Skip to comments.Opening Minds to the Spheres Among Us
Posted on 04/04/2014 10:21:58 AM PDT by ShadowAce
Linux can't be understood in terms of hierarchy. Neither can the Internet. That's because both are examples of heterarchy at work.
Flatland, an 1880 novella by Edwin A. Abbott, is about a world with just two dimensions, inhabited by lines and polygons. Trouble starts when a sphere shows up.
For business, the same kind of trouble started when Linux and the Internet showed up in the mid-1990s. No matter how useful Linux and the Internet prove to be, business still has trouble getting its head around a virtual world composed of end points that are all autonomous, self-empowered and at zero functional distance from each other. The best geometric figure for that world is a giant hollow sphere composed of boundless smarts on its outsidethe nodes of its networkand no controlling entity in the middle.
Business can't see that sphere when its head stays inside the flat triangle we call hierarchy. Even complex hierarchies, such as those of giant corporations, governments and military organizations, are depicted as two-dimensional and roughly triangular org charts, all flat as a whiteboard.
The word hierarchy is older than English. Born as the Greek hierarchēs ("leader of sacred rites"), it evolved into Latin (hierarchia) and then through French into the Middle English jerarchie before arriving at its present English spelling in the 14th century. The current (February 7, 2014) edit of Wikipedia's hierarchy article adds this technical jive to the dictionary definition:
Abstractly, a hierarchy can be modeled mathematically as a rooted tree: the root of the tree forms the top level, and the children of a given vertex are at the same level, below their common parent. However, a rooted tree does not allow for items to be "at the same level as" one another, since a tree prohibits cycles. To accommodate this, a hierarchy can be modeled using a graph or a pre-order relation on the set of items. Alternatively, items of like type can be grouped together, and the hierarchy can be modeled using a partial order relation on the set of sets-of-like-items.
Got root? If so, you're at the top of a hierarchy like the one described in that paragraph, and possess power that fans down through directory paths. But your power is over your own systemone node on the surface of that giant sphere.
The Linux kernel itself is produced by a hierarchy that Kernel.org describes as "Linus Torvalds with assistance from a loosely-knit team of hackers across the Net". At the top is Linus, above a few dozen maintainers. Below that are any number of patch submitters. Yet the purpose of that hierarchy in kernel space is to support the absence of hierarchy in userspace. Unlike operating systems from Apple, Microsoft and Google (which bases Android on Linux), Linux serves no corporate agenda, meaning it belongs to no hierarchy. The same goes for the Internet in which Linux was born and throughout which it continues to grow and evolve.
Even though it supports an infinite variety of hierarchies, the Internet is not hierarchical. Instead, like Linux, it belongs to a far less talked about class of organizational being: heterarchy. Derived from the Greek heteros (other, different) and arche (sovereignty), heterarchy has relatively few examples, none of which make full sense in hierarchical terms.
Adriana Lukas explains, "Heterarchy poses an alternative to hierarchy itself, rather than another evolutionary stage of hierarchy. One comes from scarcity and the other from abundance." Business and government are both built in hierarchical forms to manage scarcities. Meanwhile, virtual worlds created by digital technologies and the Internet's protocols are abundant beyond full reckoning, and as alien to scarcity-based mentalities as a sphere to a polygon.
To help get our heads around this sphere, here are Adriana's "Five laws of heterarchy", with brief explanations of each:
Collapse of functions at the node level. "For a heterarchy to exist and persist, each node has to be able to perform certain base functions, meaning no hard-wired distinctions or divisions of role and functionality among the nodes."
Freedom and ability to bypass, that is, to choose a different path and thus avoid obstacles, control and imposition of hierarchy via backdoor. "An example of this is John Gillmore's familiar statement, 'The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it'".
Decentralized and distributable resources. "This is the difference between having to go to the post office to make a phone call and the ability to make a call at home or on your mobile phone. This law is important because having to use a centralized resource, apart from restricting nodes' autonomy, opens up opportunities for control of that resource and imposition of a hierarchy."
Abundance of resources or at least abundance of the most important resource that enables to create and maintain the network. "Don't try to build a heterarchy around a scarce resource, because once that resource is controlled, heterarchy disintegrates. An example of an abundant resource is information online. Digital format makes information duplicable and therefore abundant."
The marginal cost of communication needs to be zero or near zero. "This is important because in a peer-to-peer network it takes many more information exchanges to negotiate transactions."
