Last weekend I attended the Startup Societies Summit in San Francisco, organized by d10e. It was humming with energy and ideas, and at times it felt more like a festival than a conference.
My one-hour flight into the city was delayed by more than three hours, and I thought about the comedian Louis CK ridiculing people who complain about flights being delayed – so I had to wait a bit, then I soared through the sky in a chair, like a Greek myth. The Wright brothers wouldn’t think I had things too hard. I passed the first night uneventfully in an Irish-owned hostel in downtown San Francisco. Everything in this city is far too expensive, especially places to sleep.
The next morning I made my way on the BART to San Francisco City College where the conference was held. I arrived as Michael Castle Miller was about to take the stage to talk about refugee cities. His was one of my favorite talks, because I believe that the current ‘refugee camp’ model is hopelessly broken and fundamentally stupid – it makes no sense to put people on an intravenous drip of consuming economic resources, and give them no opportunity to produce them. Michael Castle Miller said that he is a believer in choice, and thinks that people should be able to quit their government and find a new one instead. Do you agree with that, my reader? Can you think of a reason to disagree? I feel almost everyone at the festival, despite their differences, would have agreed with that point.
Miller said that although we laud experimentation in the private sector, and understand how important it is, we have a public sector that doesn’t innovate. Coinciding with that, we are in the middle of the biggest refugee situation in recent history. We have about five million stateless people leaving Syria, and an opportunity for start-up governance experiments to serve them. Refugee camps squander massive amounts of human capital. Miller said that economic data shows that migrants contribute more to their host economies than they subtract, but we can’t simply integrate them – that turns out to be politically impossible. So let’s create a new thing for them, a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) with its own governance and rules. Jordan, advised by the World Bank, formed an arrangement with the EU where goods made by Syrian refugee labour are sold tariff-free in the EU.
John Chisholm spoke on the differences between common law and civil law. Common law is based on precedents. You play ball in the house, and a can of Red Bull gets knocked onto someone’s laptop. So the judges make a ruling: from now on no one is allowed play ball in the house. It is judge-made law, aimed at resolving disputes and keeping the peace. Civil law, on the other hand, starts with a policy, and comes up with rules to enforce them. We can already see from that premise that common law is emerges from the real, messy world, whereas civil law comes from mental models. Civil law tries to govern the territory by looking at the map, and this has unintended consequences (like drug prohibition leading to black markets). Common law is therefore less likely to impose arbitrary restrictions that stifle real-world activity.
Chisholm cited examples of how common law correlates with development: Botswana inherited common law from their colonists and was the world’s fastest-growing economy 1965-95. The UAE installed a 110-acre island of British common law in a sea of sharia law, even bringing in legal experts from Britain, and saw significant development. Hong Kong and Singapore in 1960 were at a level of development comparable to many African countries today. As I sat listening to this, I was proud because my great-uncle was partly responsible for keeping my country on British common law when we gained our independence. Since then, we’ve developed very nicely for a former colony.
Over the past fifty years, Chisholm said, the United States has shifted to more civil law and less common law. Common law is a dynamic system evolves gradually – it grows – whereas civil law changes in fits and starts, whenever a reformer takes power, meaning it creates more policy-instability. Entrepreneurs, wittingly or unwittingly, are attracted to the jurisdictions with the least regulation. Chisholm recommended that start-up societies use a minimal ‘Rights Of Man’ constitution, and provide mechanisms for dispute resolution to grow into law.
Are the people here right-wing or left-wing? I find those terms increasingly useless and annoying. During the industrial revolution, they made some sense. The left were the people who wanted the outputs of the factories belonged to the workers, while the right wanted them to belong to the factory owners. Now it’s the information revolution, producing data, who do we want the data to belong to? The platform-owners like Zuckerberg? Or the users? All of us in the crypto-anarchy space are left-wing; we believe the outputs of the byte-factories should belong to the workers. The crowd at the festival/conference were socially liberal with regard to things like drug prohibition and gay marriage. Yet people identify as ‘right’ because ‘left’ has associations of authoritarian planned economies, and they’re anarchists who believe in free, stigermic activity. People who identify as ‘left’ find that distasteful, because people act for the individual, not the collective. However, that’s wrong too – crypto-anarchists build nothing but network-structures to enable group action (a digital konbit, to use the Haitian word). Bitcoin itself is a digital konbit – a group of people pulling together to create something they couldn’t have created alone. And the sort of voluntarist, non-directed collectivism that Kropotkin talked about is as welcome as the voluntarist, non-directed individualism that I think Ayn Rand talked about (I have not read her). So what’s the answer? Are crypto-anarchists right or left? The answer is that that mental model is bullshit and the sooner you abandon it, the sooner you start to understand.
