The Dog Park Manifesto

Will Holcomb

12 November 2008

Choosing The Future

In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.

Eleanor Roosevelt

This is my plan to subvert universities, make people honest, eliminate poverty and undo the government.

It is certainly ambitious, and a bit speculative toward the end, but I am serious about trying to do some good in the world. So, if you have any feedback that you might have on how the plan can be improved, I'd love to hear it. You can reach of me at

Here's the thing. We have a natural tendency to focus on our world as it is. I'm Will Holcomb, 29 year-old system designer. A guy. A grad student. A traveler. I'm any number of affiliations. What I am as well though is a part of humanity, standing at the head of millions of years of evolution.

We didn't always have cars or the 40 hour work week. So much of what we take as natural in our daily lives isn't natural any more than bell bottom jeans or slavery, it's just a part of a system that works well enough that it hasn't been replaced yet.

Gandhi has a quote, "Be the change you want to see in the world." It's misleading. Notice the change that you are in the world. There's no such thing as a sideline in this particular game.

I've been asking random people I meet, "if you had all the money you could ever want and you could do whatever you wanted, what would you do?"

Quite a few people start talking about investments. As disturbing as it is to talk to people who don't understand the idea of "enough," what really makes me sad is how often I get, "I really don't know, I've not really thought about it."

How is someone ever going to manage to be happy if they never think about what it is that they really want out of life?

The question of life-satisfaction is often approached as a philosophical one, but it really isn't. There are several thousand years of thought in the world's religions on the subject, but recent experiemental work by psychologist, sociologists, and neurophysiologists has quite a bit to add.

Ultimately, there is quite a bit of consensus between the old and new opinions on the nature of happiness. Seneca, the Roman philosopher, said about 0 AD, "A hungry people listens not to reason, nor cares for justice, nor is bent by any prayers." 2000 years later, Dr. Abraham Maslow comes out with a hierarchy of needs where he argues the people need food, shelter and social acceptance before they will focus on things like helping humanity.

Here in the States, we just saw the end of a hard-fought Presidential election that wasn't over whether to have change or not, but which candidtate was going to provide the better change. The drive for change is there, we just have to figure out the best form.

Viva La Revolution

Every generation needs a new revolution.

Thomas Jefferson

I'm an anarchist. I'm an anarchist is the tradition of Gandhi, Thoreau and MLK.

How are these men anarchists? They are people who chose their vision of what is right over the laws their society.

Let's say I'm dropped in an anarchist colony. A guy comes up to me and tells me to give him my shirt. I don't particularly want to, so I say, no. It's anarchy, so he's free to ask and I'm free to refuse. Fair enough.

Now three new guys come up to me and tell me that I either have to give them my shirt or they're going to beat me up. I tell them to go to hell and they whoop my ass. They can do that, right? It's anarchy, the only rule is freedom, there's certainly no rule people have to be nice to me.

While I'm lying there a guy with a gun and a uniform comes up to me and tells me that everyone has agreed that I have to give him my shirt or he's going to take me and lock me up in a little room and keep me there for seven to ten years.

At this point I can either give him my shirt or not. I will very likely decide to give him my shirt since I don't like the idea of being able to go wherever I want. Or, I may decide it is unfair for someone to demand my shirt from me and decide to go with him to the little room. Either way, I made a choice.

As you might be able to tell, I don't just think that I'm an anarchist, I think that you are as well. Everyone makes decisions all the time, they just pretend that the don't, saying that they had no choice because of their boss, parents, spouse, the law, commanding officer, God, or whatever.

Anarchists don't have to be malcontents raging against the system. Anyone who goes out wreaking havok against the Man and comes home to a heated home with running water—luxuries the Man provides—isn't an anarchist; they're a dipshit.

Expecting people to give up their known security and comfort for the potential of freedom has never suceeded. Change has to be supported by an active increase in the happiness of those supporting it or the movement will wither and fade.

This is why I say, let's feed the poor and help people find work that is meaningful to them. Let's work toward systems where everyone is happy enough where they are that they don't want to try to take what is someone else's.

I don't want to overthrow the government, I want to render it obsolete.

Department of Happiness

Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.


Talk is, as they say, cheap. What can actually be done to make a difference?

We have Departments of Commerce and Defense and whatnot, groups of people that look at society at large and organize policies and actions with a specific goal. I figure making everyone happy is something worth at least as much attention.

