The Zeroth Mile

Lately, I've been getting increasingly upset at the sheer intellectual shoddiness of our thinking, as a species, about how we inhabit the planet. Four dichotomies in particular, really trip us up, with serious consequences. The dichotomies themselves are all useful, but the way we think about them (in fragmented, isolated, disconnected ways, without systematically theorizing connections within and across dichotomies) is terrible. They are:

  1. Bits versus atoms

  2. Immaterial versus material

  3. Living versus non-living

  4. Resources versus waste

For the last few years, the center of gravity of my consulting work has moved from left to right on all four of those dichotomies, via projects relating to energy, healthcare, electric vehicles, semiconductors, climate change, and sustainable supply chains/materials. This has largely been deliberate (via saying no to certain projects and yes to others). I wanted to get out of "tech" in the narrow sense and work with the "world" being eaten by software in the broadest sense. Work on earth-scale technologies in Buckminster Fuller's sense of Spaceship Earth.

It has been a harshly humbling journey, but I've learned a few things. Among the most important things I've learned is how to think slightly more holistically across those four treacherous dichotomies. Someday, I'll tell the backstory of how I got here, but today I want to share a diagramming technique that I came up with to help me see the whole picture. I call it the Civilizational Waterfall Diagram, or CWD, built around a concept I call the zeroth mile. The point of this diagram to help foster what I call anthropocene literacy.

The zeroth mile is the zone around the locus of most civilized human activity, where we're actually paying attention to what we're doing. Think of it this way: your attention is always in the zeroth-mile zone.

I'm going to need three pictures (turn on image display in your email please) to explain this idea. In this first picture, I'm going to throw you off the deep end and show you a full blown CWD with a highlights visualization of the entire energy/materials/information flow of human civilization. Or at least as much as I could cram into a 600x400 image. Someday I hope to construct a detailed poster version showing 10x more.

The Zeroth Mile civilizational waterfall diagram

The zeroth mile zone is the small blue box at the center of the diagram, around the (0,0) origin of civilization. Think of it as where the "attention economy" happens. It's where we pay serious, agency-driving attention to what we're doing. We basically never step out of this box. We just use tooling technologies to bring things into this box in a way suited to our minds. The zeroth mile box is the UI of civilization.

So what's going on in there? Let me explain it impressionistically and philosophically first before showing you the details.

The big cluster of lines flowing from the left half towards the bottom right is basically "civilization" visualized as a mass-energy flow. It turns out to be roughly waterfall shaped, hence the name (the positive y-axis is the "face" of the waterfall). The diagram captures two key aspects of this flow: supply chains and human attention.

Supply Chains

First, consider the idea of a supply chain. In industry we talk of the "last mile" of logistics, through which matter, energy, and information get delivered to the places we use them, both home and work (the zeroth mile box has residential, commercial, and industrial zones within it). The terminology is both revealing and sad. By definition, there can be nothing beyond "last," which means...

_The last mile is the point beyond which we, as a species, decide to stop paying attention to what we're doing. _

Everything beyond is flows that we regard as "waste" flows in some sense (the fact that we do this should make you at least a little angry). There are 3 kinds of waste that accumulate beyond the last mile.

  1. Non-living waste: Material/energy (solid, liquid, gaseous, electromagnetic) that we dump right back into our planet's physical environment as hastily and thoughtlessly as we can get away with the moment we're done with it.

  2. Living waste : "Used up" and broken but still living humans and animals whose living reality is not recognized, and for whom we do as little as possible, mainly by moving them out of sight. If human, they are often some variety of living dead, with rotting psyches.

  3. Memetic waste: And finally, the little-appreciated category of memetic waste. Information out of which economic value, or "alpha" has been extracted, with the residue left behind as memories, culture, and history that's usually only processed further for aesthetic effects (a "reactionary" could be defined as a waste human concerned primarily with memetic waste).

