Refactor Camp 2016: Weird Political Economy

Since 2012, we’ve been holding Refactor Camp as an annual offline event in the Bay Area. This year, we’re trying a new format. Refactor Camp 2016 will be an online-only event, in the form of four 2-hour evening sessions, spread over the last 2 weeks of July. You can register here. We will be using the Zoom videoconference system, which has a limit of 50 participants.

The theme this year is Weird Political Economy (tagline is inspired by this great post). Over four sessions, each structured as a short introductory talk (~30 minutes) followed by a discussion (~90 minutes) we will cover four major themes. All 4 sessions will be 8:00 to 10:00 PM US Pacific Time, on the listed dates.

Screenshot 2016-07-05 15.52.57

Session #1: Tue July 19: The Weird State of the State (Venkatesh Rao)
Session #2: Thu July 21: The Weird State of Capitalism (Mick Costigan)
Session #3: Tue July 26: The Weird State of the Crowd (Megan Lubaszka and Renee DiResta)
Session #4: Thursday July 28: The Weird State of the Earth (Jordan Peacock and Sam Penrose)

The idea is to have well-prepped discussions about the general sense that “things are getting weird” in global affairs with a meaningfully broad/rich context. Are we really not in Kansas anymore, or do we just lack the context to grok the patterns in things going on right now? Is it time to apply the principle, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”? Hopefully we’ll generate some interesting, situated thinking.

The four session topics: state, capitalism, crowds, and earth, will hopefully serve as four good overlapping global canvasses for discussion.

A slide deck overview of the theme will be posted a few days before each session, as required pre-read. The idea is for ALL participants to actually review these pre-read decks (should take maybe 30min each) so we can have a discussion where everybody is better prepared than usual in these sorts of symposia.

If you are interested in doing reading beyond these upcoming decks, here are some anchor references the session leaders will be using.  Though session leaders will be drawing on multiple sources, and we expect many participants will be coming from other perspectives, these should give you an idea of the level of discussion we’re hoping to hit.

What is the Largest Collective Action, Ever?

I’ve lately become interested in the question of climate change from the perspective of the scale of organizational capabilities that are emerging globally to tackle it (a question that exists and matters whether or not you believe climate change is real). I came up with this conceptual graph to think about it. I’ll explain my capability measure in a minute.

Screenshot 2015-09-29 14.02.54


In some ways, “dealing with climate change” is the largest, most complex collective action ever contemplated by humans. Here I don’t mean collective action in the leftist sense of a political coalition based on egalitarianism and solidarity. I mean any kind of large-scale action involving coordination (not getting in each other’s way), cooperation (not working at cross-purposes), collaboration (combining efforts intelligently) and conflict (structured adversarial interactions encompassed by the system  to allow net action to emerge from a set of warring ideologies), in a politically neutral sense. Everything from weaponized sacredness (think the Pope’s statements on climate change) to war and unmanaged refugee crises can fit into this broad definition, but as I’ll argue, it’s not so broad as to be useless.

So the definition includes everything from the pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China to the Normandy landings in WW II, the building of Standard Oil, the modern bond market, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Historically, the “peak-load capabilities” of our biggest collective action systems have been expanding steadily, modulo some ups and downs in the interstices of imperial ages, since the Neolithic revolution and the first pot-sized granary.

The interesting question is, what are those “some ways” in which a response to climate change futures is unprecedented, and what does that imply for the likelihood of it succeeding?

A useful way to focus this question is to ask what is the largest collective action, ever, and how much of a stretch are we talking to respond to (say) a speculative 2-degree rise scenario?

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Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Disneyland is the most important place in America, and Frontierland is the most important part of Disneyland. By area, it is the largest part of Disneyland. The design of Frontierland occupied a special importance for Walt Disney himself (Richard Francaviglia, Walt Disney’s Frontierland as an Allegorical Map of the American West). Even as the Imagineers had trouble keeping the futuristic buildings of Tommorowland looking “futuristic,” the archaic appeal of Frontierland never faded. Frontierland does not refer to just any frontier: it presents an immersive narrative about the American western frontier, a narrative centered on popular myth and literature. (There is no American Indian genocide in Frontierland, because Frontierland is not about the historical reality of the American frontier.) But its appeal reaches far beyond the American West, drawing visitors from all over the world and self-replicating in Japan, Hong Kong, and France. As the American frontier ceased to exist as a geographic and political reality, in myth it transcended space and culture.

As much as it is composed of myth, theater, and simulation, Frontierland is actually the real frontier.

Disneyland Main Street Station, 1960

Disneyland Main Street Station, 1960

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Gardens Need Walls: On Boundaries, Ritual, and Beauty

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

This essay attempts to place ritual in the context of evolving complex systems, and to offer an explanation for why everything is so ugly and nobody seems to be able to do anything about it.

On Boundaries and Their Permeability

Boundaries are an inherent, universal feature of complex systems. Boundaries arise at all scales, defining the entities that they surround and protecting them from some kinds of outside intrusion. To be functional, boundaries must be permeable, allowing the entities to take energy and information from outside themselves. If we are looking at complex systems, we will find boundaries everywhere.

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Geopolitics for Individuals

Kartik is a 2014 blogging resident visiting us from his home turf at

I recently spent a month playing a board game called Diplomacy, and it turned out to be a surprisingly mind-broadening experience. Pretending to be the German Empire before the First World War, exchanging missives all day with the other “great powers” of that time, finalizing troop dispositions before the daily deadline, and then seeing everybody’s moves revealed at once, finding out who lied, who was betrayed, it’s all very dramatic and addictive. It took me a while to realize (rationalize?) why its hold over me was so persistent: it was because it was getting me to grow intellectually as only a few other games have done in my life. Chess taught me to think “a few moves ahead” past the immediate exigencies of any situation. Poker taught me to manage risk when the future is uncertain. Diplomacy is starting to teach me to extend these ideas past the “kiddie pool” of games where you’re playing against coherent opponents. It repeatedly exposes one, like a school of hard knocks, to stable situations that are rendered unstable by the entrance of a new player.

