Monday 2014-12-29

Culture and Empire by Pieter Hintjens

Robin Hanson has an old briefing on space / aliens that he has revived into a TEDx talk. In it he notes that since we see zero sign of alien life in the observable universe, it seems likely that we are going to get tripped up by something before we can maintain multiple planetary settlements.

Hintjens book is about one of the ways we can trip up.

If you have nothing to fear, you have nothing to hide.

This book is filled with the many errors of a dilettante, however he is largely correct to worry about the falling cost of surveillance and a possible concomitant rise in the abuse of power.

Cost gravity affects our entire human world. It is inevitable and unstoppable, driven by the spread of information and knowledge. Every two years, any given technology becomes twice as available at half the cost, and twice as powerful with half the bulk. Look around and observe that many old (and previously expensive and large) technologies are effectively free today, except for the influences of other ancient forces such as natural resources and friction. Cost gravity has existed and will exist as long as life itself.
Or consider a living cell, which has more moving parts than a Boeing 777 and is smaller than a micron. Cells are self-healing, self-reproducing, and self-organizing. You might be tempted to invoke the supernatural to explain such sophistication. The real answer is that cells represent three-and-a-half billion years of cost gravity at work.
Cost gravity is what keeps the digital world alive: as our digital universe doubles in size every two years, the hardware it depends on falls in price by half every two years.
We don't need to hire employees or have a human resources department because more and more skilled staff choose to work as independent contractors or small businesses. Contracting and partnerships are more flexible than classic employment -- especially in Europe, which still struggles with an over-regulated labor market.
Let's start by asking a painful question often asked, and yet in my experience rarely usefully answered: Why is sub-Saharan Africa so persistently and so stubbornly poor?
Later, when my closest cousin dropped out and lost five years of his life to Scientology, it got personal.
We survive by attaching to groups, following others, and trying to make sense of the world. Some groups work by domesticating and brutalizing us. Other groups work by giving us freedom and allowing us to be stronger, smarter, and more independent.
My largest and most successful experiment to date, which I'll refer to often in this chapter, is the ZeroMQ software community. It has grown from a team in a Slovak cellar to a global community, and is used by thousands of organizations.
Consume your own product. If you are not a fanatical user of whatever your group is making, you are half-blind. I learned this when working for Nigerian Breweries in the 1990's: by enjoying beer, I learned to appreciate the business of selling beer so much better.
In ZeroMQ, we originally started with a small paid team and moved after two years to a community of volunteers through the pragmatic -- if not very gentle -- tactic of running out of money and having to fire the developers. A few disappeared to other jobs, some came back as contributors, and the project became more exciting and fun than before.
In his book, Surowiecki explained how the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster was caused by a hierarchical NASA management bureaucracy that ignored the knowledge of low-level engineers.
leave something trivially broken for tomorrow
Perfection precludes participation. Releasing buggy, half-finished work is an excellent way to provoke people into contributing. Though it can be hard for big egos to accept, flaws are usually more attractive to contributors than perfection, which attracts users.
You will have gathered by now that I'm not a great fan of the brilliance of individuals. Mostly this is because despite being a Mensa member, I've seen myself make such amazingly clever mistakes.
Freedom is being able to do interesting things with other people.
In 2007, when Congress asked for documents relating to the dismissal of eight US attorneys, it turned out that the Bush administration had been circumventing the Presidential Records Act by using an external email server (, run by the Republican National Committee) for sensitive emails.
Domain names should be free and should last forever. Non-use of a domain (or abuse for purposes such as link farming) should be grounds for losing it.