Monday, February 13, 2006

Rhizome, Communication, and Our “One-Time Shot”
Theory of Power: Jeff Vail


My aim with this essay is to illustrate the historical circumstances that led to the constitutional evolution of the modern state system of hierarchal power centralization, to explain how contemporary events are invalidating the basis for that system, and to present a rhizome scheme of power distribution as a valid and desirable replacement. In addition, I will attempt to show that rhizome must transition from the parasitic use of hierarchy’s communication infrastructure to its own organic infrastructure in order to grow and flourish. Hopefully this will serve as a theoretical framework for people who wish to nurture the development of rhizome as a replacement to hierarchy. MAJOR TAKE-AWAY: Rhizome must develop a superior, organic communication theory or wither on the vine of hierarchy.

The Modern Development of Hierarchal Systems of Power Centralization

Machiavelli consciously shaped Florentine state structure to cope with the dynamic world facing the Italian city-states in the renaissance: the offensive dominance of siege artillery, the unreliability of Condottieri militaries, the need to use a state-structure to fund defenses alongside the contradicting need to establish personal legitimacy. These conscious actions are often cited (see Philip Bobbitt’s ‘Shield of Achilles’) as the turning point in the transition towards the unified hierarchal structure of the modern state, as they replaced the competing and overlapping hierarchies of the church-state system of feudalism. Perhaps most important in Machiavelli’s actions was that he consciously identified the need to create institutions that would intentionally intensify the hierarchal structure of a state in order to compete in a peer-polity world. Furthermore, he clearly articulated this message, influencing the generations of statesmen to follow.

This system is based on the creation of cascading dependencies: the need to continually grow and intensify hierarchies, created by the competition in the world’s peer-polity environment, forces the use of highly optimized systems. Highly optimized systems suffer from a technical difficulty known as ‘highly optimized tolerance’ (HOT), in which the need for continual growth and centralization forces the system to push well past the point of diminishing marginal returns to the boundary of diminishing aggregate returns. HOT systems are vulnerable to minor perturbations causing significant, cascading failures. In order to forestall the inevitable collapse of HOT systems, states create a “tragedy of the commons” scenario: they attempt to stave off diminishing aggregate returns by exploiting finite resources more quickly (and more unsustainably) than their peer-polity competitors. While some states recognize the futility of such non-sustainable resource use, if they refuse to follow such a policy they are summarily eliminated from the peer-polity game, as a state that does follow such a policy can absorb the non-participant and reap the benefits of this additional, temporary subsidy.

The End of the Power-Centralization Era

In the past, such peer-polity resource races led to periodic regional collapse. Today such a collapse is not possible—with the ‘Closing of the Map’ it is no longer possible for one region of the world to collapse while progress, technology, and “civilization” are maintained in another location, much like epidemic diseases. Instead, our global civilization simply swallows up non-performers or attempts at regional collapse and immediately reintegrates them into the global system. Take Russia in 1990, for example. In a ‘non-closed-map’ world, Russia may have languished for years, even centuries, while the reduced drain on resources permitted a reconstitution of resources and ecosystems that would later provide fuel for a renewed race towards yet another collapse. In today’s system there is no respite for such a recovery—“Western” and western-influenced internal forces immediately set to work continuing the exploitation of Russia’s resources, both natural and human. In today’s world, without the ability for regional collapse and reconstitution, the entire world functions as an integrated system. We have had a remarkable run of development, fueled by the twin processes of improving energy subsidy (coal, nuclear, oil, petroleum based fertilizer, etc.) and globalization (always newer and cheaper labor pools, newer and cheaper resource sources). But this will soon come to an end. The fundamental reality of the finite nature of resources upon which we depend (fossil fuels, uranium, metals), combined with the accelerating depletion of renewable resources which without regional collapse can no longer recover (forests, topsoil, clean water) is leading down the road to an inevitable global collapse.

The Fundamental Shift in Economics

At some point, there will be a global collapse. Which resource exactly that will trigger the chain of cascading failures is uncertain, as is uncertain exactly how far global civilization will slide. Perhaps it will be peak oil in 2006? Maybe peak natural gas in 2005? Or perhaps it will not happen until topsoil depletion and global pandemics provide a catalyst in a few decades. Either way, it seems certain that our civilization can only press inexorably forward until we find ourselves already off the edge of a cliff. Whatever resource is the catalyst, there will be a fundamental tipping point in our global economy. Our current system is predicated upon the need to centralize power and create dependency. Hierarchy must grow and expand, and in a closed system this is only possible by finding smaller, less hierarchal entities and unifying them into larger, more starkly hierarchal systems. Centralize power, wealth and control, and create dependencies and power relationships—this is the natural progression of hierarchy. The systemic tipping point will be when our system realizes that resource constraints will not only prevent a continued expansion and intensification, but will actually demand a continued contraction and devolution of hierarchy.

The Necessity of Power-Distribution in a Contracting Economy

In a post-peak world, the progression of structural systems must reverse. Creating dependencies, centralizing power will no longer be tenable in a contracting economy, a shrinking population, and a dwindling resource environment. As these factors converge, any attempt to create dependency (e.g. “here’s a new product and you need it”, or “I produce grain more cheaply and efficiently, so your nation can just import from us”) will face increasing difficulty as the cost of centralization will increase relative to the constant of available human labor. For example, it will be increasingly difficult for Uganda to prosper by developing a coffee-export based economy because it will cost increasingly more to transport that product to world-wide consumers, and to import the staples necessary to create a specialist-class of coffee producers. A poignant illustration of how cascading failures break apart the fabric of our modern world comes from New Orleans in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.

