2022-10-10 Conversation with Glen Weyl
Good local time, everyone. This is not an episode of "Innovative Minds with Audrey Tang", although the format is somewhat like it. We have Glen Weyl, my co-author of the Plurality.net book for Collaborative Diversity and Technology for Democracy. Welcome, Glen. Hi, Audrey. It's so great. It's always an honor and a pleasure to speak with you.
In the Innovative Minds video podcast, in the very beginning we toyed with the idea of having the audience posting Slido questions. But because it was a studio format, that never came to be. So I'm really happy that for this particular convening, we actually have Slido-driven questions. So we'll talk for
roughly half an hour and we already have five questions voted by the people, right? So, we'll answer them in order and Glen will probably take the first question, but we'll do a lot of back and forth. Without further ado, let's recognize "mashbean" 豆泥 Yen-Lin's question, which goes like this. So Glen wrote — back in February — this article called Political Ideologies for the 21st Century. The Gathering Storm expansion pack for the Civilization VI video game, inspired the article, with emerging technologies as well as the polities that those technologies enabled.
In the article, Glen mentioned Corporate Libertarianism, which is more closely linked to the capitalism-fueled blockchain technology ideology. But also within the web3 space there's also Digital Democracy, that many DAOs, including of course, many people in Taiwan who practice digital democracy on top of web3. So it looks like to mashbean that there's some competition, but there's also some collaboration going on here.
So, how do you feel about the co-opetition between the two ideologies in the web3 space? So I think, Audrey, you and I have always been big believers in multi-sectoral collaboration. I think that's been central to many of the things that you've accomplished in Taiwan. And I think, unfortunately, there's been a period of time since the 1970s. where technology
has increasingly been driven exclusively by the private sector, with the public sector and the social sector more in a defensive or protective role rather than a shaping and engaging role. And I think it shouldn't be very surprising that if you leave things entirely in that mode, technologies have a tendency to reinforce the systems in which they're created. The private sector has a capitalist logic, and it's therefore not surprising that we would see developing within a purely private mode, this sort of extreme capitalist version. But on the other hand, that's come to conflict with a number of social values: environmental sustainability, legality, concerns about risk and hyper-financialization, et cetera.
And I think it's my view that maybe most of the activity, or at least most of the money in the web3 space has gone in this hyper-capitalist direction, and that's unfortunate. But that if the public and social sectors engage, there will very quickly be pressure against those outcome. That pressure will tend to select in favor of the minority of things that are consistent with these other principles socially. And so maybe in the end, all the problematic things going on aren't so important, if we're able to bring those other sectors to engage, because they will act as a filtering mechanism and a reinforcement mechanism for the important minority of things that has this more democratic flavor. Okay, so you talked about the competition part, right? There's the private sector logic as well as the public and social sectors — currently in the minority, but consistent reuse of the technology. What about cooperation? Are there particular modes that you see that currently the private sector, like rich individuals or companies and so on, are nevertheless interested, enticed, by the potentials of the social and public sector use of web3? Yes, absolutely.
I think one of the most important things to recognize is as problematic as certain elements of the hyper capitalist DeFi world are, they are also critical to so much of the possibilities that have opened up. We would not be having the social conversation that we're having even about the incredible things that are happening in Taiwan. I believe if there were a broader web3 conversation that was lifting up interest in this area. Conversely, within — I believe strongly that while we've, you know, labeled
our book "Technology for Cooperative Diversity and Democracy", that if the tools that we are building aren't capable of making business organizations more productive, aren't capable of making personal relationships richer, aren't capable of making religious institutions, both more inclusive, but also with a stronger foundation and more durable in the digital age, then we will have failed. Because anything that is powerful at strengthening democracy should also be powerful at strengthening the way that people work together productively and the way that they worship, and so forth. So, ultimately, I think most of the applications of the things we're developing, if they're successful, will probably end up in the private sector. Yeah. So in the past 10 years in the g0v hackathons, what I've noticed is that eventually the largest private sector people in Taiwan — MediaTek, Acer, HTC — they send people to g0v hackathons. They even have g0v hackathon affiliate clubs and events and so on within their large companies, precisely because they see this as kind of collaborative research, to the latest and greatest in public sector entrepreneurship, so to speak.