It's also necessary, to work on big projects, to have some sort of logistical umbrella to gather under. No amount of starry-eyed idealism is going to keep the tax man away, so a LLC and 501(c)(3) need to be formed to interface with the world at large.

Being a man of my times (or at least what my times are becoming), I have little desire to manage everything myself. I don't enjoy having people tell me what to do, and I don't expect anyone else to as well.

Conveniently enough, there's this massive communications network that everyone's connected to. All that I really need to do is work on figuring out what tools people need to do to organize themselves and, hopefully, I can wander off and play with my own projects and not have to spend my days shuffling people around like chesspieces.

The projects of the DoH are explicitly ahierarchical. People should take part because they want to, because it makes them happy. If the project won't take off based on market forces then it need to be reworked until it can.

In some distant future where the DoH has anything at all to do with public policy, it would be fixing legislation that binds markets.

Consider how we vote for our candidates, there are lots of different options where you get to pick more than one candidate or rank them or whatever. Mathematicians don't agree on which form of voting maximizes voter happiness, but they do agree that what we're using is one of the worst.

Happiness Versus Fun

Peace is not something you wish for — it's something you make, something you do, something you are, and something you give away.

Robert Fulghum

Note that I am not proposing a Department of Fun. Fun is awesome. I enjoy having fun very much. Fun is, however, generally had in the short term and, depending on the mindset of the person having fun, may or may not lead to happiness in the long term.

This dichotomy between fun and happiness is sometimes expressed as the delay of gratification, but that doesn't really capture it's essence. Delaying gratification is just doing something that you dislike in order to have something that you want later. It's an important skill, but if your long-term plan for what you want aren't sound, it's just another way to be unhappy.

Consider the following poem by Adrian Mitchell:

On November 2nd 1965 in the multi-colored multi-minded United beautiful States of terrible America Norman Morrison set himself on fire outside the Pentagon. He was thirty-one, he was a Quaker, and his wife (seen weeping in the newsreels) and his three children survive him as best they can. He did it in Washington where everyone could see because people were being set on fire in the dark corners of Vietnam where nobody could see. Their names, ages, beliefs and loves are not recorded. This is what Norman Morrison did. He poured petrol over himself. He burned. He suffered. He died. That is what he did in the white heart of Washington where everyone could see. He simply burned away his clothes, his passport, his pink-tinted skin, put on a new skin of flame and became Vietnamese.

It's a moving poem about a beautiful act, but it is also about the mental capacity of homo sapien as a species to alter their behavior based on abstract symbols. No other animal will calmly set itself on fire in response to an abstract understanding of the course of history. This is what makes humanity human — the capacity to comprehend and choose.

The projects of the DoH, at this point in time, are focused specifically at developing that reasoning capability based on the hypothesis that as the individual is better able to reason about their world, relationships, and self, there will ultimately be more happiness both individually and as a society.

To some extent this focus on mental development has to take place soon. Our gadgetry is only getting more and more complex, and as it progresses disparities in wealth and power can grow greater and greater.

People tend to focus on the problem of the poor. What can we do to reduce poverty in the world? We look to the poor and try to figure out how to fix the problem, and don't admit that the economic distribution of resources isn't simply an issue that involves those without. There are people who don't have enough in part because there are people who have far more than they need.

I am not a communist. Our world is simply too chaotic to allocate resources using anything other than markets. I don't want to take money from anyone, but I want for wasteful people to see the role they play in others' suffering, and I want for those who accept responsibility for their actions to be rewarded as much as possible.

The danger of a power monger at the top of the food chain or disgruntled terrorist at the bottom is not going to do anything but increase. The only reason we've not seen a successful genocide to date wasn't that people didn't try but only that they lacked the tools. We need to start paying closer attention to how the will to do harm is created because technology is going to keep providing us with better tools.

Project Ecesis

We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

Albert Einstein

Much as the DoH serves as a logistical organizational umbrella, Ecesis serves as a technical one. There will be several projects, based on leveraging the latest developments in computer science to make society a better place.

One of the technologies is what is known as semantic markup. The basic idea is that everyone agrees on a common format to record metadata about information. A common example is publishing. Take this document as an example, there are two ways it can be represented to a computer. One is to record the display information like book titles and scientific names should be displayed in italics. The other option is to record that Island is a book and canis domesticus is a scientific name and let the computer display them correctly.

