John Thang interviews Layne Hartsell on his work and new book
Post-Truth: Matters of Fact and Matters of Concern — An Internet of Thinking Together [Global Digest, Seoul]
John Thang (JT) Global Digest: Let’s go with your background and work, first. Tell about your work in Asia, 10 years right?
Layne Hartsell (LH): Yes, and you and I have known each other for about that long; we met about a year after I first arrived. Over the past few years, I have been studying three technical areas: Convergence science and 3E (energy, economy, environment), Open reasoning and open science, and then SNET. In the case of the term “convergence,” I suppose it could just be called “deep generalism.” The developer of Wirearchy, Jon Husband, uses this term, and I think it is easier.
Convergence science is based on the MIT declaration from 2011 for the convergence of life science and physical science with informatics and engineering. For 3E, at the Asia Institute, we study the technosocial reality of climate change and the absolute necessity to develop a sustainable and renewable energy system. To achieve such a project, it will require partnerships through stakeholders and the confluence of science, technology, politics, civil society, and economics. I intend the term “stakeholders” as inclusive, since I don’t think authoritarianism is going to solve the problem, even though I see some are tempted by it. Authoritarian systems got us into the current disintegration, both socially and ecologically. China says 50 trillion is needed for a complete revamp of energy and society. That’s not likely to happen, though the direction should be enormous spending for an internationalism of societal innovation - an ecological or eco-civilization. For comparison, civilization means urban development and thus massive resource intensive and logistical supports coming in from extraction elsewhere, specifically, other people’s homes. Using this definition, we will have to convert civilization to eco-civilization where people and nature are central. Current societal innovation is not at that high bar but there are developments as China leads renewable energy development, and Germany has done quite a bit. Examples from China are its recent moves to decrease its use of coal in focusing on renewables. China also speaks of an eco-civilization though it has embarked on another development plan for a new Silk Road or international mega infrastructure projects. To give an idea of this kind of thing, from 2009–2011, China used more cement than the U.S. used in the entire 20th century. As for an eco-civilization, the U.S. is also headed in the other direction as it is gearing up to extract its fossil fuels, particularly with its militarization, once again, of the land of the Sioux people. To continue like this, taping into those fossil reserves such as the tar sands in North America, climate scientist, James Hensen, said that it would be “game over” for the environment.
In China, the new Silk Road, or I should say plural with a “s”, will go from the Guangzhou area in Southern China through Myanmar and Bangladesh and into the Bihar. And then, the other, larger northern route will go up over Pakistan on over to Russia and Europe. The maritime road will go towards ASEAN and on over to the West. Recently, the first train, in a long time, arrived in Britain, from China, though there is a ways to go before that entire project goes into full action. One aspect that is interesting is demilitarization. The corridor is supposed to be for trade, knowledge, and cultural interaction.
The second, open reasoning or rational common sense is a wide field that assumes democratic participation in the major topics of the day, and particularly in science and technology. Amartya Sen uses the term, public reasoning. Open Science is the specific derivation from open reasoning where interaction between scientists and lay people leads to a full engagement in scientific exploration, which is more or less the same as when Galileo and Kepler were working. Galaxy Zoo is an example of open science where laypeople look at NASA images and pick out possible galaxies, and develop technical abilities. In its first year (2007) more than 150,000 people got involved and looked through 50 million classifications. They naturally developed their own culture calling themselves “Zooites.” At this point, they have produced 57 research papers.
By the time of Galileo, around 1610, the Gutenberg Press had already been invented and people were carrying printed materials such as mechanical diagrams, books, the Bible, and such, about in Europe. They were discussing all forms of practical measurement in the shoppes of the mechanics and artisans. Independent thought was emerging, and I bet there was also fake news around as well. Contrary to what many think, Italy was somewhat open at the time, though the Church managed to torment Galileo and others.
Today, we have the Internet as our hyper-press, and then an ever growing commons of open code, design, and knowledge. P2P micro-manufacturing in a collaborative economy is emerging, slowly, too slowly…I wish more quickly. This emergence is what we are studying at the P2P Foundation. Michel Bauwens who is president of the Foundation says that P2P is the relational dynamic of people interacting through the digital systems, and he takes it further to the larger commons such as what he, Yochai Benkler, and Elinor Ostrom developed in their own work. (ebook— The Wealth of Networks by Benkler)
For philosophy, S.NET is a highly specific subfield in the philosophy of science, and then convergence, that studies new and emerging technologies. Paul Humphreys at the University of Virginia is a major researcher in the area. A basic example is if we take oxygen and hydrogen, there is nothing in either of these elements that we can perceive that looks or acts like water. Once the two are mixed together into H2O, emergence properties come about such as wetness, conductivity, and polarity. For us humans, water is important; however, the ultimate emergent phenomenon is consciousness and that is a mystery that fascinates perhaps all people once they recognize that they are aware, or are conscious of the fact of existence.
