Monthly Archives: November 2011

Truth and Beauty – The Future We Deserve, Part 3

Or, Heuristics for History. You know the drill; italics are my own editorial comments or summaries. Everything else is Vinay Gupta’s, and he wishes me to say that he likes being contradicted and argued with.

From the last couple of talks in this series: we understand the system and its limitations. Now, what can we do?

The formation of a political identity in a post-democratic age.

It’s blatantly obvious that democracy has failed, because there are serious problems that aren’t being solved. We have threats on two scales – civilisational and ontological.

About half of the people in the room grew up in the shadow of global nuclear war, the age of false rationality, game theory, death cults and MAD. And those death cults never went away. This is the forbidden history of Western Civilisation.

But there’s rational hope! We can fix the world in the small gap—20 years at the outside—between nuclear death and open-source bioweapons.

The military think of this as “increasing small group lethality” – how many people can two dozen competent, dedicated, well equipped people kill? The answer is in the billions.

The population of Israel is 5.5 million.

“We are within sight of the end of the causes of human conflict”. That is, the (socio)technology for fixing the big problems mostly exists; it needs to be properly tested and scaled up.

What we need is a combined socio-technical system WITH psychological transformation (“not a New Age but a New Us”), ie. a combination of government + engineers. Bad civil engineering is killing the world. We build what we want to, so the trick will be to want something else.

[We do, in fact, have everything we need to bribe the bad actors into not being bad actors—good food, good music, art, comfort, happy people around them. We just have to teach them to want it.]

The four causes of conflict: too little, too much, philosophical beliefs, and psychological traumas, eg. feuding. Poverty can be alleviated; resources can be rationally shared (violence inhibits rational sharing & polarizes people); and the harmful cultural associations that go along with religion can be unpicked from the religion itself. In fact, religions have been doing that a lot already. [I am not convinced about that part. That might be my Quaker background showing, though.]

“Star Trek is like Thelema for everyone.”

PTSD and cultural analogues are substantially curable by therapy, drugs (MDMA), and critical theory. (The Israeli military is dosing their troops up on Ecstasy to make sure they don’t get PTSD from everything they see & do. Israel also has a very thriving rave scene.)

Is the plan of eliminating the causes of conflict impossible, or just unreasonable? Islands of progress are very real.

The energy problem is looking much more solvable than it was 20 years ago. Nanosolar, Konarka, algal turf scrubbers. Renewable energy costs are going down by 7% a year, and by 2019 they’ll be cheaper than coal. [Not convinced all the externalities are included in that price estimate. The energy sector is the worst non-black entity there is for fudging prices and distorting markets.]

The Technological Abyss: that which saves, destroys. There’s almost no global technological regulation. Can we get out of it? – yes!

Recap: inequitable resource distribution, ineffective governance. So, it’s not worth engaging in democracy any longer except as a maintenance activity – 15 minutes every 4 years and that’s it.

Fixing organisations: use a FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) model. Let a thousand flowers bloom, prune where needed, compost the dead. The classic capital-investment/directed-labour model of building assets is manifestly inadequate, because there is no possible way that any amount of money could ever have been turned into Wikipedia.

These organisations use non-scarce resources; they’re organic, evolutionary, and bottom-up. They’re labour-intensive, using many minds, with layers of open-source oversight, and inherently resistant to screwups.

How do we apply the FOSS/WP model to governance? – it’ll probably only work for non-scarce resources.

Can we fix scarcity problems with non-scarce resources? History says yes, because there are a lot of occasions where it’s been done—eg. the horse collar, the plough.

Ingenuity is not scarce. (However, the ability to manage it is.)

Imagine a global policy wiki – a global intellectual commons in which smart people work for free, collecting and showcasing best practice in legislation and policymaking for everyone’s use. When lazy policymakers, or their assistants, want a solution to a problem? – check the wiki, cut and paste. Make it easy and obvious and it will get used.

