solutioning.


  1. The change needed to occur in the social forms that are currently mismatched with the technology requires a holistic change. There is no technological fix for the mismatch. With respect (loosely speaking) to economics, we produce too much and work too hard. We need to slow down and enjoy more, and be more intrinsically creative, but no one is likely to pay us to take time off to paint and ponder, so there's a major disconnect between the economic system and the technology right now. A new vision is required. A whole new vision, but not an ideologue.

  2. I love the way you've said this. Your absolutely right about the mismatch in the current social forms and those which can be 'enabled' by new/emerging technologies. This is not a simple technology fix.

    It is impossible to get 'there' from 'here'. You can only get 'there' from 'there'. So the only way to change - the brilliant strategy is to act from 'there' as much as possible, despite being 'here'.

    I think that part of acting from 'there' is along the lines you suggest - find one's path along the intrinsically fulfilling endeavours.

    My vision of the digital environment is an economy that is much more like a Massive Multiplayer online game MMOG. My sound bite for this "If social media is the medium, then social computing is the message. That means that organizations (and the political economy) must be architected as programmable sytems, and not as manufacturing machines (for mass consumables). In a conversation today I realized that the MMOG is a perfect 'model' for this sort of thing. See Edward Castronova