Re: Freedom, Ownership, Infrastructure, and Hope

I just watched a talk from Eleanor Saitta at MHC2022, given ten days ago:

Freedom, Ownership, Infrastructure, and Hope

It’s a great talk and I endorse everything she says. If you have to choose between reading whatever I write here and watching the linked video, please choose the video.

The opening is dark, but it’s important to contextualize the situation in which we find ourselves. Climate change has been badly mishandled, fascism is on the rise, and the ultra-rich are becoming more powerful.

She then borrows heavily from David Graeber & David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. The Davids and Eleanor offer us a much-needed reminder that the stories we hear about “human nature” are pretty much bullshit; there are innumerable ways that humans can organize ourselves into a society, and there is nothing inevitable about this particular arrangement. Plenty of our forbears made their way without leaders telling them what to do, or money determining what they could or couldn’t do. We don’t have to live this way — and thank goodness, because living this way is unpleasant and destroying the climate.

Here’s a recent review of the book from Virginia Heffernan on Wired.

One of the things I appreciate about this talk is how she frames the stakes: the clock is ticking on “globally organized civilization” — this is the thing that we will lose if we follow our current trajectory. I kinda touched on this recently, but I think too many people have it in their heads that global warming will Happen, the world will End, and then it will be Too Late. That is not how things will go down. Even in the worst possible scenarios, there are going to be some humans running around the planet for tens, probably hundreds of thousands of years. This “globally organized civilization” emerged over the past couple centuries, primarily through colonization and conquest, and this is one thing that we stand to lose (we could argue about whether that’s a bad thing — I lean toward “yes” even if I don’t like how we got here).

Saitta argues that we need to move beyond an ownership society if we want to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change. She’s wary of both armed revolution (it doesn’t “work” unless you’re willing to accept a genocide), and the utopian anarchist “strategy” (i.e., tell everybody that a better world is possible and hope that they finally get it). Speaking to an audience of hackers, she tells us that a tool-builders’ revolution is possible, and that now is the time to “fuck around and find out”.

So we don’t necessarily know what the tools we build are going to mean, and we’re going to have to do some “finding out”. But it’s very difficult to find out if you don’t have some lived context in which those tools work. So maybe go make friends with a bunch of people who aren’t in this room, who are very different from you, and try doing weird shit in your lives together, and then try figuring out: What are the tools that we need that we don’t have? What are the capabilities that are missing in our technical ecosystem that happen to be in your grasp or the grasp of whoever you happen to know and then see where that takes you.

The approach that Saitta is advocating could be described as “dual power for hackers”: create new things — tools, structures, methods — and see if they can act as viable, robust, and liberatory alternatives to tools, structures, or methods that we use right now. Replace enough of the latter, and we can start to carve out a new society in the shell of the old.

It’s worth sticking through the Q&A. This is the first time I’ve heard the phrase, “obligate geographic collectives”, to describe a potential framework for coordinating around shared local resources. You don’t need a state to recognize that the people who live downstream from you deserve to have a say in what you put into the river. Similarly, as Saitta points out, we probably do need a global structure to manage our globally shared “atmosphere-shed”, but that does not mean that we need a global government that manages everything in out lives.

What Saitta is arguing for here is the principle of “subsidiarity”, which has become one of my most deeply-held values. This is the notion that the people who are affected by decisions should be the ones making those decisions. It’s a simple but subversive concept. For instance, even if states were perfect democracies (which no state is — and I argue that none could become one), partitioning the Earth with nations’ borders violates this principle. Why should I be able to influence (in theory if not in practice) clean water laws two thousand miles away from me, but not three hundred miles away? Why do Evangelical Christians get to influence abortion and marriage laws in communities outside their own? Why can state legislatures, representing primarily suburban and rural voters, make laws against municipal minimum wages and broadband initiatives in cities? This is an irrational way to assign decision-making authority over problems with vastly different scales, but we accept it because we’ve been indoctrinated to reject any alternative.

As we reach the end of the Enlightenment, Saitta cautions us: “we’re going back into the age of gods and monsters.” We’re entering a world without a hegemonic ideology, it’s true, but this has the potential to be a good thing. Everything is up for grabs, so let’s figure out how we want to organize ourselves into a society. Let’s be intentional about which specific trade-offs we will make between the ability to do as one pleases and the responsibility one has to their neighbors. Let’s decide for ourselves what it means to be “free”.