Nika Dubrovsky on the Brain Trust Project

Published on: October 19 / 2023

Some questions for Brian Trust’s project, more in the style of a friendly conversation to broaden our view of what can and should be done.

Let’s start with the fact that with each year, and even with each day, there is a growing sense of shrinking possibilities.

Previously it was said that we could still stop climate change, now, it is said that we cannot stop it, but we can avoid the worst effect. 

The worst effect means the total extinction of all life on Earth. 

So what do we do in response to this? 

We keep knocking on the doors of the governments of various countries as well as international organizations. We demand immediate action. We exhort, even try to threaten the power, as well as persuade it. 

So, we want to start working on a positive program. The intention is not to make demands on the government and make them write laws in the hope that they will be passed and enforced; instead, we try to understand what we can do here and now on our own.

Some may ask why I decided to hold a series of very practical lectures, calling it “The Brain Trust,” while the David Graeber Institute was set up in the name of an anthropologist, not an engineer, biologist or chemist. Some might even think that these lectures are reminiscent of survivalists who prepare for the end of the world in various ways, from building expensive bunkers in New Zealand to family ammunition depots to farming.

To answer these questions, lets us consider several things: 

Direct Action VS Protest

David Graeber tended to look for ways to do something concrete with other people, as opposed to giving other people instructions about what they should be doing. 

“Protest,” David said, “is when someone demands something of authority, and I have always found it problematic and even depressing, which is why I like the concept of direct action. The classic example is the well. There’s a town where water is monopolized and the mayor is in bed with the company that monopolizes the water. If you were to protest in front of the mayor’s house, that’s protest, and if you were to block the mayor’s house, it’s civil disobedience, but it’s still not direct action. Direct action is when you just go and dig your own well because that’s what people would normally do if they didn’t have water.”

What can be done, if anything, by the urban poor or the people from the so-called third-world countries? 

The Appropriate Technology movement, which emerged in the 1970s, that laid the foundation for treating technology as commensurate with the human community, controllable, that these communities would be able to produce, repair and develop by themselves.

Can we, as a group of (urban) poor, with very limited resources and without access to land or capital, survive independently from the state? Even asking this question seems problematic. All activist efforts are focused on asking, advising, even threatening, or otherwise interacting with all sorts of city authorities. But the responsibility for the actual actions themselves, from education to medical care to food security, is completely shifted toward power.No one thinks it is possible, even beginning to ask questions about whether it is feasible, at least in part, to obtain self-government and real autonomy, and what it might look like. 

David continually stressed his connection to the parents who had shaped his views. 

Here is what he wrote about them:

There were a lot of books around the house when I was growing up, but almost no books of critique. I mean I’m sure my parents had CAPITAL, at least volume one, but very few books about how awful the world was. They had lots of science fiction, lots of history, and lots of anthropology. I think their attitude was “I spent my nine to five working, experiencing how this system sucks for myself; I don’t need to read about that; I want to read about what other ways of existing might be like.” I still like that. I like it when plucking something off the shelf takes you to another world completely. I like things that aren’t explicitly political, but open up radically different ways of being.

It was “building the new society in the shell of the old” that interested David. 

Of course, influencing institutional politics and supporting unions and progressive activists is an important part of the work we all have to do. Still, open-source movements and DIY projects are no less politically grounded because they are concerned with moving production and consumption from the control of the authorities to the control of the people.

If that had happened even in part, we would live in a different world. 

How to start 

David did not like to get depressed, always looking for positive exits and trying to remain optimistic. Yet, for all of us, it was obvious that the situation did not offer much hope. Surprisingly, there are still many people who do not understand the seriousness of the current situation, the speed of the deterioration of our planet’s climate, and how little time we really have left, not even to stop the degradation but simply to prepare for the blow. It is also unclear what predictions there are about how this will unfold. 

This is why Brain Trust will start with a roundtable discussion, in which David’s friends and participants from the core group of Brain Trust will talk about the current state of affairs. 

Our twelve lectures will be a practical response to it.

We plan to accompany our lectures with artistic and activist actions, debates, and community projects that will engage others and restore their faith in the possibility of change.

