How To Make People Want Less Stuff

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While our children, all over the world, skip school to demand action by ‘marching for our lives’, our scientists are telling us we have to transform our way of living drastically if we want to overthrow and reverse the devastating effects of human-driven climate change and biodiversity decline. In the latest IPBES Global Assessment from the United Nations, the horrific current state of our delicate natural ecosystem has been exposed on a scale never presented before. Although the message that millions of species are in the process of extinction is excruciating,  the 145 top scientists who have been working together to paint this terrifying full picture, are also saying that: 


“Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals. By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values” - IPBES GLOBAL ASSESSMENT

There is a lot of work to do. One of the biggest challenges the Global Assessment states is how to make people want LESS stuff. The population is not only growing. The consumption per capita is also rising, ergo; more people who need more stuff. More stuff means more natural resources. That is a bad situation for any effort to reduce our footprint on the planet. We have to face the truth and understand that we can invent the most sophisticated technologies, commit to the most ambitious green deals, create effective policies and laws that reduce our poisonous effect on nature but if we, at the same time, don’t take responsibility for our own consumerism and make a real effort to change our materialistic mentality, everything that we will attempt, will be counterproductive. We have to make people want less stuff! 

By enabling people to give more

As you will find out the answer is as simple as the execution is complicated. In short, the answer is that Smartup Zero is about making people need less stuff by enabling them to contribute more. It aims to overturn the materialistic desires that fill people 's hearts and replace them with the desire and means to change their own world. These desires are fuelled with the underestimated power of meaningful job gratification and the true human connection. By making it easier for people to use their goodwill, skills, and talent to contribute together to real solutions that have a real impact on their own communities, lives and futures, we can change the value system of people. Smartup Zero wants to turn passive consumers of products into active workers on solutions. As said, the execution is a lot more complicated and challenging but certainly not impossible and since we need fewer people occupied with ‘wanting more stuff’ and more people occupied with ‘working together on solutions’, its evidently necessary to give it all we got, starting right now.

The future is local

Luckily, for the execution, the Global Assessment researchers gave us some direction. It pointed us for inspiration to indigenous people and self-sustaining communities that are living in harmony with nature: 

“Their positive contributions to sustainability can be facilitated through recognition of land tenure, access and resource rights in accordance with national legislation, the application of free, prior and informed consent, and improved collaboration, fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use, and co-management arrangements with local communities” - IPBES GLOBAL ASSESSMENT

Basically, the scientists are hinting that we should stop looking for answers that address these problems on a global level and instead learn from indigenous local communities and attack our problems from a local level. For one, because these local communities are proving that it’s possible to live in harmony with nature. 

Secondly, it’s good for morality. Solving all these issues on a global level feels impossible and demoralizes people’s will to change. How often do you find yourself watching the news thinking: how am I going to make any difference? It seems impossible to align all those different cultures and countries and organize a global effort to prevent the sure annihilation of millions of species, including humans. 

A better world starts with us

You’ve always been told that a better world starts with yourself. You are the one who is supposed to do something about all this and nothing will work if you don’t make an effort yourself! The problem is that when you do make an effort with all (or one of) the tools that are handed to us by our governments, such as recycling, subsidised solar panels or buying an electric car, we are confronted with the reality that our community is not changing with us, let alone your government! While you are spending a lot of money on solar panels on your rooftop your neighbour just bought a brand new Mercedes and your government just gave the green light for the expansion of the airport. It all feels like a drop in the ocean and everything feels counterproductive.

That’s why I propose to start by saying that a better world starts with us. We should be enabled to change our communities instead of ‘changing the whole world’. We need to help our neighbours, co-workers, our homeless and poor and enable our local governments to comply with sustainable goals. It seems a lot more manageable if we don’t have to find one-system-that-fits-all but can enable every community to become caretakers of their own place in nature. We should stop sending the message that our global problems can only be solved if we all would work together on a global level. We can change morality by changing the message. It feels a lot more doable to create a human civilization that exists out of thousands of culturally diverse communities taking care of their own footprint on this planet, in their own way, with their own strengths. 

Let’s go back to our human nature

Going local also means that we get closer to our human nature. It’s a scientifically accepted idea that humans are, by nature, social animals that always have relied on dynamic communities and groups for survival. In groups, humans are more effective, creative and better at survival. With this evolutionary awareness in mind, it’s astounding to realize that currently almost all computer and media systems (and most certainly the most used ones) are designed to provide information and functionality to the individual and not to groups of people who need to live and work together. 

