I just signed up for Edgeryders and completed my first mission, which is to “share your ryde.” This provided me with an end-of-year opportunity to think about and document where I’ve been over the past years, so I’m reposting that “mission” here:
I’ll start the story of my Ryde by quoting my first blog post ever (back in 2005):
A few days ago I stopped at a gas station. As I was pumping, I noticed a vole scurrying across the parking lot. The lot was covered with a thin layer of that dry compacted, dirty snow that you get when it’s been cold enough that the snow never melted or turned ice. The vole would zip along for about six feet, and then try to burrow under a clump of snow, only to hit pavement so it would zip another few feet and try again. It had come from behind the gas station where there is a field, and it was headed in the direction of a very busy road. This vole was in for trouble and I’d better do something about it. I was half way through pumping so I finished filling my tank and then turned to see what I could do for the creature.
By the time I’d spotted it again, it was about twenty feet from the road. I headed not towards the vole, but at an angle that would cut it off from the road so I could shoo it back to the field. But it must have know that I was trying to prevent it from moving towards its intended direction because it immediately headed for the road at a modified angle calculated precisely to avoid me.
Within seconds the vole was in the middle of the road. The first semi missed it by five feet. The next one flattened it.
I don’t know if the vole would have gone on to the road had I not tried to save it, probably it would have. But I do know that if I had stopped pumping gas right when I realized that this vole was in for trouble, that I would have had a much better chance of saving it.
I hate pumping gas. Every time I do it, I feel like I’m that vole flinging myself and my fellow humans as fast as possible right toward those tractor-trailer truck wheels. The vole’s consciousness doesn’t even include roads and trucks, but unlike the vole, I know about peak-oil, and global warming. I can see the truck coming. But why didn’t I stop pumping for that vole? Why don’t I stop pumping for all us? How conscious can I become?
I decided to register for Edgeryders after reading this post of Vinay’s. Clearly there’s an affinity of sentiment between Vinay’s post, and mine from that blog post, but that’s not why I signed up. Instead it’s because I’ve been struggling with that sentiment for many years, and decided to take the “Share your Ryde” mission as an opportunity to continue with that struggle.
There’s something that feels righteous about “being willing to face the facts,” about not being in denial about how bad the situation is. It feels responsible, and grown-up. It feels like honesty, like trying not to be self-delusional, as well as being willing to take a stand. All these are attributes I strive for. But my struggle, is around being responsible not only to what is now, but also to what can be, to what is possible. In his post, Vinya writes: “If you’re not aware of this situation, I guarantee you it’s because you’re not paying attention, alas.” That’s a great rhetorical flourish: “If you’re not X, it’s because you’re not paying attention.” Makes me really want to be X because the last thing I want to be blamed of is “not paying attention.” But in attention lies the rub. There are different qualities of attention that yield awareness of facts (how things are), and of possibility (how things might be).
There’s that saying “A falling tree makes more noise than a growing forest.” What I’m most keen on doing, is focusing my attention on the space of actual new possibilities, on listening for the quiet growing forests of our time. For me the key experience in this regard over the last years has been what feels like “openings.” Though I cannot deny the importance of “facing the facts,” what seems of far greater import is to listen for the possibilities, the search for, and openness to, openings. When openings come, they have consequences. An open door is an invitation to at least look into the room behind it. So, to share my ryde is to share openings and their consequences. The direction of my life has changed drastically since 2003, because of a number of openings and the consequences of them. Here are the key ones, not strictly in chronological order, but close:
Opening #1: In 2003 my father gave me two books to read: Interest & Inflation Free Money, by Margrit Kennedy, and The Future of Money by Bernard Leitaer. For me these books were one-way doors. Once I’d stepped through, there was no going back, because suddenly I understood three things: 1) money was a human invention 2) this particular invention is foundational to all human social patterns 3) we can change it, and there-by change our social patterns. Thus, I became open to a huge new possibility.
The consequence of this opening was two-fold: first, that I became involved in a local currency project (one that never got off the ground), and second that I was invited on the board of the E. F. Schumacher Society, a small non-profit that for decades had quietly been working on many decentralist economic efforts, including local-currency efforts, which has now grown and become the New Economics Institute .
In 2004, the Schumacher Society held what I consider to be a pivotal conference called Local Currencies in the 21st Century. Plenary speakers at this conference included both Kennedy and Leitaer (authors of those two books), and also Tom Greco, but most importantly for me, it’s where I met Michael Linton, Jean-François Noubel, and Arthur Brock.
