Avantgrid: The off-grid archipelago

Hmm, I am going to need an entry about the State Machine. Does it make decisions, or only recommendations?

I absolutely love where this is going, Hugi, this is top stuff. Let me know when you want me to come in and wordsmith it and I’ll be glad to.

Having re-read the economy of Assembly, I see what you mean @alberto with overlap being significant. As I see it, we could address that constructively.

First, we can allow for some overlap, and perhaps even move the origin of some of the decentralized and cooperative practices to Avantgrid, appropriated and repackaged by the Assembly.

What we could also do is to ask ourselves: Under which cultural circumstances could you imagine a system where a truly cyclical economy was possible? How would the citizens of Assembly have to behave for this ledger of materials and energy to actually work? One thing that comes to mind is to make use of the religious beginnings of Avantgrid and introduce a very strong social control mechanism that makes it taboo to not comply. If avoiding to exhaust resources is almost a religious conviction, what happens?

In this I am inspired by things like the practice of Ramadan in Muslim nations which has a huge effect on productivity, but also by secular collectivist cultures that allow for things like the Swedish labor market model. If the people of Avantgrid were extremely conditioned to keep conscious of all energy and material consumption - what sort of economic system could that enable?

I’m imagining a system where children from a very early age grow up to be conscious of every little “energy transaction” around them. It becomes almost second-nature to calculate the exchanges. Every citizen of Avantgrid is expected to intuitively do this sort of calculation:

“Burning 1 kg of coal yields X joul, only 1/3 of that can be transferred to electrical current given this temperature and the materials used in this particular generator”

More complex transactions are handled by the State Machine, and then the job of each Avantgrid citizen is to be meticulous about recording the details of every significant energy transaction. Thanks to the sophisticated algorithms of the State Machine, it is usually enough to take note of transactions in natural language, like: “Around 10 kg of pinewood grown on the Island of Samla (ID of pinewood harvesting event: 12882) was burned until only ashes remained at 10:22 AM on such as such date”.

A culture of such meticulous note-takers could have the side-effect of producing some excellent scientific aethnographers, with astute observational skills. This could, in turn, be the foundation for Avantgrid being a centre for observational science - but perhaps not as much for engineering, which is a niche taken by the Covenant anyway.

Third, could we imagine a whole new economy rising out of the decision to minimize energy consumption? For example:

  • Could the State Machine refill your wallet of credits at a pace that was modified negatively by your expenditure of energy?

  • Could we imagine a whole service arising around conducting energy audits? If your ledger of energy and material consumption can be audited at any point, would that nudge you towards compliance? How would such an audit look - a job for augurs perhaps? “Tell me about that barn, it wasn’t here 10 years ago. How did you build it? Where did the materials come from?”.

  • Perhaps Avantgrid gains something from not being connected to the Harvest grid? What do the other Distrikts pay for access to the grid? What does Avantgrid stand to gain from staying independent? Perhaps Avantgrid does not have to send any resources to Hygge and Harvest?

What do you think @alberto? @yudhanjaya, do you have any ideas here for how to set Avantgrid apart from Assembly?

maybe some death- cultish/religious/ecofascist behaviours where people are cleared out to keep equilibrium going?

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Will cycle around to this tomorrow, Hugi.

Leaving something here for you: https://www.nature.com/articles/nmat4771.epdf

Spinach plants that can monitor soil for nutrient content and send emails. Avantgrid material?

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We are going to see this a lot. Plenty of people will want to work on hipster utopias, and much attention will be directed towards political and cultural features, architecture, rituals, you name it.

Overlap is absolutely OK.

However I am wary of cultural explanations of non-Nash equilibrium outcomes. Take the Assembly:

If you are in the Assembly and you want to get a boat you can do two things: build a boat yourself, with the help of your neighbors and advanced facilities for small-batch fabrication; or, if you have money, just buy one from Hygge or Libria. This is a prisoner’s dilemma: if you do it you won’t make much of a difference, but if everyone does, there goes autonomy (and your inter-Distrikt trade balance equilibrium).

You could say “oh, but the Assembly has a proud culture of making things instead of buying!”, but that is not good enough. Even when cultural traits do give groups evolutionary advantages, they do not make the free rider problem disappear. Solution: a non-convertible currency. At this point, the Assembly becomes something like Cuba: it works quite well, but it as an endemic problem with kids on the street hustling for USD with which to buy designer sneakers, that are not important enough to get produced by cooperatives or state provision. Maybe the solution sucks: that’s OK, as people edit the wiki they will make it better. But we have a duty to propose some solution.

So, to go back to @hugi’s point:

I would reframe the question: what could be a culture/economic system mutually reinforcing pair? We cannot simply assume that a culture magically appears that makes humans want to do right for the planet even as their neighbors in Libria are still happily driving global warming.

