Tag archives for bottom up

A Year In Prevail

What a year it’s been! Starting with the little things, the Prevail Project itself has been active for about a year, running in stealth mode for most of that time. But we launched (and I invite you to check out our amazing featured guest posts). But anything that we’ve done is small potatoes compared to the changes that happened in the world.

A year ago, professional intelligence analysts thought that Belgium was more likely to experience political turmoil than Egypt. Then the Arab Spring happened, and ordinary people rose up and overthrew governments across the region. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, dictators fell like dominoes. In Bahrain, protesters were crushed with overwhelming force, and in Syria the battle rages on. Just compare Foreign Policy’s top 100 global thinkers in 2011 and 2009, and you can see the kind of change that nobody foresaw. The Arab Spring was echoed by protests worldwide, most notably the Occupy movement in the United States, anti-austerity riots in Greece, and the first mass protests in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. This is the kind of people power that hasn’t been seen since 1968, and possible even since 1848, years which shook the old order.

If networks and bottom-up ideas had a banner year in 2011, centralized institutions managed not to fall apart completely. Congress’s brinkmanship over raising the debt ceiling dropped America’s credit rating from AAA to AA, not that financial markets have appeared to notice. The European Union could’t come to a decision on the Greek debt crisis, casting the very future of the EU into doubt. And in Durban, the IPCC agreed to come to an agreement about global carbon emissions in 2015, with binding limits coming into effect in 2020. It’s been a lousy year for experts and elites, and if you know of any centralized decision-making bodies that haven’t made complete fools of themselves recently, I’d love to hear about them.

The only group that came out worse than experts were authoritarian leaders. Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt were forced out of office by popular revolutions. Qaddafi was shot by rebel forces. Kim Jong Il died. And after 3 terms, Silvo Berluscion was forced to resign under a cloud of corruption and scandal. If I were a colorful authoritarian leader, I’d be watching my back.

As for what happens next in the world, who knows? The Arab Spring could quite possibly lead to another round of dictators or theocrats. Some vital cog in the global economic system could come undone, with catastrophic results. But personally, I’m hopefully. The refrain of the self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe, whether economic wizards or brutal dictators, has always been “There is no alternative.” If there’s one lesson that we’ve learned from 2011, it’s that there are lots of alternatives. 2011 was a year to dream and deconstruct. 2012 will be a year to learn and grow.

Whatever happens, we’re living in interesting times. And the Prevail Project is here to nurture a human future.

In A World of Rapid Change, What Kind of Critter Do You Want to Be?

There are two kinds of critters on this planet. One produces zillions of offspring, then pays scant attention to them, playing the odds that some will survive. The other produces few offspring, but nurtures each lavishly to increase their chances of being the best they can be.

Each strategy has its plusses and minuses. The upside of having few progeny is that you can shape them to most highly adapt to their existing environment. The downside is, if you lose one, the result is devastating. The upside of having lots of ankle-biters is that if the world they are born into is up for grabs, such heirs as make it to adulthood are likely to be adapters, capable of rapidly evolving. The downside is that in periods of stability, we tend to view them as under-evolved vermin – as weeds.

There are lessons here for human enterprises. If the world we’re heading into is on tumble-dry, which kinds of critters do we want to be?

Our friend Jamais Cascio of OpenTheFuture.com offers a very Prevail-ish answer: both.

Cascio notes we are in a period in which even instability is not stable. If instability were constant, then it would clearly favor the high-reproduction throw-everything-at-the-wall and see what sticks mode, even if the outcome is not optimal. But, he says, it’s not. It is punctuated by periods of consolidation. Think Silicon Valley. A new innovation produces a flood of startups striving for advantage. But eventually, a small number of highly-evolved dominant players emerge.

Therefore, it is dangerous to rely on strategies that assume the continuation of either stability or instability. “Neither relying upon scale and incumbency nor relying upon rapid-fire iteration will succeed as fully and as dependably as we might wish,” says Cascio. “We can’t rely on either the garage hacker or the global corporation to push us to a new phase of history.”

What we want is resilience. The way to get it is by having the two kinds of critters collaborating with – and feeding off – each other.

