Camp Pixelache keynote speaker Vinay Gupta took some time of his busy schedule and aswered some questions by journalist Anna-Sofia Joro from Finnish newspaper Voima. Part of this interview is published in Finnish in Voima’s issue 4/2012.
Here you can read the whole interview, in which Vinay Gupta shares his inspirational thoughts on cooperation, democracy and of course the Hexayurts.
1. Welcome to Helsinki in May! Have you been in Helsinki or Finland before? If yes, what’s you impression of the country and people?
I have two close Finnish friends, Anu and Arto, who are both engineers. They don’t talk very much, they make very funny and accurate observations about things, particularly how irrational people can be, and they really get things done. I can’t imagine there could be a country of such people, but I’m looking forwards to finding out! I lived in Iceland for two years, and that was a good introduction to how different cold climate culture can be.
2. Please tell me a bit about the projects you are engaged in at the moment. Is there something bigger going on?
Well, there are goals within goals. My long term agenda is to do my part in getting a sustainable lifestyle created, something which nine or ten billion people can live without trashing the planet. Depending on how you look at it, we’re either very close to that (new technology!) or very far from that (society). Within that mandate there’s a lot of subgoals, working on housing, on managing cities and urban infrastructure, on social stability and vision. I have a lot of projects at the same time, but very few of them have deadlines, so they can be allowed to move forwards as opportunity and resources allow, in a slow wave of parallel activity.
3. Camp Pixelache theme is “Do It With Others” (D.I.W.O.). What do these words mean to you?
To me, this is very simply about lazy cooperation, about how (for example) we move hexayurts. A hexayurt is a little house made from plywood, with a very minimal and simple design. They weigh as much as 300kg and we often pick them up and carry them with a large group. About thirty people gather around the hexayurt and pick it up by a very good lifting-point formed by the roof. There’s almost no more room to get more people around the building. Then we lift it into the air, and 300 kg by 30 people is only 10kg each, and it’s almost as if the building is floating.
To me, that’s the perfect image of cooperation, nobody is working too hard, if somebody has to let go suddenly nothing changes because 29 are almost as strong as 30, and everybody is safe and not straining.
That’s how I’d like us to do the world!
4. Your lecture in Helsinki is titled “Tools and Language – Why Government Can’t Manage the 21st Century, But We Can?” Who do you refer to us “we” and from where do you consider that we get our strength to change / influence the society and the world?
There is an English word “polity” which is the political unit of The People. My understanding of what’s going on right now is simple. Government as it currently exists was based on centralized decision-making for a large area, a whole country, made by a king. But in those days, there were three or four critical stabilization factors we now lack. There was little technological change, events far, far away did not affect us, communications and banking were conducted at the speed of horses not electrons, and people did not travel much between different areas of the world. The result of all these changes is that decisions have to be taken perhaps 1000 times faster and more often than they had to be made in the old Medieval kingdoms.
Our societies have filled the gaps created by this faster pace of life with a mysterious entity called “The Market” which is, fundamentally, just The People, the Polity, acting in a way constrained by the legal rules of trade, with setting prices and buying decisions being more or less all the exchange of information between people involved in the market. The market is a social structure of the same general class of social structures that voting in a democracy is, what some sociologists or philosophers would call a “social game.”
The internet may be providing us with some new options. As we are seeing with Free Software and operating systems like Linux, there’s scope for large, complex social organization which is created using neither the State or the Market. We’ve got much more sophisticated communication, too. Voting is selecting from one of a handful of options every four years. The Market communicates through price signals and purchase decisions, but there’s precious little qualitative communication through the market, so what people really think, feel and want is left out of the equation. What Yochai Benkler calls “commons-based peer production” is getting huge numbers of people what they want without State or Market, with rich, personal, human communication, with every indication that we’re only at the start of solving problems this way.
No government in the world, no company in the world, could have created Wikipedia. No amount of money could have been spent to commission its creation if it was going to wound up owned by a private entity. To persuade such a huge diversity of people to share knowledge with the world required a strong assurance that what was being done was being done for everybody, in a free way. So in certain areas, we’ve already exceeded the problem solving capability of the State and the Market, and I think it may be hundreds of years before we’ve hit the limits of this approach.
5. What’s wrong with our cooperation in today’s world? How should it be improved?
We have terribly poor legal support structures for cooperating without money. Corporations and charities both exist to manage financial assets, but to create a legal structure to represent (say) the users and contributors to a Free software project in a way which isn’t just bending existing legal structures, but which genuinely reflects these new modes of social organiazation, is very difficult within existing legislation.
