New Circuit Designs for Motherboard Earth

[ originally on wholesys-l discussion list in 1995, later published by Electronic Frontier Foundation and a Mensa newsletter in Canada. Early "manifesto" introducing "GST" (general systems theory) ]

  New Circuit Designs for Motherboard Earth

I propose we look at Starship Earth (Buckminster Fuller's metaphor for our planet) using another metaphor as well: that of Motherboard Earth.

I tip my hat to the criticism that this is another off-base nerdy engineering lens through which to misperceive a living planet and that, although the "mother" part is apt, linking to circuit boards is just more Newtonian mechanism, more of which we simply don't need.

But I don't see it that way myself. I think of the powerful film images I've seen linking urban-scapes from high altitudes with microchips. Good native American-sounding titles like Powaqqatsi and Koyanisqaatsi come to mind (both interesting films). And the energy bathing our motherboard is more than metaphorically electrical.

In sum, I don't see "motherboard" as necessarily whiteman talk at all, but a clear-eyed snapshot of what, in fact, our eco-economy is: a set of spherical circuits, layer upon layer, some phased in with humans just a split second ago, on the geologic timescale.


Moving on, I look at the psychology of banking, which seems to view this pool of liquid capital, called gold or currency or whatever it is that's convertible to just about anything of value, as the one thing we cannot afford to "leak" away. The whole investment banking circuitry is about wiring up projects and programs and powering them with "juice" (liquid capital) only if it appears the return will exceed the investment. The only electronics on the motherboard that interests bankers is the kind that "nets a return" meaning it has to return all the juice received, and then some.

If I think of my computer as the motherboard, and the wire plugged into the wall as my umbilical link to the sun, then I start to wonder about the intelligence of microcode which plans to starve motherboard assets which are not designed to amplify and return juice. I mean, the way a computer is designed is like a water wheel: current flows downhill to the ground, in the meantime turning wheels which turn other wheels and so on. Yes, the liquid electricity all drains out the bottom, but serious work got done in the meantime. Capacitors and storage batteries pool current for a time, before allowing it to surge onward (the banking idea of savings). But nowhere is the motherboard (the computer I'm using) designed to return juice to the wall let alone "with interest."

I look at TV images of human skeletons, either getting a little charity, or dying in droves, or both, with economists off to the side shaking their heads: no way to organize these humans into projects which will net a return to the bankers, and we can't allow our precious "juice" to just "leak away." So we let our human families starve to death.

That's just the way it is ... but is nature our model here, or banking? The sun is broadcasting terawatts of energy in our direction, second by second. What we do is insert our programmable circuitry, our gizmos, our wheels turning wheels, and reap the benefits. Within this game, we have liquid asset accounts, and transactions, and trade. But the overall big picture is of a motherboard plugged into the sun and human circuitry that is designed to starve large portions of the motherboard based on some dogma about needing to retain precious liquid, currency, without regard for the true state of affairs, which is that the great global ecosystem is not about returning juice to the sun, anymore than my computer is about returning juice to the wall socket. Doing useful work, yes. Keeping energy from flowing downhill, no way.


So that's why I propose General Systems Theory, which has a clear view of the sun-powered motherboard, the humanly programmable circuitry which interlayers with nonhuman circuitry, and the pain and suffering of numerous humans who are left out because they don't have magic 'juice returning powers' -- why I propose that GST build itself as antithetical to the juice-worshipping tribes who use their primitive 'economics' to justify the status quo media programming.

GST takes inventory of human inventions, artifacts, and storyboards multi-media deployment scenarios, casting humans in new, interesting, intelligent roles, and sees that we have the props, and the actors necessary, to make the real-world scenario entitled: Humans Make a Success of Themselves (lots of subplots). But instead, the old curriculum directors continue to produce episode after episode of The Great Tragedy, claiming that they are the sophisticated ones, whereas we, the success-oriented directors, are naive, because we don't properly understand their Theory of Juice.

GST has a different view of juice, it's true. I say we can afford to drive programming, using solar inputs, that will not only prevent starvation, but enroll the starving in new distance education programs that nets them lots of other relevant assets besides food: medical care, shelter, information, entertainment, vehicles for self-expression, opportunities to see more of the planet before they die. I say we don't have to expect our global university students to pay back their scholarships in any silly literal kind of way, but that the work of learning a living, of demonstrating competence, of being a star in world game scenarios worthy of high caliber acting, is repayment enough.

Do the work of Making Humans a Success, and forget about 'netting a return' in the traditional bankers' sense. Create wealth (life support), not just more money, and find out how much better off we will all find ourselves in short order. Lets co-invent General Systems Theory to light the way forward. And lets leave Economics behind, in the current Dark Age, where it belongs.

