My name is Ale Fernandez. I live in Barcelona, Spain and I'm Chilean and Italian.
I am a web developer, artist and technical researcher.
I've lived in Scotland, Italy, Spain and England and career-wise I am interested in distributed systems and their applications to improvised performance and ecology.

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7/24/2015

Digital fence sitting in the time of physical commons - a tale of two rebrandings

I've been following some of my friend Matthew's "Reality Report" where he is currently doing a series on the dangers of runaway AI with Eric Brulyant, who was on his way to the machine intelligence research institute the San Francisco Bay Area in California to a workshop on super intelligence and value alignment: Making sure that when you create an all purpose "general intelligence" it has ethical values that are compatible with human values.

They imagine what would happen if a general or crackpot inventor somewhere, came up with something resembling a higher intelligence and quickly commercialised it and got it running. If programmed with simple rules like "Make everyone happy", a few code cycles down the line, it will be injecting everyone with happy pills, and it will somehow see around things. Even something as simple as "calculate further digits of PI" would result in it using up more resources in order to make its calculations and slowly grind up everything around it to make it into a factory for calculating more digits. And at a first generation we might stop it, but then it might make a copy of itself that was even better. Currently the two groups who seem closest to this are the US military and Google, closely followed by the Chinese government.

To me the ancestor of this AI is already around, and based on a few simple instructions like "make more money" we're already grinding things up quite fine without the need for von neuman probes or nanotech. To an outside observer we'd already seem a strange mixture of humanity and technology in that sense, cultivating the land in such a way as to make it barren, creating mines and processing plants to create more ways to make more things and so on, like a hatchling entitled to eat all of it's old casing so as to be able to grow..



I accept there's going to be an imperfect future, and I think of it like with the ideal of good vs evil: two entities or groups, always alive and in perpetual struggle, maybe each controlling 33,3% each of the land but somewhere, there is the other third: these people who can't really decide which way they want to go. These 3 are all in our heads as well as in society, a personal struggle between fears and courage or negative sides and positive ones, but this middle band is the extra trolley wheel which just might roll the right way every so often.

They accept for example, the evils of the way the world is, and won't join the radicals in their caves and forests, and they wish to make it better, but they won't renounce some of the things that keep things sliding into oblivion and where there is hardly a fence to sit on. Maybe there's a post-apocalyptic parable in there somewhere.

So what do we want to do? Is capitalism or life within it the equivalent of "party till you drop" mindsets where you should just realise it's all coming to an end and party til it's 99 or 911, 2012 or other numbers which I'm sure summed together in crazy ways become even more interesting at each permutation.

So now we have this ecological landscape with regard to degrees of acceptance of capitalism in a context of collapse comparable to the fall of the soviet union in the 90s:

1) Eco farmers - networks of ecovillages, cooperatives, environmental movements or autonomous indigenous communities trying to build commons, and forge some new way of life that is completely free of  big systems that are seen as lost/negative or somehow tainted. Tiny minority
2) Anarcho Capitalists - bitcoin bazillionaires and micro versions of the full blown organised capitalists further on in this list. Afraid of any grouping or structure. I think it's because deep down they just want to be assholes and fuck everyone over. Nobody is perfect, and neither are organisations, so at a larger scale the same thing happens: larger minority and countries/international groupings tend to act in very selfish, violent ways with each other (arguably the reason for the existence of things like the Geneva Convention, the UN and the International Criminal Court).
3) Distributed capitalists - Jeremy Rifkin and Ellen Mc Arthur, setting up some solar and wind farms funded by a benevolent international corporation somewhere, turning houses into factories and energy sources so as to maintain... business as usual.
4) Full on old fashioned organised networks of capitalists: plough stuff up, serve it on a plate: mass consumption is the present past and future, governance is done by governors, and generally no regard at all is given to the environment: ecology as subset of economy.

So it's interesting to see the questioning in this article about the recent OSCE days - which tried to fuse Open Source (but as a different concept from the "traditional" 90's software centric one), and the Circular Economy, a group which partners with large businesses and seeks to reform ecological practice as legislation at the top levels. The article asks "Can the open source method really work for the circular economy?". 

