Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Robotic Versus Gaian

Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer have an interesting article in the NYT "The Machine and the Garden" that brings up an interesting and, I think, a valuable notion. Our use of mechanistic metaphors when talking about government, economics and society in general drive our thinking in the wrong direction. They use the neologisms "Machinebrain and Gardenbrain" to separate the two ways of thinking about how things work and it really does make sense and it has been something I have thought about a lot over the years. The economy and society more resembles a garden than a machine, and it needs to be fertilized and cultivated more than it needs to be lubricated and tuned.
What we require now is a new framework for thinking and talking about the economy, grounded in modern understandings of how things actually work. Economies, as social scientists now understand, aren’t simple, linear and predictable, but complex, nonlinear and ecosystemic. An economy isn’t a machine; it’s a garden. It can be fruitful if well tended, but will be overrun by noxious weeds if not.
In this new framework, which we call Gardenbrain, markets are not perfectly efficient but can be effective if well managed. Where Machinebrain posits that it’s every man for himself, Gardenbrain recognizes that we’re all better off when we’re all better off. Where Machinebrain treats radical inequality as purely the predictable result of unequally distributed talent and work ethic, Gardenbrain reveals it as equally the self-reinforcing and compounding result of unequally distributed opportunity. 

This is good way to think and while I am not to keen on the ugly  "machinebrain/gardenbrain" terms and would prefer something a little less barren on the order of "Robotic/Gaian" it does provide what I consider a  much more positive and constructive alternative for economic reality. What is even more important is that it happens to fit the facts far better than the right-wing/libertarian machine models which are leading us rapidly down the path to a major catastrophe. I would venture to say that if we and our leaders started thinking more about the "ecosystem" that is the reality of our society and economies we would begin to see a lot more constructive things begin to happen. If the mechanistic thinking and insistence that the whole thing is a "zero sum game" where if one wins another loses were to turn into a recognition that we all can win in a healthy, ecologically balanced system we could do nothing but generate a positive change. It also doesn't hurt that this whole way of thinking fits pretty closely with my overall Buddhist, Gaian, and Pagan belief system.


Steve Bates said...

I do wish you could find a term other than "Robotic" for mechanistic thinking. "Robotic" leads me straight to Asimov's three laws of robotics. Those who have read the whole series of novels over Asimov's lifetime know that the concept was implemented (in his stories) with ever increasing sophistication over time, such that the sensitivity of robots to human needs eventually far exceeded that of human beings themselves. I'm sure I'm not the only one who responds this way to the negative use of the term "Robotic"; you may want to reconsider. Perhaps "mechanistic" is better after all.

fallenmonk said...

 That was the only thing that came to mind as I was trying to find something "machine like" to contrast with Gaian. I've been a fan of Asimov since I began reading SF which was even before I started elementary school. Asimov is credited with creating the term robotic as it was first seen in print in his novel "Liar" in 1941. That being said maybe we can come up with another short word to mean the same thing. I just didn't like the machinebrain/gardenbrain terms. Remember also that in the final chapter of the final Foundation book "Foundation and Earth" Daneel reveals the creation of the "Zeroth Law" of robotics which supersedes the first three laws. "A robot may not injure humanity or, through inaction allow humanity to come to harm."  The Zeroth Law becoming the driving force for creating the organism/planet Gaia. Creating a single organism from all of humanity, one that was fully inculcated with the Three Laws.

karmanot said...

 "I would venture to say that if we and our leaders started thinking more
about the "ecosystem" that is the reality of our society and economies
we would begin to see a lot more constructive things begin to happen." Let's start by ending genetically modified foods.