Nov 152018
 November 15, 2018  Posted by at 3:31 pm Primers Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  

Max Ernst Ubu Imperator 1923



Ilargi: This is part 3 of Alexander Aston’s view of how upheaval and collapse can lead to new insights, new bursts of creativity, in science, religion, society and the arts. Part 1 of Quantum, Jazz and Dada can be found here, part 2 is here.

Here’s Alexander:



Quantum, Jazz and Dada:
The Dynamic Symmetry of Destruction and Creativity


Human Development


Every breath is a sacrament, an affirmation of our connection with all other living things, a renewal of our link with our ancestors and a contribution to generations yet to come. Our breath is a part of life’s breath, the ocean of air that envelopes the earth.”
– David Suzuki


As human minds first started to emerge from the ocean and step onto the shores of Africa, they increasingly began to respond to their own presence. Hominids co-evolved through the complex social structures generated through the ecosystem engineering of tool using communities, forming a kind of “multicellular” cognition. The unique features of human cognitive evolution emerged from the dense feedback between brains, bodies, and their environments. As humans learn to engage with the material world around us we transform our collective developmental processes. “The structure of the brain reflects its history: as an evolving dynamic system, in which one part evolves out of another”. (20)

Tools made available whole new energetic niches for early hominins while sharing and cooperation increased group resiliency. This stimulated the growth of new neural structures capable of mediating the growing complexity of hominin interaction with the world. It is from these socio-cognitive ecologies that the phenomena we call history has emerged. What is clear from our deep past is that cooperative behaviour is overwhelmingly the dominant evolutionary characteristic of our species. Early Hominins that shared and reciprocated effectively created a broader distribution of resources that safeguarded against ecological change, thereby producing significant advantages in the face of adversity. In this sense, cooperative behaviour can be understood as a form of counteractive niche construction in which other members of the species provide a form of ecological storage to buffer against environmental variability.

The active structuring of relationships within a species creates unique adaptive landscapes that produce powerful and often novel forms of evolutionary feedback. Through interaction and cooperation, the social “body” itself becomes part of the ecological inheritance in which the organism develops. The greater the selective advantage afforded to cooperative behaviour the more complex the adaptive landscape becomes through collective behaviours and group size. Effective cooperation can help to ensure against the monopolisation of and exclusion from resources, enabling a more efficient circulation and distribution of resources through the social system.

Thus, the effectiveness of this strategy provides an advantage to those individuals more willing to engage in cooperative behaviour. What is critical about this is that it illuminates the idea that social organisation in of itself can be understood as a form of niche construction. Through socially structuring the material and energetic flows of their environments hominins created powerful feedback loops between social cognition and organisation. The ecological benefits of cooperative behaviours fuel their own expansion.

Human beings have developed such intense feedback between their environments, brains and bodies that we can engineer ecosystems and construct niches with very little impact upon our underlying genetics beyond what amounts to fine tuning. Nonetheless, human systems are still subject to the fundamental patterns from which they have emerged. In essence, humans “internalised” the logic of co-evolutionary ecologies, analogous to the way mammals localised thermal regulation. Our capacity to manipulate environmental structures and collectively adapt has led to unparalleled growth in organizational complexity throughout the course of human existence.

“The cultural transmission of knowledge and practices resulting from individual lifetime learning, when combined with the physical persistence of artefacts, yields yet another source of selection impacting feedback.” (21) In other words, the products of human activity become ecological entities shaping flows of energy, matter, and information in the environment. Our minds emerged in the wild, but over millennia we have engineered socio-technical ecosystems to shaping our development, our ways of knowing and being in the world. It is through the active structuring of energy-matter flows in our environment that we create the medium through which we think and act.

This interplay between material structure and flows of energy shape human engagement by encouraging and constraining interactive possibilities, and making new forms of meaning possible. It is in this sense that the most significant feature of human cognitive evolution is the feedback generated between the plasticity of the brain and the plasticity of the material environment. “Constant transformation of what is out there to be perceived facilitates further projections [that] over time… may construct a creative ecology of recursiveness and metacognition.” (22) Material culture allows us to engineer our ecosystems, forming “cognitive ecologies” that structure the contexts and possibilities of human development and interaction. (23) We grow from the world we help to create.



It is in these regards that the seeds of the next system must be sown in the dynamics of human development, social, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. The environments that we expose or subject ourselves to, shape how we think, relate and what we are capable of becoming. We must learn how to create healthy environments that support and empower human development in ways that are socially, economically and ecologically sustainable. Critical to this are intergenerational communities that allow us to observe and learn from the broad arc of human development, individual and collective. We also need educational processes that are truly dynamic. Experimental learning communities that are integrated into their societies are necessary. Yet, the most fundamental truth is that it will be co-operation that will be the single most critical trait that will lead to success. The more effective we are at sharing resources in mutual aid the more likely our systems will survive.

From Palaeolithic bands to the first city states and the contemporary global system, humans transform their environments, tapping new energetic resources and creating unique developmental pressures. As human social ecologies reach the limits of their growth or encounter novel conditions, people transform their energetic systems and their development. Human beings have gone from isolated bands to vast entanglements that dominate global ecology. Like atoms aggregating into stars and cells forming into bodies, minds have condensed into novel and dense relationships such as kinship networks, polities, religious communities, states and transnational empires. Diverse forms of human sociality have grown and withered countless times as unique cognitive ecologies,. The cosmos of identity and meaning that shaped our ancestors as they flourished, now erode in the elements, their ideas, knowledge and art forming the strata beneath our feet and the basis of our own understanding in the world.