Adoption of semantic markup is somewhat spotty at best. It holds some really interesting possibilities for computer science researchers if it ever takes off.

Another concept to understand for the current plan is crypotographic signatures. When I have a document that is signed by someone else, I can verify mathematically that the agent doing the signing had access to non-public information. This means that if you, for example, send me an e-mail and sign it I know it came from you and not someone pretending to be you.

E-mail signatures have not really caught on because there's not really enough successful e-mail forgery to get people interested.

The first project I want to work on is to combine digital signatures with semantic markup in a peer-to-peer network.

Vdentity? (Don't really have a name for this yet.)

I just want you to know who I am.

Goo Goo Dolls

What would this do? Well, the network will be searchable, so let's say we have some agreed upon method semantically encoding opinions and a way of refering to the food tempeh. I can ask the computer, tell me everything that people think about tempeh and it will come up with a result. Not only will I know what people think, because they're signed, I'll know who thinks it.

I'm not really interested in people's opinions of tempeh, however, what I want to do is let them spread their opinions of each other. Imagine a system where I can search for any opinions associated with a particular e-mail address. Anybody can say anything about anyone else. Privacy has been described as the ability to pretend that you're like everyone else. This is pretty much the opposite.

Why would one want to do such a thing? Well, ask an employee who would like to honestly know if the company he's considering is good to their employees or not. Consider the girl wondering if the guy she's met in a bar is genuinely nice or just trying to get her in bed.

Consider a more communicative world and if you're afraid that it will screw up your friendships and professional life, maybe you need friends who actually like you and a job that doesn't require you to lie to keep it. It is my honest belief that most solutions for fixing the world fail because they look at specific problems and try to fix them while the actual problem is not a few people doing something wrong, but the cumulative effcts of thousands of individuals.

With usage, authoritative virtual identities will develop without government (or any centralized) authority. People will spend time giving and receiving feedback associated with a particular identity and that investment is something that can't be recreated by simply going online and generating a new username. Essentially everyone is developing a personal brand, but it is based on all their activities, not just their virtual ones. There's an incentive against tarnishing or abandoning that brand.

How would reliable virtual identities relate to happiness? Well, in a couple ways.

One of the big ones has to do with signalling. One of the big reasons people are unhappy is poverty. Right now we make a variety of assumptions about a person based on their clothing, their mannerisms and their possessions. We have to make these assumptions since we only have a brief period of time to interact with a person and there are, realistically, correlations between class, wealth and behavior.

It's not enough to simply say that these things judgments are a problem, we have to come up with an alternative. We live in a world where if I go out and spend $200 on some fancy clothes certainly increases my chances of getting laid. It should, really, it represents that at the least I am successful enough to spend $200 on clothes. If there existed a system though that could identify me as a nice guy in cheap clothes or a douchebag in a suit, the incentive to spend the money goes away.

It goes away in particular if there are other things to spend my money on that will be more useful personally or professionally than the clothes.

The other part of the point is more theoretical about the nature of evolution and offering a competitive advantage.

There was a very important study recently involving egg salad sandwiches. First people were given a survey of their childhood food experiences that was entered into a computer. They went away for a few weeks and when they returned the researchers lied and told them they previously reported getting sick of egg salad as a child. For about half of the participants this created a false memory. Four months later the subjects were contacted for what was supposedly an entirely new study on foods where the people with false memories ate half as many egg salad sandwiches as those without.

Whenever people read about things like placebo effects they tend to assume that they're talking about some other gullible individual, but that their perceptions of the world are pure and correct. This simply isn't the case and at least a few people are starting to recognize that the hardware we are using to interact with the world is nowhere near as simple or absolute as our perceptions suggest.

Theologians and philosophers can debate the exact nature of consciousness, but the simple fact remains that each person on this planet was some small sliver of something cast into a particular body in a particular circumstance and left to wander the maze of life. Religion has long asserted and science is now confirming that we aren't only wandering confused but largely blindfolded as well. Since we can't trust our perceptions, how it is not madness or the most foolish of prides to not actively seek the help of those around us?

