The Wealth of People

Exploring Implications for Work and Identity in the Digital Environment.

Friday Thinking

Foraging for Curiosities in the Digital Environment of-for-by The Curious.


Creative Play with ideas and languaging.

Future Afford-Dancing

A future tab - hovering in the field of adjacent possibles.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Emerging Constraints of the Digital Environment and the Future of Identity.

The sciences of complexity offer a powerful framework for understanding change in the conditions of change. This paper, explores in broad strokes, essentially providing only hints, a complexity concept of ‘attractor of efficiency’ as a paradigm for understanding mutually shaping constraints related to the work of shaping social fabric, social structures and individual identity. Three basic attractors are important to this discussion. The attractors: Shaping hunter-gatherer experiences (where anarchy is the most efficient); Shaping civilizations up to the emergence of post-industrial society (where hierarchy is most efficient); and Shaping the emerging digital environment (where programmable self-organization, networked individualism and responsible autonomy is most efficient). Another key concept explored is the relationship of constraints derived from accounting and accountability to shaping identity and social fabric.


Complex systems often configure 'attractors'. Attractors are non-linear, non-repeating paths of changes, contained in recognizable patterns. The ‘field’ (phase space) of an attractor is a basin constituted by a number of key variables. When the variables remain within related variances they form the attractor’s boundary conditions.

Economic attractors are constituted by boundary conditions such as: transaction-opportunity costs, population size/density, conditions of governance. Changing boundary conditions can nudge an attractor toward another basin or field. Attractors of efficiency play a key role in explaining evolving constraints of identity related to the work of creating social fabric.

Extensive and Intensive Change

The measurable world involves extensive and intensive properties. Extensive properties include measures of such as length, width, breadth, volume, mass, etc. Change of extensive properties creates predictable change in quantity or shape.

Intensive properties are measures related to populations – such as temperature, pressure, density, etc. For example, a single molecule of water does not have temperature or ‘wetness’.

Phenomena measured by intensive properties are subject to Phase Transitions. These are dramatic and fundamental changes within narrow band of difference, such as when water turns to ice.

Phase transitions can also initiate proliferating divisions (bifurcation). A bifurcation graph is a metaphorical illustration of the increases in divisions of labor, specialization or exchange-communication flows that arise when human populations increase in size, densities and/or connection.

Finally, complex, living systems require constraints that enable a release and harnessing of energy, resource or information flows to perform the work of sustaining the system.

The first surprise is that it takes constraints on the release of energy to perform work, but it takes work to create constraints. The second surprise is that constraints are information and information is constraint.
Stuart Kauffman –in Deacon (2012).

Social Attractors of Efficiency

Increased population density enables new divisions of labour, and specialist occupations that become domains of knowledge. New roles arise shaping new forms of exchange. New institutions also emerge. All of which influence the construction of identity.

Dunbar (2014) argues group size is determined by cognitive constraint determining the stable close ties an individual can maintain – the Dunbar number of 150 to 250. This is a direct function of the relative size of the brain’s processing capacity for relationships and also constrains possible divisions of labor, for example: elder, adult, child; man, woman; hunter, gatherer; shaman, healer. Larger numbers of ‘close ties’ require other constraining rules, laws and norms.

Graeber (2014) established that debt and credit (including the flow of favors) has been the heart of social fabric forming a social accounting of ongoing obligation and moral conscience. In fact, exact reciprocity of exchange tends to signal a desire for no relationship.

In early gatherer societies identity was constrained in statuses and roles of a ‘pecking order’ social structure. The idiosyncrasy of individual character –temperament, talents and skills was constrained to fit within social status and roles. The constraint of the Dunbar number means there can be no ‘private’ person, no experience of anonymity.

Coase (1990) established transaction costs as an economic constraint. Transaction costs are frictions related to patterns and rates of interaction, including: time, effort, resources, missed opportunities and conditions constraining efforts to search, negotiate, enforce, coordinate and communicate. The assumption is that systems adopt structures and processes that are as efficient as possible. Other conditions such as population size and density; environmental niches, providences and rhythms; levels of technology; also shape the boundaries of efficiency.

Accounting and Exchange

The technologies of language and culture externalized human memory. Learning no longer had to be ‘encoded’ into DNA and experienced as instinct. Learning could be encoded in ‘memes’ enabling rapid transmittal, modification, replacement for adaptive acceleration in a wider variety of changing environmental conditions. Language, culture and meme provided a learning-exchange platform and better ‘insurance’ against loss of group knowledge or an individual’s genetic endowment. Social-learning favored cooperative behaviors for regulating intra-group fitness. Language enabled capacity to explore infinite forms of reasoning.