There’s a faint echo of this effect in the chess-like two-player game of Go.

Go position

“Go is to Western chess what philosophy is to double-entry accounting.” — Trevanian

Learning Go, you repeatedly find yourself in situations that seemed stable, where you were holding your own, that are thrown into disarray by distant parts of the board.

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Technical Debt of the West

Kevin is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Melting Asphalt. This is the finale of his residency.

Here’s a recipe for discovering new ideas:

  1. Examine the frames that give structure (but also bias) to your thinking.
  2. Predict, on the basis of #1, where you’re likely to have blind spots.
  3. Start groping around in those areas.

If you can do this with the very deepest frames — those that constrain not just your own thinking, but your entire civilization’s — you can potentially unearth a treasure trove of insight. You may not find anything 100% original (ideas that literally no one else has ever seen), but whatever you find is almost guaranteed to be underappreciated.

In his lecture series The Tao of Philosophy, Alan Watts sets out to do just this for Western civilization. He wants to examine the very substrate of our thinking, in order to understand and correct for our biases.

So what is the substrate of Western thought?

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The Gooseberry Fallacy

Tolstoy’s 1886 parable, How Much Land Does a Man Need has been on my mind recently. In the tale, the debt-ridden peasant Pahom rises to the status of a small landowner but remains dissatisfied, unable to let go of the idea that if only he had more land, he would not even fear the devil.

The devil of course, takes him up on his challenge. Pahom is presented with an unusual land-grab opportunity by the apparently simple-minded Bashkir family. For a thousand rubles, he can have as much of their land as he can run around, between dawn to dusk. If he manages to return to the starting point, the land is his. If not, he forfeits the thousand rubles.

In the story, Pahom overestimates his stamina and attempts to claim too much land. As dusk nears, he realizes he has over-reached, and desperately races back to the starting point. He makes it back, but dies of exhaustion at the finish line. He is buried in a six-foot grave, providing both an answer to the question in the title and a moral for the story derived from Tolstoy’s late-life pacifist Christian-anarchist views.

By preaching a morality of modest, self-limiting aspirations, the good Count was trying to have his feudalism-cake and eat serf-emancipation too. It is a response to destabilizing patterns of opportunity that has become all too familiar in our own time.

I call it the gooseberry fallacy. Let me explain.

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The Locust Economy

Last week, I figured out that I am a part-time locust. Here’s how it happened.

I was picking the brain of a restauranteur for insight into things like Groupon. He confirmed what we all understand in the abstract: that these deals are terrible for the businesses that offer them; that they draw in nomadic deal hunters from a vast surrounding region who are unlikely to ever return; that most deal-hunters carefully ensure that they spend just the deal amount or slightly more; that a badly designed offer can bankrupt a small business.

He added one little factoid I did not know: offering a Groupon deal is by now so strongly associated with a desperate, dying restaurant that professional food critics tend to write off any restaurant that offers one without even trying it.

Yet, I’ve used (and continue to use) these services and don’t feel entirely terrible about doing so, or truly complicit in the depredations of Groupon. Why? It’s because, like most of the working class, I’ve developed a locust morality.


Thinking about locusts and the behavior of customers around services like Groupon, I’ve become convinced that the phrase “sharing economy” is mostly a case of putting lipstick on a pig. What we have here is a locust economy. Let me explain what that means.

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Eternal Hypochondria of the Expanding Mind

The story of neurasthenia or “invalidism” is a curious mid-nineteenth-century chapter in the story of the emancipation of women. As Barbara Ehrenreich argues in Bright-Sidedit was almost entirely a social phenomenon:

The largest demographic to suffer from neurasthenia or invalidism was middle-class women. Male prejudice barred them from higher education and the professions; industrialization was stripping away the productive tasks that had occupied women in the home, from sewing to soap-making. For many women, invalidism became a kind of alternative career. Days spent reclining in chaise longues, attended by doctors and family members and devoted to trying new medicines and medical regimens, substituted for masculine “striving” in the world.

What makes this curious, and rather ironic, is that invalidism was becoming widespread just as new possibilities were being opened up to women, through the slow substitution of fossil fuels for muscle power.

This was not a coincidence of course.

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Notes on Spatial Metaphors for Social Systems

Distance metaphors are natural in any conversation about social phenomena. We talk of the distance between governance systems and the governed, guerrilla movements and host populations,  rich and poor, Chinese and American, Red and Blue.

Kevin Simler’s recent guest post made use of the standard geometric-metaphoric scheme, the Hofstede cultural dimensions model, to talk about startup cultures. The model also forms the basis for the analysis of globalization in Pankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0, which I reviewed last year. So distance metaphors are very robust across a wide range of social phenomena, from small startups to the entire planet.

Topology — the study of the pre-geometric structure of a space, such as whether it is orientable or not, doughnut shaped or spherical, and so forth — is not as natural or easy to apply, but is also useful if you can pull it off, as Drew Austin’s recent post on the Holey Plane demonstrated.

When you do topology and geometry for social systems incoherently, you get frustrating books like Friedman’s World is Flat.

But more careful approaches aren’t safe either.  In particular, the more I think about Hofstede’s model, the more dissatisfied I get. Is there a better way? I’ve been playing around with a few very preliminary ideas that I thought I’d share, prematurely.

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