Vinay Gupta returns to Meaning with his biggest vision yet for global systems change
From open source innovation to the vanguard of the blockchain movement; the ‘global resilience guru’ discusses the conflicts, dangers and opportunities of the world to come.
The future we are facing calls for new perspectives, new concepts and new guides. How, then, should we introduce Vinay Gupta — a man who more than any other speaker at Meaning challenges our basic assumptions about reality, and the extent of the problems we are facing? In a simpler era we might have called him an inventor, a philosopher, or a spiritual activist. But all of these definitions are breaking down, and perhaps they must. If we are facing a fourth industrial revolution, then all our beliefs and assumptions are due for a radical overhaul.
We first heard from Vinay at Meaning 2012, where he began with a nod to his reputation for apocalyptic thinking — identifying himself as a ‘merchant of doom’ confronting a whole spectrum of ‘plausible utopias’. If the source of our creativity is to be found in our limitations, then Vinay draws his from worst case scenarios; unafraid to depict the likely trajectory of climate disaster and hypercapitalism. I caught up with him last month to inquire about his current outlook.
“The world is dying, and we have a 30% chance of making it through the end of this century. Certainly, we’re likely to see a capitalist famine in which maybe a few hundred million or a few billion starve to death. The first time that global warming gets heavily intersected with the food supply is going to be a massive termination event. And everybody is going to turn around and say ‘Oh my god this is terrible, we never saw it coming!’”
In the five years since Vinay shared his hexayurt housing project with Meaning, the stakes have clearly got higher. At the time, Vinay described how the hexayurt’s simple, open source structure could change the game in the housing market, returning the commodity to its use-value and removing the banking and speculation aspects that keep the market artificially inflated and static. In this, as in other disruptive grassroots technologies, he has argued that the creation of abundance (or the removal of scarcity) is the route to breaking industrial stalemates. How much has his hexayurt mission progressed in the interim; given the prospect of looming climate disaster and increasing political volatility in the West?
“At this point, what I’m working towards is trying to redesign how we handle refugees — for example, climate refugees. I came to the conclusion that I’m going to have to do a lot of privately financed, fairly large-scale research and development, so that has taken me into a kind of indirect loop forward which is: go into the markets, make some money in technology, hopefully come back and follow the Elon Musk strategy of ‘pay for the change you want to see in the world’. I tried ‘being the change’ and it wasn’t working all that well, but ‘paying for the change’ — that seems like it might work.
“So, step one is to make about £800 million. Step two is to spend this money setting up charter cities that are designed to accept refugees, and finance the process by having the refugees export goods and services on preferential tax rates; which would basically be a subsidy provided by the first world countries as a way of getting the refugee problem solved. So, you have a jurisdiction where the refugees can export goods into Europe without paying taxes on them, and that encourages foreign direct investment. You basically set up free trade zones for the refugees to be able to take care of themselves; rather than us trying to find the budget to cover 300 million displaced people.”
While on course to realising his vision for the hexayurt project, Vinay has emerged as one of the leading thinkers in the second generation of blockchain; speaking and publishing prolifically on the revolutionary potential of crypto-currencies to cut out the middle man. Now an undisputed pioneer of the smart contracts platform ethereum, he recently designed the Dubai blockchain strategy as well as presenting his new thesis — the Internet of Agreements — at the World Government Summit. Could Ethereum be the route to the £800 million he needs?
“I certainly ran into capitalism in a really dedicated way three years ago because I figured out that we were just screwed. It is time to run. If I was attempting to run now, I wouldn’t be at the head end of the blockchain as basically a late entrant. I’m in the position that I’m in because I started running early enough that I got a good position as I ran into the system. If you wait too late it’s quite hard to get a decent position inside of the next round. So, the awareness landscape is basically a sort of a stress network — I look in society for the places where stress has accumulated and I use that map to position myself forward, because I’m carrying this hexayurt thing. It’s going to require the investment of enormous sums of money to build hexayurt cities and then hexayurt countries for the climate refugees. If I get squashed now, none of that is going to get done.”
It seems that we are now entering a cultural explosion around the blockchain. This has come with a large amount of political baggage — with crypto-currencies claimed by libertarians, anarchists and survivalists as a revolutionary tool to break free of both the state and existing markets. I was interested to know to what extent Vinay would agree with their creed — that decentralisation is the key to political liberation:
“I’m running around with a view of the future which is far more realistic than almost anyone else in the blockchain space has. Therefore I’m continually three or four steps ahead because I don’t believe that decentralisation is utopian. I don’t think it’s going to produce a better world at all. Centralisation can be the FDA ensuring you don’t have dioxins in your food. Decentralisation can be people marrying their thirteen-year-old cousins in rural Utah. This all cuts both ways. There is getting it right and there is any particular given political dogma. And all of the political sides are wrong — all of them are wrong.
“I think accountability could produce a better world, and you could get accountability from blockchain; but decentralisation in the mode that people are currently practising it is simply hypercapitalism with another set of fangs. I also believe that the state is not going anywhere because the nuclear weapon stockpiles are exactly the way they were when we started and they’re not going away. So, at that point whatever we’re building is going to end up interfacing with the state. I have a fundamentally different view of where cryptography fits into the future — and I take the risk of terrorists using this stuff completely seriously. These are all fundamentally anathema to the vast majority of people in the blockchain space. They think you’re going to get full decentralisation, they don’t want to think about the black state and its weapon stockpiles, they absolutely don’t want to think about environmental constraints. It’s just a ‘yeah it’s all going to work out’ kind of future. But it’s not all going to work out. It might work out for well-armed white people in rich countries, but it’s certainly not going to work out for everybody else.”