Free Hardware has terrible problems getting proper protection from the law too. A patent typically costs about $30,000 and more if you want it to cover the whole world. Copyright is free. So if one wishes to copyright a piece of computer code, then release it under a GNU license, so that it can always be shared and never captured by industry, it’s a Free process. But if one wants to do the same with a patent, so one can invent something, patent it, and then release it into the Commons protected from a company ripping it off for profit and using legal techniques like ringfence patents to close the innovation down, every single tweak, no matter how small, that one wishes to protect is going to cost another $30,000. There’s no affordable way to use the current legal system to protect Free Hardware projects.
So that’s the main area I’d focus on: better law for sharing.
6. You say that “if you want a lot of people to do something together, you need effective cooperation”. How would you define this effectiveness: 1) in “normal” life and 2) during disasters?
In disasters, there’s usually a 72 hour “golden period” (see the book “A Heaven Made in Hell”) during which people spontaneously cooperate without apparent self-interest to help people affected by the disaster. But in normal life, our whole society is framed around intra-species competition through the so-called Free Market which is basically a subsidized war for resources.
If you want to see the real problem here clearly, consider what international cooperation looks like when it works (the 10 year project to stop the Ozone Layer being destroyed by CFC gasses by banning their manufacture and use) and when it fails, for example in the Climate Project where we are sinking resources into the UN and other international bodies trying to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and basically we are failing completely to protect the future from our own terribly foolish engineering practices.
We really could not be doing a worse job on climate protection, and that’s the absolute basic truth of our lives: living as we are living is destabilizing the core systems of our planet. And we do it because we don’t seem to be able to stop, like addicts.
A massive global cooperation failure is occurring, right before our eyes.
7. In your opinion, what’s the role of citizen activism and new communities in our societies? In which direction should activism (for example in Nordic countries) go to be more “cooperative”?
I think that a lot of these projects are best understood as prototypes or art projects. So far I’ve seen some interesting examples of more cooperative living, but to me these things look like aeroplanes did before the Wright Brothers – short-lived examples reaching for a possible world, a possible future, but without ever actually leaving the ground and making the leap into the sky.
We have a long way to go before we have a cooperative institution which is as successful as competitive institutions like governments or large companies, for example! In some countries, Scandanavian ones especially, the government is actually quite an effective cooperative project, but I think that’s taken enormous amounts of work and focus to produce, and it’s not at all clear to me that is going to be the case for governments who’s citizens have different ideas about the role of the State.
8. EdgeRyders project with Council of Europe seems very interesting. Can you tell a bit more about it?
Ah, EdgeRyders is a brilliant project. Gilda Farrell commissioned Alberto Cottica and Nadia El-Imam to create a policy paper about the future of youth unemployment in Europe by involving hundreds of people in a collaborative project to talk about their real lives not just to the Council in the manner of an opinion poll or a survey, but to each-other in the manner of a great conversation about our lives.
To see a government body support such a conversation between its citizens as a way of understanding more about how it can help them is a landmark, a true turning point, in my understanding of the State and its function. I think they got this one right, and I’ve been very proud to be selected to help out in some small way.
To take part in the project, you just go to the EdgeRyders web site, sign up, and you can click around, find research questions to answer and discuss, meet interesting people and see their fascinating projects and read about their lives, and apply to come to our conference at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg in early June. It’s going to be an amazing event, a real chance to bring together a hundred or more people from all over Europe to talk, think, discuss, get to know each-other, and become friends. It’s truly a unique event!
9. About Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps. What does it mean to give people a clear, effective language for cooperation around saving lives?
Ah, well, this is very simple. If you are a hospital administrator in a poor country which is affected by massive floods, and the road transportation network stops bringing your hospital its supplies of sterile needles and hospital gowns, and the electrical grid gets to be unreliable in the crisis, you are now not just running a hospital, you’re now having to help manage the risks associated with a “supply chain” bringing you goods, and a “grid” bringing you services. These are responsibilities you were not trained for, you have no experience, and “common sense is not so common” – everybody has their own specialized areas of competence, but outside of those areas, we are all ignorant fools. The smartest surgeon in the world cannot mend his own car without practice!
So the Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps system is documented in a short, free guide called “Dealing in Security” which tells you a little bit about how the supply chain and the grid really work, and describes the kinds of risks that affect them. Most importantly, it teaches a simple diagram you can make in a spreadsheet program or even by hand on a white board which helps get an objectively correct description of the total dependency and risk of an institution like a hospital or even a nation state. This diagram is like a checklist or a todo list, it’s a way of saying “right, do these things in order, answer these questions and you will have covered all the basics even if you are in a panic and don’t feel like you know how to address these problems.”
What we have found in areas like marine navigation or air traffic control, any area where people operate under a lot of pressure and stress and have to face crisis, is that clear language is absolutely vital. A “controlled vocabulary” helps people from different specialities and different professions communicate: instead of the computer guy saying “we’ve lost the fiber line to the data center because of a backhoe incident” which only makes sense to technical people, he could say “we’ve lost the MUNICIPAL DATA COMMUNICATIONS line because of an INDUSTRIAL ACCIDENT”. A clear sense of what is going on is communicated to a wider audience, and when terms like NEIGHBOURHOOD, MUNICIPAL and INTERNATIONAL are used, along with a clear objective set of operational needs like SHELTER, WATER SUPPLY, COMMUNICATIONS you get a good chance of people from different fields being able to form teams to work on these problems rapidly and effectively. There are a thousand ways to describe the same problem, and it really helps if we all agree to pick one!