Human nature is less defined by selfishness or cooperation than it is by a capacity for social accounting – dynamic bookkeeping of relationships, constraining identity within a (moral) social fabric.

Maintaining a pecking order (social structure) is cognitively complex and demanding. Each individual assesses their relation with every other individual in a largely unconscious parallel process of social computing. The pecking order is a dynamic homeostatic process of moral accounting maintaining group cohesion. For example, when a hunter brings in a large animal to the group –the division of the animal is predetermined by the social structure. All know who gets what portions and parts and order of eating. Moral bookkeeping (Lakoff; 1995, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2008) is a fundamental conceptual metaphor inherent in concepts of reciprocation, retribution, restitution, revenge, altruism and fairness. Even grooming among primates is a process of moral bookkeeping (establishing credit – paying debt) that maintains social structure and fabric.

Boehm (1999) helped establish evolutionary selection also operates on group levels. In competition between individuals, selfishness will trump. But if competition is between groups –then cooperative groups trump aggregations of selfish individuals. Primate and early human social structures were shaped by practical egalitarianism – a reverse hierarchy where the weak combine to control the strong.

Similarly, Graeber (2004) argues gatherers were anarchistic, enacting practices enacting cohesion and constraining relative autonomy by avoiding authoritarian methods of imposed decisioning. Decisioning emphasized concrete action, where all had real voice with minimum loss of ‘face’. “What is seen as an elaborate and difficult process of finding consensus is, in fact, a long process of making sure no one walks away feeling that their views have been totally ignored”, Graeber (2004, p. 89).

The attractor of efficiency in gatherer groups constrained identity into a relatively rigid public self, and a form of anarchy (Graeber, 2004; Dunbar, 2014) in order to do the work of creating and maintaining social fabric.

The Transition to Agricultural Civilizations

Tudge (1999) argues humans were proto-farmers for about 30,000 years (having knowledge of how to protect and plant food sources). What kept early humans from making the shift to agricultural societies sooner? Plausibly a constraint of memory – a capacity for sophisticated accounting.

Writing originated from accounting (Schmandt-Besserat, 2010). Simple systems of accounting externalized memory for managing greater diversity of divisions of labor and the complex exchanges of surpluses, products, expertise of a more complex social economy.

Written accounting changed the boundary condition of human memory, enabling a shift to larger, denser, agricultural societies. Anarchy could not scale to new population and density levels. A new attractor emerged favoring hierarchy (Coase, 1990). Hierarchy retained status structures and framing the efficiency of larger collective efforts and instituted new constraints on identity. Other emergent conditions included: bifurcation of occupations and new institutions; formal religious processes; forms of local markets; commons and collective infrastructures.

Identity was constrained in a larger range of roles, status and class structures, occupational and kinship networks. Encounters with strangers were mediated through trust established by extended personalized networks and through local governance (North, 1981, 2005).

In the Axial age, large scale warfare and currency emerged (Graeber 2012) needing impersonal forms of exchange. Invading forces obtained supplies with coin currency without depending on accounting of local social fabric. Currency was a concrete system of circulating trustworthy (enough) IOU’s. A paradox of externalized memory and an early mechanism mediating anonymity.

The Transition to Industrial Society

The emergence with cities and higher population densities created new constraints of impersonal diversified exchange, and mobility, engendering anonymity. Eventually, shaping new narratives of the self eventually formulating the individual as isolated, atomistic and selfish. Wider networks of loose ties and encounters with unknown (perhaps unknowable) strangers (moments of potential new behaviors enacting mirror neurons) created conditions for an emerging public and private self.

New institutions emerged for verification and validation of identity to provide certificates, licenses, credentials, verifications, ‘papers’, etc. It became possible to ‘steal an identity’. Psychological independence, a private self, and institutions of authentication, were new constraint on identity to enact the work required to sustain an economy of increasingly impartial exchange arising from political-economic concepts of markets, equality and a freedom to self-actualize. The faceless (anonymous) worker is also a currency for the work constituting industrial society.

The industrial age shifted the attractor of efficiency – favouring paradoxical constraints of hierarchy and a freedom through anonymity and property rights.

Constraints Emerging in the Digital Environment

Rifkin (2014) suggests capitalism will be displaced by collaborative commons, not erased, but contained in a larger economic ecology of new modes of production relevant to near-zero marginal costs. The digital environment exponentially increases social fluidity and change – obsolescing the primacy of scaling efficiency and highlighting the marginal value of network effects. Marginal value of networks being determined by ‘Metcalf’s Law’ (value is the number of nodes squared = n2) and ‘Reed’s Law’ (group forming networks where value is the possible number of sub-groups = 2n).