With his arguments for post-scarcity economics, Vinay has also become associated with ‘left-accelerationism’ and the development of simple, open source technologies — even setting down principles for how ‘open source appropriate technology’ should be ethically approached. His hexayurt falls into this category, along with water filters and solar panels; commodities with an economic rationale of “the lowest investment for biggest increase in quality of life”. Where this kind of technological progress is emancipatory, ‘right-accelerationism’ is considered its technocratic counterpart; further intensifying the concentration of wealth under capitalism. I asked Vinay if this is still a battleground on which he wishes to fight:
“I’m going to get back to that stuff in ten years if I’m still alive. The ‘if I’m still alive is important, right!’ Of the 1960’s generation of leaders — the vast majority of them were dead by the 1990s. The Alan Watts and all the rest of that kind of crew, even the Robert Anton Wilsons of the world — he was broken down to a shadow of himself by the time the 90s came round. Over and over and over again we lose the top end of leadership because they just get crushed in history. People just stick to their guns and they carry the weight until the weight crushes them.
The mind-set should not be one of ‘stick to your guns, die with your boots on’. Every generation has tried that approach and it’s been completely ineffective. The activists keep getting suckered into that trap again and again — this is spiritually right, this is spiritually wrong, we’re only going to do the spiritually right — then they get materially broken and they get shoved off the wreck. Another generation of totally inept youngsters then stands up as the next round of spiritual leadership and then gets the shit kicked out of them again in the next round. Armies that go into battle with no general will lose, and the generals are dying in the streets — twenty years too young to actually have any real effectiveness. Forty-five is the age that you begin to enter structural power, and for the most part the hippy leadership never made it that far. It’s a recurring, inter-generational cycle.”
It seems significant that Vinay evokes the activism of the 1960s, and I get the feeling that it’s a cultural trajectory he’s spent a lifetime thinking about; one that could not be better expressed than by one of his favourite literary passages, Hunter S Thompson’s description of ‘the wave’ from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I once heard him quip that the aftermath of the 60s would have been very different if the activists had emerged with something like blockchain. For Vinay, this is a time for building, not fighting.
Our discussion goes on to survey the contemporary political scene — the rise of the right and infighting of the left on both sides of the Atlantic. If activists have allowed themselves to be drained of their effectiveness, could this be because they have too often prioritised sensibility above strategy? I can’t help but raise that old bone of Marxist contention — does Vinay believe that the contemporary focus on identity politics has diverted the left from addressing the more urgent question of resources?
“This is why I think basic income is the next winnable fight — and the proper response to global hypercapitalism. Because you could potentially unite the shattered disparate wreckage of the left and indeed the former middle classes under basic income as a banner in the age of robot socialism. So, after the manufacturing economy is gutted by robots, after the drivers are gutted by self-driving cars, as all that stuff unfolds and the right promises the world to get into power and then completely fails to deliver, there will be an opportunity for large scale renegotiation. So, the objective is basically to keep the powder dry and keep the front line activists safe until that large scale renegotiation occurs. No one really understands the issues, you’ve got to wait until people are actively beginning to push for basic income before you start dropping everything to go and deliver basic income. It’s a waiting game.”
Vinay warns that we might be waiting ten years before the scene is set for the “next round” of activism for basic income. But, if activists are to leave the front lines and reinvent their strategies, is there really nothing to fight for in the meantime?
“The one thing that I think might be worth fighting for is laboratory grown meat. It’s now close enough that a fight for that might be really important. If the lab meat thing works and you wind up with the ability to get the population off cow, it will make an enormous difference to our global warming emissions. Enormous. Bigger than getting rid of cars. It takes all of the land use pressure of nature. So, you get the jungles beginning to grow back, you get the English countryside beginning to come back — you get a huge restoration of natural systems because you’re no longer grazing everything in sight to turn it into hamburgers, because the hamburgers are coming out of an enormous factory on the far side of Dundee for a pound a kilo! So, I actually think that beating the hell out of green resistance to lab meat — a ‘tech will save us’ kind of thing — is a really good idea. And getting into the lab meat industry — can you imagine how much money is going to come out of lab meat? Cutting greenhouse gas emissions by maybe 20%, hugely improving access to protein in the developing world, saves the lives of untold millions of cows by simply failing to have them exist. It’s something where the culture gets all up in arms about it, you can imagine the farming lobby now. But if they ban it we are screwed, because it’s the next big shift we could make technologically that could protect the ecosystem from our stupidity.”
The lab meat question is exactly the kind of pressure point that Vinay Gupta likes to hone in on, for the extent they challenge our comfort levels and ask us to think through our contradictions. He will regularly remind you that it’s impossible to confront the future without also tearing up your sensibilities; and it is clear that this is a deeply held existential position. As an advanced practitioner of Kriya Yoga, Vinay likens the task to the ancient principles of Tantric philosophy: ”the continual pursuit of truth over social conformity.”
This November, Vinay will share his experiences at the vanguard of Ethereum — in particular The Internet of Agreements, his thesis on how blockchain can build the future of global trade and co-operation. In approaching how data and commerce should interface with the state in the era of blockchain, he is sure to be fearless in addressing the blind spots created by the blockchain craze; and in deconstructing the belief systems that have so strongly influenced its first wave. As with any topic on which Vinay holds forth — you pigeonhole him at your peril.