The Gordon Cook Interview (4): Peak Hierarchy and Open Agriculture

On March 4 2010, Gordon Cook was able to interview me in Bangkok. This became the basis for the August-September special issue of the Cook Report, a newsletter that is distributed to telecommunication leaders. It’s the most in-depth profile of our work to date and the first 17 pages, which feature a detailed comparison of John Robb’s work with ours, will be serialized separately.

This is the fourth part of the interview.

1. Impact of Economic Meltdown

COOK Report: How much evidence do you have that the financial crash is motivating a greater interest in what you are doing?

Bauwens: “Only indirect evidence such as the number of subscriptions to our blog feeds increased by 300% during the first nine months of 2009. Before 2009 it had been about 50% a year. (In the interest of disclosure, we experience a dip since because of a rather massive blogspamming problem we found difficult to solve). Because I have been closely observing the open hardware open manufacturing field, I can tell you that there are (tens of ?) thousands of people working on it.

This was not the case three years ago. Then the consensus was that it would not work. The feeling was that it was simply too difficult. But now in my community there is no one who doubts that it can be done. We may not know just precisely when. I am assuming now that we are in this era where Linux was two or three years after Linus Torvalds made his announcement on the web asking for help. We are beyond the starting point already.

We are now in the infrastructure phase. If you want to design things you need common tools and a common language. People are working on creating the basic building blocks that will make this possible. It may appear to outsiders to be something very peripheral and only for the hobbyist or do-it-yourserlf crowd. Bt remember that is also what they said about internet. You have to start somewhere and things generally do start at the edges. I am claiming that once it’s is successful at the edges, it takes only one bigger player to go for it by investing to make it real and massively followed. We are not there yet. But we do have a Michigan company called Local Motors

that has its first crowd-sourced car where the technical design was done in house by the company but the outside design was done by a community. You don’t want your car to crash. Therefore the company controls essential safety measures. But how the car looks won’t kill anyone so lets get people involved by opening it up.

COOK Report: What are some of the other things going on?

Bauwens: I’ll give you an example in the field of spiritual research. I have an example of one or two people like John Heron in New Zealand (of the South Pacific Center for Human Inquiry). Let’s say you do meditation. You have to choose a lineage from within which to work. If you do it according to the instructions of the lineage, there are certain things you are expected to experience while other experiences may be disqualified. In other words authoritarianism is built into the spiritual practice.


But what if we just agree to get together and practice a certain meditation. Lets say Zen. At the end of the day we get together and exchange our experiences. This then is the open source way to experience things which I personally consider to be real without having to accept the whole hierarchical and institutional context in which this has happened until today. You can see then how peer to peer is not something you apply just in the production of goods or the collection of knowledge.

Perhaps you just apply it to everything.

Every human activity that can be done by peers allocating their resources together can be peer-to-peer. You can therefore have something as unlikely seeming as a peer-to-peer spirituality.”

2. Peak Hierarchy

I want to make an argument here that is a little provocative. I call it peak hierarchy.

Consider what is happening. We used to live in small tribal communities, in fact these communities occupied the most lengthy period of human history. As soon as two tribes make an alliance, or choose a common war chief, they can beat a smaller tribe. This is a tragedy of history. As soon as we reach a certain size which — according to Dunbar is 150 people — things become too complex and we simplify through hierarchy which means that bigger defeats smaller. That means if you want to change things through social justice, you can do a little bit but be careful that you don’t do too much otherwise a neighbor will invade and destroy you. You have to remain strong and hierarchical in order to be a player in that game.

Things have changed however in a very interesting way. Today we can scale small group dynamics.

Today a smart coordination of a multitude of small groups united by an object – Wikipedia for example – can defeat a larger centralized effort called Encyclopedia Britannica. Firefox can defeat Internet Explorer. I call this peak hierarchy and this is the first time in history where this big change is happening. It is no longer the big defeating the small. The new reality is that the coordinated small can defeat the command and control paradigm. This is a revolution. It is also what John Robb talks about in Brave New War. THE COOK REPORT ON INTERNET PROTOCOL AUGUST 2010 And for the first time in history, the new game we are playing, let’s call it the anti-monopoly game, is winning from the old game of monopoly. (However, there is an important caveat.

