Photo: UN Photos / Rick Bajormas

One, United Nations Plaza

Yesterday was my first day at a new job. I am joining the UNDP Accelerator Labs team. For readers unfamiliar with development policies, UNDP is the United Nations Development Programme. The Accelerator Labs is a network of policy innovation facilities, unique for ambition, scale and degree of decentralization. There are 91 Labs, covering 115 countries. Each Lab reports to the country office it is embedded in, and not to a central command structure. The team I am joining is its support structure, meant to help the network ease into a position where UNDP can make the most of it. We are anchored in UNDP’s headquarters in New York in One, United Nations Plaza, and report directly to its Administrator’s cabinet.

I look forward to getting started. In part, of course, that’s because of novelty value. It’s always exciting to start something new. But it’s also because of continuity value. This job feels good, because it allows me to keep following my chosen intellectual path: mobilizing collaboration, homo sapiens‘s superpower, for better governance of human communities. I like to shorthand that with “collective intelligence”.

This is a hunch I have followed since the late 1990s, when I was in a  band (long story), in the Internet’s infancy. A few years later, I watched in awe as large-scale, decentralized collaboration assembled itself like a crystal on the substrate of electronic media. It was an age of miracles: an expansive encyclopedia, Wikipedia. A fine-grained map of the whole world, OpenStreetMap. A global network of commentary, the blogosphere. All this without central command structures or barriers to contribution, continuously self-correcting, and with very little money. It seemed to be the central phenomenon of our time.

In those days, I used to hang out with a group of researchers clustered around David Lane, a veteran of the Santa Fe Institute. The Institute was developing the powerful intuition of emergence, a word that describes entities which have properties not observed at the level of its component parts. Internet-enabled mass collaboration seemed a good example of that. For example, individual Wikipedians can usually not correct their own errors, but Wikipedia can. What could we achieve if we found the right way to work together?

I cared about societal outcomes, and still do. I had trained as an economist to understand the social world, so that I could help change it, for the better. As I watched collaborative dynamics unfold, I wondered how they could be deployed in the service of the public. This was not considered an economic question in mainstream academic circles. In fact, it was barely a scientific one. But David had the intellectual fearlessness of the SFI old guard, and some of it must have rubbed off on me. The question was interesting and relevant. If economics would not claim it as its own, that was economics’ loss.

So, I joined the Policy Evaluation Unit of the Italian Ministry for economic development. My colleagues and had a mandate to experiment with digital media to encourage a more transparent, collaborative, information-rich relationship between government and governed. The idea was to get “eyes on the street”, mobilizing the citizenry’s collective intelligence to improve policy design and monitoring. And that was it for me: since then, I have followed the same hunch. And another one: that collaborative dynamics might have a recognizable mathematical signature, like the appearance of certain frequency distributions in state transitions in physics. Put together, these two hunches carried the promise of reconciling local specificity with scale. Local specificity, because granular, local knowledge would inform different policy actions in different places, just as each Wikipedia article is written by the people that care about it, and only by them. And scale, because, common patterns of behavior would underpin all these actions, just as the discuss-and-edit dynamics underpins all Wikipedia articles.

I have not found the Holy Grail of decentralized-and-coherent collective intelligence at the policy maker’s fingertips (yet?). Still, as I followed those hunches, I found myself leading public sector initiatives at the regional, national, and supranational levels; authoring the first book in Italian on collaborative government; going back to school for a doctorate on online communities as social networks (I graduated when I was over 50 years old!); starting a social enterprise, Edgeryders, which is, to everyone’s surprise, still standing and profitable after ten years; looking to ethnography  and science fiction for inspiration and epistemic agility. I learned much. We all did.

In all this, UNDP’s innovation people have been constant travel companions. Among them, Milica Begovic, Khatuna Sandroshvili, Gina Lucarelli (now my direct superior), and of course Giulio Quaggiottosensei were particularly generous in following my group’s work, critiquing it with rigour and empathy, and sometimes trying it out themselves. In this new position, I have the opportunity to contribute to their work from up close. In this sense, UNDP feels like home, like I’m just moving to a different office in the same building. It will do me good, too. The nimbleness and freedom of Edgeryders are valuable to me, but so is the opportunity to try out our ideas on the field, in a large, venerable, global organization like UNDP. It also comes at the right time in a personal sense. Though theory is great fun, I am very worried for the current polycrisis, and feel the need to move closer to the field of actual policy making. And I love the way my new team thinks big. “What do eight billion people know?” asks Gina in the trailer for a recent documentary on the Accelerator Labs. And, you know what? That’s exactly the right question. I look forward to searching for its answer.

I have resigned from Edgeryders, and leave it into the capable hands of my co-founders and the workgroup we have built up over the years. We will all continue to learn from each other, across organizational borders. Over the years, I learned that solid, warm, enduring human relationships are a trellis for collective intelligence to grow on. And that these relationships remain, no matter the logo on your business card.

What David Graeber and David Wengrow’s “The Dawn of Everything” has in common with sci-fi economics

A few weeks ago, I finished David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. It is not science fiction, nor it is economics. And yet, I propose it has to do with both. The book begins by stating inequality has risen to the top of the agenda for public debate. Scholars, politicians,  business leaders are calling attention to it. Where, they ask, does inequality come from? How can we reduce it to tolerable levels?

The authors then proceed to question these questions. A lot of people believe there is this thing called “inequality”, and it comes from somewhere – it was not always there. This belief is cultural, and we can investigate it. So, Graeber and Wengrow’s research question is not “where does inequality come from?”. It is “where does the question about where inequality comes from come from?”

