Tag Archives: community

(not) giving it the progressive legitimacy it would lack otherwise

One of the joys of having unplugged from the birdsite again is being able to largely ignore the whole crypto/Web3/NFT circus, at least in its most immediate expression. Of course, various people are writing about it more slowly, and it’s probably a function of my pre-existing biases that have ensured the vast majority of what I’ve read tends to cash out as academic or practitioner-accented versions of NOPE NOPE NOPE. Without any shame for the hipsterness of the statement, I’ll note that I was skeptical of this stuff when it was still new (and I have the receipts to prove it).

But when people I respect contradict or challenge me, well, I do my best to listen. Here’s yer man Matt Colquhoun:

The world is changing, both on- and offline, but our imaginations are slow to catch up. Without an insistence upon it proceeding otherwise, Web3 will be (and is being) used to replicate the pre-existing cultural hegemony of Funko-Populist finance bros.

Let’s just stop to do a full on gatsby.gif at that lovely coining in the last line, there. Chapeau, sir.

Now, Matt seems to me to be saying that he’s worried that by NOPEing out of this space entirely, we’re giving up the chance to seize the potentially good bits of this assemblage. On that point, I agree. But my instinct—and I will gladly concede that it is very much an instinct, one nurtured by the intense disillusionment of the Nougties blogging goldrush (of which I was arguably one of the people who did moderately well, albeit in a very drawn-out and roundabout sort of way), but also from, ah, let’s just say an earlier stage of life during which I was exposed to an awful lot of hucksterism and hustle of an even more naked sort—my instinct, leavened with a bit of research (though not so much as an advocate would insist was a precondition of having an opinion), says to me that there’s nothing there fight for, or if there is, the triumph of the very worst potentials thereof—already very much in the ascendant—is effectively baked in due to its unfolding within the inducement structure of capitalism more broadly.

None other than Evgeny Morozov sees it as being worse still: by looking for the bright side of this mess, we end up giving it a veneer of progressive respectability:

How does one criticize a flawed, unrealistic, and extremely partial narrative that is, nonetheless, being rapidly turned into reality? This is not a problem that one can solve by adopting a more pragmatic, solutions-oriented attitude that many of the proponents of Web3 demand from their critics. The goal here cannot just be to find a more progressive use for DAOs or tokens or NFTs. I’m sure they exist – and many more of them can be found in due time. But what is the point of such search expeditions, when, in the end, such efforts are only likely to help in the left-washing of the Web3 brand, giving it the progressive legitimacy it would lack otherwise?

As he puts it, “there is no ‘there’ there”; the self-referentiality of the whole edifice means anything you do to fight it just gets hoovered up by the rhetorical cyclone.

But back to Matt:

But there are a number of alternative visions out there — the latest issue of Spike Art magazine contains advocates for a bunch of them, who are both optimistic and pessimism about the current state of things. The worry I have, and that many others have, is that it may already be too late. What depresses me isn’t so much how NFTs are being used by the internet’s most naïve denizens, but that their idiocy atrophies the political imagination of the rest of us.

In that sense, the responsibility for our unabating digital dystopia lies as much with the mindless naysayers as it does mindless enthusiasts. The narcosis of an old digital radicalism is developing necrosis. Something has got to give, but we need to realize that this needn’t be the communities we hold dear in themselves. There is space for them to well and truly thrive, if we demand and carve out that space, just as we did when the internet first became available to us.

Now, I have a lot of time for Matt’s negation-of-the-negation argument, to the point that I have once phrasing of it blu-tacked to the wall above my desk. Maybe it’s just a function of me being An Old nowadays, but I think the reason for the necrosis of digital radicalism is the acceleration of the capture process with each new iteration of the digital frontier… plus, perhaps, a dawning realisation that perpetually turning to the next frontier is a foundational plank of the thing we’re trying to fight against.

To reiterate a point from a few days back, this ain’t me going all primitivist and suggesting “we can do without technology”; far from it. But I think I do perhaps feel that getting away from this attitude where the technological is often or always the site—a non-spatial site, which is perhaps another root of the problem—of the next potential victory. I try not to cite ol’ Grandpa Karl too often, as I don’t think I’ve read enough of him, but I’m pretty sure that his basic argument was that while technology might serve to enable a more socialist world, it could only do so once the political economy in which it operated had been reconfigured. Seize the means of production first, right? Then reorganise the uses it’s put to. So wading in to the Web3 shitstorm to me feels like trying to fine-tune (post-)Fordism for socialist ends: totally well-intended, but ultimately of use only to the factory owners.

