Black Swans, the Internet, and Renewable Energy

A recent post about Bob Metcalfe’s FOCACA proposal led to some comment discussion. What does it take to produce innovation, in renewable energy, or the Internet (or more likely in both interacting)?

Let’s ask John Robb, the military stategist:

Here’s how. Warfare in our current complex environment (as opposed to the last century and earlier) is very similar to the areas of science/finance where stochastic processes dominate. Since stochastic dominance implies a high level of randomness in outcomes, tinkering networks (ie. open source insurgencies) tend to generate substantially higher returns on effort than highly planned activities (ie. nation-building).

Stochastic tinkerers and warfare, John Robb, Global Guerillas, Monday, 01 January 2007

Hm, that’s almost like the bazaar instead of the cathedral.

Very like, in that Robb is quite familiar with Eric S. Raymond’s Bazaar thesis, and often alludes to it and other open source ideas. And while there are various problems with esr’s CatB, even its detractors’ main complaint is that open source isn’t really new, it’s "just another form of a scientific community" and a continuation of earlier projects such as the GNU project that originated at MIT. And earlier projects such as the BSD Unix project at UCB. And earlier projects such as the ARPANET, which was much more organized by the inmates of the asylum than most people seem to realize. In other words, open source is a direct descendant of the kind of university-centered research that Metcalfe proposes to promote.

So why is this better than top-down corporate product development or government nation-building-style programs?

The reason is that if you can’t plan outcomes due to randomness, the optimal approach to success is through parallel development efforts using a wide variety of methods in combination with a network that readily embraces unexpected but very useful innovations. In contrast, highly planned efforts tend to limit the number of methods/paths used and are resistant to errant results due to bureaucratic inertia/bias.

Finally, these tinkering networks can occasionally produce black swans, or radical breakthroughs. In the context of warfare this is either an event or improvement in method that changes the course of the war. Question: are we, or can you ever imagine us being, in the business of producing black swans in warfare?

As Robb well knows, we have been in that business, due to for example his hero John R. Boyd. But not so much anymore.

And nevermind the military for the moment. What if we were in the business of producing black swans in the Internet or in renewable energy? We certainly have done that in the Internet and its predecessors: electronic mail on the ARPANET, UUCP, FidoNet, USENET, anonymous FTP, archie, WAIS, gopher, WWW, Yahoo!, P2P filesharing, google, YouTube, etc.; the list goes on for a long time. Some we still use; others led to newer ideas. (Compared to X.25, ISDN, and X.400, the great telco innovations; remember any of those?)

Call it FOCACA; call it open source; call it tinkering networks. Whatever you call it; it works, and it’s good risk management. Better than monoculture, oligopoly, or the "free" market as far as producing innovation.

So, imagine such a process of innovation applied to renewable energy, with sufficient money to fuel it, and with the company-building apparatus that built many computing and Internet companies available to ramp up successful results to cross the chasm and go mass market. That’s what I think Bob Metcalfe is proposing.

Who knows? Such a process might even reduce the need for oil wars and thus solve Robb’s military question indirectly.


3 thoughts on “Black Swans, the Internet, and Renewable Energy

  1. Will Sheward

    “Compared to X.25, ISDN, and X.400, the great telco innovations; remember any of those?”
    Actually, yes 🙂
    X.400 messaging may not be popular in the wider world but it’s still the dominant force in EDI, the basis for the new standard in aviation (ground to ground) messaging and very popular in the military messaging market.

  2. Azael

    Perhaps this will work, but I think there’s a major difference in the domains. In software, things aren’t really resource constrained – i.e. you can get a whole lot done without much investment. Sure, people are expensive, but they always are. But you don’t need a lot of actual physical resources. In energy and these other areas, capital costs dominate. So the dynamics are far different. So much so that I severely doubt any “open source” model metaphor would likely be applicable.
    But hey, that’s just me.
    Maybe with such things as proliferation of rapid prototyping and such that will all change…

  3. Cara Fletcher

    Companies that produce renewable energy will be one of the more profitable in the next generations because people will start to use this type of energy more and more.

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