For our second episode of Edge & Main, Future of Good’s podcast on the trends, tensions, and transformations of today that will define the world of tomorrow, we sat down with Indy Johar, co-founder of Dark Matter Labs.
Dark Matter Labs designs institutional infrastructure for a distributed and collaborative future, working with partners, clients, and collaborators across the world to research and develop new support frameworks for collaborative system change. Listen to our episode with Johar below.
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It really feels like we’re in the midst of massive transitions: cities, communities, industries, and institutions are all in flux in a multitude of ways. How would you characterize the times we live in?
I think it’s a really interesting question, because I think we can obviously talk about the transition we’re in from the perspective of the things we see around us: climate breakdown, inequality — all these kinds of symptoms. I use the word “symptoms” here because I think that climate change is a symptom of a much more structural failure. And I think the challenge for us is that we are defining the transition through addressing the symptoms, not the underlying drivers.
I would argue that we are in a fundamental transition in how we see ourselves in the world and at a precipice or a moment where we actually we have to start to redefine how we see ourselves. Too often the conversation of what it means to be human has been reduced — and has been reduced in the last 300 to 400 years post-enlightenment — to seeing the human as an individual, an isolated object, an object that can be put on a rocket and fired out into space, that can be isolated from its ecosystem.
Whereas actually what science is increasingly starting to tell us is that humans are perhaps an emergent property of our natural ecosystem. So, you know, we have 92 percent of the same DNA as mice. The trees around us: without them and their capabilities to produce oxygen and other other instruments around them, we do not survive. Actually we’re quasi-indivisible from the ecosystems around us. Microbiomes, their impact on our gut, on our intelligence, our capabilities: we are fully intermeshed. Our abilities for our bodies to be trained for antibodies: we’re an enmeshed thing. … And us being an emergent property of nature redefines the kind of object nature of how we see the world.
I would say the real transition we’re seeing is this transition from an object-orientated view of the world to actually a relationship of interdependence and recognition of interdependence. Our thesis of how we’ve constructed the world — whether it’s from the private limited company (which is all about creating a sort of isolatable act) to the notion of property rights (which are again of isolatable value and isolatable tradable value) all the way through to price and how we create global markets — they’ve all been about creating the efficiency of accountable systems and transaction systems, with huge destruction of the interdependence of those goods.
So a tree has been reduced to timber, and its value is defined by timber rather than by the vast ecosystem of services it supports and is in relationship with. This reductive capacity has been fantastic for propelling civilization to one type of complexity. I think what we are seeing is the end of that worldview, and that end is not like — and I think too often this discourse is written as this — “We got it all wrong.” I’m not even convinced that we got it all wrong.
I would argue that we have been going through a transition, and we had to go through this transition to reach a critical mass, where the interdependencies and the externalities generated by our historic model of seeing everything as objects — these externalities start to feed back to us. So climate change is just how our soft externalities, which we’ve been discounting, have polluted the system sufficiently for it to now register onto our reality. They’re challenging our way of being in the world.
So I would say, whether it’s climate change or plastics or inequality: these are all about us recognizing our interdependence. The great transition we are on is actually this transition in how we see ourselves, but also how we see ourselves in the world. The machine-human-ecological relationship is being transformed. And when you look at it from that perspective, I think that’s the first thing we have to recognize.
That’s the transition. It’s not climate. That’s the transition, and from there comes a whole cascade of what I would call deep code transitions, or deep code transformations. I listed them already. You know, how we account, all the way through to private property, all the way through to the private limited company, our relationship with the future — all these things have to be reimagined in an interdependent world.
It also cascades into language. Our language is increasingly object-orientated. They’re about the definitional: defining us and them. How do we actually pursue a different type of languages, new syntax and new grammar? I think that our ability to build complex arguments. I think the reason why we are where we are is because we’re using object models of building constructs of arguments. We don’t yet have the ability to build complex, rich arguments at civilization scale. I think what social media and our infrastructures have done is given us the means to have large conversations, without necessarily the grammar and the syntax and the mechanisms to build complex arguments.
