Part 2: All Problems are Interpersonal
On wasting one’s time
There is nothing she hates more than “wasting her time”.
Of course, for me, any second spent with her is the farthest thing from waste. But, in my book, time waste is impossible in general. It has been impossible since I realised what the content of life is. Or maybe what it isn’t. It isn’t to produce as much as possible. Yet, the argument of having control over one’s time, I do consider very valid.
What annoys me is waste in the context of capitalistic production. Time not creating, learning, self-improving in any way, she considers “waste”. How annoying. But just like they say1: you love someone despite the faults, not because of the virtues.
Well, I do love her despite her production-focused mindset. But I also do love her because of her determination (among other things).
Interestingly, this determination is the other side of the same coin. It is the key skill one needs in order to be productive and capitalistically successful. This confirms that other saying: someone’s best feature is also their worst. This feature is her determination, which leads to both being into nonstop production (the “worst feature”) as well as being intelligent and creative (the “best feature”).
The following is attributed to William Faulkner: “You don’t love because: you love despite; not for the virtues, but despite the faults.”
The world is based on gifts
What are we going to do now that AI will take all our jobs?
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted2 that, in 2030, society would be so productive that we would barely need to work. Presumably, the more technology we create, the more productive we become, the less work we need to do.
Of course, this isn’t what has happened. We do have the most technology ever, yet we work more than ever3. Indeed, we are more productive than ever—and the richest we have ever been—overall—yet inequality is so high that everybody’s experience is that we are poorer than ever.
Similar, from the Chicago school of economics, the theory of supply-side economics4 implies: the more productive businesses are, the more money they will pay their employees. The opposite is what happens in the real world: the more productive a company is (i.e. the more money a company makes), the more powerful it becomes, and thus, the more able it is to get away with paying less.
In his text Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, written in 1930.
Living in humanity’s most work-intensive era can be a controversial statement. Before dismissing it, let’s consider that a lot of people work today because they want to and not because they have to. The number of people who engage in such a pursuit of achievement, I feel, is more than ever.
There is another term: trickle-down economics, popularised more recently, it refers to policies favouring the wealthy bracket of the population with the hope that their wealth will trickle down to the less wealthy.
Humanity’s economics are—these days—based on a model of transactions. For example, we expect agriculture workers and companies to cultivate food because they will be rewarded. This reward will be in money, which is a universally accepted representation of (a) wealth and (b) appreciation (i.e. receiving money means they do something that matters).
What happens in practice is that people work in a number of different jobs and earn this universally accepted reward, which they can exchange with other materials and/or services that they do not have and desire. For example, they can exchange it with the food that agriculture workers produce.
Now, the problem is that if people develop highly efficient AIs, all jobs will gradually disappear because these AIs will execute more efficiently than any human could ever imagine.
In that case, all these people whose skills have become trivial will become poor. They will have no way of finding rewards, which means they won’t have money to live. Gradually, all money will converge to the AI people (because they create AIs, or because they operate them, or because they own the metal that AIs run on). The non-AI people’s future will be dire.
III. Looking at the past
We might feel there is no other way than the transaction model, but I think that’s only because we are too deep into it to see something else. If we look around, we might find some disturbing absence of transactions, given that market-based rewarding is so important to us.
To start with a simple and almost silly5 example: we never properly rewarded the people who first found out how we can farm the land and produce a ton of food. This we might consider an advancement made not by one individual but by humanity as a whole. Presumably, though, there were some people or groups of people who figured it out first. Were they fairly rewarded, given the humanity-changing impact and cumulative benefit of their work?
I don’t think they did. More examples: we never properly rewarded the first people who figured out how we can sew clothes and shoes and coats and make tools and houses. We never properly rewarded the people who discovered how electricity works or the people who designed our cities and the streets we walk every day.
This list is truly unending and impossible to complete. People who figured out how the human body works and how to cure diseases, people who built ships and airplanes and an insanely complicated shipping network, people who figured out all technologies required before some other groups were able to put them together into a smartphone or a computer or the internet.
We haven’t even talked about the people who supported these pioneers. People who produced their food and built their houses so they can have time to think of new ideas. And what about the people who supported these inventors—not materially, but—mentally? Whether these were partners or religious entities or anyone or any-thing else.
