In response to : What strange things might we find beneath the ice

Improving Autonomy might be too big of a step. Aiming for small groups being self-sufficient in technology and culture may just be unrealistic, with no way to get to there from here. I'm going to talk a bit about another possible way we can get better.

We are entering a time where we might be producing new cultures. Whether it be sea steading or trying colonize mars. So we might have a blank slate, to try again. What should we expect might work or be a good culture, what are the elements that would make it thrive?

There has also been criticism of capitalism, that it is destructive. We might want to improve on it,  but no strong culture has risen that defeats the free rider problem in general. Can we do better? If so how?

In this blog post I will outline the first sketch of an proto-idea of a culture. A culture I am currently calling being Sufficient.

A group is Sufficient if that group produces or encourages the production of everything it needs to thrive. It doesn't free ride, it pays it's way. The contrast is a parasitic group. A parasitic group is a group that relies on the produce of some other group or resource but puts little to nothing into the maintenance of that group or resource.

We are all probably parasitic on one thing or another (even if it is second level parasitism, which I shall get on to later). It is hard to stop.

Trying to be Sufficient

There are lots of movements that try to be Sufficient in one particular thing. An example being the people worried about climate change buying carbon offsets for their flights. They want to maintain the shared resource of a less warm, less acidic oceans. They don't want to rely on other people solving the problem, so they do their bit. They try to make sure other people do their bit too. They prefer companies that are carbon neutral and may pay more for their services.

However there are lots of different things you can free ride on. If you aren't donating to the ACLU and are in America, are you free riding on them protecting your freedom of speech? Are you supporting the free software movement, wikipedia or the bloggers you read? Trying to create more public resources than you consume helps, but it is not a  targeted intervention, the public goods you produce might be consumed by parasites.

We would need a general movement that tries to cover every public good and common pool resource  (if I refer to public good from now on, I am also referring to common pool resources) that is important to their existence and encourages people to think mindfully about what they are consuming and making sure they are helping produce and protect them. And also help people monitor the companies they rely on, so that people don't become second level parasites by proxy.

Second level parasitism

You pay all your taxes. You carbon offset your flights. You donate to all the causes that are important to your way of life (free speech, gender equality, gun rights). You make sure the artists you love get money, even if they give their music away for free. You donate to the linux foundation, for your android phone. You fund science because it's funding has been cut by your government but you don't want to free ride on the funding from other governments. You pay all the bloggers you read, that don't read anything of yours.

You still may be parasitical by proxy. The on-line services you use may not donate anything to the free software they rely on. The manufacturers of goods you buy may use tax havens to avoid paying taxes in a region, but rely on the law enforcement and justice system of that region to catch criminals that plague them.

Parasites can charge a lesser price, they win out in the market. You are going to get lots of them by default. They can buy up the non-parasitical services and make more profit by turning them into parasites. They have to be fought against or the public goods you care about will wither.

We need a way to make parasitism not pay. Or being Sufficient pay better.

Parasitism doesn't need to Pay

To make it not pay, you have to pick a different provider of your good or service. To do this in a principled way that rewards the sufficient provider over the parasitic, you need to be able to estimate the relative parasitical and Sufficient behaviour of the two.

So lets say good a produced by company A costs 1 currency. Company A contributes 0.1 currency per a to support the public goods it needs (although it might consume 0.4 worth of public good per a).

So lets say good b produced by company B costs 1.2 currency. Company A contributes 0.3 currency per b to support the public goods it needs (although it might consume 0.4 worth of public good per b).

You would also want to look at the goods they consume and look at their parasitism levels, if possible.

From someone interested in being Sufficient b is better. They would only need to offset an extra 0.1 currency to avoid parasitism and be Sufficient.

There are two problems with this, verifying sufficient behaviour and calculating the consumption of public goods for the good or service you are wanting to use.

Calculating the consumption of public goods

This in itself is a public good! So you need a charity or other body to estimate this in some way. You might start with very rough estimates based on amount of free software usage, legal cases, police call outs, etc. It would be important to keep them dis-aggregated so that people could improve on them.

Someone who is trying to be Sufficient might estimate their own and publish them, a long with the things they did to offset them. Someone who is being Sufficient might also pay a premium for Sufficient companies to publish their own calculations. If AI gets better and reasoning gets cheaper then this should get cheaper too.

Verification of Sufficient behaviour

If charities posted all donations and governments posted all tax income you could look through them all and see whether people and companies were being Sufficient and nurturing the public goods.

