Amazon kept recommending this book to me, for some reason I couldn't
fathom. After all, I don't think I've bought a single history book
from them. The cover is garish enough that I noticed they way it kept
popping up (and later I found the internal typography to be execrable:
san serif like a pre-school Janet and John book, and ragged
right margins obscuring the paragraph structure; but I digress). After
a while I looked at the recommendation in a bit more depth than merely
reading the title. It looked as if it might be interesting, so in June
I bought it, as is my wont, and added it to my ever-growing
unread collection. And Amazon still
kept recommending it! So I looked a bit closer, and eventually decided
to read it. 50 pages in, I went back to Amazon, and bought all the
rest of De Landa's books. (And later, I bought a book by another
author referenced in the notes. Reading good books makes my
unread pile grow.)
Amazon's recommendation was right for me because this isn't "history"
in the traditional sense. De Landa discusses the last 1000 years of
(mainly European) history as intensifications of flows of energy,
material, genes, and language through a combination of non-equilibrium
complex dynamical systems. He provides a tour de force, that
synthesises and builds on the work of a huge range of authors from a
diverse range of backgrounds: geology, biology, sociology, economics,
linguistics, philosophy, and more. (One author he builds on in
particular is the French philosopher Deleuze. After reading the
numerous quotations given, I am not tempted to buy his works,
but rather am thankful that De Landa has provided such an excellent
translation and synthesis as presented here.)
Below I try to provide an overview of the book. Warning -- this is
long, since there is so much covered in the book -- and it is
incomplete -- for the same reason. The book is a complex and detailed
meshwork of an account, and to be fully appreciated, I highly
recommend reading it in full. I have attempted a fairly linear
account, but this is doomed to failure. De Landa emphasises that we
find it difficult to think in non-linear ways:
We may wonder why, given the ubiquity of
self-consistent aggregates, it seems so hard to think about the
structures that populate the world in any but hierarchical terms. One
possible answer is that stratified structures involve the simplest
form of causal relations, simple arrows going from cause to effect.
Western thought has been dominated by notions of linear
(nonreciprocal) causality for twenty-five hundred years. It was not
until World War II that the work of Norman Wiener
gave rise to
the study of negative feedback and with it the beginning of nonlinear
The whole work is embedded in the notions of complex non-linear
dynamics, at multiple levels.
We live in a world populated by
structures---a complex mixture of geological, biological, social, and
linguistic constructions that are nothing but accumulations of
materials shaped and hardened by history.
It is about themes and patterns: there is barely the mention of any
specific historical characters or events (no specific wars, for
example, but a lot about the effect that preparation for war had on
nations). It starts a thousand years ago, at the "first
industrial revolution", of agriculture and water power, with a
break at the Industrial Revolution, of steam power.
eleventh century industrial revolution,
fueled by solar (agricultural) and gravitational (water) energy.
He does this in terms of dynamical systems concepts such as "attractors"
and "bifurcations" (he never goes into specific details of
the underlying dynamical systems formalism, but it is clear he means
this concretely, not metaphorically).
Attractors are the simplest type of
abstract machine, operating at the level of nonlinear, destratified
The attractors define "stable" states in the system, which
can move between them.
much as a given chemical compound
may exist in several distinct states
and may switch from stable
state to stable state at critical points in the intensity of
temperature (called phase transitions), so a human society may be seen
as a "material" capable of undergoing these changes of state
as it reaches critical mass in terms of density of settlement, amount
of energy consumed, or even intensity of interaction.
(Note here it's "matter-energy", not "matter-energy-information",
but information and its flows do play a role later.)
reality is a single matter-energy
undergoing phase transitions of various kinds, with each new layer of
accumulated "stuff" simply enriching the reservoir of
nonlinear dynamics and nonlinear combinatorics available for the
generation of novel structures and processes.
Because of this openness---flows through the far-from
equilibrium-system---and this growth---of material, of kinds of
material, and hence of the dynamical system's phase space and
dimensionality---conventional non-linear dynamical systems theory is
inadequate. It deals with fixed phase spaces, not ones constantly
being "enriched" by novel materials and processes. But since
De Landa only uses high level concepts of attractors and bifurcations,
this does not pose a problem (at this level of discourse).