In short, the economic principles of economy of place and economy of scale which have driven economic growth throughout human history do not function in a contracting, post-peak world. This will fundamentally reverse the way our world works. Localization will be the new economic principle of the post-peak world order. As such, the new Machiavelli will tell us that our security and prosperity will hinge on conscious policies of reducing non-local dependency and distributing power.

Rhizome, a non-hierarchal, networked pattern of power distribution and economic organization, is the vehicle of choice. Rhizome does not represent a return to an impoverished and brutish world. However, a post-peak devolution slide, without the conscious implementation of rhizome, will result in exactly that. Without rhizome, we will gradually slide back to a sustainable level of internecine warfare, feudal fiefdoms and local strong-men. Rhizome promises a new means of connectivity and economic interaction that can substitute for the efficiency creating processes of hierarchy, in a form that is more compatible with the needs of humans. But rhizome is built upon a foundation of effective and efficient communication, and that development of that foundation is the issue upon which the future will turn.

Communication is the Lifeblood of Rhizome

Rhizome processes information entirely differently than hierarchy. It depends on the fusion of a regular network of local links between peers along with occasional, distant and weak contacts with a broad and diverse set of contacts. This “weak network” theory, and how rhizome can use it to process information more efficiently than hierarchy, is well illustrated by the classic example of the job search: in a traditional communications model (as used by hierarchy), you ask your 10 close friends for leads on jobs, and they each ask 10 close friends. The result—you don’t span a very large social network in your search. In the “weak network” model you ask 10 distant friends, and they in turn each ask 10 distant friends. With such a method you can span a far wider social network, and are more likely to locate a job prospect. Rhizome is defined by the non-hierarchal cooperation between peer entities, and this cooperation—the fundamental economic activity in rhizome—depends entirely on such effective forms of communication.

If rhizome is to provide a structural pattern for a post-peak world, then it must secure and advance its communication methodology and infrastructure.

Hierarchy Created the Communication Revolution

Hierarchy has created the revolution in communication technology and methodology upon which rhizome currently depends. Spurred by the benefits to hierarchy, technologies such as the telephone, internet, television, cell phone and computer define the current communications revolution. Similarly, methodologies like directories, contact lists, phone trees and push-pull theories have facilitated the ongoing expansion of hierarchal systems. Rhizome has developed as essentially a parasitic theory—in its modern form, with its promise to provide an alternative to the global, hierarchal system, it is a parasite on hierarchy’s communications infrastructure. The front line in rhizome communications—blogs, the internet, cell phones, message boards, etc.—are all technologies of hierarchy, if not all hierarchal themselves. They are technologies that will not continue in the absence of hierarchy, as the very processes that have made such personal electronics available to the masses are a result of our intensely hierarchal system.

The Dilemma of Hierarchy

Hierarchy will face a deepening dilemma: the very communication freedom that assists in countering diminishing marginal returns is also fostering an alternative system—rhizome—that is cutting in to perceived profits and power. At some point, hierarchy will try to re-exert control. Actually, this is already happening. DSL and cable internets do more than just provide greater bandwidth—they also take the internet access mechanism out of the world of more open phone systems and into the realm of exclusive distributorships and geographic monopolies. Microsoft Passport, trusted certificates, media consolidation laws, and other developments are but the first wave in the battle to take control of our communications. Rhizome and its continued viability survive as parasites on hierarchy’s communication backbone. The host is dying.

Transition from Parasitic to Organic Communication Infrastructure

In order to survive, to adhere to its own commandment to avoid dependency, rhizome must develop its own, organic communication hardware and software. There are examples from history and anthropology to draw on, but none of these have historically sufficed to prevent a relapse into hierarchy—especially in resource-rich and densely populated environments. Fortunately, we have the benefit of hindsight, and the temporary surpluses of our hierarchal system to assist in the development of just such a system.


The Olduvai theory states that humanity gets one shot to develop sustainable energy independence. To do so requires using up the surplus of fossil fuels that humanity started off with—this is a one shot deal. It looks like humanity has squandered that shot—but even if we could snap our fingers and invent cold fusion, that might not be the best possible outcome. Continued increase in energy surpluses will only lead to increased hierarchy, and increasing incompatibility between that hierarchy and our ontogeny. The single-shot opportunity to develop a utopian hierarchy is a fantasy; it is really no opportunity at all. In reality, we do have a single-shot opportunity. That opportunity is to use the one-time resources and infrastructure provided to us by our hierarchal system to create a communication system for rhizome—an organic system, one that will facilitate the post-peak transition to a rhizome world.


The basic theoretical model for rhizome communication is the fair or festival. This model can be repeated locally and frequently—in the form of dinner parties, barbeques, and reading groups—and can also affect the establishment and continuation of critical weak, dynamic connections in the form of seasonal fairs, holiday festivals, etc. Additionally, historical land use patterns can be revived towards these ends. In rural Austria the farmers traditionally live in small villages, facilitating frequent interaction and exchange, with each farmer walking each day to his fields a short distance away. Aborigine would gather seasonally in large encampments to exploit temporary resource surpluses, often not re-visiting a specific site again for several years. After this temporary camp, they would break up into smaller bands and retreat to less resource-rich environments. This is what history has to contribute to the structure of a future rhizome communications system.

It is not enough. History has also shown us that, absent something more, rhizome will fall prey to the cancerous spread of hierarchal structures. Where will we find such additional developments? I don’t have the answers to this, at least not yet. I don’t want to cloud this essay with ideas in progress and brainstorming—that is not the point of this piece. This is a call to action—a call to work towards this end. We still have a little time to come up with an answer, but probably not much...

posted by Jeff Vail at 9:11 PM