The Clean Kumasi hackathon

This past Friday I took part in IDEO.org‘s hackathon dedicated to creating communication tools that map instances of open defecation in Kumasi, Ghana. Poor sanitation practices represents a serious public health issue, and the Clean Kumasi team states that the value of such an undertaking is that “community members will be able to stimulate collective action to improve community-wide behavior and pressure the public sector and others to make investments in improved sanitation solutions.”

It was my first hackathon, and it turns out it was IDEO.org’s first hackathon as well. I have to say, I was a little flustered at the prospect of banging out something that could be taken and run with, given only the benefit of about 5 hours of work time—that was my inexperience talking. This was also most hackers’ introduction to the project, and while we were all new to one another as well, we needed to quickly find a way to work together. Given these constraints, I thought the atmosphere was collegial, focused, and fairly productive. I also found that I learned something about the way the collaborators were able to discuss problems and work together. > > >

Selling Commodities for Populist Enterprises

This latest project iteration stemmed from an observation I had while vacationing at a sleepy beachside town in Florida called Vero Beach. Some of my extended family owns a condo along the expansive Indian River, and the residents whose quite attractive houses line the river are trying to lobby the city to somehow get traffic rerouted so that fewer cars travel along their (already pretty non-busy) residential street. This brought to my attention the fact that people with nice houses appreciate their seclusion. In fact, part of the package of living in a nice neighborhood, and having a nice home, is a question of having access to something where few are welcome to venture.

It dawned on me that seclusion is a commodity that could potentially be sold, especially in wealthy neighborhoods with public streets. This is what spurred my present thesis project direction.

My thesis is about inventing new commodities to a select group of consumers, and using the resulting revenue stream to fund community development projects. The question of who is doing the selling is a critical one: every project I will be describing is driven by the manpower of a populist collective. Populists can be enterprising as well, and the market segment with money to spend are the rich. In fact, over the last thirty years, there has been an inexorable shift in share of income which has benefited the top twenty percent, and been to the detriment of the other eighty percent. In purely objective terms, the top twenty percent lay claim to eighty five to ninety percent of the nation’s wealth. I’m not talking about a redistribution of wealth, I’m talking about capitalism for the masses, and the affluent are the target group ripe for the picking. And what does this populist collective do with their gains? They invest it by rebuilding their own flagging communities, the Main Streets of America that have been hammered by this current recession that threatens to carry on for an indefinite period of time. > > >

The Two Hands System

What Two Hands does is externalizes the market exchange process. For every participant, on each arm goes a bracelet that advertises when they are currently buying or selling a community commodity. This requires that Two Hands has a project database, and each participant has a unique identifier within that system. There would be a necessary element of community sanctioning for activities that take place under this system, mediated through a democratic process. > > >

Community Benches

The benches project was a result of me trying to think of a more serendipitous and gamified method for spurring community individuality. Community Benches involved every bus seat along one communities’ main street having a different color, and representing a different conversation node for community-centered ideas. It seemed natural to have the challenge issued start out as something small, with the idea that it would grow into further challenges down the road.

The prototypical challenge was to: Create a bus shelter that either adds beauty, function, or individuality to Main Street.

Only ideas that are proposed while sitting at a particular bus seat will be counted. All ideas belonging to the same seat compete for overall best idea. Ideas are voted on by the community. > > >

PLINK

The following is a short writing exercise that dramatizes how my thesis project might be used for an alternate purpose from which it was originally conceived.

They used to ask me: “what will you make when you grow up?” I told them I wanted to make magic. They would smile, tousle my hair, and make some remark about what a little “free thinker” I am… Even then I knew what they were all thinking: but social value is earned by demonstrating every connection! Why would you perfect the act of fooling your fellow community members? What is to be gained from secrets? They can’t be shared, and they can’t be traded! > > >

People are Corporations

This project concept stems from the idea that if people could become corporations then it would imbue them with the same protections as corporations, in contrast to the real-life legal endowment giving any corporation the same rights as an individual. In becoming a corporation, one’s brand and image is embodied by one’s own name and portrait. To become a corporation, the participant must select a board of directors, which is a selection of personal virtues that will serve your personal enterprise well. The idea is that the company (you) is held to account by preserving one’s own positive self-image, and the business ventures are evaluated against one’s own self-created board of directors. > > >