Kirby Urner
4 June 1995


Views: 423

Comment by Forrest Curo on 9th mo. 5, 2016 at 2:38pm

It isn't so much 'Economics' we need to leave behind -- but 'Economism', ie the belief system of University of Chicago 'Economists'.

We still need working models, at least for the foreseeable future, of how actual economies actually work. (I think we also need a new term for people who actually do evidence-based studies of that.) We aren't yet in a 'gift economy' (desirable as that might be) and we do need some way to allocate work and resources

in a way that shouldn't be too tightly controlled by anybody's top-down administrative system (whether governmental or banker-dominated).

Small scale 'capitalism' -- if there are enough funds actually circulating in the system, not too much being extracted for rents, for "intellectual 'property'", or any other claims on resources that can't be justified by the claimant's answer to "What have you done for [at least someone] lately?" --

is at least a self-organizing adaptive system. Someone needs to intervene to keep the game honest; and the players can't be allowed to grow big enough to bribe the refs... Short of near-universal moral regeneration, I don't think a perfect system could be designed; but as long as we keep in mind that an economy is a political system that can & should be tinkered with to serve the public good, people can probably make do.

This outfit is probably the best reality-based we've got regarding how the present system actually works:

Michael Hudson ( ) seems to be the best individual I know of in terms of honestly analyzing the system's workings & making the results intelligible. Has gone deeply into subjects ranging from the development of Ancient Near Eastern economies to History of Economic Theory to current politics & policies.

Comment by Kirby Urner on 9th mo. 5, 2016 at 4:31pm

When I stumbled onto the scene, General Systems Theory appeared to be languishing or at least not going anywhere, having gotten off to a promising start.

My branding instincts, honed in Rome, suggested competing with some other discipline, creating a horse race, might add more life to this picture.

I set about branding GST as an alternative to Economics.  Economics itself preaches the dangers of complacent monopolies, so of all disciplines it deserves some competition, makes perfect sense.  We'll talk about "guns vs butter" same as they do, but without all the same cultural baggage.

Instead of "economies" we just have "ecosystems" in GST, i.e. human designs and trading practices mesh seamlessly with their non-human surroundings, or "biosphere" as some call it. [1]  I grabbed the ball and ran with it, maybe advancing a few yards. [2]  I felt part of a team.

By sometime in the 1990s, I had the gist of GST boiled it down to three pages: -> gst2.html -> gst3.html

In building bridges back to Economics, I've found the most traction with the Henry George School, one of the many econ branches. 

Unless the presentation has a thermodynamic flavor and acknowledges the sun as the fusion powerhouse it is (as in the above Motherboard Earth manifesto), an econ blend is likely closer to that University of Chicago stuff you mention, embraced by neocons more than most. I'd consider such thinking insufficiently cosmic, too ignorant of real science. [3]


[1] "Biosphere" is a far more intelligent concept than mere "climate" (confused with weather, temperature especially).

[2] Another discipline I've worked to rescue from the junk heap of history was "lambda calculus", which is still taught, but could fizzle if not given more to chew on, or with.  I set it up opposite "delta calculus", the obstacle course already laid out.  Once up to Algebra, you may opt to pursue the Lambda track and get more programming mixed with your XYZ vectors and group theory.

[3] see The Power of Nightmares for more insights into the Chicago University origins of these overlapping Bush Era ideologies

Comment by Forrest Curo on 9th mo. 5, 2016 at 8:08pm

The existence of a pseudoscience ("intended to make astrology look better") called 'Economics' (that 'Chicago School'... stuff you mention) doesn't mean that there hasn't been a long-standing tradition of honest efforts to understand & check the models, going back to Adam Smith & before... The whole history of the subject tends to get overwritten in the interests of the people who typically endow 'Economics' departments -- that is, those who were profiting  from distortions of the subject.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 9th mo. 5, 2016 at 8:53pm

Review & summary of Hudson's latest book by Paul Craig Roberts, probably better-known though not nearly as much of an economist...

& I'm still hunting on Hudson's site for some of his pieces on the history of economics, a good corrective to the narrow vision of the currently-fashionable dogmas (ie those tendacious  notions John Kenneth Galbraith used to call 'the conventional wisdom.') It hasn't always been dismal nor unaware of the ethical distinctions between different ways of gaining profits.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 9th mo. 5, 2016 at 9:12pm

Ah! --

is a good place to start on how & why the history of economic thought has generally dropped out of academic courses on the subject.

