THE SLIME MOLD IS AS GOOD AN ECONOMIC MODEL AS ANY

Let us consider the slime mold.

Image courtesy of Toshyuki Nakagaki, Hokkaido University

When environmental conditions are a threat (lack of food, drought, etc), the cellular slime mold reproduces by gathering with thousands of other nearby slime molds. These single-celled organisms self-arrange into one huge reproductive body, called a ‘slug’. These slugs crawl along the leaf-litter at 1 mm/hour, secreting chemicals that attract other slime-mold slugs. When enough slugs gather at one point, they form a pseudoplasmodium. One third of the slug cells now stretch into a tall stalk, which contains ‘spores’ (really just more of the original single-celled organisms) in a fruiting body. When conditions are right, the fruiting body bursts, and these selected slime molds are expelled to the wind, hopefully finding fairer pastures and making more slime molds. One could consider the system rhizomatic.

And; 50-odd years ago, in a top-secret Cold War think-tank, members of the RAND Corporation had a problem. Their problem was this:

After nuclear war, millions of deaths, and the complete collapse of the American Government and perhaps Western civilization as a whole, how were any remaining US authorities to communicate in order to launch counter-attacks?

To be fair, it was a tricky problem. Nuclear bombs are likely to disrupt relay stations and cabling, no matter how deeply buried or well armored, and command centers are instant targets. The need for decentralization seemed obvious, but few communication systems had been built without even local centers. RAND instead proposed a network made of nodes, each with equal authority to send, receive, or originate messages. The messages would be cut up into tiny bits- packets- which would find separate paths through the system of connected parts, haphazardly tossed from node to node until all of the packets arrived at their destination, and the original message could be seen. This was not a particularly efficient system, but was quite rugged- large sections of the networked landscape could be missing, and the packets would eventually find their way. Such design could be considered rhizomatic.

After a few small-scale tests in the UK, The Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency funded a version of the RAND proposal called ARPANET, which linked University supercomputers in a kind of academia test-run. By 1972, there were 37 nodes in the network; by 1983, the year ARPANET adopted TCP/IP protocols, it was 113. Soon after, the military moved their own network to a private system and ARPANET was suddenly unrestricted for public use. A number of private companies and internet service providers entered the field, as well as thousands of individuals. The fundamental principle of the information-packet, which is routed through a decentralized system of nodes (here, university or individual computers) remained unchanged. Soon, AOL and other baby-browsers (coupled with affordable home computers) would dramatically shift this fledgling landscape.

This is a common anecdote, and not particularly enlightening. But there are three points here worth remembering:

-The Internet is fundamentally a war-machine. (Made to launch a counter-attack.)
-The Internet has always been the plaything of the elite. (First military, then university.)
-The Internet was designed to use you. (As transfer node, and otherwise.)

But perhaps let us look at another social structure, that of the pyramid.

In a pyramid, the one at the apex benefits from those arranged under, each level growing and supporting the excess of top. In this structure, goods and media flows top-down; at the point- a corporation, a super-star, the government-controlled television network, a CEO, etc; these entities disseminate goods through outlets and management entities (growing ever smaller, at lesser rates of return) until they reaches an end-goal consumer, who (tiny by comparison, almost invisible) is still the point of it all, and when coupled with every other end-goal consumer, is a considerable source of wealth.

It is an easy structure to criticize (see last 200 years of socialist, communist, or marxist theory), and such criticism is valid.

However, the pyramidal structure of production has another half, necessary to its integrity- that of employment, of paid labor. Each person between the apex and the base is generally rewarded some amount for their contribution in keeping said structure upright. This is because production (and generally, distribution) is not free. Often, such rewards are minimal in comparison to the large-scale gains, and someone gets rich (the star, the politician, the CEO) while someone else (the backing singer, the ghost writer, the janitorial staff) is failing to meet their car payments. The assumption, however, is that everyone gets paid and that despite an apex’s enviable position of control and aggregate wealth, such profit is not free; it comes at price of production.

This was recent history.

Much has been made of the recent rise of the ‘sharing economy’ (also known as collaborative consumption). Here, goods and services exist in a hybrid cross between owning and gift giving. This is a flattened landscape, one that moves person to person and not corporation to person (with, of course, a helpful corporate mediator who serves as convenient link). If one were to take the language of the sharing economy startup to heart: in this social utopia, there are none in power, just individuals working for themselves, indulging in flexibly and at their own rate, for others who also work for themselves. Commodity sharing is waste reduction, and promotes a culture of neighborly closeness. (A brave new world, where nobody need be employed by the Man and instead will just be using the Man’s free app for a small, invisible fraction of every task to work for themselves.) Examples of recent sharing economies are eBay, Car2Go, Airbnb, Instacart, Chegg, and perhaps most synonymously, Uber.

My car’s starter has needed replacing, and I’ve been using Uber as a extension to an incomplete local bus system. Not long ago, my driver and I were chatting about our work; I mentioned that I was an artist (same as him), to which he replied “I’ll tell you what I tell every artist: invest in a new car!” He went on to explain that he’d bought his car new last year instead of a house; that it was the first job he’d been able to keep for more than 6 months because of his busy travel schedule; that he planned to drive for Uber for the rest of his life.

This is, apparently, not an isolated sentiment; even Uber offers help financing new car buys for future drivers (including those with poor credit, at high rates.)

