You began by asking me, “Who is the audience? Who is it that we want to influence? Who is the general reader?” We might seek to answer by calling attention to reductionism as symptomatic of studying things in their parts. Studying only the parts of anything will never reveal the function of the purpose of any system that they are a part of. Everything is systems within systems that can be sharded fractally at all scales. The purpose of a system is a property that manifests or emerges when the right parts are present in correct relationship, when the information, energy, and matter flows are right.
That’s one thing I wanted to ask you about: what is the rightness that you’re referring to? You’re saying it’s an unavoidable and undesirable outcome that we separate our subjects and develop specialized languages to describe and talk about them, about what we are actively discovering. One problem is that issues of status, identity and ego become involved. You direct my attention towards the fact that specialists’ jargon ostracizes the general reader. In order to be understood to a general reader, we need to communicate in a way that is free of jargon. This is a very complex idea that I really want to explore with you.
You have to be very clear about why it’s necessary and what is actually necessary. It’s essential to be able to communicate in a way that doesn’t depend on specialized jargon. It isn’t that you don’t know it. A corollary to this is if you find something that’s written in simple language, don’t just dismiss it because it is simple language. It may be someone trying to do what I’m suggesting you do, which is communicate complex, difficult ideas to people in a way that they understand and can take action on. I’m not saying it’s easy!
You follow this up with pointing out that there are different preferences that people bring to complex conversations. Some prefer powerful visuals, others prefer punchy text. Lastly — and I find this to be so fascinating — you’re speaking from 50 years of accumulated life and work experience. Your expertise is based in practical experience, more than theoretical or purely cognitive. I spend a lot of time thinking about the importance between what we are communicating and how we are communicating, but also where our knowledge of what we’re communicating stems from, specifically this tension between practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge or what I call poiesis and praxis as the cogitation of a concept and the action of a concept.
I have succeeded in tweaking you a little bit, to get you to think about some things.
Yes! And this has also revealed some alignments. These are absolutely points that I have already been thinking about, but admittedly I’ve been thinking about them in a different way. As a lover of the technical and as a thinker that is attracted to what I do not understand, I am also a lover of jargon. I personally feel that we must work together to elevate our understanding. One way that your proposition might be interpreted is that we must dilute a bit of the technical specificity in order to gain a wider comprehension. I would love to discuss the trade-off in that tension.
How do you communicate advanced technical, complex ideas without using your jargon? That’s the challenge. You’re saying that it’s the reader that is ostracized, but I think maybe it’s the other way around. The expert is ostracizing herself through the jargon. If you use language that people don’t understand, they’re not going to tolerate it. They just ignore you; you become irrelevant. I don’t want to see that happen to DeathGuild.
One thing worth noting is that the readership of DeathGuild is both general and non-general, or specialized. I suspect that the readership for this project will be experts, at least initially. There will be experts from various sides. What this project hopes to do is bring together divergent categories of experts that aren’t used to working with each other. On one hand, the DAO funding this project is composed of technical experts focusing on Ethereum infrastructure. On the other hand, the people that I’ve invited to speak about these concepts are experts in the humanities, radical philosophy, and cultural studies; they are social organizers. You represent an incredibly diverse background combining training with the hard sciences, architecture, and complex systems design with a depth of spiritual and practical experiences. Nobody in DeathGuild is an expert or authority on blockchain or cryptocurrency, per se. I am the representative expert and I have to tell you: I am absolutely no expert. I am very wet behind the ears with these concepts.
In other words, you’re starting to learn and you’re honest about what you don’t know.
Absolutely. This is a huge part of how I present myself to the world. You never trust someone that tells you explicitly that they know everything about a subject. You trust the person that is humble enough to admit what they don’t understand.
Yes. Anybody that actually knows a lot realizes just how much they don’t know, because pretty much every piece that they know raises more questions than they have answers.
Your prompt to begin with language makes me wonder about legibility. How much of this conversation will be comprehensible to anyone — expert or layman — in terms of recognizing or comprehending the motivation for the project in the first place?