And in Taiwan, the private sector people, they do have a kind of attunement to the social sector needs. It goes beyond just ESG, it's sort of entrepreneurship, that will have like certain dedicated small units within the larger private sector, almost as connectors, to the social and public sectors, but in a kind of common mode, where people can say, "well, it's in the commons. It's on GitHub, or GitLab, and so on, and so it benefits everyone," although on the private sector's time, and that's what enabled Presidential Hackathon and so on to happen. Is your role within Microsoft something like that? Yeah. I mean, I think in many ways that's the role I've served,
but I would also say that I think it goes even deeper into the private sector than that. Think about GitHub, GitHub's business model. GitHub is known as a provider of platforms for open source software but their business model is all based on internal, internally open source projects within companies And I think that model goes for all the things that we do.
So, you know, quadratic funding has primarily been used in open and public way to support open source software, but there are public goods within Microsoft. We have many different divisions, and each has their own profit and loss interest. And it's hard to get them all to produce common infrastructure for the company. And that problem is really the same, internally, as the problem open source software faces in the world.
And so I ultimately believe that in a really pluralist world, these tools will be just as useful in a completely open public way as they will within particular nation states, within particular corporations, et cetera. And that there will be a whole world ecosystem that they create, at many different levels of cooperation. Mm-hmm. So you're envisioning something like Gitcoin Enterprise Edition? Exactly.
That's excellent. And that brings us nicely to the second question. Mashbean would also like to know, there's this book, published this July by Balaji Srinivasan, called the Network State.
Within the book, one of the arguments, was that inrapreneurship or entrepreneurship — anything involving starting something new — is part of the resilience in starting, bootstrapping a community. And a community includes, of course, sovereign nations. So from the viewpoint of Plurality, what's your take on this kind of entrepreneurship? Because we talk about collaborative and cooperating diversity, but what's the relationship between that idea and entrepreneurship in general? Audrey, have you read the book? A little bit. Skimmed the book. Yeah. I actually have a review of it that isn't published yet, but I've been thinking a lot about the book. It's a very interesting and provocative book, and very influential in the web3 world.
Do you have any reactions first? Well, I have read Vitalik's reactions and your initial reactions on Twitter. I think it's a useful metaphor. Just like how people can think about governance without a tied locality, a territory; That's how we talk about internet governance. The thing with internet governance is that it's kind of abstract. It's difficult to get people all excited about the .tw or in domains and things like that.
But the Network State provides a kind of certain affinity-based -- so definitely more tangible, I guess, than domain names. And you can also do internet governance-like governance on it. So I think it has this popularizing, aspect to it, much as you just said that the DeFi world has a kind of popularizing idea when it comes to the scale of diversity and the scale of potential cooperation. Yeah.
There's this thinker called John Dewey, who very much influenced my thought. And he has a book in 1927 called "The Public and its Problems." In that book he argues that new technologies create new patterns of association, both just because of sort of social dynamics, who can communicate with whom and associate with whom, but also because embed us in new patterns of what economists would call externalities or what he would just call interactions. Our actions come to affect each other in different ways, and therefore the necessary governance structures, change with the changes in technology. Yet, the borders of nation state don't, or at least don't much.
Even the subnational localities don't change very much over time. And so he argues that what we need is the constant emergent of what, what he calls new publics, which will be these groups of people that will come to govern themselves in relationship to this set of interactions that they have. He describes the figure of what he calls an expert, which kind of corresponds to what Balaji calls a founder, but the expert is a bit different. And, and I think you and I have aimed, I don't know if I've talked to you about this, but you and I have aimed, I think to build this book project around this Deweyan notion of an expert, because Dewey's concept of an expert is not a king or ruler. It's a convener. It's a convener of a new polity. So the crucial role of the expert is to let a polity see itself, see the interactions that it's having, and therefore come into a new form of democratic governance that didn't exist before because that set of people didn't recognize the interactions they were having with each other.