She also says "asymmetrical balance appears to be a general feature of peer-to-peer/heterarchical networks", and provides two examples to explain what she means:
TCP/IP turns any server into an originator, relaying party or recipient of a message. The relationships between nodes are not symmetrical, but each server at any time can perform any role. Hence the term asymmetrical balance.
BitTorrent is another exampleonce a user starts downloading a file, he or she is automatically uploading it too, that's the inbuilt balance. But the downloads and uploads are not reciprocal: a different set of nodes are providing files for me to download and different set of nodes are downloading from me, so it's asymmetrical.
Adriana credits World of Ends with influencing some of her thinking on heterarchy, which is still in a formative stage. World of Ends in turn was influenced by thesis #7 of The Cluetrain Manifesto: "Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy", which was coined by David Weinberger. Hyperlinks, Adriana says, are heterarchical, exemplifying all five of her laws. As a kind of corollary to David's thesis, Adriana adds, "Networks dissolve hierarchy."
I suspect that the laws of both hierarchy and heterarchy apply throughout nature, and often dissolve each other. We see this happening live in higher education today. On the hierarchical side, universities value the abundance of knowledge in the world, yet organize knowledge sharing within hierarchical systems that are thick with command, control and costs. On the heterarchical side, universities are having their hierarchical gears stripped by the ability of pretty much anybody to learn pretty much anything by connecting to published knowledge (and other people), across the vast heterarchy of the Internet. (The challenges and opportunities here are expressed in the title of David Weinberger's latest book, Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room.) The room is a heterarchy.
I also believe freedom thrives in heterarchy. Consider the freedoms listed in The Free Software Definition and how well they align with Adriana's five:
The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
These are embodied in the General Public License (GPL), which Linux adopted in the beginning (with Version 2). That was 24 years ago. Today business still has trouble grokking free software and the GPL, because nothing in either suggests ways to manage scarcity. From the standpoint of hierarchy, the fact that Linux has floated $trillions in economic activity is irrelevant. When positive externalities are external to the model framing one's view, they remain out of sight.
The same is true of the Internet. The difference is that nearly all of us access the Internet through ISPs that make it scarce to some degree. Thus, by controlling pathways in the network (and violating Adriana's fourth law), ISPs dissolve some of the Internet's virtues as a heterarchy, and with it the capacity of the Internet to float $trillions in economic activity, rather than mere $billions for ISPs alone.
It helps to recall that the Internet was not born as a "telecommunications service" or an "information service" (the US legal classifications for telephony and cable) or even a "service" at all. It is a state of connectedness made possible by protocols that were not created for billing purposes. Instead they were createdwhether their authors knew it or notin compliance with the laws of heterarchy.
It is interesting that ways have been found to make Linux scarce to some degree, through cloud service providers, such as Amazon and Rackspace. One appeal of these services is that, as Jamie Zawinski once put it, "Linux is only free if your time has no value". Time is scarce for all of us, even when we operate in heterarchies. Yet operating Linux in clouds has become cheaper and cheaper. It is now reasonable to assume that, at some point, the marginal cost of cloud computing and storage will get so close to zero that the fifth law of heterarchy will apply, along with the other four.
And maybe that will happen with the Internet as well, in due time. Once the economic benefits of cheap access to the free and open Internet become fully obvious, business will rush toward the same equilibrium between hierarchy and heterarchy.
But we'll reach that stage a lot faster if we get our collective heads out of the triangles in Flatland and wrapped around the vast spheres of achievement and opportunity floating in our midst. Understanding heterarchy should help with that.
On a different subject, any definitive word on what us Mozilla users should be aware of or do now that the LGBT has ignited the jettison of the CEO?
This seems very juvenile. Humans run the Net, humans live in hierarchies. It is purely sophmoric to believe that programmers are above human desire because they are programmers. For example, who owns the clouds? Bam, instant hierarchy. Who runs the software companies? Who invests in them? Who holds their debt? Who writes and enforces Net laws? And what about NSA & Co.?
As a closed study of a certain number of levels of system interaction, okay. But the heterarchy concept depends on neutral boundaries - and no boundary is neutral. And to then go so far as to declare that the boundaries don’t even exist is fantasy.
Till now we have, because we've existed in a universe where (almost) all goods were scarce.
Heterarchies may very well, however, be the future in many ways.
Which is as difficult for us to comprehend as the sphere was for the pologons of Flatland.
