28 December 2017

Preliminary/Residual Thoughts on Descaling

(1) When even the most specialized of academic specialists cannot hope to keep up with the deluge of publication in their narrow specialty, the result is a new and distinctive kind of social volatility borne of something like information overpopulation. Research findings would then resist synthesis into social action, operating only in fragments scattered far and wide throughout the social system. Many collective advances would remain mere potentialities whose likelihood of manifesting plummets as the system continues to grow in scale. No matter the gross quantity of raw information such gains in scale might beget, the basic unit of social agency (the individual human being) stays pretty much the same. Ditto the system gain from pooling such units into networks (e.g. research teams, political action committees, musical ensembles) which show diminishing returns at scales proportionate to today's information overload. Even the effect of introducing better information into the system is mitigated by diffusion given such vast scale as the current global village (not to mention its Virtual shadow-world) has attained. The tortu(r)ously slow burn of incremental progress seems pleasurable in comparison to the fracturing and anomie which the present situation promises to engender.

(2) The above assumes that an increase in the gross quantity of overall knowledge production begets a corresponding and proportionate increase in the (smaller) gross quantity of competent and constructive knowledge production; this as opposed to merely spreading ever thinner a fixed quantity of collective intellectual potential. This is a very large assumption which may not be warranted; but if not, then we are left with an older, simpler problem: the haystacks grow while the needles and the metal detectors pretty much stay the same. As for the sentient pieces of throbbing flesh wielding the latter device, one can only hope that their dignity is not too closely cherished.

(3) Perhaps then there is something to be said for periodically turning one's back on the great data diffusion and carving out a little extra time to cherrypick the choicest nuggets from the twilight of pre-computerized thought, e.g. in the same vein as Debord but with a dash more childlike curiosity and a tad less puerile obstinacy. Whatever strictly perspectival shortcomings individual thinkers of the recent past might now be understood to have had, at least the economy of ideas within which they were subsumed was of a more just and optimal scale. Even the choicest of today's intellectual nourishment is grown in depleted soil, meanwhile, and thus perspective has become a problem of abundance rather than one of scarcity. If this is not quite a fatal blow to progress, it just as surely has not been adequately accounted for by progressives who merely consider the ostensible quality of information but not the system-level prospects for making any use of it whatsoever. In any event, it promises to be a very long time indeed before ideas are again permitted to circulate in an optimally-scaled intellectual environment; optimally-scaled, that is, not merely for progress but also for dignity.

(4) A recent 30 second junket on Google produces one intriguing and one utterly demoralizing revelation: (a) the term/concept "descaling" has found at least cursory usage in the heavy economics literature; (b) in absence of companion terms to narrow the field, any such Google search is badly confounded by the far more pressing and widely discussed issue of how to clean a coffeemaker.


Stefan Kac said...

The Real Split in the International: Theses on the
Situationist International and Its Time, 1972
Thesis 15
trans. John McHale

"Whether it be chemical pollution of the air we breathe
or the adulteration of foodstuffs, the irreversible build-up
of radioactivity through the industrial use of nuclear energy
or the deterioration of water, from underground deposits to
the oceans, the town-planning blight whose sprawl is
supplanting the former entities of town and country or the
'population explosion', the increase in the number of suicides
and the incidence of mental illness or the level of
'noise pollution' -- everywhere, fragmentary knowledge
concerning the (more or less urgent and more or less fatal,
as the case may be) impossibility of going any further, tends
to form as specialised scientific solutions which remain purely
and simply juxtaposed, a portrait of general degradation and
overall impotence. This woeful summary of the map of the
territory of alienation, just prior to its engulfment, is
naturally carried out in the same way that the territory itself
has been constructed: out of separate sectors."
[italics in original]

Scale is not the explicit topic of the above, but is it not
equal parts effect and cause here? Is the most glaring
challenge posed by the "terrain of alienation" not its sheer
vastness? It is precisely this vastness which enables breathers
of relatively clean air on one side of town to implicitly
tolerate unthinkable polution on the other side of town, or,
failing that, to put on a surgical mask in lieu of calling
their representative. Scale breeds abstraction. That is the
basic problem all descaling movements seek to confront, be
they left- or right-leaning, educated or naive, economic or
social. I doubt very much that there is any possibility of
practical implementation for any such movement as things now
stand. That being as it may, and anathema as what I'm about
to say may be to true-believer Debordians, I think that many
insights in this passage can be appropriated rather directly
to the specific disciplines and subdisciplines the rest of us
might find ourselves preoccupied with. There will always be a
roll for traditional academic specialism, if not simply as a
productive foil to or control for the alternative; my point
is simply that the specialist orientation can barely function
according to its own internal logic given the present scale,

hence it would make sense to account for this fact as best we
can under the circumstances.

Stefan Kac said...

Pierre Nora, "General Introduction: Between Memory and History." In Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, ed. Nora. English edition ed. Lawrence Kritzman, trans. Arthur Goldhammer.