If you think about it, the feeling of powerlessness that many of us experience from time to time is also a denial of climate change and attempts to fight it. The same applies to the attitude of “the change is too enormous; it has gone too far. Nothing can be done now without powers to be involved, and we don’t have any control over what they will do.”

Thus in the Brain Trust, we’ll do what we can in countries of the Global South, among communities of the urban poor in developed countries to try to do what we can and to see what happens. Our project is a gesture of respect to the work of the people who created the free software movement based on the philosophy of everyday Communism. Today, it underpins a whopping 97% of applications leverage open-source code, and 90% of companies are applying or using it in some way. 

But once upon a time, and I still remember those times, one had to prove why bother with installing Linux when you could work with convenient Microsoft.

Can we imagine what it would mean for many third-world countries that simply could not physically pay for Microsoft or Mac software, lets’s say they are starving or under sanctions. 

Not to mention the fact that most spies on its customers. 

People like Richard Stallman, who invented and set up this movement, for many years were looked at as clowns or fools wasting their time on nonsense instead of getting rich and flying to the stars or building floating cities like Elon Musk or Peter Thiel. 

Our first lecture will be about the RepRap project.  

Adrian Bowyer will be our first lecturer.  It is no coincidence that we chose him as our first lecturer. I met him many years ago when he had just started working on Rep Rap. He came up with the idea of a machine that would build itself, gradually making its own production cheaper, eventually reducing it to zero. The process of continually reproducing the machine (Rep Rap), he envisioned, would be accompanied by technically creative people who could modify and improve it. 

What attracted me most was the combination of engineering talent, organizational skills, and informed political vision.

This Englishman, a university professor, was incredibly reminiscent of characters from Soviet science fiction novels and movies from the Khrushchev Thaw. 

In an interview he gave me, he talked about how instead of seizing the means of production from the rich, he wanted to create technologies that would allow everyone to own the means of production: both rich and poor, but especially the third world countries. 

We now see that the story unfolded exactly as he had planned. Today, Rep Rap has become the basis for the vast majority of 3d printers worldwide. Its cost has dropped by many times and, while still not zero, is comparable to the cost of a large Lego set. 

Rep rap is not just a technical invention; it is the proposal of a new system of social relationships. 

In a way, it’s very Marxian. After all, it was Marx who spoke of “the ultimate goal — the destruction of the state, markets and the establishment of communism,” but Adrian Bowyer’s proposal is not about the violent redistribution of scarce resources into ” more just ownership,” but about destroying the very idea of scarcity by transforming the whole idea of production, distribution, logistics and, as a result, power relations in society.  

In this sense, Adrian Bowyer is a very English man – a true heir to William Maurice, with his focus on communal luxury and self-sustainable production. 

This is not to say that people have stopped shopping around, got 3d printers and dropped out of the capitalist system. That would be hard to demand because it’s not just about the availability of technology, the cost of the means of production, but above all, the consumerist magic of capitalism, the endless advertising, people’s employment, education levels and the like. 

Rep Rap is not only a technical invention; it is a proposal for a new social order, and its spread is directly linked to the political regime in which this machine, this invention, functions.

It’s clear that Rep Rap is changing our world. It has equally entered the commercial world of production, gradually replacing assembly line manufacturing with single-piece production, it has emerged in thousands of hubs all over the world, empowering people to experiment, to improve, giving them the very tools of direct action, to actually change something, not just scrabbling around pitifully in the bosses’ waiting room, arguing and plotting. 

Some year before Adrian Bowyer, other good people, among them Richard Stallman, creator of the GNU license, came up with the Open Source Software movement, which today has made our world, both private users and entire countries, which are virtually entirely dependent on computers, but still, thanks to Linux and Apache and other open-source systems not entirely dependent on Microsoft, Apple and other proprietary software.

I remember well how it used to be said that long-haired freaks and hippies tried to oppose beautiful cutting-edge private companies, like Apple, by distributing their useless clunky software instead of getting rich during the Gold Rush of the computer revolution, buying spaceships, or building cities in the ocean like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel.

Perhaps our role as anthropologists, artists, storytellers, and activists could be just as important as the role of the scientists to help this (and other) essential technologies that situate themselves in the right place between engineering and social practice to develop sufficiently to liberate us all. 

edited by Melissa Canbaz

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