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From Xenshana: Designing a New World

The Decentralisation Zone at MozFest 2018 will have a theme: Xenshana.

Xenshana is a parallel universe that explores notions of decentralisation in technology and beyond.

You can contribute to this theme by writing stories, creating art, music, or anything you like inspired by Xenshana

A lot went into designing Xenshana, and just as designing any world, it wasn’t easy.

It started with an idea that might seem quite far away from where we ended up. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The initial MozFest wranglers met in Eindhoven for a three day workshop at the Temporary Art Centre, TAC. This three day event, called MozRetreat, would lay the foundations of the ideas that would grow into MozFest.

Just in case we didn’t know where to go once we got to TAC, there was an arrow to the open front door.

During the days of MozRetreat we worked on set activities. These were either aimed at teaching us about the roles we would need to take on as part of coordinating the spaces of MozFest, or around the concepts central spaces themselves (Decentralisation, Digital Inclusion, Openness, Privacy and Security, Web Literacy, the Youth Zone and the Queering MozFest experience). During the evenings and some mornings we had sessions where we would head out into the city and experience some of the amazing things that designers across Eindhoven are working on.

This wasn’t even close to all the post-it notes we used.

Coming from the other side of the world and landing in the Netherlands the day before MozRetreat, jet lag was biting me pretty hard in the evenings. I vividly recall how tired I was as we set off one evening for our activity. I just followed my group, I had no idea where we were going, didn’t know the way back and if they had left me I’d have been hopelessly lost. We walked for what seemed like almost an hour.

At some point we left the main streets and we found ourselves walking down poorly lit alleyways in what seemed like a sprawling industrial zone. Nothing but warehouses and chain link fences. Jokes about serial killers were made. I don’t think I could even laugh I was so tired. We reached a warehouse that looked like every other warehouse we had passed and, much to my surprise, the door opened. Light spilled out onto the street. We were warmly invited to come peruse the workshop of HeyHeydeHaas Creative Agency.

How could you fall asleep in a place like this?

Despite the fact that I was more than half asleep, it was a mesmerising experience. HeyHeydeHaas create art across a number of different mediums. There were perpetual motion machines and posters. Books and windmills. I couldn’t keep up with the conversations that everyone was holding, so I turned to the books on the central table. There I found a number of works displaying abstract design pieces. Avant-garde fashion mixed with completely otherworldly humanoid creatures. The play on the human form reminded me of design of the decentralisation space the year before. We had to make signs, and there wasn’t a lot lying around. There were a number of mannequins and I said “hey, why don’t we stick the lettering on the mannequins?”

The letters didn’t stick so each one had to be aligned by eye and pinned in place.

Inspired design choice or necessity is the mother of all invention? You decide.

With the echo of last year I felt there was something in what I saw before me, and decided to chase the thought. I will admit I may have sat down in one of their very comfy chairs and I might have fallen asleep in that lovely workshop for a moment or two. But when I explained out our hosts that I had just flown from the other side of the world, they were very gracious and accommodating.

Elske is very strong.

As we worked through a number of the daily workshop exercises to gain a better understanding of the spaces we would be wrangling it came time to define the theme for the decentralisation space. It was suggested we use an Alice in Wonderland theme.

The astute among you will notice we only had a single sheet compared to the other zones, which all had multiple sheets… Quality over quantity, I say.

This gelled with what was already forming in my head from the HeyHeydeHaas visit, so I began to think about how it would look visually. It was suggested that Alice in Wonderland was a very Western centric story and might not resonate with people from different cultures, or worse might alienate them. I put my hand up to flesh out the visual design for the space and decided on my plan of attack to de-Westernise Alice in Wonderland. I’d look at the influences that Lewis Carroll drew on and emphasise the non-Western elements, or see if I could find parallels in other cultures that I could use to build our own, more inclusive Wonderland.

My first stop was this New Scientist article. I’d read it years ago and thought that perhaps there was something there in the mathematics I could use. cryptography is the basis for a number of decentralised technologies, and cryptography is math. I was hopeful, but while it was just as interesting an article as I remembered I wasn’t sure if there was anything there to help with the visual design of the space. Math might be the basis of some elements of the design but wasn’t really informing the design itself.

So then I turned to the source material itself. I poured over articles dissecting the possibilities of why the Cheshire Cat is called the Cheshire Cat. I read competing theories about how gargoyles at a particular English church inspired different story elements and how different characters and events in Carroll’s life may or may not have been inspiration for particular sections of Alice in Wonderland. It was all very British. I couldn’t find anything that I could emphasise or draw further inspiration from to make the idea less Western.

So I set about looking for parallels to Wonderland in other cultures. I came across a number of stories that spoke of different realms and hidden places, but nothing that really had the absurdity or the twisted real world elements of Alice in Wonderland. I was kind of striking out. So, the problem had to be simplified. Rather than looking for non-Western Alice in Wonderland analogues, I took the idea back to its core concept. Decentralisation and Wonderland. A truly decentralised world is a wonderland to most people, they don’t believe it can or does exists.

