Vinay Gupta: Do you guys know about John Snow? He’s our local London stack­tivist saint.

So 1854, there’s a cholera out­break in London and peo­ple are drop­ping like flies. This is in the bad days when cholera could real­ly pret­ty much kill a city. This has hap­pened right in Soho. In fact there’s still a pub called John Snow right in Soho, which I quite often go to drink at sort of as a com­mem­o­ra­tion of Snow.

Snow takes a map of Soho and he draws a dot in every place where a per­son died, and pret­ty soon he’s got what he’s got what he calls a ghost map, and in the mid­dle of ghost map there is the Soho well. So he goes to the well and says, Right, what’s caus­ing the cholera must be in the water,” he takes the han­dle off the well, and the epi­dem­ic stops. And every­body goes, Wow. Cholera [inaudi­ble] water. You just stopped an epi­dem­ic. You’ve made the invis­i­ble vis­i­ble. Here’s the ghost map. Fantastic.”

The [inaudi­ble] after part, which I only dis­cov­ered when I was tak­ing a look at this stuff again last night, is that lat­er on they put the han­dle back on the well. They dig the whole thing up, they clean it up, put the han­dle back on the well, and the mem­o­ry that choler­a’s caused by dirty water is polit­i­cal­ly sup­pressed because it’s such a gross thought that you throw shit in your water sup­ply. And they went right back to doing what they were doing before. Unbelievable.

So this stuff is prac­ti­cal and his­tor­i­cal in our con­text. This is not all stuff that hap­pens in oth­er peo­ple’s coun­tries. This actu­al­ly hap­pened right here 150 years ago, and it was a huge deal.

Now we’re going to go and real­ly go through the wide pic­ture of this. These things here are called hexa­yurts, and it’s an open-source build­ing. The nut­shell of why this is worth­while is the wall pieces are full pieces of 4×8, and all the roof pieces are half-sheets. So it’s the sim­plest way of tak­ing stan­dard indus­tri­al mate­ri­als and mass-producing hous­ing, from these small pods up to these very large build­ings. Zero waste, [?] effi­cient, easy to do, 1,000 units built at Burning Man last year, open hard­ware, epidemic.

If we were going to try and pro­vide for nine bil­lion peo­ple, let’s think about the nat­ur­al mate­r­i­al base. Copper. A bil­lion tons of cop­per ore, the ore is about 1% met­al. Actually, usu­al­ly .3, .5, but we’ll call it 1%. Take the amount of proven reserve and eco­nom­i­cal­ly recov­er­able ore, divide it by the num­ber of peo­ple, and it comes out to be a kilo­gram each, per life­time. That’s how much cop­per there is. 

Now, as you do higher-priced cop­per, what’s eco­nom­i­cal­ly recov­er­able increas­es, but we’re still talk­ing on the order of 1, 5, 10 kilo­grams of cop­per per human per life­time. This is a com­plete­ly new kind of design chal­lenge. There’s no way that you can take the civ­i­liza­tion we have and re-scale it for 110 kilo­grams of cop­per per human per life­time. You just can’t. You have to think in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent way if you’re going to oper­ate inside of this frame­work where you take the sus­tain­able har­vest of the Earth and you divide by nine billion.

You don’t just have to divide by nine bil­lion now, you have to assume that future gen­er­a­tions will come, you have to leave the seed corn, you have to leave the stand­ing forests, you have to leave recy­clable mate­ri­als. Otherwise there’s just no way to make it work. It’s design with a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent con­straint. It’s not how you can make it back, it’s how can you con­tin­ue to make it back for thou­sands of years, per manufacturer.

So we have to go back to this core ques­tion: How do we turn what we have into what we need? And that core ques­tion is buried right at the heart of almost every human activ­i­ty. But all the way through it gets obscured by meth­ods. The core need is cov­ered up by the mar­ket, or it’s cov­ered up by social­ism, or it’s cov­ered up by envi­ron­men­tal­ism. But this is what we’re doing. And what makes us the tool-using ape is that we’ve got hands and minds and mouths which allow us a whole addi­tion­al set of options that we don’t oth­er­wise have, and it’s all around this agenda.