So when we talk about a great transition, I think that is the typology of transition we’re on, whereas I worry that we often focus on the symptoms rather than the depth of the problem and the scale of this transition. I would also say history teaches us that these transitions have happened before: worldviews have shifted and I think science has taken us to the point where increasingly, the science is less and less refutable. Now we have to reimagine our institutional infrastructure off the back of that science. Science has been saying this is the last 20 to 30 years; we just haven’t caught up. And the feedback cycles are now forcing us to catch up. That, I think, is the scale of the transition we’re in.
Let’s dive into the symptoms. If we’re on this course where we’re spending all these resources and energy addressing symptoms like climate and the SDGs: how did we get ourselves to this place where we’ve convinced ourselves that, whether it’s hunger or climate, these are the kinds of things that are paramount for humanity?
Look, the symptoms are real. There are real people being impacted by them. I think the scale of the transition of it — this climate degradation which we’re seeing already — we know, for example, in the next 30 to 40 years, the sheer impact of climate change on food nutrition quality means that we’re likely to have cognitive stumping of up to 20 IQ points in parts of the world. Parts of India will be 50 degrees above centigrade for nearly six months of the year, which fundamentally destroys any notion of productivity and human wellbeing.
So the symptoms are very real, with real impacts. My point is perhaps not that the symptoms aren’t real, but perhaps the way to address them is not defined fixes to carbon. The reason why we released carbon and we were able to release these negative externalities, at the same time as driving profit, at the same time as using depletable resources, was because our relationship with the earth, our relationship with externalities, and our relationship with profit wasn’t well-defined. It was badly structured.
I think our notion of governance has been completely out of whack for the last 30 years. The idea of how we govern, how we co-habit — it’s all governed to control. … I think the false dichotomies that we’ve set up around public and private are absolute false dichotomies in a world of interdependence. There is nothing outside the public. The idea that the state is public is often a kind of convenient misconception in this: the state is just another means of making decisions, as the market is just another means of making decisions, as professional, learned societies are another means of making decisions. These are decision-making models. And I think the public emerges at the intersection.
The public is an intersection … So I think I would argue that the challenge for us is that these deep code innovations are what’s required if we’re going to fix not only one symptom — such as carbon dioxide levels — but the whole myriad of systems, whether it’s plastics in our food supply chains all the way through to air pollution. There’s a hundred other issues on the table. And those are all a product of these deep code relationships of how we see ourselves and how we actually create institutions which replicate those models.
One of the things that’s in transition as well is our purpose. A lot of folks see their purpose through what they do everyday: through their jobs, through art, through community engagement, through democratic engagement, and so on. Where does rediscovering our purpose come into this transition?
I think I would start the question, unsurprisingly, in a slightly different way, but I’ll get to your point. My bigger problem is that, you know, I think it’s lovely to talk about how we unlock people’s purpose, but I think maybe we should start with the fact that how we’ve constructed economies are fundamentally about making people precarious.
In a way, I think the last 30 years —and, you know, Elizabeth Warren has done some some of the best work around this — show very clearly that over the last 30 years, 40 years, what we’ve been doing is driving economic precariousness as a ubiquitous model to instrumentalize people for work. What do I mean by that? We’ve created flexible labor markets, and that flexibility is entirely from the perspective of the employer; we’ve created gig economies; and, at the same time, we’ve massively increased consumer borrowing.
What we’ve created in that process is effectively a more indebted consumer-citizen. … If you look at the stats, there’s no increase in actual wealth. The wealth has been consumed in lots of other ways. At the same time, what we’ve done is made work much more fragile. Saving rates have declined. So what we’ve created is precariousness, and the economic model has been, “If we can make people more precarious, they’re more likely to work and work harder, right?” So people would go out and get a job. Then, if you combine that, if you make people precarious, you make them vulnerable — and that vulnerability sits at a psychological level, I would argue. And I think the politics that we see around us, which are the politics of fear, are entirely rooted in creating the economies of precariousness.
At the same time, I would argue it also destroys the capacity to dream. So we know, for example, that in recessions, people’s ability to think structurally diminishes. It affects all of us: put any of us under any form of economic stress and we cannot think structurally. We become short-term thinkers, we become actually almost pleasure-seekers, in the daily sense, because that’s a relief against the long-term stresses that we’re feeling. So hairdressing goes up in a recession, nail varnishing goes up, these sort of short-term fixes go up, because people want daily pleasures in counterpoint to the stresses they’re feeling. So what we’ve built is an economic model that, on one hand, has created precariousness; on the other hand, has created the politics of fear; and on the third hand, has created this shortening of the timescale of thinking.
