On Rumpelstiltskin and Apocryphal Knowledge

The queen was horror-struck, and offered the manikin all the riches of the kingdom if he would leave her the child. But the manikin said, no, something alive is dearer to me than all the treasures in the world. Then the queen began to lament and cry, so that the manikin pitied her. I will give you three days, time, said he, if by that time you find out my name, then shall you keep your child.

I was always fascinated by this story by the Brothers Grimm. This strange creature, who for most of the story is only known as “manakin”, holds the power to spin straw into gold, but knowing the value of his power, asks more and more of the poor miller’s daughter. Confused, and manipulated, in a situation far greater than herself, she just goes along with it until the day comes that she is made queen, over the wealth provided by her little secret; a secret even she knows not the depths of.

But she made her promises. And in the king’s greed, and the daughter’s fear, no one was the wiser as to what would come. After all, who would take a person’s firstborn child? She is even given a chance to save everything she holds dear — if only she can find out the name of the manakin.

These thoughts come to mind in reference to what has become of my free time, ever since the pandemic and civil unrest uprooted everything around me. People like Eric & Bret Weinstein, and Daniel Schmachtenberger have been more publicly discussing their interests in Game B on podcasts and other new-media video publications, and I have poured every free moment I’ve had into finding as many of their thoughts on the matter, as I am able. And it’s frustrating. It’s utterly frustrating.

Eric Weinstein is such a warm-hearted individual. It pains me sometimes to watch his Instagram walk-and-talk livestreams, because I can empathize quite deeply with his anger, so considerately managed and given phrase with a grace unfamiliar in the modern age but familiar for anyone who has read the letters between the American founding fathers and related parties. His anger is righteous, but he did not choose to step into the room full of straw. None of us did. He speaks about how elites found a means to manipulate the embedded growth obligations to simulate actual economic growth, despite the post-war economic miracle having already worn off sometime before the silver crash in Australia and the transition to fiat currency in the United States. And yet, no matter how many times he talks about the shortcomings of Chicagoan economics, and no matter how many times he comes close to describing a solution, he never seems to be able to say Rumpelstiltskin.

Daniel Schmachtenberger is arguably even more fascinating. I’ve heard him speak of the problems of scarcity and dangers of rivalry replacing fair competition. He’s spoken of the need of discarding every World War-era ideology, whether it be neoliberalist capitalism or globalist communism or strong-man authoritarianism or anything in-between. In his discussion with Eric Weinstein on The Portal, his language inclined to understanding all the concepts I have researched my entire life, and yet he always seemed at least one step removed from the strange, apocryphal knowledge I had been gifted at such a young age — I was gifted, and apparently no one else. In the end, after many, many hours of video of Schmachtenberger, I still haven’t heard him say Rumpelstiltskin.

What is Game B?

This is the first of many questions I suspect you, the reader, are asking yourself. There are more, and I will get to them momentarily, but to continue we first need to examine the breadth of apocryphal knowledge — because even as I speak of knowledge apocryphal to the Weinstein Brothers and Mr. Schmachtenberger, I could be speaking of knowledge apocryphal to even you. To define Game B, we first have to define Game A.

While we were foragers, we were a part of the ecology and lived in relationship with the natural world. With the advent of agriculture, we started to shape the environment for our own needs. Farming also allowed us to produce enough food so that there was surplus. As Daniel Schmachtenberger notes, this created the concept of (property) ownership since now there was something to own. Ironically, this also created the concept of scarcity, and hence created the beginning of economics, and how to divide up scarce resources amongst the population.

Game A is almost everything that humans have been doing to design our world, especially in the last 10,000 years, to coordinate beyond the Dunbar number. Game A, fundamentally, is about being able to solve these three primary problems:

1. Resource production – coordinate people together such that they can extract resources from nature and provide for the well-being of the group
2. Interior defection – survive internal defection as the population begins to grow well beyond the Dunbar number.
3. Exterior competition – survive and be victorious in competition with other human groups

So, Game A is primarily characterized by scarcity and thus rivalrous or win-lose dynamics. How do we increase our resources production? How do we divide up the scarce resources? How do we compete with other groups of people?

