“Food must be shared.” — Kesselberg (Community)
“Be excellent to each other.” — Noisebridge (Hackerspace)
“Don't be evil.” — Google (Company)
How do we socially organize? How do we share our most basic principles, morals, values? What does it mean when we simplify, when we search for or even implement essentialized notions as the baseline for a community's standards?
Three examples have come to mind of late and instigate these questions for me. I do not have the answers, but it creates an alluring pursuit.
First, Kesselberg is an unrestricted, autonomous, intentional community outside of Berlin, Germany. The community has quite a strong core who have been living in their discrete location for some time. On the other hand, the place is truly open to anyone who wants to come there, and thus some people come who are less intentional about their stay with respect to the others, but are allowed nonetheless. A dynamic exists between these groups, and I cannot say where it stands at the moment, though I am attempting to investige further. Ultimately, there is only one rule. If you have food, you need to share it. This is a clever concept, focusing on commoning a basic human need and resource, as well as identifying a mode for social exchange around the hearth, bowl, hand, fire, etc. Its implications prove interesting at the very least.
Noisebridge (San Francisco)
Another community, Noisebridge, in the mission district of San Francisco, also has just one rule. Quoting Keanu Reeves in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Reeves plays a Southern Californian teenager who travels in time in order to learn history, finish his final project for his history class, and graduate from high school. If he fails, in the future, he won't later co-create a peaceful society guided by the music and philosophy of his excellent rock-and-roll band.
Travelling to this future society, Reeve's character learns from their leaders that his future self has taught the planet about world peace. He is prompted to share some wisdom. He takes a moment, gets all poetic on us, and states, “Be excellent to each other.” Nothing more appropriate for culture-jamming hackers to adopt as their basic and altruistic motto for moral guidance.
However, “Be excellent to each other” is not perfect. In the Noisebridge community, there has been much ambiguity around this notion and phrasing. Further, to emphasize being excellent has suggested to some that therefore some attitude, behaviors, and practices are “un-excellent” and should therefore be identified, prevented, or otherwise opposed in the spirit of being “excellent” instead. On the other hand, the hacker community has memetically spread this rule around the world where it has a place and application in many other communities. It is certainly imperfect, but it has legs, which is worth a ponder…
Finally, there is one dangerously simplistic phrase, for which there is certainly ample debate already. Google‘s “Don’t be evil” has the opposite problem as being “excellent” has for Noisebridge. Why state this principle in the negative? Why should being “evil” be avoided? We shouldn't we “be good” or some similar positive equivalent? In some way, we see the practice of this essential concept at work as Google grows in its wealth and power. Will Google become evil? Is Google evil in some ways already? What is evil? What are the good things that Google does? Can they be compared to the evil, or is evil absolute and represent a fundamental failure?
To me, I am most impressed by Kesselberg‘s statement because (unlike the other two above), it has a clear but unviable opposite. To not share one’s food is unambiguous. In some way keeping, food to one‘s self (in most cases) would lean toward self-interest and away from commons-building. If the priority of the community is to share one’s food if one has food, then greater than self-evidence, this community has a reasonable request for which the opposite can be easily understood, as it is fairly undebatable (at least in construction). I think this may be an indicator of what can make a very valuable basis of a moral system.
Additionally, Kesselberg‘s food sharing notion converges on one of a person’s most basic needs, functions, and elements of day-to-day life. The sharing of food creates the possibility and potential for further interaction and engagement. It is such sharing that brings people together, where other aspects of culture may emerge and flourish. Time to listen, to understand, to express, be creative, to relax, and to grow, bonding with others.
In the practice of mathematics, an informal (non-binding) principle is the concept of elegance. Simply put, elegance emphasizes (even prioritizes) simplicity. If something can be said as one shorter statement, rather than two, then do it! It's of course not universal, and there are lots of counter examples, as you might imagine. Further, elegance may very well be anthropocentric; do the context and constraints of being a human predispose or bias us away from complexity in our models? I believe this certainly can be the case, and therefore we should be aware of such bias.
From a logical stand-point, non-trivial but minimal systems that demonstrate elegance can be illustrative, powerful (theoretically), and even practical. For instance, consider in propositional logic, the functionally complete formal system constructed from a single operator: Nand or “not and”. This system allows the construction of all the commonly sensical equivalents of logic (‘and’, ‘or’, ‘implies’, ‘not’, etc) in a more abstract way (complex in length, simple in basis). On top of it all, logical Nand is the operation implemented in the Nand gate, the tool by which computational machines may function!
These simple rules or statements used by the communities listed above make me think about such mathematical elegance, in a heuristical and poetic sense.