The market and nature

I’m a keen reader of Doug Rushkoff and I think his arguments in this essay are very interesting. He argues:

The marketplace in which most commerce takes place today is not a pre-existing condition of the universe. It’s not nature. It’s a game with very particular rules, set in motion by real people with real purposes. That’s why it’s so amazing to me that scientists, and people calling themselves scientists, would propose to study the market as if it were some natural system — like the weather, or a coral reef.

It’s not. It’s a product not of nature but of engineering. And to treat the market as nature, as some product of purely evolutionary forces, is to deny ourselves access to its ongoing redesign. It’s as if we woke up in a world where just one operating system was running on all our computers and, worse, we didn’t realize that any other operating system ever did or could ever exist. We would simply accept Windows as a given circumstance, and look for way

Rushkoff then traces our current notion of the market to origins in medieval times, where things like central currencies were devised not to set anyone free, but to keep the rising class of merchants in check. He goes on to make this argument:

Like artists of the Renaissance, who were required to find patrons to support their work, most scientists, mathematicians, theorists, and technologists today must find support from either the public or private sectors to carry on their work. This support is not won by calling attention to the Monopoly board most of us mistake for the real economy. It is won by applying insights to the techniques through which their patrons can better play the game.

As a result, he argues, many of those studying the emerging patterns of a networked world are force-fitting them into a contrived model rather than seeing alternatives.

In short, these economic theories are selecting examples from nature to confirm the properties of a wholly designed marketplace: self-interested actors, inevitable equilibrium, a scarcity of resources, competition for survival. In doing so, they confirm — or at the very least, reinforce — the false idea that the laws of an artificially scarce fiscal scheme are a species’ inheritance rather than a social construction enforced with gunpowder. At the very least, the language of science confers undeserved authority on these blindly accepted economic assumptions.

He argues that in this analysis, we risk missing some very different ways in which our futures could unfold:

The net (whether we’re talking Web 2.0, Wikipedia, social networks or laptops) offers people the opportunity to build economies based on different rules — commerce that exists outside the economic map we have mistaken for the territory of human interaction.

We can startup and even scale companies with little or no money, making the banks and investment capital on which business once depended obsolete. That’s the real reason for the so-called economic crisis: there is less of a market for the debt on which the top-heavy game is based. We can develop local and complementary currencies, barter networks, and other exchange systems independently of a central bank, and carry out secure transactions with our cell phones.

1 thought on “The market and nature

  1. Chris Rodgers

    Hi Johnnie,

    An interesting perspective and an important challenge to the view that complex social processes can be equated to natural systems.

    I see similar difficulties arising where individual organizations are viewed as living systems. These are also complex processes of people in interaction.

    Systems in the natural world exhibit none of the uniquely human characteristics that are at the core of organizational (and market) dynamics – such as conversational interaction, power and politics, self-consciousness, emotional response, the capacity for self-relection, paradox and ambiguity, and so on.

    At the same time, I guess that one of the concerns I would have from reading your extract of Rushkoff’s essay would be his apparent view that thinking in terms of an engineered system rather than a natural one would resolve the problem. Given the social complexity of ‘the market’, the extent to which any re-engineered design might be realized in practice would depend wholly on the self-organizing interplay of the myriad of ‘local’ sense-making interactions.

    Even where information exchange via ‘the net’ is widespread and open, I would argue that sense-making conversations – and the dynamics of human interaction that accompany them – can only occur ‘locally’ (i.e. through one-to-one and ‘small group’ exchanges). Any ‘broadcast’ information, propositions, rules etc can therefore only serve as an invitation for others to engage in there own, local exchanges.

    And then, whatever emerges – locally and globally – will emerge!

    Cheers, Chris


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