To Prevail, then, is to create a new ecosystem that we can push in the right direction. For that we need rapid humanistic social bottom-up response to rapid technological change. It doesn’t take a genius to see that states and corporations can’t seem to figure out what to do, or how to plan for tomorrow, using only their slow, legacy, top-down means. In a period where the patterns we’ve seen before don’t seem to be working right, the answer is lots of small and large components in dense networks, bringing the wisdom of the edge to the core, or even bypassing the core, and fast.

Humanistic response means ideas and decisions that take into account the unique, individual values of every human being. It means organizations that allow people to flourish and grow, rather than grind them down and burn them out. Bottom-up means humans self-organizing as useful flocks, capable of rapidly creating powerful change without relying on the merely ambitious. Think of the hundreds of millions on eBay organizing extremely complex behavior without leaders, or YouTube helping swing an American presidential election, or even Twitter, heaven help us – if it terrifies tyrants, it must be good for something. Rapid technological change means transformative revolutions like genetics, robotics, information and nanotechnology, increasingly aimed inward at modifying our minds, memories, metabolisms, personalities and progeny – and thus, what it means to be human.

Thus, our goals: quickly forging community, integration, foresight, and wisdom. It will not be easy to achieve, but all are necessary if we are to prevail.

May we start building all this here, now.

What Comes Next

This is a continuation of a previous post.

I won’t be breaking any news when I say that the Mubarak regime is done. At this juncture, the momentum of the crowd is only accelerating, the army has refused to intervene, and President Obama publicly has called for Mubarak not to run for re-election in the fall. American envoy Frank Weisner demanded Mubarak step down, and was rebuffed, but there doesn’t seem to be a pathway for Mubarak to maintain his grip on power. Asymetric warfare theorist John Robb has laid out the victory conditions for both sides. Essentially, Mubarak wins if he outlasts popular anger. The protestors win if Mubarak is forced to flee the country. With public services decaying, the security police discredited and demoralized, and victory close at hand, the protestors have no reason to stop with their central demand unmet. Conversely, there is literally nothing Mubarak has to offer, not promises of stability, not continued terror, only his departure.

EDIT: As I’m typing this, Mubarak has announced he will step down on the next elections. But I’d bet he’ll leave well before then.

So what happens next? I’d like to focus on three different issues, Egyptian politics, Israel, and democracy in the Middle East.

I will freely admit that I am not an expert on Egyptian politics. Consensus is that the best organized opposition group is Muslim Brotherhood, but that Mohamed ElBaradei is best situated to step into a leadership role. An internationally renown diplomat, ElBaradei is compromise figure who’s stature is his best asset, but who’s long separation from Egypt might hinder his effectiveness. The worry floating around American conservative circles is that the Egyptian revolution is a stalking horse for an Islamist takeover, similar to Iran in 1979. This may yet happen, we can’t know, but the faster the transition happens, the less likely religious groups will be able to exert a major influence. The chaos and uncertainty in Egypt right now favors people with local credibility, the neighborhood wardens and citizen-bloggers. The more time the situation has to settle, the more secular forces will fragment and the influence of the superior organization of the Muslim Brotherhood will tell on the elections.

If elections were held today, my prediction would be on a roughly 3 way split between secular protestors, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the entrenched military/intelligence forces of the government. While Mubarak may be discredited, a bureaucracy the size of Egypt’s security apparatus is not easily dismantled. While a confluence between the Islamist parties, and the military (the Iranian model) is worrying geo-politically, it’s not actually my main concern. Far worse for the Egyptian people would be a situation reminiscent of the French Revolution. As the monarchy collapsed, and the National Assembly took power, actual power devolved into the hands of demagogues, who in the name of “defending the revolution” and “punishing tyrants” committed untold atrocities. Now, the world as a whole has far more experience at democracy than it did in 1789, and the Terror was abetted by the efforts of European monarchies to destroy the new republic. There is no better way to turn a revolution paranoid and violent than by attacking it. The lesson here is that the world should offer its unconditional support to the Egyptian democracy in its embryonic stage, even if we do not like the immediate results.

Israel has suffered a major strategic reversal. Egypt, under the control of a geopolitical realist with ties to the US, was an important, if grudging ally. A return to hot war is unlikely, but ElBaradei has already indicated that he would open the Egyptian side of the Gaza border. Israel faces further strategic encirclement. Clinging to the past is not going to work, Israel should bow to the reality on the ground, and hail a strengthening of peaceful relations with the new democracy. While far from a good choice, taking a hard line now will only force worse choices in the future.

