“…cyberspace is characterised [in the 1984 novel Necromancer by William Gibson] by its placelessness and a sharp division between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ when users jack into the matrix, the ‘meat’ of the body in the physical world falls away and they enter an alternative, virtual realm where they float free from their bodies and their physical locations amongst a sea of geometric digital representations of global data flows.”
In this issue, Relational explores digital placeness. Our work is primarily focused on blockchain technology as a ripe social computing environment. One of the stickier challenges of making social connections online, however, is creating a felt sense of place. Sure, we can figure out a way to get people in the same digital space, at the same time. Yet somehow this digital co-location doesn’t necessarily scratch the human itch for connection.
As Relational continues to build a tool for collective cognition, OurLog, we’re co-creating a sense of place for the Relational squad, and also forming a better understanding of OurLog as a place. For us this means diving into an esoteric mix of concepts:
digital physics with Ethereum as a substrate: co-presence and the metaverse
the role and utility of AI
Here’s what we know for sure: place is contextual, and context is created by people. To that end, we’ll keep asking ourselves, how can tools help communities create shared spaces for connection and creation?
We also snuck in a bit about our build approach towards the end of the newsletter. Hint—it’s all about games and emergence!
Thanks for reading, XO!
In Relational’s OurLog, CJ linked up a talk from ludens, one of the builders behind Lattice, from DEFCON 2022. The talk focused on Ethereum, the shift from personal computing to societal computing, and how to emerge autonomous worlds in the Ethereum ecosystem. In other words: how to create places in the Ethereum social computer.
The key, as ludens explains, is the digital physics of a place: rules of play premised on autonomy and permissionless creation. CJ looped it back to OurLog: “I think the infra we choose to use is the digital physics itself. ETH has physics in it.”
At this point, we’ve got more questions than answers: how do we explore and better understand Ethereum’s digital physics? What does the digital physics afford in terms of developing a co-presence, a place that feels like we’re somewhere, together?
For now, we’re getting a better understanding of our priorities, and the qualities of placeness we want to see on the Ethereum social computer. For CJ, this is a reminder that co-presence may be the single most important aspect of a digital place:
I think the “metaverse” thing is a meme, yet in the age of COVID and remote work, co-presence is extremely important. Enabling co-presence and “place” while being physically distributed across a substrate that is public infra seems very important
I have some small feeling that yes, co-presence may be the killer thing enabled. Yet this co-presence is going to take many forms, just as it does in reality. It probably does not require VR or AR, or anything. But creating a placeness in a place without physical representation is key
Ethereum is a substrate on which this is possible. There’s a desire for digital placeness, even if the reality of this is somewhat unknown. There will likely be even more massive innovations once something like this can be achieved. There is something major lost when not being physically co-present. We have noticed this while being together in Austin and then being away. We are actively trying to schedule more co-presence with each other.
Jordan reminded us that we’re still a ways off on creating digital places that are fun enough to take over from the primacy of IRL place - especially in regard to VR. Instead, we should focus on digital placeness as a complement to — not a replacement of — IRL socialization.
there are a few material conditions wrt to social media that are worth re-examining. feeds and always fresh content aren’t more important or more valuable than real world experiences with humans, but it is are FAR more accessible than coordinating real world activities. As capital locks every physical part of life behind rent and fees, we have less and less places to casually convene, so connecting through media seems a cheaper & easier alternative. But even at its most insidious and pervasive extremes, the phone can be set down and pocketed quickly enough to remain engaged in the default world.
this feels like a set-up for thinking VR is still a logical continuation of these material factors; more & more systems moving fully online, increasing alienation and loneliness, lack of 3rd spaces etc. but there's still an acknowledged & very obvious barrier, it’s [VR] just not fun enough yet. Social media never had to directly compete with the things people truly enjoy, you can still rock climb or go to concerts and use it. It's able to compliment versus having to replace.
In terms of OurLog as a place, Jon explores OurLog as a community hub through the skeuomorphic of a bulletin board.
OurLog is for supporting a distributed group of people as they learn, build, and explore together. This means helping people coordinate their online and offline thinking time with each other. It is about signaling the intent to gather, inviting friends you know well and those friends you haven't met yet.
What does the central bulletin board of an online, distributed community look like?
a list of events, some of which are open to the public in various capacities
a list of goals and open questions the community is looking to answer / facilitate / build for
resources the community has found, vetted, or produced
information about how to get more involved and active, about the community's practices and thinking behind those practices
information about its story, how the community came to be, where it hopes to go
OurLog is about augmenting the interactions that would've already happened, had the group been perfectly situated within walking distance of each other, with shared rooms with whiteboards, wifi, and coffee mugs. It is about virtualizing a place before that place can exist. Making room for both predictability and serendipity with digital hallways.
Kristen has been pondering how the squad can emerge social rituals in an attempt to intentionally enter and exit the Relational field; or in Dave’s words, “logging in and out of the group mind.” These might occur at smaller time scales, like a specific design session as well as in longer time scale contexts, like at the beginning of a multi-week project.
this is for the purposes of having a shared experience, explicitly. it serves to prime folks upon entry and to help folks transition out upon exit.
the thing of it is this - when we convene, there's a LOT of energetic transfer. what we do with it in session is a sacred practice... how do we prepare ourselves for the task at hand? to intentionally focus our energies into a space... and then release that energy afterwards.