A coordinated sustainable development commons: a roadmap for lifting people out of poverty, governance strategies for very big planetary assets.

The world is full of working solutions and best practices. Most of them aren’t documented. [Known problem: people who Do Stuff generally hate documenting Stuff, and are not very good at it. Also, the kind of things that get documented on the internet are the kind of things that the people who document stuff on the internet like.]

Doing what Governments can’t.
– Pathological incentives exist at every level.
– Every funding stream is contaminated.
– There is no state which is charged with solving global problems. The total UN budget is one-third of what Indians send home to India.

Commons-based peer production.

“If you want to save the world, be prepared to work for free” – because there is no entity whose job it is to pay you to do it.

Complexity control: the people who are good at this are generally engineers. Sciences, arts, and that’s it.

“Richard Stallman is the old white man in a beard that makes the world work.” GNU/Linux is more than free.

Governments are not malicious—they are incompetent. It’s at least a scale problem – there are a number of different pathologies involved. And most people within governments know this, and will grab at any branch they’re offered.

Superempowerment, or, How to become an Actor in History.
1. Focus on the problem.
2. Do not expect to get paid.
3. Work until it is solved. [And we all know what the reward for a job well done is…]

Also: don’t fart around solving local problems. We need you at the global level. [Hm. Not sure about this one. Some people are better suited to local problems… but then a lot of local solutions are scalable and/or generalisable. Think globally, prototype locally?]

Individual responsibility:
– Our power and agency are inalienable, despite having historically delegated them to governments.
– Our current forms of collective social organisation are inadequate to the challenges of now.
– Diabolical new technology requires new forms of management.

Radical new identity:
– build a platform on top of the state. Rebuild collectives as individuals.

Fighting the thing that caused the problem—or the thing that is failing to solve the problem—is not the same as solving the problem.

Wikiocracy. A governance model which clearly gets decision-making right will outperform lawmakers.

The social relationship online favours (and makes easy) collaboration: it’s a positively biased medium. “Nobody’s ever died in a flame war.” [Wrong. The internet has directly enabled many deaths, eg. from cyber-bullying, and a great deal of dangerous harassment. See “highly gendered internet” debate, passim.]

Cooperate with your enemies. Take individual responsibility. Guide the lost. Preserve and protect (eg. from enclosure – CC or GFDL, &c.) Wait for rollover, and keep working. (Rollover: something dramatic is going to happen to the concept & constitution of the state within the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years.)

Post-political identity.
– We’re going to solve the problem, rather than make other people solve the problem.
– Who cares about people who are wrong? Stop arguing with them.
– Embrace and extend old mediums.
– Only individuals can reconstitute.

Practical things: correct language (define every we, so we know who is talking); correct thought (stop waiting for the government to fix things); correct action (work out who can solve the problem, and help them).

If the answer to the last question is “nobody”: then it’s your turn.

Learn to unsee the State and the Organisations.

A few interesting & miscellaneous things that came up in conversation afterwards:

Some notes towards a new money

After a conversation with Eleanor Saitta at Truth and Beauty.

First: why? Well, it’s because the money we have is clearly inadequate. It embodies too many perverse incentives: specifically, it engenders a desire to hoard it rather than to use it; it provides too easy a metric for point-scoring, and easy metrics become ends in themselves; it’s very easily gameable and algorithmically manipulable; and it accumulates unevenly, which is to say accumulation accelerates the more of it you already have. Which is clearly counterproductive.

So, here’s my rough-cut proposal for a system which would remedy those problems – it’s designed to be used at first as a local currency, on the lines of LETS, to be used amongst a largeish (virtual) community rather than for transactions between strangers, and certainly not for savings accounts. I’ve been thinking of it as Fleuristy, because it flowers and falls, and because that means we can call the currrency units florins. It’s entirely digital native, because that gives us better tools for understanding and managing the money supply than any other currency has had.