De Landa moves beyond these dynamical systems ideas of attractors
and bifurcations to ideas of "structure-generating processes"
that change the very dynamical system's landscape. He identifies three
further "abstract machines" that are important here: those
that create hierarchies, those that create meshworks, and evolution.
The idea of an abstract machine that can have different realisations
is an important concept. All too often writers take structures in one
domain and translate them metaphorically (or via only a naive
analogy), merely "copying the form" into another domain.
This just doesn't work (beyond possibly some trivial results), and can
all too easily result in "cargo
We must be careful when drawing these
analogies, however. In particular, we must avoid the error of
comparing cities to organisms, especially when the metaphor is meant
to imply (as it has in the past) that both exist in a state of
internal equilibrium, or homeostasis. Rather, urban centers and living
creatures must be seen as different dynamical systems
operating far from equilibrium, that is, traversed by more or less
intense flows of matter-energy that provoke their unique
p281, note 11.
Mirowsky shows how the concept of the "invisible
hand" was formalized in the nineteenth century by simply copying
the form of equilibrium thermodynamics. ... Elsewhere he warns that
recent attempts to apply Ilya Prigogine's
theories to economics are making the same mistake---for example,
assuming the existence of attractors without specifying just what it
is that is being dissipated (i.e., only energetically dissipative or "lossy"
systems have attractors).
But getting a good abstraction, then reinstantiating appropriately
in a different domain, give much more powerful results. It tells you
which parts are contingent, and which are essential to the process.
For example, it is important to have some realisation of the abstract
concept of dissipation, or "friction", in the system to get
the attractor dynamics. (Frank
Herbert at least recognises the necessity of "friction"
in society, with his invention of BuSab: the Bureau of Sabotage.)
Contemporary studies in nonlinear urban
dynamics teach us that, in many cases, friction (delays, bottlenecks,
conflict, uneven distribution of resources) plays a crucial role in
generating self-organization. Hence, eliminating it from our models
(by postulating an optimizing rationality, for instance) automatically
eliminates the possibility of capturing any real dynamical effect.
De Landa insists his abstract machines are genuine abstractions that
can be applied non-metaphorically across domains.
There is, no doubt, some element of
metaphor in my use of the terms [hierarchy and meshwork],
but there are, I believe, common physical processes behind the
formation of meshworks and hierarchies which make each different usage
of the terms quite literal. These common processes cannot be fully
captured through linguistic representations alone; we need to employ
something along the lines of engineering diagrams to specify
No actual diagrams are drawn, but several are described. The first
abstract structure generating process discussed is that of
sedimentation, of making strata, or hierarchies. Initially this is
examined in terms of sedimentary rock formation, and then abstracted,
and later applied to other systems.
Since pebbles do not come in standard
sizes and shapes, some kind of sorting mechanism must be
involved here, some specific device to take a multiplicity of pebbles
of heterogeneous qualities and distribute them into more or less
... a second operation is necessary
to transform these loose collections of pebbles into a larger-scale
entity: sedimentary rock. This operation consists in cementing
the sorted components together into a new entity with emergent
properties of its own, that is, properties such as overall strength
and permeability which cannot be ascribed to the sum of the individual
. it consolidates the pebbles' temporary
spatial relations into a more or less permanent "architectonic"
Thus ... a "double
articulation" transforms structures on one scale into structures
on another scale.
these two operations constitute an
engineering diagram and so we can expect to find isomorphic processes
(that is, this same "abstract machine of stratification")
not only in the world of geology but in the organic and human worlds
This abstraction (the structure generating process, and the
resulting structure) is applied across domains.
sedimentary rocks, species, and social
classes ...are all historical constructions, the product of definite
structure-generating processes that take as their starting point a
heterogeneous collection of raw materials (pebbles, genes, roles),
homogenize them through a sorting operation, and then consolidate the
resulting uniform groupings into a more permanent state. The
hierarchies ... are a special case of a more general class of
structures, stratified systems, to which not only human bureaucracies
and biological species belong, but also sedimentary rocks. (And all
this without metaphor.)
A metaphor would be something like "sedimentary rocks have
layers, social castes have layers, therefore castes are like rocks",
but here we have the abstraction "sedimentary rocks are formed by
these processes, we can abstract these processes into "sorting"
and "consolidation", we can see instances of sorting and
consolidation processes in other systems", but those need not be
instantiated in the same way as the sorting and consolidation in
rocks: social systems don't use gravity to sort people into classes!
