I remember an old daydream from years ago about an Internet army. The idea was that a core group of people would start an Internet academy, training Internet users in programming and scripting skills. As the academy grew, and students ‘graduated’, its teachers and alumni would start to form a networked community based around techno-anarchic principles and the shared experience of learning together. This community would build a brand and an ideology, start calling itself something like The Army, and most importantly it would start making its presence felt online with information campaigns, politically motivated hacking, and generally benevolent skulduggery.
The Army did actually materialise, although it calls itself Anonymous, and it doesn’t really train up its soldiers from scratch, they tend to arrive fully trained. That said, there is also a growing push to bring techy skills to the masses, from the growing ranks of coding evangelists, to the Raspberry Pi, to the Code Academy and other free online courses.
Both elements of my daydream came true, and it made me think: I wish I had written something about it at the time. So with an unashamed eye to posterity, I am now going to write out six other daydreams I’ve had, that have serious near-term potential. A mix of ideas and predictions, in no particular order. Some have entrepreneurial potential, but most sit firmly at the crossroads between politics, technology, and culture. Enjoy!
1 — The Hacker Retreat
This idea is simple. You gather together a group of like-minded individuals (making sure you have a few engineers), you buy a plot of land in the countryside, you take the Civilization Starter Kit developed by the Open Source Ecology group, and you build a geeky farming community on those principles. Basically imagine a hacker camp, but there’s a building and nobody goes home at the end of the weekend. If the lifestyle was simple enough it might even be a place where people could turn up unannounced, and get a bed and a bowl of soup, a modern-day monastery. Just one of the many ways we should be building new social structures to fulfil the functions that have been traditionally fulfilled by religions.
2 — The Financial Social Network
I have money sitting a bank account, earning 1% interest. I have friends borrowing money to buy houses and cars, and paying 10% interest. The massive gulf between those two numbers funds the banking industry. In exchange for that 9%, the banking industry matches up the needs of lenders and borrowers, keeps track of who owes what to whom, and it takes on some degree of risk. But we have now reached the point where a peer-to-peer lending system could function seamlessly without a middleman. Imagine a financial social network, where each profile gives details of credit history and financial plans. First things first, you would only ever add family or very close friends, and this is a good thing. When you want to borrow money to buy a car/tractor/solar panel/fancy bike/new patio etc, you announce it on the social network. Whoever considers you a safe investment, and has money to spare, can sign up to help you finance your purchase. It may even involve contributions from a few people, Kickstarter style. But unlike Kickstarter, these are loans, with an inflation-linked interest rate (maybe inflation+1%) applied weekly. The borrower could pay off installments as soon as they have money available, without being restricted to a repayment schedule.
The key here is that the amount of risk of default is greatly reduced for four major reasons. Firstly, borrowers will be more restrained in their purchases, knowing they will have to disclose full details of their finances and their purchase plan to their peers. Secondly, a friend or relative is in a better position (than a bank) to make a judgement about someone’s reliability. Thirdly, the lower interest rate would make the debt easier to service and pay off. Finally, the borrower will have a sense of social responsibility towards their peers that they do not feel towards their bank.
This entire scheme just needs an app which would keep track (server-side) of how much is borrowed, and a mechanism for keeping track of repayments.
3 — Bubble
Imagine an app that puts you in a text-only chatroom with 50 other people, all using anonymous handles. The trick is, you can never change room. Your avatar is linked to your Play/iTunes account, so even a reinstall wouldn’t bring you into a new room. So you install the app, and you get a Bubble of fifty anonymous friends. Over time you would get to know your avatar friends, but not in a Facebook friends kind of way. You can go to your Bubble for chitchat, advice, or just to let off steam in a way that you can’t do with real-life friends. Best of all, unlike almost any other forum online, your Bubble would have a cross-section of people with different ages, interests, tastes, and opinions.
4 — Modular Terms of Services
You know that agreement you approve every time you sign up to an Internet service, where you promise to have read all the Terms of Services? Of course you don’t, nobody does. It should be possible to summarise the basic ideas of an agreement like that with a set of icons, similar to how Creative Commons licensing does.
