Choose your own adventure – keynote

This is a blog version of the keynote I gave at linux.conf.au 2017. Many thanks to everyone who gave such warm feedback, and I hope it helps spur people to think about systemic change and building the future. The speech can be watched at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6IqGuxCKa8.

I genuinely believe we are at a tipping point right now. A very important tipping point where we have at our disposal all the philosophical and technical means to invent whatever world we want, but we’re at risk of reinventing the past with shiny new things. This talk is about trying to make active choices about how we want to live in future and what tools we keep or discard to get there. Passive choices are still a choice, they are choosing the status quo. We spend a lot of our time tinkering around the edges of life as it is, providing symptomatic relief for problems we find, but we need to take a broader systems based view and understand what systemic change we can make to properly address those problems.

We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years using a cooperative competitive social structure that helped us work together to flourish in every habitat, rapidly and increasingly evolve an learn, and establish culture, language, trade and travel. We were constantly building on what came before and we built our tools as we went.

In recent millennia we invented systems of complex differentiated and interdependent skills, leading to increasingly rapid advancements in how we live and organise ourselves physically, politically, economically and socially, especially as we started building huge cities. Lots of people meant a lot of time to specialise, and with more of our basic needs taken care of, we had more time for philosophy and dreaming.

Great progress created great surplus, creating great power, which we generally centralised in our great cities under rulers that weren’t always so great. Of course, great power also created great inequalities so sometimes we burned down those great cities, just to level the playing field. We often took a symptomatic relief approach to bad leaders by replacing them, without fundamentally changing the system.

But in recent centuries we developed the novel idea that all people have inalienable rights and can be individually powerful. This paved the way for a massive culture shift and distribution of power combined with heightened expectations of individuals in playing a role in their own destiny, leading us to the world as we know it today. Inalienable rights paved the way for people thinking differently about their place in the world, the control they had over their lives and how much control they were happy to cede to others. This makes us, individually, the most powerful we have ever beed, which changes the game moving forward.

You see, the internet was both a product and an amplifier of this philosophical transition, and of course it lies at the heart of our community. Technology has, in large part, only sped up the cooperative competitive models of adapting, evolving and flourishing we have always had. But the idea that anyone has a right to life and liberty started a decentralisation of power and introduced the need for legitimate governance based on the consent of citizens (thank you Locke).

Citizens have the powers of publishing, communications, monitoring, property, even enforcement. So in recent decades we have shifted fundamentally from kings in castles to nodes in a network, from scarcity to surplus or reuse models, from closed to open systems, and the rate of human progress only continues to grow towards an asymptoic climb we can’t even imagine.

To help capture this, I thought I’d make a handy change.log on human progress to date.

# Notable changes to homo sapiens – change.log
## [2.1.0] – 1990s CE “technology revolution & internet”
### Changed
– New comms protocol to distribute “rights”. Printing press patch unexpectedly useful for distributing resources. Moved from basic multi-core to clusters of independent processors with exponential growth in power distribution.

## [2.0.0] – 1789 CE “independence movements”
### Added
– Implemented new user permissions called “rights”, early prototype of multi-core processing with distributed power & comms.

## [1.2.0] – 1760 CE “industrial revolution”
### Changed
– Agricultural libraries replaced by industrial libraries, still single core but heaps faster.

## [1.1.1] – 1440 CE “gutenberg”
### Patched
– Printing press a minor patch for more efficient instructions distribution, wonder if it’d be more broadly useful?

## [1.1.0] – 2,000 BCE “cities era”
### Changed
– Switched rural for urban operating environment. Access to more resources but still on single core.

## [1.0.0] – 8,000 BCE “agricultural revolution”
### Added
– New agricultural libraries, likely will create surplus and population explosion. Heaps less resource intensive.

## [0.1.0] – 250,000 BCE “homo sapiens”
### Added
– Created fork from homo erectus, wasn’t confident in project direction though they may still submit contributions…

(For more information about human evolution, see https://www.bighistoryproject.com)

The point to this rapid and highly oversimplified historical introduction is threefold: 1) we are more powerful than ever before, 2) the rate of change is only increasing, and 3) we made all this up, and we can make it up again. It is important to recognise that we made all of this up. Intellectually we all understand this but it matters because we often assume things are how they are, and then limit ourselves to working within the constraints of the status quo. But what we invented, we can change, if we choose.