A panel talked about SEZs, Special Economic Zones. Shenzhen in China, the manufacturing capital of the world, was highly praised, but someone sounded a note of caution, saying that Shenzhen is so sucessful it made everyone want to copy it, but outside of China the data that SEZs are effective is much weaker. I learned that Aqaba is an SEZ now, which made me imagine Peter O’Toole walking bedraggled into a decentralist conference and declaring, “We’ve taken Aqaba!” I learned that Dubai is composed of about 30 SEZs. This reminded me of Michael Castle Miller’s point in the earlier talk, that we need innovation and start-ups in governance, like we have in the private sector.
Max Borders got up and talked about the general ideas I already knew and agreed with, but he presented them well. He said there ain’t no angels, so nobody should be trusted to wield power. If it can be avoided, power should never be given to anyone or anything. Power itself is the problem, or the concentration of power (The first three American presidents said the same thing). However, he went on to say that getting rid of power is no good without network-systems to wield effectiveness without wielding power. We need functioning anarchs to get shit done without power. This is exactly what distributed ledger technology like Bitcoin allows us to do. We must build systems for creative chaos, because if we merely abolish power structures, we get destructive chaos. The "smash the state" crowd need to spend more time in actual failed states; they're not pretty.
After day one wrapped up, I ate Pakistani food with my comrade Tristan, and dropped my backpack in a friend’s house in Oakland, because I refuse to pay $150 for a room in San Francisco on general principles. She has two Mexican Hairless Dogs. Did you know hairless dogs existed? I didn’t. The friend didn’t see much of me that weekend.
Serendipia, a co-living space in San Francisco, were one of the sponsors of the conference, and had an afterparty on Day One. I heard someone at the party say, “Startup cities is what weaponizes innovation”. How San Francisco.
Balaji S. Srinivasan talked about how to be financially independent as a young person, and I felt good because I was already following his advice before he gave it. He said to work online, be mobile, and invest in cryptocurrency. He went on to talk about how every company now is a software company. You can run a hair salon, but you run it with software, and if you aren’t hip to software, your salon is gonna run into problems. Governments must get hip to the groove too. I learned in his speech that the current heads of government in Singapore and Estonia are high-level software scientists who went into politics, which is part of why those countries have policies that make them so cool for tech start-ups. I forget if it was Srinivasan or another speaker who said that the Royal Family of Liechtenstein all use Bitcoin. Srinivasan mentioned teleport.org, which is like NomadList, and I want to check that site out when I get a minute.
Galia Benartzi of Bancor gave a polished presentation on the nature of money, at a conceptual level. If I give you information, I still have the information, but if I give you money, now you have it and I don’t. In the digital world, everything was duplicable until Satoshi Nakamoto invented Bitcoin. Blockchain tokens are non-duplicable, so now we have both money and information in the digital world, and this is as transformative as the digital revolution itself. We had a wave of user-generated digital content around 2005-6, because interfaces became easy enough to allow anyone to put their writing or pictures online. When non-duplicable tokens become that easy, the same wave will happen with economics. She likes local community currencies, but says they have liquidity problems outside their community. She said that if the world’s currency is owned by a government (looking at you, America), then that government has too much power.
Ben Goertzel and his team were making an announcement, and took the stage with a robot that people kept comparing to the one from Ex Machina. After a few glitches getting started, Sophia The Robot spoke fluidly, with her lips moving the way they’re supposed to around her words, and she was capable of turn-taking in conversation with Goertzel. Together, Goertzel and Sophia announced SingularityNet, a project to bring together Artifical General Intelligence research and cryptocurrency research, by creating a global network of robots connected by a blockchain and capable of exchanging money.
After the talks were done, I was hungry and getting cranky with people who tried to network with me. After pulling myself away from some profitable but forced schmoozing, I ate my first Poke bowl. I didn’t really know what a Poke bowl was; they popped up in mid-2016, around the same time as the Pokemon craze, and that’s confusing. Let me clear something up: Pokemon and Poke bowls are two totally unrelated things that coincidentally have similar names. Ordering was a pretty confusing experience – you have to pick 11 kinds of seaweed, 23 raw fish, and 47 different garnishes (or something) – but it was a damn good meal.
Tom and Gary’s Decentralized Dance Party
At the end of the second-and-last day, after the academics and software engineers were done, a bunch of magical unicorns took the stage, barfing rainbows everywhere.
The laid out their Party Manifesto, and their grand plan to win the Nobel Prize For Partying. While they were on stage, Bitcoin hit $4000 for the first time ever, a vote of faith in the decentralized vision, either caused by, or coinciding with, their rainbows.
