Earlier this month, we republished part 1 of our interview with The Enragés, where we discussed our blog post, Imagining an Optimistic Cyber-Future. In this post, you’ll find the conclusion of our conversation along with a (somewhat rushed) transcript of the same. Here, we touch on ways in which capitalism has constrained people’s telecommunication abilities, we describe some of our inspiration from earlier political thinkers, and we even answer a couple of listener questions.
Thanks again to everyone at the Center for a Stateless Society for publishing our initial piece and for following up with us with an invitation to join Joel for an interview on The Enragés!
Joel Williamson: This is The Enragés. A show where we take a deeper dive into written works published at the Center for a Stateless Society. Join us as we give voice to the ideas challenging the vain phantoms that haunts our social reality and stand in the way of total liberation. For more information visit, C4SS.org. And to support this show, or any of the other projects happening at the Center, please visit patreon.com/c4ssdotorg. Thank you for listening.
Hello, and thank you for tuning in to The Enragés. I’m your host, Joel Williamson. You’re listening to the second half of our conversation with the Tech Learning Collective. In the first half of our discussion with TLC, we explored what the Tech Learning Collective is. And we also began dissecting an article they wrote for the center called “Imagining an Optimistic Cyber Future.” This installment is the second half of our conversation. Thanks, again, for tuning in. And thank you for your support.
So at one point, in the article, you describe how we’re making the machines who are buying our thoughts. If this is true, it seems criminally under emphasized in popular discourse. Can you break down what that means? And how we can know that it’s actually happening?
TLC: Yeah, there’s, um, there’s a number of sort of things in there. That was a line that would that I think, you know, we’re trying to cram a lot of ideas into a relatively short essay. And it might require a little bit of understanding about like, how this economy, you know, this surveillance economy, this capitalist Silicon Valley market, right, like actually works.
So in brief, right, anytime that you’re interacting with a computer that isn’t yours, right, you’re giving someone else information about you. And the way that the way to think about this is like, if you pick up the phone, right and call somebody, it doesn’t matter if they pick up the phone or not, they know that you called, right? Yyou are making a connection, you’re trying to reach out right to somebody else. And so when you load for example, facebook.com, right? You are calling Facebook, right, you’re picking up the headset, this time, it’s your browser, you’re making a phone call over a dial tone, called the Internet, right to Facebook, and they know that you called right, so they know that you tried to connect to them at that moment in time. Then if you actually do connect, and you can post something right on Facebook, you’re giving them more and more information.
So simply interacting is feeding this sort of like data collection machine, which is obviously a hard thing to get out of right, the cliche way to say this is if you’re not paying for it, right, you’re not the consumer to the product. And while that’s true, again, it doesn’t really reflect the full extent of what’s going on. Because even if you were paying it paying for it, for example, you’re still making right that same connection, you’re still actually picking up the phone and calling, you’re still feeding data, right? To those machines. Right? And by letting them possess all of your important data, right, again, by important data, what we mean is everything about you, right, like your thoughts, your habits, your subconscious mannerisms, right. Like when you post, you know, what you had for lunch today, right? There’s a lot of information there. Everything.
And the goal very explicitly for these businesses, right, is that they want to own you like to literally make you into and treat you as property, I mean, intellectual property, right data, but still property, right, the whole movement towards intellectual property, which is its own nightmare, is showcasing that. So for example, like a really illustrative example of this in the business world is this tool called Chorus.ai. That’s a subscription service that businesses pay for to help their salespeople perform better. It’s, you know, report stats, like the longest monologue in a given meeting, the percent of time a salesperson spoke, you know, they suggest that you should aim for 40 to 60%. Other details like that. And so ask yourself, right, like, how does it actually do that? Well, in order to report these details, right, it’s first got to collect this data, and otherwise, it would have nothing to report on. So it works by automatically recording zoom calls. Simple, right? When you think about it, it just makes recordings of everything and then analyze them.
Another perhaps even simpler example, is Facebook Messenger. Right? Like, have you ever, for example, lost a phone had to replace it, like with a new one, right? Like when you log into Facebook Messenger for the first time in your brand new phone, right? What happens? But you open up your messenger app, and you see all the past messages with all of your contacts, right? And so again, ask yourself, how does it do that? And again, it’s simply records it all, right? If Facebook wasn’t keeping all of your old messages, it wouldn’t be able to show them to you when you get a new phone. And so at a pretty concrete level, right? Like these things are not magic. They are actually in a way, they’re kind of stupidly simple when you peel away this veneer of the slick user interface and the intentionally dense tech jargon. And so every time you’re interacting with these systems, right when you’re literally any interaction, actually, it is helping them to build the model of you or to build the data representation of you.
Sometimes people would call this sort of your data shadow is a term that’s often used in the privacy circles. And that means that it’s also, of course, obviously really hard to extricate yourself from because any interaction, right helps them the only actual way to not participate in that kind of building of those machines. Right? That then you are then asked to pay for right to get your own your own thoughts back your own data, right, your own important thing that are possessing all of the things about you is to not participate. And that’s a that’s a tall, that’s a tall order for a lot of people still today.