One area we’ve been exploring is enabling constraints for the "work week" at a team-level; some kind of a weekly ritual. There's certainly some forms here that would be fun and useful to frame the week—we work idiosyncratically, so there isn’t an obvious shape here. We’re investigating both sync and async approaches to this kind of weekly ritual:
entering into and exiting "the field" of the Relational working group
intentional open and close to the week, as a minimum enabling constraint for group cohesion
purpose is to increase our bandwidth as a group, not explicitly to create efficiencies in production though this may be a byproduct
in practice: checking-in and seeing what emerges when we connect, figuring out exactly what we want to do with this time
in practice: maybe a short sync sesh (30 mins) and/or async sharing of a small media artifact to encapsulate
We’re also figuring out the best way to collaborate across build sessions. There’s a definite need to share information at the end of each build sesh not only for other collaborators to pick up where we left off, but also to help ourselves remember what we’ve previously covered:
introducing....Time Capsules! ~2 minute long video recaps at the end of build seshes to share with whoever you want to invite to collaborate on the next phase of building
hypothesis: Time Capsules are best shared before or during a sync session, where you can talk with new collaborators and “hand-off” the work. Should work through an async hand-off as well. Bonus: useful for new collaborators, or just to remind yourself where you left-off.
-Kristen + Jon
Relational has, officially, fallen down the AI rabbit hole. In the Information Age, especially in social blockchain ecosystems, we can’t imagine how else we’ll be able to work with the absolutely immense amounts of data and information we’ve already amassed and we’ll continue to generate over time.
Dave shared a video of John Ash exploring collaborative sensemaking through a tool he calls Iris. One of the most salient aspects of Ash’s work has direct applicability to the R&D nature of Relational’s work, as Jon noted, "effectively using GPT-3 as a summarization + translation tool simultaneously.”
Dave and Jon explored this human-computer relationship, and ways in which GPT-3 can be used in our work. Much of this exploration is philosophical in nature—we’re realizing the depths of the implications of AI in social computing. It seems our squad has become so interested in AI, in particular GPT-3, because it affords a type of collaborative writing, or writing augmentation.
Essentially, we’re exploring using AI as an interface for working with a group’s thinking. For example, we can imagine how GPT3 could help with curation of the Relational newsletter based on our OurLog. This cross of social blockchain x AI technologies allows for a type of distributed collective cognition.
There are styles of human-computer-relationship. As I interact with the AI, I treat it as a crowd intelligence. Giving a text-speech to the “audience” represented in the model and asking for feedback. The way the crowd interprets my position can tell me how obscure my thinking is. The different lenses offered in the prompt can scope the feedback (feedback from a second grader, feedback from a philosopher). It’s an imperfect art but very useful. The different AI models can be used in cross-cultural conversation. As a type of interpreter.
Curious what kinds of controls could be exposed in a conversational thinking interface powered by a Large Language Model (LLM).
wow. did not think about GPT-3 being used in this way, at all. I think the distinction here is many projects try and use GPT-3 to find an answer to a posed question, from its massive dataset. instead, John Ash (in my understanding) leverages the language-parsing capabilities of the model to deconstruct and reconstruct the information. so effectively using GPT-3 as a summarization + translation tool simultaneously. John calls it a mirror and that is true in several senses: the model is already trained on a giant corpus of human writing, and also it is receiving raw, live information from the audience
During the demo, someone asked "what role does that leave all of us", which was interesting, voicing (broader) fears of AI changing the relationship between humans and work. John’s response was basically, "go out and build things and use this to get un-stuck"
Dave played around with Open AI, having the tool translate a software design concept into a mycelium and forest metaphor:
Prompt— Reframe and expand the following philosophy in a metaphor of mycelium and a forest:
Protocols are the substrate for experiences. Compelling experience emerges protocol. A diversity of compelling experience creates a robust protocol. A healthy protocol is a collaboration of experiences.
OpenAI— A protocol is like the mycelium of a mushroom. It is the hidden but essential foundation that supports the mushroom and allows it to grow. A compelling experience is like a mushroom. It emerges from the protocol and is something that can be enjoyed and appreciated. A diversity of compelling experiences is like a forest. It is a robust and healthy ecosystem that is supported by the protocol.
Relational has agreed on a strategic approach to building: play games to emerge the OurLog app to emerge the Relational protocol. Much of our work has been premised around designing simple games with a goal to emerge a piece of the puzzle that is OurLog.
While we have a directional sense of what OurLog will become, because blockchain technology is so new, we’re not sure exactly what is feasible. So, we play games to discover the boundaries on the tech, within the context of OurLog as a group cognition tool. Tony summarized our build approach nicely:
Shared Universe Mini Games
Make disjointed mini games at a regular cadence.
Game pieces are composable.
Some new games will use old game pieces.
In a nutshell, we’ll focus on building OurLog (an app) through games, and in the process we’ll emerge the Relational protocol. We’re calling this a vertical integration (as opposed to focusing on a horizontal protocol-focused build).
Our goal here is to prioritize the relationship with users and therefore an understanding of the market. We don’t want to be building in a vacuum—we want to build so that people can use our product and have the experience of enhanced group cognition. Eventually, as the protocol emerges, we’ll open things up horizontally so more developers can build using the Relational digital physics engine.
We’re in the thick of fall in the Northern hemisphere—so here’s a healthy dose of foliage and mushrooms. Lest we forget about the networked nature of mycelium connecting all plants and trees across our globe.
Mushrooms are the fruiting and reproductive body of mycelium, and how beautiful they are. As far as we’re concerned, nature as a reminder of collective intelligence will never steer us wrong!
Until next time! 🙏 💗 ✨
Cover photo: A vibrant growth of chrysanthemum flowers in Chicago, IL, Oct 2021. 📸 by Kristen.