And that's, I think, very much modeled in the way we're thinking about the book. As you know, we're gonna put out some material that hopefully will help a community see itself in that material. But then, they will become the maintainers, and it will become democratically accountable to those people who connected with it.
And I think that the Internet was originally imagined by people like J.C.R. Licklider, as a foundation for that kind of what I would call a network society where people are part of multiple intersecting emergent publics. Now, he only did it for communication protocol, so it was very first step. But I think what we're all working towards is creating that kind of a network society, not a world where everyone choose their favorite little statelet and is completely committed to that.
But where everyone participates in many of these emergent democratic polities that are constantly emerging and shifting and I think that that is the right vision of how we need to imagine the way in which networks will transform governments. Yeah. As you talk about the expert versus the founder, I'm reminded of Steve Chen, co-founder of YouTube, in my video podcast, who talked about how the "founder" is almost always a retroactively coined myth.
Like when YouTube was first founded and he had many co-founders with experiences in PayPal and so on It's almost never about a personal hero. It's almost never about this one insight that drives the entire market segments. It is more or less, about a bunch of people who vibes similarly, who builds social connections starting from their very different, diverse communities, and try and fail a few times, and then finally finding a product- or service-market fit. And then of course, the myth-making begins, and then we retroactively build a founder myth. And what I'm hearing from you seems to say that it's this process. There's more facilitating, reflective process, that we're focusing on.
And instead of a particular branding or a particular founder, we want to enable everyone to have this kind of network-making power. Am I reading you correctly? Yeah. I think that's quite related to some of the discussions we've had about artificial intelligence, because I think it's in the nature of human myth-making and narrative discourse.
to need to invest that communal feeling in something that's imagined to be an agent. A single agent, you know? Yep. So we call these collective statistical models that we create "artificial intelligences" and we call the community that creates a new platform a "founder", because we want to hear the story of, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, or the story of the Homeric heroes. Right? Like, rather than tell the history of Greece, we tell the Homeric myth. Right. And so it's a very human way
to encapsulate a collective effort to, in the story of a heroic individual. Mm-hmm. "Can you list some examples how designer storytellers, marketers, and publishers might be able to help?" And I interpreted that as weaving new form of narratives, that. shows different possibilities about the emerging technologies that is somewhat decoupled from this individualistic mythic heroes. Yeah.
So, I think that there are all kinds of ways that people can help with the book project. Publishers are one thing we've had a really interesting struggle interacting with, because they're very tied to a very specific economic model, even if, it's not necessarily more lucrative. So we, we can use help from publishers who want to be creative and innovate on possibilities all over the world. But I think one of my favorite roles that I hope people can play, is what I would call translators, but not just translators in the language sense, what I would call subcultural translators. So I'd love a version of the book, a fork that is for deeply Christian people, that uses scriptural references and that tells the story of what we're trying to tell in the language of the Christian tradition, or in the language of the Daoist tradition or in the language of Buddhist or Animist traditions, et cetera.
I'd love versions that are highly technical for computer scientists and economists that translate our words into symbols And I'd love versions that are purely visual, or almost purely visual, a comic book or something like that. It's in that plurality of different ways of speaking that I think the book can reach its greatest potential. Of course, I'd love some of that to feedback into the original root but there's only so much that we're going to be capable of cohering.
And I hope there will be parts that cohere and then there will be many parts that don't cohere and that try to tell the same thing differently. Yeah, indeed. You may or may not know, we've just launched this event called Ideathon, where we ask everyone to imagine how future is like in 2040. We call it #2040Plurality. The top 10 ideas that corresponds to cooperative diversity will, in addition to of course, having Soulbound Tokens issued, get some expert guidance into making these visions immersive experiences. I truly believe that one of the ways to go beyond, the individualistic heroic myth is to simply situate someone in a future. I was inspired by science fictions a lot, as you know, and one of the interesting examples I encountered was "A Tale of Two Futures" telling about a more dystopic and a more utopic future using near future technology by Pistono of the Italian five star movement.