Matt doesn’t want “the communities we hold dear” to be sacrificed to to the necessity of change, and yeah, I hear that. I guess I’m just not so convinced as I once was—and those who’ve known me long enough will know that I was super convinced, a bona fide Web2.0 evangelist—that a change of medium to the next new thing is going to keep those communities vital. To be honest, I think making better, slower use of the superseded media might be a better place to start. The Arab Spring didn’t fail because social media wasn’t sufficiently advanced or decentralised; it failed because the systems of power it was arraigned against were too deeply entrenched, and those media were in turn embedded into those structures from the get-go.

Eh, I dunno—like I say, I’m An Old now, and increasingly identifying with the (historical, rather than vernacular) label of Luddite. Sure, the Web3 powerloom might revolutionise many of the things I do for a living… but even if the nice guys work out a way to do that, is it going to compete with the monkey-jpeg people and Andreessen-Horowitz? Not bloody likely, mate. I only have so much fight left in me, and I’m not wasting it in a space where the signal-to-noise ratio (not to mention the VC bankroll) is that high.

Still, good luck to anyone who wants to brave it. Because I agree with Matt’s parting line, as well:

It is our complacency, not Web3, that will be the death of us.

And yeah, maybe I’m just NOPEing out of the definitional struggle of our times… but I can’t see what work there is to be done there, let alone how to start doing it. Perhaps I just don’t have enough of a stake in it? Perhaps the (veeeerrrry relative) security of early career academia has seduced me away from the vanguard? Quite possible.

But I very clearly remember believing that having my own website and socnet handles would lift me out of the neoliberal precariat, and I remember seeing that—even as it did so for a very lucky few of us—it made things even worse for those who missed the bus. My sense that Web3 &c. will be an even crueller and faster clusterfuck goldrush is, as I say above, predominantly instinctual—which is perhaps to say imaginative.

I can’t imagine a metaverse in which things are better for most people. But I can imagine a world in which we’ve decided that chasing our emancipation down the fibre-optic backbones and into the data-centers will look, in hindsight, like a very weird thing people once believed, like the indulgences that came off the early printing presses. Progress is the greatest lie ever told, and Web3 looks like the very shiniest empty box it has ever been put in.

Good luck in there, but count me out.

Fractal’13: a busman’s holiday

I’ve been back for the best part of a week, but Colombia still haunts me.

From the air, it’s a country of lush green mountains, wide flood-plains with fat brown rivers winding and ox-bowing their way through the rich russet soil; fertile, not so much tamed by its people as persuaded into an agreement where no one is quite sure who’s getting the better of the deal. As in many other Latin countries where the scars of colonialism are still bright and angry beneath the new skin of change, there are plenty of places where it looks like “progress” – that deathless shibboleth – has the upper hand: industrial farming practices and the new uptick in gold mining, courtesy of the volatile markets for food and precious metals, have gouged red-brown wounds out of the land, left rivers low and mountains decapitated. But you don’t have to drive far to see how fast nature can reclaim its territory when left to its own devices, nor the rural communities which live lightly – if untidily by European standards – upon the land. The humid air whispers of a barely restrained fecundity; growth is everywhere.

View from El Peñon, again

Economic growth is, of course, more unevenly distributed, and Medellín (pronounced Meh-deh-jEEn – the Latin double-l changes its sound considerably from place to place) showcases these inevitable inequities clearly. Its mild but variable climate, a function of its position in a deep valley high in the mountains, belies its closeness to the Equator; known to Colombians as “the City of Eternal Spring”, its skies boil with turbulent clouds between bursts of bright blue clarity, and thunder grumbles sullen from the peaks most afternoons. The temperature hovers around the low- to mid-twenties Centigrade most of the year; rain is commonplace and occasionally torrential, but rarely stays for long. The central valley is spattered with light and heavy industries, along with a newish rash of corporate postmodernist architecture; the lower slopes have sprouted a forest of red-brick towerblocks which look uniform from a distance, but whose variety becomes clear at close range. In the interstices – and further up the slopes, where the incline and the possibility of flash flooding precludes large-scale construction and reliable infrastructure – the higgledy-piggledy terraces and jumbled bricks’n’breezeblock stacks of the underclass spread wherever they can, their narrow streets a lively riot of mural’d concrete walls, barrowboys chattering their patter through jury-rigged PA systems, and the buzz and rasp of the city’s countless motorcycles and scooters as they struggle against the gradient. The gap between wealth and poverty is made all the clearer by their mutual proximity, a cheek-by-jowl life that is not without its frictions; gothic high-tech and favela chic stand across the avenidas from one another, studiously ignoring one another while they wait for the future to arrive.

Popular

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There are, of course, people trying to bridge that gap and skry that future – which is what I was invited there for, along with my fellow Fractal facilitators: Johanna Blakley, director of research at the Norman Lear Center, University of SoCal; Keiichi Matsuda, architect, film-maker and augmented reality authority; and Reshma Shetty, MIT PhD and co-founder of Ginkgo BioWorks, a synbio start-up based in Boston.