Opening #2: Michael Linton. I knew of Michael before the conference from my reading, as he is a pioneer in the community currency world, well know for his design of LETS, one of the most widely deployed community currency patterns. But at the conference Michael was talking about his ideas for open money. I daresay few people at the conference then, or since then, have understood the import of what Michael was sharing. He was explaining, as a unified vision, the necessary aspects of how the structure of money could to change. Namely that 1) money is information, 2) the pattern of flow of that information in relation to communities should be circular, i.e. issued within the community so it would flow around it, not through it as happens with moneys issued outside of communities. 3) That there must be a rich ecology of currencies appropriate to each communities circumstances. 4) That these currencies must exist in the context of a network that emerges out of an interplay between communities of function (what people do together) and communities of identity (how people see and name themselves). Michael was the first person I met who was thinking coherently on this level and actually trying to build a system that addressed these issues and was designed to scale. Over the next few years I came to work closely with Michael on the open money project.
Opening #3: Michael introduced me to Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety, and to Reed’s Law of Group forming Networks. These two “Laws” are both fascinating and deep, and they clearly apply to money and currency systems. Single national currencies fail to provide the systemic regulatory variety necessary for a healthy economy. Also, a multi-currency network would be an incredible group-forming network. But the real opening for me was not so much in the laws themselves, but in that they both point to the fact that in networked and cybernetic systems, new ways of thinking are necessary, and the results are surprising and non-intuitive.
Opening #4: Jean-François Noubel. At the Local Currencies conference Jean-François was sharing his work on Collective Intelligence. This work identifies and describes the evolution of the forms of collective intelligence from “original collective intelligence” through where we are now, which he calls “pyramidal collective intelligence,” on to the possibility of “global collective intelligence.” In his work, Jean-François also focuses on “invisible architectures,” those patterns that, mostly unconsciously, regulate our lives. One of the most crucial that he identifies, of course, is the monetary system. Looking at the world through the this opening, the lens of collective intelligence and invisible architectures, gave me, and continues to give me, not only a powerful explanatory rubric for how things are now, but also where they might go.
Consequences, phase I: I’m trained as coder (I have a B.S in computer science), but just before my father gave me the books that constitute opening #1, I had decided to give up coding. Over the years I had written a bunch of a good code that had made a bunch customers happy, but I didn’t feel like it was right. I wanted to be focusing on something that had a deeper impact. So I gave it up, and told my partner that I wanted out of our small dev shop. Well, after openings 1-4, I found myself right back in coding land. I knew that now I had the opportunity to try and implement software systems that could realize the promise of a new monetary system. This felt like impact. So this led to working closely with Michael to build a web-app that was pretty much to his open money specifications, and was meant to be a single server fully functional prototype to demonstrate what a networked multi-currency system would look like. That system is still operational and used in a couple of places. You can check the dev site.
Opening #5: The levels of Wealth and their relation to systems. This opening was sparked by Jean-François Noubel, who described to me a taxonomy of wealth. He had realized that money is a tool that focuses on building tradable wealth, but that tradable wealth is just a small subset of measurable wealth, which itself is a subset of acknowledgeable wealth. What I realized, is that those levels exist because of systemic truths, i.e. that each level of wealth corresponds to levels of systemic integrity. That tradable wealth corresponds with parts and products of systems, and measurable wealth corresponds with properties of systems as a whole, and acknowledgeable wealth corresponds with relationships between systems. Here is where I first wrote about all this: http://openmoney.info/sophia/.
Opening #6: Arthur Brock, flow and current-see. The opening about the levels of wealth came pretty much at the same time as I was also deepening my association with Arthur Brock who I had first met at the Local Currency conference. When I met him at the conference he was championing what he called “targeted currencies,” special purpose currencies for solving particular community problems, rather than general purpose exchange currencies. Arthur had been using the metaphor of the electromagnetic spectrum, comparing monetary currencies to visible light, when there was actually much larger range of currency “frequencies” that were available to solve other problems. But it wasn’t until I came to understand Art’s deeper definition of currency, as “current-see” or formal information systems that allows us to see and interact with currents, flows, that the things really came together. These different levels of wealth, corresponding to the levels of systemic integrity, also needed corresponding currency types, to manage the different types of flow that are taking place at those different systemic levels.
