Open Source Societies
An exploration of ideas that cross between computer science & tech, Solarpunk, and radical forms of political organizing.
This article was inspired by a tweet I saw that got me excited about how computer science (and technology in general), solarpunk, and democratic confederalism go well together. What I really want to dig into more is creating a sort of society based on the core concepts of the open-source movement. If that be in the software, hardware, or political or social realm - all of these areas would benefit from freely and openly sharing information in a way that maximizes autonomy, but also balances an open commons.
I would love to collaborate with other people, and build off and fork each other’s work to make something cool, maybe even actionable to show how we can have technological, ecological, and social change not just on the individual or local level, but as a collective, widespread movement. The views and ideas I have here are just from me, and it would be cool to combine ideas from a bunch of different people into possibly a framework for looking at basically an anarcho-communist/democratic confederalist/libertarian socialist/anarchist way of thinking about technology, and how we can use ideas from the political realm to change how we interact with technology and nature.
This article is broken up into two parts. The history of the early internet and it's ties to the psychedelic movement and the counterculture. And the modern interpretation of an internet if we change our social arrangements, and how free and equal organizing might afffect how technology impacts our lives. Skip to whatever part you care about but if you read the entire thing you will understand my argument better and build the ideas up.
Away from capitalist technology and towards a technology of the free and open commons.
Having worked in tech for a big part of my life, I can say firsthand that the tech industry as a whole is deeply engrained with capitalist logic. This is at all levels and all disciplines, from programming and computer science education, to networking, to hardware manufacturing and production, to cybersecurity, and even in the more “soft” sciences within tech like Governance, Risk, and Compliance. All of it, at every level, forces you to come face to face with the mechanisms of capitalism. All of your interactions that you have are based on market mechanisms.
But why is that?
How did the internet and our concept of personal computing and technology go from a psychedelic vision of a future where all people were free from the grapple of capitalism, corporations, and states. A place that all information could be shared freely and openly to all people at zero cost. A place where we could escape into other realms, into cyberspace and make anything our imaginations could conjure. To use technology to free people, to automate the means of production, to use it as a labor saver and to get back to communal, free and equal living.
How did that open, free and fundamentally strange vision of the early internet go from all of that, to a place owned and controlled by corporate power? Technology only being used as a means to an end, that end being profit. Selling every bit of data that can be harvested from what we do, creating digital footprints to buy and sell as a commodity. Creating an entire industry that is highly competitive, that requires anyone involved to bow down to market mechanisms, so the work that you do in the digital or technological realm never is to make a modern-day system like cybersyn happen, but just to generate profits for the next quarter.
Neoliberalism, Profit, and the Death of Innovation
Profits are the reason why technology is the way is. Profit determines what is important, what gets built, and what becomes realized. Not the real-world application of the code and tech, but how much money the software can generate. Not the impacts that a developer can have by making a groundbreaking project to help underserved people. But only the amount of money a company stands to make based on that developer’s work. And so real world impact, the benefits to the world and to societies at large are ignored, and profit is at the center of everything in tech.
This is how real innovation is killed. We see time and time again that the profit motive is not the best driver when it comes to technological and social innovation. In fact, profits usually tend to constrain research into subjects, especially research into topics that might eventually cut into profits. Companies can’t make money if they produce well-designed hardware and well-architectured software. Their profits lie in the planned obsolescence and inefficiency of products, to keep making more products into infinity.
One interesting question is what technology would look like if we came at it from a different perspective. What if didn’t focus on profits, and instead focused on other metrics? What if we focused on instead of what would make the most money, what would help the biggest amount of people with the least amount of input? Or focused on changing the disposable nature of tech and instead focused on modular, well-built, easily repairable tech that cuts down on waste and extraction?
Instead of a Capitalist based tech world, what if technology was based on communal ownership? Of stewardship to the lands and the ecology, questioning how we make the technology we use. A system based on free and open sharing of information, ideas, code, and not forcing intellectual property onto things like the enclosures that created capitalism. How could real-world uses of democratic governance like in Democratic Confederalism and other systems like it, blend with technology that recognizes the impacts both socially and more importantly ecologically in the world? This is where I see these things coming together. That is what I see in the solarpunk-esqe vision of the future.
Subverting the hypercaptialist tech system, the psychedelic computer revolution, and the history and modern-day movements towards communal freedom.
Before delving into some of the actionable things we can do right now, it’s important to touch on some of the history of the internet, technology, and our conceptions of what all of this used to be. As I said above the early internet and early computer scientists largely came from the public research sector and also had an incredible crossover into the psychedelic revolution happening in the middle of the twentieth century.
