Image Credit: Hydar Dewachi
Episode #163 Cultures of Commoning: Quadratic voting, indigenous connectivity and pacifist chess with Ruth Catlow
How can we create more connection with the people who matter – locally, nationally and internationally? Ruth Catlow of Furtherfield has designed 3-person chess where the pawns can declare world peace, set up the Treaty of Finsbury Park between humans and other species – and experimented with quadratic voting on the blockchain to create real local democracy
This week’s conversation ranges over an astonishingly wide range of topics from ways to facilitate interspecies communication through play and ways to play 3-person pacifist chess (and thereby change the world), to the nature of democracy and how the use of quadratic voting on the blockchain to inspire artistic endeavours in north London might be expanded nationally and internationally on the scale of global governance to shift the cultural dominance away from capital hegemony to a more fluid, genuinely inclusive democracy.
All this in conversation with Ruth Catlow. Ruth is co-founder (with Marc Garrett) and co-director (with Charlotte Frost) of Furtherfield, a project based in Finsbury Park in London which organises for inclusivity and equity in art and technology and advocates for their use in imagining and building real social change and positive environmental impact.
Furtherfield’s mission is to open up the tools and debates of the exclusionary realms of art and technology for collective action for collective good. Ruth and her colleagues invest time and energy in decentralised and distributed p2p practices, fostering new creative collaborations between artists and communities, as well as challenging debates about the role of art and technology in society.
With this, Ruth’s work advances critical discussions of emergent technologies and their implications and she has, for example, led the way in terms of understanding what blockchain technologies mean for the arts and beyond. She directs the Furtherfield decentralised arts lab, DECAL and is also key to the development of live action role play (LARP) games for research, partnering with researchers to craft imagined/futuristic scenarios in which a group of players explore a complex socio-digital issue.
Since late 2020, Ruth has been immersed in the massive Interspecies Treaty LARP as part of her participation in the EU Horizon 2020 funded CreaTures project. All participants advance more-than-human justice by playing the game as other species, representing them in Assemblies to discuss and plan an Interspecies Festival that will celebrate the signing of ‘an Interspecies Treaty of Cooperation (known as ‘The Treaty of Finsbury Park’) in 2025.
Ruth is also one of the organisers of the ‘Radical Friends’ conference in 2022 and co-author/editor of the book that arose from it called ‘Radical Friends: Decentralised Autonomous Organisations and the Arts’ and co–PI of the Serpentine Galleries Blockchain Lab.
Photo Credit: Fiona Hanson
Manda: It’s a core tenet of my belief system and therefore of this podcast, that if we’re going to succeed in creating the worthwhile future that I genuinely think we all want, we need to find ways forward that embrace all that we are, in all our diversity. We will not get through this unless we all pull together. I think also that we need to find ways to reconnect with the web of life. That’s pretty much what all the rest of the accidental Gods project is about. But I am aware that we need to do this in ways that integrate all of who we are, in our techno centric majority urban diversity. And I live on a smallholding in the middle of nowhere, and I may be a bit of a geek, but there’s quite a long way to go and a lot that I still need to understand. And all of this is why I am so genuinely excited to bring you this week’s guest.
Ruth Catlow is one of life’s more astonishing polymaths. She’s an artist, a founder and co-director of a gallery and project in North London. She’s a role player and a designer of games. And she is a self-proclaimed geek who is working to bring quadratic voting on the blockchain into the arts, so that she can use it to help create more diversity and connection with the people around her. And just to explore how it works. And if you don’t already think that’s one of the most exciting things you’ve heard this century, which is to say this millennium, then I sincerely hope that you will by the end of the podcast. Because really it is incredibly exciting. To come off my geekery for a moment, a bit more about Ruth. She is the co-founder and co-director of Furtherfield, a project based, as I said, at Finsbury Park in North London, which organises for inclusivity and equity in art and technology and advocates for their use together in imagining and building real social change and positive environmental impact. Within all of this, Ruth directs the Furtherfield Decentralised Arts Lab, and, as you will hear, is also key to the development of the live action role play games as a form of live action research.
She’s developed three person pacifist chess (yay!) and also helped to organise the Radical Friends Conference at Furtherfield. And then edited and contributed to the book that came out from that, which is called Radical Friends, Decentralised Autonomous Organisation and the Arts. And I know that sounds like a mouthful, but if you are into this kind of thing at all, you have to read this book. It has some of the most exciting, inspiring, radical ideas that I’ve come across in a long time and some really insightful and beautiful writing. I will put a link to that in the show notes. And you might think that you’re not into this kind of thing now, but I really think you will be by the time we get to the end of the podcast, and you understand the implications for the wider world. So with all of that behind us and a sparkling conversation ahead, people of the podcast, please do welcome Ruth Catlow of Furtherfield.
Ruth Good morning. And I think we can still say Happy New Year at the time of recording. It’s the first week back to work in January, really. So good morning and Happy New Year and thank you for coming on to Accidental Gods.
Ruth: Happy New Year to you and I’m super pleased to be here. Thank you so much for the invitation.
Manda: You’re more than welcome. It’s an honour and a joy. I have to say I’ve really been looking forward to this one. So with our new year and with 2023 feeling to me like a really pivotal year, I think we’re going to look back and this will be the year where people began to realise that really the old system is crumbling and we need something new. So with a view to exploring the newness, which is what I hope you and I will be doing, I’m opening the podcast as an experiment with a new question. Which is: what makes your heart sing at this moment and where does that take you? So there’s our question over to you with anything that that inspires.