JT: You are from the United States? And, involved in activism as well?
LH: Yes, I am from Virginia, and attended Virginia Tech early on. You mean migrant workers, and how we met in South Korea?
JT: Tell about your earlier life. How did you become interested in science and then other wider topics.
LH: Well, the science part is from when I was very young. Just natural curiosity that all kids have. Later, while formally studying science at Virginia Tech, I was encouraged to read widely and concluded that the economic system was unjust, particularly after reading Rachel Carson and Noam Chomsky; and then I was curious about what happened to American Indians. Later, after graduate school and a year in medical research at the University of Virginia, I went directly to visit the reservations in the western U.S. What I saw changed my perspective on what I would do in life. In fact, my partner at the time, Kelly, and I, worked with a Lakota medicine woman and her group to take provisions from Denver to the people at Wounded Knee and the Lakota Sioux.
The first thing I did when young was to renovate my life, almost immediately, to lead the life of a kinds of monk or scholar in the world. Kinda like what Emerson, Thoreau, and Gandhi did, where a lot of theirs was based on the radical humanism of the Enlightenment. Today, life and work is integrated with environmentalism. As a philosophy, I call it integral simplicity where the way of life involves the minimization of the use of resources from society and the natural environment, except for what is needed to live and work. This first step is to diminish complicity with living from a rapacious economic system. Next, knowledge, financial wealth, and so forth, are used for social and ecological work —the exercise of rights and duties. And the third is culture, or to enjoy and to participate in scientific and cultural treasures and development. The integral part is that these various tenets come together into an experiential whole with nature and consciousness. Or, it could be called openness. On this last part, perhaps Nagarjuna, the Buddhist philosopher, is a good source.
JT: How old were you?
LH: This started when I was in my late teens, but by mid-20's, just out of graduate school and after doing medical research, I was able to articulate it. I went and taught science at the Navajo Nation for a year and then traveled to Mexico and Central America. While there, I learned about neoliberalism and structural adjustment, and then shared knowledge about molecular biology with those in La Via Campesina who had won a two year window from the courts so that they could study and understand the genetic alteration of their plants. The corporations were engaging in biopiracy of their traditional knowledge, which the indigenous people had developed for centuries. So, their knowledge was being pillaged. Later, I went on to Asia to study nanoscience and philosophy.
JT: That is when we met at the migrant workers’ events in Seoul. You were also teaching at. Sungkyunkwan Advanced Institute of Nanotechnology.
LH: Yes, you were doing work with migrants from Southeast Asia and I had been visiting the shelters and attending their protests. And then, you started the Digest. Well, at Sungkyunkwan University, I taught at the Language Institute and was an adjunct in life sciences — biology. The Institute was a little later. In the nanotechnology institute I gave lectures for physicists or materials scientists who were trying to understand the structure of DNA in order to mimic it in their research. Basically that means how do you build DNA or RNA, atom by atom. Nanotechnology operates at the very tiny, 10–7 to 10–9 meters. One billionth of a meter. At that level of physical matter, scientists have been trying to move and assemble atoms or to do “molecular manufacturing.” This research they are doing is at the very basis of material reality and is still in the laboratory phase. Carbon nanotubes are probably what most will recognize as nanotechnology or what many might recall from Drexler’s nanobots from his book. Actually, nanotubes just kinda grow due to natural forces, so nano-manufacturing would literally assemble itself once the right combinations are put into place. That is why nanotechnology is speculated to be both inexpensive and transformative of physical reality such as replacing the built system we see. Paris was the capital of modernity, and by the time of Napoleon III it was extended into the massive metropolis model we are familiar with as the built system. The “technification” of that system, or new built system, is what I call the technosphere.