Comment by Kirby Urner on 9th mo. 6, 2016 at 3:46am

Thank you, I'm 20 minutes into "Inversion of..." and finding it good quality storytelling. 

The material is also alarming, in that we're seeing creeping paralysis with industry (planning) and labor (doing) sidelined, in favor of lingering feudalism. 

Adam Smith was a pacifist, in this telling. 

The classical Economists had us all living on easy street by now. 

"Not so fast" said the feudalists, turning extortion into GDP numbers they could brag about.

With exponentially growing literacy, the debates are joined by yet more viewpoints.  We're back to Babel maybe but with some agreement on the physical laws, such as conservation of energy. Entropy need not increase locally, as we're an open system.  Sunlight is capital investment, a grant more than a loan with interest. 

Earth is a recipient of solar grant income.  Not a new idea. 

Just I'd be suspicious of any discipline that saw fit to ignore the obvious ("is it a science at all?").  Economics is actually many competing sub-disciplines.

Thanks again.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 9th mo. 6, 2016 at 10:13am

The honest, empirically-self-correcting study of economies is a science -- one that's practiced by a heroic few, though that hasn't been where the money was. I don't know what we can call it, though, because what gets called 'Economics' is all-too-often something else.

Energy flow from the Sun & through all-the-stuff-in-the-way on its way back to space as mostly heat radiation... That's a different study. Linking the two... Well, if one's Science of Political-Economic Arrangements doesn't take account of the finite amount of Real Stuff available to people living within some economic scheme or another -- It is in danger of falling into absurdities! Unfettered exponential growth rates, for example. Or buildings effectively worth less-than-nothing because they've been 'depreciated' to zilch for tax purposes, only to be sold to a new buyer who depreciates them all over again while waiting to take advantage of its steadily increasing resale 'value'... all costs deductible & any net profit scored as 'capital gains'. (If only I could have done that with my used books!)

[Doing tempwork for the California state income tax agency, one of the tax returns that crossed my desk one day was from the publisher of a prominent municipal newspaper, owner of a great many properties, all of them losing money, for a gross income in the hundreds of thousands and a final 'adjusted' taxable income of $100.  I knew this smelled a bit; but it was only much later, when I found Hudson's piece on building 'values' somewhere, that I got a clue how it was done.]

Comment by Kirby Urner on 9th mo. 6, 2016 at 1:21pm

Per my top figure on gst2.html I'm using a classical Economics "opportunity cost" diagram showing a trade-off betwixt constructive and destructive engineering activities, building civilizations versus destroying them, "butter vs. guns" to use the colloquialisms.

The radius of said curve (distance out from the corner on both axes) is a function of technology, which includes language (how we think about and sometimes solve problems).

Collectively, we're exponentially more capable both when it comes to aborting, and supporting, human lives, than a thousand, or a hundred, or even ten years ago.

GST models humans as "world game players" each a "bright bulb" in terms of emitting wattage and needing to stay powered (calories in; work of staying alive out). 

How humans self-organize has a lot in common with theater and indeed the wartime generals speak of "in theater" operations, whereas physicians may perform surgery in a peer reviewed setting, another meaning of "operating theater". [1]

Given the technology-driven dimension [2], and our collective expanding horizon of possibility, the narrative changes regarding the relative foolhardiness of this or that course of action.  What seems like rational behavior in one context may not seem so in another. 

Assuming a human desire to appear rational to one another (at least to a peer group if not "the world"), we have every reason to expect changes in language (discourse) over time.

So far, I don't think I've said much a died-in-the-wool Hegelian, or even a Marxist, would take much issue with (discourse = dialectic = an advancing front of Logic, with History in its wake). 

Economists readily admit the relevance of ecosystem energy inputs from windmills, water wheels, and agriculture. Even fossil fuels such as coal trace to solar inputs and photosynthesis. Pharaoh Ikhnaton (many phonetic spellings) is famous for his solar fixation and could perhaps be accredited as an early contributor to GST.

Thinking only human labor adds economic value might be a departure point for some schools, I'm not the expert. In any case, GST is not any radical departure from Economics, so much as an intertwined discourse at this point, more like a subculture. [3]


[1] I dissected a tiny Flask application last night, in the presence of other coders.  There's a biological feel to coding sometimes, thanks in part to "bioinformatics" being a thing

[2] in the transcendentalists lexicon bequeathed by Fuller & Co., see four volume Synergetics Dictionary (EJA editor, Garland Press), "technology" includes extra-human ecosystem processes, as well as humans themselves, which somewhat goes against the grain of anthropocentric usage, as something only humans use.  Some flavors of GST (e.g. mine) embrace this more "cosmic" meaning.

