Chris Dancy: Welcome to Mindful Cyborgs episode 51, the agency show. Hey, welcome, Sarah. Welcome, Klint. Nice to be back with you guys.
Watson: Hi, Chris.
Klint Finley: Hey.
Watson: Hi. Klint.
Dancy: I feel adequately aroused from our our guest last week. And we’re back again to talk with Eleanor. Hi, Eleanor.
Eleanor Saitta: Hey! Happy to be back.
Dancy: So, great stuff you shared with us last time. We kind of dove into the quantified self, and then we kinda got back to surveillance. And I really love it whenever you start going into agency, because I think that kind of answers a lot of— It’s the intersection for a lot of things for me.
Just on a little side, personal note, what made you interested in all of this? Was it seeing the Internet change, or…?
Saitta: I mean, I don’t know. You just fall into this kind of thing. So partially, I ended up…I worked at NASA Ames. I worked at IBM’s Human Factors Lab when I was in high school. My dad was an architect, which ends up kind of dragging you into thinking a lot about how cities work and how buildings work. And how people perform in space. A lot of the roleplaying…the things that I got from roleplaying that eventually led to me finding and being interested in Nordic larp and that kind of performance of social scripts… Kind of growing up on the Internet, just seeing all of this stuff collide. This is kind of what you get that surfaces out of it.
Watson: Now, I have a follow-up question, which is, you describe yourself as a barbarian, and I wonder how that fits into the whole picture. And what that actually means.
Saitta: I mean, that’s kind of a joke. But it’s basically that you know, there are times when the appropriate reaction is to work within systems, and there are times when the appropriate reaction is to work outside of systems to replace them with new systems that are more functional. And I think that we are living in the last days of Rome, and it is time for some Visigoths.
And, you know, I would really like it if the way that this transition happened could be that we kind of peacefully and gently learn how to build systems in parallel to the ones that we have and move over carefully. Because I don’t really like what happens when systems just crash. But it is definitely also time for some real systemic change, and in so many areas.
Watson: I like that, because it’s both kind of tongue in cheek but also actually quite profound.
Finley: Maybe we can use that to segue to picking up where you left off in the last episode in kind of talking about some these connections between things like Briar and urbanism and surveillance activism. Where does all this fit together, and where you see it all going?
Saitta: Well, let me just sketch out a few things real quick. So Briar, briarproject.org, is a decentralized, delay-tolerant messaging system. And it just runs on phones, etc. It doesn’t have any kind of central server. There’s no there there, there’s just the network.
It can deal with systems that are offline. So, one of the one of the big deployment scenarios that we actually target is disasters. So you know, hey your network has just blown up and you’ve maybe got the Red Cross they’ve got some satellite links. And you’ve got a bunch of phones, and some of them can talk to each other. And let’s turn this back into something functional.
And that also works in protest scenarios. It works in kind of higher security organizing scenarios. It also works in just like, I’m running around town on a Friday night and hey, I’m coming in and out of the subway and there isn’t actually ubiquitous Internet.
Kind of the first app that’s getting shipped there is just a messaging app. But one of the things that we want to look at doing, and kind of where that’s going in the longer term, is looking at something like Taarifa, which is a really interesting system that’s basically on a crowdsourced information-gathering system with workflow built on top of it so that you can get, for instance, [a] report of, “Hey, there’s a water point that’s broken in Dar es Salaam.” Or they’ve got a big World Bank project deployed. Let’s get somebody to verify that, get somebody to approve a fix, get that fixed paid for, get it jobbed out to a contractor, get them to fix it, get it verified, and then notify everybody in the chain. Which is an incredibly powerful thing in a situation where you don’t really have the kind of conventional Western infrastructure management systems that we’ve come to expect. And it’s a much more lightweight way of standing up the same thing.
