29C3: Long live the protocoletariat

I followed the last CCC from a distance reading the Twitter fallout and keeping track of the live streams while getting work done in an empty Berlin. Besides the various controversies playing out, there were some good talks. What I found to be the best of the event was “Long live the protocoletariat” by Eleanor Saitta (@dymaxion) and Smári McCarthy (@smarimc) about a topic that is very near to the things I am thinking about: institutions and networks and all of the opportunities and problems associated with them. The presentation in the first thirty minutes of this video is well worth watching. Pull quotes below are paraphrases.

I have been to CCC once and didn’t feel the need to go again. I have been long disheartened by the odd turn that political consciousness has taken within that particular technological crowd. The combination of information/privacy fundamentalism with a total disdain for normal users is something which is normal in the open source world but not something I can support.

It is refreshing then to hear two people at CCC who pursue an agenda that I think is important in a manner that make sense and is constructive. Briefly the things from the talk that I found noteworthy.

They treat the various levels of obscurity and disfunctionality built into Liquid Feedback but on the whole they do agree that it is a functional system that needs some bug fixing.

Liquid Feedback seems to have been sparked by a blog post some years ago is a good example of the primate of the developer. Because of limitations in development capacity, whoever builds these things builds the definitive version. It remains definitive until somebody builds a better one (or if the problem goes away). We don’t get the option of more consideration, or better design or any of the other things we would want. We get whatever time a volunteer can spare to hack something together that works. This also makes that often we are in local optima because there already is an implementation that is perceived to be ‘good enough’.

People who have the time to solve problems don’t have problems. Those with real problems are too busy coping with their problems to be able to solve them generically. —Smári McCarthy

“Don’t confuse math problems with human problems.” —Eleanor Saitta

An interesting next step is their demand of more thorough thinking from those aspiring to politics. They warn against an information politics that says: ‘We just want our current way of living without the bad things.’ I agree —and many others with me— that idealism needs a clear and functional vision of an alternative world with an implementation plan to get there.

What then follows is a comparison between institutions and networks. I think it is very interesting to think about the importance of these two and why they have such trouble to deal with each other. What we are doing at Hack de Overheid is one attempt at bridging a network with a bunch of Dutch institutions. We should come up with more translator services and adapter structures to make the two work together.

They then treat the protocolization of institutions. How an institution can be decomposed in process and substance. How the symbolic language that an institution accepts can be codified as an automaton and then be translated into a peer to peer communications protocol. One problem of such a protocol is that it lacks institutional memory and tacit knowledge. Networks consist of nodes that adhere to the protocol (by definition) and are in effect interchangeable which means they don’t have to remember over the whole.

Memory and knowledge are essential for the proper functioning of all organizations and that functionality needs to be coded in some way into the networked version. I’m reading James C. Scott right now and he talks at length about the high modernist folly of laying down ‘thin and brittle’ structures that do not work1. Such structures have not been tested or used enough and lack the pliability and adaptations that are necessary for proper functioning.

Saitta and McCarthy propose to build institutions that only do long-term memory and let the process execution be handled by the network.

They then identify the open problems that still need work:

  1. Mapping the complexity classes and executive processes of institutions
  2. A language for protocolization of executive processes
  3. A decentralized but collectivized and compellable taxation protocol for an anonymous crypto currency
  4. Better tools for network-instution interactions
  5. A concept of network jurisprudence and mercy

The complexity theoretical treatment of social institutions is something that rather tickles my fancy. On university we never got to solve anything but the most theoretical of problems during those courses. I recently found some complexity theoretical treatments of games (“Classic Nintendo Games are (NP-)Hard”) and I look forward to even broader applications.

To stay in the vein of games, the problems stated in 1. and 2. are things that have a lot in common with what we do when we build games. The design of games consists of many similar information theoretical problems. Games may also be good staging grounds if you want to replace the nation state. The first thing that comes to mind to model these interactions is Joris Dormans’s Machinations, a finite state machine modeling tool.

Anyway it looks like there are tons of important and interesting problems still to be solved to which we as game practitioners might be able to contribute as well.

There are philosophical problems that we need to solve but they need to be directed towards the real world. —Eleanor Saitta

After the talk there follow a series of somewhat odd questions. The replies fortunately more than make up for it:

You need to have a sufficiently complete philosophical understanding of why your ideas make sense and how they are coherent and how they encompass [agriculture]. Otherwise your [privacy] arguments are going to fall flat. —Smári McCarthy

Instead we should build alternate structures. We are going to build this thing over here and it’s a much better way to run things. That can sort of infect into the world and obsolete other things. —Eleanor Saitta

That last one should be the golden test of activism: are you just complaining or are you doing something to actually make things better? If not, why not?

  1. Such structures are created mostly by a select group of people to pursue an agenda of money or power.

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