5 — Salon Cinema
Imagine you go to the cinema, and on arrival you pay an entrance fee of your choosing. The recommendation is £10, and the clerk explains that the first £4 goes to the venue’s running costs, and the remainder goes directly to the filmmakers. You get one red token, and for every £2 you paid you get a blue token. You enter the cinema chamber and find the seating is arranged in semicircles or clusters of 10-20 chairs each. The lights are on. You nod at the other people in your cluster, maybe make some small talk about the bizarre music in the background or reports you’ve heard about what you’re going to see.
Over the evening there are three films, 30-60 minutes each, with a common theme running through them. All the films are from independent filmmakers, but have been curated to ensure a reasonably high quality. Between each film there is a ten minute break, where each cluster of viewers can discuss the films, or pop out to the toilet or snack bar. For those ten minutes the main screen shows a hashtag Twitterfall.
After the final film there is more discussion, and then four transparent ballot boxes are brought out. Three of the ballot boxes have the names of the films written on them, the fourth has a charity name on it. You take out the tokens you got when you arrived, and place them in the boxes of the film(s) you liked most. The red token is for the critical award, you give it to the film you thought was best, and each person has one vote. The blue tokens are the monetary award, the amount you have depends on how much you chose to pay on arrival, and you give it to the filmmaker you consider most deserving of money. If you didn’t like any of the films, you can place your blue tokens in the charity box.
After the show, the surplus money from admission tickets is divided between the filmmakers in proportion to how the audience voted with their blue tokens. On top of that, the cinema gives a critical award to film which received the most red tokens.
This “salon cinema” would offer a viable route to financial returns for independent filmmakers who are producing good material, and offer an alternative route to critical recognition. It would also resocialise and relocalise the cinema-going experience. More broadly, a network of independently run salon cinemas would create a market for Creative Commons cinema, and drastically cut down on the middle-man industry that thrives on cinema. Finally, it would resolve an old gripe of mine, that the value of a film (or almost any cultural consumption for that matter) is decided before I see it rather than after.
6 — Historicized TED Talks
I like Ted. I appreciate it has its flaws, and sometimes veers dangerously close to self-help territory, or even worse the idolization of individuals (who are often presenting the work of communities). But for all that it takes relatively intellectual and academic discourse and packages in an accessible format, and the success of Ted videos runs counter to fears of a digital-era anti-intellectualism. In academic circles the Ted Talk is more than a badge of honour, it is an opus and manifesto of a thinker’s position, and a reference point or calling card for the uninitiated.
Boiling down a three-volume opus into an 18-minute chat, complete with introductory anecdote and amusing commentary, is not without its consequences. But of the many consequences of this hyper-reductionism, I want to highlight the loss of reference to predecessors. Ideas and projects are presented as brand new, springing straight from the loins of Zeus (or the mind of the innovator), and the rich dialectic history that brought us to where we are now is lost.
As a solution I suggest a TEDx event that captures past thinking, thus bringing our intellectual heritage into the online ecosystem in an accessible way. What would Karl Marx have said in his Ted talk? What would he have put on his Powerpoint? We don’t know the exact answer, but I think he has left a large enough body of work that we could formulate 18 minutes of speech that he wouldn’t have been too unhappy with. We should do just that, then find an eloquent Karl Marx lookalike, call him Marl Karx so that the interpretive nature of the speech is clear, and let him appear at TEDx1873, alongside Darles Charwin and Niedrich Frietzsche. Historicized TED talks could capture the excitement of the time which surrounded the work of Edison and Tesla, or the writings of Freud and Kafka. There is a squeamishness about letting the work of past thinkers sit alone and uncritiqued, but I say let it stand as an historical and contextual artefact, even the poisonous writings of the Social Darwinists or Lenin, or the off-target work of Tycho Brahe and other scientists whose work led to a dead end.
That’s all I’ll say. I have other ideas brewing, one in particular that I think has promise, but I’ll keep it to myself for now lest I face a quarter-life crisis and feel like a change of job.