We can choose our own adventure, or we let others choose on our behalf. And if we unthinkingly implement the thinking, assumptions and outdated paradigms of the past, then we are choosing to reimplement the past.

Although we are more individually and collectively powerful than ever before, how often do you hear “but that’s just how we’ve always done it”, “but that’s not traditional”, or “change is too hard”. We are demonstrably and historically utter masters at change, but life has become so big, so fast, and so interrelated that change has become scary for many people, so you see them satisfied by either ignoring change or making iterative improvements to the status quo. But we can do better. We must do better.

I believe we are at a significant tipping point in history. The world and the very foundations our society were built on have changed, but we are still largely stuck in the past in how we think and plan for the future. If we don’t make some active decisions about how we live, think and act, then we will find ourselves subconsciously reinforcing the status quo at every turn and not in a position to genuinely create a better future for all.

So what could we do?

  • Solve poverty and hunger: distributed property through nanotechnology and 3D printing, universal education and income.
  • Work 2 days a week, automate the rest: work, see “Why the Future is Workless” by Tim Dunlop
  • Embrace and extend our selves: Transhumanism, para olympics, “He was more than a dolphin, but from another dolphin’s point of view he might have seemed like something less.” — William Gibson, from Johnny Mnemonic. Why are we so conservative about what it means to be human? About our picture of self? Why do we get caught up on what is “natural” when almost nothing we do is natural.
  • Overcome the tyranny of distance: rockets for international travel, interstellar travel, the opportunity to have new systems of organising ourselves
  • Global citizens: Build a mighty global nation where everyone can flourish and have their rights represented beyond the narrow geopolitical nature of states: peer to peer economy, international rights, transparent gov, digital democracy, overcome state boundaries,
  • ?? What else ?? I’m just scratching the surface!

So how can we build a better world? Luckily, the human species has geeks. Geeks, all of us, are special because we are the pioneers of the modern age and we get to build the operating system for all our fellow humans. So it is our job to ensure what we do makes the world a better place.

rOml is going to talk more about future options for open source in the Friday keynote, but I want to explore how we can individually and collectively build for the future, not for the past.

I would suggest, given our role as creators, it is incumbent on us to both ensure we build a great future world that supports all the freedoms we believe in. It means we need to be individually aware of our unconscious bias, what beliefs and assumptions we hold, who benefits from our work, whether diversity is reflected in our life and work, what impact we have on society, what we care about and the future we wish to see.

Collectively we need to be more aware of whether we are contributing to future or past models, whether belief systems are helping or hindering progress, how we treat others and what from the past we want to keep versus what we want to get rid of.

Right now we have a lot going on. On the one hand, we have a lot of opportunities to improve things and the tools and knowledge at our disposal to do so. On the other hand we have locked up so much of our knowledge and tools, traditional institutions are struggling to maintain their authority and control, citizens are understandably frustrated and increasingly taking matters into their own hands, we have greater inequality than ever before, an obsession with work at the cost of living, and we are expected to sacrifice our humanity at the alter of economics

Questions to ask yourself:

Who are/aren’t you building for?
What is the default position in society?
What does being human mean to you?
What do we value in society?
What assumptions and unconscious bias do you have?
How are you helping non-geeks help themselves?
What future do you want to see?

What should be the rights, responsibilities and roles of
citizens, governments, companies, academia?

Finally,we must also help our fellow humans shift from being consumers to creators. We are all only as free as the tools we use, and though geeks will always be able to route around damage, be that technical or social, many of our fellow humans do not have the same freedoms we do.

Fundamental paradigm shifts we need to consider in building the future.

Scarcity → Surplus
Closed → Open
Centralised → Distributed
Analogue → Digital
Belief → Rationalism
Win/lose → Cooperative competitive
Nationalism → Transnationalism
Normative humans → Formative humans

Open source is the best possible modern expression of cooperative competitiveness that also integrates our philosophical shift towards human rights and powerful citizens, so I know it will continue to thrive and win when pitted against closed models, broadly speaking.

But in inventing the future, we need to be so very careful that we don’t simply rebuild the past with new shiny tools. We need to keep one eye always on the future we want to build, on how what we are doing contributes to that future, and to ensuring we have enough self awareness and commitment to ensuring we don’t accidentally embed in our efforts the outdated and oftentimes repressive habits of the past.

To paraphrase Gandhi, build the change you want to see. And build it today.

Thank you, and I hope you will join me in forging a better future.

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