I feel the city is important at this time although so many people want to leave for the countryside and for other countries. I think it's important to mainstream ecological practice, but in a grassroots way, each person acting from their own locality, and I'm always pleased to meet people who devote their lives to a space or area in some way, providing consistency and reliability, or sometimes the needed energy to make things happen and make it a happening place. Behind each local initiative that puts on some kind of eco-community related activity, usually for free, there's someone or a few people working really hard to keep it all running, and in Barcelona much of this is through a solidarity economy made of everyone's spare time, knowledge and resources. I think this is very much still a grassroots mindset where the local area is important for your own survival at least, but also as a place in which to make all the required changes so that we can be resilient and make greater changes from there.

So the article begins with the words:

"The term “Open Source” was coined in the world of software in 1998. Although it has continued to be largely associated with computing and software, at its heart is a very simple idea: freely accessing, using, modifying, collaborating and sharing."

Seeing as it then goes on to quote gun-totin', cathedral-bazaar writing, Eric S Raymond himself, I can see that this definition has been stripped of the associations it had in 1998, when it was proposed by said emacs hacker ESR as a more watered down approach than Richard Stallman's. The Gnu Public License was much less widely known in business than the standard closed source proprietary license "you may not copy or use" - championed by the likes of Bill Gates. Only programmers or people who worked in the area knew anything about these things, and linux was still very much for the patient and more geeky of the workforce. In a way we never imagined it could get where it is today, and via that watering down, and more widespread takeup. Stallman's ideas are still much more radical than that of the open source "movement" in general and he was more of a frame of reference than something many people followed to the letter (Rather than a movement it was a community of networked and vocal company employees across the online world with differing opinions but who had to use a mixture of open source or closed source software in a work environment, more like commentators on one of the first blogs Slashdot and their moderators and meta-moderators of the time) in showing how software should be valued, created and used. There took place in those years a re-branding of this movement to make it more appealing to business and mainstream sectors than "Free Software" - which was a bit of a downer if you were trying to get people to make their hard earned software "free" and still convince them that they were going to make money with it. Crucially this came with it the proposal of the Apache, BSD and MIT licenses, whereas Free Software's license made sure any copies of anything programmed, was also going to be free for use and part of a commons. So these newer licences were ways in which companies could use the so called "Free Software" and just use it in their closed hardware and software of the time, so they were in effect subsuming an idea of a pure commons, of freedom - the poetic idea that like the words we speak, the code we write can't have a price put to it, within a larger, corporate for-profit framework.

So although obvious when you think about it, it's interesting that the circular economy isn't partnering with Free Software. It'd be far too radical for large groups like Philips who fund Circular Economy activities. Supposing, for the purpose of argument, that they have only one main line of business: they make a lot of money making razor blades. So what if we started publicising free alternative, relocalised ways to form a worker coop and make your own razor blades that last a lifetime. Or even formed a union, network or confederacy of barbers? Somehow, within the gift presented to the corporate world in the 90s by the open source geeks, was the trojan horse of the GPL license, and that if you look hard enough, there is an idea of really creating a global commons, a shared trove of knowledge and capacity, that might slowly congeal in people's minds and eventually revolutionise the way we see code, software, technology, knowledge itself.

Now, finally - we have gotten to discussing the physical commons - with our current system in crisis, and we're looking for inventive ways to treat our current system and it's subsystems as software ones. So it's exciting to be alive today at this crossroads, but scary to think which way it might go for most people. It's very hard to get rid of that basic value within human society - the idea that in the end we're all in it together, So would phillips want to be like the red hat or o'reilly of the dawn of open source as a viable business idea, and will they want to spend money and time getting close to people who will do more distributed weeks in the spirit of bringing people together - now that there's a real community who has now attended OSCE across the world and brought together similar thinking from very different areas in each place where it took place.

Back when all this stuff was happening, I wrote my final university project about the open source methodology and how it could be applied to non-commercially motivated organisations. Fortunately thanks to the wayback machine it's still available: https://web.archive.org/web/20031203020900/http://mandible.sourceforge.net/download.html

So the idea is that a large company could want to be like larger benevolent dictators - which is the concept of leadership in Open Source. The idea is that a single person or smaller group manages the actual tree in which code is written and will only commit changes they deem worthy of going in this main DNA of the software package they are in charge of. At the time, it had to be a single person normally, so if this dictator ceased to be benevolent, the code would be forked, and people would group around another maintainer of a source code repository.

