Gustavo Montes de Oca ( @goldengus )

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category


In Uncategorized on June 7, 2013 at 10:51 pm

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees

In Uncategorized on November 28, 2012 at 6:47 pm

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees is a short story that imagines that wasps paper nests are intricate, microscopic maps. Wasps collect information about the world and note it in their Great Library at the centre of the colony, which is presided by a “foundress”.

When the wasps invade bee territory and subjugate the bees (remember bees are furry vegetarian wasps), this allows for the development of anarchist bees, who decide that a monarchy is not for them and there should be no leadership. So they set up their own rival anarchist colony. Read the story here to find out what happens to that colony – it is a good example of what happens when a natural system is overridden. It is also a great example of why we need to be aware of the limits of our metaphors: while bees are interesting to study in terms of their organisation, their society is organised in ways that are fundamentally different (more on that here).

There are a couple of interesting observations that emerge from this story: a) the myth of leadership in the colony in which the queen dictates over subjects continues and b) animal structures record environmental information.

The Monarchy Myth… read the rest on The Golden Company website.



Some things are bigger than punk rock

In Uncategorized on September 7, 2012 at 8:15 pm

Sonic Boom Six serve up a great awareness of “nestedness”, and rise above the perspective of their particular nest.

Systems are  “A set of things – people, cells, molecules, or whatever – interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time.” In this case Sonic Boom Six are a system comprised of the musicians interconnected in such a way that they produced storming genre crossing social music over time.

Can’t see the wood for the scene

SB6’s pattern is nominally in the Punk Rock genre (though if you follow the comments it seems some people are very precious about what is allowed to count as punk or not). But they are aware that the Punk Rock perspective as defined by certain sounds  is not the only one and that regardless of the strict genre boundaries, “It’s doing it yourself that gets the respect”.

They have defined the system of Punk Rock not as a relationship of sound elements (Don’t want to be the sound to tick off your list), but of human elements – how you do it.

And they know that their musical corner of the world, even defined as how you do it, is not the only way. SB6’s pattern, is part of a bigger system, they are “nested” in the music system. This is made up of musical entities, whether bands, musicians, DJs, people banging stones together and the pattern they create is the soundscape of our lives, of the planet.

Revolution is more than Sound

But SB6 recognise in this song not only that people can get stuck in the perspective of the system that is most immediately in front of them – or which they want to identify with. But that they can also get stuck in the perspective of that next bigger system, in this case music.

And so Laila K blasts out: “Revolution is more than sound”. The music is where we are and where we operate, but seeing things from here alone will not help us change the picture.

Flooding the moral high ground

In Uncategorized on December 2, 2011 at 2:00 am

Greens: thou shalt not moralise

Thou shalt take off the hair shirt; thou are not holier than thou.

This is the message of green mainstreamers, of those who advocate using brands to bring about sustainable consumption and deploying marketing tricks to nudge green behaviour. It is almost an orthodoxy of behaviour change.

[[added later:  see Hermione Taylor of  TheDoNation on “Is the Carrot enough to tackle the monumental issue of climate change?” – no is her short answer]]

But maybe as we seek not just to remedy environmental ills, but also rescue a civilisation – we need to mobilise morality.

My kingdom for a high horse

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, channelling  Muslim philosopoher Ibn Khaldoun,  suggests that empires collapse when they get fat and lazy and that they decay from the inside – when they loose their asabiyah or social cohesion. Russia lost the cold war, Ancient Greece collapsed and Renaissance Italy floundered (the financial system crashed?) not as much as a result of actions of their rivals, but because internal rot set in.

Traditional moral restraints disappeared, because they were seen to be associated with superstition; the liberation from fetters made individuals energetic and creative, producing a rare florescence of genius; but the anarchy and treachery which inevitably resulted from the decay of morals made Italians collectively impotent, and they fell, like the Greeks, under the domination of nations less civilised than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion.

Our moral restraints and social cohesion has been dissipated by a relentless quest for growth in which the atomisation of society has been driven by the need for the expansion of customers for markets. Far better for growth if you can sell one iPad per family member instead of one television per household.