To the third category, we've recently unprocessed informational exhaust from computing systems that's "easier to store than decide what to do with" (aka big data by George Dyson's definition).

Civilization is the very narrow range in the journey of human-driven information, energy, and material flows that passes through the narrow bottleneck of direct human attention: the zeroth mile. Before it enters the zeroth-mile zone, stuff is pristine "nature" and after, it is "waste" nature. And much of how we handle both is remote-controlled and automated.

So "supply chain" in a generalized sense, including the waste half of the picture, is one dimension (X) of the Civilizational Waterfall Diagram or CWD. Going outward from the zeroth-mile box in either direction -- towards pristine nature and towards hidden zones of waste, we can talk of the first, second... mile. In this diagram, not only is the mile nearest to you the first rather than the last mile, there is no last mile. Only positive and negative infinity as we dig deeper and deeper into nature for resource "supplies" to bring down the "chain", and extend our waste streams farther and farther out.

Human Attention

The second key aspect of civilizational flow is human attention and how it relates to matter-energy flows.

This gives us our other (Y) dimension: how we perceive what we are paying attention to. For some things -- living things, books, music -- the bits matter more than the atoms. Other things -- pots and pans, batteries, gasoline, steel bars -- the atoms matter more.

In the former category, we sometimes care about the specific atoms (living things) and other times we don't (digital information that can be cleanly moved from embodiment to embodiment, what Bruce Sterling calls spimes).

In the latter category, some atoms are intrinsically valued because they are precious or rare (gold) while others are valued only to the extent it is hard to work them industrially (silicon, steel, aluminum, gasoline). Commodities loaded up with intellectual property in short.

Civilization "flows" from nature to waste, passing through the zeroth mile box, where it is perceived in ways determined by the relative importance and non-interchangeability of the bits and atoms. When we deal with bits-first things, like code, what we do with them in the zeroth-mile box, like using keyboards, is regarded as "messy" practical details.

When we deal with atoms-first things, like gasoline, we think of handling them as making our hands dirty. The "handling" locus is either below or above the perceptual locus.We don't see code as something that flows out from a keyboard into a hard drive somewhere for example. We see it as flowing from our minds into a sort of timeless idea-space. We don't see pumping gasoline as participating in a flow from fossilized organic matter to atmospheric pollutants. We see it as getting our hands dirty restoring a car to its full potential "full tank" driving-range state.

That's the impressionistic/philosophical logic of this diagram. Now let's talk about how it is constructed. In this second diagram, I've discarded all the detail and shown just the grid.

The base of the diagram is a 2x2 (what else did you expect from me?). Let me discuss the x and y axes separately. Each is an epic Big History of humanity.

The Journey from "Resource" to "Waste"

The x axis is my representation of a supply chain, and it goes from -∞ to +∞, where -∞ is the limit of our understanding of nature (currently things like advanced semiconductor manufacturing, nanotechnology, and genomics) and +∞ is the frontier of our ability to create zones of waste (currently, low-earth orbit junk, space probes like Cassini deorbited into gas giants for safe incineration, and electromagnetic noise detectable from space).

Richard Feynman's idea of "there's a lot of room at the bottom" applies in both directions. We may get to the point where the "last mile" is manipulation of individual subatomic particles upstream in nature, and subatomic level waste downstream in our waste stream.

We push this limit, in both directions, further and farther out from the zeroth mile zone of our attention. The "miles" unit is notional because the distance metric here is somewhere between literal and figurative.

Sometimes it is actual miles. A lot of the lithium for your batteries comes from Bolivia. A lot of the cobalt comes from mines in Congo. That's actual X and Y miles away from wherever you're using your phone.

The "distance" might also be in time. Wine ages for years. Fossil fuels age for aeons.

Then there is energy-of-extraction distance. Steel comes from smelting iron ore in blast furnaces between 1300 to 1600 C (I grew up in a steel town where the Mordor-like red skies from slag dumping was a fixture in my visual environment). That's thousands of joules between iron ore and coke and the steel fork you're using.

