October 2021

Art + Activism at Esalen

Last week I attended a Track II conference at Esalen Institute in Big Sur. If you aren’t familiar with Esalen it’s worth reading up on, because it’s kind of legendary for many reasons none of which I’m going to talk about here. Like other Track II events, international relations played a big part as well as pressing global issues such as nuclear threats, climate change and cyber security. For this event there was a new addition to the normal diplomacy talks with a focus on art ant activism, which is how I ended up with an invite. I went in kind of blind but then realized I would be presenting some of my work to help with context so I threw something together one night and thought it would be useful to post here for reference as well. This was written as a talk and includes a lot of ad-libbing but I think it’s fairly readable as well. Please to enjoy.

Hi everyone. I’m Sean Bonner and I’m going to ramble a little bit here so it’s going to either be terribly confusing or make perfect sense, but probably nothing in between. In the early 2000’s the art critic Jerry Saltz once said of my Los Angeles art gallery that he looked forward to seeing us either succeed or fail fantastically, so I always try to do one of those two things. So I’m just going to tell you some stories and let some of my photos play here in the background while I do. These things are probably unrelated. 

The other night during our one sentence introductions I struggled to succinctly explain what I do because I do lots of vaguely connected things – I’m a writer, photographer, illustrator, entrepreneur, publisher, musician… Recurring themes in my work are solitude, loneliness and connections, relationships. Chasing passions, and chasing passion. Most of my work is connected to subcultures in one way or another. I call myself a misanthroplogist which is only half a joke. It’s been pointed out to me that all of my companies and projects and efforts are somehow in search of or in service to a community. I’m always hunting for my people, trying to find the weirdos I connect with.

Where I’m from is almost as hard to answer as what I do. I was born in Washington DC, but I’ve lived in Maryland, Texas, Florida, Chicago, Los Angeles, Vienna, Paris, Tokyo, and now Vancouver. There might be some things I’m pretty good at, but apparently sitting still isn’t one of them

My first job was a dishwasher at seafood restaurant Florida’s gulf coast, I was 14 and I got paid in cash under the table. Some of my friends were in bands and before long we decided they should have records but assumed there was no way any real record company would be interested so I saved up started my own. You could ask “why did you think as a high schooler you could just go start your own company?” and the only good answer I have is I didn’t know that I couldn’t. Over the next 5 or 6 years I put out about dozen albums by different bands, first releases for many and some of whom are still touring, playing live and writing new music today.

This experience had 3 long lasting impacts on my life:

  • I realized anything is possible.
  • I realized the seemingly small actions of one person can inspire someone else to do something amazing.
  • It made me basically unemployable.

That last point is important because knowing the power of the individual and that limits are imaginary is incompatible with most corporate and business structures. I’ve had a few office jobs since then, they were… well, complicated.

In the big picture I often find myself trying to identify problems to help solve, not that I’m terribly good at solving them, but I enjoy trying. One of my favorite ways to do that is to build a new thing that makes the thing causing the old problem obsolete. Don’t try to change it, just route around it. The people you leave behind will either ignore you and keep doing their thing oblivious to your improvements, or they will realize they’ve been overstepped and change their thing to try and catch up. Either one of those is a perfectly fine outcome. 

I wanted to spend some time talking about one of my projects that relates to a few of the themes we’ve been talking about over the last few days – namely open source, nuclear, art and activism.

By 2010 I had given up my half of an art gallery and walked away from global blog network that I’d started almost a decade earlier. I was pretty frustrated with both the art and tech worlds at the time and was mostly hanging out at hackerspaces and doing “black ops” for venture capitalists to help decide what companies (and teams) to invest in, but I was also trying to figure out what to do next with my weird art/tech/DIY skill set. I was privately hoping to stumble across a project I could throw myself into, though I couldn’t have anticipated how that would play out.

For a few years I’d been involved with an annual event in Tokyo called the New Context Conference. Put on each year by Digital Garage, we talked about what was happening online, and hypothesized about what might be next. Our 2011 event was planned for April but In March a serious earthquake hit Japan causing a Tsunami that crippled that Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant and generally made a really, really big mess. I was still living in LA at the time and so I called my friend and co-organizer Joi Ito to see if he was OK. He wasn’t in Japan either, and was also trying to get word about what was happening. For the most part, no one knew what was going on.

We started pulling people together to see if we could help. We’re hackers and internet people with diverse networks of smart people all around the world – if that would ever be useful for something this seemed like it would be it.

At first we thought we’d just go find the data. Turns out there was no data, as no functional sensor networks existed Then we thought we’d just collect the data ourselves. Turns out there was no equipment to be had, as essentially every geiger counter on the market had been sold in the last 24 hours to randos with survival bunkers in Ohio. So we began to realize that we needed to build a way to collect the data from scratch.

