Socio-technical systems

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 …

The Age of Radical Transparency

On Tuesday I went on Annie Duke’s internet TV show to talk with her and Jason Calacanis about Wikileaks and what the implications are for the future of privacy.  I made some radical claims:

  1. Privacy is dead: it’s only a matter of time now before we all have to face this eventuality.
  2. In a radically transparent society, personal willingness to share everything is a source of power/wealth; unwillingness is a personal liability.
  3. In a world with strong privacy rights, the exact opposite is true.
  4. We’re all better off in a radically transparent world than one with strong privacy rights; this is true whether you look at the individual, the corporation, or the sovereign nation.
  5. Worse than both extremes is where we are now, in transition, where some have privacy and others don’t.
  6. Those who insist on having privacy will have to pay an increasing price for it; and because of #5, this is a good thing.
  7. In the mean time, as the walls of privacy

Medicine 2.0

Kim Scheinberg sent me a great article from The Atlantic that relates to my multi-thread rant on epidemiology.  Since the article speaks for itself, I’m just quoting points I think are salient.  The only words below that are not a direct quote are the headlines (i.e. “Did you know?”).  The emphasis is mine as well.

Did you know?

  • mammograms, colonoscopies, and PSA tests are far less useful cancer-detection tools than we had been told
  • Zoloft, and Paxil were revealed to be no more effective than a placebo for most cases of depression
  • staying out of the sun entirely can actually increase cancer risks
  • taking fish oil, exercising, and doing puzzles doesn’t really help fend off Alzheimer’s disease

Medicine has caught a plague

we think of the scientific process as being objective, rigorous, and even ruthless in separating out what is true from what we merely wish to be true, but in fact it’s easy to manipulate results, even unintentionally or unconsciously.

There is an

The Technium

Here are the slides from his talk. My favorites are 3, 4, 8, 10, 15, 19, 21, 23, 26, 28, 29, 35, 37, 38, 53, 66, 68.

Four Ways to Fix a Broken Legal System (TED 2010)

This was one of my favorites of the year.…

“Social Entrepreneurship has Complexity Written All Over It”

That’s the title and conclusion of this paper by Jeffrery Goldstein et al which was presented at  this talk at the Skoll Foundation International Social Innovation Conference 2009.  Here’s a slide from that talk that I like:


If you like the theme of “Social Entrepreneurship, Systems Thinking and Complexity” — and I know that you do because that’s what this blog talks about a lot of the time — then you may want to attend (or even submit a paper/talk abstract to) the eponymously named conference at Adelphi University in New York (April 30 – May 2, 2010).  Hope to see you there!

hat tip: Jerri Chou: @jchou


As readers of my blog posts know, I talk a lot about evolutionary systems, the formal structure of cooperation, the role of both in emergence of new levels of complexity, and I sometimes use cellular automata to make points about all these things and the reification of useful models (here’s a summary of how they all relate).  I’ve also touched on this “thing” going on with the system of life on Earth that is related to technological singularity but really is the emergence or (or convergence) of an entirely new form of intelligence/life/collective consciousness/cultural agency, above the level of human existence.

From The Chaos Point. Reproduced with permission from the author.

In a convergence of a different sort, many of these threads which all come together and interrelate in my own mind, came together in various conversations and talks within the last 15 hours.  And while it’s impossible to explain this all in details, it’s really exciting to find other people who are on …

Daniel Nocera’s Gift

I just saw the most important talk I have seen in 300+ TED, Pop!Tech, etc talks that I’ve watched.  And at the risk of hyperbole, I will say that the worst case scenario is that Daniel Nocera simply wins a Nobel Prize (and yes, I’m willing to bet at even odds that it happens in under 10 years from today).  But if the system is able to scale through replication, it will be at least as important as penicillin in terms of ending human suffering and will have a bigger impact on the world as a whole.  Here’s why:

  • Input: Water (clean, saltwater or dirty water)
  • Outputs: Electricity + Pure drinkable water
  • By products: nothing (other than what was in the water)
  • Resources required to assemble: all abundant and most have substitutes
  • Knowledge required to assemble: simple
  • Cost to assemble: relatively cheap