Our rot, driven by market imperatives to growth, is twofold: the loss of asabiyah (social cohesion) and overconsumption (loss of ecosystem cohesion).  We face risks of riots and floods; the marginalised amassing and ice caps retreating.

Time for a wake up story

At Tedx Youth @ Thames – James Thornton of Client Earth said we need to replace our existing story. Currently it is: markets are the best at deciding resource distribution, growth must continue at 2 – 4% p/a, etc…

And he proposed a new core story: The young shall get a healthy planet. It is also an old story. Kyra Choucroun told us that the Iroquoi of North America considered the impact of decisions on 7 generations from now.

Thou art holier than thou

Sacks sees a solution to decay in “remoralising”. This could be taking hold of the new story and creating institutions and individuals that embody it and, perhaps, also judge publicly by it.

There is, to my mind, only one sane alternative. That is to do what England and America did in the 1820s. Those two societies, deeply secularised after the rationalist 18th century, scarred and fractured by the problems of industrialisation, calmly set about remoralising themselves, thereby renewing themselves.

The three decades, 1820-1850, saw an unprecedented proliferation of groups dedicated to social, political and educational reform-building schools, YMCAs, orphanages, starting temperance groups, charities, friendly societies, campaigning for the abolition of slavery, corporal punishment and inhumane working conditions, and working for the extension of voting rights. Alexis de Tocqueville was astonished by what he saw in America and the same process was happening at the same time in Britain.

People did not leave it to government or the market. They did it themselves in communities, congregations, groups of every shape and size. They understood the connection between morality and morale. They knew that only a society held together by a strong moral bond, by asabiyah, has any chance of succeeding in the long run. That collective effort of remoralisation eventually made Britain the greatest world power in the 19th century and America in the 20th.

Time to Moralise?

That Victorian process of remoralising did not hesitate to climb on high horses and flog-them and, according to Sacks, this restored a sense of social cohesion.

So if the intention is to rescue our civilisation from social disintegration and ecosystem disruption is it moralising or mainstreaming that is needed?

A design for resilience

In Uncategorized on November 28, 2011 at 6:45 pm

If youre going to be dumb smart you gotta be tough

At the Smart Cities conference Forum for the Future Chief Executive Peter Madden said that one of the risks of smart cities – massively networked cities in which services adapt and adjust to conditions as detected by ubiquitous sensors – is that we become more dependent on even more complex systems, which will increase the impact and likelihood of shocks.

So, he said, we have to design for resilience.

Look to the forests

At Tedx Youth @ Thames, Client Earth CEO James Thornton, said to look to natural systems to glean intelligence on responding to shock, and changing and adapting  while remaining within critical thresholds. One thing that emerges from studies of natural systems that are resilient is the need for 3 different scales. For example: branch, tree, forest.

The slowest moving of the scales sets the context and creates the determining factors. In a cultural analogy, the forest is the ideology, or the story of the times. For surfers the tides, set context for sets and waves (and drops).

I see fractals

In these examples, the relationship between the parts at one scale and the one above is fractal ( it looks the same at any scale). According to Steven Johnson, fractal systems are essential to creativity. The brain is made up of 100 billion neurons with “100 trillion distinct network connectors” and ideas are networks of activation.
The environment most conducive to creating new ideas is also a network at the next scale up: coffee houses where people exchange ideas – or “collide hunches” – and, another level up, the internet. These are networks which, mapped, look just like the brain.

Let’s say that designs for resilience require 3 scales that resemble eachother

So how does this play out for Smart Cities technology.

Ideas needed on improving this (and my understanding of tech).

Turn on the radio.. nah fuck it turn it off!

In Uncategorized on August 10, 2011 at 11:56 pm

I am a swirling mass of contradictions and cognitive dissonance hoping an enterprising journalist will outsource his poor scruples to a private investigator who can hack my head and give me my opinions in a pithy headline.

I hate the Murdoch monopoly and craven Conservatives, but prefer a Murdoch with the human instincts to protect someone he likes (Rebekah Brooks) and has an emotional attachment to a disappearing industry that needs propping up to the anonimised depersonalised “interests of shareholders”.