The previously scheduled April event changed from “what’s happening next online” to “what’s happening next in Fukushima” and we brought a bunch of the people we were talking to over to Tokyo and sat down in a room together for a few days to try and come up with a plan. Over the following days and weeks we’d put together the pieces and people for what would eventually become a non-profit called Safecast.

We built a hardware & software platform for people to measure radiation and share that information with each other. We didn’t know if what we were doing was legal, but we didn’t really care either and decided not to ask anyone. We’d just apologize later if we needed to.

This work revealed a new issue: Our data was very precise, existing data was averaged. Which led to the realization that all of the existing data was mostly useless and this suddenly became a much bigger project than we’d anticipated. Our data showed that evacuation zones were wrong, and they were corrected. The rest of the world had the same problem with data that was too vague, so the project quickly became global

Hundreds and then thousands of volunteers all over the world got involved and started collecting and publishing environmental data through our system – which was entirely open source and public domain.

Our dataset of radiation background levels is now almost 200 million data points – the largest ever available. Before Safecast governments had good data and the people had crappy data, if any at all. After Safecast the people had the best data available.

We purposefully pushed for the highest standard data and put it into the public domain, to ensure that the work will outlive all of us. 

UN, IAEA, NNSA, etc have endorsed or use our work and recommend our best practices. Many people at these orgs told us they dreamed of doing what we did but could never get the internal approval to do it at their agencies and couldn’t figure out how a small group of nobodies like us were actually able to do it. I tell them we didn’t ask anyone for approval, we just did it. We helped force the NNSA to release the tax payer funded data they had for the US because the data we released made their “national secrets” not so secret anymore. We met with DARPA who told us they loved what we were doing but didn’t like that it was public, so they put millions of tax payer dollars into copying our work but making it private. The president of Tepco who couldn’t believe we weren’t trying to sell him something.

Air quality has a lot of the same problems – there’s no standards and the data is closed and confusing. We’re trying to see if lessons from one can apply to the other, but they are entirely different animals so in many ways we’re starting from scratch. 

This week we’ve talked about how to pay for these solutions and if there needs to be a disaster in order to get anyone to pay attention? I’ll just say from my experience most people don’t care unless there’s a disaster, and more specifically it needs to be directly impacting them.

Luckily Safecast has shown that you don’t need everyone to care, a very few people working together can build something that benefits everyone.

The directly impacted, the curious, everyone else

With radiation, even 10 years on, people still think of this as “that thing in japan” with air quality we see the same – we have all these fires here on the west coast and no good way to know air quality around them. 

We spec’d out a distributed system more than 5 years ago and funders told us ‘sounds interesting, we’ll get back to you’ and then they didn’t get back to us until there was a fire blowing smoke right at them. By then it was too late. Once the fires were put out they weren’t interested agaibn. We said “what about next year” and they said “we’ll get back to you” Then next year when smoke was blowing into their kitchens they called asking us if we ever got that sensor network up and running. So paying for these solutions is a real problem in and of itself.

We have some air sensors deployed, but not as many as we’d like. We recently codesgned a device with Blues Wireless called the Airnote and that’s helped get some more into people’s hands. 

In 2020 the pandemic ended travel and cancelled events which basically cut us off from all of our funding and we had to lay off our entire team – we were about 90% volunteer anyway and most of the people we had to stop paying kept on working in their spare hours. This shows that people genuinely care about solving these problems, but just caring doesn’t pay rent or keep servers online.

So thats activism, but how is this related to art?

Our devices have been displayed in several museum exhibitions. Our visualizations have been published in art books. Our data has been used for all kinds of projects, including this one released earlier this year which is what we’ve been listening to in the background. 

You can go to Safecast.live and hit play in the top left, or change the sample pack in the bottom right. The audio is being driven by the live stream of the data coming in from radiation and air quality sensors all over the world. Each reading triggers a different sample. The samples are taken from vintage synthesizers, a toy piano, or from the band Nine Inch Nails who released some of their audio with an open license as well. Sensors compose the audio. We’re listening to the world, right now. It will never sound the same, as the environment changes moment to moment and more sensors come online, this audio stream will continue to evolve.

This is one of many examples of art and technology coming together to make something new and wonderful.

Data integrity is something we’ve thought a lot about, because an open data set isn’t going to be very useful if someone can mess with the data. We wanted to be able to ensure that the data we are providing is the absolutely positively the same data coming off our sensors. We currently use a distributed cross checking methodology for that, but for quite sometime we’ve also been looking at blockchains as position solutions to the question of provenance and verifiability. As part of that we cofounded the Blockchain Research Lab at Keio University in Tokyo and have worked closely with the Digital Currency Initiative at MIT.