And finally, and very importantly, there is informational distance: the chemistry needed to make modern plastics or ceramics is a lot more advanced than that involved in basic steel metallurgy or natural-fiber handwoven textiles.

Going in the other direction, your plastic straw can end up in the nose of a sea turtle and you wouldn't know until an image of it goes viral on twitter and the outrage results in straws being banned, and general calls for banning all single-use plastics, as just happened in India.

That poor turtle (creature treated as living waste by humans, entangled in material waste generated by humans) is also likely thousands of literal miles away from whoever used that straw.

The widespread ignorance evident in the plastic-straw elimination campaign illustrates how little we know about our waste stream. Plastic straws make up less than a percent of oceanic plastic waste. The biggest culprit in hurting wildlife (or what we'd call wastelife if we were more honest) is in fact lost fishing nets, which make up like 40% or so of oceanic plastic waste if I recall correctly.

And then there's the gazillions of tiny plastic particles that are too small and finely dispersed to clean up (and which will stay in the oceans for a very long time and may eventually way more than the fish in the sea according to some horror scenarios). So again we have physical distance (miles) time (how long waste stays in the environment as a life-choking hazard), and energy (the processes that break down, say, plastic water bottles, into tiny little pieces.

What is missing in the waste direction "miles" is information.

Not surprisingly, we put a shit ton of information and knowledge into how we go from pristine raw materials to zeroth-mile things, but almost none into what happens after we're done with it. That's why we call it the last mile. The informational input stops with the attentional input. We are so incredibly sloppy with recycling for example, that China recently implemented a National Sword policy rejecting poorly sorted recycling from the US, throwing the US west coast garbage and recycling industry into a sudden crisis.

Almost everything you think you know about waste and recycling is well-intentioned virtue signaling nonsense by the way. The sorting and recycling decisions you make at home have very little to do with what's actually recyclable, and at what net economic and environmental cost. Our waste-management behaviors are sloppy, mistake-ridden implementations of processes that largely make very little engineering, economic, or environmental sense. So it is not surprising that we get mad about plastic straws and think we're achieving something.

Anyhow, "miles" is basically distance between "nature" in pristine and waste forms, and the zeroth-mile box where you pay attention to it. And there is a major asymmetry in the nature of the x axis between the negative side and positive side. On the negative x axis, "miles" includes a lot of informational content between resource and use. On the positive x axis, we've stopped paying attention, so there's much less. Collectively, we're kinda stupid looking upstream, but really stupid looking downstream.

Some of this is inevitable: the x-axis respects the logic of the second law of thermodynamics. To put it crudely, we consume low-entropy matter and energy and excrete high entropy matter and energy. So there is a limit to how much the x axis can be turned into a fully cyclic flow. Even nature doesn't hit that standard.

Now let's talk y axis.

From Stuff to Ideas

The y axis is my representation of how we see all civilizational artifacts, in either bits-first ways or atoms-first ways. The notional variable here is L, the ratio of bits to atoms. Bits perceived; what you might call grokkable bits. All matter of course embodies a vast and constant amount of information. By the laws of ordinary physics, information is neither created nor destroyed. But the bits in our human civilizational sense correspond to a subset of the information embodied by matter: the part that we can pay conscious attention to and grok.

Why L? L is in honor of Landauer, as in Rolf Landauer. As in Landauer's principle: information is physical. Computation obeys the second law of thermodynamics.

But we don't always pay attention to the physicality of information. Beyond a certain threshold of grokkable bits per atoms, we tend to start seeing a thing as being defined by its information content rather than the atoms that embody it. This is where a thing acquires an identity distinct from its material embodiment. Living things are the prototypical things with identities, but not the only things. The zero on the y axis separates life from non-life on the left (nature) side, but in the column stacked above/below the box, it also includes all kinds of non-living things, like books and computers, that are bit-first. And on the right side it separates pure ideas from pure waste.