The most important feature of the economy is that the total amount of money in it is aggressively limited – when it goes over the threshold (a multiple of the number of users, with some constraints & random factors to prevent gaming the system) that triggers a jubilee. All accounts are reset to a medium-low level, and all outstanding debts are cleared.

Since the jubilee will pretty much always take more money out of the system than it puts in, we need a faucet as well as a drain. That’s community funding, and it works like this.

When Aaron makes a payment to Balqis, he can choose either to fund it from his own account, or to submit it for community funding. If he takes the first choice, it goes through as usual – Aaron ends up with less money, Balqis ends up with more, the total remains constant.

But if Aaron takes the second option (either because he doesn’t have the funds himself, or because he thinks this is a transaction that will benefit the community, or for some other reason) then it will get submitted to a public forum for moderation, with Aaron’s pitch for the funding. If it gets more up-votes than down-votes, it gets funded, which is to say Balqis gets her money and nobody loses it; the total increases. If it doesn’t, or if it goes 48 hours with no votes either way, the transaction fails.

New users start with a zero balance, but will get marked up to the same medium-low balance as everyone else at the next jubilee, or may get a community grant if someone wants to propose that.

As far as score-keeping goes, everyone has three numbers: current balance, lifetime amount received, and lifetime amount spent. Either the last two, or the difference between them, are publicly visible, with leaderboards. (Opt-out leaderboards, that is. Not everyone wants to compete.)

This system tries to embody reputation (using lightweight but persistent identity management – my preference would be for Twitter authorization) and focus on transactions rather than balances. It stops hoarding, since jubilees are unpredictable – the only thing you can usefully do with your money is spend it or give it away. It won’t entirely stop the acceleration effect, but by preventing large balances (unless the system gets stuck in a very inequal state – and even then there are ways for the users to fix it) it will limit the effect severely. It isn’t gameable without intelligent human intervention, since any community-funding request which looks either machine-generated or boring will inevitably draw a community backlash.

Getting it off the ground won’t be an economics problem; it’ll be a community-cultivation problem. One thing the Internet is very much not lacking is people with surplus value looking to exchange it with each other. Some of the numbers will need fine-tuning, but the only way to do that is to try it.

Comments, perceived problems, elaborations on the basic system?

Truth and Beauty – Jamais Cascio on Geoengineering

Or, Hacking the Planet Without Voiding the Warranty.

Ed. note—I keep these notes mostly because I’m an artist, and if I don’t have a tool in my hands then I can’t apply half my brain. But it would be a shame not to post them now they exist. I don’t make any claims about comprehensiveness or perfect accuracy. As always, italics indicate my own thoughts; everything else is Cascio’s.

“I don’t like ‘futurist’ as a job description, but I haven’t come up with a better one. I ask questions, I don’t tell you what the future will be like.”

We’re in an age where, effectively, there is no more nature – the Anthropocene, where human activities have a noticeable effect on the climate.

There are two ways that we can potentially remedy global warming: either we can manage the incoming solar radiation, or we can remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

Launch capacity rules out flying a classic solar mirror – we just can’t get that much mass up there quickly enough to do any good.

We could fill the air with crap (seawater or sulphur compounds) but that has been shown to alter rainfall. (There’s actually been quite a few large-scale tests on that – volcanic eruptions do precisely the same thing, and so did the oil-field fires Iraqi forces set after the invasion of Kuwait that began the first Gulf War. This is also what we used to call nuclear winter.)

As for carbon dioxide sequestration, there aren’t many ways to embed it reliably. Planting enough trees to embody that much CO2 would leave no room for arable land, and thus no food. Just pumping the stuff underground will leak, or cause earthquakes in the way that fracking does.

There’s a new company called Calera who say they can sequester carbon dioxide “in the built environment”.

The sequestration/ocean-albedo-changing idea, using iron filings in the ocean to encourage algal bloom, has been shown not to work.