“Nanotechnology” has already been developed by nature’s adaptations, or the passing on of heritable traits, such as in the flagellum of the bacteria. Some of these tiny mechanisms look almost like gears. A quick search on Google images will show them. We are still a ways away from Drexler’s speculations; it’s all still science fiction, but nanotechnology is coming along as we understand more. There may be problems with quantum entanglement and then the reactivity and instability of elements at different sizes, but progress is being made. I studied at the nanotechnology institute for the scientific part of doctoral research in philosophy or ethics and technology — access to the technosphere as a matter of global justice. I can remember vividly an intimate classroom lecture by the director of the Institute, Sumio Iijima, who is credited with the development of nanotubes. Everyone who wants to, should be able to see this information; it is just stunning. I am grateful to the institute and the scientists there for taking me in and teaching me. It’s an extraordinary place with people from all over the world who I was able to interact with at virtually any time of day.
JT: You are also involved in agroecology and public education outside of professional work? The proceeds from the book will go to building a knowledge cafe in Chiang Mai. What is this project?
LH: Here is where the book comes in, such as in general education. Yes, I have been advocating for agroecology for a while and created a commons-based farm in 2011, following the principles of La Via Campesina. As I mentioned, I think we should synthesize the technosphere with agroecology putting nature and humans at the center of an eco-civilization, and it may be that La Via Campesina is the group that saves us. Let me go into digital education, first.
For education, the idea is to build Centers for Digital Education/P2P Labs where people can come together to learn. To do this some friends and I rented a room and created a Center for Digital Education in Cameroon with the local council there; and it was done mostly through social media. I have never been to Africa. So, what happened was in 2013, I worked with a group out of Gothenburg, Sweden, called “Living Bridges Planet” that used Google’s new video platform to connect with people from around the planet. Bert-Ola Bergstrand (Sweden), Anna Blume (Germany), Jacob Urup Neilsen (Denmark), and Anne’ Kjaer Riechert (Norway), and I connected to create a dialogue with groups in Africa. Anne’ knew a group in Cameroon who wanted to do something with kids and education. As it turned out, we all shared knowledge and what we knew, and then the group with Clement Awanfe Ngueto in Cameroon shared their particular circumstances and ideas.
We needed some money for a pilot study, so I called a friend from the U.S. who happened to be in Seoul at the time, Tom Roberts, who is head of a division at UCB Pharmaceuticals in Tokyo. He donated money to get the projects going. Then, two of his friends (and their families) got involved, Ted Holzwarth and Phil Forrester from Arkansas. Ted is a VP at Comfort Systems in Arkansas, and Phil works in a new area in business development called B2B Sales Enablement Professionals. During 2014 and 2015, Tom and I were trying to figure out how to fund the project further when Ted and Phil got involved with donations of money and equipment for a girls soccer team. In Arkansas, girls and parents sent over equipment to the people in Cameroon, and then, the girls from the U.S. would meet with their soccer counterparts in the village in Cameroon via video call.
By 2016, Clement had gained NGO status in the country and the group had set up a website and arranged for computers to be sent from Germany. We were finally able to get the full Center for Digital Education/P2P Lab opened by May. The room we rented filled up immediately after the first few days, and the folks in the village were saying they needed to build an actual school!
The school project for Cameroon (or any location) is under the full control of the village council, and we act as advisers according to whatever expertise we have. If we can create more centers, we plan to connect all of the schools together with video capacity, P2P systems, and then manage it with the Ethereum blockchain. The last part is for the future though and would take a lot of resources beyond where we are at the moment. I want to add that the children in the village come from families that practice Christianity and Islam; they study, play, and work together. They speak English and French. The entire village project group for Cameroon, all of us, have all different kinds of ideas on religion, society, and politics. Some are liberal, conservative, social democratic, social libertarian and so on. I suppose this project is multi-everything.
The people in the village, the kids mostly, begin with basic computer skills, then will move on to coding, designing, and then micro-manufacturing.
At the P2P Foundation we say Code, Design, Think Globally — Do Manufacturing and Agroecology Locally. I use the term, peerist synergism.
To teach the children in 2017, I have asked other scientists, professors, and coders to join in. This year we will increase direct video classes. To do so, we bought the best Internet service possible so that the children would have that constant connection to the world. Last year, I wrote to Louis Dargin, a computer programmer from Michigan, and Abdul Rahman Raji, a materials chemist at Cambridge in the UK to join us and help with the science curriculum and to teach via video.
Louis has been working on the coding curriculum. Tom, Ted, and Phil are planning spreadsheet and business related notes for the kids. And, Abdul and I have been working on the basic reasoning and science curriculum. At the moment, the students are still learning about computers, though I do give a class, which is an open discussion on society and technology. Last year, when I gave a preliminary class on the development of the Internet, the children began to tell me about Pascal, the French philosopher and mathematician!