There have been historians who have connected the dots of how the early internet and the psychedelic movement crossed over. What the Dormouse Said by John Markoff is a great resource about this by someone with actual credentials and isn’t a weirdo on the internet.
I will give a very simple explanation and run down of how this happened. A lot of it was just because of circumstances, and the fact that some of the early engineers that were working in computing were in Palo Alto California, very close to the epicenter of the psychedelic movement that exploded out of San Franciso and also were connected to psychologists and other professionals working at universities in the area in the 1950s. Some of the early pioneers of computing worked at the Stanford Research Institute and the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, which created the early internet network, ARPANET.
Myron Stolaroff was an influential engineer in the area who was friends with another Stanford professor named Harry Rathbun, who would host psychedelic sessions in a cabin he owned. These meetings would eventually be called the “Sequoia Seminars” and it was here that Myron met Gerald Heard. Gerald Herd was a good friend and spiritual advisor to Aldous Huxley. So in a strange way, this was the first bridge forming of the computer engineering scene with the psychedelic community now forming in research labs and around Standford.
Myron broke off from the Sequoia Seminars to do more research into LSD and set out to give other engineers the compound. The International Foundation For Advanced Study (IFAS) was formed to do experiments with engineers and computer scientists to explore some of the creative potential psychedelics had.
Doug Engelbart (creator of the computer mouse and then head of the Stanford Research Institute) did LSD with Myron Stolaroff and both of them conducted experiments with other engineers to see if LSD would give them breakthroughs or creative ways to solve problems.
Engineers working at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence lab also were experimenting with psychedelics and cannabis. This lab produced ARPANET for the US military which was the first computer network that sent data from one computer to another.
In 1971 ARPANET was used for what would become the first E-Commerce sale on a computer network was when engineers at Stanford bought weed from engineers at MIT using computer messaging. So really, the first transaction on the brand new internet was from a lab of stoner computer engineers buying weed online.
From LSD-fueled engineers to Corporate Control
So how did computing move away from the psychedelic weirdness of the early internet and into the forms of corporate control and capitalism that we see today? The parallels of what happened to the counterculture, and what eventually happened to the internet and in general computing, directly mirror each other.
I have another article Solarpunk, Acid Communism, Capitalist Co-opting, and Learning From The Counterculture that goes into more detail about how the counterculture of the 60s and 70s came to be, grow and eventually die. At the core of how the changes to the counterculture and computing intersect - was the combination of a couple of things.
The rise of neoliberal politics
The rise of finance, supplanting the traditional power structures
The changes in consumer marketing and capitalism
There are a ton of different factors that played a role in stopping the counterculture from really succeeding. Read my article for a more in-depth analysis of this topic. But by and large, the counterculture didn’t have a cohesive political plan for change. This was largely because of how controlled media was at the time, along with cold war propaganda and a series of brutal assassinations and imprisonment at the hands of the US state. But capitalism was shifting at this time as well, politics had become to be eroded as the main source of power. And a new form of power would come along that was above even traditional politicians: finance.
The world of finance running the world was beginning to grow, as the political systems in the US started to fail and gave way increasingly to the power of finance and money to determine politics. Especially in Reagans’ term, we see neoliberalism rear its head.
It was less so that neoliberalism was a good plan, or a good idea, but it filled the gap. It won the minds of people so indoctrinated into capitalism, to keep perpetuating it, stopping the counterculture from changing the status quo.
This same thing can be seen in computer scientists like Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs credited his LSD experience as one of the single most important parts of his life. A product of living in California, and being connected to other people in computing, and then the growing personal computing revolution. Steve Jobs didn’t become a hippy dropout, creating personal computers for the masses to have access to a free and open internet. He became a capitalist. Neoliberalism had the false promise, that we could solve the problem of the world with money. You could still be a member of “the counterculture” and be a capitalist too.
We also see this with Bill Gates, who in 1976 wrote an open letter condemning “software piracy” by other programmers, who at the time were sharing information freely. Software was seen as just instructions, not a commodity to be owned. This was also around the time that the open source movement growing, though engineers had been sharing their work openly, against corporate warnings back in the late 50’s.
As neoliberalism became the way of life in the US, more and more parts of computing became commercialized. Computing went from the realm of research engineers tinkering with machines, into a commercial product. Which included both the hardware and eventually the software. This also meant that as computer use grew, so would their use by corporations and governments to consolidate power. It was around this time that banks started using computers more and more, and eventually the computer networks to conduct business. This trickled into computer programming, which was increasingly becoming a growing job sector, with corporations creating their own languages and frameworks to further lock down the market, and force people into learning those specific platforms.
Cyberpunk, Corporate Control, Open Source Software.
