Free Sources or Why Production No Longer Worries Us (Part 2)

Cover of the book containing the German version of this text[Part 1 / Diesen Artikel gibt es auch auf Deutsch.]

Meshes and Routes

Re/production used to be a burden which kept countless people busy for most of their lives. No longer. It has become a relatively easy and mostly pleasant affair, not least because of our reliance on mesh networks. Decentralized mesh networks allow everyone to participate. They are organized in ways that avoid asymmetric dependencies and ensure that nobody can acquire a specifically privileged position.

The Internet, precursor of our Intermesh, was the first global network which implemented the mesh principle to a high degree. It was a network of many networks, without a privileged center. Whenever a particular route was turned off, the affected messaged simply took a different way around it. However, it still had some centralized components which were eliminated later – most significantly, the Domain Name System (DNS) which was used to bind the names used in communications to specific computers.

Our energy network is a mesh too. Most garden farms run wind turbines and almost all houses have solar panels or solar-thermal collectors on their roofs (the latter produce electricity and heat in parallel). If the electricity isn’t locally needed, it’s fed into the Powermesh. If, on the other hand, you need more energy than locally available, you draw the difference from the Powermesh.

Further building blocks for our decentralized energy supply are the high-performance batteries and supercapacitors placed in most homes. Whenever a house or other place produces more energy than locally needed, there are two options: feed it into the mesh or store it in the local battery. The local control software decides which option to prefer at any given moment, considering the hints it gets from the mesh about energy production elsewhere. If there is a general surplus, the energy should be stored for later; if energy is needed elsewhere, it should be feed into the mesh. Similar decisions are made by the software whenever you need more energy than locally produced: it will be taken either from the mesh or from the local battery, depending on hints about the state of the mesh.

Other energy sources such as geothermal energy and the remaining stocks of natural gas are also used, but sun and wind are the most abundant sources. They tend to complement each other well. Higher wind intensities often go along with clouds and less sunshine, and vice versa. And the sun has the advantage of giving most energy around noon, when demand for energy is highest. Thanks to the distributed mesh control software it’s usually possible to use power near to where it is produced rather than having to transport it over long distances (and losing parts of it in the process). Solar cells can be printed (printed electronics); most other equipment necessary for energy generation and distribution is made in Fab hubs on 3D printers and CNC mills.

Water distribution follows similar principles. Most garden farms have wells for drawing groundwater and most houses have systems for rainwater collection. The water is filtered and processed locally. The various sources are connected through a mesh of pipelines, allowing access to water from nearly sources whenever necessary. The mesh control software ensures that this happens smoothly and that the water is not transported over longer distances than necessary. It also maintains a sufficiently high pressure in all pipes. Wastewater usually flows to the nearest garden farm, as most have small sewage plants. The resulting sludge is often used as fertilizer, with remainders being burned as power source when this can be done safely.

Route projects take care of the transportation infrastructure – power cables, pipes for fresh water and sewage, streets and traffic lines. Usually they are run by self-selected volunteers, like all projects. In some communities, however, their members are selected by lot, due to the essential role these projects have for the local infrastructure. In any case, it is clear that all users of infrastructure are involved in the decision making process and that all decisions require the rough consensus of everybody concerned. That’s important because other projects can be forked if necessary: if an agreement cannot be reached or if some people are unhappy with the course of the project, they can leave it and start their own alternative. But for route projects, this is hardly a viable option. The existing routes have to be used, maintained, and where necessary expanded, to avoid wasting time and resources.

For road traffic, electric bicycles and light electric vehicles with three or four wheels are popular. The e-vehicles can drive autonomously on elevated roads marked with colored guide paths. In this way they also transport goods without requiring human intervention. On smaller, ground-level roads, they need a driver who can take control when necessary. All cities have public transportation systems, often gondola lifts (cable cars) which initially because popular in South America (“Metrocable”). The cables holding the gondolas are often mounted below the elevated roads. Long-distance travel most often takes place in maglev trains or other kinds of autonomous high-speed trains. You can leave your e-bike or e-vehicle at the station and pick up another one after reaching your destination.