But keep right on denouncing those who even try to think through the implications. If you do so successfully, the disruptive heterarchies will never get here.
If a theory can’t stand constructive, thoughtful criticism, it’s already failed. Boundary analysis is fundamental. So is human nature.
In part what you say is true - The constructive difference between Conservatism and raw Libertarianism comes to mind - I cannot subscribe completely to the anarchical end that my programmer friends preach with a fervor close in kind to the acolyte... But I agree with them in large part, with something akin to the recognition of a needful civil-libertarianism in a Conservative conscience.
Careful here, because where the Open Source programmers want to take it is quite comparable to American Republicanism v. Monarchy or Tyranny. To the degree that power can be distributed, it should be distributed... To the degree that power can remain in local control, it should be in local control. To the degree that routing can remain anonymous and ubiquitous, so it should remain... Therein freedom is always preserved. One can argue that a benevolent monarch is more efficient (which is true), and that the preservation of freedom is necessarily disorderly (a messy business to be sure), but one is never guaranteed a benevolent monarch (history attests the opposite), and the end result - freedom - is a pearl of inestimable price, and is the thing to be preserved.
While Open Source geeks tend to be big L Libertarian, with a huge socialist bend socially (don't blame them, they have always been socially awkward : D ), when it comes to what they DO and understand, their thinking runs strongly toward rugged individualism and the precepts of liberty (a dichotomy which is an amazement to me).
Now that is something I heartily agree with. It’s just that I know to many liberal open source programmers who do nothing but calculate how to work for maximum money while constantly declaring they reject capitalism because they work for nonprofits and reject IP rights. Mind you these are people who earn their keep by selling their ability to think logically. It’s maddening to listen to their hypocrisy.
Especially since I’m not 20 anymore - and neither are they.
Thanks for you very cogent reply.
Humans to date have always existed in conditions of scarcity for most goods. Notably power and “stuff.” Power has always, and largely still is, a zero sum game. If you have more, by definition I have less.
“Stuff,” for most of history was the same way. The “normal” way to get rich in the ancient and medieval world was to rise to political power, invade the neighboring land, take their stuff and sell the inhabitants into slavery. That was of course what Alexander the Great and J. Caesar did.
When an economy has very low margins, the only way for a landlord to get more stuff is to grind the mouths of the poor tenants on his land.
What the free market has demonstrated over the last few centuries is that as the margins increase, this changes. I don’t have to push others down in order to climb up myself.
At some point, stuff becomes free. As, largely, entertainment and information have.
What else will become free, or close enough to not make a difference?
LOL! Oh, and I know it! Put them on electronic real estate and they are staunch Conservatives - The principles behind 'Gratis v. Libre', 'free as in beer' v. 'free as in speech' are attendant to the same things which founded us here, the right to assemble, the right to travel unmolested, the right to pursue liberty - very good and righteous things... But put them IRL, and their erudite stand upon solid principle evaporates like a Popsicle on a car hood.
I have had no end of fun pointing that out to them, turning their very arguement (gratis v. libre) upon their own heads! Keep preaching it... They will get it in the end.
But their IRL socialism aside, they are all of one mind when it comes to the defense of internet geography - try to limit liberty on the net, and you will be immediately assaulted by the entire whole, like an angry swarm of wasps. And I can say without a doubt that I will be among them.
Strange bedfellows, eh?
Or rather, the illusion of the condition of 'scarcity of goods', which Capitalism puts to shame.
Power has always, and largely still is, a zero sum game. If you have more, by definition I have less.
Again, an illusion (which liberty denies), but I accept the premise as 'apparent'.
Stuff, for most of history was the same way. The normal way to get rich in the ancient and medieval world was to rise to political power, invade the neighboring land, take their stuff and sell the inhabitants into slavery. That was of course what Alexander the Great and J. Caesar did.
As Microsoft, Apple, IBM (, etc et al) have also done... Following the lead of the American 'kings' in business - TRUE... Brings to mind an old Waylon and Willie song: Don't Cuss the Fiddle... A tongue-in-cheek look at IP_Rights, that really does seem to be the case.
When an economy has very low margins, the only way for a landlord to get more stuff is to grind the mouths of the poor tenants on his land.
While that is no doubt the norm, it is not true - Better a landlord to collaborate with his serfs, keeping them as well fed as possible, and using their talents to increase that margin - If your tenant can make beer, better that he is energetic enough to make the beer and bring it to market, thus the landlord gets his due, increasing his yield, and the beer maker reaps reward rather than starving... But I do get your point.