Neoliberalism grew, and the corporate and banking powers used computers and computer networks to gain incredible profits. It was with the rise of computers that we see banks using them to handle credit and debt. Corporations increasingly put financial blocks to access the technology, including when internet access hit most people’s homes with dialup being controlled mainly by AOL and Bell telecom.
It was this new world of corporate power, that was over even politicians’ control, the world of corporate computer networks that William Gibson saw the cyberpunks. There were always people who loved computers, who understood them, who didn’t want the computer world to turn into a neoliberal wasteland. People who didn’t like the commercialization, and corporate control. And so hacking came to the forefront as a way to stop the corporate control of the networks and of computers, and as a method to fight back against things. Hacking (in the sense of computer hacking) had been around since computers were around, and it was basically changing programs to work better. Hacking the software to do different things. Through the 70’s hackers were moving from practical jokes and messing with software, to some of the hacking we know today. In 1971 a man named John Draper figured out a way to make free phone calls by using specific frequencies to mimic tones and get access to telecom-only commands, like making long-distance phone calls for free. But this was only the start, it was around this time in the 1980s that hacking and computer science exploded mainly because of personal computers. Bulletin boards were pervasive, filled to the brim with computer scientists, hackers, phreakers, crackers, and those who fucked with computers and technology at large. These were major inspirations to the creation of what would become the genre: cyberpunk.
Cyberpunks could enter cyberspace, searching for information on the net. The “console cowboys” of what really could be considered the wild west internet. People who wanted knowledge, who learned about technology so much that they could bend it to their whims. A single person in front of a keyboard could take down an international bank, steal classified information from Los Alamos Laboratories, or change financial information. The power at the hands of people was online, from anywhere there was an internet connection. This is where we see a lot of the utopic and simultaneously cynical views about the internet and the power that it could hold.
The culture was growing in the hacking and computer science world, that the internet should be a free place, and remain a free place. Free from the power of governments and corporations, and many times free from the influence of capitalism and commodification. People saw for the first time, the power of the internet. The ability to contact and speak to people across the globe in an instant. All of the world’s information was at your fingertips. You could create entirely new worlds in cyberspace, you could create your own realities with computers. Computers offered a balance of power, because people had access to information, to do what they wanted at any time.
Hacker culture, Open Source Software, and Internet Utopias
This was also the time and rise of Open Source, which was a kind of cultural undercurrent since the start of computing. As corporations gained more influence in computing, so did their lust for profits. To maintain their profits they would create custom operating systems and programming languages that were closed source, meaning that the corporation owned the code, and did not share how the software was built. Unix started out as an invention of AT&T, at first being free to academic researchers but after it gained popularity they locked it down and required payment to get updates. The lawsuit Apple v. Franklin did incredible damage to sharing source code freely as it sided with corporate interests to count computer programs and their source code as having the same status of literary works.
Born out of the hacker ethos that “information wants to be free”, the open source software movement really jumped off.
A quick side note, Steward Brand who said that famous quote at a hacker conference was the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog in the late 1960s. Which was a pretty influential magazine that included free and open information related to technology and ecology. Steward wrote it on a kind of commune road trip, visiting different communes and ecological experiments during the height of the counterculture.
As software was being increasingly closed and commodified, Richard Stallman got fed up and founded the GNU Project in 1983. The goal and focus was that computers should be free, and the software running these systems should be free and open to anyone that wanted access to use it. It should be open to interpretation, to changes, to modifications. He also created the Free Software Foundation which also got involved with the legal side of the GNU project.
Richard Stallman is credited with creating copyleft. (As opposed to copyright) that was baked into the GNU General Public License. This was a legal punch to the corporations, as software created with the GNU licenses was forced to be open. People were free to have a legal framework protecting their code and forcing it into the commons.
Defeating hypercapitalist tech with the psychedelic hacker ethos
“Information wants to be free” is what stops capitalism from absorbing things. You make the free alternative first, put it out into the commons, and no one will want to pay for it. A great example of this is Wikipedia. They are a central pillar to the internet and I and many others would argue to humanity at large. It is a free site, collectively edited and worked on, with information out in the commons. There is no capitalist alternative to Wikipedia, because who the fuck would buy that? Sure capitalists can make specialized knowledge wikis, but again, if people share the information freely, they can’t turn a profit.
One of the many ways of decommodifying tech, in general, can be done using open and free information to circumvent capitalist profit. By taking over the means that they try to commodify. We can do the same by building our own worlds. We can build entirely new digital realities. We taught computers how to think and create, and make pictures from words. We can make communal, open, and free platforms for everything. Share any and all information for free with the entire world in the blink of an eye.