My rather crinkled nametag.

Don’t believe me? Try talking to almost anyone about anarchy. People will confidently tell you anarchy doesn’t work and cannot exist. You can equally and as confidently tell then that anarchist groups have existed all across modern history, some even exist and function today. “No, no,” they say, “not true.” “Here are some texts on anarchist communes that fought against Franco’s forces in the Spanish civil war,” as one random example of many. “Rojava, or the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, an an autonomous region of Syria is considered in many ways an anarchist state. It exists today.” “No,” they will continue, even in the face of facts. “No, it would never work. It’s not possible.” Why people don’t believe this is a story for another time, but the wondrous element for this new world is found in the core principle of decentralisation. It’s wonderous in the context of the modern world because it is decentralised.

So we have the basis for what makes Wonderland wondrous. But what would this inclusive decentralised world look like?

The problem with Alice in Wonderland is that it is firmly rooted as a Western notion, I had to start somewhere else to get back to Alice’s specific Wonderland. I’ve often thought that the crux on which history turns for the modern world as the Punic Wars, the ancient wars between Rome and Carthage. Rome won all three of the Punic Wars and went on to become the undisputed center of the world at that time. Rome had a number of colonies, one, Provincia Britannia, went on to become England and the greatest colonial power the world has ever seen. What if that never happened? What if Carthage won? North Africa would have become the center of the world. And certain later events sparked by colonialism, like the Mfecane, would never have happened. In such a world, the empires of southern Africa may be superpowers today.

Walking past scenes like this it’s little wonder an urban fantasy theme took hold in my mind.

Here, a number of different artistic influences come in. We’re designing a space at Ravensbourne College that will only be present for three days of the year. A temporary doorway to an alternative reality, or the worlds aligning and the barriers becoming weak and porous. This makes me think of the TV series Fringe. But Fringe is very much sci-fi and we are going for a Wonderland theme. There is a deeper, and, I feel, closer example to another world just appearing one day and taking over a particular space that I drew inspiration from: the appearance of Faerie in the Bordertown series. When I was seventeen I read The Essential Bordertown: A Traveler’s Guide to the Edge of Faerie, and it remains one of the two most formative books I’ve ever read. The other, for different reasons, is Keeping It Real by Justina Robson. The Essential Bordertown stuck with me because when I read it I was in the same situation as many of the point of view characters. By sheer happenstance, perhaps magic, it ended up in my hands at just that time and it I felt like it was written just for me.

Urban fantasy plays very strongly on real world myths and legends, and this was a chance to inject some fantastic elements into an alternative reality setting. Since that’s what I was dealing with at this point, an entire setting, I set about writing the basis of a world building document, that you can view here. I turned back to research and some amazing world building questions set out by Patricia C. Wrede. Some people scoff at world building questions, but Patricia writes better stories than any of the people I’ve seen scoff, so that’s what I used. I read quite widely on myths and legends and a particular element started to stand out. Stories involving snakes.

Cobra couple, Pune, India.

Leaving aside Genesis, two stuck out to me, Australian Aboriginal tales of the Rainbow Serpent that I’d been told as a child, and the stories around Quetzalcoatl from Mesoamerica. Diving into the mythos of southern Africa there is the Nyami Nyami stories I had been told in Zimbabwe, and looking at Shona legends specifically they speak of Dzivaguru, a great water spirit. Since it’s an alternative history, some names will be the same and some will be different, so I took the name Dzivaguru as it was, becoming the creator spirit for this world.

I was fascinated to read that Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime stories are supposed to be told in the current tense. The Dreamtime is everywhen, it is an artifact of white colonialism that past tense is applied to Dreamtime stories. So was born the idea of the Dreaming, all time, past, present and future that the human mind incorrectly perceives as just present. I knew I wanted to revisit this theme of time when returning to the world’s technology.

The mythical Banyan Tree that people speak of in hushed tones to this day.

Another common element was the central role of trees. Again, leaving Genesis, there are a plethora of stories that have different types of trees as focal points of mythology and creation. A previous MozFest even had a banyan tree. I liked the idea of the tree as it also plays with the notion of space and time, branches, trunk and roots, past, present, future, the connection of multiple elements or potentially planes of existence. Thus was born the great tree, Mujitan.

I started to build out the history. I had a basic idea that was coming through in the names of things, different southern African languages were being used for older things. Since they are the dominant force in this new world, it makes sense that their culture has carried across the world. But Asia is the upcoming power in this world, the Chinese dynasties never ended in this timeline, so Mandarin words often represent new things. Or, two languages can merge to make something completely new. From pairing different words from the respective language pool I was able to come up with a name for this new world that the two powers could agree on: Xenshana.

Great Zimbabwe, Masvingo, Zimbabwe.