Now, I’d like to combine that with something like Briar so you can do that without needing that kind of central structure. You can build a central structure out of a decentralized system. But you can’t do it the other way around. And this then means really interesting things about establishing lightweight political and infrastructural systems that work and can be democratic in more meaningful ways.
Now, to take a cluster like that and make it actually do anything, you need to understand how a city works. You need to understand the social rituals that go with these kinds of systems. You need to build sociality around a system like that. And that’s one of the many reasons why I find a lot of the Nordic larp stuff really interesting, because it’s basically a toolkit for social prototyping.
Watson: So, I’m not familiar with Nordic larping. Can you give us a little bit more on what makes it Nordic?
Saitta: So, it’s Nordic because it comes from the Nordic countries. And there’s actually disputes about oh, it should be “progressive larp” or whatever. But it’s basically you know, live-action roleplaying kind of evolved everywhere in the world somewhere in the mid-80s, and people started running around the woods hitting each other with foam swords. And then, kind of because of the more collective culture in Scandinavia, people first thought, “Well, let’s start taking this… You know, I know this is a fantasy world and all, but let’s start taking our costumes a bit more seriously.” And by the mid-90s they were at the point where it was really not okay to show up at a serious game with machine-sewn underwear. Because somebody might see them, and you know, it’s really not okay.
But then at a certain point, it shifted towards looking at character, and story, and world, and that kind of stuff [in] a more in-depth way. And they’ve been telling some really amazing and deeply emotionally-moving stories there.
The first game that I ended up playing in was called Just a Little Lovin’, and it was played at [?] outside Oslo a few years ago. But it was set in a summer house in the Hudson River in Upstate New York. And it was sett over three consecutive Fourth of July parties in ’82, ’83, and ’84 in the gay scene at the start the AIDS epidemic. And it was an incredibly moving story. It was a recreation of a certain point of history that conveyed a much deeper understanding of what that meant and what it meant to be alive then than I’ve got from any other perspective. But it was also an embodiment of that history. And that’s a very different thing. It gives you a completely different kind of understanding of what a sociality means.
Watson: I imagine that kind of has the effect of producing a lot of empathy for the context, right?
Saitta: Yeah, and that’s why I talk about it as a prototyping system for social scripts. Because you can write out a social script. You can write out a frame. You know, we’ve got tools from psychology and ethnography to talk about what happens. But understanding what they mean emotionally is a lot more difficult. And there’s a great talk at last year’s Nordic Larp Talks from Eirik Fatland, who was saying, “I don’t know if Nordic larp is important; Nordic larp design’s definitely important.” Because it’s a toolkit for producing and evaluating and criticizing the emotional impact of social scripts, which is desperately, desperately needed. And it’s a tool that surfaces of the power and the agency and kind of how all that stuff goes and moves around, which is exactly the kind of tool we need if we’re going to take something like a Fitbit or a GCHQ, JTRIG, societal manipulation program, or an Ushahidi or Taarifa kind of infrastructure management system, or a social network, and try to understand what they mean. Especially if we’d like to understand what they mean before we deploy them at the scale of an entire society.
Watson: Yeah, I like the kind of prototyping aspect of it.
Finley: Has it started to spread beyond Scandinavia much yet, do you know?
Saitta: It’s starting to. Actually, next week is the big annual conference. This year it’s in Denmark. It kind of rotates between the four Nordic countries. And there’s an increasing number of Americans and folks from elsewhere in Europe. There’s a whole set of parlor games, which are kind of like shorter larps (“jeepform” is another word for them) that are kind of playable and tend to come with complete scripts. So they’re one of the ways that this stuff is starting to spread outside of its context. Although I still think that a lot of the longer, larger games are a lot more interesting.
If you’re interested in Nordic larp, there are two books, The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp and The Nordic Larp book. Both of them are available in the wiki on nordiclarp.org. The Nordic Larp book is a compendium of documentation from about thirty games that gives a pretty good overview of the history of the discourse some of where it’s going to now. And then The Foundation Stone is a collection of I guess twenty-four historical essays plus a few commissioned ones that look at—from from the history of the discourse that kind of explain the theory and the way we think about these. So, those are two pretty good entry points if you want to understand what’s actually going on there.