That is one of the questions I have on my list for you. What are you trying to achieve and for whom? I know what communities need to do to achieve a sustainable state, to have a chance of hanging around indefinitely and prospering, but I haven’t spent enough time thinking about the economic tools that the community would use to accomplish that sustainability. One of the sources that I’ve mentioned to you already is a guy named Bernard Lietaer, probably the world’s expert on complementary currencies. I know he’s addressed Bitcoin a bit. In one of his books, Creating Wealth by Gwendolyn Hallsmith and Bernard Lietaer, he talks about the role of complementary currencies in designing communities that function sustainably and work for everybody involved. These currencies are not necessarily in competition with the national currency at all. They’re serving different functions. Like any ecosystem, the more diversity you have and the more resilient it is, the better it works for the people in the community. Is there anybody looking at the role of Ethereum ecosystems in the bigger picture of community economic ecosystems?
There are researchers exploring the viability and composability of cryptocurrency generally, of Ethereum more specifically, and identifying different points of contact with existing communities, tethers with legacy centralized infrastructure, and speculating about the potential of decentralized infrastructure in attending to age-old coordination failures. This is in large part the conversation that I find myself in on a daily basis in the DAO community. It is wonderful to recognize that there seems to be many experts rooted on the theoretical side, including financial experts and engineers attending to the philosophical aspects of encryption and decentralization. There are also many people approaching the conversation with practical know-how, that have been involved in the conversation for such a long time that they are able to speak from experience of what has worked in the past and describe clearly what caused previous failures. Being able to identify this confluence of experts makes me aware that this community is missing certain perspectives from outside of their own system. That is something that I’m hoping to provide as a supplement to the conversations already underway.
Communities have many kinds of capital. I think of it as environmental elements and social elements, but both of them break down into multiple kinds of capital. There are opportunities for some of these alternative currencies to help burgeoning communities create wealth. I’m glad that it’s being addressed.
I’m quoting you now, from your essay: “Studying only parts of anything will never reveal the function and purpose of any system that they are a part of. Everything is systems within systems, fractally at all scales, even if we refer to the subsystems as parts. So the engine in a car is a part, but it is also a subsystem of the system called ‘car,’ while simultaneously being composed of other subsystems or parts, like the ‘fuel’ system, the ‘cooling’ system. An extremely negative outcome of this approach is that our scientists erroneously concluded that nothing in existence has any purpose other than that which we ascribe to it, including ourselves.”* *And then you go on to say: “This is so very wrong. The purpose of a system is a property that manifests or emerges when the right parts are present in correct relationship, when the information, energy, and matter flows are right.” I’m hoping you can tell me a little bit more about what you mean by the “right” parts and the “correct” relationship.
I had a feeling you would probably ask about that. For a car, or a rocket — both fairly simple systems — the answers are fairly straightforward. If I take the engine off the rocket, it can’t be a rocket. In other words, we need the right parts for the right system. If the system that delivers fuel to the engine isn’t there, again it’s not a rocket. Trying to communicate systems to people is difficult, because we’re so reductionist about everything and we don’t think anything relates to anything else. Of course, that’s false. It’s not that way at all.
I want to digress for just a second. A lot of the mistakes that scientists have made in their thinking, including this idea about parts instead of whole systems, came about largely because they didn’t have the analytical tools, hardware, software, or mental concepts to analyze things that were more complex than linear. Everything was described as linear, linear, linear. Even our warfighting algorithms were all linear until late in this last century. There is nothing in nature that is linear. It’s all nonlinear and it’s dynamic, which means you need complex math and incredible computational power to analyze it. Then you discover things like positive or negative attractor fields have different strengths. I’m using jargon from that field, but the point is that initial conditions drive the outcome. Lorenz was one of the scientists that really pinned this down with his nonlinear dynamics: a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and there’s a storm someplace in the northern half of the world. Things are interrelated and initial conditions always matter. Most of the severe problems that happen in any program — an organization, a business, or anything else — originate from assumptions being made by the people starting the program, making assumptions about something that’s not true, that they thought was true. The immediate question is: how do you avoid that? I don’t have a real good answer other than tapping a broad spectrum of people, like you’re doing. If you get enough eyes on the subject, somebody is going to eventually say, “Oh, did you think about this aspect of it?” From that point, maybe you can pick out some of the misconceptions.
One reason for the development of linear thinking into more complex thinking is correlated to the tools, the instruments that we developed, so that as the instrumentation became more complex we were able to render an increasingly higher fidelity image of our world and of our interactions.