Jay men­tioned the Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps stack. Let’s actu­al­ly break that map out. So, the things you need to stay alive. Shelter. You don’t want to be too hod or too cold; that’s the build­ing we’re in. Supply. You don’t want to be hun­gry or thirsty; that’s the food sup­ply chain from which you bought your break­fast this morn­ing. It’s the water you see all around you from munic­i­pal taps or plas­tic bot­tles that came from oth­er places. Illness and injury. If some­body got very ill for some rea­son, you call 999. If some­body came and tried to kick down the door, we’d call 999. Or we’d just beat the hell out of him. But all of this stuff forms a matrix of ser­vices around us. That matrix which Jay showed before spreads across lev­els, indi­vid­ual, group, orga­ni­za­tion, state, at increas­ing dis­tant levels.

For groups, you want three fac­tors: com­mu­ni­ca­tion, trans­port, work­space. Communication is how you knew to come here, trans­port’s how you got here, work­space is the build­ing that you’re in. That’s more or less every­thing that you need in terms of phys­i­cal assets for a civ­i­lized soci­ety. Six things to stop peo­ple dying, three things to help peo­ple form groups.

Organizations. Groups with spe­cial mis­sions. An orga­ni­za­tion is a group that decides it’s going to do some­thing. This is the archi­tec­ture for that deci­sion. You look at the map of real­i­ty that every­body agrees on, you make a plan rel­a­tive to the map, and if the peo­ple that have struc­tur­al pow­er in that sys­tem begin to mis­be­have you get rid of them, and every­body agrees how to do that [inaudi­ble].

From there you can move up to the state, again a com­plex struc­ture. Effective orga­ni­za­tion, claimed ter­ri­to­ry, a list of cit­i­zens, inter­na­tion­al recog­ni­tion, gets you a legal juris­dic­tion. And the legal juris­dic­tion is the equiv­a­lent of the suc­ces­sion mod­el for the orga­ni­za­tion. It’s how you can make decisions.

Now, half of that stuff is not phys­i­cal. The phys­i­cal objects: too hot, too cold, hunger, thirst, ill­ness, injury, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, trans­port, work­space). The non-phys­i­cal: resource con­trol, shared map, plan, suc­ces­sion mod­el, orga­ni­za­tion, ter­ri­to­ry, cit­i­zens, recog­ni­tion, juris­dic­tion. All that stuff is just ghosts in the machine. You can build an arbi­trar­i­ly com­plex and sophis­ti­cat­ed set of ghosts in the machine, on almost no phys­i­cal stuff. Athenian democ­ra­cy ran in a real­ly big square with peo­ple that shout­ed real­ly loud. So we can have a com­plex, sophis­ti­cat­ed soci­ety with­out hav­ing com­pli­cat­ed stuff.


This is a map of how our soci­ety cur­rent­ly oper­ates, using this scheme. It’s actu­al­ly ten times more com­pli­cat­ed than that, but it’s bad enough to get us start­ed. Here’s your basic needs down one axis, here’s your tiers of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion across the other. 

But if you go back to the vil­lage lev­el, sud­den­ly the com­plex­i­ty drops enor­mous­ly. Six basic needs, going out to the neigh­bor­hood or vil­lage lev­el of orga­ni­za­tion, that’s a much more solv­able prob­lem. So even if you add com­mu­ni­ca­tions, trans­port, and work­space, you only need to get nine things orga­nized up to the vil­lage lev­el in order to have a sus­tain­able soci­ety that you can then build arbi­trary lev­els of com­plex­i­ty on top of with­out increas­ing your phys­i­cal con­sump­tion foot­print. And that to me rep­re­sents a man­age­able pos­si­bil­i­ty. I can pret­ty much guar­an­tee that if we put some real work into fig­ur­ing out how to do the vil­lages, we could plan, we could exe­cute, we could suc­ceed in pro­duc­ing vil­lages that pro­duce an essen­tial­ly first-world stan­dard of liv­ing on a ful­ly sus­tain­able basis.

That is a list of tech­nolo­gies that I think are a third or a half of what you need to make the vil­lage work in almost any place in the world. It’s all there. It’s all lit­tle bits of plas­tic or cheap soft­ware or bits of met­al. It’s things that could be man­u­fac­tured to last for­ev­er. It’s a com­plete­ly work­able system.