This year, art and tech came crashing with the explosion of NFTs. As such for much of the year I’ve been playing tech translator to my art friends and art translator to my tech friends. Not one to stand on the sidelines, I’ve been making and selling NFTs of my own work and have jumped in to help build one of the largest artist communities around NFTs. I’m really excited about the potential, we’re already seeing it dramatically shift the power structures of the art world and allow artists and creators to become financially independent on their own terms, allowing them to really focus on their work. This is bleeding edge stuff but I think it won’t be long before everyone is using them, and most probably won’t even know it.

I’m working on several related projects and hope to tie Safecast in someway soon as well. I’m looking forward to talking with everyone about this stuff in the coming days and seeing where we might be able to collaborate!

You Don’t Need Your Own Discord

This is a potentially controversial position to take, but these days when people ask me how to start their own Discord server I have one simple bit of advice – don’t.

This isn’t because I dislike Discord, quite the contrary and honestly I find it to be incredibly useful and powerful for community building. The problem is there are just too many Discords. At this point “come hang out on my Discord” directly translates to “come hang out on my Discord instead of someone else’s Discord.” That’s not intentional, but it’s a limitation of there only being so many waking hours in the day and a limited number of those that people can spend hanging out on Discords. I don’t have any extra hours at this point, and judging by conversations I’m having and seeing happening between others – neither does anyone else.

Discord lets people join up to 100 servers which used to seem like an impossible limit to hit, but I’ve hit it and now to join a new Discord I have to leave an old Discord. Because I run a few Discords for various projects that eats up a few of my options, because some of those projects have sandbox servers there goes a few more. I’m relatively new to the Discord universe so I can’t be the only one who actually has less than 100 spaces available. One might ask why Discord doesn’t just up to limit for everyone, but honestly I think a better move would be to decrease it. Chop it to 50. Or 35.

Here’s the thing, just joining isn’t the issue – it’s the time you need to invest and there’s only so much of that. So every Discord server is competing for your (my) time and attention – not just with other servers but also with the rest of my life. If you are like me, you find yourself stressing about where you are spending your time, what you are neglecting, and how to be more efficient in your social interactions – none of which are very fun things to have occupying headspace.

The next question I get asked frequently is by people who have their own Discord servers, and they are wondering how to get more engagement or activity there. I have a list of minor suggestions and best practices that I’ve seen work, but those are all secondary to the bigger issue that people just don’t have the time to spend on all these servers. So unless you are offering something incredibly unique or already have a very committed audience I think spending time trying to get people to your server is counter productive. And I want to explain that a bit more.

One of the things we talk about right now is how important community is. It’s shaping up to be one of the defining factors of web3 in ways that some of us have been pushing for for decades. It’s exciting, and awesome to see. But you build community by contributing to a community, not by trying to get people away from other communities. And that’s what happening here, even if no one realizes it yet. That’s why I’m telling people in their heads they need to realize that asking people to come to their server is also actively asking them not to go to other servers.

So what’s the solution? Community. One Discord server with 20 artists is infinitely more compelling than 20 Discord servers for 20 different artists. This is the hypothesis that we’re playing with on Discord.art. I recognize that might seem like I’m asking you to do the thing I just asked you not to do, but I’m not. I’m just using it as an example. A number of us, many who had our own Discord servers that we were struggling with came together and decided to see what would happen if we combined forces instead. Invest in a community rather than trying to lure people away from others. And I think it’s worked, incredibly well to be honest. It’s super active, incredibly positive and has become a cultural hub for this moment in so many ways. That’s not because of any single person involved, but rather because the combination of all those people is greater than the sum of the parts. And hanging out together leads to further inspirations and collaborations that never would have happened if everything was segregated.

Another thing we did recently was look at what channels we have, vs what channels people are actually using. Again, looking to the community rather than trying to direct the community. We found that we didn’t need a huge chunk of those channels and deleted them – the result being a tighter and more active server. If you have your own Discord server I’d encourage you to take a hard look at your channel list and see what is actually being used, and consolidate anywhere you can. Having fewer channels means less cognitive load is needed to keep up, which takes less time and makes your server more viable. When I need to join a new server and I’m forced to pick a server to leave – 9 times out of 10 I’m leaving the ones with hundreds of channels because I’m already missing most of what is happening on them. I feel more connected to the servers with just a few channels because I know what is going on and who is there.

IF you can get your server down to just a few channels, my next bit of advice is to look around at the servers you also participate in. Are any others similar in size to yours? Some overlapping interests? Maybe even shared community members? If so, thats a prime candidate for a merger. Right now, every single say I’m being asked to join a new Discord server and that’s just impossible to manage. What I’d love to see in the coming weeks and months, is all of these disparate servers joining forces and consolidating under a unified roof. I would much rather be in 10 Discord servers that collect 10 different projects each, than 100 different servers for individual projects. And I think the communities around those projects will benefit from that sharing as well.

Let’s stop building new Discord servers and instead build stronger communities.