Technological futures under the redwoods


August 22, 2023

“I think, as a species, we have a desire to believe that we’re living at the climax of the story. It’s a kind of narcissism. We want to believe that we’re uniquely important, that we’re living at the end of history, that now, after all these millenia of false alarms, now is finally the worst it’s ever been, that we finally have reached the end of the world.

“But this raises an interesting question,” Olive said. “What if it always is the end of the world? … Because we might reasonably think of the end of the world … as a continuous and never-ending process.”

Sea of Tranquility, Emily St. John Mandel

Redwood Canopy at DWeb's Camp Navarro
Looking up at DWeb's Camp Navarro

Ruminations on DWeb Camp 2023

Speaking from a plague-tinged future not unlike our own reality, this passage from Sea of Tranquility resonated when I read it a few weeks after returning from my first DWeb Camp. A week-long gathering in the California hills, DWeb Camp was a good antidote to the existential dread I sometimes carry; a vital response to the now-is-end-of-the-world feelings that many seem to share in this age of burning forests, warming oceans, and democratic failings. Technology frames my dystopian sentiments and DWeb Camp opened a space to envision different techno-futures than the extractive stare of Big Tech; one in which there are still wisps of the original dream of technology as a medium for connection and community.

Hypha members and collaborators have been involved with DWeb Camp since its inception, and for the first time this year, Hypha was officially recognized as a project partner. For my colleagues, the gathering was equal parts reunion and project updates, both reconnecting with collaborators from around the world, while also seeing the progress of initiatives over the past year — and asking about everyone’s finances in a tough and anxious market. As a first-time participant, it was an exercise in swimming in a sea of introductions to people and projects, catching sessions when I could, and actively letting go of FOMO (one of the first pieces of advice from camp emcee Honey Bear. Side note: DWeb Camp had a weirdly large number of people named Bear.)

A sign shows HYPHA's logo among DWeb's sponsors
Hypha makes it onto the sign <3

DWeb Camp walks the line between hopeful and fretful, giving space to small single-person projects while also welcoming OpenAI as a lead sponsor. Tensions produce interesting results, and the AI tent was always a guarantee of spicy conversation. The technical and ethical questions of AI could never be resolved in such a forum, but it gave me a more nuanced understanding of the trade-offs involved in the exponential advances in ML and AI – which is perhaps all you can hope for in a series of 45-minute discussions.

Overall, the sessions I attended were interesting — and many were genuinely fun. I spent much of my week in the Overflow Stack tent, which was the de facto home of governance-related conversations, talking about effective governance, data trusts, and of course, co-operatives. In other sessions, I learned about caring for mutable art, contemplated distributed design patterns, and listened to the tale of a brine shrimp during the COMPOST Issue 03 Release. DWeb Camp’s huge range of session topics made for an eclectic experience, and many of my favourite moments happened in the more random sessions (like trying to listen to the sap within the redwood trees via acoustic emissions). One wish I have for future events is to better promote the design track; UX and UI design are critical to the wider adoption of decentralized tools and giving these sessions more prominence — and having more of them — is a must.

A group of people gathered under a tent for COMPOST Issue 3 release
Mai leads the COMPOST Issue 3 release session

Alongside friends from a number of other co-operatives, Hypha held an emergent co-op focussed session during the TOMORROW event on the final day of camp. TOMORROW was pitched as the ‘day we’re turning off the Internet,’ and so all sessions needed to be decidedly lo-tech. On the day-of, a county-wide power outage added some excitement and a genuine feeling of “oh shit” to the proceedings, though power was restored after a few hours and before they could fully test out the solution suggested by DWeb Fellow Dinesh (Tesla car batteries to power the local mesh network). The scheduling process for TOMORROW was a confusing scramble, but the co-op session was amazingly well attended by co-op members and the co-op curious alike. This discussion has spawned an ongoing Signal group of global co-op folks swapping notes and sharing perspectives. Continuing conversations and connections is the best outcome I could have imagined for the session.

A whiteboard full of post-it under the title 'Forcibly displaced — Help Fix your sessions'
Ad-hoc scheduling fixes for some sessions (not ours!) during TOMORROW

Being in conversation and community with my fellow DWeb campers for the 5-day event was equal parts inspiring and exhausting. But I came away from camp feeling that our current end-of-the-world-making might just be more creative and empathetic than I’d thought possible.