It’s important, I think, to recognize as part of that, that this sort of like veneer, right of the slick user interface that the the intentional convenience with which they are they’re trying to make everything sort of magic away from you, right? Like, don’t worry about any of this happening, don’t worry, just open up your phone, you’ll get all your Facebook message history, he’ll be fine. Right? Even though the bottom rung of that ladder, it really is just they’re recording it, and they’re keeping it. That’s it. That’s all they have to do. It’s not complex, it’s not technologically sophisticated. It’s not some magic innovation that they’ve come up with in the last five years. I mean, you know, I could have also recorded everything that you’ve said on post-it notes and then handed them back to you. And I would still have every record everything you said, you know what I mean? Like it’s different, just because it’s the Internet. It’s just a record. And by using those flashy terms, by using those slick interfaces, by coming up with dense tech jargon, that doesn’t make sense to anybody except you in the tech industry, I think what’s what’s important to recognize is that those are also intentional choices that are designed right to weed out the people who aren’t already brainwashed by this, this capitalist cult of Silicon Valley so that those who are working in that industry can continue to hoard that kind of power that those capabilities bestow as though they’re like some sort of priests of this early religion, right? Like and our goal at Tech Learning Collective is to basically peel back the layers of that onion, or, you know, pull back the curtain to reveal Oz or like, you know, steal their holy books and share them with anyone who wants to learn how to translate the texts, right? Like that’s, that’s the goal. This isn’t actually a complex machine being created. It is simply a, you know, an avatar of you that they don’t want you to recognize as such.
Joel: That’s spooky, I’m not gonna lie.
TLC: Yeah, it is. I mean, the spookiest thing for me about that, right? Is that like, it’s actually not complex, but it’s, but it’s hidden intentionally. So. And because it’s hidden, it makes people it’s one of those things where, like, it’s more scary, because you don’t understand it. But then also at the same time, the more you do understand it, the more evil it becomes. You know what I mean?
JoeL: Yes, yes, I do. It’s I mean, it’s honestly, it’s something that it’s anxiety producing, when you focus on it too much. And yeah, like how we’re all perpetuating it by participating in these systems. So you know, there’s something to be said about how that happens, how that takes place, and what humans value, I think, because if you make something convenient, and people find it useful people, you know, it doesn’t matter, their background or their political ideology, they’re likely going to adapt it. So I mean, I wonder if that’s true. And we take that seriously. That means that we can not sort of technocraticly manage people toward freedom, but we can at least present them with an option that meets those needs of convenience and usefulness, for example, to move toward a freer world.
TLC: Oh, totally. And I think the thing that I want to I want to interject there, right? Is that, like, remember that everything is convenient relative to something else, right? So convenience is not this absolute. What is convenient, about, for example, Google Docs, right? or whatever, you know, system you’re using, is simply that you don’t have to think about it. And that’s not an inherent quality of Google Docs, right? That’s what infrastructure is, right? You don’t think about, for example, the water treatment plant every time you turn on the faucet in your in your kitchen, but it’s there. Right?
TLC: And you don’t think about it not because the water treatment plant is somehow extra convenient at the service that you pay for, explicitly. Anyway, you know, one can argue that perhaps taxes is that but that’s a whole other conversation.
The point is, right, is that it’s infrastructure, and it’s there, and you don’t have to think about it. And that’s what the point of infrastructure is. So Google Docs, right, wants to become infrastructure. So that you don’t think about it. And our argument is that the problem with Google Docs being infrastructure, right, is that it’s not actually the most convenient thing ever. It’s just the most convenient thing if you don’t have Google Docs, right? If you don’t have a certain kind of infrastructure, then you can’t do the thing, right that the infrastructure is providing to you. So the example of this is, again, the Netflix example from earlier, right? Like, what happens to your Google Docs, right? When your Internet service goes down? Well, again, you have trouble accessing it, right? You can no longer sync your changes to it, and so on and so forth. So it’s not actually the best that it could be. It service isn’t actually as convenient as we want it to be. But we think of it as convenient because the history that we remember is a history without Google Docs being present.
Joel: That’s a good point.
TLC: And, exactly, and so so it’s not that people are acting irrationally or that we feel like there needs to be some sort of like shame and you know, shame a name, you know, emotion, like it’s okay to use things right like that today, because the alternative maybe is not using them. But as we move forward with increasingly usable and capable, free software that is decentralized, as opposed to centralized and all these other sort of movements, you know, towards the qualities of the infrastructure that we want, that we described, not only in the article, but also earlier in this conversation, then you can begin to see the failures and the limitations of all the things that people seem to believe are the best that it could possibly be today, right, like Google Docs.
For us, as people who, for example, have our own internal infrastructure that we sell post for managing TLC, one of the beautiful things about that is that A) we don’t pay anything beyond hardware costs work, which is not much because again, hardware costs and you know, are plummeting, we don’t give up any of this sort of data in sort of a privacy concern, concerning context, right, because again, it’s not someone else’s computers, it’s our computers. But also, it means that we can continue to work when, for example, Google has an outage, right? Like, that doesn’t happen very often. But when it does, it doesn’t matter to us, because we’re not using their infrastructure anyway. And so that is a more convenient scenario for us, now, again, we have some technical expertise to be able to set this kind of stuff up. But that’s why we started the school because we want more people to get more of those abilities, right. So that it’s more feasible for more people, you know, to be in control of their computing devices, and be able to understand at least that they have other options for infrastructure that they can make themselves or that they can come to some local affiliation to do that for them.