Civilization became the toolkit to solve these problems. Civilisation is characterised by the continued effort to police local defection against the global optimum, but through a growing dependence on formal institutions and less on interpersonal relationships (although this still continued to an extent).

Source: gameb.wiki

The problems presented by Game A have brought us to a point that is self-terminating, and self-terminating far too soon for we, as humans, to ignore any longer. We will either consume all the materials Earth has to offer for us and be forced to leave the planet in a story that will be far too similar to Wall-E for most people’s comfort; or we will find that mutually-assured destruction works in stable and balanced game theory propositions between two actors, but when more actors than can be known have nuclear weapons, the stability can rapidly devolve into global self-destruction.

It’s self-terminating. We are, given our current means, going to kill ourselves. It might not be now, it might not be next generation, but it’s sooner than we think. And if you think I’m crazy for thinking this, it’s completely fair — but I’d still like you to consider what comes next.

If Game A is self-terminating, then Game B is the theoretical alteration of the very programming and societies we all create and reinforce socially, which still meets the biological imperatives we cannot escape, in order to create a metastable future for ourselves. If Game A can be reduced into the above three rules, then a theoretical Game B can be reduced to meeting its own four rules:

  1. It’s self-organizational
  2. It’s decentralized
  3. It’s network-oriented
  4. It’s metastable for an extended period of time

And it’s funny, that list is very familiar. That list, and everything that comes from it, was originally spoken by Rumpelstiltskin.

Not that Rumpelstiltskin

I genuinely don’t even know who Robert Levin is, other than a person who spent time on the Open Projects IRC network in 1999. But he published a short paper, titled Agalmics: The Marginalization of Scarcity, that I found in 2005. It transformed my life.

1999 was still the early and underground days of open-source. Linux was the portal for many young people into a different way of operating, both on cooperative and competitive levels, and idealism was everywhere to be found beneath the cynical wording found on bulletin boards and in IRC channels. I was young but obsessed; there was something magical about sharing code and having shared code from which to learn. Being an autodidact, it was though the universe had, through the computer on which I installed Linux, exposed me to a means of learning everything and everything I would ever want to learn, without ever having to ask another person. That wonder, and that obsession, never left me.

But that word never showed up anywhere. It’s not in the dictionary, and I doubt you’ll find it in the dictionary. If you google it, you will find that everyone has copy-pasted Robert Levin’s words but almost no one has expanded on the idea. This unknown concept, the un-discussed idea of value, this apocrypha; it became like Rumpelstiltskin for me. I could see the power of leveraging and even manipulating non-scarce goods, like software, and how it allowed companies to spin straw into gold. I was always told that economics was the study of the allocation of scarce goods, and yet here we were, attempting to use economics to determine the value of companies who are mastering the art of marginalizing their own scarcity.

And here I was, aware of a means of analyzing human action, as Mises would call it, through a lens separate from how we always have. Because of Robert Levin, I was given a toolset; but no one else had heard of it. And as I listened to these people I hold in high regard, for the comfort with which they talk about such complex and important topics, all I could keep thinking is, “It seems like you could have everything you ever wanted, if you only said its name.” The manakin’s name is Rumpelstiltskin, and the name of the strategy I have to offer to the discussion of Game B is Agalmics.

Merely a Tool

I mean not to suggest, despite my excitement to attempt to discuss this topic, that agalmics are a be-all-end-all solution. Despite people’s unfamiliarity with the word, aspects of agalmics are already being used, if in selfish ways, to this day. But having not yet heard those I look up to the most say the word, I wanted to provide this meandering journey, as an introduction to what I’ve never been able to speak about with anyone before.

Agalmic human action, as the corollary to economic human action, has remained roughly the same in definition for 20 years; and it is this definition, Robert Levin’s eight characteristics, which caused me to constantly be reminded of agalmics whenever I hear Weinstein or Schmachtenberger speak.