So it's a kind of political statement, a political philosophy packaged as science fiction. And I was like, yeah, a lot of what's in the book about empathy-building machines and so on, could really work if it's delivered in an immersive form. So I truly believe in multimodal storytelling, and I hope that the plurality book can benefit from those futures. That's fascinating. There's a... the chair of our board at RadicalxChange, Christopher Thomas,
is putting on an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, called Another World, where he's displaying some of these immersive future possibilities. Hopefully there could be some kind of a collaboration to help bring some of the insights from your ideathon to that experience in London and in Berlin. That would be excellent. Continuing into the next question which reads, "how might the Taiwanese project mentioned in the article", in the book announcement — because many project leaders are within the audience now — so "how can they play a more active role in leading this global movement?" What do you think? I profoundly believe and have now dedicated a lot of my life to the proposition that the Taiwanese experience is a uniquely important one for the world.
It's uniquely important for substative reasons, because so much has been accomplished and it's such a hopeful example, but it's also uniquely important for symbolic reasons, which is that, as has been widely reported, there are great divisions within Western societies today, within many liberal democratic societies, and those divisions are undermining the capacity of the societies to effectually act on this area. But, and of course the technologies that have been developed in Taiwan can be a powerful part of addressing that problem. But even more than that, the mythos of Taiwan, I believe can be an important driving force in addressing them, because the stories unite people across many of the standard divides in liberal democracies. The challenges of technology and the challenges of authoritarianism are two of the few things people widely are concerned about in liberal democracies. I believe that one reason Taiwan has succeeded so much is the presence of those challenges that have been so acute in Taiwan.
And if it can act as that sort of narrative focus, that maybe even more than it deserves, but just as a narrative, brings home to people the challenges that they need to face up to. I believe it can bring people together around a common purpose. I think to some extent Ukraine has done that, but Ukraine has done it in a way that is focused on a particular territorial dispute rather than primarily on a set of technological tools that might be scalable to address problems in other countries. So I believe the symbolism of Taiwan is incredibly important. So, to circle back to the question, I hope that folks in Taiwan will keep doing their good work, but I also hope that we can find more and more platforms for bringing in a narratively compelling way, that story to people all around the world and making them feel a pop cultural presence, just as other pop cultural elements have come from Taiwan to the rest of the world, in the common discourse in those countries. Yeah, indeed.
I remember in the past couple years, when I talk about how we fought off the pandemic without a single day of lockdown and the infodemic — the disinformation crisis — without any administrative takedowns, there's this kind of sense of disbelief from people from western liberal democracies, listening to the stories. When I was speaking to the UK New Local conference, the general reaction was that it is too good to be true and then is too different from the UK. I was like, yeah, if you don't want to call it the Taiwan model, call it the New Zealand model because New Zealand played the same playbook to even better effect, I would argue, than Taiwan. But yeah, those existential proofs, that polarization is not inevitable, that social media doesn't always lead to antisocial media behaviors, that we can decouple proprietary platforms from social networks in general and so on. These are the points I believe that you pointed out repeatedly, that Taiwanese people kind of take for granted, but most of the world doesn't, and that's the voices we need to amplify.
I mean, I think frankly there is quite a bit of implicit racism, not in the aggressive or anti form, but just in the stereotyping form, there's this view among people in Western countries who are mostly of Caucasian origin, that Asian people are all ethnically the same, and that they all get along with each other. And I think it's important to tell the story of the diversity in Taiwan, of the indigenous communities, of the divisions between those who came earlier to the island and those who came with the nationalists, and how those line up with political divisions and how that mirrors the ethno-political divisions that exist in the United States, and just understand that it is not as if Taiwan is just an island of inherently cooperative, homogeneous robots or something like that, you know what I mean? Confucian, worshipping robots or something... "Confucius robots". I like that.
Yeah right. So truth to be told, I think there are more folk Taoists in Taiwan than Confucius believers. But anyway, the point I think which you made very succinctly is that Taiwan is not just a story of cooperation, but also a story of diversity. And only when the diversity parts are well understood by the Western counterparts, can we truly... I wouldn't say influence, but at least build a bridge into the collective consciousness
of the modern dialogue around the possibility of overcoming our differences by building bridges. But bridge-building is currently not as lucrative as the top talents who get paid on the more authoritarian or the autonomous engines sort of AI or, for that matter, the more speculative parts of crypto. So how much does money play a role in all these, in especially retaining top talents? What do you think? First of all, there are important ways we have to imagine for changing the even money based incentive structures. So you can imagine social medias, social media companies having a very different business model. And a lot of people suggest that the right alternative business model is selling subscriptions.