We talk a little bit in the article also a bit later on maybe less about this, about like, for example, Internet access, just generally. And there’s like a lot of community technology projects that enable Internet access without having to go through a commercial provider. And what that means is you just don’t have to pay a commercial provider for Internet access, you might not even have to pay the community provider for Internet access. Right? And again, that doesn’t mean you have to be an internet network engineering expert, it means that you have to be aware of or know people or have an affiliation with right or have a voluntary exchange, right? with someone who does know that in the same way that like, it’s really useful to have, for example, a doctor in the family, right, or a lawyer in the family, it’s really useful, right to have a network engineer in “the family,” even if the family is just, you know, a neighborhood group as opposed to like a blood relation.
And rather than centralizing the knowledge of how to do these things, in blood, only a handful of a couple 100,000, mostly white men in Silicon Valley. Like that seems like a recipe for disaster in the same way as for example, totally forgetting how to plant tomatoes seems like a recipe for disaster, right? Like, we should know how to do that. And it’s not like we shouldn’t have to ask one person, right, who’s like the tomato expert, to give us all of our fruit and vegetables, that is putting way too much power in that person’s hands. And so it’s really not a matter of technology.
In our perspective, it’s a matter of just education, in the same way that we want a society right? where most of the buildings have electricity. Right, what that means is we have to have enough people power so that there are enough physical electricians to physically wire all the buildings in the society, right? We can’t rely on one or two people to do that. Now, this is an analogy in the physical world. So it makes sense why most people, but like, we need to have like 1,000,002 million, you know, residential electricians. But the Internet has a different level of scale. So I as an individual, and as a capable system administrator, right, could manage the email services or the chat services or the you know, equivalent of a Google Docs, like a Nextcloud instance, right, for probably anywhere between 500 to maybe 10,000 individuals, you know, no sweat off my back, right, for a neighborhood.
If I was an electrician, I couldn’t wire 10,000 people’s houses, because that’s a physical world task. But with digital technologies, right? What you gain is this level of scale that’s orders of magnitude beyond what you can imagine in the physical world. And so my point is that it makes sense that right now, there’s only a few, you know, the knowledge of how to do that is concentrated in a small handful of human individuals. And if we want a free society, in all the ways that we mean that, then it has to be true that other people than just those, you know, handful have to learn about how the infrastructure works. There is no shortcut beyond that we have to actually disperse that knowledge because otherwise in the sort of knowledge is power way of thinking about it, right? Otherwise, we just give it all up to whoever chooses to learn it first.
Joel: Mhm. What are some actionable things that we should be doing right now in order to reverse this trend to beyond what you just explained?
TLC: I’ll point to another article that we actually published on C4SS, called “We have only four years to prevent a fascist USA, here’s what we need to do now.” We published that shortly after the 2020 general election. And, you know, we’re not trying to sort of highlight electoral politics, we actually don’t really give a shit about electoral politics too much. But in it, we outlined the sort of four broad steps, right that we can take immediately to set ourselves up for a better scenario, where we are more resilient against reactionary forces and fascist politics in the future. And generally, those four things follow this paradigm that we’ve already outlined above. So I won’t go into too much detail, right.
But it starts by this sort of, like, by necessity, right with this, with this individual action, of learning to make use of the resources that we actually already have that are newly available to us, right to create things like our own in house movie libraries, which can obviate things like Netflix, right, or other service providers, right, the so called self-hosting movement is sort of the beginning of that. And we’re seeing a lot of that now, more than more than we were in sort of the mid 2000s, it was there. But it was, again, that practice is simply becoming more widespread, because it’s getting both easier. And of course, it’s becoming more just sort of recognized as a possibility. TLC’s role in this is to make it even more of a possibility for more people. And to show you that you can actually, in fact, do this without spending 20 years toiling in the industry, like there is another way.
But once that is sort of done on an individual level, right, what you find is that, because of the scale that I just described of computing, if you start up your own server, even on like a tiny $35, Raspberry Pi, you will probably have more compute power than you know what to do with. There is so much density in the capabilities of these things today, that one person would be challenged to make use of it all, right? And so what that means is that you have an inherent opportunity then to find and gather others who are either doing the same thing or wants to do the same thing, or are sort of aligned in the ways that we talked about earlier in terms of material impact in their lives. Maybe you can find them by coming to tickler and collective workshops, who knows, right? But the idea is that you then have a pathway towards this collective action that can do more collectively the things that you’re already doing individually, like creating physical scale, neighborhood internetworks, which then feeds into the localism talked about earlier. Right.
But in general, there is no shortcut, as I mentioned, to building an infrastructure that we own ourselves. interaction and cooperation and interaction with the current paradigm is cooperation with the current paradigm. And so anything that you can do to reduce that, again, I’m not saying anyone should go cold turkey, I’m not saying it’s impossible or rational in the current scenario, but making the move away from that very quickly yields dividends, in not just notions of freedom, but also in terms of actual capabilities that you actually have right in your day to day work. And we just have like that, that’s the way forward, we have to do that.
Thankfully, a lot of that work has already done, as I mentioned, like the Netflix example, again, like Jellyfin is a sort of free software media server, it’s beautiful, it looks like Netflix, it automatically gets metadata, it’s easy to manage, right? Like it’s, if you set that up for your household, I mean, it’s never been easier to do that. And so a lot of this work has already been done. It’s just a matter of actually making use of it, and learning, you know, to do so, which is again, what TLC hopes to make more possible for more people.