"[p. 8] ...we should be aware of the difference between true memory, which today subsists only in gestures and habits, unspoken craft traditions, intimate physical knowledge, ingrained reminiscences, and spontaneous reflexes, and memory transformed by its passage through history, which is practically the opposite: willful and deliberate, experienced as a duty rather than as spontaneous; psychological, individual, and subjective, rather than social, collective, and all-embracing. ... The less memory is experienced from within, the greater its need for external props and tangible reminders of that which no longer exists except qua memory--hence the obsession with the archive that marks an age... The fear that everything is on the verge of disappearing, coupled with anxiety about the precise significance of the present and uncertainty about the future, invests even the humblest testimony, the most modest vestige, with the dignity of being potentially memorable. ...

Stefan Kac said...

Nora, "General Introduction" (cont.)

...[p. 9] Specialists estimate that the number of documents stored in public archives alone has multiplied a thousandfold in just a few decades. ... We cannot know in advance what should be remembered, hence we refrain from destroying anything and put everything in archives instead. The realm of the memorable has expanded without reason: we suffer from hypertrophy of memory, which is inextricably intertwined with our sense of memory's loss and concomitant institutionalization. Old-fashioned professional archivists, who used to be accused of suffering from a mania to preserve, have switched roles in a curious way with those who produce the materials that now fill our archives. Today's archivists are trained by private firms and government bureaucracies, which insist that everything be preserved, whereas the older archivists knew that controlled destruction was the trick of the trade. ... In the old days, there were three main sources of archives: the great families, the church, and the state. Nowadays who does not feel called upon to record his reminiscences or write his memoirs? Everyone has gotten into the act: not just people whose role in history was minor at best, but also the relatives of such people and their doctors and lawyers and anyone else who happened to be standing about. The less extraordinary the testimony, the more aptly it is taken to illustrate the average mentality. ...consider the recent proliferation of oral histories in France. Across the country there are now more than three hundred teams employed in collecting what Philippe Joutard has called "the voices that come to us from the past." Well and good. But think for a moment: these are not ordinary archives. It takes [p. 10] thirty-six hours of work to produce just one hour of tape, and the recordings make sense only if listened to in their entirety... Under these conditions one has to ask what possible purpose they might serve. Whose will to remember do they ultimately reflect, that of the interviewer or that of the interviewee? The sheer mass of material changes the significance and status of the archive. It is no longer a more or less intentional record of actual memory but a deliberate and calculated compilation of a vanished memory. It adds a secondary or prosthetic memory to actual experience, which is often altered by the very fact of being recorded... Historicized memory comes to us from without. Because it is no longer a social practice, we internalize it as an individual constraint. The transition from memory to history requires every social group to redefine its identity by dredging up its past. The resulting obligation makes every man his own historian. ... Those who used to be left out of the official histories are not the only ones obsessed with recovering their buried pasts. Practically every organized social group, and not just the intellectual or educated, has followed the lead of the ethnic minorities in seeking their own roots and identities. ... The proliferation of genealogical research is a striking recent phenomenon: the annual report of the Archives Nationales for 1982 reports that 43 percent of those engaged in archival work were doing genealogical research (whereas 38 percent were doing academic work of some kind). Another striking fact is that the most significant histories of biology, physics, medicine, and music have been written not by historians but by biologists, physicists, physicians, and musicians. ... As the established intellectual disciplines have come under attack, each has sought to justify itself by delving into its origins. ... As for history, the positivist approach, long since abandoned by professional historians, has discovered a new-found popularity as a result of this urgently felt need to resurrect the past. The demise of memory-history has multiplied the number of private memories demanding their own individual histories."

Stefan Kac said...

Thoughts on Nora, "General Introduction"

Specialists estimate that the number of documents stored in public archives alone has multiplied a thousandfold in just a few decades.
Of course it stands to reason that the "controlled destruction" practiced by "old-fashioned professional archivists" was apt to be colored by ideology, power, etc. Here, then, is our first little taste of the scorched-earth non-solution to that deconstructionist bugaboo: saving everything until the sheer volume of material and information accumulated (quickly!) came to exceed most anyone's wherewithal to so much as find what they are looking for, to say nothing of processing it in (vast and ever-expanding) context. When everything matters, nothing matters. And that state of things would seem to permanently confound any hope of rational social action, on any scale, within, across or between the proper boundaries of traditionally-conceived academic areas.

"The less extraordinary the testimony, the more aptly it is taken to illustrate the average mentality."
This insidious race-to-the-bottom outlook is nowhere more visible than in commercial artmaking, where market imperatives join forces with powerfully-felt "historicized" memory of art's elite(-ist) past. (Indeed, can you say "experienced as a duty"? And indeed, "Because it is no longer a social practice, we internalize it as an individual constraint.") Contemporary musicians know this best from the institutional classical music world, where the full thrust of highly-paid administrators and consultants is brought to bear on the task of locating, codifying, verifying this ever-elusive "average" audience. Any other (i.e. non-market) set of priorities would have no reason whatsoever to so overvalue the "less extraordinary" testimony of anyone in particular.

Stefan Kac said...