Since the emergence of agriculture, elite groups have become extremely adept at dominating bottlenecks in the flows of complex systems, enabling them to reorganize social institutions around powerful monopolies and thereby establishing persistent, stratified political economies. Early states formed as identity cults with monopolies over specific behaviours and resources. In a sense, they were entropy-gathering mechanisms, domesticating and discipling human bodies in order to harness their energy and concentrate it in powerful cores. These hierarchical systems are effective at creating durable structures, yet their ability to create inertia also increases their fragility. The linear, overly centralised energy-matter flows of vertical control systems mean that they are only stable over a limited range of conditions as complexity increases. Not only do they often fail to adapt, but they are also powerful enough in the short term to fend off systemic changes, increasing the pressures upon the system as more energy is consumed to maintain stability.

This dynamic of inertia is where we stand at the end of the petroleum era with global institutions that developed around an immense energetic scaffolding of fossil fuels. These energetic throughputs have created powerful dominance hierarchies far beyond the scope of any previous social systems. The current “global” culture that has emerged from these processes comprises a unique way of understanding the world through developmental scaffolding afforded by industrial systems. “The assembling of ‘the economy’ [came] with the transition from a coal based energy system to a predominantly oil-base one… [a concept that] depended upon abundant and low-cost energy supplies, making post war Keynesian economics a form of ‘petroknowledge.’” (24)

Those at the core of the current system will resist changes because it is central to their very understanding of what the world is and how it functions. It is difficult for all humans to challenge and change the fundamental assumptions and logics of the systems in which we develop and create meaning, this all the more the case for the extremely privileged. Elites are at the centre of extremely dense and potent energetic flows that have developed into very powerful belief systems. It will doubtlessly require a great deal of energy and destruction to convince them of new possibilities. Such is the nature of all Ancien Régimes.


If we wish to create a new system, a healthier system for humanity, we must find ways of re-organising energetic flows from the ground up. There is no simple schema that can be imposed in such a process. Ecological design must emerge from its local context. The nature of sustainability will not be interchangeable across the globe. One of the critical things necessary for new, healthier systems to develop effectively is the decentralisation of production and consumption into locally stable configurations. There is no central authority with the sophistication necessary to impose a model or engineer a solution.

Down that path lay the horrors of the twentieth century. Rather, a new kind of society must emerge through negotiating the great diversity of human communities and their environments at multiple scales. What these social ecologies should share is a fundamental logic of co-evolutionary feedback, dynamic relational structures shaped by the flow and form of their environment. It is from those fundamental parameters that we can begin to organise new institutions. This requires engaging with the dynamics of the local environment and designing systems that harness and circulate energetic and material flows effectively.

The basis of our energetic systems is food production. It is critical that we begin to integrate our consumption with our ecosystems. There are many sophisticated techniques for bio intensive farming that have emerged over recent decades such as permaculture, hügelkultur, aquaponics and other experimental designs as well as extremely robust traditional practices across the world. Rethinking our systems from the ground up and engineering stable energetic feedback in our environments will allow us to reduce bottlenecks and increase local autonomy and resiliency. The more local the production of energy flows and their effective distribution in communities, the more they can create healthy developmental conditions as well as rapidly adapt to changing contexts.

This also can function as a way of creating counter power. Dominants (individual or institutional) will be less capable of creating differential access to resources and therefore dependency and power. Communities that harness their energy dynamics efficiently and effectively will have greater independence for they will be less susceptible to systemic coercion. Power, in a technical sense, is the expression of energetic capacity. The greater the autonomy of a community’s energetic capacity, the more power they can express in relation to the broader system. It is the counterbalance of power that creates stable feedback. Food autonomy is the cornerstone of this, from that foundation we must work to build counter economies, shaping new institutions around these energetic flows.

We must produce as much of our material needs from our immediate environment as possible. Recycle, reuse, repair while sustainably maintaining and harvesting local resources and reaching out to our broader communities for support in measured and considered ways. There are already many models and tools with which we can begin to design the institutions of a counter economy. DIY and maker spaces, cooperatives, social collectives, small businesses, sustainably powered micro-factories, all provide potential avenues for new networks of production and consumption. The point is to link up as many of these processes within our communities so that their synergy can start producing self-sustaining feedback.

Tools such as the P2P Foundation, Loomio, Opensource Ecology and countless other resources made available through digital culture allow us to design, implement and share in ways that can rapidly scale between local, regional and global, communities. Indeed, such resources opens the space for new forms of politics through consensus practices and highly refined, dynamically responsive voting structures. Through practice and participation we will learn how to create the next system as it emerges, co-evolving with it, creating it as it creates us. It is also critical that we do as much as possible to limit bottlenecks in informational networks.



It is only through communication and considered negotiation that we will be able to collectively adapt to the challenges that face us. The creation of alternative communication networks such as meshnets are extremely important, structurally distributed information flows ensure greater adaptability and coordination. This does not mean that we should not intersect with older or more traditional institutions. We should engage with those pre-existing structures that truly benefit our communities and learn how to transform and integrate them into new social configurations. We should also discover how to divert as many of the old systems energetic flows into new relationships, as long as such actions do not compromise our local systems.

Money is a powerful social technology by which we are undeniably dominated. Money mimics the dynamics of energy, acting as a kind of “fly-wheel” that facilitates the flow and storage of energetic capacity. “The flow of energy makes possible the circulation of money and the manipulation of money can control the flow of energy.” (25) In key ways, money is a cognitive artefact that humans use to store and express energetic capacity. Ultimately, it seems that if we want to have a materially grounded system of accountancy we should peg our currencies to measurable energetic flows. The creation of counter currencies, digital, local or otherwise, is one potentially fruitful avenue.

