Creativity (stories, film, etc.), Society

Marcel Wanders between Art and Design

After walking through yet another museum’s collection of the internationally established canon of modern art, I was amazed to discover a temporary exhibition that felt so immediate and contemporary: “Marcel Wanders: Pinned Up At The Stedelijk, 25 Years of Design”

I wouldn’t say Marcel Wanders’s creations are characterized by beauty. Sometimes they are beautiful, sometimes I find them quite hideous. Sometimes both at the same time. The most consistent quality I find in his work is that it makes me laugh or smile. An unexpected change of scale, a surprising combination of patterns, shapes and materials, and no fear of having to conform to any classical notion of beauty. Although often, his creations are reflections of historical or organic shapes.

As a piece of art, interpreted as a critique of society’s lack of vision around the millennium, I love his work. But to actually spend any significant amount of time in one of his interiors? No. Hell no.

But maybe Marcel Wanders is in fact sincere with his products and tries to give non-designers a version of design that they again can relate to.

A product must feel familiar. This is why he chooses elements that everyone recognizes because, for instance, they are based on historical sources of inspiration. — 2014 Stedelijk exhibition

That may be his personal vision. To sidestep the problem of the late 1990s and the first decade of the 20th century’s lack of a shared vision.

Does the concept of future still exist in a culture in which a coherent vision has disappeared? — Marcel Wanders

Sometimes, the result feels like a “Best of IKEA”. It’s good design, no doubt about that. But for my taste, it’s often too much “bling bling”—too cheap and too extravagant at the same time. As a child of modernity, I’m still waiting for the good old future.

Wanders Wonders



Knotted Chair




Why we need an unconditional basic income: stagnating economic growth, automation and commons-based peer production

With this post I’m going to try to piece a few things together that I’ve been thinking about in recent years. If you’re not familiar with one argument or line of thought: please follow the links!

The underlying argument is that today’s industrialized societies are finally entering a post-industrial era (and maybe have been in the process of entering it since the 1980s or 90s). This means that the industrial era in the Western world was a 200-year period, roughly ranging from 1800 to 2000. So while current developing and newly industrialized countries may be in the same situation in the near future, a different cultural and historical background, as well as a changing environment, may very well result in a drastically different situation for each of them. That’s why I will limit this discussion to today’s industrialized societies. (For a convincing look at our geo-political future, see Martin Jacques’s When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order)

There are three major trends in today’s industrialized societies that are relevant here:

  1. Economic growth is relatively easy to achieve when industrialization has successfully kicked off, yet the country is still in need of building major infrastructure and accommodation, and its population is in the process of lifting itself out of poverty (e.g. today’s China or 1900’s Europe). Once this has been achieved—even as the tertiary service sector increases to account for the lion’s share of the economy—it doesn’t really become easier to decouple economic growth from the growth in the consumption of physical resources and energy.

    As both John Maynard Keynes and Adam Smith believed, economic growth will taper off at some point. In fact, infinite economic growth is an impossibility. (Karl Marx also hoped to escape capital’s growth imperative to end up in a system beyond class, money and even the state. This hypothetic system was what he called Communism.) The current system, which is built on interest and debt, cannot function without growth. Currently, commercial banks loan money into existence by loaning it from the central bank at the prime lending rate. Then they pass the money on by lending it at a slightly higher interest rate to private and public borrowers (the difference is their profit). Now, a simple thought: if all borrowers payed back their loans plus interest, they would pay back more money than was ever loaned to them. Where does all that new money come from? An impossibility! There are only two solutions: either some of the debtors don’t pay back their loan and go into bankruptcy, or they have to take up even more loans to pay back the old ones. While the pressure of bankruptcy always looms over everyone, to keep this system going relatively smoothly, it is preferable to simply loan ever more money into existence at an exponential rate. So while we continue to cling to the current system, we have no choice but to continue growing. If we suddenly stop growth, the whole Ponzi scheme comes tumbling down, we have an economic crash and unemployment skyrockets. And nobody want to be unemployed, right? It’s a catch-22 that an unconditional basic income can help to break. Meanwhile, politicians and economists see no alternative but work to prolong economic growth on a finite planet by introducing consumerism, throw-away society, financialization, high-frequency trading and the economization of public and everyday-life in general. Examples of economization include transforming ever more services that used to be non-monetary or public into paid products: e.g. professionalization of the care for the elderly and children, privatization of public services, individualization and reduction of reliance on neighborhood, friends and family. All of which helps continue the exponential growth of GDP. But soon, there will be no things left that are still free or voluntarily organized that we can turn into products and sell back and forth to each other. At some point, industrialized societies will have to accept the inevitable and say goodbye to economic growth.