Further Thoughts on Nora, "General Introduction"

It takes [p. 10] thirty-six hours of work to produce just one hour of tape, and the recordings make sense only if listened to in their entirety... Under these conditions one has to ask what possible purpose they might serve. Whose will to remember do they ultimately reflect, that of the interviewer or that of the interviewee?
How I wish that all my musician friends, enemies, acquaintances, colleagues, et al would ask themselves that question periodically. As a group we now count merely among the ordinary post-Spectacular rabble who consume media content not to see/hear others but to see/hear ourselves. We are all the eyewitness who is too willing to talk to the TV news reporter: "I saw everything!" And, indeed, nothing. Since the powerful confounding factors of ideology, power, etc. don't apply to the logic of the self-archivist, we have only the flimsiest of excuses for eschewing "controlled destruction." Hell, controlled sharing would do the trick just fine!

the most significant histories of biology, physics, medicine, and music have been written not by historians but by biologists, physicists, physicians, and musicians.
For some reason the element of praxis inherent in these fields is not explicitly remarked upon here, but I have to think that the practitioner-historians so alluded to (quite obliquely as it were) would agree with me that writing disciplinary history from a location of minimal practical immersion was always highly problematic. Of course this remark seemingly entails a rather aggressive deprecation of historical scholarship as a praxis in its own right; that being as it is, I suspect that Historians per se have more reliably been aware of the limits of their competence than have Practitioners in fields such as those given; and of course, on the third hand, for many of us Practitioners the "history" of the music IS the music, hence what goes under the headings of Music History, Musicology, Critical Studies, Reception History, etc. is merely the Stamp Collecting to our Physics: we are simply too caught up in the rapture of creation and far too In-Demand with our Busy Schedules to so much as stop to think about how knowledge and memory are constructed from raw phenomenological experience, let alone to be compelled by external social pressures to "justify [ourselves] by delving into [our] origins."
It was only after graduating from college that I opened the Grout for more than a few seconds at a time, at which point morbid curiosity somehow inspired me to read it cover to cover during a series of overnight security guard shifts. I was (and remain) utterly shocked at the space devoted to describing verbally what the prescribed pieces of music sound like. Perhaps this is an unfairly cherrypicked example with which to buttress my point, but then this phenomenon was by no means uncommon throughout the twentieth century, and it was veritably institutionalized throughout the latter half of the nineteenth. Just one reason why I tend to cast my lot with the practitioners.

Stefan Kac said...

Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus

Ch. 1, section heading "Can Someone Please Hit The Brakes?"
"[People] are happy to follow the advice of their smartphones or to take whatever drug the doctor prescribes, but when they hear of upgraded superhumans, they say, 'I hope I will be dead before that happens.' ... When people realise how fast we are rushing towards the great unknown, and that they cannot count even on death to shield them from it, their reaction is to hope that somebody will hit the brakes and slow us down. But we cannot hit the brakes, for several reasons.

Firstly, nobody knows where the breaks are. While some experts are familiar with developments in one field, such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, big data or genetics, no one is an expert on everything. No one is therefore capable of connecting all the dots and seeing the full picture. Different fields influence one another in such intricate ways that even the best minds cannot fathom how breakthroughs in artificial intelligence might impact nanotechnology, or vice versa. Nobody can absorb all the latest scientific discoveries, nobody can predict how the global economy will look in ten years, and nobody has a clue where we are heading in such a rush. Since no one understands the system any more, no one can stop it."

Ch. 3, section heading "Beyond Sex and Violence"
"These theories may work well on chimpanzees, capuchin monkeys and small hunter-gatherer bands. They also work well in the lab, where you test them on small groups of people. Yet once you observe the behaviour of human masses you discover a completely different reality. Most human kingdoms and empires were extremely unequal, yet many of them were surprisingly stable and efficient. ...Why did the Egyptian peasants and Prussian soldiers act so differently than we would have expected on the basis of the Ultimatum Game and [Frans De Waal's] capuchin monkeys experiment? Because large numbers of people behave in a fundamentally different way than do small numbers."

Stefan Kac said...

Lewis Mumford
The City in History (1961)
pp. 531-532

"Both the citadel and the wall had long since been obsolescent in the great capitals; but at the very moment they disappeared, a network of organizational controls centering in the dominating capital city, ramifying by instant communication everywhere, came into existence and performed the same functions more effectively. Just to the extent that the new powers were shadowy, impossible to pin down or come to grips with, etherialized, they were all the more effective. One might breach a city wall or kill a king; but how could one assault an international cartel? Only when one national capital came into conflict with another capital did it become apparent that all the archaic and disruptive forces in the old citadels were still active—and indeed had become grossly magnified and increasingly irrational.

"The growth and multiplication of great metropolises were both the proofs of this general tendency toward monopolistic concentration and the means by which it was effected. Even in the most self-complacent provincial town, the pattern of institutional life became increasingly that of the metropolis; the shibboleths of power politics, the orgiastic surges of nationalism, the general acceptance of both the commercial and the cultural trade-marks of the metropolis, to the shame-faced exclusion of local products, became well-nigh universal by the beginning of the twentieth century."

Stefan Kac said...

CIH, pp. 541-542

"Though the removal of limits is one of the chief feats of the metropolitan economy, this does not imply any abdication of power on the part of the chiefs in charge: for there is one countervailing condition to this removal, and that is the processing of all operations through the metropolis and its increasingly complicated mechanisms. The metropolis is in fact a processing center, in which a vast variety of goods, material and spiritual, is mechanically sorted and reduced to a limited number of standardized articles, uniformly packaged, and distributed through controlled channels to their destination, bearing the approved metropolitan label.