However, in our present circumstances, divestment from major banks into credit unions and other cooperative structures will help to ensure more democratic and local control over community wealth. Furthermore, the use of money to develop sustainable and shared resources is incredibly important. Investment into micro-grids, sustainable housing, community farms, consumer and producer cooperatives, tool libraries, time banks, transition towns and more, will all help to increase local resiliency. We must work to create configurations between such institutions that produce self-reinforcing dynamics. However, this does not mean that local communities will ever be fully disentangled from global flows of energy, only more resilient in the face of their disruption.

These dynamics must be mediated at local, regional and global scales. Indeed it would seem that one of the most potentially fruitful avenues for institutional frameworks would be to mimic the relational structure of the environment from ecosystems to biomes, ecotones and the biosphere. The communities and tools through which these processes are developing are far too numerous to detail. We should take heart that across the world communities are already developing solutions. Through observation, experimentation and communication we can begin to design feedback processes, positive and negative, that empower resilience and flexibility. The next system will emerge through communities working with the ecological flows in which they are embedded, developing new ways of articulating between the various scales of these processes. It will be a diverse kind of “Protestantism” rejecting and reorienting away from the demands of the current system as humanity searches for salvation.


Utopia and all that Jazz


“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”
– Oscar Wilde


It was a song that encouraged soldiers to lay down their weapons and cross the lines on Christmas eve of 1914. Of all the things humans create, it is music that most closely resembles the reality of our universe, the dynamic symmetry of patterns in time. A tension between becoming and unbecoming shaping movement. Crescendo and dissolution, trough and peak. It has been over a century since that silent night, in which a fragile utopia emerged amidst the freshly dug trenches for Europe’s impending self-immolation.

What will we choose to sacrifice and create as the last of the industrial empires enter terminal decline? Across the globe connections are breaking and new spaces are being created, often with great violence. The demands of the old system exceed the Earth’s capacity and with every passing year, more and more people will be searching for new solutions. We must discover new ways to sing to one another and build our utopias not as end goals but as practices through which we can learn how to better take care of one another. We must create it together, in all our diversity, to give new meanings to the way we live.

It is our historical moment to be such a generation, to live amidst such immense forces of change. The high priests of our system fiercely deny this and demand ever more blood sacrifice from us to end the eclipse of their infinitely growing future. The very logic of their organization precipitates their extinction. However, if we embrace our position, balanced between destruction and creation, we can begin to create harmony amidst the crescendo of the old world. We live amongst dinosaurs. The meteor is coming. We must learn to be warm blooded, how to flower. Will our successional ecology be a golden age or a toxic one? The choice will be ours.

We must try to imagine and prefigure societies where human needs are met by systems of production sustainably embedded within ecological and thermodynamic processes. Imagine a world where children dive and play amongst the reefs formed by our submerged cities, their communities growing like gardens surrounded by vast tracts of wilderness, connected to new global networks. Perhaps they will ply the seas in ships that cast their sails into the stratosphere, transmit radio waves into space and still listen to the classic musicians of our times. Think of institutions where education and learning are free from linear economic narratives and embraced as one of the great joys and passions of the human mind.

A world where Art, Philosophy and Science are acts of joy and play, where generations are conscientiously integrated into community learning environments. Vibrant and diverse cultures that grow from sustainably designed communities powered with solar steam engines, eco-farms, cooperative institutions and more. It is beyond our knowing. All that we are certain of is that it is our generation, our actions that will create the possibilities of the future. The next system must emerge as a dynamic scaffolding of energy, matter and minds through which we can nurture new institutions. The ultimate outcome is beyond our comprehension, however the old world is reaching a crescendo and it’s denouement will be in the hands of those with the sense of vision and endeavour necessary to create something truly revolutionary.


The Industrials came from the ancient imperial-merchant cultures of Eurasia. Even today their ingenuity and technical prowess is astonishing. Their sciences still form much of the foundations of our knowledge, their stories continue to shape our identities. They were complex and contradictory peoples, capable of breath taking beauty and savage cruelty. Often one is left baffled at what they seemed unable to comprehend in themselves and their world, creating their own tragedies and traumas as if by compulsion. Yet, inexorably, the world changed. It would have been hard to see then, the seemingly disconnected and separate events that have only crystallised into history over the centuries.

There were signs of the gathering transformations at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Though the violence and trauma of the period was extreme, developments such as the Global Justice Movement, Chiapas, Occupy, Rojava, Nuit Debout, Standing Rock, and countless other innovations great and small were part of a gathering wave of transformation and reconfiguration. It was not a seamless and smooth process and over time it would create unanticipated problems that they and their descendants were forced to negotiate. Yet we owe much to those last generations of the industrial age.

Amidst all their challenges and shortcomings, they learned to create something new, an inheritance they have bequeathed us all. It must have often been terrifying and difficult during those final days of empire. Yet, as their world began to fall apart they started to produce whole new forms of art and philosophy, new systems of meaning and relationship, reshaping their communities and setting in motion the birth of the world we know today. Despite the horrors of their age, they still managed to create something beautiful. It is their redemption. They worked to build a renaissance rather than flee an apocalypse…


“We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.”
– Ursula K. Le Guin



20) Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 255.
21) Andy Clark, Supersizing the Mind Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press 2008), 259.
22) Lambros Malafouris, How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement, (Cambridge: MIT Press 2013), 193.
23) Edwin Hutchins, ‘Cognitive Ecology’. Topics in Cognitive Science 2, no. 4 (October 2010): 705-15.
24) Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. (London: Verso 2013), 139.
25) Howard T Odum, Environment, Power, and Society for the Twenty-First Century: The Hierarchy of Energy, (New York: Columbia University Press 2007), 41.



