Monday, April 23, 2007

The Dependency Principle

The dependency principle is an idea borrowed from Iain M. Banks' novels about the Culture. The Culture are anarchistic socialists. Their technologies allow for distributed manufacturing and a lack of scarcity.

The closest thing the Culture has to a ruling class are the superhuman "Minds" that control the numerous habitats, ships, and other infrastructure that underpins the Culture's advanced civilization.

The Minds spend a lot of their time in abstract, mathematical, pondering. They refer to the "idea space" they conjure in their imaginations as "infinite fun space". Infinite fun space is, as the name suggests, fun. Minds can lose themselves in the sheer beauty of their own imaginings.

And here the dependency principle becomes important. You can have the most marvelous virtual world imaginable, but the crucial point to remember is that it is a virtual world and is reliant on real hardware.

Something similar to the dependency principle needs to applied to civilization. Many of the things people associate most intimately with "civilization" are not, in fact, the things that are most important.

The States, the Laws, the written language, the libraries and Churches, and shops and banks - all these owe their existence to something more basic. What many of us imagine to be the yardstick of civilized societies are in fact ephemeral concepts emerging from a deeper layer of stuff (not that they are worth any less for it).

This, to paraphrase Morpheus in The Matrix, is the world that has been pulled over our eyes. As recent events in Australia have shown, the undoing of all of our wonderful structures of the mind can be something as simple as a drought. The drought damages our subsistence agriculture, and this problem gradually permeates up through the layers of our society.

If the terrible things happening in Australia were to happen worldwide, as many believe is a possibility, it would mean a drastic downsizing for our civilization. It is difficult to predict precisely what effect this would have on individuals.

A lecturer I met when I went to Manchester University's open day commented that grain is fundamental to civilization. Without grain for bread, and food for meat-animals, we could not live as we do.

Another obvious example is oil. Oil permeates every corner of our society and technical civilization. The plastics in the keyboard I am typing on will have been derived from oil. The power for the electricity that is running this PC probably came from oil or gas. Everything comes back to oil. And oil is a limited resource.

It is necessary to use our current oil-wealth to bootstrap ourselves to another level of existence. This does not mean changing any laws or states or companies. It means changing the underlying fabric of our lives, consciously deciding to change the parts of the engine that powers our civilization.

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