"'Processing' has now become the chief form of metropolitan control; and the need for its constant application has brought into existence a whole range of inventions, mechanical and electronic, from cash registers to electronic computers, which handle every operation from book-keeping to university examinations. Interests and aptitudes that do not lend themselves to processing are automatically rejected. So complicated, so elaborate, so costly are the processing mechanisms that they cannot be employed except on a mass scale: hence they eliminate all activities of a fitful, inconsecutive, or humanly subtle nature—just as 'yes' or 'no' answers eliminate those more delicate and accurate discriminations that often lie at one point or another in between the spuriously 'correct' answer. That which is local, small, personal, autonomous, must be suppressed. Increasingly, he who controls the processing mechanism controls the lives and destinies of those who must consume its products, and who on metropolitan terms cannot seek any others. For processing and packaging do not end on the production line: they finally make over the human personality.

"In short the monopoly of power and knowledge that was first established in the citadel has come back, in a highly magnified form, in the final stages of metropolitan culture. In the end every aspect of life must be brought under control: controlled weather, controlled movement, controlled association, controlled production, controlled prices, controlled fantasy, controlled ideas. But the only purpose of control, apart from the profit, power, and prestige of the controllers, is to accelerate the process of mechanical control itself.

"The priests of this regime are easy to identify: the whole system, in its final stages, rests on the proliferation of secret, and thus controllable, knowledge; and the very division of labor that makes specialized scientific research possible also restricts the number of people capable of putting the fragments together. But where are the new gods? The nuclear reactor is the seat of their power: radio transmission and rocket flight their angelic means of communication and transportation: but beyond these minor agents of divinity the Control Room itself, with its Cybernetic Deity, giving His lightning-like decisions and His infallible answers: omniscience and omnipotence, triumphantly mated by science."

Stefan Kac said...

The Myth of the Machine, vol. 2: The Pentagon of Power (1970)
Ch. 6—The Polytechnic Tradition
Subheading 5—The Technological Pool

"As late as the middle of the nineteenth century an immense technological heritage was still in existence, widely scattered among the peoples of the earth, every part of it colored by human needs, environmental resources, inter-cultural exchanges, and ecological and historic associations. ...

"The major part of this technical equipment had been passed along for thousands of years, and had consciously drawn into a common pool, more or less accessible through books and printed publications, many precious components that had hitherto been confined to the widely scattered communities where they originated, passed on intermittently only by imitation and word of mouth. The diffusion of this store of knowledge in Western Europe, after the twelfth century, provided in itself the equivalent of many new inventions and was in no small part accountable for the technical dynamism that made still more sweeping technical changes—later misidentified as "the" industrial revolution—possible. ...

"Biologists have coined the term "gene pool" to describe the immense amount of genetic material available, in ever fresh combinations, in a large population. Though over a long period certain genes will tend to disappear because they are lethal, and others will undergo modification and development through continued transactions with their environment and with each other, there are many genetic traits and organic properties that go back far into our mammalian past, whose absence or deficiency would undermine man's higher development.

"Similarly, one may talk of a technological pool: an accumulation of tools, machines, materials, processes interacting with soils, climates, plants, animals, human populations, institutions, cultures. The capacity of this technological reservoir, until the third quarter of the nineteenth century, was immensely greater than ever before: what is more, it was more diversified—and possibly quantitatively larger, as well as qualitatively richer—than that which exists today. ...

"This diversified technological assemblage not merely contributed to economic security: it permitted a continuous interplay between different phases of technology; and for a time this actually happened. ...

"Western man's pride over his many real achievements in mechanization made him too easily overlook all that he owed to earlier or more primitive cultures. So no one has yet attempted to make an inventory of the massive losses resulting from both the neglect and the deliberate destruction of this craft heritage, in favor of machine-made products. While the population of complex and technically superior machines has enormously increased during the last century, the technological pool has actually been lowered as one handicraft after another has disappeared.

"The result is that a monotechnics, based upon scientific intelligence and quantitative production, directed mainly toward economic expansion, material repletion, and military superiority, has taken the place of a polytechnics, based primarily, as in agriculture, on the needs, aptitudes, interests of living organisms: above all on man himself.

Stefan Kac said...

The Myth of the Machine, vol. 2: The Pentagon of Power (1970)
Ch. 7—Mass Production and Human Automation
Subheading 6—The Paradox of Automation

"we are already, like the [Sorcerer's] apprentice, beginning to drown in the flood. The moral should be plain: unless one has the power to stop and automatic process—and if necessary reverse it—one had better not start it. ...as our knowledge of isolatable segments and fragments becomes infinitely refined and microscopic, our ability to interrelate the parts and to bring them to a focus in rational activities continues to disappear. ...

"The exponents of mass production of knowledge have created a hundred journals devoted only to abstracts of papers; and now a further abstract of all these abstracts has been proposed. At the terminal stage of this particular solution, all that will be left of the original scientific or scholarly paper will be a little vague noise, at most a title and a date, to indicate that someone has done something somewhere—no one knows what and Heaven knows why.