All these were actually gifts.
People like Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci, Leonhard Euler, Nikola Tesla and so many more were not motivated by money rewards. They thought and created all they did for reasons that were not transactional. And today all their work is free for us. All their work is a gift.
For this reason, by looking a bit farther into time, I claim that humanity doesn’t operate on a transactional model but on a gift model.
Silly ideas can be powerful. It used to be silly to want a computer in your house. To want it in your pocket wasn’t even silly, though, because it was simply unimaginable.
IV. Looking at the future
There exists an example in today’s real-world economy that shows part of my argument. Open source software is inherently based on a non-transactional gift economy since its inception.
It is partly a factor that programmers are weird people who intrinsically enjoy the process of writing code so much that they do it just because. But beyond that, as a programmer, I can truly say that the fact that somebody makes use of code I’ve written makes me proud. The fact that I made something that helped someone—in addition to the fact that a programmer would rather use my code than theirs—is simply cause for celebration. It’s even more than that: motivation to do more of the same.
It’s the same feeling I have when I gift someone something that they really like.
I really think the open source software movement’s model is the future even though some people think it should be the past.
There are many arguments as to how open source is fundamentally broken because it’s free work with no reward. Of course, people working tirelessly two jobs and people getting burned out is without question terrible. But that’s only because there is no space for leisure time in our lives anymore. Everything is becoming extremely efficient. We can only use whatever time we have awake to achieve and produce—or else we become homeless or losers.
There is no time for experiments anymore, no time for failures, no time for gifts.
But I think that’s the solution. To have time only for experiments, only for failures, only for gifts. To realise the advent of a so-called age of leisure.
The famous quote6 that “it’s easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism” still echoes in my mind every time I encounter economic dead ends and unsustainabilities.
I really do think there must be a lot of alternatives that current ideologies are too strong to allow us to see. Probably because through our current lenses, they appear silly. Or nonsensical, or pointless, or insane, or irresponsible, or utopian, or dystopic.
Whatever the case, it seems we might be forced to choose between the end of capitalism and the end of the world. Maybe we don’t even have to imagine this dilemma because it’s already here. The decision for this choice is humanity’s current challenge. I’m not saying we’ll figure it out—it might even destroy us. That’s why it’s a challenge. It’s a riddle: can we imagine beyond our collective bubble?—and riddles are things that beg for solutions.
Mark Fisher mentions this quotation in his book Capitalist Realism, which he attributes to both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek. Interestingly, Mark Fisher hanged himself as a result of his struggling with depression. He said: “the pandemic of mental anguish that afflicts our time cannot be properly understood, or healed, if viewed as a private problem suffered by damaged individuals”. Extreme productivity and efficiency, as part of capitalism, not only can lead to destruction through (possibly inevitable) highly advanced/powerful technology but also through the absence of space for doing otherwise (i.e. doing inefficient actions) which leads to depression (exhaustion).
There are two perspectives here.
Perspective one is: humanity is a bunch of units who compete with each other over time, money, resources, et alia. Units who have power over AIs are more capable of enslaving units who don’t. If the units with AI powers are peaceful, they can leave the rest to live without AIs. Or maybe units with AI would rather take all resources for themselves and leave nothing to the rest. Whatever the case, it seems likely that a society whose imaginary7 is based on competition will engage in some kind of violent resolution for such power imbalance.
Perspective two is: humanity is a bunch of units who cooperate with each other to maximize wellness for everyone, without keeping ledgers as to who did what. No ledgers is the essence of lack of transactions. Maybe they can all coordinate to enable AIs to build whatever all units want without zero-sum systems and power over others.
We are definitely—currently—seeing the world through the first perspective. It seems to me that unless we consciously decide to change to the second kind, we’re highly likely to fight with each other. I’m pretty sure we can change. How can we change? That I will not reveal. Everybody is able to figure it out for themselves. I’m not implying there is a different subjective response for each person. There is one specific solution in my mind that we can all arrive at. I just don’t want to give it away. Maybe I can give a hint by telling a graffiti story.
An imaginary of a society is a set of core, underlying values and beliefs which constitute its foundation. They define how people perceive what’s worth doing and what matters in the society. Another definition is “the set of values, institutions, laws, and symbols through which people imagine their social whole”.