Joel: When discussing the transition away from our present conditions, you wrote, quote, the autonomous pockets will quickly seek to interconnect covering more ground as their practices and networks mature. It reminds me of Konkin’s, a glorious vision of revolution, and how concentrated centers of counter economic neighborhoods would act as an essential part of a transition away from corporate and state power. Was Konkin and an influence on your thought here? If not, who are you taking inspiration from or what are you taking inspiration from?
TLC: So there’s definitely overlap, right in this notion of sort of like community technology that we talked about with what I guess is Konklin’s vertical. What do you call it vertical?
Joel: Vertical agorism? Maybe.
TLC: Thank you. Yeah, vertical agorism. And it’s certainly related to that. But this sort of harkens back also to our initial impetus of like caring more about the impact of the tactic and strategy than the source of the idea, right. And so there are certainly people in our collective who were inspired, I guess, I should say, by this idea of local first organizing, right, and also that the black market or gray market economic activity is one in which is now more possible online than it perhaps was, and that that’s a good thing.
The other sort of, like influence here, insofar as it’s an influence again, right is actually the notions of, for instance, local libertarian municipalism, or communalism ala Murray Bookchin, later became of course, Abdullah Öcalan notion of democratic confederalism. Both Konkin’s and Bookchin’s and Öcalan’s, they all have this idea of sort of starting from underneath the state system, building an infrastructure as not exactly an alternative but like as sort of almost like a for lack of a better way to say it maybe a parasite, right, within the current system. And then creating a point at which you can then disconnect and stop participating. Right. And so that that pattern generally is, is very much an inspiration, except that it’s not either or. And it’s not that we’re trying to say that one of these methods is superior than the other.
It’s again, like that tracing paper analogy, what we’re trying to do is sort of, and-both these different ideas. So yes, horizontal and vertical algorithm, ala Konkin’s sort of black market approach is absolutely part of it, right? I mean, the more that you have an infrastructure of your own, the less interaction you have to have with an infrastructure that you have to, by virtue of interaction, with undermine your own ideals. And at the same time, right, there’s a stepping stone that we should recognize as important to go from where we are now to perhaps a more idealistic or utopian vision of for lack of a better way to say it, like full-on anarchism, where we have organizations that are locally scoped, but that are more democratic, by which I mean, more lowercase D right? People Powered in nature. Ala the Öcalan idea of democratic confederalism. And again, it’s not that we’re trying to prescribe one way over another, it’s that we don’t know what’s going to necessarily work in the case of a given student, right. Like they might find themselves in some scenario, where one tactic might be better suited for what they’re trying to do than another. And our goal is to try to empower them to both understand the strategy, but also then enact the strategy through the literal empowerment, which is to say, to enable them to have power in places that they did not before. That necessarily starts on an individual basis, and then grows to become something that they can then include others in right as their skills increase. And whether they choose one vision over another in terms of these Anarchist strains of thought is kind of up to them.
And, you know, if they’re not already familiar with Konkin’s agorist visions of how this would happen, or if they’re not already familiar with, you know, with Bookchin’s or Öcalan’s, more modern ideas, obviously, you know, one thing that’s nice about Bookchin and Öcalan is that they were almost turncoats, right, to a prior ideology. That’s generally a place where I mean, like, you know, Bookchin was famously a Stalinist. So like, generally, we tend to encourage people to take into more consideration thoughts that have come from not only just sort of like, avoid, but have come from a rejection of a prior deeply held belief, because that shows a growth and an analysis, that is not only useful to understand where they’re coming from, where a thinker is coming from, but also because it’s the practice we want our students to go through, right?
Most people don’t come to tech learning collective being like I’m an anarchist. And I want to do this, right. Like most people come to it being like, I heard something cool about this free software project, or I heard something, you know, neat about the way that you all teach, and I kind of need a job, but I don’t really want to care about my job, but I really need a job and like, what do I do, right? And so like, we are teaching, we are as which I mean, we are as much a political school, right, as we are a technology school. And so what that means is that our students are by definition, if we succeed, they are going to be turncoats against capitalism. They currently believe in some portion of it more often than not. And our goal in showing them how much of a lie so much of technology is, the technology industry, right, is to politically engender a desire to overthrow the received wisdom that they’ve got and the story of someone like Bookchin or Öcalan, right, who have famously rejected prior portions of their beliefs, right? It’s very much relevant there.
And so both the tactic is very much a part of the like, inspiration. Yes, we think it’s also more possible now than it was before because coordination costs, and the barriers to the kind of confederalism, right, that they’re talking about is lower today than it was in, say, the 70s. But also, right, the history is important, because it’s a similar pattern, that any competent and successful effort is going to go through. Like, you have to fail a lot to succeed. So rather than be afraid of failure, learn to fail in ways that don’t hurt others as you do it.
Joel: In your section on the rise and fall of techno feudalism, you do a great job at fulfilling the goal of imagining an optimistic cyber future. However, it seems completely reasonable to look at our current situation and feel that there’s really no way out. Why are the fatalists wrong?
TLC: We don’t know. I mean, are the fatalists wrong? Like, you know, I hope they are, of course, and I guess if we don’t know, it doesn’t really, we don’t know if they are not they maybe they you know, maybe they’re wrong. Maybe they’re right.