Then the third component is what I would say is the colonization of our dreams. You know, you and I are both Star Trek fans and that’s great, but I think in a world in the 21st century, it shocks me that we haven’t seen a peripheralization of the kind of distributed worldviews of tomorrow and the decentralization of worldviews. We’re still captured by a very particular worldview of what the future looks like. That future has largely been colonized by one particular mindset of tomorrow: the LA mindset, in terms of its ability to build dreams and the way the Hollywood infrastructure builds a particular model of dreams. If you look at the rise of Afrofuturism, I thought that was a great relief to build other counterpoints. If you look at its kind of phenomenal success, it’s great to see, you know, the impact of Black Panther and stuff like that, which challenged some of those doctrines.
I think we need to see more decentralization of dreams. The other thing I think of is the language being captured. So words like “freedom,” and the words “freedom” is typically associated with. I say the word “freedom,” and people will be going, “Right, the freedom to escape, the freedom to do what I want.” This sort of capture by a language of an image of me flying out into space and disappearing and being able to be free. I think it’s a very interesting quote by Peter Thiel, and I paraphrase badly, along the lines of, “Democracy and freedom are no longer in sync.”
[Editor’s note: Peter Thiel’s quote reads, “Most importantly, I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”]
I think that’s because we see freedom as a choice of the individual. The other way of looking at freedom is: how do you create the conditions for the freedom to care, right? So freedom as an escape is an escape from the tyranny of our context, whereas a freedom to care is actually a mechanism for how you create sufficient generosity in the system for a generous reciprocity in the system.
I would argue that we’ve created an economic model which has fundamentally been about this precariousness, and from there, has driven a whole cascade of issues, which are largely — if I was to be really ruthless — mechanisms of what I’d call system enslavement, a systems scale enslavement at a mental and structural level. They have not been about purpose. I think the challenge that we face is that model that was created was built out of an idea of humans as labor and humans as labor being ever-instrumentalized by more efficient uses of the system.
The question becomes: in a new machine-human-ecological relationship, as we are facing, does that model even work? So if you make people precarious, are they able to do high-performance, cognitive work? All the venture capitalists would tell you not really, right? You don’t want people to be thinking about their food and money if they’re going to build high value. Not a big fan of venture capitalists, but I use them as a caricature in this framework.
My point being, as we transition into this new relationship, I wonder whether economic theory that has been driven — about humans as labor — is still either evident or viable. And if we want people to be drivers of a new human-machine, high-performance, cognitive, emotional relationship, we’re going to have to reimagine our economies and the thesis of our economies, which will be not about fine-tuning precariousness, but actually creating generous systems of massive unleashing of freedom to care. How to create the purpose in that system is going to be the key transition point.
But the reason why I wanted to get this arc of conversation going is I don’t think it’s just the kind of the parody of, you know, “Bring purpose to your life,” as a slogan on my t-shirt and the slogan-makers’ narrative of this. I think this is a structural transition of our macro economy and how it’s organized, and making that transition is going to be vital for economies to be able to actually be critical in the 21st century.
Let’s explore the transition around capital — in particular, venture capital. If we zoom into the ventures over the last few decades in and around the San Francisco Bay area, there have been some extraordinary products and services and platforms that have connected people. It’s backed by a very particular form of investment and capital.
For us to decolonize our dreams, if you will, and actually make useful strides in this massive transition, we have to address some of the serious tensions in venture capital and that entire model. So let’s start with: what’s led venture capital to where it is today, and what guise it should take, if any, as part of this transition?
I mean, whilst I was mildly disparaging in my previous remarks about venture capital, I think, on one hand, I have a lot of respect for some of the stuff that people like Mark Anderson have done, how they thought about the world. I respect how they think about the future. They’re probably the most interesting futurist organization in the world. They don’t do consultancy about the future; they invest in the future, which I find refreshing.
I suppose I would again probably start the question slightly differently, not to be obtuse, but perhaps to come back at the question. I think the challenges are: one, are we even playing in the right sort of capital? The most interesting IPO that we’ve seen recently obviously has been the old Uber conversation that’s been going on. What I find fascinating about it is that, at the heart of it, it’s a taxi company — a global taxi company, granted, but it’s allocating cars. Sure, it might allocate automated cars. My point here being that if you look at the scale of being 10 to 12 years from civilization falling apart — just in climate breakdown terms, I can talk about other issues — is this the most valuable asset?