One thought at a time
There is a graffiti piece in Finsbury Park that reads “Poor is cool”.
“Poor is definitely not cool”, Charlie responded when she saw this. “Rich and privileged people say that because they’ve never truly felt the pain of being poor.”
When experiencing privilege, I have felt it’s very hard to cede it. What I understand of Charlie’s argument is that if people experience true destitution—and they can go back to their familiar comfort—they will.
Poor people think rich is cool. Rich means comfort, quality of life, pools of options.
“Let’s just get a taxi—for once”, sometimes Charlie suggests. I reject her proposal. “But it’s so much cooler to cycle!” I say.
We cycle everywhere, but sometimes it’s harder than usual. Maybe it’s raining or maybe it’s late or maybe we’re too tired. It requires extra strength to cycle then.
“Every time we cycle, do you wish we were in a car instead?” I ask Charlie. Because I don’t. I try not to, that is. It’s a conscious endeavour to change my dreams.
To be in a car means to drill into the earth, pull out oil, process, distribute, and finally burn. Every single one of these processes is severely detrimental to everyone: the people who do it, the people who are around, the people who use it, and even the non-people beings, plants included—and that’s true at present but also for the far future; CO2 remains out by default.
To cycle, on the other hand, means to operate an elegant machine while at the same time becoming stronger and healthier (at least on our cycle-to-commute level). Cycling is antifragile while [fossil fuel] car driving is not only fragile but also unsustainable in an insanely short-term timeframe.
So, this is why cycling is cooler. But why does it matter what’s cooler? Because what we dream while we are free to dream anything is the process which defines our desires. If we don’t control this process, we don’t control our lives.
In other words, if we dream of elite luxuries, then we celebrate people who have material wealth. Inevitably, then, we want to become like them. These role models we admire and aspire to—as we stroll around, when we are thinking without a filter—define who we want to be. If we change these stories, we change our desires.
And if we change our desires, we change the world. So, that’s how we change the world. One thought at a time.
From one to many
There is merit in being part of a community for a cause. The cause can be anything, from a hobby to a societal issue. Sometimes the creation of the community just springs out of conversations and shared values. Some other times, it starts in the mind of one person. If that’s the case, how do we start from that One person’s thought and end up in a community of shared ownership?
We might unconsciously associate communities with grassroots movements and democratic governance, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Not all communities are democratic and many times it’s hard to say whether one is.
For this text, though, let’s assume we aim for democratic self-governance. The hard question we aspire to answer is how we start with One founder and end up with many collective owners while also being a sustainably self-managed group of people.
I. Step 1: Get people hyped
The cause drives the community. The One is firstly part of the cause. This cause will probably already have some established gathering places (virtual or IRL) in some form or another.
Even though our economy is competitive, our communities can only survive through cooperation. Interdependence is crucial and through that, network communities can flourish. Being as independent as possible is considered important for survival, yet I have found out that it’s usually the opposite that happens. However much independence a community has, it’s impossible to survive; it is through dependencies on other communities (through the edges of a graph) that make the communities themselves (the nodes of the graph) more powerful.
This is why I think it’s an important first step for the first One to join these communities and their gatherings. This can mean a number of things in reality. Maybe the cause organises on Facebook Groups or through meetups. Or maybe they are under another umbrella cause or organisation. Whatever the case, this is where One starts.
To illustrate further, maybe:
- The cause is about fixed gear bicycles, and the gathering square for many is at a specific bike shop.
- The cause is about helping refugees in a city and people coordinate through Facebook Groups.
- The cause is about functional programming and there is a meetup group that organises presentations every month.
Once One has joined the existing communities, they can connect with them and share their vision. This is what gets people hyped. On our examples above:
- “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had a fixed gear bicycle race in the streets of our city?”
- “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could actually provide shelter to the newly homeless refugees?”
- “Wouldn’t it be great if we had more people write in functional languages and subsequently raise the quality of our libraries?”
Once people are hyped, they are ready to dedicate themselves to the cause. They are ready to spend a few hours per week or per month to realise this awesome vision that was conceived and shared with them.