Finally, democracy in the Middle East. From Tunisia, the revolution has swept Egypt, forced the King of Jordan to dissolve his cabinet, and has lead to unrest across the region. Will the revolution continue? I have a feeling that if this initial movement were going to spread, it would have already. The emotional conditions, the heat of the moment, is changing. Potential revolutionaries elsewhere are investing their energies in Egypt for the time being. Social networking, a hyper-oxygenated public sphere, allows the flames of revolution to sprout with surprising speed, but other Middle Eastern autocrats appear to have a better grip on the grievances and mood of the people. In the long run, the example of Egypt (assuming it doesn’t immediately and obviously degenerate into a theocracy or civil war) should inspire democrats elsewhere in the region. With revolution as a distinct possibility, tyrants must take the grievances of their people seriously, including opening political freedoms.

The system, as it stands, has benefited America, which receives a cheap and reliable supply of oil. However, long term it was clearly unsustainable. Mubarak’s government will fall completely within the week. How many dictatorships will last out the year, or five years? Better democracy now, than chaos in an even tenser world later.

Social Media and the Revolution in Egypt

Revolution in Egypt is the story of the week. Over the past seven days, ordinary Egyptians have come together to oppose the 30 year rule of Hosni Mubarak. The protests are a wonder of civil disobedience, technological coordination, and bottom-up action. But what are the origins, chances, the potential outcomes, and options for US policy?

Revolution is like a fire. All the necessary ingredients can exist independently for years, only bursting into a self-sustaining conflagration under the proper conditions. Fires require fuel, oxygen, and heat to burn. Fire-fighting strategies rely on eliminating one side of the triangle. Wildfires are fought by separating the fire from more fuel, while conventional fires use water to reduce the amount of heat available. The social analogs to fuel, oxygen, and heat are grievances, the public sphere, and emotional intensity.

Grievances are the raw fuel of revolution. In the case of Egypt, three decades of misrule, oppression, torture, and the stifling of economic and political freedom have left the population with an endless stock of grievances. Except for a small class of Mubarak’s cronies, few people have benefited from his rule, and a society that was once integrated has become divided into an urban poor, and an exurban elite. The demands of the protestors have become unified into one simple message: Mubarak out.

The public sphere is vital for any protest to organize and gather moment. This includes both the conventional public sphere of streets and squares, and the public sphere of information. From the first, revolutionaries have used the latest in information and communication technology. Printing presses during the American Revolution, tape decks in the Iranian Revolution. The CIA smuggled Xerox machines in the Soviet Union to spread samizdat, the individual distribution of banned books and magazines, while the protestors in Tienanmen Square used fax machines to communicate with the world. More recently of the modern ICTs, text messaging helped bring down the Philipino President Jose Estrada, and social media like Twitter and Facebook has been central in the current Egyptian revolution, the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, and protests in Iran and the Ukraine.

Conventional counter-protest tactics involve squeezing out the public sphere. Physically, riot police and tanks can occupy strategic areas, with curfews for normal traffic. In the modern era, totalitarian regimes have attacked cyberspace as well. Egypt shut down the internet entirely for a day, while Iran slowed external access to a crawl during its crisis. And China is notorious both for a totalitarian system of internet traffic monitoring and censoring, and also for shutting down telecoms service during riots in Tibet and Xinjiang. While shutting down the public sphere is effective in stopping protests, it is risky, requiring the use of mass violence which might further inflame the opposition, and if continued for too long, can cause economic damage.

But don’t be confuse the utility of social networking with the necessity for it. As compared to other forms of ICT, social media plays into the third requirement for revolution; emotion. This is the non-quantifiable element which makes people dare to stand against power, to face batons and teargas and bullets in the name of liberty. Emotion is personal, internal, idiosyncratic, and social networking is about broadcasting your feelings, more than any specific information. A robust internet community can transmit and amplify anger and the demand for change. The sparks of rage can spread from city to city with incredibly rapidity. And once enough sparks have landed, and the crowds have gathered, the revolution becomes self sustaining. Optimism is counter by fear, the longstanding fear of the regime, and fear of future chaos and repercussions. In Egypt, the successful revolution in Tunisia provided the impetuous of hope to counter three decades of oppression. Mubarak has tried to instill fear in the population, by agent provocateurs and the threat of military force, but has so far proven unsuccessful. If the heat of the revolutionaries can outlast the resolve of the military, they will win.