It’s that we become able to understand a piece of it that we didn’t really understand before. It isn’t necessarily that the earlier thinking is wrong. It has to be expanded to include new information. Some things were linear and some things were just misconceived. Our tendency is to analyze everything mathematically, so we try to apply linear thinking to everything. In the mid 80s I was part of a strategic systems group at Lockheed Martin and for a while I was a member of the Military Operations Research Association. I was attending some classified meetings in Washington and there were people analyzing battles, applying all their linear logic. I asked several fairly simple pointed questions and had the whole meeting in an uproar, because what they were analyzing was not a linear phenomenon. Their assumption that they could apply linear thinking to it was essentially erroneous.
I don’t think I fully answered your question about rightness in a system. For simple systems like cars and rocket ships, although we perceive that a rocket ship is a real complex thing, and it is, compared to what happens in nature they’re really rather simple. If you don’t have the right pieces brought together the thing can’t do what its function is. Think about that pile of car parts sitting there in the driveway. It’s not a car, it’s just a pile of car parts until you bring them together in the right relationship for them to be able to manifest the function and purpose of the car. You want to be able to get from point A to point B, haul some stuff, haul people, stay dry, maybe hear some tunes, maybe go faster than everybody else… All of those things are emergent properties from having the right pieces in place, getting the right flows of information from the steering wheel, from the brakes, from sensors on the engine to adjust the flow of air. You’ve got to get information to parts of the system so they do what they’re supposed to do, so the car can do what it’s supposed to do.
Natural systems are much more complex, representing an evolved complexity and diversity of systems that have multiple positive and negative feedback circuits to keep things within the system in a dynamic balance. If a barn owl female sets up a nest and a male brings her mice and there isn’t very much food, she may only lay one or two eggs. If food is abundant, she may lay six or eight eggs. So the population of owls is in sync with the population of food. That’s an example of the right information flow within that particular system.
This is calling to mind an interesting tension that I’ve contemplated over the years: the correlation between cybernetics as an information theory serving as a foundation for a technological industry and the jargon that has grown beyond the peripheries of the discipline to influence our understanding of nature, influence our modeling of the schema of the interrelated relationships of nature, even to the extent that we are referring to nature in this conversation as a system. Ecology is a cybernetic idea of discrete entities, organisms, and elements composed in a relational matrix of resource distribution mirroring our human industrial systems with their multifarious inputs and outputs. Such systems identify reserves, expenditures, and excesses of energy in relation to a rational goal. As a systems engineer, as someone that has been involved in the design of life support systems in extreme conditions, like in the outer atmospheres of this planet, I’m wondering about your take on this. When does simulation come in? How does our ability to compose the fidelity of our simulations through our technical jargon and our visual models determine our ability to interact with and navigate these simulations? Might we understand the efficacy of a simulation as a reductionist model that allows us to achieve a minimum distance from reality, to understand our circumstances in a different way? The shifting perspective that cybernetics has allowed us to impose upon the natural world and the entanglement of beings making up ecological webs allows for a paradigm shift in perspective. If you don’t know how to articulate a concept, but then you learn the technical language, it opens up the imagination to be able to visualize it and to be able to interact with it in a different way, at a higher definition, a higher fidelity, a higher acuity.
Any simulation is a super simplification of what’s actually happening. I’ve done enough computer simulation and modeling to know that they’re leaving out so much of what’s actually going on. That was the main thing that I was sharing with the Military Operations Research group, that they were leaving out things that would potentially determine outcomes of a conflict.
Essential pieces of information that would change the scenario that they’re attempting to model. This is absolutely my concern, one that is so complex that I struggle to articulate it.
Any model is just a little snapshot of how the world might be. Cybernetics is part — not the whole — of the background training for systems design.
