There’s been a sprinkling of talks that I can’t fit into a theme: Adam Harper on future of music, Jon Ronson, on shaming, food futurology etc. Do people want new textures in their foods because of the ennui of touch screens (Dr Morgaine Gaye)? Fun to think about…
But there’s also been many – perhaps most – talks that fit into a neat conceptual box, from the John Lanchester’s “How to talk money” to Michel Bauwens on Peer to Peer civilisation. It’s indicative that Dr. Michael Osborne (on AI) and Luciano Floridi (on tech & philosophy), both from Oxford University began their talks by emphasising how quickly the amount of information in the world is increasing. One sound bite stat was that there was more 1000 times more data on the web in 2014 than all the words spoken by humans in all of history. We get the idea that something is happening, even if it’s not exactly clear what it means.
Here’s how it crystallises for me: all this new information is a new way to solve the problem of social coordination. How can we act together most effectively to achieve our goals? The best way to understand this is to contrast it with old ways solving social coordination problems. John Lanchester pointed out that the very first time humans wrote things down was to track the movements of goods in the temples of ancient Sumer. What they were facing, for the first time ever, was the difficulty of making sure that a lot of human labour was direct towards a common goal, making the temple rich. You can’t solve a problem that complicated without information tech, in this case writing.
Skipping forward in history a bit, in 1945 the economist Friedrich Hayek says this, which deserves quoting at length:
Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active coöperation …. the shipper who earns his living from using otherwise empty or half-filled journeys of tramp-steamers, or the estate agent whose whole knowledge is almost exclusively one of temporary opportunities, or the arbitrageur who gains from local differences of commodity prices, are all performing eminently useful functions based on special knowledge of circumstances of the fleeting moment not known to others.
What Hayek wanted to say is that money is the information tech that currently solves the social coordination problem, in contrast to central planning, which he said could never handle the complexity. Money compresses a lots of information in to a single system of tokens, which is the most complex thing you can manage before electronic computers. I express my desire for something by my willingness to spend money on it, someone else is then motivated to try and provide that item. It’s both a way of expressing your goals and causing people to work together to achieve them. That’s what a market is. Money is, at least as it is at the moment, created and controlled by nation states. States do this because it’s very effective technology at solving social coordination. (Adam Lanchester [& David Graeber] point out that states originally did this to socially coordinate the mobilisation of armies.)
So coming back to the massive amount of information that we all agree is now being created, one thing we can do with it all is to help social coordination. We can solve Hayek’s problem now.
You can use a ‘money alternative’, like bitcoin, to track value, in which case you are using new information exchange technologies to do something very similar to the old market system, only you don’t have to rely on nation states to issue the money. Or you can think of services like AirBnB, an example of the sharing economy that Michel Bauwens attacked, which are parasitic on the existing money-based system. AirBnB and co use new systems for creating and sharing information (The Internet) to make transactions happen that were too hard before: sporadic letting of a spare room, or lending your car to someone.
But there are more radical alternatives too. If you can find several people who need the same infrastructure as you, say workshop equipment, then you could buddy up and agree to share that stuff, that’s what a makerspace is. What you need to make this work is a) to be able to find other people who want the same stuff as you, b) to be able ensure that one participant to use too much resource, ie spend all day using the lathe if someone else needs it. Elinor Ostrom’s design principles for common pool resources describe this second point nicely in rule 5:
Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behaviour.
Both of these are information problems that used to solved by money – you’d either have to rent the equipment or have someone else do your manufacturing for you – both exchanges mediated by cash.
Not so any more, hence all the interest across Futurefest in notions of commoning, crowds sourcing, peer to peer community.
As a final point, I noticed that Vivienne Westwood’s view that ‘Capitalists prefer competition and death‘ was quite common across the conference. In rejecting the current economic system many people go beyond saying that it ought to be augmented or improved, and instead want to make the case that it should be abandoned. This is too far for me.
I think the modern economic system has delivered enormous benefits, it’s a liberal way of organising people to work together. The economic crisis has shown us that there are deep problems, rising inequality has to be addressed and no question new information technologies can offer alternatives.
But for me markets are as much about coordination as competition, and the reason they have elements of competition is because in a liberal society people want different things. The market provides a mechanism to sort thought and prioritise those wants. You can’t just throw the whole thing over.
China adopting a free market lifted more people out of poverty than all the development initiatives ever. The next step, which was nascent at Futurefest, is to re-embed the economy is human relations and tame the wild inequality that has come from the ideology of free market economics.
That’s my prism, obviously there are many others, but that’s the crux of my PhD. For me it stitches together lots of otherwise dispirate thoughts.Google+