Every Big Picture event (run by Thought Menu) at Limewharf has been really different, all of them great fun. The last one was an opportunity for Vinay and Smari to sketch out their ideas for the future. Ed Geraghty also spoke, his thoughts were of a very different nature so I’ve not discussed them here.
Vinay & Smari’s visions were radical, and radically divergent. They only spoke for 15 minutes, so they didn’t get a chance to go into detail. Here are some of the salient parts of their views, as I understood them:
- Smari (video here) wanted national governments entirely replaced by highly localised institutions running along “liquid democracy” lines, possibly using some of the software he has written. He also described a “craft economy”, which I assume means less mass manufacturing in line with his localism.
- Vinay (can’t find video of this one) suggested that for humanity to flourish we must move manufacturing to the moon(!), while people on earth live in deindustrialised rural villages. Manufacturing on the moon is a necessity because of the dangers of nano and bio technology – in particular that (otherwise useful) biotechnology equipment could be used to engineer apocalyptic bioweapons.
Both of them described intriguing thought experiments addressing existential issues: climate change, disease, resource shortage. But as I ran the experiments in my head – projecting myself into their hypothetical worlds – I found myself in a rather disenfranchised society of limited political agency and narrowed horizons. They replaced our broken system with functional but politically uninspiring alternatives.
It’s very easy to conceptualise as yet unborn citizens as a kind of homogenised, infantilised mass whose biological needs are met by the paternalistic helping hand of the utopian envisioner. People are free to make the small decisions (local ones) while the big structural decisions have been taken for them, for example manufacturing safely sequestered to the moon like a box of matches hidden from a child.
I’m sure that neither Vinay or Smari intended this – perhaps it’s a consequence of the short amount of time they had to present. I wanted to point it out because I hear so many descriptions of the future that take an authoritarian approach to citizens.
Local democracy (liquid or otherwise) might empower people to take control of their village, but in so doing it must inhibit or discourage organising at the global or national level – because we all know that the design of a democratic process will influence the outcome, and here localism is the goal. Yet many of the problems we face are global. How can you reconcile the two? Implicitly it is because all of the biggest problems have already been sovled by the architect of the utopia.
In any case – who wants to live in a village? The idea of village life as idilic is an illusion of the rich. People move to the cities because of money, but also because of they are exciting. In their excellent book Poor Economics Abhijit Banerjee & Esther Duflo do a fantastic job of explaining just how boring villages are, and how important boredom is for population dynamics. They point out that in remote villages people will go without food so they can have a television just to ward off the boredom. Cities are where ideas happen – why should we attempt to deny out future selves the excitement of urbanisation?
It’s striking how much Vinay & Smari would (I think!) dislike living in the worlds they propose. They both love the possibility of acting at the global level, and would hate the idea of living out someone else’s utopian blueprint – rightly so.
At all of the Big Picture events, we’ve focused on… big picture issues. It’s been about global issues, about the totality of the supply chain, about the possibility of large scale, leaderless cooperation. These things are a lot of fun to talk about. Little Picture Days wouldn’t be so inspiring – how should we run the town hall? On what terms should we trade with the village next door?
It’s telling that the Big Picture Day events could only happen in a big city. How would you get 40 people with niche political views in one place if everyone lived in villages?
We should aim to address existential problems while taking into account that people, whenever they are alive, will be just like us. No doubt some will be happy to live a problem free bucolic existence, but many will want to live in a city and engage with the foment of ideas.
Some people, perhaps an increasing number, like the idea of a craft economy, but others get a buzz out of making the largest impact they can. Writing code scales naturally and globally, which is precisely why people like Vinay and Smri do it.
Our future selves will be as keen as we are to seek out challenges and sacrifice comfort for intellectual stimulation. It’s often said that the past is another country. In our heads the future is another planet – but we should remember that, at least for a very long time, it won’t be.