I think communications should be sacrosanct and that the organisation that created the phone hackers should burn, but I applaud wikileaks.

I think information should be free but won’t tell Facebook what I am up to.

I don’t want to give my private details over to the state, but my Twitter account has my latest mental state.

I think the rioting is making a point, but it is not one the rioters are making. Even in this they are alienated from their actions.

I don’t mind when the rioters smash the windows at Tesco in Bristol, but am saddened when they take e-numbers off the shelves in Hackney.

I want all this to hurt the Tories politically, but know that the other side is also complicit.


I’m a PC but I don’t want to be

In Uncategorized on March 11, 2011 at 8:05 pm

There are 6,783 living languages spoken and 126 deaf languages signed.


There are 6 major languages families – accounting for 85% of speakers – and each represents at least 5% of living languages. Of the 6 major language families, the one that encompases the fewest languages is Afro-Asiatic, which accounts for 353 languages including Somali, Egyptian and 29 versions of Omotic, which is spoken typically in Ethiopia.

3 operating systems

There are 3 operating systems. Between them Microsoft (82.07%), Apple (9.27%) and Linux (1.65%) are running on 93% of  web-using computers.  In mobile systems, 4 operating systems run 94% of mobile devices.

This reduction in languages allows for standardisation and facilitates mass connectivity. My computer, my artefact of distributed cognition, can talk to yours even though we are nowhere near each other and might not even speak the same language.  Two strangers united by our computers’ ability to connect to the same evocative Neil Young 7 minute song based loosely on the conquest of Mexico.

I am my OS, you are my OS

But there are worrying implications to this narrowing of languages, specially as we become more dependent on the technological components of our distributed cognition.

As more of our cognitive activity takes place outside of our skull and instead is done for us by our devices, we will find that we are becoming more and more like eachother. Once differentiated by biology, language, cultural background, upbringing and physiology, our processes become more similar. And as our processes become more similar, we could lose some of the wealth of thought and behaviour what makes our race so extraordinary.

Ray Kurwzeil has suggested a time (2019) those elements of distributed cognition return within our skulls, but as cybernetic implants. The implants will carry out cognitive activities for us, but we will no longer have to carry them or have them in our pocket. The chip in my brain will carry out my remembering, or my computing or my filtering of data for me.

While microchips and bytes of programme are incredible facilitators, freedom is not something they bring. Rather, architecture and code is stronger than law. Law can punish transgression and you will be punished if you transgress (if you get caught). But you can’t transgress code, can’t transgress architecture. So when we do all have implants (assuming its not a preserve of the rich in “spoils to the winners” mode) we will all have the same cognitive limitations, as defined by – as things stand – 4 companies.

Attentive bee colonies and social graphs

In Uncategorized on March 2, 2011 at 12:05 am

Greater variety in an audience ensures greater attentiveness to the message.

All the bees in a colony are the offspring of one mother – the queen. However, there can be as many as 20 different fathers to the 60,000 social insects. The queen leaves on her first flight out of the hive as a virgin and returns, with all the sexual experience, and sperm, she will ever need. During that one maiden flight, she will mate with many drones from various colonies- drones are the only male bees in the colony, they are stingless and useless except for their sperm and the first to get kicked out when food sources dry up.

The diversity created by having various different genetic lines inside her is an important survival attribute for the colony. Colonies with greater number of “fathers” are more resistant to disease and better able to regulate colony temperature.

Diverse colonies are also more attentive to the famed “waggle dance” of returning foragers:

Scout bees leave the colony in search of food, whether pollen or nectar, and having found some return to the hive. Upon arrival they are greeted by as yet flightless bees who take their precious cargo. The returning bee then does a dance which  indicates the position of the pollen or nectar supply in relation to the colony and the sun. This dance is accurate enough to guide bees to the exact spot where the pollen was collected up to 3 miles away.

But not every dance results in bees using the information to go foraging themselves. The enthusiasm with which the forager dances may indicate the scale of the found bounty, and a limp dance may not recruit new foragers. Interestingly, in colonies where there is only one father, the bees inside the colony are less attentive to the dance of the returning forager.