The consolidation step is a crucial part of the process, as it slows
down the flow, produces a new kind of entity, by stopping the
components from just drifting apart again. The dynamics is
irreversible at a fundamental level.
the cementing together of the sediment
acting as a ratchet mechanism
In fact, there's an even more abstract machine, of which this "sorting
and cementing" is itself an instantiation:
p290, note 82.
Deleuze and Guattari call these two
operations "content" and "expression" and warn us
against confusing them with the old philosophical distinction between
substance and form. Content and expression each involves substance and
form: sedimentation is not just about accumulating pebbles (substance)
but also about sorting them into uniform layers (form); while
consolidation not only effects new architectonic couplings between
pebbles (form) but also yields a new entity, a sedimentary rock
(substance). It is this form of the diagram (one operation involving
substances and forms, another operation involving forms and
substances) that is the most abstract and, hence, the most useful. The
particular instantiation that I will be using in this book (sorting +
consolidation) may be seen as a particular form of this more general
"Substance and form" corresponds to "stuff and
relationships", which might be drawn as a network of "nodes
and links". In complex systems, we are used to thinking of
particular complex networks, such as "small world networks".
But of course a hierarchy is also a kind of network: a tree structure.
The kinds of more horizontally structured networks we think of as "complex
systems" De Landa calls meshworks, and they form his
second abstract machine.
there are three elements in this
diagram. First, a set of heterogeneous elements is brought together
an interconnection of diverse but overlapping elements.
Second, a special class of operators, or intercalary elements,
is needed to effect these interconnections. (... this is the role
played by catalysts...) Finally, the interlocked heterogeneities must
be capable of endogenously generating stable patterns of behavior (for
example, patterns at regular temporal or spatial intervals).
Moving from the domain of sedimentary rocks to that of markets, one
intercalary element identified is money, as it serves to
interconnect various transactions.
In the absence of price manipulation,
functions as an intercalary element ... Other intercalary
elements are also needed to make markets work.
to reduce transaction costs and allow the interlocking of
complementary demands to take place.
Catalysis plays a key role in meshwork formation. What is meant by
catalysis? It can't be just the chemical definition: that is tied to
the particular realisation. Again, we need an abstraction.
p291, note 92.
Deleuze and Guattari
refer to catalysis in their theories of meshworklike structures
They tend to view catalysis in terms of one specific (albeit very
important) type of catalyst: the allosteric enzymes
What is needed here is to make the
notion of a "catalyst" more abstract so that the specific
functions of a chemical catalyst (to perform acts of recognition via a
lock-and-key mechanism, to accelerate or decelerate chemical
reactions) are not what matters, but the more general notion of aiding
growth "from within" or "from in between." One
step in this direction has been taken by Arthur
by defining catalytic activity as the ability to
force a dynamical system from one attractor to another.
So money can be a catalyst.
is like energy, only it
runs in the opposite direction: energy flows from agricultural
villages to the towns they feed, while money flows from town to
countryside, to pay for the food.
in many cases peasants would
come to a market town to sell their goods, not to buy other goods, but
to get cash to pay their rent to the owners of their land.
monetary flows regulate (inhibit or intensify) energy flows ...
Money is best defined as a catalyst
or stimulant of trade (and its absence, an inhibitor). Barter, the
exchange of goods for goods, is relatively inefficient in that people
must wait for their complementary needs to meet.
money comes into existence, complementary demands can be meshed
together at a distance, greatly increasing the intensity of market
Here money is explicitly compared to (negative) energy flow, rather
than say being an embodiment of information. But like energy flows,
money flow can be intensified: it be stored and accumulated (and
restricted, to provide "friction"). If we think of money as
information, then this implies that information can be a catalyst.
Another example is given, this time directly informational (despite "know-how"
being embodied in people):
Skills and know-how provided what one
might call "catalytic information," that is, information
capable of bringing together and amplifying flows of energy and
Abstraction mitigates the danger of "cargo cultism". If
certain features or properties in one instantiation are not part of
the abstraction, there no reason why those features or properties hold
in a different instantiation.
much as hierarchies (organic or social)
are special cases of a more abstract class, strata, so autocatalytic
loops are special cases of self-consistent aggregates. And much as
strata are defined as an articulation of homogeneous elements, which
neither excludes nor requires the specific features of hierarchies
(such as having a chain of command), so self-consistent aggregates are
defined by their articulation of heterogeneous elements, which neither
excludes nor requires the specific features of autocatalytic loops
(such as growth by drift or internal autonomy).