“Rule No. 1: Desperate People Do Desperate Things.” We are, at some point, going to see amateur geo-engineers; rogue states starting geoengineering projects; and climate terrorist groups trying to stop them. States are already seriously considering these techniques as warfare, and evaluating ways to deploy them or defend against them.

One of the things that’s stopping people-or-organizations doing geoengineering is liability. If something goes wrong (and it will), and if you’ve been doing something that could potentially have had an effect on the climate or the weather, then you will be blamed. And sued.

This is not a choice between hubris and humility.

Five steps to doing it right:

  1. Transparency. Everyone should know what you’re doing and how.
  2. Internationality.
  3. Bottom-up thinking: “Ecoscientists Without Borders”.
  4. Global dispute resolution mechanisms. We already have models for those, after the CFC row and in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
  5. An absolute, and thoroughly enforced, ban on non-state projects.

Not economies of scale, but economies of scope: solutions that deal with several problems at once.

The problems we face in tackling ecological breakage aren’t technological, generally; they’re political and cultural.

Breaking The Powers? Dreams of a Council of Scientists. We should have a Power Jubilee. Are we condemned to incrementalism?

The moral hazard of technological fixes.

Geoengineering as a phantom tiger – “if the scientists are willing to do THAT, the problem must be worse than we thought.” Asking people their opinions of geoengineering projects has been shown to increase their acceptance of global warming as a problem.

To sum up: Things are going horribly wrong. A solution may emerge, if it’s given time and room. There is, currently, nothing we as individuals can safely do.

Truth and Beauty – The Future We Deserve, Part 2

Or, Why won’t somebody act?

As before, italics indicate my own interpolations and editorial asides. Everything else is Vinay Gupta, though I’ve rephrased or summarized here & there.

Governance comes in three necessary & inevitable parts: ownership, management, and protection. Owners fund, maintain, & legitimize; managers do the work to keep it going; protectors remove threats. There are an arbitrarily large number of ways to implement all of those, and failure mechanisms for each of them. Owners can turn into rentiers, extracting fees for doing nothing; managers want to stay employed; and protectors want not to have to do anything.

There are a lot of definitions of “state”, and often a lot of overlapping or competing state-like entities, eg. revolutionary movements.

Weber’s classic definition is that the state has a monopoly on the use of legitimate force. Vinay prefers this one: a state is an entity that can grant retroactive immunity, ie. it can find you innocent. Put another way, it can extend protection, at least from its own justice and as far as possible from others’.

I still think that this definition includes a lot of entities not usually considered states, such as separatist/sustainable/hippy communities. Vinay disagrees with me on this, which leads me to think he has never experienced a group of hippies discussing who used the last of the soya milk, when, why, and how they can prevent it happening again. Or, to use a more serious example, sexual harassment/assault in countercultural groups with a TAZ-type or separatist ethos.

The most common state service is jurisdiction over sharing, including but not limited to contract law.

Evanescent micro-states exist – there’s always a fractal quality to states. Describable as a foam of states/jurisdictions – cf. Stross’s Accelerando.

There is no global jurisdiction, which means no global sharing.

The fact that people have chosen to group themselves by geographic areas rather than, say, shoe size could be considered an accident of history. Dubious, given the necessary localization of most resource nodes. But still a useful consideration.

Goat rodeo! This is a situation to which order cannot be brought, and it’s what happens when both goals & actors are different. If you have multiple actors of the same type (eg. all corporations or all charities) with the same goals, it’s a cartel; actors of different types with the same goals cooperate; actors of the same type with different goals compete; and actors of different types, with different goals, have no common ground on which to cooperate or to compete, so we call it a goat rodeo.

Gupta’s law of whole systems thinking: “You know it’s a whole system if the costs show up in one place and the benefits in another.”

“Can we do both rights and good governance?” Is there necessarily a tradeoff?

An example from the UN about free speech & blasphemy laws: the relevant interest groups have been captured by the people most interested in blasphemy laws, ie. the ones who want them.