But I actually don't think that would make things all that much better. I actually think the right business model for social media is selling to a range of collective organizations, but not selling them advertising spots, selling them quality social network. Because individuals are not those who are interested in paying for a functional, social network, because individuals as individuals are interested in their node, they're not interested in the performance of the overall network. Organizations are interested in the performance of the network, and in fact, Microsoft sells software to organizations, mostly sell to business organizations, somewhat to governments, but you can imagine replacing advertisements with churches and local governments, national governments, et cetera, paying for algorithms that bridge the differences within those sub-graphs. In fact, the amount that governments are already devoting to all kinds of cultural programming, all kinds of live et cetera, you put all that together, that could easily pay for the revenue of these companies. So at a macro level, you could create incentive structures where the product became a healthy, functioning social fabric, paid for by all sorts of people who are part of the social fabric rather than a social fabric that engages people to purchase products.
So I think even the money based incentives can change, but it's also important to recognize that money is only one of many incentives that everyone responds to, and people seek money not for its own sake, because there's money that doesn't — people talk about money is giving directly to people — but it's not true. Money doesn't actually buy you anything. Money buys you investments in family, investments in community, investments in other things.
So if we can directly provide people the ability to achieve those goals that they have, which are usually collective goals of some form, even if it's just at the family level or just at the local community level, then that's just as strong inducement for people to participate as is money. Money is a solvent of sorts, but one thing it can dissolve is some of those bonds, which are the things that we're trying to purchase with the money in the first place. So I believe that, speaking to the issues that are near to people's heart, whether it be environmental, social justice, religious community cohesion, et cetera, is just as important as is redirecting the flows of money to be consistent with those values.
Yeah. So I was reminded of the RadicalxChange idea of plural money, in which that there are money that is like US dollars or fiat in general, that enable people to exit or to quit communities and move somewhere. it provides mobility, which is good, but also there are other kinds of money that bonds people. In the small town that I used to live in, the Garden City,
the Garden City tried to issue their community money, and it worked for a while. But of course using pre-web tools, it's very difficult to scale it to the kind of communities across regions. Ultimately, it would only work for people who almost meet day to day, and that speaks to the kind of tightly bonded community like churches and so on that you mentioned. So it seems like one of the financial incentives could be, uh, building sort of community money.
Plural money that is programmable, and enable people to join, the causes and rest assure that they will be supported by like-minded people and communities on the endeavors that they care about, without having to prepare a lot fiat to enable them to quit any day because people at the end of day understand that they're, they're in it for any number of years. So I think that's a quite compelling alternative to the kind of individual entrepreneurial, global nomad story. And I ultimately think, money is a very simplistic solution to a very complex problem. And I think that complex problem is that we have social relationships that are deep and important to us.
And yet, we also seek out relationships across diversity that cross over the boundaries of those intimate social relationships. Money is a shortcut to that. It's sort of a one shot answer, like, okay, so now let's just leapfrog to this completely universal thing that I can use with anyone in the world. But there's other approaches to doing that. They're just kind of computationally more intensive. So, there's friends of friends relationships, that can connect you — as we know from the literature on six degrees of separation — to just about anyone on the planet.
Now, finding that six degree of separation connection, at least historically, has been complex. It's been beyond the computational capacity of most governance systems, but, TCP/IP has shown that it can be traversed, at least for sending packets of information. And if we learn how to use that to send packets of trust, packets of love, packets of friendship and commitment, and not just packets of information, then perhaps the role of this shortcut can be reduced, and the role of community can be enhanced with the help of assistive technology.
Well, that's an excellent vision. Because there's only so many Slido questions, I believe we're done for today. However, Glen will be online right after airing this pre-recording and answer your more Slido questions live. But until next time... Live long and prosper.