How we create spaces, and rules, how and how this may be a way for us to re-engage the world in a more healthy way.
INDIVIDUALS, GROUPS AND CONVERSATIONS THROUGH ART
As we come to the end of a dramatic election season in the United States, it’s worth stepping back and thinking about what and who we are as humans; what it means to be human, what degrees of freedom our embodiment permits. If we can feel and sense the boundaries that define us we may be able to escape from a sense of frustration or limitations we may be feeling and stretch out to new frontiers we didn’t appreciate that we had. It feels like there is a welcoming world out there that we just have trouble seeing sometimes.
Our language here in the west often celebrates the idea of the individual. We attribute to the individual the accomplishments of the group; looking for an easy-to-relate-to figure that embodies or gives animus to something else that in some ways is inhuman, obdurate, impersonal and harder to understand or sway. By a similar token we have some special fear of group or mob behavior, possibly with just cause; feeling like it cannot be reasoned with. And we rise to the address of “by the people for the people” but our constitution stresses the rights of individuals, individual freedoms and liberties. At some atavistic, instinctive level, there’s a satisfaction, an instinct, an almost animal nature and appreciation of the individuals that we are made up out of. Our minds can see them more clearly. This view of the world is romantic, imbued with gods, pagan in a way; we are a mote in a vast landscape.
But, our behavior is more like that of a nest or a hive. We work in groups, build in groups, and so much of what we are today is defined by group dynamics. In fact it is arguable if our concept of being “human” can even be reduced to a single person. We often confuse animal or instinctive human traits with learned social human traits. For purposes of argument I’d say that in our society a single atom of humanity may actually be several people working together, as well as what they are working on, their architectures, art, rules and so on — the behavior of the whole system in total — not any one part. Reduce below that whole and some essence of what it means to be human seems to vanish. It’s evident in how we view solitary confinement as a special and cruel punishment; or how being alone, being lonely can be extremely hard on people. We have rich language to describe groups: a tribe, a mob, a family, a corporation, a cabal. We often in fact throw people into groups that they themselves don’t think they are part of or don’t want to be a part of!
THE PRODUCTION OF SPACE
What we “do” as groups seems to often be about the production of space. We are constantly creating, revising, editing, calving off, deleting and remaking the spaces that we inhabit. We do this with real world architecture, with art, with language, with laws, practices, conventions and customs. And we live in a multitude of spaces that only intersect each other obliquely; real world spaces, fantasy worlds, online worlds. Each of us is probably in several spaces at any one time; a community, a political alignment, an apartment or house, an online forum.
Today there is a specific frustration with our legacy spaces that were built hundreds of years ago, and how they are failing to serve the poorest among us. When a space is new and young it has to present as fair to all the stakeholders for them to come on board. But as spaces grow and age they can become coercive, less and less consensual. What was once fresh becomes ritual, obligation, sacrifice, about controlling and limiting personal expression and voice. Stakeholders in the system are captured by the system. They effectively have taxation without representation. And their opinion and vote becomes magnetically aligned with those who have won, the power holders, rather than each other. When a space is no longer “by the people for the people” but where instead the people are aligned with one power block or another, it is usually an indication that it is a good time to leave, even if that journey has some hardship. Old spaces become ossified and no longer reflect the values that attracted the original stakeholders. And this is a good example of why new spaces are created so often. Which is what we are seeing now in our larger world. The older structures are simply antiques; they just don’t fit us anymore.
For me the term ‘architecture’ has something of a special meaning in that I see it as having an outsized impact on the people within it. It means not only an idea of buildings, hallways and rooms through which people move, but also an idea of how the design of space itself encourages or discourages certain interactions. I believe architecture can apply to an idea of online spaces as well as physical spaces and that similar principles are at work. Online forums such as say Stack Overflow have rules that prevent newbies from dominating the conversation; the right to participate must be earned over time. Wikipedia allows anybody to edit but permits veterans to lock pages if needed, or to revert pages along with other privileges. Overwatch (the game) has built a fancy AI system that limits vulgar speech; making the space more welcoming for more people, but also possibly having other unexpected consequences.