"Though this program for the automatic mass production of knowledge originated in science, and shows characteristic seventeenth-century limitations, it has been imitated in the humanities, particularly in American universities, as a sort of status symbol, to underwrite budget requests in competition with the physical and social sciences, and to provide a quantitative measure for professional promotions. Whatever the original breach between the sciences and the humanities, in method they have now...become one. Though they run different assembly lines, they belong to the same factory. The mark of their common deficiency is that neither has given any serious consideration to the results of their uncontrolled automation.

"...to know more and more about less and less is in the end simply to know less and less. ...

"Already the great national and university libraries are at their wits' end, not merely to find place for the books already acquired—selective though that process has always been—but even to catalog promptly the annual output of books, papers, and periodicals. Without pausing to weigh the consequences many administrators are now playing with the desperate notion of abandoning the preservation of books entirely, as an obsolete form of the permanent record, and transferring the contents at once to microfilms and computers. ...

"even if books are not abandoned, but continue their present rate of production, the multiplication of microfilms actually magnifies the central problem—that of coping with quantity—and postpones the real solution, which must be conceived on quite other than purely mechanical lines: namely, by reassertion of human selectivity and moral self-discipline, leading to more continent productivity. Without such self-imposed restraints the overproduction of books will bring about a state of intellectual enervation and depletion hardly to be distinguished from massive ignorance."

Stefan Kac said...

The Myth of the Machine, vol. 2: The Pentagon of Power (1970)
Ch. 10—The New Megamachine
Subheading 1—The Secrets of the Temple

"In the act of inventing the atom bomb, the essential human components of the new megamachine were not merely brought together in space but given critical roles...

"This novel conjecture gave the participants powers that as individuals they had never before had either the incentive or the opportunity to exercise. ...

"At the same time, never before had scientists been compelled to work under conditions so unfavorable to free intellectual intercourse: they were not merely prevented from communicating with the outside world, but even from speaking freely about their several tasks among themselves. ...

"the secret of every totalitarian system is secrecy itself. The key to exercising arbitrary power is to restrict the communication of individuals and groups by subdividing information, so that only a small portion of the whole truth will be known to any single person. This was an old trick of political conspirators; and it now passed from the core agency, the so-called 'Manhattan Project,' to every part of the militarized national establishment, though ironically even those at the top of the hierarchy lacked sufficient information or intelligence to put all the pieces together.

"The difficulty of maintaining such sealed-in knowledge might have proved greater but for the fact that each department of science had already become, in effect, a secret agency in its own right. The sciences are now so specialized in their vocabulary, so esoteric in their concepts, so refined in their techniques, and so limited in their capacity to communicate new knowledge to non-specialists even in closely related fields, that non-communication has become almost a badge of vocational superiority among scientists. "When members of my department meet once a week at luncheon table," a physicist recently told me, "we never talk about our own work. It has become too private for words. We take refuge in gossip about the latest car models or motor boats.""

Stefan Kac said...

Jane Jacobs
The Question of Separatism
Ch. 5—Paradoxes of Size

"the English biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote a delightful short essay called "On Being the Right Size." He pointed out, among other things, that sheer size has much to do with the equipment an animal must have. ... [He] presents us with an interesting principle...: big animals are not big because they are complicated; rather, they have to be complicated because they are big. This principle, it seems to me, also applies to institutions, governments, companies, organizations of all sorts. The larger they are, the more complicated they must be. They are big because they produce a huge output of telephones, say, or have a lot of welfare clients, or govern a big population. Whatever the reason for expansion, the large size creates complications. Big organizations need coordinators, liaison people, prescribed channels of communication, administrators, supervisors of supervisors, whole extra departments devoted to serving the organization itself. A small organization can get by without a bureaucracy. A big one cannot.

"Bigness and the complications that go along with it have their price, but can be worth it. ... Many jobs in this world can only be done or can best be done by large units. It is as simplistic to jump to the conclusion that something smaller is necessarily better than something bigger as it is to suppose the reverse. The point is that there is always a price to be paid for bigness."

Stefan Kac said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stefan Kac said...

Jane Jacobs
Cities and the Wealth of Nations
Ch. 11—Faulty Feedback To Cities

Jacobs analogizes diverse cities under a common national currency to people engaged in diverse activities connected to the same brain stem.

"machines this badly conceived wouldn't work. Nations, from this point of view, don't work either, yet do exist." ...

"in 1965 Singapore, with its predominantly Chinese population, was expelled from Malaysia, as the country is now called, because in the eyes of the rural Malay population of the other parts of the country, Singapore was an undesirable foreign body. As a sovereign and independent city-state, Singapore has a currency that reflects its own trade situation. Furthermore, with its expulsion, the anomaly of a shared national "brain stem" vanished."

I'm just a tourist in the field of economics, but I've noticed that economists love to talk about Singapore.

The local currency idea is a thing. It seems that mere "complementary currencies" tend to fail, because their complement is a marauding Goliath. I think that what Jacobs has in mind here is more than "complementary." Unfortunately we are quite a long way off from that.

Stefan Kac said...

Richard Sennett
The Culture of the New Capitalism

"A key aspect of craftsmanship is learning how to get something right. ... In a speeded-up institution, however, time-intensive learning becomes difficult. The pressures to produce results quickly are too intense...