  2. Automation in factories has been key to rising efficiencies ever since the industrial revolution and a steadily growing amount of tasks have in fact been automated. And while hyped for the first time in the 80s, artificial intelligence (or at least machine learning) has actually been making steady progress and is now taking over tasks that were previously thought impossible to do by machines. While Google’s self-driving car is still in the works, mining trucks already drive themselves in the Australian desert. Meanwhile, Oxford researchers say that 45 percent of America’s occupations will be automated within the next 20 years.

  3. And finally, there is the rise of the Internet, and with it the rise of commons-based peer productions like Wikipedia and free and open source software, where lots of volunteers work together, in an open process without traditional hierarchical organization, and the product of their labour is shared and licensed to be freely accessible to everyone. Here’s the story in a nutshell:

    • A computer in every home.
    • Every computer connected through the internet to every other computer.

    What sounds so simple is actually the setup for a revolution—one that has great implications on the economy as well as on society as a whole.

    Computers greatly influence our daily lives. While they can run proprietary software that big companies develop behind closed doors, there exists also a wide range of software which is open for everyone to examine and which everybody is free to copy, modify and redistribute. This kind of software is called free and open source software. The free and open source software developing community is spread around the world and collaborates over the internet. Its poster child is certainly GNU/Linux—a whole operating system that can replace the proprietary Microsoft Windows.

    Copyright law grants an author the exclusive right to copy his work, but only for a limited period of time. During that time nobody else is permitted to copy an author’s book, image, film, etc. and nobody is allowed to use it to create new stuff. However thereafter, the original work passes into the public domain and everyone is free to use it for any purpose. The 20th century was the century of the mass media which tend to produce capital-intensive industrial productions for an audience as large as possible. They started lobbying politicians and copyright got extended over and over again and our culture becomes increasingly property of a few companies.

    With ordinary home computers connected to the Internet, today everybody can easily manipulate, mix and rearrange his own or the data of others and share the creative product with all the world. New distribution mechanisms like peer-to-peer file sharing networks render the record industry with its current business model obsolete. The major record labels therefore react with lawsuits against individuals and use a new technology called DRM to control its customers even more tightly which at the same time prevents others from reusing past culture.

    Copyright, patents and trademarks are often lumped together under the term of intellectual property. This term already implies that intellectual works are analogous to physical property which isn’t the case.

    • Information is a nonrival good: It can’t be used up, information shared is information doubled.
    • Information is a core-prerequisite to creating new information.

    Such exclusive monopoly rights lock information in and prohibit innovation. In a time where the basic tools for information production in form of computers are available to millions of people, the law still favours capital-intensive industries over individuals and small businesses.

    The internet facilitates the collaboration of individuals all over the world. Volunteers as well as professionals come together to participate in a new form of information production: commons-based peer productions – like the development of free and open source software or the writing of Wikipedia. Information is shared, rather than hoarded, and licensed as free content.

    In this digital and networked environment individuals can do more alone or in loose collaboration with others. On blogs millions of people post about anything from music to politics and provide an alternative to the traditional mass media like TV and newspapers. A new informational environment emerges that is more diverse and independent of advertising revenues or the government. If information is shared freely instead of being held back, this is more just, and access to existing information is crucial for impoverished people and whole nations all over the world to catch up in development.

    This networked environment has many advantages over the old information environment. However, there is also strong opposition to those new concepts, originating either from poor understanding or from fear of death of last-century business models. A battle has broken out over the laws and tools governing information production. The claim represented in this text is not that technology will magically lead to a better world, but rather that it provides for diverse possibilities that a given society can choose to use or not.

    For more info, see an introductory text of mine (from where the above is copied), or Yochai Benkler’s excellent The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, and for a more critical look George Packer’s The New Yorker piece Change the World.