Sea travel doesn’t require physical routes. There are lots of projects that run ships between seaside cities. For long distances, hovercrafts are popular. They are fast, though not quite as fast as the airplanes that existed in the oil-rich past. Today a journey from Lisbon to New York takes about two days, while the Concorde, the fastest airplane of all times, covered that distance in four hours. (Though it was only used for a few decades.) But we have much more leisure than the people of that epoch, and it’s fun to dash over the water.

Resources and Conflicts

Formerly, people had less time, and more worries. Apparently they believed that Earth wasn’t big enough to host eight billion people or more. Considering their way of life, that was probably even true, but today we manage well enough. Many of their problems must have been related to the fact that they attached little virtual labels to almost everything, declaring it the “property” of somebody or other. There where innumerable conflicts about who was the actual owner of this or that property. Many people didn’t have enough; others had far more than they could ever have used.

Meanwhile we are much more relaxed about such stuff because we know that we can usually get access to the things we need whenever we need them. Meshes provide electricity, water and communication options. When you need medical care, you get it in the nearest health hub or, if necessary, in a specialized medical hub. To improve our skills we have learning hubs. Transportation is free for all. Food and other essential goods are provided by garden farms and fab hubs, and lots of useful items can be 3D-fabricated at home. The required constituents (such as plastic filament for 3D printers, wooden and metal plates for CNC mills, yarn for knitting and weaving machines) come from refeeding projects. They also handle the collection and recycling of waste.

In case of shortages, allocation follows the round-robin principle. Elemental needs are taken care of first. For other desires you may have to wait same time. Anyone who feels treated unfairly can complain to the local conflict council. Luckily, shortages and complaints tend to be rare. It certainly helps that we always aim to make the most of whatever’s there. Formerly people had lots of electronic devices for various purposes, all of which had a computer as their core. Nowadays, everybody tends to carry a single Turing box around, which can be turned into a phone, camera, navigation device, audio player, e-book reader, tablet, fully-fledged laptop, or any combination thereof, just by mounting the chosen I/O components. Most people keep a second Turing box at home, used as desktop computer, Intermesh server, media center and for controlling the machines in the home. That’s enough; it’s flexible and spares you from carrying unnecessary ballast around.

Every community has a resource council that tracks which resources – land, housing, natural resources – are in use and which are available. If you need something, say a home, or rooms or land for a project, you query the resource council for what’s available and pick something that suits your needs. If you stop using a resource, you inform the resource council that it is available for use by others.

Resource councils and refeeding projects jointly form the resource network. Their common goal is to ensure that resources are available where and when needed. Per general agreement, communities that have lots of resources share a part of them with others who can use them. After all, they didn’t do anything special to deserve more than others. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be fair if they had more work with extracting and transporting resources just because they can be found in their neighborhood. Therefore, per the same agreement, other communities encourage volunteers to help with resource extraction wherever necessary. This wasn’t always easy, because mining tended to be an unpopular task that frequently ended up on the white list. But by now, there is rarely a lack of volunteers, since most resources are recycled and since automated mining has advanced a lot. Coordinating and supervising machines is often enough. Even the few harder tasks that remain are generally easy to distribute: many people appreciate doing them for some time as an unusual new experience.

Resource councils also try to detect impending bottlenecks and find remedies before they become real. For example, they coordinate with the local construction projects to take care of expected needs for housing and workspaces. These projects plan new or remodeled buildings as required, consulting the potential users whenever possible, and coordinate construction. They often use prefabricated elements that can be fabricated automatically, such as structural insulated panels (SIPs). This facilitates construction a lot.

As large building projects nevertheless require a great deal of work, they are often organized as community sprints. In addition to the members of the construction project and the future users, everybody living nearly is invited to help and bring the enterprise to a quick conclusion. Community sprints are often like big parties. After working together, you celebrate together. Of course, nobody is required to partake, but many do.

