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Dharmic decentralization: what can we learn from jellyfish, fungi, and Will Smith?

Dec 11, 2021

How to avoid making costly mistakes.

Suhas Kashyap

Decentralization is not new to us as a species. It first began with the social organization of ancie n t human societies. They lived together in small hunter-gatherer societies maintained their egalitarian ways. Neolithic decentralized communities typically consisted of less than 150 people(Dunbar's number), where everyone was accountable for and to one another. Small populations made management more straightforward. Such small communities could easily trust one another. The close relationships maintained by individuals made it hard for any group to get away with bad or selfish behavior. Some even suggest that these societies lived in relative equality and were polyamorous, but that's not the topic of this blog post.

Consequently, the social structure that existed before the Agrarian revolution consisted of a decentralized society where interactions were between individuals living in a society with a limited hierarchical structure. There was no need for rulers to govern and control interactions since everyone was self-reliant.

Examples in biological domain with decentralized design:

There are plenty of examples in the Biological sphere of decentralized design illustrated by Jellyfish (been around for 100s of millions of years) and Fungi(Been around for a billion years):

  • Jellyfish have a decentralized brain diffused across the whole body like a net. The various body parts can operate seemingly autonomously, without centralized control; for example, a jellyfish mouth removed surgically can carry on "eating" even without the rest of the animal's body.
  • Fungi are predominantly made up of "mycelium" — an underground decentralized intelligence network described by Paul Stamets as "earth's natural internet."

“I believe that mycelium is the neurological network of nature. Interlacing mosaics of mycelium infuse habitats with information-sharing membranes. These membranes are aware, react to change, and collectively have the long-term health of the host environment in mind. The mycelium stays in constant molecular communication with its environment, devising diverse enzymatic and chemical responses to complex challenges.”

― Paul Stamets, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World

Mushrooms in a group popping out from the ground

Mushrooms in a group popping out from the ground

Photo by Phoenix Han on Unsplash

Examples in technological domain with decentralized design:

  • The Internet is controlled by many. It's millions of devices linked together in an open network. No one actor can own it, control it, or switch it off for everyone. The Internet and the World Wide Web remain the biggest decentralized communication systems humanity has ever seen. Still, Web 2.0 has seen the increased influence of organizations like Facebook, which act as gatekeepers of information and lead to disastrous consequences to democracy.
  • Now we are entering the era of Web 3.0- which promises the vision of web 1.0: more 'human' and more privacy. Rather than concentrating the power (and data) in the hands of huge behemoths with questionable motives, it would be more decentralized with you and me. The vision of a fairer and more transparent web dates back to around 2006, but the tools and technologies weren't available for it to materialize then.
  • Bitcoin was still three years off, bringing with it the notion of a distributed ledger, or blockchain, for peer-to-peer digital storage. Decentralization was the idea; blockchain was the means. No one has to know or trust anyone else in a decentralized blockchain network. Each member in the network has a copy of the same data in the form of a distributed ledger. If a member's ledger is altered or corrupted in any way, it will be rejected by the majority of the members in the network. Now we have what is described as human-centered internet web 3.0.
  • Mediators are removed from the equation. Blockchains like Ethereum provide a trust-less platform where the rules are unbreakable, and data is fully encrypted. Alphabet and Apple will no longer have control of user data. No government or entity will have the ability to kill sites and services, and no single individual can control the identities of others.
  • Open-source software has source code that anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance. "Source code" is the part of the software that most computer users don't ever see; it's the code computer programmers can manipulate to change how a piece of software — a "program" or "application" — works. Programmers who access a computer program's source code can improve that program by adding features or fixing parts that don't always work correctly. This is opposed to software with source code that only the person, team, or organization who created it can modify and maintain exclusive control over it. People call this kind of software "proprietary" or "closed source" software. Linux, Mozilla Firefox, Python, and WordPress are some notable examples.

Examples in governmental domain with decentralized design:

In a team of n people, n-squared pairings emerge. Internal coordination is complex and costly. Central planning doesn't work. In general, as an entity grows, so do its internal coordination costs. But its external coordination costs fall. Totalitarian government is a classic example where internal coordination, as Hayek and the Austrians showed, is complex and costly; central planning doesn't work. Totalitarian governments that exploit their people are textbook examples of adharma. In contrast, Switzerland enjoys strong federalism, with high degrees of decentralization at each federal level. A high degree of political decentralization can boost social capital. The distance between the local government and citizens is much shorter than between the federal government and citizens.

