Max Anton Brewer

permanent futures

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Social Systems

21 Jan 2017 |

I used to live at a wilderness commune.

For three years I woke up every day surrounded by trees and streams and the gossip of songbirds. It was idyllic in many ways, and exactly the sort of thing recommended by “digital detox” clickbait articles. I checked my phone about once a month, when we drove the 60 miles to town for supplies. We had one computer with internet, and it was an old satellite connection, useful for email but nothing else. We had a library of musty books, a copy of Wikipedia on a DVD, and a drawerful of abandoned diaries. That was the totality of our entertainment.

Except that we had each other.

Not getting all mushy here – we didn’t necessarily like each other. We just had a community, which meant we could be infinitely entertained. Social experimentation was built into the DNA of the place.

It was founded by hippies escaping SF in the 70’s, meant to be a protected space for prototyping the communist society of the future. That failed, of course. Most of the hippies moved on. The commune is in a land trust, though, and the founders designed it to be unstoppable. They programmed it in legal code, building incentives and defining limits to behavior. They gave it a runtime of sixty years, turned it on, and one by one they walked away. Most grew neckties, named their babies Dylan, and fulfilled the destiny of the Me Generation.

The inbuilt rules were like most codebases: kludgy. Simple communal axioms, like “everyone should share”, get encrusted with real-world precedents like “except for guns, guns should belong to the people who can be trusted with them”, which then breeds with “no one should ever use violence” to create “the only people who should be allowed to own guns are people who either A) claim to be complete pacifists or B) find it more important to own a gun than to follow the rules.” How do you enforce that?

Or what about when “love all people” was applied to “everyone should share” and we ended up with “it’s time to have a conversation about scabies”? (Don’t look it up. It’s curable. That’s all you need to know.)

But compared to 21C police-state America, the rules were flexible, and a new crop of open-minded hipster throwbacks would show up every year ready to reinvent civilization all over again. So we had a lot of social experimentation. It was like a fucking reality show with no audience. Like maybe the squirrels were watching us or something, and probably the FBI, and the occasional wide-eyed yuppie on a “tech detox”. But that was it.

We did it on purpose. A hodgepodge of idealists with different ideals, all competing to lay our magic on the others, to have our narratives played out on the Stage of Nobody Watching. One small farm to fight for, unending messiahs and vigilantes. We tried a lot of different things. I lasted longer than most, saw more iterations of the game, but I left. No one I know is still there, but it’s still happening. It’s a platform for communisms. It’s a prototyping printer for social dynamics.

If I learned anything there, it’s that people will play to the rules of any game. We’re malleable. We’re adaptable. We’ll try to succeed, in whatever way the culture defines it. We’ll take the route from where we are to what we think we want, no matter how circuitous or baffling it seems. We’re improv masters, seamlessly slipping between personalities as we move from scene to scene.

But the rules we play by matter. They’re only supported by collective momentum, by a sort of fervent dreaming of the group, but they matter. Whether you stand in a breadline or a checkout lane, whether you know your neighbors or your family, work to support others or to support yourself: these decisions have consequences.

I’m thinking about this in the context of Joe Edelman’s letter to Zuck last week. He talks about how the tech monopolies are ultimately responsible for how their platforms are used, and what they could do about it. And he’s right. This is the same magic that the hippies did in the forest: you open a space where a new kind of interaction can be played out, and you tune the underlying system to produce a certain outcome. The reason Fakbok seems to be full of shrill brittle people reacting to twisted clickbait so-called “news”, instead of a place to celebrate your connections and shared values: it optimizes for addiction.

Doesn’t social media feel a little tweeky these days? Spun? Like a party with the bad drugs: everybody’s talking over each other, normal social taboos are off the table, people are buying and selling things, a bunch of hucksters from Red Bull in the corner pretending they’re not hucksters from Red Bull, bad music videos and memes all over the place, arguments that can immediately turn into screaming gangfights.

It’s a trap house. They’re slinging dopamine in there.

I’m hopeful that other tools for communication will be designed with better mentalities. Secure Scuttlebutt is a friend-of-a-friend messaging system, which seems to be in line with a more human-scale approach to socialization. It’s still in its early stages, but the developers are also the users, so the conversations about how it will grow are happening right now, in the platform. Other new models for digital socialism are on the way, in the blockchain and meshnet and the rest. We need to be vigilant, to critique the assumptions of the systems we’re using. Edelman’s other article TK TK TK gives a decent set of criteria for social relations.

It’s up to us. The power of any network is the product of the square of its nodes. The platform with the most users gets the most power. So where would you rather meet me – in the world’s biggest trap house, or in a little Ewok village in the woods?

Thanks for reading,


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