FutureRuby Talk: “Fighting the Imperial Californian Ideology”

The final speaker at last weekend’s FutureRuby conference was Jesse Hirsh, a Toronto-based internet consultant, researcher and “talking head” on CBC Newsworld and CBC Radio. As stated on the “About” page on his site, “his passion is for educating people on the potential benefits and perils of technology.”

"California Uber Alles" patch

His presentation, Fighting the Imperial Californian Ideology, was one of the less technical talks of the conference, whose topics ran the gamut from the expected – Ruby programming, programming languages and programming techniques – to topics you might not expect, such as nutrition for nerds, George Orwell and political languages, music and politics. In the end, it was all about building the future.

Here are the notes I took during Jesse’s presentation. I took the original notes and simply turned them into full English sentences and added context and links where necessary.

The Notes

Covers of "Snow Crash" and "Imperial San Francisco"

  • Books that influenced this talk include:
    • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, which plays with a lot of ideas for a single novel, including:
      • The overlap of technology and philosophy
      • Ancient history and the near future (as seen from circa 1990)
      • The concept of ideologies being viral
    • Imperial San Francisco by Gray Brechin, which looks at the role that San Francisco has played in the American Empire
  • I spent my life studying Pax Americana and have noted how Californian ideology affects us all
  • The latest version of Californian ideology comes from techies and technophiles:
  • This presentation is about how Californian ideology affects us all

 Etching: "Emigrant Train - Gold Hunters 1849"

  • “California”, as we consider it, has its beginnings in 1846
    • The United States government sent surveyors down to Mexican territory and California in search of gold
    • Minerals and mines are important to empires – there was never any successful empire that wasn’t in control of its own mines
    • In 1846, the U.S. declared war on Mexico to acquire California
    • 1849 marked the beginning of the Gold Rush
  • We need to understand the term “Gold Rush” as it applies to people to work on the internet
  • The dot-com boom of the late 1990s has often been referred to as a new gold rush, and there are parallels
  • Both featured the wealthy and powerful destroying the environment

 San Francisco

  • The events of 1849 had many effects:
    • It created an elite whose wealth was based on mining that ruled San Francisco
    • It revolutionized the mining industry, with inventions such as the mineshaft
    • The mineshaft in turn affected cities:
      • At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the concept of the mineshaft was inverted and the skyscraper was born
      • Offices in skyscrapers take mining principles and apply them to human labour
      • In skyscrapers, instead of mining the earth, you mine people
    • It created William Randolph Hearst

      William Randolph Hearst

      • Hearst was from a family whose wealth had come about from mining; he was a child of the ‘49ers
      • Hearst mines are responsible for large amounts of environmental devastation:
        • 8 out of 10 “Superfund Sites” that are too expensive to clean up
        • Many environmentally devastated mine in Latin America
      • In addition to the deleterious effects of its mines, Hearst is also responsible for The Spanish-American War, a conflict “engineered by Hearst“
      • The prohibition of marijuana was also engineered by Hearst
        • Hearst owned many wood pulp-based paper mills
        • The production of paper using hemp was cheaper and was a threat to his business
  • California is the provider of armaments for the First and Second World Wars
    • Berkeley and Stanford were schools that provided brains for the military
  • California is the home of BALCO – the Bay Area Lab Cooperative – who are responsible for the designer steroids tainting Olympic and professional sports today

 The "Julia Allison" cover of Wired

  • The Californian ideology represents an elite community
  • There is a perception among its practitioners that the world is theirs for the taking
  • The ideology highlights a past that has been swept into myth
    • That past includes a “Frontier ethos”, and the frontier was not a place for fairness
  • The ideology came about around the time of the oil crisis of the 1970s, which is also when the dollar was de-linked from the gold standard and the U.S.’ influence was beginning to wane
  • It was formalized by Brand, Kelly and the global business network
  • It is a techno-utopian vision spread through publications like Mondo 2000 and later, Wired
  • Kelly’s critiques sold a false mythology of a frontier where anyone can create a business plan
  • This mythology is that of a biological techno-utopia, a hive:
    • Problem: there are many worker bees, but only one queen bee
  • It is a means by which the ruling class maintain their power
  • The idea of the Long Tail is a meme within the California ideology
    • It’s meant to engender complacency about being in the lower ranks
    • In the Long Tail, it’s more of the same: a lucky few get all the cheese


