Response to Joe Brewer

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Joe recently posted a long article that resonated with me, with the rather forbidding title, ‘Why I am no longer attempting to build a rigorous science of social change‘. I don’t know Joe, but have been aware of other posts and essays of his for some time. I connected with these because of seeing the name of the organisation he has co-founded; The Center for Applied Cultural Evolution, which immediately gave me the feeling that we had followed many common thought paths –  a feeling that has been reinforced by everything I have read of his since.

Briefly, what I sensed we share is a certainty that all that we humans really have is each other and our shared culture – that it is past time for us to take responsibility for our own development, and to seek to do this in the wisest, most sane way possible – using the best discoverable integration of our rationalising endeavours and our capacity for humanity. That despite full awareness of the provisional, incomplete and patchy status of both these resources, we are nevertheless at a point in our civilisational development when, for all sorts of reasons, it is both possible and necessary to begin this work.

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This is not the place to rehearse this conviction. If you share it, then read on. If it resonates with you, but you want more detail, then you may wish to read elsewhere before continuing.

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Life-like governance: structure thoughts

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UPDATE: This post came from some thoughts that had been with me for some time. The title – ‘life-like governance’ was new. And when I saw the title on the screen, I realised that it encompasses a whole set of thoughts that are wider than this one post.

Accordingly, I have tweaked the title of this post with the suffix ‘Structure thoughts’. I’ll add others that relate, and try to build a more complete picture as I go.

Most conversations around governance as progressive organisations form are either handwavy; “It’ll be flat and super democratic” or hyper-specific; “We’ll be using holocracy and a modified version of dot voting plus some Loomio – read this document”. Or worse, some mash-up of the two. This rarely ends well. Either the Tyranny of Structurelessness asserts its dread grip, or the pancake falls apart into a depressing soggy mess.

But we want to build dynamic, effective organisations that have a chance at living alongside rapacious capitalist analogues, and so we must relate to our stakeholders in ways which engage them, and which capitalism cannot copy or steal.

We must have good governance, and it must be engaging.

If we can’t achieve this, we should go and try some other mode. For if we succeed on the basis of something that capitalism CAN do, we will be overrun – access to capital is their superpower (for instance it enables Uber to run at a massive loss, now and for years to come).

Our superpower is humanity. We can and must relate to our stakeholders (whether at the core, at the coalface, or customers) on a basis which engages them as whole humans – to the extent that they will stay because they want to, because they know they want to be with us, rather than with the ‘cheaper’, ‘faster’, ‘flashier’, ‘sexier’, ‘bigger’ that capitalism will always offer.

So here are some thoughts on founding our thinking in notions of ‘life-like’ qualities.

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An idealised scenario for our experience with life-like governance:

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We spend our daily lives doing what seems to come next. Only if there is some doubt about whether what we plan to do ‘fits’ do we need to think about ‘policy’. Policy is kept in the pit. Continue reading

On vision, path-dependency, agility – and bears.

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A friend sent me a rather wonderful description of an ideal future – one where we knew how to live well on the planet, at ease with each other and our reality, with the positive aspects of incredible technology incorporated and wisely integrated into our humanity – in short, a vision.

And I reacted against it. Certainly not in terms of the spirit, and not in terms of much of the detail. But because of the detail.

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PIVOT!

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This blog was started as a pivot – from a vocational career as a bricks-and-mortar architect into the terra incognita of the digital realm.

Lacking qualifications, experience; a track record, deep skills, but at the same time confident that I had much to offer, as well as much to learn, I dove in

.. and now it’s time to pivot again – on this blog at least. From being a commentary, mostly from the outside, looking in at the digital, I’m now involved in some projects, and embarking on others; my interests, my views, my intentions are much clearer – at once more focused and more ambitious.

So from now on there will be more about what I’m involved with, often from a more political, more social point of view.

LETS marketplace from a feature ‘phone

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This post follows on from a previous post: Alternative currencies – Simbi and the Flying Brick. Thinking about how alternative currencies can be designed to suit the particular circumstances they are intended to improve, I suddenly realised that it should now be possible to implement LETS in any part of the world where people generally have access to feature ‘phones – which nowadays includes many places where access to hard cash is extremely difficult.

LETS Stands for Local Exchange and Trading Scheme. LETS systems exists to enable groups of people who for any reason at all find trading with traditional ‘hard’ currencies difficult.

For instance: people without enough money, people denied access to markets, people who want to be sure that the results of their efforts benefit their community as much as possible.

LETS systems must be able to do four simple things:

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Progressive Ethics Project – Launched!

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The Project for a Progressive Ethics is now a thing. At least, it’s a Meetup, we’ve had an exciting first meeting, and we have a supportive home.

