Bouncing bad ideas


Those who have read my previous two posts may think I have some beef with the AVMSD, or, if they read the last three, they might think I have a problem with the European Union. Both assumptions would be true, but I’d like to try my hand at putting this into a larger context.

My work for the past several years has had many different forms and facets but one overarching theme: the individual’s right to self-governance and, as a prerequisite to that, the right to information. This realm of activity has many fronts, many facets, many complexities, some of which are plain as day while others lurk in the shadows.

At the base of it all, I’m what a friend of mine first described to me as a “decentralization fundamentalist” – I believe that any decentralized system will be superior to an otherwise equivalent centralized system. The reasons for this are many. Centralization puts strain on certain nodes in a system while decentralization shares the load. This can be seen by analyzing the Internet or a geodesic dome, and comparing them to the Prime Minister’s office or a skyscraper. The threat model for decentralized systems is also much more manageable. If a head of state gets assassinated or there’s a run on a bank, the system goes into shock. It is impossible to yield as much shock to a decentralized system simply because the authority is better distributed – each node mattering less in the grand scheme of things means that the larger system is more resilient.

So there’s a strong sustainability aspect to this. Not in the happy hippie tree-hugging sense, although that definitely does come into play, but more in the lower level survivalist sense. We try to avoid positive feedback loops (exponential growth) because we know it’ll eventually end up killing us. It’s often very hard to determine whether we’re stuck in such a growth or decline cycle because long-term vision is difficult without data. We only really figured that out in the late 1700′s around most of the world, although there are some time series datasets that go back farther – for example population statistics going back to around the 1500′s when the term “statistics” was invented to describe “figures of the state”; many of these are old eye-witness accounts or studies while many others are modern day reconstructions based on artifacts.

It’s a pretty scary moment when you come to the understanding that the long now probably isn’t going to be very long. When I went through that, in late 2006, I started to try and learn personal survival first, try to acquire the knowledge needed to bootstrap society if it were to disappear overnight. That goal I largely failed, although I’ve managed to learn a thing or two, because I also started to understand that my own survival only guarantees limited resilience. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road illustrates pretty well what that looks like.

No. Survival is a much larger scale problem. If you’ve played Conway’s Game of Life you’ll know that certain patterns are recurrent, some are viral, but most are unstable and end up petering out into nothing. We need to guarantee some kind of larger scale survival. The only viable Nash equilibrium of this game is the one where we don’t all end up being liquid contributions to the next dominant life form’s Peak Oil problem.

Understanding all of this, I started to ally myself with the brightest minds I could find, the clearest thinkers, the folks who were willing to share in my optimism that humanity could move beyond this. I found amazing people who were willing to stop pretending everything was okay and move on to explore the ideas that could maximize human potential while minimizing the amount of damage we would do to ourselves, each other, and our environment.

But throughout this, we’ve been banging into walls. The prerequisite to individual self-governance, which itself is a prerequisite to sustainable survival, is, as I said before, our ability to create, receive, transmit, store and alter information. We need to be able to learn, we need to be able to use our cultural heritage and build on it, we need to be able to share our findings with each other and transform them into meaningful action.

But we have seen so many things that prevent that.

We have seen that intellectual property law has been since its inception a device for scarcifying knowledge, complicating trade and benefiting industries, and we know that the concept of intellectual property has run aground. All aspects of intellectual property law must be entirely reconsidered, whether it be copyright, patents or trademarks.

We have seen that state censorship and its big brother, corporate censorship, have been protected at a fundamental level by law makers for centuries. We have seen their laws been used to cripple the fourth estate, limit the propagation of the truth, and benefit the interests of those who can control the laws through corruption and material wealth.

We have seen privacy sacrificed on the altar of security. The ability of a person to retain her personal information and have agency over it, to not have the limits of her privacy dictated by governments, corporate entities, or other individuals, has been cut off by a lack of transparency in information systems and invasions in the form of ubiquitous surveillence, unneccessary tracking and information collection, and sloppy identity management.

We have seen the spectre of insecurity whimsically applied to any given situation. People lacking requisite information are fed poorly researched and shoddily justified stories about how their security is allegedly protected by various measures, but the actual protection ranges from useless to patently absurd. These theatrics have been employed to frighten people into submission, limit their freedoms, and control their actions.

We have seen this, and many other things that trouble us. And what is worse, I and most of my co-conspirators in this perhaps vain attempt to fix what’s wrong with this world are citizens of an emerging supernation which appears to be bent on continuing this disasterous trend and following it to its illogical conclusion, a state sponsored infocalypse, the information dark ages.

As information technology expands into every branch of human activity, and the European Union, just like any other geopolitical entity, struggles to present a comprehensive and enlightened view of how information should be goverened and regulated, I feel that there is no wisdom in applying traditional political values to information, nor do I believe that attempting to mediate the fundamental truths of how information works into channels carved by special interests hundreds of years ago will in any way suffice.

The EU is particularly in my gunsights because it is large, it is powerful, and it is largely opaque. It’s also in my garden, regulating my actions, and it’s about to gobble up the place that’s been my home for the last two decades as part of its empirical expansionist process. There are other problems too – the US is a mess, China is a looming threat, Russia is all kinds of crazy, but at the end of the day I am but one of many, and this node has decided to try and keep the field clear so others can act. Focusing on the EU is a sensible thing to do, for now. At some point that may change, and then I shall adapt.

To be honest, I’d be much happier doing tech. I’d love to be at Marcin’s farm helping build fantastic open source agricultural devices, or at Cloughjordan with Vinay mapping out infrastructure. There are few things that appeal to me as much as starting a company and putting one of my crazy plans into action – there’s plenty of them, many good, a few great, some just plain weird. But while the situation is as it is, somebody’s got to play bouncer.

As for my personal resilience, to be honest, I’m pretty tired. Almost everybody I work with, everybody who relies on me, has been let down at some point. Part of it is that I take on too much. Juggling handgrenades is a fine thing to do, but juggle too many for long enough and you’re eventually going to drop some. Not that it matters, really, they’re on timer fuses anyway.

Over the last couple of months I’ve been trying to clear up my task list, which has several years worth of unfinished obligations. Many have been dropped, but I feel that what’s left is very important. I can’t do it all, not by myself, but handing off projects to others isn’t something that I’ve been very good at in the past – part of it is an arrogant failure to understand the capacity of other good people, but a greater part of it is that most of the people who I’d feel comfortable entrusting these tasks to are already so busy with their own equally important tasks that it’s unrealistic.

The objective here isn’t to wallow in self-pity though; it’s not useful. The objective is to try and tie together why all of this stuff looks like it’s made of the same stuff from where I’m sitting: information rights, human rights, currencies, democracy, sustainability, technology,… they’re all part of the same weave.

At the core of it all is authority. Authority is like energy. It cannot be created or destroyed, it can merely be moved between individuals and changed in form. It’s expressions vary wildly, as do the relational constraints, but all in all it all comes down to the regulatory mechanisms that keep us in check. The things that make people toil in a factory instead of sitting in the sun. The things that make people show up to vote when they’d rather be reading. The things that govern our every action, however subtly.

The good news is that I’m still optimistic. Christian Siefkes asked me after a talk I gave in Oslo a couple of months ago whether I had become a pessimist. I can’t remember what my response was, but it had to do with realism as a precursor to optimism and analysis being prerequisite for action. I’d like to take a few weeks off, hide out somewhere with no uplink and no worries, but that’s an unattainable luxury at the moment. In the meantime, I’m optimistic, and there’s a good reason for that optimism – because as bleak as things are, we’ve never had this much fun.

Come have fun too, won’t you?