II. Step 2: Share ownership
Once there are some additional members, the first thing the One will notice is that this is the One’s thing. It’s their baby. They made it an entity and the fellow associates try to improve it. Some may contribute a bit, others more, but maybe no one as much as the first One. This is a crucial point. It’s when the One might want to share ownership. In this way, the One actively shows to the associates, who believed in them and followed them, that this is their baby too. The babyness metamorphoses into a distributed essence.
In order for the One to share ownership, they need to actually share the ownership. Hand the keys to the associates, whether those are login credentials or actual keys to an office; or maybe adding them as directors to a limited company. Convince them with actions that it’s their baby too.
In my experience from the past decade, people embrace that. They respect it and do not betray it.
To judge whether the ownership sharing process was successful is to ask whether the concept of the One within the community has died.
Once that’s done, the community will be entering — among other things — a spiral of informal and formal ceremonies. The formal ones are usually the essence of the community. For example:
- Cycling communities go for bike rides. Maybe every Friday at 9 pm. That's the formal ceremony. But some evenings, people gather at the aforementioned bike shop and talk and drink beers. This is where they schedule the bike rides. This is the informal ceremony.
- Refugee Facebook groups donate food and clothes and help refugees. They have a weekly meeting where they gather all the food and clothes and deliver them to the shelter (formal ceremony). Every day at lunch and afternoons, they learn about the news of the cause, think of new ways to help and share views (informal ceremonies).
- Programming communities do meetups or hackathons or conferences. They have scheduled events (formal ceremonies) or casual hangouts offline or online (informal ceremonies).
It’s a spiral because it’s a cycle yet also slightly different every time. There is progress to it. There is a certain directionality, which is hopefully towards improvement.
Once these ceremonies are set, they are hard to change. They become part of the culture of the community. This is important to be aware of in case of the ceremonies not being nice.
Even though ceremonies are processes, they are not explicit processes. They are implicit processes and this is the reason that they are not enough to fight inherent entropy.
III. Step 3: Establish processes
To tackle inherent entropy, a community needs processes—the explicit kind.
These are the boring bits which, if not existent, the harder it will be to keep the community from withering away. It will also not be obvious the community needs processes until too late. Thus, they need to be set early. Too early and people will lose their enthusiasm from the bureaucracy; too late and they won’t be bothered to participate at all.
These processes establish the community, like a ship sailing on its own. They need to include answers to things like:
- How do we get new members?
- How do we introduce new projects?
- How do we make decisions collectively?
- What kind is our entity towards others, such as the city, other communities, the government?
- What are some of the values we share and actualise in this community?
- How do we handle disagreements?
Furthermore, it should be noted that in this balance of processes that needs to be achieved, there is another factor that usually causes derailment. Arguing for the point of arguing and not for the point of practical progress. Some people are more susceptible than others in this, but in general, there needs to be active re-evaluation of the scope of the processes.
What if someone evil comes and decides to do a hostile takeover of our community?
The above is an example of a question that tends to extend the scope of process definition infinitely. My advice is to contain these kinds of discussions, either temporally (e.g. timebox them) or by their cardinality (designate a working group of a few people to figure it out).
The general rule is to create processes for the current people and the current problems. Beyond that, it can wait.
Now, to provide an opinion on the question above, I think the balance is between shielding old members and sharing ownership with the new. If you shield too much, then you’re less democratic and new members are not as genuine members. If you share ownership too much, then it’s easier for new members to change the community faster than the community’s culture has got to them. I generally vote sharing ownership more and risking takeovers as—usually—moving into a new community is easy enough.
IV. Collective ownership
Democracy is hard but I think it’s worth it. Especially for communities which usually begin with volunteer work, democracy is both of vital importance and — sometimes surprisingly — the default form it starts with. In addition to that, the fewer people there are, the easier democracy is to implement. For instance, in a city or country level, implementing democracy is orders of magnitude harder. Thus, if one values democracy, it’s worth practising it in a small community.
The crucial thing to accept in these kinds of communities is that this is everyone’s baby and that ownership only exists as shared ownership. Even though one started it, or one has made the most significant contribution, or one fights for it more, it’s still fair and possible for that person to be voted out tomorrow. Avoiding that is definitely an objective, but accepting it is the key. This acceptance is what solidifies the distributed ownership.
Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.
