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Thinking Like a Dandelion

June 18, 2009

In the July issue of Wired (not yet available on-line), editor Chris Anderson has a thought-provoking excerpt from his new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price.  Anderson talks about inventing the future of TV on YouTube, which is informative in its own right, but I think the general drift of his essay ought to apply to innovating new forms of government as well. In fact, I think it opens up a fresh way to conceive the problem, especially for those who are derisive of this blog’s aims.

To increase innovation, Anderson extols the power of experimentation amid abundance:

When scarce resources become abundant, smart people treat them differently, exploiting them rather than conserving them. It feels wrong, but done right it can change the world. The problem is that abundant resources, like computing power, are too often treated as scarce.

In this model innovation on a revolutionary scale occurs in two steps. First, we see a drastic decrease in the cost of one factor of production–the cost of physical force before and after the industrial revolution, to take one example. Compared to the past, this new cost now becomes minuscule–so small, in fact, that it is now virtually free.  It then ushers in a vast wave of experimentation, abundance creating a hitherto unimaginable field for trial and error, massively scaled. As Anderson notes, the true potential of computing was not unleashed until engineers in the 70s decided to “waste transistors,” devoting less computing power to information processing and more to graphics and animation. The upshot was an accessible user interface and the Mac.  The losers were those who continued to treat transistors as a scarce resource. Scarcity thinking fails in a world of abundance.

This scattershot strategy mimics the success of the dandelion: hundreds and hundreds of seeds fail to germinate, but a few find a new niche environment in which to thrive.  As Cory Doctorow writes (and Anderson quotes):

The disposition of each–or even most–seeds isn’t the important thing, from a dandelion’s point of view. The important thing is that every spring, every crack in every pavement is filled with dandelions. The dandelion doesn’t want to nurse a single precious copy of itself in the hopes that it will leave the nest and carefully navigate its way to the optimum growing environment, there to perpetuate the line. The dandelion just wants to be sure that every single opportunity for reproduction is exploited!

In the case of government, it’s time for everyone to start thinking like dandelions. To do so, we have to start treating what was formerly scarce as abundant. It is true, politics has not yet passed into the equivalent of an industrial revolution. We have yet to see a massive decrease in the cost of one factor in the production of public goods. In fact, just the oppostite seems to be happening. And admittedly, experiments in living can be costly, too. It’s tough to conceive of “wasting” governments and constitutions like engineers wasting transistors. Aubundance is not quite here. But that can change. The examples in computing, industry, and communications should inspire, not just libertarians and anarcho-capitalists, but communitarians and progressives alike.  So let’s focus less on trying to perpetuate one copy of what we believe is the best society and instead work on ways to decrease the costs of producing societies.  The results will be better than we can imagine. Markets have moved economies from mass production to mass customization. What will move governments in the same direction?

[Update: Anderson’s Wired article is now online here.]

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5 Comments
  1. Brian permalink
    June 20, 2009 12:22 am

    Ok Mike – here’s how I “think like a dandelion.”

    To prevent another financial crisis like the one we are just emerging from, conventional wisdom seems to be increased power and authority to a central agency. This has been tried many times before without success. IN the 1980’s the DIDMCA, a federal banking act increased the power and authority of the Federal Reserve by forcing more financial institutions to be subject to the FED’s regulation. It enabled the FED to create a truly national financial crisis which no bank could avoid.

    Thinking like a dandelion suggests that all 300 million+ people in the U.S. should simply engage in voluntary financial transaction in any way they see fit. If they are unsure how to do this they can hire experts of their chosing to assist them but no one can force a one-size fits all solution. All transactions must be voluntary. Only one rule – no stealing.

    Stop trying to find the superman regulator who can make everything OK in the financial world, he doesn’t exist. The active self interest of 300 million+ people engaged in voluntary transaction will result in greater financial discipline and fairer transactions than could ever exist under a central authority. Embrace the truth of “Wisdom in Crowds” and think like a dandelion.

  2. June 20, 2009 6:01 pm

    Excellent post, Mike. These principles are so obvious to me that it is frustrating that the world at large (including the worlds of intellectuals, academics, and even libertarians) seems incapable of imagining the incredible opportunities that we are describing. We need to keep providing new and different ways to communicate our point until bit by bit more people get it.

    The concept of existing nation-state sovereignty as the default global political operating system seems to be stuck like firmware in the brains of most living humans (the concept of nation-state sovereignty as ROM). How do we insinuate a new and better conceptual frame, our frame, into these minds? The concept of nation-state sovereignty can (and should) be questioned just as anything else can be questioned.

    Bob Haywood, from whom I learned much of what I know regarding free zones (along with Mark Frazier), is running a foundation devoted to the creation of world peace. Bob’s starting point for the foundation is to question Westphalian concepts of sovereignty. While his focus is different than ours, ultimately it is complementary. For an early sketch of where he is going, see this article at the United Nations University,

    http://www.wider.unu.edu/publications/newsletter/articles/en_GB/05-09-brauer-haywood/

  3. Mike Gibson permalink*
    June 22, 2009 6:02 am

    Thanks Michael. The Haywood-Frazier article makes for interesting reading. It’s funny the way concepts seem to stick together in the human mind: sovereignty and religion, morality and the law and so on. Freedom seems to be about untangling this mess. Tho I’m still puzzled as to why it seems so clear that religion and politics ought to be cleaved apart, whereas many find it difficult to separate their pet views on distributive justice from state authority. What I take for granted–a freedom of conscience–why is this so apparent with religion, but not for other forms of association, like city and state? I found this bit from Haywood edifying. Perhaps it’s better to reinvigorate the similarities with freedom of religion:

    “humanity’s very conception of sovereignty must return to its pre-1648 sense: universal assertion of authority and universal assertion of supremacy, but in a non-territorial way. (For example, religious doctrine generally asserts universal authority and supremacy over the faithful, wherever they may be located.) The question arises of how this can possibly be achieved today. Our suggestion looks to non-state sovereign (civil society and commercial) entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. This refers to trans-boundary, non-state actors as they impinge on and aim to supplement, even supplant, certain powers of sovereign states.”

    Sounds very similar to a polycentric legal order. I suppose there ought to be a polycentric communitarian order as well. Just a thought. Wish that would stick! Thanks again for the comment!

  4. June 22, 2009 6:40 pm

    I agree in general, the one concern I have is that we need to make sure that governments can fail gracefully. One theory on why people accept such inefficient states is that they value stability hugely because government instability can lead to rioting and looting, which is a pretty awful result. So an essential element of thinking like a dandelion is to explicitly consider how a failed government can exit gracefully and include this in the initial government design.

    Modular ocean cities, if they are feasible from an engineering standpoint, help this a lot because a bad government can fail by having all its territory sail off into the distance.

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