A very rough example of mutually reinforcing culture and economy might be Sparta. In a cartoon version, Sparta built super strict cultural institution around the élites being exclusively directed to warfare (spartiates were even banned from the crafts and trade). In a capitalist society, this would not work, as the business people quickly buy off the military. However, Sparta underwrote this disequilibrium by engaging in continuous military expansion. This way, the accounts balance: the helots and periokoi maintained the spartiates; the spartiates injected extra prosperity by making new conquest and despoiling the conquered.

The ledger is a difficult institution to maintain, IMHO. It is very, very difficult to get humans to keep good ledgers – the board of Edgeryders being exhibit A. A world in which people are all happy to keep their materials ledger updated does not feel credible to me. Even if the State Machine does all the computation, you are left with two problems. The first one is to justify throwing computing power at this thing. The second one is defeating the incentive to cheat, either by outright falsification or by spin: rebrand your table from a consumption good to an investment, and suddenly using all that pinewood looks much more acceptable… but it is still the same table.

So, the proud people of the Avantgrid keep their ledgers not because they intrinsically love to, but for another reason, but which one? We could imagine keeping track of every gram of, say, metal gives the Avantgrid an efficiency boost, and therefore an advantage. But this is only plausible if all of Witness is similarly constrained, and then it is Libria’s turn to look inconsistent.

Difficult. Sorry.

Somehow, I had actually assumed that this wouldn’t be possible in Witness. If trade between the Distrikts is so easy, is it really multiple economies and not just one? Will it be possible to truly experiment with radically different economic systems if trade between the Distrikts is easy enough that a private citizen can simply decide to order a boat from Libria, like a package of LEDs from AliBaba?

I’m starting to wonder if we are going to need some sort of mechanism that makes this difficult or even impossible except where explicit trade-agreements between Distrikts exist. This is science fiction, after all. Such a mechanism does not need to be purely political or regulatory - we could figure out some reason for why it’s hard to move goods between Distrikts. That changes the equation, no?

If not a crazy cyclic economy ledger, do you have other ideas for how the energy-stripped economy of Avantgrid might look? There are aspects that make it special and different from the Assembly:

  • Energy scarcity
  • Not universal connectivity to power or communication systems
  • Self-governing canton islands
  • A population that is largely religious

Any ideas?

Not at all. I grew up in a Europe that was part socialist, part capitalist. Hell, when I first visited Berlin in 1984 they had two economies in the same city. Of course, they did not have a frictionless Single Market encompassing both, but at the time neither did anyone else. When I first traveled to the UK, in 1977, I needed a passport, and there were restriction on the amount of money you could take with you, either in cash or in traveller’s cheques. So, it’s OK to imagine some restrictions to trade. In the Assembly I used the trick of the non-convertible currency. Trade is permitted, although not frictionless; but sellers do not want your currency, because the issuing state refuses to redeem it for other currencies. That’s how the Democratic German Republic and East Berlin operated, too.

Think of it this way: if you are Gaetano in Messina, you need to build your utopia in such a way that it does not die on contact with the non-utopia. Imagining open economies is, the way I see it, a way we can build “a credible path from here to there”.

I am not dismissing the ledger idea, I am just saying I have no ready solution. Others might. Anyway, it is interesting to think about it.

Why would energy be more scarce here? We have photovoltaic now, and sunlight will be the same across Witness.

Once again, to be credible this has to be an outcome of the system, not a parameter. Why would people here reject connectivity, that is obvious to us and others in Witness? Exceptions: credible historical or geographical parameters. So, for things that need expensive land connectivity (eg. aqueducts), it makes sense that the Avantgrid, being an archipelago, would develop its own solution. In the Assembly, I imagined that the supply shock on energy and food invented by Yudha left the Distrikt with highly decentralized production and the capacity to regulate it:

Instead of ledgers, what if we work with quotas pools of energy expenditure available to individuals? “As long as you stay within your quota, it’s fine?” (Think the scarcity of water in Dune and how that shapes social interaction).
Or will it conflict here?

Great example. On Arrakis, a desert world, a culture of preserving water is self-sustaining because of its obvious group-evolutionary advantages. But on Witness the scarcity of energy is likely to be the same for all Distrikts. And I imagine energy would be mostly abundant, we are pretty close to that already. Add to solar a fusion reactor or two, you’re good to go. Or?


This archipelago was built by a megacorporation in Libria. That corporation could pull off the feat of wiring 135 islands, but the very different Avantgrid system could not pull that off - and does not want to either. What you are left with is, perhaps, something similar to the Roman aqueduct system after the fall of the Empire - without the empire to support them, they fell apart even though they had obvious use. What you are left with is 135 islands that are made for habitation, but that now lack the electricity that was supposed to make that habitation comfortable.

Some Cantons have probably built good island-wide microgrids, but others may have opted against it or simply have not had the skills, resources or manpower.