As you indicated, the next center we are planning will be at the farm in Chiang Mai, which part of the proceeds from the book will fund.
JT: The book is on that process of open-reasoning and education, and also society and technology.
LH: Yes, the book is bound up in all of this. Those projects were ongoing, and then the book kinda chose me. It is really about open reasoning as a social and Constitutional activity. I was thinking of a way to facilitate open reasoning, and I came up with a kind of Internet of Thinking Together — a Universal P2P Machine. Validation of accuracy of news could be done on the blockchain. Blockchain addresses have a private and public key. Unless someone steals one’s key, then we know that the address is verified, and time cannot be reversed unless there is a visible systemic change; and to do that, it would take the consensus of “miners.” It is sufficient to say that this kind of system could be reliable for open information. From verified addresses, news could be analyzed, and then guaranteed according to who does the work on it. I will have to ask the hackers about this, but I think they could do it. In my case, I started out just trying to write an essay and developed these ideas from that process of thinking and writing.
This past November, around the time of the election, I had been to Japan to give a couple small seminars on open reasoning and P2P systems, and was also raising money to build the knowledge cafe in Chiang Mai. On November 8th, while I was in Kyoto, I watched the election coverage and the follow up. Post-truth emerged as the major concept of the year. No doubt, true. While in Kyoto, I also met with a friend for lunch, who is a political economist in agriculture at Kyoto University, Shuji Hisano. We discussed a number of topics around agroecology, the knowledge cafe, and then Japan and East Asia. He and his students had visited the farm in Chiang Mai, last September. I jotted down some notes and began an essay about two weeks later after seeing the debate on Al Jazeera between Medhi Hasan and Slavoj Zizek. The essay turned into a pamphlet, and that turned into a book by Christmas time. I figured some of the proceeds from the book could go to build the cafe.
JT: This book is a work in media literacy? Post-truth?
LH: The book brings together various elements of how we come to understand the world. It is about thought, history, the old broadcast mass media, and the new digital media. For post-truth, I define it as anything that does not use argument and explanation in the public forum. In the book, I argue that it is not new, and began due to 20th century democratic systems and popular action that changed how people could be controlled. I date post-truth back to Edward Bernay’s 1928 book called Propaganda. It may have begun earlier with the British during WWI. You can see it coming along from that era. At that time, everybody was doing it. Propaganda got a “bad” name with Joseph Goebbels, so it morphed into post-truth, but remained the same as with any state, and then with big business, advertising, and the public relations industry it became an art form.
Post-truth, propaganda, or whatever we call it, was designed to create fairy tales or overly simplified stories with the outcome of people indulging in “quasi-hedonism” and not in democratic systems. There are bad people and good people; we are good and they are bad, for example. Dangerous over-simplifications. And then there was the whole parade of celebrities, sports heroes, romance and mass culture. It worked to distract many while “liberals” set up neo-Nazi police states around the world, particularly in Latin American, to feed this economic machine. The height of it all was neoliberalism by 1991, which was said to be the end of history. Basically, neoliberals assumed they had reached the formula for the management of society through scientific economics and technocratic bureaucracy that would adjust the levers of the system according to need. The real word for that system is neoimperialism; same old thing. Instead of kings and merchantilism, it was presidents, CEOs, “innovators,” and capitalism.
In fact, reading history, we can see that all empires gave a version of the same triumphalist story: civilization has reached its height in us. Many disagreed with neoliberalism and wanted democratic systems in society, myself included. In the midst of “market rationality,” two recent recessions, and an enormous bubble, the ideology of the most recent version of neoimperialism ended in 2008, devastating the world’s poor, and also regular people in the developed countries who lost their jobs, homes, families and sense of orientation.
If we want to understand the emergence of the Alt-right, this is where we should look. At the same time, the more democratically-minded elements of the populace nearly took over the Democratic Party and instituted Bernie Sanders’ policies that would get us at least back to the New Deal levels and better hopes of a new internationalism, leaving neoliberalism behind. It wouldn’t have been Scandinavian social democracy, but much better. Trump smashed the rest of the neoliberal system on November 8th. What we see now is something new, I think. It looks like a kind of plutocratic, corporate state or corporatism. The market has subsumed society and the state, and is managed by plutocrats and by suprastate entities. It is hard to know what that is, really, but certainly it is threatening to international relationships, particularly for the U.S. between South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. And, these recent actions have put China, Australia, and probably India and ASEAN on the defensive. In the Western Hemisphere, certainly Mexico is concerned since at the border of the Rio Grande and then in Arizona the area is being militarized with a wall, of all things. Europe is having major problems already, and current developments in the U.S. leave it hard to know how Europe and the U.S. will turn out.