Consequences, phase II: Openings #5 & 6 showed that my first open money system wasn’t enough, that as well as being able to create new currencies in the network environment, that it would be necessary create multiple types of currency that operated very differently depending on which level of wealth they were targeting. I wanted to build a generalized “wealth acknowledgement” system. And I also wanted to try my hand at building a system that would be client-server based that would allow multiple servers to play and thus be decentralized. At the time I met Geoff Chesshire who had also been working with Michael Linton and was building a currency system called Regenerosity, which used the idea of laying down what amounted to a social network graph to record the changing relationships in a community, which is essentially what monetary transaction are. Using these ideas I built a whole new system. Here’s an overview of the technical architecture (what I called the Mesh & Churn): http://openmoney.info/techne/overview.html, and the code I wrote to implement it is here: https://github.com/openmoney. A demo site is still up at: http://omclient.heroku.com/
The new system was working, and it was pretty easy to create mutual credit currencies, as well as reputation currencies, and if you were a geek you could configure other types of currencies too. But there was a big problem. Though I had made allowance for these different types of currencies, technically most of my focus was on laying down that social graph, the mesh. I hadn’t yet paid lots of attention to what the range structure of different possible currencies could be, and how I was going to integrate that.
Opening #7: David Abram’s “Spell of the Sensuous.” Abram’s book provides an amazing account of how we’ve shifted the locus of meaning from the natural sensual world to human constructed one in the form of our abstract alphabet. The opening came while reading his account of the evolution of writing. That description opened my eyes not only to how currency is very much like writing, but that it’s also on a similar evolutionary track, going from a very concrete representation form, “pictograms”, to a much more abstract one, an “alphabet.” We think of modern money as very abstract, most often just bits in a computer. But what I realized, is that money is still very concrete, and just like pictographic writing. It’s not abstract at all because all moneys so far use the same encoding mechanism they always have for value: relative scarcity (just like all pictograms use the same encoding mechanism for meaning: shape) And that encoding mechanism is only really appropriate for tradable wealth where scarcity is true for parts and products of systems. It’s not appropriate for the wider levels of wealth. What I saw is that we have no “alphabet” for encoding all the levels of value, and that’s what the open money system I’d been working on could evolve into. I’ve written a couple blog posts about this if you want to read about it in more depth: here and here.
Consequences, phase III: The rise of the MetaCurrency project, XGFL & the Flowplace. By this time, it was clear that I was interested in more than “money” because monetary currencies are those that apply to the smallest circle of wealth, tradable wealth. I was committed to working on what I was calling a “meta-currency” system that had a currency specification language that would be capable of representing wealth at all levels. So Art & I co-founded the MetaCurrency project to be a home for the tech protocols and know-how that would make this happen. Focusing on this problem from the currency-specification language point of view resulted in a design document that included the Simple Game Format Language (SGFL) which later became XGFL (X for eXtensible). This language was to be for currencies, as HTML was for web resources.
At the same time I started working with Jean-François and Fernanda Ibarra who together wanted to a usable platform for groups of early adopters they were working with in the transitioner network who wanted to start living these ideas of multi-level-wealth currencies. So together we built the Flowplace. Here’s the demo site. The Flowplace implements the XGFL language, and at the same time includes a bunch of other important ideas necessary for actually organizing communities (what we called circles) around them and making them useful, the equivalent of a marketplace in the multi-level-currency context. Jean-François and Fernanda have used the Flowplace in a number of contexts and people have had transformative experiences as it can give a taste of a what a multi-level-currency world might look like. But from my perspective, as a system designer, this experiment, like my previous one, was a dead end. Where the Mesh & Churn didn’t have a native way to include currency specification, the Flowplace with XGFL, didn’t have a native way to relate currencies to each-other. We did do some important work on what we called membrane currencies to address this difficiency, but it just didn’t feel right, and I knew it didn’t have legs.
Opening #8: The evolution of expressive capacity. Unlike all the other openings I’ve listed, for this one I can’t pinpoint its source. Of course it builds on all the other openings, but there’s not a particular person, conversation or writing or even moment that I can remember where it arrived. I think its the product of all of us working together around the MetaCurrency project. I now see that all the previous openings were partial views of this bigger pattern. So, yes, money is information, and yes, its evolution is like that of writing, but here’s the deeper pattern: It appears that the greatest leaps in “novelty,” i.e. increased possibility that we know of, all arise because of the emergence of new embodied information encoding systems, what I like to call “expressive capacities”. DNA, neurons, language, writing, the printing press, computers, these are all examples, at various levels of complexity, of such expressive capacities that allow for a explosion of possibility that is unimaginable before their arrival. Notice that though they are all “revolutionary” some of these new expressive capacities are more revolutionary than others. The invention of writing and the printing press are extensions of the basic expressive capacity of language. But the arrival of language and DNA are much more, shall we say, foundational.