Systems aren't simple instantiations of one or the other of these
abstractions, either hierarchies or meshworks, but are truly complex:
self-organized meshworks of
diverse elements, versus hierarchies of uniform elements.
meshworks and hierarchies not only coexist and intermingle, they
constantly give rise to one another.
hybrid form[s]: a
hierarchy of meshworks
a meshwork of hierarchies
So systems have multiple levels and scales of interlocking
hierarchies and meshworks. The dynamics within and between these
levels is important. The emphasis is that history is understood not in
terms of individual people and events, but in terms of dynamical
flows, trends, and processes.
to understand the role of decision
making in the creation of social order, we need to concentrate
on the dynamics
among many interacting decision makers. The
hierarchies and meshworks that develop from these interactions
in turn become elements of other homogeneous and heterogeneous
structures .... At each level, different nonlinear dynamics take
place, with their own multiple equilibriums and bifurcations between
alternative stable states. Hence, individual decision making, while
important, is simply one element in the mix, interacting and
influencing dynamics on only one of a number of scales.
However, non-linear dynamics permits small causes to have large
consequences. If a higher level is near a bifurcation point, a small
lower level action can affect it.
p286, note 48.
There are several exceptions to this "rule"
(individual decision making affects only one level of scale). One of
them involves special situations where the level immediately higher
... is near a bifurcation point in its own dynamics. Here the
decisions and actions of individuals may be amplified and have effects
beyond their scale.
But even so, we still need to understand how that higher level got
to, and was maintained near, that bifurcation point.
A command given by someone of high rank
in a hierarchy, for example, can set off disproportionately large
flows of energy, as in the case of a declaration of war. However, the
military order itself is powerless unless backed up by a chain of
command that has been kept in working order through constant drill and
, all of which involves enormous expenditures of
The third abstract machine is evolution. This is more readily
acceptable as being an abstract machine, because of the well-know
non-Darwinian instantiations, such as memes and evolutionary
the two abstract machines
generating hierarchies, the other meshworks) are adequate to account
for living structures ... there is another abstract machine involved
in the production of biological entities which has no counterpart in
the geological world, therefore distinguishing species from
sedimentary rocks. ...
Darwin's basic insight was that
animal and plant species are the cumulative result of a process of
descent with modification. Later on, however, scientists came to
realize that any variable replicator (not just genetic
replicators) coupled to any sorting device (not just
ecological selection pressures) would generate a capacity for
evolution. ... Birdsongs are the most thoroughly studied example of
these [other kinds of] replicators
("memes," as Dawkins calls them) ...
the coupling of variable
replicators with a selection pressure results in a kind of "searching
device" (or "probe head") that explores a space of
This probe head is the abstract machine we were
looking for ... although the new machine is characteristic of
life-forms, the same basic diagram applies to memes and genetic
algorithms. It would be incorrect to say that evolutionary concepts
are used metaphorically when applied to computer programs and
birdsongs, but literally when talking about genes.
. Hence, it
does not constitute an "essence" of life, in the sense of
being that which makes life what it is.
The flow of genes through
replication is indeed only a part of what life is. The other part is
constituted by the flow of biomass.
So evolution isn't the essence of life, because non-living things
evolve. Life requires both evolution and metabolism. (One
might speculate that engineered life doesn't need evolution. Unless
the evolutionary "probe head" is the only feasible way of
finding/constructing life-like regions of the state space?)
The evolutionary probe head isn't blindly wandering around an
unstructured space: the space has structure because of the underlying
dynamics, and the process can exploit this.