Even if the population in all cantons of Avantgrid wanted good and instant connectivity, perhaps they couldn’t easily achieve it? Even in the high-tech social-democratic internet utopia of Sweden, there are islands in the outer reaches of the Stockholm archipelago where 4G connectivity is very patchy. It’s simply hard and expensive to achieve due to the topography of an archipelago - as anyone who has taken a ferry from Stockholm to Finland can tell you.

By the way, calling @zaunders, @kristofer, @matthias, @zelf to think about this!

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You’d not need trade agreements, but districts would rely exclusively on barter for inter-district trade. For simple, practical reasons: as very different economies, they’d all have very different types of money, which would be mutually considered worthless or at least technologically incompatible (one has a blockchain, others have seashells …).

Bartering goods directly still works, but is sufficiently difficult due to the “double coincidence of wants” problem, so it would not happen too often. If you want to make it somewhat easier, you can feature the PayCoupons circular bartering algorithm perhaps :grin:


Foreign trade is closer to barter than within-national economy. Int econ distinguishes between the balance of trade, which involves the moving of physical goods, and the current account, which includes the balance of trade but also purely financial transactions like investments and remits. International trade proper is seen as unambiguously good, based on comparative advantage theory; international finance is a very different ballgame, and it makes sense that Distrikts would try to control it. For example, the Assembly does this:

If you have international trade but not international finance, you have a sort of barter, but, like Matt says, networked rather than bilateral. To get what this would look like, go back to comparative advantage. For example, the Assembly, for historical reasons, has accumulated an advantage in autonomous small-batch production, so it is a “specialized supplier” distrikt:

The Covenant is strong in very high quality products made by the monks and things that require long-term investment and thinking to achieve; and in knockoffs made by the opportunistic capitalist companies “clustered around the monasteries”.


Ok, but then we have an inconsistency with the Assembly’s origin story. When their power grid went down, those guys pulled off energy autonomy. They could also do something similar for food production, but not for advanced manufacturing (echos of the failure of backyard furnaces in Mao’s China). If the Assembly can, so can the Avantgrid. Or maybe neither can?

IMO that would depend on the nature of the social contract. The Assembly is communitarian-anarchist.

@hugi, if I may: If Avantgrid’s origin story is essentially that of island penthouses that went wrong, there is now a potential narrative building up - wealthy libertarians who are highly suspicious of large collectives, and trade and barter with Libria and the Assembly for goods and services. So, might I suggest opening with:

“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.” - Marcus Aurelius

Basically, these would be the people who are libertarian to a point where even Libria thinks them a bit extreme. Then you can see them moving out to this mythic, almost Randian John Galt fantasy, and then everything collapsing, and having to build from scratch. Which then ties into the general datedness of the tech they use - they’d have to buy old stock, and from that would spring the desire to deliberately keep tech at a level where different Cantons can produce it themselves; and also resentment - a powerful force - that forms the backbone for the first eco-terrorists.

And THEN you have Dirk and Leo, bringing together the eco-pragmatists on top of a system that has skewed more towards individualism reaching an equilibrium with the environment, and less towards collective action.

I think there’s value looking at two examples that may not at first glance fit together: Indonesia and the cities of Second Life. Indonesia has a population split among seventeen thousand islands, with the bulk of them on a couple of those island; to the rest, more than central governance, it’s culture that keeps the whole thing connected.

Second Life: a situation where distance and physicality and other boring meatspace constraints are of no limit whatsoever. What happens? Oddly, a lot of people go between working on cities and living on private islands. Cities:

Private - owned land:

So I reckon you might see something like that with Cantons: one or two Cantons where the number of people per sq. km is significantly higher, probably for practical reasons (tech production? art commune?) and the rest rather thinly distributed.

If you like, happy to edit and ninja stuff in. Let me know!

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Yes, I like where this is going! Please go ahead and have a pass at this.

Yes, this is good! Libertarians always face the problem of the cyberpunk city of high-tech corporations being even more controlling than a centralized government in practice. This has, in our own history, created room for the ideologies of people like Ted Kaczynski and his brand of Anarcho-primitivism. These people are also drawn to places like Slab City - full of art-loving hippies but not an Assembly-style collectivist in sight.

I will need edit access. Unless I’m mistaken, I don’t have an edit option available for your post.

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I made it at wiki post - go ahead now!

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Thanks! I took a run at all the sections. Going by @alberto’s critique, I tilted the energy frugality towards more of a product of culture than of a planned top-down economic process, as the energy cost of maintaining ledgers and accurate energy accounting would be enormous. Plus it would require enforcement to preserve its sanctity.

So instead, belief. Very powerful behavorial process, after all, one that we should not discount when looking at how people might function. We generally have very libertarian outlook, self-government, Coasian bargaining where possible. I’ve preserved the original ideas of the ledger and the reverse-currency as an intellectual exercise with theors for and against it (as we are seeing here in the comments)

On the way, Hugi, you have become an entire school of aethnography. Accidents happen, I’m afraid. Congrats, you are now not a person but an entire institution focus on energy :stuck_out_tongue:

What do you think?

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