With these three major trends outlined, let’s take a look into our crystal ball. With more and more low-skilled jobs replaced by machines (or in the meantime cheap foreign offshore labour), the workers that the capitalist economy in industrialized nations really needs are highly-skilled, creative, self-motivated and autonomous. Because the only way to get that kind of work done which machines cannot do, is to find highly skilled and passionate people, provide them the means to live and work and then just let them do what they need and want to do. So the organization needs to be very similar to how commons-based peer productions work—except the ‘commons’ is limited to the company. This is exactly what most startups and companies with a startup-like culture (like Google at least used to have) do.

But where does that leave the many relatively unskilled workers? One aspect is that we should change our educational system that was designed to churn out industrial workers that can do a specified task efficiently without creativity or thinking for themselves. But more fundamentally, low-skilled and boring work will be needed less and less by the capitalist economy. And my argument is that this is not a bad thing. In our society, we are so used to defining our self-worth with what job we have and our value by how much we earn. But in a broader historical context, I think this will have been a 200-year anomaly that lasted only during the industrial era. People will continue to do things, but now because they are meaningful to them, because they feel that they are providing value to their community (or to one of their many virtual or local communities). With an unconditional basic income, they won’t have to do useless bullshit jobs to justify their existence. We have to stop equating the value of a human being with how much paid work he or she does. While I’m all for good working conditions, it’s sad to see unions resisting an unconditional basic income because they hang on to the industrial idea that everyone should have a job and get (well) payed for that.

One way or another, most well-off people will have a basic income. Because that’s effectively already what companies with a startup-culture provide their employees or what you get when you have interest-bearing assets. The question is whether we as a society get our shit together and make this work for every citizen, not only the privileged few. It would be the logical next step for the welfare state.

Creativity (stories, film, etc.), Society

“Snowpiercer” as an Allegory

Snowpiercer still

Warning: Heavy Spoilers! You should really go and watch the excellent movie first!

Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 film Snowpiercer must be read as an allegory. While it might be plausible for Earth to enter a new Ice Age because of geo-engineering gone awry (which was actually meant to combat global warming), there is just no logical explanation for why the remaining few humans would go around the planet on a train at breakneck speed instead of just parking it at a nice station—except for the fact that it makes a nice allegory: “The train is the world”, as voiced by our reluctant hero. The world is complete with the underclass at the tail, specialized production sections in the middle (a prison wagon, a garden wagon, an aquarium wagon, a school/propaganda wagon, a sushi-bar wagon, a sauna, etc.), and a self-absorbed elite towards the head.

Yet at the very front of the train is the (economic?) engine pulling the whole thing—the ultimate objective of our revolting party’s bloody struggle for freedom and/or control. After wagon for wagon has been taken, the remaining three revolutionaries finally arrive at the engine where the infamous dictator and designer of the train invites our protagonist to dinner and explains in a malthusian argument that this and all preceding revolutions were planned all along to periodically kill off the over-boarding population of the train. Furthermore, he offers that his job as the lonely head of the train is no easier than the workers struggle for survival at the tail and that ultimately all parts of society need to work together to form the functioning whole. Finally, as he’s an aging dictator, he wants our protagonist to take his place.

Understandably confused at first, our protagonist finally declines the offer of taking control at the front, and instead chooses freedom for everybody by helping the two other remaining revolutionaries (a girl and her father) to blow up a door at the side of the train. The explosion causes an avalanche, derailing and crushing the entire train and—literally—train-wrecking everything. It appears the only survivors crawling out under the wreck and stumbling innocently out into the endless snow are a young boy and the teenage revolutionary girl.

As eloquently expressed by Acid Cinema:

While movies like In Time or Elysium admit that the system is broken, they also offer reassurances that it can be fixed (in Elysium’s case with the laughably literal push of a button). Snowpiercer, on the other hand, argues that perhaps the system is broken beyond repair, that the only way to fix it would be to scrap everything and just start over.

While starting anew with a clean slate is appealing on an emotional level, personally I still prefer to believe that the system can be fixed without destroying everything.


Working for Donations

Let me start by saying that I really like the premise of effective altruism. Namely:

  • I believe that logical and evidence-based reasoning is the worst form of thinking, except for all the others (to paraphrase Winston Churchill). So yes, being effective is great.
  • And about the altruism part: I think there is just no way to be truly human and to have a fulfilling life without being altruistic.

But as always, the devil is in the detail. And as far as I know, a seizable part of the effective altruism movement is about making donations. So let me talk about that in this blog post.