  • The latest manifesto is Free Cover of "Free"
    • It’s fundamentally wrong
    • It’s not the “free” part that’s wrong
      • “Free” is disruptive
      • It’s part of the social-centric desire for freedom
    • I went to the recent Free Summit held by TechDirt’s Mike Masnick, where Chris Anderson gave two keynotes
      • Why did it take us 15 – 20 years of online economic business models cause us to realize how important social relations are important? The Communists have been saying this for years
      • We are just realizing the value of social capital
      • What’s missing is the political economy of Free
    • I agree with a large portion of Free, except for one: its ethic of waste
      • Waste is the central ethic of Free
      • The thesis: Now that bandwidth, processor cycles and disk space are abundant, we must waste it. Only through waste will be we innovate
      • The problem is that “waste is an ethic that has fucked us up royally”

 Animated photo of the FutureRuby crowd

  • The counter to the waste ethic is “How do we make more with less?”
    • That is the revolutionary potential of the internet
  • This counter is revolutionary and anti-ideological
  • “In the 21st century, there’s just culture”
  • It involves holism, which is “a flip on relativism”:
    • “I’m going to take the best shit available and integrate it into a coherent vision”
  • Society is reaching a tipping point where all the stuff we techies do is mainstream:
  • We are:
    • Bowing to masters we don’t need (California)
    • Following business models based on cultures we don’t live in (once again, California)
    • Up against the California ideology, which professes freedom but delivers slavery
  • We need to:
    • Become community activists
    • Help the next generation of AOLamers
      • Remember when AOL joined the ‘net? Suddenly there was a flood of newbies and lamers “and the whole internet went to shit”
      • “Most of the people using the net are fucking idiots”
  • How do we, as the people who can create the tools, places and concepts, quickly get lamers into the metaverse of Snow Crash? It has a lot of positives:
    • Universality: Everywhere, and accessible to everyone
    • Geography: As a virtual reality environment, it provided waypoints and neighbourhoods for different purposes
    • Space: Another byproduct of its virtual reality nature – it gave a sense of place as an means of organization, vs. the “cloud of shit” of our own internet
    • We can create these neighbourhoods for people
  • There is a big problem with "doing whatever is best for business”
    • The free market “fucked us in the last year”
    • Who can you trust?
      • The people you know
      • As a techie and participant in RubyFringe, you’re already doing it; just be conscious of it
      • None of this is new
      • It’s not about ideology, but practice
      • What we think of as the nation-state is done
      • Think of the city-state instead
      • Think of (and participate in) the cities you live in
  • The struggle for human rights continues. Which side are you on?


FutureRuby attendee Pat Allan shares his thoughts on this presentation on his blog, Freelancing Gods, in his article titled FutureRuby and Californian Conflict.


Iran is Taking Marc Stiegler’s Final Exam

Marc Stiegler

earthweb I met science fiction author, software developer and computer security guy Marc Stiegler at the first incarnation of O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology Conference in 2002, but I’d been acquainted with his work prior to that. I’d heard of his programming language called E and had read his science fiction novel Earthweb, whose plot could be grossly oversimplified down to the summary “Twitter saves the world” (it’s a little bit more than that, but I think it conveys the idea nicely).

Marc’s Final Exam

However, when I think of Marc, what comes to mind first is the final exam that he gave to students at his “Future of Computing” course and published online in 1999. In it, he posed a set of problems and asked them how a specific set of proposed web technologies could be used to solve them. The course and exam have a very strong sense of “technology trumps legislation”, an idea that was surfacing in the late 1990s.

In the exam, students had to pick 5 out of 11 problems that Marc posed and then explain how any combination of the following technologies could be used to solve them:

  • Unforgeable pseudonymous identities
  • Bidirectional, typed, filterable links
  • Arbitration agents
  • Bonding agents
  • Escrow agents
  • Digital Cash
  • Capability Based Security with Strong Encryption

(If some of these ideas are unfamiliar to you, don’t worry. They’re not important in the context of this article, and you can always Bing them.)

Here’s a selection of the problems posed in the exam. Remember, this exam is from ten years ago!

1) Searching for a decision analysis tool on the Web, you find a review in which the reviewer raves about a particular product. You buy the product and discover it just doesn’t work. You desire to prevent this person’s ravings from harming anyone else–and you desire to prevent the product from disappointing anyone else.

4) You start receiving thousands of emails from organizations you don’t know, all hawking their wares. You want it to stop, just stop!