In the same way, a large company that sought to coax open source enthusiasts would have to deal with their ability to be very vocal and to quickly stir up controversy that could really affect sales, and people would abandon those companies just as they might a "benevolent dictator" who had done wrong in some way.

We saw a few of those mistakes as different large companies, especially older linux providers started to align themselves for or against this new idea that you didn't have to pay your programmers, and started making clumsy strides towards it.

In a physical space, there are varying authorities, also in charge usually, of having the last word in what goes on, whether that be police or some other organisation. So in a "physical" rather than software landscape the benevolent dictator becomes "benevolent local jurisdiction" - as in "sorry that's the local law here, you can't build a yurt, only a cement wall". In an autonomous space then, the benevolent dictator is the will of the meeting of those people who take part in running it, or of their general nature if they're not the kind of group that will make meeting notes but that is public in some way.

I don't know if this is true and if a card carrying Aymara will come and correct me, what I was told was that when the Andean Ayllus, the basic 10-100 person unit of Aymara society, were conquered by the Inca empire, they basically continued with what had been the norm - small family sized communities each working on a different territory or area, but they added a tax, that had to be paid seasonally to the Inca, and that this control system was then simply taken over by the Spanish conquistadors when they arrived a hundred years later. Just one example of how easy it is for larger groups to take over decentralised or more egalitarian networks or human dynamics to do their bidding. Or in the film "The power of community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil" shown at many a viewing at the beginnings of the transition movement, which shows how soldiers would enforce carsharing by stopping all cars at crossroads and putting someone in each one from a little queue of hitchhikers that would gather there. It could be said that the government used existing autonomous community structures (like sharing a lift or doing urban gardening) to ensure some basic societal functioning and necessary food production, to get them through the special period.



So I think of this happening today with all the groups working to create networks of small autonomous communities, like the Rojava Revolution in West Kurdistan or the Zapatistas in Chiapas, even the few autonomous Mapuche settlements in Chile - but also here in Catalunya, or across Europe - in the form of tiny self managed projects, run on cooperation and volunteering of resources and time. It's easy for one of these corporate benevolent dictators to come along and see this as a convenient way to get, for example, the barber shop union, to always use their 3d prints when making their open source razors rather than appropriate tech equivalents using local materials, so that they can sell them cheap metals mined or elaborated elsewhere(and with a different "benevolence" we might never stop to ask ourselves about here). It's Michel Bauwens' biggest fear in his 4 quadrants diagram, of netarchical capitalism, controlling all the little fish who didn't think to join together globally to oppose the proverbial shark. It's normal then to suspect a future (ai-run? nanotech capable?) Phillips will want to be the next Uber and for people there to actively want that because it makes business sense. As seen in greece with the lack of liquidity, a social economy is getting more attention because it works without money. Large companies might also be enticed then to piggy back on social organisations trying to achieve urgent humanitarian aims:  independent homeless hostels, community kitchens, free clinics and schools run by volunteers with their own DIY management and governance structures - it might all seem very sweet to a large company to have all that free labour and resource working for it in some way. The perfect thing to corrupt is a well built system. Normally cultures would build dissuaders in somehow, 

What other parts of the methodology might be useful then? In most articles on the OSCE days - "open source" in a more generic sense is defined just as "more transparency". In the cathedral and the bazaar this was seen as "eyeballs" - so more eyes - users or revisers, can spot more bugs and so the code is still efficient like in more structured corporate environments. But another movement contemporary to the birth of open source as a "methodology" - was the advent of "soft" or then rebranded too - "agile" methodologies - now completely in vogue with the likes of Scrum. In software development methodologies of the time, there was a view of one extreme being ad-hoc organisation: basically with a small enough project the best thing is to just write something and then think about structure i.e how  to program, only if that doesn't work.  As a program grows it's good to add structure, but the methodologies of the time were typically "waterfall" style, used in industrial projects (typical examples were failproof systems like hospitals or airplanes) and had to involve lots of phases and lots of reporting before going on to each subsequent stage, but agile development methodologies brought with them a quicker cycle. This was because a lot of the time the earlier programming languages had long compilation cycles where code was processed by compiler software to convert it from programming instructions to machine code. So typically you'd work on some task or feature, compile the code and then have a go with the running program to see if the bit you'd changed was working properly. With websites, or smaller projects though, in a time when hardly anyone had an online profile or page, a lot of the time people had no idea what it was going to be like to have a website until people saw it, so more releases made a lot of sense. "Soft" or "light-weight" methodologies were a middle way between ad-hoc do whatever works fastest, and the monumental structures used in the immediate post war period in similar areas like engineering. These methodologies were more flexible and allowed for mistakes to become new passages in the music being written rather than seen as divergent mutants that don't fit with the plan.

