Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Centralized Versus Decentralized

Distributive systems can be either centralized or decentralized. I will list some examples:

1. Birds don't have lungs, they have hollow tubes running throughout their frames. Decentralized oxygen distribution.


Land-based creatures, mammals included, have lungs, which their bodies use to extract the oxygen needed, which is then distributed by the heart.

2. Mass transit moves many monkeys in one large metal box.


Personal metal boxes that move only a few monkeys.

3. Mating migrations bring many animals of a species together to trade genes.


Individual animals form pairs to trade genes.

4. One central main supercomputer processes information.


Several not-quite-so-powerful computers linked together process information. (distributive computing)

5. Monarchy, concentration of executive power in the hands of a single person.


Anarchy, power in the hands of a great many people.

What are the advantages and disadvantages to each in each example? That depends heavily on the system in question.

1. Birds need to be very light to fly; having hollow tubes satisfies this requirement and grants them oxygen where and when they need it. (Birds bob their heads when they walk so they can breathe.) But being hollow inside makes the birds fragile. Whereas with the land-based, lung-having critters, the need for robust bones far outweighs the benefit of having oxygen coursing throughout our bodies. Also, oxygen can be spread more effectively (though at greater energy cost) through capillaries.

2. Again, this one is a matter of energy usage and convenience. It is convenient to own a car and drive it to where you need to go. The costs involved for this convenience go beyond just what you pay. The roads have to be designed, built, and maintained. This will alter the shape of the city or landscape; will change how we move ourselves and the goods we need. Mass transit works best in close-knit pedestrian-friendly cities. We lose the convenience of deciding when and how we get to our destinations, but we expend far less energy per person doing so, and can keep the air and the city relatively clean and organized.

3. The migratory animals will obviously expend more energy getting to the central location, but they will have a wider selection upon arriving. This method is good for far-ranging species like sea or air creatures, where the chances of two of them meeting in the open is very small.

4. The supercomputer can be a powerhouse of a machine and crunch numbers faster than any of the others. It doesn't have to mess with networks and the latency such things entail. But there is hidden computing power in networks that, though it may not surpass the sheer processing power of the supercomputer, offers benefits unique to such an arrangement, like redundancy.

5. Monarchs can be intelligent, wise, benevolent, progressive, and peaceful. They can also be quite the opposite. They can be decisive and clever leaders or malicious, ineffective creeps. The advantages of a monarchy lies in the executive power. Dissenting opinions are ignored, thus speeding any operation (for better or worse). Of course, the obvious problem with a monarchy is that there are few checks on their power. Things can get out of hand with irresponsible leaders. Placing power in the hands of many people can bog down operations, even to a standstill. Endless committees and bureacratic red tape hinder even the simplest of endeavours. But the idea of democracy is at the very heart of our ideals. We each desire liberty and reject external control over our lives. Hair-pulling in its complexity.

It's clear from the examples and their analyses that there is no single answer that applies to all situations. Every situation is unique and requires a delicate balance of each. Also, suppose the parameters of certain situations change. Suppose automobiles use renewable, non-polluting energy, or that the mob of citizens consists of violent idiots. We would probably change our choices to reflect the new conditions.

There is this idea in economics that suggests that firms get larger and larger because larger firms are more efficient than smaller firms. This is true to extent, in that a larger firm has more backup capital to weather rocky economic fluctuations. A larger firm will command the labour of more people than a smaller firm, churns out a larger profit (usually), and just has more productive capacity. If we took this idea and applied it to this discussion, we could conclude that it is good to have a highly centralized economic system, perhaps whole product lines dominated by a few corporations. Paper Products Firm and Water Related Services and United Food Suppliers, or maybe even something like what supposedly happened in the USSR, state control of industry. So it may be that our desire for and love of democracy is undermined by our desire for efficient economic entities, a not-so-happy medium being the outcome.

My personal take on this, based on what I have seen at living and grocery coops, is that there is a limit to how large an institution can get and still maintain the ideals of democracy and remain efficient. I would surmise that the local foods I buy at the food coop saves a lot of energy in transportation and importation costs. Which suggests that some arrangements are possible where there is a healthy dose of decentralized power management and centralized capital to maintain efficiency and last any downturn in the economy.

I don't really know where I was going with all of this, it's just something I like to think about from time to time. I felt I had to organize my thoughts a bit more on this blog. It's fun to compare different systems using these criteria.


Blogger Delta said...

It does seem like it's difficult to have extremely large structures without compromising the democratic aspect of it. I don't think it's impossible, but it's at least much more difficult to achieve. Either good planning is necessary, or perhaps preferably, the organic, experimental side of anarchism that allows for changes to happen as those changes seem necessary.

I think the nested system of directly democratic federations that anarchist theory proposes could preserve the democratic ideals we all want and and the same time provide large-scale organizational potential.

20 October, 2006 00:13  
Blogger Mookie said...

the organic, experimental side of anarchism that allows for changes to happen as those changes seem necessary.

Yes, constant adjustments. It is only when there is a set way to do something that, over time, becomes an obsolete way to do things. Being flexible and open is great for making necessary course corrections.

"nested system of directly democratic federations"

Hands-on and intimate makes for great participation and solid checks and balances. I also believe it will help make people feel more responsible and empowered, and maybe they will start to notice the things they do and why.

20 October, 2006 08:57  

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