Benjamin Rosenbaum

Comments on "A tale of a tale of a shareable future, part 1: Introduction"

Well, it sounds like a logical progression might be to end up in a homogenous culture, possibly with a charasmatic religous figure leading the way. Some kind of crisis point would probably be necessary for the culture to shift in that direction. Shades of _The Handmaid's Tale_? But perhaps not as bleakly dark a vision of that religious future, especially given your own religious passions...

I think it'd be interesting to see what you did with that, anyway. :-)

Posted by Mary Anne Mohanraj at May 22, 2010 05:30 PM

I'm looking forward to reading the sequelae.

So a question: Do you believe that the basic idea of a money-based economy (for suitable values of "money," but perhaps still having the basic properties of fungibility, durability, and unforgeability) is a necessary result of the need for economic intercourse between groups of people too large to all know one another, or do you think that some other system -- perhaps one based on some kind of sharing? -- could represent a stable equilibrium as well?

And a second question: How is "Before European Hegemony?" Worth reading?

Posted by Yonatan Zunger at May 23, 2010 04:20 AM

From way back, the Chinese were far ahead of "the West" technologically, economically (they invented paper money) and militarily. By the 14th Century they had ships that were larger than any built until World War I. Since they had also invented gun powder and cannons, that gave them an overwhelming advantage, They extracted tribute all the way to the East Coast of Africa and planted colonies along the way.

But they decided to scrap all their military might, and turn their entire infrastructure to peaceful means to make a better life for their people. Among other things, they built a series of canals which are still used.

Smart and Noble, right? Not really. Actually really stupid. By 80 years later, when European warships appeared off their coast, they not only couldn't defend themselves, they had lost the know-how to do so. These are warships they they would have eaten for a snack, 80 years before. All three of Columbus's ships work have fit easily on the deck of one of china's big war ships with lots of room to spare.

The result was the colonization and degradation of China and its people for more than 500 years.

The West may have forgotten this history, but the Chinese haven't.

Posted by dmrose at May 24, 2010 05:56 AM

Your spreadsheet on novel-writing is quite amazing. Did you see the recent NYT Magazine story about "self-trackers"? I just realized that's what you are!

Posted by Shoshana Rosenbaum at May 24, 2010 02:54 PM

Mary Anne, are you talking about my novel? I am intrigued by that as a logical progression. My religious passions, which are considerable, include a deep revulsion towards charismatic religious figures -- especially as single individuals! -- attaining political power (indeed I think my strand of Judaism can be read as precisely a series of polemics against this political arrangement, from the Prophetic era if not earlier), so I think I would be hard put to keep such a scenario from seeming very bleak indeed.

Yonatan -- in answer to the first question -- well, my question "could another systemů displace it?" is intended to be leading. Yes, I think another system could. Why does money need those attributes -- fungibility, etc.? (Put another way, why has a system with those attributes sidelined its memetic competitors?) I think part of the reason is because it decreases information processing cost. That is, what I really want is some complex basket of goods, including enough to eat, spiffy toys, people liking me, a just world, a secure future for my children, and so on, and what you want is some other complex basket of goods, and there are empty-zillion competitive and collaborative ways for us to enter into relation to achieve them, but the combinatoric problem once you get beyond a small number of people is so difficult, that we throw up our hands and say "well, for most of these things, we'll just say each person owns some set of items disjointly, and try to reduce all of their values to a single number, and exchange them." It's very crude. I think if you look at it this way, it's very interesting what happens when the exponential curve of Moore's law gets going. What happens as information processing gets vastly cheaper? It's already the case that within a small group, say 100 people, you don't really need money -- or a state for that matter -- solidarity, favors, gossip, social pressure, and so on, do the trick. What if technology allowed those social mechanisms to scale better?

"Before European Hegemony" was definitely worth reading. Fascinating. Dry in places -- there's a wealth of specific, concrete detail about actual 13th century economic practices. But that is what made it fascinating, too, and she writes well, and is able to tie all the detail into a coherent big-picture argument.

Daddy: yep. That. Although "really stupid" is probably making unfair use of the benefits of hindsight. Had things gone somewhat differently, focusing on peaceful infrastructure might have turned out to be a good bet. The Europeans who suddenly showed up in the 16th century with their dinky ships weren't just some new group of warlike barbarians -- the Chinese had seen plenty of those, and I expect there was enough slack in their strategy that under most circumstances they could have rearmed to meet the threat. The problem was that these particular warlike barbarians had just lucked into a vast pool of slaves, land, and natural resources that they could basically pillage without limit or competition, and it was fueling a crazy technological, social and population boom. Had there been no New World, and therefore no booming development of early modern capitalism and colonialism, I think the Chinese would have had plenty of time to re-arm and repel the barbarians.

Shana, I didn't, but yes, that's what I am!

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at May 27, 2010 12:10 AM

I'll take the risk of exposing my ignorance to share my thoughts on the matter of a "shareable future."

So, maybe I'm confused. Is the idea of a "shareable future" one of communal vs. individual wealth in societies or one of fiat cash vs. other mediums of exchange as a means to wealth in societies? Both? More open-ended?

If we're talking about potential replacements for a fiat monetary system, the most essential quality seems to me to be liquidity. If I'm a cobbler and I want a loaf of bread, but the baker doesn't need his shoes mended, I need something I can give him that he can in turn exchange for whatever he needs, and so on. If some medium like solidarity does the trick, it seems to me to be the same basic system. So the issue is, is something like solidarity, or even some combination of intangibles, inherently better than say, government backed currency in terms of its liquidity and general acceptance? I feel societies of sufficient complexity may actually devolve into some kind of tangible liquidity as a means of economic lubrication because it's in fact easier to deal with and imagine than say something like solidarity points or more desirable than Facebook wall posts. Additionally, can I invest my solidarity to grow more solidarity and the size of the entire economy, or would that simply become unnecessary once we have some better system x?

The other way to solve the issue seems to be one of people working communally toward a collective good. But the problem with that approach seems to me to be a sufficient means of motivation for Person A to perform more difficult work than Person B which tends to devolve again into the need for liquidity. (Person A got favors for his hard work, but he wants to trade them for a loaf a bread and that damn baker doesn't want those favors! Although maybe soma, or somec from OSC's The Worthing Saga would work here.)

My thoughts on future economies tends to lead me to a kind of far-flung-future escape hatch where technology permits cheap-as-free energy (ala Star Trek), everyone's needs are met and their wealth approaches infinity, what have you. I'm skeptical of something like Moore's Law facilitating interaction enough to achieve an alternate, stable economy (last I heard, Moore's Law was about broken). I feel like the best approach is some combination of monetary systems, because I agree that the current valuation of a person's assets is crude since it doesn't take into account any of a person's personal qualities (don't we invest in our own personal wealth when we attempt to learn something new, trading time and effort for personal value as opposed to money?). But at the same time, the idea of a liquid currency that one can also borrow and invest seems to me to be too useful to abandon before energy is cheap-as-free.

Of course, if we're talking about something other than human beings, the doors are wide open. :)

Posted by Gabriel Liwerant at May 30, 2010 09:40 AM

Gabriel, excellent thoughts. I think liquidity and fungibility are critical issues. Hope to get to this in the next post!

Posted by benjamin Rosenbaum at June 3, 2010 11:47 AM

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