Having toured the amazing complex of Great Zimbabwe previously, I knew I wanted to draw on it as inspiration for this dominant culture. But Zimbabwe wouldn’t be called Zimbabwe in this world, Rhodesia would never have existed and going further back I looked to the Rozvi Empire. The Rozvi were, by all accounts, quite militaristic, and we were going for hope and optimism as the tone of this world. Militarism is also all about centralisation, it doesn’t fit with what we are trying to create at all. So I drew on the idea of Ubuntu, a concept that many of the tribes of southern Africa (Bantu peoples) have by one name or another.

Ubuntu is sometimes translated as “I am because we are.” People are people in the context of the group, the individual looks after the group and the group looks after the individual. Perhaps the Rozvi Empire reached a technological, philosophical and social point in their history where militarism wasn’t just unnecessary but didn’t feel right, given the pervading belief of interpersonal and group bonds. The Rozvi Empire transitioned to the Unhu Collective, an experimental governing structure with Ubuntuism as it’s core principle.

One of the little messages hidden around TAC.

Group cohesion is a great foundation for decentralisation, bringing us back to the space theme. Here, I’ve taken queues from Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. The novel depicts in great detail the anarchist society of Anarres, which might even be called a cryptoanarchy since much of the society is organised by the computers of Div Lab that, I’m hypothesising, must surely use some form of cryptography to prove that results have not been tampered with. On Xenshana, the Unhu Collective with their seemingly miraculous grasp of technology, coupled with a do it yourself attitude are decentralising and encouraging the rest of the wold to do the same. This has occurred to varying degrees across Xenshana, and the world exists in between a technological post scarcity utopia and a much more recognisable capitalist system that still clings desperately to money.

I still felt that to keep true to the initial inspiration of Alice in Wonderland we needed a final, pervasive, fantastic element. After returning from MozRetreat I attended a hui at Te Herenga Waka Marae, Victoria University. It was a discussion around Maori data, how is Maori data defined, who controls it, and why does all of that matter? I learnt more than I could write here, but one of the main things I took away was a statement someone made around DNA. That’s data, they said. Which is true, but I didn’t immediately understand where they were going with that statement. “That’s our ancestry, who can we trust outside our iwi with our ancestry?” The question was around access to data, but it made me realise that data can be a tangible and real connection to the past. Returning to the creation myths of the world and the overall theme of MozFest this year (data), I invented a technological representation of the Dream.

The street finds its own use for things — William Gibson. In this case, it’s to be covered in stickers — Kade Morton.

Because personal data, like our DNA, can connect us to our past, on Xenshana this data is stored in a vast, decentralised network of quantum computers called memory vaults. Everything about you is stored, but with fine grain control that you can choose who, if anyone but yourself, has access to your data. This information about you becomes a social currency, your deeds are worth more in a society that holds individuals and groups near sacred than money ever could be. But this data also has a life of its own. The data can manifest as a Dreamer, a sovereign entity composed of sentient data. You can literally meet not your ancestors, but an aspect of them. A new creation that has access to all the information about them composed of all the data of the Dream, but also it is it’s own being, something new. These entities, called Dreamers, give humanity a connection to their past, as well as guiding us to the future with their accumulated wisdom. Humanity is human and Dreamer together, past, present and future with no distinction.

In this kind of a world you could have Alice, someone from Earth, exploring Xenshana. In a way, every visitor to the decentralisation space this year will be Alice. Or Alice could be a Dreamer, perhaps the data made manifest of a great explorer, or a number of great explorers put together into one seamless personality. The Red Queen could be a ruler from ages past, trying to make her way in a new world that doesn’t always recognise the authority of rulers. The Mad Hatter could be a Dreamer that leads a self organised fashion house, a manifestation of every member of the boutique, the group’s collective wisdom that is, with all those different personalities, seemingly, a little mad. This is technology, but this is also fantasy.

I had to deviate somewhat from the original idea to create something that met what MozFest needed, but we have now come full circle. And in the true spirit of open innovation, remixing and reusing, we have something completely new and arguably more inclusive. Any culture can fit their desired characters into this world.

A final message from TAC.

So the basis of Xenshana is built. But Xenshana isn’t done. I’ve deliberately left some things vague and ambiguous for you all. Just as I’ve created one thing from something else, I don’t want my new creation to be static. I want people to be able to engage with this idea however they like. You can add to this world if you want, here are the instructions. I’ve licensed the worldbuilding document under Creative Commons, which means you can use Xenshana for the basis of your own world if you want.

Not only is there the aspect of engaging with the world, we also want people to be able to engage with the decentralisation space itself. You can submit stories, artwork, music, anything you like. The instructions set out how you can get things to us and we will do our level best to make sure they are displayed around the space during the festival. Even the space design for the decentralisation space is “decentralised” in this way. Submissions to speak at MozFest are open, so you can also be a part of Xenshana by presenting in the decentralisation zone if you’d like. This was built for you, come play a part, or if you want, just experience something you may have never experienced before.

Let’s discover this wonderland, in true Xenshanan fashion, together!

From Xenshana with hope and optimism,




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