Together with agile methodologies there were many ideas about the democratisation of the workplace, as with Kent Beck who spoke of forming "bubbles" within organisations not easily accustomed to such practices, where agile methodologies could be practiced, more involvement in decision making from a full team, and even spaces in offices were changed to make them easier to communicate in, less isolating so you can crunch numbers and more common or shared space so you could run ideas across or think of things as you played games or took a walk, and in the way development contracts were negotiated based on features rather than being costed at once for the development of entire platforms, or the way that clients were seen as part of the development team and so the client was an actor in the process, and as such not a consumer but a prosumer of a bespoke product.

So if you are using an agile methodology, your barber shop union tries a new feature, all the other barber shop unions in other areas will also hear about it, as will their "prosumers" if there's this transparency, and this increased involvement with the "client" means the aim of the barber shop union is that there eventually be no more barber shops and that haircutting techniques and knowledge can just be more widespread and incorporated into daily life and it's cycles in other ways. With this example, Free Software, as a more radical general purpose "quest for transparency" than Open Source, when applied to the physical commons, is the creation, governance and co-ordination of human systems and dynamics, beyond profit motivated behaviour. But if Open Source is the modus operandi, then this happens within a larger percieved profit motivated space - and in such a way as to make it easy for conglomerates of profit motivated groups to use these smaller groups to accomplish their own objectives.

So sooner or later, the Philips from my example, the one that only makes razor blades, might recognise also that it needs to adapt and make itself part of a circular system, into which all the barbers fit as do the people who find and use scrap metal or hair or process it in some way. But it would make more sense for it to find a way around whatever laws or treaties enforced that circularity, and maximise profits instead of its ability to contribute to something that functions positively. So we need an active, dynamic and agile governance able to see all those issues and move with the times. I guess we need to build within the commons, structures equivalent to the UN or the ICC, so that governance structures also have some shared consensus on how to deal with practices harmful to the larger network or group or its commons. So who knows, maybe the OSCE days are the beginnings of a distributed governance structure that might periodically decide in a shared way on things that are of interest to participants across the world, and one that might oppose opaque groups like corporations in negotiating a viable way of life. Maybe we should invite Bruce Sterling to warn us yet again just how political these things are becoming around us and how quickly it's happening.

So the mid band, the fence sitters, from victor jara's ni chicha ni limona, might be really powerful actors for positive change but only in relation to their ongoing connection to and knowledge of the more radical groups who are breaking new ground, so that the reformist, mainstreaming groups can apply some of that new ground more widely. They could slowly cease to be the undecided, or those who believe in nothing, and become more informed and able to act in different ways, but there's always a lingering doubt that they won't.


Maybe the future world from that post-apocalyptic parable is becoming clearer: Once upon a near future there is a group of humans that uses obsolete robotic parts as living, lumbering pods and extensions to give them sustenance, even though other humans have learnt to survive in the harsh future landscapes, and the more advanced robots of that day are miles ahead of them and already able to forge life and systems at a nano scale, this group or tribe still dresses in retro mecha costumes that make them very large but also slow, and unable to survive if separated from their metal pods. Once a year they do a pilgrimage to the nano robot city, telling them entertaining stories about life in the quaint forest, and work for them to buy new parts which they all carry back together across the mountains. Still, the smaller animals of the forest come and play with them when they return, fix their dents and replace their spare parts, and they hope that if the nano factory building robots decided to come and pray on these lands one day, the retro mecha cyborg people would somehow defend them. 

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