The blueprint (in chapter 3) I designed is a project that appeals to the social, community-driven species we are. It’s a new information system that is designed to provide information and functionality to groups of individuals that need to work or act together in the physical world. As you will see, this blueprint follows the line the IPBBES scientists are drawing. However, this simple idea also complies with the work of legendary computer pioneer Douglas Engelbart (1925-2013). His research on Collective IQ and Dynamic Knowledge Repositories form the foundation of  this blueprint. 

Douglas Engelbart and his ideas about Collective IQ

Douglas Engelbart 1925-2013

Douglas Engelbart 1925-2013

Last ten years I conducted my research and development efforts in the direction of local network technologies that could operate decentralized, independently from the internet and connect people with their immediate physical environment instead of the whole wide world. I always followed my intuition that the future was going to be local. I am convinced our technologies have to be as well. Therefore, I focused my work on smartphone applications that support human interactions in the local world. That path led to Onlive, a research project into a social information network for groups of people in the real world. On my path, I found my mentor in spirit when I read about the work of computer pioneer Douglas Engelbart. 

He was most famous as the inventor of the computer mouse, hypertext, early computer graphics and gave ‘the mother of all demo’s’ in 1968. He is recognized as one of the founding fathers of the personal computer and the internet. Still, no matter how important, these accomplishments were not his legacy. These were just side projects for him. The life quest he undertook, started in the early ’60s and lasted until his death in 2013. 

It was about something bigger, braver and bolder than any invention or idea he ever had. His visions on how computer technologies should help the development of the collective human intellect were comprehensive, accurate and, in light of today’s sociotechnical problems about security, privacy, the trustworthiness of content, he seems to have been a prophet to who we did not listen (enough). Also, it seems we listened too much to those other two prophets, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who were commercially savvier and designed the computer to the needs of the individual and not the group.

Engelbart occupied himself with ‘boosting mankind's capability for coping with complex, urgent problems’. As one of the early birds in the world of personal computing, he advocated that computer technologies should always have that goal in mind: to increase the intellect of the group, not of the individual. His thorough research on ‘collective IQ’ is a great roadmap if we have to transform our society to a local orientated one. 

“Whether developing a new product or service, researching a topic of interest, seeking a cure for cancer, or improving conditions in underserved communities, a group's Collective IQ is a key determinant of how effectively it will respond to the challenges presented. More specifically, regardless of the end goals, it comes down to how quickly and intelligently the group can identify needs and opportunities, develop and deploy solutions, and incorporate lessons learned, while continuously iterating and adapting to changing conditions until the goals are met” - Douglas Engelbart Institute, about Collective IQ.

Engelbart believed in the power of the well-connected group instead of the well-connected individual. He thought that designing technologies for groups would help us evolve and develop skills to cope with the complex problems our highly advanced civilization presents us. 

What the Internet became

I too firmly believe that our current technologies are not helping us to evolve into the human beings we need to be. It’s this sense of urgency that drives me: the sense that we are losing grip on the world around us, just at the moment when we need to strengthen our grip. 

The most important factor in this disorientation is the accelerating internet. The amount of content added every minute to the world wide web is staggering. On average in one minute 72 hours of video are being uploaded to youtube, 347 new blogs are being posted on WordPress, 41000 pictures are being uploaded to Facebook, 278000 tweets being made and 571 new websites are being launched. In one minute! Information and knowledge are omnipresent but getting intertwined with the never-ending stream of user-generated content. Everybody is a journalist, everybody is a director, everybody is a researcher.

Last 15 years it was precisely about that: making information available. Google led the mission by inventing the smartest search algorithm and Facebook was best at sharing all that information with your friends online. Spotify and Youtube are doing it with music and video. Meanwhile, all kinds of content creation tools became available to enable users to remix all that information into engaging and exciting pieces of content. People have never been more empowered to create than now. From photo editing and sharing platforms such as Instagram to lip-sync video apps that allow users to create fun videos. Combined with the high-speed internet on mobile devices we’ve built a massive jungle of available information and content. And it’s always out there for us to tap into, with our fingertips, wherever we are. It was about availability and we succeeded.  

The problem is that the internet is mankind's greatest invention as long its a tool in the hands of the people. It's our worst invention once it becomes a tool for corporations and politics to drive their agenda's into people's hearts and believes. Sadly, we are all witnesses of the latter.  We watched the internet become infected with the capitalistic flew and saw idealistic start-up companies become the same kind of corporate organizations that are committing the same kind of crimes their analog equivalents had been making for decades. The biggest sign on the wall: the Russian government and corporations using the internet to interfere in elections of other countries and effectively destabilize the world's biggest democracies. The established and cultivated corporate power uses mankind's greatest invention to cause confusion and distraction to prevent societies from effectively transform their economies and social structures. The question is: why are we, the connected and informed people, letting this happen? 