As with any physical system, the intense
flow of energy moving through an ecosystem pushes it far from
equilibrium and endows it with the ability to generate its own dynamic
stable states (attractors). ... the space that the probe head blindly
explores is not completely unstructured but already populated by
various types of stable states (static, cyclical, chaotic,
autopoietic). This prestructuring of the search space by
intensifications of the energy flow may indeed facilitate the job of
the abstract machine (blind as it is). For example, since one possible
endogenously generated stable state is a periodic attractor, which
would automatically draw gene activity and gene products into a cycle,
the searching device may have stumbled upon the means to
generate a primitive metabolism very early on. Further evolutionary
complexification may have been achieved as the probe head moved from
attractor to attractor, like so many stepping-stones.
This kind of meshing everything together, the interactions and
comlpexifications of all the different components discussed, is
typical of this book.
we have been exploring exclusively the
interactions between culture and genetics, but nonetheless we must
never lose sight of the fact that the flow of replicators
constitutes only half the story. The flow of matter and energy through
a system (which often means the flow of biomass, either living or
fossil) is of equal importance, particularly during intensifications.
The role of genetic and cultural replicators (or, more accurately, of
the phenotypic effects of those replicators) is to act as catalysts
that facilitate or inhibit the self-organizing processes made possible
by intense matter-energy flows. It is these flows that determine the
nature of the thermodynamic stable states available to a system; the
catalysts act merely as control mechanisms, choosing one stable state
over another. Another feature of catalytic action is that low
expenditures of energy can bring about high-energy transformations.
Cultural replicators may be viewed
as having phenotypic effects similar to catalysis. ... we cannot be
content with a description of society expressed exclusively in terms
of replicators and their catalytic effects, but must always include
the material and energetic processes that define the possible stable
states available to a given social dynamic.
It this multi-level, multi-scale complexity, and the dynamism of the
structure generating processes, that raises this work above a naive
application of complex systems ideas. Indeed, relative to this model,
most "complex" systems appear disturbingly simple:
single kinds of entities, single kinds of network structure, no
environment, no analogue of energy-matter flows. Here we have
ever-growing complexity, as emergent properties become crystallised
and reified, and themselves enter into the dynamics of the system.
The emphasis here isn't on some "final" static structure,
because there isn't one; it's on the various structure generating processes,
and how they are constrained.
the process of industrial takeoff may be
viewed as a bifurcation, from a state in which self-stimulating
dynamics were not complex enough to overcome diminishing returns, to a
state in which the series of nodes forming the circuit became a
self-sustaining entity. The addition of new nodes to the meshwork as
it complexified did not occur according to a plan but simply following
internal constraints; that is, each new node had to "mesh well"
with the existing ones (i.e., catalyze and be catalyzed by existing
These processes aren't free. It takes input to drive them, and if
there is insufficient driving force, the changes will falter, and the
structures will not develop.
autocatalytic loops need to achieve a
threshold of complexity before they acquire the resilience and
versatility needed to overcome diminishing returns.
This helps to explain why the Industrial Revolution occurred when
and where it did, and just as importantly to explain why it didn't
occur elsewhere, or at another time (eg earlier): "you can't
railroad until it's time to railroad" (this point is also alluded
to earlier, when discussing the "first" Industrial
Revolution, in 11 century). The process needs more than one "intensification"
to fuel a revolution: single intensifications tend to peter out after
they exhaust their single resource, while true revolutions have a
(meshwork of) multiple resources. And homogenisation does not help
Examples mentioned in this second Industrial Revolution include the
railroad and the telegraph: essential infrastructure. Russell J
Abbott, in his paper "Emergence Explained", has argued that
one should build infrastructure, rather than closed and
isolated functionality, since the infrastructure can "serve
as a possible basis for systems yet to come", and can support
diverse functionality that you never even thought of originally. Here
we see that infrastructure can provide the intercalary elements needed
to help bind the meshwork together.
The emergence of powerful nation-states,
and the concomitant decrease in autonomy of the cities they absorbed
could have brought the different forms of self-stimulating dynamics
to a halt. That this did not happen was due to yet one more form of
autocatalysis unique to the West: continued arms races.
the nations of Europe, unlike China or Islam, were never able to form
a single, homogeneous empire, and have remained until today a meshwork
of hierarchies. It was within this meshwork that advances in offensive
weaponry stimulated innovations in defense technology, leading to an
ever-growing armament spiral
Despite this feeling of inevitability, however, it would have been
interesting to have a discussion on how much role contingency plays.