Now think about a typical group setting in a corporation, say ACME corp. The CEO announces it's time for the company to improve. That command gets translated down the ranks, each manager impressing the importance of their efforts upon their team. Each person hears what they want to hear: the accountants understand that they must improve the usefulness of the books they keep (with each person interpreting "usefulness" differently). The software devs nod in agreement that better code is crucial (with each person interpreting "better" differently). The marketing people agree that more creative promotions are the only solution (with no one bothering to define "creativity").that you can improve the performance of a company as a whole by individually improving the performance of its parts.

Each person marches off on their mission, nose to the grindstone, performance bonuses on the horizon, without realizing that their collective efforts imply a management philosophy: that you can improve the performance of a company as a whole by individually enhancing the performance of its parts.

These isolated improvements are known as "local optima" (or, in traditional manufacturing contexts, "local efficiencies"). A local optimum is best for the performance of an individual part, whereas the global optimum is best for the system's performance as a whole.

This is the vital point about local optima in complex systems that many miss: local optima are not just suboptimal, as in "not as good as they could be." When combined in an interdependent system, local optima make things worse. Putting our previous conclusion differently: adding up a series of local optima does not automatically lead to a global optimum.

This was also the conclusion of my last blog post regarding how empathy can be a misleading moral compass, as optimizing for local optima(individual's empathy) can worsen global outcomes due to the inherent biases in all of us.

This same philosophy extended to the rational economic man(an idealized person who acts rationally, with perfect knowledge, and seeks to maximize personal utility or satisfaction) leads to dangerous consequences, argues Kate Raworth in Doughnut economics. Kate Raworth argues quite convincingly that it might be one of the scariest stories at the heart of 20th-century economics still being propagated today.

Then, Is the answer to this puzzle keeping teams under Dunbar's number of 150? If we did that, would we have built dams or silicon microprocessors, or would we have set foot on the moon? The silicon chip lies at the heart of the computer or the mobile device on which you are reading this blog post, would that be possibly built by a self-reliant team of 150 people? I think the answer to that is a resounding no! If you have been following the supply chain challenges in the chip industry(not the pringles kind of chips), the various moving parts are immense. Before you put silicon into chipmaking machines, you need a cleanroom. A very clean room. Individual transistors are many times smaller than a virus. Just one speck of dust can cause havoc and millions of dollars of wasted effort. Chip companies try to pack more transistors into chips, enhancing performance and making devices more power-efficient. Intel’s first microprocessor — the 4004 — was released in 1971 and contained only 2,300 transistors with a node size of 10 microns or 10 millionths of a meter. But Intel’s undisputed leadership of the following decades ended between 2015 and 2020 when rivals Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.(TSMC) and Samsung Electronics Co. started building chips with better transistors: ones with dimensions down to 5 nanometers, or 5 billionths of a meter (for comparison, an average human hair is 100,000 nanometers wide). Chip plants run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They do that for one reason: cost. Building an entry-level factory that produces 50,000 wafers per month costs about $15 billion. All this ingenuity and for what? We mainly use it for watching cutecat videos while feeling inadequate scrolling through Instagram. TSMC has a little more than 150 employees to build these chips. To be precise, they have 56,831 employees!

One of the greatest strengths of the homo sapiens is to come together under a shared vision, even when we are not related to one another(unlike bees who cooperate as they are all siblings building a hive).

So, centralization and decentralization are more akin to yin and yang. Too much of either isn't good for humanity, but it requires a delicate balance. How do we achieve that balance? Enter Dharmic decentralization.

Dharma refers to sustainability, ecology, ethics, duty, and spirituality and is beautifully explained in this blog post. Applying Dharma to architecture decisions is about finding the most sustainable design in the long run. I am not referring to Dharma as a religious term here but as a more sustainable universal philosophy with properties of ahimsa (non-violence) and anrishamsyata (non-cruelty), amongst others.

In my previous blog post, I talked about the downsides of empathy but the upsides of our skills in finding fault in others and how that can be a force of good for society. We should take advantage of the other's eye to course-correct our individual life choices.