Dancy: And it looks like you have some amazing videos on your site on larp.
Saitta: Yeah, the Nordic larp talk videos are all pretty impressive. They’re kind of TED-style talks designed for an outside audience, to kind of spread the gospel.
Dancy: Where in the Nordics is this, or is this all over?
Saitta: All over.
Dancy: I’ve spent a lot of time there and I have a lot of friends there, and no one’s ever told me about this.
Saitta: Well, they’re clearly holding out on you.
Dancy: They are holding out on me. Trust me. Daniel, Rita, if you’re listening, I’m coming after you.
Saitta: I mean, in Denmark especially, larp is kind of thought of as a kids’ thing. And so when when we say Nordic larp, and this is one of the reasons why there’s the debate about changing the name, this is really kind of like art-house larp, right? This is a small community within that group. But in Denmark, more kids larp every month than play football. There are I think at least two schools that are kind of ninth and tenth grade—I forget the term, but the city kids come into the country side and the country kids go into the city side, and they mix everybody up and it’s sort of this gap year sort of thing. And there’s two of those schools that are taught entirely through larp. So, it’s actually relatively mainstream.
Watson: Is it like a larp Rumpsringa?
Saitta: Kind of? Yeah.
Dancy: It’s interesting that it’s the Scandinavian countries. One of things I found last last year, because last year I traveled way too much for my health… But the countries I went to where they spoke more than three languages natively, just like you know, “We just speak five languages. That’s just the way it works.” They seem to be way ahead in every way possible.
Saitta: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think in this case this is a language thing as much as it is a sociality thing, that these are very collectivist cultures of a certain kind of collectivism that allow weird—you know, like they’re liberal but collectivist. And that has ended up kind of really shaping this as a movement.
Dancy: Yeah. I don’t think it’s really the language thing, but I just noticed the Nordic countries—one of the first countries I went to where people spoke three or four languages automatically, without even thinking about it. And as a collective, you’re right. I mean, when I go to Helsinki or especially Sweden, they just do everything differently as a collective. And you have to kind of—it makes me wonder. And some of the tech that’s come out of that area has been really interesting. It just makes you really question—was it Nokia. Nokia’s a Nordic company, isn’t it?
Saitta: Nokia’s Finnish, yeah.
Dancy: Finnish, yeah.
Finley: And Erickson is Swedish.
Dancy: Yeah, so it kind of makes you want to go back and look at some of the history you know, three or four hundred years ago for the area, just for the kingdom of Denmark and find out what the heck happened. Why didn’t it spread any further south?
Saitta: I think part of it is that some of that kind of collectivism is a cold country thing, and I’m, you know, conceptualizing wildly here. But you know, there is something very important about like, “Hey, if we don’t all band together, we’re all going to freeze separately,” that that instills a certain kind of discipline. And this is true in a lot of Canada, too. Kind of the worst thing you can be is like, “We’re gonna ostracize you. And when the winter comes we’re not gonna do anything. You’re just going to be alone. And that means that when your fire goes out, if you can’t relight it on your own you’re gonna die. We’re gonna cut you off from that collectivity.” And that actually ends up being an incredibly powerful lever in terms of how people organize socially and how people see their duty to the collective. Because it’s not actually driven by fear, it’s driven by like, I have a sense of duty. I’m responsible for everyone around me.
And this shows up a lot in larp, whereas in kind the American larp culture—and this has changed in some places—but there’s this default of, “I am responsible for having an interesting game. I’m responsible for what happens to me.” This kind of base individualism. And I think what made Nordic larp possible is this notion that, I am responsible for everyone else around me having an amazing game. And they’ll take care of me I don’t need to worry about me. I’m responsible for everybody else around me.