We spent one morning talking to the management team of UNE, a Medellín-based media outfit that sells not just bandwidth but content; they were looking for new ways in which they might provide more useful services to the less well-off of the region, and picked our brains about applications and systems that might add value to their current offers. At the same time, we got to learn some high-level cultural home truths that would serve us well later in the week, not least the fact that – despite being an incredibly friendly and helpful people – Colombians are very slow to trust one another, even at the neighbourhood level. Given the country’s recent history of political unrest and paramilitary conflict – which is, sadly, what Medellín is still best known for here in Europe, to go by the reactions I got when I told people where I was going – this probably isn’t entirely surprising. But it’s not the sort of thing you’d notice as a tourist; hospitality is a big deal to Colombians, and that seems to include an instinctive elision of their domestic troubles. (Compare and contrast to we Brits, who seem increasingly keen to download our sociocultural angst on anyone who’ll listen.)

The main event, however, took place at the Botanical Gardens; the format was largely without precedent, as far as anyone involved was aware, and might be best described as a kind of community-engagement design-fiction experiment. Rather than have four guests do their talking-heads schtuck to an attentive but otherwise passive audience, the Fractal crew decided that we were there to facilitate the audience in telling stories about the three topics in play, namely augmented reality, 3d printing and synbio.

Botanical Gardens

The initial run was done on the Friday afternoon with a thirty-strong gang of schoolkids, aged 11 or so. We’d introduce the topic, then encourage the audience to ask questions and talk about what sort of things they’d do with the technology in question, were it already a reality; then we’d gradually segue into storytelling, with yours truly introducing a character and an opening scene and encouraging the audience to step to the mic and continue the action.

The stories the kids came up with were predictably wild, but the adults attending the three longer sessions the next day weren’t exactly holding themselves back, either, once they’d got into the spirit of the thing. Every time with every story, there’d be a clear pivoting point where everyone suddenly grokked the possibilities, grasped the idea and its implications… and that’s when the stories started getting weird. From my own vantage point, it felt like that point was close to the boundary between the purely physical and the spiritual; while I don’t want to lay any claim to anthropological insight, here, it seem that – much as in the other Latin countries I’ve visited – the division between the earthly and the spiritual is more permeable in Colombian culture, which is still fairly conservative and religious in character, and it was in that disputed territory that speculative thinking really came alive for our audience. Which isn’t to say that there was much handwringing about “playing god”; indeed, it was only raised twice, and without much drama, though one must assume that the audience for a futures event would be somewhat self-selecting in that direction.

But, by way of validating what any fiction writing tutor worth their salt will tell you, it was the human dramas foregrounded against the technological innovations that engaged people with the ideas – and while the stories were far wilder and more playful than one would expect from, say, an established English-language science fiction zine, the central issues and dilemmas of these imminent innovations came quickly to the fore. I got a real kick out of watching people take their turns at the mic, watching their faces as they really got into what they were saying; even though the concrete results of a futures event like this are incredibly hard to measure or quantify, it was plain to see that, when “given permission” to extrapolate and imagine, ordinary people are just as capable as futurists and technologists – if not more so, in some ways – of engaging with complex technologies and understanding how they might change the world they live in, for the better and for the worse.

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Full kudos for this ambitious and ground-breaking experiment should go to Vivi and Hernan, the dynamic duo who have somehow assembled and run Fractal events for the past five years while holding down other jobs. There’s no top-table TED schmoozing or delegation of responsibility to paid flunkies, either; both of them seemed, at times, to be surgically attached to their phones and laptops, constantly hustling and arranging and fixing, keeping in touch with their extensive network of helpers and contacts, almost all working on a voluntary basis, wrestling with the bureaucracy of local government, making sure contracts were signed and exchanged, permissions secured, meetings organised. At the same time, they were consummate hosts, constantly on hand, showing us the sights, introducing us to local businesspeople and academics, and feeding us what seemed like endless (not to mention excellent) Colombian food. I can’t remember ever being made to feel so valued (which was hell for my Imposter Syndrome), or so very welcome; as weeks of ostensible work go, it was a hectic delight, and the closest thing I’ve had to a proper holiday in quite some time.

Guatape Portal

So thanks again to Vivi and Hernan, for inviting me to Medellín and making me feel so welcome; I consider myself very much in their debt. And the world futures community would do well to keep an eye on Medellín and Fractal: they’re busily finding ways to take the control and creation of futures narratives out of the hands of “experts” and put them into the hands of ordinary people, and that’s something we should all make an effort to learn from.