The y-axis range covered by the blue zeroth mile box is what you might call the range of human tool use. In this range we are consciously paying attention to the atoms via tools that alter the informational make-up of what we are transforming, as well as the perceptual modes through which we engage it (all tools alter our sense proportions as McLuhan noted).

Even if the effect of the tools is outside the box, our use experience of them is within the box. Even a mine worker operating an excavator is within the zeroth-mile box. The machine may be ripping frontier earth apart thousands of miles from the nearest city, but the worker is in an operator's cabin fiddling with things on a dashboard. A lunch sandwich might be delivered to him in the cabin, and he can generate things in the process of consuming that lunch that count as waste. That cabin is conceptually part of the zeroth-mile zone of civilization. To exit the box you have to literally go wild: live off the land, entirely on natural materials, in a natural environment. That's sort of the opposite of homelessness. Instead of being human waste, you are human raw material in the most pristine sense of raw.

Paper with words written on it is perhaps the archetypal material at the boundary between bits-first and atoms-first, as well as between resource and waste. The archetypal civilized act is making a single mark on a piece of blank paper with a pen. That simple act turns it from resource to waste, and from an atoms-first-artifact to a bits-first artifact.

Everything we consider "civilization" happens within the range of the blue box. This is where humans touch/manipulate/think about atoms by paying attention to them. In the process we increase the bits/atoms ratio of some things ("adding value") and decreasing it for other things ("creating waste"). Sometimes we add value to the point that things go from atoms-first (sand, copper) to bits first (computer chips). And sometimes we kill living things (including other humans), turning them from bits-first to atoms-first.

Okay, now how do you visualize things on this diagram? Let's add back some of the detail we threw out from the first full version of the diagram and learn to visualize flows on it.

The zeroth mile diagram as a 2x2, with material flow paths

Okay, now that you're oriented in terms of direction, let's label our 2x2 quadrants for convenience. and then talk about the flows across them.

The Quadrants

  1. High L, High Upstream is living nature. This is livestock, industrial-humans, food sources, forests, and so forth.

  2. Low L, High Upstream is non-living nature. Minerals, fuels, and such like. The feedstocks of the industrial economy.

  3. High L, High Downstream is immaterial culture, all human cultural memories, movies that have gone from theaters to DVDs to free streaming, books out of copyright, expired patents.

  4. Low L, High Downstream is waste. Including landfills, oceanic pollution, atmospheric pollution, homeless people abandoned on the margins of society, wildlife effectively being treated as wastelife (unless they happen to be charismatic enough, like turtles)

Civilization as a Waterfall Flow

Any artifact of civilization can be plotted as a dot roughly on the y axis or a little to one side or the other, depending on whether it is more or less "raw" (to the left) or more or less culturally aged (to the right). Things above the blue box have a bit-first identity, things below have an atoms-first identity. Things right inside the blue box are typically tools that live in the spotlight of human attention.

The supply chain feeding the an artifact is a set of paths of transformations from its input raw materials to its civilizational use form. So any artifact can have a biological supply chain (living things, either alive or killed), and a non-biological supply chain converging on it. Leaving it is a waste stream or streams. The artifact is a bundle of flows "tied" up at a point in a narrow band around the y-axis defined by its informational identity.

There is an important rule here: for most things, supply chain and waste stream curves cannot enter the interior of the top right quadrant. This is why the cluster of lines overall flows from the entire left half to only the bottom right half, forming a sort of downhill flow. The flows of artifacts that live higher up on the y axis must fall off a cliff to become waste. Ie civilization is an overall downhill waterfall-like flow.


Since waste is defined as things we don't pay attention to, any atom lacking in cultural significance -- which is almost all atoms -- turns into waste the instant we stop paying attention to it, so it drops vertically down the y-axis to the origin, going "dead", from where it evolves as waste defined purely by its atomic nature.