You could do this in a privacy preserving way, by the beneficiary of the Sufficient behaviour posting a cryptographic hash of the amount, the donor's name and a secret phrase chosen by the donor (common to all donations for a time period). Then the donor could then choose to verifiably reveal the amount they donated, by publicly posting the amount, name and the secret. Although you might have some problems with common names and people claiming others donations (you might need pki to solve the problem...). Then people interested in verifying the behaviour could hash those details and find it in the lists of hashes published by the beneficiaries.

Mutual reinforcement

Making Sufficient companies more competitive with parasitic ones fixes some of the problems. However there are also natural monopolies where you cannot pick sufficient behaviour and a few people acting Sufficiently might not be enough to make Sufficient behaviour competitive.

In order to help Sufficient people and companies you may chose to pay them above the market rate. Especially if they are paying above the market rate for the Sufficient services they use. In that way we might be able to form a mutually reinforcing circle of good behaviour.

These things are easier to form in periods of rapid change or new beginnings. But if we don't have that we might want to start slowly.

Starting slowly

Paying for all the public services that you use straight away, might price you out of markets you care about. It might make it too hard to compete on the housing market as a person for example, leading you to have to rent. Or it might make your business go out of business as all the non-Sufficiency interested people go elsewhere.

So maybe you could agree to slowly increase the amount you pay to help Sufficient things, based on the percentage of people or companies that are acting somewhat Sufficiently in the economy in general. Quite what the growth rate should be and how you calculate it across everyone I think I will leave to another post.


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4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:05 PM

I really like the poetry and potential rigor of this... but I'm wondering how the philosophy deals with the problem of entropy?

Some resources are just plain finite and can't be renewed.

For example, there is "only so much sun to go around for so long". A current iconic image of self sufficiency is the solar panel, but eventually the sun will run out and we'll either need to find a new and younger star or give up the game.

Long before we run out of real estate for solar panels we will probably need to radically up our mining of rare earth metals, maybe reaching out to the asteroids for such metals.

And so on with a process of discovering and then applying creative problem solving to a series of natural limits... Essentially, a lot of what counts as "Sufficient" probably depends on technological feasibility and the artbitrary choice of the time window we choose to consider.

The longer the timescale, the more clear it is that either we defeat entropy itself, or we can't be "Sufficient".

If there's an acceptance that its OK to "punt" on some kinds of sufficiency because we can't ultimately beat entropy, then the question of when and how to make the call to stop caring about some scale of analysis arises. Is there a finite amount of fresh water? A finite amount of phosphorous? A finite amount of neodymium? A finite amount of rich fools who will buy overpriced junk?

With sufficient energy we could make fresh water, phosphorous, neodymium, and rich fools to buy overpriced junk, but (probably) no amount of energy will let us make energy.

Basically, given that "being alive" is inherently extractive and doomed to eventual entropic collapse, where does a person being Sufficient draw their line in the sand with regard to resource sufficiency?

Basically, given that "being alive" is inherently extractive and doomed to eventual entropic collapse, where does a person being Sufficient draw their line in the sand with regard to resource sufficiency?

I think it is a socially agreed thing. If someone is trying to make interstellar colonisation a thing and you want you or your offspring to benefit from the potential new suns this provides, then you should be helping out in that global good (and trying to encourage other groups/entities that will benefit from it to also help out).

If you don't try and help out, then eventually the people expending resources to try the hard thing will be outcompeted in the various markets by the people that people who are looking for the quick wins.

It has to be a socially agreed thing, as societies knowledge improves all the time. We didn't know we were depleting the ozone layer with our polution of CFCs. When society figured out that was a problem, the ozone layer became a resource we were destroying and it was up to everyone to try and stop it. This worked because it was cheap to fix.

It might be that there is no solution to a particular entropic bind and no one is trying to solve it. Then everyone can just give up.

So if one person is seriously working on perpetual motion. Like they are acknowledging that they are probably not going to succeed, but they argue that if we don't find an exception to the 2nd law somehow then we're all doomed... Then in that case, a Sufficient person has to help because "social agreement"?

By social agreement I meant more that everyone would look at their models and see if they thought that a certain endeavour was useful. If they thought that they wanted that behaviour to continue in the future they would include them in their concept of Sufficiency (and they would try to encourage other people to help them too, by paying a small premium to them).

The concept of what is Sufficient would be individual, but if lots of people agreed then people might adopt aspects of it for the benefits they get.

I don't think people should be forced to pay for a thing, if they think it is bad time for it. People shouldn't club together to try to do AI safety on a difference engine, for example.