Sunday, July 15, 2012

W = R&D

A short post for you after the recent long post. I work as a translator now, so am reading material I ordinarily would not read. Everything is food for thought, and one set of documents for chemical giant BASF’s R&D labs got me thinking about research and development as a metaphor for social welfare (W).

To stay viable over the long term, a corporation or other large enterprise must reinvest some portion of its profits (surplus) into R&D. If it does not, it risks being left behind by either other large companies who do have sufficient capacities for R&D, or innovative start-ups eating up their market share.

But R&D is risky. You simply cannot know in advance which money-pit is going to produce the next new wonder product the whole world can’t do without. So it takes courage and faith to invest in this area. Nowadays, the big boys often save on R&D and just buy out successful start-ups, ‘out-sourcing’ R&D costs to pioneers and society generally. But for a socioeconomic system to have sufficient surplus to fund sufficient numbers of pioneers for keeping society ‘modern’ and ‘competitive’, there must be high and well-paid employment, sufficient free time, a good welfare safety-net, and good education. So, we can see that surplus, or excess, or fat, is essential for development of the new.

This is true across nature generally. The number of seeds an apple tree produces every year would be far in excess of requirements if every single seed took root and grew into a mature and productive apple tree. The number of sperm a fertile man can produce far exceeds the number of children he can help to raise, ditto the number of eggs a woman can produce. The examples are endless. Excess is ‘natural’. And you cannot know in advance which seed, which new idea, which egg is going to produce the wonder X the world didn’t know it was waiting for, nor can you know what the ‘negative’ consequences brought into being by product/offspring X are going to be. Uncertainty is inescapable (and beautiful). Not being able to predict and control all outcomes is what makes life worth living.

What is clear, is that evolution/change/innovation/development requires excess, or surplus, or fat. Efficiency is a useful skill or modality, and successful living systems are most often efficient users of energy, for example. But if razor-sharp efficiency is all you have, if you are an efficiency one-trick pony, you spend your entire life merely surviving, until some New Kid On The Block knocks you over with its new tricks.

In this light, social welfare can be thought of as cultural R&D. We cannot know which of the millions of artists, inventors, musicians, writers, poets, philosophers, piss artists, ‘good-for-nothings’, lost souls, etc., are going to be ‘useful’ to society, today or tomorrow, nor what ‘usefulness’ really is, especially over the long term, but we can know, or assert, that a vibrant culture – one not geared to 100% efficiency and capable only of taking care of immediate, day-to-day needs – must take a risk and invest constantly in that which may never produce anything ‘useful’. Cultural vibrancy is the overarching ‘meta-useful’ product of welfare.

And the metaphor I’ve just presented does not consider the perhaps more important factor of morality; what does it mean to judge, either by majority or dictator or monarch, what is valuable to society, and what is not? There can be no list, no top ten or hundred Valuable Things a society should nurture and protect, where everything lower down on the list can just be wiped out.

Then there is the matter of Dignity of Interbeing, which means we should be very careful about consigning anything to the trash heap just because we can detect no immediate use for it. We are not so all-knowing that we can be sure we know what we’re doing. Humility is vital to long term survival and health.

So, things like a guaranteed income, the slowing down of the rat race – which Just Knows that more More MORE! is what life is all about –, the steady demotion of money and the careful promotion of real wealth, are in fact sensible, pragmatic proposals, wise R&D investments back into culture we will bitterly regret not risking, should we fail to do so. And while we suffer the nightmare of Money=Wealth, and insist on using this terrible equation as sole determinant of all society should value, we continue to impoverish ourselves in pursuit of a ballooning vapour-wealth which is destined to vanish anyway.


Игры рынка said...

Rats need an external *organizing* force to run. We, as a society, need it as well. Complexity of organization increases exponentially with its size. And our society is incredibly huge and counting. Meaning we need a seriously strong and growing external force to make us run in A direction whether this direction is good a bad. Because a lack of direction is the end. As you explain in your post. Yes, the chosen direction can be "wrong". The chosen methods can be "wrong". But it does not mean that we can make *it* without any direction at all. And it is wrong to assume that R&D is just splashing big and waiting for a miracle. There is a direction since however small a splash is it needs motivation and justification. Likewise appeals to excesses of nature miss the point. Nature is the constant war for dominance where excesses are just fodder in single fights. A coordinated and directed China is giving a hard time to naive individualistic ideals of free market believers into the power of chaos. The only thing that chaos is capable of it is reproduce itself but on a bigger scale. Which is what the 2nd law of thermodynamics says. That is why I remain skeptical of guaranteed income etc. I can not see a driving force behind such ideas. They do not seem to solve THE problem. They are even wrong in identifying it.