Ruth: Yeah, it’s a lovely question. Quite a lot of things make my heart sing, but I feel like like the thing that does it the most often is learning together through play, with other people, other beings, other places. So this might be through kind of like gatherings, gatherings of people with whom I have a lot in common or with people whom I have nothing in common. Or it might be being in the woods with and meeting whole different arrays of species. Or like there’s so many ways to learn through play with others. And this is one of the things that most excites me and makes me feel most alive.
Manda: Fantastic. Thank you. And I’m realising I’m the only person who’s heard all of the answers to this so far because the rest haven’t gone out. But so far, everyone I’ve asked this, there has been an aspect of what makes their heart sing most, is connecting to the more than human world. And I wondering, as we sit here, whether this is an indication of the kind of people that I talked to, or whether this is an indication of how people find value when they are given the space to do that. So that’s a question for me. I don’t really expect you to answer that. But this is a grand Segway into all of the things that I want to talk about with you, because it seems to me that this is how your life is oriented. Is towards facilitating play as a way of creating radical political change and building connections with people. So it feels to me with what I know of you, which is obviously quite a specialised slice of your life; but that facilitating play as a radical act of connection and reconnection; and ways of breaking down people’s certainties of how the world is, is something that has been integral to everything that you do, that I know of. And I’m wondering, did you grow up doing this? Is this something that you’ve done all your life? Or is it something that you’ve come to as an understanding, as an adult working in the fields that you do?
Ruth: Yeah, I think the first time that I like realised the power of play as a kind of social practice or as a social artistic practice, was back in about 2003. When basically for five yeas, no, since 1996, I’d been running an organisation called Furtherfield that I co-founded with Marc Garrett. And we were both artists and had kind of taken to the web as a space where we could kind of like make our own art worlds, with people around the world who kind of shared, who were interested in art as a practice of social and political critique and like finding new freedoms. And we kind of built platforms that were essentially blogs, before blogs were a thing. And platforms for collaboration. But like really working with cultures of commoning, and peer to peer and open source software and kind of community creation. We were both artists as well. And back in 2003, I joined the largest march that London had ever seen, to stop the war on Iraq. And the following day I was looking at a chessboard in my studio and realised that the arrangement of chess pieces on a chessboard were essentially an ancient program for asserting hierarchies of power and domination.
And I reorganised those chess pieces in my studio, with all the pawns on one side and all the higher pieces on the other, and sent out an image of that chessboard to a bunch of forums that were kind of like, this is really early days of the web, where chess experts hung out and learned how to play chess together. And I said, I asked them, under what conditions could the pawns in this game win? Because I kind of had this realisation when I was at this demo, and I’d seen a banner that read something like ‘This is a war on the little people’. And I’d had this realisation that war is always a war of the powerful on the vulnerable and on the less wealthy. And the response I got back from chess players was kind of fascinating. And it just sparked this kind of whole understanding of how powerful games are for propagating certain ways of thinking about the world and understanding what’s fixed and what we can change. And also a really good way for hacking people’s attitudes and behaviours. So I ended up with their feedback, often quite angry feedback, from people who love the beautiful game.
I created a game of pacifist chess, which could be played… We made a game online and we played a game that could be played with a prepared chessboard. In which it was played by three players. The pawns played a blocking game. And so basically they blocked aggression, and if they blocked it in a certain pattern, the board would become progressively overgrown with different grasses. The battlefield would disappear and world peace would be declared.
Ruth: So in this game and in the playing of this game over a number of years, I really understood the power of games in network culture, to kind of host quite complex social experiences, that were like really fun, really engaging. You engage all very different kinds of people. Like the Game of Chess, especially back in 2003, really anyone over the age of seven knew the moves and could therefore read the hierarchy in the game. And could therefore kind of like, without a ton of complicated instructions, get deep into what the game was that we were playing. And so that was kind of the start of my kind of fascination with it all.
Manda: Brilliant. I have so many questions. We could spend the entire podcast talking about chess. So let’s not, because I’ve just recently rediscovered it as a a way of trying to wean myself back off World of Warcraft again – though failing miserably. So a number of things. First of all, is this still available? Is it something I can put in the show notes that people can still play online?
Ruth: I’ve got some imagery. I might be able to dig around for the rules. I’m not sure. I’ll let you know afterwards.
Manda: Okay. Because it strikes me that that’s still a really radical thing. First of all, three people playing what’s normally a two person game, and second, the pawns get a chance to win. And really wouldn’t it be interesting, maybe somebody did this study, to talk to the angry people that you got responses from. Of, I’m guessing ‘that’s not how the game is played’. You know, we like our dominance hierarchies. We like the fact that the pawns are pawns and we throw them away. That’s what we do. And wouldn’t it be so interesting to take that into some of the areas of our existing culture where the dominance hierarchies are played out most strongly and just see what happened.
Ruth: Yes, I mean, one of my kind of drives for this project was… Like I had this fantasy. I often have what I think are kind of like great ideas, but they turn out to be fantasies. So my fantasy on this occasion was that I’d be able to somehow subvert or mobilise all these strong, very alpha, very strategic competitive minds to working for new pacifist solutions. This is my kind of dream. I then have no way of knowing if that happened at all, but…
Manda: No, but wouldn’t it be interesting to find out? Because it seems to me that, you know, we do have to somewhere do that. And if it didn’t work, what would it take to make it work, would be the next step. But that’s probably the basis on which this entire podcast rests, is what does it take to break down the barriers? What does it take to create the emotional space that then allows these people to make the rhetorical and intellectual shift to a different space? And that this is what you’re doing in some of the other work that you’re doing, with other collaborators in everything that you do. So one of the things that struck me as a really radical, again, way of shifting a local community, a community of place. I have this theory that there are communities of place, of purpose and of passion, and that there’s a Venn diagram where they all intersect; and that you had that within the Treaty of Finsbury Park. So I would really like to know a little bit about that, how it arose, what it’s doing, where it’s going, and particularly what its impact is that you have seen on the people in the local community of place around Finsbury Park.