The concept of exponentially increasing marginal value, in the digital environment, is key to grasping how to govern, manage and account for the non-rival nature of knowledge, information, data and potentially any near-zero marginal cost goods or services. The digital environment is essentially a vast copying and connection platform (an intensive medium – acting as a global nervous system) enabling algorithmic intelligence to function as an external neocortex (pattern making-learning brain system).

Wellman and Rainie (2012), establish ‘networked individualism’ as an emerging social operating system in the digital environment. Identity is now beyond being shaped by close and loose ties and now involves having audience(s). The rise of personal brand (by definition needs audience) retrieves (McLuhan, 1989, 2001, 2011) a tribal constraint on identity. Paradoxically, digital platforms enable near costless transaction-coordination, enacting new constraints such as: search and findability (transparency) and distributed production.

Fuller (2014) proposes a shift in fundamental rights – from property rights (owning our information) to liability (recourse when harm is perpetrated). Security is not what others may know, but recourse when information is used to cause harm. Insurance as security of our personal identity – a de facto price for potentially unlimited personal freedom – A ‘Proactionary Imperative’.
The price of greater freedom is that others are free to access you, which means that you need to ensure that you benefit – or at least are not harmed – by that newfound freedom that others have over you. But in any case, privacy in its classical sense is effectively dead.
Kelly (2016) notes how convenience continually trumps privacy. Owning one’s personal data as private property can more often impede 'wealth/value' creation. For example, a conversation with a friend - each recording it. Each is part of the other's experience. Who owns the conversation?

To own our part of the conversation requires an 'appropriation' of the other’s personal experience and vice-versa. The value of the conversation is more than the sum of each contribution, not to mention the creative and spill-over network effects. A new narrative of dynamic social, co-creation is emerging as a new constraint (Kelly 2016).

Hutchins (2008) among others, argues human cognition is an entangled, embodied and inclusive system of objects, patterns, events, ecologies and other beings. A counter-narrative of the ‘social self’ arises in this context of entangled, mycelial-like ecology.

"Perhaps I didn't live just in myself, perhaps I lived the lives of others … My life is a life put together from all those lives: the lives of the poet."
Pablo Neruda – Memoirs, p1

The Age of Entanglement

The digital environment is a phase transition in the entanglement of things, people, data-information, algorithmic intelligence and embodied knowledge thinking systems. The attractor of efficiency is shaped by boundary conditions of real-time transparency and real-time data. Our digital trails are on a trajectory of visible, queryable histories.

It promises unimaginable visualization of information, forms of analysis, personalized service-products, emergent opportunities –of dynamic, convenient customization.

The boundaries between, history, relationships, reputation, information, currency and accounting of value and choice – all dissolve identity. The challenge is a deep re-imagining of ‘value’ – especially non-rival, non scarce, subject to increasing returns and intangible value. 

We are at the dawn of the Age of Entanglement. In the Age of Enlightenment, we learned that nature followed laws. … understanding these laws, we could predict and manipulate. ... We granted ourselves god-like powers: to fly, communicate across vast distances, hold frozen moments of sight and sound, transmute elements, create new plants and animals. … we orchestrated fantastic chains of causes and effect in our political, legal, and economic systems as well as in our machines. Our philosophies neatly separated man and nature, mind and matter, cause and effect. We learned to control.
we constructed digital computers, the very embodiments of cause and effect. Computers are the cathedrals of the Enlightenment, the ultimate expression of logical deterministic control. … we learned to manipulate knowledge, … beyond the capacity of our own minds. … We began to build systems with emergent behaviors that were beyond our own understanding, creating the first crack in the foundation. 
So what is this brave new world that we are creating, governed neither by the mysteries of nature or the logic of science, but by the magic of their entanglement? It is governed by the mathematics of strange attractors. Its geometry is fractal. Its music is improvisational and generative rather than composed… progress in the Age of Entanglement is synthetic and comes from putting things together

In the age of Digital Entanglement the Bitcoin is a currency technology, built on a deeply disruptive technology, called the Blockchain.

[Blockchain] is to Bitcoin, what the internet is to email. A big electronic system, on top of which you can build applications. Currency is just one.
Sally Davies, FT Technology Reporter
The blockchain is a distributed ledger. For example, every Bitcoin account holder has a copy of ‘the ledger’ of all Bitcoin transactions. There is no central administrator.

