Adios, El Bonko.

For a long time, I have had a notion for to write about the post scarcity world (or verse ) typified by the Culture. A couple of days ago, @Frances_Coppola was tweeting about Citizens Income schemes. Today, I found my battered and dogeared copy of Excession. Crom had obviously spoken unto me and I should finally write up that post I was thinking about, joining the dots between the various post scarcity utopiae and the direction in which we’re heading, which, I would call a ‘global non-scarcity plus local scarcity dystopia” if I were trying to be accurate and for which I probably have a simpler, more anglo saxon name.

The starting point is a very simple observation about markets, which is that they function as a mechanism only when there is scarcity. Markets cannot function in a situation where there is no need to ration. In a situation of global non scarcity, there are no allocation problems as anyone can just take exactly as much of what they want without affecting anyone else. In other words the marginal cost of consuming anything is zero (global non-rivalry). As price would tend to get driven down towards marginal cost, markets would have terrific trouble in pricing anything, at least if they are competitive. (Markets not being competitive is one of the ways to have giga production of free stuff and yet markets existing. c.f. Peter F Hamilton, or better still Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan graphic novels, which everyone should read immediately.). This, incidentally is the natural state of affairs in one set of industries (those that solely produce and distribute information), and has had many solutions in the past (advertiser paid three cornered markets, US TV; public funding via tax, most of European TV until the 1990s; Public funding via licence , UK TV; Conditional Access mechanisms, most premium tv; these are just examples from one subsector of the information industries. None of them are perfect, all have at one time or another been considered viable second bests, and all rest on creation of artificial scarcity via intellectual property rights or other legal mechanism).

In the Culture, there is no practical global scarcity. This, believe it or not, is entirely possible once you start to consider the very long term economics that only apply to societies at this level of energy yield. The Kardashev Dyson scale, for instance categorises civilisations by their exploitable energy resources, such that:

  1. At KD 1, a civilisation has fully exploited all global energy resources available to a planet. (we currently estimate Homo Sapiens to be somewhere between KD.65 and KD.8 , these estimates themselves are subject to much variation as it’s not always possible to estimate how much energy is available or usable prospectively as opposed to retrospectively).
  2. At KD 2, a civilisation has energy exploitation equivalent to a solar system. Note that although the energy yield is an order of magnitude higher, the long climb from KD1 to KD 2 will mean that at some stages available energy will exceed energy usability and therefore there will be global non-scarcity of energy within some periods of the transformation from KD1 to KD2.
  3. At KD 3 a civilisation has access to energy equivalent to a galaxy.
  4. K and D did not do this themselves, but one could extend the KD scale to 4 (supercluster of galaxies) and beyond, to ∞ (Universal energy use, practically godhood).

On the path between KD states there will be stages when energy is cheaper to get hold of than there is use for it. Consider landing on a fertile, but empty continent. Or for that matter what happens when we start to build colonies at the Lagrange points who will get energy to cheap to meter as Space is full of it and there is no pesky atmosphere in the way.

But this does not imply that there is no local scarcity. Even on masaq orbital or the GCU:Of Course I Still Love You  you would have pockets of local scarcity. Consider a performance by a noted mezzo soprano. There would only be as many seats in the front row as there are seats in the front row. That means that the seats are bargainable over. Or consider the reputation of a person. Again, this can be a reasonably scarce, and bargained over good. What is required, however is that two parties have something that is “locally scarce” to the other party, and a valuation in terms of exchange.

It also requires that both parties are free to trade, and this is a second dimension of the Culture argument that needs to be considered. The Culture disperses power, imperfectly for sure, but to some degree and in some way reminiscent of Murray Bookchin’s post scarcity anarchism. The analysis of post scarcity has to consider this second dimension, because if stuff is not scarce but power is (i.e it’s tightly held), you just end up at another system of control that replaces markets as allocation system with access to a Commissar of some kind. So it makes sense that Banks’s utopia is libertarian and decentralised.

Here’s where I bring in Ellis: In Transmetropolitan, energy scarcity has been resolved by a solar collector on Mercury that beams power back to Earth. However, the fabricators in people’s homes require “maker codes” to transmute base matter (the stuff used to make stuff is actually called a “base block” in the series), and these are controlled and scarce. For this reason, the market economy of the city can make sense. People have to work to get the credits to buy the new codes to make up whatever they want, and some people have better expertise at making and distributing stuff, so local scarcities can exist within the system. Power is also scarce, so it can be fought over. As a result, there are two conditions that help to generate some kind of market economy that we would recognise. (BTW, I wholeheartedly recommend Transmet as reading. It’s awesome. Consider me a major Fanboy).