Ruth: Ok. The Treaty of Finsbury Park is a live action role play, live action role plays or LARPs are games of collective make believe. They have fictional scenarios, characters and a mission; and different kinds of players take on roles to reconfigure or kind of like reimagine place-based problem situations, or predicaments, in a process of group driven discovery. It’s a really important concept and it’s very hard to say, like we discover things together. So the Treaty of Finsbury Park has turned into quite a kind of like major project for us. It’s called the Treaty of Finsbury Park 2025. It’s designed to build empathy pathways between humans and all other life forms, and to spark new ways of feeling and acting together, across different scales in urban green spaces, locally and trans locally. So this game takes Finsbury Park as a whole world, and we’re playing a whole series of live action role plays. Some of them have taken place online and involve people from all around the world, but they’re basically going to culminate this summer in a big place based festival. So the scenario of the Treaty of Finsbury Park is set in 2025, where all the species of the park have risen up to demand equal rights with humans. After much unrest, it’s been agreed that a treaty will be drawn up designating these rights. But first, humans must learn to better relate to and understand non humans, so they can cooperate better. So this has developed into a game of interspecies assemblies, in which we design interspecies festivals. This year, this summer, we’re going to host the world’s first interspecies festival in Finsbury Park. So our gallery is based in Finsbury Park, and this will be host to a co written treaty for equal spaces rights, that users of the park can sign up to and pledge. They’re going to shape it using Culture Stake, which is a quadratic voting on the blockchain app, to shape what the treaty is. And then other park users can come in and pledge to take different actions, based on this treaty, across the following year.
Manda: Wow. Every aspect of this is setting my head alight. We could talk for hours on this, so I’m going to try and hold us within a reasonable scope. So I have a number of questions. How did this arise? And then what has been the impact so far on, I’m guessing, ordinary people who just go and walk their dog in Finsbury Park? Or just go and hang out? And I don’t even know what size Finsbury Park is, but I’m guessing it’s a green area in quite the middle of London. So it’s surrounded by urban stuff.
Manda: And that this is likely, I imagine, in my projected world, to be really changing people’s view of the more than human world, the other than human world, whatever we call the nonhuman species. So what kind of scale is this? How many people locally are inspired and enthused and LARPing? You got people LARPing. I’m so impressed. I used to do battle reenactments. We did dark age battle re-enactments; we were sensible, we had real swords. And actually we really hated the LARPers because they dressed up as elves and they had rubber swords and it wasn’t real. And then I’ve been reading your stuff about LARPing and realising there’s a whole world that I’ve missed out on by being anti-LARPist or something. Thinking that proper re-enactors aren’t LARPers and then realising, Oh my goodness, there’s this whole world of total creativity that I could have been immersed in. Why was I not?! So I want to get into that. But ordinary people in the street, this is not their usual world. How have you done this and why have you done this? Other than the obvious, we want to create interspecies connection. But specifically, how did this come to Finsbury Park? And where has it taken people so far? And where do you think it will take them?
Ruth: OK That is a lot. We’ve been based, our gallery has been based, in the Heart of Finsbury Park in North London since 2011. And parks, we’ve really learnt since being there, that parks are really a special kind of public realm and provide really crucial public infrastructure for kind of leisure and well-being. And we’ve understood, we keep understanding this, in waves. And the latest wave of understanding came through the pandemic. The area where we’re based in North London is a very cosmopolitan metropolitan, area anyway. It’s a super diverse: there’s over 200 human languages spoken. Who knows how many More than Human languages spoken? There’s large diversity of wealth, access to education and employment opportunity. And the area is really well known for very dynamic migrant flows along all the boundaries of the park. So this already creates a very resonant space for thinking about both the kind of community wealth, but also the community stressors that people are dealing with in their everyday lives. And since we moved to the park in 2011, we’ve had this kind of really growing sense of the intensifying social changes that are acting on life in this area. And really also a strong sense of everything that we might learn in co-creation processes, with all the users and systems of the park. So we’ve kind of spent the last five years flipping our exhibition and event program, which was kind of maybe more traditional gallery mode. Like funnelling in what we regarded as the best of art into a public space and then inviting, welcoming, whoever wanted to come in to kind of share our enthusiasm for it; into a method where we’re really trying to work out how all the people and communities can shape more of what we do.
So, why this topic? Who’s been shaping it? What does it feel like for them to be involved? So the friends of Finsbury Park have been engaged in an ongoing, very acrimonious legal battle with the council for at least six years, over the hosting of the annual wireless festival, which brings in crowds of like, I think it’s at least 25,000 people a day over two weekends every summer. So this is a real infringement in everybody’s view on an absolutely crucial amenity, actually, for this very intense part of the city. The council argues that it’s the only way they have to pay for parks and green infrastructure in the borough. But the community say, including the kind of people who really look after the living and physical logistical infrastructure; they say that in addition to noise pollution, the amount charged doesn’t begin to cover the cost of annual recovery and damage to the park and its biodiversity. So this is our idea of a kind of festival and a treaty, is kind of sitting in that context and it’s been all different kinds of players and stakeholders that are kind of battling this out at the moment.