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Alexander Aston is a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the University of Oxford and is on the board of directors with the Centre for Cognitive Archaeology at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. He has prior degrees in philosophy and history. His work lays at the intersection of Cognitive Archaeology, Deep History and Natural Philosophy, examining the relationship between ecology, material culture and social cognition. Alexander grew up between Zimbabwe, Greece and the United States. He has worked as a stone mason, community organiser and collaborative artist focused on issues of sustainability, alternative education and economic justice for nearly two decades. He has helped to establish community collectives, free schools, participatory art projects, sustainability and education programs in several international projects.



Nov 112018
 November 11, 2018  Posted by at 3:42 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  

Hannah Höch Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany 1919



Ilargi: This is part 2 of Alexander Aston’s view of how upheaval and collapse can lead to new insights, new bursts of creativity, in science, religion, society and the arts. Part 1 of Quantum, Jazz and Dada can be found here. Part 3 will follow soon. Check

Here’s Alexander:



Quantum, Jazz and Dada:
The Dynamic Symmetry of Destruction and Creativity


Energy, Ecology and Ecosystems


Erwin Schrodinger (1945) has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment – that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatim as a physical description of our economic process. A corollary of this statement is that an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.”
– Herman Daly and Kenneth Townsend


The concept of energy is essentially an accounting process we have devised for describing the relationships of flow and transformation observed in the fundamental structure of the universe. It is an elegant concept, whether discussing the life of stars, the feeding of bodies or the intensity of industries, the movement of energy is remarkably consistent. In other words, it is very hard to lie about. It has one key characteristic in its movement through systems, the creation of feedback between material structures. Matter congeals from energy, planets and the basic chemical elements of life originate in novae, bronze is forged with fire and earth.

Positive feedback structures the growth of energetic systems and negative feedback shapes their stability. Stars and atmospheres remain balanced between gravity and the void, bodies respire, species co-evolve, ecological cycles persist. A self-similar pattern begins to becomes apparent in the flows of energy and matter through our universe. Cascading from singularity to the stars, flowing from hydrogen and radiated upon oceans; denser and denser, energy whirls and eddies into myriad forms, binding them together in increasingly complex configurations. Defined as the capacity to do work, there is a deceptive simplicity to our description of energy.

A universality that encompasses all activity, almost undermining the value of the concept due to the complexity of what it describes. Part of this problem is an epistemological one; our language renders a world of interacting objects. In this discourse, there is a tendency to think of “energy” as an entity, one more “object” in a milieu of discrete, bounded things. However, energy is not so much a “thing” as it is a way that “things” happen. Energy is process; indeed, it is the ability for process to exist.

Exchanges of energy are what create causal change over time due to the fundamental characteristic of entropy, the spontaneous, intrinsic characteristic of energy to move from an organized state to a disorganized one.. “It illuminates why anything – anything from the cooling of hot matter to the formulation of thought – happens at all.” (12) Process and change over time are “hardwired” into the universe. Yet this leaves us with one of the most profound questions of modern science. How, if the universe is wired for disorder, does a complex phenomenon arise that seems to run counter to entropy? (13)

The very existence of pattern is counterintuitive to a universe dominated by the processes of entropy, something made even more paradoxical by the observation that this entropic universe has, thus far, manifested increasingly complex forms of organization. As we look through deep time we repeatedly see the emergence of relatively rapid and powerful bursts of complexity, from the formation of stars to the emergence of life, the human brain, agriculture and industry. The general feature of this pattern of emergence is the energetic binding of material structures into new ecological relationships, shaped by positive and negative feedback.

Negative feedback ensures structural stability while positive feedback generates the disequilibria necessary for both growth and destruction. Unstable structures such as supernovae die out, creating not only space for more stable structures to form but also the materials that provide the structural components of new energetic relationships. Given enough time and space, energy density and material complexity would logically result from the repetition of such processes.

Systems help to stall the process of entropy by circulating energy flows before they dissipate. The more efficiently this is done the more stable the system. Efficiency in this sense is the way in which a system taps available energetic resource, how effectively a system circulates energy before dissipation, and the ratio of waste to energy consumed over time. All systems are bound together by a constant throughput of energy. Without these required energetic inputs systems will break down into the most stable configurations available. It is in this light that we begin to see how entropy, complexity and emergence are woven together.



Energy bonds together the constituent elements of a system into a process of relational development that orders a systems overall behaviour. Likewise, changes to the way energy flows through a system will produce new patterns of organization. More specifically, the greater the density of energetic feedback in a system the more complex its organization and intense its environmental influence becomes. “New configurations emerge quite suddenly as once independent entities are drawn into new and more ordered patterns, held together by an increasing throughput of free energy.” (14) New systems create new sources of energy and thus new differentials and gradients along which further complexity can develop.

Systems emerge through processes of positive feedback; the amplification of an effect by its own influence on the process which gives rise to it. A clear example of this is seen in the formation of a star. The gravitational pull from slightly denser clusters of hydrogen draw surrounding atoms into concentrated areas. The gravity created by this increasing mass causes more atoms to coalesce until the density of atoms is so great that nuclear fusion ignites. If the positive feedback is not checked the star will continue to accrete mass until it either goes nova or collapses into a black hole.

However, the star will stabilize into a durable system capable of regulating the energy flows if it forms a negative feedback loop by which the function of the system counterbalances itself in such a way as reduces change. In the case of a star, the heat and pressure caused by the gravitational compression of hydrogen causes its mass to expand. However, the expansion of the star into the vacuum of space causes its surface area to cool and compress thereby increasing heat and pressure. In a sense, stable stars respire, heating and cooling, expanding and compressing in space. The elements of complex systems are bound together by the energy flows from which they are constituted and changes to the way energy flows through systems can lead to reconfiguration, dissolution and novel emergences.