So here’s the crux of the opening: I see that we are at nexus point where new expressive capacity is ready to emerge that’s on the same “foundational” level as language and DNA. Our current day money is to that new expressive capacity as the coordinating hunting grunts of some proto-hominids is to language. Just as those grunts were somehow synthesized into a small collection of phonemes out of which an infinite number of words could be built, and which themselves are connected and organized into the subject-predicate grammar of human language, so is there the possibility for us to evolve away from that form of grunting we call money. What we can it evolve toward, is, for the lack of a better term, a language of flow. What this language expresses as an embodied information encoding system, is the equivalent of DNA, but for social, rather than biological organism.
Consequences, phase IV: After this opening became clear, it was pretty obvious what the problem was with XGFL. It’s at the wrong expressive level. Expressive capacities are all built out of fairly simple nested composable units. Narratives are built from paragraphs, which are built from sentences, which are built from phrases, which are built from words, which are built from word parts, which are built from phonemes, which are built from phones. The rules for composability at each level are fairly simple, yet the variety of that which is expressible is infinite because of the combinatorial explosion. This same property works for all other expressive capacities, think of DNA and neurons, a small vocabulary of composable parts, mixable with definite meaningful grammatics. You see the pattern. Starting with XGFL to define currencies was like starting with a whole paragraph as the basic unit for a language. It was an expressive capacity without the necessary simple levels of composability. Here’s a blog post where I wrote about this. That post includes a diagram of a new architecture that we worked on for quite a while, but again, it didn’t quite feel right, until…
Opening #9: The Receptive Stance. In November of 2010, I flew to Denver for a working retreat with Art. The opening came early on in our working sessions. I have photo of the flip chart with the exact quote we wrote down when it came: “Composition requires creation of a negative space, i.e. receptors for an as of yet unknown interaction.” For so long we had been searching for some currency ontology, i.e. we were trying to figure out what the basic currency components were out of which we could build our flow language. This opening had us flip our attention, i.e. not to look for the parts, but to look at the negative space, the structure of containment that could allow for the rise of as of yet unknown parts.
Consequences, phase V: From this opening a whole slew of other things have emerged (and are still emerging). These consequences haven’t played out yet, so I’ll just say that it’s led to what we are calling the ceptr platform, as well as a strategic plan for rolling it out, which includes a very cool app call Streamscapes. Prototyping for both of these is at: https://github.com/zippy/anansi
To close, as short story: I live in an intentional community. One of the things we’ve been doing here is lots of planting. For me, this meant that besides starting a terracing system to create a kitchen garden this year, I also planted four fruit trees: a cherry, two peaches and an apple. I decided to buy fairly large trees (not the less expensive bare root trees you can get) but ones that were already a good six foot tall with a root-ball, to get a head start. It felt like a good investment. Well, not more than a month after planting, the apple tree started leaning over in the wind. So I added some stakes and support to help stabilize it. A month later I found the tree almost lying flat. Examining it, closely I found that it was no longer a tree with roots, but rather more like a stake with branches jammed into the ground. Some critters had totally separated the growing trunk from all the roots. Turns out it was voles. Nearby the trees I had dumped a large pile of manure which was planning to spread in the spring. The warmth of pile is now host to a prolific family of voles, that apparently also took advantage of the soft earth that resulted from my digging a nice hole to plant the apple tree, and enjoyed the roots and bark of the tree in the mean time.
So here are the voles again, intersecting with my life. But this time, oddly, something I did was giving them life, and to my expense! There is the economic farmer in me who’s frustrated and angry. Frustrated at the loss of a $50 tree, and wanting to just go get rid of those @&!#@* voles. But there’s someone else in me who’s laughing. I can’t quite name that person, but I feel like he/she’s laughing at a joke that’s on me, and it’s actually a good-humored joke. It feels like maybe that vole-chewed tree is part of a bigger pattern that I can’t quite see, but that person inside me can see it, and is chuckling at my farmer response to the vole. What is that pattern? I don’t know for sure. But what I am sure of, is that though I have to be responsible to facts of the current reality, at this stage, it’s essential that pay very close attention for openings through which I may be able to become responsible to emergent possibilities.