We have done so much, and yet corporations and governments still control the internet. We have to say fuck that.
Towards a new digital commons
In order to understand where we can go, we need to understand our past. To see that the free internet utopias were always there, with hackers, phreakers, crackers, computer scientists, weirdos, and nerds who just loved playing with computers. The psychedelic dream was kept alive in these cultures. We need to see how the counterculture was coopted and destroyed, see how the early internet went from free to corporate-controlled. We need to learn the mechanisms of neoliberalism, and now instead look at what neoliberalism is morphing into, a form of technofudalism mixed with oligarchic power.
We have to know and learn from our past mistakes in order to move forward.
But what does that forward look like? How do we actually get it and make it happen? How have things changed in our current day? What social and political lenses can we look through based on all of these changes?
This is where visions and practices of building a better future, prefiguration, come into play. This idea has been central to my own thinking recently but balanced with the fact that we have to learn history to learn how we failed in the past and learn from it.
With the cross over of the counterculture with computing, it’s pretty clear how the common occuences in both when it comes to capitalism and neoliberalism directly mirror eachother. Mark Fishers work Acid Communism and his lecture series Post Capitalist Desire talk heavilly about learning from the counterculture, and started to piece together the forms that a new counterculture make take in the modern day. Based off the lecture series outline (as it was cut short due to Marks unfortunate death) we can see the general overview of his vision of Acid Communism. It looked to be a sort of anarcho-communist view of the political reality, of a leftist political thought that wasn’t drenched in the old garb of soviet style communism, but embraced the weird freefom of the weird and the psychedelic.
In my article Solarpunk, Acid Communism, Capitalist Co-opting, and Learning From The Counterculture I go into detail in how I view Solarpunk and other movements and ideas like it as being part of the Acid Communist or really a view of a Post Capitalist framework. You can also listen to me talk about these concepts on the Solarpunk Now! Podcast.
There is a reason why that initial tweet set so much off in me, because I saw the direct connections between computing and tech, with the counterculture, with Acid Communism, combined with leftist ideas that balanced collective action and autonomy like democratic confederalism with Solarpunk. All of these domains and ideas have crossover.
Because what we are talking about is theorizing, prefiguring, and building the future that we want to see right now. A future that balances our social-communal changes with nature and the technology that we have now. We are talking about building a free and open future based on the common interests and liberation of all people, with both collective action and autonomy included into how our daily lives work. We are not just looking towards collapse, but hopeful in the things we build, hopeful in the face of climate change that we can change how and why we use technology, and our impacts to the world. We are talking about using technology to meet the basic needs of all people. Freeing all information, communication and access to not just the wealthy or those in the global north. We are talking about a countercultural movement driven not just by aesthetics or vibes, but concrete political goals mixed in with the libidinal desire to live in a communal, liberated, and free future. We can and will make these futures happen right now. It starts as always, at fundamentally questioning the roles all of this play. Questioning the roles and how computer science works, from education to execution, to the impacts that this technology has on the ecosystem.
Liberation through free information and tech, a path towards a hopeful and symbiotic future with our ecology. And how we make it happen.
A key to making a collective commons is to understand and ultimately subvert the mechanisms that capitalism and states use to maintain power. When you boil it down, power is maintained through scarcity. Mainly through physical scarcity (food, water, shelter) and also informational scarcity. That is access to information to gain autonomy in the areas that states and capitalists use as collateral over us to force us into their systems.
What we should aim to do is to free and democratize the collection, categorization, and dissemination of information. Especially information about gaining food, water, housing, and communications autonomy. This has to be combined with direct action, mutual aid, and dual power to meet the material needs of people, while we build these systems and build our autonomy.
How we build and run these systems both physical and digital hinge on us reimagining and changing how the foundations of these things are taught and done.
We have to change our relationship with computer science, specifically with software development and hardware manufacturing and infrastructure building away from capitalist and hierarchical modes of production. Move computer science away from a method of producing profit, into a method of producing maximum human and ecological benefits.
We need actual frameworks to change how we develop software that isn’t individualist and profit-driven, and instead have them be communal and pro-social. These frameworks for communal life can carry over into the real world. And work in similar ways to how we do mutual aid and direct action. How we structure our societies, cities, villages, and towns to foster autonomy and ecological restoration. Many of the ideas from social ecology and democratic confederalism can merge with the solarpunk/psychedelic/hacker ethos to form new ways of organizing and conceptualizing our technological, social, political and ecological world.
Circles, fractal systems, cybernetics, and general assemblies.