So that is happening. But also this project was conceived around the, in direct response to the 2019 IPCC report, that told us that a million species on Earth are at risk of extinction as a result of human action. And we had this really strong sense, like over the years, we now have connections with a lot of different kind of communities who operate in and around the park. And we wanted to explore how we might feel and respond to the calamitous impacts of this report with park users. So it was a kind of like, there’s always this question of like, these reports come out and what possible response can we make? So we kind of did this deep dive with a researcher who runs the new Design Congress now in Berlin, Cade Diehm. And first we were looking at this relationship between colonial and imperialist attitudes to land and life, as resources to be extracted and managed. And the relationship between that and our disconnection from other living beings. I have been for the last few years immersed in Indigenous scholarship around ancient ways of relating to land and other life forms, and attempting to find ways to kind of learn with others about what this means. And about how this might change how we live together in places. Like I really like your kind of three different like, I think you said, place, purpose and…
Ruth: Passion. That makes a lot of sense to me. So – what changes need to happen? What needs to be undone and what needs to be redone? So, as we’ve been developing the story worlds for Treaty, we’ve been working very closely with the park rangers who have amazing knowledge of the mesh of social and human, social and biodiversity life in the park. Understandings of how conservation works, but how conservation works in relation to all the kinds of human intensities that the park is supporting and kind of entangled with. So we worked with the park rangers, we’ve worked with the Friends of Finsbury Park. They now are developing a really strong biodiversity and rewilding programme with a large community group. We have connections with a number of other cultural groups in the locality that we’re working with. And so you asked, what difference does this make? So the things that have happened are, we ran our first LARP in the park this time last year. And we’re all in masks. So we never see a human face in these events, all in masks dressed as one of seven mentor species. Mentor species that have a very strong association with the image of the park. They’re species that people would associate with Finsbury Park.
Manda: What species are we talking about?
Ruth: We’re talking about the dogs, who are really mediators. They often play a mediating role.
Manda: Between humans and other species or between species?
Ruth: Between humans and other species. The Canada geese who represent who are kind of our international representatives. But they also represent all waterfowl and birds. We have the bees who represent the pollinators and flying insects. We have the grass, which represents all grasses and all small plants and herbs. We have the London Plane Tree, which represents all the trees and shrubs. We have the squirrel, which represents all small mammals. And we have the stag beetle, which represents the insects and the work of the underground; the soil, all of those things.
Manda: So do people make their own masks, or do you have a team of artists making masks and then somebody comes in and says, ‘Oh, I want to be a stag beetle. Give me the stag beetle mask!’ How does it work?
Ruth: Good question. So with this project, up until now, we commissioned an artist called Sajan Rai, who made a series of very beautiful illustrations working to our brief. Understanding more about these different species. So we have a set of seven masks that people can wear; that they all wore last year. I have some lovely pictures. And these masks are also the basis of digital face filters. So when we play in online games, we never see a human face, but we play with animated masks so we can fully express ourselves using these masks.
Manda: I want to do this!
Ruth: You can and that would be lovely. This summer we plan, in the realisation of the festival, we plan to work with mask makers in a series of workshops to actually have people also make their own masks, based on some of the things that we’ve learnt about the different mentor species sensing. You asked another very interesting question though, which is very important. Do people choose their own mentor species? No, they don’t. So a kind of core story mechanism in the treaty is a new device that was invented called the Sentient Style. And the Sentient Style is a fictional device that was invented around now, that enabled all the flora and fauna to make themselves understood by humans and each other. So we are now in direct communication with each other, and the sentient style basically allocates mentor species to people depending on who they are and what they’re like. So there’s a kind of magical matching process by the Sentience Dial, and that’s how people come to know who they are.
Manda: But how does that work in real life? Do do you, Ruth, are you the Sentience Dial saying ‘Okay, person over there, you’re grass. Definitely I see you as grass.’ How does it actually work in this version of the world?
Ruth: We have a series of rituals and processes that remain somewhat mysterious that I’m not prepared to reveal.
Manda: Okay, that’s cool.
Ruth: Before anyone LARPs, they meet the Sentience Dial and we go through a bonding ritual, which really brings people into they’re more than human species lived experience. So there’s quite a process of getting into the lives of these other beings.
Manda: Yeah, this is amazing. And when you got to the, you said the mentor species sensing work that you’d been doing. Is this where you get an a biologist who says, ‘OK, so stag beetles, they have this amazing ability to see in 150 different spectra and it’s really different people and this is part of their sensing system?’ Or is this something that that came through the LARPing of the person playing the stag beetle going ‘But when I’m a stag beetle, I feel the vibrations in the ground and and I can tell who’s walking the other side of the park. And this is really important to me’. Which was it both of these or is it one or other or something different?
Ruth: Oh, I just so love that you ask that. Because yes, it’s both of those things and it’s both of those things on the spectrum, depending on what people are like. Because some players want to play very conscientiously and they want access to scientific research. They take it seriously. They don’t want to be doing fantasy. They want to be doing it as real as they can. And then other people are very expansive in their imaginative play. And somehow by bringing these two people, these things across this spectrum, because in a LARP, pretty much the only rule is that you don’t come out of character. When I is a dog, when I’m playing Chewie the Dog and I’m talking to a tree, my Dogness is brought out by the fact that the tree is relating to me. So people really find out an awful lot about species, from the way they are addressed, the things that are expected of them. So you kind of really get this very strong learning that is coming from both these angles. From people who’ve done research or are using the research that we provided them with and the people who are using their improvisatory and kind of social play to learn things.