Игры рынка said...
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Toby said...

Hi Sergei,

"Rats need an external *organizing* force to run. We, as a society, need it as well."

'External' forces like gravity, for example? Only external forces? What of internal forces like hunger and biological development, the need to be part of a group? What social forces external to society does society need to run? I can't think of one. Non-social forces certainly: sunlight, natural processes, the water cycle, weather and climate. Internal social organising forces are of course necessary, but they cannot be eradicated, nor do I seek to do away with them. Organisation is an inescapable property of Universe, as our conversation here proves.

We are all systems embedded in systems consisting of systems, always reacting, adjusting, responding. You appeal to a false dichotomy (internal-external). To me you are far too Hobbesian in your outlook:

"Nature is the constant war for dominance where excesses are just fodder in single fights."

That is just an assertion, albeit one with a long tradition. There is far more to nature than competition. Were there not, we would not be having this conversation, and society with language, culture, art, etc., would be flat out impossible.

There is no such thing as chaos.

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is but one aspect of reality. Obviously growing complexity is possible, otherwise, again, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

I see a vision behind guaranteed income and other proposals which demote money and promote wealth, and it includes but is not limited to reasonable sustainability, the free development of the personality, the pleasure of living and sharing your life with the rest of nature. I do not see any good vision behind consumption-driven Perpetual Growth. Granted, you said a bad direction is better than no direction, but there I diasgree. Sometimes it's good to stop, think and take stock. Especially when we're heading over the cliff.

Finally, I do not propose idle wastage, whatever such could possibly be (there's really no waste in nature). I don't even think such is at all possible for humanity (we've never managed such, partly because we cannot know, as I say in the post, what is waste and what is not), because we are curious, restless, experimental animals. 'Internal' forces, so to speak.

Игры рынка said...

Toby, as long as you appeal for internal motivation you should allow for a possibility where humanity *peacefully* ceases to exist. I do not think such possibility exists. Survival instinct will always dominate and especially in extremes. This applies not only to humanity as a whole but to any strata of it. Men "have" to "produce" boys for reasons that are well known. Is it possible to weed gender driven behavior out? Family behavior? Or it is an internal biological + cultural (due to high order brain activity) internal force which is stronger than gravity or hunger? Can hunger really be just a product of something else? Surely we need to eat in order to live. But why do we need to live? And why do we need to produce boys?

Yes, there is a vision behind guaranteed income and similar ideas. But what will be the path of such society? Uphill or downhill? And how do you see that hill?

Toby said...

There is only reaction. There are no actions that spring out from pure nothingness. So internal and external are not really separate, or rather not really distinct. Motivation is there, period, regardless of the weighting of internal-external in terms of their priorities. So I am not appealing to internal motivation, nor am I appealing to external, I believe in the validity of their interplay, that the stagnation (or absence of motivation) you appear to be referencing is pretty much impossible (though stagnation does happen to ecosystems, such as ponds for example, and all life stops) for human culture, generally speaking. That said, I would welcome a calmer, less frantic paradigm, a less stressed way of life for all who want it. And I suspect that goes for most of us.

Nor do I seek to weed out gender behaviour. Nor family behaviour. But these things are indeed subject to cultural change (look at the role of women now compared to 50 years ago, and the role of men in the western world), just as culture is subject to biological reality (where one ends and the other begins is anyone's guess). Again, it is the interplay that matters. I don't see one side as stronger than the other.

As for the trajectory of society post-scarcity or post existential angst, I imagine there would be similarities to the Greek city state model, except machines would be doing the boring, repetitive work (not slaves), and women would have as much say as men. But of course from here I cannot know the details, not is my opinion particularly important. What will be will be, I'm just playing my part in trying to influence the debate. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hello Toby,

You mention competition which is a hot-button issue for me. The idea that competition is necessary for a vibrant economy seems absurd. Competition is a process of elimination and eventually you'll get oligopoly or monopoly. We see this in all sectors of the economy today.