Transactions are synchronized via complex encrypted algorithms ensuring all copies correctly record transactions – ensuring ‘no dollar is spent twice’. Transactions take 10 minutes to ‘clear’, are grouped in a ‘block’ distributed across the network. A validated block is added to previous blocks in a chain = ‘blockchain’.
This ledger is open to any form of record – property deeds, insurance, academic, real estate, legal, health care, bio-data. The Blockchain emerges as a digital institution of accounting – enabling more efficient trade, exchange, and record of any form of value creation.
The technology likely to have the greatest impact on the next few decades has arrived. And it’s not social media. It’s not big data. It’s not robotics. It’s not even AI. … It’s called the blockchain. 
Don Tapscott
The most significant factors of Blockchain applications and platforms have not yet been invented, yet when we recount that last fundamental innovation in accounting – we get hints of how profoundly accounting innovation can impact societies.

Double-entry bookkeeping was deployed … in the 1300s. … this fundamental atomic unit of tracking and managing value–is still based on this 700-year-old invention. … we have the opportunity to create a system of accounting of the 21st century–a system beyond numbers in ledgers and utilizes machine learning, multiparty computation, and algorithmic representation to redefine “value.” 
the technology of the financial system is built on top of a way of thinking about money and value … designed when all we had were pen and paper ... we reduce complexity [by using] a common method of pricing, put elements into categories, and add them up. … trying to make the system “better” … without addressing the underlying problem of a lossy and oversimplified view of the world.

The Blockchain signals an emergence of a new attractor of efficiency for economics, work and institutions. A creator releases a creation on the Blockchain. All can access it and are recorded on the Blockchain when they do – crediting the creator. Anyone can add to or recombine it with other creations and release ‘mash-up’. Others using the new combination give credit to original creator and to the ‘added value’ creator. All access, use and value-added are recorded, accredited and accounted for via the Blockchain.

This sort of accounting system increases social trust, resilience and agility (Pentland, 2014). It reduces transactions costs and by establishing trusted networks enables an exponential increase in idea and knowledge flow. In the world of accelerating change, we now live in a ‘beta-world’ and will always be ‘newbies’ (Kelly, 2016). A ‘beta world’ of eternal ‘newbies’ needs to steward intrinsic motivation to enable rapid scaling of learning to adapt to new technology, systems, processes as well as deeper engagement, participation, trust-based social fabric for collaboration and self-organization.
Learners do not receive or even construct abstract, “objective,” individual knowledge; rather, they learn to function in a community. They acquire that particular community’s subjective viewpoint and learn to speak its language. Learners are acquiring not explicit, formal “expert knowledge,” but the embodied ability to behave as community members.
Brown and Duguid, 1991, p. 48


The constraint that the radically transparent, globally networked, non-rival and near zero-marginal cost economy of the emerging digital environment places on the construction of identity implies that the ‘individual’ is no longer the smallest unit which society can be reduced to. The individual is no longer a whole self-contained unit – but now become divisible among unpredictable varieties of networks, interests, projects and groups.

As McLuhan noted the printing press enabled the emergence of the mass individual – the digital environment creates constraints for the emergence of ‘Dividuals’ (Deleuze, 1992). Dividuals are like fractal mosaics of data, networks, samples, markets, communities and ‘banks’ as vehicles of value storage, exchange, transformation and recombination. Knowledge is the currency of digital societies measured via transparent behavioral action and creation. The Individual Dividual is a mosaic identity-as-index of continual networking – surfing the digital waves of change.

The digital environment is becoming one general purpose platform of costless coordination. This new boundary condition shapes the attractor of efficiency to favour self-organized processes of social computing – assembling knowledge networks as and when needed. Enabling a move from a hierarchical attractor of efficiency based on principal-agent accountability towards a new attractor based methods of agent-forum accountability. Wikipedia demonstrates a platform enabling a capacity to develop shared mental models, common rules, languages and purpose (e.g. see North, 1981, 1990, 2005; Ostrom, 1990, 2002, 2005).

The Job is Dead – Long live Net-Work.

Personal Brand can likely become more salient retrieving (in a McLuhan sense) a tribal type identity. However, we will likely become comfortable having multiple complex ‘Brand Personas’ suitable to a fractal-like mosaic of self-organizing networks, interests and groups. Rather than a rigid unique character of the tribal gatherer group the digital environment enables an adaptive ‘Individuated Character’ corresponding to bifurcating social contexts – also held accountable through agent-forum mechanisms (Bovens, 2010) and forms of reciprocal accountability (Brin, 1999).


What is not included in this bibliography is are all the citations from an environmental scan weekly newsletter that has been undertaken since 2010. However, only the newsletters produced since the fall of 2014 are available for viewing at: 

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