"When people have spoken to me about not being able to show what they can do, I've sensed they are referring to just this sense of being prevented from developing their skills. When I interviewed back-office workers in a health maintenance organization, for instance, they complained that the time pressures meant they did a "middling" job of making sense of the accounts; people who worked quickly were rewarded with promotion, but the bills they processed proved frequently a muddle on closer inspection. In call centers, management similarly frowns on employees who spend too much time on the telephone—too responsive, for instance, to fuddled customers who can't express themselves clearly. Anyone who has spent time at a budget-airline ticket counter knows the problem: impatience is institutionalized.

"In principle, any well-run firm should want its employees to learn from their mistakes and admit a certain degree of trial-and-error learning. In practice, such big firms do not. The size of the firm indeed makes the biggest difference in this regard: in small service firms (under a hundred employees or so) care of customers is more directly connected to the firm's survival. But in the large medical insurance company superficiality proved functional; taking too much time to straighten things out earned no rewards. The result, within the firms I and my colleagues studied—perhaps invisible to a frustrated customer—was a fair number of employees who also feel frustrated."

(pp. 127-129)

Stefan Kac said...

N.N. Taleb
The Black Swan

"Mother Nature does not like anything too big. The largest land animal is the elephant, and there is a reason for that. If I went on a rampage and shot an elephant, I might be put in jail, and get yelled at by my mother, but I would hardly disturb the ecology of Mother Nature. On the other hand, my point about banks in Chapter 14—that if you shot a large bank, I would "shiver at the consequences" and that "if one falls they all fall"—was subsequently illustrated by events... Mother Nature does not limit the interactions between entities; it just limits the size of its units. (Hence my idea is not to stop globalization and ban the Internet; as we will see, much more stability would be achieved by stopping governments from helping companies when they become large and by giving back advantages to the small guy.)

"But there is another reason for man-made structures not to get too large. The notion of "economies of scale"—that companies save money when they become large, hence more efficient—is often, apparently behind company expansions and mergers. It is prevalent in the collective consciousness without evidence for it; in fact the evidence would suggest the opposite. Yet, for obvious reasons, people keep doing these mergers—they are not good for companies, they are good for Wall Street bonuses... ...as they become larger, companies appear to be more "efficient," but they are also more vulnerable to outside contingencies... All that under the illusion of more stability. Add the fact that when companies are large, they need to optimize so as to satisfy Wall Street analysts...
[who] will pressure companies to sell the extra kidney and ditch insurance to raise their "earnings per share" and "improve their bottom line"—hence eventually contributing to their bankruptcy.

"Charles Tapeiro and I have shown mathematically that a certain class of unforeseen errors and random shocks hurts large organisms vastly more than smaller ones. ...

"The problem with governments is that they will tend to support these fragile organisms "because they are large employers" and because they have lobbyists... Large companies get government support and become progressively larger and more fragile, and, in a way, run government, another prophetic view of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Hairdressers and small businesses on the other hand, fail without anyone caring about them; they need to be efficient and to obey the laws of nature."

(pp. 314-315)

Stefan Kac said...

N.N. Taleb

"Note that people invoke an expression, "Balkanization," about the mess created by fragmented states, as if fragmentation was a bad thing, and as if there was an alternative in the Balkans—but nobody uses "Helvetization" to describe its successes."


"A squeeze occurs when people have no choice but to do something, and do it right away, regardless of costs.


"Squeezes are exacerbated by size. When one is large, one becomes vulnerable to some errors, particularly horrendous squeezes. The squeezes become nonlinearly costlier as size increases.

"...consider the reasons one should not own an elephant as a pet... Should there be a water shortage...you would have to pay a higher and higher price for each additional gallon of water. That's fragility, right there, a negative convexity effect coming from getting too big. ...

"In spite of what is studied in business schools concerning "economies of scale," size hurts you at times of stress; it is not a good idea to be large during difficult times. Some economists have been wondering why mergers of corporations do not appear to play out. The combined unit is now much larger, hence more powerful, and according to the theories of economies of scale, it should be more "efficient." But the numbers show, at best, no gain from such increase in size—that was already true in 1978, when Richard Roll voiced the "hubris hypothesis," finding it irrational for companies to engage in mergers given their poor historical record. Recent data, more than three decades later, still confirm both the poor record of mergers and the same hubris as managers seem to ignore the bad economic aspect of the transaction."


"On January 21, 2008, the Parisian bank Societé Générale rushed to sell in the market close to seventy billion dollars' worth of stocks, a very large amount for any single "fire sale." Markets were not very active (called "thin"), as it was Martin Luther King day in the United States, and markets worldwide dropped precipitously, close to 10 percent, costing the company close to six billion dollars in losses just from their fire sale. The entire point of the squeeze is that they couldn't wait, and they had no option but to turn a sale into a fire sale. For they had, over the weekend, uncovered a fraud. Jerome Kerviel, a rogue back office employee, was playing with humungous sums in the market and hiding these exposures from the main computer system. ...

