A Design Philosophy for the Ten Thousand Tiny Revolutions

Capitalism fails because it operates on principles that are at odds with the ecologies of the planet it operates upon. Here’s a design philosophy to counter it — informed by complex systems.

Aaron Fernando
Mar 13 · 9 min read

his is a time when millions upon millions are realizing that the old systems are in a freefall, collapsing together and bringing us down with them. Inequality is on everyone’s mind, yet it continues to grow worse and worse. This is a time when privatization and commodification have begun to consume everything and the overarching force that drives it — neoliberal Capitalism — has begun to reach its logical conclusion: self-cannibalization.

This is a time when millions are coming into the awareness that allowing the old systems to continue will result in our annihilation.

And now, what might be the final straw is systemic shocks that will be caused by Covid-19, causing economies to slow down, rattling the already financially-fragile lives of millions and exposing the shaky foundations of the Panglossian narrative and economic dogmas which claim that neoliberal Capitalism leads to the best of all possible worlds.

What’s interesting is that I’d started writing this a long time before the emergence of Covid-19 and I’ve been reading and writing about alternative systems for years. My wake-up call almost exactly a decade ago, when the volcano in Iceland known as Eyja erupted and significantly slowed down European economies, grounding tens of thousands of flights and causing supply chains to significantly slow down.

Photo by Marc Szeglat on Unsplash

I was still in my teens but it became shockingly apparent that sudden, exogenous events could jolt our fragile yet highly-interdependent civilization and cause it to grind to a halt. It’s not like it wasn’t known that this and other volcanoes were active, just as it was known that the world was “grossly unprepared” for future pandemics, according to a report last year, before initial outbreak of Covid-19.

But of course humans are not great when it comes to foresight, so the general population lacked interest in creating alternative systems of local resilience and establishing parallel institutions for a rainy day. Until now.

Now, it seems like more and more people are interested in alternative systems and ways of doing things. Yet for many, the old ways are so entrenched in our thinking that when we think about solutions, we find ourselves locked into asking questions with assumptions that are faulty. We ask “How can this scale?” rather than “Should this scale?” Nature does not know infinite growth, and the tree or the the fish or the bird reaches a maximum size. It is only cancer that scales infinitely.

Likewise, we seek monolithic one-size-fits-all solutions and seek out single, unifying movements and heroes because that is how hierarchies operate under the systems of domination that we exist in. This begins in school, where there is a teacher who has the knowledge and it is the student’s responsibility to learn it. It continues in the workplace where there is a boss who commands and employees who must obey. In electoral politics, we defer to the choices we’re permitted rather than working to be less dependent on those highly corporatized, rigged mechanisms.

And so when we think about social change, too often we think about single moments and the individuals who we associate with them. Greta Thunberg, Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez even tell us not to worship them, but people still do because of how entrenched we are in our mindset to look up for leaders and to expect others to build a mass movement and guide us. It is this same mindset that grows frustrated and helpless when leaders inevitably disappoint us.

Indeed, the act of putting people on pedestals and worshiping heroes often has significant negative impacts. Think about all the passion and grassroots energy behind the Obama campaign that was scrapped after the election was won. Think about how Aung San Suu Kyi won a Nobel Peace Prize only to enable a nation’s first steps toward genocide.

There will be no single savior or messiah — but rather, diverse coalitions of committed people in trusting communities living and working with each other day after day. There will be no one massive, monolithic revolution but ten thousand tiny revolutions across countless realms all in solidarity with each other.

This post is not about the enormous multitude of problems and their systemic roots; every day, there are amazing books and articles being published that delve into the roots of systemic issues. Rather, this is a design philosophy that can be applied across realms in the formation of localized, decentralized solutions— from food systems to community finance mechanisms, land reparations projects, community communications infrastructure, energy co-ops, and everything else.

This design philosophy is broad enough to be interpreted across fields and to allow projects to interface between them. As a writer focusing on alternative economics (1,2,3,4) this philosophy emerged as a result of my making explicit — to myself — exactly what I was looking for when I sought out alternative economic projects to write about.

Photo by Deglee Degi on Unsplash

This was a descriptive criteria for what I was looking for and it is now a prescriptive set of principles with which design interlocking, regenerative, decentralized projects that can guide us toward a post-Capitalist society and economy of the future.

The projects formulated & initiated with this design philosophy could plant the seeds of a radical new world in the hostile ground of Capitalism so that together, these projects grow and multiply and become a lush forest — much like a literal forest in an area once desertified by colonization and Capitalism.

I see this as the antithesis to Capitalism; its antidote. Throughout these principles, there is an undercurrent of diversity and heterogeneity. I have observed that diversity breaks capitalism, which expects predictable inputs so that it can pump out predictable outputs. Being up against capitalistic entities, diverse movements are much less susceptible to one-size-fits-all defenses against them. There are other, important undercurrents of decentralization and redundancy that you may notice. So here it is:

Design Philosophy for the Ten Thousand Tiny Revolutions

Replicable- Efforts must be well-documented and transparent about all environmental, financial, interpersonal, and other reasons which may have factored into desired or undesired outcomes of an effort. Success must not depend on rare inputs or exceptional conditions.

