Will the Next Unicorn be a Distributed Autonomous Organization?

With the recent talk of reddit being cannibalized by bitcoin technology, I thought it a good time to post something I've been thinking about for a while. Could a completely decentralized startup one day rival the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon? Within the bitcoin world there's a common understanding that the most valuable thing about bitcoin is not the monetary currency but the underlying "blockchain" technology that the bitcoin currency runs on. For those unfamiliar, you can check out three heavily-funded ventures creating infrastructure that would enable anyone to program applications on the blockchain that go way beyond monetary currencies: Ethereum,Swarm and Blockstream. One such application is what's known as a “Distributed Autonomous Organization," which is an organization like a corporation, government or NGO, but which has no central leadership and uses internet technologies to organize and function. Examples of DAOs that you are familiar with include open-source software systems like Linux; terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda; communities like Anonymous; and of course, the…

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Response to Superorganism as Terminology. I was actually about to post something about terminology, so I'm glad this came up. It's just so difficult to choose words to describe concepts that have little precedent, without going to the extreme of overloading on the one end (e.g. "organism") or the other extreme of being totally meaningless (e.g. "foo"). I have tried to use terms that are the closest in meaning to what I'm after but there's no avoiding the misinterpretation. I can only hope by defining and redefining to an audience that is not quick to make snap judgments but rather considers the word usage in context, we can converge to at least a common understanding of what I am claiming. From there at least we have a shot at real communication of ideas and hopefully even agreement. Organisms and Superorganisms Regarding "organism", I don't particularly like it either because it has too narrow (and biological) of a connotation. I prefer agent or "system". In…

Response to "Superorganism Considered Harmful"

This is a response to Kevin's post responding to my post.
Rafe makes an analogy to cells within a multicellular organism. How does this support the assertion that there will only be one superorganism and that we will need to subjugate our needs to its own?  Obviously, there are many multicellular organisms. Certainly, there are many single-celled organisms that exist outside of multicelluar control today.  So where is the evidence that there will be only one and that people won’t be able to opt out in a meaningful sense?
There will be only one because of the amount of interconnectedness and interdependency of the constituent agents.  At no time in the history of Earth has the actions of one agent had such immediate and profound impact on others, both in potential terms and in actual terms. In network theory you can identify subnets within a larger network which are islands: they connect the nodes within the subnet to each other, but are otherwise unconnected…

Superorganism and Singularity

There is an aspect to The Singularity which is not discussed much, an orthogonal dimension that is already taking shape, and which is perhaps more significant than what is implied by the "standard definition":

The Singularity represents an "event horizon" in the predictability of human technological development past which present models of the future may cease to give reliable answers, following the creation of strong AI or the enhancement of human intelligence.  (Definition taken from The Singularity Summit website)

It may be hard to imagine anything more significant than humans and technology merging and the end of death as we know it.  But that's just because we humans are myopic and anthropomorphic.  The definition above focuses on the individual agents at the current level of organization, namely humans and also their technological creations. Much more significantly though, there is a new agent emerging.  A new level of organization of matter, energy and information above the level of humans and technology, but also comprised

Autocatalytic Systems

autocatalytic-automata The above is a self-replicating dynamic structure from a class of systems called cellular automata (click here to run the simulation).  Below is a self-replicating dynamic structure from a class of systems called "life": The following video explores a new type of self-replicating dynamic structure that will emerge in some form or another in the coming years: What is common to all of these examples is a property called "autocatalysis".* More accurately, these examples are instances of cross-catalytic systems: In reality there are only ever cross-catalytic systems (never autocatalytic) since all real systems require input from the outside (energy, information, material resources) and produce output (waste, information, resources that feed into other systems).  For physicists, this is similar to observing that there are no such things as thermodynamically closed systems in nature, and for the mathematically-inclined we can observe that we never find perfect circles in the actual universe (just in our abstract models). One interesting idea that was postulated in the RepRap video…

Complex Systems Concept Summary

I figured it was time for a reset and so the following is a summary of much of the foundational posting that I've done on this blog so far.  As always, a work in progress, subject to refinement and learning...