(In response to a question from the floor) “The best analysis of transnational corporations is as arms of the United States. This is a very reasonable position to disagree with.”

Most people, including us, are fairly ignorant. Popular mandates are badly informed, therefore weak.

“Electoral democracy has failed.” Here we get into nuclear bureacracies (ie. the self-sustaining bureaucracies that have grown up around the control of nuclear weapons and their support infrastructure) and the black state. They have vast budgets and think on immense timelines, eg. the long wait for the Soviet Union to collapse due to its own internal contradictions.

The black state has access to Vast Amounts Of Firepower for a very long time and has successfully not used it, which can be a very hard problem.

States end up with a two-tier governance structure: democratic facing inwards, secret/black dealing with foreign & defence policy. For that reason, solutions to global problems will probably come out of the black state.

Large problems are far more complex than one head can hold; for that matter, the number of heads required to hold them exceeds the Dunbar number.

Update & announcement

I’ve been offered an exhibition at Slate in Leytonstone, a display venue for local artists using the windows of the closed council offices on the corner of Church Lane and Leytonstone High Road. That starts on December 17th and runs for six weeks, and I’ll be showing some of everything!

Since I haven’t posted recently about what I’ve been making, here’s some relevant picspam. These all involve photography & quite a lot of obsessive vector art. As always, click through to Flickr for the full-size versions.

Nettle pendant - finished!

Oak branch WIP 1

Design from birch branches, WIP 2

Truth and Beauty – The Future We Deserve, Part 1

Here’s my notes from Vinay Gupta’s talk on “The Future We Deserve”, part 1 of a 3-week series. I may well have mis-summarized some of it, but the podcast’s available here (mp3), and others who were there are entirely encouraged to correct me. Diversity count: 23 people, 5 of whom presented as female, 6 of whom (including the speaker) were non-white, and 1 visibly non-able-bodied.

My editorial comments are in italics, and “QQ” is a question from the audience. [L] is a note of a book/paper/keyword I wanted to look up later.

Important question to ask: whether the future actually is amenable to analysis. Strict rationality and utilitarianism will inevitably fail, so at some point you will have to make decisions on moral grounds instead (is it better to save young people, or older people, or families? People here, or people there? To consider QALY, local priorities, or ripple effects?) And the thing which informs the moral frameworks we use to make those decisions is aesthetics. Quert: choice of beauty. Also, EO Wilson’s use of “concinnity”. That’s how we get the title of this series: truth and beauty. “I’m an engineer, and I think have a pretty good handle on truth by now, but I’m getting to level 80 and it’s full of artists! My artist friends are laughing at me, finally asking lots of questions. Join the club, white boy. …Beige boy.”

Aesthetics and artistic practices (which aren’t the same thing, of course) are heavily influenced by technology and the media we have available. Cf. McLuhan (“The medium is the message”, Postman (“When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”). On the other front, the arts drive technological/artisan practice too. Walking home past the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square reminded me of that – Yinka Shonibare’s ship in a bottle is very much a non-trivial technological undertaking, and Rachel Whiteread’s inverted resin plinth even more so.

Nobody in this room knows for sure how big Africa is, or how many people live there. In a room full of smart, educated, passionate people who care about global justice, that’s a strong illustration of how incredibly biased the discourse is towards the global North and the wealthy.

My notes start going a bit nonlinear at this point.

[L] “The long encounter group”. Hundreds of millions of years effectively trapped around the fire at night, with the same people night after night. The combination of flickering light and stories: now we have television. David Brin makes a similar point in some of his futurist essays, IIRC.

“Weird distribution”: that thing where x% of people control X% of wealth. Definitely not a normal distribution – for all practical, ie. non-mathematical, purposes it looks a lot like an asymptotic curve. The line for the global 1% is at £22k per economic unit per year, or about US$36k-ish. That’s $100 a day, ie. a hundred normal people would live on what we consume. A lot of the deep weirdness in economics is related to Purchasing Power Parity. Economic footprints. We’re eating our seed corn, and asset-stripping the planet. Literally, setting fire to embodied complexity (deep-frozen information) and accelerating entropy.