"... A fire sale of $70 billion dollars worth of stocks leads to a loss of $6 billion. But a fire sale a tenth of the size, $7 billion would result in no loss at all, as markets would absorb the quantities without panic, maybe without even noticing. So this tells us that if, instead of having one very large bank, with Monsieur Kerviel as a rogue trader, we had ten smaller banks, each with a proportional Monsieur Micro-Kerviel, and each conducted his rogue trading independently and at random times, the total losses for the ten banks would be close to nothing."


"Clearly, the postmortem analyses were mistaken, attributing the problem to bad controls by the bad capitalistic system, and lack of vigilance on the part of the bank. It was not. Nor was it "greed," as we commonly assume. The problem is primarily size, and the fragility that comes with size."

Stefan Kac said...

Taleb, Antifragile

"In project management, Bent Flyvberg has shown firm evidence that an increase in the size of projects maps to poor outcomes and higher and higher costs of delays as a proportion of the total budget. But there is a nuance: it is the size per segment of the project that matters, not the entire project—some projects can be divided into pieces, not others. Bridge and tunnel projects involve monolithic planning, as these cannot be broken up into small portions; their percentage costs overruns increase markedly with size. Same with dams. For roads, built by small segments, there is no serious size effect, as the project managers incur only small errors and can adapt to them. Small segments go one small error at the time, with no serious roles for squeezes."

[footnote on this page]"A nuance: the notions of "large" and "small" are relative to a given ecology or business structure. Small for an airplane maker is different from "small" when it comes to a bakery. As with the European Union's subsidiarity principle, "small" here means the smallest possible unit for a given function or task that can operate with a certain level of efficiency."


"Imagine how people exit a movie theater. Someone shouts "fire," and you have a dozen persons squashed to death. So we have a fragility of theater to size, stemming from the fact that every additional person exiting brings more and more trauma... A thousand people exiting (or trying to exit) in one minute is not the same as the same number exiting in half an hour. ...

"It so happens that contemporary economic optimized life causes us to build larger and larger theaters, but with the exact same door. They no longer make this mistake too often while building cinemas, theaters, and stadiums, but we tend to make the mistake in other domains, such as, for instance, natural resources and food supplies. Just consider that the price of wheat more than tripled in the years 2004-2007 in response to a small increase in demand, around 1 percent."


[from the bibliography] "Private Correspondence with Bar-Yam: Yaneer Bar-Yam, generously in his comments:
"If we take a step back and more generally consider the issue of partitioned systems versus connected systems, partitioned systems are more stable, and connected systems are both more vulnerable and have more opportunities for collective action. Vulnerability (fragility) is connectivity without responsiveness. Responsiveness enables connectivity to lead to opportunity. If collective action can be employed to address threats, or to take advantage of opportunities, then the vulnerability can be mitigated and outweighed by the benefits. This is the basic relationship between the idea of sensitivity as we described it and your concept of antifragility." (With permission.)"


(Sorry cats, I'm a blogger. We don't ask permission. But thank you for your work.)

So, perhaps the currency issue is an excellent illustration of "connectivity without responsiveness." The next question, then, is whether "responsiveness" per se can exist at present scale. Is it even possible? i.e. Assuming perfect "connectivity," chart "responsiveness" against global population. Is the function linear?

Stefan Kac said...

Richard Sennett
The Culture of the New Capitalism

"It cannot surprise the sociologist, in a way, that the first half of the twentieth century was devoted to war, for the organization of armies had become the very model for civil society. Yet the "militarization of society" carries false implications, were we to imagine that it produced a mass of blind, subservient, obedient workers or welfare clients. Had Weber more actual experience of military life he would have understood why.

"In an army, orders modulate as they pass down a chain of command: what the general decrees, the military staff begins to translate into practice, adapting the command to conditions in the field; sergeants, corporals, and rank privates try in their turn to make sense of the command on a particular patch of ground. All obey, but equally, all interpret. When an order translates into action, the key word is "translates." The larger the army, the more interpretation is required.

"The same mediation marks domestic pyramids and is one reason the apostles of efficiency like Taylor failed. His time-and-motion studies produced something like a field marshal's writ about what things should happen and how they were to be done. In practice, each of these precepts was interpreted and negotiated as it passed down the institutional structure. With a childlike innocence, Taylor fretted that his precepts—so clear, so "scientific"—became smudged and messed in the corporations for whom he consulted. Reality failed him.

"The interpretive modulation built into any bureaucratic pyramid is one reason that, in my fieldwork...I encountered many people who did not conform to the psychology Weber set out for the domestic cage. ... Performing them
["small translations" of orders from above] afforded people in the corporation [IBM] a sense of their own agency; the institutional narrative of promotion and demotion became their own life story. As in armies so in corporations: unhappiness with an institution can coexist with strong commitment to it; a person, even if generally unhappy, who is given room to make sense of things on his or her own patch becomes bonded to the organization."
(pp. 33-35)

Stefan Kac said...

Sennett, CNC:

"The growth of communications technology meant that information could be formulated in unambiguous and thorough terms, disseminated in its original version throughout a corporation. E-mail and its derivatives diminished the mediation and interpretation of commands and rules verbally passing down the chain of command. Thanks to new computer tools for mapping corporate inputs and outputs, information...could pass up to the top, instantly and unmediated. In the auto industry in the 1960s, the time lag of getting an executive decision on to the shop floor was, by one estimate, five months, an interval that today has been dramatically cut to a few weeks. ...