Resource councils keep lists of areas that cannot be used, say because local tradition considers them sacred or otherwise special, or because people have agreed that exploiting them would be destructive. Occasionally there is controversy about which places to add to these lists. If all else fails, the conflict council must decide. But that’s rare, since most cases can be resolved according to the rough consensus principle: if utilizing a place or resource displeases many or is considered unacceptable by some, it won’t happen.

The flow of material between projects follows agreements with fab hubs, vitamin factories, refeeding projects, and sometimes specialized supplier projects. Resource councils help with coordinating the flow of primary products and raw materials to where they are needed. Decenters and projects in need of special equipment may produce it themselves with the help of nearby fab hubs. Or they coordinate with other projects to set up joint supplier projects that produce for the demand of their parent projects.

The purpose of conflict councils is to resolve conflicts in difficult cases where those involved fail to do so. Resource council and route councils are staffed by lot in some places, by self-selection elsewhere. The members of conflict councils, however, are drawn by lot everywhere. Every community member adds their name to the lottery once they feel old enough. When you later feel too old or too ill, you can remove it again. If your name is drawn, you become a council member for one year. To avoid interruptions to your other projects and activities, you don’t have to start immediately, but can delay for up to twelve months.

There is no second term. After you have served once, your name is permanently removed from the lottery. But there are distinct lotteries for different kinds of councils, hence former members of a regular conflict council might still be drawn for an ad-hoc conflict council, a resource council, or a route project (and vice versa). Participation in the lottery is not strictly required, but refusal would be considered bad style.

Conflict councils are only invoked as a last resort. People usually try to resolve their conflicts between themselves. If necessary, they can ask voluntary mediation teams to help finding a solution. The basic principle of conflict resolution is to accept the others as your peers, to take their needs as serious as your own. If you forget this, the people around you may gently remind you. Mostly this principle allows finding a consensus everybody can accept (if maybe grumpily), without having to involve the council.

Many conflicts are about who gets to use a certain space or about concerns of potential or actual neighbors. (The vitamin factory next door makes noise until late night! Couldn’t that planned chemistry project release toxic gases?!) Others are about patterns of behavior that don’t fit together. (Some people like smoking in the community cafe, others suffer from the smoke).

Most conflicts can be resolved without anyone losing much. The central square might become a community cafe or fairground, while the project that would have liked to use it gets another space not far away. Smoking in the community cafe or in another public place might be allowed in certain parts of the building or during certain times, but not everywhere and all the time. To alleviate conflicts over housing, the best spots are typically used as public places or holiday apartments. Thus they are shared among many.

Projects need to take care that they address the concerns of their potential neighbors. If they fail to do so, they have to find a more secluded space where nobody feels at risk or disturbed. In the worst case, a project might have to abstain entirely, if community members consider it too risky no matter what.

If projects or individuals try to defy a conflict council’s decision, they have to expect not only vocal public criticism (“flaming”), but also boycotts and exclusion (“shunning”). Projects might be cut off from access to primary products and resources, and they’ll lose users and contributors. People might be excluded from the projects they’re involved in.

If a conflict is too big for a single community to resolve (communities usually have about 20,000 to 200,000 members and comprise several villages, a town or an urban quarter), an ad-hoc conflict council is established that exists just long enough to resolve this particular conflict. Members of the ad-hod councils are drawn by lot from among the residents of all communities involved.

Once people seem to have thought that people would beat each other up all the time, unless kept in check by strong authority. They also thought that the only way to spare everyone from having to live in permanent fear of losing what they have would be to label every artifact and every piece of nature as somebody’s exclusive property. But actually, it seems that they had created most of the problems they feared by themselves, by establishing and maintaining the social order of their times. Today we live without fear or hardship in a society that no longer needs borders or systematic exclusion. A society that enables everyone to live and act as they prefer, influenced, but not forced by others. Viewing human diversity as an advantage rather than a threat, we have managed to jointly self-organize our re/production. No longer a problem or a burden, it’s now an integral part of what makes life beautiful.

Appendix: Some Early Projects


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