I’m going to very quick­ly bang through a bonus round which was not sched­uled, but it’s kind of time­ly. But I’ll take ques­tions in two parts. When we get to ques­tions, we’ll take some ques­tions on the ongo­ing stuff of struc­tur­al activism, but I want to talk very briefly about stack­tivism and nation­al secu­ri­ty state. Basically, the thing that’s been tak­en off the polit­i­cal map and ren­dered invis­i­ble is the nuclear weapon. We stopped wor­ry­ing about this stuff in 1990 when declared peace, and the rea­son that we can’t get any effec­tive pur­chase against things like the NSA spy­ing is because the nuclear weapon is not sit­ting under the NSA.

There’s the nuclear bureau­cra­cy which is civil­ian nuclear pow­er plants that make the plu­to­ni­um, the enor­mous indus­tri­al base required to pro­duce the sub­marines and the mis­siles and pro­vide them plu­to­ni­um, and then all of the addi­tion­al infra­struc­ture required to pro­tect those assets from all threats for­eign and domes­tic. The NSA and sim­i­lar struc­tures are basi­cal­ly just parts of the nuclear bureau­cra­cy. It’s impos­si­ble to imag­ine putting so much pres­sure on the NSA that it goes away, or at least stops spy­ing on us, in a way that does­n’t acknowl­edge it’s part of a much larg­er, much more inte­grat­ed system. 

That sys­tem now clear­ly includes Apple, Microsoft, and most of the big tech com­pa­nies. They’re all part of this nation­al secu­ri­ty struc­ture. The lev­el of sur­veil­lance that we’re oper­at­ing against is sub­stan­tial­ly high­er than what was envis­aged in 1984. In 1984, the viewscreen was not trav­el­ing in your pock­et, and it was­n’t looked at by machines, it was still looked at by human beings. Because the hard­ware that we use and the soft­ware that we use are all inter­con­nect­ed into this huge sys­tem, the lev­el of mon­i­tor­ing through the infra­struc­ture which is owned by large com­pa­nies, which are clients of the nation­al secu­ri­ty indus­try is absolute­ly enor­mous. So there’s a thread that goes from the cell phone in your pock­et, through the oper­at­ing sys­tem, then through the net­work, through the back­bones, through the hard­ware man­u­fac­tur­ers, all the way up to the nuclear weapons bureaucracies.

The last thing is you want to be extreme­ly wary of cryp­tog­ra­phy because the tra­di­tion­al approach that secu­ri­ty agen­cies have tak­en to cryp­tog­ra­phy is very sim­ple. They allow your tar­get to believe that their cryp­to is secure, and then they com­mu­ni­cate on it as if it’s a secure chan­nel and they read every­thing they say. That’s what the NSA’s dream world is, and there’s a long his­to­ry of that state being pro­duced by extreme­ly sub­tle intel­li­gence meth­ods. So don’t trust civil­ian cryp­to. You might want to look at PGP 2.6.2, which is leg­en­dar­i­ly offen­sive to the state and there­fore might have been secure at the time. Whether it still is is an open question.

We have to real­ly think about oper­at­ing sys­tem secu­ri­ty in a com­plete­ly new way. The path that we’re cur­rent­ly on is impos­si­ble to secure in the long run. We need to go back to look­ing at things like capability-based oper­at­ing sys­tems. And until we rebuild a secure com­mu­ni­ca­tions infra­struc­ture which is own and man­aged by the peo­ple we’re not going to be any fur­ther for­ward. Whitespace mesh net­work is worth look­ing at.

So that’s the end of what I have to say. The pitch that I want to make is it’s pos­si­ble to man­age the crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture build-out of free, safe, sane soci­eties at the vil­lage lev­el of com­plex­i­ty with exist­ing tech­nol­o­gy and a bit of hard work. Everything past that is still spec­u­la­tive, but the stuff that we can do could poten­tial­ly put half of the human race on a real­ly sol­id foot­ing with­out requir­ing them to come into the same rat trap that we’re in.

Thank you.

Further Reference

Vinay’s home page.

The Thought Menu