Come read “The Code Economy: A 40,00 Year History” with us

I don’t think the publishers got their money’s worth on cover design

EvX’s Book Club is reading Philip Auerswald’s The Code Economy: A 40,000 Year History looks at how everything humans produce, from stone tools to cities to cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, requires the creation, transmission, and performance of “code,”  and explores the notion that human societies–and thus civilization–is built on a mountain of of encoded processes.

I loved this book and am re-reading it, so I would like to invite you to come read it, too.

Discussion of Chapter 1 Jobs: Divide and Coordinate, will begin on May 23 and last as long as we want it to.

Here’s Amazon’s blurb about the book:

What do Stone Age axes, Toll House cookies, and Burning Man have in common? They are all examples of code in action.

What is “code”? Code is the DNA of human civilization as it has evolved from Neolithic simplicity to modern complexity. It is the “how” of progress. It is how ideas become things, how ingredients become cookies. It is how cities are created and how industries develop.

In a sweeping narrative that takes readers from the invention of the alphabet to the advent of the Blockchain, Philip Auerswald argues that the advance of code is the key driver of human history. Over the span of centuries, each major stage in the advance of code has brought a shift in the structure of society that has challenged human beings to reinvent not only how we work but who we are.

We are in another of those stages now. The Code Economy explains how the advance of code is once again fundamentally altering the nature of work and the human experience. Auerswald provides a timely investigation of value creation in the contemporary economy-and an indispensable guide to our economic future.


The Activation Energy of Economic Activity

Both Bourgois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Bario and Joel Salatin’s Everything I Want to do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front discuss legal difficulties faced by small-scale entrepreneurs (albeit in very different situations.)

One of the crack dealers in Bourgois’s ethnography has amassed a small fortune (for the ghetto, at least,) and wants to “go honest.” So he uses his money to open a convenience store, but gets shut down by the authorities (state or local, I don’t recall which,) because his bathroom isn’t disabled-accessible. So he went back to selling crack.

Salatin also complains about ADA compliance, particularly in the matter of parking lots (if he pours a few concrete spaces in his yard so customers can park at his farm and buy a few chickens, does he need to make a handicapped spot?) and bathrooms.

Now that I think of it, back at one of my former jobs, we had a changing room that was officially a “supply closet” because it wasn’t large enough to meet ADA standards. (Obviously I was not in charge of this business and had no control over the closet.)

Salatin’s principle complains, though, focused on food-regulation laws–What counts as organic? What is an approved butchering facility? What if you are only butchering five chickens and want to sell them to your neighbors? What, exactly, is “organic”?

The amount of paperwork and legal compliance required to add a few organic potatoes or locally slaughtered chickens to such an operation are enormous.

According to Wikipedia:

In chemistry, activation energy is a term introduced in 1889 by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius to describe the minimum energy which must be available to a chemical system with potential reactants to result in a chemical reaction.[1] Activation energy may also be defined as the minimum energy required to start a chemical reaction.

360px-activation_energy-svgSome chemical reactions basically happen instantly, like if you throw sodium into water (NOTE: Don’t throw sodium into water. It will explode.) Others, like starting a fire in your fireplace, require the input of some amount of energy to get the reaction going. (Typically we supply this energy by hand, by striking matches, rubbing sticks together, or striking flint on steel.)

We can also think of activation energy in economic terms as the inputs necessary to start a business. Beyond the obvious physical requirements–if you want to produce shoes, you will need material for making shoes–we also have legal requirements. You cannot simply bake a bunch of cookies at home, walk outside, and start selling them. There are some serious food safety laws on the subject.

Now to be clear, I value clean water, food, and medicines. I appreciate that my doctors are skilled. I don’t want to end up with brain-damage just because a local entrepreneur decided it was a good idea to dump old batteries into the drinking water, and I understand that disabled people need to pee just as much as everyone else.

But at the same time, we need to make sure we are not putting in so much regulation that small-scale entrepreneurs are effectively shut out of the market, because the costs of compliance either make the economic activity completely unprofitable, or are just too high for someone trying to start a business to bear.

(Large, already-established corporations, by contrast, tend to be less impacted by such regulations both because they hire armies of lobbyists to ensure that regulatory legislation favors them and also because their profits are high enough that they have money to spare for compliance. Still, they, too, are probably impacted in significant ways.)

The neighbors don’t use trash pickup: the cellular automata of ethnic competition

I’ve noticed that the neighbors don’t put out their trash can on trash day. At first I thought nothing of it; perhaps they just hadn’t put their can out yet, or had accidentally slept through trash pickup. I don’t normally devote too much thought to the neighbors’ trash habits, but somehow, their cans never seemed to be out.