In a capitalist context, a netarchical player will organize infrastructures in such a way that they can keep control as well as master network effects. Think Google and their giant server farms, or Facebook with its 400 million users).

This is the meaning of Peak Hierarchy: horizontality is starting to trump verticality, it is becoming more competitive to be distributed, than to be (de)centralized.

3. Open agriculture

COOK Report: You mention Vinay Gupta who among other things runs Buttered Side Down which he describes as a boutique risk management consultancy focusing on historic risks, defined as the special class of systemic risks that “change everything.”

He has a presentation with the following interdependency diagram: see here

Among other things, the diagram calls our attention to food. So let me ask: How does open agriculture come in?

Bauwens: I am in touch with a group of people working in Michigan. These folk are trying to adopt peer-to-peer principals to agricultural production. Traditional farming is fine, but it doesn’t grow in the sense of social innovation because, by definition, rather fixed tradition is followed.

There is therefore no real evolution there. You do what your forefathers did and it may be working mvery well in your isolated environment but as soon as you have competition from a global player in agriculture you are dead.

Today if you are a farmer say in Thailand, whom do you depend on for agriculture that goes beyond subsistence production? You depend on the state and on the politicians who provide funding.

Where do they get their funding from? Big agricultural companies. From both you get the same advice. Centralize. Get bigger, use pesticides and toxic fertilizer. This is the advice you get. What is the alternative? Left with this dependency, there is none.

But what if farmers unite. and what if you have say a video conferencing or what Franz Nahrada of the Global Village movement calls a video bridging facility, a “University of the Villages”. What if you could exchange information and knowledge on a permanent basis? Your possible course of action expand.

(See for p2p-influenced agrifood practices).

Your goal may become permaculture. Now permaculture is a vision of agriculture that is permanently sustainable. It suggests that you organize your agriculture and food production so that it can be sustained indefinitely without weakening the soil. But the key for these players now is that they are no longer isolated.

One permaculture farmer can connect with another one and they can share their innovations. If Bill McKibben is to be believed, in Cuba they have institutes of public agriculture where they are doing some very interesting things with science in the service of local farmers organized in coops rather than agribusiness. These coops can function relatively independently on the food market, while they benefit from the national open design community maintained by the Cuban state institutions.

It is of course a flawed model because of the authoritarianism of that model and the many problems that flow from the authoritarianism, but nevertheless, that such a dynamic can happen even there in Cuba shows the strength of an open innovation dynamic. According to people who have studied it, the Cuban agricultural system is very successful. The people are well fed and agricultural workers have high wages — at least in the Cuban context. This was done with minimal technology. Imagine what could happen if, in a free society, you added in good internet connections.

I can show you studies that determine that organic agriculture is more productive in terms of nutrition than capitalist agriculture. If you take a square mile of crop land and count the cost of all the minerals and other inputs, it becomes higher. THE COOK REPORT ON INTERNET PROTOCOL AUGUST 2010 However, it may not be economically competitive in terms of wage labour inputs and outputs, so it pretty much depends on how you see things. But in terms of feeding people it is absolutely workable.

But then again the only way to compete with Monsanto is to have better R&D than Monsanto.

I haven’t been to Detroit but I have heard interesting stories. Some people would say that Detroit is regressing of course. But the people in Detroit are now growing their own food again. There is a serious food crisis likely in the next 20 to 30 years. Did you know that Singapore has decided to reinvest in local agriculture setting aside 20% of their budget in local acreage that would grow food inside the city? I read that Chinese cities used to be able to produce 60% of the needed food within their city limits, but of course these capacities have been pretty much destroyed in the current model.

Like John Robb, what I’m expecting is a lessening dependence on global streams of capital, goods and labour, and a return to more local resilience.”

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