Relative strangers make for more attentive groups.

Mapping the bee colony onto the human web, where other users are pollinators who go out foraging and report back what they have found, my experience suggests diversity does the same in information streams. I am more likely to click on links from the strangers of Twitter (varied group including users I disagree with) than I am links posted on Facebook (all are in some way friends) – though there are admittedly fewer links on Facebook.

Assuming my experience is not isolated, it seems that Twitter and Facebook emphasise different aspects of a social “superorganism” like the bee. Whereas Twitter is function-oriented, Facebook is cohesion-oriented.

The group of twitter people I interact with is not too concerned with identity. We do not belong to a group other than “twitter users”. While Twitter does have some cohesion-focused functionality (favourite’s, follow back, RT), the main thing that Twitter serves for is to seek out and distill the kind of information that I am interested in. It highlights sources and tells me how to get there. People engaging eachother on Twitter are bound more by what they want to do than by who they know. They are brought together (not united for these “swarms” are temporary even if repeated) by common endeavour or interest.  Twitter encourages stranger to stranger relationships in which collaboration is the first (and perhaps last) act of relationship.

On the other hand, Facebook’s hive analogue is not the forager and waggle dance, but rather the queen’s mandible pheromone. It is this pheromone which is passed from bee to bee, holding the colony together under the joint identity of the current laying queen. Similarly, Facebook’s functionality allows us to engage is social activities that reinforce our belongingness. The goal is reinforcing identity, mutuality, friendship. There are even some bona fide queens out there, making sure they post on everyone’s wall, inviting all to their events, unconsciously putting their stamp on interactions (through the innocent act of catalysing or stimulating others to take part in FB). Collaboration in Facebook emerges from the development of relationships – you invite people to events because you already know them.

When there is identity around familiarity there is a need to maintain familiarity. The bulk of Facebook transaction is maintenance of cohesion. When identity is around activity, the action itself maintains identity. On Facebook my social graph, my colony, is determined by who I know. On Twitter its determined by what I do. In Facebook the superorganism is effectively static (add or subtract new friends from a pool), in Twitter the superorganism us flexible – whoever I am following today or whoever has tweeted a term I have searched.

Which is better for monetisation and honey? A beekeeper wouldn’t hope that his honeybees prioritised action over cohesion or vice-versa, but should prefer and encourage diversity.


Diversity of online groups not only creates attentiveness but also helps “break echo chambers“. It may be the very act of being exposed to other points of view that makes us more attentive.

Survival games and the role of gossip

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2011 at 11:58 am

Treading through the jungle, children in Venezuela’s Piaroa tribe have their eyes trained on the floor, seeking out the den of the world’s largest venomous spider. They cry out in delight when they spot a suitably dark space under a decomposing log. With a slender stick, they tease the tarantula out of its den before catching it, pulling its legs above its head and wrapping it in a leaf to carry back home to cook over an open fire.

These children are playing games that teach them survival skills.

Friends are those with whom we play to learn survival skills. The ability to read the jungle will be invaluable to the children as they grow up and seek bigger morsels to feed growing bodies and then their children, partners and tribe.

In societies where snacks are available in the brightly lit aisles of corner shops and supermarkets, the games we play to learn survival have changed somewhat. However, the basic principle remains: learn while in a relatively safe environment by “wargaming” or simulating a situation on which survival hinges but without the same risk. In the case of the children they are learning how to read the jungle from the bottom up without the danger of doing it at speed with dangerous weapons in pursuit of large animals.

One example of how we carry on this tradition is gossip, which occupies a surprisingly significant amount of our time.

“We average six to twelve hours per day in conversation, mostly one-on-one with known individuals. What has been found out shouldn’t come as any surprise to you. Nicholas Emler, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, has studied the content of conversations and learned that 80 to 90 percent are about specific named and known individuals, which is to say, small talk.

Around the dinner table the other day, while discussing the plight of mutual friends one of the participants resisted the nudge to change topic, saying “listen, I need to know, in case I am ever in this situation”.