5) You wish to play poker with your friends. They live in Tampa Florida, you live in Kingman. This is illegal in the nation where you happen to be a citizen. You want to do it anyway.

6) You hear a joke that someone, somewhere, would probably find offensive. You wish to tell your precocious 17-year-old daughter, who is a student at Yale. The Common Decency Act Version 2 has just passed; it is a $100,000 offense to send such material electronically to a minor. You want to send it anyway–it is a very funny joke.

7) Someone claiming to be you starts roaming the Web making wild claims. You want to make sure people know it isn’t really you.

The Final Question

The most compelling question on the exam is the final one. It required a far more extensive answer than the other ten – so much more extensive that Marc actually suggested that it might be better not to answer the question in the exam, but to at least think about it:

But…if you can answer Question 11 in your own mind, even though you choose not to write up that answer for this examination, then a most remarkable thing will happen: you will walk out of this class with something profoundly worth knowing.

Here’s that final question:

11) You live in North Korea. Three days ago the soldiers came to your tiny patch of farmland and took the few scraps of food they hadn’t taken the week before. You have just boiled the last of your shoes and fed the softened leather to your 3-year-old child. She coughs, a sickly sound that cannot last much longer. Overhead you hear the drone of massive engines. You look into the sky, and thousands of tiny packages float down. You pick one up. It is made of plastic; you cannot feed it to your daughter. But the device talks to you, is solar powered, and teaches you how to use it to link to the Web. You have all the knowledge of the world at your fingertips; you can talk to thousands of others who share your desperate fate. The time has come to solve your problem in the most fundamental sense, and save the life of your daughter.

The final question really stands out. Unlike the other questions in the exam, this one really pulls at the heartstrings, and it sparked a lot of discussion among geeks back around 1999 and 2000, in settings both online and real-life.

Iran and the Final Question

If you follow the American news cycle, the mental distance between North Korea and Iran is a short one; both are countries in the “Axis of Evil” (a term invented by a Toronto guy, by the way) run by repressive regimes and working on their nuclear weapons capabilities. What if we changed the final question’s setting from North Korea to Iran?

Unlike North Korea, Iran’s people have access to technology and communications with the outside world (there’s a recent Daily Show segment in which Jason Jones finds people in Iran who know Jon Stewart’s George Bush “I’m the decider” schtick). They don’t need to have Marc’s hypothetical iPhones delivered to them in care packages; they have things like Twitter and YouTube at their disposal. So I propose another slight modification to the final question: What if we changed the hypothetical hardware into actual working software like Twitter and YouTube?

(It’s another “software, not hardware, is really the trick” situation. Just as we found out in Terminator 3 that SkyNet was really software, it turns out that what might save Iran was social networking software, not portable internet-accessing hardware dropped by parachute.)

With my two suggested changes, it becomes very apparent that we’ve moved from theory to practice. The people of Iran are taking Marc Stiegler’s final exam, and they’ve picked its most difficult question.

Let’s hope they pass.


Even the Shah of Iran has Done a Celebrity Tech Endorsement

Even if you saw yesterday’s post about celebrity tech endorsements, do check it again — I’ve been updating it with more ads for computers and videogames featuring celebrities, and I still have to add a few more.

Here’s an 1970s print ad that seems gallows-humor funny today, considering that there are people itching to attack Iran before they develop nuclear weapons. It features the Shah of Iran as a poster boy for a campaign encouraging more nuclear power plants in the U.S.:

Print ad: "Guess who's building nuclear power plants", featuring the Shah of Iran

Here’s the text of the ad:

Guess Who’s Building Nuclear Power Plants

The Shah of Iran is sitting on top of the largest reservoirs of oil in the world.

Yet he’s building two nuclear plans and planning two more to provide electricity for his country.

He knows the oil is running out — and time with it.

Be he wouldn’t build the plants now if he doubted their safety. He’d wait. As many Americans want to do.

The Shah knows that nuclear energy is not only economical, it has enjoyed a remarkable 30-year saftey record. A record that was good enough for the citizens of Plymouth, Massachusetts, too. They’ve approved their second nuclear plant by a vote of almost 4 to 1. Which shows you that you don’t have to go as far as Iran for an endorsement of nuclear power.

For more about Iran’s history with nuclear power (and how it intertwines with U.S. foreign policy), see this article at Foreign Policy in Focus.