Competition in entertainment (sport) is harmless since in each round a "reset" is done, and all previously eliminated players get to participate again on even terms. Not so for economic players. A jubilee is seen as "unfair" in capitalist culture. The winners go on to take more market share which gives them an ever growing advantage over all new participants.

What's needed to maintain vibrancy of any system is diversity. A cooperative system where ideas are freely shared and re-combined provides much more opportunity for diversity than a competitive system. Mass production and hit-driven entertainment leads to homogeneous culture.

Guaranteed income is just a crutch which allows the market system to carry on. We need open-source industry and cooperatives where individuals have access to the means of production. We need to bring down the market imposed barriers between producers and consumers. That would maximize our R&D potential.

Toby said...

Good points, Karl.

I would say our culture has a poor understanding of both competition and cooperation. Yes, the reset issue is a problem when you have property, a very sticky 'store' of value which accumulates to itself and distorts our sense of what value is, and a culture obsessed with 'success' as the destruction of the 'opposition'. My belief is that we are maturing past this paradigm, and that the transition can only be very bumpy, and its success cannot be guaranteed.

As to guaranteed income, yes, of course it is a crutch. It furnishes consumers with purchasing power. So we also need open source industry as you suggest, multiple money types, the end of interest-bearing debt money, a transition from property to access, and so on, as a direction I think of as demoting money and promoting wealth. Perhaps the change of direction (I suspect) we both believe in can happen quickly (whatever that means), but I doubt it. Diversity ensures that there is no way all humanity is going to wake up one morning and embrace all this stuff in some culturally cohesive way. Diversity ensures bumpiness and uneveness. And it's beautiful that way too. And includes tragedy and ugliness. Etc. Both/and, not either/or.

Debra said...

Just back from the first part of our summer vacation.
We visited an exposition on Neanderthal civilization at a national museum in a small village.
It fascinates me to see how our perceptions of where we come from continue to change constantly.
I remember way back when...representations of Neanderthal man were simiesque, and to my eyes, rather bestial.
We were taught that Neanderthal man was a subspecies that went extinct when Homo sapiens sapiens arrived on the scene.
The "experts" are singing a different tune now... It would appear that we have Neanderthal traits, and that Neanderthal man may have disappeared through assimilation, not extinction.
In 2012, the representations of our... ancestors ? were much closer to the way we look now than when I was a child.
When I look at the superior (!!!) Paleolithic cave paintings, I see a way of life where the artist is integrated as one who has a privileged contact with another.. reality ? world ?
A world which is not subjected to the constraints of being useful. A world where grace, and the sacred, have their place.
Unlike ours, should I say ?
I also see a civilization ? civilizations where man was a consummate artist with his hands, and his tools reflected his great capacity to be patient, and observant of the world around him.
I see little evidence of these capacities in our current global civilization. One could say that, from a certain perspective, we have regressed considerably. Physically we are much less robust. That frontal cortex, seat of symbolic activity, is enormous, but... symbolic activity can only take you so far before you hit the wall, in my opinion.
We are going to have to use our neurons in order to escape our rampant, but unassumed and unrecognized.. faith in utilitarianism, she says.
But it is probably not a question of neurons anyway...

Toby said...

Beautiful comment, Debbie.

"It fascinates me to see how our perceptions of where we come from continue to change constantly."

"World and mind arise together", say systems theorists of the Santiago school, referencing the fascinating idea of structural coupling:

"All living systems, as well as the non-living medium with which they interact recursively, are structure determined systems that change together congruently, forming the biosphere as a network of multidimensional structural coupling. Indeed, living systems and their conditions of living, whichever these may be, exist in a network of continuous structural coupling, and change together congruently in a process that spontaneously lasts as long as the autopoietic organization of the living systems is conserved." - Humberto Maturana Romesin

I think your observation ties in nicely with Maturana's assertion that living systems perceive reality via structual coupling processes. Niklas Luhmann talks of social systems as living systems, a position which is quite controversial, but I have a lot of sympathy with it. As we reinvent our pasts via our culturally determined (including scientific discoveries) 'structural' ability to perceive and interpret what we can of our past, so we change in our own eyes, and as we change in our own eyes, so our ancestry changes. It is impossible to know what comes first. Indeed, I suspect nothing does...

I hope your are enjoying your multi-holiday, though I no longer know what a holiday really is, since there is no such place as "away", and we always take ourselves with us!