The flame of revolution, kindled in Tunisia, is spreading through-out the Middle East. The authoritarian regimes are like a forest which has not burned for years, with piles of dead leaves and trees lying about. What happens next is impossible to predict, but sparks are jumping, governments falling, and a brave new world may be at hand.

Pt II: On what happens next, will follow tomorrow.

Kickstarting World Literature

“Did you know that only 3% of literature in the United States is literature in translation? Words Without Borders has published everyone from Ha Jin to Javier Marias, and now they’re working hard on an anthology of contemporary writing from Afghanistan.” Crowdsource funding center Kickstarter is aiming to bring under appreciated Dari and Pashto stories to a wider audience, with a literary magazine featuring some Afghan greats. Both a way to support the arts, and bridge the divide between east and west.

Donate here.

Augmenting Humanity @HeatSync Labs

Let’s start this year off with a bang! I just got back from HeatSync Labs, where the local hackers are taking their eyes off of 3D printing, near-space missions, tesla coils, and cylon Roombas and working on something a little closer to home; themselves.

Okay, that requires a little explanation. HeatSync is a Phoenix area hackerspace, a place for technically inclined people to come together, pool resources, and work on interesting projects. Hackerspaces started in the nerdvanas of Silicon Valley and Route 128, but the movement is spreading across the country, and expanding from electronics to biotech. With the democratization of technical equipment, almost anybody can be a scientist. The hackerspace movement scales up the joy of just messing around with blinkenlights to an adult level, and it might just serve as the incubutator for the next wave of innovation.

Augmenting Humanity @HeatSync is a small group of hackers with an interest in transhumanism, and with using their DIY skills to improve themselves. They’re well on their way. Jacob has an experimental magnetic sense, and wants more radical alterations. Harry is a recreational neuroscientist. He already has a 14 channel EEG he freed from an Emotiv controller, and his next step is to make an Arduino board DC neural stimulator, as well as his own version of ze goggles. With all this, he’s well on his way to doing some real interesting science. Jeremy is into quantified self, and wants to use smartphones and wireless sensors to make data collection trivial. Bryan is blind, and is working with Apple to improve the accessibility of iDevices, while trying to find hacks to make his life easier. The current project is a liquid level sensor. As a father of three, Bryan spends a lot of time filling bottles, and a device which beeps at the proper level would be good for everybody.

These guys are definitely aware of the social and political aspects of what they’re doing. They view themselves as citizen-scientists, in the vein of the old Royal Society, and they want to both improve themselves, and generate useful knowledge that the standard scientific research process won’t touch, either because it won’t be funded, or violates medical ethics (note: ethical medical research must treat a disease, so by definition, enhancement is unethical. The current work around has been ‘medicalization’, creating a disorder for people who want to be enhanced. Many people, myself included, think this is a major problem.) They also are very forward about getting their work out there, and connecting with like minded hackers across the world. In the absence of formal journals, all of this is being organized through social media, blogs, wikis, and video chat. We are lucky enough to live in an era where information can be shared easily, and advanced technology is cheap. In the next few months and years, I hope to spend a fair amount of time with Augmented Humanity, develop some projects, and get them out there. But for now, rest easy knowing that these people have the future well in hand.

Jimmy Wales on Leadership

Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales talks about leadership at the Washington Post. Wikipedia is an example of the internet at it’s best. From the contribution of volunteers, and small infrastructure technological infrastructure, Wikipedia has become the first source of information on the internet. And while it’s the bane of educators everywhere, it is of astonishing breath and accuracy. Wikipedia’s magic is in its volunteers: It pools the knowledge of anonymous experts, and consensus leads to both factually correct information defended by the majority, the incorporation of divergent points of view.


For all their anarchy, bottom-up groups still need guidance, and Wales has been described as a new type of leader, the opposite of the command control style used by government, the military, and business. His secret is the same studied neutrality that wikipedia used to sort truth. Rather than making hard decisions, the Wales style is to inspire volunteers and keep everyone aware of Wikipedia’s strategic goals. People who work for free, outside of the market system, still need to be rewarded for their efforts, and exciting ideas are the currency of tomorrow. Just contributing to the sum total of human knowledge, to the Library of Alexandria for the 21st century, is enough to bring together billions of human-hours, in a great endeavor.