Nobody is really an expert in improvising their way through a disaster. We are used to smooth, simple operations, where we pay our bills and the lights stay on. When that stops working, everybody is doing this for the first time, and having these clear checklists and ways of describing which of the many possible problems one could face are actually happening will help people get a clear understanding of the situation fast, and cooperate to do the best they can to resolve it.
You still need domain specific expertise (i.e. surgeons) and experience disaster management staff (like national disaster relief teams.) But for ordinary people who’re facing severe disruption for the first time, checklists and a clear language to describe issues helps!
10. Also please tell a little about your collective book process “The Future We Deserve”.
It started with a single tweet: “The Future We Deserve, a collaborative book about the future, a hundred pieces in a hundred days – sign up here” or words to that effect. Three days later we had 70 people signed up, and in the next couple of months raised $2000 to pay for producing the book, and got 100 authors. The book was put together using the same software that runs Wikipedia, and a startup company’s toolkit for printing books called Pediapress.
And there’s a book! It took a while, the process was much more complicated than I’d anticipated because it actually overturned most of my thinking and ideas about the future in the process, but the end product is fantastic. You can buy a copy at The Future We Deserve.com or read it online.
What’s amazing is that, like Wikipedia, it’s a book that could never have been produced with a lot of money and paying people to write. The mix of perspectives and ideas, the slight randomness and total diversity of the pieces reflects a project where the people who did it are the ones who cared enough to show up and write, not the ones who were thought of as experts and paid. And you often get better work from the people who are fascinated, motivated and curious than the ones who are simply known to be good at that kind of thing, and rounded up on each new project like the usual suspects.
It’s an amazing book, too. You get to the end and say… “my god, anything could happen, anything at all and anybody who thinks they know the future and understand our possibilities is a fool!”
11. You say that Gandhi and Buckminster Fuller are your heroes. Is there a gap between spirituality and technology that should be covered?
We suffer, all over the world. from too much religion in politics and social life. People’s religions should be their own business, for the most part, as relevant to their political identity or social status as their shoe size, sexual preference or hair colour. In my opinion, the best of religion is more like art than science, and attempts to take what people intuit about the nature of the infinite and put them on the same basis as (say) mathematics or the physical sciences are absurd. I can’t express how foolish American Creationism looks, with its museums devoted to explaining how Adam and Eve were brought fresh figs by tame dinosaurs provided to them by God, an old man with a white beard. But I feel equally bad about the overly-ambitious and dogmatic scientific materialists who insist that physics is advanced enough to tell us about the creation of the universe, even though we can’t even count the fundamental particles from which that universe is made, and that consciousness and our sense of being human are simply long, complicated chemical reactions with the same kind of certainty they use to express the laws of electromagnetism.
The jury is still out on nearly every question related to our origins, causes and purposes as human beings. It’s too early for certainty – the science is not mature enough, most religions are coming to terms with topics like evolution and cognitive psychology, and the best attitude anybody can have, I believe, is an honest curiosity about the world and other people’s ideas about the world.
I follow the religious tradition of my father, an Indian. I’m a Hindu. But if I changed my mind one day and became an Atheist, or converted to some other philosophy, so what? If I dye my hair blonde and buy new shoes, nobody should question me.
What we believe is an ornament. It’s what we do that counts!
12. People will together build Hexayurts in Helsinki – with sauna! What does this sound like?
Every time a new group of people built a hexayurt, it’s as hard as it can possibly be and still work. The drill runs out of battery, it starts raining, the truck is late or they bring the wrong kind of wood, and the whole thing seems like it’ll never get done. And then, just when people are giving up hope, finally the roof is lifted on to the walls, and screwed down, and suddenly it is done.
I hope they’re ready for that experience, because it always seems to be that way. At least this time when we’re done, we can relax in the Sauna, have a drink of cold water, and say “well, this was a great idea, wasn’t it!”
13. Anything else you’d like to add.
The world is a funny old place. A billion or two of us live in such a high consumption lifestyle that we’re hurting the future for all humans, and yet still feel poor and too busy and too stressed. Five billion people are various kinds of poor, and most of their governments are unspeakably corrupt and inefficient. Yet I still find hope for the future, because I can browse the internet on my phone, talk to people all over the world for free, and wear shoes which correct the human gait, which evolved before shoes were invented, in a way which is healthier for our backs and could have been invented at any time in the last 200 years, but it happened to be now. The world is a place of impossible extremes, and we are all in this together!