An Archive of Economic Cultivation

Economies of great scale are prone to imbalance through over- or underconsumption; a diversity of forces and powerful interests can result in too many goods in relation to money or vice versa, and throw everything into disarray. Examples of local communities organizing their own economies reached it’s zenith during the Great Depression, as a matter of necessity. I have assembled an archive of Depression era scrip that shows a variety of agents issuing their own currency, with their own aesthetic, and employing some unique systems meant to restart the sluggish system of commerce in their own corner of the world. Aside from looking at the economy as a system, it also pertinent to think of the economy as it relates to the networked behavior of individuals.

The process of individual consumption can be seen either as a process of personal and community enrichment, or it can achieve the scope of large scale consumption for consumption’s sake, at the possible detriment to the individual and society at large.

In his opus Das Capital, the philosopher Karl Marx enumerates what he sees as three main weaknesses in the system of capitalism. The first of these was the tendency for the concentration of money power, the second was that capitalism is in control of the supply and demand of labor, and the third is the that the means and production of raw materials results in the destruction of natural resources. According to Marx, “capitalism will destroy the labor and the soil.” > > >

Creators vs. Sloppy Servers

I came across a Wall Street Journal article by Andy Kessler called “Is Your Job an Endangered Species?” Part of my thesis centers on the reality that jobs are being lost to the digital economy, and this article provides a decidedly pointed way of viewing the jobs that Kessler thinks are on the chopping block—and why. I perceive that Kessler is approaching this topic from a sort of libertarian elitist point of view, a perspective I might not always agree with (or hardly ever), but his assertions are somewhat grounded by what he has himself observed happening in the tech arena.

Kessler has separated workers into two camps in today’s economy: creators and servers.

According to Kessler, “Creators are the ones driving productivity—writing code, designing chips, creating drugs, running search engines. Servers, on the other hand, service these creators (and other servers) by building homes, providing food, offering legal advice, and working at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Many servers will be replaced by machines, by computers and by changes in how business operates.” > > >

Alternate Currencies

Research regarding alternate currencies and methods of exchange has turned up some interesting examples. The practice of creating local currencies (or scrip) used to be commonplace as recently as the Great Depression, which was a result of the run on the banks and a lack of government currency in circulation. There are many local currency, scrip, or barter systems in existence, and I have picked out a few of the more thriving and/or ambitious examples by way of illustration. I have not found any commodity-backed local currency still in circulation in the United States. Two recent but now defunct examples are the precious medal-backed Liberty Dollar and silver-backed Phoenix Dollar, both shut down by the federal government as they contended that it attempted to compete with government-issued legal tender. > > >

Committee Review Assessment

This past Monday I took part in a committee review (with Prof. Philip van Allen, Molly Steenson, Elizabeth Chin, and Garnet Hertz) that assessed the first eight weeks of my thesis work. My reflection of the review is very much tied up in what I proposed to be my next project iteration. The discussion period was pretty much entirely focused on this new project proposal, which I’m glad for, because I hate to have to justify past work that is just supposed to be a springboard to something better.

I feel I need to briefly show the idea before I can talk about the discussion around it. The (kinda lame) working title is “The Personal Cloud.” The basic way it works it that every participant in this system carries around with them their very own little cloud. The way that cloud is ‘seeded’ is to have some sort of enterprising idea that other people support, i.e. they think it would be something they would want to benefit from or be a part of. So by having the support from a variety of individuals, be it through discussion of the idea, or a public recommendation, it causes that person’s idea cloud to start to mint digital currency. I am showing slides below to illustrate the idea a little further.

Before I show slides, first the rules!

  • Nothing Under the Cloud is Free! We value that which we pay for.
  • Information is Money and Effort is Money. Discussion, Ideas, and Enthusiasm feeds your cloud.
  • Time is Also Money! Minted cloud currency has an expiration date. You can’t “get rich” by collecting money.
  • Business Transactions Are All In-Person. It helps to keep us honest. Plus, this is a human-centered economy.

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