A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Middleman Choice

(essay one) 

Within one and one half arms reach from me is my cup of tea.  I can, by leaning forward, make up the 1/2 (plus a little for balance) and bring the cup to my ready lips for a sip of the warm, healthy and comforting beverage.  Or I could trade someone something to move the cup of tea closer when required and then back to the coaster on the (misnamed in my house) coffee table.  I could also draw-up plans and construct a machine that, with only the smallest motion for activation on my part, would move and raise the cup to the proper position for the consummation of my pleasure.  This would potentially involve many more people and processes.  Here is the essence of human economics – the middle”man.” 

There is always a middleman.  No organism is self-contained (and those self-made “men” conservatives who did it all “on their own” are self-servingly ignorant of reality).  The native ecology of environmental services is the classic middleman.  And the middleman in human economics is modeled on the ecology, but is not at all a perfect analogy.  The ecology is a complete system of integrated relationships, functional from the least action to the greatest action, unknown and unknowable except in the broadest strokes.  The human economy is a system of integrated relationships containing great gaps of function; complex, changeable and often random motivations; rules of function that change at the whim of the most powerful effective units of the moment: it is an ad hoc collection of middlemen vying for position to control some elements of the flow of influence.  The driving behavior is to find in the fabric of the moment a place that can be rent and one’s own cloth of connection sown in. 

This process, of our several historical years, has produced what we accept as the natural way of action on the world, and the economic design that will run its course with its own destruction in essentially the same way a mold consumes the nutrients on a plate of agar and dies when the nutrients are gone.

The process of “middlemanship” has been going on for a very long time and for most of that time was benign: for longer than the present species, hominids have shared and traded food, materials and services.  No human (or hominid) has ‘done it’ on their own for more than a delimited episode or disparate action.  The effective ecological unit was the group and it was the group that responded to the environment with habits, mores, and sanctions that integrated the group’s behavior into the natural economics of the ecology. 

The sharing of responsibilities within a group, i.e., no one member did “everything” for itself, has expanded into a world in which we all directly depend on literally millions of others.  As I glance around this room there are hundreds of things: cameras from Japan, China, Germany; bikes from LA and Portland, books from everywhere; plants native to India, South America and who-knows-where;  ink; knives; video tapes and DVDs; computers; microphones; briefcases, cases, bags; filing cabinets and desks, chairs, couches.  This could go on for a very long time and would only be the “stuff.”  The ideas in my head came from others.  The pipes and wires that heat my teapot, fill my bath, spin the fan, charge the batteries. And all of this made by people, transported by people, thought up by people, designed by people, dug from the ground by people, cut down by people, grown by people, stolen by people, people killed by people, millions and millions of people each one doing a little isolated thing all coming together in this room of things and energies and beliefs.  Without them I would be a different man and live a different life.

Everyone of these people must be compensated with food, water, space, associations (from safety to satisfaction to sex) and spiritual connection.  And since not 1 in 10 worldwide (or 1 in 100 or 1 in 1000) can meet their primary physical needs with their own actions, since there are almost no group structures remaining that are devoted to meeting all the needs of members, our dependence on the middleman structure of our world is, in our present understanding, absolute. 

Yet, this is an artificial dependence. For 99% of our existence as a species, groups of people in intimate collaboration have met their needs.  Our new adaptation has led us to this moment; and if, as it appears, we are coming to the end of this experiment in how to do a Consciousness System of Order organism, then new paradigms will be required.  The next essay is titled: “Sophie’s Choice.” 


dADDo said...

The natural system also relies on it's "middleman" (the fish relies on water which relies on the tide, which relies on the moon and so forth) and if Man is an intrinsic part of this system, how is whatever man does is wrong? The fact homo sapiens may die out as part of this process, due to their actions is surely immaterial to nature- it is just a part of the process?

It seems since we are capable of making moral judgements we, by default, try to change things which becomes a self-fulfilling feedback loop to no end. We will never be aware enough, in an omnipotent way, to allow for every consequence, intended or unintended. So why try?

James said...


The primary human adaptation takes humans out of the Living System of Order – the controlling mechanisms of other living things. Humans can and do function on a system of order new to the biosphere. This is of profound importance.

It is certainly true that in the normal course of events humans are just another species and when no longer adapted to the environmental reality will disappear. The new system of order has an impact on this formulation, but doesn’t change it.

It is true that humans cannot be omniscient or omnipotent enough to control our consequences in detail, but we can use our adaptations to inhibit our actions and discover new paradigms that reintegrate us into the ecology. Will we? Probably not. Is it worth a try? What else have you got to do? Sounds to me like about the only real fun left.

Michael Dawson said...

I'm fascinated by the secret fatalism that lies at the heart of the reigning paradigm -- if we can't gods, why even try to be good?

I think this unexamined attitude speaks volumes about our immaturity as homo sapiens sapiens. You can just see the red-faced toddler insisting that if ice cream isn't first, then to hell with dinner...

Anonymous said...

Your play on eco-logy and eco-nomics is great.

I would like you to explain the artificiality of our dependencies found within the economic constructs of our time. How are they artificial? Your last paragraph alludes to your next essay. I wonder if my inquiry will be answered there.

James said...

There are two primary meanings of artificial: human made and thus not of nature, and fake or imitation. The formulation of CSO and LSO gives a basis for the distinction between “natural” origin and human origin. My meaning is that the appearance of our absolute dependence is belied by the fact that this is a new condition in a long history of humans being more or less independent actors in their ecologies, following the biophysical rules of ecological balance as manifest in cultural designs and thus completely free to be species actors. Our dilemma today is that we are both collectively and individually dependent on an economic design that violates biophysical reality and thus denies us the possibility of acting as fully functional biological entities. We cannot, and would not especially desire to, return to the tribal communities from which we came, but still we can and must redevelop a way of living within biophysical reality.