Smári McCarthy

Building social, political and technical infrastucture

The Center as Seen From the Edge

“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”
– Kurt Vonnegut

Recently I attended an event in Strasbourg which had a very unclear goal. Organized by the Council of Europe, Edgeryders, a community of young people of diverse origins came together to discuss what to do with their continent. In many ways, it can be said that the Council of Europe was taking a huge risk with this – admitting a relatively radical group of individuals into their midst under a heading as provocative as ‘Living on the Edge’.

After two days of relative politeness, where the Edgeryders sat through a variety of discussions ranging from monotonic to bland to tedious, having their most pressing questions disregarded while pith was picked up and played with by politicians and bureaucrats from various ends of Europe, they broke off to an unconference – an unprescribed meeting where attendees filled slots with their own agenda – where real magic happened.

Free from ‘adult supervision’, we discussed economic collapse, state failure, environmental annihilation, and other existential risks. We worked through the systemic failings of the banking system and came up with a number of simple improvements, most of which would be easy to implement if not for lack of political willpower. We discussed the theoretical and practical groundwork to be done in order to replace state services with peer-to-peer software using open communications protocols, how to perform scale-independent participatory budgeting, how to hack law and build more participatory and resilient democratic models.

Had anybody from the Council of Europe – or from any other political entity that has any form of legitimacy – been there, their brains would have exploded. Not only were we having a serious, apolitical, coherent and productive conversation on a subject that the political governors of this world would rather not have to think about, we were coming up with functional solutions with a rapidity that made our own brains ache.

While it’d be wrong to be unappreciative of the opportunity the Council of Europe gave us, it is right to be critical of their form of engagement. One reason we could have such a conversation was because we suffered from a collective closeness to reality. If defection from reality could be measured as a distance, we would still have been sitting in Strasbourg, while our supposed leaders were orbiting Jupiter right along with Russell’s teapot and the radial fascist architecture so popular in European political assemblies. This meant that not only didn’t we manage to have the conversation with the policymakers that we really wanted to have, but they didn’t even return the favor of attending when it was our turn to soothsay.

Some of the people in the room were Spanish or Greek or Italian, and are currently using society as buffer against failure. They understand all too well the fact that agro-industrial auto-catalysis (to use a term I learned during the unconference) has stopped, that our society is stuck in a resource starved downward spiral. They live it every day, feel it and know it.

Others were from places like Romania, Poland, or Hungary. Countries that had fought hard to rid themselves of oppression around the time they were being born, in the latter part of the twentieth century, and are now seeing their birthright of socioeconomic liberalism slipping from their grasp as extremist entities make power grabs in the chaos of a dying European dream.

In a crowd of young, smart people, there are many voices and many dreams. People came from many walks of life, different political inclinations and different outlooks. What united us there was an interest in talking through the problems and finding actual solutions, using the best tools we had available to us, and pushing the boundaries as much as possible.

It would take days, or weeks, or months for me to intend to aggregate the ideas put forward during our time together, let alone exposit them in their full depth. That’s not my role here. The Edgeryders community will flesh those out collectively over coming months. My only role here and now is to make sure that people are aware of what has happened, and inform those in power that the following is about to happen:

As you watch your political doctrines crumble under the weight of a new reality, we are going to emerge from your ashes and help build that reality. Our systems of governance will be open, collective and efficient like nothing you have seen, inclusive and scalable in ways nation states prohibit, and will be devoid of the explicit hierarchical power structures you are used to.

Edgeryders itself won’t be the only community to do this. It isn’t a task for a hundred people. It is a task for everybody – but if you had been paying attention to the kids who grew up with Napster and MySpace and given yourselves the time to understand the motivations of the networked youth, you’d have seen this coming. Perhaps, then, you might have even appreciated our offering rather than tried to stifle it with broken models, and take our society down with them.