GOSPLAN emergent?

The ever-interesting Yorkshire Ranter makes a good point (nearly a month ago, but nevertheless…) that certain elements of retail behemoth Tesco’s logistical setup bear a theoretical resemblance to Soviet-style command economies:

An unremarked-on aspect of the 1.5% interest rate cut last week. Namely, are we already living in a near-real time planned economy, as Stafford Beer foresaw? It sounds like I must be joking. But how else are we to interpret Sir Terry Leahy’s trip to see the Bank of England and the Treasury? Tesco boasts that one in every eight pounds spent in the UK passes through its tills; this bit is always in the papers. They rarely mention their huge management-information system, except to the trade.

If you wanted close to real-time information about the consumer economy, I can’t think of anything that would work better.

It’s quite a leap of the imagination, but this segues very nicely with Ken MacLeod’s recent comment on the future of IT security. MacLeod suggests that we are seeing a move in politics away from decentralised, bottom-up, market-based solutions and towards centralised, top-down, state-based solutions:

What if right now, we’re at a moment when trends that looked inexorable have reached a turning point? What if the common sense of the age is about to flip from free-market capitalism to state-regulated capitalism? Of course, turning that into actual policy won’t happen overnight, or smoothly – too much political legacy code – but if it does happen then over the next ten years or so we’ll be in an age of big government projects, some sort of new New Deal. We’d find ourselves back in the day before yesterday‘s tomorrow.

Further reading with decidedly SFnal tones includes operations systems specialist Stafford Beer‘s Project Cybersyn for the Chilean government and the USSR’s five year plans.

[image from kevindooley on flickr]

3 thoughts on “GOSPLAN emergent?”

  1. The notion that firms are (usually) command economies is very old in the economics profession. The observation is made and analyzed by Nobelist Ronald Coase in his famous 1937 paper, The Nature of the Firm, which forms a kind of duology with his famous 1960 paper, The Problem of Social Cost. So, small pockets of the economy should be run as command economies. Some of these will grow in size as technology progresses (some will shrink). It does not follow that the whole economy should be run as a command economy, or even that it should be more like a command economy.

    In SF, Stross’s Accelerando includes the idea that computing will discover a kind of command economy (“Economics 2.0” I think it’s called) that is more efficient than the market, but this is never explained in any detail. I think of it as a kind of FTL-like vaporware.

  2. Thanks for that Dave.

    Re Charles Stross, “economics 2.0” is part ftl vapourware, as you say, but Stross suggests elsewhere that it is what happens when you are faced with an entity that has so much processing power that it can simulate you and your entire world.

    The prospective entity will be able to predict your every move and act accoringly. With such colossal information asymmetry between baseline human beings and these hypothetical posthumans how will they interact?

    Also how would such entities solve their own economic problems?

    “Economics 2.0” is kind of a placeholder for the answer to that question.

    See “H+ Magazine” here for the relevant interview (and a slightly more coherent description) with Stross.

  3. The idea of perfect simulation of preferences is very interesting. I can’t quite wrap my head around it, but I welcome the invitation to read and think about it a little more. Thanks.

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