Example: think of throwing away a birthday card. Suddenly it goes from being a treasured memory to a piece of paper that needs to be shredded, recycled, or just tossed in the trash.

Most electronic hardware also lives fairly high up the y axis, and when a gadget breaks, its fall from "useful" to "waste" is much more precipitous and off-a-cliff than something like a coffee mug or frying pan. The more bits-over-atoms an artifact, the less gracefully it degrades into waste.

Special Atoms

The immaterial culture quadrant, as the name suggests, is mostly devoid of atoms. Of course there's a lot of atoms embodying the information there, but mostly the specific atoms are not important, and we copy bits to new atoms without really caring much. The atoms are interchangeable.

Exceptions are rare, like a treasured heirloom that acquires scratches, dents, repair seams, etc., and ages into the top right quadrant. Perhaps I should call it the museum quadrant.

There is a tiny fraction of artifacts (historic buildings, heirlooms) and living things (prized pets, zoo animals, human retirees recognized as human by working people) that are special atoms in the immaterial culture quadrant because they either cannot be made purely digital (ie put in a form where the material embodiment is of no interest, as in the case of living things) or because we have some sentimental attachment to the specific embodiment. These are artifacts that have become living stories.

The concept applies to living humans too, whom we sometimes valorize as living legends long after their contributions to posterity are done, and sometimes satirize as relics and fossils. In fact, this continues past death: we preserve the corpses of the dead through mummification and other processes.

A great illustration of how this psychology works is an episode of Futurama, where Bender steals a famous guitar from a folk singer and simply 3d prints a copy for himself, complete with all the scratches and markings that make it a historic artifact. He then figures out an algorithm for making hit folk songs that does not rely on lived experiences and tries to start a music career. The joke works because in real life, a 3d printed copy of a famous guitar would be worth much less than the "original." In the episode, Bender is shamed by the folk musician into going on a real journey to acquire experiences to fuel "real" folk songs.

One might even say that all culture is aestheticized waste. Museums are just nicer landfills.

Humans on the Diagram

I've shown three artifacts along with their supply and waste flows in the diagram above. I've also shown a blue/green dot labeled human, that is above the zeroth mile box.

This is worth thinking about carefully.

We humans have oddly schizophrenic views of ourselves in both atoms over bits ways (we are meatbag bodies) and bits over atoms ways (we are identities). We see ourselves having an original "nature" that belongs in the left half as a "resource" like iron ore or trees, and a constructed idea-self that belongs in the immaterial culture.

And most importantly, almost none of us see ourselves as creatures inside the blue zeroth-mile box of civilization, but as creatures above it. We "descend" to everyday grimy, messy life to do things like earning a living working with our hands, taking out the garbage, and cooking food, but our identities hover somewhere generally above the zeroth mile box of tools and resource transformation flows. Falling below the box, and seeing yourself in atom-first ways is usually a sign of severe mental illness.

You could say the blue zeroth mile zone is not so much civilization as the civilizational workshop. When we enter, we adopt temporary tool-user personalities at the edge of our sense of our own materiality and physicality. We turn into what Hannah Arendt called homo faber. A machine capable of exerting forces, and sensing things. But even the most derpy Maker-revolution scenester does not in general identify as homo faber. You use tools, well or poorly, but tool user is not a complete identity for homo sapiens.

But meatbag humans have to be on this diagram too, and must obey its laws. This diagram subsumes meatspace.

In other words, humans are artifacts too, flowing from pristine natural states to waste states. We even call ourselves human resources without a hint of irony, and write books with titles like "the human use of human beings" (a Norbert Wiener classic on Cybernetics). We are born as wild babies on the left side, civilized into zeroth-mile adults -- put into the homo faber box as it were where we use and are used by others -- and eventually pass on to the right. As valued retirees if we're lucky, and as ignored homeless human waste if we're unlucky.

For much of the time that we're in the box, we are alienated from that situation, and see our "true selves" as hovering above it.