After all that, though, I want to return to reality, and the world that is coming to the developed countries (first.). As we get more efficient, our production will get delegated to Robots. Thus, production jobs (which might include jobs that are currently analytical as these are replaced by autonomous decision support systems.) will go. The demand for labour will bifurcate. At the top end of the market, increasing salaries for scarce “stars”. At the bottom, commoditisation and replacement. This means that in the bottom market salaries will be falling: as jobs can be done cheaper by other entities, markets will move to replace those jobs. At the top, salaries will rise as markets seek talent who can create value, largely by replacing workers with machines. In between you will get a zone of brutality where competition between suppliers of labour gets intense. Over the longer period, this intense competition will result in 1) winners pulling the drawbridge up behind them, 2) restriction of access to the superstar market on connections rather than talent 3) permanent rewards to failure as those who have won use their leverage (and the fact that people tend to get embarrassed about having chosen nutters to manage their companies) to extract rents even after failing.

If you think this is an issue, there is one other consideration. Replace the word ‘machines’ with the word ‘Chinese’ above and you have the UK economy in the first decade of the 21st century. The only difference for the majority of an industrial or post industrial society’s population is who is replacing the worker, not that the worker is replaced.

Now think about the potential solutions:

  1. Create public jobs.There are many problems here, not least that you will in some cases be so generous that you wipe out local value creation within an area (I think the evidence points towards this happening already in some towns in the UK). Also, you don’t have to be Hayek to argue that this increases the probability of paying people to tell other people not to do things rather than actually making or creating stuff. Finally, you have all the arguments about how public resources should be extracted and allocated, but you won’t have solved the root problem which is that too few people are getting a share of created value.
  2. Citizens income.This, I think is a bullet that will have to bitten. A citizen’s income, or universal entitlement is not desirable if you want to preserve incentives to work, but at least allows us to look as though we are treating people as ends rather than means. On it’s own it has every possibility of creating a new serf class as people are tied in dependency. Meanwhile it does nothing to help with power inequalities (later, when I slag off the Spirit Level, I’ll bang on a lot more about how we don;t even think about power inequalities properly, but that’s for another day).
  3. Squad rotation.Would we be as gnarled by inequality if it were only temporary? If it meant, for instance that you served as a CEO via some kind of sortition and could only do so for a limited period before you were back on Citizen’s Income/basic Income/ JSA/Supplementary Benefit for those who remember such a thing? In practice, I’d detest a non freedom compliant solution such as this.
  4. Enabling Creative DestructionYes, I’m kind of a Schumpeterian. I bang on about this. But actually a point here is that if we manage on the basis that we can tolerate two different labour markets, as long as the same participants do not keep ending up in the same labour markets, the public wealth could be used to ensure that people are consistently upskilling beyond the level of the current labour market and developing new ideas to make current products or services obsolete. That would help to ensure a turnover between the two labour markets. In practice, however, it requires a perfectly functioning and unbiased labour market (ha-ha !), being able to come to terms with short product development life cycles (because the next new worker is going to be upskilled to improve or destroy your offering on a shorter life cycle than your product development horizon).

The terrible truth about all these potential solutions is that they are awful in one way or another, and likely to lead to  a more feudal world than a post capitalist one. Which brings me back to Banks. Whilst The Culture is definitely well above most utopias in my pecking order, it has the troubling property that it is not ridiculous to call humans pets of the Minds. The degree of complexity, which I’ve just assumed away in all the above, means that production and resource decisions above a certain scale are really properties of how much of its computational power a Mind will allow you to use. In a way, this isn’t much different from George Martin having a distribution system that depends on how much of a castle’s productive capacity a Liege Lord will allow a Bannerman to use. In at least one way, Banks’s anarchy turns out to be semi-feudal. We should be unsurprised that this holds a fortiori in our less perfect world.

These go up to 11

This ain’t a scene it’s a God damn Arms Race!

No actually I’m not a Fall Out Boy fan, but it is a good chorus, and it might illustrate some of the things I will be banging on about to talk about arms race competition. There’ll even be models an’all later, but here’s some of the basics in a couple of little cases and a long explanation of my favourite engineering tool.

(I probably didn’t mention, I have a bit of a background in sitting at the console in a recording studio so if there are technicals that a) don’t seem right to fellow recordists then I’m probably oversimplifying for non recordists and b) if there are technicals that don’t make sense to non-recordists then I’m probably trying too hard to get across their purpose etc. Either way, I’m probably annoying both of you, and I’m very sorry)

You’re there, watching television, comfortably settled in front of the sofa, when a programme reaches it’s commercial break. Suddenly, the adverts begin, seemingly twice as loud as the programme. You fumble for the controller, perhaps wishing you’d just downloaded the show from the internet, where some kind soul would have pre-edited out the adverts.