When we create a space we are often first defining just the rules or physics; the space itself is somewhat intangible or emergent — it unfolds from our first principles. A house declares a geometry, but to the humans within a house expresses ideals about living; it is a guided experience of living that is meant to unfurl over time and be savored. We’re expressing or embodying our strong opinions, our passion, our ideas, our aesthetic preferences into the architecture. The challenge is often in the interaction of many phenomena at many different levels; and our role as architects of space is often iterative, developing a deeper understanding over time.
Likewise a country can have its own constitution, which sets guides for further laws. Or a venture can have a mission statement that limits what it can or cannot do in line with its mission. An online social network can work hard to curate the participants to create healthy conversations while limiting trolls and griefers. A game can have its own physics, setting the literal direction of gravity as well as magic spells combine to produce capabilities.
There’s a peculiar aspect to our rule making however.
Because humans are highly plastic that which we make ends up remaking us. This sounds like a pithy binary dualism, a tautology, but when you go to a new place, a new country or a new town, you can feel the principles in the hewn stone or bamboo fences or concrete and glass. Ideas around how much room people need, how much privacy people should expect, how far they should have to travel to accomplish basic tasks. Even the importance of sunlight or quiet. Here in human scale design; there is a conceit that the systems we build should fit humans and not be too stressful. But there is also a quality of fitness; that the systems we build should stretch people a little bit in ways that we want them to stretch. Effectively our systems, by defining certain possible behaviors, embolden or inhibit entire classes of people over time. We are ourselves interwoven with what we make.
Of course truly mature systems, that have had thousands of years to mature, are more like the lightest touch or suggestion. There’s often a dovetailing with a natural world, with pre-existing rules, in a graceful way that both accepts our limits and also steps around battles with fundamental physics that are unrewarding. That can take our activities and behaviors and use them to enrich the whole systems around us; rather than run them down. We often have trouble even seeing truly mature systems — such as the terra preta soils in the Amazon basin; and yet we do long for some of a indigenous connection to a broader world.
There are some maxims that are becoming more clear in rule design for new spaces. When you propose to build a new system you have to work very hard to identify stakeholders who may already exist; and those stakeholders may not even always have their own voice. Nature for example is a stakeholder. It’s important to enfranchise the stakeholders or else the system may not produce expected outcomes. A good rule of thumb is that whenever stakeholders are given power (deputized by the group) that power should have time limits and a variety of constraints lest the stakeholder who has been given added privileges or power capture the whole system for themselves. In general it looks like it is important to avoid power concentrations as a whole in the systems we build in fact; although this depends on what your system is competing with.
RULES, LAWS AND LEDGERS
There are many kinds of rules that we define in our new spaces. And these rules can seem light, silly, even frivolous, yet the physics of the space is often treated seriously by the participants; break the rules and privileges are revoked.
A powerful kind of rule is the idea of a “ledger” either public or private; some way of tracking what capabilities a member has, visible to some or to all, and trusted to varying degrees. The way I like to think about ledgers themselves is in terms of privileges. If a certain agreed upon ledger has a certain scratch or mark in it, then you in turn have certain privileges that you are afforded within the system.
Within this one popular kind of ledger is an idea of general purpose money; this idea of fungible energy units that you can trade for other artifacts consensually within a system. Money is a form of communication. It encodes a dialogue between participants. Unlike other forms of signaling money is not free, and so signals made with money are higher quality than others — harder to forge. Money in a sense creates an incentive to form markets, and brokers, buyers, sellers, publishers, aggregators, taste-makers, discovery services and many other agents arise in the resulting ecosystem to service the opportunity. We are all somewhat familiar with this idea (although we rarely inspect the physics of money and rather just inspect the pursuit of acquiring more of it).