Gossip is (at its best) not just idle sharing of confidences, opinions and inferences, but a simulation of emotional or relationship survival moments. Through regular exposure to these moments of relationship crisis or success, participants in gossip are honing their own responses, their own intuition. In the safety of an after-meal coffee, surrounded by close friends, it is possible to consider what you would do if you saw your best friend’s boyfriend cheating on her. Perhaps the calm examination of the alternatives, without the pressure of being in that position, ensures an appropriate response should that occasion arise. (We decided to confront the cheater).

A similar dynamic is at play in the game of  “how did he get there”, “how did he do that” – often the journey or action under discussion has already taken place and yet the participants discuss the merits of alternatives, conveying information, knowledge and submitting themselves to a simulation of a situation in which a specific deployment of skill and knowledge is necessary.

Like any good game, though there is more going on than simply the stated goal and one emergent function. These players are also reinforcing their social ties, securing influence, building alliances and assessing status.

It may also be that in talking about other named individuals participants are not only gaining exposure (at a safe distance) to troubles, but also generating their own group rules pertaining to status which will also determine behaviour.

In cash we trust

In Uncategorized on February 20, 2011 at 6:36 pm

In cash we trust. We trust that price tags reflect all the costs we are expected to bear (bar the VAT, “optional service charge”, booking charge, luggage).

There are other costs associated with our purchases which don’t get included in the price though. These are reffered to as “externalities”. Some of these we do pay for – though not at the till – others are incurred in distant hinterlands.

Externalities are those costs, such as environmental or social impact, which are not passed on to the buyer and are generally not incurred by the vendor. This might be the cost to communities of being forcibly evicted from land to make way for rubber plantations in Cambodia. It could be the cost in lost lives as workers commit suicide rather than bear the conditions in which iPhones are made. It could be the cost of the loss of biodiversity to an ecosystem, contaminated water basins, erosion of soil as rainforests are felled to make way for cattle.

Some of these do end up becoming costs to businesses: Apple’s manufacturer Foxconn has had to install “suicide nets”, commercial cattle farmers degrade the land to the point where they have to pay to clear more land. A business case for sustainability is that negative externalities will eventually manifest as a cost to business which can be more cheaply paid now.

Our transactions largely ignore these externalities, though there are legislative and voluntary attempts to include them in the price. Carbon trading or taxing places a cost on greenhouse gas emission which companies have to pay. Certification schemes such as FairTrade, FSC and MSC invite consumers to pay a little bit more to guarantee fair wage distribution, sustainable forest and fisheries management.

But there is great difficulty in factoring in all externalities and there are many we are not even aware of yet. Ultimately this is because of the needs of transaction.

Transaction cuts out externalities on both sides. When I hand over my cash, it isn’t dripping in sweat, it doesn’t carry my hopes that this will finally be the year I get healthy, it isn’t burdened with my anxiety at buying into a product whose sustainability I am doubtful of. Cash is cash, unburdened and unattached.

So here is a suggestion. Rather than have a point of transaction which ignores externalities, we could try to blur that point of transaction, stretching it in both directions; closer to production and further into the consumer’s life.

This could be achieved by more common ownership.

Imagine a dairy farm which had shares in Tescos. At the moment the externality associated with the low cost of milk (21p to produce, farmers paid 17p) is that small dairies are going out of business, affecting livelihoods in towns and villages around the country.  The dairy could use its voice as a shareholder to argue for a fairer purchasing policy. The producer is in this way moving closer to the consumer.

Imagine now that I also have some stake in the dairy, whether financial or I visit the area occasionally for walks and have “adopted a cow”. I might be more willing to pay a bit more for my milk as I will have a better idea of the costs and needs and externalities involved in running a dairy.*

Instead of a single point of transaction, at the till, I am in a more regular relationship with the milk. I am part of the equation again not simply a cash dispenser. I am an advocate, a supporter, a campaigner, a stakeholder, whatever the actual relationship is, me and my customer externalities are part of the transaction.

In me we trust.

In us we trust.

* As supermarkets drive small dairies out of business, it seems that proposed superdairies will produce too much pollution and that the supermarkets themselves will not buy from them.