TED Talk: Susan Blackmore

Memes and "temes"

Apropos of Kevin's post yesterday on the "Singularity", we need to be taking more seriously cultural agency (which includes technological and socio-technological agency): [youtube=] Click here for Discussion Forum

Complex Systems Defend Themselves

I've talked on here about the importance of taking seriously the notion of agency as it applies to systems other than biological.  In reading a recent Wired retrospective on what they called wrong, I was struck by feeling that their error was the same in all three cases, and that is underestimating the degree to which complex systems will defend themselves in the face of attack as if they were living, breathing organisms. Recalling some of the ways systems defend themselves, it is interesting to see how the socio-technical agents discussed in the Wired piece do so:
  • Extreme Ideologies: "Wired failed to see how a new generation of fanatical geeks would use the Internet in their effort to take over the world. Instead of ending, history looped back on itself, and we are now confronted by a recrudescent and particularly virulent religious ideology straight out of the Middle Ages."
  • Old Media: "...we underestimated how slowly Old Media would auger in

TED Talks: Al Gore

New thinking on climate crisis

[youtube=] Click here for Discussion Forum

Notes from TED

Here are some notes that I took at TED 2008.  I have a bunch more on each of the speakers individually which I may post as time permits.  Let me know if you want me to expand any of the notes below into a full post.


TED sessions have their own explicit themes, but I detected a few implicit themes based on the overlapping content of the talks. Global Awakening: there is something afoot that is palpable that is more than a political or cultural movement.  Al Gore and Samantha Power talked explicitly about this referencing a "higher consciousness".  See levels of organization and cultural agency.  Counterpoint theme: The Failure of the System to protect its individual constituents and serve their needs (see Sue Goldie). Compassion / Cooperation: as juxtaposed to the mindset of the selfish gene, social Darwinism, "nature red in tooth and claw", Libertarianism, Objectivism, free-market radicalism, etc.  See cooperation. Breaking the Spell: scientific results…


I posted earlier on emergent causality. One aspect that needs to be elaborated on is the concurrent, self-interdependent nature of emergence, or in other words the chicken and egg problem. When agents emerge, the dynamic processes involved in their emergence sharpen simultaneously via a feedback of information from the higher level to the lower.* There is no use in asking which happened first – dynamics at level 1 or emergence of level 2 – for they are dualisms, each reinforcing the other until at some point we recognize that something happened. This runs counter to the Western understanding of causality, which requires that we fix one or the other as the cause so that we might see how the effect came into being. But this fixture destroys comprehensibility just as a holding onto a ball in the middle of a juggling act causes the whole procession to come crashing down. Let’s look for a moment at the emergence of a particular social agent, a…

Three Kinds of Cooperation

Ecologists speak about two types of cooperation -- mutualism and commensalism -- which distinguish whether both or just one of a pair is benefiting. I'd like to look at a different dimension of cooperation that has to do with communication. There are at least three different types of cooperation along this dimension, though perhaps you can distinguish more (if so, please post a comment!) Explicit Cooperation This is normally what we think of when we talk about cooperation: two (or more) agents using explicit communication to coordinate their behaviors. Examples are trivial to come by when thinking of human agents or computer technology. In non-human ecosystems, we see explicit cooperation too. Communication is achieved via basic tagging mechanisms such as pheromones, or more complex linguistic processes such as the famous bee dance. Implicit Cooperation Sometimes agents end up cooperating "by accident". Meaning that their actions are determined individually without any explicit communication. But because of the particular state of the environment (including their configuration…

Genotype, Phenotype, Schmenotype

The distinction between “genotype” and “phenotype” is an artificial one that obfuscates understanding past a certain point. As Dawkins points out in his selfish gene argument, from the standpoint of the gene, the gene is the phenotype and the organism is the genotype. This is not to say that we should go overboard and anoint the gene as supreme. "Genotype" and "phenotype" are concepts. From a complex system's standpoint, they are two frozen snapshots (stages) in an ongoing autocatalytic cycle. Other stages between could be singled out and studied (e.g. ontogenesis), but we are not good at conceptualizing dynamic processes and prefer to look at relatively stable forms. We forget that these stable forms are a part of the autocatalytic process, which is ongoing. Dawkins make a great case for looking at genes as agents undergoing evolution by natural selection (NS). But this does not mean that the "phenotypic" agents are not also doing the same. In multicellular organisms, there is not just one phenotype,…