Open source sheep of the Silk Road

Recommended lecture

Went to a great talk tonight, by an engineer turned anthropologist / archeologist who moved to (Central) Asia in his early 20s. Person after my own heart.

Michael Frachetti describes the nomadic civilization of the Silk Road in Central Asia as “open source.” He talks about a “modular, interoperable, scalable” model of civilization that stayed resilient for over 2,000 years.

Lately I’ve been looking for clues of “interoperability” in other industries, as I try to understand how building technologies can themselves be more interoperable. But in reflecting on this talk, what stuck with me more was the application of systems thinking to the ancient Silk Road-ian networks Frachetti describes.

Thinking in Systems, by Dana Meadows, is my new favorite book. (More on that later.) In Thinking in Systems, Meadows outlines the simple building blocks of every system: (a) a stock — the memory of changes in flows over time, (b) inflows and outflows, and (c) the purpose of a system. Those that work well are resilient, self-organizing, and hierarchical; the roles and responsibilities of a single element are contained with attribution to the larger whole.

Michael Frachetti speaking at the Long Now, Feb 26 2018

Frachetti, in his own way, explores the system of the ancient Silk Road using these components. The stock are sheep. The flows — the movement of sheep across Central Asia. And the purpose? Trade to sustain life. In an article published in Nature, Frachetti and his collaborators map out the Silk Road using sheep migration (!) in a flow accumulation model. [Hydrology, meet sheep-ology.] They found that the strongest nodes had a closer proximity of travel, meaning a higher frequency of migration. And Frachetti’s key finding — to shake our conventional notions: the Silk Road was actually a series of networks, not a singular artery. It consisted of many concentrated paths, agglomerating into the “Road” we know of today. Frachetti argues that this organic response, rather than a central plan, led to the Silk Road’s resiliency of over 2,000 years. A resilient system that was also self organizing and hierarchical, I’d add.

What led to the Silk Road’s demise? Frachetti wagers that it was a trend towards rigidity, away from the flexible and organic networks that had sustained it for so long.

So what patterns can we apply to today? The insights from ancient scenes of spatial analysis and proximity, such as frequency of collaboration, are fascinating. I also think we take resiliency for granted. We believe our cities (and civilization!) will continue to persist, without building in the buffers necessary. And the power of the organic network certainly looms.

Check out Frachetti’s upcoming book, Globalization in Prehistory.

Open Source Civilization

Lecturer: Michael Frachetti



Can we think of sheep like water? How does the flow of sheep create a network of connectivity?
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