The loudness of adverts is a minor annoyance in the grand scheme of things, deserving of the “first world problems” dismissal at best. However, they also form an interesting case in both the uses and abuses of technology and in the type of incentives that lead to loudness competition. The technology in question, the family of devices known as limiters or compressors, is one of the most useful tools in a sound artists kit. They are used for giving punch and presence to mixes, gluing disparate sounds together or sweetening vocals and their use is common throughout the recording or broadcasting industries. However, they can also be put to use in making the overall sound product ‘louder’. It is this use which is the main pre-occupation of the story.

Before we get to that stage it’s worth considering what a compressor or limiter actually does in principle. The device is actually an arrangement of two simpler components. The first, an envelope follower, takes the output of a signal and, as its name suggests, follows it. When the level of the signal is above a given, generally user specified, value, the thresh-hold, the envelope follower sends a signal to the second component, the levelling amplifier. This reduces the level of the parts of the signal by a specified amount, usually denoted by a dial marked ‘ratio’. The signals are then re-combined, often being passed through a second stage of amplification, generally called “make-up”. The result of this process is that sounds whose peak volume is greater than the thresh-hold are attenuated. The dynamic range of the whole signal is therefore ‘squashed’, showing a smaller difference between peak and troughs in its volume.

If it seems counter-intuitive that an amplifier that reduces the volume of loud signals would make the whole signal louder, you need to consider the difference between peak volume and average volume. The peak is, as it’s name suggests, the level of the loudest signal (‘transient’) in the whole. Reducing the gap between peak and floor and then re-amplifying the signal afterwards means that the average volume of the signal will be higher. Peak volume, in broadcasting terms, is given as an iron limit that may not be exceeded. Average volume, on the other hand, is not so simple to define, and as a consequence technical standards for loudness are far more recent. So when an advert wants to grab your attention, the avenue of shouting at a higher peak volume is closed. Instead, it gets attention by shouting every word.

The use of loudness as a competitive tool is not restricted to broadcast advertising. In recorded music, listener attention is also a desired reaction, and the cheapest way to get it is to simply make the average volume of your song higher. It will come as no surprise that the average volume of recordings has been rising consistently since the introduction of digital recording to the mass market in the 1980s. The process pretty much reaches it’s apotheosis with Metallica’s Death Magnetic album, which I find pretty much unlistenable on the grounds of its loudness. This process is generally held to have a couple of different components. The first, the technological change component is an expression of firstly the greater headroom afforded by digital recording and secondly the greater prevalence of devices tailored to using that headroom. The second is the demand component and is a little more complex in the sense that it has to account for 1) greater concentration among media outlets leading 2)greater homogeneity of outputs across media “strands” which means that 3) competition becomes less about diversity of niche and more about being the biggest thing in the centre of the market place.

This process is generally called “The Loudness War”, and the important things to remember, as I said, before I even think about giving any of the modelling stuff away, is that it is

  1. Dynamic. Arms races are  expressed in terms of the change in something over a period of time. This becomes crucial when we finally do take the plunge to modelling.
  2. Bounded. This can either be in terms of carrying capacity (for ecological arms race models), diminishing marginal benefit (economics models), or technology (in fact in this case a limiting factor is that the ultimate of a continuously amplified signal is just a square wave.

  3. Impose External costs. The participants in an arms race competition act according to their own interests. Costs or benefits may fall on non-combatants. In this case the ultimate listeners of Metallica’s Death Magnetic album pay the ultimate external cost of the participants need to attract radio attention.

(There are few resonances you might have noted here. One is that the process of competition leading to external costs when individual participants are engaged in an arms race is very similar to the cost of increased safety in SUVs. Brilliant Paper by Michelle White (2004) here. The second is that this framework is a bit, well Marxish. Actually that’s true: Marx’s insight that capital and labour fight over profits is approximately equivalent to a Lotka Volterra framework with negative feedback. An arms race is the same type of framework with positive feedback: i.e. Bees and flowers rather than foxes and bunnies. Finally the interesting feature is the runaway use of something that is actually quite useful in another context, which is generating that nice bit of round, warm presence in your mixes.)

Arms race competition is not a bug, it’s a feature. It is absolutely central to any type of competition where one of the key dimensions is technology. (Technology is present everywhere, but it’s not always the most important part of the competitive environment).  The next time you do the fumble for the remote at the ad-break, remember, it’s not particularly personal, you just got in the way of a gunfight.

Valar Morghulis.

The funny thing about the confusing nature of the world is that it’s become genuinely hard to put myself on the political spectrum. It used to be that you knew where you were. For the first 18 odd years of my existence, these were fairly cast-iron verities. The enemy was obvious, whether you began from the perspective of being a leftist (handwringing pinko) or a rightist (capitalist fascist Pig Dog).