I think the bigger question right is like, if we accept fatalism now, right. Then what’s the point any of this? Right like that? It’s like fatalism is inherently a pre-emptive resignation. And that precludes any sort of future genuine attempt to succeed. And beyond being fatalistic, right, that’s kind of boring. Like, why do anything then? And I think the key takeaway there is that like, even if they’re right, right, even if we’re doomed, we’re actually having a pretty good time, right, learning new things, and helping others learn new things and collaborating with alumni groups that have been through TLC and building local infrastructures and doing all these projects, right, and, and a whole lot more. So like, we kind of don’t care, you know, if they’re right or not, like you might as well enjoy what time we do have right now, right, instead of like wallowing in some sort of pit of despair and doom and gloom.
But that being said, like, there is actually a lot to be hopeful about right now. You know, I mentioned all these new opportunities, not just in terms of pure technicality, but there is a wave of new interest, both politically and just in terms of shifting recognition about what’s possible, and I don’t think that we’re actually doomed, like many of the fatalists would assume that we are and again, like, if we are okay, but I’m still gonna do this, because this is like, definitely more fun than sitting around and watching Netflix.
Joel: Yeah, so, so relatedly, at another point, in the same section, you describe a bleak picture of the future where quote, Silicon Valley, replaces everything with robots and politicians turned to even more draconian measures to quell rebellions against the technocracy of which their governments depend. Does it have to get worse before it gets better?
TLC: Yeah. Um, yeah, we genuinely do think that it will get worse in some places before it gets better. But we also think that it’s going to get better in some places, right? And that this is going to happen simultaneously, like, like, it might stall, right? Like, like progress, as we imagine it right is not this sort of like linear, you know, progression from the then to the now and then to the future. I think it’s not how any of this ever works, right? It will improve in some areas, it’ll get worse in some places.
The point is that we shouldn’t expect it to be a straight line, right? If we expect it to be this sort of simple, you know, step by step by step progression, then bluntly, we will have no preparation for dealing with any kind of regressions, we won’t be able to be prepared well, for reactionary political forces, we won’t be able to deal with unexpected new material crises like natural disasters, right? Like, we should be planning for the reality we’re actually in, not the scenario that we think that we’re in, right. And so yes, like, in some places, it will, it will probably have to get worse before it gets better. There is other places where it’s going to get better, and then get worse and get better again, and then sort of zigzag like, you know, it’s, it’s it’s not a straight line.
But the takeaway is, regardless of you know, whether things are getting better for you, or in your locale, or you know, some region is that even if things are not going well, right, like there is opportunity there, if things are going really well, there is opportunity there. The tactics might be different, and they should maybe be different, but there’s always opportunity in any situation. And so the goal should be making the best of whatever situation you find yourself in. And again, that’s part of why Tech Learning Collective tries very hard to not direct students project or the outcome or the ideology that they that they come with, but rather to enable them to take as much advantage, whatever situation they find themselves in, because that’s going to be much more important and much more useful for them as a student, both for technical reasons, but also just for like, you know, political and emotional reasons.
Joel: For sure. So some futurists are hopeful at the prospect of uploading their minds to the Internet and fully merging themselves with the digital world. There’s a quick mention in the article of resisting the temptation to abandon the physical realm. Why is this a temptation that we should resist?
TLC: Right! I hope this is not gonna sound again condescending, but like bluntly, that specific strain, right, like this sort of future utopianism is just bluntly, not something that we take seriously at all. The idea of holy merging with the digital world is, it’s unappealing. But it’s also just kind of absurd, right?
Like, for one thing, again, we talked about this earlier, like, the digital world is itself grounded in the physical world, right? Like every one or zero in a computer system is ultimately a physical thing, whether that be an electrical charge and a capacitor, or a magnetic charge on a hard disk platter, right, or like a divot in a vinyl record even right, like, you cannot have a digital world without physical devices, it is impossible. So you can’t ever divorce yourself right? from physical reality, no matter how much you want to.
And also right for the thing like the physical analog world, we think it’s actually quite beautiful. And the vastness of experience that you can have there is wonderful and awe inspiring and could be all kinds of pleasurable in ways that the digital world can’t or is unlikely to be or even if it was, so what it’s different than the analog world. But it’s like why abandon all the physicality in the first place, even if you could. Right?
The physical world, that is actually where we live. And any sort of like fantasies of disembodied avatars in some sort of virtual reality are like, okay, fun, sometimes sure, but they’re like fantasies, they’re not anything else. They are fantasies. And so partly, we have to resist the temptation to hyper focus on this kind of fantasy, precisely because it tears us away from the corporeal existence of an embodied human experience of the world, right, and that embodied humaneness is what underlies all things, not just digital things.
For example, on the Internet, we use the language of a website, right? Like the language of place, we say a website as though it’s a physical location, a site, even though it doesn’t necessarily feel like a real place, right? Because we can travel to any other site instantly. Which is to say that the address bar of your browser, right, like makes all websites feel equally far or equally near. But again, in reality, they are not. Right? In reality, one website is physically farther from you than another because both websites are in fact hosted on a physical device somewhere in the physical world. And we have to remember that because again, if we don’t, right, then Facebook and Amazon and Google will be the ones who remember that for us, and they’ll be the only ones that know the truth. And, you know, meanwhile, everyone else would be, well, you know, living in a dream world, Neo.