Of course, there is not one answer to that question. A lot of factors are at play here. One crucial one, the one I decided to focus on, is our smartphone.

Smartphones, harvesting data for companies to make us buy more stuff

It's just about 12 years ago that Apple and Google launched the smartphone into our world. They successfully designed a software system for combining the power of the internet with the power of the cell phone. Never in history, a technology became so fast, so deeply rooted in society. Now we are paying (and playing) with our phones as if we never did it differently. 

It's safe to say the smartphone changed our societies in a lot of ways. In a lot of ways it has made our lives more convenient and more entertaining (never a dull moment anymore!) It's also safe to say that the smartphone changed our social lives and has an influence on our mental and physical health. There are not many aspects in our lives that aren't touched by that one device. A device that we bring everywhere to be connected with everything, all the time. 

As researchers, developers, engineers, and designers, it's our job to be critical about the role of a device that has so much impact on different levels in our society. Mostly because we can not just blindly follow the trajectory of a few giant commercial tech corporations. Their motives are clear. The ideological goal of the tech giants is something in the line with 'having your digital life in your pocket' and 'always have access to all the information and functionality you need'. The actual goal, of course, was to make as much money as possible no matter what costs. There was a new market to conquer and they foresaw that those who dominate this new market will be the leaders of the brand new information society. 

The systems they came up with, IOS and Android, are basically the same systems in a different skin and some minor usability differences. Most importantly they both are based on the premise that users need to install applications made by third parties. These applications are mostly free and generate a lot of data about the one who is using them. Data which is sold to advertisers. 

Since data harvesting and selling is the main business model, most applications are designed to be used as much as possible. Most software developers and user experience designers are constantly busy with one thing: to make users use their application as much as possible. They are busy capitalizing on the data from the users.

I believe there is a much higher potential to be capitalized on: the capitalization of human intellect. The smartphone can become a tool for intellectual progress for everyone on this planet. The smartphone is an enabling and supportive technology. If used correctly, it can enable societies to make the transition they all need to make. 

Be angry but have a plan

It has to start with anger. Anger because of the reality of our time. A reality that we are not heading in the right direction, or at least; we are going too slow, with too much hesitation and distraction, towards the only goal we should have: keeping this planet habitual for all living.

Be angry that in 2019 we are still starting wars over religious conflicts, political games and the production of fossil fuels. Be angry that our society is more than ever taken hostage by a corrupted oligopolistic system that runs the economy and puts wrong leaders at the right places and dangerous ideologies in people’s hearts. Be angry that we still work for an economy that we know is destroying our nature and culture. Be angry that we still think about borders and walls and talk about countries and races while we know our extinction level threats won’t stop at our borders or at the color of our skin. 

Moreover, be outraged that we have the knowledge, talent, intellect, and technology to actually change all this, but we are not being enabled by our governments and leaders to contribute, to work, to be part of a solution. 

Demanding change is not enough anymore. Protesting for change is not enough. We have to enforce change. We have to create change. We have to take that responsibility and create a new system for ourselves. A system that is resistant, robust and we can trust because it can’t be owned by anybody else but all people creating and protecting the system. In other words: we have to forge our new tool. 

The central thesis of this essay is that we can make people want less stuff by enabling them to give more. Although I’m convinced that our smartphone, as the main information tool for billions of people on this planet,  is a key factor in our ability to face this challenge, I also know that it’s not going to be just another operating system, platform or app that is going to make a difference. If that would be the case I would have complete faith that Google or Apple (or any other tech giant) will figure it out for us. The thing is, I believe it’s not only about the technology itself. I believe it will be about how we create, own and govern that technology. This insight is connected to the natural subquestion to the central thesis:

How do we enable people to give more so they want less stuff? 

In this first chapter we saw the answer has to lie in a solution that enables us to change our communities from within and has to result in a technology that has the goal to empower people to get smarter as a group. It has to enable people to think global but act local, to take back power and be responsible for our own ways and means to force the change we all know we have to make. We do not have to wait on anything or anybody. We can do it ourselves. 

In the next chapter i’ll set up an experiment that gives us a shot to proof this. It answers the sub question directly and practically. I want to prove that we can enable people to give more by creating, owning and governing our own technologies. 

We are going to create a grassroots information system that is truly BY and FOR the people. Everybody OWNS, GIVES and TAKES. The goal is to create a system that takes care of itself, that can’t be bought, owned or corrupted and truly serves all the people in the best way possible: to help us solve complex problems together, from within our own communities, just where Douglas Engelbart, our scientists and our children are pointing us.

In order to comprehend exactly what is proposed it’s advised to have an open and progressive mind that does not accept current reality and looks to alter it for the better of the planet and all nature that is living on it.