Manda: And so we’ve got the seven mentor species. How many people at a time come and play? Do you have 150 people who are then broken into groups of, I don’t know, 23 are stag beetles and 23 are grass and whatever, that’s the wrong number. But anyway, do you have large numbers playing each species? Or do you have the mentor species and then 143 other species that are in the park where people then interrelate with the mentors? How does it work with large numbers or does it not?
Ruth: So the first game we played, we played with a small group of people. So we played with, I think 18 people in the park and we played as a single group and we played dignitaries. So it was it was like playing this kind of very sedate, quite reverent set of processes where we perform different rituals in different biodiversity habitats. The last round we played were a series called the Interspecies Assemblies that we played online, and we played those as a series of games where up to, I think up to 30 people joined at a time. And for the Interspecies Assemblies Games, we were gathering to devise festival activities for the Interspecies Festival that we will play this year. And then we go into breakout rooms, so we’re working in smaller groups there. This summer we’re planning to host three festival days where we will probably ticket something like 25 to 30 tickets per day, but then there will be spectators, so it’ll be any number of people can join as spectators and there will be opportunities for them to get involved in ways that they can ad hoc join in. So yeah.
Manda: And so I think I need to invite you back when that has happened to find out how it went. But are you getting people who are already interested in LARPing, already in the gaming world doing this? Or are you getting what I would classify as slightly more straight people from consensus reality, who normally wear suits to work? Or just people from all of the diverse backgrounds around you? Are they being drawn in and then going to gather a dozen friends and going, Hey, you want to come and play a stag beetle? It’s really good fun! How is this affecting the culture of the people of the place around Finsbury Park?
Ruth: Yeah, I mean, it’s still to be determined, I think. So. What we discovered with the online assemblies was that the first games we played, we had about 12 people in, and then they all wanted to come back and bring their friends. And like in answer to your question, I think we started with people who are nerds like me, and then it grew and grew and grew, and different kinds of people were coming in. So that by the last game we had quite a much more diverse group of people playing. For the in-game park, the kinds of activities people have designed are amazing. So the festival is going to have a multi sensory mystery tour that’s led by different species. There’s Interspecies Day Care and Spa. We end with a kind of Multispecies Chorus and Festival of Poop, which is basically celebrating cycles of excreta, fertilisation and food. So I wonder if anyone has ever had a festival of poo and food in the same event? That’s what we’re doing. So these are the things that people have come up with.
Manda: But packs of wild dogs have done it lots! So this is lovely. There’s so many more things I want to ask. I’ve got Constellation Work written in capitals on my notes, thinking this feels to me very much like the kind of constellation work that people do in relational constellation or business constellation. And I’m only ever on the fringes of that, but my experience of it is that it can profoundly change people’s emotional, psychic, energetic states. Are you finding that? Before we head off into quadratic voting, which I really want to get to. Are you seeing changes in how people are with each other and with the park, or is it still too early to see that?
Ruth: Definitely. Well, we do a very careful de-role-ing and debriefing after each of our session. We generally play for about 3 hours and then we have at least a half hour or hour long debrief afterwards. And people report very deep kind of shifts and changes, in how they feel in themselves. It’s a huge relief to get out of your sense of a human brain and limits. The play is kind of astonishing. People report that it’s astonishing. And the thing that I most enjoy hearing people say is like ‘It wasn’t until this happened that I really suddenly understood what it is to be grass and to not be able to move’. You know, like where people are really suddenly sensing the vulnerabilities or the very different natures of different species and the living infrastructure of our environment.
Manda: You said right at the top that there was a rewilding project, has that arisen out of people’s understanding of what it is to be other than human? Or do you think that’s part of the zeitgeist anyway?
Ruth: I think it’s part of people everywhere trying to find new ways of doing things. I can take no responsibility for the amazing rewilding project that’s happening. But what I can say is that with the work that we’re doing, we’re going to be able to bring different kinds of attention to that work, and different ways for more people to value that work, and possibly to get involved and to have different ways to enjoy it and feel it might be for them and to imagine what they might do. So sometimes it’s really about amplifying the good work that other people are doing, with a different spirit or providing a different portal into it. And learning from it as well.
Manda: One final question, because I really do want to get on to quadratic voting. Has anyone from the council, the people who are making the argument that you need this wireless festival that brings 25,000 people to trash the park for a couple of weekends – I’m guessing the wireless festival doesn’t see it like that. But that’s potentially the experience – Has anyone from the council who is part of that decision making come along to be a Canada goose or a plane tree? And has that shifted their view of the economics of the system?
Ruth: Like I said, we’re working with the park rangers. So they’re council employees. What I’ve understood is that the council isn’t one body. There are all these different people within the council pushing on different aspects. It’s very easy to see the council as baddies in this, but this is a much wider political picture here. So there are many people in the council who we’ve been in conversation with, who have come and taken part. And some people I feel are kind of like very excited, because they feel it just gives more arguments, more images, more language, more different people getting involved. It’s just very good for those who want to prioritise the health of biodiversity. And for those whose job it is to assert the right of wireless to come and run this festival in the park, it’s probably a bit of a sigh. But my feeling is, is that no one really wants to be doing it.
Ruth: Yeah, it’s part of a much bigger problem.
Manda: Yeah, but then that applies to the whole world.