The movement is insofar critical of charities in that it demands the donations to be as effective as possible. Often, the metric of “number of human lives saved” is mentioned, or the more fuzzy metric of “reducing suffering”. Let me be clear, everything else being equal, I fully support donating to charities. But I cannot help but wonder if it wouldn’t be even more effective to forego donations altogether, and take a more radical approach: changing the system.

Let me pick the example Peter Singer mentioned in his TED talk of a guy called Matt Weiger who’s gone to Wall Street and is now giving a six-figure sum to charities. I think it might be entirely possible that his investments for the bank (or hedge fund or whatever financial institution it is he’s working for) caused considerably more harm to a lot people in Africa than what he’s able to recoup with his ~$0.5M donations. Think about it, how much money did the bank earn through his actions? Maybe $10M? That doesn’t seem too unrealistic if you google “profit per employee”. And how much of that profit was achieved through speculation on food (raising food prices when people are most in need), investments in companies that make a profit by depleting the planet’s natural resources (destroying the livelihood of small farmers and future generations all over the world)? So is Matt “actually trying” or only “pretending to try” to improve the world?

The truth is, we don’t know Matt’s case that well. But my point is that I’m far from convinced that working in the system and then donating some of that money to (effective) charities is the most effective way to be altruistic. I’m not into conspiracy theories and we can debate what exactly “the system” is and how much “the market” or “the state” is to blame for the current state of affairs.

However, I think we can all agree on that the current global capitalist system – which is basically supported by every nation state on earth – favours rising inequalities and is responsible for us being on the best course to wrack the planet. I’m not denying that capitalism has brought major improvements as well. I’m not against modernity or think the industrialisation was a mistake. The western world, however, has been fooling around with its newfound powers for the last two centuries. But now it’s time for humanity to use those powers to create a fair and sustainable world without unnecessary suffering – after all, it’s no longer a primarily a technological problem, but a socio-economical one. It may be the first time in human history we’re technologically capable of doing so – but if we don’t hurry, it might have been the last time.

Philosophy, Society

How to compare people, or even nations?

How should two different entities relate to each other?

What do I mean by “entities”? People, organizations or even nations. And what do I mean with “different”? Obviously, that they are not the same, which implies that they are “unequal” in some way. What we think are the important ways to measure, to compare two entities, that’s what determines everything.

Is it wealth? Is it happiness? Is it age? Is it intelligence or technological progress? Without considering the problem of how exactly to define those terms, comparing people or nations with each of these measures gives vastly different results. But irrespective of what measure is chosen, one entity is always inferior when compared to the other. When choosing to measure in “wealth”, a rich CEO or an industrialized nation is “higher up”, or “more advanced”, when compared to a lowly construction worker or a so-called developing nation. But when choosing to measure in “happiness”, it might just be the other way around.

So, back to the question of how two entities should relate to each other, i.e. what nature their relationship should be of. Depending on the measure chosen to compare the two, there will always be inequality. Now, very often inequality is considered to be a negative phenomenon. It is used to point out that something is unevenly or unfairly distributed. But we wouldn’t want all people to be exactly equal to all the others, either. We wouldn’t want all nations, irrespective of the measure chosen, to be the same: the same climate, the same food, the same population density, the same level of energy consumption.

The key appears to be to rigorously define in which measure we want which entities to be equal, or at least to be more equal. And then demand for more equality in that measure. I some cases this may indeed be possible and even desirable. Although it is important to be aware that by choosing someone else’s measure, you invariably agree to play their game. As an example, by demanding “a career” (in the traditional work-a-lot-and-then-get-promoted-sense of the word), women agree to play the game of fighting for promotions. Alternatively (or at least additionally), they could demand less full-time stressing-out jobs for everyone.

Either way, there are a hoist of cases where it isn’t straightforward at all to settle on a measure for comparison. For example, when choosing a country to live in, or a person to marry, you might want to consider both the wealth of the country or person, and how happy you are going to be (among other factors). So you might be tempted to set up an equation to determine the “ultimate value” of each scenario p:

value(p) := λ1*wealth(p) + λ2*happiness(p)

where λ1 and λ2 are weighting factors you need to determine for yourself. For example, if you set both to 0.5, it means wealth and happiness are equally important to you.

It may be worth to point out that by combining the measure of wealth and happiness into one, what we have done in effect, is simply created yet another measure. I’m sure there are some economists or psychologists that have come up with a model like that already.