I have a slight worry that this doesn’t quite compute at one scale. So I think the kind of unicorn hunting, when the world burns, is a slight problem here. So where are we deploying our capital? How are we deploying it? Step one is there.
Second, I think, is that certainly in the work that we’re doing and where we’re interested, I think one of the biggest transitions we’re going to see is in the nature of value formation. And I think what platform economies have basically been able to do is become private markets, and those private market mechanisms have as yet been perceived as corporations, rather than being perceived as markets. And once you perceive them as markets, they have huge conversations about regulation. And we haven’t even begun those stories yet — the capacity to regulate or govern these things.
I think what we’re seeing is the early boom of under-regulated systems, where platforms are somehow seen as “other,” when they’re actually just private market mechanisms. And when we start to govern them in the appropriate way and see them as utilities, which is I think where we’re headed, I would be arguing most platforms will be perceived as utilities because their function becomes valuable the more of a monopoly they tend towards.
So Facebook becomes more valuable the more people that use it. It’s a function of its total network system. It’s a network effect. You know, all the VCs talked about it. Simultaneously, if it’s a network effect, its value comes through being a monopoly, and if its value comes through being a monopoly, I think then we have to see it in as a utility and not as a venture.
I think the biggest challenge for us is to build new utility infrastructure financing mechanisms. How do we fund 21st century utilities? And I think that’s one of the big stories. And the second part of the story is that, you know, the Facebook story for me is fascinating because the challenge of Facebook is that we thought it was an advertising company, and what we really didn’t understand was it was actually a societal biasing company, right? It systematically — and what Cambridge Analytica have been able to show us — is that it can create systematic bias at a population scale, in percentage points, and that is incredibly valuable, right? It’s nothing to do with advertising. It’s about biasing opinion.
So we haven’t yet found the paradigms to understand these infrastructures, to regulate them, to perceive them in the right way, to perceive them not as ventures, not as corporates. I think these things are under reexamination and when we do, I think that’s going to reframe the capital story.
Then the second part of the story is: one is quantum of capital required. You know, we are already seeing conversations like: a New Green Deal will require a half a trillion dollars a year to try. So we are talking quantums of capital that out-scale the market. The market’s convenient, it’s nice, but this… we’re talking Marshall Plan territory over the next 10 to 12 years to make a meaningful dent. So I think we should be careful not to over-privilege the market and private sector in a conversation that’s going to require all of us to invest our futures in driving a transition.
Second, I think we have to think about reclassifying a lot of the tech infrastructure that we’ve been building and thereby look at how it’s financed. Mariana Mazzucato talks eloquently about how most of this tech infrastructure is built on public infrastructure and financed publicly.
Then the third point is, for me — and a lot of the work that we’re doing — is literally on new models of how value are created. We’re doing a piece work on, for example, looking at the High Line. What’s fascinating is that it took something along the lines of 250, 278 million actually to build the High Line. I think some 70 percent of the funding came from state and city, and 20 percent came from philanthropy, or 25 percent came for philanthropy and then 5 percent is unknown. But what’s fascinating is that if you looked at land value uplift, I think if 10 percent of the land value uplift was shared back to the High Line, it would have been paid for in one year.
We can see this with public schools too: an outstanding public school puts huge amounts of value on a private house; a park, as a standing park, does the same. Common goods create private value and common goods have always done that; and common liabilities create shared private liabilities.
So what we’re seeing is we’re building a huge amount of new capability to be able to finance, in new ways, common goods — on the basis of capturing some of those spillover effects in ways that historically we couldn’t. We’re doing some work around smart covenants. If you had smart covenants over 10,000 of those properties, could you share the uplift at virtually zero transaction costs to be able to actually finance common goods in a 21st century way?
I would argue there’s a new class of 21st century business will not be about private value — it will be about financing common value through massive interaction points and contracting. And that applies to hundreds of other things that we can talk about off the back of it. So I think we’re fundamentally transitioning to a new model of capital facilitated by pretty much zero cost bureaucracy and actually a new transaction architecture.
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