Social Engineering and Our Biosphere

You may have seen Medium stories on the mixed use skyscrapers, which are not that new an idea. Japanese towers have long featured what we call retail shops on the Nth floor. You might go to a hair stylist or watch vendor somewhere high up in the building. The “shopping mall” function is distributed across floors, ditto for restaurants and gyms, video arcades, schools.

In a Black Mirror episode, a dystopian building features gyms, viewing studios, and a single way to improve one’s living standards: doing well in judged talent shows. We’ll want to discuss workflows eventually, and acknowledge off the bat there’s such a thing as bad design (or we couldn’t have good design). Before we get to that, lets get clear on some concepts.

The more likely packaging you’ll have seen, for all these institutions in one “building” made of steel (and other materials) is the cruise ship, or ship in general (including the submarine). You’re at sea, literally, and so must provide all the vital necessities within one integrated vessel (that may include a desalination plant). Maritime tech has taught us a lot, as a species, about what systems need, in terms of inputs (including wind power) and outputs (including movement from port to port).

But then of course we’re familiar with the idea of a cruise ship as a “floating city” meaning whether or not there’s an integrated single building (floating or not), there’s a unitary structure, with a radius and density, the accommodates the processes of living.

The picture of a city fades into that of a university campus, complete with teaching hospital. One could live there, rarely leaving, from before birth until after death.

Cruise ship operations managers, like hotel managers, have a sense of how much raw materials the ship consumes, in terms of food, water, detergents, electricity, equipment and appliances of various types, medical supplies, the list goes on and on. We’re able to trace a boundary at different levels: the of household, block, floor, kitchen, and talk about inputs (ingredients) and outputs (results).

A key ingredient is of course people and their ingenuity. We need people to operate and maintain the ship. We need people to design the ship. We need people to conceive of new ways of designing ships. We need people to build the ship.

You may have anticipated where we’re going with this: the whole planet is such a ship, or campus, or city. A lot of new material falls into the planet every day, however most of the material available to work with is here already. What’s new, and arrives daily in vast amounts, is simply light at different frequencies (radiation).

The ongoing rotation of the Earth, and the orbiting of the Moon around the planet, may also be accounted as gigantic, cosmic inputs, begetting myriad additional biospheric phenomena, such as the ever shifting weather, and the tides.

Aside from evaporation, making clouds and rain, one of the most important biological processes, a key to life, is photosynthesis. The ability to use sunlight to power the formation of new cells, drawing materials from the dirt and air, is the basis for animal life, human life included.

When we return to the city or ship, we need to think in terms of how much photosynthesis is required to keep it going, in terms of food, but also in terms of fuel, building material, and breathable gases.

The Biosphere Two experiment, as first conceived, was to create a structure that would effectively isolate an internal environment, almost as if it were a spaceship, away from Earth. Sunlight would be provided, but no new materials.

Humans would be a part of the experiment. They would raise their own food, and breathe an atmosphere cleansed by the self contained environment. The original trials sent the researchers back to the drawing boards in many respects.

Achieving complete isolation is far from easy, nor is it necessary for many other experiments besides the lonely spaceship one.

The reason Biosphere Two was so named is because we all live in Biosphere One, the Earth itself.

Let’s get back to workflows within our “building” and talk about “UBI” or “universal basic income”. The backdrop or context for this discussion is taken up in other stories. The “daily bread” view of the UBI is it’s whatever portion of our energy budget that goes directly into staying alive. In a simple model, we might talk about food calories, water, air.

We need to complexify as we add life sustaining medical services, which may include sophisticated anti-cancer drugs, heart procedures and the like. The combination cruise ship oncology clinic is already out there.

Another picture of UBI is “discretionary spending” over and above sustaining metabolism and physical maintenance of one’s “avatar” or body. We could call this one’s “mental health” budget as we’re putting it under the heading of “at will” and suggesting a model wherein the individual is best positioned to know what that individual needs, to pursue happiness. We’re free to revisit this assumption elsewhere.

Notice that the term “income” has been subtly converted to “expenses” in both senses of UBI. We’re talking about what happens to the income, in terms of expenses, as a measure of the income in the first place. You don’t really have the income, except in an abstract sense, until you use it for something, such as keeping your body alive.

The UBI in the second sense is where I sense the Yang campaign is aiming its rhetoric. Get people imagining what they could do with an extra $1000 every month, over and above “just getting by” which presumably they’re doing or they wouldn’t be here. In practice, many people would quit their part time jobs and look for a more satisfying lifestyle, if offered something like a real safety net.

“If I could be at least fed, housed and clothed, and provided with medical care, then I could pursue my dreams”.

UBI (survival) + UBI (discretionary) = Prosperity (happiness) is the both-meanings equation.

Or, put another way: physical health + mental health = life worth living.

The discretionary UBI, in being linked to the will, to our concept of freedom (Yang calls it the Freedom Dividend), relates more to conscious awareness than does survival UBI. Yes, it takes an awake and aware person to eat and sleep, but our main activity in life is what we call “work” but also “play” as well as “training” and “schooling”.

A summarizing word: “performance”. We eat, drink and sleep in order to perform. We perform in roles. We engage in activities. We do stuff. We invent, build, destroy, remember, forget, try again, acquire skills, and so on. We perform on the world stage. We leave behind our timelines, or world lines. We live through our time tunnels, our scenarios.

Against this backdrop, how shall we discuss utopian versus dystopian worlds, which are like possible futures for Cruise Ship Earth? Immediately, the topic invites moralists who want to tell us what the good and bad behaviors are. Those quick to physical violence or verbal abuse need more training.

Those who just lay around playing computer games all day need to learn the value of ambition. The idea of an operating system arises, with priorities and workflows. We have to talk about constraints, limits, finitude, starting with the fact that humans have finite lifespans and therefore life expectancies.

What measures shall we choose, to guide our scenarios going forward? If we end up in a violent brawl, everyone attacking everyone, that would seem a dystopian extreme. Looking back over the history of this ship, we see a tendency to violence, but also a tendency to counter violence.

One factor likely to provoke violence is when either UBI is taken away. When discretionary freedom is taken away, we get prisons, which are designed to counter the natural violence and frustration that go with a loss of a mental health budget.

When the means to survival get taken away, humans have a drive to react somehow, to find air, food, water and shelter. In cases of severe deprivation, they may expire within minutes or hours.

A goal of social engineering is to provide the UBI in both forms, which means designing institutions and workflows that perform accordingly. No one particular operating system is on control. We have any number of experiments, and we learn from one another.

We could say, for the sake of simplicity, that every human is a social engineer, and that the only roles available are types of social engineering, from doctor, to police force, to farmer, to guard. We both design and implement workflows, and we participate in workflows designed by others. Defining “social engineer” in this way is to create a truism within our evolving minimalist vocabulary.

The innovation seems somewhat apt in light of the Yang campaign’s Silicon Valley flavor. Silicon Valley, in contemporary lore, is challenging the older social engineers in other professions. Coders have designs on taking over money, by integrating it with cryptographic workflows. This is part of the mystique social engineering now enjoys.

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