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Freeing the machines

Earlier this year, a group of like-minded, pragmatic idealists came together around the idea that while technological progress accelerates at an exponential pace, in order to achieve escape velocity from the pull of the current neoliberal power structure, we need to radically rethink what the future can be.

So without further ado, let me introduce Free Machine, a non-profit organization working toward an automated future that benefits everyone. Free Machine develops public policy and creative projects to shape a high-tech future that is equitable, abundant, and sustainable.

To shape this future—one which we aren't currently on track to realize—we need both storytellers and wonks who can respectively inspire people to reimagine the ways in which we might organize our society, and then craft rules that align the public and private sectors within the framework of this new way of imagining the world.

Stephen Hawking's final words to the internet pretty effectively layout the stakes:

"If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against [collective ownership]."

The future is perfect

Angelinos: We invite you to join us, along with host comedian Katrina Davis, to play Future Perfect: A Postcapitalist Adventure: a choose-your-own-adventure game that explores our collective tomorrow, and how we get there.

Technology shapes society, and vice versa. The coming wave of AI-driven automation will profoundly alter our lives—but how? The future of work, free speech, the environment, social justice: what do these things have to do with technology, and how will the policy decisions we make today shape tomorrow? Perhaps more crucially, do we even know what we want that tomorrow to look like?

These are big questions, and Free Machine believes that each of us has a part to play in answering them.

At Future Perfect: A Postcapitalist Adventure, you’ll be on a neighborhood council of an imagined society, debating critical issues with your neighbors before casting your vote. What does the future hold? It’s up to you!

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The event will be in Segovia Hall on the second floor of the Ace Hotel. There will be a cash bar available.

Being broke ≠ being poor

If we don't know where we are, it will be borderline impossible to get where we want to go. This requires understanding the present moment from many different perspectives.

If you've never lived paycheck to paycheck it can be hard to empathize with those who do. Most of (or at least most of you reading this email) swim in pools of abundance without giving the alternative much thought. This visual essay from The Atlantic is a powerful reminder of the struggle that more than 40 million Americans go through on a daily basis.
"There was also survival math: If I go to bed before the hunger hits, then half a bagel is enough for dinner."
When the white house declares the War on Poverty both over and successful, it's even more critical that we keep in our minds on the millions of people whose experience directly contradicts it.

You don't understand capitalism

Umair Haque—aforementioned economic Thinker, proponent of constructive capitalism and a new Eudaimonic paradigm (an evolution beyond the traditional economic one that tends to ignore human well-being in it's accounting of outcomes)—sheds light on the fact that our current system is already more expensive that it's social democratic alternative.
"See that poor guy above pushing a wheelbarrow full of money to pay for basic things? That’s what Americans have had to begin doing, now, too, only to capitalism — and maybe they don’t quite understand how or why yet. If you think socialism’s unaffordable — you don’t understand capitalism."
Recontextualizing the externalized costs of our current breed of capitalism changes the conversation from "how much more will it cost?" to "how much quality of life—or eudaimonia—can we reclaim?"

Deep thoughts

Guest deep-thinking this month by fellow Free Machinist James Kaelan.
“What dreams would you pursue if your basic needs were met?”

Kaniela Ing—the chill AF Hawaiian Democratic Socialist running to fill a vacant house seat—posed this question in a campaign ad/Twitter post this week. He's part of a new generation of progressives, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ro Khanna, and James Thompson, who are challenging their constituents to bring imagination back into the political arena.

We talked last newsletter about dreams, and their integrality in shaping our future. Now it's time to actually put the theory into practice. From our contemporary, American-centric perspective, change comes through legislation or judicial ruling (rather than, say, revolutionary coup). A new idea, like marriage equality (or interracial marriage before that), spreads through the culture, until the acceptance of the concept reaches a critical mass, and the new policy is enshrined in law.

In the case of marriage equality, public approval switched from supermajority opposition in the mid '90s, to supermajority support by the early '10s. How did that happen? As a nation, did hundreds of millions of people wake up one morning and say, "Oh, you know what, I guess gay people are people; why have we been discriminating against them?" Did we come to some sudden, collective enlightenment based on introspection and empathy? As a matter of fact, we kind of did.

There are queer heroes and narrators in literature dating back to at least the 19th Century (Billy Budd, The Picture of Dorian Gray), but by the 1990s, from Friends to Ellen, gay characters began to appear on television—not as punchlines, but as complex people with their own agency. By the '00s you had Will & Grace, and later Modern Family, and by the time the Supreme Court weighed in on marriage equality in 2015, there were literally hundreds of mainstream depictions of same-sex relationships in popular media. By the '10s, to remain prejudiced, to continue considering homosexuality aberrant behavior: that was the fringe opinion. And the courts followed the culture's lead.

It might seem trite to credit network comedies for our constitutional right to marry whoever we love. To ignore the contributions of the activists and politicians who volunteered and marched and picketed and lobbied and died for gay rights would be an unforgivable oversight. But people learn through story. For the most part, we don't apprehend complex concepts through logic and reason. We need narrative to make the ideas stick. To paraphrase David Graeber, author of Bullshit Jobs, there are enough natural resources to feed and clothe the world, and enough smart people to figure out how to spread that wealth around equitably. Creating an abundant, equal future isn't a technical problem; it's a political one. Or put another way, creating an abundant, equitable future is a story problem. 

If we can land a rover on Mars and map the genome and concoct credit default swaps, we have the brains to build a utopian future. Right now we just lack the will. And I believe we lack the will because we lack a vision of the future where things turn out well. And no wonder. It can be hard—and some days impossible—to read the news every morning and think we're anything but doomed. But if we assumed we're doomed, we're doomed. Our only hope is to remember that, short of an asteroid strike, our problems are man-made. Therefore, our solutions can be man-made, too.

There is an urgent need for artists and storytellers to step up and imagine non-dystopic futures, to test out in series and comic books and films and novels and installations and plays and murals and sculptures (and so on and so on) ways in which humans can organize themselves that don't involve ceding all control to Jeff Bezos.

Cultural progress begins with theory and activism, then expands to popular narrative, before ultimately converting to policy. The policies we might need to survive the 21st Century—policies to stave off the effects of global warming, policies to spread the machine wealth equally amongst all people—are enormous, complicated, controversial, and to many people, impractical ideas. It is the job of storytellers to imagine, to make exciting, not necessarily the policies themselves, but the effects of their implementation. If we need a universal basic income (UBI), we won't convince most people with statistics. Instead, we need to tell stories about what life is like with a UBI, the changes—intended and unintended—that accompany the radical policies required to build a sustainable future. Don't tell people that they'll have an extra $1,000 to spend on health insurance each month. Show them how a family, priced out of the housing market, can finally save enough to buy a house. Show them how an idealistic lawyer who took a position at a corporate firm to pay off her student loans can finally fulfill her dream of working for a non-profit. Show them how a single mother can finally afford to quit her second job and spend evenings with her kids.

In his tweet, Kaniela Ing is asking people to imagine how they might live their lives, what passions they might pursue, if they weren't constantly worried about making ends meet. He's empowering his constituents to tell their own stories, to imagine their own abundant futures. It's a simple request—with radical implications. 

Fin.

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