We can look to nature to see how to build and maintain systems that stand the test of time. Every natural system works in a cyclical cycle, many times a closed loop. If we want to build resilient systems, one way is to mirror what we see in nature, and mirror the methods and ways that nature self-balances itself. Pro-social behavior is a key in life, and we see it not just in animals, but with plants, fungi, and even invertebrates. Everything that every part in the system does, is connected with one another. And so to make resilient systems we should aim to make closed-loop, pro-social systems. Closed loop in that the system audits itself, and can self-regulate, where waste isn’t waste in the sense that we are used to, but waste is used as the foundation for growth. Pro-social in the way that understands that we cannot survive without each other, while also balancing the fact that we are all ultimately unique beings that deserve respect and autonomy while also being part of a larger collective whole.
Compare this to authoritarian, top-down, or scarcity-centric ways of thinking and systems. These systems are highly centralized, they rely on domination and subordination. These systems require an endless supply of resources and pawns to carry out the plans of a select few, who are in positions of artificial power to dictate the lives of others. Hierarchical top-down systems require extraction because those at the top must maintain their positions by extracting things either from the natural or social world. And through this extraction is an artificial scarcity. These types of systems maintain individualism, atomization, and separation in order to maintain the hierarchies.
So when we talk about systems we have to understand that the social and political leak into all forms of life. The system is at the core social and political and so the systems that we have in place will be dictated by our social arrangements and our political understandings and frameworks.
Back to the topic at hand, let’s take computer science and more specifically programming and development as an example. Most of the time developing code is deeply rooted in the mechanisms of capitalism and thus the mechanisms of individualism and hierarchy. I say most because there are ways of developing software that don’t rely on top-down authority, and that is the alternative structure we want to build on. As a whole though, most computing programming is done for corporate interests, or for institutions that are driven by a profit incentive (universities as an example), and so the entire idea of computer programming, from education to execution to how and why we make things the way we do, is dictated by the market and capitalist reasoning.
Most modern software is reliant on a complex supply chain of dependencies, or basically software blocks that make other software run. Instead of custom coding your own kernel, you use other software that can handle that. That is a dependency. Instead of custom writing software to handle encryption, you can use other software to help build something new and handle those functions. Over time though, modern software has become extremely reliant on these supply chains of information, for various reasons. Some of them, in the case of open-source software, are for good reasons - these modules save time when it comes to building something. Why reinvent the wheel, when you can just add the wheel on? On the flip side, dependencies have gotten extremely out of hand, because instead of rebuilding old code to fit modern standards or rethinking how software and applications run, usually a giant card tower is made. You get programs that are gigantic because they have so many redundancies, but this is for a very specific reason.
The reason why programmers need more and more software dependencies, and keep making inefficient software that relies on a million moving parts to function isn’t that developers want things to be that way. It isn’t because making reliable and capable software that has the maximum benefit requires basically a crumbling supply chain of dependencies. It’s because companies require that developers make a profit. The development work isn’t focused on how well the software runs, how much computing power it uses, how many people worked on a system to get it to work, and the labor involved. None of that matters. And that is the key to understanding the capitalist system, outside of profit and the economic impacts to it, nothing else matters.
This is reflected in the structure of how software development is commonly done as well. The business makes the decisions, the profits make the decisions. It’s not up to the UI/UX designer to make an accessible site, or the database engineer to manage how information is stored and retrieved for maximum efficiency. The profitability of the project is what matters and so any corners that can be cut to reach that, will be cut. Because profit is at the top of the list of priorities, you see that mirrored in the structure of software development.
The people at the top of the hierarchy determine the business needs. Ultimately they call the shots on what gets developed and pushed into production, because if the software or platforms people are developing don’t make money, it’s useless in the eyes of executives and shareholders. They dictate the profit motive down to the upper level managers, who control different parts of the business, and their teams work to come up with ways to implement the business’s needs. Middle managers usually oversee other managers but delegate tasks down to individuals. Typically for developing something these managers will then assign tasks to project managers, who oversee the development process. Then the project managers dictate what needs to be done and when to the developers and technical people.
One big issue is that the developers and engineers who will actually build these systems don’t get a real say in the final product. To make things worse, these groups are usually siloed off from each other. To the point that a UI/UX designer might design a site feature that is incredibly hard for a front end developer to make, and the data produced might not fit well with how the database is architected and might require rewrites of certain things. Many companies use SCRUM as a method to handle the development cycle with daily standup meetings and constant communication. And yet the communication from the people building the actual thing doesn’t ever make it past management. Most people have no idea that most of the time the engineers who will actually be making these things happen are the ones who know how much time something is going to take, who can do it, how to do it, and how many resources are needed. The people actually doing the work know exactly what needs to be done, and yet their opinions don’t matter. The business doesn’t give a fuck if the old code base was written COBOL with spaghetti code by one guy who didn’t add comments to his code. They want the project done. And so it’s the engineers that have to suffer through these problems, with project managers who are there to keep things on track.