Someone recently asked me how all of this (U.S.) looked from an Asian perspective, and my response was something like: I’m not sure, but I know for one thing that if we had to obsessively worry about everyone’s skin color, and different languages, and robes, and so on, we’d never get a plane off of the ground to go anywhere. On probably every plane I take, there is a variety of people, languages, Islamic traditional dress, Myanmar dress, Karen dress, hill tribes, and so on. From India and Pakistan on over to Indonesia is the largest Muslim population. Then, there is Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, well, everything.
As all of the above was emerging, the way people get information changed dramatically with the addition of the smartphone to the older broadcast media on television. The digital, prosumer media has driven post-truth into overwhelming proportions where nearly everyone can create it; even bots (autonomous code) can do this. Therefore, what is actually occurring is a human response to being overwhelmed, and thus, we have the extreme form of post-truth driving hysteria. It’s a strange phenomenon as clicks and attention create the feedback loop since code will just follow along. Google and Facebook have made some changes to code to create other avenues, and people are starting to fight back in society. I think it important for many elements of society to point these issues out and we can see that indeed there is public response.
Participation in the public forum and in activism are fundamental to democracy; these are the duties and responsibilities to protect inalienable rights and values. If not, those will go away, as we can observe directly, and aided by grossly inaccurate information. So, the book was intended as a way to participate in the discussion, particularly in argument and explanation online. The old media looks like it has lost.
The media was hardly interested in precision in discussion with its focus on politicians’ clothes and lives, and then entertainment and advertising; it was more like a parade with various nodes devoted to circuses. However, at least we knew who they were and that they did some fact-checking and looked for corroborating evidence. If we want accuracy, and are interested in reality, the Financial Times is probably the best source. Since information is vital to both democracy and participation in the market, or what’s left of either of those anyway, then society will have to address the issues of the infosphere quickly.
The director at the Asia Institute in Seoul, Emanuel Pastreich, and I, have been discussing something like this idea. He wrote an article for the Huffington Post back in 2013 called something like a Constitution of Information, and it is this concept we have been discussing. We also have been wondering about a digital Republic of Letters after we looked at the Stanford center online. What would that look like if societies were to generate such a system on the Internet, we wondered? In the current book besided neoliberalism, history, and the media; as mentioned, I suggest an Internet of Thinking Together— Universal P2P Machine.
JT: For the book, you also practiced P2P with readers to help with the book?
LH: Yes, this was an exercise in P2P or peerist synergism working with others through the digital system. As I approached the end of the book, and had a rough draft, I posted on my timeline asking for others to read the rough draft, and to offer suggestions. A few people responded and some stayed with it until the end. This effort allowed for a measure of peer review so we could get the book out more quickly.
Due to current events, I wanted to primarily go with social media rather than a publishing company. In the core group there were folks who pitched in, which included: a high school teacher, a computer programmer, a game developer, a business person, and a dairy farmer and rancher (and Greek scholar). This allowed us to produce something readable in a short time due to the circumstances of the election, and then to send it out into the social media infosphere. I expect it will be an ongoing project with various additional publications. The book is arranged topically as a series of essays or reflections. The sections go together somewhat, but they could be read separately. There is more work to do as a follow up; probably further grammar work and then expansion of the chapters, along with the addition of further chapters. This one is a beta version.
JT: There is a Facebook group for the group?
LH: There are three of these groups with the invitation: “We are beginning a dialogue on the Internet of Thinking Together, Join us!” The first group is a general, open group called The Internet of Thinking Together. The second, is a group for analysis of particular articles such as comparison of various articles on the same topic (The Internet of Thinking Together (Media)). The third is an open group for adding corrections and suggestions for the book. For example, if readers find errors, they can post their corrections to that group, or if they have suggestions for further chapters, they can add in with links for sources. The final group is a store for the Internet of Thinking Together where we can raise money to build the knowledge cafe and further develop Centers for Digital Education/P2P Labs. These are just in development at the moment, but they can be joined. The main link is: https://www.facebook.com/groups/226438347767399/?ref=ts&fref=ts
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John Thang (Myanmar) is Editor in Chief of Global Digest, a social media publication from South Korea and Norway. He is a doctoral student at ChungAng University in Seoul and a human rights activist. Global Digest on Korea, Economy, and Ecology