"One consequence of the information revolution has thus been to replace modulation and interpretation of commands by a new kind of centralization."

(pp. 42-43)

analogy to MP3 player vs. record player:
"While there is random access to material, flexible performance is possible only because the central processing unit is in control of the whole. Similarly, in a flexible organization, power becomes concentrated at the center... New analytic technologies have enabled...what Michel Foucault has called "panoptic surveillance"...
(p. 51)

"The center governs the periphery in a specific way. On the periphery people are on their own in the process of laboring, without much interaction up and down the chain of command... Those at the periphery are answerable to the center only for results. This distanced relation is, in fine, the geography of globalization. ... In terms of wealth and power, a paternalist like Henry Ford was indeed as unequal to workers on the assembly line as any modern global mogul. In sociological terms, however, he was closer to them, just as the general on the battlefield was connected to his troops. ...inequality translates into distance; the greater the distance...the greater the social inequality..."
(p. 55)

Stefan Kac said...

Sennett, CNC:

"By hiring consultants, executives at the center of the [now-proverbial] MP3 machine can shift responsibility for painful decisions away from themselves. The central unit commands but avoids accountability. In practice, few consultants subsequently join the firms they reorganize, and thus they too avoid being held to account."
(p. 57)

"In creating social distances which divorce control from accountability, consulting reveals a fundamental shifting of bureaucratic ground, a reformatting of inequality, increasing social distance. Power can become concentrated at the top, but authority does not thereby increase."
(p. 58)

"The MP3 institution may celebrate the charismatic leader yet does not invite institutional authority. In part this is due to the way executives behave, when [60] they themselves act like consultants. Rapid turnover at the top can have this effect; there is then no one in power who has shown commitment to the organization, who has experience of its problems, who can serve as a witness of the labors of those below. In part, the sheer disconnect between center and periphery dispels the belief, at the periphery, that a particular human being or definable group at the center is really in charge. I found, in this regard, that employees at a financial services firm regarded "rule by e-mail" exceptionally obnoxious; all too frequently people received e-mails informing them they were being shifted, or even fired—"too chicken" as one person said, "to tell me to my face." Pushing away responsibility has a further dimension."
(pp. 59-60)

Stefan Kac said...

Marshall McLuhan
The Gutenberg Galaxy
2011 U of Toronto edition [orig. 1962]

"That the Greeks were able to do more with the written word than other communities such as the Babylonian and Egyptian was, according to H.A.L. Fisher (A History of Europe, p. 19) that they were not under "the paralysing control of organized priestcraft." But even so, they had only a brief period of exploration and discovery before settling into a clichéd pattern of repetitive thought. Carothers feels that the early Greek intelligentsia not only had the stimulus of sudden access to the acquired wisdom of other peoples, but, having none of its own, there were no vested interests in acquired knowledge to frustrate the immediate acceptance and development of the new. It is this very situation which today puts the Western world at such a disadvantage, as against the "backward" countries. It is our enormous backlog of literate and mechanistic technology that renders us so helpless and inept in handling the new electric technology. The new physics is an auditory domain and long-literate society is not at home in the new physics, nor will it ever be."
(p. 31)

Stefan Kac said...

Marshall McLuhan
Understanding Media (1964)
MIT Press edition (1994)

"When the technology of a time is powerfully thrusting in one direction, wisdom may well call for a countervailing thrust. The implosion of electric energy in our century cannot be met by explosion or expansion, but it can be met by decentralism and the flexibility of multiple small centers. For example, the rush of students into our universities is not explosion but implosion. And the needful strategy to encounter this force is not to enlarge the university, but to create numerous groups of autonomous colleges in place of our centralized university plant that grew up on the lines of European government and nineteenth-century industry."
(pp. 70-71)

Sadly it is the centralization which creates the prestige, and it is the prestige and not the lurnun' which is driving the implosion. The content of the medium "university" is prestige, not lurnun'.

But yes, "decentralism", "groups of autonomous colleges", etc.

Stefan Kac said...

McLuhan, UM
(compare to Sennett on "rule by e-mail")

"...what happens to the best-laid plans of mice and men in any organization when the instant speed of information movement begins. There is a collapse of delegated authority and a dissolution of the pyramid and management structures made familiar in the organization chart. The separation of functions, and the division of stages, spaces, and tasks are characteristic of literate and visual society and of the Western world. These divisions tend to dissolve through the action of the instant and organic interrelations of electricity.

"Former German Armaments minister Albert Speer, in a speech at the Nuremberg trials, made some bitter remarks about the effects of electric media on German life: "The telephone, the teleprinter and the wireless made it possible for orders from the highest levels to be given direct to the lowest levels, where, on account of the absolute authority behind them, they were carried out uncritically . . .""

(p. 247)

Stefan Kac said...

McLuhan, UM

"The telephone: speech without walls.
The phonograph: music hall without walls.
The photograph: museum without walls.
The electric light: space without walls.
The movie, radio, and TV: classroom without walls.
Man the food-gatherer reappears incongruously as information gatherer. In this role, electronic man is no less a nomad than his paleolithic ancestors."

(p. 283)