Let’s return to the three core concepts of this DeathGuild project. I would like to emphasize the modalities of governance as limited only by our imagination, maybe limited only by our ability to technically understand the potential of the model. The second concept is treasury management, which we might take up as an economic framing of resource flows through complex systems. When does a material become a resource? When does that resource become so valuable that we call it treasure? How do we negotiate the tragedy of the commons by exercising such a sophisticated, intentional, resilient, and non-fragile strategy of management that our materials get to where they need to go, but we do not deplete the regenerative potentials of that resource? In the cryptocurrency circles there’s a lot of talk about degenerative and regenerative treasuries. This seems clearly associated with issues of ecological sustainability. How do we manage a resource so that it remains sustainable? Regenerative resource management implies the generation of a remainder or surplus. For example, MolochDAO is a grant awarding organization. We have no business model, per say. We do not really manage our treasury, except in distributing grants. Could we strategize the handling of our resources to regenerate sustained value? This is, of course, aligned with the organization’s purpose of distributing value to infrastructural projects. If we were able to generate more from within we would have more to distribute.
If a nonprofit doesn’t have cash flow, sooner or later they’re spending their capital and they’re out of business. There must be a cash flow to not only maintain operations, but to expand and extend value to more complex systems. In that sense, a nonprofit has to be run like a business if it will have any chance of hanging around for a while and not just dispersing its capital.
The third core concept for DeathGuild is privacy. I’m envisioning privacy as a fulcrum between anonymity and autonomy. Anonymity pertains to the visibility of one’s identity, of an individual’s freedom to conceal their own personage if they so choose, whereas autonomy concerns the individual’s sovereignty. Within DAOs there is a very fascinating tension between individual autonomy put in relation to collective autonomy. How do we design governance modalities and treasury management schemes in ways that preserve both? Is this possible? Are they mutually exclusive? Can we increase individual autonomy within decentralized organizations in order to increase the sovereignty of the organization? How do we think of decentralized organizations interfacing with centralized organizations? For example, how does crypto interface with legacy government schemes through tax regulation, the SEC, the IRS, etc.?
All of these entities that manage the larger system… Even this system that’s advocating for decentralization and autonomy is nested within a larger system.
One of the things that’s going on in our country right now that’s bothersome is that there are people that think they don’t want any government. They don’t want anybody interfering with their individual freedom and their individual privacy. It’s almost impossible for part of a system to understand what’s going on at the systems level. The part doesn’t necessarily know about what’s going on at the next highest level of complexity. I’m not talking about hierarchy, just levels of systems. If you want a government in any place to work you’ve got to deal with the right functions at the right level. In my work on sustainable community building, I realized pretty quickly that trying to design a sustainable community in a bio region requires an awareness of the bigger picture. I imagined an organization operating at the bio regional level that was a combination of for-profit and non-profit interests aligned with values that supported sustainability and all that entails. If I wanted to build a super energy efficient house, or a house that integrates with nature, I could go to this group of people aligned with those values and I wouldn’t have to sort out the bad actors. The for-profit side might include pipe fitters, plumbers, electricians, architects, builders, speculators, bankers, all aligned with those core values. I could then put together a project that would meet my specific needs. On the nonprofit side, you’ve got academics, government agencies, and infrastructural institutions contributing to make it all work. I envision people in communities figuring out what works for them and the ecosystems that they’re living in. They’re developing best practices that evolve over time, based on experience of what has proven to work.
Best practices is a fascinating idea that we use among designers of many backgrounds. It’s a standardization that’s not imposed from the top down, but from the middle out, from accumulated practical experience.
A digression: of the leaders we revere, one characteristic that they all have in common is they all spend a massive amount of time out in nature. When you’re immersed in nature, you start observing how the world actually works.
This is not a digression! This is hitting the nail right on the head. There is a tension between the virtual proceedings of cryptocurrency and DAO communities. The perspective that you’re bringing to the table is rooted in the physical infrastructure that has afforded practical applications of these ideas. This is very difficult to bring up within virtual communities. There’s a couple different ways that we might go about this. One is to recognize that our virtual involvements are conducted upon physical infrastructure; there is real energy being consumed, real resources being consumed, and also real waste. For example, crypto mining consumes massive amounts of energy from the grid and produces a lot of underutilized heat waste. It’s one of the largest energy expenditures of any industry in the whole world right now. If that system is not designed in a sustainable way, it may become its own existential threat, literally devouring material resources in order to produce purely virtual tokens. It’s a goddamn paperclip machine.
