The law of the instrument
and the value of the interface
I wrote last week about my background in the design system called permaculture. I want to clarify: I don't necessarily like permaculture. Or rather, I like the ideas behind it, and I like putting them into practice. But the name, and the subculture that goes along with it, are... awkward, at best.
You might already have an idea of "permaculture" from your own experience. Or if you've never heard of it before, you're probably thinking "what an awkward (at best) word, what could it possibly mean?" In either case, I feel the need to explain. There are useful ideas hidden within the permaculture wrapper.
What is permaculture?
Permaculture grows out of the organic gardening movement in the 1970s. The founders are some white guys from Australia, who study food growing techniques from all over the world. They want to synthesize all these different methods from different environments into a scientific system that could be used anywhere. They can see that modern agriculture is damaging the earth: polluting the water, stripping the soil, burning irreplaceable fossil fuels and filling the sky with greenhouse gases. So they describe a design system for permanent agriculture, or permaculture: a way of planning, building, and maintaining food production systems that work with, instead of against, nature.
What happened to it?
Well, the original guys start teaching a Permaculture Design Course, It takes two weeks and gives you a piece of paper at the end that says you're Certified to do Permaculture Design. Then they encourage other people to teach their own courses (although these days, due to degree inflation, you have to take a five-day Teacher Training as well). So unlike architecture, for instance, there's no authority on who or what "permaculture" is.
As you can imagine, permaculture methods are not as profitable as modern agriculture methods. This is because agriculture dumps its problems on the rest of the world. Pollution, miserable wages and working conditions, and the climate emergency are all "externalities" that unsustainable agriculture doesn't have to pay for.
So it’s easier to make a profit by selling the word "permaculture," than by growing food in a sustainable way. And our world is built on profit. This quickly becomes a pyramid scheme, where I am a permaculture teacher and you pay me to teach you how to get paid to teach permaculture. Or would that make me a permaculture teacher teacher? Anyway, it's a feedback loop, and not one of the good ones.
Now there's all kinds of people teaching permaculture: grifters, hucksters, and shills; preppers, astrologers, and youtubers, on top of the core demographic: self-important white dudes with big hats.
Most of these people don't actually think at a systems-design level. They usually remember one weird trick, like "contoured terraces" or "earth building", and specialize by teaching classes on that trick (and teaching classes on how to teach classes). I suspect that the general conception of permaculture is more "cool techniques" than "overarching philosophy".
What do we need from it?
Permaculture is a technology, and like any technology it has at its core a set of values. Unlike most of the technologies we use today, those values are explicit. They're the three permaculture ethics: care for earth, care for people, and share the surplus. The last one is often the hardest. Most people can think of a natural environment they love, or a person they would do anything for. Sharing the surplus is harder to imagine.
We live in an era of intense greed. That is the unspoken value system behind the technologies that run the world: individual liberty, private property, corporate fiefdom. The alienation of the individual from the community is a mistake made by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Their hypothesis (and it is a hypothesis) that human nature is to be a single person making rational choices in your own best interest, is falsified by the evidence.
We know now that we're part of an ecological web. The land and the seas and the atmosphere are tranformed and maintained by all the organisms on the planet. We are not separate from animals or plants. We need them to live, and at this point, they need us too.
Most people don't act like they live in the ecological web, though. We act like they live in a world of rational actors, even when our own behavior disproves that view.
And why not? The greed machine is everywhere, and everyone else is acting like it's real too. Every piece of land in the world is Owned by someone, and they need to make a profit from it, because if they don't, someone else will. Profit is greed in number form.
The technologies we interface with every day — social media and artificial intelligence, sure, but also newspapers, TVs, factories, megastores, automobiles, freeways, air conditioning, tractors and farms — are all built on this foundation of greed. This in turn changes the way we relate to the world.
The law of the instrument says if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. My corollary: if all you have is a profit motive, everything looks like it's not nailed down.
If we built our societies and infrastructure on the permaculture ethics, instead of on personal gain, what kind of world could we live in?
We can get a hint from the world of free and open-source software. The biggest shifts in technology over my lifetime have germinated from projects like Linux and Wikipedia: massive collaborative efforts that generate shared wealth for everyone involved. This is surplus sharing in action, and it's already changed the world.
Digital technologies move faster than infrastructure or cultural changes. The interface where technology shapes culture, is also the interface where culture shapes technology. This feedback loop means that any little change might be magnified hugely. The interface is a crucial leverage point. What values should it carry?
Thanks for reading,
P.S.: I hope you’re enjoying Augmented Intelligence. Write back if you have any thoughts or questions. I always love a new perspective.
Can you think of someone who might enjoy reading this letter? It only takes a second, and it means a lot to me.
Talk to you soon.