[3] over on the infamous Forum 206, now closed (still publicly archived), Math Forum (Drexel U), I got into lively and prolonged debates with G. S. Chandy of Bangalore over the trajectory and future of GST.  We'd had different teachers and reached different positions. I think we're still connected through LinkedIn. The world proved big enough for the two of us.

Comment by Keith Saylor on 9th mo. 6, 2016 at 1:38pm
"The honest, empirically-self-correcting study of economies is a science -- one that's practiced by a heroic few ..."

Let's say there happened upon us an honest and heroic few that everyone agreed was practicing an empirically-self-correcting study of economies, does that mean if we followed their outward political and economic prescriptions we would be "living in a leisure economy" (quoted from the interview) assuming we agree that a leisure economy is desired?

Human history suggests no. I suggest even the most empirically self-correcting study of economies by even the most honest and heroic few will render a parasitized politic and economy. For even the most heroic and honest self correcting study of economies will render outward prescriptions and constructs that parasitizes human being. The problem is in the outward constructs themselves, so that even those rendered heroically and honestly are as parasitic as those rendered with deception and fear.
Comment by Kirby Urner on 9th mo. 6, 2016 at 2:52pm

The English word "work" is at a nexus in having meaning in (1) economics (2) physics (3) religion.

In economics, my "work" is relative to some value system whereby work is judged (by "the marketplace" or whatever). Physics has something similar in that the steam engine folks were concerned with the remaining "usable" quantity of energy, with leakage of "entropy" being more like "not working". 

Economists will perhaps devalue "unpaid house work" including "child care" as not contributing to the GDP. When you outsource those dynamics and credit and checking become involved, that's wiggling the needle more, and the GDP's cheerleaders applaud.  Doing work "in house" is the focus of micro-economics, with macro-economics starting with "households" as constituent units.

In my shoptalk, I've gone with Personal Workspace (PWS) or Personal Work Studio (picture a study carrel), to decouple from the old idea of a "large wood-frame tent" (aka "house") such as many of us camp in, semi-permanently. 

GST is wide open to modeling a broad variety of sheltering solutions, and so needs to put some distance between itself and the weighty vortex of Victorian culture (many "tents" in my neighborhood are built in that style).

Or maybe our Economists will take a page from Fuller, writing in Fortune magazine, and quantify house work (camp duty, scout service, farm chores) in terms of "energy slaves".

How many human slaves do you now not need thanks to your energy appliances, your access to cars, tractors, trucks, trains and so on, given the originally dubious premise you'd be in a position to command the requisite number of such slaves, by some dint of birth or whatever? 

By Fuller's computations, the average human had more and more energy slaves working to automate what a Pharaoh would have used Hebrews to do.  We've actually managed to accumulate quite a bit of life support savvy through this learning curve.  We've long dreamed of these screens, now a lot of us have them.

Like Alfred North Whitehead, the vector of "more civilized" is in the direction of "less coercion, less servitude" so the implied curve of liberation could be celebrated in good conscience, yet we have no time to waste imagining we're really there yet.

The flip side of having harvested all this "accumulated savvy" is we keep coming up against the specter of automation depriving humans of their "right to work" as in "earn a living".  That our "right to live" must be "earned" through the currency of "work" is again at the nexus of our many-religion-defining moral equations.  We're back to religion.

What I respect most about Economics is the embedded notion of "cybernetics" (not called that originally) i.e. the "invisible hand" or "market forces".  In a less nuanced way of thinking, historic developments must be explained in terms of potentates, maybe demons or angelic beings.  They make it all personal. Economics broke free of that "name and blame" model in large degree, making us less prone to scapegoat perhaps, Orwellian satire notwithstanding.  One may hope at least.

The notion that developments might be more mathematically driven by the synergy of physical "laws" themselves (and consequent rule-following behavior) is what brings us full circle back to religion again, and perhaps to Teilhard de Chardin's God-point Omega, drawing us onward.

The transcendentalist tends to be a teleologist and philanthropist in supposing humanity has some destiny to fulfill that, like our own bodies, is so far quite beyond our relatively poor understanding.  There's a "with the grain" momentum we may seek through expectant waiting for cues.  I think that's what Keith is getting at? 

Without that sense of being led by a higher power (a "gyroscope"), we're headed for failure and breakdown.  On the other hand, I don't believe what "Spirit led" outwardly looks like, is some pyramid scheme Tower of Babel, at least not a finished one.  The beach or plain is decorated with our various sandcastles, each with its own axioms of construction and implicit model of the cosmos. What I call "liberalism" is the sense that we have ample room for diversity built in to the mathematics.


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