Joel: [Laughs]. Maybe we already are in a digital world!
TLC: Yeah, well, I mean, then, then, then we’re doing that we may as well just have fun with it. Right? That’s the key is that, you know, even in that fictional world, right, like, that was an entire story about how physicality underlies perception. And so it’s certainly an interesting train of thought. I mean, like, I know for example transhumanists often have a lot to say about, you know, human experience. And that’s, that’s fine and interesting and wonderfully contributory right to, to a dialogue about what it means to be a person.
But if you go so far as to completely divorce yourself from a desire to be in a body in the physical world, then you are not really taking seriously right, the material conditions in which you live and all politics that we care about, right are about the material conditions in which we live.
Joel: Is it realistic to think that we can make the internet free? You said it was already free? In some ways, but, can we make it to where people can access it without having to pay for it?
TLC: Yeah, and so this is another one of those things where I think like there’s be this massive con perpetrated on the public, right? Like, the Internet, right is the term that we named a specific network of interconnected computers, right? Machines that are that are connected to each other. In one of our workshops, actually, at TLC, back before the pandemic times, when we met in person, one of the classes involved building our own internet. And we did this literally inside of a single room. It was completely disconnected from the internet. But it was in fact, an internet, it had DNS servers. So you could go to websites that had domain names. It had BGP routing, which connected one network on one side of the room to the other network on the other side of the room had physical cables, it had Wi Fi, right. It was a real internet, it was a network of networks that were interconnected, i.e., an internet. But it had no route to the internet, capital T capital I.
And the reason why we do that class is not only to learn about how the internet works, but also to recognize right that what the internet actually is, is just a method for communication. That’s it. And so in that sense, it’s already free, right? Like, you don’t have to pay anyone to create an internet, all the software, all the protocols, all the standards is out there and available for your use, you just didn’t know how to use it, which is again what TLC teaches. So the internet is free.
The reason that people think that the internet is not free, and that sounds right is because the way that they can connect to anybody else, typically, is that they have a device called the modem or router, right? Probably in their closet or by their TV or something, right. And they pay an internet service provider and ISP, right for the privilege of transiting through that device.
So the way to think about this is that your ISP basically erected a toll booth, except the toll booth isn’t on some highway, right? It’s literally right outside your front door, right, your home’s digital door, right, the thing that you have to exit to get to anyone else is itself or has become because of the ISP, a toll booth and you have to pay every time you leave that specific doorway. So if you find a route around the ISP that’s charging you, right, to get there, then sure you don’t need to connect with other people. Right. So for example, I mentioned this a little earlier that in New York City, there’s a network called NYC Mesh, and that is a community owned basically wireless ISP, except that you don’t have to pay to connect to it because it’s a community owned network. Right. And it’s a I think that’s the point. It’s also now a 501(c)3. But the point is that their networks like this all over the world.
In Cuba, as recently as a couple years ago, right, there was a community created network called S-NET are known as the street network. And again, it was disconnected from the internet, but had all the things you would expect on, quote, the internet, like game sites, and social networking, and news and so on and so forth. But because of the US embargo, it was disconnected, right? It was not allowed to connect to quote, the internet. And so it was his own little sort of its own pocket of internet bricked computers. And that didn’t cost money to connect to the internet, it couldn’t because it wasn’t connected to the internet. Right.
And so the point is that the technology enables us to communicate, regardless of how we are billed for our communication. And the thing to recognize that there is that right, the reason why you have for example, an ISP account, right, and a bank account associated with it, and that they are tracking how much for example, bandwidth you use, right is because one has to measure what one wants to control. So because they are invested in controlling what it is that we do and say, right, they are incentivized to measure what we do and say, because that’s the only way to actually control it. But that’s a choice that’s completely orthogonal, has no relationship whatsoever to the actual capability of connecting to another device, that is an overlay on top of a much more foundational infrastructure.
And so if you can separate those two pieces apart, then you have a much better understanding of like, what’s required to have the communication you want. And also what’s not required to have the communication that you want. So in that sense, again, the internet’s already free, right?
Like back in the day, again, in the 70s, and 80s. Right before the web was invented in the 70s and 80s. The Internet existed, it was smaller, but anyone could connect basically for free. as though it were a public beachfront at the ocean, you could just hop in, right on a public beach to the ocean, I don’t know charges you to get to the waves, at least on a public beachfront, right? You don’t need a credit card number to connect to the Internet in the 70s. Because the internet was not something that was being charged for. It was just there. You had to be at a university campus, right? Because was the mainframe days. But again, connectivity just meant plugging in. Well, that’s still possible today. It’s just that the capitalist infrastructure around that treats it in a different way, and therefore measures what you do in order to bill you.
Joel: Alright, so you conclude the article by highlighting the potential of a liberated telecommunication network to facilitate the rejoining of social function and material function. Can you unpack what that means? And maybe also explain why this is an important goal?
TLC: Yeah, so this is the attempt that we made try to connect back to that beginning of that article, where we talked about the social media conversation, right, like, a social media, in its maybe deepest or fullest form, right is again, a medium of social connectivity, a social connection. And that’s what society is made of, right? Like society, the word even right? Like, it’s, it has the same root as social. So we have to as human beings, right, have some kind of medium over which we can connect pre internet, right? That was only an exclusively the physical world, because there wasn’t a digital world. But now we have more mediums to connect, we can go out and meet each other physically, or at least we could before the pandemic. And we can also do that right in various ways in various spaces in so called digital space.
