Emergence as stress relief: some thoughts on power distribution and transformation

My friend Preston (twitter handle: @gl33p) and I are working on a series of projects all the time. One of the big conceptual ones focuses on theory of system behavior and development. We’re developing a framework that looks at how upper-level or more central institutions or structures emerge to solve problems in shear or stress of lower levels. In turn these upper levels functionally redefine, elide, and reduce the higher degrees of potency of the lower levels. Upper levels define things down. This increases their degree of power, but imposes a degree of limitation. Extrapolation of this offers, I think, an avenue to bridge between contrasting models of power: that of Weber’s site-specific power (power as held by institutions) and Foucault’s notion of power as emergent network effect. I’m working to pin this down at the moment.

To digress a bit, though, here is something I wrote and posted last weekend to an enclosed forum that lays out part of what we are thinking; I want to make it more visible. It’s related to yesterday’s post. It’s in a somewhat rough form, but I’m fine with that. Honing comes with time. Comments are always welcome.

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All value lies at the primary producer level, the margins of embodied systems. Just as wolves cannot convert sunlight into protein, requiring instead the primary production of plants and the trophic [look it up] intermediaries of herbivores and lower order carnivores, any wealth embodied in a system (defined typically in established currencies like dollars) are fundamentally dependent on the marginal activities and marginal people. Upper level structures emerge to resolve strain in the lower level (if we want to think in terms of non-essentialized hierarchies) by effectively redefining the context of the lower level actors/behaviors.

In currency terms, the lower level form might be direct barter, but this runs into complication if you have something I would like but I don’t at this time have something you would like. We can solve this by abstracting to some other exchange medium like money. But money should not be viewed as dollars or a direct equivalent in this first order abstraction. The abstract has more power because it can be exchanged more freely, but in doing so it elides the conditions which gave rise to it and declares barter to be only marginally valuable at best.

If this new currency is a local one (as all initially were), it facilitates exchange within the locality but hampers it between different ones. I cannot easily exchange a Madison Hour for a German Chiemgauer let alone a Cascadia Hour because it will be difficult for either of us to find someone else to exchange with it. A national currency emerges to alleviate this strain by redefining wealth, value, and exchange relative to it. This does not mean that local, community exchanges are insignificant. Just the opposite. They are still actively in play. But those activities become increasingly difficult to capture and valuate in dollar terms. Civic engagement does not have a dollar value, therefore the dollar identifies it as unvaluable. Prisoner rehabilitation schemes are similarly identified as of marginal value because the uncertain benefit (becoming ‘productive citizens’) versus the perceived risk (they’ll just return to crime) compounded by the socially hidden cost and ideologies of necessity of the prison industry all work to declare it so. The community and social benefits are not directly translatable into dollars and therefore become difficult to manifest. The benefits, however, are likely to far exceed any dollar estimates because the dollar is only able to recognized a very narrow definition of value.

The ability to capture dollars in those activities is increasingly difficult in part because currency is seen as valuable because it is rare. The holding onto of currency, as a function of its scarcity, creates the necessity of competition. The competition by no means needs to exist a priori. What is more, it defines competition relative to the ability to capture a particular resource (dollars) than necessarily the ability to produce work valuable to communities. This is because the dollars tend to be issued from a centralized site (banks, federal grants, etc), that are inherently unable to recognize and respond to the more varied texture of local conditions.

The scarcity of currency/wealth, however, does not equal a scarcity of value in the lower levels/communities/etc. Emergent levels necessarily impose scarcity in order to empower themselves, and not necessarily negatively so. Within a food chain, at best 10% of the energy in the lower level is captured by the thing that eats it. That other 90+% is not wasted, though. It is the cost of refinement that provides greater capability. It’s like raw oil versus jet fuel. You can do more with raw oil than you can with jet fuel, but you can’t operate a jet with it.

The principal flaw (and I’m nearly done) is to assume the upper level is the actual granting agency. It is to assume that the concentrated sites are what facilitates everything below. In long-tail economics (where the area under the curve of the tail adds up to more than the rest of the curve, the phenomenon that fuels Amazon Itunes, etc.) or phenomena like the Zipf distribution, the tail is not an effect of the few things that sell a large number. Just the opposite. The peak on the curve, the few with massive amounts of wealth, the best sellers, the apex predators, are entirely dependent on everything below. They would not exist without them. They may not need to actively recognize this in day to day activities. Wolves do not need to heed the photosynthesis of plants, but without them they would not exist. Not the other way around. And a structural system that refuses acknowledgement of this by not redirecting resources, by refusing to treat the bottom as valuable and powerful, will fundamentally fail. For the top to do well, the bottom has to do better. And if the bottom does better, the top will likely do even better. Power laws, etc.