RadicalxChange Day 2

by May 14, 2019

It’s been over a month since RadicalxChange wrapped up, but even now I am still trying to process the whirl of ideas, inspiration, and connections from that weekend. This overview of day two is unfortunately limited to the tiny slice of the day that I witnessed, so if I missed or undersold anything, tweet at us!

Saturday morning, I entered the lobby to see groups of students talking and laughing over paper plates full of fruit and mini scones, while academics circled the tables to answer questions about graduate school, research, and what inspired them to study what they do. The idea of the academic networking event had been spontaneous, tweeted out by our Academic track chair Ananya Chakravarti just the night before.

The first keynote of the day was Alisha Holland, political scientist and associate professor at Princeton. Her talk took examples from Latin America to discuss how varying strengths of property rights affected a country’s ability to complete public works. While she only directly addressed ideas from Radical Markets towards the end, the talk provided historical context and justification for COST. It felt like a rare moment watching artists and blockchain engineers listen avidly to a talk about unfinished highways and bogged down transmission lines in Colombia, taking notes all along about how it connected to their work.

After the keynote wrapped up, there was an absolute wealth of options. Zooko Wilcox, creator of Zcash, took over the main stage to discuss a nascent idea about social income, while other panels addressed development in the global south, new strategies for democratic governance, and “Building Obligations to Each other as a Way of Building Collection Action.” Mind you, in the background of this chaos unconference sessions sprung up in the gallery and another room screened “Sorry to Bother You.” Knowing that I would be missing something incredible any way I sliced it (and that I would just have to watch the youtube videos later) I opted for a panel entitled “The Radical Potential of Competition Policy,” with Fiona Scott Morton, Juliana Oliveira Domingues, Andrea Butelmann, and Paul Tang, moderated by Glen Weyl. The panelists discussed the historical development of antitrust in various countries, and particularly how and why the US, while once the global leader in antitrust, has fallen behind Europe. The panelists also discussed tech monopolies, network industries, and whether we really are entering a new gilded age. The panel wrapped up with a hopeful note that there seems to be renewed public interest in antitrust – which was critical to previous major antitrust breakthroughs.

At 11:00, another round of panels and workshops kicked off. One focused on “Radically Reimagining the City” while another asked “Can radical imagination thrive with radical markets, data-as-labor and the always-on-auction?” and a third addressed “Implementing quadratic voting,” (which has switched to past tense with the recent news out of the Colorado State Senate). I’ll be completely honest, planning a conference is surprisingly draining and I had to slip out of an interesting discussion of charter cities to try to take a nap in the back corner room. From my couch vantage point, I ended up watching a toddler put a bottle cap on and off of a water bottle for about half an hour. Completely worth it, as it gave me a chance to reflect both on RadicalxChange’s purpose and demographics. In some sense, we’re all doing this for the bottle cap toddler. This project is future facing. Of course we want to make our present better, but every talk and every project I saw here seems to be asking how we can change structures now to ensure a better mid to long term future. The speakers and community also recognize that implementing many of these ideas on a large scale will be slow and difficult, and the fruits of doing so may not be felt for a while. The toddler and his grandmother also reminded me of the broad appeal of this project. While this particular attendee happened to be our youngest, we had everyone from high school students to retirees. Everyone wants an economy that is both more vibrant and more fair, everyone wants to fund public goods more sustainably, to have better infrastructure, and more wholistic pictures of identity. Everyone wants to be able to communicate this vision through art and articles, prototypes and policies.

I gave up on the nap and returned to lunch and the ProjectxChange project fair. While I had heard of some of the projects before, like Decentraland, Democracy Earth, and Gitcoin, I had not heard of others like Bunz and Civic. I particularly enjoyed the Civic booth, where I was allowed to send a dollar to a journalist of my choice who was using their platform.

The conference came back together in the big auditorium to hear Margaret Levi, Professor and Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, speak on “Generating a New Moral Political Economy.” Her talk traced the fraying of the political-economic framework that was built after WW2, and emphasized how economies result from moral and political choices – that they are not natural, they are built. She argued that we need to find society wide values and to make them clear, because these values end up delineating who we feel obligations to and become accepted justifications for arrangements of power within a society. The audience was so enthralled that a large group followed her out after her talk and they had an impromptu hour long breakout session.

The next round of breakout sessions included one with Alex Tabarrok discussing the benefits of open borders, Devon Zuegel exploring what physical infrastructure can teach us about open source, and two academic panels: one on regulating markets and the other on ethical markets. I had been waiting ever since I read “Liberal Radicalism,” to meet the enigmatic Zoe Hitzig, both a philosopher, economics Phd, and poet so I chose the “Ethical Markets” Panel. Hitzig’s talk was entitled “Markets, Mechanisms, & Morals” and explored the promise and peril of mechanism design, particularly its tendency to remove value laden language and replace it with value free language, and how it replaces democratic processes with technocratic and “objective” ones. Also on the panel was a phenomenal talk by Marielle Gross and Robert Miller, who included a skit that displayed what a future healthcare system could look like if it recognized “Health Data as Labor,” yielding more transparency and equity for patient data use, progressively better treatment, and vastly lower costs.

The final breakout session of the day featured Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google and director of the Center for Humane Technology. The room was full of scratching pens and alert faces as he told us that our current relationship to technology – the addiction, the attention extraction and monetization, – was not inevitable but is a result of choices made not too long ago. Harris explained that perverse incentives do not just shape how we see the world, but eventually the world itself. He wants technologists and policy makers to adopt a vulnerable view of human nature and to build systems understanding how easily people can be manipulated. He himself studied persuasion by looking at magic and cults, as both taught something about directing human belief and attention. He said while solutions like training tech people in ethics, putting your phone in grayscale or turning off the notifications, paying people for their data, or putting these services on the blockchain might be helpful to some degree – they are not sufficient. Harris encouraged the room to step out of the learned helplessness that these services create, that we need to recognize that we are not alone in challenging these the perverse private incentives that monopolize our attention and our data – but also that there is no adult in the room to fix these problems if we do not. After his speech, Harris was also flocked by attendees and he held a breakout session that was packed even after eight hours of conference.

The evening featured COST monopoly – the classic board game redone to reflect the idea of harberger tax, – along with an art auction where the piece was being created even as people bid. I unfortunately missed these events, as exhaustion got the better of me again and I went back to the volunteer Airbnb to socialize with the other lovely people who made this event possible and to prepare for the final packed day. We’ll report soon on the last day of RadicalxChange!