So the benefit of doing in digital space, right is that we are not bounded by the rules of geography we’re not talking about it was a physical embodiment, we can do so over long distances we can do so over long distances, very quickly, that’s a new ability that should be explored. And in order to explore that in a free way, we need to have a network that allows us to do that freely, which means it cannot be done in places like Facebook, it cannot be done by requiring payment for Internet access, like an ISP does, right, because that is fundamentally a non free or constrained by others, right, social medium.
And so when we talk about the possibility of rejoining sort of social material functions in that way, what we mean is that there are opportunities to enhance and improve that social binding between people, right, that sort of like that notion of neighborhood camaraderie in ways that we haven’t really had before that telecommunication can facilitate. If we are able to do that, then the most fundamental part of what society is which is the choices that we make around how we are organizing ourselves for various different kinds of purposes, whether it be economic exchange, or emotional attachments, and so on, right, that fundamentally changes our ability to do that in ways that don’t abide by the same rules as we had to in the past, like for example physical presence. And so the appropriate combination, the appropriate choices, of what should be bound to physicality and what should not, or what could be bound to physicality but what doesn’t have to be, right, that’s the thing that I think is probably the most important work of our generation, and we can’t do it without telecommunication.
Joel: All right, so we have two listener questions. One came in just as we started recording.
Joel: So the first one is, what are your thoughts on a voluntary credential system that can be used to mitigate the spread of communicable diseases?
TLC: Hmm. Voluntary credential system. Do—is, um…I might need some help understanding what is asked there.
Joel: Well, another follow-up question to that that the same person wrote was, what might a stateless vaccine passport system look like?
TLC: I see, wow, that’s a very timely question. [Laughs.]
So, one way to think about this, and I’m kind of spitballing here so please don’t take this too seriously, but like, one way to think about this is in the same way where we think about how you might trust someone that you don’t know personally to do a given task. Like, to solve that problem the State uses licenses. To use the electrician example from earlier, like, a licensed electrician is different in some way than an unlicensed electrician. And the presumption is that a licensed electrician is going to be better, or more capable, or more competent, because they have been licensed to do the thing that electricians are supposed to do.
That’s not actually true, right, it’s a sort of transitive assumption being made based on how much one trusts the issuing authority, in this case the State, to do a good job of vetting that particular individual and their capabilities. And even so, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that because they are licensed they will do a good job for you. There are other problems that might arise, right? Maybe they have a bias against you, the customer, or whatever. So those are sort of flawed at their core but they are in many ways the most widespread solution for trusting you don’t already have trust in.
The reason I bring up this analogy of licensing is because that’s kind of what a vaccine passport is. Right? Like, if I don’t know you personally and I have no social connection to you, I have no other way of knowing anything about you, then I’m not going to necessarily feel safe being in a crowded theater with you unless maybe you have this so-called vaccine passport. So then the question becomes, okay, what is the issuing authority for such a passport?
That is the same problem, sort of, or at least it’s the same problem space as the licensing question and partly the reason that that’s such a problem is because we have no other mechanism of a social point of reference. Right, like, we’re interacting very often—I mean, you and I have never talked before, and so I don’t really know you from Adam, right Joel, except what I know about you is mostly through your association with C4SS. And so I have some pre-existing association with C4SS and so I can make some assumptions about you based on our mutual third party friend here known as the C4SS.
And also, if you look at the licensing examples, you are probably more likely to ask a friend who is an electrician to come to your house and fix a fuse or whatever it is that’s going on with your wiring, right, than you are to pick some random person off of some electrician’s directory because you know them. I mean, this is literally Konkin’s horizontal agorism, right, that’s exactly what that is. And I think there’s a lot of sense there.
When you take that to the vaccine passport analogy, the thing that I think is maybe the underlying problem there is, where are you going? Right, like, if I’m constantly traveling physically to places where I have no social relation to, why is that? Well, that’s because there is no alternative economy. There is no alternative reason to—I’m going to a restaurant where I don’t know the owners of because I don’t know the owners of any restaurants, as an example. And if I did know the owners of a restaurant, then a stateless vaccine passport is simply my trust in them, right? As opposed to my trust in the State. Does that make sense?
Joel: Yeah, yeah, for sure. All right, so we actually have one more listener question and then we’ll go to the actual end of our conversation.
Joel: Does TLC see a future where three bars covers every nook and cranny or is your talk of bar-free zones where we can escape or get away and feel unplugged and disconnected because there’s no signal, a signal free wilderness space? Does that make sense?
TLC: I think so. I mean, the three bars, you’re talking about cell phone signal, right? Like, connectivity?
Joel: I would think so.
TLC: Yeah, I mean, so, like the irony of this is that we can get no connectivity whenever we want. We literally just have to turn off our phones. Just because there’s connectivity around us doesn’t mean we have to connect to it. That is actually an individual choice that we have. And so, while there is value in wilderness, and y’know, from an ecological standpoint the Earth absolutely has to be re-wilded to a certain degree—the amount of wilderness that we have lost is a death sentence for the planet and we have to do something about that in a meaningful way. And that very well might mean “Do not build here!” Like, don’t put a fucking cell tower in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest. Like maybe don’t do that? So that might be an example of a signal-less space and there’s some value in that both ecologically and, y’know, spiritually.