Earth’s ecosystems are its primary way of storing and circulating energetic capacity. Energetic flows bind organisms into the dynamic co-evolutionary relationships we call ecologies, or the complex adaptive systems that self-organize through the mutually reinforcing interactions between their constituent species. In other words, the presence of life reshapes and changes the conditions in which it arose, forcing it to continually adapt to its own presence. In a sense, evolution is the dynamic continuity of an organism transforming and mutating in the changing currents of energy over the course of billions of years.

Organisms greatly increase available energy by excreting metabolic waste (such as when anaerobic organisms oxygenated the biosphere), as energy dense packets for predation, or simply by decomposing. By increasing available energy in their surroundings they fuel the emergence of new forms of complexity. “Ecosystems converge in the way they handle energy” suggesting that “ecosystems and organisms organize similarly under energy flow” and the “expansion of the complex system is thermodynamically mandated.” (15) These complex adaptive systems are predicated upon the way energy flows through their biotic communities.

Due to the logic of selection through adaptive cycles, they tend to expand in complexity over time as the individual elements of the system compete and cooperate for better access to resources. The more effective a species is at harnessing available energy the more it shapes environmental and evolutionary dynamics in its surroundings. This in turn creates selective pressure amongst other organisms to adapt to these changing patterns resulting in co-evolutionary feedback. All organisms are “ecosystem engineers” to some degree or another, altering the flows of energy within ecosystems to meet their needs and shaping broader environmental pressures and relationships. (16)

For example, when beaver dams gather silt until they burst, flooding the lands downstream to create fertile meadows. In these regards, organisms are also niche constructors to varying degrees of intensity, shaping their environments as a form of “ecological inheritance.” (17) Selection is understood as a reciprocal process in which the creation of developmental ecologies selects for developmental plasticity. Persistent environmental alterations have downstream effects on the organisation of energy and matter in the environment, and therefore the evolutionary dynamics experienced by a host of organisms.

In other words, the organism, and the others that it impacts, become dependent upon constructing behaviours and engineered environments for survival. In these regards, humans can be understood as ecosystem engineers and niche constructors without parallel on Earth. However, humanity’s unique evolutionary dynamics lead us to create what might be termed “cognitive-developmental niches” or the, “problem solving resource and scaffold for individual development and lifetime learning.” (18) Through understanding the co-evolutionary feedback created between human cognition and the environments it is possible begin to design more sustainable and healthier processes.

Systems, cosmic, ecological, cognitive and social, all function through the dynamic feedback between matter and energy, something that we measure as information. When the growth of a complex systems begins to reach its energetic limits, it must either find a dynamic equilibrium between negative and positive feedback, intensify, or collapse. Understanding the dynamics of energetic feedback are key to designing effective solutions. The greatest transformations in the history of our societies are marked by the intensity with which humans have extracted and put energy to use. From hunting to farming, slavery to steam; like all organisms, human beings are shaped by the way in which they harness energy from their environments.


The greater the density of energetic flows, the more complex the human systems that emerge. Indeed, our history and “our relationship to the ecosystems we and our ancestors have inhabited is marked by scalar leaps in extractive capacity.” (19) Undeniably, the two most intensive reconfigurations and emergent dynamics yet experienced by the human species are the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Indeed, the magnitude of transformation that we face finds its closest parallel in these events. The human species must begin to reorganise the way in which energy is produced, stored and dissipated through their socio-technical ecosystems.

If such a reorganisation can be accomplished it will lead to a transformation of human developmental environments in what might thought of as kind of “eco” revolution, a move towards a more symbiotic integration with the energy-matter flows of the planet. Such a transformation can only be accomplished by observing the ecological dynamics of our environments and designing our institutions around them. In this way, we can design interventions that create feedback within diverse ecologies of humans, non-humans, technologies and institutions. In other words, we need to learn how to manage both growth and stability through feedback across a multitude of scales ranging from individuals to planetary ecology.

This means assessing the energetic and material flows that are available to our communities and their broader ecosystems in terms of efficient, sustainable use and distribution. Ecologies are the way in which the energetic capacity of the planet is organised and circulated through organic life. Their health and stability are the fundamental scaffolding upon which our societies are built. The idea of ecology is fundamentally one of relational and developmental systems. It has done much to breakdown our clockwork, factory inspired models and metaphors with their linear production processes.

It allows us to understand ourselves as caught up in complex predicaments, as opposed to merely complicated problems. Industrial societies have made this reality abundantly clear through the incomprehensibly vast changes they have wrought in their environments. Should humanity succeed, it will still be centuries before we will have ameliorated the damage to our global ecosystems. However, in creating stable feedback between environments, communities, institutions and technologies as part of an interdependent system, we can begin the process of such a recovery. It is through redesigning our developmental environments for dynamic equilibrium that the next system will coevolve with the planet.



12) P. W. Atkins, The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), xii.
13) “That’s the beauty of the system with the four fundamental forces chucked in, 1) gravity (for matter to coalesce), 2) electromagnetism (for light to be transmitted), 3) strong nuclear (for a nucleus to form from protons and neutrons, which then form atoms because electrons are needed to balance the charge) and 4) weak nuclear (which results in radioactive decay and various other interactions which lead to the chemical order we see today).” Personal correspondence from Dr. Vincent Hare
14) Christian, p. 45
15) Schneider and Sagan, p. 152
16) Alan Hastings, James E. Byers, Jeffrey A. Crooks, Kim Cuddington, Clive G. Jones, John G. Lambrinos, Theresa S. Talley, and William G. Wilson ‘Ecosystem Engineering in Space and Time.’ Ecology Letters 10, no. 2 (2007): 153-64.
17) Kevin N. Laland and Michael J. O’Brien. ‘Niche Construction Theory and Archaeology.’ Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 17, no. 4 (2010): 303-22.
18) Karola Stotz, ‘Human Nature and Cognitive-developmental Niche Construction.’ Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 9, no. 4 (2010): 483
19) Shryock, Andrew, Daniel Lord Smail, and Timothy K. Earle, eds. (Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 247.