Dancy: It almost kinda like a mindful Borg.
Saitta: Yeah. Yeah. No, it is. And I mean, it has its downsides. If you look at Jante Law, which is the kind of Danish set of social norms, there’s a lot of stuff that as an American is like wow, you can’t really be individualist. There’s a lot of this kind of tall poppy syndrome that has real downsides, too. But you know, it has upsides as well.
Dancy: I never like to ask people to prognosticate, but when I have someone on the show that just to seems to really be thinking about things in a way I find just titillating, I’m just so excited to hear you speak.
You talked a little bit about the promise of the Internet and what we were looking forward to before, kind of the web 2.0 thing in 2003. And you’ve talked a little about about where we are now and shared some documents with us and other things that you believe have happened. And kind of this taking systems and aligning them naturally and creating them in your barbarian role. How do you wish to see this play out may be that’d be a better way than asking you how do you think it’ll play out.
Saitta: So, I guess one of the things I will— On the on the prognostication side, one of the most humbling things that happened, year before last, was I met a bunch of folks who are kind of— (This is right after the initials Snowden revelations.) Who were a bunch of the grey hairs who’d done a lot of the early Internet design. And we were talking about politics and the politics of the Internet. And what they showed me was that the politics that they built into the Internet had bred true, in really deep ways. Which was incredibly hopeful, because it told me that like, look it’s possible to build a system that has politics, that has a viewpoint, that has a way of understanding the world, and it will actually work, you know. And that to the extent that the Internet is a free place, that freedom was put in there and it was put in there in intentionally. Which I think is just deeply fascinating and incredibly hopeful.
So, a lot of this is I want us all to build systems that let us push our collective agency out into the world. That pay attention to the social impact they have. And I want to see those systems win. And I think that that’s something that we can do, and I think it’s something that we can do together. But it requires a certain care to… You know, let’s build systems that enable power to and disable power over. Let’s be very careful with the kinds of things that we build force multipliers for.
This is one of the reasons why I’m a real believer in kind of maximally decentralized systems for infrastructure. Not because I necessarily think that we actually want fully decentralized systems for everything. I think that there are times when we want long institutional memories, because they’re really important for things like mercy and justice that we hold very dear. But, if you have a fundamentally decentralized infrastructure, you can build selectively centralized infrastructures on top of that. And that is not true if you have a fundamentally centralized infrastructure.
And I think that that’s actually one of the really important lessons of democracy over the past three hundred years. If we look at the time of the American and French revolutions, like yes, there were closely-knit trade networks. Yes, the village or the small town was a communal object. But it was a communal object made out of these kind of decentralized nodes of family farms, of individual proprietor businesses, which is not like a paean to the small business. It’s saying that there wasn’t an inherent centralizing order built into the basic infrastructure of society.
And it wasn’t until like the 1890s that the average person was employed, as opposed to being what we would now call self-employed, which is now an aberration, right. The average size of a company didn’t reach ten until the 20th century. That’s really interesting, because the 20th century, when that transition happens to what is now really these massively centralized infrastructural networks, this is where we see that democracy is broken down, right. Because we no longer have these fundamentally decentralized systems that we can compose democratically centralized—not to not to invoke the specter of Leninism here—but democratically centralized systems out of.
So, I think that figuring out how we look at the 21st century, look at the way infrastructure is changing in this century— And I think that in a lot of ways that infrastructure and the dynamics, and especially the social dynamics of infrastructure is going to be one of the defining features of this century. One of the defining terrains of this century.
If we can redefine social infrastructure and societal infrastructure to be more decentralized, we have the chance of creating a new democracy that will hopefully be at least as enduring and as real as the last one.
Dancy: You know, you really have me thinking a lot about the ways that I did view things. One of the people I got to meet a couple years ago Peter Diamandis. He’s a Kurzweilian, of that group. Did you know any of these names, Eleanor?