I don’t actually think that means also that we are also doomed to connectivity or lack of connectivity. Like, I definitely turn off the data connection and the Wi-Fi connection on my phone sometimes and just do local stuff on my phone, even as well. And then also sometimes I just put down my phone.
But I think maybe what’s underlying that question is how do we get back to a healthier relationship with these devices? And I think again that comes back to recognizing what they are for us, recognizing them as a capability that we can have, in the same way that for example human bodies have different capabilities. Like, y’know, I have a different level of clarity of eyesight and a different sense of smell than somebody else. And these are things that we can do and when I want to use that capability, I have it. But because I have an understanding at a deep technical level about what my phone really is, it doesn’t feel to me like it’s calling me or like I’m stuck in in this sort of doom scrolling loop because I’m the one controlling my interaction with this device. That really makes it an extension of me, rather than me being an extension of Twitter, for example.
I think flipping that paradigm is important in one’s mind, but also just in practice. That comes from an ability to be dextrous, an ability to have a kind of sensitivity to what it is that these devices are doing for us that bluntly not a lot of people have right now and again is part of what Tech Learning Collective is trying to do. It makes sense that a lot of people feel at the behest of the social networks because that’s what they’re designed to do you. But if you understand a lot more about what’s going on then it’s a lot easier to take control over your experience with those devices.
There’s a lot of like, y’know, wellbeing advice. Like, oh, turn off notifications after 8PM and stuff. And that’s fine and well, right, but that’s really a shallow and superficial suggestion. You know what I mean? And TLC tries to take that to the next level by giving you the kinds of knowledge and practical experiences that you need to have in order to have the relationship with technology that you want in the same that it behooves you to learn a little bit about cooking so that you can make the meals that you want. And then you’re not beholden to someone else to cook for you or to go out to a restaurant all the time to get the meal that you want. You can do that yourself. And that will not only change your relationship with your meals, right, but it will change your relationship with your body because it’s what you’re putting in your body. That is the food you’re having.
And so that same mindset, like, you should know a little bit about this [digital] stuff because it is your mind, it is your brain basically. It is the non-tangible parts of your thoughts that is what the computing device is for. The laptops, the phones that we have, what they actually are are our thoughts made objective, which is to say they are objects, material objects, into which we have inscribed our thoughts, in this case in silicon and electricity as opposed to maybe graphite and pencil. But it is that thing. And so just as you might journal in a diary and you need to be able to read and write to be able to do this well, you need to have some level of dexterity around the devices that you have in order to be able to think with them healthily.
And potentially also the repulsion of three bars in a certain area, that then becomes a lot less scary or damaging to you because you get the control over it, and you feel that control over it. And it’s not anymore just something that’s happening around you in your environment, but you actually get to be the one to say, yeah I want to connect right now. Or no, I don’t want to connect right now.
Joel: Are there any related groups or projects that you think folks should get involved with if they want to help move towards an optimistic cyber future?
TLC: Detroit Community Technology Project out in Detroit is sort of like the NYC Mesh equivalent, right, they offer free Wi-Fi, free Internet access to their local community network. They always need volunteers of various kinds. There’s a similar project out in Santa Fe, New Mexico, there’s one in Portland, Oregon. There’s obviously NYC Mesh here in New York City. There’s all sorts of different projects that you can get involved with, and these are just the networking related ones, so I would look into those.
But y’know, much like Öcalan describes the sort of, like, urgency for the Kurdistan people to make local and democratic confederalist institutions for their region in order to subsume, ultimately, the Turkish state, right, that is what we need to do at a global level. That is the kind of self-organization that needs to happen if we are to free ourselves from capitalism anyway. And that starts by necessity with individual action, but grows, or could grow, right, into collective actions and affinity groups and neighborhood networks and that kind of thing.
Joel: Where should folks go to learn more about TLC?
TLC: Yeah, the best place is TechLearningCollective.com just the website. You’ll find calendars of events there. We have probably two or three workshops every week that happen online that you’re welcome to join. Those are public events. There’s also a set of courses that are offered with much less regularity. So if you’re super excited about this I highly recommend the workshops over the courses; they’re both cheaper and are happening more frequently. There’s also a blog there. You can subscribe to a mailing list if you’re so inclined. And, what else is there? Yeah, there’s a contact page where if you really wanted to ask a specific question that maybe wasn’t answered on our FAQ or About pages, the TechLearningCollective.com/contact page lists both our general email address and a PGP key and even a Signal number that you can reach out to us with.
Joel: Cool, is there anything I forgot to ask you about that you’d like to touch on before we end the interview?
TLC: No, I really appreciated the questions. I really appreciated the opportunity also to sort of elaborate on some of our thoughts, it’s always hard to get so much of this into a, y’know, a two-thousand some odd word article. So this went, I’m sure, maybe longer than we expected but I had fun, I hope you did too. Thank you so much for inviting us on.
Joel: I did, I had a lot of fun. But yeah, thank you for joining us. I know everyone else is going to really enjoy everything you had to say today. That was the Tech Learning Collective. Thanks again, I hope you have a good rest of your day.
TLC: Thanks, you as well!