Part 1 of Quantum, Jazz and Dada can be found here. Part 3 will follow soon. Check



Alexander Aston is a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the University of Oxford and is on the board of directors with the Centre for Cognitive Archaeology at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. He has prior degrees in philosophy and history. His work lays at the intersection of Cognitive Archaeology, Deep History and Natural Philosophy, examining the relationship between ecology, material culture and social cognition. Alexander grew up between Zimbabwe, Greece and the United States. He has worked as a stone mason, community organiser and collaborative artist focused on issues of sustainability, alternative education and economic justice for nearly two decades. He has helped to establish community collectives, free schools, participatory art projects, sustainability and education programs in several international projects.



Nov 092018
 November 9, 2018  Posted by at 3:41 pm Primers Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  

Marcel Duchamp Nude descending a staircase 1912



Ilargi: Much to my surprise, I received a mail from an old friend. Alexander Aston last wrote for the Automatic Earth in 2014. But he hasn’t been idle. Alexander is presently finishing his doctorate in archeology at Oxford, after prior degrees in philosophy and history. And for this article, he’s been thinking about how upheaval and collapse tend to lead to new insights, new bursts of creativity, in science, religion, society and the arts. A view that’s -too- rarely contemplated. It’s so long I cut it into three parts. Please don’t miss any of them.

Here’s Alexander:



Quantum, Jazz and Dada:
The Dynamic Symmetry of Destruction and Creativity

Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke




This paper is not about Quantum, Jazz and Dada per se, but rather a meditation on those radical bursts of human creativity that occur during historically destructive moments. Ultimately, my thesis is quite simple. Barring the possibility of extinction, humans are on the precipice of the most radical social reorganizations in the history of the species. In navigating this process of transformation, if we wish to create a world worth living in, it is necessary to understand the interactions between energy, ecosystems, cognitive development and social organization.

Without a grasp on the interdependence of these relationships there is no hope for shaping our world in a healthier manner. What is historically unquestionable is that periods of radical upheaval result in drastic reconfigurations of belief, meaning and knowledge. In the contemporary world, metaphysical and theoretical assumptions about the division of mind and matter, culture and nature, humans and environment all stem from a philosophical and scientific heritage that has divided form and flow. If we are to create something better out of the ongoing destruction of the current system we must radically rethink our understanding of energy, matter and the interdependence of humanity and the Earth.


Collapse Ain’t Nuthin New


At the beginning of the twentieth century the Industrial Empires and their world order collapsed, imploding into a cataclysm of brutality and desperation that persisted for decades. Czars and Kaisers, empires and vassals dissolved in the onslaught of history. The old order was left rotting in the trenches. Muddy altars to the gods of empire and industry that demanded a blood sacrifice beyond comprehension. In the wake of the destruction, new imperial orders and secular religions emerged in the search for control and stability, dominating and traumatising those that survived the slaughter. It is impossible to grasp fully the horror and devastation of the period.

The wars, depressions, epidemics, famines, revolutions and authoritarian regimes have become so normalised in our narratives that it is hard to grasp the magnitude of these events. It was a cascading systems failure of a scale and intensity without historical parallel in terms of the global scope and the speed at which it unfolded. There are few words for the early twentieth century collapse other than horrific. Yet, even as the tragedy unfolded, a profoundly creative dynamism emerged from the ashes. Like a successional ecology following a wildfire, scientific, artistic and social practices began to transform.

In the ruins physicists began to undermine radically the common pre-war belief that physics was an essentially complete science. Artists began to deconstruct the meaning of cultural institutions that could not account for such technological savagery, leading to the advent of post-modernism. As the global system reoriented it was the descendants of slaves, at the beating heart of American suffering, that catalysed the greatest musical renaissance in world history. Despite the tragedy, there is a kind of beautiful symmetry in the flourishing of Quantum, Jazz and Dada amidst the rubble and devastation of the war.

Destruction is part of the fecundity of life, the dynamism that creates the possibility for growth. Disruption and disintegration break the equilibrium of our systems and feed a creative evolution for more effective, resilient practices and forms of organisation. Peak and trough, complexity and entropy are bound together like a wave to the ocean. Life flourishes amongst dead and decomposing stars, extinctions produce radiations, ovulation leads to menstruation, death and renaissance produce one another. It is in this dynamic symmetry of creation and destruction that uncertainty produces physics, chaos creates art, and the persecuted compose music.

Much like our ancestors at the dawn of the twentieth century, we are on the precipice of immense changes. Indeed, we are already caught in the momentum of this wave. The complexity of the current system has begun to hit hard energetic boundaries, fracturing economic, political and social stability. For the first time in human evolution the species is confronting not only global resource limits but its own behaviour as a geological force. The energetic structure of the global system that has emerged over the past five centuries has begun to radically reorganise.

We are experiencing negative and positive feedback on a planetary scale and facing an ecological, evolutionary and geological transformation of an intensity that is unique in the existence of the biosphere. Extinctions, natural disasters, imperial wars, refugees, financial crises, Arab springs and Syrian deserts, all are systemically entangled with the transforming energy dynamics of our planetary system.

At one pole, we are experiencing the ecological effects of a thermodynamic expansion that has dispersed the fossilised energy of entire geologic ages into the atmosphere in mere centuries. We have amplified the thermal energy retained by the planet and the principle of entropy requires it to be dissipated. Energy that flows through storms, glaciers, and oceans. At the opposite pole, we confront resource depletion and contamination as we feed the energetic demands of the global economy. It is why we claw tar out of the earth in Alberta and drill into the earth miles off the coast of Brazil.




