I’m just back from this year’s OuiShare Fest, the annual gathering focused on social and economic innovations that are collaborative, decentralized, and open-source. This year’s theme was After the Gold Rush, reflecting the post-euphoric, sobered-up state many of us found ourselves in, as the reality of exploitative business-as-usual stomped on our idealistic Sharing Economy. Several people asked me where the Fest could possibly go from here, as if the Gold Rush being over meant an end.
But in terms of lasting outcomes, the fortunes made by actual gold, and even by the merchants supplying the miners, paled in comparison to the demographic impacts of history’s major gold rushes, which constituted some of the world’s largest mass migrations, and thus all kinds of New Beginnings, on individual and state and global levels (although outcomes were not so rosy for most Native Americans or the Chinese miners). California had a population of about 157,000 in early 1848, and grew by some 300,000 new arrivals by the mid 1850s, which helped fast-track California’s statehood. By 1850, one quarter of its population was foreign born, from Latin America, China, Australia, and Europe. Meanwhile in Australia’s Gold Rush, the total population more than tripled from 430,000 in 1851 to 1.7 million in 1871, with most immigrants from the UK.
Once upon a time, white folks viewed mass migrations as more of a blessing, or at least an opportunity, rather than a threat. Although from the perspective of the land’s current residents, indigenous peoples, it pretty much always wound up a threat.. or at best a mixed blessing. Mixed blessings, though, are the stuff of evolution.
With Francesca Pick, I led a conversation about Loss, Death, and Grieving: how isolating these experiences can often be in our mostly secular, death- and grief-phobic societies. This happened on Friday afternoon on the Boat, home to most of the Fest’s edgiest content (this session filled the figurative shoes of Alexa Clay’s infamous We Share Love conversations, on non-monogamy.) I shared that my favorite “holidays” when I lived in San Francisco were Dia de los Muertos, rooted in the Mexican community, and Samhain, the Halloween-time Pagan holiday, both of which annually honor and celebrate our spirits: What is remembered, lives.
Although we intended to talk about what kinds of rituals and communities could be reclaimed, created, and/or popularized to better support us in grieving, the session wound up being mostly a grieving ritual in and of itself, with everyone sharing stories about family and friends we’d lost. It seemed clear that everyone relished the opportunity to grieve—which itself seemed to prove the point that we (in Northern Europe and the US, at least) don’t have enough spaces dedicated to this. (Although there is the phenomenon of grieving on social media for celebrities or disaster victims, which we also touched on.)
Throughout the Fest, in fact, many people shared beautiful, deeply felt, vulnerable things with me, knowing that I would be leading this session, for which I felt and feel enormously grateful.
Our Loss session was part of Day 3’s focus on Individual Transformation, the most exciting part of which addressed the Future of Work. There was general agreement: Jobs Are Over. Automation and robots will eat all the “bullshit jobs” (a la David Graeber) and even some of the non-bullshit jobs. But: We Will Always Have Work—that is, making meaningful, purposeful, dignified contributions. Tim Leberecht (stellar!), author of The Business Romantic, said: “In the age of automation you need to design for the soul,” the kind of work that speaks to human nostalgia. “Nostalgia,” he noted, we have from the Greek: “Nostos” meaning return, and “Algos” meaning suffering. So it’s suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return, —not to a time gone by as we commonly think! It’s more a longing for a profound truth, for something essential that transcends all times.
There also seemed to be consensus around a Universal Basic Income—say, $1000 per month for every human, based on their humanity and their right to having basic needs met—that will enable everyone to find the role to which they are uniquely suited, the place where only you can make a difference, by virtue of everything you’ve experienced in life. This is what Nilofer Merchant (superstellar!) calls “Onlyness,” the subject of her forthcoming book. A basic income will also encourage people to contribute value in ways that the current system finds very hard to measure and thus to reward: what is the value of caregiving for the very young and the very old? What is the value of listening and reflecting? What is the value of creating art?