Manda: We could talk about Finsbury Park for a lot longer, but I really want to move to concepts of democracy and how we can engage people more accurately, more broadly, and in ways that actually work. My central thesis is that our current democratic system is broken beyond all repair and that we are going to need somehow to fork the government, as in to split into a new system, build it anew, and show people that it works. I’ve written a novel starting with that I’m about to start the new one. So part of my experimenting is how could we do things differently? And in the process of that, I’ve become aware that there are different ways of voting. And this is… I don’t know about you, but when I find this, I just get so excited. Because we end up in a situation where it’s easier to imagine the total extinction of life on Earth, than it is to imagine a different system than the one that we are living in, because it seems to be the way things are done. And then you discover there are other ways things can be done that other people are actually using! And quadratic voting is one of these, as is consensus voting. There seem to be a number of really quite exciting ways of using the technology that we currently have, to enable people to express a preference that isn’t simply first past the post where we end up with 23% of the population in the UK voting for a government that has an 80 seat majority and then does stuff that people never voted for in the first place, like destroying the NHS.
Manda: I’ll step off my soapbox before I go too far. But quadratic voting, consensus voting, other forms of voting, are ways by which you give people a weighted as an extra, more heaviness, to different votes. So potentially you might have 25 votes. And if you wanted to spread all of those 25 votes evenly across 25 different options, you could do that. But actually, you could also put all 25 votes on to one option, or you could put ten votes on one and three lots of five votes on others. And it gives you an option. And it’s called quadratic, as far as I can tell. My memory of quadratic equations is that ax2+bx+c=0. However, the quadratic voting seemss simply a squared function, where one vote costs one unit, two votes cost two squared which is four, three votes cost three squared = nine, four votes cost four squared 16, five votes cost five squared = 25. There on up, so that it costs you more to place a lot of votes on one option than it would to put lots of little votes on lots of options. The original way this was looked at was actually people paying to vote, which struck me as a thing only Silicon Valley libertarians could possibly think was a good idea. But that since then, obviously you can use different forms: you can give people tokens, you can give them monopoly money, you can give them little coloured chips. And that’s the quadratic voting.
And you need it on the blockchain. Blockchain gets very bad rap because Bitcoin was the first kind of obvious instance of the blockchain. I read a wonderful post on Mastodon the other day; somebody said, ‘Everybody says that cryptocurrencies are just Ponzi schemes and actually some of them are really good pyramid schemes and some of them are just simple bait and switch, and some of them are straightforward scams. And we need to celebrate the diversity of ways that people could rip each other off with cryptocurrency.’ And I thought, Yes, yes, thank you! But they are all essentially ways to invent some money and then persuade people that it’s worth something in the real world, which is what currency does. And the difference is, as far as I can tell, that actual fiat currencies are defended by violence and cryptocurrencies are defended by a lot of people doing fancy stuff with software, that persuades people that they’ve got value. And that’s not necessarily worse than, you know, the US proclaiming covertly that if you don’t use the dollar, they’re going to invade your country and exterminate half of your population.
Ruth: I love that.
Manda: So probably there’s another conversation to be had on how to establish fiat currencies that aren’t predicated on violence. But it seems to me, it has seemed to me for a long time, that the least interesting use of blockchain is currency. And that actually its use in validating things. I used to say it’s completely unhackable and clearly it isn’t. You just look at what’s happening in Etherium and it’s actually quite hackable, but it takes a lot of work. Your average person in the park is not hacking your blockchain to make sure that they are able to do a Sybil attack on your propositions, for whatever you want for the Finsbury Park festival. They’re just going to use their votes. So it’s a relatively unhackable way of establishing that what somebody has done, is what they actually did, and that they don’t get to pretend they’re six other people. So you have a way of assessing people’s preferences that is much more flexible and accurate, and gives them ranked choice voting in a way that can be counted. And you can make sure that you only have one person, one vote. That probably took way too long. But was that relatively accurate, first of all? Second, are there any mistakes? And third, why did you do this, other than the reasons I’ve said? Go! Over to you, I’ll stop talking now.
Ruth: What a pleasure to have someone else do all that work. Thank you for that. That was great. Now I can just elaborate a little bit. I loved the diversity of all the ways in which cryptocurrencies can rip us off. That’s fantastic. So there were kind of two main things we wanted to achieve using quadratic voting on a blockchain. We made this app called CultureStake. So this is conceived as an app for collective cultural decision making. It ties into what I was saying earlier about the flip we’re trying to do with our cultural programming for our gallery. So this idea that we need new ways to understand what matters to people, why it matters to them, about culture, in this place, that also matters to them. So my interest in quadratic voting happened at a cross section of two things. One was the Brexit referendum and the other was my growing interest at Furtherfield, in the possibilities that blockchain provided for a kind of new governance design space. So we were less interested in the kind of speculative opportunities of the cryptocurrencies, but very interested in what happens when you have programmable money and what that might allow you to do to organise locally or trans locally, in these different kinds of communities that you set out earlier.
Now where this collided with the kind of Brexit situation, was like when the vote came in and we realised that we had something like a 48% against, 51% for leaving Europe. It became really clear that this was not about a decision. The in-out decision held so many possible, like there were so many possible explanations for this. And with kind of very corrupt and corruptible media, that also has all kinds of investments in the kind of financial consequences essentially of Brexit. That to understand what people were really voting for and why they were voting for it and how strongly they felt about it, it just meant that media could tell any stories they liked and we had no way of knowing whether it was true. This is one of the kind of wicked problems for democracy at the moment.
Manda: Wicked in all its senses.