In a modern society there are also of course many kinds of somewhat similar ledgers to track the various debts, obligations, assets and privileges we each have with respect to each other in the western world. I like to think of these other forms of semi-liquid currency as “smart money”. Often we have certification agencies who assert that some party has some capability, and then we allow them special permissions or privileges to engage in certain transactions. USDA certified beef is an example. Organic produce another. Selling or buying CO2 credits yet another example.
Another popular kind of ledger entry on this spectrum is a “non fungible asset”; something that is unique — that represents a scarce or aliquid resource — and not as easily exchangeable often. Here we have privileges but those privileges are more specific. That I have a mortgage on my house isn’t an inviolate statement of ownership as much as it is a statement around my rights and freedoms to remodel that house, to sell it, to allow people to enter or not. Effectively a mark in a document, or in a database establishes for me a set of privileges with respect to said house. In the cryptocurrency world we call these Non Fungible Tokens or NFTs. In a video game I may have a certain power up, or a certain avatar, or a certain piece of land. In a game like decentraland which runs on the blockchain I may have a certain right to a certain territory. In a game like cryptokitties I may have a certain kitty.
Ledgers are so powerful because they can strongly govern a systems behavior. It becomes very easy to set hoops for participants to jump through, or to put up walls to chaperone them away from certain actions. And thus they’re an extremely useful tool for space design.
Notably however, it can be extremely hard to prevent early stakeholders from a winner takes all situation. And this can destroy your space if you are not careful. When a few stakeholders have won, they effectively burn the value of the system because nobody else can participate. Then everybody just leaves and starts up a new space with a new set of more fair rules based on their hard won insight.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Today it is easier and easier to spin up a new space. We have servers in the cloud, social forums, web apps — all kinds of technology which makes it easier to create your own worlds. As well, today we uniquely have the ability to use public ledgers and math to make very secure, very low cost cheap and efficient money systems. What makes this special is that you can invent your own kinds of money, with your own kinds of rules. And you can try variations on rules and ideas that would have been impossible to try before.
This isn’t to say that it is “easy” — it’s very hard; but it’s less impossibly hard than it used to be.
To build new worlds I think we just have to recognize that we are the architects of space — and give ourselves permission to try.
If we have a frustration with the status quo, then it may make sense to try something new. To build a community with peers, to build your own rules, your own economics — to try think through who the stakeholders are, how to enfranchise them; how to prevent concentrations of power. There are many good discussions to be had about consent, how power can be deputized without creating unfair representation, restorative justice when people break the rules, what are reasonable expectations to have of the people around us and so on. Of course our new spaces touch existing spaces — and then further questions arise about how to co-exist gracefully, or where to delegate power. In particular where the physics of a new space are anchored in our natural ecosystem it’s worth asking how can we most gracefully support the silent stakeholders who don’t have a voice — say for example how can we work with the trillions of microorganisms around us to produce outcomes that maximize long term diversity, vision and success for all parties?
This by and large is already happening. It’s happening increasingly quickly online, it’s happening in many socially libertarian communities such as the sea-steading communities. We see it in revolutionary approaches to farming, we see it in listening more carefully to indigenous voices that already worked through a lot of these issues centuries ago.
There’s a chance that what we make may have more impact that we realize. Although many of the new spaces we are building today start out online, they offer a powerful reading in of our physical spaces. And there’s a good chance that good ideas from these new worlds will come back to rewrite our existing worlds.
Finally although we may feel powerless, it is important to recognize that we do have power, we do have new frontiers, and that we can create, play, explore and have agency and that agency may be what we need right now. Building our own worlds may be just the ticket for us to find the freedom we yearn for and these explorations may come back to help conversations that we thought were intractable.
If you are interested in these conversations please join us for our event https://futureofmicropayments.web.app on November 5th 9:00 AM PST.