Intermediation Blues

As commonly used in finance, “intermediation” refers to banks and other financial institutions borrowing from savers/investors and lending to companies that need funds for investment in operations and new projects. I will look at the idea more broadly here.

Intermediation occurs in countless ways in our industrial-consumer society. Most of the time, we do not even notice the indirectness of our mostly transactional lives. When did you last buy a product directly from the person who made it?

About the only way you can make a direct purchase from the producer of food is to buy those organic carrots or tomatoes from your local farmers market. What percentage of your food purchases are those? Most likely, very small. In most other cases, a direct transaction with no intermediation is impossible.

Dependency and Distance

The more distance between you and the other (if there is a singular other involved), the more dependent you are on a process beyond your reach. When did you last negotiate what characteristics your iPhone would have? To do that you would have to contact the maker, but like so many other products, smartphones result from thousands of makers producing countless components for assembly somewhere you have never heard of.

A team of people whose criteria result from complex sets of information from engineering and marketing studies designs the product. The design criteria and information intermediate between the revenue goals of the giant corporation controlling the process and estimates of how large a market their advertisers can influence to buy the product. Who decides what use-value an object may have for the end user? And who, exactly, is the end user? That is not always clear either.

Intermediation of Communication

When inventions like the telephone and telegraph became available for use by consumers and businesses, many praised their power to facilitate long-distance communication. Messages were sent directly from one party to another by telegraph; people talked directly to one another on the phone. The mail service provided delivery of direct written communications from one party to another. Today, people use their smartphones and computers to engage with social media or to send texts or email more than to communicate directly to anyone. Their calls to businesses are intermediated by complex, often dysfunctional telephone menu trees leading to recorded messages, not to humans.

Social media may be the most obvious technology of intermediated communication. How many Facebook friends do you have? How many have you actually met, face to face? People have “meetings” over Skype because it intermediates in a way that simulates face-to-face conversations. But face it, you are actually looking at an electronic image approximating the person you are talking with. The same process is involved when your geographically dispersed committee or board of directors meets via Zoom. You are replicating the experience of direct human communication.

Dangerous and Deadly Intermediation

People rightly complain that the use of drones such as the MQ99 Reaper in warfare feels in ways unseemly. A drone operator commands the aircraft from afar. He drops its bombs somewhere in Pakistan or Yemen by viewing images on a screen and receiving “intelligence” reports in his air-conditioned office near Las Vegas. He has no direct way of knowing whether the targeted group of people in a village or on a road consists of a terrorist group or a wedding party. Intelligence reports are often sketchy or based on false data. Combat drone operators experience PTSD at equivalent rates as troops on the ground.

Lion 737 Max_8

Lion Air ~ the First of two suspiious crashes.

Why was I not surprised when in a very short period two Boeing 737 Max-8 airliners crashed shortly after takeoff, one in Indonesia and the other in Ethiopia? Numerous pilots had complained of a tendency of the new autopilot software to force the aircraft into an abrupt nose down or nose up attitude. If any human technology epitomizes intermediation, it is the autopilot.

Software designed to control aircraft flight is extremely complex. Airborne situations are also extremely complex and diverse. I do not know what exactly went wrong and killed all those passengers and crew. But I do know that in automated control systems, the more complex the system, the more statistically susceptible to catastrophic collapse it is.

When I got my new small airplane in 2008, equipped with a basic autopilot, I was amazed at its ability to fly the aircraft in light to moderate turbulence better than I could. Its electronic responses were faster than my own in responding to change. But on a couple of occasions, the aircraft began to oscillate to the point where I had to hit the autopilot master switch and take manual control. Those 737 Max pilots didn’t have a chance since the defective software had been designed to override “pilot error” and drove the aircraft into the ground.

Disintermediation Rising

Intermediation has its advantages in complex systems, as long as it works. But there are limits to its benefits and there are dangers in its over-use. It appears that in several ways we have already reached the limits of utility and risk.

In the coming decades, deteriorating economic and ecological conditions will force industrial-consumer economies to contract for their societies to avoid suffering the most extreme consequences of climate chaos and the other converging catastrophic crises. Disintermediation must be part of the process of mitigating these crises.

We must examine many processes as to whether to disintermediate them. Many of the solutions to the converging crises at the end of the industrial-consumer era will involve returning to direct human interaction to accomplish tasks for which intermediation poses too many costs.