The people who do the actual work in development and tech in general rarely get listened to. They know how long something will take, what resources they need and what needs to change to make things happen. But none of that matters to the business and the processes that go on day to day require the submission of all workers to the whims of those who own the business.
From hierarchical systems to consent and consensus systems
What if we fundamentally change how software development was done, and how technological development, implementation, and research was done in general? This would require a rethinking of the fundamental structure of the system to one that focuses on:
Collective power balanced with individual autonomy
Consent & Consensus
This is where we can borrow methods and ideas from ideas like democratic confederalism, social ecology, anarcho-syndicalism, anarchism, marxism, feminism, and other forms of leftist thought that don’t rely on top-down authoritarian structures to function.
We can understand these ideas as being about a way of organizing people that balances collective power with autonomy while also giving a way to have a kind of direct democracy that all people must consent to, and issues that affect all people must consent to. There are alot of different variations on the idea but as a whole you have different councils or circles, that intersect and come together into general councils.
Images below courtesy of Black Socialists in America
Groups can be thought of as circles, that handle each specific part that they are meant to handle. So that the people doing specific work can have autonomy in what they are doing. However, each circle doesn’t have the final say, other circles have to agree to changes and things happening. Each circle works together to form a cohesive whole. The same structure on the larger level looks the same on the smaller level. Within each circle, members are directly accountable to each other.
Some forms calls for representatives for circles, but that depends on the size and style of the organization. With a large amount of people in a circle, representatives might be needed. The key thing is that representatives have no power over the circle- or any power over each other, the people do. This means that representatives are directly elected and recallable if they break the trust of the circles or the general circle. Representatives are only there to convey the will of the circles they are set to represent. Compare this to how politics is done in the west, where representatives don’t have to represent their constituents. This duty to represent is backed up with both social and recall repercussions.
So each circle creates the larger whole, where everyone can consent to changes, and people come to a consensus. Does that mean that we need to vote to wipe out ass each time? No. The general circle lays some ground rules as to how things run, everyone consents and we go on from there. There can be pre-agreed-upon regulations to handle specific conflicts or things that may come up in the future and ways to handle it. Another big thing is that these agreements can be changed, they are moldable to be able to respond to changes in the environment. And these changes must come from the people, in a consent and consensus-based way.
These ideas are combinations from various ideas, but this is a modified form of democratic confederalism + direct democracy + sociocracy with some cybernetic principles in there as well.
To go back to our example earlier of software development. One that follows this framework moves away from a hierarchical structure to a more equal one based on collective power + individual autonomy and consent and consensus.
Now we can see the crossover happen, and understand that each function of the development cycle is deeply intertwined with each other. What impacts the database admins also has an impact on the back end developers, their work also ties into how the UI/UX experience will be. Everything is connected and big changes will have the consent of every circle to make sure that everyone is on the same page. The general circle could be a set of delegates from each circle who are directly elected, random sortition out of a group, or have no representatives and only be comprised of all people. It depends on what works best. And that is the thing. There is room to figure out and change to do what is best based on what everyone agrees on.
This structure can carry over into things like work run co-ops. Where all people in a company have a direct say in how things run. They all must consent and come to a consensus in the general circle to make large changes. But each circle maintains its own autonomy within to whatever degree the circle wants.
This idea can carry over into worker councils or different circles in a municipality that also intersects and maintain the same structure. Similar to in Rojava, committees can form that are basically medium-sized general circles that meet up together to make the municipal general circle. And that is where the fractalization idea comes into play. The smaller scale mirrors the larger scale.
All of this scales to even larger circles and general circles of multiple cities and eventually regions, to a global scale. A truly large confederation of autonomous and yet collective units.
I wrote a short story about this idea playing out in To The Left Of The Corner Store, which is a story that contrasts life in a corporate housing unit, to life on the lower streets covered in wildfire smoke, which is a kind of hypercapitalist hell scape, compared to federated villages living on the outskirts. In the piece, I wanted to think about what it might look like for two different ways of organizing society might interact (or in many cases clash).
Solarpunk, Computer Science and New Technological Utopias
We have gone from the history of the internet and the ties that early computing and hacker culture had to the counterculture and psychedelic movements of the 50s-70s. We have seen the rise of corporate computing and it’s comparisons to the counterculture and how radical movements were stopped, coopted, or destroyed by neoliberalism. And talked about social frameworks as a way out of these issues. But that’s not just all that’s important to this conversation. Let’s address the now, and the future.