— Mahatma Gandhi
Open source as societal theory
From the website of the Open Insulin Foundation8, an organisation which originates from California, United States:
We’re a team of biohackers with a variety of backgrounds, and skills, and relationships to insulin and diabetes from [...] around the world.
We’re working to develop the first practical, small-scale, community-centered model for insulin production to make insulin accessible to all. [...]
We envision a world [...] where people living with diabetes and their communities can own and govern the organizations that produce the medicine they depend on to survive.
The problem is well-known to the Western world. Pharmaceutical companies are taking advantage of the US citizens. All of them through taxes. Some of them more directly through having to pay high prices for a cheap drug, insulin, which is literally vital to their livelihood.
The people of the Open Insulin Foundation want to solve this problem with the most direct and effective solution they can think of: teach everybody who needs it how to create it—full stop.
Somebody commented about them:
Wouldn’t it be easier to lobby the Congress to fix the laws?
The US Congress is probably aware of the issue. The Open Insulin Foundation is direct action. It reminds me of something else.
I. Open source movement
I think the open source software movement is like this.
In 2003, somebody thought it’d be a good idea to write software for a newspaper website using Python. Then, they gave it to the world, for everyone to use it and solve the same problem they faced—for free. Not only that, but there are a good amount of people who keep improving it (now, 20 years later) without immediate reward. I’m talking about the Django web framework9 here, just one among the countless open source projects which serve as the bedrock of the modern software industry.
All of these projects, as part of the open source software movement, work in a gift economy. Their creators expect nothing. They just build, maintain, improve—rarely asking for rewards.
I can see (at least) two potential motivators. One: they are happy to help. If they have already solved a problem, why not release the code so that someone else can find the solution instead of someone having to solve it again?
Two: they believe in the open source movement. Politically paraphrasing: they believe in the power of the gift economy. When I was starting to learn coding, the open source movement wasn’t as big as today. All I wanted was to find some code to read, copy, understand how it works, and change it, for my own ideas to materialise. Turns out copying code is not legal—unless it’s an open source piece of software10.
Open source software was the most exciting thing for me back then because it meant that I can read it, understand it, change it. This is the gift I received and this is the gift I want to give back now that it’s my turn. I think a large percentage of the open source movement shares this kind of motivation.
In addition to this simple “give back” mentality, many also believe in the movement in a more political way. Free software is similar but not exactly the same11 as open source.
This is not exactly true, either, though. There is a wide array of licenses that define more specifically what one can and cannot do with some code.
It’s important to clarify, here, the range to which the free and open source software movement extends. Anyone (however inexperienced) can release a project as open source12 but this doesn’t mean that there isn’t an abundance of world-class open source projects. Django, as the example already mentioned, is widely successful and used by lots of companies the average non-programmer Western citizen knows, eg. Instagram, Spotify, NASA, et al.
To reiterate more clearly: all of these companies (and practically all internet companies) use—not just as a nice supplement but—as part of their most essential and critical infrastructure software that was made in the past and released for free and for anyone to use.
For example, Instagram, as one of the most extreme examples, makes billions using Django. Yet the people who created Django have not received much from them13. I am not interested in presenting this as unfair. The Django authors shared their creation for others to use without any expectations—as a gift! My claim is that we should admire their eminence and maturity. It’s a true ethical achievement.
And/or free software.
At least I couldn’t find any indication that they have. One can see the corporate members of the Django Software Foundation in this website: https://www.djangoproject.com/foundation/corporate-members/.
IV. Applying it to society
The Open Insulin Foundation applies this philosophy (of the gift economy) to the non-programming crowd and specifically to the healthcare industry. They face the problem head-on and fight fiercely to solve it with no fanfare, only essence.
- We need insulin.
- Let’s make it for everyone.
There’s nothing more to it.
This might make us ponder: can we apply this thinking to more things in our societies? Can we make food for everyone and be done with this issue? Can we make houses for everyone and end the constant stress and misery?
I feel like this is a nice14 first answer to the ever recurring question: if not capitalism, then what?
Maybe gift economy.
Very few people would agree with the statement that this is a nice first step. Not only advocates of capitalism, but even its opponents would claim that this is not a viable alternative. To which I poetically respond by paraphrasing Devine Lu Linvega: “everything is dark under the ultraviolet sun” (https://merveilles.town/@neauoire).