Normal dance parties have a centralized sound system and a centralized dancefloor. You’ll certainly accept my analogy if I say that is like normal states having centralized policy-making, normal companies having centralized management, or normal currencies have centralized reserve banks. A decentralized dance party is different: the sound comes from ghetto-blasters (boom-boxes, in another dialect) synced in to the same music, and the dancefloor goes here and there on the streets.
So after Poke bowls were consumed, hospitable friends and their hairless dogs were neglected, and Pokemon were irrelevant to the story, we converged in a public park. We spent the next four or five hours dancing around downtown San Francisco: Market Street, the Embarcadero, and all the other ones.
This is the 80th time Tom and Gary have done a party like this. They’ve done them in many cities in many countries, and have the formula figured out. The clownish energy really added something to the weekend, complimenting the smart ideas, hard work, and immense funding that the space also has. I commented to my comrade, “This is a movement. Look at this. This is a movement. It’s not just an industry.”
Conor is going to Burning Man
Back in June, when Bitcoin was about $3000, I had promised my friends that if it hit $4500 before Burning Man, I’d go to Burning Man, funding the tickets and equipment with Bitcoin dividends. It hit $4300 that night, maybe as I was dancing in the streets, but I was feeling so good that I decided that was close enough, and put out the call for tickets. Sitting here typing this, a ticket is in the mail to me.
In a different sense, Bitcoin is over $4500 now, as I made the promise before the hardfork, and now have Bitcoin Cash in addition to my Bitcoin.
This story isn’t even close to done, because I heard at some point above that the gang behind the conference were organizing a cruise the next day, the Sunday. The cruise was a fundraiser for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, (MAPS). MAPS have done small-scale trials on using MDMA/ecstasy to treat soldiers with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, with excellent results. They need to raise $12.5 million to do a big trial, which would be enough to get MDMA approved as a medicine. So Sunday was the crypto psychedelic cruise. It's not surprising cryptocurrency people are interested in legalizing MDMA. There is a common thread there, which is freedom.
Rick Doblin gave a talk about the journey to get government approval for their research and their therapy, and a traumatized soldier talked about his experiences as we buzzed under the Golden Gate bridge. It is amazing how far they have come in the path to legalization – getting any size of trial approved is a battle that takes years. I remember one of the MAPS speakers saying, “We have a very good relationship with the FDA.”
I was surprised to find myself sipping champagne on a philanthropic cruise, with art being auctioned around me, and glamourous women swanning around in gowns. I lived in a tent for a long time. I made a bunch of professional connections, networking like a Machiavellian. As I was hanging out on deck with one guy, a new friend came up and said, “Look at you schmoozing with Adam Kokesh”. I hadn’t known who Adam Kokesh was. After the cruise finished, the people I was with wanted to go home, but we wound up in a club somehow. I barely slept any of these nights.
Tristan invited me to a dinner in the Ceptr house on Monday night. Ceptr is radical. It’s one way to enable non-blockchain cryptocurrency, as I wrote about before, but it's also so much more than that.
15 Ceptr people live in a shared house in San Francisco (they want to move to Berlin, for obvious reasons, so if you can find a house that 15 people could rent for three months in Berlin, get in touch with me). The thing that impressed me the most was that all food in their kitchen is communal; I’ve been to many communal houses before, and the issue of ‘my food’ versus ‘our food’ is settled in different ways, but never like that. I brought wine, two Ceptrons cooked dinner, and we spent the evening talking philosophy.
Ceptr is notroriously hard to describe. I wrote to my non-technically-inclined sister later, “They’re completely reinventing computers/the internet to work in a more holistic, relativistic, organic way.” That’s vague but not wrong. Explore their ideas on their site and on Youtube for a week and you’ll grasp it, but won’t be able to explain it to your friends and family. Think of it this way: when we are philosophically naïve, we think truth is objective, and captured in statements. Certain statements are true, and others are false. When we are naïve, we use a two-valued logic with an objective metaphyics. Modern computing is based on this sort of philosophical naïveté. Many of my readers have probably gone through a process of realizing that truth is relative, and all declarations are made by a particular speaker at a particular time, and is true in their idiom. Ceptr is a computer project to make computers model universe in this Einsteinian-Korzybskian way instead of the Aristotelean way they currently model it. Again, that is just a small part of what Ceptr is about.
It was quite a weekend, all in all. I am energized. I feel that the radical decentralization tribe is changing the world, but they’re actually doing it. It is as real as the personal computer revolution, and possibly more transformative.
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Conor O’Higgins has been a digital nomad for seven years. He learned the internet marketing game with Google and Facebook ads, but in the wake of the Snowden revelations, abandoned that to help marketing and communications for a more decentralized, encrypted internet. He is not a fan of current implementations of social media, but can be contacted through conorohiggins.com