Scale-Bound- Efforts must have a maximum intended scale of impact. Unlike endeavors or economies with inbuilt growth-imperatives, any effort will resemble a single clover in a field or a tree in a forest; one of many in an ecosystem & without interminable, cancerous growth.

Experimental- Efforts will attempt new methods, even if previous methods have been successful. Just as mutations occur in biological life, allowing the spawning of black swans with unforeseen advantages over the adequately-adapted, the standard of success must evolve constantly..

Adaptive- Those engaging in any effort must be cognizant of and on guard against inertia in all forms. Methods, meeting times, protocols, hardware, imagery, language, & mental frameworks must change when they stop serving the needs of an effort.

Light- If the overall architecture of an effort or any component of it consumes too much time, too much money, or too much effort, it must be discarded and re-designed to be less resource-intensive. Low Overhead = High Independence

Modular- Efforts should be unix-like in their modularity: rather than forming protocols and tools or training individuals to only function in specific instances, components must be formed with the possibility of being adapted and integrated with others, in other times and places.

Interconnected- Efforts in one area must be designed to work in tandem with efforts in other areas. As in ecosystems, there must be constant communication& signaling between entities. Also, the outputs of one effort should be the inputs of another; nature knows no waste.

Localized- Efforts must be tailored to local needs and conditions and utilize locally-abundant inputs while minimizing inputs that are scarce in that area or at that time.

So for instance, perhaps weatherproofed structures made of wood are appropriate in the Pacific Northwest, but adobe structures are appropriate in the Southwest US.

Antifragile- From Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book by this name, antifragility is the property of certain systems & entities to grow stronger, more adaptive, or more capable due to shocks, disorder, & unpredictable inputs. Efforts must be designed with this property in mind.

In addition to this being derived greatly from the field of complexity and an understanding of ecology, I think I was significantly influenced to create this by learning about the the Unix Philosophy in computer science. In an interview with computer science professor Emin Gün Sirer of Cornell, he explained to me the Unix Philosophy:

There are multiple different ways of doing things in computer science. And these ways… the only way to describe it is ‘aesthetics’ is the right word. You can build really complex, clunky monolithic, closed software — and we have systems like this. The most well-known one… is an operating system called Multics. It’s clunky, it’s big, and it did everything… there is this other aesthetic, exemplified by a system called Unix. That’s where everything is a small tool, they mesh together, you could see the output of every tool and you could check things and so forth.

Many do not realize that Linux web servers make up the majority of the world’s servers i.e. Linux comprises the majority of the computing infrastructure of the Internet. And Linux is built on Unix principles. So of course, I extrapolated this to grassroots social projects and used it to think about a philosophy in opposition to that of Capitalism, which is the big, clunky Multics of social and economic operating systems. And like Multics, when if fails, it fails hard and and it fails in its totality.

Here a simple list of rules from the Unix Philosophy (wiki) but when looking at this list, think about how these could apply to social action:

Rule of Modularity: Write simple parts connected by clean interfaces.

Rule of Clarity: Clarity is better than cleverness.

Rule of Composition: Design programs to be connected to other programs.

Rule of Separation: Separate policy from mechanism; separate interfaces from engines.

Rule of Simplicity: Design for simplicity; add complexity only where you must.

Rule of Parsimony: Write a big program only when it is clear by demonstration that nothing else will do.

Rule of Transparency: Design for visibility to make inspection and debugging easier.

Rule of Robustness: Robustness is the child of transparency and simplicity.

Rule of Representation: Fold knowledge into data so program logic can be stupid and robust.

Rule of Least Surprise: In interface design, always do the least surprising thing.

Rule of Silence: When a program has nothing surprising to say, it should say nothing.

Rule of Repair: When you must fail, fail noisily and as soon as possible.

Rule of Economy: Programmer time is expensive; conserve it in preference to machine time.

Rule of Generation: Avoid hand-hacking; write programs to write programs when you can.

Rule of Optimization: Prototype before polishing. Get it working before you optimize it.

Rule of Diversity: Distrust all claims for “one true way”.

Rule of Extensibility: Design for the future, because it will be here sooner than you think.

Again, though these principles seems abstract, they’re what I’ve distilled from reading about and writing about a multitude of movements and grassroots initiatives. If you have questions about a specific realm — from decentralized energy grids and local food systems to alternative finance models and infrastructure — reach out to me and I might be able to direct you to a movement or resource hub that can inform your plans on initiating an effort.

There is a lot more to be said about all of this — and I will in fact say a lot more about it — so follow this blog or follow me on Twitter for my ongoing posts. And if the seeds of ten thousand tiny revolutions are to be planted, I hope that one of them will be yours.

Photo by Jayden Wong on Unsplash

Ten Thousand Tiny Revolutions

A strategy of decentralized dissent that goes well beyond…

Aaron Fernando

Written by

Grassroots Action | Monetary Innovation | Revolution | (In that order.)

Ten Thousand Tiny Revolutions

A strategy of decentralized dissent that goes well beyond the ballot box

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