Monday, May 13, 2013

A path through the mountainpass

I have said that the Kelvin generator is an example of a luddite technology, but it it not a very good example. The reason is that it is not placed in a context of a network of local crafts, nature and craftspeople/farmers. Who produces the wire, the tubs, the insulators, the pipe and the drippers? How is their work edifying and community building? How does it assist in producing basic needs? At this point the materials for the KG are mostly industrial inputs (or industrial refuse), and if they never transition into locally produced crafts, the KG will not be a luddite technology. But the KG is a good example of a possible transitional technology. What makes for a good transitional technology?
1. It fits into both the future local luddite web and the present global industrial web. The fitting into the industrial web is both technological (it uses cheap, readily available parts/materials), and economic (it can earn a living for the craftsperson producing the technology by providing a currently needed product, and able to compete with similar industrial products)
2. It is not usually a luxury item or service, because in the luddite web, as in any successful human endeavor, the luxuries must come after the necessities have been produced.

From an evolutionary perspective, a new gene network uses mostly existing genes with new interactions  (with the exception of master/regulatory gene mutations), and the new network COEXISTS  for a while with the old one, as in lungs coexisting with gills.

Also from a more abstract evolutionary perspective, transitional technologies roughly correspond to a mountainpass of the generalized (negative) fitness function*. A big portion of fitness has to do with effective energy expenditure. Circuitous paths in gene or meme space which do not go directly to the pass or avoid the pass altogether take more energy and confer lower fitness. Livelihoods which only make money but do not move directly towards transitional technologies or vise versa, are not as good as those which both make money and move towards transitional technologies. This includes livelihoods which make money indirectly by being funded even though they may not be producing products or services which are marketable in the current global industrial system. Most cottage industries that produce necessities, including small farm food production qualify. Most domestic jobs and teaching qualify. New-agey services do not. Neither do most industrial trade jobs such as those of plumbers, electricians, mechanics, machinists, and most modern carpenters. Neither do middle class professional jobs such as science, engineering, modern medicine, or law, nor military jobs, nor high tech jobs. I have nothing against any of these jobs (in fact I love science and engineering), but they don't meet the two criteria above.

However, if a group has not figured out a way to make a livelihood with cottage industries or teaching, or if startup funds are unavailable, it would make sense that some members of the group could engage in any currently available job (within their ethical constraints) in order to support the other members who are working on setting up cottage industries and teaching. As time goes on more and more support comes from the luddite technologies in direct form (i.e. not money), and less and less support is needed from the outside world.

Part of the transition with craft cottage industries involves a change in the perception of crafts as providing foo-foo luxuries into a perception of crafts as providing basic necessities. This is already happening with the local food movement, but it is not the only thing that is happening. The local food movement has also been able to effectively compete with the global/industrial food system because it has appealed to other human values besides efficiency and did better on those. This should be generalized to other craft-based enterprises. Do not compete with the industrial system on efficiency or price (it will win on those). Compete on beauty, sensuality, health, sustainability, craftsmanship, heart.

* As I have hinted at in previous entries, there is an analogue to the physics concept of (negative) free energy in evolution, which I call the generalized fitness function. This would involve not just fitness, but entropy bottlenecks. I will not attempt a formal mathematical definition here, but I expect it would involve first the definition of entropy S in terms of paths in gene/meme space (as opposed to volumes in phase space) and then something similar to F=U-TS, with the analogue to the free energy F being the generalized (negative) fitness, U the regular (negative) fitness, and T a measure of the rate of mutations.


  1. I am sorry I can't comment intelligently on the mountainpass analogy. I think I do not follow it entirely.

    You say: "if they never transition into locally produced crafts, the KG will not be a luddite technology"

    Well asserted. But I would assume a basic community goal would be to produce steel vessels, pipes, and wire. In a way, the Kelvin generator is a good test case of basic industry.

    You say: "Compete on beauty, sensuality, health, sustainability, craftsmanship, heart."

    Yes. Provide abundance and compete on happiness. "We have more than enough of food and comfort, and we are happy."

    And yet, personally, I am skeptical of a community that can't make wire, pipe, and polymers. I want my steel and plastic tools, my refrigerator, my communication lines, and my computers. And those presumably require a community with a population in the thousands (???). But I am aware of the dangers of hidden costs in a very large community. I suppose that communication transparency is an antidote. Knowing that farmers in India are committing suicide, bees are dying, and glaciers are disappearing helps.

    Sustainable fun and happiness seems to be the point you are revolving around. Maybe if we dance, sing, paint, laugh, and look upward enough, I can do without pipes and wires for a time.

    1. Iuval, in retrospect, I think the need for for wires, pipes, and polymers waqs just my industrial bias coming through. In reality, all I want are abundance and fun. I think I could be perfectly happy day after day to sit down to a fire-baked acorn squash and sweet potato dinner followed by an evening of story-telling and singing. As long as I had unlimited water in a bag or bottle by my side and a comfortable place to sit and lie, I could be perfectly happy as I now am.

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    3. Dear Tom,

      For a tutorial on mountain passes, see:

      In phase transitions the mountain pass is called a critical droplet. It's the nucleus of the new phase, surrounded by the old. It's a saddle point of the free energy. In biological evolution, it is a transitional species. In cultural evolution, it is a transitional culture. A mountainpass is like the point in the middle of a horse saddle. In one direction it is a maximum, and in another it is a minimum. When you have more dimensions than two (plus one to represent your function, in our case negative fitness), then there are many directions in which it is a minimum, and one or a few in which it is a maximum, connecting two valleys. I have been going over the Cuesta pass a few times a week now. Most paths that connect the two valleys do not go through the mountainpass, or go through it in a roundabout way and take more energy (confer less fitness) than the direct path through the mountainpass.
      Entropy enters into the equation because even if there is no energy barrier or fitness barrier, it is hard to find the one (or few) genes or memes that are going to confer higher fitness. Most confer lower fitness. Is it clearer?

    4. I forgot to say that cultures and species present even deeper valleys than phases in physics. There are more reinforcing connections in biological and cultural networks (and there are hierarchies, so not all directions/genes/memes are independent), then just between atoms or spins in phases. And just like phases, cultures can get stuck for a while in a local fitness maximum, which is not global, or even not as good as many other maxima. How to get unstuck? Find the memes which get you to the mountainpass and head there. Get some measure of cultural isolation from the mainstream culture, so you are not swamped by their memes, and do it with a small group. Easier said than done, but that is the way it has always been, both with species and cultures.

  2. So yes, I don't know either if we need pipes or wires, etc. If we decide we do, then let's figure out how to make them. Instead of pipes, maybe aqueducts? For hoses, can we use old inner tubes, cut them and join them together with a (relatively non-toxic?) vulcanizing agent that can be made locally? For wires, can we make them out of fibers, dipped in a brine (conductive) solution and sealed with wax? These are just examples of what is possible, probably not the actual solutions.