Ruth: Yes, exactly. So with with the quadratic voting system that we’re using, we present people with a set of options that they can explore first, and then we invite them to say which… They rank them using this quadratic system, which you explained so beautifully. And so then they’re telling us A, what they would like. So in the case of our work, they’re choosing, they’re experiencing, three small sketches for artworks that they can have some taster of. And then they’re saying which one they would like to be realised at a larger scale in the park as a public public commission. And they say which one they would like, but they also get to say how much they like it. So it’s basically giving them a way to express their feelings about it as well as their preference. And then there’s always a second round of voting in our system, which is what was most important to you in your decision? So we give them five, five kind of things to rank again. And I can’t, I’m not going to be able to remember all of them, but it speaks to matters that are most important to me in my community. It addresses more than one of my senses. It feels relevant to the locality. It’s by an artist in the locality. So we kind of created questions that are basically informed by the conversations that we have with people every day in the park.
And so using this app last year, we commissioned three small sketch works. People voted on the one they would like to see realised. And then we installed a piece called ‘Based on a Tree Story’ by Aisha Tan Jones, which is essentially a set of AR – augmented reality – works that people can explore using their phones. They go and scan a variety of sigils based on a number of trees around the park, and they get to dance with a tree sprite that then tells them about the history of this tree and the relationship of this tree to the park. So you see people dancing around the trees with their mobile phones, as if with a sprite. So that was the work. And we discovered from this process that whatpeople said was really important, was that they’re never asked in a meaningful way about what they would like in places that matter to them. But that was important and that they liked to be asked and they liked to be able to have some input into that. And also it made the process of installing a public commissioned work an entirely different feel. Because we didn’t have this sense where we didn’t know if this was going to be interesting to people. Suddenly, we knew why it was interesting to people and we knew that people would value it. It gave us a dual input.
Manda: Thank you. Clearly, there’s so much more we could go into. First one is, is anybody else taking this up? Let’s park that. It’s a question. It may not be the priority question because people were using your app, Yes? To vote on the CultureStake app. Why did you need the blockchain? What kind of blockchain did you use? And is this an app that could be expanded so that we could use quadratic voting on the blockchain to vote for the mayor of London, or to vote for our MPs, or to vote for other things that are within our current Democratic purview.
Ruth: Okay, so why on the blockchain? We wanted to experiment with this new programmable money. We needed to get our hands dirty with it. There were all kinds of problems.
Manda: That was Ethereum. The programmable money is Ethereum, which is Vitalik Buterin’s version of the blockchain, where you can go in and tweak it to suit yourself rather than bitcoin blockchain, which you can’t.
Ruth: Yes. Exactly. This is the second layer of blockchain, which allows people to experiment with governance rather than just a new form of what they’re calling digital gold, isn’t just for hoarding. So we used the XDAI blockchain, which is a proof of stake blockchain. It was very important to us that we worked with an energy efficient system of creating this. There’s been a tonne of legitimate outrage actually about the energy usage of many blockchains; but I find it very interesting that last year, the Ethereum blockchain moved from energy intensive proof of work, to proof of stake, which is 99.99% less energy usage. So we’ve got this kind of shift. XDAI is a proof of stake low energy use blockchain. So other than us wanting to do an experiment to understand and get a feel for it, our instinct told us that the blockchain provided a way to provide a permanent, immutable record of what people’s decisions are, that can be looked at by anyone. It’s open. We can’t hide the results. So people can go in and have a look at it.
And in this way it provides a data commons. Essentially, this data can sit with the community that produced it. It’s available to anyone as well. But so our sense is and what we’re exploring for the coming years, is taking Culture State to different places, to produce different cultural commons, data commons in different places. So that we can start to see ourselves together in different places and understand what’s culturally important in different places. I think it’s entirely possible that it could be used for mayoral elections, for all kinds of things, and there are people – the radical exchange network is doing a lot of this work. We want it to work in culture first, because it felt like a place where you can get to see how things feel, and that is often really ignored in mechanism design. And this is why for us, bringing culture into the heart of blockchain spaces feels really important. We can have critical debates, we can admit when things are wrong and we can get to feel it with a bunch of people who wouldn’t otherwise know it was their business to think about it.
Manda: So how does it feel? This is amazing. It’s so good. How does it feel? And are you going to tweak it at all?
Ruth: It was very important to us that people didn’t have to go through a whole load of technical shenanigans before they could vote. So we’ve really focussed on an interface that is inviting and is intuitive. It gives you this sense when you’re voting that you might allocate all your votes to one thing, and then you realise you can’t give it to something else. So it puts you into a reflective space as you’re voting. And I think that feeling of understanding that you’re actually making a considered decision is a very important difference. It feels less bombastic and there’s more internal reflection goes on. So I think that’s really a lot to explore here.
Manda: Brilliant! I’m going to be talking to a group who have set up something called the South Devon Primary; because always in their constituency the Tory gets through because the anti Tory vote is split. So they’re going to hold a primary and the Labour, Lib Dem and Green candidates have agreed to go to a series of hustings and then people will vote and whoever wins will stand and the others will stand aside. And I’m thinking they need to be talking to you guys about using quadratic voting in this. Because it’s so much more than just having a cross in a box. It could open up so much more and you could have a series of votes… You don’t just have… Anyway, that’s probably a discussion.
Ruth: Just imagine in Brexit, instead of being asked are we going to leave Europe or are we going to stay in? Imagine if they’d been asked, ‘Are we going to close our borders to European migrants? Are we going to leave the Common market? Is that what’s important? Is it the fisheries that’s important?’ I’m not a Brexit expert, there’s a whole set of things that were impacted by Brexit. And if we had the data on that and we knew why it was important to people, we wouldn’t be able to be oppressed by a whole load of ignorant nonsense that people can spin about what it was all about. So I just think that like putting more information into the system is really important.