Speaking of a universal basic income, another fascinating thread at the Fest explored the blockchain. Which turns out to both be and not be All That. I hounded several of the Experts (notably, Caterina Rindi and Gavin Wood) about my question of Data Entry: if the blockchain is essentially a global database, how do things get in there in the first place, given that all I ever hear about is how incorruptible and eternal the data is once it’s in there. Because if data is entered by humans, isn’t there a chance for error at the entry point? The answer, finally acquired from the refreshingly plainspoken Caterina, is YES (for example, the total amount of bitcoin in the system was an arbitrary number made up by the Wizard of Oz-like creator of bitcoin, a person or likely a group of people known by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakimoto.) …AND that’s not really the point: It’s the capacity of the technology to track, manage, and *leverage* the data once inside the system that’s got everyone so excited. So: slock.it can recognize from the blockchain that you have paid for access for something you want (a hotel room, say, or a car), and automatically unlock it for you, granting you automated access with no middlemen–with no “trust brokers” like notaries, credit raters, etc are necessary. The trust machine, the Economist called the blockchain.The whole Internet of Things will follow suit, apparently, with our washing machines automatically reordering detergent when they run out; potentially not just the brand we ordered last time, but the one with the most appropriate ingredients, which the smartypants washing machine also finds on sale somewhere via the interwebs.
Truth be told, I am less excited about nearly-self-actualized washing machines, and more excited about the end of the nation-state, and the advance of, as I began to say, a Universal Basic Income, leveraging blockchain technology. Again there is this question about a select group of crypto-hacker-masters doing the lion’s share of, and getting the lion’s share of a say in, verifying transactions or data entry (what if they spell the baby’s name wrong, once they take over being in charge of birth registries in place of national governments?) (Caterina’s answer: then you would have to keep adding correction notes into the blockchain until the corrected information got accepted)…
As it turns out, lots of people share this concern about this noble, decentralized, incorruptible tech being taken over and run within an exploitative, centralized context. The rather edgy Vinay Gupta and the wise Yochai Benkler were both up on stage at various points, warning us of exactly this scenario. The former had said, sharply, in his talk: “there can be no real global sharing economy without truth and reconciliation for the colonial era” and “It’s impossible to ignore the enormous period of piracy and looting that is founding of the wealth of western societies” and “There should be an enormous transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor. This is necessary if we want global democracy.”
Finally, speaking of Professor Benkler, there were the Women. In his closing, this was one of the first things he noted: how many of us there were. If you consider OuiShare a tech start-up community/conference (I don’t), this is especially amazing.
I have been going on about this since I got involved in OuiShare: how striking it is that so many of the thoughtleaders in the collaborative economy space are women: with my own Annie Leonard, as well as Lisa Gansky, Rachel Botsman, and Robin Chase being the earliest and most articulate examples. Then there’s April Rinne advising collaborative cities worldwide; there’s the aforementioned Caterina Rindi in blockchain; there’s Alanna Krause over at Loomio/ Enspiral. Now I’ve discovered Nilofer Merchant (I’m actually not sure how she eluded me until now). Within the core OuiShare community we’ve got an ultra luminous bunch: Francesca Pick, Diana Filippova, Asmaa Guedira, Flore Berlingen, Justyna Swat, Julie Braka, Maeva Tordo, Narmada Ramakrishna, Manuella Brito, Manuella Yamada…so many more…
I used to hypothesize this was because, like the original actual economic activity of householding— making sure necessary resources like food and clothes were distributed among the family and the tribe as needed—the building blocks of the sharing economy were concrete, not derivative or abstract. Not paper representations. Not “futures” to speculate upon. Not coming from the churning of the egoic intellect, but from our other intelligence centers: our hands, our guts, our bodies. Getting needs met. Real talk. Kitchen table governance. I thought this was perhaps why so many more women were making this space their business. I don’t know whether that’s true or not: and I suppose in expressing this I open myself to irate female rationalists who pride themselves on their prefrontal cortices..
In any case, there is no question that women are leading in this space, right alongside the men. And this year the conversations about women’s leadership were moved up into the official program, explicit. Nilofer Merchant, in her critique of the Silicon Valley story, called out the “lone hero myth,” featuring who? she asked the crowd. White men! shouted out a white man in the audience. Well done. Now, we are writing another story.
All in all, sober theme or no, the atmosphere at the Fest felt buoyant. And it seems to me that after four years, we are just getting started. Patience and persistence, chickadees. It’s a long game.