The other aspect that I don’t want to overlook is the fact that you have dirt under your fingernails, so to speak. You have hands-on experience of building off-grid sustainable architectures. You also have theoretical knowledge of such things, informed by your aerospace experience and systems-level ecological acuity. You understand how a house needs to be constructed to best preserve its purpose as a life support system for human beings. You’re familiar with the technical handling of general materials in specific ways from developing best practices of building sustainable homes. This is two different sides of the same coin, of knowing how to live sustainably, emphasis on living as an active process. I’m wondering how that expertise might be translated into the virtual domains, for example, with a community that’s interested in thinking about the sustainability of cryptocurrency infrastructure.
That’s obviously a very important question. You described a system consuming energy and creating waste heat, but it’s way bigger than that. There’s massive amounts of embodied energy in such a system. It’s an interesting question to consider how you might set up a mining operation so that it’s a net positive in the community, in a sustainable sense. There are a few people in the cryptocurrency world that are starting to power their mining operations with solar, aren’t they?
Yes, that is true. There’s also an extensive use of hydro power. Another example is the massive mining farms of Iceland, facilitated by the country’s clean, regenerative geothermal power and a perpetual welcoming of the resultant heat generation. I have encountered many stories of people in Scandinavia heating their homes with cryptocurrency mining rigs. The energy is geothermally produced, or nuclear, so the resultant heat is seen as a desirable asset rather than a detriment to their lifestyle.
There’s a concept in power generation called cogeneration. What that means is taking the waste heat from generating power and doing all kinds of useful things with it. I’ll give you an example that I worked on. We were helping the city of Quito, Ecuador think about how to deal with the waste materials from the city. They basically filled up valleys with municipal waste and they were trying to figure out what the heck to do next. Most of their waste was organic, so we recommended a fairly large scale Bedminster composting system. It’s a rotary kiln kind of thing. This solved a couple of problems. Ecuador was exporting massive amounts of their topsoil with potted plants and that was becoming a problem. Rich topsoil is hard to come by and massively important. We helped them set up this composting system that would allow them to use this really high quality organic compost instead of potting soil, tremendously reducing the export of the topsoil. That culture really respects and honors the people that salvage valuable things from the waste flow. There are people that salvage metals. There are people that use blacksmithing technology to turn the salvaged waste into artistic and functional products.
Part of my background includes starting two blacksmithing organizations in the Western United States, The Southwest Artist Blacksmith Association in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Smiths, so I know about blacksmithing. We proposed that the city start an operation that would take the heat from high tech forges used by local businesses already in place. These new forges will go from ambient room temperature to 2300 degrees in 6 minutes and operate all day long on 20 pounds of propane. Once you’re that hot, any fuel you put in there is autocatalytically burned and the only thing coming out is carbon dioxide and water, and lots of waste heat. The waste heat from that forge is about 1800 degrees. The next step was to design some projects with waste glass. Instead of paying for propane to dry broken glass to export for the manufacture of bottles, we used the waste heat from this system. It’s a vertically integrated use of degraded levels of power and heat.
Another thing that I have worked on is the avionics on space stations. Avionics includes all of the electronic boards and controllers on an airplane or on a missile or a launch control center. Keeping it cool enough is a major challenge. On one of the projects I worked on we started looking at what it would take to put a launch control center 2600 feet down in the ground.
To take advantage of the geothermal cooling?
Actually the problem is just the opposite. Every so many feet you go down the temperature increases. How do you get rid of the heat? The only way is to have some kind of massive heatsink, like a body of ice or something like that.
Alongside the need for physical infrastructure to attend to the heat issues that accompany Ethereum infrastructure, the other problem is sustainable energy production for the network. I’m conducting an experiment with my Ethereum mining rig to pay for the solar panel system that will be installed on my parents house. The rig will fund the installation of panels and components scaled large enough to facilitate the operation of this machine 24/7 plus cover all of their other domestic electrical needs. I have dedicated this mining operation to invest back into sustainable infrastructure, albeit on a small and private scale, to make it sustainable, as opposed to reaping any *perverse incentives *from it.
I’ve thought a lot about energy and houses. I know some things that might be of use to you.
Please share! I would love to begin our next session with describing how we met, to contextualize some of this conversation about infrastructure and sustainable systems with a description of earthships and how we both found ourselves as inhabitants of the first earthship community.
This series is made possible by a generous grant awarded by MolochDAO. Thank you Moloch!