Saitta: I know Kurzweil. I don’t know Diamandis.
Dancy: So yeah, he’s founded their little Singularity University with him. And they have this, I would almost call this this theology of abundance. You know, that technology is going to become and enable so much abundance that no one’s going to have to work, and everything’s going to be taken care of. And it’s just…it’s very like, Amway for Star Trek fans when you go into these events.
But the one thing I’m noticing in listening to you, is in their kind of theological dogma about this abundance-type theory of this technological, utopian future where machines wake up, is it’s all very centralized. There is no decentralization at all in their messaging. If if anything, it’s all controlled this way.
Saitta: Yeah. And I mean, you know…personally I think that the Singularity is the Rapture for nerds. I think it’s ridiculous. But if we get away from that, I think that of course the people at the Singularity Institute think the Singularity is a great idea. Because they’re talking about systems that were designed to make their lives as easy as possible at the expense of everyone else’s—
Saitta: —gaining more power over society, right. When a bunch of old rich white men in Silicon Valley want to redesign the world and have an ecstatic vision of the future, it’s going to be horrific for anyone who doesn’t look like them. And this happens time and time again. If we had a Singularity Institute that reflected the population of the world, that would be a lot more interesting.
I don’t think that we’re necessarily headed for a century of abundance. I think that if we’re really lucky, we’re headed for a century of satisficing. I think that that would be a dream. That everyone has enough to eat, just. We have enough raw materials, just. We have enough energy, just. We manage to just not kill the climate. That would be… That’s, I think, about as much as we can hope for. But that also—like, that’s no little goal, right? that represents a better outcome for humanity than we have ever been able to dream of. Certainly in any kind of realistic “we could actually make this happen” sort of way.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Utah Phillips, who’s an old American folk singer and kinda political creature. He’s lovely. And he talks about the Salvation Army preaching “pie in the sky, bye and bye.” But never today, never now, right? And the Singularity Institute are kind of pie in the sky, bye and bye, but they’re that for the technological era. It’s once the machines gain consciousness, and somehow the plutocratic nature of the network that birthed them isn’t reflected in their consciousness that the abundance happens. I think that we need to work for the abundance now. I don’t think that machine intelligence is going to save us. But I don’t think we need it to. I think it’s kind of irrelevant. What is relevant is making sure that rich old white man like the Singularity Institute aren’t the ones who are designing systems so that they reflect and continue to propagate their obscene wealth.
Finley: Eleanor, there’s something else I wanted to ask you about, because you travel—this is to make a huge understatement—but you travel a lot, constantly. I don’t get out much anymore, outside of Portland. So I kind of just see the world as it comes to me through social media and so forth. But at least here in the States, there’s kind of a big feeling that the two biggest currents that are essentially rushing up against each other, are the social justice movement on one side, and then this reactionary movement where you have the Tea Party and Gamergate and all these things on the other side.
And it’s hard to tell who’s winning any—if that’s really a good way to put it—day to day. But that’s just kind of what I’m seeing in terms a what’s happening locally. And I know abroad there’s things that worry me, like that rise a lot of these far right, right-wing parties in Europe. But what’s less clear to me is how how much traction they really have in any kind of mainstream culture. So, since we were talking earlier about Scandinavian culture, we’ve been talking a lot about decentralization and democracy, I was wondering if you have any perspective on that on a global level.
Saitta: I think that the kind of rise again of global fascism is very real and very terrifying. There are a lot of really disturbing, dangerous currents out there. But I think what’s causing them is the same thing that caused them last time, is the rich have a stranglehold on society, and this is what happens when the rich refuse to… You know, when they get too greedy. When they take too much. When the rest of us can’t stop them. Because the rich are never going to let us vote their money away. We’re going to have to take it away by whatever means are functional. When that doesn’t happen, you get fascism, you get more reactionary, hard left groups. And I mean, obviously I have a political bias. I think that the reactionary hard left groups are very much in the right. But that’s what happens to society, that fascism is birthed by the rich. And this is one of the reasons why… You know, this is one of the problems of capitalism, is that it generates these are deeply horrific outcomes for all of society.
