Smari McCarty

Smári McCarthy

Smari McCarty

Share Beirut 2012

As he states in his Twitter bio, Smari is an information freedom activist, he writes codes, essays & articles, gives talks, wrestles with governments and builds technical, political and social infrastructure.

He is also a thoughtful anarchist and very passionate about sustainable technology.

In early 2010, Smari proposed the Shadow Parliament Project, which is completely based on crowdsourcing. The main reason for starting this project lies in the financial collapse in Iceland that occurred in October 2008. Therefore, Smari and his colleagues created a website where they published all the issues going through the real parliament and allowed people to state their opinions on the issues concerning the collapse.


Thanks for having me back at Share, it’s awesome to be here. I am going to start with these two inane statements, they’re very very obvious, but bear with me. First: “The internet has changed our information culture” and secondly: “Existing free speech protections are obsolete”. If we just move through this, originally, whenever someone was using a computer, the program build that was provided allowed people lots of flexibility and the only limit to what a program could do was determined by the complexity class of the device. General purpose computers were originally intended to be these wide-open, do-anything devices, and yet, despite all of the complexity that they were capable of, there were certain limits currently being created which are intended to transfer control of the computer you are using to somebody who is not you.

Guys like Steve Jobs, who was never that much of a computer person, his focus was always on design and usability, and very early on, he and the people at Apple decided there was a fundamental tradeoff between control and usability. The idea was that the more control the user had, the more the user would have to think, and the more the user had to think, the less they would enjoy the experience. I don’t think this is actually true, but that was the design criteria. In that sense, Apple’s never been a computer company, it’s been, first and foremost, an experience manufacturer, a bit like Disney, and the idea was that a computer would be an appliance like a toaster, sitting on your desktop, waiting for you to want to solve a very narrowly constrained problem. It started to become like a limited, locked down, consumer app player. You can do whatever you want, as long as it’s accepted. Generally speaking, what this is a demonstration of, our increased dependence on centralised systems is becoming a major liability, because it’s reducing our ability to do what we want. We have to take back our devices and take control.

Let’s talk about destruction. Creative destruction, doing things in a destructive way that will build something new. This is something that we’ve slowly been figuring out over the last couple of years. Originally, the term comes from Schumpeter, who used it in a very economic sense. Actually, the economy of money is less interesting in this sense than the economy of ideas. All of the political uprisings that we’ve seen have a very close connection with everything we’ve been seeing in terms of information flows and internet and society as a whole. We’ve been seeing, through the internet, globalisation of goods, services, labour and capital towards the European construction of that. The internet is basically providing us with the ability to be entirely decentralised and be on a network where everybody’s equal. But, to be fair, the internet is becoming increasingly plutocratic. It’s becoming controlled by fewer and fewer people with fewer and fewer services and everybody is always using the same services. Look at Facebook. In 2010, Facebook had about five hundred million users, now it’s about eight hundred million. Five hundred billion users is about seven percent of humanity. It’s more than the largest fifty cities put together. This offers certain opportunities that people didn’t have before. Yes, it’s centralised, it’s terrible, but, you know, it allows people to do certain things which weren’t possible before. And states, governments, they really don’t like that. They want to control this, because they’re very afraid of protests and similar events. We are coming to the understanding that controlling the internet is controlling real life. We say: “Yes, let’s do something about it, let’s make sure that everybody who wants to can use Tor and encryption and all sorts of hacktivist things”, but many say “We don’t care about these things, we’ve got Anonymous and such to take care of us”. In reality, these things are happening, and, regardless of how flippant we are about them, they are happening and states are trying to gain more and more control.

