Mindset III

I want to start part III of the Mindset series with Charles Fourier, who we ended part II with. In the early 19th century, Fourier, believing cooperation was the key to the success of a society, designed and developed the idea of “Phalanstère.” A phalanstère is a type of co-housing building for self-contained utopian communities. The inhabitants live and work together for mutual benefits and often share resources and responsibilities. There still will be richer members and poorer ones; each person’s wealth depends on the job they do for the community, which is assigned to them based on their “interests” and “passions.” One thing that fascinates me the most is that the jobs people do not enjoy doing would get paid more; pay is an incentive as well as compensation.

Phalanstère would later inspire a movement of intentional communities. Most of us might be unfamiliar with this term. According to the Foundation for Intentional Community:

it is a group of people who have chosen to live together or share resources on the basis of common values.

The Foundation database lists over 1000 communities worldwide, and their “intentions” and community rules would vary from one to another.

While the ideas and concepts behind Phalanstère still seem radical to me two centuries later, I do find the self-reliant, harmonious and collaborative nature of these communities inspiring. Somewhere between that and the borough of Manhattan may lie the true answer to a better future for humanity.

But I am not here to only discuss moral and history of these communities — there’s more to that. Inside a phalanstère, without mass production by private ownership, the power between suppliers and consumers is balanced. A handyman fixes your window, but his wife also comes by later and buys your cupcakes. Neither of them is overpowered by the other. However, I am not saying mass production, the core of capitalism, is to blame for the present day power imbalance between people and corporations. At least, it’s not that simple. Mass production was and still is a realistic model and an important part of civilization. It was the main reason our life quality (except for the people in extreme poverty) significantly improved over the last two centuries. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons capitalism achieved so much success was because the Industrial Revolution transformed, through the mechanism of mass production, a huge number of people into workers, who, at the same time, also became customers with buying power. The real problem is underneath the gracious supply-demand curve and bouncy free market bubbles. It’s the simple question whether people are gaining as much as they give. Humanity is flawed and sadly cannot be counted on by itself to enforce equality, justice or fairness. That’s why Adam Smith called on the government to regulate and protect its citizens. Smith died in 1790. Since his death, technologies, especially computer science, have undeniably tilted that balance even further. When mass automation finally arrives, which gives corporations even more power (less dependent on people providing labor), this imbalance will likely turn into a historic crisis for all of us. Will we be losing workers or customers? How will the capitalist society and the free market hold against this challenge? That’s a question we all have to think about now.

In the second part of Mindset, I examined the power relations between consumers and big corporations and argued that it’s time to push for a different system that is built to distribute more power to the people instead of the corporations, a system that liberates the consumers and protect their interests. In other words, I am proposing that we shall start focusing on building human-centric technologies for people, instead of corporations and the 1%.

It sadly sounds like a cliche because many companies have used that angle as slogan for their various marketing and PR campaigns. The reality is that technologies are rarely built for people. They are built to make a company’s product more competitive and appealing — they are made to sell. It’s like the production lines in the factories — no matter how much we end up loving the candies they send out, they are built, programmed and operated to produce for the factory owners. The closest system I can think of that is built with a human-centric mindset is the open source community. However, the community is only for nerds like me. Ordinary people like my mom will never understand how to make use of that. A human-centric system has to be human friendly. Open source community has the resources, partially raw, and voluntary labor, but lacks a self-sustainable system to make the resources commercially ready and available to people.

It might be easier to first identify the key criteria for being human-centric and then go from there. Drawing inspirations from an array of brilliant minds, from Rousseau to Smith, I think a human-centric model of information technology built to empower users should at least embody these traits:

  • Independent: the technology should be functional by itself, without the need to connect to or request support from a third-party service provider. It shall not capture and store any data for a third-party. For example, many websites use Facebook chat plugin as messenger, resulting in a dependence that the user will have no control over. Aside from technical independence, what’s more important (and urgent now) is to protect the user’s independence psychologically. We should not develop a technology that induces or deceives users into a dependence. For example, a company that manufactures weight loss supplements develops an app that causes anxiety of body image.
  • Protective: cybersecurity and data privacy are two biggest challenges facing the entire society across the board. Human-centric model would require the technology to ensure a secure and private experience for the user, as their first priority. Client-side (front-end) processing, encryption and decentralized data storage shall be encouraged and standardized.
  • Lightweight, potent, clean and mobile (all in a relative sense): it will otherwise be challenging to describe it, but, fortunately, I have a perfect reference model to exemplify these qualities: it is Saturn. Saturn is beautiful planet. Her halo, the largest of her kind in the Solar system, is simply beyond words. Every time I stumble upon a picture of Saturn, currently 847.99 million miles from us, it could always wake up a part of me that I would usually hide from myself, the part that still believes in miracles and misses her childhood blanket. Of course, I am not referencing Saturn out of sentimental or aesthetic reasons, although my bare bone preliminary model could indeed borrow some of her magical beauty. It’s the structure and dynamics that make the model analogous. I imagine people are Saturn and the halo is our nimble floating system, consisting of technologies that revolve around and service the planet ME. The technologies, likely supplied by different providers, will avoid clashes and incompatibility issues by getting assigned to different channels (or ports), similar to the seven rings within the halo, based on protocols. When people move (in our case, when we navigate the Internet), the technologies move with us, each on their own and as a single unit, just like how the halo follows Saturn.
  • Interface ready: when we access technologies today, in most cases, we are in our naked form. By naked, I am not talking about watching Netflix straight from our bathtub. What I am saying is that we make the contact as a human against machines. Human-centric technologies will have to come in between, like the halo to Saturn, not as a barrier but an interface that works for the user to facilitate such interaction and exchange, in a similar sense how APIs work for applications. Not only is this concept the key to true user empowerment but it might also be the future for mainstream Internet software development in the post-cookie and privacy-aware era.
Beautiful Saturn and her seven rings.

So far, this preliminary model is both realistic and idealistic. It will work in a small and controlled environment (“Utopia”), but while it might make some of us nerds feel good about ourselves for a minute it won’t survive or have any chance in the real world. If we want technologies to adopt real human-centric perspective in their business models, we have to show that it generates profits just as much, although making profits is not the priority or sole motivation.

Is it possible? Yes, not only is it possible but we also have a fair recent “success” story that most people have heard of. It’s the blockchain and the bitcoin. I have to state first that I do not own cryptos and firmly believe that the current crypto movement has been hijacked by scammers, speculators and fraudsters (scammers with a legal team). These self-interest parties prey on people’s distrust in authorities, anger towards inequality, and sense of insecurity that is rooted in the fear that most of us are losing more power and control of our lives. I always wonder if Satoshi Nakamoto will resurface one day with a follow-up explanation. To me, his system is founded on the good will to emancipate and empower people (less dependence on financial institutions). Instead of entrusting a powerful third-party, who we have no control over, we rely on each other (the public ledger). What’s genius about this system is that we do not need to ask for trust; the reliance is rather based on labor (“work-of-proof”). While I have my own fundamental problems with bitcoins, such as its damaging impacts on the environment and the underestimate of the dark side of human nature, blockchain and its self-sustainable incentive scheme have significantly inspired me: technologies are able to shift more power to people and people with power can make even greater shift of power to happen, together. Compared to a full-on Libertarian mode for bitcoins, I believe that regulation, either from consensus-based authorities or each other, is necessary. However, such regulation, in order to minimize corruption by ill-intentioned manipulation, should be regulated itself by a similar structure that creates its power in the first place. Instead of a traditional hierarchy system, the ancient Wuxing or Five Phases scheme is a better structure to model after, wherein the elements all strengthen and regulate each other, at the same time.

To summarize, for (information) technologies to be empowering and human-centric, they should:

  • protect user data privacy and personal interests
  • have instinctual design and do not require too much training
  • be profitable, self-sustainable (do not depend on donations)
  • be self-regulated

In Mindset IV, which is the last part of the series, I’ll focus on making a human-centric model for e-commerce in the age of social media or social shopping, as I call it, (purely) for marketing reasons. The combination of high public usage, profitability and lack of innovation in the core business model makes it one of the more promising fields to explore and see if we can make a difference with our renewed philosophy.

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