This same company has on-road test models of self-driving cars, and is hoping to “ease the transition” into self-driving technology as soon as possible.

Of course, there are benefits to such a change; self-driving cars likely mean less accidents, less traffic, reduced car ownership (particularly in urban areas), increased access for those unable to drive or navigate on foot, and a significant decrease in auto-related pollution.

What is strange is not the change, but rather the predatory nature of a company that uses the dialog of social good and empowerment to sell its product. The subtext is this: our people are everything to us, until they are no longer needed.

By removing everything between the apex and the base of the pyramid structure, the startup becomes (to borrow some language); response, flexible, disruptive- and ultimately free to abandon any independent contractor that would have previously been an employee, with legal rights.

If one thinks of a pyramid without a middle, a pyramid cut to an apex and a base with management narrowed to a hair-line, one may imagine something like a stalk.

If you will remember the slime mold; these tiny, single-celled organisms come together to form a network of nodes that are capable of transferring information between themselves in order to act as a singular unit, a crawling pseudoplasmodium that is both one entity and a million simultaneously.

It is easy here to draw an analog between the mold and the internet. Both are side-effects of dire circumstances; one, food shortage, the other, imminent war. Following that train, individual computers are single-cells, networked; each is a process designed to survive, no matter how many nodes may be sacrificed. Perhaps one could see the crawling, slow decision making of the pseudoplasmodium is the development of internet culture via exploration/invention of digital space. And perhaps we could consider their fruiting bodies as our narrowed pyramids, bureaucratic structures embedded in the flat rhizome of typical internet usage.

Image from Scientific American

Of course, the fruiting reproductive structures of the slime mold (unlike conventional business-pyramids) are not designed to last. They are designed to wait until the time is right and then to burst, expelling a tiny percentage of the mold-at-large, leaving the rest to die in a habitat no longer viable. Our contemporary stalks also have this capacity. They expel the privileged, the monied, the insiders, the connected. Startup culture is this process made lore; the Silicon Valley game is simple: barring unlikely huge success, how much venture capital can one idea accrue before abandonment.

Meanwhile, for the users of dying online spaces: personal data is sold off, content is claimed as company property, entire social and work histories are deleted, and finally accounts are terminated.

And for the sharers of the sharing economy, as systems are streamlined and humans made obsolete: opportunities disappear, reward rates plunge (outsourced by their own employers), and the sharer is left with a car payment and little recourse.

And, of course, for those assembling the electronics that provide backbone to this system: mining communities are left in ecological disaster as resources are sold for often much less than they were worth, humans are worked as machines, at capacity, and fickle market forces (there is always someone willing to work cheaper somewhere) mean that unionization or demonstration often results in mass unemployment rather than improved conditions.

Such systems are not merely tied to traditional work-labor, however. They extend into all spheres, including creative acts that would have one been leisure.

Internet-made mega-corporations (Facebook, Google, Twitter, Buzzfeed, etc) spend their billions on indexing, social structure, research, and user design. They produce expensive new systems of advertisement; develop complicated backend structures; engage in data-gathering and surveillance; even fabricate hardware.

What they do not do is produce any large amount of media, instead opting to amplify ‘viral content’. Here, this content is often free; front-facing workers at these companies are asked less to make than to search and curate. What is important is a finger on the pulse of this cycle; an understanding of whatever clickbait or heartwarming news story or social issue is hot in a given week. Content is outsourced in the everyone-an-artist social structure of the new web. And we the content producers (lost in a sea of other content producers) seem to feel that exposure is often worth such treatment. After all, we know how the new internet works; we know about the news cycle, what it is to have a piece of ourselves lifted out of obscurity and splashed against every aggregate feed; we count our to-be twitter followers, who work in institutions or organizations or companies that may employ us, represent us; we survive this way, launching a Kickstarter, or a Patreon; and we know that now, brand complicity is power.

We live in an amorphous space, with individuals existing at once in positions across multiple schema; we are entities hyperlinked in a web structure, both producing and consuming, the collective disposal system of progress zoomed-in. What was once best visualized as a satellite view of global trade routes has become microeconomic, even domestic; an iPhone vision of available circling Uber drivers, close enough to call- and an app-download away from joining. Here, each amoeba eats and also walks; the bottom layer of the contemporary pyramid, embedded in the rhizome, is no longer made of simple consumers, but rather a sea of producer-consumers. This producer-consumer, the using-user, is still the independent node that (with a multiplicity of others) holds up the very structure of the internet and our contemporary economic system.

We the denizens of this digital space have formed a rhizome, and out of our flatness (our peer-to-peer networks, our sharing economy, our crowdfunding) have sprung millions of fruiting bodies, towering structures that sell us to ourselves. Our private data has been monetized, our web-traffic has been monetized, our content has been monetized, our attention has been monetized, our ‘unused wealth’ has been sharing-economy monetized, and our recreation has been monetized, by clicking, an act of labor so light that it feels like leisure.

These structures have their power precisely because the world is inextricably tied to internet structures. Because everything touches everything else, we are able to generate ever more elegant systems to produce, consume, produce. We are the producer-consumer, we are the network node, we are laboring for ourselves, inextricably linked with one another, with a body as big as the whole world.

The Opte Project’s 2003 map of the internet