It seems natural to start by talking about memory, as writing is an aid to memory, and here I find myself deciding to start writing.
My memory has always felt a bit insufficient. It’s not horrible, but not great either. I’ve always been a bit self-conscious about it; I mention it often, as if to explain how I am. Deep down I think I might be like I am precisely because my memory is a bit short and unreliable; from the set of all possible thoughts, perhaps people explore only those that fit within their memories (working, factual), and to some extent learn to ignore the rest. If my memory capacity happens to be fewer than the average seven items, that sole fact probably shapes my thoughts. Having a bad memory had always sounded like a bad thing to me, but now I’m not so sure anymore.
It could be that you learn how to make up for a bad memory in other ways. Perhaps, say, you intuitively focus on trying to see more distant relations between fewer things — relations that people thinking more complex thoughts (dealing with more things at a time) just don’t bother with. I feel like I have ideas — most of them pretty dire, but perhaps more copious than average. Forgetting and creativity are sometimes thought to be linked, and I can see how that could be the case: you have to forget your past self a little bit before you decide to start doing, or believing, anything new. So, on the off chance I have anything of note to say, I will try to leave my self-conscious past behind and just “do me” and write as well as I can now: not particularly well, but perhaps uniquely — due in part to my unique limitations. I plan to persist and see how good I can get. Hopefully good enough for you.
Having said that — this is a bit uncomfortable, but I guess I’m starting with a manifesto. It happened this way: I started to write down my thoughts on a few matters I had on my mind (before I forgot them, which happens a lot — see above), and things got out of hand. This is a manifesto about how to live with privilege: how to try to do more for others with our privilege. How to take this great deal that some of us get, think hard about what to use it for, and perhaps end up doing something more interesting — and, hopefully, a bit fairer — than just living another privileged life to completion. Ideally, doing all this without huge leaps of heroism or strokes of genius; because we all have our limitations, and because simple plans work best.
I claim that:
- Living well is not ethical as long as other people suffer needlessly. Privilege (having much while others have too little) is not ethical because it depends on the existence of inequality to the point of suffering1.
- Privileged people must use at least part of their privilege to help the less privileged, to come up with ways to improve our world for others and all — within their means and position. Privileged people must become thinkers and actors for good: acting as temporary caretakers of those less privileged and trying to effect social and technological change for their benefit, using whatever skills they happen to have, even if it means risking opprobrium or ridicule.
- All thus like minded people must work together to solve problems end eventually end suffering. This is humanity’s ultimate project: by incremental improvements we must try to build an utopia. How we define utopia is important; we must begin every important project by discussing its nature and its goals.
So I want to get things started in this corner of the internet by writing a plan, my best plan — very high level, its nature insufficient, but a start. If not to crack the problem, to inspire others to do better. The plan I have so far tries to show what I know, what I don’t know, and what I don’t know I don’t know. I intend to dedicate my privileged life to this plan: to research it, to make progress on it; to advance it within my means. You, reader, can contribute to my plan, or a derivation of it, if you choose to believe in it. You could start your own. My plan is to inspire others to improve on mine, or theirs. Having a multiplicity of possible ways to improve the world written down seems good. It would be a distributed system.
Social and technological change must be directed at decreasing inequality until we are in a post-scarcity world. We must all work on trying to come up solutions to humanity’s problems, one by one, at every level of abstraction, in the best way possible given our collective means. We must come up with a set of rules that maximize the value of our cooperation. I, myself, think we should designate areas of the internet as Agoras; virtual places which promote a higher level of discussion by enforcing a set of debate rules and values. These places are concerned with solving the problems of the people: of individuals, of societies, and eventually of humanity itself. These could be our current social networks; or better ones. Ones set up explicitly to function as problem solving machines.
Humanity has many problems. We should get together and plan on solving them as efficiently as we can. Humanity is the biggest possible social group, and human groups have of course been solving problems together for all of our existence; it’s what Homo sapiens does. The internet can accelerate our problem solving; it already has, but it can probably go further as a technology; it is not done disrupting. We need to research, and implement, systems that optimize human collaboration; that implement optimal collaboration strategies using the Internet.
To solve a problem you write down what you know about the problem; you find other people that agree that the problem exists and needs solving; and you collaborate with them to build more knowledge about the possible solutions to the problem. An optimal system probably implements explicit ways to perform these actions. That is the Agora: we discuss problems and we attempt to solve them by writing all that is known about them; then sketching solutions (as many as we can think and find structure for); then researching each step in each likely solution; then writing project plans good enough to convince participating parties and stakeholders that the plan has a chance at solving said problem if the people and corporations participating in the plan all contribute some quantified resources.
