Dependency networks

by Cristóbal

The impetus of analysis is to break-down complex structures into simpler, comprehensible parts. Understand each part and their interactions and the operation of the machine becomes apparent. This is only possible when clear interfaces between the parts allow for independence. Yet, a salient exception always appears to complicate the conjured picture.

What COVID, the climate crisis, supply chain bottlenecks, the war between Russia and Ukraine and its ramification in energy and agriculture, mega-corporation’s hold on communication networks as pertaining to both entertainment and elections, and every other news item has made clear are the complex dependency relations between any possible factoring of the world.

The response is a sensation of crisis. Venkatesh Rao compelling ascribes this as a nostalgia for times of normalcy, particularly among the class of analysts, be them pundits or academics. But now we are in the perma-weird”, no matter how much hand wringing happens in the journals.

Perhaps this is why world-building” has become the modus-operandi for corporations. By entering a self-contained structure with its own internal norms and infrastructure, one offers a sense of stability as a product. There’s no doubt that this has had commercial success—just look at Marvel. Power-hungry founders have observed the same and now are starting lifestyle businesses instead of horizontal SaaS tools. These companies will indeed profit, however the underlying dependency graph remains the same.

There are two approaches to this overdetermined structure which have traction: re-design critical infrastructure focusing on formal guarantees of independence or cordon off subsystems at smaller scales, where independence is achieved through strong boundaries.

The first approach is that of protocol design and trust-less coordination. It is the technocratic solution to crisis, centered around cryptography. One can read it as a reaction to the promises of centralization, be it the nation-state or the mega-corporation. Economies of scale are retained along the edges of production by trying to depersonalize coordination and dematerialize processes.

The second approach is of convivial forms and resilience research. Isolation from the outside world is attained through stronger interpersonal relations. Live within communities where everyone knows you. (Digital versions of this constitute the Dark Forest Theory of the Internet.) Write software for your friends, which executes via a hand-written virtual machine that runs on salvaged hardware, operable from a sailboat in the middle of the Pacific.

The first approach risks their technology becoming a veil simply supervening on the existing dependency networks (e.g. stable-coins, or socially-backed valuations that enter crises of personality). The second approach risks nostalgic luddism, ignoring the power of abstraction and composition that formal systems allow. Luckily, the couple on the sailboat can program in C.

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