The goal with Vdentity (still don't like that name) is not to have everyone turn over their free will to the crowds around them, but simply to create a tool that people can use to get (and give) an honest external perspective on their world. Most people are probably just going to use the system to live life much the same as they always have. What I'm betting on though is that there will be enough people who recognize their own fallability and they'll be willing to work to accept the feedback as constructive criticism.

These people will take jobs that they are the best candidate for and find relationships that really are well-suited for them. They will be happier as a result and hopefully they'll act as an anchor for a social movement.

I expect two things to happen. First, when people lose much of their ability to hide their problems, the world will become more understanding. That gay people can pretend to be straight easier than a black person can pretend to be white is part of the reason race relations are progressing more quickly as well as more tumultuously.

We're honestly headed to this eventuality already. Anyone wanting to hire me can find out my anarchist thoughts and pictures of me doing kegstands on the internet. I, for one, welcome it. I've had a crazy night or two in my day and if a company can't respect that, then I'll find one that can to help succeed.

The competitive advantage can be expressed simply as adults have to learn to deal with the truth and recognize that their beliefs may be flawed. The human brain has a capacity to reason symbolically about identity, but this capacity must be exercised to develop. Metacognition is like object permanence or the persistence of volume, but our environment largely lacks a pressure to develop it. By creating a system that permits more direct feedback, it will hopefully help make self-honesty a better survival trait.

Open Research

The Department of Happiness is fundamentally a research organization. Happiness is will be self-reported and participation is voluntary. The research questions are fundamentally ones of human development and sustainability of economic systems.

If the virtual identities caught on, there are a couple ways I would like to change the world. The one nearest and dearest to my heart at this point in time is the university education system.

Consider how it works currently, a student arrives and takes a fixed set of classes. This makes sense from the perspective of enabling her to gain a wide persective on a particular field so as to choose properly what to focus on. After all, in her future work there might be an obvious solution to a problem that she would not otherwise be aware of.

The problem being that there's now way too much information for anyone to manipulate effectively. So instead they take their classes, repeat the information back, and rapidly forget everything once they're done. The student's interest in the subject and desire to study particular fields is a secondary concern if it is a concern at all.

Happiness, not surprisingly, suffers. The student knows that she doesn't have a particular project to apply the learning to at this point in time, nor does she have time to give the material more than a cursory understanding. Graduate school becomes a haven for either those that are unable to make it in the market or those who are dedicated enough to a field to suffer through it. I know quite a few graduate students, few of them are of the opinion that their time is being well used.

So, why do we do it? In short, certification. It is the same signalling problem that was discussed with materialism previously. When I go in for a job, the letters M.S. after my name represent a widely recognized membership in the club of academia. (Ignoring that with the proper financial backing, you can buy the letters if need be.)

This is a reasonable requirement of someone interested in employing me to know that I have a certain competence in academic rigor. What is needed to pull down the University walls is another system for providing a pedigree. That's where the virtual identities enter the picture.

Consider a world where research, from the generation of the initial project statements to the data analysis to the final publication is online. For current journal publication, research is conducted by specialists in a particular field, an analysis done, a paper written which is then sent to be reviewed by peers. If there are flaws in the experiment it is too late to correct them and if the peers happen to miss a mistake then the paper will be published (up to a year later) and become a part of the literature in perpetuity.

Design is ultimately done best by individuals, catching errors and generating ideas, however, is best done by groups. As with other DoH projects, the objective is to spread the system using market forces. The forces in this situation will be more rigorous research reviewed by scientists from a variety of fields and published immediately.

Journal publications also winnow down the massive number of papers to reduce the information a researcher needs to pay attention to. This need will still exist, but the system can rely on the opinions of actual researchers or societies to do the winnowing. I'm interested in next generation web architectures and their social implications, so I can search for the research reading interests of or Those people develop a reputation that comes from their work and not an institution.

Things can be done to try and reduce long tail and Matthew effects, but since the system is years away from existing, it's not really important to think about them yet.

It will reduce the bar for participation as well. I have a friend who is a really bright and talented computer scientist, but he currently spends his time struggling and jaded because of his location and unwillingness to participate in the university system. Researchers will develop a following because of their projects, and contributions to those projects by interested individuals can then be rewarded with social capitol.

The Anarchist Grill

Sell a man a fish, he eats for a day, teach a man how to fish, you ruin a wonderful business opportunity.

Karl Marx

There's an important component missing from these machinations — money. Open ideas and sharing and commons and all that jazz is nice and good, but people need to eat and systems need power. How does one make money off it?