I don’t know what the next big war is that America doesn’t start. And who knows, maybe America will start the war that makes all of this fascism come to a head. Because we certainly seem to be doing it everywhere else, and I can’t even really say that American imperialism isn’t a reflection of that. But, you know, that whatever those wars are, are already and will be, will continue to be, very much on the heads of people like Bloomberg and Gates and the Koch brothers, and the folks who who are throwing their money around and not giving people agency in the world.
Dancy: You know, there’s one… You had a lot of hope in your message around the future and just enough. The one thing that I noticed when you were talking about wars that, or the one kind of place that I seem to be leaning in my mind, is that in my own life, in my own practice, my own contemplative practice, I have great satisfaction with just really embracing impermanence. This system will break. This system will go away. Another system will come. So, it doesn’t seem as scary to me.
But the one thing I seem to struggle with, at least when I’m very emotional whether it’s I’m suffering from a bout of depression or anxiety or whatever it is, is that my level of acceptance of impermanence actually seems to speed it up. And I know that’s kind of a…probably a delusions that I’m suffering from. If I could just accept things fast enough they’ll die away quicker.
But one of the things Sarah said on a show that Klint and I were on, I can’t remember if we had a guest or not, was we wish people would just wake up. Which is you know, a really nice kind of fun, rah-rah thing to say. But what is it going to take for people to just wake up? And why don’t they just see these things, you know. And it was very frustrating for us. Do you see, when you when you travel extensively and when you talked with folks, do you see people starting to “wake up?”
Saitta: I do, but I also live in a bubble, right. So, my perceptions— And it’s and intentionally-created bubble. It’s a bubble that maybe hopefully lets me see the future, or at least lets me think about what it might unfold kind of where the currents lie. And you know, there are places where it’s very good to get perspectives outside of that bubble, and there’s places where those perspectives don’t particularly do me that much good at all. So you know, we’ll see.
I think in general that people don’t like change because change is often horrific. Change is often not a very good thing in people’s lives. And I think that that’s true in part because most of the forces that are trying to change their lives are trying to destroy them and take all their stuff and give it to somebody else. I think that’s a pretty reasonable reaction to that kind of change.
That said, you know, there’s isn’t going to be a lot of choice, right. Change is going to happen. I guess in a lot of cases I see my role in the world as trying desperately to build enough tools, and enough understanding of how they work and how they can be used, and to get that stuff out into the world enough so that when stuff inevitably breaks and falls apart and explodes in our faces, we’ve got kind of a first aid kit that we can reach for. Because people are going to reach out and make those changes when they decide to.
And although we might really like them to do it sooner, and although we can kind of have a conversation with them about maybe doing it sooner and talk about that kind of stuff, if we’re going to practice what we preach, they have the agency to do that. It has to be their choice and their call when they do that. All we can do is try to be ready, try to give them the tools that they’ll need when they get there, and try to be patient and wait. And I think that that’s part of the acceptance too, right? Is accepting that if you want everybody to have agency in their lives, everybody gets to have agency in their lives.
Dancy: That’s such a kind of way of looking at it. It really suspends the time and just allows it to happen the way it should, and you just make the tools available for people. And hold their hand through it. Which is such a nice way to end this show. Eleanor, thank you so much for being on the show. Such an absolutely thrillingly moving day for me.
Saitta: Thank you for having me.
Dancy: I wish I would have found your work before now. But I found it when I needed it, so that’s what’s important. Klint, Sarah, any thoughts before we wrap up?
Watson: No, that was great. Thank you so much for joining us, Eleanor.
Saitta: Thank you for having me.
Dancy: Okay, everyone. Be well.
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