It is a move typical of anthropology. In fact, Graeber does the exact same thing in the opening chapter of Debt: The First 5,000 Years . He finds himself at a party, and the conversation falls on the 2011 Greek debt crisis. A guest remarks that yes, the Greek people are suffering, but “debts must be paid”! And Graeber wonders: why do people think that? where does this belief come from? And off he goes.

I am a big fan of Debt. I read it twice, back to back, and went back to it several times to re-read inspiring digressions from the main theme. While worth reading, Dawn is not as good as Debt, in my humble opinion. Its arguments are not as thorough, and it tends to treat absence of evidence as evidence of absence. But it does make an important contribution: it replaces the question on the origin of inequality with a better question. That better question is: how did we get stuck?

It works like this. The question about the origins of inequality implies a linear social process. Back in humanity’s hunting-gathering days, the story goes, all men and women were equals. But then, about 10,000 years ago, humanity shifted to agriculture. This created regimes of private property, cities, complex societies, wars for resources and élites to appropriate their surplus. So, we got inequality, and we are stuck with it, because it is the price to pay to have a complex society.

The problem with this story is that is not borne out by what we know. Graeber and Wengrow’s data consist of archeological findings and ethnographies of indigenous societies encountered by European settlers during colonial times. And these, the authors tell us, agree: there is no linear process from equality to inequality. Ancient societies appear to have experimented with many models. Foragers experimented with farming, then let it go. Large urban settlements arose in the absence of agriculture. Farming societies remained egalitarian for centuries. Cities dominated by élites abandoned the construction of pyramids and temples to embark on large-scale social housing projects. There are even documented societies that lived in towns, and farmed, during the winter, and in small bands of hunters gatherers during the summer.

The authors insist that all this happened because the people that made up those societies wanted it to. They were politically sophisticated and reflective. They knew that they could shape their institutions in ways that preserved their freedom and well-being. A part of getting this right was making sure people did not have too much power over one another: in our modern terms, that people would equals.

Ancient societies were not stuck. Its members were free to roam, and were subject to very little cohercion. But entire societies were also free in another sense, that of shaping arrangements that made people’s lives better. Instead, we moderns are very stuck.

And that brings me to the Sci-Fi Economics Lab. When my partners and I dreamed up the Lab, in 2019, we had no idea what Graeber and Wengrow were up to. Yet, like them, we felt stuck. We felt crippled by our inability to imagine living under any system other than late-stage capitalism. To heal, we turned to the imagined futures of science fiction, and to economics as an angle of attack. It was a good choice: we have come some way to freeing our imagination. Today, sci-fi stories set in the world of Witness give us a glimpse of everyday life in post-capitalist systems. Graeber and Wengrow appear to have taken the opposite route, into humanity’s distant past. But we share the same curiosity, and the same conditional optimisms, and I know them for kindred spirits.

What does an art project have to teach us about facial recognition technology?

Reposted from Edgeryders

Paolo Cirio is one of my favorite artists – I saw some of his work at Ars Electronica a few years ago. His latest project (late 2020) is called Capture, and works like this.

  • First, the artist collected 1,000 photos of public protests in France.
  • Next, he zoomed and cropped the faces of police officers in those photos.
  • Third, he printed out these photos and stealthily stuck them up on the walls of Paris.
  • Fourth, he ran facial recognition software on the photos. Hold this in your head, it is important.
  • Fifth, he created a website where people could identify police officers: they were served pictures, and could enter a name.

The project turned out to be… explosive.

  • The police’s trade unions protested, as Capture was putting officers at risk.
  • The Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, tweeted his disapproval.
  • An exhibition of Capture scheduled to happen at Le Fresnoy, was canceled as the controversy mounted. Note: Le Fresnoy is in a city called Tourcoing, and Darmanin used to be the mayor of Tourcoing, stepping down during the preparation of the exhibition. Le Fresnoy denies receiving any outside pressure.
  • Cirio left France altogether to avoid “retaliation”.

Now, if you are like me, you’ll be thinking: wait, what does it even mean for an artist to “run facial recognition software” on a photo? It’s not like Cirio, or any of us, is sitting on a dataset with identified picture of everyone in France. In the absence of such a dataset, even the best facial recognition software is going to draw a blank, every single time.

And, well: this is why Cirio is a famous artist, and I am not. The reactions of the representatives of the police has been one of disgust, like they had been contaminated by something filthy: someone had somehow grabbed their photos, and run them through facial recognition software! They had been violated! Rationally, this is nonsense, but emotionally it is very powerful, and therein lies Cirio’s artistic gesture. *Capture* shows us the instinctive loathing and disgust of humans when been intruded upon, when people are looking at you and you were not ready for it. We want to own the image we project.

Thanks to this work, I learned the extent to which facial recognition is already out there in Europe. And, like Cirio says, it’s unevenly distributed: the police can hide as they use violence, but for ordinary citizens the camera is always on. France is one of the European countries where its usage is most widespread. In this 8 minutes video, French Internet lawyers call for an outright ban on facial recognition technology. This is also Cirio’s position – he even engaged the European Commission on this (and the Commission promised to look into it).

It seems that now the Commission gets to walk the talk, because Commission VP Margrethe Vestager is participating in the Us-EU Trade & Technology Council, and the Reclaim Your Face campaign is pushing for a blanket ban to biometric surveillance. We’ll see how that pans out.

Anyway. FWIW I highly recommend Capture. Here is a short presentation video made by the artist:

Photo taken from the artist’s website, unattributed.