The thing is, people continually have a problem monetizing things on the web. The only consistent source of revenue has been advertising, and the open data model I am advocating will make that somewhat difficult. The information isn't funneled through any particular place, when I publish a blog post or state an opinion, I have no idea where that data will be used.

So, instead of attempting to solve the problem of how to change the system so money can be collected from it, I'd like to avoid it altogether and bring the money from somewhere else with non-profit research businesses.

The traditional thinking is that entrepreneurs need the incentive of untold wealth to be enticed to create. I know, if from nothing else from the experience of being me, that this isn't always true.

I did two and a half years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. I was a part of the program started by President Kennedy based on the idea that at least a few people will do what they think is right even if it means being a little uncomfortable. Systems design is how I create. I suppose in an earlier time I would have been a philosopher, but in today's world I'm a computer programmer.

I like to sing and to write and whatnot, but my real skill is in programming. People unfamiliar with the practice tend to assume that it is a mechanical process. Knowing a computer language makes a good computer programmer no more than knowing English makes one a good essayist.

My point is simply that I create for the same reasons any artist creates — for the joy of it. Though I get paid for it, I would do it for free to try and help with the problems I see in the world. I turn 30 in under a week. If I'm lucky I'm about a third of the way through my life. The first third flew by and I know that the rest will be gone far too quickly. This doesn't depress me, recognizing it helps me to have the confidence to do what I think is right rather than what is easy on a daily basis.

My hope is that I am not alone. That if we create systems where people have the resources to choose their rewards in human relationships and creativity rather than material extravagance then they will.

What then is the Anarchist Grill? It's a research project. It's an enticement for scientists to participate in the Open Research system. It's a bar where everything that can be computer manipulated is. The bar knows that you are there. It knows the songs you like. It knows about your relationships to the other people in the bar. If you want someone to dance with or talk to someone or just go home with someone, it can help you find the other person in the bar the most likely to satisfy your need. In fact, if the last time you were in the bar you didn't find what you wanted, the bar may have invited you back along with someone else just to help you get what you wanted.

Remember that the virtual identity system is collecting massive amounts of information about how you see the world in the form of your opinions and massive amounts of information about how the world sees you. Using this information, researchers will work on developing algorithms for helping people get what they want.

I'm not entierly sure on the financial model just yet for how money will be collected, but the proceeds model will profit-donation capitalism. All profits will go back into the Open Research system to fund other projects which all the contributing members can vote on. Will someone have a good idea for providing clean water to villages in Africa or providing healthy food to people in poor urban areas? I don't know, my only goal is to create a system so that people who have a dream that will improve the world can find the funding to work on what they want.

I plan on running my finances completely open, both for the institution and myself. Anyone in the bar, when buying their meal or a drink will be able to see that I make $30k a year and how I'm spending my money. I want to make charitable giving extremely easy and I particularly like the idea of someone waking up with a hangover and thinking, "Oh fuck, I got trashed last night and gave $200 to Unicef."

There needs to be methods in this world for people who want to create more than they want to earn to join together. It isn't about living in poverty, but, as Gandhi said, living simply so others may simply live.

The bar will be as interactive as I can make it. Anything that a client doesn't like or would like to change, I want for them to be able to say. This will generate a huge amount of interesting data for computational modeling and applied group psychology. The research question is, quite literally, to make the most entertaining social environment possible.

There's an incentive system independant of the desire to do good as well. Let's say I pass a random person on the street, how do I know that the 30 people who say that this person is a good guy aren't simply fictional identities he created and associated with himself? Well, as with the research, the authority will flow from brands, in this case the branding of institutions.

A simple way to verify the authenticity of a person is to make it a serious time committment to lie. You don't make it impossible, you just make it very inconvenient. I could spend a day working for Habitat House and at the end of the day they publish a document verifying that someone worked four hours and asked that this identity be signed.

Let's say that the Department of Happiness then allows child organizations to register with it. They publish a signed document to that effect and users can say, allow any organization aligned with the Department of Happiness to certify the authenticitiy of people I meet if they have put in more than 20 hours. People will volunteer so as to get the certification, and they will have the same branding pressure not to certify wantonly lest they damage their brand and people go to some other organization for their certifications. (Since the system is open and there's nothing binding people to any particular organization.)