Is it all down to European topography (mountains separating regions),
its relative smallness (relative to the other continents, that is)
resulting in relatively long coastline, and everywhere being
relatively close to the sea? There is the discussion (above) about
military orders having large effects (when systems are near
bifurcations point), but nothing about how things might have been
different. As I've already mentioned, there is very little here about
specific characters or specific events. But certain decisions, such as
whether to locate a capital city inland or on the coast, clearly had
important consequences. What if the tape were played again? How much
would things have had to be different to end up with a qualitatively
different history? Which is more important, butterflies or
De Landa is careful to emphasise that these structure generating
processes do not result in a notion of "progress" as such.
But the dynamics does result in enrichment, greater complexity, more
crystallised emergent "stuff" to use in the next
iteration/timestep. This might not be "progress", but it
certainly has a direction; it is somehow "more developed".
Homogenisation, although it does not help to fuel revolutions, is a
recurrent theme in this ongoing developmental process.
the process of routinization of
production in arsenals, mines, and civilian factories underwent a
great intensification on both sides of the Atlantic, and this implied
a large increase in the command element in the economic mix.
One consequence of routinisation is the reduction in the importance
of information (as in formal skills and informal know-how). The
information has been transformed from being held by individuals to
being located in the "corporate memory" of documented
processes and procedures. Quoting Hohenberg and Lees:
"The nature of information as an
input to production is that it ceases to be important once a given
process becomes routine. At that point other costs---for machines,
basic labor, and space---take over
One advantage of homogenisation can provide is economies of scale.
But homogenisation isn't the only route to this. Heterogeneous "economies
of agglomeration" also exist. These still require a certain
scale, of course, but of the environment (many small others),
not of the self.
there are other possible types of
positive feedback for cities and towns, other connections between
efficiency and size-not the size of a homogenized enterprise and its
homogeneous mass-produced products, but the size of a highly
heterogeneous urban center which provides small firms with a variety
of mutually stimulating links. These are not economies of scale, but
economies of agglomeration
Nevertheless, this homogenisation, or routinisation, of processes
within the system is itself an important process: De Landa talks about
it with respect to manufacturing processes, and even the training and
"processing" of people. This description seems to have some
relationship to the "progressive mechanization" in
biological systems noted by Bertalanffy
in his General System Theory. De Landa makes this link, but does not
think the resulting "systems approach" is the last word in
Maturana notes that one characteristic
of autocatalytic loops is that their internal states determine most of
their behavior, with external stimuli playing the role of triggers. He
compares this to push-button machines whose behavior is not caused by
the pushing of a button, only triggered by it. Automated factories are
very complex push-button machines of this type and, as such, planned
autocatalytic loops. Indeed, as late as the 1960s, a routinized,
rationalized production process that generated economies of scale was
thought by many to be the perfect example of a whole that is more than
the sum of its parts. That so-called systems approach celebrated
routinization as the crowning achievement of modern science. Today we
know that planned loops of triggers and flows are only one of a number
of systems that exhibit emergent properties, and that spontaneously
generated loops may be more adaptive and resilient than rigidly
This resilience comes about because of heterogeneity, not
while economies of scale and economies
of agglomeration, as forms of positive feedback, both promote growth,
only the latter endows firms with the resilience and adaptability
needed to cope with adverse economic conditions.
heterogeneity endows these
[ecosystem] meshworks not so much with
stability (the capacity to maintain a state with relatively minor
internal fluctuations) as with resilience (the capacity to absorb
major external and internal fluctuations by switching between several
alternative stable states).
McNeill's hypothesis is that explosive,
self-stimulating ("auto-catalytic") urban dynamics cannot
emerge when hierarchical components overwhelm meshwork components.
In a world view without a notion of "progress", how can we
bring about desirable change. In particular, how can we reduce
heterogeneity, and produce heterogeneous meshworks to get this
important resilience? De Landa warns that it it not simple -- it is
not a matter of mixing things up, or destroying hierarchies.
the increase in diversity that mutually
stimulating loops bring about will be short-lived unless the
come to form a meshwork. As Maruyana
writes, "There are two ways that heterogeneity may proceed:
through localization and through interweaving. In localization the
heterogeneity between localities increases, while each locality may
remain or become homogenous. In interweaving, heterogeneity in each
locality increases, while the difference between localities decreases."