But now? I couldn’t honestly tell you what a leftist or a rightist or a centrist or a person on the fourth dimensional axis wants. Perhaps all ideologies have been submerged into a we know what’s best managerialism. Maybe there are no more ideologues (who at least propound something and allow you to be clear about what their premises are). Maybe people are just too afraid to come out with it (and dear Crom was it not a very quick fall from the open information Utopia we dreamed of in the Nerd Nation of the early 90s to the” Orwell meats Phillip K Dick in a crack lounge world” we seem to be on course for?). For whatever reason, it feels to me that whilst we have hit a set of what I suppose I am supposed to politely call challenges, there is a depressing dearth of solutions, and those few around seem  to be more about rebooting the last cycle of the economy than doing anything new.

“So what should we do, O wise one?” you plead. Obviously you do. I give you a simple, two word answer: “Break Stuff!”. You, equally obviously, then make a face that says “Wierdo” and run away to whatever convocation you feel happiest in. I am left pondering what it is about stasis that people find so attractive.

You see the thing about breaking stuff is that it doesn’t have to  actively require you to think about the stuff you’re going to break. It just requires you to get resources that would have bee used for the thing you are going to break to be used for whatever it is you wish to do rather than what the incumbent wishes they be used for. In other words, make something, break something else. I think of this as the Shiva principle, after the splendidly destructive Hindu God/Aspect of God, but if you’re of a more Chinese bent you can express it with the three straight lines of the trigram Heaven, or if, like me, you’ve come from the deep dark depths of industrial organisation theory, you can just call it Creative Destruction. All three express a simple point: that if resources are rival then any act of creation will also carry an aspect of destruction.

Now to me, Creative Destruction is actually as much of the left as it is of the right. No seriously. “Smash Capitalism and Replace it with Something Nicer” is as much a statement of creative  destruction as Gordon Gekko’s spiels. Evolution is not teleological. It has no direction save adaptation and no purpose save it’s own occurrence. How we choose to adapt to it is a human choice, and all too often the choice we make is to attempt to resist. This is often false kindness, a transfer of resources away from adaptation or embracing change into preservation of structures that might have fallen because better ones have come along. What’s leftist about conserving our current arrangements? If you complain about how unjust they are, wouldn’t you want to advocate an alternative?

The implications of accepting that creative destruction is a fact about the world are that you can take good actions in managing it. Consider, if you accept that technological change will create some economic distress, then build your systems about mitigating that distress by helping the displaced into new technologies. This is not something that any of our systems are good at. For instance what we in the UK do is insist that people are deployed in work that may well be skill depleting (and probably at minimum is not skill enhancing for people who haven’t been very long term unemployed and or have just come out of education), and in any case requires a subsidy from the taxpayer to be viable. Thus we neither respect an individuals endowment of ability nor try to increase it before we find a job for them that still needs everyone else to pay for it. Why aren’t both capitalists and socialists at the barricades for this?

So to both of you still reading this, what will follow are a series of posts which loosely theme around the possibility of taking an accepting view of change and the likelihood of being able to live with it, based on an evolutionary approach to technological change. It will take in the really big challenges (dealing with robots, getting off the planet) as well as the trivial ones (sorting out the financial crisis) and make a point or two about why predicating systems on change is a good idea, why competition is good and contestability vital and these are not inconsistent with re-wiring our assumptions so that we don’t write off so many people along the way. There might also be some heavily London N17 and N22 related rants, for which I apologise.

Valar Dohaeris





Greetings Sapients and Lutrinae of all planets


I’m Peter Antonioni. For my sins, I am a refugee economist in the department of Management Science and Innovation at UCL, where I largely teach terrified second year cherubim to be even more terrified in the face of the calamity that is a complex world by introducing them to horrific concepts like prisoner’s dilemmas and hair raising corpus of works like those of Nash, Stills and Young.

After a long amount of humming, hawing and making other kinds of strange sub-vocal noises I have finally begun to write thought shapes from my brain to the infinite vastitude of T3h Int3rn3tz, a decision I may have cause to regret or may not as the case may be. My focus, in particular, is Industrial Economics. That is, I like looking at the bits of economics that are to do with how industries work, in terms of nice concepts like innovation, evolution, competition and co-operation et cetera, et cetera. Thus, you might be slightly disappointed if you’re looking for the usual Keynes/Austerity/Goldbuggery articles; not that I won’t wade in, but I’m really not usually about that part of the game.

All, or a greater part of the thought forms therein are my own to a greater or lesser degree, meaning they may not be original, but they don’t as far as I know represent anybody else’s viewpoint and I don’t claim them too. This is by way of giving the standard disclaimer that these do not represent UCL, as if any voice could represent so fractious a body and that colleagues should not be unduly disturbed by my attempts to prove that noise will always drown out signal.

Be Excellent to Each Other and Party on Dudes.