Let’s talk about how not to regain control, how not to win this game. Does anybody know Ned Ludd? He didn’t actually exist, but this guy was said to be the king of the movement called the Luddites, and they, about two centuries ago, were fighting a fight against the centralisation of the manufacturing capacity of the time, specifically, engines. The Luddites were worried that the engines, which were controlled by capitalists at the time, were taking away their economic ability to participate in society. To this end, eventually, there were laws passed, they kept breaking machines and it was decided that anybody who was caught destroying a machine would be punished by death, so the ownership of machines matters more than the lives of people. Eventually, seventeen people were hanged in England. If we look at that debate again, from a more modern perspective, what we’re seeing is: You were having a standoff between smart people who knew how to do technology the old fashioned way and good user interfaces which were becoming possible because people were becoming better at using machines. Does this sound familiar at all? This, to me, sounds very familiar, because it’s exactly the same thing we are seeing now. You have lots of smart people, people like you, trying to make sure that the internet works, trying to make sure that we can share information, but, increasingly, the good user interfaces are winning out. The ability that we have to stand up to our governments is diminished by the fact that we keep using more centralised services. Then you get guys like this, who very persistently just carry on doing things the old fashioned way and eventually they’re gonna die out. It’s not very good. What are we going to do about it? Governments take their power from a regional monopoly on violence. This is the traditional view on these things, and that also means a regional monopoly on tax extraction and, increasingly, this leads to infrastructural obligations, the fact that the governments are being made to build roads, technology, infrastructure, make sure that we can do things like get on the internet. Actually, most governments don’t care if we can get on the internet, and that’s kinda where we come to. I don’t want us to live in a society where we’re mere automata, where we’re the tools which are being used by the computers to achieve the will of Apple. I don’t think that’s a good way to live our lives. What we can do is get rid of our single purpose environment, get rid of the shackles which are being constrained on us through more and more centralisation, and that means making sure that the internet is free and open and so on.

You’re all doing this stuff. You’re all working on this in your own ways and I’ve been actually surprised in the last couple of days with how amazing people are, all the great ideas flowing through. It almost makes me think I shouldn’t be up here. We are trying to do some stuff where I live, and I’m gonna say a few things about that. The internet’s pretty cool. It’s given us the democratisation of mass media. It’s democratised production as well, with free software, Creative Commons, and so on, and it’s managed to help us democratise knowledge, with social networking, Wikipedia, all of these massively cool things, but it hasn’t yet democratised democracy. We haven’t figured out how we’re gonna make democracy work. Part of that is building better tools. I live in the Middle of fucking Nowhere [Iceland]. Up there we’ve got a bunch of problems. They’re not very big problems, in the grand scheme of things, but in 2007 we were a massive banking culture and in 2008 we basically crashed. And that crash gave us the opportunity to have our own set of protests, because we were not very happy with all of the corruption and all of the badness which managed to get into our society. One of the things we thought we might do is start to try and introduce a new energy to all this through making better laws. What I’ve been working on for the last three years now is trying to take the best laws specifically about information regulation from around the world, laws regarding the prevention of censorship, making sure that journalists have a free rein to do their job, protecting whistleblower, protecting sources and safeguarding the internet as well, making sure that intermediaries don’t get punished for the actions of their users and so on. Our hope is that, by doing all of this, by creating a set of possibilities, we might be able to build a legal model which might help with the further decentralisation of all of these things that we need to guarantee. Hopefully, we do a lot of work back home, for now, but the idea is to export all of this, take it further, introduce it to other people and hopefully get a very good, broad set of laws all over the place, not just in the Middle of fucking Nowhere, so that everybody can be free in ways which should have been guaranteed by computers but were not because of the reigning industrial regime.

I always like to talk about the future. I don’t know what the future actually holds, but the way I’d like it to be, we keep using the internet, we keep making sure that it’s available to everybody, putting it out to all the rural areas that don’t have access to the internet today, but, at the same time, we fight against all of the centralisation, all of this kind of thing, maybe even adopt a decentralisation fundamentalism and say: “We want every node on the network to have complete control over his and her ideas to make sure they can do the things we should have in a democratic society”. Democracy won’t work unless everybody is in control, and the internet is the only tool we’ve ever had to build that.


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