In other words, the danger with positive feedback is that the mere
production of heterogeneity may result in isolationism (a high
diversity of small cliques, each internally homogeneous). Hence the
need for intercalary elements to aid in articulating this diversity
In fact, radical destratification can make things worse.
hypothesis: that the creation of novel
hierarchical structures through restratification is performed by the
most destratified element of the previous phase.
De Landa advocates change, but not grand sweeping changes, but
smaller, tentative experiments.
To simply increase heterogeneity without
articulating this diversity into a meshwork not only results in
further conflict and friction, it rapidly creates a set of smaller,
internally homogeneous nations. (Hence, the balkanization of the world
would increase heterogeneity only in appearance.)
our world is governed not only by nonlinear dynamics,
which makes detailed prediction and control impossible, but also by
nonlinear combinatorics, which implies that the number of possible
mixtures of meshwork and hierarchy, of command and market, of
centralization and decentralization, are immense and that we simply
cannot predict what the emergent properties of these myriad
combinations will be. Thus the call for a more experimental attitude
toward reality and for an increased awareness of the potential for
self-organization inherent in even the humblest forms of
One such small experiment that a company can perform is to start a
One way a corporate hierarchy may
internalize knowledge is by funding a research laboratory. ... The
[General Electric] lab, and the
many that were later created in its image, may be viewed as an
internalized meshwork of skills
What else could we do to effect change in this complex hierarchical
meshwork that is today's world? De Landa here has a deep and rich
model of our world, and it would be worthwhile using the concepts of
interlocking meshworks and hierarchies, and the various abstract
machines and structure generating processes, to develop a framework to
think about truly complex systems.
Some more quotations that I found thought-provoking, but don't fit
into the flow of the above review.
Colonies initially started off importing the more high-tech products
from Europe. But some started developing their own alternatives.
p82. [in the USA]
what mattered was the reservoir of
interlocking skills and procedures generated by import-substitution
That is, the colonists developed skills locally to manufactures
things previously imported. These skills could then be exploited
further, to do other things. This might possibly be an analogue of
gene doubling, a genetic process that preserves the original
functionality, whilst allowing innovation too, as the copy can change.
Here, the colonies first had to first "unfreeze" the
functionality, by replicating it locally, in order to be able to "double"
it, to use it for other purposes too. Maybe there is a lesson here
about outsourcing (the opposite process), inevitably leading to loss
of a valuable source of internal innovation?
Further thoughts that might be related to ideas on infrastructure
(in terms of pervasiveness, at least):
The miniaturization of motors allowed
the gradual replacement of a centralized engine by a multitude of
decentralized ones (even individual tools could now be motorized).
Motors began disappearing from view, weaving themselves into the very
fabric of reality.
The same miniaturisation process is true for computers: mainframe to
PC to ambient. ("Clouds" are different: they are more about
raw compute power than making the whole environment "smarter".)
Is this progression true for any miniaturisable tech?
More on the importance of flows, and thinking of intensifications of
living creatures and their inorganic
counter-parts share a crucial dependence on intense flows of energy
Our organic bodies are
temporary coagulations in these flows
Flesh, or "biomass,"
giving the ecosystem its stability and
The foundation of any food web is its plants, which
"bite" into the stream of solar radiation
. Plants are
the only nonparasitic creatures in an ecosystem, its primary
producers, while the animals who eat flesh (plant or animal) are mere
consumers. The complex microflora and microfauna that process the
ecosystem's waste are as important as plants, since these organisms
remineralize and reinject dead plant and animal bodies back into the
web. Compared to plants and microorganisms, "higher" animals
are just fancy decorations in an ecosystem, consuming and transforming
biomass with decreasing efficiency as their size increases.
Downward causation gets a look in (if not by that name):
the crucial function of genes is to
force individual molecules within a cell to obey the cell itself, and
similarly for individual cells in a tissue, individual tissues in an
organ, and individual organs in an organism. At each rank of the
hierarchy, the genes' purpose is to constrain the lower level to
behave in ways determined by the immediately upper level.
The third part of the book is about language. There is some
intriguing speculation on a common underlying process for the
evolution of natural language in terms of "combinatorial
constraints", and of the more formal mathematics and less formal
by making the combinatorial constraints
more rigid [than for language] we
can generate strings of inscriptions like those belonging to systems
of logic or mathematics, while by making them more flexible we can
produce musical strings.