This approach is naive but perhaps also universal; so such a system, if it existed and fulfilled its requirements, would perhaps be generally useful. If lots of people use it its usefulness might go up with network effects; ML could also perhaps be applied to the data gathered to build models that help humans solve their problems.
The ultimate problems are those that are, or should be, universal. For these the majority of people are interested in them and believe in them — by definition. As of the time of writing I think this might be:
- Global warming.
- Economic inequality, with its subproblems and manifestations:
- Shortened life expectancy.
- Social inequality, with its subproblems and manifestations:
Economic and social inequality are, of course, intertwined. Most of the world has adopted capitalism, so pragmatically speaking I believe finding patches to capitalism that reduce inequality is an inherently interesting venue for seeking a solution to these issues. One such possible patch is the wider adoption into our discourse of the concept of altruism. Under a different name, “charity”, it is a common value across many world religions; as a principle it is perfectly compatible both with religious living and secularity. So the Agora should also provide easy, rewarding ways of performing charitable acts and supporting or becoming part of altruistic projects. Think Effective Altruism for the totality of humanity’s problems as they can be modeled with the help of an Agora.
Some early proposals: Basic Income (not universal at first) could be set up via the Agora: people around the world sign up to participate in the program. Take you: if you consider yourself under-privileged (e.g. you live in a developing country and struggle to make ends meet; you are homeless in the developed world), a profile might be set up for you to receive donations. Take me: I consider myself over-privileged. I am a white male working for one of the biggest internet companies in the world. I would be willing to donate 1000 USD a month for one year for a trial of this program that gives 1000 USD montly to one person who is under-privileged, no strings attached. I can’t be the only one willing to do this. Also, virality can be built into the system: the person receiving the 1000 USD can (or has to?) forward 100 USD to some more under-privileged than them.
Longer term: inheritance preserves inequality, so it is not progressive. It (probably) could be curbed over time, and replaced by a better way of redistributing wealth upon individual’s deaths. Perhaps it should go to a Universal Basic Income tax — funded separately. People care about their families, but at the time of their death lots of people surely understand that other people in the world are also important. The Agora could enable them to find underprivileged people that need an income — with good, solid, ethically sound defaults provided by the community.
Solutions for other problems could be funded in a similar way. Think of people actually voting with as much granularity as they want on how money is spent, or expressing their domain-specific trust on delegates that decide on these matters2. As more and more people participate in this distributed system, the group collaborates optimally and thus perhaps reaches its goals.
Anyway, that’s one plan. There are many. The Agora should have them all — it’s a library of plans, huge but a strict subset of the Library of Babel. The thing you just read is just one particular plan, an utopia, and I call it Flancia. But the Agora doesn’t exist, so it’s actually part of this utopia in my mind, and it’s thus in Flancia. Yeah, a bit plot-twisty, I know.
I wanted to write a book about these concepts in a more oblique and properly literary way, try to follow the rules of art and show and not tell — but I’m telling you what I have now, not what I wanted to have, as I feel my message became too urgent. Flancia must be this high level sketch, not a novel but an essay about a book. About a possible world. I would hope Borges would like the idea, if not the execution; when I think and I write I can only do what I can, and this is the best I could currently do.
People out there are suffering and every chance of making a difference is worth taking. Must be taken, if we are to behave ethically. Suffering due to economic inequality must stop and we thus set out now without fear, with joy, but risking ridicule; set out to fail, be doomed or blessed, forever persisting. No matter how bad the odds.
This is my manifesto. If you choose to believe in at least some of the ideas in it, it could be yours too.
My definition of privilege is closely tied to economic inequality. Note by privilege I don’t mean comfort: I don’t want to take away your comfort. I like my comfort too, and comfort is often a requisite for thinking. What I would like, instead, is for everyone to have as much comfort as they want. In other words: in my mind, a fair world in which nobody is privileged is equivalent to a world in which everybody is privileged. If you prefer, you can read privilege as inequality and injustice. ↩
Machine Learning could yield interesting optimizations when applied to all the system’s data, that should be administered by a neutral organism which would guarantee that the users always “own” their data. What “owning” means is something that the Agora should also solve. ↩