But now there are many more combinations of how very different entities can end up having the same value. Like a person being very rich but totally unhappy having the same “value” in that measure as one being very poor but extremely happy.

In order to form a balanced and constructive relationship where both entities can learn from each other, it seems important to choose the weights λi such that the value of both entities ends up being equal. That way, neither one appears more advanced in any absolute sense, and neither one is being looked down upon by the other.

It is easy to make the mistake to choose large weights for precisely those measures where you yourself already score high. That way, you’ll never be the loser. But it has the opposite effect as well: without noticing, you will end up behaving like a hegemonic empire. And both entities lose out.

Society, Technology

Making a Dent in the Universe

Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.
– Dwight Eisenhower

We all strive to make our dent in the universe. And while too much concentrated power is certainly a bad thing, nobody wants to be entirely powerless.

If power is the ability or capacity to influence the state of the world, then being able to influence the physical world (stones, trees, rivers) may be the primary form of power. The archetypal lone cowboy is always certain to have enough power to provide food for himself and defend himself. But influence over the physical part of our world is a rather crude form of power, compared to the ability to influence the social part of our world – people.

Technology is usually primariliy considered in its capacity to influence the physical world (e.g. building a dam) rather than the social world. But since the invention of mass media technologies – starting with the printing press, then radio, television and now the internet – this has changed a lot. While not requiring all the same skills as mastering other kinds of technology, mastering a certain communications medium (e.g. writing books, blogs or filming) has become a very effective skill in influencing the world. Even more so in the highly connected and collaborative world we live in today.

A very simple form of the ability to influence people is “getting them to do what you want them to”. There seem to be mainly two strategies to this end. Either, you convince them that your idea is so great that they voluntarily invest their time in its support, or you simply pay them to do so. Or you do both.

In an industrialized society, where every year a larger part of the simple mechanical work can be done by machines, your are dependent upon motivated people that don’t simply execute what you paid them for, but actually understand and believe in your idea and want to actively be part of making it a reality. But in our current society, people also need money to get by.

So you’d think convincing them of your idea and paying them at the same time would be the smartest thing to do. But alas, whenever you introduce money as a motivator, things get more complicated. The warm and fuzzy feeling people get when doing some good for free might fade, you have to decide whether to give some people more money than others, etc.

So what do you do? It might very well be that either the state will provide a basic income to all its citizens, or that companies will do so for their employees – as long as they seem to be doing something broadly in the interest of the company. In the meantime, you can hope to find or found a company doing something close to that, or roll your own and look for some crowd funding.

Philosophy, Society

Gratitude and why you shouldn’t expect things to “just work”

I’m utterly convinced that the key to lifelong success is the regular exercise of a single emotional muscle: gratitude.

– Geoffrey James (hat tip to swissmiss)

Continuing the line of thought from my two previous posts, it feels like many of us have (or at least I have) come to expect many things that probably shouldn’t be expected. What I mean is this conception of “how things are supposed to work”, and the believe that somewhere on this planet there are those “true professionals” that do things that way. That conception, that if you adhere to a couple of smart principles, including the scientific method, sound reasoning and a lot of grit, you eventually end up with a process that is “the right way”. And the thought that if you do things that way and do them thoroughly, you will eventually come up with a “proper” product, solution, or at least a satisfactory conclusion concerning that particular problem. And if you don’t, you are just doing it wrong, have too little experience and probably aren’t (yet) one of those “true professionals”.

But what I’ve come to realize, is that those “true professionals” don’t really exist. That even the most professional experts, most of the time, have not much of a clue of what they are actually doing and are just making things up along the way. Of course, experience and formal training help, but even the best of us, most of the time, have to navigate a vast decision tree with simply too little information.

So what’s that got to do with gratitude? Well, if you expect that things can, should and are done “the right way” (that is assuming you are not working with or using a product of complete idiots, or believe you are yourself one), then you expect things to “just work” in the “expected way”. If they don’t, you are disappointed. But what’s even worse: if they do, you just ignore the fact that it just worked, without ever feeling any gratitude. Simply because that’s what you were expecting all along, that things work the way they are supposed to. So however things turn out, either you get disappointed or don’t feel much at all.

On the other hand, if you were to expect that things usually don’t “just work”, it is much easier to feel gratitude every time they actually do. And you will have a much happier life, giving you the power to tackle harder problems (not expecting to solve them on the first attempt).