Certainly, no conceptual system can be imposed from the top down. To enforce such abstractions and simplifications on a dynamic reality would require overwhelming violence, as indeed it already does. One of the key insights of modern science is that complex systems are inherently non-linear. In other words, their interactions and emergent properties cannot be determined from initial conditions or inputs. “Our world is governed not only by nonlinear dynamics, which makes detailed prediction and control impossible, but also by nonlinear combinatorics, which implies that the number of possible mixtures of meshwork and hierarchy, of command and market, of centralisation and decentralisation, are immense and that we simply cannot predict what the emergent properties of the myriad combinations will be.” (1) The very nature of “complex adaptive systems” means that we cannot simply engineer solutions with determinate results. (2) This is humbling, it forces us to recognise the limits of our abilities to conceptualise and design systems.

It tells us that whatever comes next, whether for good or ill, is beyond our imaginations. We are akin to medieval peasants attempting to contemplate railroads and telegraphs. The only thing that we are assured of is our current system is undergoing a process of intense reorganisation. It is our burden and privilege to participate in this process. The coming years will take radical creativity and courage if we are to find new ways of living in this world that are balanced and humane. No genius, greater leader or collection thereof can solve this predicament. They cannot scale up to the task, the problems are too intricate, their instruments too blunt and their vision too limited. What we need is not some new ideology or five-year plan but an ethics of practice derived from the organisational dynamics of our world.

It should not be our goal to design and implement a system from the top down but rather to participate in a collective process of reconfiguration through applied practices and the distribution of knowledge, skills and resources. We can only discover how to do this through observation, experimentation and participatory engagement to create new learning environments and social relationships. The next system will not so much be designed as it will be cultivated by individuals, communities and societies seeking resilience and stability. However, our sciences do illuminate fundamental patterns that provide a guide to how we might create the conditions from which new, healthier systems can emerge.

To this end we must engage with three fundamental and interrelated dynamics; energy, ecology, and human development. In other words, we must consider how we produce the fundamental energetic capacity to create and maintain our systems and the ways in which they are integrated within their environments. In turn these elements must be understood in relation to how effectively they distribute available resources in terms of the physiological, psychological and social needs of human beings. In these regards, we must work with human developmental processes in order to create new learning environments that equip people to better articulate and shape these dynamics. Communities and institutions that successfully organise around these relationships will be the steam engines of the twenty-first century.


Entropy and Complexity


“Without birth and death, and without the perpetual transmutation of all the forms of life, the world would be static, rhythm-less, undancing, mummified.”
– Alan Watts


The “next system” will not develop in a context of expansion and growth, at least not initially, but through contraction and disruption. We must consider the dynamics of collapse or disentanglement and transformation that occur in complex adaptive systems so that we might effectively engage with these processes. The universe is an intricate dance of creation and destruction, a fractal of entropy and complexity. Complex adaptive systems emerge through the self-organising dynamics of energy and matter flows in a material and spatial medium.

Think of a murmuration of starlings and one can begin to conceptualise the patterning of relationships in space and time. The process we call history clearly reveals the self-organisation of human communities across multiple, emergent scales. The question is not if humans form complex adaptive systems but how? Ultimately, it is a question of social cognition and how it is that humans understand and understand with each other so as to form relationships that radically alter their ecosystems.

Complex Adaptive Systems are formed of interdependent relationships between “dynamic structures in which faster, smaller processes nest inside and interact with larger, slower ones.” (3) Organisms, ecosystems, and the biosphere interact, aligning and diverging, shaping one another through ongoing developmental processes. The stability and coherence of any self-organising dynamic can be understood emerge through a tension between resilience (the ability to “withstand disturbances and still continue to function”) and connectedness (the ability “within a system to moderate the influences of the outside world”). (4) A highly connected system may be less influenced by external variables; however, the rigidity of its connections only allows it to operate within a limited range of conditions.

Ultimately, the organisation of any system makes trade-offs between forms of high entropy coherence, and low entropy stability. The very nature of entropy ensures that all such systems transform over time, and these processes of change can be schematised into adaptive cycles of rapid growth, conservation, disruption and regeneration. During the conservation phase of a system the “growth rate slows as connectedness increases to the point of rigidity and resilience declines. The cost of efficiency is a loss of flexibility. Increasing dependence on existing structures… such a system is stable, but over a decreasing range of conditions.”

However, it is moments of cascading transformation that are the most dramatic. “The surprise is caused by cross-scale interactions or suites of novelty that ricochet through the system as it reorganizes around alternate sets of mutually reinforcing processes.” (5) Our global system is currently exiting a period of conservation and entering a period of systemic disruption in which “a disturbance that exceeds the systems’ resilience breaks apart its web of reinforcing interactions.” (6)

Such fractal adaptive cycles can be observed repeatedly throughout history, the Neolithic emerges as Pleistocene ecologies begin to break down, the Iron Age emerges from the Bronze Age collapse, the Iroquois Confederacy consolidates out of European epidemics. The examples are numerous beyond recounting; it is an ecological pattern fundamental to the organisation of complex systems. Indeed, it is the breakdown and reorganisation of systems that appears to be one of the key motors of complexity.

Consider for a moment the broad arc of “western” history since Rome. The Roman Imperial system materialized through the resources and slaves extracted from conquered territories. As the empire expanded it required increasing amounts of energy to ensure stability and coherence between the cores and peripheries. Overtime, the cost of maintaining the imperial infrastructure exceeded the energetic returns from further expansion. It is the law of diminishing returns. The growth required to fuel the Empire stalled, sending it into a long, tumultuous process of contraction and decline.