Money models scarcity well, but plenty poorly. One reason behind the recent proliferation of alternative currencies is that people are looking for ways to model plenty, and reconceptualise use/exchange value.

[L] Martin Gardner (sp?), “The Survival of Smiths”. Over many iterations, small advantages produce very large results. Compound interest.

33% of all deaths are caused by poverty.

Some more demographic stats: the 7 billion people in the world comprise 2bn urban/elite rich, more than a billion in slums (Terminological note: slums are dense concentrations of housing, but they’re not towns in this sense, because they have no planning or governance or associated issues.) half a billion rural rich, and 3.5 billion peasants. So the popular economic narrative of normalcy – the default economic geography which informs our thinking on matters of wealth and standards of living – is flat-out wrong. The way we – the urban/elite rich – live is an aberration.

Billionaires herd money, rather than control it. Rendering it liquid would destroy most of it, and trying to give it away often Just Wouldn’t Work.

We’re running out of tigers. What would it feel like to show your grandchildren a picture or a video of a tiger, and then tell them that there aren’t any left?

We haven’t yet seen any proven extinctions of charismatic megafauna. What happens when we do?

Biodiversity and forest density, both disappearing fast. Again, we’re setting fire to embodied complexity.

People are beginning to understand that they’ve always been wrong. “The world is made of lies.” From my science background, this sounds familiar – “truth” is a series of decreasingly egregious errors and refinements in worldview. “My inheritance is from medicine, so epidemiology was a good route into thinking about these things.”

QQ: Regarding the 99% thing – was it any different in Ancient Rome?

VG: Basically, no. I think it’s inherent in the system that money will always breed more money. There’s no coercive solution to the problem that winners will keep winning, but there’s a lot of room to improve things at the bottom of the heap.

QQ: I’m going to accuse you. I grew up in a community of people who live on silt islands in the river, and none of this is relevant to them. You couldn’t get them into a room to talk about it, you couldn’t give them these solutions. Is this all about emotion, about wanting to feel good helping?

VG: Hm. I’m not an aid worker, I don’t have the skillset for that, I’m not a people person. When it comes to deploying help on the ground, I’d be in the bottom 5% of the class. I’d want to teach them germ theory so they can make a biosand filter for drinking water. What I do is the relationship between affordable technology and solvable problems. There are some basic principles that everyone needs: heating, shelter, sustainable toilets, crop rotation.

Not all relevant in these circumstances: living on a silt island, washed away every year and making you find a new island the next, means you don’t have to worry about sustaining the land. Crop rotation is irrelevant because next year you’ll get an entirely new field of incredibly rich, fertile silt to plant on. Composting toilets are also too heavyweight a solution to waste disposal. Riparian inverse-nomadic pattern – there’s almost certainly a proper anthropological term for it. I forgot to check later where/who this culture is, maybe next week.

QQ (followup): They’re resigned to extinction. It’s a natural part of life for them.

VG: There’s a saying amongst aid workers: “Save the willing first.”

QQ: Are you saying that a sense of proportion is the antidote to charm?

VG: Yes! That’s an excellent way to put it.

Almost every charity uses the Big Eyes modelling agency – that’s a thing I made up which supplies small emaciated brown children with empty bowls, rather than the normal-looking people (big strapping men, young women, older people in Western clothes, possibly not even brown people) they actually spend the money on helping. They do it because that substantially increases donation levels.

“They still have rickets in some parts of America.”

Razi: The traditional rural cultures are basically doing OK, and they have collective agency. The people at the very top, millionaires and billionaires, are basically a sideshow. The bit in the middle, the billion or more people living in slums, that’s unacceptable.

[General agreement]