The has been a lack of a future vision for a while. Neoliberalism and capitalism have hautology locked into both. The future has been canceled. Visions of a better world are discounted, and instead, we rehash the past over and over. Because this is profitable, because new ideas (or rehashing old radical ones) would challenge the power structure of these systems directly. So we are stuck on a nonexistent path of what seems like no way out.
We also have a looming challenge ahead of us, that of climate change, climate destruction, and ecological destruction. It’s very easy to slip into nihilism about the future ahead. A future of technofudalism, where the capitalist class cements it’s power, where automation is used to replace people and produce more profit while throwing those people into poverty. A world of endless extraction while the global north reaps the benefits and the capitalists and oligarchs maintain their lifestyles while we are left to die as the climate collapses.
But this vision assumes that there aren’t people who will fight back against this. That there aren’t alternative ways of life, of a future where we aren’t forced to die at the hands of climate disaster. A future where we can stop, regenerate, and help our world heal. A future where we can change. Some would say it’s utopic thinking. But I disagree. It’s the only way we fight for survival.
To give people the spark to survive, and possibly even thrive, we need to conceive of a future. Not rehash the past, or revive old ideas. But build on top of them, mold them to the modern day, to change our ideas and frameworks, to be able to imagine new ways of doing things. In order to do that we need to convey what is possible. That is what I see in Solarpunk and other prefigurative imaginations. It’s not enough to tell people we are going to die. We have to show people what is worth fighting for.
If you don’t know what solarpunk is, please watch this video!
One big reason why I was drawn to solarpunk was that it is one of the few things that doesn’t shun technology. Many people want to blame technology for our problems and not blame how capitalism and colonialism have abused technology to be used as weapons. Solarpunk is interesting because it’s a literary genre, an aesthetic, a type of movement that focuses on the intersection of ecology, technology, and social change.
And within that I can see it as a libidinal force, such as some of the topics Mark Fisher mentioned in Acid Communism, to help drive some of these ideas home. To not just give logical reasons, but a vision, an imagining. What would the future look like if we balanced the ecology with technology and changed our social arrangements in a fundamental way? What would my life look like day to day in a post-capitalist world?
In a lot of ways, I see solarpunk as an updated version of the old ideas in utopian socialism, combined with elements from the degrowth movement, anarchism, marxism, and democratic confederalism, all mixed into one. Because the core ideas in solarpunk mirror these philosophies and methods pretty well.
Not just that, I see solarpunk as a possibly new frontier of the psychedelic visions of the early internet, a free and autonomous internet built by the people, that combines with ideas from degrowth into new ideas like permacomputing. All being run by changing how we do things and our social relations away from hierarchy, to frameworks that foster communal action & autonomy like the circles/sociocracy/democratic confederalist/social ecology models.
The intersection of solarpunk with computer science and democratic confederalism will also combine ideas of the early internet utopias, with degrowth, elements of post capitalist desire, the psychedelic/the weird, with a fundemental shift in our social arrangements to be more equal.
Solarpunk / Post Capitalist Computer Science: The ecological internet and the computing commons
What would computer science and technology look like if we fundamentally changed our social relations, to make post-capitalist worlds a reality? It’s not enough to just change the system, as we have seen with socialist experiments of the past such as the USSR. Even after the means of production have been seized, if we have no idea how to live in free and equal ways, we will default to ideas that focus on hierarchy and power. One way to subvert the capitalist system is to build anti-capitalism and make it a mainstay of our social relations. Build anti-capitalist social relations now, grow it, expand, change, modify right now, to meet the needs of the future.
We can take a page from the utopic visions of the early internet and see that one path is making it impossible for capitalism (and colonial powers as well) to cement their power by making everything we can free, open and accessible. We can do this right now by creating dual power, by creating the future that we want to see - in the now. And that can start by fostering free and equal social arrangements like we talked about above.
Let’s look at technology. Let’s say that we combine the frameworks we mentioned to foster systems of communal action & autonomy + consent & consensus. Technology wouldn’t be made for profit, but the common good. Technology as a way to automate tasks that benefit people and save time. Technology as a means to share information, but also the keys to autonomy, food, water, and shelter. Computer science then would fundamentally change. Programming would go from a method of creating profit, to a way of interacting with computers that create things that help us and the planet.
Instead of the business determining what gets made and when, with top-down authoritarian rule. We can communaly design, conceptualize, and build the platforms, software, and hardware we need to give everyone a better life, for no reason other than that they are people and deserve to live happy lives. Instead of profit, we can focus on what will have the best impact on people, and the least impact on the ecology.