Manda: Yes. But one of the absolute rules in my brief life in a computer games company was ‘Garbage in, garbage out’. And in order for that to be relevant, you also have to have a media that is not telling people what to think, for each of these questions. Because it strikes me that what we learned afterwards about Cambridge Analytica skews the vot. Somebody reposted a video they made of showing little old lady being helped through hospital by her daughter and in the ‘we remain’ she’s sitting in …in a waiting room… Because it’s falling apart. But that was the Remain vision. And the Leave vision exactly the same and she’s being seen by white coated doctors. And it was utter, utter bilge and they did it with everything. Rob Percival says that they were targeting vegans and sending them videos of cattle being herded through a slaughterhouse and then in Brexit, cows out in sunny green fields. And on any obvious intellectual examination, you could tell that this is just complete, unmitigated… Garbage is the nicest word I can think of that will get us past the censors. But it hits people at a limbic level.
Manda: So somehow and what I’m hearing with Finsbury Park is that you’re having effectively Citizens Assemblies as well, so that people can begin to explore the ideas themselves. And bring in, you know, here’s how a stag beetle senses, here’s what it is to be a Canada goose, that they’ve managed to find themselves and isn’t what a completely corrupt media, wholly owned by the oligarchy, is telling them to think. And I wonder, would quadratic voting be sensitive enough to overcome the captive media?
Ruth: So this is just like such a deep question, that we don’t have time for. My first response to it is just I was listening to Matt Pruitt, who is the president of Radical Exchange, which is an organisation which is looking to do new more democratic mechanisms using markets. And so I’ve learnt a lot from them and I have a lot of questions. But the point he made, and I think it’s well made by so many people who I respect, is that you can’t get away from the importance of spaces for deliberation. Who gets to frame and ask the questions? So like voting; a new voting mechanism on its own isn’t going to make a difference. But as part of a wider conversation and as part of understanding what the problems are better, I think it’s one part of the conversation or one part of a shift. And we need the shift. We need the shift wherever we can get them, you know?
Manda: Yes. And we spoke on the podcast a few months ago to Neil Lawson of Compass, whose vision is that if we just get a form of PR that works, and that’s enough of a wedge in the door to be able to get a much more liquid democracy. And it strikes me that quadratic voting, is a form of proportional distribution of the vote. But we haven’t got time. We’re definitely going to have to do another podcast. Because I looked at the the cumulative voting concept with the quadratic voting concept and wondered, was there a cumulative quadratic? And I’ve now lost all of the listeners. So guys, we’ll do this on another podcast because it’s really exciting. And it seems to me that you started all of this when the Internet was in its infancy and we all thought there was a huge amount of hope. And since then it has been captured by venture capital. But there’s still this radical underground of really interesting stuff that’s happening, that could yet take back control, to coin a phrase, of the Internet. So that it’s there to completely enhance the ways that we interact with each other and bring out the best in people instead of the current system, which seems to be bringing out the worst in people. So we’ve established, if it’s okay with you, that we’re definitely going to need a second podcast, because, you know, we’ve just touched the tip of a big, big iceberg. But we are running out of time. So Ruth, is there anything that you would like to say? This is your forum. Say what you want, for now, before we come back for a second time. Anything that you want to say in closing. Go for it.
Ruth: Okay. I would love to come back for a second time, because I agree, I feel like we’re just starting to get to the heart of the matter. And I guess, like, what is there still to say? Over the last few years of work, we did this really deep dive into the blockchain space, because we were quite interestingly positioned to do it. Like we have a community of artists, techies and activists who liked to think critically about the role that network tech could play in our lives. To the way it plays in the way power moves, all of this kind of stuff. So it felt like we were well placed to do it. The process has been very fraught. There’s so much, like I say, like really legitimate concern, around the kinds of cultures that surround different blockchain tech development. It’s a whole topic. But I think since we put this book out that you mentioned at the start, called Radical Friends, Decentralised autonomous organisations and the arts; where we were really trying to do kind of communal sense making, both about the potentials but also about the hazards of working in this field.
I’ve kind of had this really strong sense that tweaking mechanisms, processes, trying to do this kind of soft reform of democracy is not going to cut it. I just feel like we’re going to need to go so much deeper, because the set of problems we have are so… Like the set of problems are: capitalism, racism, structural inequality, patriarchy. And our democratic institutions are all so steeped with this, that we’re going to need to do much deeper work to understand what needs undoing, where to unravel and what to put in its place. So yeah. And like we need to stay with these technologies, because it’s where a lot of action and power is taking place and we need to be doing the things that slow it down, resist the worst extractivist tendencies. Like intervene with different narratives. But it’s really an open question to me whether the technologies themselves are salvageable, actually. But how we work with them is a really important question, I think.
Manda: Gosh. Haven’t we just uncovered the big can of worms? I so want to be part of this conversation. This is how do we fork the government completely is really taking over my awareness at the moment. But we have to stop now, if only because you have somewhere else to be. So definitely we’re going to do another one. And in the meantime, this has been such an exciting and wonderful conversation and it feels a really rich avenue to explore. So until the next time we speak, Ruth, thank you so much for coming on to Accidental Gods.
Ruth: Thank you. Thanks so much.
Manda: And that’s it for this week. Enormous thanks to Ruth for all that she’s doing and for the clarity with which she can express some really very complex ideas. And for her capacity to bring those complex ideas and actually use them in ways that connect people to each other, and to the wider world and the other species of Finsbury Park. As I’m sure you’ll have gathered, I find this genuinely, really exciting and I am so pleased that Ruth agreed to come back onto the podcast. We’re probably going to be well into the summer by the time we have another slot. But definitely we will continue this conversation.
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