Last week, I witnessed them piling a mountain of trashbags into a truck. This week, again, no trash can.

It is technically legal, and cheaper, to not pay for trash pickup and instead pay a small fee to deposit your trash directly at the dump. So the neighbors are storing up a month or two’s worth of trash in their garage and then hauling it to the dump.

This is (or was) a nice neighborhood. Low crime, good schools, modern infrastructure, nice houses.

Now one of the other neighbors has been complaining to me that he’s concerned about rats coming from that house to his house.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints about this household, generally from other neighbors. Noisy, late-night parties. Guests who pee in other people’s bushes. Litter. Parking disputes (thankfully, not with me.) Mundanities that you have to put up with if you’re living around other humans. But this is a bit much.

So what to do? Call up the HOA and demand that they pass a resolution mandating that people pay for trash pickup? (Can the HOA even do that?) I don’t actually like the idea of getting the HOA to regulate the minutia of other people’s behavior, but then, I’ve never had a neighbor opt to keep giant piles of trash in their house instead of pay for trash pickup.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because I happened to highlight trash-related behaviors back in “Increasing Diversity => Fascism.” I’d call this a coincidence, but I suspect that disputes over proper trash disposal are actually very common.

I’m just glad we’re renting, so it’s not my money going down the drain–no, my money did that elsewhere. We cut our losses and got out shortly after the home invasions started and I found used drug needles on the playground. So we decided to pay extra, this time, for a nicer neighborhood, somewhere clean and safe.

So much for clean.

Why would anyone who can’t afford trash pickup live in this neighborhood? There are cheaper-but-still-nice neighborhoods nearby.

The answer is probably the obvious one. People who live on million-dollar estates on islands accessible only by ferry, who happily talk about how the cost of the ferry ride “keeps out the riff-raff,” vote for policies that move people from ghettos to middle-class neighborhoods.


This all gets back to competition, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and ethnicity.

You and I are in competition.

If it’s any consolation, we’re also in competition with pretty much everyone on Earth. Each of us, whether consciously or not, is attempting to secure resources for ourselves and our progeny.

The easiest person to conquer is your neighbor.

You are unlikely to care terribly much about the behavior of someone living across the country, or even across the state. If some guy a thousand miles away from you is storing up a pile of trash, well, that’s weird, but it doesn’t affect you. If your neighbor is storing up a pile of trash, suddenly it starts looking like your business.

Most violence is committed against people known to the attacker, or members of their own community. Most wars are waged against a country’s immediate neighbors. And if I can’t conquer my neighbors, perhaps I can ally with someone from far away–someone not an immediate threat to me–to conquer them.

The easiest way to get people to stop fighting with their neighbors and band together for the common good is to confront them with an even bigger, credible threat from further away. England and France finally managed to ally when confronted with Germany; if space aliens invaded tomorrow, I bet most countries on earth would forget their nationalistic squabbles pretty darn quickly.

But as long as there isn’t a bigger, credible threat, then stealing my neighbor’s resources can lead to my own success. And pretty soon, we’re back to squabbling.

In other words, getting people to cooperate instead of defect is pretty tough.

Indeed, a great percent of ethnic conflicts are phrased along the lines of, “My people are great and virtuous cooperators who bend over backwards for other groups of people, but your people are dastardly defectors who are taking advantage of our naive goodwill!” And for good reason–if you can consistently defect against someone who consistently cooperates, you’ll do really well for yourself.

Society can only function if people cooperate, but short-term interests are benefitted by defection. Why put in all of the effort to engage in trade when you can let other people do trade and then mug them? Society therefore has a strong incentive to punish defection–if society can actually identify it.

We’ve gotten into the habit of attempting to prove that we are great cooperators by accusing others of defecting–ironically, defecting against them in the process.

Most whites are in direct competition–for jobs, popularity, and mates–with other whites. Lower class (and some middle class) whites are also in competition with blacks and Hispanic immigrants. High class whites are not.

When low class whites complain about black behavior, it sounds to high class whites like defection–or as we more commonly put it, racism. When high class whites say so, this sounds like defection to the low class whites–especially when they believe the blacks defected on them first. (And the blacks, of course, will inform you that the whites defected on them first.)

When whites move out of neighborhoods as blacks move in, it looks an awful lot to elites like defection. When elites make sanctimonious noises about the evils of “white flight,” this sounds like defection to the whites whose property values were destroyed as crime and trash–in the literal sense–invaded their neighborhoods. And when whites attempt to keep prospective black buyers out of neighborhoods (or drive them out after they’ve moved in,) this looks like defection, too.

Society needs a better way to determine who is and isn’t defecting.