To understand human behavior, we must find clear examples to study. Agalmic behavior involves the exchange of non-scarce goods, goods which can be found in the modern free software community. As we examine agalmic behavior, we’ll frequently use examples involving free software. We can observe the following characteristics of agalmic activity:

1. It is transfinite. Economic trade is finite; when I give you a dollar I have one less than I did. Agalmic activity involves goods which are not scarce, so I can give you one without appreciably diminishing my supply.

2. It is cooperative. Economic activity often involves competition. Buyers must allocate their limited funds to the supplier who best meets their needs. Since it doesn’t involve scarce resources, agalmic activity rarely involves competition. Efficient agalmic actors know how to encourage cooperation and benefit from the results.

3. It is self-interested. Agalmic activity advances personal goals, which may be charitable or profit-oriented, individual or organizational. An agalmia typically contains both individuals and organizations, with a broad mix of charitable and profit-oriented goals. Agalmic profit is measured in such things as knowledge, satisfaction, recognition and often in indirect economic benefit.

4. It is self-stimulating. Examples can be seen in free software communities, in which new programmers, documenters and debuggers come from the ranks of free software users.

5. It is self-directing. Free software users provide feedback to developers in the form of bug reports, patches and requests for new features. Software projects can be forked by users when an existing developer group is not responsive to their needs. Maintainers are then free to adopt the new work or go their own way.

6. It is decentralized and non-authoritarian. In a free software community, developer groups maintain their positions only as long as they are responsive to their user bases. No one is forced to participate in a project, and the projects people participate in are the ones in which they are interested. Involuntary activity places limits on exchange and creates scarcities. As such, it is non-agalmic. A particular agalmic group may be organized in a top-down fashion, and non-agalmic groups may act agalmicly. But alternatives are available and participation is voluntary. Authoritarian systems remove personal incentives for agalmic behavior.

7. It is positive-sum. In games theory, a ‘zero-sum game’ is one in which one player’s gain is another player’s loss. Conventional economics often describes zero-sum games. When two suppliers compete for the dollars of a single customer, or when two government agencies compete with each other for fixed budget dollars, a zero sum game is played. A ‘positive-sum game’ is one in which players can gain by behavior which enhances the gains of others. Efficient agalmics is a positive-sum game. For example, when a free software programmer gives his source code away, he gains a large population of users to report bugs; the users gain the use of his programs. By awarding the other players points, the player gains points.

8. It is not new. Gift cultures have existed during much of human history, and other, non-gift cultures have clear agalmic influences. Religious communities have engaged in agalmic behavior, as have governments, businesses and individuals. Charities, standards organizations and trade associations often act agalmicly. It may be argued convincingly that civilization itself is an agalmic activity.

The similarities between Jim Rutt’s rules for Game B and the characteristics of agalmic action, in Levin’s words, are far too similar to go ignored.

But I’m no economist. I may be able to distinguish the Chicagoan school of Economics from the Austrian school, but it has never been my field. My field has been a subset of agalmic action, through anonymous publication of videos, written word, and code — and having seen how agalmic action has been made sustainable amidst Game A through services like Paypal and Patreon and Bitcoin, I don’t know what to do at this point but write my essays, rambling and strange as they may be, and cry to the high heavens until those who are able to challenge me finally hear me and possibly even help me, furthering the work that Robert Levin began all those years ago.

I do not see agalmics as a replacement for economics; so long as goods like gold, rare earth metals, and pure silicon are necessary to create the tools we use to access the internet (our greatest agalmic feat, as a species, to date), so too will economics be necessary. But given new means to analyze human action, and differentiating from that which is agalmic and that which is economic, I propose that we should be able to make observations about those human actions in relationship to their effect on civilization, and the planet that sustains it, as a whole.

In my humble opinion, it is what both individualism and macroeconomics have been missing.

The End is the Beginning is the End

This is not all my thoughts, but my thoughts are not easy to contain without a person off which to riff (as Eric Weinstein so often describes it). There are qualitative and quantiative matters to be addressed before agalmics could even be considered a wholly fleshed-out idea, and it has all the markings of something easily rejected by the Cathedral, because it puts the power to know and the power to create back into the individual’s hands, along with the responsibility that goes along with it.

I need help, if I want to get this seemingly apocryphal knowledge to those who can use it best.

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