Morning notes

10.22, Friday 28 Jan 2022

This morning is the first time I’ve been out of the house in 10 days (Covid) so I went for a walk, grabbed a coffee.

The sheer wonderful sensory overload of it all! The birdsong, sure, and the cold air on the skin. By the time I sat on the bench outside the coffee shop I was noticing the wisps of steam from buildings in the distance, my visual field having that uncentred fractal depth of a Burtynsky photograph, and the changing soundscape around me of bikes and people walking by on the phone; and the sugar and soft give, biting into the cannelle and the bitterness of the coffee.

The everyday anew.

Chatting with the barista I found similarly fresh, and I find myself thinking now about community and that our sense of sociality, togetherness, is as much of a sense as any of the others, conversational interaction no different from sound waves or photons.

I went back and read John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace from 1996. Here’s the gist:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. …

I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. …

Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. …

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. …

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here. …

We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.


Yes punchy even for 1996, but I remember feeling pretty much like that too in the mid 90s.

BUT it turned out that cyberspace is in fact tethered to matter, and therefore to geography, and therefore to government, in two ways: one, our bodies; two, the physical infrastructure of the internet.

And it turns out that what got built very much resembles what humans collectively build in the early 21st century. We built a city. Like London, the internet is mostly privatised public space; with a small number of grand semi-public institutions propped up by traditional mainly; law and order maintained by psychologically panoptic surveillance rather than civility or community policing, and even then there’s a non-trivial black economy and there’s a bunch of crime so you need to have your wits about you; significant class differences encoded in the architecture.

Is the internet what we would have built in 1950? 2050? Probably not. It represents our time.

So of course I dug this out because there are similarly punchy statements about the independence of the new internet, this time from the incumbent corporations and financial systems. I’m talking about crypto and web3 of course – it’s decentralised, it’s self-governing, it’s not (or shouldn’t be) subject to existing regulation, and so on.

And maybe that’s a mistake? Instead of declaring or assuming independence, focus on the kind of society we can build with these new technologies, and the way the trajectory of our society can be inflected and toward what values, taking as a starting point that it will of course be enmeshed with the existing real world.

After posting about Soviet (community services) vs Western (household automation) approaches to laundry earlier this week, I learnt about The Washing Machine Project (thanks @cadars):

70% of the world’s population lacks access to an electric washing machine.

Handwashing clothes sounds like a simple task but for many women around the world, it poses a significant obstacle to their wellbeing and livelihood.

By providing displaced and low-income communities with an accessible, off-grid washing solution, our mission is to empower women with the time to take charge over their lives.

This has caught my imagination as a general algorithm for progress: identify the cheapest way to create surplus hours for the largest number of people; do that; repeat.

Because there are other ways of lifting up communities around the world – public health initiatives, access to the internet for education and jobs, etc.

But there’s something really direct about about a focus on surplus hours. Which can be gained from reducing domestic labour (like this project) or by working on health (reducing family care overhead; extending lives). Same same, underneath it all. And hours in the day is what you need to do anything else; time is the ultimate constraint.

The metric for intervention includes cost, so you would look at: hours gained per million dollars spent. Economic utilitarianism (is that what we would call this?) is a blunt instrument but it would be fascinating to see different approaches stacked up.

On with the day! Gm as the kids say.

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