We criticize by creating. On decentralists and subversive innovation - in conversation with Max Borders
Hi! Recently we sat down with Max Borders - futurist, author of After Collapse and The Social Singularity, Executive Director of the nonprofit Social Evolution and co-founder of the Future Frontiers conference/festival. We talked about who decentralists are, who they are not, and about using innovation to make people’s lives better.
Marta: At Social Evolution, your nonprofit which focuses on liberating people and solving social problems through innovation, you claim that communities can’t be designed from the top down. Why is a bottom up approach better?
Max: Imagine two different modes of association: In the first mode, people are free to find each other based on their interests, needs, and common goals; In the second mode, powerful authorities simply declare that people associate, which has sometimes to be enforced by threat of violence.
It should strike us that, in the first mode, people voluntarily coalesce around specific conceptions of the good. They’re there because they want to be. In the second mode, there is something artificial about it. It certainly can work for authorities to unite people using flags, uniforms, and stirring propaganda. But generally speaking a healthy community self-organizes, reflecting that pluralism of interests, needs and goals. When you have a diverse set of communities to join, you have more choices when it comes to your ideals. No technocrat can possibly know – much less fashion – your ideal community.
Marta: You often talk about how important subversive innovators are. You write: “In some ways they’re innovators like any other. The key difference, though, is that they are willing to take their ambition and ingenuity into the headwinds of the status quo”. Who would you call the most exciting subversive innovators out there right now?
Max: I suspect Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor or inventors of bitcoin, is still alive. To me, he/she/they is the consummate subversive innovator. It’s pretty clear from the architecture of the bitcoin protocol that Satoshi wanted to create a parallel system from the one currently controlled by a massive financial cartel, central banks, and government authorities. In this spirit, I see Vitalik Buterin of Ethereum and Charles Hoskinson of Cardano as being similarly disposed. Technologists working in the decentralization space usually get it. I have always considered Balaji Srinivasan an ideological twin in this regard, too.
But there are unsung heroes out there, too. Robert Haywood has worked on the creation of more special economic zones (SEZs) than probably anyone on earth. If the Nobel Peace Prize meant anything, Haywood would have one. That means, more than any single individual, Haywood has quietly fashioned legal frameworks that have helped to liberate more people and lift more souls out of poverty than probably any other effort by a single person. We might not think of legal innovation as subversive innovation, but it absolutely can be.
Marta: It’s hard to talk about anything nowadays without mentioning the COVID-19 pandemic and how it’s affected our lives. Have you seen isolation affect innovation (in the decentralized space)?
Max: There have certainly been some really interesting innovations that have arisen due to the pandemic. Here in the US, we’re seeing a great flight from our failing government schools into private alternatives of all sorts, for example, Michael Strong’s The Socratic Experience. As people have found these more beneficial for children, they’re coming to see that paying just a little for a child’s education is way better than “free.” Decentralization and education are due to make many more great strides together.
Now, I have been horrified by a lot of centralization, too. In my newest book After Collapse, I write that when people are afraid, they can have a submission reflex that seizes them. Crisis is an opportunity for authoritarians. For example, I think everyone was surprised by Australia’s descent into lockdown mania and illiberal behavioral controls. But here we are. Here in the U.S., we also saw that it was possible for the state to shut almost the entire economy down for a matter of weeks, which had terrible ramifications.
The silver lining is, whenever state authorities introduce such draconian measures, there will be a group of subversive innovators out there watching. They will be ready to innovate around power. I don’t think most state actors realize the extent of the Cambrian explosion that is coming. The days of the Westphalian nation-state are numbered, unless they get really totalitarian, really fast. (And to be fair, they just might. The powerful have a lot to lose, after all.)
Marta: What do you find to be the most common misconceptions about decentralists’ ideas?
Max: Probably the biggest misconception about decentralists is that we want no rules or laws at all. We just want to invite people to exit monolithic systems for new, improved systems. In other words, some have the impression that we’re these Molotov cocktail-throwing anarchists ready to tear things down. But we are not like that at all. The decentralists I’m acquainted with have deep moral commitments to peace, freedom, and abundance – not to mention greater opportunities for all the world’s poor to produce, collaborate, and exchange. So in that way we are a revolutionary vanguard, but instead of tearing things down we seek to build things up. We criticize by creating.
I’ll add a small note about money. Being into cryptocurrencies for a quick buck does not make you a decentralist. It’s more about the moral order than the money for us, although the money sure doesn’t hurt. We are just tired of living in a rigged game. We are ready for a different type of game, one I describe both in After Collapse and The Social Singularity, not to mention this entry.
Marta: Other than writing a book like yourself, how do you think we can get more people open to and excited about decentralization and the possibilities it creates?
Max: First, I hope my books do inspire readers. But, to answer your question, I’ll just say that the best way to get people excited by decentralization is to get them participating in any number of decentralized systems working today so that their curiosity is piqued and they can experience the beauty and elegance of decentralization first hand.
Second, I would like to see more subversive innovators creating stuff out there–building out the full decentralization stack, so to speak. Indeed, I worry we don’t have enough innovators or adopters to reach critical mass. Who will be the next Satoshi? And how can we help bring the subversive innovation mindset to other domains of inquiry?
Finally, I would like to see all this newfound interest in cryptocurrencies and distributed ledgers translate into more of an ethos–almost like a secular religion with real adherents. These are the folks willing to learn and perhaps to adopt our particular decentralist ethos, not just this token or that. Then they can share this ethos with others. I have a dream of being a sort of founding priest in something like a Society of Decentralization. Maybe my next book will be something like a scripture or collection for that effort. But at some point I’ll need to figure out how to attract people to a global community of true decentralists willing to identify themselves as such. (Or in the true spirit of decentralization, maybe someone else will be the catalyst. I am here to help, in any case, as this is my mission, too.) With each passing day, I become more inspired to catalyze this society. Maybe the scriptures can be a start.