Putting it All Together

Okay, now that you know how the diagram is constructed and how to read it, scroll back up and look at the full-blown picture, paying attention to the various highlight illustrated curves and what their shapes indicate.

For instance, coal burned in stoves is natural material that goes straight downhill because we just burn the stuff without any information value added generally. Refined gasoline has a bump in its curve. Synthetic biology (input/output not shown) is plotted above humans, because potentially we might be able to make superhumans. Semiconductors are just below. Printed paper is at the origin. On the far right is the boundary of science.

Living raw materials are interesting, because even their entry flow lines depend on how we see them with our tool-lenses. Trees as living things treasured as sacred wildernesses would exist as a straight near horizontal line cutting across the y axis (not shown), but trees raised in a "scientific" forest are viewed as lumber, and follow a very different trajectory. Livestock raised for meat is killed as it passes through the zeroth mile box, but the white elephants gifted by the King of Siam to unfortunate courtiers would be horizontal lines. Some cat owners (but not dog owners) have cat lines that pass above their own position.

I hope you get the idea. Though this essay is based on sketched diagrams and mostly qualitative accounts of how it works, I hope it helps you at least a little in bridging the four dichotomies we started with. I'm hopeful that I might one day be able to figure out the x and y axis variables in a more rigorously quantifiable way, and start to plot true, empirical versions of this diagram.

Anthropocene Literacy

In the last half-century, we've all become painfully aware of our arrival into a digital age and taken urgent steps to become digitally literate, at both individual and societal levels. We've recognized the importance of breaking smart with bits.

But though we have arrived into the anthropocene as well -- an age defined by our ability to do massive, planet-scale engineering of our environment -- we haven't yet recognized the urgency of becoming anthropocene literate. We live self-absorbed lives within the upper right immaterial culture quadrant, where we spend most of our time. Occasionally we deign to descend into the zeroth mile box, don our homo faber tool-user personas, and briefly get our hands dirty manipulating the other three quadrants. And generally we do so very poorly, creating vast amounts of toxic waste and destruction everywhere we cannot see.

Not only is this not materially sustainable, more importantly, it is not psychologically sustainable. Living this way seems to be destroying our minds much more than our environments. If humans were to vanish overnight, studies suggest the planet will pretty much heal itself in a few millennia and forget us. The lack of anthropocene literacy will destroy our minds long before we destroy the planet.

How do you do get anthropocene literate? How do you break smart in relation to atoms the way you already do in relation to bits?

Thinking about the realities summarized by the Civilizational Waterfall Diagram is not easy an easy task, but I am increasingly convinced that we need to get vastly more literate about this stuff, vastly more quickly than most people think.

If you're not used to thinking about atoms, there's plenty of places to get started. The books of Vaclav Smil are well-known for covering the empirical ground around this stuff. James Carse is great for cogent philosophy around waste. James C. Scott is excellent for thinking about how we see bits in atoms. Hannah Arendt, Marshall McLuhan, and Buckminster Fuller are great for insight on how we view ourselves as makers and users of tools, as well as creatures alienated from our own tool-shaped nature. The fiction of Ursula LeGuin and the writings of Donna Harraway are probably the best resources for starting to think hard about the essential psychology and sociology of this stuff.

But those are just suggestions reflecting my own learning curve. One way or the other, you need to become anthropocene literate, and become a lot more aware of what happens in the zeroth mile box. Because you're not just affecting things of concern just to you.

Every single thing you do helps drive a vast planet-scale orchestra that extends from mines and oilfields all the way to space probes.

The zeroth mile box for you may physically be your home and office -- a few thousand square feet at most, shrinking down to a six foot hole by the time you die -- but appearances are deceptive. Conceptually, while you are alive, and perhaps long after you are dead, your life is ground zero for a civilization scale drama across time and space. You are basically a god, whether or not you like the power or responsibility of being one.

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