This is not to deny that explicit
rules exist in mathematical or musical systems, much as they do in
standardized languages. The question is whether mathematics or music
could have originally developed as a decentralized system of
constraints that only later was formalized as a centralized body of
One important process in language generation is pidginisation. (De
Landa argues that English itself underwent such a process after the
simplification alone cannot account for
the birth of (more or less) stable entities
. Hymes adds the
requirements that the new, simplified pidgin be used by several groups
(each with its own mother tongue distinct from the pidgin) ... the
language being pidginized
must be absent both as a source of
stigmatization and as a reference model. That is, the crystallization
of a pidgin involves a barrier (geographical or social) that distances
the emerging entity from the conservative tendencies of the
prestigious target language. Only under these conditions can a pidgin
achieve autonomy from the dominant norm, and it is this autonomy that
defines it as a separate entity.
Note that this description, like most of the rest of the book, does
not concentrate on specific contingent events and people, but rather
on processes, trends and patterns.
The summary in the final part of the book brings together much of
what has been covered, in a more condensed form. It possibly only
makes sense if the preceding material has been digested, however.
It is almost as if every part of the
mineral world could be defined simply by specifying its chemical
composition and its speed of flow: very slow for rocks, faster
Similarly, our individual bodies
and minds are mere coagulations or decelerations in the flows of
biomass, genes, memes, and norms. ... Over the millennia, it is the
flow of bio mass through food webs, as well as the flow of genes
through generations, that matters, not the bodies and species that
emerge from these flows. ... And a similar point applies to our
institutions, which may also be considered transitory hardenings in
the flows of money, routines, and prestige, and, if they have acquired
a permanent building to house them, in the mineral flows from which
the construction materials derive.
This book has concerned itself
with a historical survey of these flows of "stuff," as well
as with the hardenings themselves, since once they emerge they react
back on the flows to constrain them in a variety of ways. .... On one
hand, the flows of materials whose history we described involved more
than just matter-energy. They also included information,
in dynamic terms, as patterns capable of
self-replication and catalysis. That is, we have considered
"phenotypic" effects of these replicators, their ability to
trigger intensifications or diminutions in the flows of matter-energy
and their ability to switch from one stable state to another the
structures that emerge out of these flows. On the other hand, among
these structures we distinguished coagulations that have undergone a
process of homogenization, which we calledhierarchies
from those wherein heterogeneous components were articulated as such,
which we referred to as meshworks ...
the flows of lava, biomass,
genes, memes, norms, money (and other "stuff") are the
source of just about every stable structure that we cherish and value
(or, on the contrary, that oppresses or enslaves us).
A dynamical system whose behavior is
governed by ... endogenously generated stable states is further
characterized by a certain number of key parameters.
critical values of these parameters, bifurcations occur which abruptly
change one set of attractors into another.
abstract machines may also be viewed as
equipped with "knobs," controlling parameters whose
intensity defines the dynamical state of the structure-generating
process. .... Other key parameters are those controlling the strength
and thoroughness of the sorting process and the degree of
consolidation or reproductive isolation of the double-articulation
machine; or the degree of connectivity that determines when a meshwork
becomes self-sustaining; or the rates of mutation and recombination
that define the speed of the probe head, as well as the strength of
the flow of biomass and of the coupling between coevolving
species---parameters that define the kind of space that the probe head
whether these or other diagrams are
used to model the structure-generating processes involved in the
genesis of social forms, what matters is explaining this genesis in an
entirely bottom-up way. That is, not simply to assume that society
forms a system, but to account for this systematicity as an emergent
property of some dynamical process.
we must take into account
that the larger-scale structures that emerge from the actions of
individual decision makers, such as formal organizations or informal
networks, have a life of their own. They are wholes that are more than
the sum of their parts, but wholes that add themselves to an
existing population of individual structures, operating at
And we finish off with a nicely acidic comment on not being too smug
about thinking we've solved the problem.
No doubt, the entrenchment in the
academic and scientific worlds of certain discursive practices
informed by linear thinking and linear representation is indeed part
of our problem. But to try to reduce a complex situation to a question
of representations is, in turn, a homogenizing force very much alive
today among social critics.