What the free market has demonstrated over the last few centuries is that as the margins increase, this changes. I dont have to push others down in order to climb up myself.
Absolutely! A rising tide lifts all boats, proven since the establishment of the Anglo-Celtic middle class.
At some point, stuff becomes free. As, largely, entertainment and information have. What else will become free, or close enough to not make a difference?
I am all for ubiquity, as far as it goes... but I also recognize the need for hierarchy - Governance and law, as it were, because without them you get anarchy or tyranny, one or the other. I would postulate that one can imagine the net and all that creates and sustains it as 'the land', in which, in and of itself, it requires nothing more than the law of the jungle to maintain the eco-system. But there must be room within it for hierarchy in microcosm - A mining company, mining the land, must have hierarchy to be profitable - A village built upon the land, like FR, must have the right to laws and mores, and a freedom of association, etc, in order to be a village...
To the extent that all that must be governable upon the land, there must necessarily be law. But the land itself must remain free of encumbrance, free of gatekeepers, landlords, and robber barons. Especially because free speech (IRL) is so intimately tied therein. In so far as Open Source touches that by ubiquity, I am ALL for it. But since everything that makes the net is a child of business and government, that ubiquity is necessarily hard won away from them. Too bad they don't understand that history disapproves of their ventures.
I’m unclear why you think power is not by definition a zero-sum game. Possibly we’re using different definitions.
What I mean is “who gets to make the choice.” When government limits my ability to make choices for myself, it gains in power and I lose.
The power of a master over his slaves consisted of his legal right to make choices and limit their choices as he saw fit.
His total power over them was increased by precisely the amount theirs was decreased.
Do not ask me why so many people want power over others, as I don’t get it. But it’s obvious they do.
You are right in that, upon the surface of it... But look at the ultimate end of that power - When the government of a thing surpasses the ability of the thing it (government) is purported to defend, the result is tyranny and collapse. Every time.
Hence, limited governance, minimal governance, always is the proper balance, albeit that such a balance is regrettably hard to keep.
Likewise in business - the good profit comes while the company is nimble and quick - once one layers bureaucracy between production and administration, the company becomes fat and lazy, unable to change course quickly to chase profit - And so it's accretions solidify and it becomes doomed to eat itself into bankruptcy - Unable to risk, unable to change.
But all the same, there is a point at which individual power is LESS than the sum of the whole, when men of good will give of their own power to form government - The American West is a good example: While men were content to stand on their own and develop the west, when it comes to an environment suitable for community, for women and children, for commerce and ease, men necessarily join together to form government, and to enact laws, for the defense of those too weak to defend themselves... Where a man can leave his family and be reasonably assured that they will not be dead and his goods stolen when he comes home at night.
In that, it is not a zero-sum game. There IS a balance where government is a good thing, where law is proper and beneficial. And it is for this reason that governments are raised up among men (to protect the rights of all)... In that, the power is distributed and equitable, and profitable to those who give of their power to form it as such. In such an environment, power is multiplied, whether by security, or by increased production, or by way of education, or any of the other benefits of a complex society... PROVIDED that the government does not exceed it's proper limits!
The power of a master over his slaves consisted of his legal right to make choices and limit their choices as he saw fit. His total power over them was increased by precisely the amount theirs was decreased.
TRUE in the case of power for power's sake, all too often the case... But a study of the rise of the middle class will show a point at which the middle class enriched the lords who allowed it to flourish - There is profit in the middle class and hence the uneasy alliance between them and those who consider themselves to be elite. If everyone is poor, there is no one to buy goods, and the power of the elite as found in their profits is severely curtailed.
I think our disagreements lie purely in semantics. What constitutes power.
The medieval lord who gave charters to villages or towns limited his power by doing so. The charters gave rights to the citizens that he could not later ignore if he felt like it.
A great many of these lords were more than happy to do so because their new foundations provided them with money, which was nice not only for itself, but also because it gave them more power in the contest that was really important to them, that against other lords.
I guess I’m with Locke and others. There is something like a Social Contract, though no group ever sat down and subscribed to it.
Each member gives up some of his power to the designated entity that will provide increased security to all, in early times generally a monarch. That trade-off was entered into gladly, because for more people their power, or freedom to do as they saw fit, was pretty much theoretical, whereas their desire for security against the wolves of society was very real. Freedom, or power if you choose, isn’t of much use when you’re dead.
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