The Theory of Constraints(TOC) has an exciting way to look at highly decentralized design decisions in an organization. The TOC takes a scientific approach to improvements in a complex system, including manufacturing processes that consist of multiple linked activities. Take the example stated above of ACME corp, which optimizes for local optima, resulting in an overall suboptimal and unsustainable environment. TOC says that every system has a bottleneck. The second statement of TOC is that the system's performance is limited by the output of the tightest bottleneck or most limiting constraint. TOC asks us to identify the constraints, optimize the constraints, and then optimize for flow and not for capacity at the individual level. In a more relatable example, if you are trying to find the optimal number of cars on a highway to achieve peak flow, then the optimal number of incoming vehicles is, however, many the narrowest, slowest section of the road can allow through consistently. Not the maximum number of cars on each lane outside of the bottleneck! Easier said than done, right? :)

Surprisingly, language can also teach us how to find the Dharmic balance well: According to research, some claim that Sanskrit is the most suitable language for developing computer programming for their Artificial Intelligence program. However, the decentralized nature of the spread of Sanskrit is unique when compared to languages such as English and Spanish, which were spread by colonial means and top-down enforcement. Sanskrit was interconnected with local languages in a two-way process: the meta-structure of Sanskrit was transmitted top-down into local languages, and, simultaneously, there was bottom-up assimilation of local culture and language into Sanskrit's flexible, open architecture. Sanskriti is the term for such a culture and civilization, one that goes well beyond the borders of modern India to encompass South Asia, much of Southeast Asia, and East Asia. Sanskriti flourished with the exchange between these two cultural streams, known as the 'great' and 'little' traditions. While the sophisticated, urbane population (known as the 'great tradition' in anthropology) provided Sanskriti with refinement and comprehensiveness, cultural contributions from the rural masses (the 'little traditions') gave it popularity and vitality a diverse outlook. Festivals and rituals weaved the web of interconnectedness.

There is a critical difference between this process and, say, Christian inculturation. Under colonial rule, European colonizers imposed their canonized texts and theories on those they conquered. Worse still, they liquidated indigenous peoples and their rich and valuable knowledge traditions. They saw the natives as 'tribals.' Contemporary scholars have superimposed the same structural dichotomy in the vain hope of understanding India through divisive and conflict-ridden categories. On the other hand, dharmic osmosis across traditions has resulted in local variations being sustained over long periods without pressure to convert people to metropolitan dharmic traditions. Pluralism in Indian society results from peaceful coexistence among minority groups; it did not come about due to violent conflict aimed at achieving social change. Every society has its shortcomings, many of which result from adharmic behavior of corruption, excessive greed, and pride by some leaders throughout history, including India. Having said that and despite its many flaws, I haven't seen a country balance complexity so delicately and harmoniously as India has done. But many people from other countries think it's chaotic.

This difference between Sanskriti and Western civilization spread may be restated in business terms using the analogy of 'push' versus 'pull' marketing. Push marketing comprises intrusive advertising, door-to-door calls, intimidation tactics, telemarketing, etc. In pull marketing, the product demand drives the transfer without pressure or intimidation from the supplier. The consumer takes the initiative to find and approach the supplier. Common modern examples include searching for a defined need, such as Google, Amazon, and other sources sought out by the buyer. In the case of Sanskriti, the receiving cultures found assimilation to be highly advantageous and sought out Hindu–Buddhist itihasa, Purana-s, symbols, rituals, doctrines, ideas of governance, and aesthetics from the Indian mainland. The best evidence of this is that the rulers of China, Tibet, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and other nations sent their brightest students to the vihara-s (educational institutions) for more than one thousand years India.

I think that a Dharmic way of doing things in all areas is a promising way to approach these design decisions of society. I believe Conscious Capitalism is a movement that acknowledges that, and some authors like Paul Collier are trying to find the path leading to the bountiful lands somewhere between ideology and populism. The Lindy effect is a theorized phenomenon by which the future life expectancy of some non-perishable things, like a technology or an idea, is proportional to their current age. Decentralized hunter-gatherer societies existed for nearly 200,000 years and our agrarian society has existed for a mere 10,000 years. Some historians from 100,000 CE might look upon this time frame as an experiment(assuming that the species survives till then). Dharma has been written about for around 3000 years, which means that it will likely be around for at least another 3000 years(according to the Lindy effect), so why don't we use it to design a better society. Will Smith said, "I want the world to be better because I was here." Do you?

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