The prospect we have in mind is this. A well-respected, public place (OK a website), which you can use as a sounding board for ethical considerations of any sort – from a personal dilemma, to something in the news, to a debate in the pub, to a Phd thesis. A place where you will find a richly interconnected network of ethical propositions, easy to navigate, designed so that you can easily home in on the issues that concern you, or zoom out to get a wider view – where you can ask simple, quick questions and get simple, straightforward answers – but where you can also dive deep and wide to explore things to your satisfaction. Somewhere you can engage with – where, if you get an answer you think is wrong, or misguided, you can understand where that answer came from, and challenge it – knowing that there is a community of humans who will respond – that the underlying wish of the framework is to be deeply congruent with a reasoned, progressive viewpoint.

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I had no idea what to expect from the first public discussion of this possibly insanely over-ambitious project. As I’ve written before, this is something I didn’t plan to start, which somehow came upon me, from a short forum comment after a London Futurists event.

I had no way of knowing what the people who would actually turn up might be expecting, or whether there would be much overlap between a group of strangers’ views on ethics. Truthfully, it could easily have been something of a trainwreck…

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Alternative currencies – Simbi and the Flying Brick

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Credit: danyythemartian – DeviantArt

The Flying Brick was the printed directory of the Brixton LETS Scheme (this isn’t the image we used – the original is lost in the mists of time – or a cardboard box in the attic).

LETS stood for Local Exchange and Trading Scheme. Brixton LETS was started in the second wave of alternative, local currency schemes in 1992 in Brixton, South London, and I’m proud to say I was one of the founding group, and one of the team that ran the scheme in its heyday over the following few years.

The idea was that members would trade together using our own local currency – the Brick (what else?) – which was a ‘virtual’ currency – a number in a database, with no physical existence. And that this currency would have different rules to ‘normal’ money, specifically: Continue reading

Trust Aggregation, reputation economies and privacy

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Last night I listened to this feature on the excellent BBC World Service – Hacking the Vote – pegged on claims by companies hawking their services to political parties that they know enough about a great many individuals to be able to create specific pyschological profiles and thus enable carefully crafted messages to be shown to them, to get them to vote for the candidate paying for the service.

The shocking reminder of the extent to which data is being collected on all of us and put to murky use in the shadows prompted this post.

It’s not about data privacy, particularly – although I personally make my online life stupidly difficult by using a vpn, by installing the anti-tracking, anti java-script, anti adverts, anti-everything extensions I can find to my browsers in an attempt to at least put some road-bumps down for those who would treat my as a statistical profit centre. With the self-defeating result that half the sites I use won’t work unless I grant them freedom to do it all anyway.

It’s about a way that we, as individuals, might be able to use that data for our own purposes. If it’s all being collected and used to manipulate us anyway, why shouldn’t it work for us, a little?

Aggregated trust scores

There have been several attempts at building tools that provide reputation metrics, trust scores – think credit ratings on steroids.

The idea being that individuals will sign up to aggregator sites, and give them access to various kinds of trust/social standing scores. The aggregator sites will then publish trust metrics on individuals, to be used by all sorts of people. Employers, potential service users, lenders, contacts, dating matches.

If anyone manages to crack this (it’s not easy – see this dead indiegogo site for peeple), then individuals will spend more effort curating these than they do on their credit rating. Lawsuits will be brought over harsh ratings using defamation laws drafted decades before the internet was even imagined.

The trust aggregator metric that is itself trusted will be the locus of immense influence.  If that doesn’t already sound scary, there’s another big problem.

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AI and the Zone of Hubris

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AI progress and a landscape of problem conditions

I’ve mentioned this ‘Zone of Hubris’ idea in a couple of earlier posts, and it’s time I made it clear what I mean by this slightly over-blown phrase.

The basic idea is that the sort of AI we are making at the moment is being developed against a range of problems with very clear success metrics, and relatively high levels of available information. Recent rapid progress is giving rise to significant confidence in our ability to begin to address really useful problems with the aid of AI (nothing in this post relates to currently imaginary super-intelligent Artificial General Intelligence).

This is likely to lead us to seek to apply our shiny new successes more ambitiously – as well we should. But we need to be aware that we have been sharpening these tools in a particular arena, and that it is not at all certain that they will work well in different circumstances.

“Well, of course..” you might say; “we’re quite aware of that – that’s exactly how we’ve been proceeding – moving into new problem domains, realising that our existing tools don’t work, and building new ones”. Well yes, but I would suggest that it hasn’t so much been a case of building new tools, as it is has been about refining old ones. As is made clear in some earlier posts, most of the building blocks of today’s AI were formulated decades ago, and on top of that, there appears to have been fairly strong selection for problem spaces that are amenable to game/game-theoretic approaches.

‘Hubris’ is defined as ‘excessive or foolish pride or self-confidence‘. Continue reading

Aside

Games, Game Theory, Microsoft hammers home the point

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pig-chase-overviewSatya Nadella’s call for AI to be collaborative with humanity turns out to mean ‘work with humans to win games designed as game-theoretic exercises‘.

This might be a slight oversimplification, but it strongly suggests that the concerns raised in my last post are not far off the mark.