Essentially what Nocera has done is reverse engineered and re-created a super-simplified photosynthesis process.  It’s a closed loop (i.e. autocatalytic) so …

A Theory of Scalability

One of the hidden themes of The Feast this past week has been how to scale successful social ventures.  This has been on my mind a lot recently as I have been working informally with both Self Enhancement, Inc. (SEI) and Decision Education Foundation (DEF) on this puzzle.  SEI is extremely successful in the Portland locale where they began 25+ years ago, achieving 98% high school graduation rate (working against hard socioeconomic realities).  Like with many models that are very successful “in the small”, the biggest challenge is to translate that same success to larger scales (e.g. all across America, or all around the world).  DEF is attempting to build scalability into its model from the start, and has found that this is extremely challenging.

In thinking about this I am reminded about a duet of innovators who spoke at the Pop!Tech conference last year about scaling.  Both Bunker Roy and Paul Polack have some profound lessons to teach us about scalability.  You will …

The Trust Ecology

NPR’s On The Media recently had a series of interesting segments on the future of the internet:

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A theme that ran through was how the security and utility of the internet is threatened by the complete lack of built-in trust mechanisms.  How do you know you can trust who you are dealing with online?  How do you know what information to believe that you read online?  How do you know your online accounts are not completely compromised by hackers right now, and that your bank account isn’t being drained as you read this?

Many people rightly fear that legislating or enforcing new internet protocols to address these issues would lead us down a slippery slope, trample our basic rights of free speech and freedom of assembly, and would ultimately toss …


Has anyone played Foldit, the protein-folding game that is designed to advance the science?  This Wired article makes it sound like Ender’s Game meets biochemistry!  Sounds like the Poehlman kid is the protein-folding equivalent of Stephen Wiltshire.  I love the crowdsourcing, the meta-evolutionary algorithm of it (to find the savants), and the implications for science.…

Peer-Review vs. Info Prizes and Markets

I have been having a 140 character discussion with Ciarán Brewster (@macbruski) via twitter.  And while it’s kind of interesting to force complex subject matter into very few characters, it is limiting the discussion, so I will summarize it so far here and hopefully others can weigh in too.…

Alfred Hubler on Stabilizing CAS

With his permission, I am posting an email thread between myself and Alfred Hubler.  I had contacted him on the recommendation of John Miller when Kevin and I were posting on the possibility of dampening boom-bust cycles in the financial markets through policy or other mechanisms.  Here’s what Hubler had to say:…

Military-Industrial Complex Redux

Good Karma?

So I just put down a (refundable) deposit on a Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid car.

What do you think of this decision?…

U.S. Government is Open for Questions

Taking the cue from social software sites like Digg, the Obama transition team is leveraging the wisdom of your crowd to find out what the most important and relevant questions are that the public wants answered.  Judging from the top page of questions as voted by several hundred thousand people, the relevance/importance quotient is very high.  Below is the email that tipped me off to this latest development in “government 2.0”.…


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.…

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?

Rebooting America

Rebooting America

Anyone interested in how technology and policy can work together to form us a more perfect union should read Rebooting America.  If your budget is tight right now, you can download the PDF version for free.

While you are at it, check out the Personal Democracy Forum which is the larger effort that Rebooting America is part of.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed. It is the only thing that ever has.”
Margaret Mead

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)

AT&T Stepped Up to the Plate and Made Things Right

When I emailed AT&T about an outrageous international roaming charge that I wanted reversed, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of a positive response.  But I got one, and I am making good on my promise to let people know about it.  If anything is a complex system, cell phone customer service certainly is, so I view this as on topic :-)…

Hive Mindstein

David Basanta’s blog has an interesting thread (quite a few of them actually).  Here’s the setup but you should read the original post, including the Wired article:

Apparently, some people are seeing some potential in cloud computing not just as an aid to science but as a completely new approach to do it. An article in Wired magazine argues precisely that. With the provocative title of The end of theory, the article concludes that, with plenty of data and clever algorithms (like those developed by Google), it is possible to obtain patterns that could be used to predict outcomes…and all that without the need of scientific models.

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):…

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.…