So in a way, computer science will look closer to the original visions of the early internet, but something even better, that the early internet utopias could not conceive of. Because of our technological advances, we need a way to think about the future that builds on those utopic visions of before and tailors them to what we have now.
Say for instance we can tackle issues to deal with food insecurity. Multiple federated circles can come together to meet the baseline needs of people. Urban gardening circles and Permaculture circles combine with Indigenous food knowledge committees and circles, that intersect with indoor farming circles, all of them coming together in a general agricultural committee across a region that also intersects with raising and caring for animals, biologists who monitor biodiversity, engineers who manage food infrastructure, the list can be infinite because all of these things are deeply connected. But you can see that this can happen across multiple regions, all coming back to the people living there making decisions for themselves. But this is just the base. We need a way to bring food to all people, where they are. That might require logistics, planning, and automating parts that may be so incredibly complex that a group of humans won’t be able to handle it but a computer would. All circles and general circles working together to come to a consensus about changes. The technology general council working with agriculture, engineering, transportation, energy, communications general circles so all people have a say in how these systems are built at a high level but the technological general councils still have the autonomy to build what works.
And development starts, maybe there is a need to automate indoor farms to automatically move produce into trains to go a short distance into cities where more people live. Maybe the human-managed permaculture farms nearby also need a way to move and transport produce along with the automated indoor farms. How do we handle managing when food will be moved to trains? How it will be moved? How the interaction between humans and the automated system will work? The tech circles break down into smaller circles that specialize in certain areas, maybe the database circle in the north east regional council has an idea about categorizing plants into a database to keep things organized. With the help of botanist circles in that region, they can come up with a cohesive plan. The UI/UX and human computer interaction engineering circles might have good input into how these plants are physically labeled when the enter the train cars, to make it easier for people on permaculture farms to interact with the automated systems and see what produce goes where with maybe a color coded system of barcodes. The disability circles are involved in the development process helping to pick accessible colors that people with vision impairments can see, but also other methods such as making specific textures on the barcode bands on the produce for those who might be blind to still interact with the system.
Development starts as a collaborative process, code is added into something like a federated git repository where code is shared, and anyone on the networks can view what is happening in an open way. Maybe another region sees this open source code for automating food labeling for automated food distribution and forks the code, making small changes to fit their local environment. Instead of profit being at the top of concerns, ecological impact might be the top concern. And so developers work to make code that can run on recycled chipsets and old architectures. The permacomputing circles might mine the mountains of ewaste, categorizing and maintaining an open library of computer chips, processors, and other units to cut down on the need of producing new boards and chips, but also to stop them from going to waste like the capitalists before them did. This new code goes through code reviews of peers who directly have a say in how that code is produced. Project managers don’t force deadlines on engineers from the top, but keep things running as people who can help facilitate the process and help keep people organized. This code then can be reviewed by larger circles, or a demo can be made to the regional general council to show how it works, and with consent and consensus the code is pushed to production.
Once that code is ready, infrastructure and engineering circles and councils work to make it all run. They maintain a new internet completely owned by the people collectively, on what started as small autonomous networks that grew out and connected regions, then the whole world. Other regions see the code get pushed to production, and that code is put in a communal and open repository where any community can pull the information, tailor it to their needs or environmental conditions and make improvements or changes to be pushed back to the global code repository. Where educational circles and committees can then use that code to teach new programmers and engineers how to make it all work, on free and accessible technology that can be downloaded from the community net for free, and then print PCB boards from say a sustainable material like mycelium combined with recycled metals from the waste piles at the local fabrication lab.
How do we build a future like this?
We can’t wait for change. We can’t wait for a revolution to just happen. We have to do whatever we can, no matter how small it may seem to foster communal & autonomous action right now. To change our own concepts of the future and how we interact with each other but also change other people’s perspectives. Sure we could preach about how amazing our thoughts are, and how this that and the other will work. No one will care. Show them the systems in action. Build anticapitalist systems that meet people’s basic needs without money and extraction.
We need to build autonomous systems, new social relations, and new ways of living right now. But what does that mean? We can use the frameworks and ideas mentioned in this piece to build out collective and autonomous groups that form circles and councils. We can make food general circles and councils, to try and grow as much food as we can while also regenerating the ecological damage we have done. We can build autonomous water capture and filtration systems and collectively run and operate them to give clean water to anyone who needs it for free. We can build community-owned internet by creating autonomous networks. We can not only imagine better futures but work to build them. To make a prefigurative dual power structure to address the needs of all people. To create free and equal systems for all people to live and enjoy life.
Do what you can at any level to foster these ideas and grow them. Maybe we can make a unified framework to build off. The first step is to imagine what would be better, and then do anything you can to make it happen.
I think that is solarpunk!!!!