Fellowship Interviews

Fellowship interview with Smári McCarthy

Smári McCarthy is a thoughtful anarchist and practical chaos technician – with a deep interest in Free Software and democracy. Currently serving as project manager for the Icelandic Innovation Center, Smári works on digital fabrication and peer-to-peer education, while spending his spare time breaking the fundamental assumptions of how we organise society. I sat down for an interesting interview with Smári, in which he explained his projects and how they can contribute towards a more sustainable world.

Stian Rødven Eide: One of the most profiled projects you have been involved with is the Fab Lab, having headed the Icelandic branch for over a year now. While best known for its use of 3D printers, the Fab Lab is actually a much broader concept that goes far beyond technical innovation. Can you tell us a bit about your work there, and what you hope to achieve?

Smári McCarthy
Smári McCarthy
Photo by Alda Jónsdóttir

Smári McCarthy: There are two sides to the Fab Lab story. On the one hand, there’s the research side, which is all about developing the universal constructors, figuring out the hard science of digital fabrication. In that realm I think our work is done when we can download chicken sandwiches off the Internet.

On the other hand, there’s the social side. People want to be empowered by technology, and want to get access to it as soon as it comes out of the research. There are early adopters, and people who follow later, but it’s imperative that whenever we finish developing the technology that can make anything at the touch of a button, people know what it is and how it works, because otherwise there’s a high chance of bad people using that kind of technology for bad things.

SRE: Earlier this year, you visited Afghanistan and helped set up the Fab Lab there. With regards to the current Afghan infrastructure, or rather lack thereof, it seems like a major challenge. What were the main obstacles? Is the project going as planned?

Smári McCarthy: The Lab was actually there when I arrived, thanks to the efforts of Amy Sun and some other people last year, so when I went there the main mission was to build and deploy a wireless mesh network. We did that, and the reason we chose that kind of project was that of all the things people need in Afghanistan, one of the greatest challenges is getting access to good information. In European history, we developed water tech and food tech and building tech and so on in a fairly linear order – much like it’s portrayed in games like FreeCiv – but leapfrogging can change the game a lot. Give people access to vast pools of technical know-how and hopefully a lot of infrastructure questions will solve themselves.

What surprised me was how few obstacles there were. We used a lot of “tape engineering” (extreme usage of gaffer tape should be a mandatory course in engineering schools) and a lot of patience, and everybody did their homework. The project is going great: When we left, four FabFi links were active. Since then, locals have built links five and six, and are planning on at least two more. We have no control over the growth, nor do we want such authority – it’s just good that people want to use it.

SRE: A lot of your motivation for working on digital fabrication seems to stem from the wish for a more sustainable technology. Could you elaborate a bit on how you see the connection between the digital fabrication and sustainability?

Smári McCarthy: Back in the 1950′s, there was a bunch of people like John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener who were thinking about computation and industrialization in very abstract terms, and did a whole lot of work in figuring out that there needn’t be much difference between the kind of mechanisms we have in software and the kind we have in hardware. I always liked that idea, the idea that computer science might be able to seep through into reality, and I’ve also always been a big fan of harsh environments and extreme situations. Naturally, I’m inclined to bind those two together. The situation on Earth right now is getting a bit complicated though – the exact situations that fascinate me the most are economical and political instability, global warming, excessive regulation and general foolishness, threatening to destroy humanity. Sustainability is one of the keys to solving that problem – as my friend Vinay Gupta noted, 6 billion people living the way the two billion richest humans live – a six billion person suburbia – is a situation that will get us all killed very very fast, because it’s not sustainable at all. How then do we make harsh environments pleasant? Digital fabrication and, more generally, thinking about the computational capacity of the universe, may be one of the answers to that question.

SRE: In some of your last talks, you even bring free software principles to economy, democracy and law. Using technological infrastructure that is more or less already in place, you envision a rather simple plan to instate a radically direct democracy. Can you briefly explain how this organizational model works? Do you regard Iceland as a suitable testbed for this?