Halting and grinding across the centuries like a receding glacier, the system broke apart, shattering across the Mediterranean world. The very language of the empire fractured, and composed anew as people congregated around the villas and farms that germinated the manorial systems of the Middle Ages. As the crises deepened and intensified a Jewish cult of ostensibly twelve families at the outset, flourished in the cities, providing sustenance and basic care as a result of their cosmology. As plagues, famines and warfare swept through Roman communities in the Third Century AD, patriarchs and patricians fled to their country estates, leaving civil administrations immobilized.


As the old patronage systems broke down, the religion spread among the most marginal and vulnerable communities, providing stability by reorienting the basic organization and distribution of social resources around new spiritual practices. Christianity was born within a dying Rome, preserving its bones in the liturgies and communication networks that flowed along the old roads and into the agricultural fortresses of Feudalism. By the time of the High Middle Ages a robust, fractal like system in the throes of a wind and water powered industrial revolution had emerged. With the end of the Medieval Warm Period, famines, schism and conflicts began to erupt in Europe as the Mongols brought the greater part of Eurasia into a single imperial system.

The riders from the Steppe likely helped spread the plague that sent the European Middle Ages into terminal decline. The system initially reoriented around the Italian City States. Those communities that were the gateway of the epidemic also created the first quarantines and effective civil responses while church and aristocracy lay paralysed. As the epidemic burned out, these merchant powers could offer high wages for the scarce labour that survived, drawing people off the manors and into the cities. In turn, the Renaissance transformed into the holocausts of the Reformation and conquests of the Atlantic Empires which in turn produced the Enlightenment and industrialisation, leading to an age of revolutions that would ultimately founder in the trenches.

Breakdown and reorganisation is a critical dynamic driving the evolution of complex systems. Transformations that reconfigure energy-matter flows create ecological bottlenecks as well as new niches to occupy. The biosphere is a “complex thermodynamic system” in which selection occurs around access to available energy gradients. (7) Organisms seek out those sources of energy that sustain their biological function. It is, along with reproduction, the most intense arena of competition amongst biotic communities. The logic of evolution dictates that selective advantage will be conferred to any organism that is more effective at harnessing and sustaining energy flows within its ecology.

In these regards, “selection” can understood “in terms of increasing energy flow through autocatalytic matter-energy loops. Selective advantage will go to those autocatalytic systems that best increase energy flow through their system, those that do so better than their competitors.” (8) Those forms of organisation that are the most flexible and efficient with their use of available resources are the most likely to adapt and succeed. One of the most dramatic examples of such processes are mass extinctions “because they remove incumbents… and unleash a scramble for post-extinction opportunities that can produce bursts of evolutionary novelty.” (9)

Periods of collapse reward forms of organisation that are the most adaptive to radically altering energy-matter flows. “After each mass extinction, the recovery included new species living off new gradients and new habitats. Here we can see a crucial pattern in which complexity declines after a major stress or disturbance and recovers, and often intensifies, during successional processes.

This dynamic of disruption and regeneration holds true across scales such as biosphere and ecosystem evolution. After a perturbation or stress, an “ecosystem rebuilds itself from the remaining species and their genetic material.” (10) These adaptive cycles algorithmically fuel the growth of complexity by selecting energetically efficient and resilient structures that form the baseline of future evolution. A perfect illustration of this is the radiation of endothermic mammals and broad-leafed angiosperms following the extinction of the dinosaurs. Endotherms have greater energetic density than exotherms.

However, though their energy requirements are higher, this was initially offset by the size of early mammals. Their internally self-regulating metabolisms allowed them to better survive in the reduced warmth of the post-meteorite environment. Similarly, with flowers and deciduous trees, their broad thin leaves allowed them to better photosynthesize in the reduced light of the nuclear winter, radiating as the coniferous canopies began to clear. A picture begins to emerge in which energy flows are organized into systems that undergo selection processes shaped by adaptive cycles.

The breakdown and reorganization of those systems has thus far resulted in the emergence of growing complexity, creating increasingly energy dense feedback in ecosystems over time in which “the level of complexity achieved by a living organism can be measured, roughly but quite objectively, by estimating the density of energy flows.” (11) It is why the energy density of ecosystems are far greater than that of stars, and why human brains far exceed both. To light, our world is dominated by institutional dinosaurs caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of resource depletion and climate change.

The future belongs to the “mammals”, those forms of organisation that can most effectively and efficiently harness the energy available in our transforming ecosystems. It is in the cycles of this process that growth occurs, the breakdown or disentanglement of systems create the possibility for new configurations and provides the raw materials from which new complexity emerges. This is how we must approach the next system, the creation of a new and resilient energetic ecology from the ground up as the old-world crumbles.



1) Manuel De Landa, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, (New York: Zone Books, 1997), 273.
2) Neil F. Johnson. Simply Complexity: A Clear Guide to Complexity Theory, (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009).
3) Lance H. Gunderson, and C. S Holling, Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems, (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2002), 22.
4) Ibid., p. 17-19
5) Ibid., p. 47
6) Ibid., p. 6-8
7) Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan, Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 152.
8) Ibid., p. 254
9) David Jablonski and Paul D.Taylor, ed., Extinctions in the History of Life: The Evolutionary Role of Mass Extinction, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 173.
10) Schneider and Sagan, p. 253
11) David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 80.



Part 2 of Quantum, Jazz and Dada will follow soon. Check



Alexander Aston is a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the University of Oxford and is on the board of directors with the Centre for Cognitive Archaeology at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. He has prior degrees in philosophy and history. His work lays at the intersection of Cognitive Archaeology, Deep History and Natural Philosophy, examining the relationship between ecology, material culture and social cognition. Alexander grew up between Zimbabwe, Greece and the United States. He has worked as a stone mason, community organiser and collaborative artist focused on issues of sustainability, alternative education and economic justice for nearly two decades. He has helped to establish community collectives, free schools, participatory art projects, sustainability and education programs in several international projects.