Smári McCarthy: Yeah, that’s another point in the same realm – right now it’s not just our industrialization and suburban organization that’s unsustainable, it’s our political and economical systems. So, thinking about how democracy works, I realized that the best democracy I’ve ever seen is the Internet, and the beauty of it is that there’s no assumption of preordained structure in it. No explicit hierarchy. There’s a bunch of implicit hierarchies and cryptohierarchies that come and go, but nothing as clearly defined as “this guy here is the president of the Internet”. A lot of people complain that direct democracy doesn’t work because of scaling issues – too many things to discuss and each person doesn’t have enough time to spend on each problem. So what about taking a page from the book of the Internet, and say: Let those who wish to participate do so, and keep the entry threshold as low as technically possible.

Giving everybody a say is really easy, and people like being able to have a say. If the question is relevant to them they’ll chime in, and if it isn’t they’ll just go with the flow most of the time. What follows from this is a bunch of meditations on an arbitrary networked structure for democracy – I’ve called it crowdsourced democracy. After the financial collapse in Iceland last October, a bunch of people started thinking along the same lines and we’ve formed a sort of “shadow parliament”, which is just a website that copies all the issues going through the real parliament and allows people to have their say. It’s doing really well, and I think Iceland is a great testbed for it – mostly because it’s a small population with a lot of opinions, a lot of distress these days due to a ton of prosperity being pulled from underneath their feet, and people are generally very tech savvy.

SRE: You’re also a board member of the Icelandic Society for Digital Freedoms, and recently wrote an article indicating a substantial movement towards Free Software in Iceland. How do you regard the current development in this matter? Has the economic crisis, which hit Iceland especially hard, had any effect on how Free Software is regarded?

Smári McCarthy: Just last week we were on the campaign trail for this. Eben Moglen and Mishi Choudhary from the Software Freedom Law Center came over and we met with the President, the Ministers of Education, Health and Industry, people from the Prime Minister’s office and the Finance Ministry, as well as the Reykjavík municipality, and generally we’re sensing a huge shift towards Free Software. The financial situation opened a door that we “free as in freedom” people rarely acknowledge, which is that Free Software actually typically is free as in free beer, and that’s the kind of incentive the government needs right now.

So Reykjavík has signed a deal. They’re switching to Free Software before the end of the year, and the education ministry is going to be switching some schools and institutions to Free Software as a trial effort. It’s too early to tell what else will come from last week’s efforts, but it’s clear that proprietary software is going to have a very tough time.

SRE: As a high-school teacher, you have taught courses in civil liberty and technological literacy. With regards to your work on peer-to-peer education, how do you generally structure the learning process in such courses? Do you see the shift towards a peer-to-peer mindset as transformative for education in general and, if so, in what way?

Smári McCarthy: I agree very strongly with people like Paul Lockhart and Ken Robinson in that the entire education system as we know it has a completely devastating force on people’s creativity and interest. I try to address this when I teach, but it’s very hard. When I get a class of 16-year-olds who’ve been raised to hate school and hate mathematics and just simply hate thinking, it’s very hard to get them to open up and participate. You ask them a question and they just sit there waiting for you to tell them the answer, because they’ve been trained to know that you’ll do that anyway. It’s almost as if Pavlov had rung the bell and eaten the food too.

The civil liberties course that I’ve been teaching (in which I use Cory Doctorow’s brilliant book “Little Brother” as course material) starts off by focussing on technology, and I manage to pry the kids open by forcing them to crack Caesar ciphers and calculate RSA keys whilst feeding them this historical yarn about why people were inventing this kind of thing, and then branching off into privacy and freedom and the hippie/yippie/hacker thing. By the time I show them Big Buck Bunny as an example of collaborative editing they’re interrupting the screening every two minutes with a highly political question – they realize the deep philosophy of Big Buck Bunny, and that is the win.

Take that kid right there and stick him in a Fab Lab, where he has the ability to collaborate with people all over the world, developing technology for himself and others. That’s just magic. I love it. It’s a whole lot of work getting people out of the shackles of the education system, but when it works it’s totally worth it.

A big thanks to Smári for giving us this interview. Make sure to check out his blog at smari.yaxix.org/blag.

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One Response to “Fellowship interview with Smári McCarthy”

  1. inkimar Says:

    Thanks for the interview and spreading the word.
    Sitting down this Saturday evening, ordered the book ‘ the element’ and ‘ little brother ‘ and added to that ‘ the difference machine’ by Gibsson&Sterling.

    I would like to hear more about Wireless Mesh Technology, found some articles out there and they are probably enough.
    Unfortunately I missed the talk by Smári, are u speaking at http://www.fosdem.org/2010/ ?

    regards, i